Travelling is a great way to experience new cultures and learn about different ways of life up close and first hand. None more so than the busy hectic streets of the Indian capital – New Delhi. It is a real attack on the senses; new language, foods, flavours, smells and an ever present spirituality are all out there in full widescreen colour. Different customs, clothes, money, wildlife, music and more. And if you’re in it; you’ve got to deal with it, enjoy it.
Yet one thing that has surprised and amused me being away from England and living by different rules, is how it forces you to look a fresh at the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Britain that we have left behind. I’ve enjoyed realising how strange some of the things we see as normal in Blighty can be seen in other places; and of course vice versa…
For one; driving in Delhi is total lunacy and tuk tuk ride across town is like being in the wacky races. 5 cars across two lanes, Four on a bike, no helmet – no problem. Red light what red light? It’s a round about, not a ‘clockwise-about’ so I’ll go round whichever way I choose thankyou very much. If you don’t use the horn you are considered a bad driver. A fellow traveller suggested that because there are very few women drivers the roads are so full or bombast and busyness. It’s very different to England with out traffic cameras and speed bumps and road rage. If someone beeps me in Wakefield I’m looking in the rear view and getting worked up. Here it’s almost ignored.
When I arrived in India, as I have in all the places we’ve been, I quickly write down a few words and phrases. ‘Hello’ = Namaste. ‘Thankyou’ = Dhanywad. When I ask the tuk tuk man how to say ‘please’, he laughs and says we won’t need it here, it’s not like England where we say please and Thankyou after every sentence!
One thing that consistently makes us smile however is ‘the line’; or queuing to me and you. The English love a queue, so much so that on being the first to arrive to wait at a bus stop one will begin a queue of one, all on our own. Dutifully standing to the left of the bus stop sign post, and then other commuters arrive and align naturally to the left. You were here first, you board the bus first, unless there is a pregnant lady or a man with a pram or elderly folk. In India there are no such protocols – as far as I can tell. Anyone is fair game, no one stands near the counter or the bus stop, scattered about in a cool album cover style tableaux. Some sat some standing some leaning some smiling some not. Some front some back. So when you arrive you have no idea who is in the line or not or where the front is, and they look at you all wild western saloon style – do ya feel lucky ?
Or even if in those rare instances there are some people huddled at the counter, it’s no guarantee of order or service. Elbows up, eyes in the back of the head and a peg for the nose are needed as people push, shove, lean, and breathe all over you. An old lady walks past the whole ‘queue’ and casually places her bags at the front. I do the British thing of looking around and shaking my head and rolling my eyes but no one else bats an eye lid.
Our second day in India in the main post office of New Delhi its a free for all. We foolishly turned up with no packing, assuming naively they’d be some Jiffy bags for sale. No. Outside under a tree a man with a Singer sewing machine stitches and parcels up your post for 70p. You need a photocopy of your passport to send air mail, no problem. Over the road a man has a 1980s ‘Amstrad 2 and a half’ paper copier you can use for 20p.
Back inside the queue is spreading laterally across the counter and I tuck my package under my arm like a rugby ball and dive into the scrum. At one point the man behind me is so close I can feel his paunch on my back and his moustache on my neck. A number of smiling opportunists try and nudge their own parcel on the shelf, I feel the heat in my head rise but just before I blow my top the line parts like Moses and the red sea and the gathered customers turn smile and usher me forward. It seems it is my turn! I didn’t know it was and I don’t know how they knew it was but it was and they let me in and helped me talk to the lady and pay in rupees and off I went with smiles and pats on the back.
That’s the thing; it’s all good natured. We never see an argument or a cross look. All the car horn blaring is just routine. The queue culture a little laid back.
In Karol Bagh post office, Old Delhi, this was best exemplified during our three hour mission posting a parcel. Our last day in India we needed send home some things. The post office is 10mins walk from the hotel so we braved the melee again. 11am. Optimistically we milled around the counters a bit looking for an envelope before conceding and visiting another street side packing man with sewing machine bits of cardboard sellotape and stuff. A woman is there with at least 30 parcels to pack up. We look at each other, she smiles and lets me in front and the man does our stuff first. Two bags and boxes done. £1.10.
Back in the queue the ‘line’ is as vague as ever but a lad in a blue shirt takes us under his wing, ensuring we are pushed out and tells us where to stand and stuff. After a good while of pushing and lots of chat in Hindi and various people swapping between the two or three serving windows; the woman on our counter – there are 5 or 6 people ‘in front of us (though they are actually sat behind us on a bench) – gets a man over to help and it becomes clear the parcel franking machine is broken. The queue grows longer, some people actually forming a line towards the counter.
It’s now 12noon and the serving lady suddenly looks up and asks to see our packages. We need a copy of our passport sticking on the parcel. Of course, we know that from before so feel abit silly we’ve wasted an hour.
Outside I ask the packing man where a copier is and he sends me with the young woman with the 30 boxes who was still there and who speaks English. She said she was sending home her books to Gujarat as she was moving home after finishing her studies. She was about to take her government exams to try and become a police officer. She was really kind and helpful and when the copy shop was shut she tried another two places with me before we accept defeat.
Sheepishly I return to Helen in Post Office bravely holding fort and our place I the line. We sigh and sweat back to the hotel with our packed stuff. Right next to our hotel door is… a copy shop! We dash in copy the doc and dash back to the post office. It’s 1pm now and on the way I joke that wouldn’t it be funny if all the same people were in the queue that were there before since 11am… they were. And more. The machine has been broken for 2 hours and no one has been served.
We dutifully joined the back of the ‘queue’ and waited. Kindly, the knight in the blue shirt waves us over as though for us to push back into the line where we were before, but being English we were apprehensive. Loitering at the back behind the kind girl with the exam books who had finally had them packed and had joined the wait. She laughs when I say ‘when you are a police officer can you skip these lines?!’ She also said that soon at 1.30pm the post office lady would do for dinner…
She and the men insisted we go to our original place so we sheepishly squeeze in. In Wakefield we would have been lynched. Or at least subjected to very stern head- shakes. The serving lady looks up, she recognises us! We’re in. She waves us forward and gives us a sheet to fill in. We scribble giddily as she takes our box and places it on her scales, and then pops up the ‘gone for lunch’ sign. What?! Right in the middle of serving us! I am on one side of the counter, me parcel on the other. The most frustrating thing is that, As always in India, behind the counter there are 5-10 people stood around chatting, eating food, doing nothing; theres even children playing with toys on the floor. The whole line are laughing and so am I. It might be an hour they say.
After 20mins she reappears from lunch, stamps our parcels and we pay our money and leave. Walking past a line of 20 people, all smiling, we look up as clock strikes 2pm, and we smile too. The people here are friendly and accepting, even though there is lots to bemoan and life is hard. Maybe it’s me that’s got my outlook wrong.