Monday, January 08, 2007

India Travels #1: Delhi, India: A Riot of the Senses

Monday, January 8th
Delhi, India

Wle're arrived safely after days of traveling! It took us two days to get to India and we arrived in Delhi taking a taxi through the chaos of traffic. Imagine the 101 filled with rickshaws, tuk-tuks, taxis, buses, and bicyclists in a mad dash with one another. Basically, all the oncoming traffic heads down the middle of the road straight into you until both vehicles swerve inches away from one another at the last possible second. On our way here yesterday, our taxi driver nearly hit a cow and then a military captain riding a bicycle. From all that we've read and heard, if you're in an accident here and you're able to walk, it's advised that you get out of the car as fast as possible and run as far from the accident as possible to avoid the mobs of people who attack the driver and matter whose fault it is.

We stayed in the Paharganj district of Delhi which is cheap, seedy, and full of tightly packed shops, street vendors, and random cows. The noises and sounds and smells are overwhelming but, to us, not unlike what we've experienced in Kathmandu, Nepal from prior trips. Within just steps, we pass garbage, excrement, dogs, cows, carts filled with pomegranates, oranges, and grapes, men hawking and spitting, make-shift urinals, vendors frying pastries. All overhead are a tangle of unprotected electrical wiring. Our hostel was about $10/night with a lukewarm shower and a staff of several men and young boys who were extraordinarily helpful. Mom and I were so prepared to be hassled in India that the kindness of strangers really impressed us. One man out of the street kept yelling to get my attention and tell me I had dropped our guidebook. Another young street boy selling postcards yelled after Mom to warn her that her skirt was getting caught in the rickshaw wheel. And one morning after a fit of coughing from my flu, a man in our hostel tapped on our door and gave me a bottle of cough syrup and a spoon, "Please madam, take two spoons."

It's dirty and poor and rich in the senses. It's wonderful!

As so happens in the magic of our travels, we had nearly forgotten that a very good friend of my mother's cousin lives here in Delhi. "An," a 34-year old Indonesian, is finishing his Phd in sociology at the university here and happened to have the day off. He arrived on our first morning here carrying two dozen pink and yellow roses (shit, I can't remember the last time that happened!), turkish apricots, welcome postcards from Indonesia, a platter of fresh oranges, grapes, and apples, and a tin of imported Danish cookies.

Mom and I were immediately stoked.

He treated us like princesses for the rest of the day. We had had no plans for the day except to rest but we found ourselves whisked away on rickshaws through the tangle of human traffic and into the maze of Old Delhi where the Muslims settled over 600 years ago. We explored the largest mosque in all of India and walked beneath the exquisite marble archways of a the Red Fort, build by Jah Shahan, the Muslim emperor who also commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal just a few hours from here. It wasn't difficut to imagine peacocks, elephants, and courtesans strolling among the grounds beneath the giant banyan trees only centuries ago. The architecture felt strangely familiar to me and only renewed my interest in traveling to the Middle East.

In the afternoon, we walked through the labyrinth-like spice market lined with centuries-old cobblestones....passing tiny shops stacked with saris, blankets, and giant bowls of fresh cumin seeds, peppercorns, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, and dried fruits. The smells of earth, antiquity, urine, and frying spices all mix freely and I couldn't help but think of the old Indiana Jones movie where he comes across a turbaned guy at the end of an alley in a comical face-off.

All the food here is incredible. Half the time we have no idea what we're eating but it's damn good. I hinted I liked what I saw in one small stall and within seconds An was standing among a group of men before a giant vat of oil and fried triangles of dough. He brought us each a small tin foil plate with deep fried triangles of bread filled with layers of spicy potatoes and paneer (Indian cheese) and swimming in a sweet red relish and a mint sauce.

Damn good!

Mom and I stopped again in front of a "sweet" shop much like the old fountains of our youth where drinks are served in pewter glasses and the table tops, floor, and walls are made of an alabaster marble.

We nibbled on sweets made from sweet milk, cardamom, and pistachios and sipped on Masala Chai, a hot, sweet, milky tea made with peppercorns, cinnamon, black tea, and cardamom and sold throughout India.

Several men sat cross-legged in front of giant skillets of sizzling oil, dropping swirls of dough into the oil of one and rounds of popadoms into another. Young, grinning boys ran back and forth between customers with glasses of hot chai and piping hot popamoms....customers would dip the popamom rounds into various chutneys.

At sunset, we visited India's largest mosque, strolling across the main square in our socks, as is customary to show respect. Clouds of black pigeons peppered the sky above the fountain and young girls in saris strolled past the mosque walls.

For dinner, An took us to a special restaurant in South Delhi which specializes in food from Hyderabad, India. For only $3 we were given a giant metal tray and several men came by our table filling it with chapatis, white rice, lemon scented rice, popadoms, baba ganouj, spicy potatoes, spinach and tomatoes, curd, a sweet rice-based jelly dessert, a darkened lemon chicken which fell off the bone, and a half-dozen other spices and curries to mix in with our food. At any moment we looked up and pointed to a dish we'd especially liked, an older gentleman would snap his fingers "godfather-like" and a young man would be at our table spooning more of it on to our plates.

Needless to say, our first day in India was beyond anything we dreamed and we were grateful to An for being such an incredibly gracious host.
"Christ," mom said at the end of the day, "I'm giving this boy my home wherever I live."

Next up:
travel to the Indian Hill Station of Darjeeling....

all our love,
Rachel and her surprisingly docile Mama Chihuahua