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Playing in Traffic

(Mom, you don't need to read this, okay? But there's really nothing to worry about. :)

A week or so ago I bought myself a bike, or "cycle" as they call it in India: sturdy rather than speedy, with a heavy steel frame (girl's style, it's hard to ride a bike with a top tube while wearing Indian ladies' dress), no gears, and a rear rack and big handlebar basket. Now that I have a fairly detailed map of Jaipur (although "fairly detailed" doesn't extend to identifying non-major streets by name, which for all I know could be because most of them don't have names, I've certainly very seldom seen street signs) and know my way around the streets close to home a little better, I go a lot of places by cycle where I formerly depended on three-wheeler auto-rickshaws---much cheaper! At about Rs. 2000 for a cycle (and repair expenses averaging Rs. 1--5 at the shade-tree mechanic's at the corner) and maybe Rs. 30--50 for a rickshaw ride, you can see it doesn't take long for the cycle to pay for itself. Plus it's good exercise (especially with no gears!), and you can get lost on your own in peace and quiet instead of trying to argue with a lost rickshaw-driver in Hindi about where you're supposed to be going.

What I like best about traffic in India is the variety. On any typical bustling city street in Jaipur you can see pedestrians, bicycles, motor-scooters and motorcycles, buses and trucks, passenger cars (and SUV---what are they thinking?! big cars are a thousand times harder to maneuver and park here even than back in the US), auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, horse-drawn carts, bullock carts, donkey carts, camel carts (slow but majestic-looking), pushcarts, three-wheeler goods vans, street dogs, street pigs, street cows, buffalos, and once in a blue moon an elephant (I've seen one elephant caravan in town since I've been here; the rest are sights of every day). Not to mention potholes big enough to hold a small street cow, and indeed you will often see a cow hanging out in one. Street dogs and street pigs, being (a) smarter, (b) smaller and (c) treated with less respect, prefer to relax not in the middle of the street but rather on the edges, especially (in the case of the pigs) in deep muddy roadside gutters, oink oink oink. The air quality may not be the greatest but the interest level can't be beat. Don't get so interested in the sights that you forget to watch where you're going, though.

What I like next best about Indian traffic is the spirit of compromise. We drive on the left side here, unless it's more convenient to be on the other side temporarily, and at first glance it seems very aggressive: faster and bigger vehicles zip past on the right, honking incessantly. (Horn---or bell, or hiss, or any other audio signal---use here means either "I'm overtaking you and I expect you to get out of the way as soon as possible" or "I'm approaching a blind curve or intersection and cannot see other traffic but I probably won't slow down".) And local ideas about appropriate following distance, lane width, and clearance for passing are absolutely terrifying. Nonetheless, there seem to be surprisingly few street accidents (the first incident I've seen was today, when a car sideswiped a motorcycle or vice versa: nobody hurt) and hardly any road rage. This seems to stem from a general acceptance of the idea that everybody, even poky camel carts, has a right to use the road to get where they're going. Slower traffic is supposed to keep to the left, and faster traffic is tolerated in weaving and cutting-off and general "Boston driving" to a hair-raising extent, but in the last analysis the ultimate goal is for everyone to get where they're going without colliding. So if a cycle-rickshaw, or scooter, or SUV is coming along the shoulder opposite to the flow of traffic, it's probably just because they need to make a right turn and don't want to bother getting over to the left side of the road and then coming back. What's to get mad about? Just check for overtaking traffic back of you and move out to the center a little to let them get by. They'll do the same for you some day.

—— Kim Plofker
2003-10-17 08:44:42

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Created: 08 Oct 2003
Last modified: Oct 15, 2004 3:58:04 PM
Comments to: dpvc@union.edu
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