I spent the night dreaming of visiting Delhi again. This time a friend of mine from Toronto was there in the same hotel and I asked if I could tag along because I wanted to see his first reaction to the city. We headed out and got lost trying to find the Metro. Eventually I lost him as well though I wasn’t too worried. I ended up with some local folks at a restaurant for a brief time and we were going to go downtown (I guess I was in some combination of Mehrauli and near the airport – two places I stayed there.). I eventually lost track of them as well and eventually noticed I had no shoes. Apparently I had left them in a temple there and had to go back for them. I looked all over, found many people’s shoes but never did find them.
It seems my mind thinks I’ve left things behind there.
The rest of the night I had more dreams all in the same general area, some of it I spoke English, other bits of it I spoke Hindi. I woke thinking about my time there and particularly my first day on my own there which felt very much like the dream.
I wanted to go see Chandni Chowk – an old market area and looked online to see what way to go. Google gave me some directions that I wrote down and headed out but I didn’t write them well and wound up coming out of the subway at the wrong place. Or at least the wrong place to find Chandni Chowk. It was the right place for me because I was just happy and excited to be there.
I wandered around a bit and met a man and we chatted in both Hindi and English. We walked over to his stall where he was selling snack foods and drinks. I told him where I was trying to go. He suggested I might benefit from a “tourist information centre” to get some maps and got a driver to take me there for only 30 rs.
As we headed over there, I talked to the driver. He was from near Agra with two kids – one in university, a second in her last year before becoming a doctor. He lives in Delhi while his daughter goes to school and will move back when she is done. He liked it better at home but Delhi was OK.
I had heard a bit about these so called “Tourist Information Centres”. Though they appear official, they sell train tickets and hotel reservations at well over the market price. But hey, I was lost and I could use a map or two. And so I got there and went in. They asked me about my trip and I told them where I was going. “Do you need train tickets or lodging?” “No, I arranged all of that before I left.” They were confused and disappointed but eventually sent me off with a city map.
A few minutes later I went looking for an ATM. I picked up another “helper” – this one helped me find the bank and then as we walked he said how he really wanted to take me to a particular shop to see the great things for sale there. I told him I wasn’t interested in shopping so he asked me where I was headed. “Old Delhi”. And so, like a magician he transforms – walks over to almost what appears to be a random tuk tuk, says “I’m a tuk tuk driver” and offers to take me there. He’s reluctant to be nailed down to a price but finally settles on one – quite a lot higher than the 30 rs of the last guy but I’m still OK with it and off we go. And guess where we go first? You guessed it – the shop! In I go to look around. Rugs, pashminas, t-shirts. Each area has 2-3 people devoted to showing me the things and to each one I say I’m just looking. I don’t need anything. At one point, after much insistence that Sage would love me to bring something home for her I tell them the truth in Hindi: “My wife said if I bought anything for her she would be angry.” which is sort of the truth. She probably wouldn’t be angry but definitely said “I don’t want you to bring anything home. They kept up – “Maybe for you, maybe for friends, other family.” I said “I will take home pictures, stories, experiences. I only need food and drink.” To which one guy said “Ah – your wife let’s you have that?” Which would have been hugely insulting had I not had the majority of my brain high fiving me for managing to understand and hold this whole conversation.
Finally I left “Ab main jaunga” “Now, I will go” seemed to work better than any other excuse. I said that and left. No more arguments.
The tuktuk driver is waiting for me, visibly sad that I didn’t buy anything. I decide to try my direct approach again: “Ab ham Old DIlli ko jaenge” – “Now we will go to Old Delhi” and it seems to work there as well. He only tries to get me to hire him to wait around and take me to other places and takes no for an answer.
Finally we get to the destination and I get out. Unsurprisingly he asks for 50% more than we talked about before. I have only big bills and he has no change. Then he asks if I have other currency – I happen to have a US $5 bill so I give him that and then he asks for more (which is silly because the small bills I gave him plus the $5 were well above even what he was asking for.” He asks a few more times, tries to get me to give him one of the bills to ask a food vendor for change and I have had enough. I let him know that the US$ was more than enough and in fact the small bills were nearly our agreed upon amount. He asks me one last time from his tuk tuk and I say no, Jao “Please go.” A nearby rickshaw walla laughs and repeats “Jao!” and the driver leaves. This would be the first of several times today that a rickshaw walla overhears me speaking Hindi and either repeats it or expresses shocked amusement that I spoke it.
