Somehow, I had expected Indian security to be a potential snag, but, quite to the contrary, we were ushered along and put through lineups with embarrassing expediency. I say embarrassing, because these courtesies were not extended to everyone, just to the token white folks on the flight.
Steven had warned us about the humidity we could expect at Mumbai, so while it was no surprise, it was certainly noticeable, even before we got off the plane. On the plus side, I had expected it to be much warmer, but the temperature wasn’t particularly uncomfortable.
Mumbai is a city surrounded by water on all sides – in three dimensions. It shoehorns millions of people onto a small peninsula in the ocean, situated at the mouth of a river delta. And, in monsoon season at least, it is pummelled by rain from above. Mumbai just drips. The buildings, which tend to be concrete and/or brick covered in stucco, are all festooned with vertical streaks of black mould. This has the tendency to make them look abandoned, even when they are teeming with life. In fact, new construction, not yet completed, has the look of abandoned ruins from this effect.
Everything is under construction – or reconstruction – here: roads, sidewalks, stone walls (of which there are many) and buildings. Or, perhaps, I should say apparent construction.
The roadsides are lined with building materials of all sorts, paving stones and bricks being the two most common, but there is little evidence of current human activity, only unattended, partially-finished projects by the thousands.
While Mumbai and Pune are both undergoing relative economic prosperity and building booms, there are no construction cranes here. Buildings are erected in the old-fashioned way, from the ground up. In fact, as new layers of a building are added, they are temporarily supported from the previous floor until the concrete has set. So it is quite common to see the forms of the newest floor of a building being held in place by hundreds of vertical wooden or bamboo rails until the concrete has set enough to proceed to the next floor. No continuous pours here.
We were picked up at the airport by a taxi driver that Steven had booked from North America. I admit to having been a little leery of what type of vehicle we would be traveling in for the five-hour trip to Pune, where Steven lives, but I needn’t have been concerned. The driver led us to his cab, a relatively new Toyota van with leather seats and air conditioning.
Just in case you did a double-take on the five-hour cab ride, you read correctly. In India, this is the most practical way to make the 150 km trip from Mumbai to Pune. If you ever make it to India, and you are tempted to do something like rent a car, please don’t. A western driver would turn to a gibbering mass of nerves within five minutes of trying to navigate the streets and traffic of an Indian city.
I am going to try to describe traffic in Mumbai and Pune, but I will fail – miserably. There is no way to do adequate justice with two-dimensional text to such a four-dimensional marvel. But here goes. Mumbai traffic is chaos that works, sort of. First let me lay out the underpinnings. There a no traffic signs of any kind, no street signs, almost no traffic lights, and no traffic lanes, at least none that anyone abides by. There are rare stretches of street with lines painted on them, but these are ignored with total gusto and abandon. The number of lanes is determined by the width of the vehicles occupying the road and the willingness of the drivers to jam them in as tightly as possible. There are no traffic rules, or at least none that anyone would appear to adhere to. There are, however, governing principles, which I believe can be boiled down to this: get where you’re going, as fast as you can, and try not to die in the process.
Indian drivers distill driving down to its essential components: the accelerator, the horn, the brake, and the gear shift, in that order. The horn is the essential means of communication, replacing other niceties, such as signal lights. To a casual observer with imagination, the swell of traffic might resemble an immense pod of nasal whales, in constant sonic contact with one another. Unlike other cultures in which the horn carries a certain tone of aggression, in Indian traffic, it is far more nuanced. Depending on the context, the horn can be used to intone:
- I’m here right beside you.
- Nudge over a bit, would you? There’s room for me here.
- I’m passing you, just to let you know.
- Hey, slowpoke, shuffle over and let me past.
In fact, rarely does it carry the kind of angry, North American tone which would accompany a flipping of the bird to the other driver. Its established role in inter-vehicle communication, is enshrined on the back of almost all trucks and other less agile vehicles with the painted sign, “Horn OK Please.” In other words, “Honk if you want to get by me.” However, that is not to say that the horn is never used to communicate, “Get the F____ out of my way!
I need to describe one manoeuvre in a common rickshaw ride to give you a taste for the experience. When leaving the neighbourhood in which Steven lives, rickshaw drivers are forced to make a right turn and proceed head-on into oncoming traffic for several blocks before they reach a break in the median which allows them to make it to the left side of the road (the proper side for driving in India). At that point, they simply cut across three to four lanes of oncoming traffic to make it to the other side, beeping their horn the entire way across.
U-turns in the middle of busy streets without medians are another favourite stunt. Streets with no medians also increase the flexibility of traffic flow, allowing drivers to “borrow” the oncoming lanes if there is no significant traffic coming their way.
Allow me to introduce the characters in the drama that is Indian traffic.
The most common is the rickshaw, the ubiquitous means of public transportation in India. Later, I will embed some pictures in this blog, but in the mean time, let me describe one for you. Take a motorcycle power train. Slap it on a tricycle frame. Adorn it with a front seat for the driver and a back seat for two or three passengers. Cover it with a canvas top, and you have it. There is also a cargo variation of the same which replaces the passenger area with a small covered box, essentially creating a little cube van. Rickshaws, and their larger cousins, the tempo car are powered by small two-stroke engines which burn a gasoline/oil mixture capable of spewing out particularly noxious fumes which, when mixed with the diesel smoke of buses, trucks and many of the cars, provides riders with more than their daily dose of harmful hydrocarbons.
In Mumbai, rickshaws are followed closely by taxis, which line the streets. All taxis in Mumbai are identical, black and yellow, a model known as the Premiere. They also all appear to be all of the same vintage, not recent.
