Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Drivers Guide to India. all things Transport

Trucks, Cars, bikes and all things transport related.

I have always been a car nut or ‘petrol head’, I guess I developed an interest in motor vehicles at a very young age, at about three years old my mother was killed in a tragic motor car and train accident, however my childhood memories don’t start until I was about four years old. After a time of being bounced around varying family members, we (my older sister Claire and I ) went to live with our Granny and Grandad Pearcy, a very colorful couple with a fascinating history, my Mums parents, well not uncle Reg (Grandad) but that’s a whole different story.
This was a great time for me, uncle Reg owned a mechanical garage or five in Hull East Yorkshire, Reg had been in the motor trade all his life. So when other four year old boys where packed off to nursery school I got to spend my days at the garage, as I was small I spent much of my days passing spanners under cars to the mechanics and generally getting oily and having fun. Often in the evenings we would leave the garage and go on to the vehicle auctions, where Reg would puff on his big cigar whilst wearing his trilby hat, he would bid on and buy the occasional car for the garage to repair and trade on at a profit. Leaving the auctions we would move on to where the real business was done ‘the pub’. I guess in retrospect that I was not been useful, and probably was a little pain in the neck for Reg, but at four years old I very much felt part of the team. Reg had built many businesses all related to the motor trade, his claim to fame would be that he was the first Taxi car service in the world to utilize the then revolutionary two-way radios to enable the controller (my granny) to get the closest cab to the pick up point fast, our firm was on the outside cover of the Hull telephone directory for over ten years during a prosperous time.
Reg and Granny also liked to live well, taking many world cruises, having fur coats and fine automobiles, unfortunately Reg also liked to gamble, and reportedly lost whole business enterprises on the turn of a card. I also believe that he may never have been able to make the business fully legitimate, what would a 4-5 year old boy know? but it still seems strange that we would often take vehicles in during the middle of the night, and a few days later they would leave for the auctions wearing a different color of paint and generally being just altered for no apparent reason. My Granny and Reg certainly lived life to the full, and I believe when they passed away they had both experienced more than most on our planet, they died with more happy than sad memories full of excitement and quality. Reg was a true gentleman, a great mechanic and a fantastic grandad.

My Dad (Dave Bowen, my best friend and greatest role model) remarried when I was five or six, and my life became more of a normal upbringing, I soon started building go-carts, and by 10 years old had progressed to small motorbikes, by twelve years old I was buying stolen motorbikes converting them into field bikes to destroy whilst riding across fields tracks and quarries that I had made into my backyard playground. 

At fourteen years of age I left school as I had decided I was going to join the Army, I took a few small job’s, passed my Junior Leaders entrance examinations and at the tender age of 16  joined The Royal Corps of Transport, before I was 17 yrs old I had my car license, my motorbike license and my heavy goods vehicle license, my school friends where still studying away at Wolfreton school and where not even old enough to start driving lessons. I however got to ride in a military motorcycle display team, and further developed a passion for driving and car mechanics.

I changed my role in the forces becoming more of a mechanic running the servicing bays for HQ 1 BR Core, uncle Reggie’s business acumen may have rubbed off, and I soon realized that I could make good money servicing soldiers private vehicles in the evening, using the army’s oils tools & filters with overheads as nil  my business blossomed. The ranking officers began to dislike the extra income I was earning, but at this point I had most of their vehicles on maintenance schedules so what could they say?

So from a very young age until this day I have always had a real ‘Petrol-head’ addiction to transport, I punctuate my life through motor vehicles having to date owned 114 different forms of transportation. I remember all 114, I know which cars I drove each of my kids home from the hospital in after their births, which car I was driving when I met my to-be wives, and which cars I drove when I separated from my to be ex-wives. From whichever car I was driving at whatever time in my life I can  figure out how I was doing financially and use the motor vehicles memories to remind me of my other memories of that time.

My first driving experience in India was a ‘real Baptism of fire’, we (Tamara the 2ND and final ex wife)  had not been in India long, it was my first visit to this amazing country. It was early 2005 and I had taken on the position of Country Director for an NGO organization called Rising Star Outreach, primarily the mission statement of the organization was to educate children who had been raised on Leprosy colonies in the Southernmost state of India, Tamil NaduNGO section when I write it!)

So it was about 2am in the morning sometime in early 2005, India had recently been hit by the devastating tsunami of 26Th December 2004: Before that date I did not have a clue what the word ‘Tsunami’ meant! The children’s homes/schools where situated about 1 mile inland from the Bay of Bengal on East Coast Road in Chennai, whilst there had been extensive damage and loss of life in front of both schools/homes neither of the schools had suffered bad damage other than flooding.

My phone rang, it was a frantic call from the USA from one of the charity's founders, “Gavin, get the kid’s and staff and head inland, it looks as though another Tsunami, an aftershock as big or bigger than the last one is headed your way, the USA news channels forecast it hitting the land in two to three hours”. Having virtually no Internet coverage in 2005, no satellite TV, and sporadic mobile phone service it was time to move and move quick. My first call was to the schools/homes headmaster Gopi Sundram telling him to get the Kids up and packed with one light bag each, and the staff should pack some food and wait for my arrival. The second call was to Moni our school bus driver, eventually he woke and I told him he must drive to my home with the bus immediately. When Moni arrived Tamara, Michelle an Australian Volunteer and I boarded the bus and we headed for the schools, We loaded the first school RSO 2 with bleary eyed youngsters and staff, on reaching the second school there was a glaring problem, the bus seated 14 adults plus driver, I was aiming to fit 78 Kids, 16 adults, food and bags on board! But hey this is India, its amazing what you can fit in a small space.
By now it was about 3:30 am, the staff all thought I was barking mad so it was time for a quick and private up-date to relate the conversation I had with the USA some hour or so earlier. After the news up-date the staff understood the gravity of the situation and quickly loaded the bus squeezing in every last child, Tamara and I managed to squeeze into the front seat of the packed bus, but we had another problem! Moni out driver did not want to board, I left the bus for a conversation with Moni; “Mr Gavin, I cannot drive, I have my wife my family, parents and children who all live close to the sea” He had tears in his eyes and I could feel his pain, I shook his hand, wished him well and boarded the bus climbing into the roomiest seat ‘the drivers’.
This was most of our precious cargo, not all, cooks and cleaners and a few kids are missing, and of course my friend Moni declined to leave his family and so did not board.

