We arrived in New Delhi via London, where we had a jolly good day of tourist attractions. We navigated through the mob of people waiting for the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, to Westminster Abbey where Big Ben greeted us with his triumphant chiming, and then to a pub around the block for a pint and fish and chips, because what could be more of a Londony meal than that?
With only fourteen hours before our connecting flight, we decided on the classic red bus tour and a river boat cruise, which took us from Picadilly Circus to Leicester Square, the London Eye to London Bridge, and Canary Wharf to Greenwich. Both of these vehicles were great, not only for a sweeping glance at the classic city, but for catching a few z’s after our long, restless flight.
As fun of a day as it was, London felt somewhat close, as if we were still in Anybigcity, USA. We could easily communicate with local people, the food was recognizable (even though we still don’t understand the combination of ice cream, waffles, and hot dogs at many of the food stands) and we were in touristy areas that, like Times Square or the Magnificent Mile, are catered to the comfort of guests.
But this sense of familiarity was short-lived. When we arrived in New Delhi, we were quickly and dramatically introduced to an interesting counterperspective on our “Western” accepted ways of living, specifically: driving.
Like true Lonely Planet scholars, we picked up a pre-paid taxi at the official airport stand, avoiding the many hawkers trying to reel us in. Our driver not only welcomed us to this new part of the world, the first step in our world traveling adventures, but also to an entirely new and daredevil philosophy about driving that seems to be vigorously upheld by all.
We heard the stories of treacherous street crossings, cacophonous symphonies of car horns, and animals switching lanes long before we landed here, but nothing could have prepared us for our first ride. And by the time we arrived at our final destination, we gleaned a bit about…
New Delhi’s Rules of the Road
Rule #1: Your vehicle is what you make it.
Our taxi, like most, was a small black and yellow van, rickety, rusty, and shaky. However, this did not seem to concern our driver, Dyanade (Dya for short), who put the pedal to the floor and whipped and weaved this old jalopy like a rag doll. He drove fast in between lanes and where people were walking, slammed hard on the brakes centimeters from other cars, threaded between adjacent vehicles. He even took the car off-road, on the dirt next to the shoulder, to avoid gridlock. Dya pulled off maneuvers that would make a Hollywood stuntman nervous, but what made the scene truly thrilling(or terrifying, depending on your perspective) was that this is how everyone was driving.
Rule #2: There are no rules.
Maybe this should be rule #1, because rules and laws seem to be, at most, loose suggestions about safe and effective driving. When you have an open road, shouldn’t you take advantage of it by driving in multiple lanes at once? And isn’t it easier to pass between and drive around other cars than stay in your lane while in traffic? Dya used the road as his playground, rather than an ordered and organized path to our destination.
Rule #3: Service with a smile?
Dya wanted us to feel welcome. He introduced himself, asked us where we’re from, and what we’re doing in India, all while respectfully maintaining eye contact with us, turning to the road only to honk at the next oncoming pedestrian. We avoided minor annoyances like red lights and stop signs, not just by driving through them, but acknowledging their presence, turning left into the oncoming lane, making a u-turn, and turning again as if it were our green light. And as a light turned red in a massively busy intersection, and at least five lanes of traffic screeched to a halt beside us, Dya casually turned around and said, “welcome to India”.
Rule #4: Please Honk.
Painted boldly on the back of trucks is the announcement “please honk”. Already we had observed that driving in India seems to require three hands: one for the wheel, one for the gear shift, and one for the horn, all operating simultaneously and with the same importance. As we continued down the bustling streets of Delhi, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells, it occurred to us that this statement serves as one of the only measures to ensure order, or at least cooperation. When a stop sign has as much importance as a billboard, and pedestrians seem to be living “Frogger”, using your horn identifies yourself as another driver, as something to watch out for, because otherwise, there is too much else to worry about.
So, whatever road we take, and however safe our travel from A to B is, our adventure has certainly begun!