Excerpt from Chapter Ten:
The Highway Code of India
This chapter is about surviving the traffic and driving conditions in the countries we visit. Survival is definitely the operative word in India. Shortly after we arrived, our guide, Shailesh, shared his Highway Code of India with us. The code was developed by Shailesh and some friends to provide humorous insights into how people drive in his country, and Fe and I found it terribly amusing . . . until we ventured out and actually immersed ourselves in the sea of honking horns, sacred cows, two-stroke tuk tuks, taxis, cars, trucks, buses, rickshaws, and camel-drawn carts that seemed to occupy every square inch of the roadways. It was then that we began to appreciate Shailesh’s code, and it seemed like the perfect introduction to this chapter. So here it is.
Article I: The assumption of immortality is required of all road users.
Article II: Indian traffic, like Indian society, is structured on a strict caste system. In descending order, give way to cows, elephants, camels, buffalos, pigs/goats/dogs, heavy trucks, buses, official cars, pedal rickshaws, private cars, motorcycles, scooters, auto-rickshaws, handcarts, and pedestrians.
Article III: All wheeled vehicles shall be driven in accordance with the following manifesto: to slow is to falter; to brake is to fail; to stop is to be defeated.
Article IV: Use of the horn.
Cars: short blasts (urgent) indicate supremacy for clearing dogs, rickshaws and pedestrians from one’s path. Long blasts (desperate) indicate impending disaster. (I am going too fast to stop, so unless you slow down we shall both die.) In extreme cases, this may be accompanied by flashing headlights. A single blast (casual) may mean “I have seen somebody I know” or “I haven’t blown my horn for several minutes.”
Trucks and buses: all horn signals have the same meaning. “I weigh up to 12.5 tons and have no intention of stopping even if I could.” This signal may be emphasized by the use of headlights.
Article V: All maneuvers, use of horn, and evasive actions shall be left until the last possible moment.
Article VI: Traffic entering a road from the left has right of way. So has traffic entering from the right, and also traffic in the middle.
Article VII: Traffic islands in the middle of crossroads have no traffic function and should be ignored.
Article VIII: Overtaking is mandatory. Every moving vehicle is required to overtake. This should be done under suitable conditions, such as in the face of oncoming traffic, on blind curves, and in the middle of villages/city centers. No more than two inches should be allowed between your vehicle and the one you are passing. In the case of bicycles or pedestrians, allow one inch.
Article IX: Nirvana may be obtained through the head-on crash.
Article X: Putting your car in reverse is almost unheard of and against the driver’s mantra.
In Costa Rica, I should have followed Article X from India: Never back up. Fe and I had decided to rent a car and drive around Costa Rica for a couple of weeks. It seemed like a good idea until we hit the road, literally. It turned out that Costa Rica had some of the worst roads in the world. All the cars had four wheel drive, and even that didn’t help much at times. Why the rough ride? Not only were most of the roads unpaved, they were so primitive it felt like the Jolly Green Giant had taken a jackhammer to the place. In fact, the roads were so bad insurance companies refused to offer auto coverage. Instead, we were required to put an $800 deposit on our credit card to cover potential damages. As long as there was no damage to the car, we wouldn’t be charged anything extra. Otherwise, we could most likely say goodbye to our $800. My hands twitched a bit as I handed over my credit card, but what the heck, it had been years since I’d had any rental car problems. What could possibly go wrong . . . go wrong . . . go wrong?
Off we drove, and at first things went smoothly. Well, not smoothly, exactly. The paved roads out of the country’s capital, San Jose, quickly vanished, to be replaced by teeth-rattling beds of volcanic rock that seemed determined to tear our little car to pieces. The car held together, however, and we rolled through the countryside without incident . . . until I saw some fieldworkers and decided to photograph them. I slammed on the brakes, put the car in reverse, and backed up, unaware of a stone bridge hidden from my view by foliage. I plowed into the hidden bridge with the force of a bull elephant during mating season.
