Daily Archives: February 23, 2012

Driving in India: a handy Highway Code digest

With warm affection.

(Government of India: I knocked this up after a traumatising trip in a tuk-tuk, refined it following 100k in a taxi and edited following 150k on a bus. I then threw in reflections on being here 18 years ago and watched a repeat of the Top Gear India special. I’ve left it random for you to have some creative input in prioritising/grouping etcetera. I have avoided images as they may be too terrifying. Feel free to cut and paste the whole thing into officialdom because, really, no one seems to have a clue out there.)

  • Always drive on the left
  • Well, notionally make an effort to.
  • If it suits.
  • Give way to the biggest vehicle but only at the last possible moment. (Experiment suggestion for self: wait at an urban crossroads for 2 “Fast Passenger” buses to see what happens.)
  • In general: Biggest vehicle wins. Got a sea-container on the trailer of your rig? Got air-horns? You rule. Simple as. Go find a cross-roads.
  • The horn. If your vehicle has one, use it use it use it. The horn is an indication of presence. The horn is a request to move over. The horn is sounded to say “I am passing on the left or the right or I am not stopping or look out here I come or none of the above.” So stay sharp.
  • If you’ve got a kick ass air-horn and a bus, go crossroad hunting.
  • Motorcyclists always… no. NEVER… no. Ah, I’ve got it: There are helmets on the market folks, feel free to purchase. But as for any other form of even rudimentary safety gear? What’s the point? It’s way to hot to wear shoes let alone gloves. Leathers? Haha, my leg you are pull isn’t-it?
  • After dark: Turn your lights on unless you don’t have any or they are broken. In any case just carry on as normal. Maybe use the force if you’re a Jedi. Otherwise, make peace with your deity of choice and go for it. What’s the worst that can happen with everyone careering around in the pitch black at speed?
  • Vehicle ornaments such as turn indicators wear out if you use them. I mean, look at the number of popped (or possibly deliberately disconnected) brake lights. Bulbs are expensive, so it’s pointless wearing them out willy-nilly. If you see a fellow road goer employing signal-lighting ignore them as they need to get the message that using them is a waste of good light bulbs. How else are they going to learn?
  • Park just where-ever the hell you want.
  • The wrong way down dual carriageways (with paying customers aboard your cycle rickshaw) is just fine. Let the oncoming cars, vans, buses and trucks deal with it, you’re a busy man.
  • When learning to drive in an appropriately garish liveried vehicle, do so at an exaggerated slow-mo pace as if there was a deadly spike emanating from the centre of the steering wheel sticking in your throat and you have no seat belt.
  • When you are through the learning phase, forget anything you may have been taught and go for it.
  • Drive an enormous mid-20th-century rigid-chassis lorry? Overtaking without checking who’s alongside? This is dandy because hey! You’re A TRUCK.
  • Truckers: Nice religious liveries on those wagons guys: psychedelic primary colours rock. Great – presumably 100% ironic – use of safety legends such as “STOP” on the rear. If you drive one of these monsters, please do so with a wild (quite possibly chemically induced) 500mile stare. Make sure your truck is cartoonishly overloaded with inadequate load securing devices more suitable for decoratively securing Christmas pressies. Also, have a mechanic/acquaintance/vagrant aboard. It just seems sensible somehow to have a cab-based chum.
  • Long distance overnight heavy goods/passenger vehicle driving: Before you drive, fail to get adequate rest. Perhaps consider over-loading your antique, zero maintained vehicle yourself in the heat of the day and then set off at bedtime having little to eat. Take drugs. (The 500mile stare starting to make sense now.)
  • Notes on having a massive truck accident during the hours of darkness. For instance: something which tears the axles out from under the vehicle and sends it tipping over into the oncoming carriageway. As you awake from your slumber and hopelessly attempt to correct the doomed trajectory of your behemoth, ensure this violent overcorrection leads to fishtailing and – thanks to your poor grip on the term “overly high centre of gravity” – certain partial, or even total inversion. This inevitable wreckage can be pre-enhanced by carrying a load of suitably dramatic character if scattered upon the highway. Terracotta roofing tiles (X several thousand) are an ideal choice: they make a visually exciting redish scar on the road and entail quite of bit of dust. Driver and mate: wait by your truck doing nothing following your smash. This serves as a message to other road users as daylight fills the scene and other accidents you caused/road users you’ve collected by being an unlit hazard act as poignant accessories to your misfortune. (See the points of lighting above.) Again, stay close by – sitting in a shady spot under the split gearbox casing for example – particularly if you are traumatised, don’t know what to tell the gaffer, or are by some miracle perfectly fine. Or dead.
  • Notes on having a minor road accident: no real cast iron advice except block the carriageway and draw a crowd. Even if it’s just a scratch.