I started the Bus and headed north along East Coast Road, I later found that this lovely 35 km stretch of tarmac was about the only tarmac road in Tamil Nadu, in 2005, it was documented that India as a whole had less than 350kms of A class road in existence in 2005.
By the time we left the tarmac the traffic was getting heavy, every vehicle was fighting for road position, there appeared to be no rules, you blasted your horn flashed your lights and fought for road position. I assumed that the news of the impending repeat tsunami had spread and everybody was driving like lunatics to head inland. I had a valuable young cargo on board and so adopted the ‘dog eat dog’ driving style driving like a maniac to retain or gain road position. After two or three hours we reached a small town called Changleput, we where now inland, RSO had a mobile medical station in the town so it was time to unload the kids, eat some breakfast, and try and find a news up-date as to what happened with the Tsunami we where escaping from. I left the bus lit a cigarette and sat exhausted, It had not been a long drive, it had not been a fast drive, but heck it had been a difficult drive, I had to concentrate every second of the way the other drivers appeared to drive at me, I guess we where all scared and driving potentially for our lives. I was shattered.
After breakfast, and a lot of mobile phone calls the good news was confirmed that this Tsunami alert had been a false alarm. There had been an insignificant oceanic shock, and no wave had hit. Very relieved we sat and drank Chai (Tea), and discussed with the staff our next moves, we decided that as we where near some of the leprosy colonies we should visit with the children on board and then return to Chennai. I mentioned to Gopi and the other staff that I was relived that the roads would now be safer as people where not running for their lives, Gopi answered “No Mr Gavin, nobody else had heard the news, the roads are always that way” Holly shit, he is joking, he must be joking, he simply has to be joking: He wasn’t.

Tam and me at a leprosy colony on the way back, adding more Kids to the overcrowded bus, these where the Grandparents of two of our girls, their parents had died

Over the coming months I drove the bus on a daily basis, I learnt that size stands for a lot in the city, and you just bully your way through. I was becoming an Indian driver.

The Bus however was RSO’s school bus, and we needed our own transport to escape the city at weekends and explore, the bus was also a little big to pop down to the pub with in the evening so I was on the hunt for my next vehicle, number 92. And then I found him, walking through a busy industrial street in Chennai I was passing a building site, and on the building site I saw what I believed to be a World War One Willy's Jeep. He was in a sorry state, no windscreen, no electrics, no seats, he had been used to haul dirt across the site, the driver sat on a box. Everything is for sale in India and within 20 minutes I was the proud owner of a 1942 Willy’s Jeep.
‘Billy’ as I not very imaginatively named him was a heart and not a mind purchase, I guess I watched to many war movies as a kid, and remembered a John Wayne movie with ‘big John’ driving his little Willy’s Jeep into battle. When I did a closer inspection Billy was pretty much knackered, the steering was shot, no brakes, no exhaust, no reverse, and no functional wheel bearings. Little things like lights, seats, a roof, windscreen wipers would be added later. The first thing was to make him movable. I bought a new battery tinkered with the simple engine and soon got him running. I drove him about half a mile from the building site and pulled into the first garage to fit brakes and a functional steering box. Having been warned about Indian garages by my friend Moni, I decided that I should go and buy the parts I needed to ensure they where of suitable reconditioned quality. I returned later in the day with the parts and told the garage owner to fit the steering box and I would return in the morning to check out the work.
When I returned the next day the garage owner was out, but the boys who had been working on Billy where happy to show me the new steering box all fitted, after checking their work I was reasonably happy although something did not look right, not being able to put my finger on what was wrong I decided to start Billy up and drive slowly (Still no brakes) around the block to ensure the wheels went where I pointed them. I joined Billy's starting wires as I had no ignition switch and he slowly cranked into life, Ummm that didn’t sound right either so again I popped the bonnet, the lovely one day old battery I had purchased had been replaced by a very old battery that had been cleaned to look new! Bastards. Very annoyed I asked with a loud voice where the Fu@k is my battery? and surprisingly the lads English was now very non existent. I called Moni and asked him to translate, telling him to phone the owner of the garage and get him there immediately, apparently the owner was out of town and his mobile phone was switched off. I was furious, so started picking up all the garage tools and chucking them into the back of the school bus that Moni had parked outside, low and behold within five minutes the out of town garage owner miraculously arrived protesting his innocence, and shouting at the young lads (his employees) as though he had no knowledge of the intended theft, I paid for the steering box work, took Billy, and carefully drove the 5 miles to our home complete with my re found battery and the knowledge that all work on Billy should be either done or supervised by me.

