The time I spent living in India was an experience that I will always carry with me. It was rich with new adventures, amazing food and people, and physical and personal challenges.
When the Big Dog and I first moved to India we lived in New Dehli and I took rickshaws and taxis everywhere. I loved rickshaws. Such a fun way to get around and enjoy the sights of India up close and personal. Then we moved to Pune where the rickshaws are motorized and mostly enclosed. It definitely wasn’t as much fun, and the section of the city that we lived in did not have many drivers close by. Obviously, it was time to learn to drive a scooter so that I could get around on my own and not depend on finding a driver to take me around the city.
As a westerner there are few things that can test your mettle in India like learning to drive a scooter. Unless you’re an Italian I suppose. If you’ve ever seen those crazy You Tube videos that show traffic in India let me assure you that it is all that and more. And there are many, many scooters on the road in Pune. I had never driven a scooter before, but was determined to master it. (I had actually tried it once in New Dehli and promptly ran into a hedge. Graceful and coordinated am I!)
My first forays were simply driving around the block and offering up heartfelt thanks to the heavens that I had not run into any freely-roaming adults, children, cows, or dogs. Or other drivers. Or cement walls. Or hedges leaping out in front of me. As I became more experienced and ventured out from my “safety zone” it turned into a test of my determination and concentration. It was often scary. Driving among dozens of other scooters and cars barely inches from my legs was a daily test of my courage and focus.
In the U.S. we have driving laws. We obey them (mostly) and everyone knows what to expect from other drivers based on those laws. In India, there are also driving laws. However, driving skill is based more on intuition. And in some ways, I liked it better. Some of the distinctions of driving in India:
- No one EVER looks behind them as they drive. You only look ahead and everyone behind you is expected to look out for you as you move hither and yon in front of them.
- Honking is absolutely expected. Everybody honks all the time. To not honk is a big no-no because how else will the other drivers know you are trying to maneuver around them from behind?
- As a safety measure, I would drive with my headlight on during the day, as we do on certain highways here in the states. And just about every Indian on foot that I passed would signal to me that my light was on. Curving their fingers as if they were holding a ball (or a front light), they would twist their hand from side-to-side to indicate that I should turn off my light. They simply cannot understand why one would have their light on if it is not full dark.
- There are no street signs. And so there are a couple of ways to find out how to get where you want to go:
- Know somebody who can give you detailed directions (“drive to the 4th juice walla on the left, turn right; make a left at the next Brahmin cow and check with the rickshaw driver there”). No one will ever ever tell you that they don’t know the directions to your destination. It can be frustrating, but we learned to ask two or three people on the street, sift together the varying directions, and eventually find our way to our destination;
- Take a taxi or rickshaw and if they don’t know how to get to your destination they will stop every couple of blocks or so and ask other drivers, merchants or people walking on the streets. There are always lots of people on the streets.
- There are no driving lanes. Just rows of vehicles lined up at lights and driving down the road.
- All the stoplights have a countdown monitor and everyone behind the people in the front row will start honking their horns when there is still about 30 seconds until the light turns green.
- If you are behind dozens of people going straight at a red light and you are turning at the light, feel free to go around them by driving on the sidewalk or embankment, whichever the case may be.
- If your light is red and no one else is around, go ahead and run it. Seems reasonable to me.
- If you get pulled over for crossing the wrong way on a one-way bridge (because the sign was hidden behind some Brahman bull) you will need to pay the officer “baksheesh” — basically a bribe — in order to be able to continue on your merry way. Why waste time with traffic court? 🙂
- Same thing if you unknowingly park illegally (which I once did) and have to retrieve your scooter from the authorities. Have plenty of rupees on hand.
By the time we had moved to Pune, I was looking for something challenging to fill my days. The universe certainly provided it in giving me the crazy idea to start driving a scooter. And I loved it. It was dangerous and challenging and exhilarating. And it quickly became one of my favourite things about living there because I overcame my fear every single time I hit the road amongst all those crazy Indian drivers.
When we moved back to the states one of the things I missed most about India was my daily drive on my beloved scooter. I even considered getting one to drive here. But, then I realized that without the honking and free-for-all traffic and danger to life and limb it would probably be pretty boring on this side of the pond. So I stick to my Ford Focus and Jeep Cherokee and reminisce about the days when I overcame a big fear and learned yet another way to go with the flow in India.
I can’t believe that I don’t have a photo of me with my beloved scooter. But, here is a photo of the Big Dog and me in Delhi when he was still the sole driver.