Thursday, October 15, 2009

Driving in India

My friend's husband just returned from a trip to India and seeing his pictures brought back memories of a 10 day trip to India that I took with my parents in 1997. I came home to Hong Kong and wrote all about it in excruciating detail. I've extracted just a portion of it to share -- all about the driving in India. One day we hired a car and driver to take us the 3 1/2 hours from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. This is what I wrote about. I hope you enjoy it! (This is my way of being lazy about coming up with current material to blog about. I'm sure you are sick of my primary training notes...)

“In India, there is no discipline in driving” our driver explained to us. He went on to tell us how he had been driving for 20 years, knew every road in all of India, and how he was a very good driver. This he bragged as he perfectly straddled the lines in the road.

Traffic lights in India are for decoration only, and lines in the road do about as much good as a garbage can in New York City. The shoulder is used as much, if not more than the roads. If, by chance, you come to a red light, and do not wish to stop, don’t. If other cars in front of you have stopped, and you wished to go through, simply go onto the left shoulder of the road (all of India drives on the left side of the road), make a left turn, flip a quick U-turn, make another left, and you are successfully through the red light, leaving the waiting cars to quake in your wake. The pedestrians are warned about this problem with signs of “Do not take green for granted!”

Mom had a few observations about the driving there. She said that she felt like we were playing a four hour game of ‘chicken’. We rarely lost. Because, you see, we were in a Mercedes Benz. It was as if the caste system applied to driving. The better or faster car you had, the more rights you had to make others move into the gutters so you could pass. The caste system, while technically outlawed, still plays a central role in India. It is basically the idea that you are what you are born into. If your father was a working man on the farms, so are you. While learning to drive in Argentina, Mom had come to the conclusion that the driving code there was “if there is space, take it”. In India, that code is slightly altered to, “If there isn’t space, make it”.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, I asked Dad, the epitome of a world traveler for me, if there was anywhere he could think of where driving was worse. He said that Bangkok and Indonesia come close, but India, tops them all.

Case in point: our driver was telling us that one of the lines of buses, the “red” line, was notoriously known for the high number of casualties it caused. The phrase “Red line, dead line” was known throughout Delhi. So, they painted all the buses blue. However, little did they realize that blue paint doesn’t stop death. The number of casualties continue unhindered. I didn’t know how seriously to take the driver until the radio on the way home that night announced the death of a 17 year old boy, crushed by a blue line bus just that evening.

All of the taxis, trucks and buses have huge painted letters on the backs of their vehicles reading “KEEP DISTANCE” and “BLOW HORN”. No one pays attention to the first warning. Instead, they double their focus on the latter. A car without a horn is much more dangerous than a car without lights driving at night. If I ever find myself jobless and in desperate need of money in the future, I think I’ll invest in a horn company in India. I don’t know the shelf-life of car horns, but I am positive it is cut in fourths in India. Our driver would lay on the horn for fifteen seconds at a time to get the attention of a bus or truck that was impeding his path. More than once (more like ten times), we would be in the middle of passing a large truck, when the truck would decide to join us in our lane. The driver would honk like a mad man and continue trying to pass the truck. I would watch in horror as the space twixt me and the truck narrowed to inches, and hoped the driver realized that a horn, while it makes a lot of noise, wouldn’t save my life from being crushed by an intruding truck. Our driver would hug the middle gap (or the opposite side of the road, depending on where we were), and push the gas to the floor, all the while honking insanely. Invariably, the bus or truck pulled back at the last second, sparing my live.

I kept on waiting to hit the highway, or at least a freeway on the way down to Agra. I was disappointed. The road, at best, was two lanes with a divider in the middle. Most of the time, it was just two lanes, with no divider, making it perfect for playing chicken, pretending like we were downhill slaloming, squeezing in between oncoming traffic and traffic going your same way. It would amaze me how our driver could fit into spaces the width of compact car parking spaces, only doing 70 mph.

