Monday, January 18, 2016

The Great India Adventure: Driving

Our first van
I was messaging with one of my friends while in India, and to describe the driving I wrote this:

'... Just crazy driving that has me praying for my life by the millisecond. You see the driving on TV and wonder if that is real? Well they are showing you the rated G version... Especially because I thought I lost my life about 100 times and woke up in driving hell, and then I saw Father's Cheshire cat grin and realized it was all just part of the adventure.'

You may be laughing at the description above, but the reality is people endure this driving and traffic daily, just to get to work and make a living. What I learned while in India is that wide, well maintained roads, lane lines,enforced traffic laws, traffic lights, stop signs, parking spaces, etc. are all things that I have taken for granted, living in the United States. 

When we arrived in India, our first outstanding driver picked us up from the airport at which point we learned that we were going to spend the next ten days with him. He was going to drive us from Bangalore, to Mysore, on to Vythri, to Nileshwar, Kottayam and then Munnar. This driver was hired to keep us safe for over 600 miles, and it isn't an easy feat when you consider the road conditions. Basically, what would take about 8 hours to drive in the United States, would take over 24 hours plus to drive in India.

Our first masterful driver.
Our first big drive from Bangalore to Mysore was a warm up for what was to come. You see, this drive was approximately 90 miles. I thought GREAT, I will be able to rest my head in a bed in less than two hours, right? Oh so wrong... The 90 mile drive took over 4 hours. This particular road was fairly wide, for India standards, and since it was the early morning, we were only moderately impacted by cars driving at us head on, and motorbikes zipping between the cars. This was also the first glimpse we had of cows having the right of way. Yes, you read that right, cows have the right of way in India. 

Don't mind me. 
So, our drive to Mysore was semi-uneventful, and our driver Shiju kept us safe all while smiling along the way. While in Mysore we got our real first glimpse at the function of traffic circles in India. All my Columbus friends, who are having struggles with the new traffic circles around town? Well, I'm here to tell you to quit complaining and follow the directions in the circle. 

This is NOT a camel crossing sign. It is a sign for the rumblers.
After a couple day stay in Mysore, we moved on to Vythri, for a few day stay in the forest. On our drive to the forest, I was so sick that driving on smooth, straight away roads would have made me feel ill, but add to that potholes, rumblers and switchbacks (what they call hairpins), and this sick girl was ready to have Shiju drop me off on the side of the road to rough it for the night. Fighting off wild monkeys would have been more appealing than the drive that was still ahead of us. 

Our driver got into a car accident (it wasn't his fault), after which he was hit by several men through the window. It was unsettling especially because there was literally nothing we could do to help him out. I was thankful that there happened to be a police officer nearby who got involved and sent us on our way. At this point we moved on to make our way to the hotel. I was so excited to see the signs for our hotel which stated we were less that 3km away. My body was soon going to have relief from the roads, or so I thought. The first indication that the final few kms to our hotel were going to be 'bumpy', was when I noticed the road only comfortably fit a small compact car, have I mentioned yet that we were traveling around in a 15 passenger van? At this moment of awareness, I should have rolled over and tried to sleep, however this road would not have accommodated that desire.

The potholes were deep, the road was narrow, the turns were tight, the cliffs were steep, but after 45 minutes we released the breath we were all holding because we made it to our hotel! I knew this road was something new for our driver, when he pulled out his cell phone, attached it to the dashboard and video taped our drive down the mountain, when we finally ventured on to our next destination.

I could tell story after story of such driving, but what am I glossing over? Well, the head on collisions that our driver masterfully avoided by honking his horn and forcing the motorbikes toward the curb. I'm also glossing over the intersections that had no stop signs, and required the driver to cut off long lines of traffic to get into the flow of traffic.

The view from the front seat of the van. Yes that is a van driving head on toward us. 
A truck driving with boulders in the back. Take note of the the width of the road, that is a two lane road... 
After many days with Shiju, we went on to another driver in Goa. There was nothing notable about our driving experience in Goa, probably because we didn't spend that much time in the van... We were back to exciting driving when we arrived in Delhi! Rakeesh picked us up at the airport, and it was so refreshing to run into a friendly face after hours of travel and a not so savory driver in Goa.

Rakeesh informed us that he was going to be with us for five days. Our first trip? A drive to Agra from New Delhi. This 130 mile drive would take us about 4 to 5 hours. Why? Because of traffic, and extremely low speed limits. Because I was so tired, I found my way to the first row of the van and slept for a couple hours of the drive. I was excited the roads were fairly mild, compared to the roads we had already traveled. But Rakeesh had a different set of challenges driving in the city. The traffic, more rumblers, a bunch of foreigners giggling in the back of the van, cows on the highway, were all various obstacles that were encountered along the way. Add to it, my relentless teasing about something random on a daily basis... The poor guy!!!

My biggest regret, however, is that I turned down a ride on a motorbike...

The best thing about Rakeesh though, was not his driving, but instead his willingness to answer both driving and cultural questions alike. I would have enjoyed several more days of his city driving, just to learn more about the people in India! I was too wrapped up in what he was willing to share with us, that I was able to withstand almost being crushed between two trucks that were both merging right into our van. 

Here are a couple notable pictures of the driving situation in New Delhi. 

Random New Delhi traffic.

The back of the trucks say 'Blow Horn' as this is the notification system to tell people to get out of their way!

Anyway, I want to say that our two main drivers were fantastic, and although I was clenching my fists and hitting the imaginary break in the back row of the van, they always made me feel safe, and 'landed us safely' to our hotel every day. 

Next up? Sleeper cars and train stations, wildlife, culture and religion, father time, the HOLY cow, etc. 

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