The Rickshaw Ride

The scariest thing that ever happened to me may or may not have actually happened. Such is the case when you’re in a foreign country: the difference in language and culture can prohibit you from ever knowing the truth between intention and felt experience. The four of us who were there, however, can attest that we imagined our moments were numbered.

After traveling for a few days with a larger group of teacher volunteers throughout India, Torri, Rebecca, Katherine, and I decided that afternoon to explore Bangalore on our own. Our trouble began almost instantly as we tried to bargain in the sweltering July heat with various rickshaw drivers for a ride to Tipu’s Palace. We heard “200 rupees” and knew we were being ripped off. Still, we climbed in.

Just that week I had described to my incredulous seventh grade Indian students the differences between American and Indian traffic laws. Their disbelief melted into laughter when I got to the part about crosswalks and watching out for pedestrians: “Oh miss, you are, what is it they say? Pulling the leg of us.” In India, there are no seatbelts, no helmets, no lanes, no speed limits, and certainly no smog restrictions. Rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, and bicycles merge to form a thick glob of movement, as the intense pollution rises from all like a dark, cancer-inducing halo.

We already had a couple of close calls sideswiping other rickshaws when, without warning, the driver made a sudden sharp turn onto a side street. “This must be a detour,” Katherine said hesitantly, as we watched the concrete road fade into the distance behind us.

Something like foreboding began to weave its way into my solar plexus. The streets became smaller, the amount of people more dense, and my sense of direction more confused. Suddenly, we stopped. There was too much congestion and no way for the rickshaw to get through.

As men began to surround the rickshaw, I turned and made eye contact with a cow. He was standing, resigned, in a barn, tethered to a pole, about two yards away. The sight of him turned my last bit of courage into cowardice. The gathering around the rickshaw was getting louder and layered six men deep. It would be easy for them to pull us off the rickshaw and into a barn or building – there was nowhere for us to go, no way for us to escape, no one to hear us scream. I felt the panic rise into my throat, as we all, without conferring, held onto the rickshaw. I could see the headlines, “Four American tourists go missing in India.” We didn’t even have identification with us.

An invisible clock ticked. We held our breaths.

Finally, the crowd lessened and we found our way back to concrete. The driver pulled up to the palace, we gave him our rupees, and bolted. Once inside, we collapsed onto the palace lawn and cried, spent by our fear of what might have been.

E Rohrbach

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