Every traveler I know who has been to India has told me it is a whole other world, an assault on the senses, that it will blow your mind, no matter how many other places you have been. And it is true.
I don't even know how to start my first impressions because there are so many and they are constantly forming and shifting and shaping. First off, there are about 10 billion things happening in each and every moment and every side wards glance you take gives you a glimpse into a whole new world. There is culture and tradition, there is beauty. There is poverty, deep spirituality, love. The food is everywhere and amazing, the blaring horns are incessant for 12 hours a day in the cities. It is overwhelming but not too overwhelming to enjoy but so much so that it is nearly impossible to process before you are presented with something new. In the 2 days I have been here I feel I've had 2 months of experiences. As my neighbor on my flight said, if you are super Type A and need to control things, you will have a harder time enjoying yourself in India, whereas if you can go with the flow, you may just love it.
Let's start with my taxi ride. Hands down weirdest taxi ride ever. I'm not sure exactly at this point where the mix up happened, but the taxi driver with my name on the sign was not there at Exit Door 6 when I arrived. Typically I'm a pretty intrepid and DIY traveller but I didn't want to mess around with anything after 30+ hours of travel, terrible sleep, and landing in a massive city where I don't speak the language or know much about navigating my way around. I knew I wanted to get straight out of Delhi, and not be ripped off or have my safety in peril by a swarthy taxi driver. But, the best laid plans flew away on my flight out of LA, and I was stranded at the airport at 8:30pm, not terribly late, but after dark with no arranged accommodations in the city.
I remember my very first solo overseas trip when I was 22 and arrived in Frankfort and it took me an hour to get out of the airport because I didn't understand the signs that directed me to the public transit I needed, finally collapsing and crying and questioning wtf I was doing to travel solo, before I found my way. Somehow this time, amidst the chaos surrounding me with a thousand other passengers milling around reuniting with friends and family, taxis soliciting me, in my solitude I was able to stay calm. I needed the Internet, to get the phone number of my yoga program, found a man operating a pay telephone, and worked it out.
Nitin, the taxi driver, arrived about an hour later, and we navigated the absolutely insane streets of Delhi. I sat up front, as during the typically 5-7 hour taxi ride to Rishikesh it seemed rude to just sit in the back. This also gave me a front row seat to the most truly indescribably insane driving I have ever experienced, and I've traveled all over Latin America which has its own reputation for terrible driving. There was a little screen playing music videos to Indian pop songs that entranced me and was a good distraction when I needed to take my eyes off of the swerving and near misses left and right. We talked a little, but his English was limited. He talked loudly into his cell phone. I drifted in and out of sleep.
Then, things got weird. He pulled over to the side of the road. "I have to pick up my friend, that's okay?" This is one of those things that is typically NOT ok. That is when you get kidnapped, raped, robbed, killed. These are the scams you read about. What choice did I have then though? Nitin had seemed nice, sweet, a soft kind face, young. By this time it was after 10pm and we were in who knows what part of the city. My program had hired the taxi for me so it should be a reputable service, right? I had to trust in that moment.
We drove around with this guy in the back for what seemed like forever, I was still drifting into half sleep; though in the moments I was awake, hyper aware. Then we were on some side street, backing into an alleyway. "I have to pick up something for my friend here." They got out, opened the trunk. My backpack was in there. Only possession in it I cared about was my Sony alpha camera with my literally brand new lens. Oh well. Backpack was the least I was worried about in the moment, keeping an eye on the men in the rear view mirror. They loaded in several small boxes. The friend got back in, we drove all around in the still-congested city streets until we dropped him off. "You ok?"
We drive, finally leaving the city. At this point it is nearing midnight. We stop at a cafe, got some tea. My first tea in India. It was delicious. I was ready to just go, but thought that if my driver was needing caffeine and a bathroom break, I was ok with that. Surrender to the experience, I told myself. He bought some chocolate, giving it to me in the car. "It's chocolate day!" he says enthusiastically. The last thing I wanted was chocolate right then but I opened one and shared it to be cordial. We talked some more about our families and our lives with the little English he had. I began to drift in and out of sleep again as the traffic and lights and chaos of the city slipped away and we proceeded through smaller towns and countrysides.
I woke as he pulled the car over next to a building (a hotel perhaps?) at 2:30 in the morning. "Sorry, I need some rest." I could tell he was tiring because the aggressiveness of his driving had slowed and the other traffic was passing us, the music was softer, he wasn't talking. "It's ok?" What were my choices? We still had a few hours to go and I didn't want him falling asleep at the wheel.
He leaned his seat back and closed his eyes. I did the same, but did not feel very restful. I curled away from him facing the door. He was a little restless. In his restlessness I felt him, at first for a brief moment, and then his forearm against my back, or hand just touching my hair. Somehow at 37, even though I am more guarded, I am still naive. 'He's tall and lanky trying to get comfortable in the cramped car, doesn't mean it, it's an accident.' A million of these things I was telling myself, at the same time thinking just how weird it was to be taking a rest stop in the middle of the night with my taxi driver. As I started to feel him I was also beginning to come up with an exit strategy in case things escalated. At this point it was truly the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. If things got weird, how would I diffuse the situation, and still stay safe and keep my belongings which were locked in the back of the trunk?
Sure enough, he slipped his hand a little too high on my thigh for it to be an accident and at that point I looked over, and shook my head: "no". He started shaking his head too. "Have you had enough rest? Can we go?" He covered his face with his hands, leaving them there for what felt like an eternity. "Yes, we can go." But he didn't move. Then he reached out and took my hand and told me he loved me, that he needed love. It sounds so stupid to describe but in the moment his face and his eyes were so sincere, and every vision from Shantaram and Eat, Pray, Love came to me about how India is the country of love and of heart and suddenly tears were in my eyes too. He held my hand between both of his and looked me in the eyes with such sincerity that I didn't know what to do. Really, I just wanted to go, but his words were heartfelt. "I am not a rich man, but I am a man that has so much love in my heart, I want to share it with you. You love me too?"
"I like you, you seem sweet. I don't love you."
"Maybe one day you will love me? You are beautiful, my feelings are so strong, you are my jaan (life)..."
The wrong answer felt like it could get me left on the side of the road in the darkness, but I'm not a good liar. "It takes me a long time for me to love," I told him.
Finally we were able to continue. He took my hand and held it much of the rest of the way and navigated the morning traffic in his stick shift toyota one handed. We stopped for tea again as the morning light dawned over my first views of India. I saw a fox, eagle, monkeys, temples, and hundreds of men and women walking in pilgrimage to Haridwar carrying water vessels attached to a decorated stick that they carry over their shoulder to collect water from the ahold Ganges River for the upcoming festival to Shiva.
It was solidly morning by the time we got to Rishikesh. Our first top there was at the home of the man who we had picked up in Delhi. The boxes were dropped off there. The man invited us in for tea, but I turned him down, the taxi that should have been 5-7 hours was now a full 10 hour ride, on top of all the other travel. And the Nitin was fully convinced he loved me in those 10 hours despite lack of any depth of conversation. I was ready to decompress on my own.
I finally did make it to my accommodations, safe, sound, and ready to begin the next step of my adventures in India.