My first two hours in India were the most terrifying in my life. It was January 2005, and I had just landed in Delhi. A colleague at business school was organizing this trip for a Vipassana meditation retreat in Jaipur, India, and I thought, hey, that sounds like fun.
I joined a day late, and flew into Delhi on my own. They had arranged for a driver to take me up to Jaipur, but I couldn’t have imagined what was waiting for me. In 2005, Delhi international airport had not yet been rebuilt. Today it is a fine airport — clean and modern. In 2005, it looked 30 years out of place. A simple guardrail separated the baggage pick-up from the masses of people waiting to pick up their guests. I found someone holding a sign with my name. He didn’t speak much, but beckoned me on my way. I climbed into the back of his van, which felt like a dated SUV – it even had a little handrail along the seat to hold on to.
Landing in the evening, it was dark by the time we hit the road – my first time on an Indian highway, and my knuckles were white from holding on to that handrail. My driver whizzed-in and out around trucks and cars honking as he went. I had to remind myself that he probably knew what he was doing.
But it wasn’t his driving that scared me… it was the occasional car coming from the other direction. Cars on the wrong side of the highway… with their headlights off. Still, this didn’t seem to faze or shock the driver… he would just swerve and be on his way. I’m not sure if it is the strong beliefs in re-incarnation, but it felt like their desire to reach the destination safely wasn’t exactly a priority. During that road trip, I too started believing in re-incarnation, out of fear this could be my last road trip.
I’ve been to India over a dozen times since, and come to understand this is just how Indians drive. Nowadays, I see fewer cars on the wrong side of the road, but in the city, people drive how pedestrians walk. Three lanes can be five lanes… and red lights are more of a suggestion. Felt a little bit like Boston in the 90’s, only on steroids. (Actually, this would have made the Boston driving of the 90’s look positively civil, and the Boston driving of today look as if it was under the rule and order of angels.)
When the driver pulled up at the guest house, I felt a sense of relief – except that all the lights were off. Was he even at the right place? I got out with my backpack, and he knocked on the door, and as it opened he said something then left… leaving me wondering if I was really where I needed to be.
Now it was pretty late… maybe 11 pm, possibly even midnight. I was shown a room, which looked a bit like it was in someone’s house (this wasn’t a hotel with a big sign out front.) The bed was hard as wood (Indian’s sleep on harder mattresses), and even the pillows felt like a heavy sack of flour (no fluffy pillows here). If I hadn’t been so exhausted, or experiencing withdrawal from the adrenaline rush riding on the highway, I probably wouldn’t have been able to sleep.
I was out like a light.
The next morning, it was only after I was greeted by a couple of fellow MBA that I truly knew I was at the right place. As I stepped out onto the street, Jaipur came into focus… the honk-honk-honking of the cars, the wave of heat, and that sweltering smell of India that rises up… here in a dusty block with a pig wandering on one side of the street and a cow at the other corner eating from a peddler’s vegetable stand. Indeed, I had arrived in India.
Also published on Medium.