India is a land of adventure and mystique, where society operates on a completely different set of rules than it does in the West. Join our veteran motorcycle world traveler Pat Harris as he dives into India on his motorcycle, and be amazed at the adventures he had there – mostly in India’s notorious traffic!
**DISCLAIMER: This article is not meant to come off as a slight against India. I had an absolutely wonderful time there, and it’s probably one of the most interesting places I was able to visit. With that being said, the traffic (to a Westerner) is drastically different and more chaotic. I’d encourage anyone interested to visit India, but only expose yourself to the traffic at a level you’re comfortable with, and if you decide to immerse yourself in it, do so carefully, and accept and adapt to their riding/driving style quickly…and you may just come to somehow enjoy it!**
When preparing for my trip around the world, one of the more common questions that family and friends would ask was, “Are you nervous?”
When I first thought about what I could be nervous about, plenty of things came to mind, but were quickly dismissed. I could get sick or hurt, in which case I would spend some time resting and recovering, or if it was severe enough fly home (I had medical evacuation insurance) and get the care that I need to recover. I could have cash/camera/phone/etc. stolen, which would be resolved by replacing the item and dealing with the loss of a few hundred dollars, a pretty minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. I could have my bike stolen, which would definitely be devastating, but I decided before hand that if this happened, I’d plan to just continue traveling by bus or train, and at the very least continue to see some beautiful places and experience a wonderful variety of cultures. A couple people brought up kidnapping or some sort of violent encounter, which was an unlikely enough scenario that it didn’t really phase me.
But there was one worry that I couldn’t dismiss…traffic in India. This was my main hesitation before leaving, as I’d heard plenty about how treacherous it could be. I desperately wanted to see India, and I really wanted to get off the beaten path, which would be much harder to do without my own transportation. But I spent a fair bit of time wondering if I would come to regret my decision.
I arrived in Mumbai, with my motorcycle arriving on a different plane a few days behind me. This gave me some time to experience Indian traffic from the “sidewalks” and rickshaws. When my bike arrived, I was really itching to get back on it.
Not only was I ready to escape Mumbai, but at this point, 4-5 days without riding nearly seemed like an eternity. Unfortunately, I quickly found out that dealing with customs to get my motorcycle approved for temporary import wasn’t going to take a couple hours, or even half a day. After 3 days of running around and filling out countless documents (which all seemed to require identical information) while staring at my motorcycle, packed up in a crate behind a chain link fence, I was finally given approval to unpack it and hit the road.
Once my bike was out of the crate, I immediately found out how much attention it would attract on my trip across the country. I rode it out of the loading dock, and stopped to put on my helmet and jacket. Almost immediately, all work in the area ceased, and everyone crowded around and started asking questions…most of which were either about how much it cost or how fast it went.
As soon as I got on the road, I immediately had to forget everything I knew from 15 years of driving and riding in the U.S. Traffic lights are often times optional, there are one and half to two times as many lanes of traffic as their are painted on the road, and personal space doesn’t exist. When approaching an intersection, right of way is granted based on some combination of arrival time, the size of your vehicle, and the aggressiveness of your driving.
Once the initial terror and stress diminished, riding in India actually became pretty fun. Relative to the west, it feels like there are no traffic laws. Splitting lanes is mandatory (if you don’t, you’ll be looked at like you’re crazy, and you’ll never get anywhere), and if there isn’t room to move in between traffic, you’re more than welcome to utilize the shoulder, sidewalk, or ditch to get around.
As much as the traffic encroaches on pedestrians, the pedestrians use the road as if traffic didn’t exist.
It was a few days after I’d left Mumbai that I had one of my most scary experiences on a bike. I was in the middle of a surprisingly empty road, and I needed to make a right turn (remember the driving directions are reversed, so in this case, a right turn required crossing oncoming traffic). There was one oncoming vehicle, which I had to stop and wait for, and a jeep a decent distance behind me.
As I came to a stop, I looked into my mirror and saw the jeep approaching me from behind. He was coming fairly quickly, but still a decent distance back. It seemed a little more reckless than I would’ve been, but I figured it must be the norm in India. A second later, I realized that he wasn’t paying attention, and I was about to be in a bind. I took off as I heard the screech of his tires locking up, and immediately pictured myself in a body cast. Luckily, our speeds weren’t drastically different when he connected with me. I surged forward, wobbled a time or two, but didn’t go down. I stopped, immediately thankful for the fact a body cast wouldn’t be required, and looked behind me without dismounting the bike. I made eye contact with the two widest eyes I’ve ever seen, and within a split second, the jeep driver worked through the shock and peeled off (fleeing the scene of accidents is very common and even sometimes encouraged in India).
