Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Day one in Delhi

New Delhi is a city on the make.

Driving through it, you get the feeling that you’re seeing the prototype for the first cities. Life is going on every where you look and anything that stands still is built on or made useful in some unusual way. You get odd images in your head of a coral reef or other group organism; something composed of individual entities but somehow self-organizing. The city is recreating itself constantly. Shouldering itself up out of the ash mound of its own funeral pyre like some luckless Phoenix being consumed and reborn repeatedly and at the same time. It is astonishing to see. (Staci wonders what will happen a thousand years from now as future archeologists try to make sense of the various strata built over, under, next to and behind each other).

The first cities must have organized much like this. Someone finds a need, any need, no matter how minor, grabs it and holds on for dear life. Any place there is space available, whether it’s a 8 foot store front, a push cart on the street, a stack of sheets on a bicycle, or a beggar with an old bathroom scale on the sidewalk, everyone’s looking for their piece of the action.

No place is this more visible today than during a rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk bazaar in Old Delhi. Like the Suq in Cairo, buildings date back hundreds of years and have just adjusted themselves to passing centuries as if time were merely a minor inconvenience. The narrow, shadowed passages between buildings and shops (I’m not going to call them streets) are ceilinged over by an incomprehensible tangle of electric and phone wires (can you say power outage??) the likes of which would cause any OSHA inspector to pitch forward in a dead faint. Speeding through the bazaar on the back of our bicycle rickshaw, Staci and I just couldn’t seem to look at everything fast enough. I ran video the entire time while Staci took still shots, hoping to make sense of it later.

Before going any further, I have to voice my admiration for the drivers in Delhi. If I was impressed the night before, I was completely blown away today. Everything is moving in every conceivable direction including up and down as well as some options not even available in 3-dimensional geometry (the sporty new offerings from Tata Motors apparently include some form of low-speed warp drive capable of bending time and space as well as other vehicles and pedestrians). I couldn‘t take enough video of the driving. I‘d always thought Cairo drivers were the most radical on the planet but they’re sad little sissy-men compared to these hurtling kamikazes blasting in and out of traffic, five to a motorcycle, sipping coffee on their way to wherever they’re headed.

In the bazaar we saw every line of human endeavor; shop keepers, hawkers crying their wares, street barbers shaving customers as scooters and rickshaws caromed within inches of the blade. Artificers of every stripe banging away at metal ware bowls and pans, motor and engine repair, welders at work and hundreds of tiny workshops or craft suppliers. Fast food stands consisting of open flame grills supplied them all with every type of food imaginable. The smell of cooking oil, fresh bread and cooked meats combining with odors from spice shops, dog whiz, smoke and a sanitation system that long ago threw up it’s hands in frustration and gave up the ghost. (Staci’s just pointed out that I could be traumatizing the grandnephews during peak toilet training time… Don‘t get scared, kids. Uncle Dennis was just using poetic license The sewer system doesn’t really have hands and won’t reach up and grab you…

As long as you behave.

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