THE ROAD FROM DELHI TO AGRA
"Cobras, Camels, Monkeys, Parrots, and more..."
Cobras and camels, monkeys and monks (Buddhist that is), parrots and people (over one BILLION of them (July 2006 est.)), and you can see it all on the way to Agra.
Although India occupies only 2.4% of the world's land area, it supports over 15% of the world's population. Only China has a larger population. Almost 40% of Indians are younger than 15 years of age. About 70% of the people live in more than 550,000 villages, and the remainder in more than 200 towns and cities. Over thousands of years of its history, India has been invaded from the Iranian plateau, Central Asia, Arabia, Afghanistan, and the West; Indian people and culture have absorbed and changed these influences to produce a remarkable racial and cultural synthesis.
The government has recognized 18 languages as official; Hindi is the most widely spoken.
Although 83% of the people are Hindu, India also is the home of more than 120 million Muslims--one of the world's largest Muslim populations. The population also includes Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, and Parsis.
You can be in the city or the country side and still see an array of animals running wild. In a large city such as New Delhi, it is particularly curious to see a mother sow and her piglet on a city side street routing through the garbage that they have overturned at 3 in the morning. The so called, "sacred cows" roam freely in the streets and while some appear to be on the verge of starvation, others are well fed and used to pull carts. The most popular varieties are the Brahma cattle, followed by water buffalo.
"Snake Handlers, Panhandlers, Cripples assault you"
The stereotypical snake charmers are also real. Apparently the deadly cobra snakes that they "charm" are affected by the movement of the charmer's musical instrument rather than the sound of the instrument. The cobra that I saw (see photograph) was fairly slow to strike (slower than some rattle snakes I've seen) and when standing erect as in the photograph, they are apparently unable to bend sufficiently to strike a hand placed directly in front of them. The snake charmer in the accompanying photograph, while not so charming himself, had an array of three snakes in baskets, and said his snakes had "no teeth". A sham? I wasn't going to find out for myself, and he still seemed to keep his distance when around them.
If you don't look Indian or Pakistani, expect to be assailed by panhandlers. These are usually young men or boys who speak English and are unceasing in their attempts to persuade you to buy their trinkets, T-shirts, or post cards. They will follow you to your vehicle and even get inside. If you take the item that they are shoving at you, you've bought it and they demand money. I refused to let them give me anything.
Example No. 1: Sitting in a shuttle bus at the Taj Mahal, these panhandlers thrust post cards through the windows and lt go of them hoping that I would catch it (and buy it). I let it fall to the floor and did not pick it up. An Indian official traveling with me picked it up and tried to hand it back and the panhandling youth refused it and demanded payment (the card was thrust back out the windown and the window was closed in spite of the hot stuffy atmosphere in the bus).
Example No. 2: On the way out from the Taj Mahal I was accosted by a panhandler selling Taj Mahal T-shirts. "200 Rupees for a T-shirt"... no thanks. "OK-- 150 Rupees"... no thanks. By the time we got back to the bus it was "75 Rupees for three T-shirts". Moral: if you really want to Taj Mahal T-shirt, don't buy it until you are about the roll off in your vehicle.
Advice to deal with Panhandlers: 1. Don't acknowledge their presence. Don't even speak to them if you are not interested in what they have. That MAY work, but not usually. 2. I tried to convice the post card boy that someone in our party about 25 feet ahead, was really wanting some post cards-- a dirty trick on my part, but it didn't work. The kid stuck to me like a malaria mosquito to a bare back. 3. I would respond in Spanish or Turkish when approached. THIS WORKED (sometimes). You had to keep up the act and not let them hear you speak to a companion in English, but if they thought you could not understand their sales pitch, then they moved on to plague others.
Yes, these people are desperately poor, but India has 500+ Million poor people and I can only carry so many T-shirts and post cards home. I was not there as foreign aid to the Indian populace... so no guilt, at least until you come face-to-face with the cripples.
Some people are terribly crippled and are begging on the streets. But some are mutilated by their parents at birth to make them more deformed and pittiful so as to increase the sympathy donations. Others self-inflict wounds. One man (I am told) cut open sores and kept them open so the flies and maggots could crawl in them. As a wound began to heal he would cut it a fresh. This is perversion and I won't support that. The problem is how to know when a beggar is truely in need, and when you are simply supporting a culture of maiming and perversion. The best policy is probably to give to those organizations which can make these determinations intelligently, and not be swayed by street-side emotions.
"Traffic Laws? You've got to be kidding."
Honking is mandatory (and continuous) on India's roads. Almost every truck has a sign on its rear tail gate saying, "Honk Please". Maybe this is to alert them to your presence, but with so many people honking continuously, who can tell who is honking at who??
You will also see the phrase, "Use Dipper at Night". Huh? Well, this must be some throwback to British English. It means, "dim you high beams at night when you approach" (and I initially overanalyzed the message to have something to do with measuring fuel level with a "dip stick", but to do it at night when the temperature was cooler and fuel expansion (volume) was minimal-- well, I'm an engineer, what do you expect!)
Traffic is crazy. In the British tradition, everyone is driving on the wrong side of the road, but some are aspiring Americans and they drive on the right side of the road simultaneously. It is not uncommon to come face-to-face with a head-on collision that is averted seconds before impact by swerving to avoid not only the oncoming car or truck, but also the random cows meandering through the streets and highways, motorscooters, tricycle taxis, camels pulling loads of cotton, water buffalo herds, or an occasional monkey.
Even Indians I know, comment on how harrowing it is to ride the Indian roads. No one would (should) consider driving in India. Hire an experienced driver. The median age for males in India is around 30. If you find a driver who is over 30, then you have a "survivor" of the highways. That is probably a good choice.
When in the city limits, apparently there are police and they will stop you for not wearing seat belts. On several occassions, our driver would slip on his set belt upon entering a city such as Agra or New Delhi, but on the open road, he did not use seat belts. This is to optomistic analysis... an alternative explanation is that the cities are SO much more dangerous, that even the driver's use their seat belts.
Having stated the above, I must admit that in spite of the total chaos of the Indian roads, we did not see a single traffic accident, no side-swiped cows, or wrecked vehicles on the sides of the roads.