When I jumped out to inspect the carnage, I instantly thought about the $800 on my credit card and imagined it flying away on tiny wings. The rear axle was bent at an angle that reminded me of a badly broken leg, and the back bumper was jammed so tightly against the tire, it wouldn’t turn. The car wasn’t going anywhere, and I feared it might be a day or two before help arrived. Most of Costa Rica consisted of back roads such as the one we were on. There were few villages. More to the point, I hadn’t seen any sign of a towing service since we left San Jose. The Auto Club wasn’t going to come to our rescue.
As I stood there mulling over my options (or lack thereof), an elderly man who had watched my saga wandered over to have a look. He tsk tsked at me, mumbled something I couldn’t comprehend, and wandered away. I figured I had given him a good laugh and would never see him again, but he returned a short time later with a crow bar. After considerable exertion, I managed to pry the bumper just far enough away from the tire to allow the wheel to rotate. After I thanked and tipped the old man, we hopped into the car and limped away.
We weren’t going to get very far, however. The bumper still rubbed against the tire, creating a shrill chafing noise that assaulted our eardrums and so much white smoke from the tire, it looked like we were sending smoke signals home to the States. Things didn’t look promising; it wouldn’t take long for that bumper to tear the tire to shreds.
The nice thing about foreign travel is that little miracles do happen from time-to-time. Our miracle appeared in the form of a small town that sprang out of nowhere. The town didn’t look like much, but as we approached in our cloud of smoke, we saw what looked like a service station. There was a rusted gas pump leaning in Tower of Pisa fashion by the side of the road, and a garage with a large truck parked inside. The truck was listing as badly as the gas pump and looked like it hadn’t been moved in months, if not years. It was a stretch to call the place a service station, but I was desperate.
When we stopped, a wiry man in overalls promptly emerged from the garage wiping his hands on an oily cloth. He introduced himself as the owner/mechanic of the fine establishment and quickly inspected the damage. When he was done, he mumbled something just as incomprehensible as the old man on the road and waved me over to the truck, from which he produced a long chain with a large hook on either end. Sound familiar? Images of Tibet and that lorry caught in the glacier instantly sprang to mind. The owner/mechanic attached one end to the axel of the truck and the other end to my bent axel. Next, he positioned my car so there was about ten feet of slack in the chain. Finally, he told me in broken English to start the engine of my car and accelerate as fast as I could from a standing start. My mind quickly reeled through the possible outcomes of such a violent action while my inner voices screamed at me not to do it. However, the man seemed pretty sure of himself, and what the Hell, I had nothing to lose. The car wasn’t going anywhere in its current condition, and I wasn’t going to see that $800 deposit again anyway. How much more damage could I do?
I floored the accelerator, popped the clutch and charged ahead. Bam! My teeth rattled and my head bounced off the head rest as the car leaped at least a foot off the ground and stopped. The mechanic inspected the axle and signaled for me to go again. Bam! Now my ears were ringing, and I was beginning to question my sanity. The mechanic gave me a thumbs up and signaled for me to go one more time. Bam! Little birds started flying around my head.
The mechanic grinned as he continued to wipe his hands on his oily rag and told me the problem was fixed. I didn’t dare look under the car. I smiled weakly, instead, and asked how much I owed him for the repair. He shook his head. No charge, he said. He was glad he could help. I suspected he’d had so much fun watching me beat my brains out that he didn’t have the heart to take my money. It was a nice gesture, however, and I thanked him.
Off we went again. The billowing white smoke had disappeared, and the shrill chafing sound had been replaced by a thin whining noise that sounded like we were being pursued by an angry mosquito. I never backed up again the rest of our trip, which thankfully proceeded as planned. By the time we had returned to San Jose, the rear tire was torn asunder. I knew we’d experienced a little more excitement than planned, but thanks to that auto mechanic our trip had been saved.
You can imagine my trepidation when we returned home, however. That $800 credit card charge loomed over my head each day as I opened my mail box and looked for my credit card statement. When it finally arrived, I left it unopened on the dining room table for more than an hour before I mustered the courage to look at it. The charge was extraordinary, but not in the way I expected. The total due for all the damage I had done to the rear end of that car was only $187. I could have spent that much changing a tire in Germany. Costa Rica was an amazingly inexpensive country and a delightful place to drive, even if the roads are nearly impassable in places. But take my advice and don’t back up!
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