Re-building the gearbox at the side of the road in Chennai, you always have too many helping hands even at 2 am. in the morning

Billy was/is a work in progress, I rebuilt the engine twice, gearbox a number of times, brakes on countless occasions, fitted seats, and after a number of months fitted a tarp roof, never got round to fitting luxuries like windscreen wipers which made monsoon travel interesting and painful. We drove about 18,000 miles across a lot of India. Eventually leaving him in 2006 in a lovely town called Udipor with a friend Krishna. I intended to return to India within 6 months of leaving to complete the Northern bit we had not covered, but my life took an alternative direction and my time has been predominately been spent in Africa and the USA since 2006.

I painted him by hand, he was meant to stay the same color.

Note our guard dog Falcor keeping watch, I hope he is still with Krishna.

So now I am back, and for the first time in Northern India, I hope to visit Billy and Krishna, and retrace a few of our drives to see what if anything has changed.

On first impressions of my reunion with India quite a lot has changed, the mobile phone service is now everywhere, you get 3G on your phone so my tablet has near constant Internet access. And there appears to be a lot more Tarmac. What has not changed is the mad ‘dog eat dog’ driving style, you still blare your horn and bully and fight for road space. There are also a lot of modern vehicles on the roads Honda’s Toyota’s new Tata’s the list is endless, now, they have not replaced the old Ambassadors, Mahindras and auto rickshaws, they have simply added to them, making the roads even more congested which unless I had seen it would never have thought possible.

The driving style in the city remains exactly the same, you fight for every inch of road space, drive as close as possible to the car in front,  using your horn constantly driving at people playing chicken is a fun game, and size matters. The trouble with this driving style is it doesn't work well for the open (Well open ish) road. With the new tarmac, and fast cars once you leave the city life is just plain dangerous. In the city I assume there are very few fatal collisions, most accidents are low speed shunts. But using the same driving style on the faster roads is lethal, and believe me they use the same driving style, I went on a four/five hour journey north of Kolkata to visit a program, I swear my size nine footprint is firmly embedded on the Tata Jeeps foot well, on the way out we witnessed what I assumed would be two fatal road traffic accidents, and on the way back another one.
This Is an Ambassador built heavy

Wreck two

Wreck three

So not all progress is necessarily good without education. Or maybe it’s a way to control India’s out of control population growth. With this fact in mind I have started thinking about something heavier than Billy for the next big India drive.

There Are nine primary categories of vehicle operating on India's roads, I have listed them in the pecking order I believe to exist:

  • HGV-Lorry's-Trucks
  • Buses-local-interstate-Matatu’s
  • Ambassadors-large 4x4’s
  • Cars
  • Cows and carts
  • Tuk-tuts-Auto rickshaws-three wheel taxis
  • Rickshaws-hand carts
  • Motorbikes-mopeds
  • Bikes

The Lorry's here are amazing on a number of counts, they are invariably 50+ years old (which in itself is a survival miracle on these roads) They travel at less than 40 kms an hour and have no need for mirrors, they are all brightly adorned with paintings of varying god’s. That might be the key, maybe I should pick a God paint him on the side of my next vehicle and pray before I enter the transport system each morning! Its working for them. The lorries also seem to have epic weight carrying capabilities, I doubt weighbridges and driving hours will come to India for some time.

They may be dinosaurs of the trucking world, but I think they are beautiful.

I love Big trucks, having learnt to drive in a HGV class 3 (small lorry), at 17 years old I was posted to 10 Regiment Royal Corps of Transport in Beilefeld Germany. Our lorry park was full of AEC Mk2’s Militants (Milly’s) and AEC Mk1’s (Knocker’s). The AEC’s where circa 1960, big six wheel HGV class 2 wagons, and the Knockers where circa 1945. Boys didn’t drive these trucks, men did. You drove with your ears as there was no synchromesh gearbox so you had to double clutch and engage gear at just the right engine tone. No power assisted steering so you had to be moving to turn the steering wheel, at low speeds I needed to stand up and heave on the wheel If you could drive a ‘Milly’ you could drive anything. I therefore have a great deal of respect for the Lorry drivers in India there vehicles are very similar to the Milly’s I drove all those years ago, and they where very old then!
An Ex Military Knocker, I drove these as a boy!

Last year November –December 2010 I ran some new Volvo FH trucks around England, delivering new units on trade plates (HGV class 1). They are easier to drive than a car nowadays, automatic gearbox just forward and reverse, Air conditioned, air ride, electric everything, no wonder lorry drivers appear to be getting fatter in the UK, its not just the greasy breakfasts, in the old days you needed them as you would burn the calories driving the trucks, now driving the trucks uses about the same calories as sitting motionless in a comfy armchair!
This is a Volvo  FH, air-conditioned, nice bed, full stereo, automatic, fridge, Oh our truckers have it hard.

I have not as yet driven a lorry in Asia, in Africa and many other countries yes but here I am still awaiting the opportunity. As I mentioned Milly's earlier I will recount a tale regarding the last time I drove a Milly.

