Out and about, or not.
As a traveler who enjoys meandering off the beaten path, India has
been a challenge. This is the first country, in my many forays into
the exotic and foreign, where I cannot wander freely or unaccompanied.
Many times when I travel, the warnings come from loved ones at home,
“Please take care’, “Don’t go anywhere alone” “Don’t talk to
strangers” “Don’t wander if you don’t know where you are going”. If
you remove the prohibitive verbage from those warnings, you
essentially have a wanderer’s Perfect Day in a foreign land. Meander
the streets, find the hidden gem of a bookstore, or a restaurant with
locals filling its seats. Wander down the sidelane, see if it leads
out onto a cloistered public square. Talk to every stranger; hear
their story, listen for the heartbeat of their culture. If you walk
slowly, and when you go alone, you can feel it swell around you. If
you’re lucky and you can make a few friends of the strangers you meet,
you can go a step further… be engulfed, embraced even, by a culture
that’s not your own. These experiences are rare, but unforgettable
when you find yourself within them.
In India, however, the warnings come from within. It’s a culture that does not deny its dangers, but rather almost wears them with distinction. “You must be crazy to tour Dehli alone.” “ You absolutely should not be out of the gates past 8 pm by yourself.” “Don’t wander the square, you could get lost.” “Stay inside on the day of the parade, the masses could stampede.” “Public holidays are the worst days to explore, it will be dangerous”. Despite feeling infuriatingly confined, I could not justify disobeying the warnings of the locals. When someone who has never experienced place gives me warnings, I take them with a grain of salt, and use my intuition combined with the locals’ advice to guide my forays in the country. Usually I find the fears at home to be disproportionate to the scenario on the ground. Here, the warnings from home where echoed in the voices of the locals. How could I defy such loud and unanimous calls for caution?
I cannot with good conscience and so I’ve sat, in a 10 by 10 foot room, even on my days off. I cancelled my previously arranged travel plans and paced the halls of the hospital. Slowly, I’ve made friends within its halls, who have taken me to local restaurants and even to a festival. I’ve slowly started to piece together a rough sketch of what this culture looks like, but can’t come close to identifying what it values, or how it attempts to defines itself. It seems that India is a place of extremes. It is an extremely densely populated place with a considerable rift between the “haves” and “have-nots”. The impression of the people I meet, of both classes, are that they are astute, motivated, and determined. It’s a charming, albeit sometimes sinister combination. It is this
combination that drives the intensity with which they attack their studies, their professions and their trades. It’s what fuels the burgeoning development that is defining India in the 21st century. For the have-nots, it is what fuels the feverish begging, the swindling, and the determination to get you, as the foreigner, into their shop, into their auto-rickshaw; the frenzied drive to secure the transfer of
money from your pocket to theirs. The sheer force of the determination exerted to accomplish that goal creates within the foreigner the emotional equivalent of staggering backwards. It is by turns both intimidating and infuriating.
The other day, unable to tolerate the restriction of movement any longer, I decided to run an errand along a route heavily travelled by other visiting residents. Immediately upon exiting the gates, I felt exposed to the elements, and just as quickly, I was pestered by a rickshaw driver to climb in so he could take me to my destination. I had never been out alone, and I felt quite accomplished when I named the store and named my price of 60 Rupees, to which he answered 80. We finally settled on 70, and I climbed in. I had bargained down my first solo rickshaw ride by 10 rupees and had set off in the direction I had been advised. “Look at me,” I thought, “I’m learning to make my way.”
After what seemed like 4km for the 2km it should have been, I asked if he was sure he knew where it was. His head waggled emphatically from side to side, which left me unsure of whether his response was affirmative or negative, only that it was emphatically so-whichever it was. Finally he stopped at the side of the road, and made a large gesture with his hand, indicating that the store I wanted was across the road. I handed over my 70 Rupees, hesitant to leave the safety of the rickshaw into the swarm of traffic without a clear goal in sight. “I’m sorry sir, but I’m not seeing it. Where exactly is the Qmart..?” I asked, with trepidation. With the frustration of man trying to lead the blind, he again pointed across the street as though the store were in plain sight. Just as I moved to get out, not wanting to offend, a man nearby who’d heard our conversation offered the insight that the Qmart was in fact 2 kilometers back. We had passed it, and it was best to turn around. He gave the driver detailed directions and after
thanking the man thoroughly, I expected my driver to get going toward the destination. I found him in another state, however. A look of consternation was just wearing off as I stared at him expectantly. He reflected my expectant gaze, as he waggled his head again, and said “Hmmm 50 rupees, Madam” as he neatly pocketed the 70 rupees I had already handed over to be driven to nowhere in particular. My jaw dropped at his attempt to initiate the haggling process. I tried to reason and argue and accuse him indignantly of his sleight of hand. But the only response I could incite was ”Mmm 50 rupees, Madam. We go to Qmart for 50 Rupees.” Defeated and still rather indignant, I left his rickshaw 70 rupees poorer and not any closer to Qmart.
I stomped my way back up the hill, poking my head into a storefront now and then to make sure I was still headed in the right direction. I met friendly people who were happy to help, many who offered to walk with me for a block or two. Finally I made it to my destination and triumphantly purchased my groceries and made it home safely. I had accomplished an intimidating task on my own and, had made it back to tell the tale. It turned out that life outside the walls of the hospital wasn’t as universally terrifying as I had imagined it to be. With common sense, and in daylight hours, it was even navigable. I felt the walls of fear and uncertainty crumble a little under the weight of my latest experience. Taking heart, I decided to plan a journey for myself again, with the locals’ advice close at hand. In this place of extremes, you are bound to come across those who are determined to have your money more than you are, but you are also bound to come across those who are determined to make you in awe of their beautiful country; who are determined to make you feel safe and comfortable
there. And, if experience is any guide, I am willing to bet that there are more of the latter than the former. And so, with a curious mind and an open heart, I’m off to explore a little piece of India.