Sunday, December 28th, 2008...3:12 am

The Beautiful Traffic (India post)

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Saturday was my first full day in India. I arrived a day earlier than most of the US crew but was anxious to check out this country. I made arrangements at the travel desk to get a driver and a tour guide for the day. When asked what I wanted to see/do I told the concierge that “I want to see everything that is awesome. Make sure the guide speaks good English and is cool.” She looked at me with a confusing and horrified expression.

A half hour later I was off with my driver Siv and tour guide (or tour escort according to his business card) Mahipal Singh Bolagura. Mahipal wanted to know what I had requested because he said the girl at the travel desk called him 3 times and basically interviewed him before she booked the appointment. Score one for the Vasant Continental travel desk! We stopped at all the sights including Humayun’s Tomb, Qutab Minar, India Gate (where I threw out a Bollywood movie reference to the amazement of Mahipal) , Red Fort and the Presidential Palace. Delhi is the capital of India so many national monuments and landmarks are located within the city. Mahipal is a student studying Indian history and was able to provide a thorough explanation for each landmark and answer all my questions. But Mahipal and I agreed that many of these sights were for tourists and I wanted to see, and he wanted to show me, the real Delhi.

So we next headed to visit the different temples and the old city. To give you a bit of background India basically has three major religions Hinduism, Islam, and Sikh. Hindus make up 82% of the population, Muslims about 13% and Sikhs are only 1% and most live in the Punjab region of Northwest India. But remember, in a nation of 1.2 Billion people, 1% is about 12 million people. For the most part, all these different religions and cultures coalesce nicely within Delhi. Street signs are written in four languages (hindi, Punjabi, Urdu (muslim) and English) but everyone seems to get along and work together. In schools they teach English so most educated people can speak and read English. Right now the three highest publicly elected officials in India are muslims and sikh (despite being the minorities).

First we stopped at the Jama Mosque. It is one of the largest mosques in the world and holds over 20,000 people during Ramadan and other Muslim holidays. I think Mahipal sensed I was a bit nervous and he asked me if I had ever been in a mosque before. It dawned on me that I probably had not and I was glad to be checking it out. After visiting the mosque, Mahipal and I walked through the Old Delhi market. It’s what you would expect an Indian marketplace to be as they sold a various assortment of spices, vegetables, and crappy nik nacks. The streets are extremely narrow, actually they are more like crowded alleyways, and loose electrical wiring hangs ominously overhead. I was the only white person around. My point being it was kind of scary in a good way. My friend Justin (relatively new member to the lhoops tribe) sent me a note last week after I wrote that I was going to India. He said I needed to “do a couple things that are out of your comfort zone……something that you might say to yourself ‘now if I get hurt or end up dead that was just dumb’. Not even a day into India and I found myself in one of those situations. Oh vey and mom/dad — if you are reading this I’m actually trying my hardest to be careful and safe!

After we left the chaos of the old city we headed to the LaxmiNarayan Temple which is a traditional Hindu Temple and is famous for when Gandhi led the untouchable class (Hinduism believes in a caste system) through the front doors of the temple as an act of defiance against the caste system in 1939. The temple had elaborate statues for all different gods (there are thousands of different Hindi gods) and while they would look absolutely unbelievable in my apartment I don’t think they were for sale or would even fit in my closet of a living space! The temple also is neatly decorated in Minnesota Gopheresque yellow and brown. I was thinking how cool it would be if the temple was maize and blue!

Finally, we visited the Sikh temple Gurdwara Rakab Ganj Sahib. Sikh is the religion in which men were turbans and Param’s wedding will be a traditional sikh affair. Sikh temples are neat places especially in that they have cool holy water pools and provide thousands of free meals to the daily pilgrims to the temple. You also had to take off your shoes and socks to walk around the temple so I was extra glad I splurged for the tetanus shot at the doctor last week.

The one thing I have not mentioned about the day, which by far and away, was my favorite and most interesting experience was the traffic in the street and roads in Delhi. Let me explain. First, there are basically six different kinds of vehicles on the road.

1) Cars/Buses – all different manufactures. Lots of Honda’s, Toyota’s and Tata’s.
2) Motorcycles – It’s more common to see 4 or 5 people on a bike than a single rider. Bikes are obviously cheaper than cars so hence their popularity. It’s also easier to maneuver through the heavy congestion.
3) Auto-Rickshaws – These basically resemble a motorized golf cart but with only three wheels. They have handlebars instead of a wheel. A driver sits in the front and customers sit in the cab.
4) Bicycle Rickshaws – Good old foot power to transport people.
5) Bicycles
6) Cows, Dogs, Goats and horses and random animals. Not sure of their purpose in the middle of the street other than to add chaos.
7) People. They cross streets and highways whenever and however they feel like it.

Now here are a few of the guiding principles to driving in Delhi

  • Lanes are meant to be ignored. Basically you can drive wherever you want on whatever side of the street or highway that you choose.
  • Keep your hand on the horn. The honking is non-stop. By the end of the day I was convinced that whoever invents the automatic honker that starts when you start you engine and never turns off would be an instant billionaire.

    Throughout the day there were situations on the road where I literally couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Intersections are most mind boggling, as vehicles are traveling in four different directions all at the same time but somehow avoid smashing into each other. It defies the laws of physics. More than a few times I though I felt like I was warped into the video game frogger but instead of a frog we were a Toyota Camry trying to cross streets just so we could get to a harder level and cross more challenging streets! Driving through the traffic reminds me of when Dwayne Wade or Manu slash through the hole to the basket and somehow gets past the entire defense without being touched. When we were in the Old City that street congestion was worse than anything I’ve ever seen. Even more amazing is that it didn’t phase our driver one bit. At one point we were boxed in by three cars (trying to go in the opposite direction) and a horse. All cars were honking and it looked like we were doomed. Our driver rolled down his window and spoke Hindi to the horse. The horse didn’t move and our driver said “I guess he doesn’t trot in reverse”. Despite the horse, we somehow made it out of their alive. But make no mistake, Delhi traffic is a jam that would make Smucker’s proud. Check out this video from the backseat of the car.


    As we drove around the city we saw the construction for the expansion of the Delhi rail line. Boy, do they need it. With already over 15 million people in Delhi and more and more people moving to the city from other parts of India, something has to give. By the way, I heard the congestion is nothing compared to Mumbai!

    That’s all for now. I’m already falling behind on the blog posts but will try to write and share as often as possible. I have a camera, a flip phone and my blackberry so will do my best to also share media. Check my facebook page for so random pics and also my flickr account (photo slideshow below). Hit me up if you have specific questions are interested in hearing about specific things.