It was the early to mid 90's, my good friend John Allsop was running an NGO (charity) organization called Romaid, essentially it was in an era shortly after Nicolae Ceausescu had been overthrown and dealt with, although life in the Romania was still very difficult under communist rule. The rest of Europe was just becoming aware of the plight of many orphans living in atrocious condition's within the communist country. Anica Rice presented a BBC TV program on the truly awful condition tens of thousand’s of children where living in and the western world woke up. This was my first foray into the world of the NGO, John was an excellent teacher, I will discuss more of Romaid's work and John in the NGO and why charities cant currently work section when I write it. But this however is the transport bit so back to trucks.
We where running a convoy of four trucks of aid, two ex military AEC’s (Milly's) one converted Ford horse box, and one eight wheel Foden also ex military. It was winter and we where mainly carrying blankets, food stuffs, and medical equipment with some drugs, also gift boxes for the kids which contained 1 toy 2ND hand with a value of less than $5, one bar of soap, one toothbrush, one toothpaste, one teddy bear 2ND hand, some warm clothing, and one bar of chocolate, all neatly packaged in old shoe boxes and labeled either Boy or Girl. Crossing into Romania was a nightmare, until we learnt the officials and police took bribes. Initially I was appalled that a policeman or government official might take a bribe, after all we where carrying aid for the children of their country. I was naive to the workings of aid at that time, it hadn't dawned on me that the policemen, and government officials had not been paid in months, they had families who where hungry and had nothing also, so we gave for there kids and families and ensured a quicker passage through.
The roads where bad, ox carts where the main form of transport and when you did meet another lorry it invariably had no lights so you needed to stay alert. Most aid at that time was heading for the garbage site in Kluge where approximately 5,000 kids under 6 lived and the area was full of so called orphanages. These where homes where kids lived in cribs 24/7 had no medical care and little food. But aid was reaching there, our plan was to head further south passing through Transylvania to an area a Romania friend advised us was without aid and also had thousands of kids with nothing. Basic survival needs where impossible to obtain at the time, you could Que for 5 hours and if you where lucky you might get a loaf of bread, by the time you had finished in the bread Que you knew there was no point in lining up with the milk Que. We where aware of these problems so carried all we thought necessary in terms of rations. What we where not aware of was that once we traveled deep into Transylvania diesel was also non existent. We searched and stopped and asked, but nothing, eventually we had to pull over and discuss options.

Option one: Overload even further two trucks, draining the diesel from the two that remained and head on in the hope we might be lucky and score some diesel. This was a no go as nobody wanted to guard the abandoned trucks and there was every likelihood we would end up stuck further down the road.

Option two: Empty one truck of diesel, and tow it. Now towing a truck isn't like towing a car, unless the truck is running it has no air pressure, and without air pressure the brakes are on, when you hear a truck hiss air it is releasing air allowing the brakes to come on. Our problem was the snakes (air connectors) we had would only allow the two heaviest trucks to link the two Milly's, and the weight we where already carrying combined with the road conditions made this  non feasible. We did however try.

Option three: Head back towards kluge using the fuel we had, When about 100kms away we would need to drain 3 trucks to get one back, this would go ahead unload aid, and return with diesel for us all to drop in Kluge and then re-fuel. Disappointingly this looked like our only option.

Pissed off and tired we parked at the edge of a village and found a man selling moonshine, About 1000 % proof, we had a few drinks before retiring to our cabs to reluctantly set out early and pursue option three, I stayed on for one last moonshine and my last cigarette of the evening. In very broken English a very old man asked why we where all so sad. I explained we had no diesel and could not reach our destination, I am good at Pictionary and pointing, so eventually he understood. To my surprise he said I can get diesel, I checked and checked again, took him over to all four trucks and he was definitely saying he could get diesel for us all. It was about 8pm, but very dark as the electric in the area was out, from what I understood he wanted me to meet him at 2am on this same corner and he would take me to diesel, this seemed mighty strange, why cant you take me now I asked. No meet me at 2am he said.
I thought for a while and decided to let the other drivers and John sleep until 1:30am, I would wake them then and tell them the curious news.

So at 1:30 I banged on all the cab doors and the lads all woke and came to my cab for a meeting (it was freezing out and not much warmer in) I told them about the little old man and his promises of diesel. John brought me down to earth “Gavin, this is a dangerous place, one-third of the country are Romanies (Gypsies), and in the rural areas like this we are targets, they will rob us steal all we have and if we are lucky we might survive. Why do you think we parked in the center of a village, and where out there in the blackness do you think we might find diesel at this hour” I protested, but John had a valid point. Although I had looked the old man in his eyes and he had seemed so genuine. After a lot of discussion we reached a stale mate, out of the five in the team, two wanted to look for diesel, two wanted to stay, and John was letting us decide, he had said his peace. I used all my powers of persuasion and after an eternity won the vote. By now it was 2:30 in the morning so this might be academic as there was no sign of my little old man. We decided to wait until 3:15 am and then turn in for the night. At 4 am I was sat in my cab alone, very pissed off, and feeling very stupid, John was right I was a fool. Dam It….I couldn’t sleep even though I was so tired my displeasure with myself was so strong it was keeping me very much awake. Then I heard what sounded like a small engine, It was very faint but I was sure it was so  once again I got out of my sleeping bag put my boots on and jumped out my cab into the freezing night. Sure enough it was the unmistakable sound of a small moped heading my way, it had no lights on and so until he virtually hit me I was not sure, but there he was my little old man.
It was about 5am and still dark. He signaled to start the trucks and follow him, hastily I woke the boys and jumped back into my cab, I cranked the engine and started following the tiny moped down an unpaved country track, we had CB radio’s in each cab so where busy communicating between trucks, “Gav this doesn't look good where the Fu@k are we going” It will be fine don’t worry. Then he stopped, took down a fence and walked into a field signalling me to follow, at this point I also thought this was fuc@ing stupid, but I rationalized that we where in the shit now, and if they where here to rob us we had no chance of reversing up the farm track we had just driven down to evade capture so I drove into what can best be described as a ploughed field. By this time the boys where about to mutiny, I explained my argument that at least in the field we could all circle around and head back the way we came, so reluctantly they followed.
The little man signaled for me to stop and kill the engine. I did. The boys pulled along side and we all jumped out of our cabs ready for?, well ready for something I am not sure what. We stood looking at the little old man, and all he could say was wait. Wait for what? But we where here, and if this was an ambush it was the worst planned one I had ever heard of. After about half an hour stood in the middle of a ploughed field it began to get light, and then we all heard a distant rumble, the rumble grew louder and louder and within 10 minutes we had a fully loaded train parked alongside our trucks, the driver was the little old mans brother and we where siphoning diesel from his diesel locomotive. Some of the trains occupants climbed down to stretch there legs, and within 20 minutes our tanks where full, the train driver and the little old man received $50 each more than a years salary. The train and the little old man departed and we where left in the middle of the field. “Did that just happen, Fuck my heart is still beating at double quick speed”, was a sentiment we all agreed on, before heading south with our valuable aid.

