Friday, February 24, 2012

On the Road to Ooty

To get from Coimbatore in South India up to Ooty, the old hill-station for the Madras Presidency, you climb up a fierce switchback road into the Nilgiri Hills, famous for its tea plantations. The grade is steep, the switchbacks are endless, with some hairpin bends so tight that buses must go into the right lane, in the path of opposing traffic, in order to make the bend. Sometimes there's a truck coming in the opposite direction and it doesn't stop in time to give the bus the full use of both lanes. So everyone toots their horn; someone gets out and directs traffic, and eventually the truck backs up, the bus makes the turn, and the great hustle and bustle of the Indian roads resumes.

And what a bustle it is. There are buses everywhere carrying people from anywhere to everywhere. There are the ubiquitious Indian trucks, three axle jobs, and usually dreadfully underpowered by US standards. But hey, what's the problem, the traffic on the National Highways seldom goes faster than 80 kph. Then there are cars darting in and out: they generally want to pass the slow trucks and buses, but there isn't always room to pass if tuk-tuks and motor-cycles are coming in the opposite direction. No problem, you just toot your horn and expect the motor-cycles to jam over to give you room. In the cities, of course, the motor-cycles form a flood tide of traffic, forever flowing around and in-between the bigger four-wheeled vehicles.

India is on the move; everyone is driving or riding somewhere, and if not they are building something. Construction is ubiquitous and construction materials litter the side of the road.  Advertising appears everywhere; if large diameter pipe is left very long, it soon sports advertising.

Highway construction is ripping swathes through the countryside. Houses are condemned and torn down: sometimes a building only partly intrudes on the right-of-way and is only partly demolished. Culverts and bridges are built right across the existing road and the traffic flows off to the side and around the new concrete structures under construction. When it's all built, each National Highway is a four-lane divided highway, with plenty of at-grade crossings. But it is no longer an upgraded country lane meandering up and down and around, but a real engineered highway with steady grades, embankments and cuttings: that unmistakable mechanical Newtonian look and feel. At the toll plazas one of the many signboards lists the dignitaries exempt from payment.

When we get up to Ooty, after negotiating the hair-pin bends and the trucks and the buses and the cars and the motor-cycles and the vehicles stopped by the side of the road unloading something, we find that the old hill-station is a major tourist destination for Indians. Just the place for a weekend getaway from Bangalore or Mumbai. And when tourist season fades during the monsoon it's time for honeymoons--for yes, Indians like getting married in the rain, as Monsoon Wedding testified a while back.

Our guide tells us that Indians like to have their photos taken with western tourists, and when we go into the Ooty Botanical Gardens we understand what he means. Young Indian men just love to get Marjorie and me into a group photo with them and their pals. Sometimes one of them takes the picture; sometimes the guide does it.

Marjorie spies two twenty-ish girls wearing exactly the same black and white pattern. Are they sisters? No, just friends, and it's time for photos all round again.

This is a glorious time in India. A rising tide is floating all boats, and India is full of its possibilities.

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