Stop and proceed – a story of roads in India

I just passed a roadsign that reads “Stop and proceed”, and I wondered for a moment if it was one of those times where the literal translation has lost it’s true meaning and instead left the reader with words that signify something else entirely. But as I have now been in India for a few days I appreciate the simplicity of it. Anywhere else the sign would read “give way” or “proceed with caution”, but in this land of the lost it is an advertisement for Indian life. Not only because it succinctly describes the conflicting and chaotic nature of the daily grind, but because all road signs are systematically ignored.

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Today I travel with Delboy. He has been standing outside my hotel gate for days, flashing his sparkling white choppers at me whilst bathing me in cloying politeness. I finally gave in and allowed him to take me and my friend to see his friend at the Elephant Sanctuary. It turns out the polite and pristine front is a cover for a cheeky degenerate, but more of that later.

Stop and Proceed20My initial introduction to Indian roads was mild – an arrival at 4am and a hotel taxi meant I saw little but rows of paper stars lit from within by Christmas lights, silhouettes of coconut palms and midnight wraiths roaming the roadsides. My first foray into India is also what my friends and I have termed “India Lite” – because we are in Kerala on the beach at Kovalam, where population and poverty are present but manageable. Perhaps it should be called “ultra-lite” because we are staying at the five star Leela Kempinski, have been wrapped in a dysentry-proof balloon, and instead of cockroaches and crowds we have yoga and tranquility.

In the daylight however, when the rest of the country is awake and bustling around in all it’s crazy glory, I get to see the true India, and it is so completely different from not only my sheltered little western world, but also my Arabian expat experience, that I now wonder at my own raison d’être. Do I really live life? And considering there are more than 1 billion people here in India, do I know at all what life is all about?

Firstly I am struck by the squalor. Everything is still coated in monsoon’s muck, even though it has been over for more than six weeks. But it is not just the latest monsoon’s remnants – the decay, mould and moss reveals the abandonment of all attempts at restoration for more than a few years. Trash litters the ditches beside the roads, not just in wispy cachets of waste paper, but knee-deep troughs of plastic, rubber, coconut husks and rotting food. And here the conflicts start; Although their homes and businesses are filthy, men sit or stand idly. Nobody sweeps up the garbage, rakes over the pothole, cleans the scummy wall, puts the rubbish at the front door in a bucket – it is deemed more important to observe the passing world, and really, who am I to judge? Last night I took a thirty second exposure on the main street of Kovalam at 9pm. I can count 14 men in the frame that are not blurred – this means they did not even twitch, shuffle or scratch their balls for at least 30 seconds. I couldn’t even do that in my sleep.

Apart from the men, I see women in sarees or every colour I can imagine (except beige), adorned with sequins, metallic embroidery, spangles, and yellow gold in excess. They have jasmine and marigolds in their thick thigh-length braids, and they step delicately over refuse and broken pavements and around the male statues to clutch hands and giggle with their equally stunning female friends.

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Under the brown and green damp stains the houses mirror the colours of the women. It’s almost as if the chief designers of india are three-year-old girls. I can imagine them saying “I want the world to be pink with lots of sparkles! Everyone should wear long dresses and floaty scarves and all the ladies should have very long hair and men should have mustaches because then they look like men…. Oooh, and I want cows and goats and chickens everywhere because animals are really cool!”

Political slogans embellish the brick fences in the form of brightly colored hands, lotus blooms and the communist sickle with hammer. It’s nearly Christmas, and although the greater proportion of the population in the area is Hindu, they have embraced it like Martha Stewart gone troppo – filling all remaining gaps with paper stars, baubles, tinsel and fairy lights. All these colours fight the war against the murk, and although they don’t obliterate it, they do strike a balance of sorts.

Washing hangs before every home like an inverted rainbow, somehow managing to remain clean in the face of great adversity. Goats stretch at their tethers trying to eat it. Holy cows are given homes at the end of ropes in garbage trenches, and if they treat sacred beings so, I wonder where they put the mother in law.

Delboy guns his Nissan Sunny past rickshaws, bikes and ancient windowless buses with apparent ease. The hard work is being done by me and my companion; we are expending all our energy just gripping the handles to remain upright and keeping our curses in. The road appears to be two lane – one going this way, one the other. It is in fact four, and sometimes even six. Driving is a race and occurs in fits and starts. If the accelerator is white and the brake black, there is no grey. I’m being shaken up like a surprise Christmas present, and although rattled I realise the driving style in India explains to some degree the erratic driving of Dubai taxi fleet. A beep of the horn means anything from “I’m behind you”, “get out of my way” or “the light turned green a nanosecond ago” to “thankyou”, “moron!” or “check out the white-knuckled tourists in my car, I’m just about to totally freak them out”, all depending on the accompanying hand or facial gesture. I’m deafened, blinded, petrified and embarrassed all at once, but enjoying every moment.

