Asia | India | Delhi – 7 Days in Delhi
A sticky cocktail of culture has been thrown over me One that I soak in and continually sweat out!
Stepping through the airport doors was like walking past a heated extractor fan – except I did not reach the cool breeze on the other side. It was when I realized and accepted this; that I could relax into my pools of sweat, even enjoy the intense humidity characteristic of monsoon season in India. The pollution levels soar in this urban heat dome- and the merchants; well, if they could bottle the air, they would try and sell it to you- (and at five times its value).
Many of the travelers I have met escape from this milieu of hooters and beggars as soon as possible; but there is a reason why a week later, I was still in Delis profuse array of battered buildings and carbon monoxide.
First there was the free visa I got from the friendly man in the London embassy. A six-hour plane delay (which ensured that I would arrive in the morning); and a group of four friendly Austrians that I had met in the airport eased my passage to India.
It was they who argued and convinced the taxi driver that he had not lost his way to the New Deli train station. Fighting off the taxi drivers demands for baksheesh would not have been easy on my own. The insistence of the latter defies human reason. Whether it comes in the form of a plea, a grab, or a con; the word covers anything above which you would expect, or want to pay- and is not (in my experience) to be confused with tipping. I will say that the drivers I have met would never steal from me. There seems to be some perverse sense of honesty whereby one has to recognize the lines between swindling and a bit of daylight robbery.
We were finally dropped where all tourists are dropped- in an area that straddles old and New Delhi known as the Paharganj- A district otherwise known as the main (and very) bazaar.
Finally the accents that I had long mimicked and dreamt about greeted and lead us to our slightly fetid room. The musty damp peeled at the paint and plaster on the once royal blue walls. The merciful if erratic ceiling fan and cold shower was tempting, but no rest for the weary. Here was the most wonderful opportunity to make use of my jetlagged floating peaceful head- to swim out into the perspiration, and land in the dirt small streets. The powerful sun was still orange on the derelict buildings, but was quickly pulling in a teeming life that I could not take my eyes off. Ordering the sights sounds and smells I experienced on my first day, would be an impossible task. Simply telling you that every sense was pushed to the limit would not be enough! The kaleidoscope of things on offer started to bombard my eyes, half closed with dust, incense, perspiration and sleep. This may not have been bliss or Nirvana, but a tie-dye heaven, which transcends all the flea markets and festivals in the world. Cheap, cheap for you madam, come-come, looking is free, I have anything you want-cheap for you because you my first customer today.
I must warn tired travelers that getting out a bargain was not as easy as getting in. I was no longer a captive audience in this harangue of clammy deals, but a part of the show. Silk and rayon, cotton and nylon besieged me. Many armed elephant gods waved at me from every corner. Rose oils and cow manure steamed into my pores. My head was swimming in beautifully misspelt street signs. Walla chemists, bajuula chemists Inc, rama waatch and ganga rama watch deelers; chainana ram Singh confecshoners and money changers- tourist agencies and bus companees. Every single convenience was presented to me on the dirtiest most incongruous platter that I have ever eaten off, and it felt great!
In and amongst the offerings were pedal-powered rickshaws; horsepower was reserved for the richer few while the cows, they are everywhere, basically dribbling, wandering about and staring at nothing in particular. They occasionally stop, sniff and munch on discarded sugar Cain fibers and rubbish; before they are harried on by irate street sellers. The complete absence of grass in this quarter made me slightly dubious as to the quality filling their udders. One could see these bovine creatures as you would a stray dog; or, you can see them for what they are. These my friends, are Holy cows!
The morning got hotter and the hooters got louder the shouting shriller and the people denser.
This first day I floated above the third world rush. My tablecloth of reality had been ripped off from under my feet, and had thankfully had left me standing!
Over the days, the contacts I made with the locals in general definitely brought me back to ground. I suppose I tend to put populations into categories, and the various pieces of advice I received about being a single woman traveler, was to a degree, quite apt. However, my experiences have been portended with only the greatest amount of respect and curiosity- elements that I have been giving back in equal doses.
