Monday, April 25, 2005

An Indian Warning

April 14
In the cab to the airport to go to India, Erika told me what I should expect. She’d spent three months there before coming to Thailand. “Delhi is dirty, it’s hot, there’s traffic everywhere, the air is just grey and thick with smoke.”

“Sounds like Bangkok,” I said.

“Oh no,” Erika explained. “Compared to Delhi, Bangkok seems like Paris.”

Lodging would be a problem. “Everything’s just…dirty,” she said. “Bedbugs, mosquitoes, pretty much all the places are just dirty.”

Eating would be a problem. “Oh yeah, you have to be very careful. You can’t eat anything off the street.”

Crime would be a problem. “I don’t use my Ipod in public,” Erika said.

Travel would be a problem. “Trains just stop. I was on a train going south and then it just stopped. We all got off and then the next day another train came and took us the rest of the way,” Erika said. “When trains are 10 or 12 hours late no one is surprised or upset. ‘That’s just India.’”

Heat would be a problem. “Right now it’s about 40 degrees,” she said. When they say it’s 40 on 1010WINS, that means it’s a cool April morning. Forty degrees centigrade will fry an egg on the Delhi streets, but you shouldn’t eat eggs off the street here anyway.

“So why would anyone want to go to India?” I asked just before we boarded the plane and just after she had described the gut wrenching poverty and migraine inducing touts.

“It’s just so…alive.”

Even before the plane lands you get a sense you’re going somewhere magical or horrid or (since the plane hasn’t landed yet maybe it’s best to avoid value judgments and just say,) different. As we approached Delhi I looked out the window and onto the various neighborhoods that make up the city of 13 million. I’ve looked out a lot of plane windows onto a lot of cities but never at the moment I gazed down onto the streets have I seen an entire corner of a city lose power and become a black triangle of darkness. I’d come to learn it was a fairly regular occurrence.

Flight attendants around the world are known to announce the current time when a plane touches down after crossing time zones. But nowhere else do they do it quite like this. Watches set to Bangkok time must be changed from 10:20pm to 8:50pm…India’s clocks are set a half hour apart from everyone else’s.

Outside Delhi International Airport the taxi drivers were waiting. They offered their service spiritedly but not intimidatingly. It was less of a madhouse than I expected, though certainly a mad house. (In a strange way I came to compare Delhi to Byron Bay, Australia, that beach paradise that couldn’t live up to the endless stream of great things I heard about it. When you expect something overwhelming, you’re never overwhelmed; nothing could be as hot or insane as the Delhi of description.)

I did what you’re supposed to do and bought a pre-paid taxi. I was going to Noida, a Delhi suburb. My friend from home, Akshay, still has family in India and they were graciously putting me up.

The taxi driver invited me up into the front seat for the hour-long ride. Traffic in India is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s congested but there aren’t awful traffic jams because of their unique system of driving. There are no lanes. The road could be the width of a four-lane lane highway but there are none of those broken white lines you’ve probably seen, umm, everywhere else in the world. So the big belching trucks, the chugging auto-rickshaws, the sputtering cars, and the cruising bikes (both motorized and peddled) all weave through each other in their own improvised dance. To pass, you honk your horn until the cars in front of you split enough for you to fit through. Honking is actually encouraged here, all big trucks have a large, artistic, English message scrawled on the back: “PLEASE HONK.” If your horn isn’t working I suppose you can just tap on the neighboring car, after all we are in arm’s reach of another vehicle for virtually the entire hour-long trip.

Have I mentioned there’s various cattle just walking along the side of the road?

I remember back to the entry I wrote a couple weeks ago talking tough about Thailand and being “inoculated by the motorbike taxis” etc etc. Certainly things here are more extreme, but I’ll stick to what I said: An inoculation gives you a little bit of a disease to protect you from becoming ill from a large portion of it and that’s exactly what Thailand (and the other countries I’ve visited) have done. If India was my first stop I would surely still survive but I doubt I would take it all very well.

The combination of three month’s travel experience and a string of Indian warnings seem to have dulled the impact of this amazing, challenging place. I also wonder if I’m bottling the apprehension/fear/concern/awe I might otherwise feel as a defense mechanism against freaking out.

So after a while we reach Sector 37 of Noida and it’s the right house and the Singhs are impossibly friendly. Shilpi, Akshay’s second cousin, makes me a grilled cheese sandwich and asks about my trip. Her little boys (two and five I’d guess) have been waiting up to see me. My room has a comfy bed and a fan. The lack of A/C isn’t a problem because it’s quite pleasant. In the morning I’ll go with Manu, Shilpi’s husband, into Delhi.


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