Planes, Trains and Auto-rickshaws: part two

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India today is a nation caught between the rich heritage of its past and the great economic potential of its future. In the second part of 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

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 and thus have the right of way.

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 spin-off called IRT: 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 com- pletely petrified for their lives. Apparently the treach- erous roads of northern Alaska are nothing next to this death-defying automotive extravaganza. Or as the circus proprietor who encounters a pushmi-pullyu in the musical Doctor 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 passen- gers with ear-piercing brake squeals and unintelligible announcements while rodents freely plied their trade far from Habitrails. Street preachers with ZZ Top beards shouted apocalyptic pronouncements up and down Broadway while brightly costumed fortune tellers sep- arated tourists from their money on the cracked sidewalks of Greenwich Village. My second day in town, a woman standing behind me in a New York University lecture hall announced that she couldn’t sit down because of hemorrhoids. That would have been more than enough information right there. But no, she had to add that these hemorrhoids were the result of “pushing too hard.” Sensory overload. Since we were in an educational environment, she apparently assumed this was a teachable moment and concluded with, “So be careful.”

Alone in the bustling capital city of Delhi, I reminded myself of all the things I’d learned, sometimes the hard way, about city living: 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 are 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. This is so different from Manhattan, where no one pulls out a gun, because chances are that every- one 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.

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.

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