I am in India for the next week or so, and it really is quite beautiful here (and much warmer than Seattle)! The panorama below (stitched together with the killer Windows Live Photo Gallery) shows some features (palm trees and blue skies) not typically found close to the Microsoft Headquarters in Redmond, WA.
While the weather and people are beautiful, the most difficult cultural adaptation for me is without a doubt the driving. As my Indian friend neatly summarized, “Indians can drive anywhere in the world, while only Indians can drive in India”.
He was right… I would not give Mario Andretti car keys over here.
For one thing, safety equipment is rarely utilized. Every time I get in a taxi, I have to dig into the seat to find the seatbelt receptacle that was never taken out of the plastic from the factory. Motorcycle riders only occasionally wear helmets, and it is not unusual for an entire family of five to ride on a single Motorcycle.
Another concept that has been difficult for me to wrap my head around is the usage of the road. There are rules as to where you can drive, but they are not the same as they are back in the States. First of all, the white divider line between lanes does NOT separate traffic into two separate lanes. It actually serves as a guide for where you should put the center of your car. Unless there is heavy traffic, drivers will go right down the middle of both lanes. If there is traffic, the next rule of positioning relates to the size of your vehicle. If you are a large vehicle (like a bus or an SUV), you can actually use both of your lanes, and then one of the lanes on the other side of the road. Motorcycles and small cars in oncoming traffic will get out of your way.
The horns on every vehicle are constantly used, and basically serve as sonars. You can tell how close you are to being hit by the volume of the horn that is honking at you. When merging from side streets onto major thoroughfares, the protocol is to lay on the horn and merge without stopping (or even checking for oncoming traffic).
Remarkably, however, I have to say that the system works quite well. As long as everybody operates by the same set of expectations, accidents are a very infrequent occurrence. John Adams showed in a 1981 study that increased seatbelt usage actually led to more dangerous driving. Since unbelted drivers in India are fully aware of the potential harm that would befall them in an accident, they drive quite conscientiously and with great awareness of their surroundings.
Something to think about the next time you strap on your seatbelt and prepare to drive while exhausted, talking on your cell phone, or putting on your makeup.