I walked a bit and found my way to a bookshop. Hey! I don’t have a decent Hindi/English dictionary. I asked there for one and while I found a great pocket dictionary going from Hindi to English that I bought, we couldn’t find the other way so I just got the one. No matter.
Walked a bit further and decided it was time to find my way to Chandni Chowk. Asked a cycle rickshaw walla how much it cost and he said “2” several times. By now I knew what he meant and I was OK with that also: 200 rs. And so we headed out. As we got closer the traffic got worse and eventually nearly stopped. At one point a smiling man with paan-stained teeth walked alongside us and talked to me with the usual questions “Where am I from, how long am I staying.” I find if I answer what I can in Hindi I can practice more and so I answer in Hindi where I can (which is surprisingly a lot relatively speaking – at least on these topics). Finally it makes more sense to just walk and when we stop the price goes up to 300 rs. My new friend advocates for me and I pay the original agreed upon fee.
Now I have a new friend, his name is Raju and he wants to show me around the market. He leads me all throughout it, telling me about the old buildings, taking me inside where he can – from the motor bazaar where row upon row of electric motors sits to the fabric markets to the clothing stores and onwards. We go through streets that get narrower and narrower until it is almost dark as night in them. All throughout there is a tremendous din – horns honking as scooters go through, rickshaws pedal by (no faster than walkers), and people walk burdened by everything from their children to bundles of things 3x their size or 8 foot long pipes. All the while Raju recites his #2 mantra “chalo!” (“Let’s go”) which nearly everyone there shares. His #3 mantra is a reminder to make sure I have my wallet and phone in my front pockets and my hands on top of them to keep safe from pickpockets. His #1 mantra is “Khushi hain?” (“Are you happy?”) and I have to say yes. I am overwhelmed by so many people, sights, sounds, and smells. I am learning to make my way through the crowds and traffic like a pro with Raju stopping cars to let me pass. I don’t, however, get as good at navigating the crowds as he is. It takes a special combination of spatial awareness of one’s self, agility and a willingness to push through crowds. As a result, Raju often waits far ahead for me to catch up as my too-polite self fails to realize that waiting until there’s a break in the flow of people before merging isn’t going to work. I need to take his advice and chalo.
We make our way to the spice market and it is a sensory feast. So many spices and so many delicious smells. If the salesperson from earlier today saw me he would have called me a hypocrite because I did buy a few dried ghost peppers in the market. Of course I did say Sage allowed me to buy food…
Then he walks in to a dark corridor and to a dark stairwell and a piece of me wonders if following him is a wise choice. Against a little of my better judgment I follow him up the stairs. At first it gets darker but as we emerge in to the light there’s a new sensory assault. It starts with the smell of gasoline which quickly fades but then there’s another choking smell. I’m coughing, others are coughing, and as I look around many of the people there have cloths over their mouths. But I’m no longer worried. I know why we’re all choking for there in front of me are stall after stall of chili vendors each with piles of dried red chilies piled high. There are several of them and the dust from all of them, even just sitting alone, is crazy.
And then, another set of stairs, but this time I’m less worried. And we find ourselves on a balcony overlooking all of the chili vendors. As we look at them he tells me about how lots of folks live here and come for short term work – 4-5 months and live in the market. Then he waxes a bit rhapsodic about the market. It’s the best place with the best prices. People come from all around because the prices are so good – not like the expensive markets in Agra and Jaipur. And for a cynical minute I think he’s trying to encourage me to buy something there and I tell him my line about not needing things for anyone but wanting experiences, and gapshap which made him laugh – likely because I’m not sure it was the best choice. The word I tried to remember was batcheet – conversation. Gapshap could mean chitchat but could also mean “gossip”. But he never did give me a hard sell on anything. He just seemed to love the market and sharing it with people.
