- Cows take over the road; in fact, on the ride in from the airport, there are cows randomly wandering across the highway. And they’re the only thing traffic actually stops for.
- There are no traffic rules except these: (1) if there’s an empty space, fill it; and (2) the biggest vehicle with the loudest horn gets the right of way. Why be constrained by lane markings on the road – if there’s space for a fourth lane on a 3-lane road, just squeeze in the middle somewhere!
- There are people, everywhere. Of the billion people in India, approximately half of them will be at Delhi airport when you arrive.
- If you stop for so much as a moment, or even slow down too much, you are instantly swarmed by people selling at least four different things and small children looking at you beseechingly while begging for change.
- Everyone expects a tip, however small the action performed. There’s even a guy in the hotel washroom who turns on the water taps for you, and wants a 10-rupee note afterwards.
- You may hear any one of the country’s 22 official languages or 1600 dialects while walking down the street. And everyone thinks they can speak English perfectly even if their accents are completely un-understandable.
- Everyone, but everyone, stares as you walk down the street. If you happen to be a blonde or redheaded woman, multiply the level of attention by a factor of a hundred.
- Public displays of affection between heterosexual couples (the only acknowledged kind of couple) are taboo, but same-sex friends can (and do) walk down the street holding hands or with their arms around each other. Straight men, too.
- At moments of high dramatic tension, everyone breaks into song and dance with wide, beaming smiles on their faces. Wait ... if that happens, you’re not just in India, you’re in a Bollywood movie.
India is stimulation on steroids. It’s a veritable assault on every one of your senses, as the incessant blaring of horns hits your ears, vibrant colours dazzle your eyes, and intoxicating incense and rotting garbage odours mingle to fill your nose. Fiery spices assail your palate, and incessant hands pluck curiously at your hair or clothing, or thrust a bewildering array of goods in front of you for sale for “very good price, madam”.
Delhi wasn’t as overwhelming as I’d expected, but I didn’t see much of it. I arrived after a marathon 14-hour flight (full of screaming toddlers, so I didn’t sleep much) that was late leaving Toronto and even later arriving in Delhi, and after a convoluted taxi ride that took me on a circuitous route around the Karol Bagh neighbourhood and ultimately to the wrong hotel. (Fortunately a kind porter at that hotel walked me to the correct one, just a few blocks away.)
So I had just a couple of hours to spare by the time I arrived at my hotel before meeting up with my travel group; in an effort to be at least semi-coherent later, I opted for a quick nap instead of a walk around the mean streets. We did all go out to dinner together that night, but to a neighbourhood place that meant we didn’t go into the centre of town. And we left the next morning on the early train to Agra (6:30, more or less on time by Indian standards), so I didn’t see anything of the place the next day beyond the chaotic New Delhi train station.
But that’s all right; I didn’t come to India for the huge sprawling cities, and quite frankly they scare the hell out of me for the most part; there’s something wrong with 20-million-plus people all living in the same place. So I’m just as happy to spend little time in them or stay away altogether.
Agra, where I headed after Delhi, is equally chaotic, loud and frantic, but on a smaller scale, and at any rate, it’s not skippable because it’s the home of the Taj Mahal, one of the reasons I came to India (I’ll tell you all about it in a subsequent post). Jaipur, my second stop, is larger than Agra but more attractive with its old walled “Pink City”; traffic is the craziest I have ever seen and livestock of all descriptions wanders the street freely, mingling with the rickshaws and motorbikes and careening taxis. It’s a challenging place to be a pedestrian, but worth a visit to gawp at the spectacular royal palaces and hang out with monkeys at a nearby temple.
I’m now in Pushkar, which is the first place that I’ve actually liked and felt comfortable. Agra and Jaipur were interesting, and I really liked some of the sights, but the cities themselves didn’t appeal to me much (perhaps I just haven’t had enough time here yet to get used to the chaos and confusion of Indian urban life). Pushkar’s a lot quieter and smaller, and has a decidedly hippie vibe overlaid on the sacred-Hindu-city thing it`s got going on. I think I might like it here.
At any rate, I never wake up in the morning and wonder where I am; this could only be India, for good or for ill.