Friday, December 22, 2006

Getting around in India

In America I have a choice of public conveyance. I can take a train or a plane, a taxi or a bus; or I can drive my own car. In India, I have many more options.

So far—and I’ve only been here a little over two weeks—I’ve traveled by train, plane, taxi, auto rickshaw (which uses calor gas for fuel), scooter and motorcycle. I’ve also had a ride on a camel, with dreams of following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia. But that was a jaunt for amusement at Chandrabhaga beach, near Konark, on the Bay of Bengal. More about Konark and its magnificent Sun temple in my next blog.

I have other transportation options should the need arise.

I can take a bus, of course. Alternatively, there is quite a range of transportation powered, like my camel, by animal (including human) muscle.

I can ride a cycle rickshaw, a small, two-wheeled covered carriage attached to the front end of a bicycle.

I can hitch a ride on a regular bicycle, too, either sitting on a metal frame behind the “driver,” (ouch!) or ensconcing myself on the saddle while the driver peddles standing up.

Then I could hire a flatbed wooden cart, pulled either by a bicycle or a bullock—or by a man.

I have seen all these forms of transportation-for-hire over the past three weeks during my daily trips from place to place. In some cities, one can go for a ride on an elephant, too, though I suspect this alternative is offered, like my camel, for the primary purpose of extracting dollars from tourists.

Muscle power has one decided advantage over automated alternatives: you can count on it to get you where you want to go, even if it takes a bit longer to get there.

The other day, on our way to the university here in Bhuvaneshwar, Orissa state, where our conference was being held, the auto rickshaw in which my Fulbrighter colleague, Dr. Jostnya, and I were traveling ran out of gas. The driver made various attempts to start the vehicle, which mostly consisted of rocking the thing violently from side to side to redistribute whatever gas was left in the tank. No luck. So I had the dubious pleasure of helping the driver push the vehicle to a nearby gas station!

Fortunately, Dr. Jostnya had her camera with her, so I hope to share a photo or two after I post this account.

My favorite form of transportation over the short haul (a couple of miles, say, which is all I need in and around Tirupati), is most definitely the motorbike—driven by a competent, careful driver, of course. While some taxis have air conditioning, you have to pay extra if you want it turned on, and by the time you reach your destination, it’s barely begun to take effect. An auto rickshaw can get crowded (my gerontology colleagues at the conference here somehow managed to squeeze 9 passengers along with the driver into a space not much larger than a sardine can). Another problem with the auto rickshaw is that it’s a three-wheeler which, like a 3-wheeler ATV, is notoriously unstable--or so I suspect.

Needless to say, they don't have air bags--or sides, for that matter.

On a motorbike, however, you have all the air conditioning you could desire—and more. Though it’s not unusual to see three riders on a single bike, I prefer to have the passenger seat all to myself. Most significant of all, on a motorbike you can much more easily negotiate the unbelievably chaotic traffic conditions.

Imagine a sidewalk in the most popular shopping precinct of any town or city. Crowds of people jostle together, weaving in and out and around each other, every now and then clipping a too-close passerby. Now put all those people in or on a vehicle, and you have some idea of what it’s like to drive in downtown cities and towns in India.

It’d be scary if it weren’t for the fact that I’m kind of used to it—from when I lived in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, and now in India.

The traffic has to be seen to be believed. If Marilyn were here with me, she’d be having conniptions, eeking and shrieking every few seconds as only Marilyn can (she does this when I’m driving, and I’m a model of discretion and decorum at the wheel—lol). But my darling’s eeks and shrieks would go unheard in India, drowned out by the incessant honking and hooting of horns.

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