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.