The scene was starting to get out of hand. We were stuck on a sandy river bank, 50 grueling feet of deep sand between us and the concrete road. Fifteen Indians were crowded around Chris’ bike, some holding onto the rack so that he could not move. They wanted money. I stood above the crowd, between them and my bike. A few of them were shouting, and a skinny old man was leaning in close to me, pointing a finger a little too close to my face, yelling in Hindi. My blood was starting to boil. I was tired of getting ripped off all the time. I was daydreaming about taking this skinny old man for a ride.
A half hour earlier, we’d loaded our bikes onto a flat bottom ferry to cross the Luni river. It had been a difficult morning. We’d spent hours lost on country roads cutting through brown fields, trying paths to nowhere when our GPS map became useless, braving the potholes and gravel and breathing the dust behind tractors as we moved. There had been so many diversions we weren’t even sure if the roads were getting us anywhere; Tonk City seemed almost as far as it had been that morning. The river that stood before us was another barrier after many, standing between us and lunch.
The banks were vast and empty, the river slow. It took the skiffs almost 20 minutes to cross the river and reach us, powered by two kids on a single oar. The place seemed lost in time, and without the motorcyles loaded on one of the crossing boats you would never have guessed the century. The whole thing was just out there.
We were the river skiff’s only customers when they sank their poles into the river mud and pushed off. I spent the slow ride thinking of the moment we would leave on the other bank. The price of passage had not been fixed at departure. I knew there would be some negotiations, and I felt almost certain we would be grossly overcharged. I just hadn’t predicted how high they would go.
When our bikes were on the bank and ready to go, we didn’t feel like asking the price (that’s asking to get ripped off), so we just started to leave to see what would happen. This caused a commotion.
“One Thousand!” they shouted, led by an old man who owned the boat.
Chris and I smiled.
We have a routine for when people try and rip us off. We smile, and tell them we’ve been in India for a while, that we know what things cost. We tell them, calmly and forcefully, that we simply won’t pay that. Sometimes they relent, sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, we put what we think it really costs on the counter and just leave. Being forceful is something we’ve developed a talent for.
They didn’t bend, and we pulled our standard maneuver. We handed over them fifty rupees and started pushing our loaded bikes up the steep sand bank. It was slow going. We couldn’t make our usual getaway because of the think sand. We weren’t even halfway to the road before a man came running up and grabbed the back of Chris’ bike. Chris kept pushing, but another man came and grabbed the rack. It was clear we weren’t going anywhere until we’d settled this.
A crowd formed on the empty bank with a speed I’ve only witnessed in India. The whole family that owned the skiff surrounded Chris, and a few other boat owners came, as well as some of the passengers waiting for a crossing. Thirty seconds after the man grabbed Chris’ bike, he was surrounded by a crowd of fifteen.
The old papa started shouting again.
It was a ludicrous sum, considering that it’s probably around what the skiff owner makes in a week.
We calmly told them No, and the old Papa started wagging his finger in my face, and it was the last calm thing I said.
This trip has changed something about the way I face conflict. We deal with dozens of little conflicts a day—people ripping us off, people demanding we stop and take photos with them, people crowding around our table uninvited while we eat. The constant presence has taught me to lean in, to embrace the conflict, to give better than what you get. It has taught me to stand my ground, and be absolutely direct. But my newfound confidence in the face of life’s skirmishes has exposed darker sides of my personality. It has given me license to turn towards anger, and pushed me to experiment with an almost abusive aggressiveness. It has taught me to intimidate, and I’ve seen how powerful the aggressive demeanor can be. I just keep turning up the dial to see where it will go.
On the river bank I really cranked it up. I went too high, so high that it unhinged from logic, and the aggressiveness used all my stress and frustration to make pure anger. I straightened up and leaned in and stared right through the old papa’s eyes to the back of his skull, and as he wagged his finger in my face I was daydreaming about making him eat some sand. I didn’t, of course, mostly because I didn’t go blind enough to forget about the 14 other Indians that surrounded us.
Chris was still in the calm, ‘No’ phase, though he was quickly getting flustered.
The old man melted back into the crowd, maybe because he smelled my anger, and I remember whipping around to stare through the rower on the boat. He was younger and was changing his tone.
“500! 500!” he was saying now.
I was just standing there, seething, trying to stare my way out of the whole thing. Chris was still at their mercy, straddling his bike, but he’s machining gunning out replies of “Hell No!” to the shouts now. The tension is thickening, volatile, getting dangerous. Everyone’s nervous, because there’s one too many angry people in a crowd of 15, and they can feel the air tighten around them. A wise young kid who’d been working on the barge decided to end it.
“Fine!” yelled Chris. He tosses over the bill. This is two dollars. It’s anything but a big deal, but by this time we’re both heated and feel completely cheated.
The crowd tightens in for a moment. I walk into the middle, pushing forcefully with both arms to clear a channel for Chris to pass. Everyone just kind of stepped back. The spirit had gone out of the argument and everyone just wanted to leave. The movement was needless, an escalation of a conflict that had lost its spirit. It made me feel powerful, like I’d actually been able to displace eight Indians with my triceps.
Then I turned and gave them the bird.
It took me about 15 kilometers of riding to cool my head. My anger had almost pushed a conflict we’d already talked our way out of to flashpoint. Chris, for the record, had handled himself like a champ, and kept a logical mind. He soothed and rebuked me as we rode.
We’re faced with a lot of challenges on this trip, small conflicts that escalate quickly with everything that gets lost in translation. The conflicts mostly arise from the stress of cultural divide. Every interaction, even a friendly conversation in the street, is stressful when you can’t communicate. The worst of the stresses, though, is being seen as walking ATM machines, people who should pay two, three, or tenfold the real price, not just because we don’t know better, but because we can. They tend to think it’s nothing to us, and everything to them.
These conflicts demand direct and firm action. In some cases, they demand enough strength of personality to intimidate. I’ve learned I can solve some problems by playing chicken, bumping the conflict up notch by notch until someone decides they don’t want to go there and back down. We do it every day, when we demand with smiles that people give us some space or that no, thank you, we will not pay the tourist tax along with our lunch. It’s all in the demeanor, a very subtle aggression; it almost never escalates past the first step. On the banks of the river I learned the danger of that strategy, especially when it gets mixed with fatigue and frustration and the feeling that your back is up against the wall.
Ultimately, it was effective. They backed down because we showed no hesitation to escalate the conflict. But it was poor brinksmanship on my part, emotional brinksmanship, and I cringe at the thought of what I might have done had they cried “one thousand” a few more times. I’d probably have a few black eyes and a lot less gear on my bike.