Sunday, January 14, 2007

Driving in Bombay

India has been a dream destination for me since I was a college student, and my sister did a study abroad program to Delhi. The stories she told me were unbelievable, one after the other, and I wanted to know more. I recently made a short vacation there. I'd love to say I left my short vacation enlightened (in the most religious sense), but I still feel just as ignorant as before I left. It was too much to grasp, and I'm now stuck somewhere between the urge that I should spend a spectacularly long trip backpacking the length of the country, and a revulsion that I should never again set foot there.

All that leaves me with a difficult time distilling my experiences to compact and themed blog updates. Also, I wasn't there long enough to form expert opinions, and may make some mistakes. But I'll start by talking about one of the odd things that I ended up really enjoying about the first city I visited, Bombay: my long and uncomfortable drives through the city. I'm not crazy enough to drive myself, of course, I took the taxis around town:

They're the black and yellow cars, there's two important points to notice. First is that they're spectacularly small. I am spectacularly tall, and found my head pressed agains the roof for the entire trip. Secondly, a lot of them have certain patterns of decorations or stickers, maybe a single sticker from four or five different religions, maybe being covered in Hindu decorations like a small shrine, maybe some sparse Arabic script. As far as I can tell it isn't just decoration, the taxi drivers form or come from different groups. If they have to ask directions from other drivers, they seem to pass by drivers with different styles of decorations. While it's a little different, there were many colorfully decorated trucks and busses:

Also, there were a lot of three-wheel taxis:

Actually that was a huge pain. These three-wheel taxis were much cheaper, but couldn't go into the city center. Still, they formed the vast majority of taxis in the area around my hotel. It would take several seconds to call a three-wheeler, but maybe five or ten minutes to get a normal taxi. They're essentially motorcycles with a metallic covering, and are both smaller and more uncomfortable than the small and uncomfortable normal taxis.

Driving across town was surreal and slow. Most noticeable was there were large elevated highways, they were pretty fast, but they would only last for several minutes before coming to an end, and then the taxis plunged into narrow and crowded city streets. This was particularly true around my hotel, where I found myself going down roads that were more intended for foot traffic than taxis. Also check out the Diwali decorations, off to the side, it's an important Indian holiday.

So it was slow and probably not very safe - my taxis made it a habit of going the wrong way down one-way roads. But I enjoyed the opportunity to look through Bombay. I ended up walking spectacularly long distances through the city, but I felt I saw more just looking out the window of the taxi. Here's a cool short video clip, looking out the taxi window near Bombay's central train station:

While that may seem everyday, the constant rush of people, and the changes in the demographics while moving about the city, fascinated me. Just looking at the rather pedestrian picture below:

To be noticed: Women in traditional clothes (one with a bindi) selling vegetables I'm not familiar with, and actually laying the vegetables on the street. A fat man, dressed entirely in white, letting his belly hang out, next to some kind of rolled up mattress. A shop selling STDs - a type of phone card I believe. A stack of sugar cane. A slender woman in jeans walking alongside a slender women in jewelry and beautiful flowing traditional clothes. A long string of flowers, decorating a small underwear store. Clothes drying. A man wearing slacks and a Kufie. A hidden cornerside store - perhaps a restaurant. A man in a pink shirt, transporting boxes on his scooter.

You get the idea, there's a lot to see, and it's all streaming so quickly there's not much time to see it. Furthermore, the taxis ended up driving past places I wouldn't feel comfortable going on foot. Actually I'll have more to say about that in another update. I'd also like to give my respects to the women of Bombay, who manage to ride motorycles side-saddle, despite the constant traffic and the fact that it's a completely insane thing to do.

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