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Oh – that explains it.

Here is the reason that road repairs take forever, explained in a sign at the Chennai (India) airportReally, I had a big long blog explanation all typed up, and just deliberately deleted it.

There really is no need for anything other than this sign, as the picture says everything that needs to be said.

Now you know why road repairs – here in India, and probably everywhere else in the world – take forever to finish up.

You’re welcome.

Whoo hoo!

Gotta love the Indian sense of karma on the road. Don’t worry about things like helmets and seatbelts and carseats and rules, because nothing’s going to stop your number coming up when it is due on the big wheel of destiny, baby!

This guy came zooming up behind us today on the way home, and I just happened to have my camera (because of the Mathcounts tournament). Check out his kid’s hair whipping in the wind!

But don’t worry, dad’s got a good grip around his leg in case he has to stop real quickly – that’ll prevent the head from whipping forward, right?

It’s a trap!!

Driving home from school the other day, some fellow bus-riders and I were astounded to see a convertible Porsche 911 pulled up next to us. There are a number of fancy cars tooling around Bombay – I’ve seen Hummers, BMWs, Mercedes, Bentleys, and even a Porsche Cayenne – but a low-slung car is kind of a silly vehicle to take over the potholed roads here.

He took off like a jet when the light turned – kind of crazy considering the people, cows, cars, bikes, rickshaws, etc that lumber along the road. We figured that we’d seen the last of him.

As we headed on towards home, however, we passed through a super straightaway that is famous for being a speed trap. Policemen will set themselves up with a mounted radar gun, and then flag down cars that zoom along the one piece of road that is actually built for going fast.

Cop Stop

Now, the police used to do this in Serbia too, and I always wondered why people stopped. It isn’t like they have cars that will chase you down. At this area, though, the road continues to either a toll booth or a hairpin turn of 170 degrees, so all they do is have another set of cops at both places ready to nab jackrabbits. Plus the fines are only between 2 and 10 dollars!!

And, who did we see as we lumbered up to the hordes of police (and a tow truck)? That’s right – you can even see the Porsche being pulled over in the photo. Instant karma, baby!!

(Or, as Uncle Rob puts it, “How’s that karma suit ya?!”)

Bombay Traffic: Road Rage

For the final installment of this 5-part series on traffic, we come to one of the uglier sides of driving in Mumbai. For the most part, drivers are pretty anger-free as they push and squeeze and inch their way through the crowded byways. However, watch out when the levee breaks and the emotions due spill over.

View from the school vanThe most aggressive driver on our school staff is fantastically fast at getting us around town, and he also shows the most emotion on the road. He has this “look” that he gives other drivers who don’t get out of his way (or in some other fashion stink up the road). The Look is like something moms (or school teachers) in the olden days would give to kids who were misbehaving – a full on glare stare that lets you know, in no uncertain terms, that you were wrong in whatever you were doing.

But he doesn’t swear or race or flip people off, and neither do most other drivers on the road. There seems to be a pretty grudging acceptance of the lousy traffic conditions by everyone.

Alas, when accidents do happen, the full on rage and anger suddenly snaps to the surface. One evening when I was coming home, a rickshaw scraped a fancy car at a crazy intersection, and the drivers hopped right out.

The amazing thing about the confrontation was the unhesitating manner it was played out: the rickshaw driver stood there while the driver of the car slapped him around. There was no fighting back, no self defense at all.

Bombay traffic jamThe only thing I can guess is that the rick driver accepted that – as a poorer, lower caste person – it was his responsibility to let the richer guy beat him up. There were no threatening bodyguards or anything like that to keep him from fighting back, just a passive acceptance of his ‘lot in life.’

That driver got off easy, however: there are daily reports of crowds ‘thrashing’ drivers who smash into other vehicles (or pedestrians). These gruesome incidents sometimes result in the death of the drivers.

Just last Sunday, Breck and I joined some other dads and sons at the school to play a little baseball. One family came in 10 minutes after us, asking if we’d seen the wreck at the corner: a dump truck had run over a motorcycle, completely crushing it (and presumably the rider).  The sons and dad were pretty shaken up, as this incident had apparently just happened, and they saw an angry mob chase down the dump truck driver, grab him, and start to beat on him with sticks and bricks.

