On my recent trip to Italy, I fell hard for the tiny Piaggio Ape (say AH-peh, means bee in Italian, for its pleasant hum), a glorified Vespa scooter with a truck bed or a back seat attached. In Italy and India, you see the adorable vehicles everywhere, outfitted as delivery trucks or touristy rickshaws. With its small footprint to park nearly anywhere, high fuel efficiency and low city speeds, I think the Ape might be the perfect car for a New Yorker who just wants it for IKEA runs and those times you find a really amazing coffee table on the street.
Researching the viability and legality of these cars outside of Italy (maybe okay in America, if you don’t take it on the highway), I found the Taurinorum Travel Team, a group who has been raising charity funds with some incredible adventures. They started in 2009 in West Africa, touring in a comparably large Fiat Panda. The first Piaggio Ape trip was in 2011, from Quito, Ecuador, to Machu Picchu, Peru, for the centennial celebration of the ancient city’s discovery and to support biodiversity (watch the little trike car make it over 4,000 kilometers here). The ApeMaya trip last year went through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, ending in Chichen Itza to combat violence against women. The 2012 trip was designed to coincide with the end of the world as prophesied by the Mayans, but the tuk-tuk survived the 3,000-mile trip. Check out more of their beautiful footage here.
No news yet on their 2013 trip, but I hope they can stop by Brooklyn so I can take it for a test drive.
In India there’s a man for everything – the wallah. The chai-wallah dispenses your tea. The auto-wallahs drive the ubiquitous auto rickshaws. The dhobi-wallah does your laundry. They are India’s indefatigable industrious core and the exact opposite of a jack-of-all-trades.
The mastery with which these wallahs perform their one task is often mesmeric to watch. A chai-wallah mixes his liquid ingredients with a balletic grace, launching a pot full of boiling spiced tea across space precisely into a waiting cup. The auto-wallahs navigate through gaps in traffic with an instinct that borders on precognition. The dhobi-wallah’s metronomic dunking and slapping of shirts and pants could stand in for any band’s rhythm section.
So in a country where electricity can be unreliable, it only makes sense that Indian fun fairs turn to the wallah to keep the good times rolling, as seen in this antique Internet video from four years ago. An Indian fair ride can be a terrifying thing (witness the rusty, squeaking supports), so the impressive acrobatic talents of the Ferris wheel-wallah are all the more admirable – maybe not join-in-the-fun admirable, but certainly regard-from-afar-with nodding-approval admirable.
They say you can reach a meditative state through repetition. Who is to say if that’s the case here, but the white-shirted gentleman certainly appears to be in the zone.
India‘s vast geography is a canvas for adventure, but such a big country invariably poses transportation difficulties. The solution to long distance travel in India has generally fallen under the purview of the country’s iconic railway network. In spite of delays and crowds, the train is the best way to see India.
Some might notice India’s ever-expanding road network and be tempted to hop behind the wheel. They might have visions of the open road, quaint towns and beautiful countryside, a trip unconstrained by bus or train schedules – a Kerouac experience for the yogic set.
I had similar thoughts before I entered India last year after driving there via Europe and the Middle East. I had seen the video of crazy Indian intersection below, and I naively assumed that type of scene would be rare. Then I spent two months driving from Amritsar to Kolkata covering almost 2,000 miles on back roads, high roads, trunk roads, city roads, mountain roads and paths that should be ashamed to call themselves roads. About 5% of the driving was sublime. The remainder was a grueling mental and physical test – less Kerouac, more “Mad Max.” I loved a lot of things about India, but driving was not one of them.
So my first piece of advice for driving in India: Don’t.
But if you’re the adventurous type, and you’re going to do it anyway, you need to know a couple things to survive that asphalt jungle. I lived to tell the tale, and I pass on this knowledge so that you don’t become one of the 140,000 people that are killed in road accidents in India every year.
With the type of chaos on display in the video below, it might be assumed that there are umpteen rules, unwritten and otherwise, that every driver strictly adheres to. In fact, there are only two: Rule 1: Don’t Hit Anything. Rule 2: Don’t Get Hit.
Straightforward, isn’t it? But as the Japanese say, the reverse side also has a reverse side. Beneath these simple precepts lie several conventions that are indeed unwritten, which allow for traffic to function normally. None of these practical guidelines bear any of the hallmarks of normal rules or laws, like standardization, adherence or enforcement. Consider them to be broad suggestions on how to not die on Indian roads.
Rule 1 is important becausethe last thing you want to do in India is crash into someone. While mob justice is rare, insurance and liability are a huge worry.Follow these four guidelines to ensure you don’t cause a diplomatic incident.
Praxis 1.1: Drivers only see what’s in front of them.
