Cars, motorcycles, autorickshaws and buses wailed by, harmonizing their superfluous honks. The heat sunk deep, soaked my clothes in sweat, heated up the metal on my watch, softened the rubber on my shoes, infiltrated the garbage piles that seemed to be everywhere, and coaxed their putrid scents into invading the surrounding air. This was New Delhi at around 9:30am on a typical Monday morning. I was in the thick of it, anxiously surveying the chaotic jungle of cracked concrete, angry cars, rising ruins, large-leafed trees, and strange men.
At the moment, I was standing on the most peaceful slab of sidewalk that I could find. But I couldn't stay for long -- I was supposed to navigate the onslaught, to walk to my first day at the Crafts Museum, where I would be working for the next two months. With not a moment to waste, I pointed myself towards what I desperately hoped was the right direction and started to walk.
The next half hour was a blur. I spent my time focused on not meeting my premature end in front of a gigantic rickety bus. But even so, there were a few things that stole my attention:
There was a constant honking of the autorickshaws at me. (I would later figure out that "BEEEEEEEEEEP" in Autorickshaw means "Excuse me madam, would you like a ride?")
Rather lackadaisical was the way that electric scooter drivers interpreted the difference between streets, sidewalks, pedestrians, and obstacle course objects.
The intersection, hereafter known to me as the "Immovable Wall of Unfriendliness," at which I waited about 15 minutes hoping to cross and reach the museum that I could see, like a desert mirage, on the other side. But the cars continued from some sort of magic car producing wormhole, one after another, endless and impossible. I was resigned to retreat from the ˇ°Immovable Wall of Unfriendliness,ˇ± backtrack and cross at the previous intersection.
The joy that I felt when I first stepped into what seemed to be a paradise of quiet and safety, the peace of the museum being a more than appropriate reward for the completion of my quest.
My first walk was a blurred, adrenaline-driven hustle through unfamiliar city streets. It was not fun or exciting, simply frustrating and scary. The next day, I took the walk with the same trepidation. But I walked with my jaw slightly less set, my hands a little less clenched, my step just the tiniest bit surer.
I think by the third day, I finally looked up and noticed how beautiful the Purana Qila, an old Mughal fort, was in the backdrop of the relentless traffic. I took my time when passing the street food stands on the corner, actually wondering if I was hungry enough to try something. I stared back a little at the richly-dressed women with their children visiting the zoo in the afternoon.
The walk did not become any less dangerous. It was simply that the risks had become more familiar to me. I was more accepting of the fact that, in order for me to do what I wanted to do, I had to take a chance on something, in this case, exposing myself to the daily intimidations of Delhi streets. In return, the walks transformed from battles for my life to small daily adventures.
One day, the "Immovable Wall of Unfriendliness" parted to me on one of my walks home. It felt like a divine gift, I swear I heard a chorus of "Hallelujah" in my head from the City, an acknowledgement that my risky expeditions could grant me access to the city if I was patient.
Now, walking around the city is one of my favorite things to do. It is the only time I feel comfortable enough to slow down and remind myself where I am.
Ironically, this preference is a foreign action. New Delhi is not a ˇ°walking city.ˇ± It's too big, too difficult, and too dirty. If they can, the citizens of Delhi hire a chauffeur, drive themselves, hail a rickshaw, hop on a bus, bike, or take the new Metro system to the places that they want to go. In many parts of the city, the streets themselves are stagnant places where people either wait for their next ride or linger all day.
In this space, however, I define my foreignness as the person who gets closer to the city, rather than speeds past it in a car. I'm fine with that. I have conquered the art of walking.
~Zena Kesselman '17
© 2014 Princeton Traveler