“The Hotbed of Chaos”

There’s a saying in India that the locals love: “You need three things to drive here: A good horn, good brakes, and good luck!”

For the sake of scale, let’s start with some numbers. In Gujaret alone, there are more than 2 million motorcycles.

Just motorcycles.

And last year, there were more than 2,000 traffic-related deaths.

There, lanes are merely a suggestion. (Assuming, of course, that lanes actually exist…) People cut off each other at will, rickshaws dodge between curb and car, and motorcycles perform unholy feats of balance every second.

Surely, this is what inspired the creation of Tetris.

I’d seen pictures of this kind of traffic, but nothing prepared me for the “suicide attempt” made every time someone crossed the street. It was traumatic. Our tour bus towered several feet above most vehicles and I still braced for impact with every passing motorcycle. And that was just daytime driving! Imagine what the streets turned into at night.

New Delhi, June 2011


So, where are the traffic police? Are there no laws?

Of course there are! People just find ways to go around them. Literally. People  avoid intersections where the cops hang out.

Needless to say, traffic is a problem. Or is it?

Perhaps the role of the traffic police is strictly symbolic. A “PR campaign” of sorts to appease the unenlightened world. I say this because, once the initial shock wore off, a pattern emerged. A sort of beauty in the chaos. Sure, it looked scary on the surface, but it worked. The traffic simply worked.

There was never any road rage. When someone honked, others acknowledged them and moved on. Or they didn’t. Either way, the traffic still flowed. Never did anyone raise a voice or make an offensive gesture.

It just worked. Maybe these guys have something figured out that we don’t.

Holy Cow!

In America, it’s very easy to establish what belongs on the road and what doesn’t.

Generally, the pavement is reserved for motor vehicles with a proper license. Occasionally, there’s a car stalled in one lane, but for the most part, vehicles are fairly standard in the West.

Not so in India.

By my rough estimate, traffic in Ahmedabad is comprised of the following: 30% autorickshaw, 30% motorcycle (scooter, bike), 30 car (van, bus, tractor), 10% other (We’ll get to that in a minute).

As far as cars and trucks go, the following brands seem to be most popular: Hyundai, Suzuki, Toyota, Tata dominate the market, while Chevy and Ford make a sizable dent as well.

The rickshaw, often called the “cockroach of the world,” is a quite interesting thing. It’s a sort of taxi that carries two or three people. Drivers lease their vehicles and, as one of our guides described it, “treat the vehicles as their bride.” They care for it, bless it, and decorate it. Often, the rickshaws can be seen with a personalized ribbon or frill along the edges; or a small collection of chile peppers dangling from the grill for good luck.

Now for that “other” part! At any given time, you will likely share the road with any or all of the: cow, water buffalo, camel, monkey, peacock, random roadblock, cheep, dog, donkey, or duck. Behold:

Animals don’t always follow the rules and- like their mechanical, road-sharing counter-parts- tend to give out after a number of miles. This means that you’re never quite sure when or where your next road block will be.

Oh, and did I mention the pedestrians? There are more than one billion people in India and many don’t have cars. So they walk. See the problem?

Which leads us to vehicle occupancy numbers…

In India, transportation and comfort don’t exactly mix. Americans are used to seeing one or two riders per vehicle. Indians, however, seem to challenge that idea. It’s not unusual to see an entire families of three or more piled onto a single motorcycle.

I’d be impressive if it weren’t so terrifying

The Napping Gods

My lack of knowledge about international religions is embarrassing!

Sure, I can separate the “pro-Jesus” and “NOT pro-Jesus” camps, but that’s about it. Pathetic, I know.

However, organized religion is fascinating and in Mother India, I saw and learned PLENTY about it. One day, we found ourselves in a small Hindu temple where a ritual prayer was about to start and I was beyond giddy with anticipation.

I’d never seen anything like it, and to watch the ceremony in such an intimate place was definitely exciting.

Background: These pryers are usually offered to one god at a time. Hindus believe that their gods are present within the physical statues themselves.

When we walked in, the god was on display and visible. Soon after, the prayer leader closed the curtains in front of the statue and we waited for the ceremony to begin.

Suddenly, a deafening cymbal and drum beat signaled the beginning. Check out the video below for the entire service. It’s amazing.

Like I said, the god is present in the figure itself. So, it gets treated just like a living being. In the morning, the god’s caretaker changes it’s clothes. Then, a breakfast of milk and bread is offered and it gets ready for the day. After lunchtime, it’s time for a nap.

That’s right. The god gets a nap. Score!

Finally, it’s time for dinner. Then, clothes are changed, jewelery removed, and it’s time for bed.

For me, the fact that I was allowed to witness such an awesome event is quite notable. Imagine the spectacle if a Hindu devotee walked into a Christian church to watch a service in America.