Indian drivers are forward-looking people in one very literal way. Under no circumstances should you assume that anyone will check their mirrors, if they have them. Drivers of cars and transport trucks alike will brake and swerve willy-nilly like a Camaro in a car chase. Anything behind their peripheral vision is not pertinent, and for all practical purposes, doesn’t exist. If you cream someone who swerves into your lane at the last minute, that’s your fault, bucko.
Corollary 1.1.1: All mirrors are vanity mirrors. Corollary 1.1.2: Whoever is behind, even by an inch, is always at fault in a crash.
Corollary 1.1.3: Don’t assume that vehicles have the same safety features as yours, like mirrors, airbags or working brakes.
Praxis 1.2: Be ready to brake.
On the road in India, remember the Boy Scout motto. Never assume that a gap in front of you will stay clear, or that there won’t be an impromptu cricket match after a blind turn on a mountain road. Be prepared. As I was driving on the four-lane divided highway from Agra to Varanasi, I rounded a long bend to find two extremely drowsy cows blocking both lanes. I hauled the car down from 70 mph to 0 with inches to spare. The cows were unperturbed by my horn and I had to slowly creep forward until a light kiss from my bull bars made them get up and move, like a couple of unimpressed teenagers.
Corollary 1.2.1: Animals are everywhere.
Corollary 1.2.2: You can get 7 years in prison for killing a cow.
Praxis 1.3: Use your horn at all times.
Timid foreigners driving in India are at first reticent to use the horn, which back home is deployed only in extreme cases of grievance or impending danger. Since every minute on the road in India is an extreme case of grievance or impending danger, it’s imperative to use the horn liberally and confidently. In addition to establishing dominance, you’ll learn a horn has many other uses, among them relieving boredom, filling awkward silences, breaking up cricket matches and waking cows.
Corollary 1.3.1: The louder the horn, the more important you are. Bonus if it plays a melody.
Corollary 1.3.2: False flag operations, where tiny hatchbacks use foghorns to part traffic, are not unheard of.
Praxis 1.4: Don’t drive at night.
Driving at night is almost a surefire way to hit someone. Until the sun has been well and truly down for several hours, nobody turns on their lights. Then every driver flips on their high beams, utterly blinding oncoming traffic. Humans and other animals are sadly not luminescent, but pedestrians and cows don’t distinguish between night and day when it comes to walking patterns. Just as pedestrians seem to have little sense of the speed of an oncoming vehicle, they also don’t seem to realize they are virtually invisible at night.
Rule 2 is just as important and subtle in its observance. Remember every parent’s pathetically thin defense when faced with lending their car to their teenager? “We’re not worried about you, honey, we’re worried about other drivers.” Were the kids raised in India, this excuse would hold a lot more water.
Avoiding getting hit is less about following any laws, and more of an art or a craft – an instinct, if you will – for avoiding vehicular tragedy. Fortunately, it’s an instinct that can be developed with experience.
Praxis 2.1: Small vehicles make way for large vehicles (Might Makes Right).
Philosophers and historians agree: when Thrasymachus contended that justice remains the domain of the strongest in “The Republic,” he was auguring modern traffic dynamics on the subcontinent. Drivers these days have adopted this ancient maxim. More practically put, that 10-ton truck is going to merge into your lane whether you like it or not.
One night I was inching forward on a jammed two-lane artery road into Haridwar. Several bus drivers who were sick of waiting in our lane simply turned on their musical horns (C1.3.1) and maneuvered into oncoming traffic, high beams flashing. Traffic coming from the other direction parted like a zipper, some vehicles veering into our lane, displacing smaller cars and motorbikes, others nose-diving into the ditch on the other side and bouncing along on their merry way. Point is: move, unless you want to argue the finer points of justice with ol’ Thrasy in the afterlife.
Corollary 2.1.1: Position yourself next to a smaller vehicle for an escape route.
Corollary 2.1.2: Upon a meeting of vehicles of equivalent size, inch forward until one driver yields.
Praxis 2.2: Signage isn’t relevant.
Speed limit? That’s when your car can’t go any faster. Stop sign? Invisibly located behind a tree. Red light? Shmed light. Don’t get hung up on the details like lane markings or “one-way” streets. These are merely road decorations. If you attempt to stop at a red light when everyone is flying through at 40 mph, things will end poorly.
Corollary 2.2.1: Go with the flow.
Corollary 2.2.2: For every sign restricting the weight of a vehicle there will be a smaller vehicle carrying a load as heavy or heavier than the restricted vehicle.
Praxis 2.3: Chill out.
Indian roads are not the place to freak out on somebody. If you get all road rage-y on someone who cuts you off, you’re going to get bashed up.
