How To Drive In India (And Not Die)

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 because the 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.

Final Advice
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]

Hundreds stranded by malfunctioning monorail at Disney World

Disney World is supposed to be the “happiest place on earth”, but for about 300 people who were trapped on the monorail when three trains broke down early Sunday morning, it was probably anything but.

The system suffered a power outage brought on by a failed hard drive around 1am on Sunday. The Magic Kingdom had been open late, and the trains were carrying the last of the park’s visitors back to parking lots and other resorts. Three of the trains were not in stations at the time of the outage, so passengers had to wait for almost three hours in hot train cars until help arrived.

Firefighters used ladders to get the stranded riders down. While a spokeswoman for Disney World apologized to the guests who got stuck, it seems the incident was a minor one. No injuries were reported in the shut down and trains were back up and running by the time the park opened on Sunday morning.

I’m sure sitting in a hot monorail car for three hours is no fun, but there are worse places to get stranded in Disney World. Who hasn’t had a nightmare about breaking down on the Small World ride and being force to listen to that song over…and over…and over again? At least the stranded passengers can be thankful that wasn’t their fate.

[via Chicago Tribune]

Road Trip: El Paso to Carlsbad Caverns…What Went Wrong?

Recently, my wife, my father, and I visited my grandmother in El Paso, Texas. One day, we left Grandma behind (sorry, Grandma!) and enjoyed a road trip from El Paso to Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico. If you’ve never been to Carlsbad Caverns, it’s definitely worth a trip. The huge rooms, gigantic decorations, and awesome colors are jaw-dropping.

Almost as amazing as the Caverns, though, was the drive from Grandma’s house to the Caverns. Living in South Florida, I was amazed by the wide, open spaces; the sharp, unfriendly-looking flora…and the speed limit. Seventy-five miles an hour?! Suddenly, I loved the southwest!

But while the first part of our road trip was mesmerizing, the last part of it was, well, not so great. So what went wrong?

We knew the Caverns were about 150 miles away from El Paso, so we were out the door at just past 8. We figured that’d put us in Carlsbad around 11, which would give us plenty of time to explore the caves and still make it back in time for dinner. (Although Grandma likes to eat what she calls “lupper” — a combination lunch/supper at about 3 or 4 — we knew that wasn’t going to happen. We figured we’d be home about 5 that evening.) We piled into Grandma’s Park Avenue, checked the gas tank — it was 3/4 full — and drove away.

Only a few miles outside El Paso, the terrain was flat, empty, and endless.

On either side of us was, literally, nothing. We passed a car about every 30 minutes. Finally, after about two hours, we reached Guadalupe Peak.

At 8749 feet, Guadalupe Peak is Texas’ highest point.

At the base of the Peak, there’s a small but adequate rest area…

…where we took some photos and stretched our legs.

It’s amazing here, because to the west, it’s fairly flat…

…while to the northeast, the Mountain rises up, almost out of nowhere.

After 20 minutes or so, we piled back into the car, and headed for the Caverns. We reached the place about 11:30, had a bite of lunch, and explored the Caverns for about 3 and a half hours.

Leaving the Caverns about 3:00, we figured we’d be home by 6. We tried to call Grandma to let her know, but there was no cell phone reception.

On the way out, we stopped in White City. Although the needle on the gas tank indicated we still had a fully half a tank, I thought it would be wise to fill up…just in case. I pulled up to the pump, popped the little door covering the gas tank, and grabbed the fuel nozzle. However, much to my surprise, the pump blinked “Please See Attendant.” Since the gas station was shut tight, I realized we wouldn’t be getting any fuel. Oh well…we still had half a tank. And in Grandma’s Park Avenue, that should be at least 10 gallons — plenty to get us home!

On the drive back, I was particularly impressed with the salt flats just southwest of Guadalupe Peak. The site of murder and betrayal in the mid 1860s, today the area is serene and peaceful. Yup, that’s Guadalupe Peak in the background.

My wife wanted to feel the water. She said it was warm, and the mud felt soft under her feet. I encouraged her to taste the water. She did. Was it salty? Surprisingly, no. Wasn’t this a salt flat?

We returned to the car and continued driving. The needle on the gauge read less than one-quarter.

A few minutes later, the orange “low fuel” came on. Gulp. Just a few minutes ago, the needle was hovering over the one-quarter mark. What happened? I didn’t know what to do. We had at least 60 miles to go. Should I announce the issue to the car? Surely, it’d just stress everybody out, and we were having such a nice trip! But I couldn’t just ignore it and keep driving. We rolled past an “outpost.” I wondered if it had a gas pump, but there wasn’t one.

