Fresh off the plane in Mumbai, I need to find a car to take me where I’m staying. I made it through immigration, customs, and baggage claim easily. I can already feel the heat, like the sun likes spending her time here best. But I feel solid, like this isn’t so different from the familiar… there’s even an Uber pickup spot and a KFC attached to the airport. I get in the car, and start this short leg of my journey to India.
Around the corner it instantly hits me – there are eight lanes of traffic crammed into the four defined lines.
Cars, tuk tuks, trucks hauling people and supplies, bikes, motorcycles, the occasional cow, people selling snacks and toys, donkeys, buses. Ice cream men on bikes with a cooler on the front, and an umbrella off the back. A horse and buggy. Everyone, and every mean of transportation is represented. Occasionally pedestrians weave in and out of traffic to cross the street, grazing the car I’m in. If I roll down my window I can easily high-five the person next to me. We are all in this together after all.
It’s different from what I’m used to, but out of all the abrasive, unusual, things that you need to get used to during travel, this one seems manageable. I’ve never been one to lean into small-talk about traffic anyways. Among the horns honking like Canadian geese and the put-put-put sound of exhaust coming out of the tuk tuks, a revelation – I’m going to have to cross this eventually.
Where I’m from, the suburbs of Minneapolis, crossing the street is something I don’t have to think about. At a crosswalk with a stop light, I simply wait for the red hand to disappear, and the little bright walking man to appear. I look both ways because as a kid that’s what you’re taught, but it’s more mechanical than thoughtful. I look both ways but I don’t actually see both ways.
Now here I am, in India, and the culture shock is starting to set in. It starts in my chest and radiates throughout my entire torso, making its way through each nerve to my arms and legs. Like when you feel off balance during a head cold, you can put one foot in front of the other, but you feel unsteady. Maybe you bump the door frame leaving the house. You yelp a little, but you’re fine.
But now I’m not fine – because I am absolutely starving. I am the person that gets hangry. Angry when hungry, it is my most unflattering quality. In a jetlagged and shaken haze, I must go out for food. I decided on a basic cafe to start my India journey slow, I’ll be more adventurous after a night of sleep.
I’m at the crosswalk, and everyone is moving like there’s a tornado behind them. In this complete chaos, dust rolls up from the ground like it also has somewhere to be. I try to watch and learn, my preferred method of travel, but I can’t get it right. I watch people dart in front of total traffic, but I can’t do it. I take false starts, I don’t trust that the entire world I’m in is going to stop when I go. This goes on for what feels like how long my flight was to get here. Eventually, I walk close behind a family, unconvincingly pretending I blend in as one of their kids.
My first week in India passes, now I’m in New Delhi, and my method for crossing the street remains – basically hold my temporary mom’s hand. When you act like a child, you feel like one too. I don’t like feeling this small, and I’m getting anxious to change it. Each time I cross the street like this, I give myself an internal eye roll.
The traffic in New Delhi is even more legendary. I meet a new friend named Rohit, a native to the city, that tries to help me out.
“New Delhi women are the most badass in the world, watch them closely here. They throw their hand out, more towards the road than the driver, don’t even look, and just cross.”
I’m resisting. I know I have to stop following after the women here like a baby duckling, I need to step into my own power and embody them. Actually watch and learn, not watch and follow. I take a deep breath, rip the bandaid off my fear, and push my hand out like I’m attempting to make a forcefield. The masala of vehicles stop, I walk in long strides.
India feels less mechanical, and more going with the flow of life. You actually need to pay attention here – not just logistically, but energetically. With literally a billion people taking up space, it’s the ultimate place for learning to take up your own space. Using what you have, and taking a leap of faith.