Adopt-a-highway

February 07, 2007 at 3:00 PM • Filed under India 2007

          I've been on the road for a month now -- or rather, on many roads, and on endless miles of railroad track, heading from the top of India towards the tip of it -- and I can say with conviction that it is not being in India that is challenging, it is moving through it.
          Roads are not roads here -- they are a series of lumps in the ground covered with asphalt and leading somewhere. And these roads are not simply where cars travel -- they are also the domain of bicycles, motor scooters, cows, stray dogs, rickety wooden carts, huge towering trucks that look about to topple over, and of course, people. Life in India happens in the street, and so along the shoulders of roads (I've rarely seen a sidewalk) you'll find food carts, clothing stalls, restaurants, fruit stands, women carting water in tins atop their heads, children in blue uniforms walking to school, and men standing next to their motor scooters making deals. Nobody seems to flinch when vehicles speed by them, just inches away. And they all stroll past loads and loads of trash.
          Indeed, there are pieces of garbage everywhere in India, mostly plastic and paper embedded in the ground. You wonder if people see it or if it has just become a part of their surroundings. I imagine huge teams of Indians fanning out across the country cleaning up their roadsides and erecting, as in the States, blue signs saying, "This highway adoped by the citizens of Chandrapur!" or some civic organization. But of course, people who are barely scraping a living together don't have time to clean up garbage.
          As you speed past all the pulsating activity on the road, you must trust your driver, who for some reason will drive in the middle of the road (rather than on the left side -- they've adopted the British style here) until he comes to a vehicle in front of him. He'll then beep a few times, to warn the person in front that he's about to pass, and accelerate past the hapless vehicle, coming hair-raisingly close to scraping the paint off. I've been finding it impossible to take my eyes off the road as I've ridden in various cars here -- as if watching the proceedings will somehow give me some control over them!
          "Good horn, good brakes, good luck!" That's what one taxi driver told me is necessary to his profession. Indeed, I never thought India would resonate so pervasively with the sound of honking horns. Whereas in the States it's considered rude to use your horn, here it is a helpful warning to the slowpoke driver (or animal) ahead of you.
          "Why haven't you listened to your iPod while you've been here?" I asked Cheryl, a fellow American (from W. 16th Street in NYC!) who I met at the Ajanta caves.
          "Because India is so noisy!" she said, and we had a good laugh, knowing this to be so true, mainly because of the car horns.
          Before I left for my trip, I also imagined I'd be taking quiet, leisurely train rides through the Indian countryside, during which I would read a good book, or write and reflect. But most of my train rides have been at night, in the infamous sleeper cars. A regular sleeper car has maybe a dozen berths (compartments), and in each berth are six "beds" -- three on each side, with the middle bed folding up for daytime travel. I've always opted for the top berth, which I climb up to with the help of a small ladder along the side. There, I've somehow -- oh, somehow! -- managed to catch a bit of sleep despite the fact that the train rocks back and forth, the horn blares even at night, random cockroaches scurry across the floor below, the people around me snore, the stench of urine wafts through the open window at every station, and hawkers shout "Chai! Chai! Chai!" as they stroll through the aisle in the early morning.  
          For some reason, I have always felt trepidation before taking a train here, but I've pretty much figured out the whole process by now and feel proud to have mastered this very Indian experience. And people are so kind to me and helpful in the train. Invariably, they have so many questions for me. My favorite: "What are the marriage laws in America?"
          "Marriage laws?"  I said. 
          "Yes - how many times can a person marry?"
          Not knowing how to respond, I said with a big smile, "Twenty!"
          This sent everyone in the car into hysterics, at the same time probably confirming their perception of America as a heathen land.
          They then promptly bought me a cup of chai.
          My experiences with taxi and rickshaw drivers have not been as pleasurable. I've learned to agree to a firm price before even entering a vehicle, but then at the destination my driver has often whined for more money or not given me the correct change. In Mumbai, I gave the wrong address to a driver and so he had to go a few hundred yards further than what we agreed on. As a result, when I got out of the car, he wouldn't give me the 20 rupees in change that he owed me, because of the "extra distance."  I couldn't accept that. Since arriving in India, I have slowly learned to forget about being nice and instead stand up for myself. 
         "Give me my 20 rupees!" I said harshly. He was clearly taken aback, but only gave me 10 and walked away. I let it go. Most exchanges here end up in a compromise, anyway.
          So getting from one place to another has at various times left me frazzled, depressed, irritated, courageous, mad, or exhausted. But I continue to move through India, heading to Kerala next. (Since leaving the organic farm, I have visited the Ajanta caves, Mumbai, and Goa.) And then, in two weeks, I head back to the quiet, clean, uncongested, polite and orderly streets of ... New York City.

 
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