India: An imperfect adventure

Rickshaw racers chose their own routes from Kochi to Shillong, India.
Photo by Alec Campbell

There are tiny fires everywhere. This is one of the first things you will notice about India — the uncountable number of people and the fires trickling haphazardly toward the smoggy sky to keep mosquitoes at bay. I never saw who lit them or who put them out.

The birds will wake you when they feel like it. A Norwegian man with a bucktooth grin stretches his smile even farther over his face as he recalls the rainforest in central India. He leans in, hands in pockets, and tells me that Bengal tigers are shy.

There is a shyness I realize, too, about the culture of India that hides behind a face presented for Western travelers. The best advice you will be given for a trip to India is not how to avoid dysentery (which I have avoided, phew) or where to find the best beach (Goa), but rather, simply, to look behind the marketplace.

This came in the form of an Indian boy name Abdu. I met him the morning I woke him up at 6 a.m. by stumbling out of my hostel room anxious to see my first Indian sunrise. He owns the hostel and, I would find out later, he crashed in the common area after too much rum with friends. He reminds me to take my shoes off inside for the fourth time since I have arrived. Some of my western habits become glaringly obvious, and embarrassing.

On my last night in Kochi (formerly Cochin), he unbars a rooftop door and shows me a deck with a sitting cot and a view of the crisscrossed, dirt streets below. Counting the stars reminds through the stubborn night clouds, we share the kind of silence that only makes itself known when you are about to leave a place you may never return to. I find it is easiest to share secrets with strangers, like taking crumpled pieces of paper out of your pocket to set in front of somebody without apology. There is no old to compare to the new. For Abdu, his secret is a dream
to build a glass house on top of the deck on which we sit.

The next few days are far from solace. The goal of the group of five I am traveling with — three Americans, a Canadian and a Scot — is to drive a tuk tuk from the south to the northeast of India; roughly 3,500 km in two weeks for the sake of an unconventional adventure. The risks are real. Coursing through the busy roads in southern India is like navigating a fallen wasp’s nest. Pedestrians, motorbikes — often with a baby propped up front or side-saddled by a colorfully garbed woman — and buses (they are formidable) all compete to advance. It starts to feel dreamlike; I imagine a bag of banana peels strapped at my side for offense like an Indian version of Mario Kart.

Fellow travelers | Photo by Alec Campbell

The nature of the adventure is a tribute to the adage of Murphy’s Law: In the first 36 hours of driving we hit a bus (mitigated with duct tape and lots of friendly nods assuring the pulled-over bus we were OK), end up in a gentleman’s club instead of what we thought was a lunch spot, get swindled by a 10-year-old boy selling balloons and arrive in an unknown town late at night unable to find a place to sleep. We resort to a luxury hotel and pay 20 percent in taxes, as is the norm in the communist state of Kerala.

On the plane ride over, I read that India is a beautiful mess. And now we are right in it. There are no pristine, blue pools and mango juice for us. It’s hot, dusty roads, and there is a constant smell of gasoline. Screeching at 30 miles per hour over shoddy concrete streets, defending our rickety contraption against motorists and double-decker buses brimming with faces curious at our decorated vehicle, the passing people and towns become surreal. I snap out of the chaos in isolated moments: a bedazzled elephant walking down the street as casual as a summer cloud or a young merchant boy speaking as a grown man. The thrill in my stomach is so fierce it hurts. This is why I have come, I think, for the awe moments.

The launch of The Adventurists’ Rickshaw Run, a two-week, 3,500-kilometer race across India. | Photo by Cayte Bosler

We stop at the first glimpse of the Arabian Sea after two days of sweltering conditions. My tired teammates meander toward a refreshing swim as I linger behind. I pause to consider my thoughts, noticing the sunlight playing tricks on the loveliest body in the world. The sea covers two-thirds of the world, and I regret I will not live long enough to see it from every possible vantage point. Scientists and poets alike will say the sun rises and sets, though we know this to be untrue. We spin away and towards an improbable mass of gas.

For a split, uncalculated second, it occurs to me: Amid the shock of the culture, the differences from my own an obvious reason to travel here, I feel something intently vulnerable. For a moment, on the beach, we are just creatures hanging out, without any great effort, on a warm tide of events greater than we are.

That evening we careen through a Muslim town as a procession of men in white array make their way to prayer. There are no women in sight.

I later remark upon the sheer number of people to an Indian man living part-time in London.

“People come to India and they think, ‘Wow, look at all the poor people.’ They come to feel something, to open to something,” he says. “But here, the men sleep like kings. They sleep on the side of the road after a day’s work, undisturbed by the passing of cars. In the West, we must swallow little pills to sleep.”

I contemplate his comment and the enormity of what I have witnessed in a short period. I do not yet know it, but this will be my last night, two weeks before my original departure date. The only certainty in travel is uncertainty. It came down to a logistic. After a mechanical breakdown, we were forced to leave behind a tuk tuk, which meant not all of us could continue. Concerned by the traffic conditions and unnerved by our one accident already, I decided my journey was over.

Sometimes something strikes us during a journey because it is exciting, and fresh. It demands we see the world anew.

Later, in reflection, we begin to glean meaning. That is, if you look for that sort of thing.

Even after returning home, part of me is still in the hypnotic spell of India. Its face, once a mystery, is now partly painted in with previously unimaginable colors. At the sea in Kochi, where the men yip and sing while casting nets into the belly of waves, there are broken glass bottles plunged into cement anchors for the docks. Like the sky, the shards are too opaque to reflect perfect rays.

It is the land of fires, shy tigers and glass houses.