Adventure on the Pune-Mumbai Expressway

macdonalds on the pune-mumbai expressway at night
Reminiscent of an American Interstate, the MacDonalds
arch shines in the night on the Poona to Mumbai Expressway.

On December 26, 2011, thirteen of us left the Meher Pilgrim Retreat at 3:30 pm on a well-appointed blue tourist bus, bound for Mumbai airport after a brief dinner at the Mirador Hotel, ten minutes away. As our Air Emirates flight did not leave until 4:20 AM, it seemed a done deal.

We talked and relaxed during the journey to Pune, a sort of half way point. The divided highway leads every few miles nowadays through a village that seems more like a small city. The ride was unspectacular, not lamentably so. We had shared an intensely wonderful pilgrimage that had included a day trip to Pune Baba sites and another to Sakori and Shirdi, as well, of course, as memorable days at Meherabad and Meherazad. Already I felt a kind of nostalgia, looking out at the rural hills and fields punctuated by the urban scenes with their archetypal images that seemed, as I heard one companion saying, to endlessly repeat in slightly different sequences.

Gaby, whom Sufism Reoriented ( under whose auspices we traveled) had designated our group leader, was resting in the back of the bus, ill with some kind of flu. A young Indian man named Vinit was on board representing the travel agency. He was both helpful and charming, and his English was excellent. The only thing lacking on the bus was a bathroom. Because our progress was slowed by rush hour, we eventually prevailed upon the driver to stop at an Indian roadside facility, rather than waiting for the Western-style one farther along. That had been the only adventurous aspect of our ride.

Finally, we glided down the Western Ghats and onto the Pune-Mumbai highway, a bona fide Expressway. Shortly after, we made the ubiquitous stop at the big roadside food-court/bazaar which featured excellent chai at one stall and even a MacDonalds arch thrusting up into the night as on an American interstate. Back in the bus for the final leg of our journey, it seemed the only problem would be how to pass the six hours or so we would have at the airport.

Suddenly, as I finished talking to Joseph, a young man from Los Angeles who was sitting across the aisle, and started leaning back to rest, the bus lurched strangely. I had no idea what had happened, and hoped we’d simply run over some incidental object. But Joseph, looking out the front windshield, said, “I thought I saw a wheel of the bus shoot down the highway!”

As though on cue, the bus began slowing down, making its way over to the shoulder on the left. In a little while, it came to a stop. The driver immediately got out and began running down the road along the shoulder, seeming to confirm that Joseph had been right. We began to pile out of the bus and saw that indeed, one of the chest-high tires on the rear left was missing. Before long, the driver came wheeling the huge thing back. He and Vinit and another young man who was the driver’s assistant, went into conference in Hindi, looking at the axle with flashlights.

When Vinit emerged from the conference, we passengers began trying to get the scoop. Was the tire damaged? Was there a spare? Apparently, Vinit informed us, a piece of metal holding tire to bus had actually broken. It was not going to be possible to get the tire back on. The question then became, as we stood there stranded on the shoulder of the smoggy, heavily-traveled Indian expressway, “When can we get another bus?”

At first, all of us seemed to be trying to move into the leadership vacuum left by our designated leader’s illness. After a little while, however, Joy, another companion, informed us, “Hugh and I were asked to coordinate things if Gaby gets too ill.” After speaking some more to Vinit, Hugh reported to us that there were buses in Pune, in Mumbai, and in Punwale, a town quite close to where we were. “They’ve sent a bus from Punwale, and it should be here in twenty minutes or so,” he announced to our relief. “It will have to pass us on the other side, go to the tollbooth, then turn around and come from behind us on this side, but that should take just another five minutes.”

Psychologically, the announcement cheered and relieved us. But, not that unexpectedly, twenty minutes, then forty minutes, passed. No bus. I kept looking down the road, and at first every large vehicle would appear to be a blue bus coming to rescue us. But as it got closer and came out of shadow, I would see it morph into just another barrelling deisel truck.

At our urging, Vinit began making more phone calls. After another conference with him, Hugh explained, “There wasn’t a bus in Punwale, it after all. Our bus had to come from Mumbai, and there was traffic there. That’s why it’s taking so long.” Of course, this explanation opened up any possibility. If there had been no bus before, were we really sure there was a bus coming now?

We were scattered into small groups now, some still on the highway shoulder, some in the bus. At one point, driver and helper had started jacking up the bus, and everyone quickly exited, just in case. But now, people rested inside again, and a few of us went a short distance down the shoulder and sang pop songs to pass the time.

As our situation progressed, a certain pattern from Meher Baba’s many travels during His life began coming to my mind. All these forty years since coming to Baba, I had read accounts of how He would send disciples to check matters at various ticket offices—not once or twice, but half a dozen, or even ten times! Oh board ship, He famously sent Norina Matchibelli numerous times to ask a chef to add more pepper to a dish.

