Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Being Driven In Delhi

My driver for the week is Vijay, aka the World's Greatest Golfer. Vijay is a 26 year old Hindu, and his driving skills are unparalleled with the exception of the other million Indians traversing the roads of New Delhi. The horn is the quintessential feature of any car, and Vijay, like everyone else, uses it constantly so as to keep the buses, cycles, mopeds, cars, bikes, and oxen merging seemlessly without braking (or pulling the reins on the oxen, whatever the case may be). In America, the horn is fightin words (with the notable exception of NYC) - a challenge - a general statement about comparative levels of testosterone, but in India, the horn is no such thing. Buses and commercial trucks (which were forbidden from travel during daylight hours) have "Horn Please" painted on their bumpers, practically begging other Indians to insult them with their honking.

Lane lines on the multilane highways of Delhi and the suburb of Gurgaon are for aesthetic purposes only, whereas the shoulders of such roads, where they exist, exist solely for the inscrutable purpose of forming 3 foot high conical piles of dirt, bricks, or rocks spaced every ten feet. There is clearly a thriving excavation industry in India, clearing new roads and property for the construction of shiney new office buildings donning the shingles of big American companies. But the removal industry lags behind, as excavated dirt just sits in a pile that parallels the road from Delhi to Gurgaon. Everyone is going somewhere, but no one seems to need to get anywhere, which gives rise the curious calm of drivers in conditions that would easily lead to rampant road rage in any part of the U.S.

My one other third world experience was in Jamaica, and it couldn't have been more different. In Jamaica, people just sat around and watched the gangi grow; in India, anyone sitting still is doing so behind a counter surrounded with various items for sale. 7-11s are unnecessary (again with the notable exception of the dirge of slurpees) because Delhi is like one big connected convenience store. If gangi is the native drug of the Carribean, then there is some form of speed in the water of India, not that I would ever drink it. (Incidentally, my trip to Jamaica was to a Sandals resort for my honeymoon; while sitting with 2 other couples for about 30 minutes while getting checked in, both of the other guys on the way to the can were offered marijuana, not more than an hour after landing in Jamaica. The Hatcher got to at least day five before some native finally was desparate enough to offer me some - apparently the Richie Cunningham looks make you an unlikely sale. Of course they were right, but they're discrimination based on hair color is still offensive. Didn't Danny Bonaducci have a drug problem?)

We pass on the way to the office a non-stop stream of Indian men on bicycles, riding double and sometimes even triple on bikes that look like 20 year old scrap metal; all the bikes are identical in appearance - fixed gear cruisers you'd only see on U.S. streets in black and white photos of the days of yore. (A bat bike reggata held in Delhi, for those from my lifeguard days, would provide more than an ample supply of bat bikes to steal for drunken revelry). One step up the commuter ladder are the mopeds and motorcycles, dodging and weaving from lane to lane or in between. Cars pass each other within inches, constantly cut each other off, form three lanes where two are intended, and follow the rule that for every ten miles per hour of speed, it is best to leave a microsecond gap between you and the car you follow.

I believe it was Miss Collins, in Junior year driver's ed class, who emphasized the fiction that all drivers are like members of a team with the common goal to arrive safely at their respective destinations. And this is the miracle of Delhi traffic - it is lawless anarchy - but it is largely accident free, and it moves steadily in conditions that would make U.S. drivers just stop dead, turn off the car, and walk away. If I were an anarchist, I'd point to the lawless nature of Delhi traffic as the utopia that awaits us all.

On Wednesday morning I read an interview in the Hindustan Times with India's first and only formula 1 race car driver, and the fact that there is only one stuns me, because they are all qualified. On my last night, prior to heading to the airport, I take the World's Greatest Golfer out to dinner, when he tells me in broken English that he doesn't drink on the job. I didn't want to ask, but part of me pondered whether a little alcohol was the necessary lubricant that kept the gears of Delhi traffic moving, or if extreme sobriety accounts for it. I would have bet on the slight and steady buzz, and despite Vijay's chosen strategy, I suspect the game of Delhi traffic admits both extreme sobriety and a little of the hair of the dog as equilibrium strategies. For any American who braves the traffic there without hiring the services of the World's Greatest Golfer or other suitable substitutes, and instead chooses to rent a car, bring a flask - because even if you decide to try it the sober route, getting into a horrific accident within a mile of the airport will leave you wanting to take the edge off.


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