Shortly before we travelled to India to visit our daughter Elisabeth (who is studying there), she told me, ‘Dad, you should fly into Dehli so we can go down to the Taj Mahal’. I told her that we already had our tickets to Mumbai. Elisabeth said, ‘That’s okay, we’ll just take the train to Dehli.’ I didn’t realize that the ‘train to Dehli’ option meant 17 hours on an overnight Indian train.
On our first morning in India, we were finishing breakfast at our hotel when Elisabeth instructed us to ‘grab a few extra napkins’ and then her voice trailed off as she said ‘in case we need to go to the bathroom on the train’. So we pocketed a half dozen napkins and walked casually out of the hotel restaurant.
Later that day, as we sat in the Mumbai train station waiting for the start of our 17 hour train ride to Dehli, Catherine got a nose bleed. No worries, as we had our breakfast napkins. As she handed over the napkins, Elisabeth sighed, ‘well, I guess no one’s going to the bathroom on the train’.
(note: I laughed at the time, but she was right that the toilet on the train was a hole in the ground and toilet paper was nowhere to be found)
It would be an oversimplification to say that traffic is crazy in the large Indian cities that we visited. To someone from the States, it looks like total chaos and a dog eat dog system, and in some ways it is. But spend more time with it and you can also see a balance in there that can actually be quite graceful and works pretty well… that is, unless you’re a pedestrian.
One of our drivers, Shalman said it best when he told me that driving in India requires 3 things — good horn, good brakes, and good luck.
The honking in the Indian traffic was constant – honk, honk, honk, honk. But honking in India is not always the same angry tool that it is in the States (‘hey watch where you’re going!’). In India it’s more like a loud ongoing reminder (‘Here I am, here I am, here I am’) or a gentle (or loud) tap on the shoulder to let the vehicle in front of you know that you’re approaching quickly or are passing on the right (since they drive on the left hand side).
Even on a quiet street, many drivers will honk when approaching an empty intersection or a blind turn, or seem to enjoy honking at an unsuspecting pedestrian as they approach.
And certainly, if there’s an accident or traffic really stops, the horns are coming out in force like large army of ticked off geese.
We were surprised that we didn’t see more accidents — we only saw one accident and only one of our rickshaw drivers left the cart to yell at another driver. The drivers we saw in India were better and more attentive than drivers in the States, because the Indian drivers have to be or will be swallowed up like little fish. Indian traffic in a large city often tends to be a big cluster of cars, rickshaw taxis, mopeds and motorcycles, but is also a deceptively flexible system. It’s like a swarm of bees whose shape changes constantly with its surroundings. Road narrowing? No problem. A large object or cow in the middle of the road? Got it. These swarm movements are visible at a macro level, with the overall shape of the swarm shifting, and at a micro level, as one car moving to the right opens up a tiny space for a motorcycle to slide into and then a moped fills in the space left by that motorcycle. It’s fascinating to watch the traffic in action.
The danger of Indian traffic comes from the large number of vehicles sharing a small space, the speed and what becomes a revolving game of chicken, especially at corners and merging opportunities. If two motorcycles are merging, both of them will just keep driving, certain that the other will stop, and then, just as they’re about to collide, one of them suddenly stops on a dime or swerves to avoid the other.
When two unequal combatants come together, like a car and a rickshaw taxi, it often becomes a rolling game of ‘Rock paper scissors’, with the car’s scissors almost always beating the rickshaw’s paper. Funny, but while cars sometimes flex their muscles, the biggest winners of the diesel Hunger Games are often the motorcycles, who can outmaneuver everyone and fit into tight spaces.
You have to love the pedestrians, who are like the disappointed little brother who wants so badly to play with the big kids. I mean, the pedestrians are very much a part of the traffic landscape and some of them are aggressive in their street crossing, but when it comes to a head, they are also the one who has to stop and let the moto or car go ahead. In our first few days, we had seven different drivers, and not once did a driver, in the countless opportunities, ever yield to a pedestrian. Not once.
But you have to love the pedestrians’ attitude. They don’t give up and they certainly don’t let their frustration show. They just look past your car and wait for the next opportunity.
A result of the congested roads is travel time. When I asked someone how long we should plan on to make the 100 mile trip from Pune to Mumbai to catch our flight, I was told to assume 2 hours to get to the edge of Mumbai and another 2 hours or more to get the airport in the middle of Mumbai.
The girls with Henna on their arms A view of Pune (population: 6 million)
Cobra in Dehli Wild monkey near Taj Mahal
One of the elements of Elisabeth’s time in India has been her budding relationship with a Swedish exchange student named Hugo. And while every father (and some mothers) gasp when I tell them of our northern European addition, I tell them, ‘Look, I have an 18 year old daughter in India – and so a Swedish boyfriend is pretty low on the worry list at the moment’. Catherine and I met Hugo when we were in India and he’s a very nice young man (and besides, his Dad works for Ikea).
Four years ago, when Elisabeth returned from her summer job at a YMCA camp, she informed me that she had met a boy. As she said at the time, ‘He lives in Hopkins (the next suburb over) and I live in Edina, but we’re going to try to make it work.’ So I guess a Swedish-American Romeo and Juliet story doesn’t feel much different if you’ve just spent a year in India.
I’m just hoping for some discounts at Ikea.