roads less travelled

AS the sun faded and the city’s carpet of lights spread below us, we could have hardly imagined what would play out over the next half an hour.

Seasoned travellers, we have all spent much of our lives working and living abroad, but the morbid, salutory lesson we learned that day was one we won’t forget. I have since discovered, following the driver’s death, that drinking and alcoholism are worrying problems amongst autorickshaw drivers in India.

Men who earn little more than $40 a month, ‘rickshaw-wallahs’, in their trademark khaki uniforms, are ubiquitous on India’s roads. Most are helpful, assiduous and honest, but we were unlucky enough to meet one of the minority, tempted by the few extra dollars a foreign passenger represents.

We knew we were in danger. Our driver heeded no sign of slowing down, maniacally jolting along straights and suddenly slowing, crawling around hairpin bends. We frantically tried to call friends in Jaipur but had no phone reception. Twice, we got out of the vehicle and started walking the 8km home, before making a deal with the driver to continue with snail-like caution.

The magnificence, energy and grittiness of India is almost numbing in its scale – after recovering, we went on to explore Rajasthan before heading south to Karnataka and on to the intoxicating Mumbai. No matter how many times we have taken risks, put our faith into strangers’ hands and lived to tell the tales, the shock of tempting fate is bewildering.

That night we accidentally scratched below the surface of a changing land. Despite our attempts and despite our best, well-travelled intuition, we stepped into the rickshaw for one last time, before, in a split-second of splintering glass and blind fear, our confused and scared foursome tumbled into darkness.

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