As the pre-paid taxi, number 594, chuntered off in the general direction of India’s capital city, I noticed that we had acquired a solicitous ‘friend’ who had jumped in the front seat next to the driver. The friend was as voluble as the driver was silent. As we sat on the back seat, reupholstered in a thin velour with tiger stripe print, the man assaulted our ears with an endless stream of questions. How long was the visit? Where were we staying? What was our itinerary? Countries of origin? It was then impressed upon us the vital necessity of attending tourist information offices. I started to look out of the window…
Fields with cattle in, but not fields like in England. No fences and cows wander free here. Sacred beasts that they are for Hindus. A white horse, tethered perhaps. More cattle, lazing in a water hole. People hacking crops in the fields. More people beautifying what passes for a central reservation in the road – ornamental bowls on plinths, as yet empty. More people painting large stones white along the roadside. We pass a collection of empty baths in the central reservation. It’s like the main road into the city from the airport is in the process of being primped to make a good first impression. Perhaps the baths and bowls will be planted up in due course. It’s too late now, for me anyway, good first impressions or no; my return ticket isn’t for another three weeks.
We are out of the country now, and into the city proper. Traffic runs to three lanes in each direction: no road markings, lots of vehicular weaving and no indicators of the light-winking variety I am used to seeing. Here it is all communication of intent via vociferous horn honking. The cacophony is not confined to mere matters of indication. Drivers also use them to indicate other intentions, or recognition, also irritation and other things I was unable to define. Rickshaws, both the auto and pedal variety, vie for a rickshaw-shaped space amongst monster Tata trucks, mopeds, buses, handcarts, coaches, cars, bicycles and bullock carts. Some owners have decorated their vehicles with gaudy tinselly ornaments. I don’t know if this is for some recent festival, for luck, or a run-of-the-mill practice.
The taxi passes through a small settlement, not quite a slum. It is forced to slow down whilst the driver swerves round white cows ambling nonchalantly across the road. I see people living alongside dogs and pigs, piglets, children, goats. Washing is hung out to dry. We stop at some traffic lights and a woman with a bundle on her back approaches the taxi. I assume that the bundle is a baby, but I can’t be certain. She asks for money. I have thought about my approach to these requests for money in advance of the trip – tourists are cash cows. I understand this and have a strategy to give something every day. The car pulls away. My western conscience pricks me and the woman with the bundle is left empty-handed.
I know at the next stop the taxi makes, there will be another hand thrust forward. This is not going to be a straightforward trip.