Travelling India’s roads: murky roads & monkeys crossing on highways

It was in the midst of the summer in 1980 when I disembarked of a Boeing 747 at the Bombay airport. Leaving the aircraft, it felt as if was walking into a sauna; it was humid and extremely hot. Just being an innocent but adventurous teenager, I could still remember everything that had tickled my senses when we were sitting in a taxi on the way to our destination. At that time, there were no AC’s in Premier cab’s, so we needed to cool ourselves with the warm breezes entering into the car’s windows. During the drive, I was overwhelmed by the disgusting smell as we drove through the slums of Bombay. In my memory it took hours before we were able to observe first parts of the country without concrete buildings or dusty living quarters.

Having lived in India for well over 4 years now, I’ve spent quite some time on the roads. I’ve covered thousands and thousands of kilometres, mostly reaching my end destination by travelling on dusty roads full of potholes. In no way can one compare the Indian roads with any other place in the world. Yes, Pakistan, Nepal or some other Asian countries could come close, but they all lack the diversity of India. In contrast: India offers a wide variety of roads: from scenic mountain roads in the midst of tea plantations to the sandy roads in the Rajasthan dessert; it’s all possible in this immense country. While I’m not doing any justice to the unique elements in all parts of this immense country, there are some common things one could experience or see all across the country. So, what really stands out during all of my trips? What surprised me and still does? Please read the following Top-10 points, with the most interesting insights about travelling on Indian roads:

  1. The speed bumps are almost invisible and extremely dangerous

I’ll be the last person in the world to reject travel safety on the roads. Even more: it’s every individuals own responsibility to be sensible whilst in the traffic. I have had to bite on my tung from time to time after experiencing numerous unsafe situations; Some of my friends definitely having had too much alcohol in their blood stream, shouldn’t have been operating a vehicle on the roads. Struggling if I should hold others accountable, identified one thing is clear to me: creating safe roads should be every government employees’ number one priority. Apart from more than a dozen extremely dangerous situations in this country caused by human wrongdoing, there’s one thing that really frustrates me: speed bumps. The speed bumps in India are not only very nasty, but they are also very invisible. The construction companies responsible for creating them, must have had one objective in mind while constructing them: how can we create the most damage to cars and human beings with the least efforts? They’ve not only succeeded, but they’ve actually outperformed themselves. I’ve heard of multiple stories about thousands of deaths caused by these speed bumps. The big question here is: how many lives were saved because of this?

2) Dhaba’s serving mouth-watering dishes can be found all across the country

The Indian equivalent of the western petrol station, which is often home to a variety of restaurants, without a doubt is the dhaba. The word ‘dhaba’ means roadside restaurant and they can be found all across the country. The dhaba not only caters to the needs of the many travellers, but also offers a wide variety of (often) local delicacies. While the setup of the dhaba is similar everywhere across this immense country, the menu isn’t. And it’s mostly very clear what one can expect, because most dhaba’s advertise themselves well ahead; there are multiple signs to make people feel hungry. Picking the best dhaba depends on your food preferences. The menu varies from pure veg to nonveg in all varieties. I can vividly remember having had one of the best fish thalis in India at a non-descript dhaba on a dusty road just before entering the state of Goa. Furthermore: On the highway from Pune to Goa one should definitely stop at Kolhapur, a city which is famous for mutton thalis, all served at roadside dhaba’s.

3) At traffic lights or crossings, people trying to sell the weirdest things

Regardless of the traffic light salesforce offerings, I’m mostly reluctant to buying something while stopping at a traffic light or junction. But whilst most people will probably ignore the continuous pool of people’s offerings, the salespeople are very persistent; they will continue to knock on one’s car windows until someone turns their head towards the window; ‘No sir, I don’t need any garbage bags’ will mostly keep them quiet and they will eventually try preying on next the car in line, hoping for some welcoming pocket change. It’s obviously very annoying, especially if one needs to reject for the thirtieth or fortieth attempt selling you garbage bags. But there is also another side, another perspective. More than often, some very small children are part of the salesforce. And it’s definitely saddening to see toddlers on bear feet trying to sell you anything from garbage backs to pens or tissues.

4) Most busses all have one thing in common: noise

If one’s short on cash, travelling by bus is one of the cheapest forms of transportation in India. But it often comes with a hefty price. While I’m always endorsing travelling by railways, I’m not a big fan of reaching my destination by bus. Yes, city to city transport could be convenient if the distance is limited and if one could book a seat in a more upscaled version of a tourist car. The Purple bus between Pune and Mumbai is awesome. A one-way ticket will cost you around 500 INR (6 euro’s) and the buses are clean and fast. Furthermore: they’re selling actual seats, so one doesn’t need to stand in line between groceries or other obstacles. For longer trips one needs to factor in a couple of possible hardships which could negatively impact the experience. During the trip, the bus will only stop at some random food courts or dhaba’s. This means limited options of food, if at all. The other annoying thing during longer bus trips is the loud noises. From the almost guaranteed 90’s Bollywood movie, screened on a crappy tv, to loud conversations by co-passengers, it’s never a quiet ride.

5) Honking: Do I need to say more?