Public transportation is rounded out by the occasional bus, packed to bursting with passengers. Trucks make up a small component of the traffic, less in the core of the city and increasingly more toward the edge.
Private transportation is limited primarily to motorcycles and the occasional car. Motorcycles and scooters are far more common in Pune than in Mumbai. While the most prevalent car is probably the home-grown Tata, there are many Japanese and Korean vehicles as well, (in decreasing order of prevalence) Suzukis, Hyundais, Toyotas, and Hondas). Completing the mix are a small number of Fords (Escorts), and a few GMs, but these are far less common. Most cars here are the size of a Honda Fit or smaller. Among the traffic of Pune or Mumbai, a Honda Accord (relatively rare) stands out as an absurdly large vehicle, so most North American cars and trucks would simply be too expensive and too awkward on Indian roads.
I say awkward because, in Indian traffic, size matters, and not in the way you might think. Motorcycles are most nimble, as they can bob and weave among lanes or create their own by ducking out into shoulder areas of the road as needed. Rickshaws are second in terms of traffic agility, mostly because of their size but also due to a sharp turning radius that allows them to pull a U-turn on a dime (in the midst of traffic) or even weave perpendicular to traffic at times.
Steven said that a colleague of his used the analogy of downhill skiing to describe Indian traffic, and that works to a degree. In skiing, you bear no responsibility for what goes on in your wake; your only concern is with avoiding downhill traffic. Indian driving shares this. And certainly the bobbing and weaving nature of a crowded ski hill holds many parallels to a crowded Indian street.
But skiing, even at breakneck speeds, doesn’t bear the inherent peril and urgency of an Indian street. A near miss that could rattle your nerves in North America and leave you shaken for hours afterwards would go completely unnoticed here. That’s because, within the next minute, you will experience ten more such near misses. When I began this paragraph, I intended to finish it by saying that even though we have experienced countless near misses, we have yet to even see an accident, but alas, on our way home in a taxi today we were part of a minor fender-bender. It was so minor that we didn’t even realize we’d been rear-ended until the driver got out of the car to accost the culprit who had hit us. Certainly, though, many vehicles bear battle scars that attest to a history of encounters that got too close, and buses in particular, probably because they spend so many years on the road, or perhaps because they are the least nimble inhabitants of the streets, look like cardboard boxes which have been waylaid by the postal service and have spent many months finding their destination; they arrive battered, softened, and crumpled in on all sides.
I also have to define near miss. Vehicles often drive within inches of each other. When I say inches, I don’t mean “less than a foot;” I mean within two or three inches. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for one driver to reach out and tap another vehicle as a way of communicating that he/she is getting rather close, and passengers on the backs of motorcycles will often reach out with an extended hand, as the motorcycle cuts past another vehicle, as if to physically nudge past while maintaining a modicum of space.
Motorcycles are particularly prevalent in Pune, and seem, to the visitor, to be a bold choice of transportation. Helmets are a rarity, as are mirrors. Again, what’s the point of a mirror when you are not concerned with what’s behind you? A fairly common sight is a man driving a motorcycle with a woman riding “sidesaddle” behind him. Children are often in the mix as well. Steven jokes of seeing a family of seven on a motorcycle, but our record sighting is a family of five. Scooters are popular among women, since they can drive them even in traditional dress.
I haven’t quite completed the picture of Indian streets just yet. There are still other, ambulatory players involved. Since sidewalks are the most frequent victims of re-construction, they are notoriously intermittent and unreliable. And the very moment a stretch of sidewalk is completed, it becomes prime real estate for parking motorcycles or setting up some sort of vendor stand (fruit, flowers, you name it). So, as a result, just as in small town Saskatchewan, people walk on the streets. Depending on the street, the shoulders of the road can be bustling with pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
Being a pedestrian presents its own challenges, particularly when it comes to crossing a street. If you were to try crossing the street the western way, by walking or running across in one, single pass, you would get picked off by a vehicle just as surely as a cat would catch a fat mouse. And it would be your own fault because you failed to give the drivers time to judge where you were going so they might avoid hitting you. Indeed, crossing the road as a pedestrian is probably one of the best ways to truly understand the nature and principles of Indian traffic.
The procedure goes something like this. Find a gap just large enough in the traffic to step out into it. Step far enough out so that the next motorcycle or rickshaw can zip past behind you. If you are crossing with others, walk abreast so that you present the slimmest profile to oncoming traffic and be sure to move in unison, following the lead of the person who is farthest upstream. Rickshaws and motor bikes present the best opportunity for making progress, as one or two bold steps in front of them provides enough space for them to slip behind you. If you remain still, traffic will continue to flow around you like water around a stone. You simply repeat this process enough times to reach the other side. It’s a bit like George Castanza playing Frogger across a busy New York street, but without the frantic side-to-side action. It requires some patience and steady nerves as traffic zips past you inches on either side, but many times, it is the only option to get where you are going.
The final players on the Indian streets are non-human. Throw in a smattering of dogs, donkeys, cattle, water buffalo, and goats, and the picture is complete. Dogs, donkeys, and cattle are usually random players, but water buffalo and goats are most often herded. I was amazed to watch three or four water buffalo walk placidly, single-file amid the bustling traffic of Pune, their only human guidance the re-assuring hand of the herdsman on the flank of the last buffalo in the queue.
Driving in India strikes a curious equilibrium between aggression and civility, between chaos and control. Here are a few short videos which might help to give you some idea of the nature of Indian traffic. These were taken on moderately busy streets in Pune.
I apologize for the sound. If you turn down the volume, you should be able to pick out the incessant beeping of horns just barely over the drone of traffic. Clicking on the titles will take you to Youtube, but the embedded videos are included as well.