Getting directions in India

Asking directions and finding your way through India is an adventure in itself. Signs are rare, and often in Hindi or another local language. Fortunately, outside of cities, roads and intersections are few, so choices of which road to take are few. Most roads run straight from town to town or city without intervening intersections. So once headed off in the right direction, you will remain so until the next town.

In the rural areas

Roads will pass straight through most towns which are simply a row of buildings and shops lining each side of the highway. In towns with intersections, invariably there is one center crossroads with lots of people hanging around. Ask a group or individual the way to go by saying the name of the next major town or city, "Delhi road?" or "Bansi road?". Do not point while asking, as this may confuse your answer. Let him wave (Women on the side of the road will not talk to you in the country). If you offer a direction, he may simply confirm it, relieved that he doesn't have to reveal his ignorance of what you're talking about, or simply glad to give you pleasure by reassuring you about your correctness, when you are really headed completely wrongly! Watch carefully, as subtleties in the wave convey significant directions. The palm, if vertical, may reveal a turn or need to bear one way or another. a slight waving of the palm may mean distance or a turn. With time, you will become as expert as a local in interpretation. When asking, be respectful as the style of dealing with strangers is much more polite than in the west. It is in keeping with local custom to preface your request with a "kind sir, could you assist me?", although simply stating your destination will often get an answer. Double check the directions you receive. Go a little bit further, and ask again. Use the majority opinion. If you are considering alternate destinations, you will have to receive directions on each individually from different people. I found invariably, that once I had asked an individual or group about one destination, and then inquired about a second from the same source, all I received was confusion. In their minds, I was going to point A; Why was I asking about point B?; Point B is not on the way to point A! So I would move on to someone else to get alternative directions. In India, all roads that are passable are considered by the locals "Good roads". Even the steepest, rockiest, ruttiest, washed out, barely negotiable road with washed out bridges is considered "good". In all my travels, I have yet been able to get a reliable assessment of road quality. I have been absolutely reassured of the super extra-ordinary quality of a road, and still been sent for long distances on anything from a 4 lane highway resurfaced last week to a goat trail. "Bad road" can mean Poor accommodations, lack of good tea shops, reputation, unlucky, criminal activity, bandits, anything but the surface quality.

When you ask directions, you may be told to turn left and be sent on the 35 km 'direct' road which is in horrible shape. But, if you proceeded 5 km further, you could then turn left on the new excellent 38 km road which runs parallel and replaces the older 'direct' road. The locals consider directness more important than quality or speed. Here is where recent maps can be your only friend. When multiple routes exist, ask for the way to an interim destination along your preferred route. For example, when traveling from Jaipur to Delhi, ask for Alwar or ______ for different routes.

Almost always you will receive only a one step direction. A left, right, or straight, with no landmarks or distance. In the country I craved, but never received directions like "well, you go for 5 km down this road to the left, and at the large Kali temple with a tree in front of it, turn right and go another 15 kms. Then at the Avahd lodge, bear right"

If after asking the way to a place you only receive shakes of the heads, try another name. The map may not agree with the locals, or they might have never been further than the next town. Or you might try asking again speaking very fast, 'Indian english' style. Slow pronunciation rarely helps. Several times I would ask, and receive blanks. Then Kathleen would say the same question, and get correct answers! Try different questioners. Another persons' inflection may succeed where yours fails.

If you take out a map to assist in receiving directions, you will discover that map reading is an acquired skill, not possessed by most Indians. This is changing, as in 1992 more people I encountered were able to read maps than in 1987. But most of the time the map will be pored over, turned all around, the back scrutinized for clues, heads scratched, printed words pored over, muttered consultations, finished with it handed back with a humble "sorry".

Questions about distance will receive all kind of useless answers. Often you will get "20 minutes" or some other length of time. But by what means? Fast car? Bullock cart? Walking? I have never found the times that I have been given to have any relation to the time it took me to get there. Or you may hear "not far". This is slightly more useful, meaning less than "far". Even answers given with specifics like "500 meters" have rarely proved accurate. You may be able to find a child 'guide' who is willing to ride with you for a few rupees to show you the way. Even if you are packed to the gills, he's small and willing to clamber on somehow. A compass will be useful as a 'sanity check'. Keep in mind that some roads twist, and at a crossroads may head in seeming the wrong direction but will eventually turn.

Along National highways and some state highways will be Kilometer markers. They look like Tombstones, with the road number written on a colored background at top, and the name of a city up ahead with a number indicating how many kilometers ahead. Sometimes several cities will be listed, or sequential markers will post different cities. These will reassure you, especially after a particularly confusing intersection. Most are in Hindi, so it is useful to recognize the appearance of the name of your destination in Hindi, or at least the first and last letter. At intersections, the rare direction sign will inevitably be in Hindi.

In cities

Roads are crowded, narrow, and unmarked. Sometimes store signs may have an address in english posted, naming the town and if you are fortunate, the street name. When first arriving in a new city, the best method is to choose ahead of arrival a major landmark which appears on your 'center of town' detail map. An excellent choice is the 'GPO' or General Post Office. Everyone will know where it is. Use your techniques for asking honed in the countryside, yelling 'GPO' and receiving extended arm pointing in response. This is the normal, Indian way. You will see Indian motorists unfamiliar with the area do the same. Once there, you can orientate yourself, and find your true destination. Otherwise, finding the center of the city can be extremely frustrating, with sprawling outskirts resembling a maze of 'twisty, tiny passages, all alike'. The guidebooks and maps rarely include these sections. All of this is aggravated by arriving at dusk or later. If at all possible, avoid arriving in a new city later than 2 hours before dusk. It will take at least that long to locate downtown, and view possible hotels while there is still light. It can be very draining to roam seemingly aimlessly in circles around a strange city along noisy, crowded, busy streets. It is possible to hire an autorickshaw to lead you, or pick up a local 'guide'.