Every trip is the same. It’s exactly like a game of chicken. Which driver will surrender the straightaway? It comes frightening close sometimes. I’m surprised there aren’t more buses and trucks folded up along the roadway—victims of head –on collisions—from which neither driver refused to be the one to veer out of the way—in time at least. A few weeks back on a similar tour bus and on a similar journey, Alison and I sat halfway off our seats into the isle so we could have a clear view of the road through the bus windshield. We cracked a bag of Lays potato chips and passed it back and forth like it was popcorn while we watched the road to see what would unfold next. It was like watching a movie except in this film our lives were at stake. Accidents are clearly a problem: I read a newspaper article the other day about a pilot program in Delhi to help victims of traffic accidents with non-cash payment to assist with medical bills and rehabilitation. While commendable, the money might be better spent addressing the underlying problems and funding efforts to enforce traffic laws—there are traffic lights, marked lanes, and crosswalks, but no one observes them.
Sleeping on buses can be a nightmare. You’re guaranteed to wake up at some point and think you are falling—and you likely are. The roads are so poor in India that it’s easy to get ejected from your seat if the bus driver doesn’t slow for a speed bump, anticipate a stop, or avoid a pothole.
And every trip has its unforeseen circumstances: a blown fan belt; a busted radiator; a failed air conditioner. This time, the driver has lost the key to the boot, or the trunk, as we know it in America. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if all of our bags weren’t locked in it. And so it continues to prove that in India “anything can happen at anytime.”
I should talk about the poverty. It’s all around. I guess I’m used to it—from before India, really. It’s bad in Thailand and Cambodia and other places I’ve been but it is worse in India. It’s especially bad in big cities like Delhi. If we’re stuck in traffic, beggars will come right up to the tuk-tuk to ask for money. Mothers carry their children arm in hand and thrust them toward you as they plead for change. When we were in Sarnath, there was a mother and child outside of the temple we were visiting. The boy was maybe two years old—just old enough to walk. He had a tin cup in his hand—for begging—and his mother was pushing him toward us to ask for money. He was clearly not old enough to comprehend what she was asking, but it was obvious that as soon as he was old enough, he too would be begging alongside his mother.
Alison and I stopped for ice cream at a McDonalds—it’s only 10 rupees for a vanilla, soft-serve cone. When we came out there was a man by the door with non-functioning legs, crawling on his hands. We walked past him and stopped at the street corner but he crawled over in front of us and begged for change. It’s difficult to deal with sometimes. Just a few blocks later a man came up to me and threw back his shawl exposing the nubs he had for arms. I just maneuvered around him—it’s all I could do. Behind him are a thousand more in just as much need. Riding in 3rd class trains we saw a lot of begging too. People reach up to the carriage windows when the train stops into the stations. Others come aboard and go from carriage to carriage begging. Raghu would usually wave them onward. There was a marked difference in the socio-economic status between the passengers in the 2nd and 3rd class trains. The same was true with customers who ate in local and Western restaurants: in Pizza Hut and McDonalds, Indian patrons are clearly middle and upper class. The man seated next to me in the Pizza Hut in Agra was dressed in gray slacks and a newly pressed dress shirt. He was wearing a gold wristwatch and bracelet and he had several expensive rings on his fingers. There is a different work ethic in these sorts of places too. The employees in Pizza Hut work as a team and are proud to be working where they do. At McDonalds, the employees hold their head up high and take pride in their work—they care about the service they provide. This is much different than in the United States where, unless it is a teenager working their first job, it’s generally the uneducated and unmotivated who work in fast food and they’re less than thrilled about it—maybe this is less true since the recent recession and the scarcity of jobs, but you understand.
It’s common to see people with missing limbs. One of the girls in our group spent some time working in a hospital in southern India. Many of the patients suffered from leprosy and did not receive medical attention until their condition had progressed to the later stages of the disease. Many other people suffer from some form of skin discoloration. I’m not sure what causes it but it is very common.