Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws

Catching a cab from the airport to your hotel in any Indian metropolis is an exercise in patience and networking, as would seem to be the case throughout much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  You will see lots of taxis, but whenever you inquire about hiring one, a man leads you in the opposite direction.  A transaction may eventually occur that appears to be on the up and up, but you still don't climb into a cab.  Noisy caucusing continues at curbside or in a parking lot as if political candidates are being selected in some smoke-filled backroom.   There are more conversations and peregrinations and finally you're excited to be loading your bags into a trunk.  However, the driver now disappears for a period of time.  Several people have asked you for money at this point "for helping," which is a good moment to point out that you requested a taxi and not to be led through a labyrinth of wheeler-dealers who appear to have been extras in Slumdog Millionaire.  The driver then returns with someone else who has also been "helped."  On the bright side, using the prepaid taxi stand (which does not cut out nearly as many middlemen as one would think) avoids any unexpected companions and "tours" of the city that serve to run up the meter.  However, the only place I've seen more hot meters than in New York City is Bulgaria, where the taxis are driven by former Olympic weightlifters and thus negotiation is discouraged.

The real culture shock of New Delhi doesn't begin so much with the separate exit from baggage claim for "ladies," but upon hitting the highway.  You're driving in a country where 90,000 people a year are killed in road accidents, which would be like losing the entire population of Boulder, CO, by the end of every December.  The city of Delhi alone has about 10,000 accidents a year with 2,500 fatalities.  And this is a place without blizzards, black ice, or avalanches.  Driver’s education clearly needs to be supplemented with classes in applied physics.  Because the main problem is that the roads are filled with a wide range of objects of varying weights, number of legs and trajectories that are traveling at different velocities, including but not confined to pedestrians, pedicabs, pushcarts, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, scooters, careening motorcycles, antique tractors, heavy machinery, brightly-painted trucks, buses, cars, 30-year-old Fiat taxis, SUVs, donkey carts, oxen, bovines, goats and equal numbers of three and four-legged dogs.  My favorites are the makeshift vehicles constructed from the leftover parts of others (presumably demolished in accidents), such as a combine seat and steering wheel atop a minivan chassis with the windshield of an old crop duster and bell from a bicycle.  Think Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  None of these modes of conveyance contain seatbelts or airbags (unless you include animal bladders).   Anything framed in metal featured numerous dents while anything framed in fur sported bald spots.  Two questions immediately arose: 1) Is my life insurance paid up?  and  2) Where are all the trial lawyers?  

Did I mention marching bands and parade floats?  Even if you don't get invited to an Indian wedding (which can last a week and would probably take up your entire trip anyway), you might still participate in one as the festivities normally take to the streets at a certain point, and on some nights two or three celebratory caravans roar past with music blaring, intoxicated revelers dancing, and the turbaned groom riding atop a blinged out elephant or white horse.  Which brings us to the only roadside installations I expected to see but didn't—Motel 6, Carvel and 7-Eleven.

“There are no bad drivers in Manhattan,” goes the old joke, “because they’re all dead.”  This is far from the case in India.  Most driving is done with the horn.  Although another clear-cut rule seems to be, “When in doubt, shout.”  As for lanes, there aren't any to speak of on these lunar-cratered roads, not between vehicles going the same way or to separate traffic headed in opposite directions.  There are no shoulders alongside the roads.  There are few traffic lights (that work) or signs or other legal impediments to moving at top speed.  The written portion of the licensing exam must be incredibly short.  Some busy urban intersections feature a traffic cop, but he often gets into long conversations or conflagrations with pedestrians, and thus continues an endless high-speed game of horn-honking chicken.  Because whenever any of the aforementioned modes of transport give way, drivers hit their accelerators as if fleeing a crime scene.

