Somewhere between Rajahmundry and Cuttack.
With the sun starting to set we were conscious that we needed to find a bed for the night. According to the map we were close to the next town, but weren’t quite sure how far we had left to go. Up ahead we spotted the overhead gantries of the next toll plaza.
Coming from the UK where road tolls are fairly uncommon, I always feel anxious and confused as I approach one. How much is it; do I have enough; how do I pay; which lane do I need; which lane will be quickest – are the questions that flash through my mind as we close-in. But now I’m also wondering if auto-rickshaws really are free, or whether I ran the last couple of tolls without paying and we’re now on the national wanted list. Going with the flow usually buys me time to work it all out, but this time there is no flow. In fact, there is no traffic at all.
The road widens from two lanes to what seems like twelve, and we head to the left, planning to skirt around the edge like all tuk-tuks over here seem to. As we get closer I notice that our intended path is blocked by a line of boulders, the preferred choice of bollard in this part of the world. So I change tack and make for the closest toll booth. With the light fading fast it looks closed though, as does the one next to it, and the one next to that too.
In fact, as we get closer to the tolls it becomes apparent that all the lights are off and no one is home. We are barely moving now, crawling closer as I scan along looking for an open booth, or indeed any sign of life. There is none, all the booths are closed, but as luck would have it all the barriers are up. “Sod it” I think, and with a twist of the throttle our tiny 45cc engine springs to life and we power out of the other side without stopping, and without paying.
Why is it at times like this, instead of concentrating on the road ahead we always spend more time looking behind to see if we got away with it? Quite happy that no one is screaming, shouting and waving at us, we assume they’ve simply finished for the day and think no more of it.
A couple of hundred meters down the road we pass a digger parked at the side of the carriageway. This makes me wonder if tolls were still under construction. That thought comes mere seconds before the lovely smooth tarmac quickly turns into loose gravel, then into mounds of loose dirt. I jam on the breaks and the back wheels lock up as we skid to a stop. A hundred meters away a collection of rusty yellow dumper trucks, tarmacking machines and a road roller sit parked up for the night.
With the light gone the same way as the road, we shake our heads and wonder why we are so surprised that we just fell off the motorway. It’s an eerie feeling to sit here, in the dark, on a desolate building site, the lights of the town in the distance now feeling so much further away.
We only contemplate off-roading in to town for the briefest of moments, before the big feardy in me turns the rickshaw around and bumps us back onto the silky new tarmac to retrace our steps.