There are lanes, just like highways around the world. A lane here is large enough for a bus or truck, one and a half cars, and almost two tuktuks. A tuktuk (pronounced like the word two with a hard k on the end) is a small and cheap taxi.
I talk about fractions of vehicles because that's how it works. People ignore the lane markings. There is no right-of-way. If you want to make a right turn, (which is like our left turns, since they drive on the left here, ) you turn. If you want to move into the next lane, or do a u-turn, or stop for whatever reason, you do it. And as well as the vehicles I mentioned above, there are bicycles, motorcycles, cows, carts pulled by bicycles, or by men on foot, or by horses or donkeys. In rural areas, there are camels and elephants. Everyone shares the road, and everyone is in a hurry.
That first ride was scary. On the highway, people regularly drove the wrong direction on the shoulder and even in the outer lane. If there was a space between two vehicles in front of you, a space just barely big enough to fit your headlamp into, you moved into it. Everyone weaves in and out and around everyone else, often with only an inch or two apart. There are hundreds of near collisions everywhere you look. And the key to all of this is use of the horn.
At first I thought that the cacophony was simply people stuck in traffic, and honking to relieve their frustration. But I quickly discovered there is a complex language of honks, one that was surprisingly easy to learn. Some people do honk simply to let people know they are in the way or are moving too slow. Most often, though, people honk to let others know they are there. Sometimes they are saying, "I'm coming through, so you better get out of my way," but often it is a warning to let another vehicle know that there is someone else there, who will either pass, or weave, or stop. The honk is a warning not to swerve, or move ahead into a space that seems empty but will be taken up by another vehicle. There is total chaos on the roads, but as long as everyone is alert, and has a sure hand on the wheel and a ready foot on the brake, it works. But it is often terrifying.
Motorcyclists don't always wear helmets. Whole families, three or even four people, ride on one motorcycle. Tuktuks have a bench seat that fits two people, but more cram in, sometimes hanging halfway out of the vehicle. Riding in a tuktuk is like a roller coaster inside of a carnival House of Horrors, set in an obstacle course. It is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
The introduction to traffic was the first discovery that India is crowded. There are over a billion people here, and 65% are under the age of 30. The guide who told me this spoke with pride. "This," he said, "is the reason the twenty-first century belongs to India and not to China."
I'll have much more to tell you about the tremendous resource its people are for India, and, no doubt, about crowds, too.