I would suggest to strongly advise every Indian who wants to operate a car in a foreign country to one week of Honking-Rehab. Why? Because Indian people seem to be born with a desire to press the horn at all times. I can’t present any data to prove my point but based upon my observations, India is the country with the largest number of per capita honking. Regardless of the many ‘no horning’ signs within many parts of multiple large cities, the honking is there and it’s everywhere. When I took some motorcycle lessons from an authorised instructor, he even corrected me from time to time;’ Sir, you should have honcked here’.

6) Scooters are carrying lots of people and/or freight

Undeniably, India is the scooter capital of the world. Travelling across this immense country, one would find scooters in almost every remote outpost of the country. And while people in the west probably would think that the scooters are being used to carry one or two passengers, the opposite is true; In India, the scooter is seen as the true substitute for everything else with four wheels. Mostly without wearing a helmet, I’ve seen scooters carrying a wide variety of goods and people; scooters carrying up to five or six people is something one could see on a daily basis. Furthermore: if one – by any chance – needs to transport a ladder, a fridge, a big mirror or a sheep to any other part of the city, why not use your scooter like all the others are doing?

7) Dangerous driving

Riding in a car, on a motorcycle or any other form of transportation has allowed me to seen so much beauty within India. Crossing the Khardung La pass (highest motorable road) was truly spectacular and driving or riding around in the hilly areas with tea plantations is way beyond picturesque. I would be blue eying the Indian roads too much, because there’s also ‘the other side’ while being on the roads. Participating on Indian roads would always feel danger is looming. And there’s a reason for this; the hallmark of the average Indian participant in traffic is the huge appetite for taking risks. Like skiing, most participants on the road only seem to care about what’s in front of them. In that sense, it’s all about ‘me’. Not only are people driving like crazy, they all seem to be using the invisible middle lane as a way to take over from other people. And there is more: I’ve seen people walking on highways, driving in the opposite direction or even driving without lights in the middle of the night. One would expect to see a lot of ‘traffic fights’, but there’s nothing like this in India. Yes, I’ve seen people arguing about things, but it doesn’t even come close when comparing it to the Europe Traffic fights. People who are confronted after doing something stupid, mostly smile back. It is almost as if they’re saying, ‘Sorry sir, I ‘couldn’t control myself’.

8) There is always the risk of the encounter with an unexpected animal

Ask any western stranger in the street about the roads in India, and one would probably hear the word ‘cow’ almost every time someone answers the question. Without a doubt, India has a huge population of cows who use the roads as their habitat. They are sleeping, sunbathing, eating or even joining what seems to be a daily routine: going from shop to shop to beg for some vegetables. The funny thing is not the cows in the streets, after some time you will get used to this. No, the funny thing is the people itself, because nobody seems to care. Apart from the daily number of cows on the streets, I’ve seen a lot of other animals on Indian roads. Stray dogs could be seen everywhere in India, and more often they could be aggressive. But there’s more: what about snakes? Not only have I seen many ones, but some of them were also quite large. And what about monkey’s crossing the busy highways while sitting in a car or people who are on top of an elephant or a camel? This is India and it has happened to me multiple times!

9) Police officers who’re stopping people to gain some extra cash

With so many weird and dangerous things happening on the roads of India, one would think that there should be police everywhere. Yes, police are everywhere and they’re doing a good job. With approximately 200 police officers for every 100.000 people in India, the police force in India is huge: there are almost 2 million police officers in the country. During my time in India, I’ve met quiete a number of professional and kind officers. But there are some bad apples within the police force, always trying to collect some extra cash while on patrol. Participating in the traffic in India as a Caucasian, sometimes confuses police officers especially if they’re not comfortable speaking in English. A smile and some gentle gestures will make them smile back at you and before you know it, you’re off to continuing your ride. However, some of them seem to think that they can steal from us by making up stories about possible wrongdoings. I was stopped on my scooter and penalised for not having an updated filter. This was just a make-up reason for them to get some extra cash. Yes cash, because the swipe machine had some ‘network issues. I’d offered them to use my personal hotspot for the machine, but they didn’t understand the joke….

10) Transgenders (hijra’s) knocking at windows for some extra baksheesh

First, I was shocked, then surprised. It was during the second or third week after my arrival into India in the winter of 2016 when I first witnessed something that can be found all across the country: hijra’s at the traffic lights begging for some cash. The hijra is the Indian equivalent to the transgender. But whilst most transgenders in developed countries really want to become one for reasons related to identity, the hijra community within India is much more divided. Yes, there are ‘traditional’ transgenders, gay or straight people who really want to be a woman or just want to walk around in female clothing without being clear about what gender they’re part of. In contrast, large parts of the Indian based hijra’s are part of a special hijra community. Some are not even clear about their sexual orientation. One thing is clear: a lot of the hijra’s can be found at traffic lights or junctions, knocking at windows for some extra baksheesh. Funnily, some of the Indian people are actually afraid of them. By giving them some small backsheesh, they hope it will prevent them from some nasty curse or something.

Having read all of this, one would think participation on the roads in India is nothing less than watching a horror movie. The truth is far more subtle, because even the dangerous driving, the harsh police officers and weird animals on the roads also bring in a lot of charm.  Therefore, it’s really important to try understanding the ‘why’ behind all of this, rather than to criticize every individual for an apparent ‘wrongdoing’. It’s embracing all of what this country has to offer and much more.

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