Navigating the mean streets of India

Where are we?

I’m not claiming that no one ever uses maps in India. And – for the upper classes at least – the increasing popularity of iPhones means that GPS is just a click away. Still, on the whole, people in India get around in a way that constantly challenges detail-oriented, map-obsessed folks like me. My advice (really more directed at myself than anyone else): let go of excessive advanced planning and be prepared to ask for directions at every fork, T and bend in the road.

I first noticed India’s laissez-faire approach to navigation when I was in Pune. I had a hard time finding my way around, and just assumed it was because I was a foreigner, unfamiliar with the city and the region. One day, I was going to a nearby village with some researchers from a local NGO. I met them at the bus station (a feat in itself) and gladly let them take over navigation duties. I followed them to the lot at the back of the station, where buses were entering and exiting in no apparent order, blocking each other in, honking at each other madly and generally causing total confusion. My NGO friends went up to every bus they saw and asked if that bus was going to our destination; after a few minutes of this, they found the bus we wanted.

“Is there no way to know in advance which bus is the right one?” I asked as we clambered aboard. After all, these researchers had been to this village dozens of times.

“Why would you need to know that?” one of the researchers replied. “It’s simple enough – just ask when you get to the station.”

Fair enough. We got to our destination after all. And I realized that my foreignness was not to blame for my inability to find my way; even the locals didn’t really know – in advance anyway – how exactly they would get to where they were going. They were just better at asking questions.

Okay, so maybe the bus system was a bit chaotic. But driving with friends would be a more familiar experience, right? So I thought when I joined some buddies for a road trip to Nasik, home of Sula Vineyards, which was hosting a one-night music festival. Now, if I were back in the States, we’d print out directions from Google Maps before we went (that is, if no one had a GPS). But, in Pune, no one else seemed concerned about getting directions, and we piled into the car with only a vague sense of where we were going.

Not to worry. At each decision point, we’d just roll down the window and yell – to someone standing on the side of the road, or to a fellow motorist – “Nasik rasta?” (Meaning – “Is this the road to Nasik?”) And four hours later, we made it to our destination without incident.

Incomplete Bridge over the Ganges

Perhaps this strategy works because of India’s high population density; after all, there’s always someone there to ask for directions. Anyway, given the constant construction in Indian cities (and – to a lesser extent – the countryside), routes don’t stay the same for long.

Certainly that strange, stereotypically male opposition to asking for directions has not entered the Indian consciousness. Need to get somewhere in India? Ask early, ask often, and you’ll find your way.

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One response to “Navigating the mean streets of India

  1. Pingback: A Week in Delhi: Day 1 | Off the Tourist Track

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