Simultaneously filled with joy that I wasn’t hurt, and horror that my bike had just been smashed, I pulled off the side of the road to assess the damage, immediately wondering how much the truck ride back to Mumbai and the repairs were going to cost. Upon inspection, I was amazed to find that the extent of the damage was a broken license plate light (which remains broken 30,000+ miles later!) I checked everything closer, and rode around slowly, expecting to find that something else was bent or broken, but was happy to find that my bike was nearly as unscathed as me.
A few days later, I visited the greatest temple for my current situation, the Shrine to Om Banna. This shrine is built around a Royal Enfield Bullet with an interesting story. On December 2nd, 1988, a man named Om Banna lost control of his motorcycle and crashed into a tree, dying instantly. Police brought the motorcycle to the station that evening, but the next morning, found it back at the scene of the accident. They brought it back to town the next day, but again, it somehow made it’s way back to the scene of the accident. This was seen as a miracle by the locals, so they built a temple at the site, which to this day houses the motorcycle.
This temple is said to ensure a safe journey for travelers that stop at it, so I made sure to check it out, especially after my accident a few days before. As I was leaving the temple, I was given a couple tassels to hang off the back of my bike, which were also meant to provide safety. I figured I better take every blessing I can get, and to this day, the tassels (though fairly dirty and frayed) still hang off the back of my bike (covering up the broken light, as it were.)
If you read a bit about riding in India, one of the first things you’ll find is that everyone recommends only riding during the daytime. Although I always wanted to be off the road before sunset, I did get stuck out on two occasions, and immediately learned why this is not a scenario you want to find yourself in.
The main reason is because of the lack of headlights. For some reason, across India, it’s believed that running your headlights wastes gas (I was constantly reminded to turn off my light during the middle of the day). Because of this, many people wait until well past dusk before turning on their headlights. Many of the large trucks have reflective tape plastered across the front, so that you might at least be able to see them with your own headlights, if you’re willing to turn them on.
This lack of lights seems bad enough in a place with orderly traffic, but pair it with bad road conditions, animals everywhere, blind passing, and excessive speed, and it really gets ridiculous. Unlike driving during the day, there is no joy or entertainment to be found…driving at night is just a constant white knuckle event.
Traffic conditions aren’t the only thing you’ll need to contend with in India…road conditions can also be incredibly variable. You might find yourself on a freshly paved road one day, and on a major highway that is rutted dirt with minimal visibility due to dust the next. For me, the worst was something in between…a previously paved road that had fallen into disrepair years ago, leaving sections of rough pavement, dirt, mud, sand, and massive potholes. The unpredictability on these stretches of road was exhausting.
You’ll also find yourself questioning the definition of the words “road” and “street” while riding through India. Believe it or not, these walkways in the city of Varanasi are both considered roads on Google Maps!
The celebrity like status I’d experienced when leaving the Mumbai airport continued for the entirety of my six week stay. Not only was I a foreigner, but I was on a monstrous motorcycle that only made me stand out more. And on top of all that, one of the biggest Bollywood movies that was out at that time featured a couple BMW motorcycles, making my bike all the more interesting. Whenever I stopped to fix a flat, or have lunch, a crowd seemed to form immediately.
Ok, so I guess it was probably more the bike than myself that was attracting the attention.
And even while in motion, people were constantly staring at me in traffic (as I worriedly wished they would focus on what was going on in front of them), even trying to talk to me if speeds were slow enough.
At one hotel that I stopped at, every man on staff poured into the parking lot to check out my bike. The owner of course needed a few photos sitting on it, which he offered me a free upgrade to an executive suite for.
Based on how filthy I am in the picture, you can imagine that I was pretty exhausted after a long day on rough, dusty roads, so I couldn’t even take advantage of all the amenities that the upgraded room offered, as all I could do was immediately go to sleep. Here’s a GoPro shot from what my ride looked like for the last half of that day.
All this is a very condensed version of what I experienced riding in India. You’ll experience more craziness in a day of riding than you will in years on a road in the U.S. Not to mention all the fascinating things that you’ll see when you’re off the bike. Words and pictures can’t express how great of an experience my time in India was. So, if you’re looking for adventure, this is it, but as was said before, if you’re going to ride a motorcycle…don’t take the traffic lightly!