Oh, and after the prayer. the leader took a bouquet of flowers from the shrine and gave each of us a single bloom as a sort of blessing. Would he/she be afforded the same kindness here?

Humanitarian optimism says “yes.” History says “no.”

(Further reading: “For God So Loveth Ye That His Servant In Plano, Texas Doth Giveth Ye An Affordable Oil Change”)

Taking in the Taj Mahal

The Indigo Obsession

If Southwest Airlines and The Gap got drunk over Spring Beak, Indigo Airlines would be their love child.

Indigo is a Gurgaon-based, low-cost airline that enjoys a cult-like following thanks to its gorgeously modern elements of design and dedication to service. From the paint on the plane, to the snappy uniforms on the stewards, everything is carefully selected.

At first, this probably doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But think about the last time that you flew. What color was the airplane? What were the employees wearing? Anything special about the cups or trays? With Indigo, everything was special.

To be fair, I heard the story of Indigo’s re-branding from a previous visit to Weiden + Kennedy, Delhi, the creative shop responsible for the upgrade. These guys put together an incredibly cohesive brand message that elevated the company from “just another cheap light” to a destination itself.

When I boarded the plane, I was greeted by a refreshingly light selection of classical music. I couldn’t help but notice the medium blue color that adorns everything (Hindsight: The color is probably called “Indigo blue”) . The cabin crew smiled warmly and created a sense of calm and hospitality. They all wore bright, snappy outfits and the stewardesses had matching pearl necklaces with perfectly- tied ribbons around their neck.

It was totally a 50′s-era throw-back and I loved it.

Even the food cart and packaging was covered in the brand’s iconic airplane symbol. And it didn’t stop there. Outside the plane, the service cart ramp mocked its drabby, less colorful neighbors with the phrase, “You can tell a lot about an airline from its ramp.”

Hilarious.

Southwest, are you listening?

India 2.0

In case you forgot, a broadband connection isn’t a natural-born right.

Sure, it’s awesome when our phones and refrigerators are wi-fi enabled. (You know that’s a thing, right?) But what happens when you go somewhere that doesn’t have wi-fi. AND you can’t use your phone.

Welcome to India.

The lack of consistent and reliable Internet access was one of the toughest things for me. I. like most, heavily rely on the Internet for communication and research. So, when that channel goes dark, it’s just tough.

At the Hyatt Regency in Delhi, I paid $11 for one hour of Internet access.

Read that one more time.

Eleven dollars. One hour. Ridiculous. Other hotels offer slightly cheaper rates, but the premise was the same: Be ready to pay.

This led me to discover the kind of paradox that gives “schizophrenic India” its name.

Like most hotels, our Ahmedabad residence had a small, 24-hour business center. Unlike most hotels, this one had two PC’s running  Windows XP.

It was like I was back in high school… Dial-up Internet speeds and all the Minesweeper I wanted.

Now, rewind to our hotel in Jaipur. The place had a more sophisticated business center and my experience here was a bit… different.

When I arrived, the staff ushered me to a seat and handed a registration form to me. Nothing unexpected there. I mean, most places required a room key to log on anyway. After signing the form and printing the required info (name, date, age, etc.), the staff member turned on the computer, and then did something strange.

He took my picture. He turned on the webcam and took my picture. Hmm.

Naturally, I raised my hand and said, “Hi, what’s with the picture?!”

Apparently, the form that I signed and subsequent photo was being forwarded to the police as a precaution against crime. Meaning, if I did anything malicious, the police have my name, signature, ID, and photo.

Whoa. Talk about two different worlds.

One place couldn’t be bothered with security and the other was religious about it. And somehow, I felt safer without the precautionary measures. The sense of (niave?) freedom in Ahmedabad gave me a Norman Rockwell-esque sense of community.

Sure, bad people existed, but they just didn’t seem to exist there.

And that’s definitely worth more than $11 per hour.

.

For the most part, I shy away from non-essential confrontation. If it’s not a big deal, why make it one, right?

That attitude will get you screwed in India.

In a country where everything is for sale, and nothing has a set price, if you’re not wiling to haggle and bargain for something, you’re just asking to be over-charged.

Fully armed with this information, I descended upon a set of small shops at an outdoor mall to try my luck at souvenir shopping. Naively, I wandered through the quaint stores and politely talked with the owners who either stared at me, ignored me, or yelled at the employees. This continued until I found a tiny silver shop. It looked like a large closet that had been turned into a pawn shop for silver. Naturally, I was intrigued so I expressed interest in the silver charms.

Which was my first mistake. Obviously.

Before I could stop him, the owner dumped the charms onto the table and began sorting them into little piles; holding up every third or fourth item for me to inspect. It was almost to the point where I felt badly for the guy.

And then I found it. This perfect, little silver skull. I had no idea why I liked it, but I did. (Dehydration?) It had a small label on it that said 500 rupees. “Not bad,” I thought.

