Thursday, 13 December, 2018
Magical, mad, mesmerising …
The whole inner town is dominated by traffic – especially (almost exclusively) by tuk tuks and motorbikes. The traffic moves at amazingly quick speeds, along narrow roads, with absolutely no road markings, and no guarantee of which direction any vehicle will be taking. The road is a river, and the vehicles are fish darting this way and that. It is often mayhem, and of course, cows travel on the road, moving independently in any direction, always unpredictable. And finally, dogs. Packs of them, roaming. Most motor bikes carry a family of 3: the cyclist, a female behind, and the young child in front, on his father’s knee, facing straight ahead into any wind. And finally, and truthfully, I have not yet seen a single hand or mechanical signal. They simply do not exist. So it seems inevitable that at any moment, an accident will happen.
And yet …
Everyone is serene, pedestrians and drivers: no anger, no agitation. It’s as if every vehicle was on a giant magnetic board, each a piece controlled somehow from below so that although collisions seem inevitable, they never happen. I’ve not seen a single accident whilst I’ve been here, although I’m often on foot, and the roads are packed. Horns, which are incessant, mean nothing. Most just sound their horns on a regular, staccato basis, whether there is a need for them or not. As a result, they lose their meaning. They are just as likely to be saying “hi, there!”, as “look out, look out!!!!”. It’s fun to watch; it’s clear to me that everyone who sounds their horn does so as if it’s meaning will be clear. But whether it is meant to mean hello, look out, idiot, you look lovely, have a nice day, lovely weather for the time of year – it always comes out as ‘parp!’
It is amusing, amazing, and a free, exciting and scary spectacle. Who needs theme parks and roller coasters?
There is research being undertaken in Holland and Sweden to do away with road signs and markings, on the principle that, without them, motorists and pedestrians will take more care, having to take more ownership for the navigation of the roads. On the evidence of traffic here, they may be on to something. No one can afford to switch off mentally; each tiny road is literally a freeway, and every bike and tuk tuk fights for its own space, on whichever side of the street seems most available. As a pedestrian, it’s impossible to hold a conversation while walking – the noise is too great, and you can’t afford to take your eyes of the road for a second. Pause, for safety’s sake, and the owner of the shop you happen to have stopped in front of (for there are many) will pounce with their standard invitation to come inside.
Another thing I’ve noticed: it’s impossible to “browse shop”. Look in any window casually, and it’s taken as evidence you have travelled all this way, half way round the world, just to look in this very shop. This is a real shame. Browsing is normally fun, and if only shopkeepers here would let you do it, then there’d be more chance to have a genuine look at what’s on offer, perhaps leading to a sale. As it is, pause for a second, and you are regaled by a stream of questions, advice, comments and exhortations. So that all you then want to do is move away quickly.
It’s the same if walking alongside (and often in) the road: every – every – tuk tuk that’s empty will stop to offer you a (paid) lift. They seem unable to accept the concept of ‘strolling’. So it’s typical to have an empty tuk tuk pull up alongside every 10 yards or so (immediately, no signal, with no regard to the traffic only centimetres behind). And what’s unbelievable, but fun, is each driver’s reaction when told ‘no’. Surprise, incredulity, pleading, an offer to take me somewhere ‘more interesting’ (?), a suggestion that it is “surely safer” (ha!). Today, when a tuk tuk pulled alongside and I said “no”, his response was “really?”. Yes. Really. And travelling in a tuk tuk is itself a roller coaster ride. They are all 3 wheelers, battered but not bowed (vehicle and driver), and, believe me, their disregard for avoiding potholes resets the definition of ‘bouncing along’.
So it’s my last day tomorrow: an early walk up the hillside to the temple to catch the sunrise from the top; down again, wash, and walk into town; onto the farthest lake for a boat trip; back to visit a local palace, then lunch, last minute shopping and a tuk tuk to the airport for a 7.30pm flight to Mumbai, then home to Manchester.
It’s been an absolute blast.