I guess that with the perception of the police as being pretty corrupt and ineffective, the average man-on-the-street believes that the best way to obtain justice is to mete it out himself. In fact, the advice we’ve been given is to always leave the scene of an accident immediately – regardless of potential casualties – to avoid getting caught up in just such a mob scene. Adds quite the dash of somber reality to the prospect of getting around in our fair city…

Bombay Traffic: Emergency Services

The rationale behind the Traffic in Bombay series grows from a couple of events that have happened in the past 2 weeks. The first of these gets written up today as a warning of your chances should you be involved in a road accident.

Motorcycle FamilyTwo colleagues were on their way in early to the school, when they came across a group of men standing around a tipped-over motorcycle. Seems the guy driving the bike had lost control, almost run into them (they were pedestrians), and wiped out. Now, there is a motorcycle helmet law, but it is very selectively followed and enforced (although this seems to be improving), so the guy was not in good shape. The passers-by had already moved him – there goes any consideration of neck or spinal injury – but he seemed to be moving all right: the big problem was that he was vomiting blood.

The two women asked if an ambulance was coming, and the guys all shrugged. They certainly hadn’t called one, no one else in the area had, and they were just standing around to see if the guy was going to die. Over the protestations of her driver, one of the women had the guys pick up the injured man and put him in the back seat (which luckily have plastic all over because of the two young kids in the family), where he proceeded to continue bleeding and vomiting.

WHO Traffic StatsThe driver took him to a local hospital – I guess the term would be ‘indigent’ or ‘state’ hospital – where the poorer people can get emergency treatment. When they got there, nobody came out to help the guy into the building (no crashing doors and clattering stretchers like in all the TV shows), so the woman and her driver dragged him into a waiting room.

She was very concerned about his status, having been trained as a nurse, as she was worried that he was bleeding internally – but no one in the hospital had much of a sense of urgency about them. (There are stories every day about people dying because A) they can’t get to the hospital in time, B) they are turned away from the doors because they are too poor, and C) the care is not adequate when they finally do get admitted somewhere.)

We have all been given a contact number for an ambulance service in Bombay – dial 1298! – but having seen the state of the emergency services, knowing that ambulances do not rate any special deference on the roads, and witnessing the ‘anything goes’ rules of the Indian roads, it is no surprise that the Indian rate of death from traffic accidents is among the highest in the world.

Bombay Traffic: Rules are fine, but Laws don’t count

Traffic SceneFor most people who have driven in India, there is a glaring omission in the “Rules of the Road” below. Where, oh where is the “Stoplights are Merely a Suggestion” rule? I decided to include it in the next chapter of Bombay Traffic, simply because – just like ogres and onions – there are many layers to that idea.

Stoplights are routinely ignored, leading to harrowing games of chicken, as the “Bigger is Better” rule comes into effect (and its corollary – “Momentum Determines Right-of-Way” – meaning that speed also comes into play). Vehicles will poke their noses into lanes of cross traffic, attempting to create enough of a bottleneck so as to allow them (and other jammed up drivers going the same way) to establish their right to cross the intersection.

Traffic CopsThe police, when present, are somewhat effective at stopping some of this, as no one likes to have to pay a small “fee,” especially when most of the rupees end up in the cops’ pockets.

A common sight is of a group of officers – sometimes including  women – sitting around on various corners, getting up from time to time to make a stop. They seem to especially like pulling over motorcycles, as they are easy marks for harassment. In any case, just having them around will sometimes discourage red-light-runners.

So with the obvious role of police in trying to stem some of the crazy driving habits, as well as the school’s dedication to following the letter of the law here, we found it curious that our bus drivers routinely blast through red lights and speed on the way to school in the morning, and asked them about it.

The response was hilarious in its simplicity. The drivers said, apparently in all seriousness, “According to Indian law, traffic regulations are not valid before 8am. We are not breaking the regulations, because they don’t apply before that time in the morning.”  What a great idea!

Bombay Traffic: Rules of the Road Part 2

Here are the next Big Five Rules of the Road, following on the heels of Bigger is Better:

