An Unusual Commute

Tree lined roadLong car rides can be powerful sedatives, not only for cranky babies, but for (sometimes) cranky women as well. Just ask the seven men who share the van with me on the way to the village.

The drive takes about an hour. On most days, it takes my eyelids about 20 minutes to give up the arduous task of staying open. I’m not sure how much time passes before my head starts bobbing and my jaw goes slack, allowing my mouth to open wide enough to catch flies, but the sight must be lovely. (My apologies to the seven men in the van.) Whenever the driver’s abrupt braking or overzealous honking jolts me awake, I’m just thankful there’s no drool.

Some days, though, my eyelids feel light and lively and I take the opportunity to marvel at the sights outside the window. On this drive, there’s no famous architecture or breathtaking scenery, but there are countless interesting vehicles, and every single one of them defies the laws of common sense and physics.

A three-wheeled flatbed cart takes up the space of a large truck as a man pushes an endless pile of bamboo poles down the road. A tiny motorbike emulates a family sedan filled with a husband, wife, two kids and groceries. A bicycle is transformed into a mini shop, displaying dozens of tin pots and plastic bowls. A mother becomes Hercules, balancing an enormous bag on her head (no hands) and a baby on her hip. A bus becomes a giant chariot carrying countless men, both inside and on the roof, bending trees in its path as it sways precariously from side to side.

After awhile, though, these sights lose their novelty and become normal. Dare I say, boring? Seeing four people crammed onto a single rickshaw no longer draws my interest. But, somehow, there’s always something I haven’t seen before that does.

One day it’s a cart filled with jackfruit the size of young children, or an aging farmer with a physique that would put a 20-something gym rat to shame. Another day, it’s a four-year-old girl standing on the crossbar of a bicycle, casually holding her father’s neck for balance she doesn’t seem to need. Or a man bathing in the lake with his cows, or a bull with horns growing down into its eyes, or a family of goats lying on the edge of the road, barely budging when one of the chariot buses screams by. A little further down the road, it’s another family of goats climbing a pile of bricks as if it were a majestic mountainside. And further still, a butcher in his bamboo shack hanging slabs of goats whose climbing days are over.

Some days, I see an elderly man with a stoop so severe, he looks like the letter “C”. Still yet, there’s the ever-changing farmland with its rice-paddy greens, jute browns, pea-plant purples and mustard-seed yellows. Or a traffic jam that reminds me of a stadium parking lot after a huge concert … except here you must wait for cows and pedestrians and bicycles and motorbikes and flatbed carts and buses and trucks and chickens and goats and geese and water buffalo and dogs and hogs–and the occasional elephant–to merge.

After awhile, though, even this sensory overload isn’t strong enough to counteract the powerful sedative of the drive, and my eyelids get heavier and heavier.

That is, until a brightly painted yellow truck rushes at us, engaging our driver in a game of chicken, and just as our driver gives in and falls back, a motorbike-turned-family-sedan, rushes onto the two-lane road—without looking—and narrowly misses us as well as the bright yellow truck and a family of goats lounging in the road. Seriously, what is with the goats and the road?

Would you play chicken with this guy?

Would you play chicken with this guy?

Yep, I’m definitely awake now.

It will only take a few short moments before I’m annoyed as well. Not because we narrowly escape a second, third and fourth near-death experience, but because I can’t stand the damn horns!

What is the purpose behind the auditory assault waged by every single car, motorbike, truck and bus in Bangladesh? There must be a language to all this commotion, right? That’s what I tell myself when I can’t take it anymore, when I muster every ounce of strength I possess to stop myself from screaming, “SHUT UUUUUUUUUUP!”

I don’t really mind the light, quick beep, beep, beep that seems to say, “Hiya! Just letting you know I’m here. Please don’t do anything stupid.”

But the long, bullying hoooooooooonk, usually reserved for huge trucks and hurrying buses, is rather unnerving. It starts in the distance and gets louder and louder and louder, as if the driver has strapped a two-ton brick to the steering wheel to make sure the horn produces maximum volume at all times, especially the moment it passes you, almost knocking you over with its intensity, before it continues on, leaving a slew of surprisingly unaffected drivers in its wake. If this horn could speak words, it would surely say, “Get the F out of my way, before I flatten you like a pancake.” Everybody seems to listen.

And then there’s the impatient mahmp mom mom mom mom maaahmp that’s like an incessant tap on the shoulder. “Hey you. Move, move, move. Did you hear me? Move, move, move. I want to get by. Hey you. Did you hear me?” This horn is our driver’s favorite—and it makes me want to punch him.

But even he’s no match for the cacophony outside.

Mee me me me meep. Beeeeee be beeeeep, be be beep. Hooooonk! Beep beep. Beep … beep … beep … be beep. Mahmp mom mom mom mom maaahmp. BEEEEEEEEEEEEP. Beep beep… Beep beep. Mawp mawp. Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep meep.

And I become a cranky woman.

To drown out the noise and hopefully invoke the power of the car sedative, I turn to my iPod and a playlist titled “Sleepy Time.”

Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” comes on, and suddenly, I’m in two worlds at once. I’m here, in this van, on this road where a man with no legs powers a bike cart with his arms. I’m also in a parallel universe, driving my luxury car on an open road in the snowy Sierras, remembering wonderful times with wonderful friends.

As I look out the van’s window, smiling from the memories, a woman, who clearly suffers from mental illness, wanders aimlessly into the middle of the street, and my smile fades as I wonder what parallel universe her mind inhabits.

It occurs to me that this woman, along with most of the women here, will never own a luxury car, let alone drive one, or even ride in one, and the difference between where I’ve been and where I am now slaps me awake again.


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