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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Driving in India

First things first: they drive on the other side! It is a British inheritance and at the beginning you have to think twice and mirrored. You use to change gears with your right now you have to do it with your left. But after a while you get used to it, and it is easier.
Old Goa.

Close to Humayun's Tomb
The road means a special area designated for traffic. It is a way to move from one place to another. You can find exceptional highways, with lanes and shoulders. On the billboards you can read: “It is safe to drive in lanes” and most of the cars will try to stay between those white lines. But not everyone, you will find some tuk-tuk driver who decides that he had enough, and will try to squeeze, honking left and right. And while you are beeing driven and thinking how nice it is, the traffic slows down and you realize that is an Indian’s sleeping policeman (a speed bump). These are very efficient, and so frequent that you can never go over limit (not that we’ve seen one).
There are other kind of roads. The ones with potholes and crumbling blacktop. Or without blacktop.

These are busy most of the times. In the city you can find cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, bicycles and cows all in the same time, in a very small space.
Agra, going to Taj Mahal.

 And guess who has the right of the way?...Come on....Yes, the cow! She will walk slowly toward the next pile of garbage. After her, it’s the biggest: bus trumps truck, truck trumps car, this one trumps rickshaw. Or the swiftest: the car. Why not the motorcycle? The drivers go slowly. They are the only ones wearing a helmet, if they are wearing, and behind them there are two more people, either two men or a child and a woman dressed in saree, sitting sidesaddle.

A child, a man, a goat and an old woman.
You already know that everyone honks, and on the majority of vehicles is written “Please sound horn.” Like the French policeman’s whistle, the horn is a language in itself. “I’m right behind you/ I want to pass you” and the other car honks back, saying it’s OK. “I’m already passing you, move to your left! Everybody, pay attention. Just stay there and don’t cross.” I’m sure you can find your own translations. I think they like honking. There were lots of cars and motorcycles waiting for the traffic light to change. One driver waves us to cross the street, and we do that in a hurry (you never know) and by the time that we were on the other side they started honking like we were the ones holding them there. Go figure!
Red Fort, Delhi.
The traveling books are recommending you to hire a car with a driver, because he knows the roads, and the language, and is used to drive on the other side. Sometimes he is a calm person, who will wait for opportunities to pass another fellow driver. Sometimes not, and you have a lot of honking, you see the incoming traffic getting closer and closer, you start cringing and lean to your left, like you could make the car be slimmer, you hold your breath and pray to God not to have an accident, but still have your eyes open. When you see that you are alive, you rewind that last second and realize that everybody made room by moving on the sides. And you start breathing again, until the next time.

Kerala, Vypeen Island.
The traffic follows other rules, not the ones that you know, the most frequent one being not to stop. As long as you are moving, you are OK. You have to be quick in judging the situation and position yourself behind other moving cars, that are not likely to stop (because signaling was never heard of). If there is no incoming traffic, the whole street will become one way, the faster passing the slower. An incoming motorcycle will still be pushed on the side, everything going back to normal only for a truck or a bus. The last ones will stop, but only for a short time, so you have to be quick, jump on to it, and move fast so the other people from behind could get on.
 In Delhi, where it was around 60 F, I could never understand why would the Indians insist on open windows. In Goa, at 100 F, I got my answer: if we were not moving, the air would not move, and we would feel the sweat trickling down on various body parts. Maybe they just like fresh air!
Buses come in all sizes and shapes. The cheapest is the “metro feeder” the one that transports people to and from bus station and subway. It looks like is going to die any second now, old, battered, with grates outside of windows, and with benches that could accommodate two children. The other ones are better looking and some have air-conditioning (these are expensive). 
The drivers embellish them with signs of their religion: pictures of Hindu gods, prayer wheels, crosses, something written in Arabic, all with a wreath of flowers around them. One bus had all of them. 

Christmas is coming!

Bus in Goa.

In Kochi they have names, like “Success” or “Vijey.”
In Fort Cochi

Bus in Goa
In Goa cars have under the front bumper a lemon stringed with a few chillies.
The tuk-tuks, or rickshaws are fun to be in. They don’t go over 30 miles/hour so you have time to notice things. They too are decorated with hearts or tassels, even on the wheel. Some have rolled up doors, in case it’s raining. Up to 12 people, including the driver, can be transported inside, but I can’t understand how.

On the cart there is a huge metal pipe and the motorcycle carries a window pane and a big piece of plywood.

We hired cars with drivers, because for us it would have been too much stress. The drivers didn't know all the roads, and though there were big signs telling them which way to go, and we had the map on iPhone, they would still pull on one side to ask for directions from their fellow countrymen.

Would you drive in India?

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