Shawn! We’re geniuses!
We’re well into hour two of our skype call. The topic: what we’re going to do after our first pocket factory is working. These are our strategy sessions, and we spend endless amounts of time debating different strategies and ideas. Some weeks we talk for four or five hours a day. Some weeks we’re too busy to do anything else but build solar machines in our respective labs. If we just wanted to make a Solar Pocket Factory, it would be easy. It’s one thing I’m not worried about. Oh, it’ll be hard, but there’s no question in my mind that we can build that machine. But we want to see cheap, clean energy used all over the world. From our vantage points in our small, cluttered workshops, we have to squint far into the distance to see a world where our marchines making 100 megawatts of microsolar panels each year, three years from now. But that’s the future we want to move towards. So we build models, we debate philosophy, we talk through scenarios. Glancing back through the numbers on my computer, a sudden sinking revelation emerges from the screen.
Shawn! We’re fucked!
So it goes. It’s all part of the invention adventure. But let’s take a closer look at the playbill. We think about this a lot, and it’s the crux of a decision that’s fast approaching. The big question is, what do we want the Solar Pocket Factories to do, a year from now. Who’s going to run them? Who’s going to buy the solar that they make? Where are they going to be? How much will they cost? What will we do? Etc., etc.
The problem is that nobody, ever, has bothered to put together any information on how microsolar is sold and how used. Everything we learn about microsolar we just heard by word-of-mouth from product designers, manufacturers and suppliers in the business. We have rough numbers, and we’re learning more constantly, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. If we’re going to make good decisions with the Solar Pocket Factory, we need to get some real numbers of our own. So we did what any good scientist would do: we set up an experiment.
At this point, we really understand nothing about the world of microsolar usage. Before we can make hypotheses and test them out, we need to do some observation. We figure that the best way to do that is to try and sell some panels and see what happens. So we scraped together some money and bought $1,000 of microsolar panels from a manufacturer we know and trust, and we set up a web store. I’m working with Skip, a friend in Manila, to help figure out how to handle all things store-related, from advertising to shipping these panels to analyzing our visitors and sales. Selling these panels helps us learn (a) who’s ordering panels, (b) how many they’re ordering, and (c) what they’re using them for. Of course, we don’t want to re-sell panels forever: the whole point of the Solar Pocket Factory is to make and sell panels in a new way, but we’re still about five months away from making shippable panels with the Solar Pocket Factory, and re-selling existing panels lets us learn about microsolar, now.
Also, by starting to sell existing panels now, the idea is to get regular customers who know we sell good panels, and who repeatedly order from us. Once the Solar Pocket Factory is ready, we can expand our product line with our new, flexible production, and start producing our own panels on demand, rather than buying them from another factory.
We just put together our first order of 285 panels of assorted sizes, from 0.5W to 10W. And this brought along a distressing problem: how the hell are we going to deal with boxing and shipping 285 panels? And this is our first run–if we’re any good, we’ll be ordering a thousand panels at a time six months from now. It’s already taking all of our time to design and build the Solar Pocket Factory, and we love doing that. The thought of trying to expand our tiny labs into logistics hubs makes our blood run cold. Plus, the idea of manually packing and shipping panels feels very counter to the hyper-automated idea behind the pocket factory. So we started looking around for shipping systems that were better than “pile the inventory under the bed and write the address on the box in sharpie when you get a sales email from the website” approach.
So Skip, Shawn and I spent a couple days clicking around online and calling people, and we found out that most warehouses won’t talk to us. The only ones that will touch us, in fact, are Amazon’s Web Fulfillment service and Shipwire. Shipwire is friendlier to international shipping and less of a pain to set up, so we decided to go with them. It’s kind of amazing: we send these guys a box of solar panels, and link our web store to their inventory system. When someone buys a panel from us online, Shipwire automatically gets a message with the type and quantity of panels that they need to ship. They pick all our panels out of bins in their warehouse, put them in a box and send them to the customer. Money bounces all around the internet, automatically paying the warehouse and shipping companies. We see it all play out on a fancy internet dashboard. I’ve never felt more American.
