On Sunday, October 10, 2010, Deb and I took our first trip outside of Mumbai. We traveled about 170 miles northeast to a town called Shirdi, where we went to a Hindu temple for Sai Baba. The countryside is very beautiful, and I had a wonderful time. The temple is apparently the second most popular in India. It isn't old, Sai Baba died in 1918, but I'd guess there were 20,000 people there.
Deb and I were the only westerners there. It was a truly surreal experience. It was obvious that many of the people there had only seen westerners on TV or in the movies. They appeared to be more impressed with seeing us than the temple.
Unfortunately, while the scenery was inspiring the trip was also a bit reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. To begin with it took nearly 5 hours each way. The roads are terrible, Drivers insane, etc. I doubt I'll ever get Deb to take another long car trip.
To begin with, the traffic on the highway is comprised of:
Motorcycles - The average motorcycle has the power of the 50cc Honda I owned at age 13. Its capable of speeds of 45 mph with a single rider - rarely do you see one with a single rider. The most people I've seen on one motorcycle is 5.
Auto-rickshaw - The second most popular form of transportation is the auto-rickshaw. The auto-rickshaws are three wheeled vehicles capable of carrying up to 3 passengers. Its powered by a 3.5hp natural gas engine and most closely resembles a soapbox racer. Auto-rickshaws are required by law to be retired after 20 years of service. They must weigh nearly 300 pounds empty, have no doors, and the top is fabric - but their not convertibles. Fully loaded they just barely have enough power to get over a speed bump. However, they are also driven down hill at speeds of nearly 50. Think of a roller coaster without the track, maintenance, safety features, etc.
Trucks - The third most often seen vehicle is the Tata truck. These are the size of a large delivery truck. The average one here is about 40 years old and is capable of climbing a 4% grade at speeds of up to 6 mph,
Buses - 88% of people use transit, and as in the states most of those are on buses. The average bus is 35 years old and has a constant standing crush load.
Taxi's - The taxi's here are the size of the smallest Yugo you've ever seen, but have only 1/10 the power of that Yugo. They are required by law to be retired after 16 years of service. They are never retired before then. Yesterday we saw one with at least 12 people in it.
Autos - somewhere around 10% of the traffic is comprised of private autos. Almost all of these are also smaller that anything you see in the states. Less than 4% of the population has a car. The vast majority of them have Formula One aspirations.
Misc. - Finally, we get to the miscellaneous category. This category comprises less than 5% of the total highway users. It consists of pedestrians, hand-carts, Ox-carts,and herds of various types.
Our car is larger and more powerful than most, which has convinced our driver that it should be driven as if we are being pursued by kidnappers - including flashing lights and blaring horns. No one here pays any attention to the lane markings. Its truly thrilling when on a two lane road two cars are driving 65 side-by-side and your driver decides to pass them simultaneous by passing between them at 95.
I'll come back to the driving, but first a few words about the roads. Most are under construction. It appears that the construction started 20+ years ago, was never completed and I've yet to see anyone working on them. The only road on which I saw no construction was one that appeared to have had been repaired many years ago. The repairs were excellent, and most of the asphalt placed in those ancient potholes is still intact - unfortunately the rest of the paving is long since gone. Therefore what remains, is pods of asphalt, many of which are nearly touching. Picture the inverse of the most potholed road you've ever seen.
Back to the cars for a moment. The suspension systems are very primitive. They are also not maintained. The combination of these roads and cars is much like riding a bike on a cobblestone street - - without any air in the bike's tires.
If all of that were not enough it gets even wilder after dark:
No one turns on there lights until its impossible to see,
Once they turn on their lights they never dim then.
Of course many of the users don't have headlights,
Fewer still have taillights, and yes
The ox-carts and herders see no reason why their lack of lights should keep them off the road.
As I said I found the trip wonderful. It was full of surprises, I think my favorite photo is of washing day. Everyone comes to the stream, regardless of what it is that they need to wash.