The best strategy to avoid crashing into another vehicle is apparently for the driver not to acknowledge that it exists, which is easily accomplished by not looking left, right or in the rearview mirror (if there is one) and ignoring the outsized horn section of the automotive orchestra.  Oddly, most trucks and buses don't have bumper stickers saying "I Brake For Animals" or "Vishnu Is The Answer" but rather "Horn OK Please" or "Blow Horn," which seem like an invitation to trouble.  However, if you wish to pass a large vehicle on a narrow road you really are supposed to honk, and people do a lot of it.  One is left to speculate whether musical air horns playing pulse-pounding Hindi hit song "Kabuutar Jaa, Jaa, Jaa" or "Kaamosh Hai Zamaanaa...Aaegaa Aanevaalaa" would make things better or worse.

On Indian roads larger vehicles always have the right of way, similar to how in a Buffalo blizzard the least expensive jalopy is entitled to go first solely because the Mercedes driver prefers not to be smashed to bits.  The exceptions are that technically speaking a motorbike is larger than a goat and a car is larger than a cow, however, goats and cows do not have steering.

In case you suspect this contains the slightest bit of exaggeration, let the record show that when the popular TV show Ice Road Truckers created a new spinoff called IRT: The Deadliest Roads, the first stop was India!  Furthermore, the three veterans of the show driving wood-framed cement loaded rigs from Delhi to the Himalayas were either terrific actors or completely petrified for their lives.  Apparently the treacherous roads of Northern Alaska are nothing next to this death-defying automotive extravaganza.  Or as the circus proprietor who encounters a pushmi-pullu in the musical Dr. Dolittle exclaims, "I've never seen anything like it in all my life!"

Hopefully you'll manage to avoid any road collisions, but be prepared for some pedestrian run-ins.  The fact that Indians drive on the left has unintended consequences for walking Westerners since we tend to veer right to pass while Indians automatically go left.  Attention women: High heels, open-toe sandals, jellies and flip-flops are not recommended footwear.

For some reason, I assumed that traveling from Manhattan to Delhi for the first time would be like moving from the Buffalo suburbs to the heart of New York City in 1983 when I was 18.  The city was just crawling out of its Mean Streets chain-snatching, token-sucking,  muggin' and druggin', homicidal maniac, squeegee men days and people were shocked that I'd leave a city with a high suicide rate for one with an even higher homicide rate.  Why trade snowstorms for serial killers?  Avenues teemed with hurried and harried pedestrians, graffiti-covered subways greeted passengers with ear-piercing brake squeals and unintelligible announcements while rodents freely plied their trade outside of Habitrails.  Street preachers with ZZ Top beards shouted apocalyptic pronouncements up and down Broadway while brightly-costumed fortune tellers separated tourists from their money on the cracked sidewalks of Greenwich Village.

Alone in the bustling capital city of Delhi, I reminded myself of all the things I’d learned about city living, sometimes the hard way—don’t trust anyone on the street, be assertive, even aggressive, and act a little loco if necessary.  Remaining vigilant had also served me in good stead during recent trips to Cairo, Istanbul, and Casablanca, all heaving metropolises filled with entrepreneurs overly-anxious for tourist trade, where Westerners are constantly harassed to hire guides and held hostage over cups of tea in rug shops.  If you're a woman traveling solo, it becomes annoying to the point that you can no longer enjoy taking in the sights as a pedestrian.  Eventually you may even long for Athens, where public square dwellers laboring as unpaid critics remove the cigarettes from their lips just long enough to scowl at American tourists.

But none of this defensive behavior was necessary.  Even the de rigueur cab driver shuffle was performed in lilting voices with smiles and friendliness.  People in Delhi seemed for the most part purposeful, heading to work and school, or busy operating their outdoor stalls.  Locals are polite and helpful if you need something, and leave you be if you don't.  Few police officers carry guns.  And most criminals don't carry firearms.  The "joke" is that lawbreakers are much better off approaching the police with hard cash rather than handguns.  Which is so different from Manhattan, where no one pulls out a gun because chances are that everyone else has one too.  I wasn't accosted by panhandlers or children who'd been blinded or maimed in order to become more effective beggars.  Pimps weren't prostituting women in alleyways.  I didn't even see a car with a sign saying "Radio Already Stolen," which never seems to go out of style on my street back home where ear-piercing car alarms serve as the city’s theme song.

© Copyright 2010, Laura Pedersen. All rights reserved.