Planes, Trains and Auto-rickshaws

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

India today is a nation caught between the rich heritage of its past and the great economic potential of its future. In an extract from her provocative new book, Planes, Trains and Auto-rickshaws, journalist and best-selling author Laura Pedersen, reveals the tensions and contradictions facing the emerging world power

Laura Peterson

I discovered that 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 back room. 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 “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 pre- paid 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.

A scene from the famous film, Slumdog Millionaire

The real culture shock of New Delhi doesn’t begin so much with the separate exit from baggage claim for ladies as it does upon hitting the highway. You’re driving in a country where one hundred thousand people a year are killed in road accidents, which would be like losing the entire population of Boulder, Colorado, by the end of every December. The city of Delhi alone has about ten thousand accidents a year, with twenty- five hundred 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 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, thirty-year-old Fiat taxis, SUVs, donkey carts, oxen, bovines, goats, and equal numbers of three- and four-legged dogs. My favourites were 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 the bell from a bicycle. Think Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. None of these modes of conveyance contained seatbelts or airbags (unless you include animal bladders). Any- thing 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?

New Delhi

Did I mention the 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 gravitate toward the streets at a certain point, and on some nights two or three celebra- tory caravans roar past with music blaring, intoxicated revelers dancing, and the turbaned groom riding atop a blinged-out elephant or white horse. Which brings me 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 Indian licensing exam must be incredibly short. Some busy urban intersections feature a traffic cop, but he often gets into long conversations or conflagrations with pedes- trians, 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.

Map of India

The best strategy to avoid crashing into another vehicle is apparently for the driver not to acknowl- edge 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 Ani- mals” or “Vishnu Is the Answer” but rather “Horn OK Please” or “Blow Horn,” which seems like an invita- tion 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 the pulse-pounding Hindi hit songs “Kabootar Ja, Ja, Ja” or “Khamosh Hai Zamana” would make things better or worse.

Extract taken from Planes, Trains and Auto-Rickshaws – a  humorous and insightful collection of essays about travelling through modern-day India available to buy now on Amazon.

To read the second part of Laura’s story, be sure to log onto the CD-Traveller website tomorrow.

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