Saturday, September 6, 2014

Beijing and Delhi: An absence of space

For the previous entry, please see: "The Hustle: Delhi"

Beijing population: 19.6 million.  New Delhi population: 17.1 million

We thought we had learned and adjusted to the crowds in China, but then we arrived in New Delhi.  It’s hard to wave someone away when you can understand them.  A stranger will open his mouth and English words come out, and immediately, you turn your face and that’s enough to give away that yes, you do understand that “he’s here to help show you the city!  Bring you to the best shop in town!  To the best food!  The best drinks!...don’t walk that way because you’ll end up in the slums, come with me, no come over here...don’t walk in that direction, why don’t you stop in for a bit?...” and on and on.

Delhi followed us around blocks and down streets.  We struggled to enter into a McDonald’s just to catch our breath in air conditioning and all around us, India lived on top of herself, layer upon layer.  Unlike Beijing, whose intimidation was a little old lady waving a 2-yuan water bottle for us to buy, Delhi’s streets followed us.  We could no longer cram through crowds and wedge through cars; the crowds noted us, the foreign tourists, and we continued onward, our heads down and filled with purpose: to the McDonald’s we must go!  
* * * * *
(Two weeks earlier) A key skill in learning how to get around in China is to push your way through nearly anything: push your way through a long line, push your way through a busy intersection and remember to disregard all traffic laws, push your way through objects and people using a car, a motorbike, a moped, roller skates, bicycle, and basically follow the only rule that wherever there are others, it’s absolutely critical to wedge yourself into all available space until you’re practically barreling someone over but not quite, because that would be considered aggression.

For those visiting for the first time, this kind of frantic invasion of personal space - that is, people will get into an area in a personal space you never knew existed until suddenly, you find yourself being nearly blinded by a person smaller than you holding an umbrella on a hot, sunny day - is absolutely unbearable.

At first, my company had difficulties dealing with the frantic invasions.  Walking down the street with him, I would suddenly find myself about a dozen people ahead, with my company carefully trying to avoid running into others and their personal spaces.  This meant we traveled anywhere very slowly, with me walking a few steps ahead, and with my company trailing behind as people swarmed in front of him.

We traveled to the Great Wall on our third day in Beijing, and this involved a slightly complicated tour bus affair.  My company and I took a taxi with a white man tax surcharge and arrived, after much hustling from our taxi driver, to a queue that wrapped itself under a bridge and around a building.  The queue became increasingly aggressive the closer my company and I got to the actual buses, and when we arrived within 5 meters of the buses, chaos began.  People rushed into the street to find whatever open space they could and crushed themselves near the doors of the buses.  Once the doors opened, small children clambered into them as parents pushed their way through on top of one another shouting for their kids.  I joined this mob frenzy, fearing that all that waiting in line would come to nothing if we weren't equally aggressive in fitting ourselves into the small door opening with 15 other Chinese people trying to push in at once.  We would never make it to the Great Wall being polite and saying, “Excuse me and thank you.”

I looked back.  My company was about 5 individuals behind me, but seeing me successfully crawl onto the bus, he too, realizing his size advantage, pushed himself in and said, “You separated a mother from her child!”  [as I am reading this to him, my company interrupts by correcting me: “You DID separate a mother from her child!  I was using you as a wedge and pushed myself through because I was wider than everyone else!”]

Ten minutes later, a ticket agent was walking up and down the aisles, and taking one look at my company began shouting in Mandarin: “Whose foreigner is this?!  Whose foreigner is this?!”  “He’s mine!” - I shouted back.

It took about five days into the trip before my company began to part the crowds using his height and large camera monopod, which he wielded before him like a sword.  Western chivalry of taking turns and waiting and keeping a small distance between yourself and another does not exist in the masses here.  In every tourist site, after every temple, after tightly squeezed entrances or exits, we forget about our personal sense of space one little step at a time.