I ignore around 95% of the people trying to get my attention on the road. I have to – if only because there’s too many of them.
The sheer amount of heckling and honking we receive while cycling in India is unbelievable. Regardless of where we are, on a subcontinent of 1.24 billion, it seems there is no shortage of people. That means a usual ride is unceasingly filled with the staccato of screams, horns, and shouting. On the open road, I’d place the typical time between honks or yells towards us to be about a minute. Going through towns is more like a barrage, or a sound tunnel.
It’s definitely something about the biking. Most Indians I’ve met tend to be non-confrontational — even a bit shy – but the transitory nature of us passing by on our bikes seems to peak people’s confidence to aggravating levels; It’s as if they know we will be out of their lives within moments, beyond the next turn of the road, and have only this one shot to reach out to us.
This has produced a gambit of reactions in which it seems they will do anything they can to get our attention. I’ve heard people scream like chimpanzees, bark like dogs, and resemble dying animals. Entire schools will descend into chaos when one child notices us and shouts to the others, who roar from their seats and press their faces against windows. I’ve had motorcycles drive alongside me for 5 kilometers, the driver not saying a word but staring at me as if I were some sort of roving exhibition.
It even changes by region. In the state of Maharashtra (where Mumbai is) people made kissing sounds to get us to turn our heads, the kind a rider makes to a horse to egg him on. In Karnataka, the hecklers prefer the “whoop.”
Adding to the joyous symphony are the truck horns, which the drivers particularly pride themselves on, having installed custom, after-market horns that repeat in blazingly loud patterns with different pitches. The standard procedure seems to be to wait until they’re right behind us, so we get the full effect right in our ears.
After a while, the majority of it just turns into white noise. It’s impossible to acknowledge everyone, so I don’t even bother. Otherwise I’d be doing more waving and head nods than tending to the minefield of potholes that is Indian highway infrastructure. That, I’ve learned, is an unwise choice.
Still, sometimes I lose it. There have been moments when I’ve snapped, and become a total asshole. This especially happens when I’m feeling tired — when all I want to do is zone out and ride my bike. Then a motorcyclist will drive up next to me and shout some demanding questions without introduction. The most common are “WHERE ARE YOU GOING?,” and “WHICH COUNTRY?.” They usually speed off like a bat out of hell as soon as they have the answer.
After going through this 20 times a day, I can lose my patience.
For instance, the other afternoon there was a guy who pulled up alongside me while I was tackling a steep hill at kilometer number 113, and began to shout.
I cut him off.
“I am AMERICAN. My name is CHRIS. I am going to BANGALORE. I came from MUMBAI…. YES — all by bicycle. GOODBYE.”
The driver, sensing my tone, looked at me in offended way and drove off without another backwards glance.
I felt kind of bad afterwards. Many of the motorcyclists have been nice to me, and I didn’t really give this guy a chance.
But that’s the very problem. For everyone who sees us, we are always new and exciting and rare. But on a 7 hour ride, Morgan and I don’t have the energy to discern the hecklers from the well-wishers. The scorners from the curious, or the excited from the annoying.
Occasionally, though, someone’s smile will catch my eye. Or a wave from a family. Or a father lifting a child so they can see us passing. It’s when their faces stretch in wonder, and their “Hellos!” are marked with warmth and welcoming; when they see us not as entertaining objects to be shouted at, but as actual people to be acknowledged. These are the genuine cases. And they remind you that, despite all the noise, not everyone is worth ignoring.
I smile and wave back.