Here’s an example of how it can go wrong: I was driving into Agra, and vehicles were five abreast on a two-lane road. A little rickshaw hauling about eight people appeared out of a gap beside me and started to worm in between my car and to the left-front of me. Indignant, I moved slightly forward to cut him off (C2.1.2). He squeezed; I inched. Then he gunned his little motor and plowed through, ripping off my front bumper. He stopped and him and all eight of his passengers stared at me. The moment when my mouth was agape, registering my shock, was all the leeway the driver needed. He gave me a little head waggle as if to say, “No hard feelings,” and then lane-split his way down the road.
Another example: at a tollbooth in the country outside of Kolkata, three young men piled into my car. They wanted a ride into the city. At first I protested: my car, in spite of its appearance, was woefully underpowered and the shocks were gone. They simply smiled and wouldn’t leave. I relented. They turned out to be friendly, and I didn’t have to pay any tolls all the way to Kolkata. Also, one of them gave me a samosa.
Point is, if you stick to any principle you have about driving, you will suffer for it. As with all irritants in India, the solution is to take the long view.
Corollary 2.3.1: Every gap is navigable if your vehicle is small enough.
Corollary 2.3.2: Personal space on the road is as abundant as personal space in a crowded Delhi metro car.
Corollary 2.3.3: An accident in India is going to hurt a lot more people than just the driver.
Corollary 2.3.4: All vehicles are pack animals, designed to be worked until their last gasping breath.
If none of this has put you off from driving in India, then you are certainly cut out for it. It is actually sometimes very much worth it. The scenery off the beaten path, especially in the northern mountains, is unparalleled and difficult to access without your own vehicle or a personal tour guide. The apprehensive might parcel out their fate to a local driver who navigates Indian roads on a daily basis, but the thrill-seekers will see to their journey themselves. Just be aware that if you do tackle India like this, you’ll need a vacation when you get back.
N.B. If you are riding a motorcycle, all bets are off.
[Photo Credits: lead photo Bernard-SD; all others Adam Hodge]
Nicaragua is a beautiful country. There are stunning beaches, active volcanoes, mountains, mangrove swamps, picturesque islands and just about every type of terrain you can imagine. But on a recent visit to Nicaragua, I found all of the creative ways that people travel even more fascinating than the landscape.
There are about six million people in Nicaragua but in some parts of the country it can feel like at least that many people are en route somewhere at any given moment in every type of conveyance imaginable. You see people everywhere coming and going from work or school, hauling firewood, or transporting goods to sell on the street or in a market.
%Gallery-181146% There are plenty of cyclists, and it is not uncommon to see two or three people riding on one standard bicycle. (A Nicaraguan friend swears he’s seen up to four school kids on a bike but I never saw that many.) I never saw a cyclist wear a helmet – understandable in a poor country – but it was more than a bit disconcerting to see so many adults wearing helmets on motorcycles but carrying children on their laps without any protection. There are carts being pulled by horses, donkeys and cattle. There are trucks with open or caged areas for human passengers. There are rickshaws and, even more fun, open-air three wheeled moto-taxis.
And then there are the ubiquitous chicken buses, many of which have colorful names, logos and designs. I rode one chicken bus called “El Brujo” (The Witch) because it services villages near Granada where people go to consult witches. Most chicken buses are old school buses from North America and riding them is like a trip down memory lane if you grew up Stateside in the ’70s and ’80s. There were no live chickens on “El Brujo” but we had plenty of entertainment: a blind man came in to play the harmonica and a host of others came in and out at the bus at various stops to sell cold drinks from plastic bags and other treats (see video above).
%Gallery-181145% Taxis in Nicaraguan cities like Granada are dirt cheap and fun too, because they usually will continue to pick people up if there’s even a sliver of space in the car, or even if there isn’t, providing you with an opportunity to mingle with locals. Even ordinary cars can be a lot of fun because many Nicas like to plaster them with slogans, decals and other decorations. My favorite car had logos for Flor de Caña rum, an energy drink and Jesus Christ.
And of course, there are plenty of people getting from point A to point B the old fashioned way: on foot. Some of these people, including a lot of really tough, strong women, carry tremendous bundles on their heads. Check out the galleries to see all the creative ways that Nicaraguans roll. It’s a poor country and many of the people you see on the roads need to get where they’re going just to survive but a traveler passing through this country can’t help but admire their creativity and determination to get where they are going.
I was wandering around the Lower East Side last Friday night when I heard screaming and saw New York’s Rickshaw Spider-Man entertaining passengers and pedestrians alike at the street corner. I stood in awe and watched him, Shaun Emerson, as he glided up and down smooth and rough walls alike with abandon – and with his pedicab in tow. My husband took his own video, but this video shows the man at work a bit more clearly. Rickshaw Spider-Man has been spotted regularly in Alphabet City and the Lower East Side in NYC. My biggest regret of the night? Not following him around the corner and asking for a ride.