Welcome to India

We arrived in New Delhi via London, where we had a jolly good day of tourist attractions. We navigated through the mob of people waiting for the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, to Westminster Abbey where Big Ben greeted us with his triumphant chiming, and then to a pub around the block for a pint and fish and chips, because what could be more of a Londony meal than that?

With only fourteen hours before our connecting flight, we decided on the classic red bus tour and a river boat cruise, which took us from Picadilly Circus to Leicester Square, the London Eye to London Bridge, and Canary Wharf to Greenwich. Both of these vehicles were great, not only for a sweeping glance at the classic city, but for catching a few z’s after our long, restless flight.

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As fun of a day as it was, London felt somewhat close, as if we were still in Anybigcity, USA. We could easily communicate with local people, the food was recognizable (even though we still don’t understand the combination of ice cream, waffles, and hot dogs at many of the food stands) and we were in touristy areas that, like Times Square or the Magnificent Mile, are catered to the comfort of guests.

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But this sense of familiarity was short-lived. When we  arrived in New Delhi,  we were quickly and dramatically introduced to an interesting counterperspective on our “Western” accepted ways of living, specifically: driving.

Like true Lonely Planet scholars, we picked up a pre-paid taxi at the official airport stand, avoiding the many hawkers trying to reel us in. Our driver not only welcomed us to this new part of the world, the first step in our world traveling adventures, but also to an entirely new and daredevil philosophy about driving that seems to be vigorously upheld by all.

We heard the stories of treacherous street crossings, cacophonous symphonies of car horns, and animals switching lanes long before we landed here, but nothing could have prepared us for our first ride. And by the time we arrived at our final destination, we gleaned a bit about…

New Delhi’s Rules of the Road

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Rule #1: Your vehicle is what you make it. 

Our taxi, like most, was a small black and yellow van, rickety, rusty, and shaky. However, this did not seem to concern our driver, Dyanade (Dya for short), who put the pedal to the floor and whipped and weaved this old jalopy like a rag doll. He drove fast in between lanes and where people were walking, slammed hard on the brakes centimeters from other cars, threaded between adjacent vehicles. He even took the car off-road, on the dirt next to the shoulder, to avoid gridlock. Dya pulled off maneuvers that would make a Hollywood stuntman nervous, but what made the scene truly thrilling(or terrifying, depending on your perspective) was that this is how everyone was driving.

Rule #2: There are no rules.

Maybe this should be rule #1, because rules and laws seem to be, at most, loose suggestions about safe and effective driving. When you have an open road, shouldn’t you take advantage of it by driving in multiple lanes at once? And isn’t it easier to pass between and drive around other cars than stay in your lane while in traffic? Dya used the road as his playground, rather than an ordered and organized path to our destination.

Autorickshaws. The scooter-car alternatives to taxis that give you a closer, more intimate feel of the city.

Autorickshaws. The scooter-car alternatives to taxis that give you a closer, more intimate feel of the city.

Rule #3: Service with a smile?

Dya wanted us to feel welcome. He  introduced himself, asked us where we’re from, and what we’re doing in India, all while respectfully maintaining eye contact with us, turning to the road only to honk at the next oncoming pedestrian. We avoided minor annoyances like red lights and stop signs, not just by driving through them, but acknowledging their presence, turning left into the oncoming lane, making a u-turn, and turning again as if it were our green light. And as a light turned red in a massively busy intersection, and at least five lanes of traffic screeched to a halt beside us, Dya casually turned around and said, “welcome to India”.

Street view from our hotel, the Godwin Deluxe in the Paharganj neighborhood

Street view from our hotel, the Godwin Deluxe in the Paharganj neighborhood

Rule #4: Please Honk.

Painted boldly on the back of trucks is the announcement “please honk”. Already we had observed that driving in India seems to require three hands: one for the wheel, one for the gear shift, and one for the horn, all operating simultaneously and with the same importance. As we continued down the bustling streets of Delhi, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells, it occurred to us that this statement serves as one of the only measures to ensure order, or at least cooperation. When a stop sign has as much importance as a billboard, and pedestrians seem to be living “Frogger”, using your horn identifies yourself as another driver, as something to watch out for, because otherwise, there is  too much else to worry about.