I spent my second day drinking chai with a Kashmiri shop owner. I sat on his red carpeted floor and discussed the fundamentals of human religion. If I learnt anything from those few hours, It was not to stereotype. If you had told me that I was not going to walk in to that shop, and make some greasy deals, I dont think I would have believed it. On the other hand, just when I began relaxing into a sense of general goodwill, I was struck -no- blitzed with harassment, pushy tour operators and fortunetellers who ask you if you have dollars (I would rather not get into that one).Though over the days,the characteristic provocations started to grow on me. I began to appreciate being kept on my toes. How else would I learn to dodge hooves, wheels and badgering deals
Day three dawned and I felt as hazy as the air. My brain had become that of my companionable bedroom insects. Ganglia of nerves coagulating like the ribbons of thick twisted electrical wires that congest on almost every street corner. When these wires fail, the generators start up, fanning the already choking air with heat and smoke. It was one of those relaxing chai and chapatti nights on the rooftop of the hostel, that a wizened traveler told me he could hear Sufi music in those generators. Maybe I just dont smoke enough chillum, but I would agree that the sound of the generators is the music of Delhi.
So I sat listening to the latter, along with the mid morning mantras that the tape shop was playing for the Hindu battalion of gods. My innards were being calmed by some extra spicy chai tea, and the best damn masala I had ever tasted. My sandals dipped into the sand trying to escape the pleas of shoe-shiners. My heart was laughing at the giggles of the little ones practicing their English; and was aching for the limbless contorted polio few that ask for money. I come from a country that has a strong blend of third world characteristics, and I consider myself to be reasonably hardened, but I still flinch when warm disfigured bony hands start to curl around my fleshy arms.
It is too easy to sit in the morning sun making new friends so I decided to get up and educate myself. Before one decides to go anywhere, it is necessary to navigate one of the main economic resources in the city the transport system! Step one was to rope in a sweet Belgium girl named Anica to accompany me on my adventures. Step two was to research some local fares. I learnt that the best way to pay local prices was to simply pay what you know to be fair when you get to your destination. No prior discussions necessary! It is true that no one will ever shout after you demanding more money, but theory does not always work in practice. Im convinced that the next few months are going to be a hard lesson in assertiveness training.
The actual ride into Delhi is one that I am loath to admit. I held my breath (and my stomach) and stepped onto a man-powered rickshaw. Sitting high up like some Raja. When I finally raised my embarrassed eyes I only saw the twitching of the old mans muscles. Bone and sweat was dripping through his torn cotton shirt; pushing with the strain of getting his rusty bicycle up the hill. When we got off to help we were met with the greatest offence; so we kept our regal perches. To see hundreds of families of up to four people on one seat was not comforting in the least. I still felt guilty for haggling over the equivalent of fifty pence. As we drove through that part of old Delhi known as Chandni Chowk, my initial thought was I dont want to die today.
If Ive painted a reasonable picture of the Paharghanj, I might get away by simply stating that everything in this part of town appears ten fold. Cars, cows, rickshaws, trucks and turbans all seem to fit together like some manic jigsaw puzzle. The end picture may look like chaos, but discovered that there is some perverse sense of order to the rigmarole. An obscure unwritten road etiquette ensures that only six-as opposed to hundreds-of people will die on the roads every day. Traffic lights (if they are working) and pedestrians are obsolete in this hit and miss mish mash, so it didnt make much difference when our drivers breaks failed! Thankfully we were on flattish ground. By this point we felt somewhat patriotic. Finding another vehicle would have been easy, but we spent the next half an hour hanging around in front of a wooden toolbox / fix it center. Sitting unperturbed on the most unlightly roadside instigated some conversation with the locals in a way I would not have expected. Our dialogues did not involve buying and selling, and I started to realize the extent of the barrier between the locals and the tourists.
