Traveling to South America from my suburban home in New York made me realized there was a whole world out there that I knew almost nothing about. After I graduated college, I looked at a map and bought a round-trip ticket to a country halfway around the globe, hoping to learn through experience.
In the second week of my month-long trip though south India, I didn’t have a destination in mind when I got on the bus. I picked a city at random, wrote it down, and showed it to everyone at the station, hoping they would understand that was where I wanted to go. I was headed to a dot on my map with a name I couldn’t pronounce: Tindivanam.
Some of the buses had stickers on their front windshield announcing their destination; trouble was they were all written in Tamil, a language whose sounds and characters meant nothing to me. But when three or four people all pointed to the same bus, I knew I had found the right one. The driver nodded his head when I showed him my note and I felt we had come to an understanding. As we passed each city and the bus slowed to let people on and off, I looked up toward the driver, waiting for a nod or wave or some kind of sign to tell me this was it, this was my stop.
Finally, looking out the back window I saw its name: Tindivanam. We had passed it. I hurried up the aisle as the bus waited at a busy crossroads somewhere outside of town. The driver looked up and started shaking his head every which way while mumbling words in Tamil. I took it as an apology and got off the bus.
Traffic on the four lane highway crawled forward, and the air was filled with diesel exhaust from trucks and the sound of motorcycle horns blaring. There weren’t any houses or hotels, or even restaurants that I could see, just giant, square shaped factories and a driveway filled with wrecked cars waiting to be repaired.
After a ten minute walk toward the direction I had come from, there was a hotel that charged 100 rupees ($2.50) for a room. It was the cheapest I had paid yet, but it was also the strangest. The hotel clerk was reluctant to take my money and brought in a man from the shop next door to translate. The man barely spoke English but I understood enough to realize that the clerk was surprised I had turned up at his door and suspicious that I had some strange ulterior motive. He didn’t believe that I choose Tindivanam at random then got off at a cross roads outside it. Finally, he gave me the room on the condition I stay only one night.
When I wandered back out onto the street, night was falling and I thought I would just walk around for a few minutes to get a better feel for the place. Two blocks away I ran into a pack of auto-rickshaw drivers offering me a ride. These small, three wheeled autos carry two passengers and weave through the chaotic traffic much better than any car. Essentially they were glorified motorcycles with an extra wheel and a bench on the back. Almost all of them were also taxis. Eight or ten Indian men with brown faces and black mustaches crowded around, but they politely backed off when I said I didn’t need a ride. One of them spoke English and we drifted into casual conversation as the others lingered around in a loose circle, trying to pick out words and asking for translations.
“Does it snow in New York?” He would ask.
“Why does everyone love cricket here?” I would counter.
“Does everyone in the United States have internet?” He would ask.
“Why does Hinduism have so many Gods?” I would counter.
We sat around, enjoying the night air, munching on peanuts and sipping tea, and I thought to myself, Tindivanam was just the place I was looking for. The city was located where a number of large highways intersected, which made it convenient for industry but little else. It was a place people and goods passed through without stopping — but that’s the part of the world I sought to understand. I didn’t want to see the Taj Mahal, I wanted to learn something from Tindivanam. And then a motorcycle pulled up.
The men jumped up and started shouting excitedly, as if one of them had just had a brilliant idea. The one who spoke English asked if I wanted to hop on the back and see a little of the city. “Sure” I said and hopped on. The driver was in his twenties and wore a white tee-shirt with dark sunglasses — even though it was night. He turned around long enough to mutter a few words in Tamil and shot us into traffic. The road was chaotic. There were a few buses and cars but the mass of it was auto-rickshaws and motorcycles frantically weaving their way through the disorder.
The sky by now was black and in the absence of street lamps the road was lit up by a thousand head beams crisscrossing each other. About half the cars did not have their lights on, and after a few blocks I realized that we were riding without a headlight as well. We shot through the mess, swerving across any semblance of lanes, sometimes drifting into oncoming traffic, weaving against the flow. It was crazy, even by Indian standards. The driver was trying to impress me; showing off to the white skinned foreigner. I was nervous, but naively confident I would make it back to my taxi friends in one piece. Then we crashed.
Traffic was moving at a crawl, but we were zipping through it and against it at a steady 30 mph. We took a turn too sharp and the bike fell down on top of us as we slid down the road. We came to a stop in a cloud of dust underneath a bus. The bus moved up and we hopped to our feet. Things were happening quickly and I was somewhat in shock, but aware enough to realize we that we couldn’t just stand around in the middle of the highway. We pulled the bike up, hoped on and were back in the thick of traffic almost immediately. The driver looked back at me and smiled. He said something, and I smelt alcohol on his breath. In a flash I saw everything in a new light. It was no longer an experiment in experience that would somehow help me understand India, it was a drunk stranger driving me around recklessly; on a motorcycle; in a foreign place; and we just crashed. The thoughts raced around my head.
A hundred meters later the engine stalled in traffic and I got off. The driver was confused and yelling something at me, but I just hobbled to the side of the road and waved. My pants were ripped and bloody. My left knee wouldn’t bend. The scrapes on the side of my leg were covered in dirt and stuffed with small rocks, and I had no idea where I was. But I was glad I wasn’t on that motorcycle anymore, and somehow, I still liked Tindivanam.
Not every experience ends well but one lesson travel has taught me is that to learn we must not be afraid to fall.