5.00 am. I recall in particular the blast of blistered air that hit us as we left the cool of the airport and crossed a car park strewn with sleeping bodies not yet responding to the dawn. The obstacle course negotiated we tumbled gratefully into the back of a leather seated ambassador and out into the early morning mayhem of Madrasi roads. The journey into Chennai, even so early in the morning assaulted the senses. Colour, noise, scent and movement, all in excess and way beyond mere western comprehension. And, of course the unremitting blast and honking of horns that is so much a characteristic of travel throughout all of India.
That was late July 2000 and a first visit to India for Sara and myself. I have been back many times since, but even now when I disembark from the plane, those first few hours of arrival never fail to remind me that I am in a land so different from my own. A place of half-familiarities and contradictions that never fail to amaze. This, of course, is an important fact to always keep in mind. Here I am a stranger, a visitor come as a teacher but in truth more of a learner excited by the prospects of what lies ahead.
On recent visits the feeling of arrival has in at least one respect changed. I know now what to expect from the clamouring insistent taxi drivers at the airport door, each with a better offer than his peers vying for a fare into the city. I am no longer alarmed by that first nudging of the taxi’s bonnet into the traffic joining the flow of vehicles with no apparent concern for cars, lorries, auto-rickshaws, cattle and bicycles appearing from all directions. Drivers in India have a refined spatial awareness that appears to enable them to take their vehicles through gaps that drivers in England would never dare to contemplate.
Other changes are perhaps worthy of note. My first airborne arrival in Bangalore several years ago had been to the old airport near the centre of the city, where at night leathery, ragged bats flew low around the trees in the adjacent car park. Today as on other recent visits the journey from airport to Jayanagar is one I dread. After hours of flying, airport lounges and changes of time zones on arrival at Bangalore airport one really just wants the comfort of a shower and some rest. Instead the laborious taxi run from airport to city, winding between the never ending road works and rubble associated with the building of the metro appears to take as long as the flight from Dubai to Bangalore. I am told that the completion of the metro will eventually ease passage into the city. I anticipate that my infant grandchildren may have graduated from university before this becomes a reality!
At one time travelling by road in India was a nerve racking and tortuous event. Today I am inured to the jolting across potholes, the lugubrious meandering of cattle and dogs crossing the roads, the two lane highway with its six or more vaguely defined rows of traffic and even the constant sounding of horns that is typical of Indian cities. The journey into Bangalore is frustrating but I am resolved to closing my mind and pinning all my faith in the driver who I know will do his best to arrive with as few mishaps and diversions as can humanly be achieved. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I can sit back and relax, but I can at least draw upon experiences that suggest that eventually I will arrive! Why is it incidentally that every journey between two known points in Bangalore follows a different route? Is there a reason why we can’t take the same and simple route each time?
Whoever it was that stated that “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive” had clearly never been to Bangalore. My arrival in this city is accompanied by renewed anticipation. Over the years I have made so many friends here and experienced a hospitality and generosity of spirit that has been a constant inspiration. I arrive full of expectation for the days ahead when I will renew old friendships and probably build new. This is a time for working with teachers and students in a shared atmosphere of learning, curiosity, enquiry and debate. An opportunity to explore issues of teaching and learning and to share in the challenges of creating more inclusive learning environments. Most of all, as ever in India I will spend much of my time trying (and often failing) to understand this beautiful, infuriating, wonderful land. As the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly put it
The learning goes on forever.
A pigeon dozing in the ivy
Is sending out bulletins
I am trying to decipher.