Encounters of the Unwanted Kind
For a little while now I have been planning to write a blog called “Is It Safe”? Today is the right day for it. I started Tour d’Afrique with Mike de Jong nine years ago and ever since than I have been asked repeatedly if it is safe to bike across Africa, South America, Asia and now India.
There is someone I know well who thought what I do is precarious and was worried that I would unduly influence her kids. She went to a dinner party at her best friend’s house, fell and broke her shoulder. She needed a complicated operation and spent months in rehabilitation. Is going to dinner at a friend’s house safe? My sister told me this morning about a mutual friend who was replacing a light bulb at home last week, fell and broke some bones. Is it safe to replace your own light bulbs?
Every year over 40,000 Americans (over 4,000 Canadians) die in car accidents and three times that many have serious injuries that change their lives forever. Is getting into a car safe?
Is building nuclear reactors in Japan or California or Iran safe? I was trained as an engineer so I look at this question with a bit of scientific perspective. Do we really pay attention to what is safe or are we really just interested in satisfying our own psychological fears? And who really is a master statistician who analyzes every aspect of their life and than decides?
Over the years whenever the question is posed I respond that yes indeed, in relative terms, bicycling the world is safe and that the most likely danger, just as at home, is the motorized vehicle. After all it kills about 1.5 million people around the world every year. I tell people not to worry about bandits, diseases, wild animals.
So today I will write for all of those who are worried about the bandits, the wild animals, the foreign cultures and hospitals. Our company has had one hell of a week. First, four armed bandits attacked six riders on the tour in Kenya. Fortunately no one was hurt and no one left the tour.
Then on Friday morning, after spending a night at a wonderful lodge 120 km from Mysore, I was the last person leaving the area. About 5 km after I left the lodge, I was cycling uphill in a beautiful area, not a national park or any other nature reserve, when I and another cyclist about 25 meters ahead of me spotted an elephant with a couple of teenage elephants crossing the road. As magical a moment as they come. I kept on cycling. A car came by and honked, I’m not sure whether at me or at the elephants. Than a few seconds later to my left I saw the elephant, who, when she spotted me, immediately started charging.
I will not describe the next 40 to 60 seconds. I will leave that for another occasion. I will tell you that I am writing this from a hospital in Mysore. I will also tell you that if not for my helmet and some extraordinary good fortune, protection from angels, from cycling gods or other wonderful deities that they have here in India, or perhaps the one almighty from my religious tradition, or all of the above, I would not be writing this to you – using one hand only.
So is it safe? Is traveling to the US which has thousands of armed robberies per year, safe? Statistically the answer is “in relation to what ?”. And what are the benefits versus the risks? But when you have a mother elephant cracking your helmet with your head still in it, is cycling in India safe?
At the foundation of our lives we have to make our own decisions and take responsibilities for them. Is cycling safe? Absolutely not because others people who are probably good parents and even good citizens – drivers, city officials, politicians, even other cyclists make it unsafe. Can random and not so random incidents happen? Absolutely! Will I continue cycling? Barring a delayed psychological trauma from having an elephant mother tap dance on top of me, I certainly will. Will I now wear a helmet every time I plan to ride? I sure hope so.
The doctor just walked in. He has looked at the variety of my wounds and as my mom likes to say ‘so far so good’. He is releasing me from the hospital. I will mend. I am mending already. The ugly bruise on my face is beginning to disappear. The arm broken in four pieces is in a cast. The cracked ribs and my lower back will heal naturally especially if I can find a position to sleep. The various bruises and scrapes are minor and receding already. Soon I will not be stared at.
One more thing, if like me, you ever need a medical professional while you are in a foreign land, I hope you have the good fortune to find people like Dr. Shree Harsha and others at the Apollo BGS hospital in Mysore. I could not have asked for a more competent and better team.
My deepest thanks to all of my staff who had a long week but were true professionals all the way. And my apologies to Shanny, the Indian Adventure Tour Leader, for having to listen to my bad jokes for two hours on the way to the hospital. It was either that or passing out.