Cross-cultural communiqué: Getting lost in India

Mon Oct 8, 2012 5:53am EDT

A nomadic shepherd with his herd of sheep waits for the signal at a busy road junction in Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi January 3, 2012. REUTERS/Parivartan Sharma

A nomadic shepherd with his herd of sheep waits for the signal at a busy road junction in Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi January 3, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Parivartan Sharma

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(This is an edited excerpt from "Culture Shock India!" by Gitanjali Kolonad. Any opinions expressed are the author's own.)

(Reuters.com) - Getting around is an adventure on the Sub-continent. Here's a briefing on how to negotiate India's infamous city streets.

The fact that there are roads and sidewalks in India does not have much bearing on the traffic.

The sidewalks are for people to sleep, sell their wares, park their bicycles, have tea, listen to radio cricket commentaries, do all manner of things that have nothing to do with walking from one place to the other.

Pedestrians may attempt this obstacle course, or take their chances on the street with the buses, trucks, cars, autorickshaws, cycle rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, bullock carts, cows and the occasional camel or elephant.

Although it may seem chaotic, there are some rules, but they are rules of the jungle. The rule that supersedes all others seems to be, ‘The biggest on the road has the right of way.' Tata trucks, overloaded, garlanded and painted with "Horn Please," pay scant attention while barging into your lane, ignoring you as a lion might ignore a mouse.

The rule that takes precedence over the previous one is, ‘The one who has least to lose has the right of way.' This is why the big imported Mercedes gives way before the battered old Ambassador, and the kamikaze autorickshaws give way to no one. The one rule above all others is, ‘Cows always have the right of way.' Killing a cow is tantamount to killing one's own mother. All Indian drivers brake for cows. They don't always brake for pedestrians.

TAXI!

The metered taxis are black and yellow. They are usually Ambassadors in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, and Fiats or ‘Padminis' in Mumbai. They do not drive around looking for passengers. Instead, they wait at taxi stands at strategic points throughout the city: shopping areas, railway and bus stations, airports, big hotels, tourist attractions and the posh neighbourhoods. They can be summoned by a phone call, if the phone works.

Taxis cost considerably more than autorickshaws, and have the same supplements and surcharges over and above the metered fare. At least for the first trip, the visitor can avoid haggling as well as being overcharged, since the major airports, and even some railway stations, have introduced the very convenient pre-paid taxi service, where you pay a fixed amount according to the distance.

If you regularly use the same neighbourhood taxi stand, you can trust the drivers and the prices. In strange parts of the city, you may be overcharged, but it is unlikely that you will encounter any other unpleasantness from a taxi driver, such as theft or assault.

‘Tourist taxis' are ordinary looking Ambassadors in much better condition, and even air-conditioned if you wish it. They can be hired for five hours, 10 hours, or by the week. There is a fixed rate that includes the car, the driver, the petrol and a certain number of kilometres. It is customary to give the driver a small amount for meals and tea at the appropriate times, and a tip at the end of the day.

The major cities have ‘call taxis' companies; you call, and a car is sent to you wherever you are. They expect to be called at least half an hour ahead of time, and the farther in advance the better. These taxis are metered and you pay exactly what is stated, plus a tip if you wish.

GOING PLACES?

Most Indian cities are huge and sprawling, and though there may be maps of the city core, there are no up-to-date street maps for the maze of streets in residential neighbourhoods, often called colonies.

The best thing is to ask for directions, not once but several times. The best people to ask, I've found, are teenage boys on bicycles. They are the only ones who seem to really know the neighbourhoods. The mobile ironing men, the delivery boys at the small neighbourhood provision stores, and autorickshaw or taxi-drivers at a neighbourhood stand are also good bets.

("Culture Shock! India", published by Marshall Cavendish International, can be ordered here <amzn.to/Vql6XE>)

(Editing by Peter Myers)

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