It’s well before dawn. We’re rocketing through the sleepy villages outside Saway Madhopur, the temples and camels and chai wallas blurring into one stream of dim colour against the lightening blue of the sky above. I wasn’t told there would be mountains. I’m so cold, but I can’t take my freezing right hand from the roll bar in front of us. A sudden bump or pothole could be the death of me, as I’m already halfway out of the open jeep. I glance at the spedometer, think better of it, and grip tighter both the roll bar and my boyfriend’s hand.
Somewhere in the darkness, a tiger waits for us.
I’m not the best suited to travel internationally. I’m shy. Change grates on me. I hate flying. All forms of transport that I cannot pilot make me uncomfortable. Buses in India are a unique form of torture. I have a weak stomach, get sick easily, and I’m in poor shape. Not to mention how much I worry. I worry far too much. I am often afraid abroad and this jeep is no exception.
Once a therapist told me that the difference between anxiety and fear is easy to explain. Fear is worrying about a tiger in the room. React appropriately, and acknowledge that there is real danger. Fear is the appropriate response to a maneater making itself at home on your carpet. Anxiety is worrying about tigers somewhere in Asia. No immediate threat. Interesting and scary to think about, but not worthy of immediate action. Of course, in India the metaphor takes on a deeper and subtler meaning. There are real tigers here, both metaphorical and physical. And I’m in an open jeep with nothing to keep one from leaping in and eating me. I can’t tell if that is fear or anxiety, appropriate or overreaction. Besides, the roads are more likely to kill us this morning than anything.
Just as the sun rises, we enter the tiger reserve. The road transforms from potholed pavement to soft, fine moondust, the colour of ashes. I try not to think about our planned trip to Varanasi, the city of embers.
“There! There! Look!”
A tiger footprint.
“Fresh! This is Fresh!” Our driver is ecstatic. We turn and follow the general direction of the track, toward a watering hole. Small deer are in the bare trees, looking out at us with large liquid eyes. “Tiger food,” dismisses our guide.
It occurs to me that there is literally nothing keeping a tiger from jumping on us. The jeep is wide open to the sky, and there are now seven people jammed into seats for five. The guide is practically hanging off the edge of the jeep’s rear, his cell phone squawking with the sound of an endemic bird. Those birds normally drive us crazy in the mornings, waking us with their repetitive cawing that seems to get progressively louder and more anxious with each breath. The phone goes off every minute or so, loudly. The guides are conferring this morning. Trying to pinpoint the tigers.
“Hold on, please,” says the guide as we turn down a near vertical dust hill. At its foot are more prints, which the guide and driver insist are fresh. Suddenly the road is less moondust and more martian, with giant red rocks poking out at all angles. We climb the mountain that we could see from the road, up into the hills above the wide Rajasthan plains below. The sun is fully up now, and it’s beginning to get hot already. The trees are all bare with the exception of bright red flowering ones, which smell just like ladies at market who’ve adorned their hair. We pass more “tiger food” on the way. Giant, mesolithic-looking antelopes.
The only way to be brave is to be afraid first. Bravery is the act of overcoming fear….getting on the bus even though it has clearly been in an accident or two, strapping into an Air India plane and feeling it take off literally as soon as the safety talk was finished, taking tea at a roadside stand even though I can see that I will probably get sick from it. It’s a physical process as well as mental, an attempt at mastery of the body’s terrified response. I can’t calm my heartbeat on command yet. But I still got into this jeep.
The bird call of the phone squawks to life again, and on the line someone is yelling excitedly. The guide yells what I can only assume is, “TIGER! GO GO GO!” to the driver and instructs us to hold on again. He isn’t kidding this time. We’re flying along the martian road, so fast that the curves and bumps are lifting us out of our seats. I can’t hold on any harder, and still the driver pushes the jeep faster and faster, grunting with the effort of turning the wheels and holding us on the road. Our guide is calm, but our companions are screaming and swearing, one with a GoPro camera that looks to be falling out of her hand. I look at Russell, who looks to be having fun. I can’t tell if I’m laughing or crying.
We slam around a corner, hard enough to pop tires but mercifully unscathed. The guide tries to quiet us, quickly. I let go of the roll bar, blood rushing back into my hands. The fear subsides. The bravery tries to remain.