Almost Fearless

The Indecipherable Language of the Indian Roadway

This post is part of the ongoing Sunday Travel Selection series. Every Sunday, a new travel story is featured. This month’s theme is Lost in Translation. This week, Nico Crisafulli is our selected writer.

Something wonderful happens every day on the streets and byways of India, something somewhat beyond the foreigner’s ability to comprehend but undoubtedly beautiful to witness, in a death-defying sort of way. It happens with an nonchalant recklessness that could only come to pass in a place like India, an unspoken dialog of swerving roadway madness, every turn, every straightaway and blind corner more precarious than the last, all happening like an escalating barroom argument that leaves the newcomer whiteknuckled, panic-stricken and in the end, totally confounded.

This road-vocabulary is undertaken by all the characters on the India playbill, and depending on your level of urban density or rural sparsity they come in the following manners (hereby listed from large to small): the rattling Goods Carriers loaded to the point of tipping over, tanker trucks with “highly inflammable” painted on their flanks, local buses dense with passengers, arms, heads and necks bending out tiny windows or precariously hanging onto the roof racks, taxis endlessly honking and honking, declaring their presence, a near army of dancing tires, tractors with neck-high rubber treads, the brightly turbaned driver at its apex with nonchalant face, bright eyes and brilliantly white mustache, cars loaded down with the middle class hoi polloi, or tourists frantically scribbling in their journals, pickups transporting entire families with their goats and sacks of rice and other indiscernible bundles, tinseled moto-rikshaws crammed with more bodies than your average baseball team, motorbikes with one two three four five men women and children seated tailbone to pelvis, clad in sandals, turbans, scarves, saris, chories, dhoties and bare feet, bicycles clambering across the dotted lines, each made of the heaviest steel, warbling, propelled no doubt by the smallest child in the neighborhood, too small for its one-size-fits-all frame but always taking an active roll in the parlance.

Traveling through the city is spectacular, as drivers pass by bustling streets, world-class architecture, shops, restaurants, and, of course, people. The roads through Mumbai lead visitors to the Mumba Devi temple, the St. Thomas Cathedral, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. They also travel down Marine Drive, all the way to the Arabian Sea, so a view that a first-time driver will not soon forget. The drive takes the vehicle past some of the most historic sites in India. Sites that were built before the invention of cars, but remain standing as a symbol of the city’s perseverance, despite the dangerous driving conditions.

The cart-pushers have one thing in mind only: to get their load of chai pots, water jugs, detergent packets, bike tires, lead pipes, sandalwood and jujube branches, goat feed, hot samosa oil, fruit cornucopias, bricks of exploding dust and flipflops, sugarcane juice extractors, marble slabs, coconuts, jasmine garlands, decorative display cases and other unrecognizable flotsam and jetsam to their homesteads, shops, and hidden storage facilities.

The parts and participles all intertwine as they pass by, this way and that, turning, backing up, leaning on the gas, traveling on the pavement maybe, or on the dirt, on the shoulders and in the middle of the road, flat-footed or rumbling, crisscrossing the others, forming a colorful maypole-like synchronicity before your very eyes, dangerous and unpredictable.

Especially in the towns and villages pedestrians pass through in every order, clothing always billowing out beautifully, colorfully, in the steady breeze, goatherds, shepherds, cattle ranchers, amblers, idlers, conversationalists, gesticulators, best friends, arm in arm, fingers laced through fingers, families sashaying on in, joining the others, seemingly just to cross the street, to get to the other side, where an unseen choreographer shouts, hit your mark people! on your toes! readysetgo! now leap, jump, just in front of that oncoming bus, alongside that speeding bumper. The people are of every age, from 1 to 100, coming together and passing through, narrowly escaping what would otherwise be certain death, or at least dismemberment.

And then on the streets and roads and highways there are the other players – the animals – perhaps the most important speakers of the discourse that passes at every moment of every day all over the country of India. They move with a simple and self-congratulating grace, always flaunting their God-given right to exist with everyone else, with a slowness that you at once adore and abhor, feeling a love for their presence and hatred for their nuisance, but they amble amongst the traffic with all the rest, kicking up dust, shafts of sunlight penetrating, making curious halos around their heads, the animals of multifarious variety: bands of dogs, herds of sheep and goats, here and there a stoutbellied pig, and its piglets, horses, donkeys, camels, elephants, chipmunks and of course, the cows.

