Published in the Enterprise July 15, 2008.
Cyclists Dance Confidently on Crazy Roads
By Jim Durfey for the Livingston Enterprise
Indian traffic combines the delicate timing of classical ballet with the haphazard aggressiveness of a demolition derby. As I careened down the narrow streets of Agra a moto-rickshaw pulled in front of me. I could have slowed down, but I guessed the driver intended to turn left. Just before I slammed into the three-wheeled vehicle, it veered in front of oncoming traffic and off the road, just like I expected.
Next, I outran an approaching truck as it tried to swerve into my lane to get around a magnificent bull lounging in the right-hand lane. The animal, considered holy by the Hindus of India, stood regally in the road, leisurely chewing its cud, as traffic whizzed by it on all sides. It seemed as aware of its invulnerability as an elk the day after the close of the hunting season. Unwilling to wait in line to get around the animal, all the cars made a rush for the remaining open lane of traffic.
I found myself adopting the Indian attitude regarding traffic the more I biked in that country. I also found the rushed chaos of the streets reflected in other situations. A couple of men in a posh New Delhi mini-mall asked me the purpose of the trip. Before I could fully answer they had asked me three other questions. Their excitement at the bike trip humbled me, but before I knew it they had satisfied their curiosity and strode across the parking lot to the their car.
Western India proved just as excited to extend hospitality towards us as Eastern India, if not more. A Muslim man in old Delhi bought me lunch for no apparent reason. He sat silently across from me, eating his own lunch.
I racked my brain, thinking of conversation topics, trying to prove myself worthy of a free lunch. His children attended a Catholic school run by nuns. He had already made a pilgrimage to Mecca. He did business in small pins and clasps. I ran out of questions as my stomach ran out of space. Yet, Mr. Atiq insisted on ordered me another piece of baked flat bread, and we sat in silence as I strove to join the clean plate club.
As we parted he shook my hand and beamed with a satisfied smile. Perhaps, I reflected through the haze of a stuffed stomach, kindness does not necessarily require accompanying conversation.
When we stayed with Ranjit in Uttar Pradesh, he had his sister cook up an entire platter of parantha-fried bread stuffed with potatoes-for us. He then took us on a tour of village cricket matches. The biggest, though played by uniform-less young men on the rough ground of a fallow field, had the atmosphere of a Legion game down at the ball fields. Vendors offered soda water and squeezed sugar can juice on wheeled stands while an announcer gave a running commentary on the game over a battery-powered speaker.
We watched our fill of cricket and then played music while Ranjit oversaw the slaughter of a chicken. Our mouths watered at the prospect of meat, but before we could get our mouths on savory chicken morsels we had to dance. The villagers appreciated our slow music, but preferred their own faster-paced beat.
They brought in a drummer who laid down a fast rhythm. Mustachioed men in tank tops swung their hips around the circle of spectators. Then it was our turn. I tried to two-step and gyrate, but the sun had long ago sunk below the mango trees and my energy was low. As a guest, I was in no place to make demands, but all I wanted was to eat chicken and go to bed.
I had never found accepting kindness so exhausting. Yet, our experiences continued. We smiled at crowds of curious onlookers who gathered around us when we stopped in small towns. We answered every one’s questions as best we could, turned down their offers to drink tea and then gently butted our way through the crowd and back onto the craziness of the road. I thought longingly of the roads in Livingston, so much calmer and easier to bike on.
We finally escaped the craziness of Indian roads when we reached the broad open highway of Rajisthan. Four empty lanes stretched out before us. No horns, no camels carts, no kids skittering into our path. After half an hour boredom stretched the minutes into hours. We came to a small town where a road led back into the craziness of Indian drivers and herders and cyclists.
The chaos, at first so appalling, now appealed to us. We had learned how to integrate ourselves. We knew the intricate timing of the grand ballet of Indian traffic. After a short consultation, we opted for the more exciting road.