  • Other road users. Gawp hopelessly at the scene of a juicy accident and then once by go like the clappers as if it could never, ever happen to you. (This is the standard in Europe, should be fine here too.)
  • Fast Passenger bus drivers. Although you are using the very same roads as everyone else, the clue is in the title. It’s not the notion that you leave the local buses to pull over and pick up at every bus stop. No-siree. Your role is to get your passengers there FAST. I look forwad to seeing you at a crossroads.
  • Ordinary Passenger bus drivers. Look man, it’s not that you’re a nobody. You’re SPECIAL. [We love you, don’t we guys? Right?] It’s just that you’re not a Fast Passenger pilot. Why not vent your frustration by overtaking other motorists in an ill-advised that’s-why-we’re-all-going slowly moment – say, in a crowded village during a festival with kids everywhere – and then pulling in at the next bus stop 25metres later. Repeat.
  • Bus drivers travelling down switch-back, mountain inclines with laughable safety infrastructure: treat it like a gravity challenge. Take the 1950s Ashok Leyland out of gear and let the good times roll! Or at least until you’ve cooked your brakes – that’s what that smell is along with that middle pedal gone all floppy – and then kerrrruuuunch it into gear whilst trying not to hit anything. There, you’re a natural. (Those broken bits of armco lining the precipice with skid-marks leading up them? Try to blank them out.)
  • If you are the driver of a “Fast Passenger” bus and you see a bald white guy waiting near a crossroads try not to think about what he’s doing there.
  • New small car owners. Sweet ride maaaan. Way to use that horn!
  • Taxi drivers. Make a fuss about the extra cost of AC with sweaty, wimpish Westerners aboard. They will pay ANYTHING for you to press that button and you can be rich beyond your wildest dreams. SO FOR THE LOVE OF YOUR CHOSEN DEITY, TURN THE DARN AC UP!
  • Tourist taxis (I mean YOU: Minibuses, MPVs, 4X4s and Executive Germanic cars): Blast that horn and whisk your occupants past the real India on every occasion. Deliver your fare efficiently chilled to their next pre-arranged, packaged tourist jaunt so they learn NOTHING about the people of the country they are visiting.
  • Got a vehicle with no lights but a loud horn? Nightime? Woo-hoo!
  • Drivers: Make NO EYE CONTACT. Nada. Zip. Zero. This rule is non-negotiable.
  • Kerala Passengers: Give an expansive friendly wave and smile madly at blonde western kids making them feel special.
  • Horns: Please choose from the following list:
  1. Goose farting in the fog
  2. Deafening
  3. Shrill
  4. Painful
  5. Ear-splitting
  6. Annoying
  7. Multi-note-but-somehow-not-tuneful
  8. Heart-attack inducing
  • Tuk-tuk Drivers: only know where the hell you are going in your own town about 30% of the time. (Stop and ask 2 or 3 equally clueless people before having your paying passenger point out the way.) Charge wildly varying prices for exactly the same journey. Hassle tourists when they are obviously enjoying a stroll then disappear when they’re pooped and want a ride home.
  • Broken tuk-tuk? Roll over onto its side and bash with a hammer. There: you fixed it!
  • Other maintenance: Optional. Road worthiness is a state of mind surely?
  • Bicycles: with only one tough gear on your almost Victorian Hero brand steed. To make progress take it slow and stately. No braking now, you have earned that meagre momentum. Appear utterly unflustered at anything else in this ‘Code. You rock and you know it. Big respec’ [thumps chest as if down with the kids].
  • Pedestrians? Best of luck.
  • Late middle aged pedestrians crossing national highways buzzing with cars, trucks and buses: Step off the curb into the oncoming traffic without looking. Make this apparently deliberate move stick by ignoring the horn/tyre screeching cacophony and repeating on the other carriageway. (Apparently a gender specific rule, or maybe men don’t cross roads in daylight cos it’s too sissy.)
  • Road signs: Optional. Where used, ignore. For example: Speed limits, STOP, Children Playing. It’s sweet that someone installed them and all, but they just aren’t relevant with so many other things to consider.
  • Safety Signage: on mountain roads, garnish the shoulders of the road with occasional rhyming advice. “Speed thrills, but also kills!” or “Watch the road, distracting view!” and “Stop driving like that, you utter….”
  • Traffic lights: Avoid. If encountered treat with suspicion and/or disdain.
  • Dealing with inclines: Do not change down a gear when clearly going too slowly for, say, 4th. Chug-chug-chug. Hoppity-hop. Stutter. There, you’re off again! (Would have been pointless swapping cogs.)
  • Potholes deserve your respect. They are world class open-cast depressions excavated by the Gods and you should traverse them accordingly. With reverence and mechanical sympathy (but without changing down from top gear. See above). Failing that, not slowing at all and simply swerving into the path of oncoming vehicles to avoid the hazard is fine too. (Side note to all Indian motorists: you are equipped to traverse the surface of the moon if the Indian Space Agency so chooses to go there. Your Moon-Rover CV credentials are in advance of anyone else on earth.)
  • Speed bumps: slow down* to 0.07mph and – ooooh – ease yourself over that fella as if you have the worst case of piles east of the Suez canal. Then chug-chug-chug up to speed again.

