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A tough, funny, straight-talking man of 42, Rakesh is built like a former boxer—right down to the punched-in nose—but you'd be wrong if you mistook his machismo for recklessness. This is a guy who's been driving trucks professionally for 22 years. He values his reputation as a safe and sober driver. "Of the drivers on the highway tonight, I'd bet that 90 percent are high on something," he says—hashish, liquor, or doda, a tealike mixture of opium and betel nut that many drivers use to stay alert, but which also clouds their judgment. Still, he prefers driving at night, when it's cool and the GQ is freer of the human and animal traffic that can slow a driver down or cause an accident. It's not unusual, on a six-lane superhighway, to find oxcarts, water buffalo, motorcycles, and the occasional line of trucks and cars coming straight at you, in your lane, driving the wrong way because it's shorter or easier or perhaps because they're confused. Goats graze the median strip, and traffic is often held up by sacred cows, the only users of the highway that seem oblivious to the danger flying around like shrapnel.

Towns cut in half by the highway are especially dangerous, since crowds of pedestrians cross in the face of oncoming traffic, which almost never breaks speed voluntarily. In some of these towns, congestion is so bad that the GQ comes to a standstill, and the fundamental laws of Indian traffic, which resemble those governing swarms of bees, take hold. To cross a busy intersection is to catch a glimpse of the Indian character: enterprising, creative, pushy, energetic, relentless, and surprisingly good-natured. As you wait to cross, you're aware of a constant push around your edges, a jockeying for position that seeks to flow past you on the way to the other side. There's nothing hostile about it; it's just that standing still is not an option.

Shortly before reaching the toll plazas at Udaipur, Rakesh decides to leave the GQ and take an alternate route through the hill country to the west. Though slower, this two-lane highway saves him about $20 in tolls. It also provides a glimpse of what life was like before the GQ. The accident rate on two-lane highways in India is much higher than on the GQ, and that, says Rakesh, "is probably the best thing about these new highways. They're a lot safer."

In midafternoon we pass a ghoulish wreck—a truck pulling out onto the highway had been hit broadside by an 18-wheel flatbed speeding downhill with two eight-ton blocks of white marble from a local quarry. The enormous blocks hadn't been lashed down but were simply resting on the truck bed. Upon impact, both slid forward and flattened the cab, crushing the driver and his two helpers to death.

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