THE BLOG
03/10/2011 07:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

'Tiger in Your Tank': On the Road in India

"Driving is a comfortable and leisurely way to travel between cities in India. It gives you the opportunity to do the trip at your own pace."-- From a current guidebook

The highway out of Delhi looks like it has a rash. What is this stuff? It's smashed-up watermelons from a truck.

I realize I am going to die here, along with all this fruit, when I notice that my driver hasn't slowed. Ahead on the left is the wreck of the melon truck. I can see the Indian make, TATA, on its colorful bumper and the instruction, "Please Blow Horn." Too late for that.

To our right is a steamroller rolling the wrong way. Straight in front we are about to demolish three old men on a bicycle, a cart being tugged by a camel, a homemade tractor, and--I can watch their flicking tails up close--a herd of calico goats.

There is no explosion. No pain. Just a puff of orange dust. My first view of the afterlife is a sign for a brand new tourist hotel. ON YOUR WAY TO JAIPUR, it suggests, VISIT THE JUNGLE BABBLER RESORT.

Besides the Jungle Babbler, heaven includes India's National Highway Number 8, my guide Kumar Nirala and our driver, Manuel. Or maybe, by some miracle, we have slalomed safely through all these vehicles and animals and are still alive.

Manual, a South Indian with a Spanish name, reaches for the rearview mirror and jangles a little decorative bell. "What's that for?" I ask, wiping my brow. "He is saying thanks," replies Kumar. "In India, a good driver depend on three things. Good horn. Good brake. And good luck."

I have come here not to bounce in the backseat of an "Indigo" sub-compact sedan. The idea was to visit once-in-a-lifetime sights like the Taj Mahal and pink stone city of Jaipur. I am on my way, but National Highway Number 8 has its own ideas about the pace of my trip. It's supposed to be a major turnpike but we whiz past vendors hawking fruit, ice cream, and manually-squeezed juice.

The Indigo does not break stride. The houses we pass are the color of candy cigarettes. Pinks, bleached whites, brick reds. A Hindu temple looks like it's on fire, but I realize what I'm watching are waves of pure heat rising from the tiled roof.

Soon we have to dodge around earthquake-deep cracks in the asphalt. Now there are alpine ravines and volcano holes. I am happy to see a work crew filling these up. One man is doing the detail work, pouring tar from a porcelain teapot.

There is a screech of brakes. A thundercloud of dust. The Indigo has swerved away from something. I swivel my head to see a turbaned man waving his fists.

Manuel taps his bell.

"It is this man's fault," explains Kumar. "Pedestrian is supposed to walk slowly. If they run, you allowed to hit them." "That can't be true," I say. "Oh yes, oh yes," replies Kumar.

I learn some other Rules of the Indian Road: * Right of Way: If you can get your bike or goat in front of someone else's, you've got right of way. * Staying in Lane: Don't bother, no one else does. * Using the Horn: Rather than thinking it's rude, other drivers urge you to blow it. * Passing: Go for it. Like the British, Indians drive on the left. But you're expected to pass on both sides and use shoulders and medians.

Arriving in Jaipur, I can see it is as pink a city as the guidebooks say. Its boulevards are designed for easy traffic flow except for two things: temples that are strategically placed smack in the center of the road, and mammoth trees that have grown through the asphalt, blocking the lanes.

When I ask Kumar about these he seems surprised. "These trees, these temples," he explains, "are very old. They cannot be chopped down." In truth, I am glad to hear it. We circle around more of them until, near the famous Amber Fort, we switch to elephant for our ride to the ramparts up above.

There are only fifty elephants available, which seems more than enough to me. But Kumar is relieved that they are not all rented. He and I share space on a rug spread out along the back of Rani--a very calm elephant with freckled pink ears. Rani's handler, Mohammed Islam, wears a rainbow turban and sits in front.

Unlike the Indigo, Rani doesn't bounce. She sways. Soon I am riding in her rhythm, rolling and slipping, and staring down at dizzying vistas of the lakes below.

Rani, I am told, means "Queen." And marching with her through the gates of the Amber Fort makes me feel like a conqueror. Like a prince or king. I raise my arms. I silently command that all other tourists bow down. But it's the elephant feet of Rani--boom, boom, boom--that do the job.

"Oh, yes. Oh, yes," says Kumar, seeing the path open up before us, watching walkers and bikers scramble to the side.

Still there is something missing. I miss the roar and screech of the Indigo. I miss Manuel. Then I see something silvery sewn onto one of Rani's decorative cloths. When Mohammed Islam isn't looking I reach over.

I am feeling powerful. Feeling mighty.

Feeling lucky.

I tap the bell.


Peter Mandel is a travel journalist and the author of nine books for kids including the new Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).