In the past couple of weeks we have been driven around India in a couple of different forms of transport. From rickshaws and tongas to the iconic Ambassador and large vans. We’ve been on multilane highways and toll roads and down tiny windy streets lined with shops. What is impressive is not the number of car accidents every year, which is an astronomical number, and the number of deaths – but the accidents that don’t happen. So far I am yet to see an accident (knock on wood). The number of close calls has been enormous, but somehow at the last moment the bike will always just merge slightly left, or the rickshaw with change direction just enough.
The roads aren’t organised chaos; they are just chaos. To turn right one does not simply pause in the middle of the road and turn right. One merges all the way over to the right hand side of the road, drive up the wrong side of the road for a while before making an easy right hand turn, into oncoming traffic. One then merges back across the traffic to the correct side of the road. There is no waiting. Traffic in the towns moves pretty slowly, so if you need to make a turn, you just make it and hope the oncoming traffic will just go around you, and somehow it always seems to happen. Even if you do need to use your horn to make a gap. One of our drivers had two horns. One for the usual, get out of my way, and a second after-market, much louder, get the eff our of my way now! He would always start with the normal one, but as if there was no reaction it was straight on to the bigger one.
Up in the hills we drove through the bazar in Mussoorie. I wasn’t sure there was enough room for the car we were in. But then this came along the road, and everyone got out of the way.
Other than steam rollers there are also the cows and other wily life to avoid. They really do just randomly roam the roads. In Mussoorie there were always Delhiites getting stuck in the small streets and causing traffic chaos. They tended to stand out (not only because their number plate starts with a DL, but) because they were the only ones driving Audis or other European cars. Around the hills the cars and bikes approach every blind corner with at least 3 sharp toots. The thing is, they never seem to do anything if they hear someone coming the other way, they always seem surprised and have to brake and swerve slightly.
What I think sums up driving in India perfectly was the trip from Agra to Jaipur. We had a driver for a few days – it is not uncommon to hire a taxi and driver for 3-4 weeks and just travel around – and he drove us from Agra to Jaipur stopping at a few places along the way. Nearing Jaipur we noticed a few cars coming up the wrong side of the highway. This wasn’t a complete shock, we had to avoid a few tractors earlier in the day, but then there was a complete lane going the wrong way! We were on a dual carriage way, with service roads both sides. But it was more like 4 separate two lane roads all running parallel. There was traffic going the wrong way on each section. There was much flashing of lights and honking of horns. Turns out a road at the end of the highway was blocked – construction – and some traffic was being waved back. We had a different exit and were able to get through.
Our impeccable driver said you need three things when driving in India, good horn, good brakes, and good luck.