If you're traveling from practically anywhere else in the world, chances are your flight into Delhi will arrive sometime in the middle of the night so your first encounter with Indian traffic will be in the dark. But don't be fooled, in a developing city of almost 20 million people, traffic is nonstop, so even at night, the highways and side streets are crowded. People have places to be and they are in a serious hurry to get there. However, despite having the second-highest traffic-accident-ratio in the world, I was surprised at how few traffic incidents we actually witnessed after covering over 700 miles on the road in India. There seems to be a method to the madness and I was anxious to find out just how they make it work.
1. Who needs brakes when you have a horn?
The first thing you will hear when you step beyond the airport doors is the constant symphony of car horns echoing across the country. The car horn is the Indian iPhone: everyone has one and they are eager to show you just how much they love to use it. Honking is used to let other drivers know they're coming, that they would like to pass or go faster, and to simply say hello. In fact, most trucks and buses have "HORN PLEASE" painted on the back of them, so cars can ask them to move over. The fancier, louder, and more obnoxious the horn, the more effective it is. Indian drivers don't appear to believe in using their brakes, but would rather just honk their way through a crowd. It's more fun that way.
2. Avoid all eye contact with other drivers
Someone told me that there is a common understanding in India that if drivers make eye contact with one another, then they can be held responsible in the event of an accident. One way to avoid this is to simply avoid making eye contact with anyone else, particularly before turning into oncoming traffic, that way it's entirely up to the drivers behind you to stop, slow down, or swerve to avoid hitting you. Surprisingly effective... until it's not.
3. Assume that you never have the right of way
India was a British Colony so they "technically" drive on the left-side of the street. While this may seem helpful to remember when walking along the sidewalks, keep in mind that whatever direction you choose to walk in, it's probably wrong. And by wrong, I mean, pedestrians never have the right-of-way, so you better move if someone is coming at you. For the most part, there are no real traffic signs, lanes, or signals, so people generally just go any-which-way, darting around people, animals, objects, and other vehicles. Miraculously, I didn't actually see anyone get hit, but I definitely felt an exhaust pipe and a few motorcycle handlebars get a bit too close for comfort.
4. Wherever you're going, just keep moving
Since no one seems to technically possess the "right of way", it can get a bit chaotic when narrow streets are flooded with people walking, scooters, tuk-tuks, bicycles, rikshaws, carts, livestock, and stray animals. The best way to handle this is to only use half the amount of space you think you need, to step around a parked car for instance, and then get out of the way as quickly as possible. While stopping in the middle of the street is tempting because that's when the best pictures decide to present themselves, if you stay still for more than a few seconds, you'll cause a whole lot of the aforementioned honking and probably get prodded by a bull horn in the side.
5. Keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times.
Two things surprised me about riding in a rickshaw- how much weight those things can hold (I saw one bicycle-rickshaw hauling a stack of mattresses and a group of four adults) and how fast they can go. Once they get going down hill, there's not much you can do to to brace yourself for impact, but whatever you do, don't grab onto the outside bars. There are sometimes mere millimeters, or less, between your rickshaw and a wall, animal, or another vehicle, so don't let your knuckles be the only things keeping them from getting dented. Besides, in the event that your entire caravan of rickshaws suddenly slam into one another, you're still going to get pretty messed up. Fact.
6. Watch your step, and also your head...at the same time.
One of India's greatest struggles is their lack of waste-management systems so littering in public areas is still a huge issue. Combined with the millions of stray animals who do all their business out in the open, chances are you will step in or on somethings you'd rather not remember. Not to mention, warm, sunny streets are a favorite napping spot for cows and dogs, so if you don't want to face plant during your visit, keep an eye on where you're putting your feet. The other thing to watch for are objects hanging at eye level from awnings of shop fronts and carts. This is prime retail space as studies show people are more likely to buy something if they walk right into it. So unless you plan on coming home with a few extra souvenirs, and welts on your face, watch your head. And your feet. And your face. And your arms. All the time. Also, wear shoes you can wash off. Trust me.
7. Don't get too shutter-happy with the camera.
As a general rule, if you look out a car window in India for more than thirty seconds, you will see a man urinating in public. Not only is it totally normal and acceptable, it's actually preferred to the public toilet system in most communities. It doesn't matter if you are in a rural village or on a busy city street, if a man has his back to you, he's not looking at something interesting- he's peeing on it. I am suddenly wishing I hadn't deleted every photo that I accidentally took of a man relieving himself, but for all of our sake, I did. Just take my word for it.
8. Smile everywhere you go, someone is always watching
One way to draw a lot of attention to yourself in India is to travel with a group of 12 other young women in a shiny white bus with "TOURIST" painted across the windshield. However, the hours spent traveling by bus were some of my favorite. Even though the world outside our windows was passing by quickly, we were able to get a glimpse at life in towns and villages throughout Rajasthan, and smile and wave at hundreds of people who seemed pretty excited that we were there. Children chased after us down the street and women stood up from the fields they were harvesting to wave as we went by. At intersections, we caught curious stares and even a proposition or two from some confident young men. When we eventually came across another tourist group, we were so used to smiling and waving, we were surprised when they stared blankly back at us through their windows. Perhaps we had camouflaged ourselves in India after all.
India is a totally wild and amazing place. It's impossible to survive there without a sense of humor and someone who seriously knows what they're doing. I just wanted to give props to our amazing bus driver, his assistant, and our other drivers and guides who kept us safe throughout our entire trip. Minus a minor bicycle rickshaw incident, we were all super grateful to arrive home in one piece.