Ever been scared out of your wits? Yes and no…

English: Pizza slicer or cutter

English: Pizza slicer or cutter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever known sheer terror? That heart-stopping feeling where you know there is a high likelihood of shuffling off this mortal coil? I know of one time when I felt that fear and another when I should have, but didn’t. In general, I am a stranger to fear. Sure, I get nervous before I give a big presentation or just before I do something which is important to me, but that’s not true fear. That’s its close cousin, known in this country as the collywobble or the heebie-jeebies.

In hindsight, the time when I should have felt fear was on an aeroplane. Myself and a colleague were on the way back from a regular trip to India. We left it too late to book a direct flight, so the plane was on final approach into Dubai. Everything seemed normal. The seatbelt signs were on and we descended nicely towards the airport. The flight was only half full and everyone had plenty of room.

All of a sudden, the plane violently climbed and veered left.

From the galley, we could hear the sound of something crashing to the floor. An overhead locker burst open and a bag flew out. I looked at the aircrew strapped into the jump seat in front of us. One of them looked very nervous indeed. The other was in frantic conversation on the phone to someone (maybe the cockpit). She put the phone down, signalled to her colleague and they both made their way to the galley.

The plane shook violently now and descended again. A man released himself from his seat, clutched his chest and screamed for help in a language I didn’t understand. The stewardess told him to get back to his seat. He promptly collapsed in the aisle and they dragged him into the galley. I should have been scared out of my wits, but wasn’t. I felt cool as a cucumber and turned to my colleague and made a joke about whether this was it. Were we about to meet our respective makers.

It was almost as if I knew that this wasn’t the time.

The time I came face to face with fear and looked him right in the eye, was on another trip. Maybe I should stop flying. Myself and a colleague were in an airport waiting for the flight home. We ordered a pizza whilst we waited for the plane. At some point whilst eating this pizza, a tiny piece of crust broke off and lodged itself in my airway. I couldn’t breathe. At first I thought it was temporary, but after a minute or so of not being able to catch a breath, I started to think I might die.

My colleague stood up and looked around the place. He had purpose in his eyes, like he knew exactly what to do. Just at the moment he leapt into action, my airway cleared. I could breathe once more. We both relaxed as I slowly caught my breath. Once I felt almost normal, I asked my colleague in a croak what he planned to do in that instant before I stopped choking.

He told me he was looking around for a sharp knife with which to slit my throat open so I could breathe. It was then I felt true terror.

What kind of juice would you like today Sir?

Orange juice

Orange juice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I despise corruption. There’s something about a person entering an office which should be above reproach and abusing their post that really grates with me. In some countries though, corruption is almost a way of life. An Indian colleague told me a story about the corruption in his country. The subject material annoys me, but I liked the story.

He told me that when the police stop you in India, it is seldom for a particular traffic violation; they want a bribe. He rode home from work one evening and the police stopped him. To my colleague’s dismay, he realised how little money he carried. Getting stopped twice was not beyond the realm of possibility and he only had enough money for one bribe.

As he handed over the cash to the police officer, my colleague explained his predicament. For some reason, the officer sympathised with his cause and gave him the following piece of advice. If you get stopped again, just tell the officer you had orange juice this morning. My colleague went on his way, eager to get home.

On the way, another police officer stopped him. My colleague had no money to give this time, so he told this officer that he’d drunk orange juice this morning. To his amazement, the officer waved him on. My colleague could scarcely believe his luck, but he was thankful and thought no more about it.

A few days later, the police stopped him again. He had the money to pay the bribe this time, but he wondered if the orange juice phrase would save him having to hand it over. As the officer approached him, he repeated the pass phrase once more and yet again, the police officer waved him on his way. My colleague felt like he’d cracked the system. No more traffic bribes for him.

Week after week, whenever the police stopped him, he trotted out the same old line and he paid scarcely a rupee in traffic fines. He couldn’t believe it and it saved him a fortune. It was almost a month later when one fine day, a policeman stopped him. My colleague was in a hurry, so he shouted across to the officer that he’d had orange juice this morning. The policeman smiled and said “Oh no sir. It’s apple juice this morning.”

So if you’re ever stopped by the police in India, just tell them you had some random kind of fruit juice. You never know you’re luck!

A snarling trail of traffic that stops every now and then for a spot of tetris

Air pollution is high in Indian cities.

Air pollution is high in Indian cities. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Out in Chennai this week visiting the troops. The thing that always amazes me about this place is the traffic. It is quite unlike anywhere in the Western world. The first time your car pulls out into moving traffic (and seemingly certain death), somehow it all happens without collision.

At some point, the driver will probably perform a U-turn to face the opposite direction. You look on in abject terror at the oncoming traffic first from one direction and then the other, but somehow, it just nonchalantly happens.

At first the cacophony of car horns, some melodious, some are so loud they sound like ships coming out of harbor and some so tinny that they wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a 1976 Ford Anglia. But there seems to be a system, one beep for coming through and two beeps for thanks.

Occasionally, the huge, monstrous trail of traffic comes to an obstruction such as a set of traffic lights at which point they jockey for position like some bizarre life-size game of tetris. Then they come to a complete halt and fall blissfully silent as they wait for the traffic lights to kickstart the mayhem all over again.

Motorcyclists with absolutely no regard for their own personal safety lunge for perilously narrowing gaps between a dirty great lorry and a bus and they swoop through appearing completely unruffled on the other side. Sometimes the motorcycles will have pillion passengers, sometimes one of them will be carrying a baby.

They nominally drive on the left, but it seems to be optional as tuk-tuks, bicycles, pedestrians, buses, cows and lorries sometimes choose to go against the flow and make their merry way against the traffic.

Every fibre of your being tells you that all this shouldn’t work. In the West, we have rules and 99% of people follow them and yet we still have crashes. Somehow, the chaos seems to work and I’ve yet to see a collision. I saw the aftermath of one a few years ago, but considering the sheer amount of vehicles – it’s amazing that there aren’t more.

I don’t think I could ever drive in this environment. Being driven is stressful enough, but I do hold a sneaky admiration for those that do. One day, all these roads will end up as sanitized as those in the Western world and a big part of what makes India different will be lost.