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Delhi Dispatches: Commuting with Cobras, Deities and Dust

by Borderstan.com — October 6, 2009 at 5:00 am 0

Delhi, India. (Image: newKerala.com.)

Located in northern India, the Delhi metro area has 16 million people, second to Mumbai in India, and the eighth largest in the world. (Image: newKerala.com.)

Editor’s note: “Popeye” is a new contributor to Borderstan and is posting “Delhi Dispatches,”  periodic reports on life in Delhi, India. He and his wife, “Olive Oyl,” are former Borderstanians, neighbors and friends of ours. They  moved to India almost two years ago (Olive Oyl is originally from India) and are the proud new parents of a baby girl, “Swee’Pea.” No, these are not their real names, but there are lots of strange people out there and Popeye asked that we use pseudonyms.

Delhi Dispatch 2: October 6, 2009

Greetings from Delhi. I thought I would share a typical morning commute here in the Indian capital. It’s a bit different than my trip to downtown Washington when we lived in Borderstan.

Unless I drive (which is itself another adventure, and the subject of my next posting), it begins with flagging down and haggling with an auto rickshaw driver. I’ve gotten pretty good at this over the past year, which essentially means I’m able to minimize how often I get ripped off. Stress the word often.

Getting taken advantage of is all relative. After all, what’s an extra 20 rupees–40 if they get the better of you on the way home, too?  But still, even though I’m a foreigner I’m not earning an expat’s salary, so that 40 or so rupees a day can add up. (The exchange rate right now is about 47 rupees to the U.S. dollar.

Plus I hate it when people know they’re taking advantage of me… although I realize the guys need to make a living. So, I am okay with giving them a good bit more than what the meter would say if they turned it on–which they almost never do, by the way

That was one of the first things that distinguished Delhi from Bombay for me. About 90% of rickshaw drivers will turn the meter on immediately in Mumbai, and not ask for a rupee more. In Delhi, it’s the exact opposite–worse even. Okay, back to the commute.

After getting into the auto it’s off to work, about 7 km away. The ride is pretty amazing, and the contrasts are astounding. After leaving my colony, the rickshaw zigzagging in and out of harm’s way, we come to one of the many Delhi Metro train construction sites.

I’m not an architect or an urban planner, but I would imagine one would be hard pressed to find a more ambitious project anywhere in the world right now than the ongoing Delhi Metro project. By the way, it is–astonishingly–progressing ahead of schedule.

After passing the Metro construction site you immediately pass a section of wall from an old fort dating back about 800 years. The intersection you come to after passing the wall is pretty interesting, especially if you’re in the back of a rickshaw as opposed to inside a car.

Rickshaws are open in the back, so if you’re stuck in traffic any one of a number of hawkers or beggars can come up to you. I don’t have a problem with any of it, unless one of the beggars happens to be holding a live snake in my face. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s a cobra (or if it’s drugged or defanged for that matter) but it sure looks like it could be one, and I’d rather not find out.

This has which has happened on more than one occasion. Fortunately, the snake charmers seem to have moved on as I haven’t seen them in a while. I’m sure one will be waiting for me tomorrow morning now that I write this. Of course, this experience is averted if the rickshaw happens to catch the light. Following this intersection we pass the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus, which has a very cool shrine to a number of gods next to the entrance.

Actually, the whole way into work is dotted with shrines to various Hindu gods. I’ve never looked into this, but I’d venture a guess that India has more temples and shrines than all other countries in the world combined. There is one literally on every single street corner. Some are quite elaborate and permanent, others makeshift and temporary.

After passing the IIT campus, we pass yet another archeological site; this one is also pre-Mughal Empire, but slightly younger than the last site I pass. If the United States had one of these ruins, you’d have a hundred doctoral candidates researching it for their PhDs. In Delhi, let alone India, there are almost too many such sites to count, let alone fund their upkeep.

Finally, I arrive at my office. Throw in (lots of) dust and pollution–and at times incredibly hot temperatures–and that about encapsulates my morning trek. If I’m lucky, that whole experience takes about 25 minutes. If I was lazy in getting my butt out of bed, or otherwise unlucky with traffic, it’s about 45 minutes. Still, not bad when considering everything you get to take in along the commute.

In my next posting, I will cover a typical drive into work with me behind the wheel–also an interesting experience.

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