woman's world Thu 28 March 2019

EVERYBODY AND EVERYTHING ON THE ROAD - A week on the roads of Northern India

The "Great (North) India Tour" with tourist attractions of various types
I just came back from a tourist trip from India and I email Pietro: "You should see the “means” that crowd the roads ...." - "You could write an article on the circulating vehicles!!! :) …" I could? I can! And here I am after a week in that wonderful country of Asia, so different from everything I know - I admit I have traveled almost only in Europe. We toured the north of the immense India: Agra with its impressive red fort, witness of the powerful dynasties that governed and defended these lands; the soaring Qutb Minar tower in New Delhi, built over five hundred years ago, an insight on a history marked by the passages of various rulers, from Hindus to Muslims to English Christians; the bazaar of Jaipur, a paradise for those who love to bargain and the beautiful natural parks of Ranthambore with tigers, peacocks, deer and much more. You can find all of this in the tourist guides, what I would like to share with you is what I saw on the streets, from the window of our bus during our "Great India Tour", traveling from one fabulous place to the other.

Utter chaos ... And yet it moves!
A billion and 300 million inhabitants live in the Indian subcontinent and it looks like each one of them is moving on the streets in a scuffle of noises, colors and smells. People live on the street: there are the homeless who literally live on the street; there are those who work there, like barbers on the sidewalk; the blacksmith on the side of the road; the guy who fixes bikes in the "workshop" along the road; the "tire dealer" that displays his goods on the railing of the city park; and there is an endlessness of people that moves, on foot, with animals, with bikes a, with motorized vehicles of all kinds. Most of the time the streets are clogged, crowded. In addition, besides the famous cows, even dogs, goats, monkeys run freely in the streets ... in short, all that one can imagine. And what do locals do when, during rush hour, a cow slowly crosses the strategic artery of the metropolis? They go around it. But all this works only by honking. The average driver honks at least every 30 seconds. The horn is like a magic touch that helps the daily chaos run smoothly. The result is a deafening concert but for us Europeans also fun. And it seems to work: even though we spent a lot of time traveling, in one week we only saw one accident.
So despite the long trips from one breathtaking attraction to another, from one wonderful Unesco site to another, it was never boring since there was so much to discover. Here are some of the curious phenomena I saw on the streets in this part of northern India:

Two wheels go everywhere
As in all poor countries, motorcycles are one of the most used means of travel - at least for those who can afford it. Not the racing one or the luxury touring bike with bags and luggage, sophisticated electronics and powerful engines. Most of the bikes I saw were naked, simple and sturdy, often Suzuki, Honda or the Indian Hero - one of the biggest motorcycle manufacturers in the world. In fact, to face the roads and trails of this country the bikes must be robust and of course cheap, given the reduced purchasing power of most Indians.
It obviously isn’t a hobby vehicle for Sunday trips as often is the case in our part of the world, but an essential means for transporting people and things, exploited to the maximum; we saw whole families on a motorcycle, three to five people isn’t a surprising number, together with suitcases, or musical instruments of an entire band - including the musicians. Motorcycles are used to transport milk and food, stored in a dozen hanging brass pots, to be delivered to people having lunch breaks from a job.
Sometimes the helmet is there sometimes not, it seems there is no ticket for not wearing it. And guess where helmets are sold? On the street, where they can be seen lined up on shelves, protected by plastic tarps from the ever-present dust.
Obviously, even the two wheels powered by muscles play an important role on the roads of India. Alone, or more people with rickshaw or to carry street food. Around noon, you can see young boys pushing bikes carrying large pots full of hot food. To be honest, the aspect of these pots discouraged me from approaching them, but they could only contain the "Dal", a very tasty spicy dish, based on lentils, similar to a soup, present at every meal. Dal is rich in protein and is eaten (only the natives succeed!) with one hand using round flat bread. And there it is in containers hanging from the handlebars of the bike. A lot of people have lunch in this way on the streets.