If I thought that secular integration was difficult; my exploration of the various temples was to prove almost ridiculous. I have never made so many faux pas and in retrospect I realize that it is going to be a tall order to try and assimilate myself into the religious consciousness of the country. I try hard to remain sensitive; but somehow ones mistakes are enhanced multifold when you are dealing with any sort of religious fundamentalism.
I am never sure when or where I am allowed to walk, and many a time I have found myself peeping around sacred corners like some shy child. It is not whether you make a fool of yourself or not, it is whether you are offending other people. One mild example was finally having the courage to escalate into a small room of pulsating Hare Krishnas. The beats and bells were enough to send me flying into some sort of reverie.Poor Anica however, felt somewhat uncomfortable after a devout lady kept trying to cover her sticking out bra straps under the sleeveless T-shirt. It was a good thing that I had observed early on that it was only the men, and NOT the women who were allowed to jump up and down in praise. Their worship was far more modest, and not quite as much fun. I realized it is important not to be misled by the image of a free food Hare Krishna Sunday bash in London. Unfortunately for my friend, we forgot that the next day was Krishnas birthday so the dancing celebrations carried on long into the night. We would have left early if we had known which way one had to walk around the alter in order to exit.
Our visit to the Jaen temple while beautiful, was no easy conquest. They believe in attaining complete purity of the soul; a state that can only truly be attained by the monks. While we were being almost aggressively ushered out the prayer room it became clear that this state certainly did not include us! I suppose the fact that someone had told us that we were allowed into that room is no excuse; merely some sort of self-defense, a justification to you, the reader.
Our architectural adventures advanced into the great Friday mosque, also known as the Jama Masjid. The minarets of this masterpiece come from the same emperor who created the Taj Mahal. Spanning out before me was an almost desert like silence. The huge blocks of red rock were miraged with heat and the white marble reverberated with the sounds of the evening mezuin- the beautiful surreal song of prayer. Of course, non-Muslims are not allowed into the mosque for the duration of evening and morning worship; so we sat and waited on the grand stairs flanked by the medieval like market, alight with candles and smoke. I stared at the reddening sky and saw what I first took to be a flock of birds. The hundreds of small paper colored kites were already being flown in anticipation of Independence Day. One particularly congenial man sat down next to me and proceeded to explain the lie of the land. The story went that there are two main sides to old Delhi- the Muslim and the Hindu, with the great Mosque in the middle. He explained that the main difference between the two religions was that on the Muslim side, one found sheep and goats; and on the Hindu side, you see cows. I felt that this explanation did little justice to my intelligence, but then, what could I expect after asking a man named Alli, on the steps of the mosque what religion he followed? I recognize that it is time for me to start considering my words instead of simply trying to make conversation.
In many ways what makes the structures in India so exquisite, is that they are not some architectural relic or ruin, but are in living use.
Guides are not available behind glass windows. It is possible to spend hours haggling with someone who claims it is necessary to show you around. In my case I was told that woman had to be accompanied by a man. While this may be true for some of the niches inside, the whole story was about as factual as the rickshaw driver who told me that prices had risen because all the cyclists were on strike!
My overall time In Delhi was – thanks to the place I was staying in – really quite relaxing. I had moved house on my third day, and landed in the Navrang hotel. While the rooms are very basic, the atmosphere was well worth the eighty rupees (just over a pound). Two fat brothers welcomed me with as much effort as is possible when youre in the middle of an ongoing game of chess. The comfortable rooftop chai shop is complete with good food, good traveler company, and the overall presence of a man named Baba His rounded belly, long platted hair and a propensity for good marijuana keep him dancing and jumping around in some of the strongest monsoon rains India has had this year.
As for my prospective plans?
I had definitely decided to go to a place called Rishikesh where I would rendezvous with two friends before they left for South Africa a week later. It actually felt good to have some sort of definite destination in mind in order to leave Delhi. The options are endless and it takes time to learn which areas are off the proverbial beaten track. From what I had heard, Rishikesh was not exactly going to be a wilderness adventure…but thats another story.
So on this, the seventh day, I took a rickshaw down to the interminably busy station, and did what most people do in the rocking tick of an old train I rested!!!