The Crazy Driving In India: WTF!
My Experience With India
I spent ten years studying Indian history, art, religion, literature, food, architecture, culture, traditions, and language. But somehow, even with these years of scrutiny of the subject, it didn't prepare me for the real thing, virtually at all.
I had the opportunity to finally visit in the winter of 2004. My stay was 21 days, and during that stay I ranged from Chennai (Madras), Tamil Nadu all the way up to Jagannatha Puri, Orissa. Though it may seem a short visit, it encompassed an entire lifetime. Time is different there; life is different, more intense. A day can seem a week, and a week a year.
The whole experience changed my life, and I have never forgotten the sights, sounds, and tastes: After all these years, they remain crystal clear, as if I was there just yesterday. India is like that. Once you go, it seeps into your pores and changes you. Ever after, a part of you remains there, lodged in the towering 4,000-year-old temples, walking down the ancient dusty streets, smelling the jasmine and incense wafting through the air, eating the best food in the world, and hearing the sounds of an ancient earth still dawning in modern times.
There are many topics that I could have chosen to write about, but the driving in India is something that many people don't know about or get to experience. It's a different world; ancient combines with modern, and the modern is expertly adapted to the Indian way of life.
Video: Welcome To India
Setting The Scene
India has somewhat adapted to modern times, but like most things in India, they accept it, modify it, and create their own interpretation of the theme. Take driving, for example.
Imagine a place where bullocks mix freely with carts, cars, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, pedestrians, buses, bicycles, bicycle carts, stray dogs, menacing trucks, scooters, wheelbarrows, and depending where you are, even elephants and camels. This place is India, and you quickly learn that driving is not the same here as elsewhere you've been! Driving does not necessarily mean automobiles, nor does is necessarily mean "order."
The interesting fact is that--it (mostly) works! Though rules of the road are virtually absent, there is a universal "understanding," a visceral knowledge, that keeps things running. Driving in India is more a cerebral reflex than an orderly plan.
Rules Of The Road
"LIVE AND LET LIVE."
Anything goes, as long as you have the reflexes needed to avoid a collision. Want to enter the highway by going up the off ramp and then enter traffic going the wrong way? Go ahead, but avoid oncoming traffic. Need to go the wrong way down a one-way street on short notice? Get to it, but don't hit the people coming your way. Make a u-turn? Do it whenever you want, and wherever you want, and the other drivers will understand and accommodate.
Patience is a virtue, and the drivers here seem inordinately patient with everyone doing their own thing. Ever dreamed of driving in the middle of the road? Go ahead. Double yellow lines? What are they good for but telling you where the middle is--and why does that matter? What about driving down the sidewalk? You're in luck. Playing chicken with massive trucks, pedestrians, and cows? It'll happen whether you want it to or not.
Though seemingly nonsensical, somehow in India it all makes perfect sense. Up is down, down is up; it's all open to interpretation and perspective. On some levels, the embrace of independent thought and understanding is quite refreshing. Of course it's not perfect, but for the most part it works.
Video: Rules Of The Road
This is the key to everything. Without it, none of this would work and there would surely be death and destruction everywhere. Horns are the chief communication to others that you are there. In congested areas, driving is conducted almost solely by sound; there's just no time for looking around. It's too fast and furious for anything more than "BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!"
The horn blaring can sometimes be incessant, though somewhat musical when you get used to it. There are all kinds, and they make all types of sounds. Recollecting one of my personal experiences, an auto-rickshaw I entered had a broken bulb on the horn. Before leaving, the rickshaw driver studiously taped it with 10 layers of duct tape, telling me that I'd just have to wait. I gave him enough money to buy a new one, but it just goes to show how important they are to survival. I honestly would never venture out without a good, loud horn.
The drivers have adapted to "seeing" through sound. They can tell where each horn is in relation to them, and seem to have an uncanny knack of knowing exactly how far they can go before they hit. By this, I mean that driving along, doing 50mph/80kph, they can literally stop on a dime with an inch to spare. At first, I thought it was just my driver, but no, it's just the way it works. Amazing!
Video: Horn Honking
These are the main large trucks in India, and they make room for no one. They pretty much have the run of the road, and it's your job to avoid them. Luckily, they have really loud horns and are easy to see. But that doesn't mean there won't be close encounters with one every few seconds!
One of the accidents I saw when I was there involved two Tata trucks. Somehow they struck each other head-on in such a way that one became lodged under the other, and both were in a ditch, sideways. There were jasmine flowers--literally millions of them--littered all over the road, mixed with Coca-Cola cans from the other truck. An absolute mess.
It reminded me once again that in India, virtually anything can and does happen. You just have to survive long enough to see it.
There is only one law to passing: The ditch is always available if you need it! Huge Tata trucks come barreling straight toward you, in your "lane." Realistically, there are no lanes, so keep that in mind if you ever plan to visit. Two lanes can easily become five; four can easily become ten. Generally, though, there is enough space for everyone--in one way or another. It takes constant adaptation to get anywhere, and sometimes, to survive.
To share another personal experience, I was driving a scooter (with no shocks) from Jagannatha-Puri to the Konark Sun Temple one day. On my way back on a two-lane road (one lane in each direction), no less than three huge Tata trucks were coming my way, all side by side! There was nothing I could do but swerve off the road into the ditch and tumble into the sand. It saved my life and was somewhat exhilarating when I realized I was still in one piece.
Video: Passing (with excellent interview explanation):
A wonderful way to experience India is through walking around. However, nothing is really designed for pedestrians; there are no cross walks, no lights, and there are no rules. It's like playing Frogger, but with your life.
The only way to do it is to just walk into the road. Crossing the road was one of the more terrifying things I did when I was there, but like everything else, it soon becomes second-nature.
The trick is to walk through the gaps in traffic whenever they appear. It's the quick or the dead. I saw a few pedestrian accidents when I was there, mostly in Chennai (Madras.) It seems that many people just walked into the road without even looking, counting on drivers to swerve around them. Most of the time it worked, but some of the time it didn't.
Many locals cannot afford vehicles, so there are always tons of people in the middle of traffic. You have to forget about death and focus on getting to the other side as soon as possible. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes sort of fun; but at the same time, imminent death or injury is always at the back of your mind.
Video: Pedestrian Crossing The Road
There is more to India than driving, so don't let it keep you from exploring! India is absolutely unforgettable in every way.
It's the most amazing experience I've ever had, and ever will have (unless I go back!) Anyone who has been there has a lingering bond to the place. There is really just nothing else like it.
The beauty is astounding, and there is a timeless quality to life there. It's a mix of absolutely ancient, with some modern mixed in, but not always necessarily how you would expect it. It reminds me of a quote from the movie High Road To China:
"The oxen are slow, but the earth is patient."
If you want to do one thing before you die that will change your life, take a trip to India.
You'll find out not just who and what you are, but you'll also discover the vast possibilities of human perspective and the connection between us all.