Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pt. 4: In Which I Acknowledge My Negligence In Blogging

I’m not so hot a blogger. For instance, in my last entry I should’ve used a link to explain the Ganesh myth, rather than waste space copying from Wikipedia. Won’t happen again. So if you want to know about the last two festival holidays we’ve witnessed, Dasara and Diwali, you can just tap those links. Also, I don’t keep up too well, but I hope to remedy that as well, with shorter, more frequent entries. There’s a lot to tell about this place, so I should stop composing long works and get down to the nitty-gritty.

This is the paragraph about driving in India. First of all, I should be clear: everyone recommended against driving in India. Fulbright recommended against it, foreigners who lived and visited here, even Indians recommended against it (except, I should point out, my exchange partner, whose atypically adventurous attitude is most pleasing and empowering to me). The thing is, driving in Hyderabad is pretty close to chaos. Sure there are laws, and lines, and all sorts of signs, but ultimately, driving in the streets of Hyderabad is pretty much dog-eat-dog. There are hundreds of buses, diesel spewing, horn blasting behemoths that look like they've never had an exception, and their drivers have absolutely no interest in your driving or your safety. Then there are thousands of motorcycles and scooters, all in the 120-180 cc range, and they move around you like schools of fish, always seeking the path of least resistance. There are huge gravel trucks, overloaded cargo carriers, oxen carts, bicycles for god's sake, all plying the same right of way. And then there are the auto rickshaws.

A general rule of thumb is: always assume the right of way. If you do this, you will probably not get in an accident. If you don’t, you will become as a rock amidst stormy seas. But you’ll get nowhere. Fact is, we’ve seen no serious wrecks in the streets. For one, the volume of traffic means one rarely accelerates to anything approaching terminal velocity. Or even the speed limit, which is posted at a ridiculously low 40 kph (24 mph) on most city streets, even the main ones. The other thing is, people give way. If you want to enter the stream of traffic, or even cross it as a pedestrian for that matter, you pretty much stick your hand out (turn signal? Not likely!) and hit the gas. Pedestrians regularly claim the right of way not by waiting for the rare traffic light to go their way. They just hold up their hand sort of half-heartedly and walk. It’s a beautiful thing, really. You see, no one wants to be responsible for injuring another driver or pedestrian. You’re not likely to be arrested if you do, but it’s quite possible that you will be beaten to within an inch of your life by bystanders. Then they’ll carry you to the police station, if you’re lucky.

There are bumps and benders aplenty, but I still have yet to see a traffic accident resulting in injury. Not that I haven’t been bumped. Just yesterday Kaya and I decided to navigate our way through the city to the iMax cinema at a centrally located mall. On our way I inevitably took a wrong turn on a main road with a central divider. So I did what any Hyderabadi would do: I drove to the first gap in the divider, moved to the right (other side, remember?), stuck my arm out the window to indicate my intention (and, in a fit of nostalgia I guess, hit the turn signal as well), and began my u-turn. Well the auto rickshaw driver linked almost anatomically to my bumper, saw, or rather felt me decelerate and looked upon it as an opportunity to pass me on the right. He ended up sideswiping my rear door. No big worry; he couldn’t have been going more than 10 mph. But the family of three on the motor scooter behind him wasn’t quite so lucky (3 on a scooter is nothing. I’ve seen 5; Jen claims the record sighting at 7, but 5 were children). They hit the rickshaw hard enough to be jolted off their scooter, cracking its turn signal light cover. No one was hurt. Actually, none of them even fell to the ground, which is kind of shocking in itself. The rickshaw driver yelled something to me in Telegu. I yelled back to him in English. And then his passenger, a middle aged woman in a beautiful blue sari, translated, “he says you didn’t signal to turn. But I saw your hand out the window.” And indeed, my hand was still sticking out the window, so I raised my palm to him as if to say, “and what the f—k do you think this is, a—hole?”

I pulled the car to a parking spot and turned my attention to the scooter driver, a middle-aged man, his wife, and their 10-year old daughter, and asked if any of them were injured. I received his assurance that they were all unhurt, albeit angry and shaken. “What shall I do, sir!?” he exclaimed, obviously unsure about whose fault the whole was. Hell, I was shaken, having heard all these stories of drivers being hauled from their cars and beaten to death by mobs. And indeed, there were 6 or 7 young fellows gathering around the scene. But they didn’t look threatening, or even particularly concerned, just curious to see how the gora was going to handle the situation. I figured I had a way out. I think it helped that by this time the rickshaw driver had taken off. He seemed a more likely candidate for a beating than I. And since nobody was hurt, I offered to pay to replace the man’s turn signal cover. He was completely taken aback, looked even embarrassed to accept, but I pressed him to take the 100 rupees ($2) and he shyly accepted. He even shook my hand before we parted. But his wife still scowled at me. She probably would’ve contributed to the beating plenty, given the right circumstances.

We made it to the movie without further drama. Afterward we spent a couple of dollars in the arcade, racing each other through the streets of LA, but we had a terrible time: we couldn’t stay between the lines.