30 July 2012


OK, so from the outset let me make clear that a 2-week visit in India qualifies me in no way to speak knowledgably about India. These posts represent my experience and are a way of processing that experience. If (when) my comments seem to suggest that I actually know anything about India, take them with a grain of salt.

Like, traffic, for instance.

One of our expat friends there told me that he had a college prof who had lived in India, and wrote a paper contrasting driving in the U.S. and in India. Here, driving is rules-based; in India, relationship-based. That seems to explain a lot, and gave me some perspective on the madness and even the din of the streets we experienced.

Picture: our 2nd day in Delhi, we piled into taxis and headed to the airport, to fly to Varanasi. On the street, in the vicinity of the major railway hub, New Delhi Station, in one short stretch of road there were: bicycles, motorcycles, taxis, auto rickshaws, cargo vehicles of at least 2 sizes, and . . . wait for it . . . 2 ox carts.

But I get ahead of myself. The drive in from the airport to our hotel introduced us to the whir, the din, the adventure of traffic in India. 2 lanes in one direction? Well, yes, there was in fact a center line dividing the lanes. For any readers familiar with Chicago, picture Lake Shore Drive - not with the lake, but for the narrow shoulders, the press of traffic, and as a divided 4-lane highway. Now, place yourself in the northbound traffic. Take away the traffic lights. Add bicycles (after dark) and auto-rickshaws, small and large cargo vehicles. Ignore the line dividing the 2 north-bound lanes - you may as well, everyone else is! - and assume that the larger vehicles have right of way over smaller vehicles. Honk if you're driving, and pay attention to the honking of everyone else who is driving. [More on this below.]

Often when my Karen and I are driving, she will say, "I don't think this would be a very safe road on a bicycle." And I will usually reply - "no, I think you're right. I would never ride my bike on this road." (Sometimes, I am being completely honest.) Karen - I have to tell you, I really would not ride my bike on these roads, at any time, day or night.

It was a stunning introduction to urban traffic, and personally I rather enjoyed it. But that's because I was a passenger and am a bit of a thrill seeker. It probably would have been even more fun if I had been there without responsibility for others.

Now, our ride from Varanasi International into the city of Varanasi, that was a bit of a different story. It was fast, furious, noisy, packed (we had one taxi too few for the team, so we were pretty cramped) and sort of scary. Delhi is not a western city, and Varanasi is no Delhi. This is a theme I'll explore in successive posts, I'm sure. As regards the drive, what that meant was that our furious taxis (not angry, mind you, but as in the musical term furioso) moved from the open semi-rural highway exiting the airport, into crowded streets of shops, along the ghats that characterize the heart of the city, up into narrow winding alleys, and finally had to stop about 300 metres from our guest house. How they got that far is still unclear to me; and when we left 9 days later that was where we had to drag our luggage to on our way out.

We eschewed the auto-rickshaws [autos] in Delhi, but they were necessarily the primary means of vehicular transport in Varanasi. If we weren't afoot, we were in the autos. Up to 5 people in each, we always had to have 3 vehicles to accommodate our team of 14. In each, an adult male, and a Hindi/English speaker. (Two of our team qualified as both, so that helped. And we had 2 female Hindi speakers to pair up with the 2 non-Hindi speaking adult males.) It was here in Varanasi, then, that we had opportunity to see Indian traffic up close, and begin to make sense out of it.

In Chicago, honking means, generally: "Hey stupid, you're in my way and I'm angry at you." In India, it means everything but that. Oh, I'm sure the drivers get angry and impatient. We saw a bit of that. But that elicits more of a personal confrontation, more verbal. (And, unlike me in my metal box, it is more personal; because most traffic is more exposed and people can actually hear each other.) But all that honking means something: I'm passing you; I'm waiting; look out; follow me; go around me. In this sense, it is an effective form of communication.

The traffic is some complicated. But there are means of sorting out the complexity. Right of way is determined by size of vehicle. Whether from in front or behind, you (very practically) give way to the larger vehicle. So, a bicyclist gives way to a motorcycle, who gives way to an auto, who gives way to a car, etc. But how can you tell what is what in the chaos? Each type of vehicle has its unique type of "horn" - from the ching of a solo bicycle, to the ching-a-ling of the bicycle rickshaw; and the autos have a different horn from motorcycles. Car horns are different from cargo vehicles. And pretty much, each category of vehicle has a consistent "voice."

Of course, people are people, wherever you go. And we heard about motorcyclists, for example, who changed up their horn to sound like a truck. Why? So that when someone hears behind them, they will give way. Imagine their annoyance to find they've been snookered by the wrong horn!

Lanes: well, forget about lanes. I was on some rides where the driver never left straddling the center line. And I do mean, the line "separating" opposing directions of traffic. A 2-lane, 2-way street commonly has up to 5 moving lanes of traffic. This is possible because of the various sizes of vehicles (bikes to buses) and their relative nimbleness (bikes, again). I saw cyclists headed in the opposite direction from my auto, get moved all the way across both directions of traffic, to end up continuing in their same direction, but now on the outside of the lane supposedly designated for my direction.

The problem isn't that their driving is different from ours. The problem would be if I tried to drive in their traffic. Or, when someone from another driving culture drives in ours. (Yes, some urban taxi drivers in U.S. cities probably need to learn better our "rules based driving culture" before getting their license.)

Finally, though there is a great deal more that might be said - Sidewalks. There are some, but even counting those that are torn up or otherwise inaccessible, there really aren't many where we were. Not in Varanasi, not in Delhi. If at this point you are the parent of a young person who went on this trip . . . you may stop reading here. Otherwise, I will just say that if you need to walk from point A to point B, and there isn't a sidwalk, then you must - necessarily - walk in the street. Add that to the mix, and then stand in wonder that there aren't bodies along the road. But as already noted, traffic is relational, and my final observation is that drivers seemed to be aware of everything all the time.

And some of our expat workers, accustomed as they are to these cities, wondered why we adult leaders were a bit uptight as we got used to conditions on the ground. To be fair, we did get used to it. But I am pretty sure if the parents saw video, they wouldn't!

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