Friday, August 31, 2012

31/8/2012: First thoughts on India


23:04, 31/8/2012

Since I’m already through my first few days of the program-- the days that are the most jam-packed with brand new sensations and observations-- I fear that I will hardly do justice to the overload of sights and emotions that I’ve felt since I arrived in India on the eve of August 27th.  But that was probably true anyway.  Here’s what I’ve been up to:

After nearly twenty-four hours in transit, I arrived in the New Delhi airport around 11:00pm four days ago, where I met four of about twenty-five people who will be my team this semester-- Manoj and Trilochan, two kind young Indian men who are program faculty and staff; and Martha and Shelley, two American girls out of the seventeen students who will be my classmates this fall.  We drove forty-five minutes to a YMCA Hostel where we stayed during the first two days of orientation sessions.  On Wednesday, we took the seven-hour bus ride along a nauseatingly crowded and chaotic highway to Jaipur, a city of around 3 million people 200 km southwest of New Delhi, where I will spend the next two months.  (After that, I’ll be doing a month-long independent study project in a location of my choosing, to be determined...)  For the last few days, we’ve had a relaxed pace of more orientation sessions intermixed with fun activities and breaks for cups of sweet, milky chai.

India is wild.  Some things are just as I imagined, and some are completely different, but all things are surprising.  One multiplicity of surprises that comes to mind is the traffic. I had expected to see teeming crowds of people outside; instead, I see all sorts of Indians-- Western-dressed middle-class folks, barefoot rickshaw drivers, and raggedly-garbed beggars-- gathered in small groups, sitting in pairs on bus benches and steps and in ramshackle huts, or hustling around, on foot and bicycle and in tiny cars and tiny three-wheeled green rickety “autorickshaws,” on the move.  The way that they move together, however-- the traffic-- is just as I imagined, but far crazier.  On the rare occasions that there are lanes in the road, they don’t seem to restrict the bikes, pedestrians, rickshaws, autorickshaws, cars, trucks, and rogue cattle to dart and weave between each other erratically, even into lanes going the opposite direction.  I have seldom seen streetlights at intersections; when not at roundabouts, the Indian drivers will simply cut in front of oncoming traffic, honking liberally as warning of their unpredictable and potentially reckless actions.  (To make things more interesting, they drive on the left side of the road, which feels to me like the middle of the road at every intersection.)  This “orderly chaos” in Indian transportation, while sort of terrifying for me, is completely functional and even comfortable for Indians.  To use the words of a lecturer who gave a cheesy orientation to cultural integration, “their behavior is rooted in a different worldview,” one which requires flying-by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants and trust more than stoplights.  My taxi driver this morning said it concisely:  “There are only three things you need to drive in India-- good car, good brakes, and good luck.” 

I have so much more to say, but so many more things to experience that are higher priorities for the moment (right now, it’s sleep.)  But for what it’s worth, I hope I’ve painted a nice picture that illustrates more than just how India appears.