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It’s never a good sign when your taxi arrives forty-five minutes late and immediately pops open the hood of the car. Albert (probably the only punctual person in India) was stressed out on our behalf, and extraordinarily apologetic. “India very slow,” he had said over and over again, as he hung up after his umpteen “Where are you?” calls to the taxi driver. “Driver just coming.”
Two or three of the Green Hills hired hands descended from the hotel office, grabbed our luggage and hoisted over to the waiting vehicle. A flurry of rapid Hindi was exchanged amongst all parties. One of the Green Hills staff ran back to the office and returned moments with a two liter soda bottle filled with water, which was promptly emptied into the engine.
Our luggage, meanwhile, was roughly divided between the Indica’s tiny trunk and the luggage rack on top of the vehicle. The driver was still talking at Albert too quickly for me to make anything of it, except for his final cadence, “Bolo,” (tell them) said with a nod in our direction.
“He say car is not working,” Albert relayed, “He will take you down into Rishikesh, and you switch cars there. He has friend, he will take you. No worries, price you still pay same.”
“My sorry,” the driver said gruffly, as he started the engine, “Car, too much problem.”
And such was the chaos that bade us farewell as we departed Laxshman Jhula for Delhi. Chaos that abruptly shattered our month of serenity in the sacred orbit of the Ganges, and amongst the green foothills of the Himalayas. It was chaos foreign to that place: chaos that seemed to me like the unholy chaos preceding the Crucifixion; chaos, perhaps, that had seeped from Delhi up the broken and dirty highways and summoned us back to the unforgiving bustle of the city.
You can tell a lot about a culture by its roads. In Europe, the roads are narrow and windy, snaking their way through medieval villages and modern cities. In America, they are long, wide, and straight, built for high speeds for commercial transport and personal cars.
In India, the roads are very different. First of all, none of them are actually finished. Long stretches of road between Rishikesh and Delhi are simply not there: instead, there are long stretches of dirt with intimidating construction vehicles lurking in the ditches. Whatever roads do exist are used by everyone: cars, trucks, tractors carrying crates full of school children, ox-lead carts with sheaves of grass, auto-rickshaws and bicycle rickshaws, hand carts, monkeys, pedestrians, cows, bicycles.
The road between Rishikesh and Delhi is basically one continuous village, more developed in some places than others. Gradually, banana leaf shops with faded signs featuring Shah Rukh Kahn drinking Pepsi give way to squat brick buildings brightly painted in service of some advertisement interest. These give way to elaborate piles of cow patties, and huts that seem hardly big enough to sit in. Shiny new shopping malls. Then more buildings, more traffic, roadside vegetable markets, a few acres of anonymous agriculture. And then tent cities where the temporary shelters are woven together out of chip bags and sheets of plastic under huge billboards of smiling Indian families enjoying themselves at FUN VALLEY only fifteen kilometers ahead.
Since every inch of road like is occupied by some sort of traffic, driving in India is pretty much one excruciatingly long game of chicken. Speed limits are occasionally in place as a formality, but in fact, the name of the game is “go as quickly as you can until you meet an obstruction, and then speed around it at the first plausible moment.” Miraculously, this seems to work. Through the elaborate ballet of horn blowing, light flashing, and brake screeching, most of the cars seem to stay in one piece, and most of their cargo reaches its destination.
We were deposited on the north end of Main Bazaar, by the movie theater, and the bus stop, and the train station: far away from the little world we had before we left for Rishikesh. Remembering our last bicycle rickshaw with luggage experience, we decided we’d go it on foot. (“It’s really not a matter of cost,” I remarked to Sarah, as we strenuously hauled our luggage past the bewildered rickshaw-wallahs, who had lowered their price to only ten rupees. “It’s matter of wanting to survive.”)
We had some intentions of walking back down to Karlo Kastle, but after fighting our way through twenty five meters of the crowd, we realized that wasn’t particularly realistic. We accepted the offer of a hotel tout to show us a clean, cheap room (which was neither as clean nor as cheap as he said it was) and booked it, despite its flaws. (It came with a free pair of slightly-used boxers on the back of the bathroom door!)
Cities live differently: they have a different pace, different pulse, different breath. In Rishikesh, it took strength and creativity to decide what we were going to do. In Delhi, it takes strength and creativity to not fall passively into the agenda that every other tout, tour agent, and rickshaw driver has for vulnerable tourists.
Coming back to a familiar place adds another interesting dimension to the change of pace. “Remember me?” is half question, half command barked from the Kashmiri mob along our walking path. We haven’t seen Amar yet, but we’ve seen his friend, the peacock fan-wallah, and briefly met another of his shoeshining associates. Maybe we’ll have chai with him later. It was awkward and uncomfortable to tell Amar we didn’t have anything to give him. We don’t want to end up in that situation with someone else.
The crowd at the Grand Sindhi was glad to see us. Darvinder greeted us with all thirty-two of his crooked teeth unfurled in a grin, and the little waiter boy looked at us with his mouth “O”-ed in surprise. We sat, and watched the world go by: unmistakably, it was the same Delhi we left, but somehow, after a month away, it seemed very different.
We are wiser: we’ve reflected on our first Delhi experiences, studied the language, and learned about the culture, and that has made us more confident, given us more control. But it has also made us more wary, given us a sense of purpose and inspired us to structure our time differently.
Our growth, our experiences, our unfolding adventure: these things are all meaningful. But, like the strange and contradictory parade of sights and colors on the road from Delhi to Rishikesh, it takes time to process them all, for all the lessons to sink it.