We fly past shops that are little more than four sticks, a palm leaf roof and a box. Oranges and apples are arranged in wonky pyramids on the dirt and bananas  still attached to the stem hang from the roof. The seem to love hanging things; crisp packets and fanta bottles also dangle everywhere like pint-sized plastic corpses. Coconuts are strung up in bunches attached to roadside trees, and traders hack them off on request just like they have already done hours previously, but this time at lower altitude. Fish lie in the sun on palm leaf mats, and defying reason actually look fresh. Mussels are heaped in rapidly eroding mountains, being snapped up in byo buckets and stinking up a storm.

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It’s now nearing 5pm and every 10 meters is a bonfire, either in a drum or flat on the dirt. Sandalwood burns in every second one, and together with the piles of Ayurvedic herbs and frying coconut oil they do battle against stenches more malodorous. In a toll-both three men ignore all cars and together inspect the markings on the tapemeasure they have stretched to the roof. “Does that say 55 centimetres or is it time for dinner? My god that was hard work, I think it might be time to look out the window again….”

Stop and Proceed 7There is a queue ahead, and I can’t see past the ruddy buses – they have managed to get themselves three-across the road, allowing the passengers to enjoy the show below – two western ladies being chauffeured by a complete lunatic. Amazingly the buses are not the cause of the blockage – this is  –>

Somehow can’t imagine the Victoria Police allowing that past a front gate back home. There is a Policeman standing in the middle of the road directing traffic, but everybody is unceremoniously ignoring him.

Delboy presses the contract button on the dashboard and we finally manage to get through without a scratch. Most of the traffic here drives on two or three wheels and so all his reckless overtaking has been nulified as the feed-truck clog only allowed passing by rickshaws and mopeds, and he has to restart.

Stop and proceed21It seems the fewer wheels on a vehicle, the more weight it is able to carry. I have seen families of four, 6-foot stacks of crates, two youths and an old-school television, and even a cloud of what appeared to be 16 layers of multi-coloured watering cans, all on a moped. Again, the women astound me – they all ride side-saddle, except the grannies going solo in punjabis on scooters – they wear pants and a hell-bent attitude and show all the young ones how it’s done. Nobody wears a helmet. Trucks are dressed like the women, painted in tropical hues with swirls, plants, birds and gods. Each one carries a name – from the exotic to the inane – “Sree Krishna”, “Aditya”, “Praise the Lord”, “Jesus”, and funnily enough, “German”.

It is getting dark, and I am trying to determine if this is better or worse. At least I cannot see my impending doom. There are no street lights, only the fires, stars and happy faces light our way. To combat this everybody switches on their high-beams, and this results in a little swerve towards every piece of oncoming traffic as Delboy finds his balance in the glare.

I manage to see a man with particularly skinny legs and a full-term pregnancy, and remark to Delboy that his wife makes him too much curry. He laughs and tells me about a Sudanese man he drove who had a bigger belly, and who wasn’t particularly pleased when he asked how it was possible to enjoy his wife. Apparently he did not leave a tip, but the wife did; “She like me very much!” says Delboy. When we shared his laughter he went on to tell us about his other pre-marital exploits, including Jill from England. “She like me very, very much. She want to marry me, but I say No, no no. She was very fat, and fifty!” It turns out she liked to “enjoy” differently too. We’re not entirely sure what that means, because he goes on to explain that he likes European women because they are not shy like Indian women. Whatever the case, the term “Kinky Jill” has now entered out Dubai-ified vernacular.

We finally reach the hotel alive and in much need of a Valium. My companion and I both decline Delboy’s kind offers of “Ayurvedic Massage” upon leaving his car, tip him (not too nicely), and tell him we are going home tomorrow. We don’t want him “enjoying” himself any more than absolutely necessary.

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3 Comments

  1. Love your description of India being designed by 3 yo girls… love your story-telling, always so brilliantly done!

  2. Fantastic. Having been to India I know just what you are talking about. You describe it so well

  3. What an amazing adventure. I've rarely gotten to travel outside the U.S., so stumbling onto a blog like this and reading about your life gives me a little view into the world outside. Thank you.

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