I learned something terrifying when I was looking into shipping panels internationally: the Obama administration recently enacted a 250% tax on importing Chinese-origin panels into America, as part of a silicont trade war with China. This is something of a problem: our warehouse is in Los Angeles, and we have to get our panels through customs. This threw us for a loop for about a week, as I frantically called around to importers and exporters and customs bureaus, trying to figure out if this applied to us. It turns out that it’s targeted at large-scale solar: the tax is only on orders with a value greater than $200, but that’s still a problem for our box, which has about $1000 worth of panels. After a bit more panicking, I learned that the crucial point isn’t where the panels are built: it’s where the solar cells are made. The Obama administration is accusing China of selling silicon at below market prices, so if the silicon comes from China, they tax it. If not, there’s no tax on the import, even if the panels are assembled in China. The owner of this factory is from Taiwan, so crossing my fingers, I sent them an email asking where their cells came from, and if they had some certificate that showed their origin. A couple days later, I got a response. The silicon is from Taiwan. Whew! That was a lucky bullet to dodge.
This is our first order with this factory, and it took about three weeks of back-and-forthing to set up our order and figure out the exact dimensions and weight and characteristics of all the panels. They’re making our panels right now. We get our first samples from the factory next Tuesday, and if that looks good, we’ll ship a big box of panels to our warehouse by the end of next week, and we’ll be shipping by the end of November, only three weeks later than our initial estimates.
It’s a lot of work, actually, for an experiment, but without it, we’d just be stumbling in the dark. And the future is coming closer ever day.
My whole life, I’ve searched for ways to romanticize my shortcomings. When I was six, I got my first pair of glasses due to a powerful, bat-like myopia. Casting about for an upside in my bed one night, I invented a heroic character, Captain Nearsighted. Concerned citizens would come to him with crimes that required detailed, proximate inspection of evidence, and with a manly grin, he would whip off his thick, coke-bottle glasses while shouting his catchphrase, “Let’s get nearsighted!” I couldn’t imagine any crimes that could be solved this way, so I spent nights practicing, poring glasses-less over the fine knit of my blankets and bedsheets, whispering charismatically to the darkness, “Let’s get nearsighted!”
Captain Nearsighted never solved any crimes, but the internal drive to turn my physical flaws into heroism lived on. When I was twenty-four, it found a new outlet. I was diagnosed with a freak case of type 1 diabetes. ”Let’s get hyperglycemic!”
I cast about for the silver lining for years. Captain Carbo could eat a meal, not give himself any insulin, and measure his postprandial blood glucose two hours later to determine how many carbs were in the meal “Let’s go hyperosmolar!”. Captain Ketosis could make his breath smell fruity and fill his blood with acetone by not taking insulin for several days. Captain Insulin Shock could kill wrongdoers by giving them hefty doses with his insulin pen. But imagine as I might, in my heart of hearts, I knew that none of these were worldsavers. I resorted to fantasizing about endocrine rock bands: ”Amyloid and the Glucocorticoids” would release their hit single, You put the adrenaline into my aorta. But I’m no rocker. Something was lacking.
Two years later, I’m in a lab in Hong Kong, hunched over a prototype machine with Shawn, working on a tabletop factory to revolutionize the way we produce small solar panels. We’re engineering our way through problem after problem–motion control, silicon handling, lamination. After months of development and prototyping, we’re making solid progress, but one problem was particularly tricky: we have to dispense very small, controlled amounts of conductive ink onto our solar panels. We tried conductive pens, dots, glues, but dispensing it accurately was always the problem. We looked into building our own mechanisms, and I made a couple prototypes, enough to convince me that it’s a very hard problem. We looked into buying digital autopipettes, but they were expensive, even on ebay, and difficult to control with a computer. And then I realize that I have to become Captain Omnipod.
