Often when one travels abroad, one struggles with regaining balance and adjusting to the differences in time, and jet lag of course. But this becomes inconsequential the moment you touch down in the hotbed of chaos that is India. Traffic provides your first rude awakening crucial for survival in a country with a population of 1.2 billion+. Several parallel universes of traffic descend on narrow strip of road and somehow conspire not to collide. The same road accommodates a staggering diversity of conveyances – overcrowded buses that stop as and when they like, overloaded trucks that rarely condescend to brake, cars that believe they are supple acrobats that can twist themselves out of any jam, auto rickshaws (three-wheeled cart-like vehicles) that weave in and out of mainstream traffic, tractors that for some reason always travel down your side of the road, pedestrians who jump out from anywhere even from moving vehicles and then, cows that are highly respected and do not mind taking a nap in the middle of the road and block traffic.
But then a worse kind of assault rises from the need to adjust to a totally different yet stable economy. My first shopping encounter provoked the panic-buyer instinct before I reminded myself that even if I come back next week, these sneakers would not only still be here, but would also still be Rs 200 (USD 5.00) and the packet of pads still Rs 90 (roughly USD 2.00). Too cheap does not even begin to describe it.
Ironically, India is just as much ‘third world’ as Zimbabwe, with more poorer people everywhere. Among dirty buildings, littered streets and clogged sewer systems, opulence is juxtaposed to extreme poverty as it is not unusual to find plastic and thatch slum dwellings right next door to McDonalds or U.S Pizza. Barefooted poor women wearing rags torment tourists in front of opulent malls, pointing at their small children as they beg.
My comfort is a cute little pizza place, called Pizza Hut. I can’t afford pizza back home but here you get it double cheese AND a Pepsi all for Rs95. There is a bell near the exit that is marked: “If you had a great time, please ring bell.” And when you do, the voices of the many waiters in various postures of service echo a resounding, “Thank you!”
Despite the apparent hardships, everyone seems so happy, and friendly. I guess that’s some of the magic that stable prices of goods and single digit inflation can work. There is a strong temptation, just this one month to stop oneself from reading the news back home because it’s the complete opposite.