The more wheels there are, the more load is carried
Then there are the “cargo” bikes that have two rear wheels instead of one to support a large wooden table. This too carries all sort of things: beautiful fruits and vegetables with beautiful colors, stacked in high pyramids, objects of all kinds for sale, work tools with colleagues sitting on the top and so on. And if the transported object is exceptionally long, one only needs to attach red flags at its ends to pass meandering among the other hundreds of vehicles.
The lucky ones drive a motorized cargo vehicle, there is an infinite number of versions also because most of them seem to have been home built by the driver with a lot of imagination but certainly also with a lot of skill, given the scarcity of resources available. I've seen engines that in their previous life powered lawnmowers, Vespas, or who knows what - the mechanical version of reincarnation ....
It's time to talk about the king of Indian, if not Asian, cities, if only for its number. Surely you have already seen the tuk tuk in movies, photos etc.; the motorized rickshaw, that with its two-stroke engine makes exactly this noise "tuk, tuk" - if all goes well, because many of them seem close to breakdown. The number of people that this "Taxi" can carry is indefinable. Like all the vehicles I saw on this trip, the Indians fill it with an incredible amount of people. The sides of the tuk tuks are open and moving in frantic traffic with your elbow sticking out can be not only scary but also unhealthy.

The luxury of moving on four wheels
This week we really appreciated the comfort and safety of four-wheeled vehicles that miraculously pass through traffic bottlenecks. First of all, I would like to introduce you to our minibus. A kind of van with about fifteen seats, with air conditioning and fans installed to increase comfort - the wires in plain view speak a lot about the professionalism of the installer .... Many tourists use similar minibuses. In fact, our driver even had a license that he had to submit to the police that pulled us over for a check (yes, it exists, and it happened twice!).
As good Europeans we naturally had so much luggage that some suitcases had to be carried on the roof, tied with ropes. At the beginning, most of us peeked from the back window every now and then afraid of losing pieces ...
The van banged and creaked but with the cooler full of water and Indian beer, bags with fruit and cookies under the seats and our cheerful group - including the Indian friends who organized everything and guided us with so much care and sympathy - it was really a nice trip.

Vehicles exploited to the maximum
Most people do not travel so comfortably; most of the time buses, vans and taxis are overloaded and travel with the doors open and people hanging out of them.
Even the tractors, which we mostly saw outside the city, are impressive: the amount of hay that can be tied on top of the trailer with the help of tarps, is incredible and undoubtedly exceeds any maximum weight allowed. Sometimes, in the "silence" of the countryside, you may hear deep rhythmic blows from far away, then you start detecting the melody of an Indian blockbuster until, looking in the direction from where this noise arrives, you discover a tractor with large loudspeakers on the fenders. The boys who drive these richly decorated work means are well aware of the racket they make and of how much they cheer the people around them.
Many of these vehicles have words written on the back: "Horn please!" And this is how we Europeans understood the reason for this deafening horn concert! "Dipper at night!" In fact, at night the dazzlers of those you pass blind you. We often read sentences that ask for a blessing for the driver; to whom it is asked depends on his confession. Many have statuettes of their deities on the dashboard for the same purpose. Everything in warm, light and bright colors, which contrast the gray from dust and exhausts.

Four-legged on the freeway
I must say that the presence of quadrupeds downtown the immense cities - New Delhi, for example, has more than 20 million inhabitants - surprised me. Ok, cows, we even know that in India they are sacred. Stray dogs yes, it was to be expected. Horses, of course, since they are used to pull carts. The more exotic were the elephants with colorfully painted muzzles that walked on the freeway, or the camels "parked" along the streets. For me, instead, the most surprising were the boars that freely run, even in packs, in the city centers, rummaging in the trash that is found everywhere looking for something edible.

Streets in Italy … what a bore!
Back in Italy, more than one in our group was driven by nostalgia to honk their horn for no reason. The streets here seem empty in comparison, devoid of fantasy. When I see the immense cars carrying only one person, I think of the scooters on the other side of the world carrying three generations at the same time. Of course, the way we travel is safer and more comfortable, but chapeau to the people who repair the vehicles with tape and who can relax in that confusion to the point of taking a nap in front of the toll booth exit.
I will certainly remember the colors, the noises and the smiles of the people who watched us with the same curiosity as us. Obviously, not everything is good in India, the poverty of so many people is clearly visible. But seeing that this chaos, apparently without order, scheme or rules, works made me understand once again that not all the world operates according to our logic, the so-called Western one. Or, as our dear friend Riddhish, who accompanied us all these days with his family, said: "You wonder how such a great country can work despite this immense confusion, right?"

Text and video: Eva-Maria Potthast
Photos: Eva-Maria Potthast and Riddhish Jalnapurkar