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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Thursday, June 12, 2008

On Indian Roads

Travel Dates 15th -22nd March 2008
Click on any picture to see a larger version.

In Australia the Indian Tourism people were running an advertising campaign before I left home under the title "Incredible India".

It's true. India is, in fact, incredible. Things happen there that are hard to believe and life for many of the more than one billion Indians continues in ways that some of us, from our insulated Western societies, find hard to understand. So, with the possible exception of the previous post on the airport, if I describe things like that please note that I am observing, not judging. I don’t intend to criticise the culture, merely to record the incidents and sights I encountered. The pictures are in no particular order; just for fun, see if you can guess the number of passengers in the autorickshaw.

During my short visit all of the adjectives applied at some stage – magnificent, squalid, fascinating, horrifying, fabulous, terrifying, heart-rending, awe-inspiring, shocking, stupendous, and more – that’s India.

The first thing I was struck by as I left the airport were the roads and drivers. So that’s where I’ll start. On my other trips, in Europe, the UK, the USA, Fiji and New Zealand I have leased or rented cars and driven wherever possible, sometimes for weeks. I decided that would not be practical on this trip and, after reading lots of good advice, especially on India Mike, I decided to hire a car and driver. That was the best decision I’ve made in a while. I am a very experienced driver and consider myself a professional; remember that I drove cabs "hungry" in Melbourne for nearly two decades. But I could never have safely driven in India.

Raj led me to the Ambassador and we slowly negotiated the airport carpark sometime after 3:30am. I thought that would be the slowest part of the trip; little did I know. Then we sped off on the direct connection road to the Delhi-Agra main road. It was deserted, not another vehicle in sight so we sped along at about 40km/hr, slowing often to avoid occasional animals and also large lumps of concrete or stone which seemed to be haphazardly strewn across the road. Fairly often we would encounter "Work in Progress" sections. There was no need for speed restrictions – the rubble on the road was more than enough to slow passing traffic down. The road seemed to pass through a heavily industrial zone.

I mentioned to Raj that we were making good time and asked if it would be like this all the way to Agra. He said "wait". Then we joined the main road. And came to a halt. Remember, this was before dawn on a Saturday morning. Mile after mile of Tata and Ashok trucks, all belching fumes, some moving, some not, and some seemed to be just parked in the road.

The next couple of hours is a bit hazy. Every so often we would pull out to pass a slow truck, directly facing oncoming traffic barrelling down the uncluttered opposing lanes towards us; I learnt with time that this was normal practice. The opposing truck drivers apparently know this too and seemed just as keen to avoid collisions as we were. It was like a constantly repeating game of chicken, played to rules that everyone knew but me. The lane markings, when they existed, seemed to be used as a general guide to the direction of the road and had nothing to do with where you were supposed to drive on that road. Like the British before them, they drive on the left in India...mostly.

The reason it is a bit hazy is that I was dead tired with no sleep and I used that as an excuse to lay the seat back and doze through much of that first couple of hours. At least that’s what I told Raj; but really I needed an excuse to keep my eyes shut. With time I came to realise that Raj is an excellent and professional driver but in that first couple of hours I was yet to be convinced. He is also a nice guy, so if any Indian traffic cop is reading this, it is all a figment of my imagination.

At irregular intervals we would stop for long periods in queues at toll gates or state borders and I would groggily wake, look around at the vast crowds of Tata and Ashok trucks and doze off again.

I rose from my doze when we pulled into a driver’s café an hour or so from Agra at dawn. Raj invited me to join him in a glass of tea. I ordered it black and unsweetened and the café man had to make me a special pot. I learned from that mistake and for the rest of the trip whenever he invited me to join him I ordered the same as his, stewed with milk, sugar and cardamom. I reasoned that the small quantity of sugar was OK and the milk would be sterilised by the heat. A wise decision, as I later discovered.

That was when a few little things happened that suddenly made me change from being a bit grumpy and tired to realising why I was here in this dusty, smelly, strange place. Out of the dawn a small troop of monkeys silently appeared, completely ignoring us, and wandered around the area as their own domain. Fascinating to me, ho-hum to Raj and the café man. About the same time a loud pop-pop-pop noise came down the road preceding a strange machine that seemed to be the bare bones of a half-finished truck. Which is exactly what it was – a home-made vehicle legally using the public roads. I saw many more of these as we travelled through Uttar Pradesh (the state surrounding Agra) but not so many in Rajasthan. Not like the truck in the photo - that is a real truck travelling between assembly plants.

The car deserves a mention. For about half a century the the Ambassador was the flagship of the Indian car fleet, manufactured by Hindustan Motors . My thanks to an anonymous friend (see the first comment below) for correcting my mistaken impression that Tata made this car. For more details on the history of the Ambassador see the comment. It appears to be based on the English Morris cars of the ‘50s; very similar to the Morris Oxford which was my wife's first car. The age of the Ambassador I was travelling in was indeterminate, maybe it was reasonably new or it could have been quite old, but it was beautifully kept (I obscured the numberplate in case the owner wants privacy). It probably would have qualified for vintage or veteran status in another country. I was a bit wary at first, but I was reassured that I would be comfortable and that it was a better car for a tall person. By the end of the trip I agreed. It was reliable, solid and comfortable and handled the wildly varying road conditions very well.

After the shock of that first terrifying and fascinating ride to Agra I gradually became more blasé about the roads and drivers of India. There was a noticeable improvement in the Agra-Jaipur road, both in quality and speed of travel, once we crossed the Uttar Pradesh - Rajasthan border, and the road from Jaipur to Delhi seemed almost like a fast highway by comparison.

A highway, and often tollway, marked by "Work in Progress" (that wasn't), stretches of strangely poor surfaces and occasional speed humps, shared with camels and elephants hauling carts or just loaded with enormous loads, or with cows, goats and dogs wandering aimlessly on them, but a fast highway all the same when compared with Uttar Pradesh. So fast that the trip of just over 250km from Jaipur to Delhi, with a stop for lunch, took less than a day...

And, in case you're wondering, we counted 16 passengers in and on that autorickshaw, not counting the driver and a couple of babies.

A fascinating experience. More fun for a longer time and with more adrenaline rushes than a roller-coaster ride. If I had only spent my time on the roads I would still have enjoyed India.

Cheers, Alan


  1. Anonymous2:58 am

    Ambassador is not manufactured by Tata. It is manufactured by Hindustan Motors which has nothing to do with Tata. Long back (i.e pre 1980), there were mainly 2 car manufacturers in India, Hindustan Motors & Premier Automobiles. In 1985, Maruti Suzuki stormed the market & even now are No.1 in the Indian car Market. Tata Motors never made cars till the late 90's - they were mostly into heavy vehicles, trucks etc. However, since their entry into the passenger vehicle market, Tata has a major presence, 2nd only to Maruti Suzuki. But they still have nothing to do with the Ambassador.

  2. Anonymous1:05 am

    Hee hee Alan - this brings back many memories, mostly of a trip to the 'Backwaters' area around Cocin in Kerala. The Ambassador was described by my (first) husband as just like the Morris Oxford but seemingly, without springs. On a taxi trip in Goa when a fellow passenger asked which side of the road do they drive on he replied 'I'm glad you asked me that, I have been considering that for quite a while myself. I believe the answer is Yes'.


    Jenny (Sedge from DSF)