There was a time when I felt safe and comfy behind the barrier or a car door in Varanasi. I remember my slight nervousness at the vulnerability of the open-air auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws or even walking on the street. I preferred the comfortable closed in automobile, gliding slowly through this buzzing city. Now, we laugh and joke at the cars–– cramped in the narrow alleys, standing out like sore thumbs, making 20 point turns and inching along. “Who would drive a car in Banaras?” My friend giggles as we weave in and out of this once intimidating traffic on our bikes or by foot. They look so awkward to us now that we can navigate the city on our own.
There was a time when I accepted all rickshaw fare at face value. “150 rupees” they’d say, “Okay,” I’d reply. “It’s only $2,” I’d think. Now, clad in my tailor made kurta and salwars, I find myself haggling politely over a few rupees in Hindi, bobbling my head like true American Bananasi. Sometimes my Indian buddies make fun of me for getting ripped off, but other times they smile and whisper to me “That’s what I would pay, too.” These are the little victories.
I’ve often thought of transportation as the most poetic part of my day. Back in DC, I’d find myself staring at people on the metro, watching people from all over the city and world intersect and interact in this underground web. Here in India, this is only heightened. The variety of people out on the streets, on the trains, and next to me on my flights baffles me and lights up my smile. This glorious diversity all comes to a head in these little moments of negotiation, struggle, or embarrassment. Forgetting the Hindi word for “50” and getting over charged by the rickshaw wala. Sitting atop a cycle rickshaw and being overwhelmed by people staring at my foreignness. Watching people throw bag after bag of trash off of our moving train, and, perhaps the most challenging, being expected to do the same.
The boats in Varanasi are perhaps the most notable. From the water, we look onto the ghats, the stage and see the sacred rituals performed amongst the daily laundry. We float gently to the hum of the motor and people are effortlessly mindful. I watch their faces soften and observe. Whether they know it or not, they find this kind of transportation just as poetic as I do.
Despite the adjustments, I still find transportation to be pure poetry. There is rarely a more introspective time then watching yourself navigate the world while in the midst of it. There is little more satisfying than seeing yourself go a day without stepping in cow-poop, getting the fair, Indian price of a rickshaw to class, or simply watching the lives of your beloved city be acted out in front of you.