I’ve recently travelled through Kerala and Tamil Nadu in southern India. As anyone who has been there will attest, the traffic in India is crazy. Although they don’t move very fast, vehicles glide between each other in a seemingly chaotic, complex dance, using their horns frequently to warn those in front that they are overtaking.
There seem to be no road rules, but we were told by a Polish expat who rides a motorcycle that there are two guidelines to follow when driving in India:
- Don’t look behind you.
- Aim for the gaps in the traffic.
Roundabouts are particularly perplexing. Although Indians drive on the left hand side, on entering a roundabout, drivers will often take the shortest route to their exit – so if they are turning right they will turn right onto the roundabout rather than left.
There is very little road rage, drivers appear to expect the unexpected and have good reflexes to avoid collisions. However, statistics show that this strategy is not always successful. Traffic collisions in India are among the highest in the world, and there are more than 135,000 traffic-related deaths a year on Indian roads.
There is a definite pecking order amongst the vehicles in India, mainly based on size. At the top of the ‘food chain’ are the buses. Bus drivers behave like raging rhinos, bullying their way through the herds of other vehicles, by driving within inches of the vehicle in front, overtaking on blind bends, continually blowing their horn and generally intimidating other road users. To illustrate my point, here’s a link to a short video clip I took on a bus journey in India. Near the bottom of the pecking order are auto rickshaws – these glorified lawnmowers are the scuttling beetles of the roads.
India is a vast country, but the majority of travellers do not consider driving there. Even crossing the road incites fear into most tourists new to India, as pedestrians are at the bottom of the pecking order … along with dogs, goats and cows! Instead, they hire taxis or auto rickshaws or use trains and buses for getting about. Although hiring a taxi or auto is relatively cheap (after you’ve haggled to get a good price), for journeys of more than a couple of hours the most common mode is public transport.
Trains are more expensive than buses, but are more comfortable if you can get a second class ticket. However, these seats are very popular so you usually have to book them in advance. Tickets for bus journeys can be bought on board and are very cheap, although the buses are decrepit and can get very crowded. You also have to contend with the raging rhino instincts of the bus drivers, which can be terrifying at times.
As a comparison, the bus from Kalpetta to Perumbavoor (250km) took 8 hours and cost 198 INR, whereas the train from Trivandrum to Kozhikode (400km) on the Jan Shatabdi took 7 hours 15 minutes and cost 600 INR.
I like travelling on public transport in foreign countries. Part of it is because the skin flint in me is pleased that I’m saving money, but I also get a better appreciation for a place through meeting the local people. Of course, this also gives me a chance to interrogate them and find out their recommendations for their local area! I’ll share some of the experiences I’ve had on pubic transport in India in my next post.