Omnipods were the first insulin pumps I used. They’re disposable, wireless pumps about the size and shape of an egg cut in half. They hold a three-day supply of insulin, and I talk to them with a PDA where I calculate my insulin doses. When I first got these pumps, I was captivated. Here’s a perfect little pump that can deliver precise, reliable doses of medicine, I thought. That’s so cool! I promptly hacked the pumps so that I could control them with an arduino, and I went through a phase where I’d program my hacked pumps to follow new, promising insulin delivery regimens that were in human trials, giving me access to new diabetes research years ahead of the FDA approval process. After a while, though, I got frustrated with the design and user interface of the PDA, which was clearly designed by drunken rutting chimpanzees with halitosis, and I switched to other forms of insulin delivery, leaving several extra months’ supply of Omnipods in a drawer somewhere in my bedroom.And so I’m sitting at a Hong Kong bar with Shawn, talking over our progress. If we can really make our tabletop factory, we can make cheap solar anywhere in the world. We could bring clean, renewable energy to people all over the world, no matter where they lived, how much money they had, or what they did. And right now, the major thing standing in our way is the ability to dispense small, measured amounts of liquid. I’m suddenly overwhelmed by an urge to step into a phone booth and rip off my clothes. I’ve stumbled into the perfect mix of disability and heroism. Captain Omnipod to the rescue! Let’s dispense appropriate amounts of fluids!
The catch phrase may need work, but with great power comes great responsibility and plenty of time for revising slogans. But now there are more urgent duties afoot. To the electronics lab, Syringe Boy! There’s liquids that need dispensing! Captain Omnipod, up, up and awayyyy!
I hiked out of the mountains Sunday evening to a beautiful sunset, with a rainbow stretching across the river, and eight soldiers with assault rifles promptly picked me up, ushered me into their truck and drove off. My innocence and disdain for men with guns ruining a lovely evening filled me with seething, uncooperative sentiment, and I was quite convinced that, at this time, I shouldn’t be on my way to a military base for questioning. So, I made a polite but adamant ass of myself, asking repeatedly if they thought I’d done anything wrong (they agreed that I hadn’t), refusing to give them anything other than my first name, and being very clear that I wanted them to drop me off and let me go catch a bus back to Manila, where everyone still has guns but at least they have the good sense not to let them interfere with a nice rainbow.
My obstinance (and their determination to question me) led to a two-hour session where they kept calling more and more men with guns to come and stand around me and ask me why I was hiking in the woods, and to tell me that, for my safety, they had to file a report and needed my full cooperation, and me saying, I’m perfectly safe, I’m not giving you anything, please let me go about my day. First the military came, then the chiefs of two barangays, the military police, the state police and the national police, this being the biggest crime in San Jose de Tarlac in the last fifty years and everybody wanted to get in the newspaper story about it. They all insisted that I had done nothing wrong, and that my safety was their top priority. I didn’t argue, just kept repeating that I would like them to let me go. Everyone was grumbling at me for being uncooperative, and cops took turns browbeating me in public and in private for making such an ass of myself and taking up everyone’s time. Ultimately, it boiled down to them wanting to see my ID and me resenting them for plucking me without permission and holding me, and not obliging out of principle, pride and stubbornness. The chief of police went through a good-cop, bad-cop routine with me, walking me behind a building and threatening to report me to immigration, then insisting that they’re my friends and only trying to keep me safe.
The evening drew to a close when, while I was behind the building with the police chief, his buddies rifled through my bag and found my passport, and there wasn’t much point in holding out, after that. They gave me a ride into town, offered to hook me up with the right kind of woman (I declined) and told me to come say hello if I ever passed this way again. I left with bitter fantasies.
So what started this madness?I was hiking in the mountains, and when I was done, I hiked into maamot, the first town with road access, so that I could catch a tricycle into town. There aren’t that many white dudes in maamot (actually, there aren’t any), and so I drew a considerable amount of attention while I was walking in. I chatted with a bunch of people in Tagalog about where I was coming from, what I was doing and where I was going, and people were pretty friendly and curious. As I got into town, one man swerved up to me and took my hand, and in a sea of alcohol fumes, informed me that he was the barangay (village) chairman. We chatted for a few minutes about where I was from, what I was doing, etc., and then I walked up to the paved road, looking for a trike. I needed to get my wallet out of my bag, and in the process, I discovered that several thousand stinging red ants had taken up residence in my bag during the day’s bushwhacking. This is a pretty unpleasant thing to realize.Anyway, I pulled everything out of my bag and starting scooping the ants out. During this time, the chairman walked up and started hovering around, offering little conversational tidbits and inviting me to my home. I told him that I’d love to go to his home, but I had to deal with the ant apocalypse, first. He danced around for a little while, then walked off to (unbeknownst to me) call the military police and inform them that there was a lost American hiker and they should send EVERYONE IMMEDIATELY.
