India – Part 2: Holy Cow(s)!
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Having lived in Saigon with its scooter-clogged roads, intense and chaotic traffic was nothing new to us. But Gurgaon (and India in general) took the madness into uncharted lands. Whereas the Vietnamese roads made sense after a time – I like to think of them as veins and arteries and the scooters as blood cells – Gurgaon’s roads defied sound logic and resisted all reason. I knew within hours of living in Vietnam that I would be out there on a scooter, another blood cell bringing life to the vibrant city of Saigon. But as I watched the streets of Gurgaon, I blanched at the thought of driving anything on them.
The mashup up cars, trucks, buses, auto rickshaws (tuk-tuks), scooters, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians took the notion of a “traffic jam” to King George levels of madness.
I figured out one thing almost immediately upon our arrival in Gurgaon.
In Gurgaon, I would always be a passenger…
… never a driver.
But that was okay, because there were tuk-tuks everywhere (the official term for them in India is “auto rickshaw”, but we preferred “tuk-tuk”). And compared to full-sized taxis, they were much cheaper. We were told by some locals that most Westerners generally prefer the full-sized taxis, because they are more comfortable, the drivers speak English, and the fare is metered, so they don’t have to worry about being ripped off. Okay, but where’s the fun? Where’s the adventure? When Handan and I heard that, we both knew we’d be traveling by tuk-tuk. Handan loves to bargain. All Turks do. It’s in their blood. She wouldn’t be able to resist the opportunity to haggle with the tuk-tuk drivers to get the fare she wanted. I witnessed her dismantle entire groups of cunning Afghan shopkeepers, so I was confident she’d get her way with the tuk-tuk drivers.
On the Saturday of our first weekend, Handan and I decided to head out and find a local market that I had seen on my way to work. Barish had already made a good friend at school named Jordan, and he and his family were members of the Palms, which gave them access to the swimming pool, tennis courts, restaurants and social events. We learned that they would be at the pool that Saturday, so we left Barish to play with his new friend while we went out for some quick shopping. When we passed the front desk, the clerk looked up and smiled.
“Hello, good afternoon, Sir and Madam. Will you be going out?” The clerk said.
“Yes, we’re going to have a look around and go to the market.” I said.
“Very good, Sir. May I call a car for you?” He said.
“Nah, we’re good. We’ll take a tuk-tuk” I said.
The clerk gasped slightly. If he were wearing a toupee, I expect it would have shot up from his head at my proclamation. Clearly The Palms Town & Country Club was not accustomed to its clientele availing themselves of such primitive means of transport. The parking lot was filled with Mercedes and Porsches, and private cars sat at the ready while their drivers played cards together, awaiting the opportunity to shuttle guests to their destinations in air-conditioned comfort.
“Yes, Sir. Very good, Sir. Be careful, Sir.” He said.
Handan laughed. “Yeah, we’ll be fine! It’ll be fun!” She said as we walked outside.
The men playing cards perked up for a moment but quickly settled back into their game as we stepped off the sidewalk and walked up the driveway. The man in the guard shack waved and asked if he could be of assistance. When we told them we wanted a tuk-tuk, he ran out into the street and started flailing his arms and blowing a whistle.
Moments later, a tuk-tuk came roaring up to us, a small, green thing with three wheels and handlebars for steering. It had a stained yellow canopy and a black bench seat in back with torn upholstery. The diminutive driver looked at us, and I swear I could see rupee signs floating across his eyes. He exchanged a few words in Hindi with the guard.
“How much to go to Le Marche?” I said.
“Hundred rupees” The driver said. It was peanuts, really. About $1.50. But it was also outrageous. That same ride would cost a local 10 or 20 rupees.
“Forty rupees.” Handan said. We actually didn’t know at that point how much the ride was worth, so she was just haggling blind.
He looked hurt, as if we had just insulted his honor. But it was all part of the game. Turns out that Indians love to bargain as much as Turks do!
“No, No.” He said. “Eighty rupees!” He looked satisfied. Surely his new price would settle the debate.
“Fifty rupees.” Handan said.
