After The Jolly Runner had completed the Mumbai Marathon, we took a week off to visit the Taj Mahal (the third time for me!) and Kerala. It was on the road between Gwalior Airport and Agra, that we had a few hair-raising experiences.
I once mentioned in my Ambassador Rally write up, that driving on Indian roads is like an adrenalin sport. But since then I have become very used to the national ways of driving (and dodging death). It was only when travelling along the road between Gwalior and Agra at night-time, that my fear of driving on Indian roads was re-ignited – with the inexperienced Jolly Runner sitting on the backseat alongside me trying not to open her eyes for most of the journey!
Gwalior is the nearest airport to the Taj Mahal (on Mumbai air routes) and with a car and driver to take you from there to Agra, it is not much of a toil. However, arriving at 4pm in the afternoon, by the time you get a good way along the highway, it is already starting to get dark. This is when the fun begins.
But before that, there is plenty to keep you amused. You will all have seen the ridiculous images on Indian travel programmes of people piling high on the roofs of buses, 20 bodies cramming into 6 person tuk-tuks and men on motorbikes with their wives and many children hanging off the back? Well it’s all true, you see it all! It may be hilarious, but these people - mostly rural folk trying to get home from their jobs in the fields - are taking their lives into their own hands because they cannot afford to travel differently, or do not have time to wait for the next mode of transport to come along.
|As dusk falls, there are at least 20 persons clinging on to the top and sides of this coach!
I tried to capture some of these sights rather shakily through the windows of our Ambassador hire car. Some of the passengers caught me trying to photograph them and would then make their situations worse by hanging on with one hand so that they could wave at us.
As night begins to fall you begin to realize that street lighting is not a priority in India. There aren’t even any cats-eyes. But it makes no difference to our driver! He weaves in and out of the traffic, undertaking and overtaking. He overtakes the bus overtaking the lorry, narrowly missing a tuk tuk coming the other way – the tank-like Ambassador just managing to accelerate quickly enough to pull back in. He’s not the only one doing this. They’re all doing it! All the while, pedestrians jump in front of the car - running the gauntlet - and cars pull out straight in front of you at junctions without a glance to see what’s coming.
We get to the point where we need to turn off on to a dual carriageway. Unfortunately the side we need to go on is shut - cordoned off. No matter! We won’t try to find the diversion…no, we’ll just drive the wrong way up the other side instead…in the dark! And there are no streetlights! At this point the Jolly Runner and I are grabbing on to each other whilst peering out through clenched eyes. As we turn on to the road, we see the bright headlights of a freight truck coming steaming towards us. There is a van parked on the other side but the truck narrowly manages to avoid us by swerving through the gap at speed. As we inch further up the road, another truck comes towards us, then another, beeping loudly all the while - but miraculously nothing hits us.
Eventually, after a few miles of this and more than a few narrow escapes, the other side of the dual carriageway opens up so that we can get back to the correct side of the road. We are screaming and laughing at the same time. We’re still alive! At this point our rather pudgy mustachioed driver turns around to us and calmly says “what are you worried about?”...”I am not worried, so you should not be worried mam!”. All in a day’s work for him.
After a couple more miles, we see lots of trucks lined up on the hard shoulder (more like a ditch) where there are some chai stands and snack stalls. Our driver tells us: “you know mam, most of the truck drivers are taking opium, that is why they stop here…for a smoke”. “WHAT??” we exclaim.. “Oh yes mam, it is true, and if it is not opium they are taking, then they take the line of white powder (what’s it called?) or the hash mam. Yes mam…or they are drinking wery wery much alcohol”. Oh great! So not only were we driving up the wrong side of a dual carriageway in the dark, but most of the truck drivers coming towards us were probably high on drink and drugs? OH MY GOD!! The driver assures us that he is telling the truth as he was a truck driver for many years before becoming a driver for tourists. So he should know. And we didn’t bother to ask him if being an ex-lorry driver meant he was also a drug addict or alcoholic. That, we definitely do not want to know!
For the rest of the journey to Agra, the Jolly Runner and I are in between laughter or tears of disbelief and fear. What a rollercoaster. We are very grateful when we finally arrive at the hotel in one piece.
|Wife travelling side saddle on the back, boy crammed in up front...they have no helmets
|Exactly how much stuff can you carry on that motorbike?!
|This is a mini bus rickshaw - it should probably carry six to eight people max. This one is crammed full with at least 15-18 people! These lot are hanging on for dear life at the back.
|Even the driver can't have his seat to himself!
|This guy is either trying to hang on to the door or hang off the door!