So, whatever road we take, and however safe our travel from A to B is, our adventure has certainly begun!

Written by Dan

Written by Dan

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11 thoughts on “Welcome to India

  1. Dan,

    Not sure if you remember me, we met briefly in NY, I was in the same AJWS Volunteer summer as you, only I was in India. This is EXACTLY what its like in the Southern part of the country as well. I remember being in the front seat of a rickshaw and having the driver turn to me and tell me to drive, as well as leaving the car (if you could call it that) and us, in the middle of the road while he got out and got a drink (non alcoholic of course). Also, in a separate incident, I was hit by a motorcycle. I was ok, hurt my knee a little, but other than that I lucked out.

    That was fun to read, as I miss that place dearly. Have fun dude, and good luck in your travels! If you can get there, try to go to Mamalapuram, and Kodaikanal in the Western Ghats (both in the state of Tamil Nadu) these are amazing places, and Kodaikanal is maybe the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Get there if you can!

    Again man, best of luck, have fun and stay safe!

    -Steve

    • Hey Steve,

      Yep, of course I remember you! Didn’t we have lunch together with Mike B. on that first day of the AJWS project at some deli in NYC? I’m not sure how you feel that experience has impacted you, but references to my summer seem to pop up frequently since I’ve been. I almost can’t believe it was at least 5 years ago.

      Not sure if it is encouraging or not to know that the traffic is the same around the country, but we’re excited for the adventure. I haven’t gotten hurt by any vehicles, yet, but a couple of bikes and autorickshaws have definitely bumped into me, probably just saying “excuse me”.

      We will definitely make it to Tamil Nadu, as we eventually will end up in Chennai and Pondicherry, but we will check out the places you recommended as well. Is that where you were for AJWS?

      Thanks for reading and great to hear from you again! Keep in touch.

  2. that was a great description of the traffic rules in Delhi (Or should i say India… as this is the same everywhere ;)) India is full of adventures and hope u njoyed ur stay here 🙂

    Goodluck.

    • Thank you for reading! We are looking forward to our journey here in India, which has already been exciting even after just a few days in Delhi. Which other adventures should we pursue while we are here?

      • Ur welcome 🙂
        You can visit numerous places in Delhi itself. I love the food in Delhi (especially Street Food… m a big FOODIE 😉 ) Hope u like it too!!

        If u have a few more days u can visit Rajasthan. Jaipur in Rajasthan is called the city of palaces, guess u would like it… Indian palaces n all. N its just a 4 hour distance from Delhi. U know every place in India, is famous for some or the other thing.

        Have a nice journey 🙂 Njoy.

      • Also visit Delhi Haat. A place where you get Indian arts n crafts. Good for Shopping. A must see 🙂
        And I say it again…. the food is also good 😛

  3. Thanks for your first blog. We’re glad that you were able to have such a full visit to London. Your writing style is even better than it was from Ghana, which was superior even then.

    We’re all headed to Kulanu today. Will miss you there. Love. Peepa & Ggs.

    Gershon Berkson

  4. You made it! I loved New Delhi- have been there 7 times. What I found myself doing every visit was to stroll down thru the Tibetan Market, find peace and quiet in the Jantar Mantar Observatory, visit the giant lotus shaped Bahai temple in bare feet, leave offerings of sweets at the Laxmi Temple, watch cobra snakes in front of the Red Fort and have a picnic at Humayun’s Tombs- but way back in those days, ancient times, before cellphones and wifi (practically the stone age), you had to watch out for the Monkey’s, which would steal your food.
    I will be thinking of you, have a safe trip and…the driving gets even more berserk (I know you can’t imagine this could be possible) as you travel out of New Delhi on those smaller roads leading into the foothills of the Himalayas. My prayers are with you. God’s blessings. Margaret

  5. Pingback: Kidnapped in Vieques? | Gone Quixote

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