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THE WANDER YEAR

Caught in the Grip of Delhi Delirium

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 7: INDIA; * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

March 19, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

NEW DELHI — We boarded a jet in New Zealand and stepped off a spaceship in India. It's not a small world, after all.

That's no slam on this alien place. We are happy our journey has taken a turn for the weird. We have come to embrace the madness.

We landed after dark at Indira Gandhi International Airport, where I almost fell over a wheelbarrow of sand parked just inside the arrival gate. I recovered in time to sidestep a black hole where an escalator used to be.

A fellow traveler told us the trick to enjoying India is to laugh when you want to scream. So I guffawed uproariously when the immigration official inexplicably closed his booth just as Andrea and I had reached the front of the line.

While awaiting our turn at another booth, I read up on the scams Delhi cabdrivers pull on tourists. Some insist the hotel you booked is full. Others claim the road there is closed. The craftier ones are flagged down by cohorts disguised as cops, who warn of rioting ahead. The objective is to steer you to a different, costlier hotel, where your cabbie gets a kickback.

We bought a prepaid taxi voucher inside the airport, at least taking the meter out of play. So I was impressed when 15 men lurking outside nevertheless managed to insert themselves into a transaction that had already been negotiated.

The man who snatched the voucher from my hand turned out not to be the driver, but the driver's brother. He promised to introduce us--just as soon as we ran the gantlet of his buddies. Hands reached through the dark to relieve us of our bags. Men pressed close, yammering in our faces. All professed ignorance of our hotel's location, Paharganj, even though it is a well-known area near the train station. I fumbled through my pockets for the hotel address, fearing my money, credit card and passport were dropping to the ground.

As the pack closed tighter, I wanted to fling a fistful of rupees in the air and flee. At last, a policeman stepped in and uttered a few words of Hindi, and the human noose unknotted. All we needed to do now was expel a man who tried to jump into our cab with us, and we were off.

It's a mistake to arrive in a Third World capital at night, jet lagged and disoriented. My usual paranoia was amplified by the week's dose of Lariam, an anti-malaria drug that sets me on teeth-gnashing edge. I wished there were some way to convey this to our cabbie, who must have wondered why I clutched my pen like a knife.

I opened my door while we were moving to make sure we weren't locked in. I urged Andrea to do the same, and she looked at me as if I were a lunatic. Andrea expects the best from strangers, and I expect the worst. That way one of us is never disappointed.

Our cabbie took a circuitous route to our hotel. He stopped at other hotels, insisting I go in to "get directions." I figured this was a ploy for commissions and told him to keep driving.

The long ride allowed us to study Indian traffic laws. Near as I can tell, there are none. Cars, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws and cyclists speed along, fender to thigh. They stay close enough to read the "Keep Distance" sign on the bumper in front. It's tempting to say the chaotic flow somehow works, but it doesn't. During our first 24 hours in India, seven people were killed in Delhi traffic accidents--an average day.

I had booked a room at the Hotel Syal over the Internet, spending $25 per night, a considerable sum for Indian accommodation. But my faith in e-commerce was shattered when our room did not match the pictures on the Web site.

The door to Room 408 opened to a rectangle of squalor. The carpet was ripped and greasy. The bed had one sheet, which looked as if it hadn't been changed since the British Raj. The rust-colored crushed velvet headboard shone with grime. The sink was growing a beard.

We laughed and laughed--until we realized this might be the cleanest room we'd sleep in in India.

When we walked out into the street in the morning, I was reminded of a Russian proverb: To see once is better than to hear a thousand times. None of the tales we'd heard of India could have adequately prepared us for what now unfolded before our eyes.

Funneling along a road no wider than a car were all manner of people, animals and machines. Dogs with more character than hair pawed at piles of rubbish. Men squatted against walls to urinate. Fingerless beggars extended their stumps to us as we tiptoed over dung and dead rats. Cows lumbered beside us, oblivious to the incessant honking of the scooters and rickshaws weaving through the throng. A girl bent her legs backward over her shoulders and rolled down the street like a tire.

The scene was like a giant, busy mural. You could never stand back far enough to take it all in. You have to view it in pieces.

Suddenly there was a baby girl at our feet, fallen from her mother's arms. In an instant, the wheel of a cycle-rickshaw was nearly upon her. By the time the mother's scream traveled from the rickshaw driver's ear to his brain, the weight of the rickshaw and its three adult passengers had come to rest atop the infant's legs.

After the rickshaw continued over the baby, the mother swept the girl up off the street. The baby opened her mouth to cry, but nothing came out. The mother blew into the baby's mouth and rushed her into a vendor's stall, and the rickshaw driver pedaled away.

Before we could comprehend what we had just witnessed, a blond monkey came running down the road, and a pigeon pooped on our shoulders.

I must have a sixth sense because it feels like more than five have been assaulted.

NEXT WEEK: Pigeons and peacocks in Rajasthan.

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