Just back from my first visit to India. Many impressions, but one of the most striking was the traffic.
Let's relive that first taxi journey - between 3am and 4am on a February night after a delayed flight from Paris into Bangalore. 3 of us & the driver: can't fault the car, it's a very modern small MPV, air-con, clean (apart from both inside & outside of the windscreen). But within seconds, you know you are in the East: as the driver begins to catch up with any traffic ahead, he honks the horn and flashes his headlights. The goal is to point out to the drivers whom he is about to pass that he is there so no lane-changing please: a worthwhile warning since lane discipline is, essentially non-existent. Cars and lorries often hover unconvincingly across the lane divider, so that honking is required to pass them on either side. They also switch from one lane to another apparently at a whim, and if leaving a highway will quite cheerfully cross 2 or 3 lanes of traffic in the last 100m before their junction, aided of course by the horn and flashing lights.
Then there are the roadworks. A substantial amount of the highway from the airport to Electronic City is apparently under construction (I think an elevated highway is being built in parallel - there certainly are sections of elevated roadway which we ran alongside at times, and the construction is perhaps for on-ramps or piers to support the elevated sections). These roadworks loom up out of the night with virtually no warning: there are high-vis chevrons, but sometimes these turn out to be improvised from fluorescent gaffer tape, and once presented us with arrows pointing both left and right: only the option to the left was wide enough for a car. Perhaps Indian scooter riders knew that they could go round the other side. Apart from these fluorescent markers, that is really it: very few "Construction Work" signs, and certainly none of the arc lamps which make any major roadworks a blaze of light at night in the UK. The roadworks would close 1, 2 or even all 3 lanes of the highway: traffic just made its way around, bouncing over kerbs down onto the old narrow roads alongside and back up onto the highway. Even during these manoeuvres the drivers kept on overtaking each other, honking cheerfully as they went. Alongside the highway is India. It is late at night so there are few people around for now.
First there are patches of wasteland, and building sites with part-complete projects looking so ramshackle it is hard to decide if they are being put up or pulled down. Then there are low apartment blocks, 2 or 3 stories high with shuttered shops on the ground floor. At first floor level concrete balconies run across. Some have external staircases, running up the sides or zig-zagging out towards the street. Everywhere is dust. When you see a side street it fades away into an orange-lit glow, the roads narrowing into the distance. Somehow even driving past in the night you can feel the soft dustiness of those streets.
Once or twice you notice a smell. Not a horrific stench, but not a smell you'd want to smell all day and night: somehow a dry, rotten odour. After a while you realise it is the smell of the small rivers which the road sometimes crosses, and you can only speculate about what it is that rots to produce that odour and who uses the water for what purposes. Note to self: bottled water only.
Many of the vehicles the taxi passes are lorries, of the sort you see in television programs about India: ancient looking; piled high with bricks, stones, vegetables; painted with religious slogans & who knows what else in Devanagari or curvy Kannada. SOUND HORN reads the text on the back of some lorries: the drivers are quite happy for you to honk and flash your intention to squeeze past them. Some of the lorries, we noticed, had their wing-mirrors folded in, probably so they can squeeze in through narrow gaps in the traffic, and also because - since everyone hoots - there is no point in the driver looking in them.
Finally we are in the outskirts of town, and there is more traffic and more cross-roads to negotiate. "Negotiation" is hardly the word for it though: "blunt assertion" is the normal tactic, with our driver and everyone else just driving out into the middle of junctions - at one point with cars approaching from both sides, the taxi somehow squeezes itself inbetween as the Westerners in the back wince - and somehow just missing each other. Soon we are driving down a narrow street, an alley really, with 3-storey tenements on each side, the external staircases and concrete balconies again. A couple of dogs wander across the lane causing the driver to brake. Then after this city diversion we are back on the highway out towards Hosur.
And so after an hour and a quarter or so we are in Electronic City, Hosur Road, and turning into the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which sits in what can really only be called a compound. 3 security guards wait at the gate: one looks under the car with a mirror mounted on a 2-wheeled trolley while another looks in the boot. A dog on a lead is led around the car. Our suitcases and bags are X-rayed before we can go into the hotel, and we have to step through a metal detector ourselves. The last time I saw any security like this was at the SAS headquarters in Hereford: now apparently it is the reaction to the Mumbai bombing & shooting attacks by al-Qaida. (We see this sort of security again during our visit, most noticeably at a shopping mall we visit - but there the security was a single metal detector arch and the most bored-looking Indian girl imaginable. The detector beeped when every single person passed through, but she didn't feel called on to investigate any further.)
The next day we get a taxi to the office: having arrived very late we go in quite late, after the rush hour, but the traffic is still pretty heavy. In daylight the mix of traffic changes and now there are more bikes and scooters, plenty of auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks), buses, fewer lorries but still some. And now there are people, people everywhere. We see a man pushing an ice-cream cart along the side of the road, a bag of cones hanging from the awning. We see people selling water-melons from stalls. We see men, women and children walking in the dust at the side of the road, cars whizzing past inches away.
However the traffic chaos is unbelievable (to Western eyes!) even at this time of day. The apparent hair's-breadth escapes from certain death reach a crux when we come down a ramp to join a major 3-lane highway. It seems incredible to think that we are going to try to join this mob of traffic: but more incredible yet that the driver is turning right, into the oncoming traffic! I see another road to the right: ah, he is turning in there. NO, he is not -- he is going to drive the wrong way up the highway. And he does!
Cars hoot, a car pulls out from behind a truck (to overtake on the inside), sees us and ducks back in. The driver just carries on regardless, for a few hundred yards, then drops onto a frontage road which runs parallel to the highway. In essence he has taken a shortcut the wrong way up the highway in order to get to this frontage road: the point being that if he went the right way he would have to go too far up the highway and come back, whereas this way he goes right past the office and can easily drop us off.
I am glad to say that this was the only time we took this particular route! Either the other drivers were too nervous or polite or concerned for our Western sensibilities to try this route, or even they thought it was too dangerous at rush hour. Or quite possibly they would happily have used this dodge if it wasn't for the policemen who valiantly supervised traffic at some of the junctions at rush hour.
We couldn't help but laugh when we noticed signs at the roadside which read "27th National Road Safety Week" and "Obey Lane Discipline", or when we passed trucks with "Driving Rashly? Phone ...". Presumably most Indians also see this as pretty much a joke.
When we got back home I tried to explain what the traffic was like to people. Racking his brains for a point of comparison, my brother-in-law asked "Is it a bit like Paris then?". What could I say? No. NO, it is not. When you see the cars five-deep honking their way round the Étoile you may think that is quite something: but India is just a completely different experience.
I didn't mean to just write about traffic when I started this... but I guess it is the most Indian thing we saw that week. And I really do not mean to sound all superior-and-Western about this. I have to say that, for all its bizarrely chaotic nature, you have to say that the Bangalore traffic system works, in the sense that it gets millions of people to and from work. I doubt their road traffic death rates would be regarded as acceptable in Europe but they are nowhere as high as parts of Africa. When you see the sheer volume of traffic on the road at rush hour it is clear that, out of the apparent chaos, a working system has evolved: and if you tried to impose Western rules then the system would grind to a halt.