So I mentioned earlier that I felt if you could drive a 'Milly' you could drive anything, I will now correct that, driving them across Europe on long straight German Autobahns is hardly difficult. But driving them in India that is a real challenge! I have the greatest respect for these drivers and teams, the cities are bad enough, the rural areas have bandits and police bribes, the roads often turn into dirt tracks, the hills are truck killers, you need a full cab of people in your team, they load and unload, and guard the truck when not moving. You repair when it breaks-down, and you have to drive as fast as possible for your employer or you will not drive again. And you have guessed It I have got a drive as the team lead in an old Indian truck. From Kolkata to Rajhesthan (1750 kms), Rajhesthan to Chennai, (a long way), and a return load back to Kolkata in total I expect to be trucking for about 20 days. I will get no special treatment, I will live on the $2 per day, although I will be buying my bottled water and cigarettes. And I will fix a charging inverter to the truck so I can charge video cameras computers and such. This is not the truck I will be driving, I will have a 16 wheel unit and trailer, and will hopefully change trucks with different routes, what is clear is that If I do not perform on the first leg I will not continue to have a drive. Ravie and his elder brother run a large trucking firm, they pay the load insurance, and their customers expect goods delivered on time and intact.
Not the easiest of things to drive, no power assisted anything. Just a Big Horn

So I know the roads are evil, and I know that driving these dinosaurs will be painful and hard work. I have witnessed the driving teams sleeping at the side of the road, and often thought to myself 'they have one hard life'. I am learning a little bit more about junk trucking also, from what I understand you set off from say Kolkata to Chennai fully overloaded. However along the way the driving team wants to add to their pitiful wages, So you pick up extra cash loads along the way and overload even further. This will be a true adventure drive, I have invited a friend along, and am trying to figure out a way to report on this journey and possibly get paid!
Inside the cab, eight sweaty guys, and its hot

 The drive will be an epic drive in any case, I will learn a lot more about the country and my own limitations. I will probably hate every minute, but it will create another memory in my weird life that I will no doubt treasure forever.
The planning is now well underway, I will need to get fitter, I now only eat street food so am building up immunities, and I need to acquire my West Bengal papers- driving license and such. I will be in more talks with Ravie and his elder brother, and once things are in order probably do a quick 6-7 day return route to see if I can hack it. will put up-dates on Facebook, and a full write up on here as this adventure unravels.

Battle buses

The battle buses in India run a close second to the trucks as King's of the road, they are about the same size and weight so both are equally scary to other road users, they are usually about the same age, but some newer ones are now emerging, and they are all a fair bit quicker than the tucks. I guess I only put the trucks as King's because they can and do go anywhere they criss cross the whole country, you even run across them on small rural roads when least expecting them.

In reality the battle buses are relatively safe for the occupant's, the drivers know there routes well and although quick are quite safe, essentially as a passenger you are in a safe place. Even the long haul buses are safe, I have traveled in most all variations of ‘Chicken Buses’ as travelers call them, I recall boarding a night bus from Udipor to Bombay, the double Decker sleeping variety, surprisingly enough crawling into the sleeping compartment and not being able to see the road was not as bad as I thought it might be, I actually slept although a number of G & T’s before boarding may have had a soothing effect on my nerves. 

A double Decker battle bus leaving Kolkata for its night run.
Many drivers view the buses as a menace I disagree, they keep developing countries moving and reduce the amount of traffic that might otherwise be on the road. When I first arrived in Kenya I have to admit I thought the Matatu's (Local 14 seat buses) where just mad, they drive like crazy fools at break neck speeds and hustle and fight for passengers for a few bob fare. I really didn’t understand why all of these drivers and hustlers behaved in such away, I never saw a courteous Matatu driver. It was only after 12 months in the Nairobi that a friend of mine Innocent Awino  explained how the system worked and why things where as they where.
A Matatu team consists of four people two drivers and two hustlers, they work a set route which is clearly marked on the side and windscreen of the bus. The Matatu runs for 14 hours a day so they split the shifts between the four of them as nobody could drive with the level of intensity needed for fourteen hours. Now here is the rub, the team essentially are hiring the Matatu at a 2010 rate of 5,000 Kenyan Shillings per day ($59) that is what they have to pay the owners rather or not they earn that amount. So the owners are on a winner, as corrupt politicians and gangsters the owners  cannot fail to make good money on a daily basis.
$59 USD may not sound like a lot of money to some people! In Kenya it’s a fortune. And the money does not stop there, the Matatu's also pay the corrupt police force, as Matatu drivers and hustlers are forced to overload & go off route to avoid jams to earn there precious money the police simply use them as a payment machine, constantly stopping them and taking Kittydogo (the Kenyan name for bribe that translates to 'something small'). If they have an accident they also pay for the bus repair. So each Matatu pays four people plus the police plus mechanics on a daily basis. The margins are small and unless they drive at breakneck speeds and hustle like hell to steal passengers from each other they will not only not make money, they may well owe money to the wrong kind of people that will have to be repaid. When the traffic stands still in Nairobi as it often does, when the monsoons flood the roads, when the inevitable accidents block carriageways I feel sorry for the Matatu teams. Its not the drivers fault, unfortunately it’s the corrupt system that enforces there way of driving and ensures the corrupt politicians get richer and win every day.

