Well, it was inevitable. All writers suffer it at different times in their careers, Stacy just hit it a little sooner than others. The dreaded “Writers Block”. She has been trying to insure that a new post gets added every day so that depending on your particular point of view you all can either A) be re-assured we are all still alive and well, B) get a glimpse of what life is like in India from an outsiders perspective, C) get a little chuckle from her dark and cynical sense of humor or D) find a new way to waste few minutes of your lives which you will never get back. She has been keeping up great, even on days when she would rather just go to bed but here at the end of a long week of working at the school she found herself lacking inspiration. To insure you all have something to read today, she is forcing me to try my hand at blogging so here it goes.
I thought for awhile on what my first post should be about. I have been here much longer than the rest of the family (got here 9 months ago tomorrow). I have seen more of the sites including Charminar, Gonkonda Fort and the Jewels of the Nazim exhibit at the Hyderabad Museum in Old City. I have also had the chance to fly to London, Mumbai, Dubai in the Middle East and most recently Malasyia. Seems I should have lots to write about but after thinking on it for awhile I thought I would write first about my most recent and personally significant achievement – Driving in India!!!
Now those of you who have never been here before may be thinking: “Whats the big deal? You have been driving now for 22 years, how different can it be?” (Yes I really have and writing this makes me feel REALLY old!!). If you are thinking that then let me try to help you see WHY this is such a big deal to me and a total suprise to most of those people I work with, some of which won’t even drive themselves and they have lived here all their lives.
Lets start with the more obvious differences.
1) The Driver sits on the wrong side of the car. Now this truly is disconcerting by itself but you then have to realize that everything else is wrong too! The turn signals are on the right, not the left. I still turn on the wipers everytime I go to turn!. The Stick Shift is on your left so you have to shift with your LEFT HAND. The shift pattern remains the same but now 5th gear is up and near you while 1st is up and away. I have hit reverse more than a couple times when trying to shift into 2nd. This also means that the customary blind spots we all have are now all out of kilter. I can’t explain this one to its fullest since it took me weeks to realize what it was I was sensing. lastly on this topic, backing up… Just sit in the passanger seat one day and pretend to back up. The first thing you will do is try to turn to your right to look through the back window and if you are anything like me, you will promptly drive your elbow into the window to your right because there is no room to turn around to look!
2) In India we drive on the left side of the road. Makes sense with the steering wheel reversed but making sense and being easy are drastically different!! Just going straight down the road is challenging with me having to chant “stay to the left, stay to the left, stay to the left” over and over but even then I have had people remind me that I had slipped to my old ways and had drifted to the other lane. They did this in the universal mode of friendly auto etiquette – they honked like mad and flashed their lights, which given the Indian Driver’s policy of honking the horn at every intercection, each time they pass a car, every time someone is not moving fast enough for them, the entire time they are waiting at a red light and just for good measure, when they shut off the car (kidding on that last one) – made this less of a reminder to me. The hardest part of driving on the left is when turning at an intersection. I keep wanting to go over to the other lane and then over think it so much I am not sure anymore WHICH lane I should be in!!
Now for some less known differences…
3) There are apparently no rules for driving here. No official or universaly recognized ones anyway. I have yet to see a speed limit sign. Stop signs and traffic lights are suggestions and not rules. I know this because just a few weeks ago I was driving and had the misfortune of being the first in line at the light, trying to make a left turn. Now remember, since I am driving on the wrong side of the road, I can turn left on red much like we can turn right on red in the US. I was patiently waiting for a break in traffic which was a COMPLETELY solid line of cars, rickshaws and trucks when a traffic cop came up to my window and started waving for me to go. Now the light was still red and traffic was still zooming. Cars behind me were honking and this cop started gesticulating aggressivley. Still, what was I to do? If I pulled forward I would have been creamed for sure! So as Stacy started getting scared and I was torn and confused the cop came over to us, pointed and shrilly blew his whistle pausing only long enough to yell at me in Hindi. I did the only thing I could. I closed my eyes to slits, braced for impact, firmly placed my hand on the horn, told the family to hang on and shot out into the intersection convinced that we were going to crash. Sure enough there was some additional angry honking from a large truck I cut off and some creative swerving on my part but we made it through. That was 3 weeks ago and I litteraly have done little more than slow down at any red light I have passed since! The only rule I have been able to discern is twofold. 1) When you are trying to come out into an intersection, do NOT make eye contact with the oncomming drivers. If you do you have to stop. If you don’t, you can pull out in front of them no matter how close it is or how fast they are going. 2) Never worry about any cars behind you. You can change lanes as abrubtly and as often as you want to and it is the responsibility of the guy behind you to watch, and by behind you I mean that if the front edge of your bumper is even 1 INCH (or centemeter since I am in India and its metric here) in front of theirs then you have the right of way. Let me tell you, it scares the living daylights out of you when you are driving along and that guy beside you just flies into your lane without so much as a “by your leave”.
4) Most of the cars here are small and outnumbered by mopeds and motorcycles (150cc or smaller). Think of a jar full of fireflies careening around and that is what the roads are like. As there are no rules, there is no concept of a “lane”. It would seem that most drivers think the white line is for guiding the center of the car. In a 2 lane road you find at least 4 lanes of traffic with motorcycles zipping in and around the rest of the traffic. This plus the lane changing issues mentioned in item 3 make for a harrowing experience.
5) The roads are not as smooth as back home. In fact, in many cases they are more like cheese graters than roads. Between the wash outs, the potholes and the mysteriously placed speed bumps it I often feel like a freshly poped kernal of Pop Corn.
Sometimes it is cows which have the right of way in India – and know it! They can often be found meandering down the road or even sleeping in the middle of it as Stacy and I found late one night when we almost hit a big one looking up at us from the middle lane with her drowsy eyes and zero inclination to move.
Other obstacles include:
Camels or whole families on a single motorcycle…
Auto Rickshaws bursting at the seams and the countless beggars tht accost you at intersections, incesently tapping and tapping and tapping on the windows, obviously deaf to our cries of Nahi (‘No’ in hindi)…
All of these conditions and more make it quite an achievement for Expats to drive here. I started driving myself home from work since I felt bad having my driver drop me off at 10am and then sit in the garage till I left at 2am on average (till Stacy got here. Now I leave by 10 or 11pm). We usually give him Sunday off as well but if I don’t drive it means we can’t go anywhere so I started some daytime driving. Now I am driving all over and even went so far as to drive into some of the most traffic laden areas and back streets as well. Stacy summed it up well today with a couple of different phrases uttered between gasps and cries of terror. The first was that driving here is like living Grand Theft Auto (for those that don’t know, it is an ultra violent video game where the object is to crash into cars or people). The second even better quote was from Duran Duran’s Reflex: “I’m on a ride and I want to get off but they won’t slow down the roundabout”
Watch out India, the Fluegge’s are mobile now!!