These acts of Baba’s may have partaken of His inexplicable Universal Work. They were also, no doubt, an aspect of His training disciples in obedience. However, now, I began to fathom in these heretofore puzzling repetitive Orders from Baba, an intensely practical purpose. I realized that in an unaccustomed cultural context, with frequent language barriers to boot, one really operates in the dark—figuratively, as well as, in our current case, literally. Vinit’s frequent sorties across the bridge of our incomprehension notwithstanding, we did not have a clue about either the norms of such situations, or how our situation might embody or deviate from such norms. We had all heard of Indian Time, for example. Was that merely a cliché’, or something that had to be translated into our concrete understanding?

I came to see Baba’s repetitive-check Orders as a proactive way to insure that we were keeping as abreast of the actual situation as possible. This seemed necessary in order not to feel like a victim. It was possible that every effort was being made. There was simply no way to be certain! Cultural difference creates blind spots. Without feeling culturally superior—indeed, I feel Indian culture is superior in many ways to my native one—I recalled difficulties American friends had had in conveying U.S. building standards to Indian contractors, regarding such matters as right-to-left rows of light switches corresponding to the same sequence of lights.

With Baba's trademark travel checks in mind, I began approaching Vinit frequently—every few minutes—encouraging him in a firm but friendly way to make more phone calls, to try to reach the actual bus driver, for example, and to share with us all that he learned on his calls. If Chanji could go to a ship’s ticket office ten times, I could do this. I had a model!

Vinit was not able to reach the driver of the new bus. I asked him to call his boss, again and again—sometimes the calls did not go through—to make sure the boss reached the driver. At one point, I asked him if his boss spoke English. Hearing a reply in the affirmative, I asked to talk to the boss himself about whether the bus had indeed been dispatched. The boss said he had personally spoken to the driver, and it would be only a few minutes now.

Suddenly, the driver of our bus, a bit remote from us because of the language barrier, began walking out across the 6 or 8-lane divided highway, holding a flashlight—a “torch”. Vinit explained that this was so that when he saw the replacement bus coming, he could more easily flag it from the other side, so that it would know here was the spot to return after making its u-turn at the tollbooth.

A few minutes later a large, blue-and-white luxury bus, fleet sister of our broken-down one, dramatically appeared across the highway, slowing and blinking its lights to acknowledge our driver’s flashlight. It seemed to appear on the scene from nowhere, materialized from the darknes, finally, not another mirage but the actual bus…our salvation.

A number of us, as we had planned, then walked or ran to the compartment at the back of our bus to begin the luggage transfer. Fortunately, our bags were all in this compartment, rather than in the compartment facing the treacherous highway! When the assistant pulled the door open, we quickly unloaded the compartment, and re-loaded everything onto the new bus as soon as it pulled up in front of ours.

Five minutes later, we were ready to go. I wanted to convey thanks not only to Vinit, who was continuing along with us, but to the driver and his helper, who would be remaining there at the side of the road for Baba only knew how long. I had a bit of concern that we might have seemed arrogant to these two men, and indeed I had not had a feeling about them because in the pressure of our semi-emergency, we had simply communicated through Vinit.

As I approached the driver and held out my hands, he put both his hands in mine, met my eyes with his own kind, soft glance, and said, “So sorry!” I could feel his genuine remorse, although of course the broken wheel had not been his fault. The young assistant, too, clasped my hands warmly and we also shared a moment of true connection.

I felt speechless with inspiration as I boarded the bus, the last one on for the final leg of our journey. Without exception, everyone had  been sympathetic and truly working to resolve the situation—partly for the reputation of the travel company, of course, but such a reputation simply, in truth, denotes only the human trustworthiness of its personnel. My cultural blindness in the tunnel of our dilemma had yielded to yet a further evidence of the strong character of so many of my Indian brothers and sisters.


The next morning at the Dubai Airport, the only stop on our flight back to America, I found myself again using the practical tip I’d gleaned from Baba's travels. The time to board our San Francisco-bound flight was nearing, and none of us had seen John Skiff, a wheelchair-bound pilgrim, and his family during our three-hour layover. There was no reason to panic, but we had expected them to show up sooner or later at the gate. I walked up to a man at the counter, apprised him of the situation, and asked him to check.

“It is not time yet. You should come back in ten minutes,” he said. In ten minutes I returned and he looked on his computer and saw the Skiffs had still not boarded the plane.  “Do you know where they could be?” I asked. “There is a place called Area 205," he said, "Where wheelchair travelers rest between flights. They should be coming here very soon.”

This was a relief, and yet others in our group were still concerned, and I continued my inquiries until I finally saw the smiling faces of John, Peter, and Robin Skiff appear at the gate. They had been well cared for; but again, how were we to be certain of that?  My inquiries had not produced a major revelation in themselves, but they had certainly helped my own energy and that of my companions who were concerned. And in retrospect, they still seem to have been eminently practical, there in that tunnel of traveler's blind spots.

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