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Agraphobia


Our first hint of trouble was when our driver stalled the car just backing out of the driveway. I assumed the car was copping out, though it looked a lot nicer than most of the wrecks barreling down the streets of Agra. But it only took a minute to realize the real problem was a complete lack of driving skills. Our ‘driver’ jerked the gearshift back and forth, pounding at the pedals and twisting the steering wheel in a frantic parody of driving that would have been funny– somewhere else.

“Uh, you do know how to drive this car, right?” I inquired over his shoulder.  Our guide, and supposed driver for the day, was a local rickshaw whalla.There had been some fussing around getting us seated in the back — it was his friend’s car, and very important that it stay immaculate. But that didn’t seem to affect his desire to strip the gears to shreds.

“Yes yes, I am a very good driver. One moment please.” He managed to find some combination of pedal-pushing and shifting to roll us forward a bit. The van hopped and ground its way down the broken street. Eva and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes thinking of 40 KMs of this to the ruined city of Fatephur Sikri and back. All part of the adventure I thought.

 But we hadn’t gone a kilometer before we pulled over into one of the half-built crumbling strip malls that crowed downtown Agra. Without saying anything he killed the engine and hopped out. I rolled down the window and stuck my head out into the cloud of dirt that had caught up with us.

“Hey! Where are you going? What are we doing here?”

“Uh, I get air for the car.” Air? There wasn’t any gas station for blocks. Was he going to suck up a lungfull of dust and blow the tires up himself ? He disappeared into one of the unlabeled doorways and I sat back in a huff.  I’d woken up that morning looking forward to an exciting day of tramping around Mougal ruins, not sitting in the back of a hot car in a grubby part of town.

Surprisingly, he was back out in just a moment, but with a big brooding guy in tow.  The Big Guy got in the driver’s seat and our driver, no longer driving, hunched down in the passenger seat dwarfed by his companion and stared intently out the window. 

 “Uh, so, who’s your friend?” I asked our guy.

“Yes, he is friend,” he echoed without looking at me.

“Yeah, but who is he?” 

“He is the car owner, he comes with us.”  His whole manor had changed. His ‘friend’ seemed to make him nervous and distant.  The Big Guy still haddn’t said a word to us and now the rickshaw boy clammed up as well.

With an actual driver now behind the wheel we quickly moved out of the vaguely familiar tourist trap around the Taj and into the ‘real’ city.  We nosed through a tight crowd of vegetable laden woman in limp saris, rickshaw and scooters carrying entire clans, and the general mass of weekday-morning India.  After two or three turns I knew I would be hopelessly lost if I stepped out of the car.

Eva seemed absorbed by the urban scenery. The modern buildings had thinned out to a more traditional mixture of raw concrete boxes and brick shacks with thatched roofing. Children squatted in the dirt and old men sipping tea watched us as we watched them. No one waved or smiled at us.

At first I had been worried about getting charged for an extra ‘guide’ or driver, but as the city became more desolate and unfriendly  I was starting to think about the possible personal safety issue.  With no one in the car speaking I had too much time to ponder the situation. Why didn’t this ‘friend’ meet us at the hotel? Especially when the alternative was lending his beloved van to a rickshaw-monkey with a lead foot? And why wasn’t this costing us extra? Paying 100 Rs less than the going taxi-rate suddenly felt suspicious. Everything suddenly felt suspicious. I had no idea if we were even heading the right direction.

The line between caution and paranoia is always a thin and often wavering one. In a foreign country, surrounded by foreign expressions and unfamiliar customs it tends to disappear all together. Wandering around Nepal and India by myself for three months had given me an opportunity to relate to people and places in a whole new context. This new context brought new experiences like being invited to a meal with a friendly Nepali family I had meet only days before as well as getting ripped off and misguided by people I had known for days.  Was I making a snap judgement and shutting myself off from another adventure? Or was I ignoring my instincts and walking into a dangerous situation?

