You must've seen the films on YouTube. You may have heard the stories. Thick traffic, bumping into, brushing against other vehicles, pushing through a mix of cars, scooters, animals and people. Potholes everywhere, if there's at all any asphalt surface. Brutal road conditions. How much of it is true?
Let me start with perhaps the most surprising fact: the condition of the roads is good. Really good. Most of the ones we've driven so far looked like they've been renovated not too long ago. Flat asphalt, clear markings, no potholes. That applies both to major roads—the “highways”—as well as smaller, local ones. Only once, on a highway between Bengaluru and Mysuru did we cross a hundred-meter stretch of what looked like unfinished construction, where asphalt gave way to… dirt. And in Wayanad, leading into our cottage was a bumpy, countryside dirt road.
“Highways”, the official name for interstate and intercity major roads here, is quite misleading for Europeans. When we say “highway”, we mean closed, straight and flat roads of at least two lanes, without intersections. Of these characteristics, the only one that sometimes applies in India, is the count of lanes. Otherwise, these highways casually cross cities, mixing local and long-distance traffic, and they're definitively not built for speed. That's why Google showed us such long travel times even for relatively short distances.
Road signs are funny. They're scarce and inconsistent. Speed limit signs look mostly the same everywhere, but are sometimes indicated in kilometers and sometimes in… miles. At least that's what we're suspecting. Otherwise I can't imagine a limit of 25kph on a decent major road, even when it crosses an inhabited area.
A lot of signs carry the names of companies that sponsored their installation. Sometimes these are common traffic signs, but often carry slogans asking drivers to be careful, drive slowly, stay sober and such. They're printed on sizable plates, with the company name taking up to 80% of the surface, with the actual message taking up the rest, often near the bottom.
We've been told before that traffic conditions here would be worse than what we had experienced in Bali. That's not true. It's precisely the same, not a bit worse or better. People will somewhat loosely follow rules of the road—drive either inside lanes or in between, take left turns from the rightmost lanes, u-turn in the middle of the road, squeeze in between other vehicles (especially the scooters), push through intersections and overtake without too much consideration for whether the opposing lane is free, merely signaling their intention via road lights.
Just like in Bali, one driving here must be careful and decisive. Move slowly, expect others to get in your way, stay aware of who's around you. It's not nearly as bad as you imagine. Anyone with a bit of mental sharpness would manage. In terms of safety, over the 600km we drove so far, we've seen two accidents, both involving scooter drivers, which obviously is little indication of how the general situation looks like.
It helps that we hired a driver for the whole trip. We can sit comfortably, chat, read or stare outside the windows, while he's taking care of navigating the rough traffic.
Manju—that's his (apparently abbreviated) name—sadly speaks only rudimentary English. It's usually enough to communicate where we want to go, but we need to be extra careful giving him directions. It's not always clear whether he really understood our request and whether he knows the way to get to a particular place. In Mysuru, we asked him to drive us to the Devaraja Market, and he took us out of town to some shop with local clothing.
Whenever we enter a destination city, his natural way of handling is to call the hotel we are heading for and ask them for directions. And that seems to be everyone's standard behavior, because none of the hotels ever complained and some of them send us driving directions in advance. The Chameleon Beach Lodge we're in right now called us twice to make sure we know how to reach them, even though we informed them that we were following the (perfectly precise) route on Google Maps.
We worked out a system now, where we run Google Maps ourselves and tell Manju where to turn. He does seem a bit uncomfortable about it, but he never will complain, and it gets us efficiently to where we want to go.
You may be wondering, where is Manju staying overnight? Well, it looks like he's sleeping in the car most of the time, in the parking lots of our hotels and guest houses. These places will often let him use the bathroom, and we didn't have any reason to complain about his hygiene so far. As for his comfort, well, we would've loved for him to have better conditions, but in the end we figured that it's for him and his employer to manage.
Overall, there's nothing particularly scary or crazy about driving in India. The roads are good, drivers are careful and Google's navigation is there to show the way. We're happy to have our Manju driving us, but we could also easily imagine doing it ourselves.