Our first full day in Delhi, we three gals flagged a pedicab to take us from our hotel in the touristy area of town over to Connaught Place, the old, but ritzy shopping district. We knew the general direction as well as knowing how long it should take and the general cost. The rest was up to luck. The driver we hailed spoke no English but insisted in his body movements punctuated by mumbling in what I assume was Hindi that he knew exactly where we wanted to go and would gladly take us there for the agreed upon price. So off we went, three foreign ladies squeezed into a pedicab seat for two, on our first adventure on our first full day in India. Aside from the scents and sights, we were in awe of the chaos, the crowds, the shocking, choking traffic and the electrical cables. Who would think power cables could be as congested, convoluted, and contorted as the jam-packed raucous, reeking streets! The sounds of traffic, horns, and shouts all mingled into a cacophony of indecipherable noise as the smells of exhaust pipes and rotten vegetables, human and animal waste assaulted our nostrils and burned our eyes. To experience Delhi’s main streets is to experience a full frontal attack on one’s senses! It was with relief that our driver suddenly veered left out of the stagnant traffic jam and onto the narrow back allies of Delhi.
In the relative quiet of back streets we could see first hand the urban life of animals, especially cows, rodents and humans all in close proximity. Rats and cockroaches proliferated, as did humans living on the streets. Whole families were camped out under the tinted shade of blue tarpaulins; mom makes tea on a camp stove, while dad slept, the kids run around being kids all in perfect view, as cows rambled on nearby nibbling the rubbish and dropping their own dark steamy offerings. As we drifted along in our quiet, slow, man-pedalled rickshaw, these strange and bizarre vignettes of back street Delhi exposed themselves in all too vivid living color. We three, tightly packed into our pedicab observation deck, gaped at the strange scenery in silence taking in all we could see, hear, smell.
After a time, we entered a small square, where sunshine cast a bright yellow light along white and cream-colored walls. Ahead of us was a crowd of fairly well dressed men in dark slacks, shoes, light shirts and ties gathered on the side of the road. Following their gaze, we saw on the ground a man lying on his side, facing us on the road. He was similarly dressed to the on-lookers but his body was jerking peculiarly. As our rickshaw continued in its path past this inexplicable crowd, I noticed a large open gash on the prone man’s forehead. There was a large pool of blood on the ground but none coming out of this wound. His eyes had rolled up into his head, now showing only wide open and white. The bystanders all stood back in silence with arms folded across chests as if in defiance, with such distaste on their faces at this spectacle of impending death in front of them. All of this I took in in a moment’s glance as we slowly pedalled past with our driver never altering his slow and steady pace.
Why was no one helping him?
Why didn’t our driver stop?
Did you see that?
O my god, what was that?
We three looked toward each other for answers that could not possibly come. Only more and increasingly horrible questions came forth through our gaping silences.
And we rolled onward, each of us caught for a time in silently pondering the meaning of life and death, India and our own homes in what seemed immediately like far more hospitable, safer and saner places than here. After a while we began to wonder why we had not yet reached our destination. Where the heck were we? We took out our maps but not knowing where we were, there was no way to figure out how to get to where we wanted to go. Sue tried asking the driver but he just smiled, nodded in agreement and kept pedalling. We simply didn’t know if we should laugh and enjoy the ride or start to truly worry. It was most definitely getting hot though and we had been pedalling for well over an hour. The driver turned again onto a wider street where the midday sun beat down on us in full force. The next thing we knew, he had pulled the rickshaw over to the side of the road, jumped off, and had ordered himself a meal from a roadside food walla without even so much as a by your leave.
What the hey…??
There we were, squeezed into this rickshaw, in the midday sun, hot and sweaty, confused and lost, horrified at the scene of possible death we had just witnessed and absolutely not knowing if this guy would ever get us to our destination. Had we been kidnapped or something? Caught between laughing and almost crying we needed to figure out what to do. Just as we decided to get off and find alternative transport, our driver jumped back on and away we went, who knows where. This was getting a bit ridiculous so we started accosting him with questions.
Where are we? Where are we going? Where is Connaught Place?
All to no avail as he just smiled, nodded, said “yes, yes”, and kept pedalling.
Ok, this was enough. We shouted for him to stop and he finally did. We jumped out of the rickshaw and tried to get him to show us on the map where we were and if we were headed in the right direction. Of course this was pointless. But three irate western women arguing with a pedicab driver drew quite an instant crowd. Next thing we knew, there were perhaps fifteen or twenty men surrounding us all arguing over something we could not make out. I eased my way out of the huddle and noticed a policeman on the street corner. I walked over and asked first if he could speak English. He replied he could so I requested his assistance in communicating with our driver.
As we returned to the huddle, now even larger and noisier, my two companions had also slipped out of the boisterous mass and were standing perplexed and looking toward the policeman as a potential savior. He slipped into the middle of the ruckus and things just got louder and crazier.
Time to go, ladies. And we quickly sauntered away leaving the chaos to its own volition. Half a block away we slipped into a hotel because it advertised an air-conditioned bar. The haven provided respite from the heat, noise, confusion, and fear as well as a round of ice cold beers and a chance to laugh ourselves to tears. So much for our assuming we were highly experienced world travelers! When we were sure enough time had passed for the crowd to have dispersed, we slinked out of the bar and quickly hailed a taxi to Connaught Place.
Jogjakarta, May 2019