Playing Chicken on India's Roads

GETTING AROUND INDIA

Travel via India’s roads can be a challenging experience for most foreigners. India is a large country with many points-of-interest scattered throughout. Usually one arrives to one of the major airport cities and then uses ground transportation via the roads or rail. For the first part of my trip, a small group of us took a pilgrimage to the 9 Planetary Temples, known as Navagraha, in Tamil Nadu. We had a 12-person passenger van and a trusty Tamil driver named David from Chennai.

From our “base” town of Kumbakonam, we travelled between two and five hours each day to and from the specific planetary temple for that day. While the temples visits were very exciting, the trek via India’s roads was also quite an experience in and of themselves.

THE ROADS

There are not many divided highways except between the major cities. Most of the roads connecting towns of Tamil Nadu is a long stretch of paved two lane roads with a narrow dirt shoulder on either side. There roads are full of pot holes which most good drivers like our make a point of veering around, even if it means driving into the opposing lane. In fact, driving in the opposite lane is more the norm than exception as I’ll describe later. The pot holes were likely a result of the heavy trucks pounding the pavement and also the softening foundation from monsoon season.One other noticeable difference is the lack of traffic lights or signs. There are few traffic lights in the cities, almost none in the towns and on the roads in between. In our base town of 160,000 people, all the intersections were un-posted. Between all the drivers there’s an understanding of right-of-way here; usually starting with the bigger vehicle is right.

THE TRAFFIC

Traffic is a mélange of vehicles which are usually carrying their maximum capacity. Starting with the big and bad, there are massive 2 axel trucks, which look more like something out of a Mad Max movie. Then there are tractors pulling large trailers, usually overfilled with cargo. During our visit, it was sugar cane season so we observed symmetrically efficient pyramids of cane bound on top of their platforms. Next are the buses, all were open are and bursting with riders standing. The buses reminded me of the San Francisco Trolley with the way people would be hanging out from the non-existent front and back doors.

On down the roadway food chain, past the cars and vans, are the autorickshaws.These are yellow half cabs, which are more akin to a tricycle with bench atop a two-stroke engine. Highly maneuverable these “autos” can weave in and around traffic like no other. Then there were the motorcycles, sometimes carrying more than two persons, all without head gear. I often peered at the determination on the faces of the sari wearing women riding sidesaddle, balancing with both legs on the same side.

Of the non-motorized category, there are adults walking to and fro, usually carrying some large bag, or large groups of uniformed school kids, overflowing the shoulder.Then there are the cows, which considered holy, carry a very unconcerned look, and bulls trudging along two-by-two as they pull wagons of cargo.

Lastly, there’s traffic that is caused by other who make use of the traffic. In the agricultural areas, there are farmers on the side of the road who spread wheat across a section of pavement, letting the rubber wheels be the chaff-separator. Watching them work the small batches, I admired the innovative way they made use of our combined weight. Similar to working in a road-side construction zone, it is surely a difficult grind out there.

TEAM SPIRIT

As I rode in the front seat of our van, I watched our fearless driver David maneuver us from one temple city to another. While most the foreigners cringed at the razor thin margins between the on-coming cars thundering by, David was unfazed, or more correctly focused on what was further down the road. There is an common ethos of the people who share these roads, which I can only describe as a mix of bravado and teamwork. Similar to co-opetition, vehicles ahead are both a hindrance and a helper. At first it sounded like everyone was chaotically honking and flashing their lights. But as I got into the rhythm of the road, the honks were the knock-knock and knock-knock back which communicated whether it was safe or not to over-take another car. Flashing lights from on-coming traffic were meant as both a warning and an appeal.

On the bravado side, it would seem that the roads are a bit too narrow for each vehicle to stay in their lane, so most cars would drive essentially on the center line (sometimes imaginary). At first sight of an on-coming vehicle, the first response counter-intuitive response is to veer into the center further. It was a way of both drivers saying, “Look out, I’m coming your way.” They it seemed at the last moment both machines would begrudgingly veer back towards their side to slide by each other, like two subway cars passing with a few inches of separation.

Passing is a similar story, many vehicles would overtake even with visible on-coming traffic. It was a game of chicken, who would blink first? So common was this stare-down between driver and driver.What would happen is that the overtaking car would keep on pressing the gas, leaving only two choices for the other: slow down enough for the pass to complete, or veer off the road into the shoulder. When the latter happened, David would look over at me with an air of “that’s life” on his face. Or sometimes, the opposing machine had the perceived mojo, forcing David to hit the brakes and dive back into the regular lane.

All in all, the self-resolving chaos on India’s roads actually works. While we came “this” close to hitting people, cars, and buses, somehow no one was hurt and we made it to our temple for a much needed respite with meditation.