Blow Horn: Surviving India’s traffic is an adventure
We were hemmed in by a pack of gaily painted and be-ribboned trucks on a busy two-way street in Jaipur, India. The command to “blow horn” was decoratively painted on the back of every one of those trucks, sometimes twice.
Not that anyone needs persuasion. Blowing horns is the common language of India’s drivers. They chatter constantly to one another. Some favor the short, continuous toot. Others prefer a long blast. Together, the cacophony calls to mind a discordant orchestral warm-up session. And if there are no other vehicles on the road? Drivers blow the horn to break the silence.
Traffic — well, surviving traffic — may be the most exciting adventure travelers to India will experience. And it’s an unavoidable adventure, if you’re going to get anywhere. So there I sat, in the back of a covered three-wheel motorbike — a tuk-tuk — with a two-stroke engine producing all the noise but none of the power of a top-end BMW road hog. We were wedged, nose first, into a small opening between trucks, making our way, inch-by-inch, toward a mountaintop fortress. I met the eyes of the motorcyclist to the left, who was also aiming to squeeze between the trucks. I could have reached out to shake hands. Same on the right side.
Rules of the road are flexible in India— open for interpretation, you might say. Traffic lights, especially red lights, are more suggestions than strict instructions. Lane markings are guidelines. A two- or three-lane highway, for example, easily accommodates up to four more lanes, particularly when there are sidewalks or flat shoulders to use for passing. I have watched — from the back seat of a car — as two or three semis fought over the single lane ahead of us, seemingly unaware of smaller vehicles like mine.
If you think I’m kidding, let me tell you about a taxi trip from New Delhi to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. My most macho brother was in the front seat. He was so unnerved by the chaos, he kept shouting out the window: “No brakes! Get out of the way! No brakes!” After 30 minutes, we switched seats so he could sit in the back. On the other hand, I took a cousin to India recently and she insisted on the front seat. Sitting in the back of a stop-and-lurch vehicle made her carsick.
Longer trips call for a car and driver, or even a train. But for efficiency in cities, you can’t beat the tuk-tuks. They’re designed for a driver and two, maybe three, passengers, and are the favored transport of saree-wrapped women and small families.
Then again, space in India is what you make of it. I’ve seen tuk-tuks with four men wedged into the narrow back luggage space, facing outward, with their legs hanging over the edge. Another four occupied the seat built for three. An additional three faced those passengers, their butts perched on the rail separating the passenger space from the driver. With a willing driver, one more can be fitted into the front space.
Tuk-tuks generally have an air of decay, though I’m sure they were new at some point. Like trucks, they are often gaily painted with the ubiquitous “Blow Horn” edict.
They have mileage meters. Those aren’t relevant, ignore them. Fares are negotiable. Settle the price before stepping inside. I usually ask someone what the fare should be, then count on paying up to double that amount. The rides are cheap, I’m a Westerner and I don’t speak Hindi — the extra rupees are a tourist’s premium. Foreigners are highly desirable passengers. Step into the street, and you’re like a bread crust attracting crows. Find a driver you like and book him for the following day and the day after that.
Be forewarned. Every driver will want to take you shopping. Doesn’t matter where you’re going, they will first take you shopping.
“Madam, this store has very good prices. I bring him many clients. He will give you the best price.”
“Madam, I will take you to the best jewelry shop — very good prices, I assure you.”
“No shopping,” I insisted to my driver, who introduced himself with the unlikely name of “Flower.” Nonetheless, he traipsed me to a furniture emporium, three jewelry stores and the best — he assured me — antique mall. I ooh-ed and aah-ed and smiled, then gave my standard response. “I’ll think about it.” Just give in and get it over with. Shopping done, I climbed back into the tuk-tuk.
Two white horses with silver saddles trotted past. In Rajasthan, a bridegroom customarily arrives on a bedecked white horse or in a horse-drawn silver carriage. These two were rental horses, I gathered, judging from the casual dress of their riders. As it was wedding season, I saw a few more of the Marwari horses with their distinctive inward-turning ear tips.
On our second day, Flower and I set off on a jaunt to Amber Palace, a restored 16th-century hilltop fortress outside of Jaipur. I settled in, tucked my purse securely under my hip so it wouldn’t fly out the open sides, and took a deep breath, released it slowly and chanted “ohm.” Just kidding — I followed the advice of a non-drug-taking friend who says she fights stress by thinking, “I’m on Valium. I am on Valium.”
Traffic is an elemental force in India. It is also a spectacle.
The 30-minute drive to Amber Palace stretched into an hour, then 90 minutes, then two hours. Flower maneuvered, back-tracked, squeezed, nudged and bullied his way through obstacles — a construction-constricted intersection and an unexpected local Islamic holiday, with hundreds of black-clad Muslim families streaming through the business district toward their temple. Flower punctuated the soundtrack of horns with an occasional exclamation of “Oh, God!” — mostly, I think, to impress me with his efforts.
Meanwhile, I enjoyed the spectacle — the mustard-yellow betel shop, customers milling at the window; three buxom old ladies in shawls, eyeing me from their own tuk-tuk; and curious children staring through windows of air-conditioned cars. For them, I was part of the spectacle.
Fat burlap bags of spices, all the colors of curry and chili peppers, were clustered on the sidewalks. A shopkeeper perched on a stool in his doorway; nearby a woman in a red saree sat on a blanket, sorting beans.
Have I mentioned the motorcycles?
Motorcycles accumulate by the dozens at intersections. I see them as starlings, slipping individually by and between larger, slower vehicles, then swarming in mysterious patterns through traffic.
Typically, they carry one or two passengers, often a woman sitting sidesaddle, a hand lightly on her husband’s shoulder, while the tail of her saree flutters dangerously close to the wheels. There may be a 20-pound sack of rice wedged between them, or a child or two tucked in here and there.
Bikes, bicycle rickshaws and human-pulled freight wagons jostle for what space remains. When possible, they go with the traffic flow. If not — well, rules are flexible.
Bravest and boldest of all are pedestrians. Crossing a street on foot in Jaipur requires a steely willingness to walk into traffic without meeting the eyes of on-coming drivers. I’m weak-willed and weak-kneed in that regard, generally stepping off the curb then immediately hopping back. Once, a boy navigated through a knot of cars to escort me across a busy intersection. My only advantage as a pedestrian is my red hair. It flags me as a foreigner, probably more trouble to hit than to avoid hitting.
Eventually, we reached the Amber Palace. It’s spectacular. The trip back to the city was even more arduous than getting there, but not without its own spectacle — a painted elephant, on it’s way home from work.