Camel carts, scooters and auto rickshaws are common sights on the streets of Gujarat, India.

Through a foreigner’s eye, the traffic system in Gujarat is chaotic.

There in the streets I saw all of Indian life but rarely a traffic light, stop sign or marked car lane.

“Might is right” was the motorist’s creed, and horns were the preferred method of communication. Drivers honk to announce themselves as they turned the corner, merge into traffic or pass a slow vehicle.

For being so informal, the traffic system was surprisingly effective. You would think your driver was about to hit one of the flamboyant, hand-painted goods carriages on the one-car-wide roads, but magically a careful swerve would dissolve your fears.

Riding the roads showed me the bustling economy of Gujarat. Hundred of scooters zipped past new construction, smoking industries or towering buildings. Green-and-yellow auto rickshaws provided a town’s taxi service and crowded curbs when idle, just like the cabs in New York City.

But infrastructure, like the traffic laws, could be further developed. There are bumpy roads and overwhelmed power lines. You still get where you need to go, but the ride just isn’t always comfortable.

On occasion, the lack of rules could cause a massive traffic jam. I experienced one in Surat that was so tangled, we abandoned the car and walked home.

However, there is no traffic light to stop Indian progress.

Enterprising attitude

The Gujarati were some of the most enterprising people I have met. Perhaps it’s because they hail from the state that produced Mahatma Gandhi, who led the nonviolent movement that freed India from British rule.

That entrepreneurial spirit was on every corner in the form of roadside shops. The types of businesses were vast. My favorite operation was the sidewalk barber shop. The setup is simple: a chair, mirror, razor, cream and a customer.

Large food markets could be found in town centers. People specialized in one fruit or vegetable, which they offered to the public in a large, round basket sitting on the ground under an umbrella or standing beside a cart.

In coastal towns, there were women who offered fresh coconut milk served with a straw, after hacking the fruit with a machete.

If an opportunity to make money existed, the Indians found it.

A good example was salt farming in the desert area called the Little Rann of Kutch, 60 kilometers from the Pakistan border. It was a barren wasteland because each year during monsoon season, the area floods with ocean water. The ground was void of vegetation and you could see nothing but cracked earth for miles.

The people who lived here utilized the one resource in the area, salt, and farmed it for industrial use.

 Colorful culture

India has three times the population of America and one-third of the land, so crowded streets were a given.

I found life along the road fascinating. Women were dressed in the most vibrant colors. Never did I see dull attire, instead traditional saris in brilliant hues like blue, green, purple and orange graced even the poorest citizens.

I saw people sleeping on the sides of roads or families camped under plastic tarps near factories. Many times, those people were contracted workers who traveled from the villages to earn wages. Around 70 percent of the India’s population lives in villages, where a two-room hut and kerosene burner are considered luxuries.

Animals were everywhere, especially cows.

Cows are sacred in Hinduism and live a life of freedom in India. They were lounging in the road medians or crossing busy streets. Dogs, also revered, roamed wild as did pigs and goats.

I saw camel carts hauling goods, and ox-drawn carriages transporting agricultural products. A man traveling by elephant would occasionally pass through town, somehow finding a place alongside the countless scooters and rickshaws. Once, I saw a troop of donkeys carrying colorful bags of bricks.

You never knew what would come down the street next.

Amy Wenk

Amy Wenk was editor of Reporter Newspapers in 2021-22.