  • Use Your Horn – In Bombay (and pretty much everywhere we’ve been in India), the horn is used as an all-purpose driving device. It warns someone you are coming, it tells people to get out of the way, it signals annoyance /anger/irritation/ happiness, and it gives drivers something to do as they sit in motionless traffic.
  • Lanes Are Pretty, Decorative Lines – but certainly not anything to take seriously. We have never, ever seen traffic pay any attention whatsoever to lanes. Granted, it can be difficult at times, given the varying state of disrepair of various highways and byways – to encourage people to stay in a straight line, but that certainly does not explain everything. A two lane road invariably becomes at least two lanes each way, and forget about maintaining lane discipline downtown. In fact…
  • HawkersFill All Space – At any intersection (especially), vehicles will bunch up in a very predictable manner. The bigger trucks, buses, and cars will bunch to the front, creating at least an extra lane of traffic. Then the rickshaws will swarm in, cramming themselves between the larger autos. Then the motorcycles and scooters inch their way through everything, up to the front of the line, then the bicycles do the same. Only then will the beggars and hawkers start making their way through the crowds, selling their wares.
  • Things Behind You Don’t Count – Once the lines start moving (amid a cacophony of horns), drivers concentrate on things that are in front of them. Once a vehicle has pulled ahead of another, it is as if a switch has been flipped, and the dude behind you doesn’t count. Cutting left and right in front of other vehicles is not a ‘bad’ thing, as everyone does it and everyone knows that – while mirrors sure can be decorated prettily on the sides of a door, they don’t serve any practical function!
  • Karma Rules – Surprisingly enough, however, real aggressive driving is a rarity. Certainly it has to do with the fact that there is no room to do anything supremely aggressive, but I personally think that the Hindu mindset plays a role as well: well, there’s not much I can do about this, the other driver deserves a bigger car/a better position in traffic/a shorter commute, and what comes around will go around. This also comes into play with safety features, as we regularly see drivers with no helmets, long sari scarves flapping in the breeze, 4 (or more) kids balanced on a motorcycle, and big trucks with no doors. Ganesh or Sai Baba or Allah or Jesus (as a person’s personal religious belief dictates) will watch over me…

Bombay traffic: Rules of the Road Part 1

Traffic is a never-far-from-the-front-of-our-attention fact of life here in Bombay. Our schedules and social lives (or lack thereof) revolve around the horrendous crushes of vehicles on the roads and the attendant long investment of time involved in going anywhere. There have been a few traffic-related situations in the past few days, so I figured a few entries (I’m looking at 5 parts at this point) outlining what the roads are like would be in order.

Today’s introductory topic concerns the number 1 rule of the road. This isn’t a rule in the sense of being ‘written down’ laws of any sort. This is just the everybody-follows-it regulation by which you have to abide. If you don’t, then you put yourself in a position of easily getting in an accident.

Simply put, this most important rule is Bigger Is Better. Traffic flow is regulated not by police, lights, lanes, or signs, but by the size of the vehicles – or animals – present. A rough pecking order would include:

  1. Cows
  2. Long haul diesel trucks
  3. Buses
  4. Elephants
  5. Horses, bulls, and oxen-drawn carts
  6. SUVs/minivans
  7. Cars
  8. Taxis
  9. Rickshaws
  10. Motorcycles
  11. Scooters
  12. People hauling items on handcarts
  13. Bicycles
  14. Pedestrians
  15. Dogs, cats, birds

Everybody knows these rules, and everyone follows them. Big trucks rarely slow down for anyone – but then again, no one expects them to and so usually gets out of their way. When that system breaks down, however, horrific accidents usually result (more about that in Part 5).

But usually, however, people are pretty willing to play the hand fate has dealt them. If you are in a rickshaw, you let cars and buses push you out of the way. By the same token, however, that rickshaw will not slow down at all for the family and grandma crossing the road.

While no one would claim to love the traffic, after a while, the mad melee becomes accepted and expected. The most difficult thing for us to get used to when driving in Thailand was that incoming traffic would actually yield to us on scooters – this is unheard of in Bombay.

But everyone stops for cows.

Eff-rick-in’ crazy!

As the last two evenings have been “Curriculum Night” at the school, Susan and I have been busy hopping to and from the school, giving our presentations and then putting on our ‘parent hat’ to sit in on the kids’ teachers.

Tonight, I had to get the kids home from school, get them all homeworked, get some food in them, and make sure everything was ok before going back to school to see Breck’s class presentation. Then, because Susan was still doing her spiel for another hour, I got to rush back home and put them to bed.

This doesn’t really sound like the sort of stuff that exciting evenings are made of, until you remember that this is in India – and all that transportation is done in rickshaws. That is not usually such a big deal, but today was different. I took three (four, really, as you’ll see) trips, and each had interesting and unique aspects about them:

Rickshaw #1 – As the kids and I were coming home from school, our driver spat out a big red stream of betel juice as we waited for the light to turn, which prompted Alea to mutter, “Gross.” Then Breck saw a hijra – what is often called a “eunuch” here: a man dressed up as a woman – begging at a corner and we had quite the discussion about them.