Matatu's preparing for war on the streets of Nairobi.

Matatu’s in rural and semi urban areas are also very unsafe for passengers and drivers, Matatu’s are regularly  hijacked and the drivers and passengers are beaten and robed. I have traveled on hundreds of town Matatu's, and in early 2010 befriended a team that drove the 46A route from Nairobi’s CBD (Central Business District) to the Yar Yar center and lavington green. For fun I drove two  seven hour shifts for them, I kept a full bus and probably did well because passengers wanted to board a Mzungu (White) drivers matatu, and the police where a little less aggressive towards me.
I also have to mention ‘Dolly the sheep’ If I don’t Doudi Fryer will never forgive me, I was in Kenya as CBM (Country Business Director) for an NGO called SolarAid (Again a lot more on S-Aid in the NGO section), I left Nakuru in the early morning for a two hour drive to Nairobi, unfortunately I was dressed in a suit and tie, with laptop mobile phone and all business accessory's. I very rarely dressed in a suit, but this particular day I had an important meeting with a world bank funded initiative on Lighting Africa. About 40 minutes into my journey 'Hope' my 110 land-rover Defender started overheating badly, I still had to climb out of the Great Rift Valley and could not afford to build another engine as I had fully nut and bolt rebuilt the 'Hopes' 300 tdi engine at a huge cost only a month before. So with no option I parked Hope at a hospital and paid the guard to look after her. Now as I new Matatu's should not be ridden in rural areas, and boarding one in a suit and tie whilst carrying a laptop was crazy, I would liken it to taking a bicycle camping holiday for a month in Afghanistan! I really did not want to take a Matatu. But I had no choice, I was in an unsafe area and dressed like a target, I also needed to attend the meeting, so I boarded the next Matatu that came along, the driver and hustler looked at me in a strange way, but gladly took my money, after about fifteen minutes the Matatu started to fill. I watched as the locals stared at me and made mobile phone calls to their friends, I was just hoping that they where not phoning bandits down the road and tipping them off regarding the prize pickings on this Matatu. Doudi (Dave Fryer) called me from Nairobi as I was now late, reluctantly I answered on the Blackberry explaining my unsafe position. by now the Matatu was well overloaded, we stopped again to allow four more people on, and with them they had a rather large angry sheep who didn't seem to want to enjoy the delights of Matatu travel. Thankfully I arrived in Nairobi safety, my suit trousers where covered in sheep snot, and with my welsh ancestry and the name Gavin Llewelyn Bowen the tales of me and my lovely 'Dolly the sheep' became somewhat of a standing joke.

The Buses in India are much safer, I have always felt totally secure in India, you will not get mugged, the culture is friendly, and the people are fantastic. When you board a bus here the women sit on the left hand side, and the men on the right, the cultural differences are deep and very interesting. I have only been 'held up' on one occasion in India, and that turned out to be a funny mistake, will write more on that under a separate heading, back to Battle buses.

The drivers of these buses are also under constant pressure to deliver, they have to reach targets but for them it is a different reason, in a country of 1.2 Billion jobs are scarce, and if you fail there are at least 100 people lining up for your job. Like in Nairobi the routes are clearly painted on the front and side of each bus, unlike Kenya the drivers stick to the routes. There are seven licensed bus firms all competing on the same routes. So say the 244 route from my home near Garihat to the Airport has seven bus firms running exactly the same route, the buses are timed from departure to arrival, this route takes approximately 27 minutes off peak and 40 minutes in the rush hours. Out of the seven competing firms you need to come out in the top half. You also need to collect passengers, so you fight for fares, your two hustlers hang out the side of your bus and ply for trade, and you should not have any accidents! So you have to balance, Speed,Safety, and money. If you do well you keep your job, and maybe move up to the better buses, I think the blue buses are the top of the food chain and the purple buses are at the bottom.

The bottom of the Kolkata Bus food chain

Having two entrance exits, equates to two hustlers, and driver team.

Of course the other ambition for the adventure driving challenge it to spend two weeks driving these brutes, again there will be no special preference given, I like all drivers have to earn my way and compete to retain my job. I will learn the route, and drive like a nutter, It will be hard and fun. Not every one's idea of fun, but it is mine, what could be better than driving these things of beauty in this amazing and complicated country? 

Challenge one trucks

In my opinion they sound even better than they look, a deep growling thunder. 20 plus days across India in a thing of beauty, a real adventure driving challenge.

Challenge two, the 'battle bus'

Two weeks behind the wheel of a battle bus, in 40 + degree heat and high humidity. Ohhhh Fun

4x4's and Ambassador's

I should really title this section my life through 4x4's, I have already written about 'Billy' my Indian Willy's Jeep, so I am going to give a snap shot of some of my most memorable moments with my 4x4's in chronological order. Some of them deserve a chapter or two each. the Ambassador connection will become clear at the end ;-)

Daihatsu F50. Jeep
Before: Ford Cortina estate.
After: Mini 1000
Positive, took part in my first 4x4 event at 14yrs old. 
Negative, crashed it at 17, had to re-build the front end, and full re-spray so mum and dad didn't know, the spay job was great, but had to take it out the army workshop early and the wind blew dust and ruined it. Dad never got to know though.

