India: Scene One — Transportation

31 10 2011

Mostly about getting around in Delhi.

What did I expect of India?

  • A sea of people with barely a space between them.
  • Carts and cars and cows.
  • Poor people, rich people.
  • Towers and tin-roofed slums.
  • Gaudiness, glitter, glamor, clamour.
  • Overcrowded trains chugging along dusty winding tracks.
  • Selling, squatting, spitting; the stereotypes I suppose.
  • I expected to be greeted by over zealous porters, by aromatic spices and less appealing scents; much less appealing.

I think “India” is a picture in people’s minds; certainly it was in mine.

I have been surprised and not surprised. A thoroughly modern airport in Delhi. No one asked me for anything except to see my passport at security; except to take my picture before I entered the country to which the guard smiled and said, “Look, your first picture in India. Namaste.”

No pushy porters. No funny smell. Large windows looking out into a sunny day. Alecia jumping up and waving. A pleasant taxi driver who laughed when I tried to get in on the “wrong side” of the car. I offered to drive before I walked around to the other side. Good thing I didn’t.

The traffic was orderly for a very short time; for the few meters from “arrivals” to the gate and then into what one person described as a scene much like “salmon spawning.” There are no traffic rules. Well, maybe one: if the light turns red, it is an excellent idea to stop. Beyond that, four lanes are only a suggestion. If you prefer eight lanes, by all means. Pass on the right or the left and if your vehicle is four feet wide and there is four feet and one inch, then that is plenty enough room to squeeze past. Whatever you do, honk incessantly.

We had an amazing guide, who got us from A to B for a part of the trip and provided a wealth of information along the way, described Indian traffic like a river flowing over rocks; the water fills in every gap and that is how Indian traffic flows: if there is a gap, it must be filled. If the gap is large it will be filled with something large; very small, it will be filled by something small. Also, as drivers you are only responsible for what you see ahead and right beside you. Anything behind you is of no concern; that is the responsibility of those behind; the driver behind you is concerned with what is ahead of him, and that is you weaving in and out and around vehicles at pretty high speeds. There are no shoulder checks and mirrors are irrelevant. It works.

I have never, ever, ever seen traffic move like it moves in India. Ever. I can’t decide if Indian drivers are amazing or insane.

I was going to write that for the most part I felt safe, but 5 days off from coming home we were in a pretty serious car crash. We had a young guy driving who I think was trying to impress Alecia (my daughter) with his skills and speed. Brianne (friend, traveling partner) and I were in the back commenting on his speed which was between 80 and 100 km. We were near the airport terminal exit, and we were following a truck; the truck swerved left and in front of the truck was a stopped car. Our driver slammed on the brakes and hit the back of the other car straight on. Alecia was wearing a seat-belt, Brianne and I hit the back of the seats. I had braced myself, she was not able to. Both of our faces hit the back of the seat rest pretty hard.

If Alecia had not been wearing a seat-belt, I shudder to think of what might have happened.

The Driver was not at all concerned about us. He went to the other driver, talked…we waited, took pictures, another taxi picked us up. We went for coffee and chocolate, which is what you do when you could have been seriously injured or worse.

There are about 10 ways this could have gone horribly wrong, but God graciously protected us through this. Also, since most vehicles don’t have belts, or if they do they aren’t used, I thank God that there was a front belt and that Alecia used it!

Back to happier things.

I will say, my favorite mode of transportation has been the auto-rickshaw (picture three wheels under a shoe-box, with room for a few Canadians or eight Indians). The sides are open and you dare not put so much as a finger out or you might end up one short.

Other ways of getting around: regular small cars and every single one is scraped and dented, for obvious reasons. Someone told me that if a new luxury car shows up on the road it is just a matter of time before someone hits it or keys it just to prove a point. Ladies ride side-saddle as passengers on motorbikes and scooters, smiling as if their driver knows what he is doing. Bicycles are made for one but you seldom see only one person riding. Ox/horse and cart. Trains and the Metro. The occasional elephant.

Pedestrians, well that is another thing. Pedestrians have no rights and all the responsibility to make it from curb to curb. When on foot we ran, we dodged, we froze, we balanced between lanes, we prayed.

