Monthly Archives: March 2010

Rough and ready transportation

India is a hard place to get around. Distances are large and the roads are very, very bad. No wonder Indian businesspeople use airplanes wherever they can.

The smallest vehicle we’d typically use is the auto-rickshaw or tuk-tuk. These three-wheelers are basically a tin can on top of a small motorcycle. They are loud, polluting and slow, but very convenient. Drivers are experts at fitting small boxes between lanes of traffic, turning on a dime and often whizzing by cars and people with only a centimeter to spare. And remarkably, we found we could squeeze all our bags and ourselves into one of them. In several cases where there was no alternative, we took a tuk-tuk twenty or thirty kilometers across the countryside.

Automobiles are widely available for rent by the day. For less than the cost of a US rental car, one can hire a car with a driver who knows how to negotiate the cows, people and other obstacles that clutter an Indian highway. Lanes are for reference only and drivers pass on curves with more reliance on their horns than on visibility. The cars are usually recent Tata models, but when saving money one can also get a more classic look. Although the following Ambassador looks like it drove out of a time machine, it came off a local assembly line new in 2008.

Buses are everywhere, both in towns and across the countryside. Most look like they were riveted together out of sheet metal, which conveniently makes them easy to fix after their frequent crashes. Inside, they have the upholstery of an American school bus and sometimes the “feature” of a DVD playing Bollywood gangster flicks at high volume. Because we value our eardrums and longevity, we took as few buses as possible.

Trains are the way to go as long as you’re not in a hurry. The Indian State Railway network is the second largest in the world, and they move a lot of people around the country. Running on wide-gauge rails, Indian train cars are huge, sleeping six people in three-tier compartments, plus two more lengthwise across the aisle. Relatively comfortable air-conditioned cars are available. Trains run slowly, often stopping for a half an hour or more to let others pass. 400 kilometers is typical for an overnight journey. But despite all this, they work and they are reasonably safe.

I think I’ve finally got the hang of making a train reservation. This can be done either by sitting in a long line in the advanced booking office or by using the railway’s website. The website is more convenient because reservations can be cancelled online rather than by standing in another line at a station that might be way out of the way. Even so, the railways’ website is a disaster, often unavailable or timing out faster than one can complete a single booking. The website is run on underpowered servers that crash daily at 8am when the next day’s tickets go on sale. But it’s worth a few hours online to be assured of a bed on a moving hotel that isn’t likely to have a head-on collision with a tuk-tuk.

India – Seen on the Street

Motorcycles and Helmets

More affordable and more nimble at navigating through traffic-choked streets, the motorcycle, or 'bike', is a common family vehicle. Signs along city streets and rural highways read 'Think of your family. Wear helmet'. It is common to see a family mounted on a bike driven by a helmeted adult male. An adult sari-clad woman rides side-saddle behind the driver. A child often sits in front of the driver and another between the woman and driver. The woman may carry a babe in arms. I have even seen women passengers nursing babies as the bike zigzags through traffic. Only once have I seen a passenger wearing a helmet.

Muslim Women

Muslims comprise 5 and 24 percent of the population of south Indian states. Like Hindu women, Muslim women are more likely than Muslim men to wear traditional clothing. An ankle-length, long-sleeved, loose-fitting black robe marks a woman as Muslim.

Traditional clothing includes a large headscarf, either the circular khimar or the rectangular shaylas, which covers the head, neck and shoulders. The combination of robe and headscarf is called hijab. A few women also wear the niqaab, a face veil covering the nose, mouth and neck and sometimes the forehead as well. In south India robes are often decorated with floral designs made of silver sequins and cut glass beads that sparkle with sunlight as women walk.

Women in hajib rarely cover their hair completely. Similar to the way the sari's end is used as a head covering for modesty or for protection from sun or chill, the headscarf is casually draped over the top of the head with loose, long hair or a braid hanging down the back.

Often brightly colored pants of the salwar kameez peak out beneath the robe, or the front of the robe may be open revealing colorful silk clothing.

It is common to see women in hajib, and even naqiib, walking alone or with other women in hajib, sari, or salwar kameez. Even though it is uncommon to see women driving motor bikes, I saw a woman in hajib and naqiib driving one.

Seat Belts

All the cars we rode in had seat belts, but it was obvious that they were rarely used. Riding as a passenger with a professional driver can be a white knuckle experience. So we confused drivers by insisting on working seat belts.

This meant unloading backpacks from the trunk, fishing around for the missing clips, pushing them up into the back seat and releasing shoulder straps stuck behind seat backs. Once we insisted on changing cars so Tom could buckle up in the front seat. None of our drivers buckled up.

Auto Headlights

Instead of switching from high to low beam, oncoming drivers switch from low beam to blinding high beam. Perhaps this seemingly odd practice is a night time version of a daytime practice.

Daytime driving involves passing one slow moving vehicle after another, ideally without slowing down: buses, trucks, cart loads of cut sugar cane pulled by tractors or a team of oxen. Traffic is heavy on the narrow two lane roads. A driver passes as many slow-moving vehicles as possible, pulling back into his lane a breath before meeting head on with an oncoming vehicle. Oncoming vehicles turn headlights on as a warning.

Lax Law Enforcement

There is a general lack of law enforcement at all levels of Indian society. Seat belts and safety helmets are compulsory nationwide but there is no enforcement. Drivers routinely ignore the most elementary traffic safety rules. For example, motorists run red lights en masse, even though small groups of police officers man many major intersections.

As of October 2008, the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare banned smoking in public. Smoking is illegal countrywide in public buildings, trains, buses, bars, restaurants, theaters, stadiums, stations and bus stops.

Public opinion polls have shown that 80 to 90 percent of the population supports the ban. We did not encounter smoking on trains and buses or by our professional drivers. Some restaurants maintained strict bans on smoking. But smoking continues unabated in many prohibited places as local police officers show up, smoking, to collect their customary tip to ensure ' pleasant cooperation' in the district.