My campaign against the ants went well, and ten minutes later, I was packing up and looking to pop over to a friend’s farm a couple towns over and have some dinner, when a truck full of soldiers rolled up, asking if I was the lost hiker. Nope, I’m not lost. Actually, sir, you are the lost hiker, and you called for help. Nope, I just walked into town–I haven’t been lost, and I’m just looking for a tricycle back to Tarlac.
A few minutes later, I’m wedged between a couple friendly soldiers in the truck and the chairman comes staggering out, waving a guest book for me to sign and saying that he called the men and he hoped we could still be friends. I listened, disbelieving at first, and then as the reality sunk in, I tried very very hard to set him on fire with my mind.
Well, you know the rest of the story.
For the most part, I’m at peace with the experience. I certainly could have made it less arduous by abiding by their requests, but I feel like I did the right thing (in my own authority-despising way) in being as politely uncooperative as possible with assholes that run around waving big guns and plucking hikers off the road before they’ve had their dinner. But the big takeaway is the theory of The Juggernaut.The Juggernaut is the katamari that forms from all the procedures, heirarchies, training and directives that are associated with Authority. It’s the collection of processes Authority dreams up for dealing with things that are out of the ordinary. All of these different processes get dreamed up, codified, rehearsed, elaborated upon and fine-tuned until Authority can proudly proclaim that there is no conceivable situation that it’s not prepared for. What’s that? Something Unusual just happened? Unleash the Juggernaut and trust that justice shall be served, wrongs shall be righted and lo, peace shall be restored unto the land!
I’ve witnessed the Juggernaut in action a few times, and this latest brush with it made me think a little more about what purpose a Juggernaut serves. Despite my sarcasm, I don’t think the Juggernaut is always bad–they called in the Juggernaut when Edgar went missing. I called the Juggernaut once when an errant gust of wind and an oversized landsurfer exploded my car’s rear window all over the interstate highway outside of LA. If nothing else, it’s nice to have a Juggernaut in times like these, to give you a feeling that, ok, there’s someone who knows what to do in this situation. Of course, in both these situations, the Juggernaut didn’t change the outcome at all.
I do think the Juggernaut is useful when things are unimaginably outside the norm. Like the shootings in Aurora–you want to have a Juggernaut that can contend with something on that scale. But situations like that are, fortunately, quite rare, and are overshadowed by occasions when the Juggernaut is unleashed wrongly, wreaking total havok on everyone in its path.
The thing that gets me is the mechanism that triggers the Juggernaut. Once the Juggernaut is in motion, it’ll roll until it comes to a rest of its own accord, and it seems like madness to have these things waiting, cocked on a hair trigger. But they are, and the trigger has absolutely nothing to do with the Juggernaut. Once it’s unleashed, there’s no point in arguing against an unjust trigger. It could be the ravings of a drunken idiot or the overactive imagination of a lady working an airport information counter, but there’s not much of a filter, as far as I can tell, and nobody ever goes back to look at the validity of the Juggernaut in the first place. Once it’s out, you can’t say, “This Juggernaut was a total mistake–let’s just drop the whole thing.” Juggernauts never admit when they’re wrong.
But the big question is, what can you take away from this whole thing? Is the moral just, ‘snow goons are bad news’? Steer clear of Juggernauts because they F S up, and any attempt to reason with a Juggernaut just paints you as a guilty terrorist? I’d like to find something clearer, something hopeful, something that makes me thing there’s a good way to coexist with a Juggernautted society, but every experience I’ve had with a Juggernaut just reinforces my belief: Beware the Juggernaut. The only way to be safe from the madness is to be fast, nimble and smart enough not to trigger a Juggernaut. Guns can’t kill what soldiers can’t see.
Found in an old google drive, vintage 2009:
Luke was a food licker
you know these people?
