HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Brush with Death

An autorickshaw
As the sun set on our first day in Munnar, Kevin and I decided to hop in an autorickshaw, so that we could go visit one of his friends. We only had to go 12 kilometers (a bit over 7 miles), but that short distance turned into an absolute nightmare.

We knew that the road leading out of Munnar was narrow and in bad shape, since we had just taken a bus ride over it earlier that day.
Not exactly a smooth highway
We also knew that it could get foggy and misty in the mountains, since some of the scenery on our trip to the town had been obscured by water vapor.
However, what we did not know, was how badly these two factors would be exacerbated come nightfall. The first few minutes of the auto ride were fine. We were pretty sure it didn't have a headlight, but there were still businesses along the road, so they provided illumination. There wasn't much traffic, and we thought things were going to be fine.

Then, we came upon a bus. For some reason, our driver decided that he simply had to pass it, despite the fact that his auto was powered by a wheezy two-stroke engine. He kept trying to nose around it, only to see traffic coming the other way, forcing him to squeeze back in behind the bus. At this point I realized that the headlight was working; sadly it had the same brightness as a flashlight stuck in a jar of honey.

After several attempts, the driver managed to get around the bus. There were still a few dying rays of sunlight left, and the bits of scenery we could see were astounding. I distinctly remember seeing a mountain, jutting out of fog; the little lights of distant houses carpeted along its flank. The fog was incredible, and it made for visuals straight out of "The Lord of the Rings". I half-expected an army of orcs to coming charging out of the woods at some point.

After a minute or two of admiring the scenery, though, utter fear took over. There were no guardrails along the road, and we were probably less than a foot from the edge of a steep drop. By this point it was completely dark, and the only lights we could see were those of oncoming cars or motorbikes. We simply could not see where the road ended and the abyss began: if one of the wheels of the three-wheeled auto were to slip off, we would have been toast; sent rolling down the side of a mountain in a small steel box. I'm sure the only reason we didn't go off the road was that our driver had traversed it many times before. Without that experience, it would've been impossible.

As we continued to pass the slower cars, and oncoming traffic continued to pass within inches of us, I started to shake uncontrollably. Kevin and I were both joking and cracking up, but it turned out to just be a defense mechanism. I was absolutely terrified; seriously wondering if we were going to finish the night dead or alive. After 20 minutes of bumping along in almost complete blackness, we decided that it simply wasn't worth it. We asked the driver to turn around, and he scoffed.

"But, it's only two more kilometers!", he pleaded.
"We know, but it's not that important that we meet up with our friend. Please, just turn around."
"We're almost there!"
"We know! Just turn around! We'll pay you a lot more!"

Slowly, reluctantly, he turned around, and headed back to Munnar. It was probably actually rather stupid to turn around: we added another 10 km to the journey, but we were certain that we wouldn't be able to make it back to town that night, and we didn't feel like dealing with it the next day. So, we went through another 20 minutes of the same thing: huge potholes, close calls with the edge, traffic coming within inches of hitting us. Once we got back to Munnar, I jumped out and kissed the ground. We gave the driver a huge tip and smiled, happy just to be alive. My shaking finally subsided, and I realized that I had never been so frightened, for an extended period of time, in my life. But, we made it, and now we have a great story. India certainly provides its fair share of those.

Now, to help you get a better picture of what the ride was like, a couple of videos. You can't see much in this first one, but that's sort of the point. We couldn't see any better, and my delirious narrative belies my fright.
This second one is a little clearer: it gives you an idea of just how narrow the road was, especially when oncoming traffic blew by.
Oh, India. Next up: our time in the backwaters of Alleppey.

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