I’ve been in India for 4 days now and I’m loving it.
I feel like I’m probably quoting the book Shantaram (a great read by the way), but the city I’m currently in, Shillong, is one of those places where their chaotically busy routine somehow manages to have a distinct order to it that is beyond reasoning. A veteran of these parts will probably be fluent in the horn etiquette, bartering methods and general lifestyle of this seemingly mad place but it has a random hustle and bustle atmosphere that has grown on me from the moment I arrived.
I should probably start from the beginning. If you didn’t know, I’m taking part in a charity event raising money for CoolEarth (rainforest preservation) and Chiks (Childrens’ Homes in Kerala State) and we’re driving tuk-tuks 3500km down India over 2 and a bit weeks from Shillong to Cochin.
My journey over was a standard two-part flight, firstly to New Delhi and then in a much smaller plane to Guwahati, Meghalaya. Although I’d spied some young, caucasian looking guys it wasn’t until he second flight that I decided the odds were they were also going to Shillong for the Rickshaw Rally. After speaking up I soon realised that pretty much every young, non-Asian looking person on the flight was another tuketeer.
Supposedly people drive on the left here. Supposedly. If I’d had to guess after the first 10 minutes of our journey which side of the road we were meant to be on, I genuinely could not have been sure. Driving rules seem to be fluid and malleable for anyone with a loud enough horn. Unlike in England, where you only beep for a casual acknowledgment saying hello/goodbye or because you’re just THAT angry at another road user, here in India it simply seems to mean “Hey, I’m here!”.
So with the use of your headache inducer you can undertake, overtake and beep your horn incessantly to your heart’s content. As an Englishman I really have to forget the really negative association with a car horn as it really ain’t meant here in an aggressive way. There is one universal driving rule though:
Whatever you do, don’t rush a Cow.
These Holy animals are honked at less than humans, and normally given an awful lot more leeway. If you can whizz past someone with a whole inch to spare you’re probably being too generous with your driving. Old ladies with baskets, parked motorcycles, children walks towards you? Simply hit your horn, accelerate a bit to show intent and hope they’ll do the rest. If they get hit then that’s probably their fault. Certainly our taxi driver didn’t seem to mind a close call and from the look of it, neither did many other people.
At least we won’t be driving these roads any time soon. . .
It seems that everyone in Shillong owns a stall of some kind that they set up at an apparently random time and start selling. Fresh fish, hot food, jewellery, fire wood, t-shirts. You name it, they’re probably selling it. This seems to normally happen in a relaxed, peaceful kind of way, but occasionally you get an overly energetic man who talks so fast that you either wish you could understand at least some of what he’s saying or that they would please just stop.
The soldiers with assault rifles clearly need food for their duty of. . . Erm. . . Standing around a lot, looking official. Honestly I don’t think they know what they’re there for, but I’m probably* just a clueless tourist.
One such stand offered me a football shirt for 250 rupies, about £2.70. Being the mighty haggler that I am, and he seemed to really want me to haggle, I got it all the way down to 300 rupies.
I don’t think I’ve got the hang of haggling just yet.
I panicked okay?! He said lots of words really quickly and gestured a lot. I even heard his fellow stand seller laughing as I walked off… I’m genuinely embarrassed and more than slightly annoyed at my stunning lack of competence, I can’t even remember why I wanted it now. Well there you go India, have some money and laughter at my expense, I’m pretty sure I could have got that shirt for 100 rupies elsewhere but I guess that’s just an experience now!
Despite this extravagant loss, I still rather like this city. Shillong has obvious detrimental aspects, the level of poverty is shocking at first glance, but the people have a friendly warmth to them and the atmosphere is amazing (once you learn to filter out the horns).
Tomorrow we leave for Darjeeling, or at least we attempt to go towards it. The tuk-tuks have been pimped (mostly) and spare parts bought, we’ve tested them out and realised exactly what an unstable, quite undeniably un-long distance vehicle this is.
I’ll save the pictures of them for when I’ve got something to say about how they actually drive on the roads. All I can say is, two have already been flipped (not us), one of ours has already broken down, and they’re definitely not waterproof currently.
Wish us luck.