Hey! Rickshaw!

Where I’m from, drivers generally only honk their horns for two reasons: 1) to tell people (or, if you’re from the country, perhaps animals) to get out of the way; or 2) to let someone know that they’ve pissed you off.  A third reason for honking may be to say hi to someone you recognized as you drive by.

I stopped counting the number of reasons drivers in Mumbai honk – – partially because all of the honking was distracting me from my counting.  Folks in Mumbai honk to let others know they’re there, to scorn pedestrians that walked in the way, to greet a friend on the street, as a way to let others know that you’re about to pass them, or simply because there’s nothing else to do.  When we’d get in the car, the first thing the driver would do was give a few quick honks to let everyone know we were leaving.  But, there’s a practical reason for that – the driveway was only wide enough for one car at a time, and it was curved, so it was smart to signal your departure.  But, when we got to the street, he’d give another few honks to, I guess, hope the cars, bikes, and auto-rickshaws on the street would open up a small gap in the flow of traffic, just large enough for him to squeeze in.  Then he might give a honk of thanks.

The result of all this is a constant symphony of horns that goes on well into the night.  Every now and then, a train would barrel by, lending its deep air horn to the mix.  During my first few trips in the city, I could barely contain my giggles – not because it was actually funny, but I just found it so…..much.  Like I said before, Mumbai is a bombardment of the senses – and there was just so much honking that I couldn’t do anything else but laugh.  After a week though, I didn’t really notice, because the horns in Mumbai were akin to hearing birds chirping in a forest.  It was just something that belonged there. By the end, I was wondering why our driver – whoever it happened to be at the time, on the bus, the rickshaw, or in the family car – wasn’t honking even more.

The main mode of transportation in Mumbai is by auto rickshaw.  They’re little, three-wheeled carts that zoom down the streets, and you flag them down as you’d hail a cab:  “Hey!  Rickshaw!”  At least that’s how I thought it would go.  In reality though, my efforts were too much – all you had to do was barely raise your hand from your side, and you could flag one down.  They’ve got a backseat built to take, what I would have guessed to be, two adults.  But, during my three weeks there, I saw up to five folks piled in a rickshaw, with the fifth guy snuggled up close to the driver.  Rickshaws are good for just about anything – long or short distance.  While the family’s apartment was packed full of people during my future sister-in-law’s wedding, my fiancé and I stayed in a hotel down the road.  Each way, the trip between the apartment and hotel would take – depending on traffic – about 10 or 15 minutes.  And the bill for the trip?  15 rupees….about $0.25.  I couldn’t even hail a cab in Boston for a quarter!

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Some rickshaws, bikes, mopeds, and a train.

But, the rickshaws are good and cheap for longer distances, too.  We went to a big party at a beach resort for New Year’s Eve, and decided to take a rickshaw home instead of making someone come pick us up. We hopped crawled and folded ourselves in, and sped off, letting the first night air of 2014 rush in our faces.  I had had a few to drink that night, so I wasn’t so worried about the red lights we ran, or the people we pushed off the sidewalk to get around traffic – no, I was just enjoying Mumbai…and having occasional flashbacks of my childhood experience on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Walt Disney World.  An hour and a half later, we paid our tab – about 250 rupees, or $4.  Boston’s T ain’t got nothin’ on Mumbai’s rickshaws – dirt cheap transportation and a good dose of exhilaration at the same time.

toads wild ride

I suppose there are traffic laws in Mumbai, but I didn’t see any enforcement – or any way to enforce them, with tens of millions of vehicles on the roads.  The one main law of the road seemed to be:  get where you want to go as quickly as possible, and forget everybody else.  On the highway, there were actually lanes indicated on the road, but they were merely a waste of paint.  While those lines suggested we had four lanes across, it was nothing to see six vehicles side-by-side as they sought to get around each other.  Granted, rickshaws are pretty small – in fact, that’s one of their greatest advantages!  They could squeeze in where cars and trucks couldn’t.

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A woman with way more courage than I have – riding side-saddle on a moped, racing down a Mumbai highway

Traffic lights were mere suggestions.  Once, just after we drove on through a red light (the driver did take his foot off the gas for a moment so he could make sure the coast was clear), my fiancé told him, “You know, in America, a camera would take a picture of your license plate, and then you’d get a ticket in the mail, plus you’d get points on your license.  You have to always wear your seat belt, stay in your lane, and follow the speed limit.  And if you get enough tickets, they take your license away.”

The driver’s response:  “That sounds horrible.

