It’s not easy to choose one symbol that represents what India was for me during my two month stay in the country. So many iconic images: the temples, the thali plates, the trains, the trash, the spices. As my dear friend Locsi remarked before I left California: “Honey you better get ready. India is a lot!” Oh, and was it a lot. Particularly the honking of the horns. From the busy streets of Mumbai to the narrow alleys of Varanasi, whether you drive a car, a tuc-tuc, a Rickshaw or a taxi, blowing the horn of your vehicle while navigating the streets is an absolute must.
Initially I thought the constant honking was no more than a bad habit, a demonstration of road rage. But closer observation revealed that honking serves a purpose; it’s a way of communication. See, traffic laws in India are not like the laws in the west. In India there are no highways; one narrow road is shared amongst pedestrians, cows, dogs, vendors, cars, bicycles, motorbikes and everything in between. If there is enough room for someone to get through (even if questionably so), somebody will get through. And they will of course, honk their horn.
The honking has different meanings. It can be friendly as if saying “Excuse me, coming through!” or it can be used as a warning: “Don’t pass me, someone else is coming through!” Some horns are quick and cheery like a sound effect from a Casio keyboard. Others are deep and prolonged like a ‘re’ note from a French horn. The beep from bikes and Rickshaw are festive like Christmas bells but in combination, the horns that go all day and the traffic that lasts all night make for a soundtrack that is impossible to escape and sometimes makes you want to run away. And hide. Somewhere… Quiet.
My most restful stops in India were in Dharamshala and in Kerala. Dharamshala was peaceful not only because of the sunrise in the mountains but also because the town was overrun with Tibetan monks, all of them (and me) there to listen to the Dalai Lama. Kerala was relaxing like the coast always is and instead of monks roaming around it was British travelers who dominated the towns enjoying yoga retreats and getting dental surgery. I went up and down and up again in trains that went for days instead of hours. In Goa I partied for one week straight. In Delhi I almost got arrested for protesting an entrance fee outside of a mosque and in Kolkata I saw goats beheaded during a Hindu ceremony. Each place was unique, different from the last, but everywhere I went I could count on horns. Horns coming loudly from the road, and horns hanging out in the streets because apparently in India, cows have horns. And they are everywhere!
These cows are unlike the hornless Venezuelan cows or the North American milk cows. Indian cows come in different colors and their horns have different shapes and sizes. These cows roam the streets shamelessly ‘como Pedro por su Casa’ As if they were (and aren’t they?) one of us.
The interweb offers many explanations for why this is and based on what I read I could conclude that cows are one step closer to enlightenment than humans. At least according to Indian philosophy. I am not one to argue the teachings of the Brahmans but, why? Cows seem to live aimlessly. They eat, they poop and they are seemingly content in pasture lands or urban settings. In India, they survive purely based on scraps, like my leftover guava. Dignifying this behavior seems like a convenient code of conduct for a country that for centuries has relied on a caste system to control society. If reincarnation was attractive to me once because death and nothingness is not only terrifying but an incredibly boring option, I have to admit that it becomes less appealing once you are aware of all the possible beings one could reincarnate as. Perhaps the cow doesn’t seem so bad compared to the other billion possibilities that are far less fun than eating unripe guavas from the streets. So, horns.
Do yourself a favor and pack ear plugs for this trip but be prepared to the fact that they won’t shield you from a sensation overload. India is a melting pot of color and life surrounded by misery and wonder and scented with curry and urine. The country and its people will invade you in hopes to impress you, befriend you, scam you or simply photograph you! And like the drivers out on the road, they won’t need words to speak volumes, sometimes saying much with a wobble of the head.