On the contrary: Ambulance to Afghanistan

Geoff created history in 1972 when he drove down from London to Bangalore in a vintage WW II ambulance picked up in a junkyard.

“Youth is wasted on the young,” said Shaw or it may have been Wilde; even Google is unsure. Other than Mick Jagger, I can’t think of a single person who can look at the past without a pang of regret formissed opportunity. Oh hang on, what about Geoff Downer who played the Ugly Sister in “Cinderella”, staged many moons ago by Aditi School?In those days budgets were tight and makeup was expensive, so my educated guess is that they were economizing when casting for the role…In case you think I’m being sarcastic, don’t go there: I should know, I played the other Ugly Sister.

Geoff created history in 1972 when he drove down from London to Bangalore in a vintage WW II ambulance picked up in a junkyard for the princely sum of $50.00. With his wife Zarine sensibly preferring to fly Air India, Geoff stuck a poster in his local pub and managed to rope in a travelling companion, John, a student bound for Istanbul. They hit it off so well that John was all set to abandon Islamic studies and head for Bangalore when he ran into a funds crunch in Bulgaria over visa problems. He was left with no option but to change his last 20 pound note only to discover that the visa fee was 50 pence and change was dispensed in bulgers or whatever the local currency was at the time. “Then why the *% did you make me change so much?” he ranted and raved to the authorities only to be told, “Zip it, we need the hard currency.”

After three months of coping with border bandits, gaunt Jesuit missionaries, ragged ruffians and deadly scorpions, Geoff wended his weary way to Kabul where he met Mullah Omar in the bazaar and taught him all three verses of “Sweet Caroline.” I’m kidding: he dreamt of Mullah Omar and woke up to find that his wallet had been stolen while he slept. This being pre-Taliban, there was no ritual amputation for the thief in the market square and the local cops restricted themselves to making sympathetic noises. Fortunately for our hero, he met up with an eccentric German on an 850 cc BMW, who took pity on his plight and agreed to lend him petrol money. Well sort of.

As he memorably puts it, “I don’t think the swine had really gotten over the War, because he kept kicking at the Union Jack on my ambulance. Or maybe he was a deeply suspicious sod who sent his mother’s milk to the lab for analysis. You know the bugger never actually gave me money. He would zoom ahead on his bike and wait for me to catch up at the nearest petrol bunk. Then he’d make fun of me saying, ‘Vy you cannot move more fastly, ja?’ To which I’d mutter under my breath, ‘Your bike cost 500 quid mate, my Bessie cost 50, so sod off.’ Anyway he’d tell the bunk to fill up the tank before taking off like the clappers on his bloody BMW 10 million cc or whatever. But all said and done, he wasn’t a bad soul. On the second day I was really famished and he was slurping at this huge watermelon while I was staring at it hypnotized. Guess what? He actually gave me half and I managed to make that last for 3 days…the downside is that I can’t look at watermelon again.”

Anyway the petrol and fruit rationing continued until they reached Delhi after which Helmut collected his dues and went on to Rishikesh while Geoff managed to find some sucker in Delhi to buy the ambulance where, who knows, it is still being utilized in its original capacity.

At a recent class reunion I mounted my favourite hobby horse giving gyaan to my buddies on how we had allowed ourselves to become boringly predictable and set in our ways. I held forth at length on how travel plans are scrutinized down to the last joyless detail while throwing in a few caustic remarks on group travel with Cooks and Cox: cooks named Maharaj producing dal-roti on the banks of the Seine for desi trophy tourists. Follow the path less trodden like Geoff I urged, who when reports last came in had bought himself a one-way ticket to old Blighty and was doing a bit of ambulance-chasing, of sorts.

That night having imbibed too freely of the cup that cheers, I had a dreadful nightmare in which I’d allowed myself to ride shotgun in Bessie II with Geoff and I was stranded in Helmand Province with a ferocious looking guy called Hekmatyar asking me if I knew the punishment for stealing watermelons…

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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