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“Drive here? Are you nuts!” Cars and re-learning to drive in India

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I’m often asked about driving in India… and my response for the longest time was “Drive in India? Are you nuts!?”

My 'new' car in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 1997

My ‘new’ car in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 1997

Like a typical Canadian teenager, I got my driver’s license in high school. However less typically, it was a decade later before I owned a car – a 2nd hand Toyota Corolla which survived more than one blizzard in Winnipeg. I did a great job accumulating Manitoba Driver’s License merit points not because I was a particularly good driver but simply that I drove so rarely it was nearly impossible to be caught speeding or get into an accident! So when I moved back to Delhi in 2003, bought a cheap 2nd hand Maruti 800, I also splurged on a wonderful bonus – HIRED A DRIVER.

A Canadian friend visited us in India and remarked that driving around the world is a bit like a video game – Canada is the super easy, reasonably polite entry-level and India is one of the most challenging. Here you dodge everything from cyclists to beggars, camels to cows (less so now), and during particularly hot summers, high tempers combined with arrogant driving can lead to deadly disasters.

1st brand new car - Fiat Palio

My Fiat Palio, today owned by a friend (Photo: Carissa Hickling)

A consequence of ‘video game’ driving is that there is little point in wasting money on a new car. I learnt that mistake when I moved to Mumbai in 2005 and proudly bought a brand new Fiat Palio – what folly! My poor little Palio quickly gained multiple battle scars, dents, scrapes, sundry damages all from the day-to-day reality of navigating the highways, roads and  narrow lanes of the city.

It should be little surprise then, that for me, the prospect of getting behind the wheel was daunting at best and, frankly, felt slightly suicidal. However, as the years went by, I sheepishly began to realize how dependant I was on my driver. Always being ferried around, while an incredible luxury, meant that I embarrassingly had no clue HOW to get from point A to point B. Delhi I knew from my mid-1990s student days of hopping on and off local DTC busses, however I was completely lost on my own in Mumbai.

Naturally, I became determined to overcome my trepidation. Re-learning to handle a car (right not left side) was easy. My experience doing a figure 8 in a field to obtain an Indian license was hilariously easy. But actually LEARNING to drive in India is decidedly NOT so simple! For a year I pretty much stuck to the small neighbourhood where I lived. Though my Palio was well past her prime, I stubbornly refused to part with her until I mastered (somewhat!) the art driving in Mumbai.

My beloved Chevy (Photo: Carissa Hickling)

My beloved Chevy sedan (Photo: Carissa Hickling)

Today I’m pleased to report I have a lovely 2nd hand Chevy Optra Royale and do not have a driver. My modus operandi is simple – if I know where I’m going and can easily get parking – I’ll drive. If I don’t, I’ll either hop a rickshaw or cab if it’s a quick trip or hire a day driver (INR 650/CND 12.50) if planning multiple activities. Occasionally I also borrow the services of my partner’s driver, however that crippling dependence is banished!

Even better, since moving to Bandra, I’ve taken to walking. This, more than anything else, has made me appreciate anew this crazy, wonderful city where I’ve chosen to live.

It is an experience driving here. I have soooooo many driving adventures (misadventures) to share! Stay tuned… and would love to hear of others’ driving adventures in varied locales too – Share! Share!

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18 Comments

  1. Can’t chip in… have a bit of a phobia when it comes to driving 😦

    • I swear I developed one here! I didn’t drive for 7 years – not once in India! Only time I would get behind the wheel would be for a couple days in Winnipeg, Canada. 🙂

      However not driving has its bonuses and works great in places with a decently functioning public transportation system!

  2. Expat Eye says:

    I don’t driver either! My adventures mainly consist of dodging crazy Latvian drivers – on the path 😉

  3. Karolyn Cooper says:

    I drive in the UK, but I had a driver in China, and a driver in India. I didn’t want to take responsibility for dodging those motorbikes, cyclists and pedestrians. Cows are OK – they seem quite sensible and predictable on Indian roads, less crazy than some of the people on two-wheelers.

  4. Wow, impressive! I don’t think I’ll ever get to this point.

  5. Tushar says:

    Driving is a pleasure in itself but for certain people. These kind will drive even in their sleep, and drive when other people are actually driving, correcting pushing gear pedals when mistakes are perceived. I admit to have learnt in Mumbai, gotten my licence in Connecticut, excelled at parallel parking in Manhattan and coming back to unlearn all that and relearn Mumbai crazydrivin! And guilty of all of the above. Welcome to world of car piloting! And wishing you all the luck in the world! Ho ho ho

    • Driving in Canada is indeed a pleasure! I especially love it when my sis’s partner lends me his sports car to drive in Winnipeg – varrroooom!!

      However driving in Mumbai requires immense patience, skill and even that doesn’t stop idiots from doing… well… idiotic things!

      Merci beaucoup for the luck Tushar – I still keep quite a restricted set of places I’ll drive but at least I’m not quite so dependent as I once was!

  6. […] “Drive here? Are you nuts!” Cars and re-learning to drive in India […]

  7. Pooja says:

    This article made a superb reading, Carissa. Enjoyed every bit. You reminded me of my driving days in Mumbai. But now it’s so much peaceful driving in South Africa. Truly enjoying it!!!

  8. Wow, that is impressive. Kudos to you! I can’t begin to fathom trying to drive in India! Loving your blog, thanks for the like on mine!

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