There was probably one in your kindergarten class
they lick food to claim it
Like if there’s a half-dozen donuts in the foyer outside
Luke would lick all the jellies
Or if there was just one cookie left
Luke would lick it
and then be all, “whatever, you can eat it”
“but you’d be kissing me”
Here’s the dream: you know how videoke machines show looping clips of the same slow-mo footage in the background? Like michael jordan dunking, or ferraris racing, or people walking on a beach? Well, I want to make some video that gets used in videoke machines, and I want it to be more fun to watch than the generic footage you usually see. I’m filming whatever silly, epic scenes I can think of, editing them, and then handing them out for free to the karaoke machine makers and seeing what happens. It’s a total experiment with videoke glory.
I shot my first scene last weekend. Slicing fruit with machetes in slow mo. *wipe away a tear*
In 2004, the Red Sox beat the Cardinals in the fourth game of the World Series, taking the series for the first time since 1918. Unexpectedly, the public victory celebration developed into the first mob I’ve ever been in, and it was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. Since then, I actively seek out mobs wherever I can.
During the bottom of the last inning, about 40,000 people, mostly college students, poured into Kenmore square. I was listening to the game in a house in the Back Bay with two colleagues, one of whom I found indominatably attractive. The Sox were batting at the top of the ninth, and halfway through, we looked at eachother, then grabbed our coats and ran whooping into the night. Everyone carried red plastic cups and portable radios, and the crowd’s roar at the final out, announced over thousands of tiny speakers, was deafening. And the celebration began. Fueled by drunkenness and the release of 86 cursed years (but mostly drunkenness), Kenmore erupted into the kind of baccanalian orgy ususally reserved for democratic primaries. At that same moment, several hundred riot cops in full riot gear, lined up along the north end of the square, started smashing their billy clubs against their shields in unison. This sound was pure destruction, and it was quite near where I was standing. The sound cut through the cheery atmosphere like a knife, and I remember feeling a strong sense of panic admist the intrigue and bonhomie. Around me, I noticed many of the drunken rioters turning as well, in a kind of lost confusion. The beating stopped ten seconds later, but its impact hung low over the crowd.
Fifteen minutes later, the feeling evaporated to be replaced with sunny drunkenness and an unbridled release of energy. Everybody was yelling and slinging beer. My colleagues made the acquaintance of a couple dreadlocked gentlemen who offered them marijuana cigarettes with a delicate dusting of PCP, and they all went off to a back alley to partake and gibber. I was too fascinated by the scene unfolding about me to pay any notice. For about forty-five minutes, there was just this unfocused expression, multiplied and syncronized by 40,000 people. Crowdsurfers sped by over our heads like sweaty angels. Frat boys climbed up streetlight poles and started humping the streetlights, causing the hanging lights to swing wildly. On the mass pike below, the car horns sounded nonstop. We were all dark wet with beer.
This energy could only remain unfocused for so long. Slowly, like a cloud of fireflies syncing up, the mob began to coalesce around the singular goal of destruction. The first brick went through Citibank’s plate glass window, and like a call and response, was answered with a salvo of bricks from synced combatants. There were three or four cars with NY plates parked in Kenmore, and they were flipped and smoldering in short order. The police hung back, watching us. Everyone suddenly seemed to have a makeshift club. The fireflies weren’t all synced up, but more and more were joining each pulse. Glass showered down from lamplights. Fistfights broke out up and down the sidewalk. I remember seeing a group of twenty drunken college students setting fire to the trees in the sidewalk near me. A bookish student wearing a button-up shirt stomped it out, shouting “are you crazy? stop! Stop!” They pushed him aside and started again, holding a lighter to the tree. He knocked the lighter to the ground and stomped it to pieces. Somebody socked him one to the jaw, and the mob lifted him up and carried him off to Parts Unknown, showering him with punches and leaving a trail of dripping blood along the way. In the dark, you never see what happens to the fireflies that don’t sync up with the group.
After ten minutes of mayhem, about half the windows in Kenmore were in pieces, and a couple opportunistic sports fans had developed a kind of bucket brigade operation to loot a nearby donut shop.