I kept driving.

Finally, I confessed: “The low fuel light’s on.”

Nobody said anything for a while. My wife asked if I’d ever run out of gas before. “No,” I answered. “What about you?” She shook her head. I asked Dad if he’d ever run out of gas. “Once,” he said. “I was in my Dad’s car. The gas gauge was broken.”

We drove a little further. I was getting nervous. There was nothing out here. I didn’t want to get stranded.

We passed a road crew striping the highway. I rolled down my window and stupidly said, “Hey, the gas tank is on ‘E.’ Got any tips for where I could get some gas around here?” What a dumb question. We both knew I meant: “Hey, can I have some gas?”

“The nearest gas station is 16 miles west,” he answered, as he rolled up his window and drove off.

I slowed from 80 to 55, to conserve fuel. We turned off the air conditioner, because Dad said that was “good for a couple miles per gallon.” When we went downhill, I shifted into neutral, so as not to waste gas. I’m going to be honest: I was scared. I imagined us spending the night out here. That didn’t sound like fun.

Finally, we reached a Border Control post, which was odd, since we weren’t near a border. I slowed down, told the guy our problem, and asked him for some advice. I used my most pleading eyes. He smiled and said, “If you can make it to the top of this hill, you can coast to the nearest gas station.” I stepped on the gas and headed for the hill.

My hands were clammy as we ascended the slope. No one in the car spoke. You could feel each of us willing the car to make it to the top, to pass the peak, so we could get home. It was 6 right now, and we had 45 miles to go.

We crested the hill. I shifted into neutral again, and we coasted for about 10 minutes, cruising slower and slower…

…and slower. I looked at the dash. There seemed to be some extra warning lights down there. I took a deep breath and turned on my hazard lights. We were out of gas.

We kept coasting, but it was slow going. Where was this fabled gas station? That Border Control guy…I could wring his scrawny neck for getting our hopes up like that!

Finally, the car stopped. It was time to push. Just then, it started to rain. Naturally.

On the flat portion, of course, it was easy to push, but we finally came to a 1% grade, and we just couldn’t do it. We were — officially — stranded. The good news is that we were out of the mountains and into the out-outskirts of El Paso.

We tried the cell phone, and it worked! I called my insurance company. “Road and Travel Assistance,” a woman’s voice answered. “May I help you?”

“Yes,” I spit out. “I’m on the side of the road. I’ve run out of gas. And it’s starting to rain.”

She laughed.

While I understand that I wasn’t claiming my leg had been cut off in a horrible accident, I was hoping for some more sympathy. We discussed our location, and she arranged for a service vehicle to deliver some gas. “By the way, she said…you’ll have to pay for the gas.” Whatever, Lady — I’ll pay for whatever!

Between the pushing and the waiting, we were on the side of the road for about 45 minutes. During that time exactly 2 vehicles stopped and asked if we needed help. (Interestingly, both vehicles were driven by Hispanic couples. Coincidence?) Dad dismissed the first car by saying we were out of gas; he never thought to ask them for a lift to the gas station. The second vehicle was a truck, and they offered to take him to get fuel. Of course, it’s creepy seeing your father climb into a strange vehicle driven by people you don’t know. I wondered if this would be the last time I ever saw him.

Twenty minutes later, our saviors returned with my father. Muchas gacias, mis amigos!

Dad had purchased a one-gallon gas can (cost: $8.79) with fuel (cost: $2.89). He eagerly poured it into the car’s tank.

We loaded into the car, I turned the key, and…the engine turned over. We were ready to roll! Immediately, we called and cancelled the emergency vehicle.

When we arrived at the gas station — which was only about a mile up the road — the rain had cleared and out of the mist, not one but TWO rainbows appeared, ending at a pot of (black) gold.

It was a joyous moment. We filled the tank full and headed back to Grandma’s house. We arrived by 7:30. She had made a pot of tuna noodle casserole, and it was delicious. After a stressful afternoon, everthing turned out fine.

So what’s the moral of this story?

  1. If you go on a road trip, make certain you fill the tank full before you leave.
  2. Never trust a gas gauge that you aren’t familiar with. Consequently, see Rule #1.
  3. To call White City a “City” is the joke of the century. Do not visit and expect everything to be as you imagine a City should be. Again, see Rule #1.

Have you ever gone a road trip that went awry? How did yours end?