The driver looked as if we just stole a samosa from his child’s plate. “Sixty rupees!” Who were these two crazy people?
“Yeah, okay!” Handan flashed a big smile, and we climbed into the back.
This was how it should be. This was how to travel in India! The sights, the sounds, the…smells. But the roads were a mess. And not just with traffic. There was a lot more happening on those roads than just congestion.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but something seemed amiss.
I don’t know, maybe I was just being a stupid American. Maybe there wasn’t anything wrong. But…
But, I just felt like there was something fundamentally different about the driving experience in Gurgaon.
Wait a minute! Is that…?
Holy crap! The road is full of cows!
The other drivers didn’t seem too concerned about them. They buzzed right by the bovine roadblocks with mere inches to spare. The cows took it all in stride and meandered where they pleased – calm and peaceful like they were grazing in a country meadow. And if they got tired of walking on the hot pavement? Yep, they just plopped their bony asses in the middle of the road as the cars and tuk-tuks swerved around them.
You think you’re hot stuff because you have a corner office? You think you have respect because of a few letters after your name? Try lying down in the middle of a busy road and see what happens. You got nothing on these cows! These cows are untouchable. These cows are sacred.
I knew coming into India that cows were considered sacred by most people in the region we were in (this is not the case in Southern India), but I figured they’d be safely stashed away in temples eating honey and wearing flowered necklaces while the faithful adorned their flanks with henna tattoos. Divinity should have its perks, right? I don’t know, I’d be pretty pissed if people worshiped me but then left me to eat roadside garbage and wander around the highways all scrawny and unkempt.
Of course, being the jerk American, all I kept thinking was, “look at all that steak!” I love cows as much as the next guy, but I love them most when they’re grilled and on a plate next to a baked potato and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. Probably a good thing I kept my thoughts to myself.
On that note, if you go to a McDonald’s in Gurgaon, or anywhere else in the region, you’ll not find any beef products. No Big Macs. No Quarter Pounders with Cheese. No dinky little hamburgers. None of it. What you will find are offerings like the incomparable McAloo Tikki (I honestly don’t have foggiest idea what it’s made from) and the delicious McSpicy Paneer (I’m pretty sure it’s a “hamburger” made from a deep-fried hunk of cheese). If you can’t imagine life without a Big Mac, you may expand your horizons by ordering a Maharaja Mac or a Chicken Maharaja Mac. “Maharaja” is Sanskrit for “Great King.” So the next time you’re cramming a Big Mac into your face and feeling all proud of yourself, just think of all the Indians scarfing down “Great King Macs.” Mmmhmmm. Your Big Mac ain’t so big anymore, is it?
Okay, let’s get back to the road. You may be thinking, Wow! Cars, trucks, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians and cows! What else could they possibly fit on those roads!
Madam, please. Though the aforementioned cars and trucks and motorcycles and scooters and bicycles and pedestrians and cows may have taken up a significant portion of the roads, there was still plenty of room for stray pigs, wild dogs, the odd goat or two and the occasional flock of chickens.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Pigs and goats? But they eat garbage! What are they doing in the roads?
Madam, may I present Gurgaon Roadside Garbage! It’s an all-day, all-night all-you-can-eat smorgasbord!
It’s a feast for all the senses!
Oh, I almost forgot!
They may look cute, but these little guys cause big headaches for anyone foolish enough to leave a door or a window open. They know where the food is kept, and they’re not shy about inviting themselves into unsecured houses to look for their next meal. Some of Handan’s coworkers found that out the hard way.
Once we passed the herd of cattle in the road, we settled back and enjoyed our tuk-tuk ride. It really is a fantastic way to travel on a sunny day. Handan and I swiveled our heads back and forth, trying to take in and process as much as we could.
After a time, we approached an intersection. The road was one-way, and our destination sat a short distance “upstream” from the intersection. I wondered why the driver hadn’t planned for this and cut over a street before we hit this intersection. Ah well, the price was prenegotiated. Let him take the long route if he wanted.
I expected him to go straight through the intersection, but to my great surprise (and Handan’s terror), he turned right up into the oncoming traffic and started beeping his horn, as he wound his way upstream towards our destination.