Ex Military Air portable Land-rover
Before: Matra Simca Bagheera.
After: MGB GT Silver jubilee edition (met Ruth in the MG)
Positive, I stole this one from the Army, they then paid for my fuel and repairs for a few years!
Negative: The builder I sold him to never paid  'Karma'.

Another 'Ditsi' Ours was a Yellow soft top!
 Before: Rover 820 fastback.
After: Peugeot 305 GTX
Positive, bought this for Ruth's 21'st birthday, complete with wrapping paper and ribbons :-).
Negative: Ruth thought the Red Oil warning light meant it was running! Time for a new engine, bless her.

Land-Rover 109 series 2a. Ours was BT Yellow
Before:Alpha Romeo touring
After: Ford Sierra Estate.
Positive: First proper 'dad' day, took Joseph my son on a work trip for my company, 8 hours in a hot bumpy land-rover, we loved it, Joe was about 2yrs old.
Negative: Ian, my father-in -law drove this when our business grew, I drove a new V6 Shogun. I did not treat Ian well, he deserved better, a gentleman, sadly missed.

Defender 90 200 TDI
Before:Ford Granada
After: Ford Sierra.
Positive: 4x4 camping trip to Wales with Ruth the kids and Tim Brennan's family, came very close to losing Tim's 110, and our 90 as marine salvage on a Pete bog. Is that a $50 note!!!!!

Shogun V6 3000. with diamond pack
Before: Ford Sierra
After: Citroen 2CV
Positive, The kids got a great electric jeep, we had loads of fun in the shogun, mud holes in Peterborough, camping in Wales, without a tent!
Negative: Went back to the finance company, the end of Estate Signs UK Ltd.

Range Rover 2 door, V8, Teddy Bear Trim.
Before: Citroen 2CV
After: Series 2 Land-Rover
Positive: Had this whilst we owned/ran our pub, me Ruth and Chris (mum 2) went for a play one late night.. fields and hedges, a bit bent in the morning. don't let Dad see :-).
Negative: Just not a good move taking on a pub! have a few funny tales though.

Series 2 Land-rover.
Before: Range Rover
After: Citroen Visa
Positive, Not too much positive when we had the pub, I got done for Drink and drive in this one, I was in my bar drinking with the police questioning a chap in my bar for an hour and they nicked me. Sometimes the criminal justice system is wrong.

V8 County
Before:Jensen Interceptor MK3.
After:Fiat Ducato
Positive: Great family and work truck, loads of fun, kids birthdays at Claxby, Snow plays, and camping.
Negative: Had to get rid of the Jensen to get her 

4.2 Land-cruiser 60 Series
Before: Subaru Impreza.
After: Peugeot 405 d
Positive: Massive truck with massive power, great family holidays, we took, Kids, Dogs, Bikes, Cats, Horses, and the kitchen sink! (Pulled a horse box) 
Negative: You cant break these truck's unless you are Gav and Ruth and know the short cut home from the Nickerson Arms.

FAL 2 300 TDI
Before: Sherpa V8
After: Volvo Estate
Positive: A few amazing Europe trips delivering aid, one special one with my dad, Dave P. and John, a real father and son experience I treasure.
Negative: John committed suicide, should I have been a better friend and listened more, amazing man whom I still cannot forgive for his selfish action that left the world in a worse place, John new Aid, just couldn't grab the handle on it.

Suzuki SJ 410
Before: Peugeot 405
After: Volvo Estate
Positive: We will get to the Bay, 2 Kids 2 dogs, loads of luggage and lots of snow, with a crap engine we got there, minus 6. but hey we made it!
Negative: 7 months before the end of family life as I knew it.

Disco V8 with LPG conversion

Before: Citroen AX GTI
After: Ford Mondeo
Positive: Picking the kids up every time I could and taking them to Oxford and mad Stacey's home, Griffin!
Negative: taking the kids Back to Claxby, and the sad lonely drive home.

'Lara' Toombraider defender 90
Before: BMW M3
After: Honda Civic
Positive: Lara could have her own book! Cape2Cape winners 2002 with Phil Davey and Mark Gostello. Running high on the UK Ultimate challenge, Breaking into Czechoslovakia with no passport and a mad river crossing, Snow boarding Lillehammer with Jenny-Ren Jo-Bo and John-boy, and the fact I built her into the beauty above.
Negative: Receiving a phone call on the way back from the Ultimate Challenge informing Dad was in hospital. He never came back out. That was her last event.

'Shaun' the SWB Shogun
Before: With Lara
After: Discovery 'Bruce'
Positive:Used as an overflow motor with Lara, Many Bay Trips, rolled it over near Kirmington Airport.
Negative: Not many negatives the 'Lara' days where mostly good.

'Billy' Willy's Jeep, dressed for Devali

Before: VW Polo
After: Still own him.
Positive: For less than $500 I bought and built this jeep, 18,000 miles of fun and memories,  very good value for money.
Negative: None
Ford Expedition

Before:Honda Civic
Positive:An amazing road trip across the USA. Atlanta to San-Diego 3,350kms covered in 33 hours, just me driving. took the scenic route back with the kids.
Negative: Tamara's behavior in Tennessee, that will be in the women and loves section.