I think it was the donuts that did it. The cops had had enough. Throughout the whole affair, they’d held a line at the edge of the square, faces set and expressionless behind polycarbonate. A few lieutenants ran in orbit, jabbering into walkie-talkies and waiting for someone to tell them what to do. And someone did. One sound suddenly made everyone stop–the cops had received an order to clear the square, and they were walking forwards, sweeping the square, and smashing their clubs into their shields with each step. The rhythmic smashing cut through the night’s pandemonium like a knife. This was a battle trance. I just wasn’t a part of it. The sound of the batons, coupled with the sight of thousands of people, like me, who were fleeing in complete disarray, struck a deeply instinctive terror in my heart. I was standing up near the bridge over the mass pike, and from the slight elevation, I could see the panic setting in, and whatever destructive syncronicity the crowd had found was shattered by the overwhelming authority of a line of pounding, advancing uniforms. Wherever the police line went, people scattered, running in all directions. At this point, I don’t think the cops actually engaged with anybody. The sheer spectacle was enough to sweep people off the square. I suddenly realized that I had no idea where my colleagues were, or what state of mind they were in. And that’s when the first tear gas canisters landed.
After this, there was no battle trance. It reduced to sheer emotion and weaponry. Tear gas is extremely effective at distracting people, and Kenmore was quickly obscured in a haze of gas. Everything I remember from this point on was just small snippets of scenes that I saw through the smoke. All around me, people were running, coughing, holding shirts against their faces. And then the sound of the batons stopped. The cops re-formed in a line at the south end of the square, waiting to see if the mob was subdued. The tear gas canisters sputtered and stopped, and the smoke dispersed into a thin haze over the square, lit by the few streetlights that were still functioning and the fires from a few overturned cars with NY plates.
For maybe a minute, the square was silent, filled with people running to the edges of the square. The middle of kenmore was pretty clear. There were people everywhere, but they were pressed against the perimeter. Nobody moved until the first brick sailed through the air.
I was surprised to see it come from a guy standing right next to me. He opened his mouth and screamed, “fuck the police!” Another salvo followed, accompanied with more shouts, “fuck the police, fuck the police.” It had its own syncronicity, underscored by the rattling of stones crashing against lexan shield. A group of thirty or forty Sox fans formed up, shouting “fuck the police” over and over. The shouts started coming from all around me, from all ends of the square. It seemed like, for an instant, the whole world wanted to fuck the police. The world wanted a fight, and they started walking running towards the line of cops, hurling anything they could get their hands on.
And then the cops were running, too, and this time they were swinging their clubs. A couple more tear gas canisters landed nearby, and a couple people wearing uniforms at the far end of the square seemed to be aiming guns in my direction.
Someone grabbed me, and I turned around to find my devastatingly cute colleague, pupils huge and worried. She couldn’t find our other colleage, who had inhaled an unwise quantity of psychoactives. We started running through the mayhem, looking for his face and coughing gas. Amazingly, we found him pretty quickly. He was sitting under a tree, unconcerned by the madness around him, with a glassy smile on his face. Around us, a number of people were lying on the ground and getting hauled into paddywagons, and it seemed like the crowd was gearing up for another pass. It was a good time to make an exit, and so we linked hands and made our way out, hearts pounding until we passed the Mass Ave overpass. And that is how the story ends.
As an afternote, or perhaps an underscore to the story, a twenty-one year-old girl named Victoria Snelgrove was standing on the bridge, away from the square and madness, about 100 feet from where I’d been. Rochefort Milien, a Boston Police officer, shot a pepper spray bullet into her left eye. She died twelve hours later in a hospital bed.
A woman reading in her window above Marcos Highway in Marikina
One of my favorite things to do is to look through my old writing. I was indulging myself last night, and I found this blurb I wrote for a travel-themed TEDx I spoke at in Guangzhou last year. Ch-check it out:
1. When I say travel, what’s the very first scene pops up in your mind? What’s the story behind that?
I was living in Ahmedabad, India, and I just bought my first motorcycle. I had prepared for this moment meticulously: weeks and weeks of visiting motorcycle dealers and repair shops, testing shocks and pistons and getting crash bars welded to the bike. Oil changes, brake jobs, insurance, registration; I had a bike, it was legal (although I learned several months later and many thousands of miles away that it had been stolen from a man who borrowed money from a bank to buy the bike, it was completely unregistered and uninsured, and the engine was slowly and noisily disintegrating into an oily puddle of shredded aluminum.) Leather boots on my feet, visored helmet on my head, I was unstoppable. Ready for action, for adventure, for Life. I saw visions of open roads stretching to the horizon, the only thing between me and my destination the sound of the wind in my ears and the asphalt speeding by six inches beneath my feet.