Rickshaw #2 – When I headed out to go back to the school, I realized that our elevator had broken in the building: 7 flights down (and no excitement about the return back up!). When I caught the rickshaw, things seemed to be going well, up until the point that we hit another rickshaw going through an intersection. As it was the first “accident” I’d been in, it was an interesting mess. Neither vehicle seemed to suffer too much damage, and the drivers pulled over, yelled at each other for a few minutes, and then proceeded on their ways. I suppose we were in need of a blessing, which is why a cow stuck its head inside at the next stoplight and licked my hand! That is another “never before” event for me.

Rickshaw #3 – After the school presentation, where I sat in the 4th grade room with the school superintendent and his wife, the associate superintendent, my principal, and the high school principal’s husband (along with many other parents), I hopped back in another rick to get home. This ride started with us sitting behind a delivery truck that had 2 men sitting in the back eating their dinner, which was followed by us getting involved in a yelling match with a rider in another rickshaw. We got stuck in traffic, and inched our way up to where a passenger was yelling and gesticulating and slapping his driver. The other driver was almost in tears, and my guy started yelling across at the passenger, and pretty soon the three of them were at each others’ throats. Mind you, this conversation was all in Marathi, which I don’t understand at all, so I’m only guessing here that it had something to do with the driver not going the direction the passenger wanted and now he was mad about being stuck in traffic.

Luckily for me, we got out of that situation when the rickshaw I was in stalled, and the driver couldn’t get it going. He pushed it for a while, fiddled around in the back, and finally looked at me with a shrug. Then when I tried to be a nice guy and pay him – even though we’d gotten barely halfway home – he started yelling at me to pay double the meter (something that is just not done!). That was not a pleasant way to start my walk down the road!

Rickshaw #4 – After having a couple of ricks not take me (either because they didn’t want to go in the direction of our home or because they didn’t understand what I was saying!), one picked me up. He had a couple of incense sticks burning and was about as mellow as they come. He deftly steered around the traffic jams, and got us on the right course. We ended up having to take a little detour, however, when we came across a huge hole in the road with literally a gushing river of water in it. It seemed to be a broken water main, and there were guys down there in the mud trying to scoop out oozing black sewer stuff with what looked like oversized dinner plate.

And then I made it to Kiara – just in time to walk all those stairs. Ahh, there’s no place like home!

Slip sliding away

Things you never consider before living in a place that has monsoons: after 8 months or so with no precipitation, the rains have a curious – though utterly predictable – effect on the roads here. That first little bit of moisture ‘brings up’ all the accumulated engine oil, axle grease, tire bits, and other assorted petroleum-based product debris that has accumulated on the asphalt. This creates a super slick skating rink on the surface over which all vehicles must pass.

There was the tiniest trace of a mist in the air this morning, and it made coming in to school a mess. Luckily our van driver is great and knew what was coming (and paid attention to the people on the side of the road waving at him to slow down), but coming over a hill we saw a dump truck that had slid completely around, a bus that skidded and shuddered from side to side as it was breaking, and several people walking motorcycles with freshly-broken side mirrors on them. Another teacher actually saw a motorcycle take a digger while going around a corner, but we just witnessed the aftermath.

There had hardly been enough precipitation to even qualify as ‘moisture,’ but the effects were certainly noticeable. I wonder what else will be in store as the weather patterns start to change. The news headlines this weekend were that the monsoon has hit Kerala (news story here), and Goa is starting to shut down as the rains approach. It won’t be too long now; the big question is whether it will start to pour here before we leave or not…

Breck meditating on the Kiara roof

Regardless of the rain’s plans, Breck intends on using every ounce of sunlight before we take off. He spent the afternoon soaking in the rays (while soaking in a tub) on the Kiara rooftop. What a fun way to enjoy the weather!

Horn Not OK on April 7th in Mumbai

traffic1.jpgWith all the racket and traffic, the city fathers have decided that a day of quiet is just what the doctor ordered. April 7th is being orchestrated as No Horn Day in Mumbai. I’ll believe it when I see (hear) it. There is no way typical Indian drivers are going to lay off the horn – it is just too crazy to deal with cars, rickshaws, bikes, motorcycles, buses, trucks, horses, cows, dogs, pedestrians, beggars, sellers, sweepers, potholes, construction: all while driving on the wrong side of the road!!

For a sample of what the horns in India sound like, follow this link to listen. This is an .mp3 of a .wav file originally from the Free Sound Project.