Handan yelped and grabbed my arm in a death grip. I grabbed the thin metal hand rail and hoped this guy knew what the hell he was doing.
A minute later, he pulled over at the shopping center, and we got out of the tuk-tuk unharmed and in one piece. I paid him his rupees, and Handan and I went about our business.
That wouldn’t be the last time we plunged headlong into oncoming traffic. Gurgaon is full of one-way streets, a fact which is either lost on many locals, or just of no consequence to them. As I said – I would never attempt to drive in India!
Handan and I finished up our shopping and hopped another tuk-tuk back to the hotel. We would be going out with a local realtor the next day to look at apartments. We were excited to get settled, but we were also a little bit apprehensive. So far, we hadn’t taken to Gurgaon like we had to Vietnam, Qatar or even Afghanistan. We hoped having a place of our own would help. But those were worries for another day. For the rest of that day, we headed out to the pool for some relaxation under the withering Indian sun.
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wow i would not mind the cows and goats and chicken or monkeys but that garbage would have done me in, different cultures, man oh man i was not prepared for that, does it stink?? xx
Hi Chris, to be fair, the garbage isn’t everywhere, but it is pretty pervasive. Yes, Gurgaon did smell on occasion, especially after a rain!
Wow, I am speechless. Like you, I to would never ever want to drive nor be a passenger in traffic that’s more like a parking lot. I would go nuts. Thanks for sharing.
The traffic was bad, and it’s only getting worse as Gurgaon grows!
Whoa! That is NOT what I had imagined India to be…Ewww! How in the world do they live in this kind of garbage? This makes me sad…
There are so many beautiful parts of India, but Gurgaon is not one of them. You will see more of the beauty in future posts, but I had to get some of the negative out early, lol!
Well..you are brave. My niece flew all the way to India…got off the plane, looked around and covered her nose and went in the terminal, gathered all her luggage and bought a return ticket immediately the next flight out. So, I can only imagine we are better off without scent screens…franki
LOL, that’s terrible! She must have been so bummed! There are beautiful places, but Gurgaon wasn’t one of them. Too much growth, and poorly planned infrastructure by an incompetent government. It’s a shame.
I have just stumbled upon your blog and I am really enjoying reading about Your family’s adventures. Your son is so lucky because he is getting to see the world and have a whole new perspective outside of the bubble most of us live in. Look forward to reading more!
Thank you so much, Lorrie, and welcome to The Navage Patch! Handan and I are happy you’ve joined us, and we hope to hear from you again. Have a great week! -Greg
Ahhhhhh beautiful, exotic, soulful India. It must be one of my favorite countries in the world. I can remember being stuck in a traffic jam in Hyderabad, which is India’s equivalent of Silicone Valley, for more than an hour waiting for the “Gaumata” to pass by. It puts such a different perspective on life. You learn to just go with the flow and sometimes when there’s a gap in the traffic against the flow hooting loudly 😉
When I clicked on “The Newest American” post to read I never envisioned myself lost in y’alls “about me” like I have been the past week-ish or so (as of now I still haven’t read that post, now I can). Now that I’ve come to the temporary end of the story I have to say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your adventures and have a bazillion questions that I hope to see answered in the stories to come. One of my main thoughts was “Holy s*it, I could never do that without having a nervous breakdown.” lol One thing that really sticks out for me is your “military move” with everything in one crate. I’m married to a military member and I could only wish our moves would go that smoothly! LOL Can’t wait for the next installments!
Hi April, sorry for the late response. Thank you so much, and welcome to The Navage Patch! LOL, the military move – yeah, I’ll be you didn’t have to load your belongings onto a flatbed traveling by road around Afghansitan! Yeesh, we’re lucky it arrived to the next base! Where have you lived/moved with the military?
So far we’ve lived in, in order:
New Haven, CT
Rohnert Park, CA (just north of San Fran, my favorite spot we’ve lived so far)
Marion, MA which is near Cape Cod, is our current
All pretty tame compared to a lot of military families for which I’m thankful for. I can’t imagine my through-the-roof anxiety if I had to do what you and Handan did!