Please Sound Horn
Beep, beep! Hoooooonk! BEEPITY beeeeep! One of my first impressions of India was the honking. Cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws, buses, and every form of transportation not involving pedals or legs honks horns without stopping. Indeed, the gorgeously painted trucks universally have signs imploring surrounding vehicles to sound their horns.
As my friend Karen Roper discovered on a recent family trip to India, the car horn functions as automotive sonar.
Karen is a former marketing director with degrees in journalism and business who traded corporate life for motherhood and the PTA. Now, with a son in his senior year at Harvard, she splits her time between working for his former high school, coaching high school and college seniors through college and graduate school essays and applications, and traveling with her son (when he’s available) and husband. She’s visited more than 50 countries leaving about 140 to go, depending on who you ask.
Karen joins us as guest host as part of my Vacations & Holidays series while I’m away for the next several weeks. Welcome, Karen. Horn, please!
There was a reason we went back to India… Right?
–Guest post by Karen Roper
People in India abhor a vacuum. While the British are busy queuing up and the Americans form meandering clusters of family and friends, Indian people bunch, in full body-contact mode. No space goes unfilled. Perhaps, with a population of more than 1.25 billion, it’s only natural. If you leave too much space, people will only think you have room for more people. It’s also how they drive.
When we decided to attempt our second tour of India – we’d been lucky enough to arrive just in time for the Bombay Riots 23 years before – we ended up working with my Delhi-area native’s friend Archana’s California-based travel agent friend Ritu’s somewhere in India-based colleague Divya, and the whole Compass Travel Team. (It’s the way things are done in India.) After numerous e-mail exchanges while trying to figure out who was really in charge, we landed in Delhi on New Year’s Day, to meet the one person who could send us running in terror or give us a dream vacation all for “a very good price.” Our driver.
We weren’t feeling particularly confident at that moment. Once we put down our deposit, everyone we knew who had ever heard of anyone who travelled in India began to warn us about the traffic and drivers. I remembered streets filled with rickshaws, livestock, buses, black taxis, and a few motor-cycles on our previous trip, but now there were more private cars, more colorful taxis, and the rickshaws had been supplemented by motorized tuk-tuks. “Tell your driver you’re in no hurry,” said friends, “and tell him that often.”
…our guide appeared behind us, holding a sign: Mrs. Karen Louise Roper. (There must be thousands of Guptas and Chopras in India, but the only Ropers in several thousand miles required a first and middle name.)
Clearing passport control and customs, we found the waiting area with placards for Mr. Gupta, Mrs. Chopra, P. Ahluwalia, etc., but not a single Roper. I was just persuading one of soldiers guarding the door to search for our name among the unlicensed guide masses outside – since walking out the door meant never returning – when our guide appeared behind us, holding a sign: Mrs. Karen Louise Roper. (There must be thousands of Guptas and Chopras in India, but the only Ropers in several thousand miles required a first and middle name.)
The greeter grabbed my bags, leaving John and Aaron (my husband and son) to trail behind with their own, and headed out the doors to the far side of the street and our awaiting Toyota Inova “very good car, sir” and our driver, Mr. Singh.
From his first bowing “Namaste” and smile, I knew we were in good hands. Even as we snaked back and forth from thoroughfare to thoroughfare – 5 km north, U-turn through opening in lane barrier, 3 km south, exit left to underlying road. 3 km east, U-turn through barrier opening, 2 km west, exit left… and so on. “Very close,” said Mr. Singh. “There in 15, 20, maybe 30 minutes.” – I still felt good. The man handled the confusing roads as only an expert could.“How long have you been driving, Singh,” my husband asked.
“Sir? Uh… 6 months… no 2 years, sir.” My confidence slipped a notch. “Very good company, sir.”
“No, I mean [now embellished with meaningless hand gestures], how many years have you been driving?”
“Me, Sir? 46. 46 years. Wife. Two children. Daughters.” Big smile.
Now with more directed hand motions, “How many years have you [using whole hand to point; fingers are rude] been driving [uses two hands to control imaginary wheel] any [gestures broadly] car [gestures broadly again at the population of cars]? I am, meanwhile, watching Mr. Singh concentrate on John’s gestures, thinking, “Eyes on the road, eyes on the road.”But Mr. Singh’s eyes finally gleamed. “24, 25 years, Sir. Since 21.”
We were thrilled with his driving experience, particularly since, India does not have Western-style intersections. Significant roads are divided by lumber, goats, shrubs, fencing, and occasional piles of garbage (to feed the happily munching goats and cows?), with gaps in the divider, sometimes marked by lights, in the case of a crossroad, otherwise providing only for U-turns, allowing for the snaking drive to our hotel. But actual intersections need lights. When the light begins to blink red, this signals those on the crossroad to begin crossing. Those on the primary street continue to surge ahead for as long as possible until the first, bravest driver on the crossroad noses in enough to cause the nearest-lane driver on the primary street to flinch…er…stop. Note that this is generally happening from both sides at once and that the drivers will continue to edge until the momentum has shifted to the crossroad and traffic on the primary street stops.
This is all done with a cadence of honking that actually seems to mean something to the locals. At the same time, traffic back on the main street doesn’t completely stop as the motorcycles, tuk-tuks, and smaller car maneuver into any opening available, even if that happens to be in the parking lane behind a parked car. When the momentum shifts again, those repositioned into blocked lanes sound their horns and push back into the main lane, a few cars ahead of where they started. It’s like a controlled game of chicken with the edge given to size, nerve, and reflexes. Most trucks have a, “Please honk” sign on the back, although I’m pretty sure no request is necessary. Additionally, honking is illegal in many cities. Yet, honking never stops. Even the police honk. I don’t understand it, but it works.
Mr. Singh managed it all with calm, smiling equanimity. He didn’t slam on his brakes. He didn’t curse (even in Hindi – assuming there are Hindi curse words). He didn’t use the horn more than 6 or 7 times an hour. But he kept to a schedule, stopped wherever my husband wanted a photo (even waving off policemen who wanted to interfere with us stopping on a freeway), and cheerfully came to pick me up when I wanted a break, but hand no idea where I was, while the boys continued on. Every morning he was there right to the minute of our pre-requested time with a smile on his face and a bowing “Namaste” to start the day.
I loved India. Everything about our trip was wonderful. But our one-of-a-kind Mr. Singh made everything better, even keeping my husband, who likes to be in control of navigation, happily shooting photos out the window. . . or from the side of the busy highway as we blocked traffic.
As we headed for Udaipur, our last stop before catching a plane south where we would find a new guide and a new driver, I reached up and gave Mr. Singh’s shoulder a pat.
“It’s another beautiful day, Mr. Singh,” I said.
“Thank you Ma’am.”