A Baptism by Traffic
Our flight from Heathrow was 30 mins late landing in Delhi so after we'd changed our pounds to rupees, the long drive to Ranthambore was well behind schedule. However, we managed to track down CB, our guide, with no problems despite all the warnings to expect a baptism by fire into Indian culture at Delhi airport.
Our vehicle was also a pleasant surprise, a big white MPV with plenty of room for suitcases which was just as well - my usual promise that this time I would not overpack sadly did not come to fruition again. I do have the slight excuse that I had to pack clothes to cover us for the hot humidity of Agra through to the cold Himalayan mornings of Pangot. Oh and for those of you aware of my husband's obsession, he also secreted several heavy bird related items in my bag too.
The sights leaving kept us occupied straight away, and we soon got used to the indiscriminate placing of cows in the road and this year's favourites in the 'Pimp my truck' competition. Tinsel is very big this year in both truck and camel adornment and I think that the infamous British 'white van man' should take note or he risks coming last again.
The best shop signs we have spotted so far include:The Cash & Curry Kitchen - SO got to get this as a franchise in the UK.Lucky Glass & Aluminium - not sure quite what was lucky about the glass or indeed, the aluminium.Black barry ice cream - sadly don't think this was simply an amusing typo.
After getting on to the long toll road to Jaipur, we pulled over at what looked to be a derelict toilet. Turned out to be the local car tax office at which CB had to cough up some more hard earned rupees before we proceeded on our way. Saying CB's driving was fast doesn't really begin to describe the experience. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about his driving skills as compared to most of the others on the road, he may well be the real Stig. What I'm trying to say, I think, is that his driving fitted the environment perfectly.
This leads me neatly on to the subject of Indian traffic. Picture a road junction, a junction with no lane markings, traffic lights or signs. Throw in a generous handful of mixed vehicles which include tractors, camel carts and tuktuks. Add to this a few ill-placed cows, water buffalo, goat herds and pigs, and don't forget the all important lump of scabby dog. This will give you a rough starting point. You now need to include at least 50 people crossing the road with their weekly shopping on their heads, the same number actually selling the weekly shopping and the same again just hanging out. And really, even this doesn't come close.
The most important thing to remember here is the importance of the car horn (or motorbike horn, I forgot to mention those). Without this simple device, Indian roads would quickly devolve into eternal chaos instead of the strangely well ordered place they are. A well ordered place from another dimension I grant you, but well ordered none the less. You see, it's not about how many cars/tractors/camels you can fit down a single dirt track with more craters than the moon, it's about making sure that the car/tractor/camel in front of you knows you're there, (preferably as loudly and flamboyantly as possible). Once this is achieved, you pretty much have carte blanche to do as you please.
After extensive research (i.e. 8 hours in the back of a car), here is my introduction to the omnipotent Language of the Horn:1) The Double TootA general cover-all used to inform all and sundry of your presence instead of quietly sneaking up on them. Can also be used to say 'hi' to your mate as you whizz past.2) The ParpMost commonly used utterance, to inform other drivers of your immediate intention to over/under take them. Also used for good measure whilst in actual process of over/under taking in case they'd forgotten you were there.3) The Extended ParpTo politely chivy along the over/under taking procedure or speed up old people crossing the road.4) The Double Extended ParpUsed for buffalo, goats, pigs and dogs but never cows. Also used when horn has not been used for a while to keep hand in - e.g. on empty flat roads with sleeping foreign passengers in back.
These 4 horn signals will allow you to perform all manner of road miracles including overtaking a tuktuk whilst overtaking a school bus at a roundabout - well, when I say roundabout, I do of course mean a cow in the middle of the road.
This list is by no means exhaustive and categories can be mixed and matched to achieve the desired effect, but this will get you started at least. In the meantime, I strongly recommend that when in the backseat, you refrain from looking over the driver's shoulder at the road ahead. I did it once and witnessed three near-misses in the same span of minutes, and those were only the ones where I had my eyes open. I also recommend that you don't nod off on quiet stretches of road as coming to in the middle of a full blown market, can give one quite a turn. The view of a chap carrying the giant golden trident was the worst - I thought I'd woken up in ancient Greece and about to get sacrificed to the Kraken.
Eventually we arrived at our hotel for the next three days - Tiger Moon Resort - at 9pm. Our host, a marvellously regal, turbaned gentleman informed us that a barbecue dinner had been saved for us - what a fabulous chap! So 10 mins later we were wined and dined under the stars with tandoori chicken, vegetable pakoras and paneer kebabs, all washed down with giant bottles of Kingfisher beer. We ended our first day watching shooting stars and marvelling at the lack of mosquitos. Tomorrow was our first tiger safari which meant a 6am wake up call but at least we'd get a nice cup of chai to start us off!