The auto rickshaws and taxis (and elephants, I suppose) require some bargaining as the meters never seem to work for some strange reason. They are very affordable; for a long trip around the city (20 minutes or more) it might cost 100 rupees ($2). If the driver needs to make a U turn he might bargain for more. I found that it helps to travel with a beautiful, young blonde, as the drivers practically fall over each other to provide a more agreeable arrangement for her: “Miss, miss, you need a taxi?” If business is slow they will practically fall all over each other to win your business.

There are also bicycle rickshaws, but I just ended up feeling bad for them. We did take a few in Old Delhi and other cities in the north, but seriously, I don’t think any one of us weighed less than our stick-thin chauffeurs.

On our first day in India, our driver got us to our hotel Sing Sahib in New Delhi but not without directions from Alecia. This is an interesting thing about drivers: they all say they know where they are going, and mostly they don’t. They do this bobble-head nod which could be a yes, or it could be a no when you ask them if they know where they are going. They don’t, so they stop to ask for directions and will often charge their passengers more for imposing such an inconvenience on them. Alecia knows how to handle this whole dance very well and got us there and everywhere, politely guiding our driver to our hotel, for example, “Turn at pole 88” which is literally the 88th pole under the Metro; this is how we got where we needed to go safe and sound with, to coin an Indian phrase, “no problem” (thumbs up, roll your “r’s”).

The Metro is usually a great way to get around, so we bought our metro cards and took the train to Conought place in Delhi, our first day (a very modern outdoor shopping area with a great coffee shop, “Costa Coffee”). I should mention that the trains all have women’s cars which are a fabulous invention. All the men are stuffed into their compartments and would be fined if they would cross over into ours. Ah, nothing like the civility of a car full of women. Particularly enjoyable were the evenings when the boys would be crammed in like sardines and we would sprawl across the empty seats. Ten points to the Indian Department of Transportation.

I should add a comment about the metro. A lovely woman announces every stop and adds on the phrase, “mind the gap!” At most stops, the recorded voice says pleasantly, “Please mind the gap.” At other stops she sounds slightly annoyed and says , “Mind the gap!” to which I feel she wanted to add the word, “idiots” though I can’t prove it. Anyway, it became the phrase of our trip.

Delhi is a ginormous city and when it comes to life, everyone is on the move. This begins at around 11:00 am. It makes no sense to me because by eleven it is hot and sticky. Why not start at seven when it is cool? One of the many “illogics” in India. And this isn’t just my western conclusion; I have asked Indians and they think it is illogical too. But I think India is OK with not making sense. Mother India is as Mother India is.

If you happen to be walking you have to constantly watch where you are going: the sidewalks are uneven and are not only a place to walk but they are also parking spots for cars, dogs, venders, sleepers, and refuse. And then there are the puddles; one must avoid all puddles due to the prevalence of public urination (another saying we had, “Never trust an Indian puddle!”) It’s a problem here, so much so that the city often posts depictions of gods low to the ground to discourage public urination; I mean, who is going to pee on a god? Risky.

Anyway, you make your way around and try not to get hit by a vehicle because they absolutely will NOT stop for you; and you can’t really talk along the way because it is so terribly noisy. Along the way, in all metro stations and in most modern malls there is also a lot of security. Security checks, bag checks, and getting a pat down in Delhi are just standard procedure (I should add, tired of security checks, especially the ones who seem to linger just a little too long in the pat-down process, Brianne asked one female guard, “Want a date?” I don’t recommend doing this, but it was funny at the time).

Every place we visited was pretty much like this. We took some long rides, for example from Menali on through to Amritsar in the Punjab region, and the same orderly disorder was everywhere.

All of this stands in contrast to our visit to two children’s homes (described more fully later) which are tucked safely in the hills, in the cool of the mountains, in the foothills overflowing with green. Here the traffic might be a single taxi bumping along down the winding hills, an ox-cart, a woman carrying a bundle of grass (twice her size), a cow settling in comfortably on the middle of the road (no matter, everyone is patient with cows). If there is traffic, it doesn’t move terribly quickly as the roads are very, very narrow; sometimes they feel like goat paths. Cars passing each other sometimes move in inches: you inch to the left, I will move an inch to the right, you pull in your mirror, I will inch closer to the water buffalo to see if she will move an inch and somehow we will pass each other.

Here the trees are filled with a thousand birds, footsteps past the gate, the greeting of a neighbour who might be lighting small rubbish fires along the street, and laughter. The laughter is what I heard first when we visited the homes and it isn’t something I heard among all the other noises, until then…

— Teresa Klassen

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