Navigating the roads by automobile in India is no easy task. First, consider the roads. As we are driven through the surrounding towns and villages of our internship sight, we mostly encounter a narrow strip of pavement. Comfortably, a large truck or van could move down the center of this road with a buffer of a few feet on either side. But these roads are used as two-way passages. There is no dividing lane line, as it would be superfluous. The roads themselves are filled with divots, potholes and all manners of cracks. The outer edges of the pavement are always cracked and wearing off into the dirt. And once every 5km or so, the paved road will lead directly to a chasm – a gap in the road about 15 feet deep that has been cut out and is waiting to be filled – an unfinished construction project, a future bridge or waterway. I’d say one-in-five of these sights actually has men working on them. These junctures lead the driver to take a diverted dirt road that winds down and around the sight and then slopes sharply back upwards as it reconnects to the main pavement. At various times the paved roads end abruptly and become crushed gravel, hard packed dirt or unstable mud. Each time this happens the driver needs to brake hard to meet the transition. But he (as I’ve only ever seen men driving) is used to this.
Going for a drive in India is not an activity of leisure. It is work, it is hard labor. The driver mans the clutch with his whole body. The brakes also. There really is no room for error. The roads are not exactly what makes travel such an excruciating undertaking. It is that these roads are filled with innumerable obstacles to navigate through, or around. Most people travel by motorcycle – carrying anywhere from 1 to 4 passengers. Sharing the road with these two wheeled vehicles are rickshaws, small sedans, passenger vans, buses, commercial trucks, tractors, cement trucks and carts pulled by bulls. Crowding the sides of the roads, both in villages and on long stretches of country road, are children playing, walkers, bicycles and their drivers, chickens, dogs, pigs, goats, camels, cows, and more cows. The strategy is that you drive directly at an object hoping that it will move, or, if it is a vehicle, it drives around you. Otherwise you wait until the last possible moment to veer to the left, slide halfway off the pavement and retake your position ahead of the object. Often you will need to stop entirely for a dog with a death sentence or a cow who is not being moved along by its owner. If you are planning on passing someone, or some animal, you notify them by beeping your horn, which is sometimes musical. I have never seen a turn signal used. There is just the horn, and its use is appreciated.
I am utterly amazed that there are not more accidents. Though vehicles often nearly rub, I have not yet witnessed a collision. At least not one involving people. In the past two weeks, I have unfortunately seen about a half dozen lifeless animals, mostly dogs, lying bloody in the road. I’ve gotten used to this manner of driving, because I don’t really have a choice, and because instead of clutching my seat and counting the number of near accidents, I prefer to stare out the window – taking in the view of the expansive fields and hillsides, the food vendors and commercial stalls, and the vibrantly colored homes. I prefer to take in the sound of the hindi music and the smell of chai. And I prefer to believe that this is not chaos, but a synchronized order, a raga of the road – orchestrated to include the layered melodies of each and every traveler, including myself.