Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Indian infrastructure

Indian infrastructure

This is not about nature but about roads, perhaps the antithesis of nature. Each day I leave the teeming city of Bangalore to head out into the jungle with my guide for a day of nature. The trip begins with packing myself into the back of a little Tata car that my guide has hired. There are no airbags and the seat belts do not work. It is not air-conditioned because my guide tells me it is the cool season. That is, it is 80°F, so "not a problem".

We join the throng of cars, trucks and buses, all honking and jockeying for a lane position. There are no speed limits and although you run into an occasional lane marking, they are ignored. Into this mix, throw in thousands of motorcycles, many with entire families on them but usually just a couple. The man wears a helmet and seems intent, while the woman looks serene in her wondrously colored sari and sits side saddle on the back. Now for the coup de grace we add an absurd vehicle, the auto-rickshaw, a three wheeled contraption that holds a driver and whatever fits in the back- a passenger or two or three or four or five, merchandise, mattresses, even dead chickens. This auto-rickshaw is a two-stroke engine, in other words, a chain-saw with three wheels. Like a chain-saw it spews acrid blue oily smoke that makes ones throat raw and air stiff with oil and carbon.

The sun breaks through the clouds and turns all this exhaust into the hydrocarbon soup will call smog. It stings the eyes and closes the throat. Pedestrians, who are the least important piece of this traffic food-chain, stand along the sides of the road looking for the moment to run across. The moment they step into the roadway, every vehicle begins honking frantically resulting in about half of the crossers to back away and the half to fling themselves before the oncoming vehicles.

All this does not really stretch our incredulity until you add in cows. Lots of cows. Cows walking two abreast down the middle of the road, cows lying in the road, cows thinking about entering the road. It is all madness.

The jungle spots I have been going to are 1 to 2 hours of this horrific traffic away. Then of course I have to make the return during rush hour. On the way back today we went to turn onto the highway entrance ramp and it was blocked by a huge bale of hay. An old man on a bicycle came by and motioned to follow him on his bicycle. He drove ahead some fifty feet and motioned us up a highway ramp. Only halfway up did I realize we were going the wrong way and the exit ramp! Sure enough we accelerated and pulled onto the high only to see a sea of cars and trucks coming right at us, all honking. Our driver swerved across three lanes and jumped the curb to reach our correct direction of travel.

Half a mile went by and we were diverted back to the side we left and the driver slowed for the traffic cones and the "construction zone" signs. Pulling along side the construction area we saw who was building the highway- one man using a shovel, alone under the hot sun.

It is not just the streets- the side walks are all heaved and broken. The power flickers on and off rebooting computers and street lights and ATMs. It is life out of balance.


kaylyn said...

You had me laughing out loud with your traffic description. Reminded me of my time in Mumbai. Such well worded accounts ... you have me there with you.

Gregg said...

Will you be going to Darjeeling? If, so, I have a friend who you might be interested to meet ... A Sherpa with a history of climbing Everest.


George Forman said...

I was with Steve during this trip and relish the opportunity to share his words with my friends and family. Thanks Steve. I have posted in this section just to revisit our ride back together from Logan Airport to Amherst. Only hours away from Bangalore we were all struck with the comparison to the Mass Pike at rush hour. If it weren't for the pollution I think I prefer Bangalore. In Bangalore, people drive using the same mindset one would have leaving en masse from a sport stadium, each person flowing into whatever open space appears, no one going very fast. On the Mass Pike the mindset is not space, but time: "I must get home before the newscast." or"I have to have dinner ready by 7:00." From our elevated seats in the large van we could see cars switching lanes at 70 miles per hour leaving least than two car lengths between, knowing that being ahead meant being on time. In India everyone honks, sometimes to say, "I am behind you, be careful" sometimes to say,"I am heading for that space over there." On the Mass Pike people do not honk, but occasionally give you a flash of the lights in your rearview mirror to signal they want to pass. Lanes on the Mass Pike mark territories that the fast guys own and you must honor the authority of speed. Lanes markers in Bangalore are ornamental and are useful only to reveal breaks in the pavement. Even the faster highway from Mysore had triple speed bumps as you approach a village or fence like barriers that one slaloms around. Since cows have prerogative, limited access highways in India are inconceivable. Time is not the issue. I must also note that on the Mass Pike we saw an ambulance leaving a traffic accident somewhere past Framingham. We did not see any accidents in India. Anecdotal evidence for sure, but sometimes crowds take care of flow, while speed lanes encourage a sort of projectile view of travel.

Thanks again Steve for the wonderful documentation of your travels.