// india – riding through Delhi on the backs of trucks

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the second day of recollections of an intern mission trip to work with the Indian incarnation of the drug rehab charity Betel in early April 2010. The first part and introduction can be found here]

The truck is a old white beast, its back uncovered with a metal bar providing what would presumably have once been support for a canvas cover – now it’s open to the elements and usually peopled by a whole crew of former drug addicts headed to some work assignment. For the past few days, our house leaders, Moan and Sassang, have insisted on honouring us by making us sit with them in the cab, but tonight the night is close and humid and there are lightning flashes off in the distance and nobody really wants to sit up front. They protest as I jump out of the cab and join the twenty-five or so men walking across the rubbish-strewn ground from the upper room where Asha Bhawan holds its weekly meetings, but I pretend not to hear them and clamber with the rest up to the back of the truck.

(courtesy of Sarah Littlestar)

In the back there are a cluster of familiar white faces clinging onto the bar in the centre, surrounded by ex-drug addicts who seem completely unfazed by the whole experience. Jez Taylor, to my right, tells me to stand on the tyre in the middle of the truck’s bed and, when I ask why, he points one-handedly to the lightning storm that is growing in the distance. “You know,” he says, “just in case.” I wrap my arm around the bar and, just as I might have reconsidered, the truck jerks to a juddering start and we’re off. It honestly feels like we’re driving through some kind of warzone – I feel like I’m in The Hurt Locker as we bounce across ditches and past cramped, dark streets on either side of us, the faces of children and adults peering out at the truck from darkened rooms. You get the impression that some of the locals aren’t all that keen on living next door to former drug addicts. Not all of the gestures thrown at us are welcoming. And they don’t seem all to impressed by our white faces, either.

The truck turns into a main street – well, what passes for a main street in the outskirts of Delhi, anyway – and picks up speed. The roads are potholed and crowded, with buses, cars, motorbikes, rickshaws and bikes all jostling for space and blaring their horns noisily. It seems to be the case that the heaviest vehicles win, and fortunately for us, at least, tonight that seems to be us. (We will later ride in jeeps and minibuses that are closer to the ground and infinitely more terrifying, though. Driving in Delhi takes a lot of nerve). To the side of the truck, lightning flashes overhead, huge, forked zigzags of purple light filling the sky to a chorus of “awesome!” from all around. Chris and Ben, of course, start arguing about the nature of the lightning, and where its charge comes from – naturally, the argument goes on for the next week but never gets much further than the original conclusion that what we’re witnessing is “heat lightning”.

Before long we’re travelling at maybe 60 or 70km per hour, which feels a lot faster when you’re standing with a bar rattling into your chest every time you hit a bump. And with lights hurtling towards you out of the darkness with no regard for lane discipline (or, for that matter, no lanes), and the occasional cyclist without lights emerging from the gloom, it strikes all of us at once that if we hit anything, all six of us will almost certainly die instantly. For a moment I think, if my mother could see me now, she would literally kill me.

And then another blaze of lightning fills the entire sky and I remember, she isn’t here – and anyway, life is too short.

When people talk about experiences on mission that will stay with them for the rest of their lives, most of the time it’s experiences like this – I can still tell you vividly about standing on a beach in Ukraine singing “my Jesus, my Saviour” in a huddle or sitting in a hastily-built 24/7 prayer room in the middle of a vicious storm in the mountains outside of Cape Town, for example – and I don’t think that’s as sad as it sounds. Experiences like this, the ones that take your breath away and make you feel alive in a way that can often be lacking in the UK, they remind you of just how incredible this life that God has given us is. You walk out of these experiences and find yourself inspired to live life with a fresh sense of joy, at least at the joyful bits – and yes, mission can be really tough (and make no mistake, this was), and we have to engage with the poverty and the pain, to mourn with those who mourn – but we also have to rejoice with those who rejoice.

“How many of us have learned too late,” writes Peter Rollins, “that our initial idea, that by serving the world we will help bring God to others, has eclipsed the wisdom that in serving the world we find God there?”

As huge, fat drops of rain start to hit out exhausted, overheated bodies, like water to a sun-scorched land (see Isaiah 58), I can’t help but think he has a point.


(courtesy of Sarah Littlestar)

A few days later, driving back to the farmhouse, Moan stops the truck at a crossroads and asks us if we want some lime juice. Slightly nonplussed, the three of us nod and say yes, we would love some lime juice. He smiles, crosses the road and brings us back some glasses – proper glasses, made of glass – filled with freshly crushed limes, pineapples, raw cane sugar and salt, like some kind of non-alcoholic Margarita.

It is getting close to 10pm, the temperature is still 32 degrees Celsius and there is a cow standing at the middle of the crossroads, causing rickshaws to swerve violently. Apparently the penalty for hitting a cow in India is instant forfeiture of your driving licence.

The cow stands there, idly chewing the cud without a care in the world, and we again remember that we are a long, long way from home.

  1. April 18th, 2010

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