Up ahead the hurtling traffic is slowing, bringing me out of my back seat huddle. The Indian roads have not been kind to my delicate stomach. As we get closer we can see what has caused this hesitation in the relentless traffic. A brightly coloured truck decorated with intricate hand painting and marigolds garlands, bound for some far flung southern state has crashed, spewing its cargo of grain bags to split against the asphalt. Luckily no one appears hurt but the once jaunty truck is now lying sadly mangled completely across three of the six lanes of the highway.
Undeterred our driver swerves across the grass medium and quickly regains speed, directly into the oncoming traffic! He pounds cheerfully on the horn and barrels forward as surprised drivers swerve frantically to miss us. Amazingly no one hits us. Along with a group of other vehicles from behind the accident we claim a side of the oncoming lanes. A couple of kilometres ahead, where the road flattens again we cross calmly back to our side of the highway and proceed in a slightly less suicidal fashion.
In another country you could go from 5 star hotel to tourist attraction and back while safe in your tourist bubble. But this is India, to get from A to B here you must brave some form of transport and transport does not discriminate based on young/old, rich/poor. Transportation in India is a real hands on slice of life.
Aucklanders complain about traffic every day. We have roads not built to handle the population density, outdated laws and a sad lack of real driver training and it affects our lives on a daily basis. But then there is India. In May 2015 there were 3,933 cars registered in New Zealand, in India that same month there were 219,798. That’s cars mind you, it doesn’t count trucks, vans, buses, autorick's or motorbikes (and there’s at least three times that many motorbikes)!
Imagine a daily commute that frequently involved taking a detour around a cow who has fallen asleep half off a major round about. A man one row back in a six row deep scooter formation waiting at the traffic lights, casually hopping off his bike to brush his teeth, rinsing and spitting into the gutter, leisurely returning just in the nick of time to stop from being trampled by a sea of bikes. Roads so rutted 10 minutes from the centre of town that only four wheel drives can pass.
Ok so this might sound like a cautionary tale but in fact I found my experiences on and around India’s roads to be a never ending adventure, a look into the essence of India. From the moment you touch down, India bombards you with sights and sounds. And that’s India! There is an unlimited range of experiences and sites available but no matter what your travel style, that intensity, the slightly overwhelming humanness of India, is what you will take away with you and what better place to observe the diverse Indian cultures than on the road. The sheer range of transport available is staggering from camel, to autorick, town car to tourist bus, you won’t escape without trying something new.
At the Taj Mahal we took an electric rickshaw, part of a new government initiative to reduce carbon emissions near themarble land mark, skimming along in what essentially amounts to a golf cart is a surreal way to view India and what do you know? the air was clear of the often present smog that blankets many of India’s cities, bringing the sky down low like a lid on the world.
At the Amer Fort in Jaipur I rode an elephant, weary but resplendent in his artful designs, who carried us with such swaying dignity that I wanted to free him to some non-existent ancient jungle. I learned that the elephants are only allowed to make 5 trips a day, by government decree, to stop over working of the animals. Though the conditions are far from ideal it is good to see the Indian government evolving its attitudes towards animals, in a country growing so quickly, small changes are still hard won.
Flying domestic to Chennai was the first time I had ever boarded an aircraft on the tarmac. After we had been escorted to our plane and were all strapped in, I was fascinated with the uniformed runway assistant in his white gloves, for all the world like a police officer at a broken traffic light. He held up one gloved hand and a massive 747 ground to a halt as he ushered another party to their plane, before signalling our plane into the flow of traffic waiting for take-off. A tiny man comfortable controlling massive metal beasts.
From Chennai to Hyderabad a sleeper train whisked us through the night. With old fashioned but spotlessly clean carriages, we shared a meal of spicy biryani that tested my slowly assimilating taste buds with our hosts, before transforming our seats into bunks for an uninterrupted nights rest. It is true that air conditioned carriages and first class travel is also available to bundle you dreamlike through the landscape.
Our taxi driver, (hired for the day to take us to several temples and sites around Delhi) was funny and generous in a way you stop expecting from people who have to deal with grumpy tourists all day. His car was well kept and smelt less of mothballs than most (Indians often put mothballs in the drains to stop creepy crawlies and the smell slowly permeates everything). As we returned after each excursion he would happily ask “Temple complete? Dinner complete? Dress shop complete?”
We talked in my broken Hindi about the concept of social welfare, a concept that he found hard to grasp and at the end of the day when we tipped him he promptly pulled over at a small stall and spent the money we had given him on small presents for us. The boyish delight on his face as we realized the gifts were for us made us almost ashamed of our typical Kiwi stinginess.
Even on foot the roads are an adventure from scuttling hurriedly behind anyone brave enough to step out into six lanes of traffic, in order to cross the road at the start of my trip to my last weeks when I master what we dubbed “the magical stop hand”. A purposefully raised palm that indicated how serious you were about crossing, followed by decisive but not hurried strides that somehow brought you to the other side of the stream of humanity unscathed.
The roads of India are inescapable; they are as many and varied as the people themselves and constantly plunge you into a sea of life. From the ever-present smell of moth balls, the indicating via horn, the light filtered through dust and exhaust, slowly assimilating hotter curries, the fields that go on forever before they reach the sky, lanes only as a rough guideline to traffic flow, the cheeky smiles of the children and the stares from under lowered lashes of adults curious of foreigners. India is all about intensity and nowhere is this more apparent than on the road. Though this might sound like a nightmare for some, surrendering to the inevitable and learning to make the most and enjoy the ride is a philosophy that India fully embraces.
So when the bus trundles towards you with the rusted out bumper and brightly coloured intense designs, with baggage and belongings piled high. Look a little bit beyond and see the stately elderly gentleman in the back, the family of farmers with their sacks of grain, the gaggle of school children laughing in the aisle and the young men hollering exuberantly from where they hang out of the door way, people from all walks of life. It may be a little intense, intimidating even, but just jump on. You never know what adventure it will take you on.