Sunday, April 06, 2008

India: Don't Go There

So we were sitting in our hotel in Rishikesh trying to figure out how we were going to get back to Delhi. Sure, there was a bus at 1:30, and all we had to do was to hire a porter to wheel our bags for about a mile, then get a cab, etc. But the bus had no a/c, it was really hot out, and we wouldn't get there until about 10 pm. And I was just getting over my latest illness.

Alternatively, we could hire a car and driver, with air conditioned comfort and door to door service. Cost: $70. After much heming and hawing, I finally concluded that I was an old, tired, sick man, and I decided to go for it.

Our driver appeared about 45 minutes later and off we went.

The road back to Hardwar we already knew. Since Hardwar is a city of about 300,000, and is not only a major city of pilgrimage but the gateway to Himalayan recreation, one would think that it would be connected to Delhi with a half decent road. But, as with the rest of India, they couldn't even come up with an eighth-decent one. We snaked along at about 15 miles an hour on a barely two lane road, sharing it with the usual collection of bicycles, carts, bullock carts, motorbikes, buses, cars, autorickshaws, medium sized trucks and giant sized trucks.

All of which meant that even though we were only about 100 miles from Delhi, this was going to take a long time. And a very intense one. Because just sitting in the front seat watching our driver constantly and continuously moving around and through and passing all of our competition on the highway that was just a street was completely wearing me out. And I realized that this was the perfect metaphor for India itself: It's like the most intense traffic jam you have ever been in, every moment of every day.

We finally got to neer Meerut, and I realized that this was now also the road that went to Meerut and Dehra Dun, each with a population of 500,000. So now this one road was the only possible artery for several million people. So even if you were a billionaire and wanted to drive to Dehra Dun or Hardwar, this was the only way you could do it. And having used the road several times in 1971, I could see that the only 'improvement' in 36 years was to have about 10 times the traffic.

Right after the turnoff to Meerut the driver made another turnoff, this one on a one lane road going through fields and alongside tiny villages. The driver assured us that this was a shortcut, so as the sun went down we endured endless maneuvering around bicycles, motorbikes, pedestrians, etc., none of whom were remotely lit up.

After about an hour of this it was completely dark, and we finally got back to a 'real' road. This was the Main Trunk Route going into Delhi, with three lanes going in each direction and a concrete barrier in between. Although no one was driving in lanes and traffic was going at about 50 miles an hour. Now India drives on the left hand side, and Delhi was off to the right, so the obvious thing to do was to take a left and then find some place to make a u-turn.

Instead our driver immediately turned right into three lanes of traffic. Everyone slammed on their brakes and tried to weave around him while he crossed all three lanes and after about 100 yards found a hole in the concrete barrier, which he went through. Now all the traffic in the other three lanes had to slam on their brakes because he was in the fast lane and only going about twenty. All this was not out of the ordinary for India. And it served as another perfect metaphor for the country.

As we got to the outskirts of the Delhi metro area we passed the suburb of Gwalior, and I could see nondesecript high rise apartments and the neon lights of nondescript shopping malls and theaters. After four weeks I was finally seeing signs of the 'new' India. But at this point I had absolutely no desire to check it out further.


At 10:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should have taken the train!!
Nona was at Hari Dass's orphanage near Hardiwar for all January and everyone travelled to/from Delhi by train. As for traffic, I have a video which shows what you experienced when your driver turned right across three busy lanes -- obviously normal in India.
Now, Nona is in northern North Carolina in the mountains, on the App. Trail. It is snowing and freezing at night -- and she mailed home her warm clothes 3 days ago (against, I have to add, the advice of myself and of several experienced AT hikers). -- Peter


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