En route to Nagpur

While cabs come in all shapes in sizes in India, privately rented vehicles seem to come in two varieties: those where the driver uses A/C and those where he does not. Our trip last Friday from Nagpur to visit the Brahmasthan (meaning center, near Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh) was of the latter type. We like the freedom of open windows. In the Indian countryside, though, there are a few setbacks to fresh-aired freedom. In addition to the burning sensation that travels from your nose to eyes to throat coming from the pervasive diesel exhaust, the dust is incredible. Our driver had smartly decorated his seats with cream-colored faux leather covers, successfully hiding the permanently caked layers of fine dust while also preventing us from ever being able to use our seat belts!

It's remarkable just how much dust can exist while still providing sufficient moisture for life to survive. Here in Madhya Pradesh, it only rains a few months out of the year. Trees look scrappy and thirsty, their leaves shiny and hard like stiff paper.

On this dusty road, cars, trucks and motorcycles weave in and out of each other's paths close enough to make you swear they will connect. Only at the last possible moment do they shift their trajectory enough to miss by what seems inches. Goats, dogs and cattle roam freely, innately aware of the flow of chaos around them and able to blend in seamlessly. If you could get a Tron view of the traffic from above, Indian traffic would probably look like endlessly curving threads in a rope, maybe one with a few knots or tight bits here or there. Traffic in the US would be long, straight lines moving in precise columns. Looking sideways it would appear like stepped terracing: distinct levels with occasional high slopes connecting them.

Trucks here seem to travel in packs, or at least they all get stuck behind one another. They are usually exceptionally brightly colored, with lots of tassels, reflectors of all shapes and sizes, chrome wheels (fastened to the side), and fun, bugley horns that play a three or four note melody. On the back they all say "Horn OK Please", the OK seeming to be a separate sentiment injected in the middle. Every honk has a meaning, though usually it just means "Here I come better watch out." At least once we saw a truck with mud flaps that said "good luck." Another said "please use dipper at night. Wait for side." Sometimes trucks have eyes painted on the front, and their grills are usually painted with geometric patterns in bright colors. It is said the trucks are expressions of their drivers, who will spend large portions of their earnings decorating them.

While trucks are definitely the largest beasts on the road, Indian drivers rarely show any sign of alarm or anger that they are about to be hit. It is presumably because they are used to constant near hits that they tune it out. Our driver, however, showed a small sign of aggression when a pedestrian crossing the street was looking the other way and did not notice us until we were almost upon him. As we were about to pass, our driver swerved the car toward him briefly as if he intended to hit him. We could only assume he was trying to teach the pedestrian a lesson.

As a passenger you feel like you're barreling down a one lane road, cobbled together with dust and spit and old tarmac. You're acutely aware of traffic, the alertness of your driver and any odd creaks the car may make (there are many). You pray the brakes will hold out as the driver pumps them vigorously, avoiding all sorts of street traffic along with one foot deep potholes. I think barreling is really the only way to describe it, and not because you're going particularly fast or down particularly steep terrain. More because the road feels like an old washboard and when you take a turn everything careens from left to right - you, the lunch in your stomach, your luggage, etc.

So there we went, barreling down one long, dusty road. Our driver, in his 30s, was sporting cropped hair on the sides but very long on the top. He had it all slicked back so he sort of resembled a bird with long tail feathers. He was dressed in ripped jeans and a cowboy shirt. Considering his brave maneuvering, we felt his plumage and wild west attire were quite apropos. As he drove, it became quickly apparent that the Ganesha and Shiva trinkets he'd decorated his car with were permanently affixed to the dash, as they retained their god-like calm while the tassels on his rear view were performing some fancy figure skating.

Mohana had carefully packaged us a wonderful meal for our long ride - spicy chapatis studded with methi and sesame seeds and laced with some green chilis, with a pea and potato subji to accompany them. The subji was lovingly wrapped - like a bomb - in packing tape and tinfoil, threatening to explode unless handled just right. So with the driver busy avoiding school children, monkeys and moon-like craters in the pavement, one handed permanently mounted right over his merry horn, we gingerly undressed our lunch. This required swinging it this way and that to counteract the movements of the car, the way you might handle your coffee in a cab on a late day to the office. Then we went to work, passing the subji back and forth and attempting to gather some veggies inside a bit of chapati. Matt was probably more successful than me - he's not afraid to get his hands dirty, up to the knuckle. It was a delicious if delirious lunch, leaving us sticky-fingered and thankfully equipped with toilet paper. Only trouble was keeping it down long enough to finish our journey!

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