Friday, November 2, 2012

Honking, cutting off, and riding with the wind

Here are some observations about driving in India:

Honking is neither rare nor rude. Stoplights, crosswalks, traffic rules, street lines, and driving on one side of the road do not exist. Getting in fights with other drivers is common and cutting other drivers off is how you learn to drive. I have seen several pedestrians get hit by cars. Nobody stopped. The reaction was a sort of shrug. 
Nobody reads these rules. One way streets exist but nobody follows the rule. 
Honking is a way to say, “Just to let you know, I am coming.” Everyone wants to let you know they are coming. Even when I am walking down a sidewalk next to a street, cars honk at me just in case I plan to run out in the middle of the road anytime soon. When I tell people here that honking in the
United States almost never happens, they are so confused.

Guwahati, a city of 1.5 million people, has fewer than 10 stoplights. Traffic signs of one form or another don't exist. Occasionally, a policeman will stand to direct traffic. However, they do not do a very good job.

The policeman "directing" traffic near his traffic post.          One of the few traffic lights found in India.                   

My roommate, Kristin, says there is a “food chain” of driving in India—who matters most on the road and who doesn’t. Here is a list of vehicle types, from the most important to least important. If you ever come here, this should help you get around town and know who's got the clout.

1. Cars and Taxis      

            Cars are king. They are definitely the most powerful. They honk loudly and rule the streets. Almost all cars have dents and scratches in them from gently brushing the car next to them. I have noticed a lot of car dealerships around Guwahati (Honda, Volkswagen and Tata, which is a large corporation that seems to own everything in India). I have yet to call a taxi, but I would call one if I needed to go someplace far away, like the airport. Taxis are not very common and only by calling and reserving one can you get one.

2. Scooters/Motorcycles

            Both of my roommates have scooters. We use them all the time. Some of my friends also have motorcycles. I will be honest, before coming here, I hated scooters and motorcycles. They scared me to death. But now, I am riding one all the time (with a helmet of course). I would love to have a scooter here more than anything. I LOVE the wind blowing in my face and being able to see Guwahati through the open air. When I ride with either of my roommates, the looks we get from other drivers seeing two female foreigners on a scooter makes them almost wreck. They become completely confused. And yes, most Indian females sit on the backs of these vehicles sideways (their saris and salwares prevent them from straddling the seat). And yes, a family of four, no matter the age of the children, squeeze themselves onto a scooter without helmets. 

            Scooters and motorcycles can fit through any gap in the clogged streets and roads. They can also swerve onto a sidewalk. At a traffic stop, scooters or motorcycles are usually at the front because the drivers have weaved their way to the head of the line. With so much traffic here, scooters/motorcycles are the fastest way to get around. They may be small, but they're towards the top of the chain because of their versatility and size. 


Scooters and motorcycles in front of the traffic.
Kristin's blue scooty transporting pizza! 
3. Public buses

I never take the bus. Frankly, I do not understand how you know which bus is going where. There are hundreds and hundreds of buses, with no signs or routes posted anywhere. There are no bus stops. Instead, boys hang outside of the doorway slapping the bus when they think someone needs to catch a ride or get off. Slapping the bus also occurs when the bus driver cannot see something he might run into. In the morning and at night, buses are filled to the brim and there is not room for one more person. 

These buses usually have extremely loud horns that sing out a series of musical tones Buses get high marks for having more size than scooters and motorcycles, but often they are just stuck in the middle of the road.

Notice the boys hanging out of the bus. They are the "slappers."
Boys slapping! Their hands must hurt by the end of the day. 
Buses very very full. 
4. Auto Rickshaws (also known as Tuk-Tuks)

Auto rickshaws are basically three wheeled motorcycles with covers. Outside of my apartment, 3 or 4 rickshaw drivers always gather and wait for passengers. I know some of them by face now. Rickshaw drivers often gather in areas with other rickshaw drivers. Most of the time they're just shooting the
breeze. When I approach a group of rickshaw drivers, I usually find them playing card games in one of their vehicles. I have not figured out exactly how the system works, but when I want a rickshaw I walk up to the group, say "Lamb Road," which is where I live, and one rickshaw driver gets out without any
argument and points to his car. He must be waiting in line or something for the next customer, because he always wins the job. 

The classic group of rickshaws gathered. 
Some drivers still try and rip me off, but I am becoming aggressive (which is hard for me) and sticking with reasonable prices. There is always negotiation about what to pay a rickshaw driver. If I am in a hurry to get to the hospital, I take an auto rickshaw. I love it because the drivers always open and close the doors for me because I can never get the doors open (classic foreigner). The cost is 70 rupees, for about a 6-7 minute ride. That's about $1.30.

The auto rickshaws have soft horns that they use all the time. But the honking does absolutely nothing. Rickshaw drivers think they have more power than they actually do. They are not afraid to try to squeeze through cars. Auto rickshaw drivers love getting in arguments with drivers of other forms and they love showing me how fast their rickshaw can go. (All the rickshaws go the same speed). 

Inside an auto rickshaw. 
Pick up trucks in Guwahati (also considered rickshaws). 

5. Bike rickshaws and other bikes

            So sad, but I think sometimes these drivers will get run over and pancaked. Their horns, which come in the form of a bell that you find on children's bikes in the U.S., does absolutely nothing at all except provide comedy. These drivers have zero power, even if their legs are in good shape. The bike rickshaws are quite cheap and most people use them to get to a place that is only a short distance away.

Bike rickshaw                                                                       Biking around town
The bikes have a flat surface behind the seat for extra passengers, and shopping bags.

The way I get around town varies a lot. I usually walk to the market and occasionally to the hospital. I've gotten used to people honking at me all the time, which I think is because they are worried that a foreigner will not understand that a vehicle is coming and coming fast.

So, just like there is a caste system in India, there is a caste system on the road.

Watch out everyone—when I come back and drive in Nashville, I will be honking and cutting off like crazy.

Sending smiles from India,


Extra photos: 

The most common pick up truck: a person.
Some people prefer walking: School children walking home after school. 



  1. As always, love reading your blog. I think you need to put a Scooter on your Christmas list this year :-) Mrs. R

  2. Work like you don’t need money, Love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like no one’s watching, and when in India drive like no one’s waiting back home :P