* Unless you’re on a motorbike, in which cane it.

  • Young buck motorcyclists: get your speed up, get your stance right, tip the ‘bike into the turn and take the racing line. No prisoners, maximum attack, qualifying lap commitment. Valentino Rossi is a two-wheel hero and you can be too. Although most likely posthumously in your case as unsighted crossroads with no apparent traffic control can’t have the greatest long term survival odds now can they?
  • Overtaking. In general? Go for it. Sure, just pull out. There’s nothing that could happen that you can’t sort out mid manoeuvre. Probably. And if it is starting to go pear shaped? For example: blind bend, you pull out, bend tightens and there’s an overladen, ill maintained bus coming the other way on a loose surface? Best carry on your intention as if they weren’t there. But do blow the horn as if it’s all their fault. Make no facial expressions nor vocal indication of it being a closer shave than a seventeen-blade razor. Steely eyed determination is the look you’re going for here. Besides, your Western (paying) passengers are making enough noise for everyone. Learn nothing from the experience, you’re alive right? So what’s to learn other than it’s an approach that works.
  • Overtaking an overtaker: See above.
  • Road rage: doesn’t happen in India, so let us not concern ourselves with it.
  • Mobile phone usage? Yes. (All telephone functionality permissable.) Additional for taxis: that call might be important, better answer deapite the prevailing traffic conditions.
  • Traffic hold ups: See overtaking. IE: Just go for it. Then, when you are inevitably toe-to-toe with an oncoming driver at walking pace and have effectively gridlocked the road, elbow your way in to a gap that isn’t there. (See No eye-contact & horn usage above.)
  • Animals: Lots of? Check. Look, a cow! A herd of goats. Monkeys. All over the carriageway. Your point is?
  • Delivery-spec plastic coverings on car seats are to be left in place in 30C+ heat.
  • Panel repairs are to be completed by the under-threes using papier-mache. (Apparently.)
  • All of the above is entirely optional.

To be continued (as India’s break-neck drive [sic] into the 21st century gathers inexorable momentum). Am awaiting the call to formally pen the Highway Code for our friends at the Indian Department of Transport.

Yours, waiting with sandwiches by the phone.

No, really I am. You need to sort this out.

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Alleppey & the road to the Hills.

David Hasselhof? Move over. We have Bay of Bengal watch here. Just about the coolest dude you could ever meet in a uniform – hat, shirt, shades, a slim shapely trouser & matching flip-flops in 36C heat – overseeing the safety of bathers on the shore in Alleppey. Total number of bathers? Two. In truth was simply too hot to spend time on the beach and this seemed to be borne out by the utter lack of locals. Pristine, palm fringed beach, shining sea, yet plenty of space to put your towel down. Even the sand crabs – which are mighty quick movers – seemed keen to get out of the sun, burying themselves in a jiffy. Mad dogs and Englishmen…

The Indian Mr Hasselhof in firm charge.

