When I land in Delhi my nerves are raw. I’m yet to come close to experiencing the poverty and chaos that will soon flood my senses for the next three months, but stories of solo female travelers in this crazy country have been collecting in my head all week. I impatiently wait my turn to talk to passport control, noticing the intensity of Indian males in official positions. Sharp and dark-eyed, they stare at you as if they know all of your secrets.
I finally pass go, collect my luggage, and trudge outside to find a cab. I am halfway there when I hear a murmur in my ear “where you go?” I answer and hear a price back, then watch as the figure slinks off, clearly expecting me to follow. The price sounds cheap, and I wonder what sort of stops would be required to make up the difference.
I tell the man at the pre-paid taxi booth my name, and where I want to go. “One moment please madam”. A minute later my bag is being half dragged across the sidewalk by an Indian boy small in stature, and struggled to be thrown into the back of a taxi. I get in.
“Where are you going?” “To Arand Vihar, the old bus terminal” I reply. He repeats back something that sounds slightly different with a noticeable lack of confidence. I again repeat the name and ask “you know?” “Yes, yes” he says, still rather unconvincingly. I try my best to trust that this probably means he does.
We start the drive, and though it takes awhile to leave the airport, I can already tell that this is nowhere close to any place I’ve been. Before long we are driving past the first true slums I’ve ever seen. Garbage, cloth, scraps of metal lean together in a chaotic mess to form a village. People are everywhere, cooking things in giant pots over fires, trading, squatting. We continue on, past the slums towards the freeways. A patch of brown grass is dotted with brightly clothed mediators, a stark contrast to their drab surroundings. Among them sculptures protrude out of the earth looking like giant silver sperm. Walking down the highway against the traffic walks the biggest elephant I’ve ever seen, carrying a very small man and a lot of packages. Farther up is a wall. Multiple rickshaws are parked despite the lack of space and lined up in perfect symmetry, their owners in the same position, their backs to the cars while they take a piss.
We are nearing the city and the crowds intensify. The cars stop as the traffic jams up. A tiny hand taps on the window and a “rap tap tap” starts to roll. I look up to see a mom wielding sticks at a marching band drum, while her three-year old son, painted with a comical mustache, starts some sort of marionette/ break dance routine beside the car. Everywhere cars lean on their horns, percussions from the soundtrack of India. The air smells thick, a cross between petrol and a heavy, sweet, burning incense.
Arriving somewhere close to the terminal, I am already second guessing my decision to take the bus, and not the Western friendly train. A pause in traffic brings two teen boys frantically running to the cab yelling something in Hindi at the driver. They want him to drop me off there, so they can charge me more to take me where I need to go. One of the boys aggressively opens my door and I slam it shut and lock it. We drive off and I’m shaken. This is the last place I would want to be left; a foreign girl in a sea of men and crippled beggars. We get to the station and the driver takes me as far as he can. “You can’t go any further?” I ask again, questioning my choices. “No” he replies sympathetically. There are still no women to be seen. “Wish me luck” I say, and he chuckles before hopping back in his cab and speeding off.
I start to walk, every head turning to stare. Ten steps in, I hear “Rishikesh, Rishikesh“. A man, like a mother duck, goes waddling by with a small brace of followers. I join in, trailing behind over the bridge that covers the highway. We get to a busy spot and wait among the garbage as a series of buses that have seen better days go by. A few young boys start chatting to me and ask me if I want to buy water. “Yes! How much?” “20 rupees”. I take it and this leads to a chorus of high fives. Sucker. The bus pulls up and I hop on. “How much?” I ask, this time determined not to get ripped off. “283 rupees” says the man. “200” I say firmly feeling rather smug at my new bargaining tactics. He laughs and agrees. I get on.
The bus is better than I expected. There aren’t many people on board, so I cozy in watching the traffic speed by from my window. I have never seen such a parade of vehicles. Besides the obvious cows, cars and motorbikes carrying a mystifying five passengers, there are monkeys and dogs, taxi’s and trucks, bicycles, rickshaws, rickshaw bicycles, taxi trucks, dump trucks, garbage trucks, caravan trucks (a sight with their brightly bedazzled cabs, flowery mantras, and happy faces painted with childlike precision on the sides) tractors, motorized contraptions carrying tons of hay and a heap of passengers. And these are only the ones I can identify. They weave in and out of each other trying to move fast and not crash in the process. All along the side of the highway are farmers and burning garbage. The stench fills the air and the carcinogens my lungs. The air is so heavy with exhaust and smoke that it becomes hard to see out from the window. The man comes around to collect fare. “283 rupees” he says showing me a price on a machine. “You said 200″ I say and he laughs “I said 283, and this is government fare.”
We break at a rest stop. I use the squat toilet and order some poppadoms with chai. I sit with a beautiful old Indian couple who stare at me while bobbing their heads. “Where are you from” bob, bob, bob. “Canada”. The bobbing and questioning go on for a while as we watch each other mesmerized. It’s time to leave and the drive continues. I’m lost in thought and sensory overload and the seven hours go by quickly. I start to take note of the darkening skies, and feel a little nervous. I am being dropped off in a nearby city and have another connection yet to make. I go to the front of the bus, and find my companions from earlier. The first things I am asked is “Are you married?” “No”. Disappointment. This question is followed with an invitation to stay with them when I return to Delhi. Their driver will pick me up. He is a science professor and leaves me his card in case I need any help.
The couple order the driver to help me find my next bus though, but I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. Someone else on the bus volunteers and says he is going to Rishikesh as well. I’m skeptical but it’s dark and I am very alone. I need the help so I accept. The volunteer turns out to be a very clear-eyed, yoga teacher from India, who has been working in Eastern Europe. He scores me Indian prices on the next bus and sets me up with a great hotel at a local price. “You been in India for long?” He asks me. “Just arrived”. He laughs and tells me that he is very impressed I was trying to bargain on government bus fare.
When we arrive in Rishikesh his coworker, an adorable young girl picks us up on a motorbike. Now I am the third on the bike, and I experience how this delicate act of balance works. Off we go, the three of us and my backpack.