“If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” -St. John of the Cross
Nothing in the world could have prepared me for the majestic, chaotic, crowded, loud, dirty city that is New Delhi. No amount of travel guides, blogs, or listening to other traveler’s account of their experiences in the jewel that is India could have prepared me for the bitch-slap of chaos and stench I received upon stepping out of the brand-new, state of the art metro station and into the streets of New Delhi. The rising sun was covered by a thick cloud cover, a combination of early morning fog and smog from the city, giving the area an industrial 1880′s feel despite the modern automobiles and technology. Hundreds of people flooded the streets, cars honking their horns at other drivers and pedestrians, families lined up on the ground with blankets covering their heads snoring, people peeing in the street, trash covering the ground, people yelling. I took three steps out of the metro station, still laughing at a joke Kowyboy just made, and froze, completely overwhelmed by sight and the overpowering wall of stench: burning trash, body odor, urine, cow shit, car exhaust and dust. My fearless companions, oblivious to the foreign chaos (turns out it was only foreign to me, “this looks like Jersey,” Matt later described), kept moving toward the street still laughing. Moments before, I had just said how I thought I would adjust well and traveling in India wouldn’t phase me-the arrogance! A few gentleman unsmilingly approached us and after a few rounds of broken English and hand signals, directed us to the train station across the courtyard. I silently followed as words (and blood) had temporarily drained from my confused mind, absorbing my new surroundings, unable to make sense of what I was witnessing. Walking through the trash-ridden courtyard filled with stray dogs and hundreds of straight-faced men, I felt extremely vulnerable with a large target on my forehead and a heavy pack on my back. Thankfully, a man directed us to another man who gave us directions on where to buy a train ticket and set us up with a pre-paid taxi to the tourist center a mile down the street. Once inside the taxi, my words began to return to my brain and the fear that occupied my chest cavity dissipated.
The man at the tourist center was gracious, greeting us with tea and good humor, making me feel more at ease. He calmly answered all our questions and got us set up with another pre-paid taxi to Rishikesh as the trains were booked solid for a few days and the idea of staying in New Delhi made me queasy. The world I just witnessed was not in my tour books, was not in the pictures I found on Google, was not in the travel blogs-why had I chosen India?! It all started to make sense-why my parents had been so concerned, why I had tried to prepare as much as I could with vaccinations and “what-not-to-do” tips from other travelers: India is terrifying, electrifying, fascinating, overwhelming, wonderful. It was everything I’d wanted and everything I didn’t, all at once, rolled up into a smelly ball of wonder. My face must have registered all these unspoken thoughts and emotions as Matt kept asking me every few moments if I was alright. I was more than alright-I was electrified, I was enamored, I was taken. This was my ultimate dream-my ultimate “movie moment” right here in the flesh. For the first time in my life, I was speechless-so speechless even in my mind, that I couldn’t analyze, process and articulate anything at all-I was in wonderment, falling down a real-life rabbit hole I couldn’t sleep off or wake up from-it wouldn’t go away. I was here, I was there, I was everywhere I wanted to be.
Once the fear melted away, I was able to more clearly see my new surroundings- the good and the bad. Have you ever seen a movie with a high-speed pursuit in a shiny, brand-new Ferrari, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic, narrowly missing pedestrians and mailboxes? Imagine that but add in stray cows, people sweeping the freeway, rickshaws, people hovering over fires on the side of the street, baboons scaling old crumbling buildings, and you have our ride to Rishikesh in a nutshell (minus the brand-new Ferrari). Never have I seen a street where the lane-dividing lines are regarded as suggestions (or a challenge to fit as many cars/rickshaws/busses in as possible, depending on your competitive outlook), pedestrians walking in the lanes with the cars, small cars honking at buses to get out of the way, auto-rickshaws filled with eight people speeding past, motorcycles carrying five people, men sitting on top of fruit trucks and cows crossing wherever they please. Riding in the backseat of the taxi was like witnessing a full-blown circus act labeled “The Commute to Work” in the middle of morning traffic-a delightful moving show for the foreigners! Music for the circus act provided by the symphony of car horns coming from all directions: The car horn in India is not used only in the isolated incidence that a car is about to violate a traffic law or collide with you, but used in every instance possible: when approaching a car from the side, when passing, when in the intersection, when there is a cow in the way; it tells the other cars where it is in relation to them. You know road conditions are crazy when all the drivers have pushed in their side view mirrors to have that extra six inches of room to squeeze past a bus in the shoulder of the road!
Stopping to pee was an adventure in and of itself: the toilet consisted of porcelain stirrups to step your feet into on either side of a hole slightly filled with dark brown liquid. This actually wasn’t as bad as it first looked, squatting is a natural position to be in for that activity. What wasn’t so great was the toilet paper: a bucket and a faucet next to the porcelain stirrups. Hmm…drip dry or risk wetting everything south of my belly button, pants and shoes included? Considering I hadn’t showered or changed my clothes in three days, either choice was a winner.
To be continued…