Viewing India from tuk tuks: Why you can’t prepare for what you’ll experience abroad
By Robyn Welsh, Publishing Editor
For months before departing for MRU’s 2018 India Field School, I was preparing myself as best as I could for the crowded streets of Delhi, heat that leaves you dripping with sweat, poverty and the intense difference in cultural norms. I tried my best to prepare for what I could in no way fathom.
When in India, our inner city commutes were via tuk tuk: small colourful carts open to the wind, dust and smell-scape, powered by a small engine in the back. The drivers would hold onto the motorcycle-like steering wheels and weave in and out of traffic, often with no regard for lanes. We would pass scooters and motorbikes adorned with piles of people, the occasional cow or bull, locals among the traffic on foot or bike, bicycle fruit-carts and colourfully painted transport trucks. We packed three into the back of each tuk tuk, but seeing the way the locals tuk tuk’d, we could have fit at least three more.
In Amritsar we were lucky enough to ride in tuk tuks with three seats on the back, as if in the open trunk of a car (only with less space). We tucked our heels right up to the back of the footrest and had traffic within centimeters of our toes. Several times we got stuck in traffic and made conversation with the locals facing us: an almost unheard of phenomenon in Canada.
Being without a car, I see this often riding the bus in Calgary: everyone is either glued to their cell-phone or doing everything possible to avoid eye contact. Their actions say: A conversation with a stranger, what greater horror is there!?
In India I had some of the most genuine conversations and connections with the people I met. And I noticed a major difference: the majority of people I spoke with were not afraid to open up or share the moment with another human. The connections felt raw and candid.
I spoke with many tuk tuk drivers and often wondered about their lives. I wondered how the meager sum we would pay them (about $10 to $20CAD worth in rupees per driver for several hours of work) sustained their families. After a long day they would often ask us if they could take us to a market before heading back to our hotel. We would politely decline, too tired to even consider it. And only one group of three of us got taken to a market against our will!
It wasn’t until later that we learned from one of the creators of the India Field School, Terry Field, these trips to the markets gave our drivers commission and sometimes food or gas coupons. The drivers accommodations would depend on the deal worked out with different markets.
While being taken to a market against our will was slightly worrying, we knew we would get back to our hotel safely. While I felt bad about the (probably quite worried) group that waited in the lobby for us to return, knowing our driver would have a few more rupees for food put me at ease. “If I’m happy, you’re happy,” he would say. And he would be right (should have more animosity toward the driver that stole three of us for an hour?).
Every once in a while as we’d cruise through the streets aboard our tuk tuks, we would hit a red light (in my experience, traffic lights are a rare commodity in India). When stopped, we would be approached by shoe-less children with dirt covered clothes and bodies. While I knew it was going to happen, having them pull at my clothing and ask for money never got easier. They would hold out their open hand before closing it to bring to their mouth signifying that they were hungry. Sometimes, they would be carrying another smaller child in their arms to up the cuteness factor and tug at your heartstrings just that much more.
Before I left people told me to just say no or ignore them because the money they get from foreigners often goes to a third-party, not toward feeding themselves. Yet, the way they tilted their heads in hopeful anticipation while gazing up at you always left a tightness in my chest.
While this didn’t just happen aboard our many tuk tuks, being closer to eye level with the children sitting patiently for the light to change made the experience that much more intense. I found myself urging the light to turn green.
Being in India constantly challenged me to question and contemplate my reactions to moments like these. While there is so much I am still attempting to come to terms with, I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity for self-growth and reflection. Let me remind you: you really can’t single-handedly change the situation of a poverty stricken country, who would you be to do so, and what makes you think it needs changing?
Featured image of Delhi tuk tuk drivers by Robyn Welsh