Sunday, January 21, 2007

Go With The Flow


A person can become fond of the packed sidewalks and the tangles of overhead wires, of narrow passages, the steady roar of voices vying with motors, the smell of frying foods, and constantly shifting colors. But it takes practice to thread through the crowds, dodge motorbikes, and compete successfully for narrow, high-demand sidewalk space littered with merchandise, food kiosks, broken paving, and sleeping dogs.

I practice in Khan Market, a chaos of small shops in a stylish area of New Delhi where pedestrians seem less like an endangered species than in the dense streets and alleys of Old Delhi. It’s a good place to exercise what I’m thinking of calling: "Survival Techniques for Expatriates."

Indian women in their colorful and elegant saris, sail along as blithe and unconscious as butterflies, alighting occasionally to purchase spices or scented soap or to finger a piece of cloth. With a flip of a scarf, they’re off again, becoming spots of color in the crowds. Red and green turbans and full beards nod and bob. Girls, bright scarves flowing above tight blue jeans, lean their heads toward young men in tee shirts and matching jeans. Skinny men pedal rickshaws while fat ones, cigarettes between lips, lean out of doors, looking for customers.

"Decide where you are going," Navina Jaffe says, "and maintain a steady course. That way others know what you are doing and will avoid you. This ducking and jumping aside is much too dangerous." Navina’s my guru to street life.
"Easy for you to say," I squeaked, as I jumped out of the way of a car’s fender and almost into the person a six-foot Sikh, his turban making him at least six-foot-four or five.

The trick, it seems, is to know when others will avoid you and when you must avoid them. I’m wondering if an inherent understanding of this isn’t bred into the genetic structure of people raised in heavily populated areas. One thing is certain: it isn’t part of either my Wyoming experience or my northern genes.

"You see, Pat," Navina says of the car fender and Sikh, her voice patient, her hands adjusting a length of embroidered Pasmina. "If you had maintained course, the car would have avoided you as would the Sikh. All would have gone according to the way it was going. It is rudimentary."



The rudimentary part is where I need practice. It’s like memorizing grammar or vocabulary. Once you learn all the parts and practice, practice, practice, you can communicate. But this has got to be easier--all I need to do is survive. A bit of practice should do it, so I decide to tackle the subway next. After that, it will be Old Delhi or Bust! Total immersion. It works for language training.

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