On the Indian Road...since I have lived to tell the tale I suppose I should!
Now we are in a big car, outrageously loaded up with goods (only in India) and we are on our way to Jaipur. It's a long 6 hour journey and the driver is shouting into his mobile phone, telling his wife he's going to be late! We've had a "hoohaa" about seat belts and children's car seats and I look out of the window at whole families squashed helmetless on to motorbikes in heavy traffic. Often seat belts are only half there, just for show in the cities where nowadays the police are on the look out for their next "fine". Many do not actually have a plug to secure them into the car floor, or it is hidden beneath the newly stitched, newly fitted white seat covers. I've always got scissors. No one can understand why we do not have our children on our laps, especially when the baby is crying in the car seat....or their little heads are lolling about asleep....how can "Madam" be so inhumane and not hold her child?! "And what to do Madam, with my friend who is also coming on the trip? Now there's no room for him in the car!"
23 years ago, when I was first here, there were not these huge three and four lane roads. Road trips were very scary, accidents of huge proportions were normal sights. I remember sitting on a three hour bus journey in Rajasthan, up in the front of the bus with the driver, (tourists were always up there, more room for a rucksack and that way the drivers could keep an eye on us...sometimes too much looking at us and not at the road). That day I remember counting thirty six overturned lorry accidents on the way. Head on crashes and colourful lorries with their amazing contents spilled across the roads were so commonplace no one even batted an eyelid, unless a cow was involved. The lorries played overtake whenever they liked on single track roads and near misses were just normal. I learnt to ask for a seat further back on the bus, in the survivors bit, and still do that nowadays. Thankfully now, the roads are hugely improved, wider, but anyone can move freely about all over them, pretty much in any direction they like. The drivers drive for very long hours and some of them are off their heads on funny stuff that comes in small plastic pouches on every street corner, that they like to chew. The amount of drivers I have shouted at! Once, I admit, I even made one stop, kicked him with rage in an attempt to make him slow down and drive with care. I realised he was drunk and I ordered him into the back of the car and I drove the three hour journey myself....that was my first driving nightmare experience. I had refused to drive in India for eight years, saying I NEVER would, but these were now extenuating circumstances! It was night and I was run off the road into the desert sand countless times. I knew by then that the bigger you were the more right of way you had, and that flashing lights approaching meant "I'm coming on though so get out of the way" —not an indication that someone was allowing me to go! Being blinded by beaming headlights was just something I had to get used to. When I arrived I was truly in shock and properly done in! But, I had done it, found that I was quite good at sounding my horn, furiously flashing my headlights and driving on and off the road, and I was not going to miss my flight later that day!
Whenever I protested, drivers would always say "Oh, no problem, we are in God's hands", and they would point to their Gods poised on the front of their dashboards —in the most vulnerable place, I always thought. Appealing to the drivers and saying we were all in his hands never got me anywhere. As the roads improved over the years, so did the private vehicles. The fast imported cars started to arrive, and the wealthy families, never drove themselves, rather preferring to pay a boy racer, who they would entrust their new cars and more worryingly their entire family with. These drivers, for a while seemed to cause even more accidents. Lorry drivers were not used to their ways and the speedy confusions made things much more dangerous. I would appeal to men I knew not to send their wives and children off with these mavericks who clearly had no road sense, but no one accepted the dangers, rather preferring to think I was just a mad foreigner! Some drivers would actually be offended if I dared to put on a seatbelt, indicating that I was asking for trouble just by thinking of it! Then, as if in retaliation against the new rich, the lorries got bigger too. Now many of them are container size.
Seat belts became compulsory in the cities, so the drivers would wear them, or pretend to whilst driving in the city, and then as soon as they were going fast on the highway out of town, they would take them off!? Helmets for motorbike drivers also became compulsory in the cities, but only for the driver, and not if he was a turban wearing Sikh, and not for the wife and four kids you may be carrying on your bike.
Incidentally, I never ever get on a private bus —they look good, but they stop everywhere to fill up with passengers and then go too fast to make up the time. They are, in my view far more risky than the clapped out government buses.
Now I quite often drive myself, and one of my favourite Hindi expressions, to shout out of the window when I get road rage is, "Where did you buy your licence?" This causes much hilarity. When I first started driving in Jaipur I was just about the only lady driver. Sometimes, if I made a mistake (traffic lights change from green to red without amber in between) and the police tried to pull me over, with their whistles and their bamboo sticks, their mouths would drop open in astonishment at the sight of me, whistles would drop, and their sticks would lower, and I would just quickly drive off! It always amazes me that people stop for a policeman who is simply brandishing a stick from the side of the road at a moving car! Eventually I was made safe from any "trouble" from a cop, by mentioning the name of an inspector I knew. I only had to say his name and the scary police trying to nab me for being nothing other than unusual, would melt with disbelief and become like life long friends. I nearly crashed once, into a huge unannounced pile of gravel, dumped right in the middle of a dark and deserted road. I stopped in time but my heart was in my throat! Now there are loads of ladies driving on the roads of India, but many women and huge extended families are being driven, perhaps 16 family members all squashed into a jeep at one time, and there are still many young men taking jobs as drivers. They think nothing of driving nine hours up to Delhi to pick you up, and then having an hours rest and then driving you nine hours all the way back. In fact, they applaud each other and brag about how many long hours they are able to drive without stopping.
Indians definitely do not feel risk as much as we do, especially when it comes to road traffic safety. They do not flinch at the near misses, they seem to hardly notice them! Road trips here are not for the faint hearted, even now. I advise people not to look forward, but out of the side of the car windows, much less stressful. I just wish that there was more safely awareness! One friend had a dreadful accident years ago, nearly fatal. His fax to me in the uk after the accident announced, "This is the happiest message that ever I sent after surviving deathful accident near Bandasindri"!
I dream of one day having a microphone, perfect Hindi, and a big screen with a road safety campaign. —"Why you should wear a helmet on a bike and a seatbelt in your car" videos playing behind me on the streets of Jaipur, but I know, in the main, people would just laugh at me and say, "Do not worry" or "Look at that crazy foreigner"!
India can be a very infuriating place!
Then I wonder if I feel more alive in India because I am actually about to die at any given moment?! Live life to the full in this very moment..it may be your last! We are, after all, in God's hands, and I've prayed for Him to keep us safe many a time! Maybe that's why we need so many extra Gods here? Thank God for that!
For now, my family are all strapped in and despite all the horn blowing they are asleep, surrounded by our bulging soft baggage of colourful pom poms, tassels and ribbons. The driver isn't chewing anything and seems to be weaving through the traffic in a fairly sedate manner, perhaps he's waiting for me to be asleep too! No chance of that for me, soon we'll be in Rajasthan and I'm too excited!
Approaching a big traffic jam on the highway between Delhi and Jaipur, lots of cars are simply doing three point turns and coming back in the wrong direction to get back to the previous slip road! I managed to catch a few on camera! Imagine getting away with that! Must stop writing incase I miss something!