Like most people in rural India, I get around by bus, three-wheeled auto-rickshaw, and motorcycle. And now, after years of tempting fate by riding three to a bike, wearing sandals, without helmets, on bumpy roads like any other villager, I can add motorcycle accident to my list of South Asian adventures. If my mother is reading, I will politely ask her to move to another blog.
Visitors to India often name roads as the most frightening element in their trip. Loud, unpredictable, and seemingly without order, vehicles swerve in and out of narrow lanes around cattle, oversize loads, camels, and people crossing the street. Motorcycles, cars, trucks, and buses all jockey for a place in this line. I am amazed every time I safely navigate these roads, and for good reason: in 2014, 16 people died every hour driving on Indian roads.
I few days ago I was returning via motorcycle from a farmer’s field. As we passed a roadside temple where people had gathered for a festival celebrating the god Shiva, a small truck swerved around a group of buffalo. It is not unusual for farmers to drive cattle on rural roads, but this time the truck had spooked one buffalo directly into our path. Badru, my research assistant and the bike driver, swerved to avoid the charging animal and our motorcycle skidded into the dusty shoulder.
Badru skinned his knees and elbows while I bruised and cut my arm, but neither of us had any broken bones or serious injuries. We were extremely fortunate. The crowd from the temple rushed over to us and applied turmeric, a natural anti-inflammatory and anti-septic, to our wounds. It seemed appropriate to offer thanks at the temple, so we paid our respects and moved on to the nearest doctor, about ten kilometers away.
In the St. Louis travel office where I get my vaccinations there is a poster warning vacationers not to visit foreign doctors. In the photo, a doctor in South Asia uses a fearsome looking metal claw to pull out a patient’s tooth on the side of the road. In reality, the people in my small town are skilled and compassionate. Indeed, no one hesitated to run over and care for two perfect strangers with bloody arms and legs. For less than four dollars, the village doctor cleaned our wounds with an alcohol solution, applied iodine, gave Badru some painkillers, and sent us on our way. We had experienced the full range of village medical care: prayers and turmeric at the temple, iodine and bandages at the local doctor’s office. We were lucky. Not just because our accident was relatively minor but because we could easily afford the doctor’s fees. For too many people in rural areas, the distances are long, across bad roads, and difficult at night or with a more serious injury. It is those people, overwhelmingly members of India’s Scheduled Tribes, who face far greater risks than I do on the roads.