Saturday, January 20, 2007

Getting around

When I lived in Costa Rica, I had to wade across a waist-deep river each morning to get to the school where I was teaching. Roads spared from the seasonal inundation had their own hazards, namely intermittent paving and potholes large enough for a child to hide in. But this was to be expected; I was living in a small coastal town better known for its its migrant surfers than, well, that's all it was known for.

Were I now living in a similarly rural area, I would expect to find roadways likewise in need of upkeep. But I'm not living in a rural area; I'm in Bangalore, the “Silicon Valley of India,” a city more populous than all of South Carolina and with a GDP twice that of North Dakota. The roads here should be a pure dream, right? Far from it.

I've heard it said that whereas the rest of India drives on the left side of the road, Bangaloreons drive on what's left of the road. I've traveled on roads not far outside central Bangalore that abruptly turn from paved road to dirt, as if the street paving crew ran out of asphalt one day and never bothered to return. And where the paving stops, the rocks take over, so numerous and large that one could ride down train tracks in more comfort.

In all candor, however, I've never been preoccupied with my comfort while riding on Bangalore's streets; I'm far more concerned with mere survival. It's hard to think of anything else while riding as passenger in the three-wheeled death boxes known as autorickshaws. As autorickshaws have no doors, yellow canvas is the sole form of side-impact protection, a bumper sticker of Ganesh protects the rear. Invariably, the driver drives as if being chased—perhaps by the rickshaw's rightful owner—so my sense of bodily security is usually lingering at depths previously unexplored. Stepping into an autorickshaw feels like being the first out of the trench at Galipoli.

This is all to say that transportation here is completely different. Around half of the vehicles on the streets are motorcycles and mopeds, though they often have as many passengers as do the cars. I've seen many a moped carrying a families of four. It's no different on buses where passengers find space like kids cramming into a phone booth, sometimes with enough riders hanging from the side that the bus runs at a tilt.

Drivers mostly treat traffic laws as a blind child does the lines in a coloring book. Traffic signals aren't so much obeyed as they are briefly acknowledge. And on most roads there's no clear rule—and certainly no center line—to allocate how much of the road belongs to each direction of traffic. As a consequence, there's a constantly shifting zone of imminent peril where traffic is going both directions.

Throw into the mix a healthy dose of ox-drawn carts and wandering cows with a profound sense of entitlement, and it's a wonder that anyone ever gets anywhere. Yet they do. I've seen congestion, but it always resolves itself within a minute or two. I've never seen gridlock. Somehow people always make it from A to B, usually without serious injury. And that's something I marvel at everyday.