In the West crossing the street is easy. We have crosswalks, signs that tell us when to stay put and when to walk. Technically pedestrians have right of way. Traffic in Manhattan, while dense, isn’t all that varied--cars, taxis, buses and the occasional delivery person or messenger cycling the wrong way down the street.
Each city has its unwritten road rules for the pedestrian. In Manhattan if a cab blocks a crosswalk you are attempting to navigate feel free to pound your fist on its hood. Chances are you won’t be the only one. If you walk at the correct cadence you’ll breeze through every street block without having to wait for the light to change. Blow it and you end up stopping at every corner. Cab drivers take note: this also applies to driving up and down avenues.
Hanoi, Vietnam taught me how to cross the street in cities where traffic never stops for pedestrians. On a trip there about eight years ago I venture out to a main street near my hotel jetlagged after a long flight in search of food. The food is on the other side of the road. I am starving. I stand there waiting for the sea of scooters, about 12 across, to stop. Twenty minutes later I’m still standing there. They haven’t stopped and I’ve realized in my exhausted famished haze that they never will. Skipping a meal is not an option. I spot an elderly woman a few feet to my right gingerly stepping into the road. She walks slowly and steadily into the traffic, staring straight ahead. The scooters go around her and she reaches the other side without looking side to side once.
Five minutes later I’m following an old man across the street. The traffic whizzes around us and when we reach the other side he turns around and smiles at me. The gig is up. I smile back.
By day two I stop using elderly people as training wheels. The secret, I have discovered, is to wait for an opening and start walking into the road at a predictable pace. Sudden moves throw drivers off and are a good way to end up as road kill. I fight the urge to bolt, the traffic weaves around me and I reach the other side unscathed.
Crossing the street in Indian cities is the big leagues for a Westerner. As the world’s second most populated country with more than a billion people its cities are bursting at the seams. Traffic has tremendous variety. You are navigating cars, motorbikes, buses, trucks, cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, cows, the occasional elephant and depending on what part of the country, camels.
There is also the constant cacophony of honking horns. In the West a horn means get out of the way. In India everyone honks regularly to let you know they are coming. Don’t let this distract you.
While the same steady pace, no false moves, strategy applies you might want to pick bigger training wheels to get started. A large family to trail behind will do. Take a deep breath, put one foot in front of the other and have a little faith. And if said family catches on to your parasitical plot, smile and don’t be surprised if one of them takes your arm and guides you across. Don’t worry you’ll get to the other side.
My favorite place to photograph the chaotic traffic in India is a traffic circle just outside the Old City in Varanasi. The above photograph was taken there earlier this year.