The conversation would simply not be complete with the bovine element. It may be the most important part of the Indian thoroughfare fandango. They are the crux, the pivot around which the rest of the dialog spins. The long horned, short horned, curved horned cows, bedecked with bells some, ribbons and scarves some, strings of yellow jasmine, the placid, unaffected, Zen-like carriage the cows bring to the floor, lazy-eyed and lumbering, stately, wise beyond their tiny intelligences, chewing on the digested remains of the shit heaps they were feasting on the day before, that delicious “cudcake” only cows can appreciate, cattle of every conceivable earthtone, they move at the middle of it all, on the city streets, the village bypasses, the lanes and main drags, the intertwining idiom of the most sacred of all the animals on the subcontinent.

There on the highways they all weave together, the bellowing and the banter, the cacophony, avoiding catastrophe as if it were forbidden, gracefully, fluidly, noisily making their way through the dust to their respective destinations. How it happens without carnage and bloodshed every day I have no idea, but so it goes. The lattice of movement owing its success to steel nerves, sheer determination, and an obvious blessing from Shiva above.

About the author

Nico Crisafulli is a writer and avid traveler based in San Francisco where he works as the social media coordinator and blogger for AirTreks. He also operates the arts, music and photography blog 10 Times One. His first trip to India left him bedazzled and awakened, with an inexplicable desire to return to the chaos that is the world’s most colorful country.

Want to write for the Sunday Travel Selection? Read our editorial calendar and submission process here.

Pic: StuckinCustoms

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • Fantastic post! It’s hard to capture in words the true chaos and beauty of India. You’ve done it. You’ve taken me back, so eloquently reminding me of the graceful, rhythmic cadence of daily life on the streets of India. Thank you.

  • You captured it!! I could hear the roads as I read this, and I’m 12 miles away from India right now!

  • This post is so insightful and freaking funny, it calls the manic traffic in Saigon to mind. Renting a motor bike and commuting to work was a meditation in death challenging craziness, but honestly as nuts as it was I saw only 3 wrecks in 6 months

  • That sounds fantastic! I love that so many people and animals can move safely in the seeming chaos.

  • Just wanted to say that when I read the guest authors name I thought hey that sounds familar…and then it hit me Nico helped me with my RTW tickets through Airtreks in 2008. It’s a small world afterall!

    • You found me Stacy! That’s me in the flesh. But I suppose there aren’t too many Nico Crisafulli’s working in international travel these days. Hope your ’08 trip was special. Love to hear about it sometime.

  • Great post Nico! I have always wanted to visit India. Plus I love that you used fandango in a sentence. I was just thinking about that word 2 days ago saying it over and over in my head. Fan-dang-go – I love it!

  • Descriptions of India in my writing have also turned into long lists, grasping at a single moment or fragments of Indian life. There’s a hallucinatory quality to everyday things – like traffic – that can leave you describing only your impressions, one after the other, without trying to make sense of the place.

    I often wonder how growing up in this chaos, with no escape from the noise and crowds, must shape the way people experience the world.

    • Thanks for pointing that out, Iain. I noticed that after writing a few pieces about my experience over there, that they end up as nothing more than lists of what you see, without ever coming together to describe its true nature. I think that’s the curse of the short-term visitor: you get swept up by the sensory attack and not until much later, if at all, do you connect it with the spirit that contains it all.

      I think India deserves the time it takes to get past the shocking nature of its individual parts to really see the essence or soul of what it truly is. Once you do, I’m sure that’s when you discover the real heart of the country.

      Thoughtful comment, thanks.

      • Nico, I’m sorry but I’m going to have bite: What is ‘the real heart’ of India, ‘the essence,’ as you say, ‘of what it truly is’? I’ve spent over a year here, over the course of two trips, and I grow more and more convinced that India is whatever illusion you choose it to be.

  • Wonderful writing! I’m visiting India soon and have read so much about it recently – It sounds like you have captured the chaos brilliantly!

    • Thanks Nicole, I think more and more India, at least for Americans, is coming to the fore, and not just because it’s a super cheap place to travel. Because the myths about how hard it is to travel there are being dispelled and also because it’s a place that can forever change the way you look at the world.

      Have a great trip!