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Focus on Safety

 

 

 

I slump in the back seat in utter misery, cowering next to Nagendra as our driver careens through the Indian countryside on a one lane road which four lanes worth of traffic is determined to share. "I have a better than 50% chance of being involved in a serious accident today," I think as our driver passes an ox cart on a blind curve. "And if, by some miracle I don't get killed, we're surely going to kill someone else."
It appears inevitable. I wonder what it will feel like to sit before my computer at home and write a newsletter with the headline "The Child we Killed." It's a very distinct possibility and the thought sickens me.
My day begins at 5:30 a.m. with a meeting at my hotel. Three hours into it, Nagendra leaps out of his seat and announces we have to immediately leave. "We barely have enough time to drive to our next stop, and may not have time for lunch if we don leave right now, he says, quite agitated
"How far do we have to drive?" I ask as we rush down the hall, waking the four soldiers who had slept, guns and all, on the two sofas outside my door. There had been a wedding the night before and they were the security (who needs security at a wedding?). All the rooms were taken, so the soldiers slept on sofas, their rifles eventually sliding to the floor. I'd never seen soldiers moonlighting before and found the concept interesting.
"We have one hundred kilometers to drive," Nagendra replies, which puzzles me because that's only about 60 miles. "How long could that possibly take?" I ask.
"Four hours," Nagendra replies. Four hours--that can't be. It means we'll average 15 miles per hour which doesn't seem possible.
One hour later, and just 16 miles down the road, I realize Nagendra had every reason to feel pressed for time. Indian countryside roads are so ridiculously narrow, and the amount and variety of traffic so great, that getting anywhere takes forever.
Every few minutes we have to deal with (I will rank these in order of damage we could do them with our car); a child (yes, they play in the street); a pedestrian (yes, they blithely walk down the road); a bicycle (often with all five members of the family precariously balanced upon it); a bike cab (very slow and thus an excellent target); a golf cart taxi (containing seven terrified passengers, eyes big as saucers); a motorcycle (highly maneuverable and thus easily forced off the road); an ox, donkey or camel-drawn cart (fully laden so as to obstruct the driver's view); passenger cars (driven by aggressive idiots); trucks (leaning, bouncing, staggeringly overloaded, and invariably driven by someone who hasn't slept in four days); and buses (loaded to excess so even a minor fender bender results in mass slaughter). Wandering among all this madness are the cows sacred to Hindus. I don't even want to know what happens if we hit one of them.
It's madness. With long, drawn-out blasts of the horn sufficing (he thinks) to warn oncoming traffic, our driver dives into the tiniest gaps in the traffic. He surges aggressively forward, all the while laying on the horn. Children scatter. Oxen pulling carts widen their eyes in horror. Motorcycles swerve to the side to avoid sudden death. I am horrified time and time again. Soon, this all beomes too much and I want out.
Illogically, unbelievably, it gets worse. My driver swerves around a pedal cab, which we miss hitting by centimeters--and good heavens, a bus appears before us! It hurtles toward us, not slowing down; its driver laying on his horn. I sit back in the seat, bracing for the collision. Nagendra blanches.
Our driver yanks the steering wheel hard to the right and we bounce off the road, scattering people before us. The bus flashes by. A hard yank to the left puts us back on the road. My driver never flinches. It's all in a day's work, I suppose.
This is the way it would be for the next three hours, broken up only by a meeting and a delicious lunch at a fly-infested gas station restaurant. I have to admit that eating in India is a delight. The food is fresh and clean; a wonderful amalgam of taste and texture. Everything I ate during my trip was perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious.
As we eat, I notice our driver hasn't joined us, and being egalitarian by nature, ask where he is. "Drivers in India aren't allowed to eat while driving," Nagendra replies, dabbing his corn nan bread into a spicy lentil dish.. "Why not?" I ask.
I learn that a well fed driver is a drowsy driver. And in India, where a trip to the local grocery store might just take two hours (not to mention, your life), this is important.
"They need good reactions," Rais, Nagendra's assistant says, mimicking someone turning a steering wheel in desperation. "Don't worry, he will eat tonight."
Our day began at five thirty that morning and would end at midnight. Our driver ate nothing the entire time, though I hope he snuck something when noone was looking.
Lunch over, we take to the road again. The thought depresses me. My neck is tense. My jaw is set. It feels like the last hour of a long trans-atlantic flight.
Amazingly, over time I begin to settle into the rhythm of the driving. Passing distances which would have terrified me three hours earlier don't' merit a second glance. Being forced half off the road by a truck doesn't result in the bitter taste of adrenaline on my tongue anymore. I smile to myself as I find myself relaxing. The bumping of the road is soothing, the air is warm, and before I know it I become drowsy and join Nagendra in sleep.
I have no idea how long I slept before a desperately deep jab of the brakes and a sweeping yaw to the left yanks me, wide-eyed, out of sleep.
G-forces take over. Nagendra and I are thrown to the side of the car. We are instantly, frighteningly, completely awake.
Seconds ago I was in a deep sleep. Now I see everything in perfect detail. Time creeps by. A hundreth of a second at a time.
In the road...I see her. A pretty little girl. Black hair cut pixie-ishly short just below the jaw line. She has beautiful dark eyes and the most gorgeous eyelashes I've ever seen on a human being.
She was dashing across the street and saw us too late. Her body remains frozen in position, leaning forward, weight on her right foot. I see the glint of golden earrings in her ears. She's beautiful. A magnficent creation.
And then she is gone. We miss killing her by inches.
We drive on and I sit back, confused, numb, fearful...and thankful. I will not have to write that terrible newsletter article after all. But what if my driver had eaten? What then?