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India: Chaos on Steroids

                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                        2015

      How can I describe the chaos that is India? I'm staying in a little alley guest house in Pahar Ganj; a cheap but well-run little dive that only costs me $18 a night including breakfast. In the morning, I prepare myself for the onslaught and head off down the alley. Immediately, a motorbike almost runs me down, and a porter with an overloaded hand cart squishes me into a corner, right beside the fresh omelet street vendor. He has cartons of unrefrigerated fresh eggs balanced precariously on the corner of his portable stove table. I wonder how often they wind up cracked on the pavement, when a bicycle rickshaw driver catches them on his big wheels. As I wait, unable to proceed, the omelet seller offers me one of his omelets. I've already had breakfast, but I wouldn't dream of buying one from him anyway, because the public male urinals are right down the alley, way too close for comfort. The stench nearly knocks you over until you learn to breathe through your mouth. It's a habit you learn quickly here. There are other powerful fragrances here as well. A few steps later, I am consciously savoring some of them: fine sandalwood incense, jasmine incense, curry spices, fresh cardamom, and the aroma of fresh bread from the tandoori oven across the street.

      I emerge onto the main bazaar street, and I walk past the Citibank ATM, which won't accept any of my debit cards, even though we called each company in advance and told them the specific dates when we would be in India. As I walk along, I get accosted. First of all, there are the female beggars, each with an infant. (the poor child is sometimes rented and may even be drugged). Some of these women try the "milk scam." They tell foreigners that they don't want money, just please buy some milk for the baby. The infant formula is usually sold right back to the store from whence it came, and the money is spent on other things. The baby, of course, takes the breast, never the expensive bottle.

      That wasn't the only B.S. I ran into. A young Eastern European woman approached me. She claimed that everything she had had been stolen in the railway station. including her money and her passport, and she was desperate. She said she had only ten rupees in her pocket. My reaction was: "I never hand out money, but you must be hungry, let me buy you lunch."

      "No, thank you," she said, "I just need money to pay off the guesthouse."

      "Honey," I replied, "If you really had only ten rupees to your name, you would take me up on my offer, and then you would eat like a starving person, because you wouldn't know where your next meal was coming from."

      She could see that her scam wasn't working on me, so she took off in search of a new mark. She was probably a drug addict who supported her habit by scamming tourists. Some people go to India, get hooked, spend all their cash on drugs, and then they can't go home. They remain in India, victims of their own bad choices.

      While I am dodging the women, the men get started. These guys are the commission guys. They don't have a shop of their own, so they spend all day trying to chat up the tourists and talk them into going with them to specific (and usually horrifically expensive) souvenir shops, where their victims pay the inflated tourist price plus the "guide's" 40-50% commission. Commission salesmen are really good at what they do. They have disarming smiles, a charming demeanor, and they are flirtatious and often quite good looking. They especially target older women like me (lucky me!) Fortunately for both me and them, I refuse to waste their time. I have my contacts, and the last thing I need is a lepca (commission guy) following me around. I smile, flirt back, and say I'm too busy, sorry. They tell me to keep smiling, and I do. The energy on this street is infectious. I often find myself with a bemused smile on my face, laughing at all the chaos.

      While all of this has been going on, I have been dodging traffic from all sides. Bicycle rickshaws, motorized rickshaws, an oxcart, cars, a white horse, decorated for an evening wedding procession, and a porter with a giant metal box on his head, which would have grazed my scalp if I had not noticed him coming up behind me. Luckily, I ducked. I also had to dodge big sheets of cardboard, being thrown from a third story window. A motorbike nearly ran over my foot. A bull strolled down the street right behind me, horns inches away from my rear. All of this happened within one block. Is it any wonder I had to backtrack to find the shop I was going to in the first place?

      The pedestrian traffic is just as difficult. I dodge businessmen, tall, turbaned, dagger-wearing Sikhs, ladies in spangled saris with children in tow, guys hovering around the street food vendors' carts, and hazards of all kinds. Bewildered tourists, overwhelmed by it all, simply stand and gawk in the middle of the street, until a cacophony of horns forces them onwards.

      I have yet to mention the distractions on either side of the road. The shop displays compete for my attention. Glittering bellydancer outfits dazzle me, along with Aladdin style curled sandals, brightly colored cotton clothing, spangled harem pants and beaded purses, bangle shops, sequined scarves and glittering belts and costume jewelry and embroidered salwar kameez (India style casual ladieswear)... It's all an eyeful. How can I remember where I'm going with this sensory barrage gong on all around me?

      As if this wasn't enough, there are other things I mustn't miss underfoot. Treacherous potholes, ankle twisting obstructions, unnamable disgusting substances, piles of litter, and even the occasional cow-pie are all land mines that must be avoided.

      On top of all this, there is a theatrical performance. A group of young men are dressed up as Hindu gods and goddesses. They prance down the street to the insistent beat of a loud drummer. They dance in front of each shop, deliberately blocking customer access until the hapless shopkeeper ponies up with a "donation."

      The drums and cymbals only add yet another layer to the constant noise of vehicles, hawkers yelling their wares, competing Bollywood pop songs emanating from various restaurants, and above all, the horns. Indians love their horns! Some drivers seem to keep one hand on the horn at all times. The truck horns are so loud that they physically hurt my ears. The car horns have less decibels but can still be painful. The auto rickshaws have horns that sound like angry ducks. Bicyclists, who sometimes don't have a horn, have this habit of saying "ssh-ssh" to get you out of their way. It took me years to realize that this soft "ssh-ssh" sound was directed at me!

      At night, you can add a forest of neon and colored blinking lights to the other distractions. I take my dinner at a restaurant called "The Exotic Rooftop Cafe." The waiter is flirty, and he is sure we've met before. I don't believe his BS for one minute, but I think: Diana, you're growing old, so enjoy the attention while it lasts. The boys on the way back to the guest house flirt too. When I have a sneezing fit, due to the dust and the dirt, they laugh and call out "One more, for good luck... "

      Thanks for reading, Diana McLeod

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