'Du-Toy' Toyota Land-cruiser FJ40
Before:Ford Expedition
After:Audi Quarto A8
Positive:Perfect car for Georgia, unbolt the roof and put on the soft top most of the year. Multiple camping trips across the south of America. One 
'DU-TOY' in yellow, got DU-TOY as his reg number
fantastic camp on the Okefenokee swamp in FL.
Negative: Not many negatives in the 'Du-Toy' day's.Explored a lot of the USA. And made and keep some good friends on the far side of the pond.
Audi A8 4.2 Quarto (Big and a 4x4)
Before: Honda Prelude
After: Rift Shogun
Positive, awesome car, Tenzin my youngest liked it, family holidays and road trip a plenty. Sportsman's lodge!
Negative: Lost money on this one as was forced to sell the day we left the USA.
Mitsubishi Rift valley Shogun

Before: Audi A8 Quatro
After: 'Hope'
Positive: Drove across the Great Rift Valley, passing 200 plus stuck vehicles, a true challenge drive! This Photo is at a school in Western Kenya, Behind is Lake Victoria. We where the first Car to ever make it up the hill.
'Hope' 110 Defender 300 TDI
Before:Rift Shogun
After:Still own her
Positive: We called her 'Hope' as we often lived on or in her. 'living in hope'. Many amazing trips, she always got us out of the dangerous situation's.
Living in Hope, 2 double beds on-top, large side room
 Negative:Quite a few, many attacks, and running scared for a while. A young girl committed suicide by throwing herself under my moving wheels. Kenya like much of Africa can be a Very dangerous place, as well as a truly beautiful and very interesting one.


I have had very many long discussions about which is the best safari-expedition truck, normally it ends in two camps, either Land-rovers or Toyota Land-cruisers. As can be seen I have owned both. I believe the bottom line is whatever truck you have you need to be able to fix yourself, and so that discounts anything newer than a 300tdi Landy and most of the Land-cruisers after the 70 series. A wise African friend of mine came up with another idea, he thought any hire vehicle is best because you don't mind killing it! But for long runs that is impractical and we all like to add our own modifications.
You can now drive from London to South Africa on virtually all tarmac roads, the Chinese are busy building them everywhere! Which for me makes the overland experience a little too easy, but believe me if you want to get into the rural areas you need a well sorted vehicle.
I have also often thought that having a well equipped truck like 'Hope' or 'Lara' is like driving a target. The police go for you because they expect a big bribe, the street hawkers target you, and even worse the bandits will go for you also. So wouldn't it be nice to build a truck that is a 'Wolf in sheep's Clothing' Let me introduce you to the Austin Ambassador.
An Austin Ambassador
There are a few of these about, in Kolkata alone 39,000 registered cabs, and probably 20,000 white private or government cars. (They only come in Yellow or White)
Now to put that figure in perspective New York has 12,770 Yellow Cabs, London has 21,000 Black cabs, Kolkata alone has double the number of Ambassadors if you combine NYC and London's cab's, and this is just one Indian city! Every Indian city has a huge number of Ambassadors.  The up-side being you can get parts everywhere, and every mechanic knows how to pull apart and rebuild an Ambassador.I also think they are cute in a vintage way.

I love the shape of the bonnet.
The down side is they are slow, uncomfortable. And heavy to drive. But that could change! They are leaf sprung, so adding extra leafs, Poly-bush spacers, and Old Man Emu Shocks should raise the ride height allowing for some treaded rear tyres and an aggressive ride height. Next job would be with the trusted angle grinder, cutting and chopping the roof line to effectively make it an estate car! Getting rid of the boot and making more of a Limousine Interior. All the interior would need to go, replacing the bench seats with comfy bucket fronts, and making the rear into an office and short term sleeping area. The engine can stay, but there is lots of room for a turbo and inter-cooler. So maybe just maybe the next expedition vehicle will be a none 4x4 car! That fits right in in India and will go anywhere. I will post up here when the build of the 1965 motor starts, she will be called 'Amber'.......

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Page one, Index, reason for the blog, and aspirations.

International Gypsy
"Hello" to whomever is reading this ramble of word's thoughts and musings. I will start be explaining why I am attempting this blog, and what I hope to achieve in the long term.
In my opinion I have been fortunate enough thus-far to have led an interesting and varied life,  having lived in Africa, India, the USA, Europe and S.E. Asia, visiting many other countries along the way, engaging with and enjoying new cultures and attempting to learn along the way, I do like this travelers quote: Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.Mark Jenkins

 I guess with this quote in the back of my mind I have tried to travel, spending some 14 years of my adult life away from  England the small island I call home, like most travelers I started out as a voyeur, peering out the air-conditioned window at the world as it passed by, far to intimidated to stop and ask questions, and to naive to indulge within the culture. I hope I have learned a little along the way, I cite another quote this time from Benjamin Disrael "Like all great traveler's, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen" Now I certainly do not profess to be a great traveler, but I very much connect with Disrael's quote, and in order to combat that inner feeling I have decided to document some of what I see, I will use lots of references to my previous travels, try and make what I write reasonably entertaining and straightforward, and use it as a tool to capture my current and past memories. Over time I will write about most issues family, business, loves, and of course cars and try and make sense of what brought me to the place I am now happily in. I am just embarking on a reunion with India, and would like to give my humble opinion of the changes I feel have happened in 7 short years, its not an academic document, please feel free to comment and ask questions, although for the sake of clarity I may well embed those comments into the blog and remove your direct posts in time, as one day this may turn into my website, or god forbid a book, (the later I doubt) but we will see how it goes. The more readers and visitors the blog attracts the more compelled I may feel to stick at it! Although this is an invite only Blog which keeps my security good, and means I can rip apart certain NGO's. So please respect the privacy I ask for and don't copy and paste bits to other parts of the big world wide web ;-)

The Blog entries I will initially be writing and which should continually evolve are:

The drivers guide to India and all things transport.

Why Aid/NGO's/ and outside interventions will never work

Street life for the base of the pyramid and breadbasket of India.

Funny quips, anecdotes, signs and translations. 

I will send notifications when I add a few pages to any section, It goes without saying I am working on the transport and travel section first.