And then he ducked in to *another* stairway and we then found ourselves on the roof of the building where today’s photos were taken. All around us were many of the iconic sites of Delhi – places I may or may not go but as I’ve told many folks already – I’m not here to tick off tourist landmarks. I’m here for experiences like today’s – people showing me places they love. On the way down we talked about money. I gave him some but not enough to make him completely happy – and by now I cared if Raju khushi hai” also so we wandered looking for a working ATM. I got a few more rupees out and eventually gave them to him. I probably spent too much. In fact, I know I did if someone were to judge based on the going rate for this sort of thing in Delhi. But at the same time I truly valued that experience, I could spare the money, and would have gladly paid someone in Canada that much for the experience. Main khush tha.” “I was happy”
He guided me toward the metro station and I remembered something I actually *did* need – an outlet adaptor for this chromebook. I thought I had the right one with me but it wasn’t. I used my rudimentary Hindi to ask for an adaptor and between Raju and I we got the correct piece. And this time the price was even lower than I thought – about $0.39. Raju asked to pay and I said it was OK – why should he use the money he just got from me? Then as we walked further the crowds got bigger and he decided it would make more sense for us to take a rickshaw to New Delhi metro instead so that I wouldn’t have to change trains. And so off we went. Then, in the traffic circle just before the subway station he told the driver to take me to the station and paid him before I could object. Then he reminded me to be careful on the train, keep my wallet and phone under my hands in my front pocket, backpack on the front, and (I’m not sure why this last one) and speak only Hindi there. Then, in the middle of the traffic circle he said “I live near here.” bid me goodbye and leapt from the rickshaw into traffic.
The metro is about the easiest thing for me to adjust to here as it’s pretty predictable but there are some differences too. For example, baggage gets scanned like at the airport and you go through a metal detector. It’s remarkably quick but still a bit different. Then once you’re through there you buy a token – in this case a little plastic disc with what I assume is a smart card built in. The token is programmed with your fare which varies depending on distance. You touch it to the turnstile and get inside. Then, once you’re at your destination, you insert the token into the turnstile and it lets you out. (I assume if you went too far and didn’t pay enough fare it wouldn’t let you out and you’d have to talk to the attendant sitting nearby).
On the way down the stairs in New Delhi I heard some Sikh men behind me talking – I had a feeling they were talking about me but I couldn’t say why. Then it was confirmed when they called out to me. “White guy!” They wanted to know where I was from and were both surprised I spoke Hindi. They didn’t speak much English so we were pretty much confined to Hindi. They told me I had to come to Punjab and then, once they heard I was from Canada they asked about our government and told me that Harjit Sajjan, our defense minister was also from Punjab. My Hindi wasn’t up for a much deeper conversation but it was nice to chat for a bit. There was a funny moment, though, when one of their phones rang and the ringtone was a Christmas carol. I joked that “Today isn’t christmas!” which he didn’t understand and I realized that he just chose it for its sound. How many times do I do the same thing? To like a song in another language that means something I don’t know? (Well, that would be most every song in a language other than English that I like).
Then it was time to go back to the hotel. At this stage in the trip I was still on the “business” portion of the trip which meant I was in a tourist compound in a tourist hotel. There was a checkpoint with armed guards just to get in to the neighbourhood where the hotel was and then a gate, bomb sniffing dogs, and if you were driving, a requirement that you open your trunk and hood and get inspected before being allowed in. Then, once you get out, your bags go through a scanner like at the airport and you go through a metal detector to get inside. A funny thing I notice, though, is that while most people (especially rickshaw wallas, I guess) are surprised that I speak some Hindi, the guards outside assume I do and speak pretty much exclusively that to me though they were the ones who spoke in Hindi first. Once the business trip portion is over I switch to Airbnb hosts and guesthouses, both of which are far more normal accommodations without nearly as much security – and surprisingly also feel much safer as a result.
Most of the days I spent in India were as filled with ‘micro-adventures’ like this which is why I enjoyed being there so much. No wonder I’m dreaming of going back.