Meditations From the Back of a Rickshaw

by Published

Living in the daily swarm of New Delhi, where chaos is the rule and working Wi-Fi the exception, every traveler can hold onto one golden constant: you will never forget your first rickshaw.

Auto rickshaws are the most convenient method of traversing New Delhi’s expansive metropolis. For what is the equivalent of just a few American dollars, you can carriage door to door from the ancient ruins of the South to the colonial quarters of the North and just about everywhere in between.

Meditations From the Back of a Rickshaw
Meditations From the Back of a Rickshaw. Photo courtesy of Dominic Fusco

But focusing solely on the destination lessens the journey’s value. Holding on for dear life as the driver zips perilously to and fro through crosstown traffic can be a meditative experience in itself. Riding thusly engulfs one in the flow of the city and reflects the finer points of adapting to New Delhi’s anarchic existence.

As such, here are ten broader lessons to be learned about life in India from the backseat of a rickshaw.

Lesson One: Bartering

Once you’ve flagged down your driver the negotiation begins. Remember you are a tourist, which means you have money. The driver suspects this. And when you open your mouth to butcher the few words of broken Hindi you can muster up, his suspicions are confirmed. Expect to be highballed in most informal markets, and always be prepared with a reasonable counter. Bartering can be a lot of fun the better you get at it, and a welcome break from rigidly priced consumerism.

Lesson Two: Compromise

A stranger to Delhi will frequently be overcharged – learn to accept this as an inevitability. Don’t let pride blind you of the fact that you are a visitor, and your money is generally worth much more to the people with whom you are bartering. If you find yourself quibbling over ten rupees, realize this is only a matter of cents and get on with it. Thus when negotiating a rickshaw, knowing when and how to compromise is essential – come to a reasonable settlement with the driver, hop in the backseat, and let the journey begin.

Lesson Three: Holding on

A typical reaction upon speeding off into the flow of traffic is to immediately grab hold of the nearest stable object (usually a side handle or adjacently seated friend). Throughout the ride the driver will accelerate suddenly, make questionable lane changes and lay on the horn with utter and reckless abandon. Just have have fun with it and do whatever you must to make yourself feel secure. Remember that a different set of road rules govern New Delhi. It is important to feel safe in your adjustment.

Lesson Four: Letting Go

Soon however, perhaps as a result of the extremely illegal U-turn the driver just artfully maneuvered, the rickshaw rider comes to realize they have no control over their situation. At this point the only choice is to submit to the swell of the city. In the grander scheme of acclimation, this is a crucial step. New Delhi marches to the beat of its own drum, and holding onto any former notions of structure or convenience will only prove self-defeating. This is a different sort of place – so let go, and enjoy the ride. 

Lesson Five: Closing Your Eyes

As the rickshaw darts through Delhi’s bustling city streets you will pass through many manifestations of life. From the slums to the brand new mega-malls, you will see things that shock and awe you in ways you did not know possible. You will realize new truths about the world, both beautiful and ugly. At times the chaos can be overwhelming, and there will be nowhere to turn but inward. Don’t hesitate to do just that – there is a reason meditation is commonly practiced throughout India. Self-reflection is as important a part of the journey as any.

Lesson Six: Opening Your Eyes

Do not, however, let withdrawal blind you. Here is your chance to gaze long and hard into the new reality which you pass through. To fully absorb the city you should always be aware of your surroundings. Sitting in awe of the rapid pace and raw authenticity of everyday life in New Delhi, a new conception of reality will begin to build itself. Plus opening your eyes will help suppress any feeling of motion sickness resulting from the ambitious left turn your driver just swung through.

Lesson Seven: Bumps in the Road

Suddenly, as the stoplight ten yards ahead dims from green to red, you smash into the back of a larger sedan. Your heart skips a beat – you worry and tense up. Then the light turns green, both vehicles go on their way, and life continues. This sort of thing happens all the time in Delhi traffic, and is simply looked over as a minor inconvenience. A few scratches along the way never hurt anyone – in the end they add character to the vehicle beholding them.

Lesson Eight: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

The sooner you learn to let go of minor inconveniences like this, the easier you will adapt to life in New Delhi. If you let the small things get to you in this city, you will drown. So take a step back, remember who and where you are, that you are part of something larger, and then hone back in on the moment. The ride is sometimes smooth and sometimes bumpy, but you will always arrive at your destination in one way or another. So why worry?

Lesson Nine: Embracing the Journey

Now you’ve found a groove in the fast lane. The sights, smells and sounds of New Delhi whir by and blend into a beautiful portrait of human life in one of the most unique and amazing cities on the planet. The orange glow of the setting sun reflects off the front window, softly illuminating the road ahead. Your destination is now in site but it no longer matters because you are present – no worries, no expectations, just going with the flow. This is how to survive in Delhi – finding peace in the chaos.

Lesson Ten: Arrival


The ride is over at last. You step out of the car, hand the driver his earnings and then watch as he speeds off to rejoin the pulse of the city. You are here, far away from home yet strangely comfortable in your new environment. A leg of your journey is over, and another is about to begin. New Delhi and India can be a defining experience for any traveler willing to make the leap. It is a beautiful country and one that Western Civilizations can stand to learn much from. The rickshaw beckons all – one must only make the choice answer the call.

Topic:  Culture