But, I must admit, that what appeared at first glance to be one big clusterf*ck was actually somewhat of an organized chaos.  Not once did I see an accident, even if there were multiple times that I couldn’t even see any space between our rickshaw and the car next to us as we passed it.  Everything just always worked out; I quickly realized not to be nervous and to trust the drivers.  They really knew what they were doing (and they must have nerves of steel).  But, I think that’s because there are unwritten laws about driving in Mumbai that you have to learn through experience.  Even I could pick up on the three different sounds of the horns in all of the commotion.  Rickshaw horns are shrill and high pitched.  Cars’ horns sound like what we’re used to.  And bus horns were deep and sounded like a fog horn.  Judging by the sound of the horn coming up behind or next to you, you knew how far (if at all) you needed to get over to let them by.  The constant cacophony of horns was like an echo location system, allowing everyone to know where boundaries were. The Rickshaws gave way to cars, and everyone got over for the huge, old, flat-nose Blue Bird city busses.  It was the traffic food chain.

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A truck load of sugar cane – saw this on a day trip we took outside of the city

And it always seemed to me like the people driving must have three more sets of eyes than I do.  Even without a rearview mirror, they’d know what was around them.  But then again, maybe they just didn’t care what was around them, and they just changed “lanes” whenever they wanted to, expecting everyone else to adjust.  But that’s okay – because that was normal, and everyone expected it – that was calculated into their reflexes.

One of my favorite experiences that I can remember most vividly happened on our trip home from the New Year’s Eve party.  It was two in the morning, and we got caught by a red light.  We actually stopped, because the cross traffic was thick.

But, as the seconds turned to minutes, and our lanes (as well as the oncoming traffic’s lanes) got longer and longer with stopped cars, something funny happened: the first vehicle at the light  inched forward, and the rickshaw behind him moved up to fill in the gap.  Some rickshaws (including our own), crawled up on the sidewalk to become part of the widening front line.  Everyone else followed suit.  The shifting headlights across the way told me that the oncoming traffic was doing the same.  It was as if all of the vehicles had melded into one living thing, and this thing was impatient, ready to move.  It crept forward as a mass, like a dam slowly blocking off a river, until the cross traffic (which still had the green light) had no choice but to stop.  Their turn was over, no matter what the light said.

I couldn’t help but laugh (I did a lot of laughing and giggling in Mumbai), because here was yet another example of how organized chaos works.  By our – by my – standards, this was preposterous and actions such as these (disregard for order, disobeying the rules) should lead to the eventual breakdown of organized society as we know it…or at least that’s what one might think given the West’s devotion to law and order (especially in some countries, *cough, cough * Germany!).  But, it worked in Mumbai.  Just another example of how different cultures organize the world and reality in different ways…

A quick glimpse of Mumbai street life:

Just as the streets were crowded with people and vehicles, the trains were packed full, too.  I’m sure a lot of people have seen pictures or videos of Mumbai’s infamous trains, packed to the brim with people (all you’ve got to do is Google “Mumbai trains” and you can see what I’m talking about).  People stand in the open doorways, women with their colorful sarees billowing in the wind.  Sometimes men sit on top of the train, or hang on between the cars.  I was thankful that the day we took a train to the city center (where the Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel are), the train wasn’t crowded.  We went on a Sunday, so no one was rushing to get to or from work.

Before heading to India, I read Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found by Suketu Mehta, an Indian born journalist who spent his early adult life in New York City, but who moved back to Mumbai to reacquaint himself with his hometown.  The title “Maximum City” says it all.  Mumbai is a city of extremes.  Mehta devotes several pages to the trains in Mumbai, and one thing he said in particular stuck with me:

No matter how many people are packed into a train – despite the fact that the number of human bodies packed into a finite space seems to defy the laws of physics – despite the fact that it’s probably hard for those on the inside of the crowd to breathe because little fresh air reaches them – Despite all of this – if you are about to miss your train, and it’s already pulling away from the station and you start to run, you will see a sea of hands reach out to grab you, miraculously making an inch of room for you to balance on.  Because as uncomfortable as everyone onboard is, they know that if you miss that train, it could mean you arriving at work late and getting fired, and your family may have to go hungry.  So, no matter how full a train is, you’ll always find room.

THAT’S AWESOME.

For my overall impressions of my three weeks in Mumbai, see my earlier post “Welcome to India” and my post on Indian food, “Bo-hawt Atcha-hey!” Check back soon for my post on my experiences at an Indian wedding! 

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