I’ve been working on this post more than anything else during this trip because it’s probably been the most startling thing we’ve done and words can hardly convey the experience. My parents sent us video clips a couple years ago of the same thing but it didn’t make much of an impression until we sat in the car and faced death alongside them.
India doesn’t really have traffic laws. I know that sounds incredible and I am aware that technically that’s not true but there’s a big difference between having laws and having laws that people obey. Speed limits? Stop signs? Red lights? Lanes and turn signals? Those are all really just suggestions when it comes to driving here and I can’t tell you how many times I was so sure I was going to die that I just put my head down and prayed with my eyes closed.
We drove five hours out to Chennai on the east then back and again four hours west to Kabini and several little excursions in between so I think I have a pretty good grasp on the situation and let me tell you it’s terrifying but if you survive it's the biggest adrenaline rush you'll ever experience. Cars go as fast as they want (generally), will often go the wrong way on major roads if it suits them and if Sampath had his way we’d travel at a constant 140 kph (about 100-110 miles per hour—something like that).
We zipped in and out of trucks (lorries) and cars like we were in a video game and I think we were one of the faster cars on the road because we seemed to do most of the passing. There’s a food chain on the road and the bigger you are the more rights you have. In fact when the mission office got a new car Sampath had a bigger, deeper horn installed because the louder you are (or the bigger you sound) the more respect you command.
In the U.S. pedestrians have the right of way but they’re really more of a nuisance in India. It’s like a caste system and the biggest vehicles will get the attention and if you’re unlucky enough to be a person on foot you and you alone have responsibility for keeping yourself alive.
Besides pedestrians you’ll see bicycles, lots of motorcycles and scooters, auto rickshaws, tractors pulling loads, even Brahma bulls pulling carts loaded with green coconuts, hay or watermelons. Normally you’d give them three or four feet of space (at least) but here cars buzz by so close I don’t know how people aren’t swept up in the vortex and carried along to certain death.
You’d think with all the crazy driving that there would be lots of accidents and there are—kind of. About 800-1000 fatalities in a year for a city of 7 million. So there are lots more accidents than you’d see in Anchorage but compared to how many people are on the roads it's hard to believe more people don't die and I credit this to the Indian people's amazing reflexes. No really, they are mind-boggling. I've never seen such drivers and cyclists--I told Sampath he'd make a killing in NASCAR.
And patient, wow are they patient. While Americans flip out over someone cutting them off in traffic I never once saw anyone get angry when cut off, brushed by, blocked or inconvenienced. If you saw someone coming toward you down the wrong side of the road then stopped and blocked you as they turned illegally you'd probably blow a gasket but Indians take it all in stride. They might--if truly provoked--give "the hand" which is simply a gesture that is the equivalent of a frustrated shrug. They'll raise their hand, palm up, with the fingers pointing at the other driver as if to say "What was that?" But that's it. No fingers, no shouting, no profanity.
But accidents do happen and I saw some myself. At one point we rode by a battered motorcycle resting next to a pool of blood large enough to signify death with one abandoned flip flop sandal resting at the edge. People were still standing around, discussing what had happened long after the ambulance (or hearse) had disappeared because Indians are incredibly curious and will congregate around any curiosity (including a tall blond American woman) even if it's to see an accident.
That leads me to my parting thought which is a little diatribe against western ideals. Not too long ago the biggest auto maker in India--Tata--came out with a new car called the Nano to be sold for $2400 US dollars. It’s tiny, it’s itty bitty but the point was to make a car that average Indians could aspire to owning. A great idea, right? Well not according to the New York Times. They came out with an article decrying the Nano because as a micro car it would be dangerous. Oh the irony.
Yes, I suppose it would be more dangerous than, say, driving a monster SUV, but obviously the writer had never actually been to the country he was preaching to. It was a case of someone in America thinking they knew so much better than a billion Indians and that American rules are appropriate for everyone.
The fact that the Nano was hugely safer than the motorcycles they’d be replacing never entered the argument. Or the fact that they’d be cleaner than the ancient machines most Indians ride seemed irrelevant in the face of the vastly superior American values. The writer probably didn’t even realize that the thousands of women I saw riding on motorcycles side saddle risk their lives because their saris and scarves will sometimes get entangled in the motorcycle spokes.
The moral of the story? Just because something may fit into your culture doesn’t mean it will fit into someone else’s culture the same way so be careful what you impose on others. I can’t help but think that whoever it was that was driving that motorcycle might now be alive if he’d been driving an Nano.
If you'd like a peek at what it's like to drive around I'll give you this clip that shows us on the highway. It doesn't look like much but it felt like we were in a Bond movie and we were going about 120-140 kph. The second part shows what the crowded pedestrian parts of the city are like though there are pedestrians everywhere, including on the highway. It'll give you an idea of the experience and the rocking Indian music is just a bonus.
Sponsored by Beau-Coup for unique baby shower favors.