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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 20, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Columns2014-2015

Rickshaws provide new inner peace

Every morning — after eating breakfast made by my host mother, consisting of hot milk, cornflakes, some sort of fried wheat-flour creation and mangoes — I get picked up for school via rickshaw, a motorized, three-wheeled buggy. My driver is consistently inconsistent in his time of arrival, but usually comes scooting to the front gate of my homestay around 8:30 a.m. and honks his horn.

The route to my school center includes dangerously entering the endlessly busy Bhawani Singh Road, precariously circling around a traffic rotary, crossing over a bridge and then weaving through side streets and neighborhoods. The drive only takes about six minutes, but it has consistently been an outwardly life-threatening adventure.

When I first arrived in India three weeks ago, a man named Awadhesh picked me up at the airport in Delhi. It was 3 a.m. and smoggy. My senses were hampered by jetlag, a belly full of three airplane meals and the anticipation of my arrival. That all changed when I sat in a taxi and entered the highway.

It was pure chaos: unpredictable swerving of motorbikes, brake lights flashing and the road lines seeming to be a soft suggestion as to how the traffic should flow. All that I had learned about road laws when I was a 15-year-old in a driver’s education course was null and void.

After three days spent in Delhi for orientation, I traveled by bus to Jaipur with my peers where we are based for a large part of the semester. It was on this 6-hour long journey where I had the isolated time to evaluate the traffic patterns through a dirty and cracked bus window. They revealed themselves to be organized madness. I listened to the varying pitches of horns, watched families of five on motorbikes flawlessly weave through tightly packed traffic and saw women gracefully ride side-saddle on the back of bicycles, the beautifully patterned fabric of their sarees dancing in the wind behind them.

It wasn’t until my first rickshaw ride to school in Jaipur that I was truly and entirely immersed in the traffic at the level of all the insanity. The combination of horns perpetually blaring, the close proximity to which cars and motorbikes pass and the smell of hot petroleum exhaust in the air mixed with faint bouts of chewing tobacco and musky incense make rickshaw rides an over-stimulating experience.

While swerving, liberal honking and sporadic breaking all kept me on the edge of my small tapestry covered seat, I’ve started to feel a certain kind of calm inside the yellow and green metal shells of rickshaws. Morning commutes to school and late night rides home forced me to accept that uncontrollable chaos can be productive. The privilege of sharing a language to communicate fails to exist in most rickshaw driver-and-rider relationships I’ve formed thus far, which often leads to pointing, yelling brief phrases in poor Hindi and making U-turns without checking for oncoming traffic, but I eventually end up back at my homestay. I’ve found that it is a comically common theme with drivers who speak no English to get very lost among the side streets. I’ve also found that it is in the common nature of the people on the street to selflessly help direct lost rickshaw drivers when they pull over to ask directions.

As I spend more time in this endlessly unknown place, the constant ruckus of the traffic is slowly transforming into a dynamic symphonic tribute to the utter chaos on the streets and in my soul. My time in India has not been void of challenging experiences that have shaken my stability or moments of pure gratitude and understanding, but it has ceased to amaze me, especially when experienced from the back of a rickshaw.