Before I came to India, I met with Brendan Kealey who worked in Mumbai for three months on behalf of Pearson. My first days and moments in this country have been filled with realizations beginning with the thought, "So that's what Brendan meant." One of the first things Brendan told me about India was that people honk their car horns a lot. I wondered why this was even significant, but found out as soon as I walked out of the airport into the chokingly humid Delhi smog and heard the cacophonous racket of traffic. The roads are a surging mess of auto-rickshaws, scooters, cargo trucks, cars, pedestrians bicycles, and cows, eight lanes wide but then the lanes don’t really get used when the lines become inconvenient. You squeak in wherever you see a space, or think you can make one—sometimes it doesn’t even matter if you stay on the road if there is a chance to evade stopped traffic by driving through a muddy ditch filled with garbage. As we participated in the contest of whose car can fit through the smallest crack in traffic, I watched my driver’s face in the rearview mirror. He was placid—not even a shifted eyebrow—yet he was blowing his horn like an obsessive compulsive gone mad. As far as I could tell as our car careened from the airport to the hotel, you honk your horn to indicate you’re going to change lanes. You honk your horn to indicate you’re going to pass someone. You honk before cutting someone off and avoiding a full-on side-swipe by two inches. You honk if you think someone’s going to cut you off. You honk at inanimate objects if you’d like them to move, ad infinitum. In fact, most of the trucks here have quaint hand-painted lettering across their rear gates, “Horn Please.” As though honking is really the polite thing to do… It’s much more like when you were a kid and you had that little bell on your bike that you just liked to jingle to let people know you had a bell on your bike, and also that they should pay attention to you. Honking here is more communication than complaint. Honk! Here I am. Beep beep! Here I come.
So when Brendan said "they honk a lot," he was referring to what is really a deep cultural difference inasmuch as driving is such a huge part of American culture. The really amazing thing after seeing this traffic is that somehow the cars do not look like crumpled Coke cans. They are actually some of the cleanest things in the city. It's not uncommon to see a driver polishing his windshield pulled over on the side of the road waiting for his fare. Somehow this "Horn Please" system works well for everyone who understands it--dogs and cows included who pensively wait to wade through traffic at intervals that won't kill them or others.
This is why every Indian guidebook begins with the admonishment of not planning to drive while you are here.
I also learned what Brendan meant when he told me I had to adjust my expectations. He said he'd be looking at housing that looked dilapidated and dishevelled only to find out that it was middle class or upper middle class accommodations. "Nice" has a totally different frame of reference in India.
Right before I left Iowa, I talked to a man with whom I took a class at the University: Anup. Anup is from Delhi. When I told him I was staying in Defence Colony he raised his eyebrows and said, "Very nice. Defence Colony is like the Manhattan of Delhi."
So I held these two juxtapositions in my mind even as it turned to jelly from the 15 hour flight and the shock of arriving half way around the world and hurtling through Delhi traffic Indiana Jones style.
By the time I arrived at the Ahuja residency, my legs felt like the same quavering jelly that ate my brain. My driver took my bags out of the car and pointed toward a guard in front of a gate with a sign: C-83 Defence Colony. At least I could see I was at the right place.
The guard at the gate silently nodded and took my bags as he walked up two flights of white marble stairs into a room with the door ajar. He entered the part of the room that looked like a kitchen and living room and walked through to the bedroom where he deposited the bags, nodded his head and left.
And there I was. Alone.
I couldn't tell if the kitchen/living room was supposed to be a common area, which would mean only the bedroom was mine, so I didn't even know which door to try to figure out how to lock. I couldn't figure out how to turn the lights on (up is off and down is on). I didn't have a room key. I took a moment to steady myself then went to the open door of the kitchen/living room area to try to lock it. There was no doorknob--just the deadbolt which seemed stuck. I had a vision of myself locked in my room with no way out, banging on the door to no avail.
I wandered down to the guard at the gate and told him I needed help. He wordlessly followed me inside as I noticed a brick-sized snail-looking thing on the pavement out of the corner of my eye and just avoided smashing it with my sandal. Back at the room, he jangled the lock until something seemed to click. "Hrmp," he said, nodded, and began to walk away.
"A key?" I asked, and he nodded in agreement and left.
Walking back into the room rather exasperated, I finally found a set of skeleton keys on the desk. They looked like something that might unlock a magic box in a child's fantasy movie--not like something that would secure a Manhattan-style hotel room.
Still, I decided I'd have to lock the doors and get to sleep eventually, whether I got locked in or not.
I closed the door and the deadbolt latched. I stood against the door and considered my surroundings. Most upsetting was the camp stove in the kitchen. I'd expected modern appliances, not a portable gas burner. I'd expected a doorknob and a credit card-type key to my room, not the Jumangi props I found. I'd expected a front desk with lights on and a hospitality-oriented English-speaking person to greet me, not a mute guard at a dark gate. I'd expected a closet with sliding doors and a chest of drawers, not the wooden cabinet that was built into the wall with the lock on it that didn't work and too few hangers for my clothes.
I fumbled through my luggage to find my electrical adapters and my husband with impeccable timing called my cell phone to see if I'd gotten in okay. Instead of reassuring him (as I'm sure he was worried), I cried because the two adapters I'd found didn't work, and I couldn't find the third adapter at all--and I was sure that one would work. What made matters worse is that my cell phone battery was dangerously low as I'd spent almost an hour waiting for my flight to depart at O'Hare on the phone with my husband using up the last free weekend minutes I'd have for three months. I was sure the battery would die and I'd never speak to him again. He told me to get some sleep. I told him, "But I have a camp stove and a skeleton key!" thinking that this would the urgency of the situation, my utter loneliness and low grade panic. He told me the important thing was that I was here and safe. He told me to go to bed.
Of course, I didn't.
Instead I unpacked, placing my toiletries in the bathroom and my clothes in the sticking wooden drawers and finally finding the third adapter--which didn't work. Then I decided to try my computer connection to email people and let them know that I'd arrived okay--and that didn't work. Then I tried to call my husband back on the phone in the room--and that didn't work.
Nothing worked, and I was alone in India with the mumbling guard and the large snail-like creature.
Seeing my options exhausted, I decided to sleep. I kept the bathroom light on, and the light in the kitchen. I closed the bedroom door and grabbed the stuffed animal that my father bought for me on the day I was born (the tiny orange dog's name is Puppy). I cried, then, finally, slept.
The next morning when I woke up and I was able to turn on the shower and hot water came out of it, I was filled with abundant joy and relief. I was okay. It would be okay.
And that's what Brendan meant about adjusting your expectations.