I have been startled, dumbstruck, gobsmacked and generally overwhelmed by a lot of things in the past couple of days, but I think the traffic on Indian highways has to go to the top of the list. And this is speaking as someone who saw the Taj Mahal yesterday.
The congestion in the cities is every bit as insane as you might have heard. (At least in the old city in Jaipur. In Agra, multiply that by a thousand.) What I didn't expect is that it's just as insane on the intercity highways.
In the streets of Jaipur: cars, mini taxis, buses, jeeps, trucks, bicycles, carts, rickshaws, pedestrians, cows, camels, elephants, donkeys, horses, goats, pigs, dogs.
On the highways: all of the above, plus sheep, minus elephants.
Wednesday, I had booked a tour to the bird sanctuary in Bharatpur, about a three-hour drive from Jaipur. We left at six in the morning, so the streets in the modern section of Jaipur where I'm staying were mostly empty, and there was a thick fog. The highways are divided, with a median and two lanes on each side, so despite the low visibility I thought I could have driven without too much difficulty, even with that whole driving on the left hand side of the road thing that's a legacy from the English.
Then a small truck appeared out of the fog, coming at us head-on. “Look at that guy,” said my driver, swerving out of the way. “He doesn't even have his lights on!”
Seriously? You think that was the problem, and not that he was barreling down the highway in the wrong direction attempting to kill us?
Welcome to driving in India! The highways are well-maintained by Western standards (better than a lot of the roads in the U.S.) but they have no overpasses or off ramps. When you want to pull into a restaurant or one of the charmingly named Lay Byes on the other side of the highway, you cross the median at one of the breaks then drive along the other side of the highway in the wrong direction until you get to where you want to go. (Why you don't go past your destination and then backtrack, so you don't have to drive into oncoming traffic, is something a native would have to explain. I was too stunned to ask.)
At least on Wednesday, we got back to Jaipur at five, so we didn't have to deal with the big trucks, which by law only travel at night. The next day I went to Agra, retracing much of the drive I'd done the day before (for reasons I'll explain later) and we didn't leave Agra until almost five, so didn't get back to Jaipur until 9:30. Once it got dark, the trucks came out. Plus it was pouring rain. At one point a truck was coming at us, and the other lane was blocked by two camels (I am not making this up.) I was pretty stoic until then, but I did scream. A little. Fortunately camels aren't that fast, and my driver managed to speed up and cut in front of them before the truck could flatten us.
Indian drivers are quite skilled at navigating through the chaos (that driver who took me to Agra got an enormous tip simply for not killing me or allowing anyone else to) and I only saw one accident in those two days, a cart knocked onto its side outside Agra. The driver looked unhurt; he was pacing around yelling at everyone.
Maybe someone came at him without their lights turned on. That, apparently, is a no-no.