First Impressions: India

I’m sitting 14 stories up in my hotel room, and the honks of traffic are still an unending soundtrack! I’d heard about traffic and crowds in India, but assumed that this was primarily in the cities I’d heard more about–Dehli, Mumbai, Bangalore. But Pune, where Alex is doing business this week, is nearly as nuts. This makes sense when you realize that Pune as a city is 270 square miles (a little more than twice the geographic area of Kharkov), but has over three times the population (5.5 million versus 1.5 million!). Pune’s also the eighth largest city in India. And it shows in foot traffic, auto-riksaws, trucks, hand-pushed carts, and what seems like billions of motorbikes (usually two people, I’ve seen up to four on one, and Alex has seen six).

Alex says there are three levels of driver warnings in India. First, flashing the bright headlights on and off (our first driver did this almost constantly, the clicks of his brights a constant percussive undertone). Second, honking… which isn’t to imply that the driver isn’t also honking to indicate that he’s passing someone, which is a matter of course. Third, drive around the offending party and cut them off, in the process violating what would be about eight traffic laws in the US, including driving into oncoming traffic.

What’s most amazing about all this is that in this madcap traffic, pedestrians are constantly weaving through the traffic to cross the road. Yikes.

Another incredible aspect of life here is the foliage. It looks like the city buildings grew up out of the jungle, or the jungle’s taking them back. Huge trees sprout up through sidewalks, vines suffocate buildings, everywhere you look nature is in your face. The infrastructure also has a look of slapdash-ed-ness to it, with large power cables looping out of walls or coming up through sidewalks, looped through tree branches, as if thrown there in a mad attempt to harness technology as quickly as possible. It’s a wild combination, and you’ve got to watch your step constantly so as not to trip over either a power cable or a tree root.

It’s hard to believe it’s winter, although one look at all the people on motorcycles shows you many are bundled in coats, sweaters, and knit gloves despite the warm weather (highs in the mid-to-high 80s, lows in the 40s F). Still, many of the women wear saris with bare arms–and oh, the colors! Colorful saris and kameezes (a long tunic) everywhere you look, strings of flowers for the temples, fruit piled onto roadside stands, colorful tops on the auto-riksaws.

I’ve actually only eaten Indian food a few times in the States, so nearly everything has been new to me. Thus far I love the yellow paneer tikka and the yummy spicy green mint sauce (hey, anything that involves cilantro is okay with me).

The weirdest thing, though, has been the security. The Marriott where we’re staying has a checkpoint with a gate, so your car is searched by guards and a dog each time you enter the Marriott property. Then when you exit the car, you put your bags through a x-ray scanner, walk through a metal detector, and may even be wanded before entering the hotel. Every time. It makes me feel bizarrely sheltered and even more obviously Western, like we’ve got to be treated with kid gloves. Bah.

I went into the office yesterday and will do the same tomorrow (and that evening we’ll go out walking and shopping, since we got to do only a little looking around on Sunday). Today I’m at the hotel to spend some time with my new camera, putting it (and me!) through its paces. We exchanged my three-year-old Nikon DX40 for a D7000. It’s a step below Alex’s Nikon, but will give me a lot more control over photos, since things like exposure are controlled by buttons instead of a frustrating scroll-through menu (my one complaint with the Nikon DX40). I’ll be using it on land, and Alex will be using it in an underwater housing when we scuba-dive. Thus far I’ve been using my iPhone for photos (see all my uploaded photos on Flickr), but hope to take some more interesting ones once I’m used to the D7000 and start using various lenses.

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