How I lost my zen crossing the road in India

By 3rd July 2015MIND, TRAVEL
Road sign says 'Wear helmet', and many road users on bikes without a helmet

It was 10 days into our India trip before I said the f-word.

I muttered ‘oh my god’ and ‘shit’ in disbelief a few times, and glared at Lyden with wide eyes—speechless—many more. In these moments, I held onto the auto rickshaw a bit tighter; walked further into the road to avoid deathly potholes; or tried not to breathe in so much.

Nevertheless, I continued to bounce around like an eager tourist, thirsty to find out why so many people fall in love with this country. On day 10 I lost my zen…

Our trip to Charminar

It was our last day in Hyderabad, and we had not yet seen Charminar; one of the most recognised structures in India.

When we arrived at our co-working space that morning, we knew we had a lot of work to get through, including a video chat to a UK client. It was 8:45pm before we packed up to say farewell to our brilliant hosts at Collab House.

Saikiran, Janine, Lyden and Vineel

We said goodbye to our Collab House friends

“But what about Charminar?” came the question. Saikiran encouraged us to make the 13km journey to see Charminar by night, and Vineel kindly arranged our taxi.

We set out in heavy traffic. From the back seat of an air conditioned car I yawned, held Lyden’s hand as we chatted, and took in the chaotic sights in comfort. It was luxury after riding in autos all week.

By the time we arrived at Charminar, it was a shock to step out onto the road, greeted by relentless traffic and 35 degree heat. It was 10:20pm.

The sight

We looked up—Charminar was lit up and imposing. But there’s only so long you can look at an impressive building when you’re in a lions den of noise and distraction.

Charminar in Hyderabad

Charminar close up

We walked past stalls as people called us to come and see their wares; mangoes, clothes, biscuits, flowers, street food. We negotiated parked motorbikes, piles of rubbish, people milling around, and swerving vehicles. It was mayhem.

The traffic

We haven’t seen many (walkable) pavements so far in India. Many things occupy the space: stalls, shop goods, beggars, rubbish, parked motorbikes, dogs, and sleeping Indians. Pedestrians walk in the road with the rest of the traffic. To survive, you need to listen for horns and get ready to move swiftly at any time.

Crossing the road proves to be a challenge. In the UK, we’re used to zebra crossings, green men, and considerate drivers waving us across the road. In India, it’s a free-for-all. Unless you see a gap and decide to move, you’ll stand there all day (and night). In the crowded streets of Charminar, autos and motorbikes drove straight into my path—forcing me further into the road.

My blood was beginning to boil.

Charminar, the street and stalls

The noise and traffic was overwhelming

When it came to crossing the road to see the stalls on the other side, we got stuck in the middle. I pushed myself against a metal structure for safety, and looked at the oncoming traffic in dismay. There were 3 or 4 ‘lanes’ of continuous traffic to contend with. I perceived the danger level to be the same as running across the M6.

I carried the stress with me as I walked—sulkily—back towards Charminar. I didn’t want to be in this chaos any longer.

The moment

Yet more bikes cut into my path, more horns deafened my ears, and more shouts interrupted any peace I was clutching onto. I lost my patience.

Like an overtired toddler, I rubbed my eyes and shook my head. “I’m fucking sick of this” I said to Lyden. “I want to go back to the hotel.”

But Lyden wanted to see more. He was unfazed by the traffic, and was beginning to find his flow in the madness. It was our only chance to see this place, so I shrugged hopelessly and agreed to carry on.

Here’s my attempt at understanding how I lost my lightweight thinking and got into a bad place…

The lack of rules and order makes me mad!

There should be a sign to welcome all newcomers from the western world…

‘Welcome to India, prepare to leave behind all you take for granted in the developed world.’

Do you know what you take for granted? You’ll find out if you come to India!

I took road safety for granted

Our host in Hyderabad told us that to get a driving license, you only have to know how to operate the car. “But what about road safety?” my ordered mind screamed.

When I first came to India, many sights on the road made me look away, especially where I felt the safety of children was compromised.

My partner in crime is staying calm

Lyden has it sussed out a little more; he seems calm when I am stressed. I asked him how he’s doing it…

I watched a program about 3 indian kids—born and raised in the UK—and their experience in India for the first time. They are about 11 years old, and a lot less conditioned than most of us adults. The boy stands next to a busy road, explaining the seemingly chaotic system:

At first, it seems there are no rules, but when you watch for a while, you begin to see what’s happening. Drivers use a system of beeps and honks to help everybody know where they are. They are not angry—just communicating. They do have a system.