There was one small problem, though–in my haste to buy a motorcycle, I’d forgotten that I didn’t know how to drive a bike. My last experience had ended poorly, fishtailing a rented bike into the thick red mud of a brazilian swamp with a nasty burn on my calf where the hot engine pressed against me. I’d happily stayed away from motorcycles after that. All of this came flooding back in a hefty dose of reality as I balanced the idling bike and contemplated the dusty chaos of Relief Road ahead of me. Giant brahma bulls crossed the road implacably, leaving a flood of rickshaws and trucks swerving to avoid the animals, streams of traffic flowed through each other without stopping in a sort of indian magic trick, and the sound of horns and chickens and diesel backfires provided a gut-twisting soundtrack to the whole movie. I took a last look at a row of sunflowers planted in the median, which I thought would make a pleasant last memory in the event that I died, and heart thumping in my chest, kicked the bike into gear.
People often describe having exhilarating dreams of flying, soaring over the ground and buoyed by endless power and freedom, spiraling away into an endless sky. It’s important to realize that in these dreams, the dreamer knows how to fly. I believe that a dream where I’m suddenly flying over a city, buoyed by endless power, but where I don’t know how to fly–this sounds like the most terrifying experience imaginable. I imagine myself peering down at the vertiginous scene below, terrified to move lest I send myself plummeting into a high-rise condo. Sweating, sphincter clenched, hands trembling, it would take all the strength I could muster just to find a cow pasture out of town and try for an inglorious landing in the mud and cow shit and hope not to break my neck.
This is roughly the feeling that pervades my body as I lurch and stall through traffic on my way across the Nehru Bridge back to my apartment. Thinking of a log flowing through a stream, I try to keep a slim profile in the endless amorphous traffic, presenting as small a target as possible to the lumbering trucks speeding past and praying to any god that would listen to let me survive this trip across town. I’m so tense in the saddle that my muscles are starting to shake under the strain. I can’t bear to open the throttle past an anemic whimper. I feel like I don’t understand, like I’m out of place, like I’m violating laws I don’t even know exist. Perverse visions flash through my mind where I drive the bike into a puddle of oil on the road, the rear wheel fishtailing and the bike slowly skidding sideways, moving in a non-euclidian arc while I fall away from the bike, both me and the bike tumbling and skidding along the oily road towards something hard and unsympathetic. I don’t feel any of the elation and adventure I’d imagined, just endless panic and a strong desire for this to end.
Foot hard on the brake, I made it across the bridge and I’m jostling through a tangle of vehicles waiting at the signal light at the intersection. Street vendors walk through the crowd, shouting and hawking their wares. Beggar children pull at my sleeves, hands outstretched. Rickshaw drivers laugh back at forth with each other, and the air is thick with dust and cloves and the smell of betel nuts. This scene is taking place at every intersection in Ahmedabad, a city of four million in Western India with a thick, sullen river snaking through its center. I breathe deeply and look around the intersection, trying to steady my nerves for when the light turns. Several cars away, there’s a Honda Hero, a small Indian city bike, with three Indian guys about my age crammed together on the back. They look over at the same time and our eyes meet. I can’t think of anything to say to them–I don’t speak Gujarati, I don’t know what we have in common. But in an instant, their faces light up in thousand-watt smiles, bathing me in warmth. It’s as if they’re saying, “Man, isn’t this fun? We’re just riding around our city, and you’re doing the same thing. Enjoy it! We sure will!”
It was as simple as that. In an instant, I saw it their way. The bikes, the streets, the city: it was just there, waiting, open. The danger, the panic was simply a matter of opinion, and in the light of their smiles, it all went flying away, like a splash falling back from the air. Without thinking, I was grinning back, beaming. The engine, the gearbox, exhaust, the madness of the streets, rickshaws and pedestrians, they were all tied together by countless threads, and in the space of a smile, I could see where they all went, how they all connected, and I saw the path connecting them. The light changed, my hands moved on the handlebars, and I took off flying down the road.