Delhi Driving

There is a Formula One racetrack in Abu Dhabi.  Before I moved here, I had no idea that people “follow” Formula One in much the same way that people follow baseball or football (both the pigskin kind and the run-run-kick kind).  The racetrack raises a chicken-and-egg question for me: did they build a racetrack here because Abu Dhabians drive like maniacs, or do Abu Dhabians drive like maniacs because there’s a racetrack in town?  Do people in Indianapolis drive like maniacs because of the Indy 500?

The game here seems to be “how fast can you go between stop lights,” a game that’s also known as “ha-ha you didn’t know I was changing lanes, sucka.”  Maseratis, Ferraris, Porsches, the occasional Lamborghini, flash by in blurs of color and tail pipes, while the taxi drivers try gamely (terrifyingly) to keep up.  In order to move traffic more quickly, major intersections have “free right turn,” a lane that allows cars to turn right without stopping or slowing down for traffic signals or pesky obstacles like pedestrians.

Up until November 3, I thought Abu Dhabi would be a terrifying place to be a driver (it’s also a hair-raising place to be a pedestrian).

What happened on November 3, you ask? Simple. We went to India.

We’d arranged to be picked up from the airport with Namaste Tours and then to have a half-day tour of Delhi the next day with the same driver.  We figured that for the rest of our stay in Delhi, we’d manage on our own.  Our drive from the airport was so hair-raising, however, we decided on the spot to hire the amazing Prem Singh and his white Innovia mini-van for our entire time in Delhi, and our time in Agra, too.  (If you’re ever in that part of India, you want Namaste on your speed dial. In all senses of that word. Trust me. You want Namaste at the wheel). Prem:

Because Prem was driving, we were free to watch (with a white-knuckled grasp on our seatbelts) the Darwinian game of chicken that passes for driving in India.

Thank god there’s too much traffic in Delhi to speed (although people try).  Instead, what people do is honk. Honk to pass, honk to merge, honk to turn, honk to switch lanes, honk to the guy in the oncoming lane barreling down on you that he should slow down until you get back into your own lane.  Honk when the other guy passes, honk when the goats get too close, honk when the tuk-tuk stops in front of you (on a four-lane road) to discharge passengers or grab a cup of tea from the tea-wallah.

The lines painted on the road seem to be there for purely decorative purposes; no one pays them any attention whatsoever.  More often than not on a road designed (ostensibly) for two lanes of traffic there were four lanes jockeying for space: cars, tuk-tuks, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, pedestrians, horse-drawn carts, the occasional camel-drawn cart, motorbikes, small trucks, tour buses, commuter buses, taxis. All clamoring for attention, all honking and swerving, flashing their headlights, swinging out into oncoming traffic to gain a few feet.  We were so close to other drivers we could’ve whispered in one another’s ears without too much trouble.  Of course, we wouldn’t have been able to hear one another over all the horns.

Prem called the motorbikes mahsKEEtoes because of their drone and because they buzz in and out through traffic.  Now, you’ve seen people on motorbikes before, right? Maybe you’ve even ridden a motorbike, or been a passenger on a motorbike.  But the motorbike drivers in India put you all to shame: could you ride through heavy traffic with your toddler tucked in front of you? How about with a woman sitting sitting side-saddle behind you, holding onto your waist with one arm and holding her sari over her face with the other (to protect against fumes and dust)? Or perhaps you’d like to drive down the road with your passenger behind you carrying a roll of plastic about five feet long?

My personal favorite motorbike vision? The guy driving with a toddler in front of him and a another toddler sandwiched behind him, then a woman riding side-saddle with a toddler sandwiched between her and yet another side-saddle woman clinging on at the back. Grand total on the bike? Six. The drivers of the motorbikes (mostly) wear helmets, but passengers? Not so much. And the children tucked onto these bikes like parcels? Nope.

So now set all these vehicles (or vehicle-type things) in motion, add in any number of traffic circles, remove most of the traffic lights at intersections, and off you go, like a herd of honking turtles.

Prem-the-magnificent drove us from Agra to Delhi, which as the crow files is about 240km but on the “highway” took us almost six hours, in part because to get out of Agra we had to wend our way through streets like this:


and sometimes we had to pass trucks that looked like this:

or like this:

When we got back to Abu Dhabi, we all noticed that the streets seemed calmer, quieter, more manageable.   Sure people still go 120km between stop-lights and signaling is a lost art, but at least inside the city limits, there aren’t any goats on the road.

And you know what I did yesterday? I drove. Me and my Abu Dhabi driver’s license got behind the wheel of a little white car and drove down the road.

Formula One, here I come.

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3 Responses to Delhi Driving

  1. Ado November 17, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    Oh. My. God. I am forwarding this post to my husband! He will hear your pain! This is wonderful by the way – and I’m so glad your trip to India made driving in Abu Dhabi seem more possible! Good for you! I still have a hard time driving in Ireland and they don’t even have the “free right turn” lanes —> how scary is that?!
    Love this! Thanks for sharing it with me, I had a giggle and so will my husband!

  2. Alexandra November 18, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    Oh, funny, but TRUE!!

    When my family and I go to Costa Rica, we never get used to the bus drivers up those mountains.

    DEATH WISHES…all of them, with Death wishes.

  3. Aunt Soo November 19, 2011 at 1:05 am #

    I once drove a big old snorting Range Rover from Blantyre, Malawi, to Monkey Bay on Lake Malawi. Just me and daughter Dora. The pavement at times looked like freshly troweled concrete, several lanes, smooth and firm for say, 20 k, then with no sign or warning of any kind, it would just end with a 4-6 inch drop into a rutted two-track. And no one slowed or stopped, they just flew off the lip of the pavement at full speed — it’s a freeway after all — clunked down in to the sand or dirt, swerved a bit and continued to barrel along until they lurched up over the lip of the next stretch of pavement, another 30 k down the road. Even the trucks, with maybe a wooden dory jutting up in the truck bed with a mound of men clinging to it, or to side slats and each other in the truck’s open back, did this without slowing. I never saw one fly off, but surely they must from time to time. I think they did slow down a bit when they went back up onto the next stretch of pavement, so at least there was that.
    We got delayed on the way back to Blantyre and even though I’d been warned, drove the last half hour or so in the dark. Here’s a curious concept, almost like the on-again-off-again pavement. They drive in the open country with their headlights off. There are no other lights. And they drive very very fast, and people are walking along the road in an endless stream with babies on their backs and bricks and boards and crates of chickens on their heads and you cannot see a thing. There is a car riding your bumper and if you slow down to let it pass, it doesn’t. And best of all, when an approaching car (that you haven’t seen) is a few car-lengths in front of you, the driver flicks the headlights on and off, on and off, totally blinding you if not inducing seizures, until it’s passed. We’d just utter single word profanities, scrunch up our faces and hope we were in approximately the right place to avoid a head on — or killing someone walking on the shoulder. The scrunch and swear method seemed to work because we did neither. But we were mighty glad it was only a half hour to home and that we were on the outskirts of the city so it wasn’t quite so dark.
    Anyone know the death rate in places like this? I read somewhere that it’s very high in China, so it must be in India as well. At least in Malawi we didn’t have the same density because not that many people have cars. Small blessings.

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