Priya’s Transportation Field Note

India’s transportation system definitely takes a while to get used to, especially when coming from the U.S. where road safety is taken so seriously. To put it simply, getting around here is exhilarating. Think about the methods of road travel at home: cars, vans, trucks, motorcycles and bikes. There are speed limits, lane markings and rules that must be followed. In India, however, the rules seem like mere suggestions for drivers to follow, should they feel the need. In reality, it is a crazy and hectic rush of everyone flitting from one place to the next, the one rule being to get to your destination as quickly as possible.

Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it really is a shock to experience the frenzy of traveling here. On any given road you can see a mix of tiny cars, packed vans and buses, enormous trucks spewing exhaust, auto-rickshaws racing each other, motorbikes zipping in between traffic, bicycles coasting along the side of the road and even the occasional water buffalo. I once even saw a man on a camel ambling down the side of the road! (Since when are there camels in Hyderabad??)

To add to the chaos, all of this is usually at an incredible speed. Autos and motorbikes in particular are prone to speeding, even if there’s no rush in reaching the destination. Many drivers will go as fast as possible down a stretch of road, even if they can see traffic coming up. I’ve had several harrowing moments in which I thought for sure that we would crash into the car in front, only to screech to a halt three inches behind the nearest taillight. It’s sure to get your heart beating and makes for a good laugh once it’s over.

This pandemonium can be really tough to adjust to, especially in a big city like Hyderabad. There were definitely some terrifying moments in the first few weeks. (Have you seen the movie Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? There’s a scene where the main characters are on their first bus in India and nearly collide with oncoming traffic. The sight of those British retirees shrieking in a bus in Rajasthan seems all too familiar now…).  The speed, the smog spewing from every vehicle, the incessant honking and the inefficient shortcuts are almost too much to handle.

At times it can feel like traffic rules are just an urban legend, there in principle but not in practice. I’ve only seen traffic police a few times, specifically in the more developed parts of the city. When the police aren’t there, any move is fair game, so long as no one gets hurt. The auto drivers are the worst with this, as they are almost uniformly reckless about following rules. To give some perspective on the types of traffic trespasses committed here: ignoring lane markings, ignoring turn signals (many vehicles don’t even have them), driving down the wrong side of the road, driving on the sidewalk, breezing through stoplights, narrowly avoiding pedestrians (crosswalks are few and far between) and almost arbitrarily choosing when to speed up and slow down. Clearly, it’s an adventure getting from point A to point B.

But I’m not trying to scare you away! It can be frightening at times and the bumps and minor whiplash are annoying, but the transportation ethos here is actually really effective. It all boils down to getting to where you’re going, as quickly as you can. Clearly many people appreciate this, as you can tell simply by looking at a packed auto or bus. A huge number of people rely on public transportation to get around, namely on autos, buses and trains. Hyderabad’s metro rail system is currently under construction, but I’m sure that as soon as it opens, it will become as popular as the Delhi or Mumbai systems.

Here on campus, motorbikes are king. At least one person on a motorbike or scooter will pass by every 30 seconds, making it easy to get rides around campus. Since it’s about five kilometers from South Gate to Main Gate, a lot of people try to hitch a ride. I usually ride my bike, but on super hot days it’s nice to hop on the back of a motorbike and zoom through campus. (I would never hitchhike off campus though. The vast majority of drivers on campus are students and faculty, so they know where they’re going. I’ve never felt unsafe hitching on campus, but I definitely wouldn’t push it outside the campus borders. The bottom line is to use your common sense.)

Trains are another signature aspect of Indian transportation, although less harrowing than the auto-rickshaw. As I’m sure you’ve heard, the schedules are often unpredictable and the cars are often packed from floor to ceiling. They are, however, relatively reliable and get you where you need to go (eventually). For less than 50 U.S. cents, you can get from one side of the city to the other.

Sleeper trains are in a similar category. They’re usually overnight with multiple stops, picking up people along the way. I’ve gotten on a nearly empty train before and settled down to try to sleep, only to wake up in six hours surrounded by people in my compartment. They are often families with young children or older relatives. Negotiating about seats (fold-down shelves on the walls of the compartment) or windows is difficult, as they often speak anything but English. This can be fun though, especially with children. Hearing my attempts to communicate in broken Hindi with little kids is amusing to the parents and they’re usually really nice to us because of it.

Getting around in Hyderabad costs surprisingly little, no matter how you do it. I usually take shared autos for short distances, costing less than Rs. 20. For longer distances, I take direct autos. It’s sometimes stressful to haggle with a driver about prices, but rides rarely end up costing more than $2 U.S. Most students use autos or the bus to travel within the city, as they are frequent and mostly reliable. (I haven’t gotten the bus routes down yet, so I try to avoid them.)

There are so many ways to get around in a big Indian city, each of which have their pros and cons. On the whole, they get you where you need to go, but not without a few hiccups along the way. Traveling in different parts of India will invariably be different, but it will be helpful to try to acclimate yourself to the exhilarating chaos that is Indian travel. When you think about it, you’ll see that it’s not so different from rush hour in New York City! You have to experience it for yourself to feel the rush.

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Sleeper Car

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Shared auto

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Lingampally Train Station

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Cramming into a shared auto

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Cheap and efficient

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Bengaluru auto

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Beautiful Trains

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Motorbike on a Hampi path

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