This stuck with me, and he was right; it works. Sometimes, you have to forget what you ‘know’ and take things at face value. Children are great at this.

So, how do you cross the road in India?

Here is an example of what you may be faced with when crossing a busy road in India:

I would need to develop my nerves to attempt this!

Everyone in India has equal rights on the road. Drivers are reactive rather than proactive; they force their way through the mayhem, as do pedestrians. Babies and young children are held on the back of motorbikes by their mothers who sit sideways; their saris blowing dangerously close to the wheels. Motorbikes and bicycles are common, yet helmets are rare.

Western ideas of safety are alien in this developing world, and accidents are rife. The only driving guidance here goes something like this:

  • Honk to let other drivers know you are there
  • There’s no such thing as car insurance, so don’t hit anything
  • Try not to die

What about road rage?

Surprisingly, I have seen no cases of road rage here. I’ve seen plenty of horrific and dangerous driving, yet incredible patience and tolerance for other road users who are driving this way. As this style of driving is normal, there seems little expectation for anything different or ‘better’.

Indians appear to be really good at accepting what IS. Not what SHOULD be, or COULD be, but what IS.

Someone swerves towards an Indian driver, they swerve the other way. No shaking fists, no arguments. They carry on with their day without pulling a face.

This isn’t something I can say for drivers in the UK. Maybe this is because our rules and regulations make us feel ‘superior’ or ‘entitled’ to be treated in a certain way?

Fatalities on the road

According to this cheery Wikipedia page, there are 6.2 road fatalities per 100,000 vehicles in the UK, and 13.6 in the US. And in India… 207.5.

Although if you think that’s high, the fatalities in Central African Republic is a whopping 13,472.8 per 100,000. OMG!

Bring on the road safety education and enforcement in the developing world!

What is the government doing?

I’ve pondered many times on how the government can improve road safety across India. I am at a loss as to what it would take to make the roads safer, but surely it must as India becomes more developed?

Road sign says 'Wear helmet', and many road users on bikes without a helmet

Spot the helmet – a road safety campaign in Chennai

Be water my friend

I can feel Bruce Lee’s words, and imagine how he would have crossed these roads if he was still with us. Emptying his mind of all distraction, he would dance and weave between the traffic with grace and ‘one-ness’.

I have a way to go before I’m that lightweight in mind and body – I’m still caught up in the fear and danger of it all.

There are many times that I’ve questioned why we were drawn to visit this country. Basic things can be hard to figure out, leaving me frustrated and overwhelmed. So why are we still in India, 5 weeks after we left Hyderabad?

We’re attempting to discover why people become enchanted and compelled to return. A dear friend of mine has visited India 7 times! Testing our boundaries and treading cautiously, we’re intrigued to see if we fall in love… or flee.

Sign up to read our onward adventures in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and read about what we got up to in Hyderabad if you missed it: First Impressions; Hyderabad India.


  • Tor J says:

    So good to hear from you! Was pondering where you are and what you’re up to. Be patient and stick with it. There’s plenty to fall in love with. One thing’s for sure, India’s easier when you know when to retreat from the madness and rest. Take it at your own pace and tread gently. Wishing you lots of fun times and happiness. Big love & hugs x x x x

    • Janine says:

      Hey Tor,

      Good advice! We are taking it easy a lot more now we are in Chennai, and pacing ourselves as you said. We’re already a month into our house sit, and are loving it. We have a retreat coming up in the mountains so we’re making the most of city luxuries right now! Great to hear from you, big hugs x

  • Rocco says:

    I would say be like water but you are probably trying your best and boiling 😉

    Just take it easy, chill and go with the flo 🙂

    Think of Confucius and reeds 😉

    • Janine says:

      Thanks Rocco!
      We’re flowing with it a lot more now – it takes time to adjust!
      Cheers for the message 🙂

  • Suzanne says:

    Janine – Sounds so familiar. We never crossed a major highway but eventually leant how to cross the smaller ones by using the “hand signal”. Put your arm down by your side and slightly to the back. Twist your wrist so that the palm shows and indicate with this that you are crossing. Works! Our friends that we went to India with are over for dinner tonight, so we will have a good reminisce .

    • Janine says:

      Hi Suzanne,
      Maybe you’ll come back one day to try out your technique on a major road? 😉 Hope you had a great dinner – I bet you miss the great Indian food!

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