Thursday, September 6, 2012

India #2: Rivers of traffic, danger and genius

 I have been trying to figure out how to convey to readers what traffic is like here, and then let it go.  I've compared it to BMX bike racing in the U. S. times 50, then I would have to throw in the scooters, buses and scooters with cabs called rickshaws or ricktaxis.  But to convey a sense of madness denies the genius at work. 
There are virtually no stop signs or traffic signals along the main highway through the city that I travel. At big intersections, "flyovers" have been constructed so one flow passes over the other.  I was on a bus at rush hour for 45 minutes last night and it stopped twice, notwithstanding that it corkscrewed here and there at times.  Sidestreets flow into the main road without stopping.  It works because it keeps moving.
In the U.S. traffic studies attribute jamups to the failure of cars to maintain close intervals, in many cases.  There are virtually no intervals here and we are talking about motorbikes with riders sitting sidesaddle and vehicles ten or 15 wide on a four-lane street.  It is like a river and its tributaries, constantly darting about in search of an opening , rarely damned and never diverted. 
Drivers pass so close to one another at speed that clothing touches and its momentarily unclear who's riding in what vehicle, the little girl and her mom are so close.  It's like a bullfighter's pride in narrowly avoiding the bull's horns.  People have learned to accomodate one another and suppress fear without road rage in ways we could never allow.  This rush of humanity has a great deal of humaneness about it and extraordinary skill and patience. 
An American who has lived here tells me the greatest mistake is to panic and walk quickly.  Walk steadily. That way vehicle drivers can calculate how to miss you, if barely. Don't be angry and trust the skills on the street.  Easy for a veteran to say.
 Indians, he says, walk in the street at night because sidewalks are so uneven as to be dangerous.  That and the practice of scooters and motorbikes taking to the sidewalks when that's what it takes to keep going. 
Riding along on this river in a rickshaw instead of a bus as I did today is more constantly thrilling than white water rafting if you can think of it that way.  It is best to banish from your mind the fact that India has more traffic fatalities per-capita than any country in the world.  My unexpected admiration for the genius and humanity at work may change at the sight of an accident.  The wonder is there are so few. 

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