I had butterflies in my stomach as I waited to board the plane from Paris to Delhi. Unlike other adventures, this trip was especially exciting – India is the country that I’ve been waiting to explore!
As I boarded Air India, the scent of curry and cardamom filled the air. Passengers connecting from New York through Paris had just eaten. Women were dressed in traditional, colorful, silky garb. By the end of the flight, most of the toilets were flooded and newspapers and peanut packages lined the aisle ways, but aside from that, the flight was successful.
I collected my luggage and headed for the taxi stand. A short dark-skinned Indian man in his 20s, half-wet from the generous monsoon rain ushered me towards a taxi. He was apologetic for his appearance and mumbled under his breath, “too much water on the road.” I was about to find out exactly how much water Delhi had in store for me during its monsoon season.
I hastily followed the wet driver’s quick steps out of the airport onto slowly dribbling rain, past the first and indifferent cow, past a piece of shit of undetermined origin (later I learned to tell various kinds), past the huge puddles. The car was an old minivan with five to six layers of rubber sheets under our feet (I guess to protect me from the sea of water I was about to swim in). After I cautiously navigated out of the airport parking lot, the drive from hell started..
Everything around me was wet and grey. We drove by hundreds of cars, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, motorcycles. Many vehicles were stalled, blocking the traffic. People walked their stalled (because the sudden downpours flooded the streets) motorcycles and small auto rickshaws under the rain.
Other than sheer chaos, the rules of the road were impossible to determine – cars, bikes and an occasional pedestrian – all moved in every possible direction simultaneously. Some intersections we miraculously negotiated looked as if an invisible hand had tossed cars at random as desperate gambling dice. Drivers yelled at each other and a hand signal of any sort was a rare luxury. Cars were driven half on the curb, half on the road.
In broken English my driver explained the obvious, “The traffic is very bad today.” After he exhausted his limited English vocabulary, he switched on an Indian tune, and blasted it while holding the wheel with one hand, the other retrieving a pack of wet cigarettes from somewhere deep under his seat. The deafening tune coming from the radio was strangely befitting the madness of the ride; it kept the driver in sync with the demands of the road. Often he joined in, checking my pale face in his rear mirror. He wanted his singing to reassure me.
Encouraged by the rhythmical beat of Indian drums, the driver squeezed into impossible small gaps, at full speed, constantly honking. On the dashboard, he had a small figurine of Siva, the Destroyer. He was nodding in blessing of this kamikaze stint. I mused clutching the rickety handle in my right, sweaty hand, that it may have been better to appeal to Vishnu, the Preserver, but perhaps Siva had special skills needed to survive this drive. Just when I was beginning to relax, he decided we should take a different route. How? Simple. Turn sharply around, continue at full speed against oncoming traffic, honking crazily, encouraging thousands of honks in response. I wished I knew a few Hindu prayers. What was it that Mahatma Gandhi uttered when he was stabbed to death? Ram, ram, ram, ram.
As the one and a half hour drive (only 30 kilometers) continued, I began to realize that in this mess of cars, people and huge puddles, honking is the only organizing factor.
“Honk, honk-hoooooonk, honk-honk! Watch out, I am intending to go non-stop where I am going! I am not going to stop just to save your life!”
“Honk-honnnnnk, Honk-Hon! I see, you are on my tail, going non-stop where you are going. Aye, why do you rush so much?”
Honkkkkkk-honk-honk-honk-hooooonk! I am trying to kill myself and this stupid foreigner.”
“Honk-Honk. You must do what you must do.”
And so it goes, non-stop, the music of Indian roads. We make a sharp left turn and with a brave acceleration, speed towards a very (and I mean VERY) narrow street of Maja-ka-Tilla (a small Tibetan quarter in Delhi). I am convinced we are going to kill a few people but no, despite our speed and incessant honking, a few pedestrians (many of them red robed monks) respond with a surprising sense of calm and trust. Trust in the driver? Trust in the inevitable? Divine intervention? Our mini-van barely misses; sometimes it actually brushes against their torsos. Only later do I learn that personal space is highly negligible in India: especially on the streets. Cars, cows, donkeys, motorcycles and people, all rub each other as they negotiate crowded streets and small spaces. Amazing, there are few accidents.
Finally we stopped, drowsy, spaced out, and happy to be alive, sensing the closeness of food and bed. From my guest house window, we could see, in the grey mist outside, the muddy waters of Yamuna River. A few huts huddled together, a group of women and children washed clothes and made fires. I am glad I am dry here, in this guest house….alive.