Dicing with danger and death in the north of India

by tkos on December 2, 2012

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“…and then we will cycle to from Agra, across the top of north India to Kolkata.”

The room fell silent. Charles looked at me with eyes of dread as a thousand thoughts raced through his mind, yet nothing managing to escape passed his lips. He glances with despair to his wife Revati, telepathically appealing for help, but she simply dropped her eyes to the floor. The silence was awkward and his expression uncomfortable. I sat there blissfully ignorant, with a mental image of our route as per the graphics on Google map and a naive smile on my face.

“Oh, that sounds…ok.” he mumbles. Anything to avoid telling us that we would be cycling to our inevitable doom.

Kimmi and I had been staying with Charles and Revati for almost three weeks. Through Couchsurfing, we had managed to find an Indian version of ourselves in a parallel universe. Charles and I are of the same age and quite senior in our respective industries whilst Kimmi and Revati are both ten years our junior with proportional seniority in the same respective industries. With passions for cooking, photography, gadgets, shopping, technology and eating, we instantly felt like we were staying with family or long lost friends as opposed to a pre-registered online cultural exchange experience.

Charles comes home from work the following day, sits on the couch next to me, takes a deep breath, releases a heavy sigh and stares into oblivion, pondering how to break the news to me.

“I spoke to some of the guys at work today” he begins. “And I told them of your intended route. They think you’re the bravest couple they have ever heard of.”

“What do you mean brave? I never said I was brave? How am I being brave? I’m not trying to be brave? What do you mean??” I nervously spit out consecutively.

“Have you ever heard of the Dacoits?”

“Are they a football team?”

“Oh dear.” He sighs at the new found level of my complete and utter ignorance and lack of research.

“ Um…er… no. They are a gang of vicious highway robbers and vigilantes that operate in a region of India that is not protected by the law. You are planning to slowly cycle right through the middle of it.”

“Oh.”

Charles pulled out a map and pin pointed the 1000km stretch of road, across three states between Agra and Kolkata where we would be flirting with our demise. We looked at alternative routes but all came with increased kilometres, more desolate roads and increased risks. He explained the best ‘solution’ was to carry a dummy wallet with enough cash to make them go away without rifling through our bags. It should contain at least 3-4000 rupees (£50)and be stored in an accessible place for WHEN they find us. They block the road so you can’t get passed and take whatever they want. It could be your money, your bike, your wife or your life. “

“But it’ll probably be fine.” He calmly adds.

My heart slowly sank as I started to ponder why we were doing this in the first place. It is for adventure, for positive experience, to meet and help people along the way. It is not to pose risk to ourselves. There is no glory in stupidity. But we can’t quit.

“If you’re lucky, they will just take your wallet and your new camera.” Says Charles, trying to lift the weight of depression and ultimate doom he had just placed on my shoulders.

“I would think if I was lucky, they would just smile and wave as we cycle passed!” I respond.

Charles laughed awkwardly.

“I don’t mean to scare you, or put you off. It will probably be fine. It’s just that there a lot of old urban myths about that area. So people just don’t go there. Everybody has heard a story about a guy who knew a guy that had something happen to him. But nobody has ever spoken to that guy first hand. It’s one of those. I only tell you because I want you to be informed to make your own choices. And also, rape is not uncommon.”

“Oh.”

“But it’ll probably be fine!”

Fast forward two months and we find ourselves leaving Agra, bound for the carefully calculated route of 1,264km to Kolkata. We have vowed to begin cycling at 6am every morning. We have booked hotels where possible for every evening, with some being more than 160km apart, but wild camping would be suicide. We have our dummy wallet ready and camera hidden amongst dirty clothes. We will remain on the NH2 highway and not stop for people who are ‘curious’ and want to talk. We have extra tyre tubes to replace punctures and minimise our time on the side of the road. We had informed our families and vowed to text our safety status daily. We were ready as we were ever going to be. It was time.

A few days in and everything had seemed ‘normal’. Almost eerily so. The highway was reasonably busy with a constant flow of trucks, cars and motorbikes. A lot more local bicycles shared the highway than other parts of India. Must be because we were in the poorer states. And poor means desperate. And desperate means dangerous. We do not get tricked into this false sense of security, under the guise of normality. No, we cycle on, head down and guard up.

Then we see it. Just as Charles had described it those months before. The constant flow of trucks and cars had come to a halt. All waiting patiently in their lane. Squinting into the sun, I peer ahead to see a roadblock constructed of branches and logs, sprawled across the road, completely blocking one of the lanes and part blocking the other. It was only a few hundred meters ahead and we needed to decide what to do immediately. There is no other way to go. Either side of us are fields as far as the eye can see.

The gang of youths ahead controlled the road, with their motorbikes waiting patiently close by to chase whoever dared run. We had been spotted by one of them as he pointed us out to his comrades, boasting of the riches to come. It was too late, we could not turn back, we could not run. We slowly cycled towards the blockade as the blood in my veins rushed throughout my body, my heart pounded and my mind raced. We were trapped. I peer up to catch the eye of one of the truck drivers and hope for some salvation but the drivers just wore expressions of concern with eyes fixed on the blockade ahead.

With less than fifty meters to go, we slow to a steady stroll. I stand on my pedals to subconsciously increase my height like some kind of wild jungle animal. The instinctive fight or flight reflex is about to kick in. I move to Kimmi’s left to sandwich her between me and the trucks, with the Dacoits on my left. When they attack, I can sacrifice myself and block them, leaving Kimmi the smallest chance to get out whilst I try and slow them down.

With twenty meters to go, my muscles tense as I prepare myself for combat, if need be. I mentally sacrifice the dummy wallet and the camera, but I will not let anything happen to Kimmi.

“If anything happens, just run. Get out of here as quick as you can!” I whisper to Kimmi as we approach the gang.

I am tense, I am pumped. My defining moment of character is here. This is the moment that will classify the type of man that I am for the rest of my life. Whatever happens in the next thirty seconds must be something that I can proudly explain to mine, and Kimmi’s, family, should I get the chance. That I did what I had to do to give us the greatest chance of survival. That I did not take risks. That her safety, then mine, was at the forefront of my mind and it is with that mentality that will explain any actions that I am about to do.

Here we go…

“Good morning!” Kimmi beams as she cycles ahead.

“Welcome to India!” the youthful, politically motivated demonstrator shouts back, coupled with a big smile and a wave.

I suppose Charles was right all along, everything probably was fine.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Revati Victor December 2, 2012 at 7:00 am

This one had us rolling on the floor with laughter and we actually had tears in our eyes! So the moral of the story is always let Kimmi go do her chirpy hellos in real life and leave your bravado for the complex stories woven in your head. But we really really are glad “it was all just nothing to worry about” in the end. Love you guys!!!

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Sarah December 2, 2012 at 7:27 am

Lovely! Glad you avoided the “dacos”……

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