Why is this car driving on the wrong side of the road coming ahead right towards me? Oh, is it me? Am I again driving on the wrong side? Oh my God… I did it again!  Well, if this was a movie, I would laugh out loud, but this was real and the worst thing is that I am in the driving seat. Would I ever pass the deadly driving license test?

Singapore was so easy, you need not even need minutes outside of your house to stop the cab by the roadside. You hop in and you are the queen, no need to figure out the map or driving directions. Somebody else has to figure out how to take you to your destination.

Today we are in the second week of our transition to the US. Pankaj is travelling again this weekend to Asia and I would be on my own for more than a month. The anxiety was starting to get to me. Day three in Irvine, and Payoja was already enrolled in the local school. I remember, by the time I was done filling up the form at the admission office, Payoja was snoring in the chair next to me. We were still jet lagged, but life had to go on.

Once Pankaj was gone, I would be dropping off and picking up Payoja from school, and everything else was at least two miles away from home. Uber and Lyft were on my mind, but I thought — is this how I would respond, when I am put in a challenging situation?  It was important for me to give that feeling and environment to Payoja at this moment that we are back to routine and this transition is exciting and fun. Even when her father is away, we are going to be good. But how, I didn’t know at this point.

I started with driving two rounds at night taking the route from home to school and back. Getting used to right side driving was the biggest challenge, since I am a person who gets easily confused with left and right.

The second challenge was the size of the car. Taking turns and U-turns was a nightmare. I would worry —What if I would hit the curb?  Would I be able to do it quickly before someone honks from behind? Would I be able to manage the timing of the turn? I did this routine every day the whole week. Sometimes I did in the afternoon too, till the point that I didn’t have to see the GPS for directions to school. One day I was so focused on driving that I missed the traffic light and drove straight ahead, in return got a loud honk. Once I got a look as if he is going to jump out of the car and kill me right away.

“George, I am waiting at 100 Locanda in Orchard Hills. I am trying to find the address, it’s not showing on google maps,” was ringing in my ear. I was judging George and the driving to the school in my mind. Today’s the first day of my class and the class time is already over, the trainer is still on his way. Now they will not even refund for this class. I had one more month left before my international driving license would expire. I was happy that I had cleared the writing test already.

George came and I was surprised to see a seventy-year-old man with a thin frame. Is he my trainer? I was really doubting the driving school now. George apologised and said, “Let’s start with today we still have 15 minutes left for the class to get over. I complained, “Sorry, I have to pick up my daughter from school now I can’t make it.” George smiled and said, “Okay tomorrow is the weekly off for me, but I will come for you, to make up for today’s delay, is that okay with you?” I suddenly felt guilty, but I said yes to the offer.

George surprised me every day with his patience, his enthusiasm and his little small stories of his past, when I was on the wheel. He was very proud of his 18-year-old granddaughter and shared how perfect she was. He would tell me how she won debates at school and was excelling her way up to the top of her class. We drove all over Irvine in the next 10 days. I can say he helped me understand a bit of the culture in California.

One day he brought along a book that looked pretty ancient. It was about medical practices in the 1920s. Proudly, he shared, “My dad, he authored this book.” I could see love, sadness and respect for his father through that gesture and realized we both had so much in common.

We live our past in the most vulnerable moments. He gave me courage to make plans and drive around. I was able to take Payoja to movies and groceries on the weekend. Parking the car, maneuvering the city was a big win for me.

George came at 6:30am, an hour early on the driving test day. He wanted to familiarise me with roads of the testing route at DMV. I was filled with gratitude. This time he was going out of the way. I was nervous, because I was 50% sure that I would fail this test. I felt mentally not ready.

The examiner sat next to me and asked me exactly the same questions George had prepared me for. She looked tough because it was hard for her to smile back. Maybe that was their code of conduct.

“Why is the speed needle going above 25 when you are driving in the neighbourhood?” “Take a right, take a left.” “ Reverse!” I was beginning to feel overwhelmed with the rolling instructions every minute. “What are you waiting for! The traffic light is green.” “The lady will cross only when the traffic light goes green for her.” “Go on. Why are you not driving within the lane?” The examiner really looked irritated with me. I was sweating and I knew today was not the day for me.

We came back and I went to the counter to get my results. George was anxious too. Before I could, George took the paper and he almost jumped with joy. I hugged him, this was the moment of celebration.

George drove me back home, stating that it is his little treat to me. My face was filled with joy and the first thing I wanted to do was call Pankaj but unfortunately I had to make myself wait since he was in a different time zone. When George dropped me, he said, “You know, you are just like my granddaughter. I am going to miss you.” I was in tears and now suddenly I didn’t want George to go.

He made me realise that my grandfathers were still alive in my memory, whom I missed a lot. He helped me go back in the arms of my grandfathers, back to the bundles of candies they would get for me, and the stories they would tell me. My mind filled with laughter from when I was a kid, and the touch of love they would embrace me with. I was nearly overwhelmed with emotions, and I will and am forever grateful to George who gave me an experience I would never forget.

Meanwhile, my driving adventures were giving me a high. I was still anxious while I drove, but I went on. I was thrilled when I did the Freeway from Irvine to Pasadena for home hunting. The best was when I drove the 8 seater from Irvine to Big Bear with two families on board. Life goes on 🙂

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Nikunj Om

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