Which led me to mistake number two: Allowing the owner to grab it before I could hold on to the item.

Immediately, he ducked below the display case and produced a small scale. Carefully placing the item on the scale, he weighed it and made a great show of his measuring skills. And that’s when it happened. The price suddenly, inexplicably jumped by 250 rupees.

What?! Somehow, between the magic of the scale and the litany of calculations made on an 80’s era calculator, the price had jumped. Well, not to be taken, I said in my falsely confident voice, “But, but… the tag said 500 rupees!”

That, I was quickly informed, was “the old price.” Oh. The old price. Got it.

So, like a good global consumer, I began the bargaining dance. I offered 300 rupees. He balked and wanted 400. We met in the middle and I paid 350.

To this day, I have no idea what to do with the thing. Pawn shop, maybe?

Thanks for Flying

Airport security in India makes our TSA workers look like little girls picking flowers. No, seriously. Our security personnel have little handguns, right? Indian guards carry AK-47’s. AK-47’s! And they’re EVERYWHERE!

Now, some perspective here. These guys have been certainly victimized by repeat terrorist attacks. But, I just wasn’t prepared for the level of security and intimidation at an Indian airport.

To be fair, this description is mainly true for the smaller airports like those in Ahmedebad and Jaipur. The Delhi airport is about as modern as any other, which is a testament to the advances in aviation infrastructure that Kant describes. It had a luxury lounge, gift shop, and food court- complete with a McDonald’s and other fast food treats. I’m sure if you looked hard enough, you could even find a Chile’s Express. As Kant described, But, I digress…

Here’s what really startled me: the sheer number of security checkpoints required to board a plane. Let’s break this down here: In a typical American airport, you go through three security stops. Fairly simple and streamlined:

  1. Present ID at check-in counter and receive ticket
  2. Show ID and ticket and proceed through body scanner
  3. Present ticket to personnel and board plane

Here’s how the process can go in India:

  1. BEFORE you are allowed into the doors of the airport, you show your ID and travel itinerary (Wait, what? Yep.)
  2. BEFORE you are allowed to check in for your flight, bags go through a scanner
  3. Present ID at check-in counter and receive ticket
  4. Present ID and ticket and proceed through body scanner.
  5. Then comes the fun part. The mandatory pat down search. They shut up the people complaining about “random searches” and decided to target everyone. (Women do get their own private screening room) Oh and don’t forget to show your ticket to that guy… you know, the one who just saw you present the ticket to his buddy a few feet away. Nice.
  6. Now, take a breath. You’re in the lobby. Cool. When you’re boarding call comes, you just show the boarding pass, right? Nope. Boarding pass, plus verification that your carry-on luggage has been cleared for travel.
  7. And just when you can see inside of the place and think you’re clear to take your seat. BAM! One more boarding pass check.
  8. One more thing. Make sure you don’t lose that boarding pass during the flight because, well, you might be asked to show it before leaving the plane in your next city.

Whew! And remember, most of these guys have guns that are bigger than your arm.

Terrified yet?

Symphonic Cities

If you pay enough attention, you can learn a lot about your city by just listening.

Every place has its own voice- each passing plane, train, and car mash together to create a symphony on the street.

Dallas has one.
London has one.
Even tiny towns in West Wyoming have one.

These are the sounds that I will remember most from India:

1.) THE CAR HORN – Indians don’t think of the horn like we do in America. From an outside perspective, that little button (the one that most of us rarely use) can easily make a case for assault. People there don’t use it when “necessary” like we do, they use it when it’s convenient.

Read: they use it constantly.

Sure, the horn is there for safety, but these people take it to the next level. If I ever hear someone complain about the honking in New York again, I’ll just smile.

New Delhi, July 2011

2.) THE “HELLO, HELLO” – It’s never easy seeing a child begging for food. We’ve all seen the infomercials at 3 AM about sponsoring a kid, and it’s pretty easy to ignore when you’re slumped on the couch with a bag of spicy Cheeto’s. (Theoretically, of course.) Conversely, it’s a feat of humanity to ignore a malnourished child who’s grabbing your arm for attention. At most urban locations, we were accosted by children who cried with a monotonous, “hello, hello”. It’s a sound that hauntingly drills into your head and buries itself.

3.) THE MUSIC – Everywhere I turned, American music was playing. Pop, rock, disco- it didn’t matter. In the Delhi mall, The Backstreet Boys and N’Sync played. “Hotel California” serenaded us in the lobby at the Pride Hotel, and Coldplay rocked out alongside the evening prayers in Jaipur. Most surprising of all, “Dancing Queen” was heard no less than three times at dinner in Ahmedabad.

Lovely.

So, what’s the soundtrack to your city?

Pattern and Repetition and Pattern

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