Delhi Transport

M and I returned from India Sunday night and I’m still processing. I made the stupid decision to work the next day and it’s currently 25F and snowing here in Berlin — my brain has not caught up. India was the first developing country I have been to and it was an education. The trip was a great adventure.

We arrived into Delhi and got a cab to the guesthouse. This was our first shock. The airport was 8km from the guesthouse and it took us an hour and 15 minutes to get there. We quickly discovered that besides driving on the left side of the road like most former colonies, there are no lanes. All manner of vehicle and animal can be found on the roads and highways. Cars, jeeps, auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, horse-drawn carts and free roaming cows along with people walking, sleeping, selling (anything) and cooking along the side of the road. And honking. Constant honking. The honking is a form of communication: I’m passing, I’m going that way, I’m coming through, move it, over here! It’s a conversation. Even the bicycles ring at you this way. Trucks and tuk-tuks (auto-rickshaws) even have “Please use horn” painted in lovely letters on the back to let them know you are passing them.

Most of the tuk-tuks have two-stroke engines, like lawn mowers, so the air pollution is thick. Many of the motorcycle riders wore scarves over their mouths to combat it. By the second day my eyes were puffy and swollen from the pollution. It is intense. It makes me worry about the collective lungs of Delhi.

After some time and lots of swerving and me having to close my eyes to avoid watching my oncoming death, we got to the guest house. It was mid-afternoon and we found most of the Americans in the wedding group already there. We were the last to arrive. The wedding festivities would start the next day. We needed some duds to wear to the wedding so we walked with a group to the neighborhood mall/market. I use the word “mall” loosely here. It was a 3-5 story tall series of buildings covered every which way with signs and run through with warren like walkways that had little stores tucked like bright closets in each. It was very easy to get disoriented.

Just the walk there was mind-bending. Cows. On the streets. Meandering. And dogs. And copious amounts of animal shit. And rick-shaws. Not tuk-tuks, but bicycle rickshaws with rail-thin, sinewy men straining away at the one-speed bikes pulling anywhere from 1-6 people and their stuff. And cars (honking). And garbage.

After some transactions and haggling at the market we took bicycle rickshaws back to the guesthouse, which, while being extremely weird that you’re paying someone to physically pull you down the road, was also kind of fun and way less scary than being in a car. This created some painful bends in my American brain around class, privilege and work. No matter what, in India I will always be perceived (correctly, in relative terms) as incredibly rich. It is always there, in every interaction, a mechanism for distancing and something that has to be negotiated. What does it mean to pay a human being the equivalent of 45 cents to pull my plump ass somewhere? Am I employing him and feeding his family? Taking advantage of a completely fucked system? Both? I felt these bends a lot while being there.

The second day of wedding festivities, M and I took the Delhi Metro train into Old Delhi to walk around and check out the Red Fort for the afternoon. The train is a modern marvel, rivaling any system I have used in Europe. They have built it over the last ten years and it moves a ton of people. It’s fairly easy to use and, for India, very clean. Much of the system is elevated and soars over parts of Dehli with stations every half mile or so. You can get a good view of the neighborhoods through the crazy smog. In Old Delhi it is buried quite deep beneath the old neighborhoods. There are women-only cars for women traveling alone, but since I was with M, we got on a mixed-sex car. There were a few families there but it was 98% men. We got The Look, but more on that in another post.

We emerged from the depths of this amazing modern train system into something out of a sci-fi novel with medieval premise. Chaos: beggars, people selling crap from the ground, Hannah Montana, Krishna, people everywhere up in your business, children, dogs, dogs, cows, motorcycles, huge soaring temples, more people, oh my god so many people, food, books, marigolds, cars, honking, hollering, garbage, so many people, whoa – another white person! It took us what felt like a half hour to go about six blocks to get to the Red Fort. By the time we were done we ended up getting a rickshaw back to the train station because India Stomach had set in and I couldn’t bear the crush. So goes transport in Delhi.