The bridge is out. No: it has never been in. Danielle nudges the gearshift into neutral, splays her legs out on either side to support the motorcycle, and stares disbelievingly. The road before her continues smoothly for some sixty feet, then unravels into a leprous mass of concrete, from which a tangle of rusted girders reaches across the Tungabadhra River towards a similar span on the other side. It fails to arrive by forty feet.
Whoever did not finish this bridge's midsection neglected to inform the National Geographical Survey of India, whose map of the state of Karnataka, currently tucked into Danielle's day pack, claims that the bridge successfully traverses the dark river below. The next nearest crossing is fifteen miles away, along gouged Indian roads that would eat up at least an hour, and it is already afternoon, and Danielle isn't sure that she can reach her destination at all from the other bridge. For a moment she feels defeated.
Which is fine. This is a chore, not a mission. A favour to a friend, and one she already wishes she had not accepted. A valid excuse to back out would be a relief, and how much more valid can you get than this impassable ruin of an incomplete bridge?
But wait. She sees motion. Something stirs in the water by the opposite shore, next to the pillars that hold up its third of a bridge, and then what looks like a large floating wicker basket shaped like an inverted dome, maybe ten feet in diameter, emerges from the shadowed water. It carries two men. One uses a leaf-shaped paddle to propel the basket-dome – coracle, a distant corner of her mind informs her – towards the south side of the river. The other man waves and points somewhere behind her. His smile flashes white against his dark skin. Danielle looks over her shoulder and sees a little dirt trail, about a hundred feet back, that separates from the road and falls steeply to a muddy landing on the riverbank.
They cannot seriously be thinking of ferrying her motorcycle across. It's a small bike, but still a heavy machine, and their overgrown basket looks like it has all the structural integrity of a banana leaf. But here is another coracle, coming behind the first, and this one moves slowly, because it is loaded with a half-dozen Indian villagers, several heavy sacks of grain, and a man sitting on a motorcycle much like hers. This coracle bobs low in the water but amazingly does not sink.
Danielle reluctantly decides she cannot abandon her errand just because the river must be crossed by fragile-seeming ferry instead of bridge. She wheels the bike around and steers down the dirt path to the riverbank, controlling brake and throttle gingerly; she has no helmet, it has been years since she spent much time on a bike, and low-speed motorcycle maneuvers are always potentially treacherous. When she gets to the landing, a flat patch covered by shallow mud, she turns off the engine and looks towards the approaching coracle ferry. The paddling has stopped. Both men gape at her with wonder and bewilderment.
For a moment Danielle doesn't understand. Then she realizes. They thought she was a man, thanks to her close-cropped hair, and the truth has struck them dumb. She is probably the first woman riding a motorcycle by herself that these men have ever seen, and an exotic white woman at that. And this is the sticks. Yesterday's journey, Goa to Hospet to Hampi, was a route that sees plenty of white women travelling solo, but although Hampi with its many Western backpackers is only ten miles away, this broken bridge is definitely off the beaten track. This is real rural India. A whole different world. She doesn't feel threatened by their stares, not with the sun beaming down, and several women visible in the other coracle, and a handful more now watching her from the opposite shore, but she does feel distinctly uncomfortable.
She wonders if this is what being a movie star is like; everybody wordlessly watching you, knowing that you belong to an infinitely glamorous and more exciting world than theirs. She wishes she had brought a male companion. Not that that wouldn't have created its own set of problems. But suddenly those problems seem better than feeling like a target. A target only of attention, right now, but such attention makes her nervous.
The empty coracle, a woven basket of thumb-thick branches lined on the outside with plastic wrap, reaches the shore. The non-paddling man steps out and motions her to get off the bike. She doesn't want to. She suddenly wants to turn around, ride straight back to Hampi, email Keiran and tell him he can find someone else to run his international errands for him. But Danielle has spent the last few years of her life systematically forcing herself to do exactly those things that make her uncomfortable or frightened. She knows she is mostly the better for it. She wonders, though, as she stands back and allows the man to straddle her motorcycle and expertly roll it onto the coracle, whether one day this constant struggle for self-improvement will propel her into disaster.