In India, cars are not the only objects on the road. In fact, they are by far the minority. Let me just list some of the things that shared the road with us. First of all, there were hundreds of auto rickshaws, or “duk-duk’s”. For those of you who have been to Asia, you know what they are. They are three wheeled motorized vehicles without windows, and with a tiny seat in the back. Two people fit in “comfortably”. Three is the ‘legal’ limit in Delhi. Once we left the boundaries, we were astonished to see up to ten people crowed in, on, and hanging out the sides and back of one of those duk-duks. They run on a two stroke motor, similar to old fashioned lawn mowers that mix gas and oil and control the acceleration by the handle. These, numbering 85,000 in Delhi alone, are the number one cause of pollution. The emit streams of disgusting black exhaust. There are also cycle rickshaws. These are also three-wheeled, but, as the name would suggest, they are powered by the driver’s legs, rather than a motor. Obviously they are better for the air. The back two wheels house a tiny seat if it is a passenger rickshaw, or carry humongous loads of hay, logs, or other goods if it is a cargo rickshaw. There are hundreds of these on the roads as well. Then, there are the stray cows. Since cows are sacred there, they wander without restraint. Bulls, oxen, calves roam busy streets as if they were country pastures. They lie wherever they can find shade, even if that is in the road next to a parked truck. They are some of the country’s most efficient garbage disposals as well. There are also tractors driving down the main roads. Horse-drawn carts, ox-drawn carts, camel-drawn carts also fill the narrow streets. We saw several camel trains pulling carts of cloth-covered animal seed in bundles one and a half the camel’s height and five or six times its width. Elephants, normally ridden by about four or five young men, would also parade down the streets, right next to the bikes, cars and trucks. Donkeys and dogs pranced about slowly as if the streets were their domain. In addition, there were hundreds of ordinary bicycles, loaded with people, and dozens of buses, vans, taxis, and all sorts of cars. The newest edition of Indian-made cars are literally 1997 made models of the 1950 Nash Ambassadors. There were handcarts and pushcarts using the exact same lanes as our Mercedes Benz. Motorcycles and scooters careened through tiny spaces in between all the other piles of traffic. On these vehicles, there would be up to six and seven people. Entire families would ride from place to place on a motorcycle. One time, we saw the father driving, the mother riding side-saddle in her beautiful saree (all women ride side saddle on the back of motorcycles, scooters and bikes), two kids shoved in between the mother and the father, and one more little youngster sitting in front of the father, holding on to a big doll. Wild goats, pigs, mongoose, and chickens also invade the roads completely oblivious of the traffic. We saw one car the size of a jeep with at least 20 people in there (we counted). In addition to all of these things, there are all of the pedestrians. India has a sixth of the world’s population in a country a third the size of the United States. The per capita population is much higher than even China. These people have to cross the streets too. So, now, you know why driving down these roads at an average speed of 50 to 60 mph, I simply couldn’t take my eyes of the scenes surrounding me. The drive to Agra alone was worth the trip.

Everyone in India has the same color of dark black hair and the same shade of dark and shiny brown eyes. But that is where the similarities end. Here, the modern world meets the middle ages to produce a unique blend of culture. I saw an advertisement for estate planning, a relatively new financial sensation, spray painted on a rock off of a dirt road. There are camels and cell-phones, turbans and tye-dyes, sarees and Sonys, monkeys and Mercedes Benzs, Sikhs and Seventh-day adventists, intricate idols and the internet, arranged and autonomous marriages, Moslems and Mormons, billionaires and beggars, pacifists and pollutants, Sheratons and shanty-towns, fragrance and filth, helicopters and handcarts, and bombs and brotherhood. Yet, with all these stark contrasts, the hope of India resides in a small poster hanging randomly throughout the County. It has a picture of the flag, with these simple words, “We are all Indians. Let none divide us”.


VikiViki said...

Jennie - that was fascinating to read about your adventures with mom and dad. Besides upping my jealousy level of you a notch, I was amazed at what a great writer you are. I kept thinking while reading that passage that I could have been reading a novel. Nice.

Diana said...

I TOTALLY agree with your sister-you are an amazing writer! And it also brought back some flash backs of Venezuelan bus/taxi rides!

Marilyn said...

My heart is still pounding from vicariously riding with you on the streets of India. Wonderful writing. Harrowing and fascinating experience. Wonder how much it's changed in the past 12 years?

Wendy said...

Hey Jennie--Great post! I just sent the link to Justin and his dad. Justin's dad and uncle did the same drive and his uncle said he thought he was going to die multiple times, esp on the way from from the Taj Mahal in the dark, and the car's headlights didn't work! Great post!

GrGrGr said...

Thanks for the memories! You do an excellent job of word painting. That seems a long time ago but you made it feel like only yesterday. How the Church has grown since our time there. India has two missions and quite a few chapels. No stakes yet, but that won't be far behind.
Love you all and glad we all survived 'driving in India' (and other places).

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