I was about to mutter my concerns at Eva when we came to another stop, this time at an actual gas station just before the long empty highway really started. The big guy turned around for the first time, scowled at both of us, and then growled a few words at his sidekick. The kid ducked his head in and turned sheepishly to us. “So you pay us 100 now for petrol, ok?” “200!” came the quick correction from the big guy. “Uh, ok, we need 200 for petrol, ok? So you pay him now yes?”

And now he’d got me thinking of the trip to the bank. Yesterday he’d taken me and Eva to change money. He’d followed us into the dim air-conditioned office– probably to show his face so he’d be sure to get a backsheesh — the unbiquitous Asian tip/bribe– for bringing us there. But he’d also watched both of us change around $100 in travellers checks (about 4,000 rupees) and put the large grubby rolls of bills in the security purses we both wore around our necks. I’d left the bulk of my cash in the hotel safety deposit box, but we probably still had enough on us for a decent little mugging. Or, more likely, a huge ‘return trip tax’, probably requested at an ugly, lonely part of the highway.

I was thinking this would be a good time to bail on the whole agreement, awkward as that might be, when Eva handed over the 200 Rs, throwing me a slightly worried frown at the same time. The big guy took the cash and jumped out.  I almost gave up arguing with myself over the matter. We were now really invested in the trip– and this is what I had come here for right? It was supposed to be all about the unknown, the wild and adventerous, taking risks and embarking on grand adventures off the beaten path! But I just couldn’t shake the bad feeling.

I leaned over to Eva and wished I spoke Swedish so we could discuss things without the two in the front understanding.

“Uh, so I’m really feeling weird about this, how about you?”

 “Yes, this is strange. I do not like this new person.”

 “You want to go back?” I nodded. “But we already gave him most of the money,” she whispered.  At this point I was ready to pay her the 200 Rs myself just to get out of the situation.  It’s amazing how quickly money can drop to the bottom of you list of concerns when you are contemplating abandonment on the side of a desolate Indian freeway.

I was trying to think of an easy way to get us out of this without making them mad enough to leave us on the side of the road. I found inspiration in a nauseating waft of open sewage that came in the window. I took a deep gulp of the foul air and leaned up to the front seat. “Excuse me,” I said to our guy who looked ready to jump out of his skim at being addressed. “What?” he said, still not looking at me but past me at his friend. “I am so sorry, but I am really sick” I swallowed heavily and squinted, trying to think the smell of the street and the site of rotting garbage. I could almost feel my face turning green. “I think I’m going to throw up, uggh” I held my stomach and leaned forward, puffing my cheeks a bit to suggest impending vomit.

“WHAT!?” came a bellow from the driver’s seat as he turned towards me, almost jerking the car into a banana cart. “Put your head out the window! Right now! Window!” Well, I thought, he speaks really nice English.  I lay back into the seat and shook my head limply back and forth. “Ugggh, no, the smell, ugh. Please can we go back? Please?” The big man was yelling furiously at his friend in Hindi, tossing us an occasional toothy grimace. I wondered if we were in a worse situation than I’d thought when he didn’t slow down, but at the next intersection he dragged the van through a tight chicken-scattering U-turn and headed back the way we came.

No one said anything until the van pulled over and the little guy waved us out. We were still blocks away from the hotel, but the distant grey-white blob of the Taj meant we could navigate from there. The van blazed off as soon as the door clicked shut. Eva and I looked at each other and let out the same nervous breath. My performance had been a little too close to home and I felt a cold sick sweat trickle down my back. 

“You want to get a rickshaw or taxi back to the hotel?” Eva asked.

“Uh, no. I think I’d rather walk.” We giggled in relief. Maybe we had just caused a ridiculous scene for no good reason. Or maybe we had just escaped a close call– I’d never know. As we started the long dirty walk back to the hotel, I realized that erring on the side of caution can sometimes be an adventure all it’s own.

Michele Ann Jenkins is a writer living in Geneva, Switzerland. She went on to fall in love with the beautiful desert and wonderful people of Rajastan and hopes to return to Indian in the near future. You can read about her other adventures as a solo chick traveller  in Asia, Europe, and Africa at www.majink.org/trav.

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