We retire to the shade of a local bar and find out more about our location. Alleppey was the premier port for the coir industry from the 1860s. The canals were dug to bring the product from the fields to the processing plants and on to the waiting ships. A British Captain – I’m imagining an impressive moustache here – drove the whole enterprise with the vision to construct a three-tracked railhead at a metal pier. The pier and docking offices stand decrepit and morose even under the blazing Keralan sun. The pier looks like a smaller version of the wrecked one in Brighton, but this one was only ever for industry. In 1920, Cochin outstripped Alleppey and that was that.

Former glory

Which brings us to the water babes who when they see a sea just want to fling themselves in it. I suppose in a similar way that when I see a nice pier I want to run to the end and toss myself off into the sparkling ocean. (Chaps: I think you know what I’m talking about.) Whilst I am a strong swimmer, caution is uppermost of the undertow that a fierce beach break can conceal. The men of ‘Baywatch won’t have a bit of it: get in there kids. Cool.
Alleppey on a Saturday evening equates to bustling turned up to eleven on the dial. “Even madder than Delhi” pipes up daughter as we forge through the cheery throng, son shaking hands with local chaps as he walks point. I manage not to buy spices despite their beauty (aromas and displays) as the mission is dinner. Malabar fish curry, tandoori fish, veggie rice & noodles, parotha washed down with fresh lime sodas, ice creams: clean plates all round. £9 well spent.

The most bustling of bustling places was a joint that seemingly all the young men in Kerala were trying to get a piece of. From a distance it seemed like a throng of folks clamouring to get a glimpse of a rock star. A little nearer and it had the feel of a mob or a swarm. Up close, just visible through the crowd, a shabby, metal caged, state-run shack. Behold the off-licence. Booze is not so easy to come by here and clearly a Saturday night thirst is too much to bear. How we laughed, tutted a little and shook our heads at their folly: Drink, eh? Who needs it? Then, how we were curiously parched when we got back to our homestay. Our host then played a blinder by rustling up a biiiig bottle of Kingfisher. [Uuuurrrp.]

Slept well and failed to rise early as our room was cool (a plus) and windowless (also a plus on this occasion). Time to bid farewell to the bashfully helpful Ashtamudi Homestay and take a ride up to the hills. We’re talking a mere 100k here in a new Mahindra/Renault.

It took six hours. (Welcome to India Gilly.)

No, not car trouble nor an accident. Partly due to car-sick kids – STOP THE CAR! – and partly due to an indirect, narrow road infrastructure with the odd diversion thrown in. But mainly due to it being a holy day with roads gridlocked by people let alone cars. Such is the diversity of religions and sub-sects that there’s always a “do” happening somewhere. If you’re on the road you’ll get caught up in one sooner or later in a way that is utterly alien to us Brits. Today? A festival in the name of Shiva: legions of bright colours, pulsing drums, ornate umbrellas, thrilled children (day off school: yay!), precision dancing, whole communities in procession. At the tail of this carnival – blink and you’d miss it – were a clutch of chaps arm in arm with a stout metal wire threading them together piercing their cheeks between upper and lower jaw. Blink again, shake your head and begin to question if you’d just made the whole thing up.

The second encounter was in the centre of a more populous hill village which shut the road. The boys bailed out to get a closer look at the festivities and made their way through the throng to the centre of the action. This thrilling, chance encounter saw Morgan bagging his first elephant sighting (which was a great moment for his Dad too). The mighty beast was bejeweled and painted with an elaborate head-dress. Riding the pachyderm on a platform shaded by another ornate umbrella were several youngsters. Focus on the animal distracts us from the people. Then we see the men with their cheeks and lips pieced with skewers. As if to emphasise the point they have halves of fresh limes kebabing their faces and seem to be almost delirious in a frenzied dance. (Video to follow when I can get bandwidth for uploading to YooToob.)

To this non believer it was a powerful symbol of religious fervour, with the energy in the crowd frankly disturbing. The girls in our party? Grumpily they bathed in the air-conditioned car whilst Mog and I gawped at the spectacle. (You snooze, you lose.) What seemed like minutes turned out to be nearly an hour. (Note to bald, Welsh self: wear a hat as sunburn flippin’ hurts.)
Pretty much your typical Monday morning drive in the hills of southern India.

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