(scroll down for more photos)
I could start at the beginning, but that would roll myself back to 19 in Egypt, when I first heard words like the Paharganj and Connaught Place and chai walla from the English boys I met and travelled with there. They had discovered Delhi months before, darted among its streets, and through their descriptions I knew I, too, would one day land at its airport and begin the India journey for myself.
The plane descended at 10 pm. On the street trucks sat idling in the center of the road, forcing cars to honk and pull around them as their drivers piled luggage onto rooftops and a man from the Vivek hotel waited for our rickshaw to show. It did, driven by a turbaned man who talked and laughed with our Vivek man in front while Joe and I sat with our packs in the back, watching cars, the motorbikes, and rickshaw after rickshaw as we rode 30 minutes into town. The air smelled like exhaust, but you’d expect that here–I wondered what other smells might accost me further in.
The Paharganj, my friend Charlotte had told me, was the place to stay in Delhi: throbbing with people, a hub of travelers and Indians and cows and windowless shops selling everything you’d want or didn’t know you wanted but here, suddenly, with all of it laid out in front of your eyes, maybe would decide you needed. In the rickshaw I touched my neck and realized I’d left my scarf on the plane, but perhaps that was just the first of many things or at least notions I would let go of in this country.
In the Paharganj everything happened and all at once. Men, everywhere men, were talking: driver to driver, brick carrier to cow, seller to pedestrian. The cars communicated in honks of varying pitches but with one unrelenting volume–loud. What did the sellers sell? Knives, sunglasses, fabric, cigarettes, toy pets on puppet strings, shorts with zippered pockets that folded up into bags, scissors and locks, silk dresses, silver rings, silver necklaces, contact lenses (my brand–and “much cheaper here than in your country,” the bearded chemist told me), flutes, bangles (shops full with nothing but bangles stacked to the ceiling), incense and henna tattoos, tea cups, fried potato pockets served with green sauce in little tinfoil cups–these from a man who worked his deep fryer in a space that you or I might call a literal hole in a corner of a crumbling wall but what he had one day, seemingly, noticed and then thought, There–I can run my stall from there.
On the third night we left the Vivek for a walk and within 15 seconds I stepped in cow shit. It’s the sort of thing you need to watch out for in the Pharaganj, but keeping an eye on the ground is tricky because you’ve got to keep an eye in front and behind, on the motorbikes and rickshaws and cows and men hustling in all directions, squeezing you to the sides of the street where you try to keep from getting run over.
I was in a good mood, so found the cow poop incident funny, even though I wore sandals and my left toe was covered in it. A boy wearing a long sheet wrapped around him like a robe appeared saying, “ma’am, ma’am,” and handed me a piece of newspaper he’d found on the ground to wipe my shoe’s sole with. I realized he was homeless and helping me, had probably had to deal with this on his own bare feet more than once. Then the man at the street stall beside us handed Joe a bottle of water and we were all cleaning off my shoe and I thought, we need to give this kid some money. But we didn’t have a single rupee on us, had just stepped out for a walk, and when I explained this apologetically to the boy he said, genuinely, “Ok, ok. Tomorrow–I see you tomorrow, you give me money?”
“Yes,” I said,” yes,” and we walked on but didn’t see him the next day, and that night we left Delhi on a train to Rajasthan. I pulled out of the station wondering, did he look for me on the street that day? Did anyone else give him money?
We saw other things and places too, in Delhi: The Red Fort, which took ten years to build and housed an emperor of the Mughal government in 1648; the president’s house, which looks like a palace; and the biggest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid, where we sat on the steps outside at sunset during the Call to Prayer, watching the bazaar that leads up to the entrance, smoke floating up from incense and food stalls, the chanting amplified through speakers and filling our ears with prayer.
On our last afternoon a rickshaw driver called Sunny took us to a tomb built for an emperor called Humayan–it was massive and beautiful and on sprawling grounds with green birds and pigeons soaring through trees. After, we wandered through a Muslim village called Nizamuddin, and ate an egg omelette at a street stall there as men in long white shirts and pants sat on the benches nearby and peered at me with surprise, then looked away.
A girl and her baby sister smiled and watched us, squatting on the ground. The baby’s bum and feet were bare. She laughed and climbed onto her sister’s back, and her sister smiled again and motioned to her mouth with her hand. The kid working the omelette grill looked about 12. We put in a second order, to take away with a bottle of water, and after he handed it to us wrapped in a plastic bag we stood up to go.
The girl knew it was hers. She took the omelette in her hand, smiling like she’d been given a new toy. I took the cap off the water and handed it and the bottle to her and she and the baby walked away. We watched them, hoping the food would make it into their mouths, though even if it went to someone else–a mother, perhaps–surely it would be a mouth that was hungry.
There is more of Delhi to tell but this morning we arrived in Jodhpur and now it’s late at night and the trip and the story must move on. There will be videos to come, and stories of the Blue City and the scrubby landscape we woke to, looking through the window of out first India train.