Delhi, India – June 24, 2019
Thus far, India is unlike any place I’ve ever been. My expectations were nothing like the reality (as usual). In fact, many people warned me of India and put a bit of fear in my heart about the people here. “Don’t look men in the eye,” “Don’t smile at people,” “Never travel alone in India,” “Be inside with your room-door locked after sunset.” I was never really afraid until people put these thoughts in my mind, so showing up, I’ve definitely felt a bit on edge while in crowds. So far, everything has felt perfectly fine and the worries have only been holding me back from enjoying myself completely, so I’m putting these fears away.
At the airport, I hopped in a pre-paid police taxi (supposedly the “safest” option). All cars here are old fashioned models and are either black or white. License plates are not really a thing, as everyone has all their information hand-painted on their car with red, white and green lettering. Some people have funny sayings painted, and others have political or social statements inscribed. In a monsoon the night before, my taxi driver cleared the fog from his windows with a piece of cloth. The next day scorched, and without A.C., he used the same towel to wipe his dripping neck and forehead. He was so surprised I wasn’t sweating (mind over matter—the trick is to stay verrrrry calm and still), and kept questioning me, “How is it possible you’re OK, miss?!”
Of all places I’ve visited, India has the most mismatched religions. But somehow, all seem to live peacefully together, respecting each other’s viewpoints and sanctified structures. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Muslims, Christians and Jewish people all come together to form a multi-faceted religious landscape. Freedom of religion is protected by law, and is seen as a basic human right. Cows are “holy,” and pigs are “dirty,” so no one eats either of these here. Big horny cows are caught moo-ing in the middle of an intersection and it catches you off guard to see them so out of place. It feels like you’re part of a cartoon when your little yellow rickshaw goes skidding around the slow, knobbly-kneed creatures.
You pass through puffs of garlicky flavored air-pockets and watch as mustached men knead, pinch, pull and rip at pieces of thick sticky white dough. Flapping the finished fraction against a sturdy surface, they fling the flattened batter into boiling grease basins and watch as it bubbles into lovely round rotis. Lentil soup and multi-colored curries roll and pop atop the fire cooking below their red ceramic pots or hammered copper canisters. The master chef ladles the steaming contents onto segmented steel trays. Basmati grains, or stacks of bread get their own compartment, pickled veggies get another, soup and curry account for several slots, and yoghurt full of dill, lemon and chickpeas helps to settle the spiciness. They eat only using their right hand (because they wipe their bums with their left hand). I haven’t yet become the master of my right hand, but I brought my own toilet paper, so we keepin’ it kosher.
In Chandni Chowk, our driver passed us off to a bicycle chariot because it’s unsafe for tourists to be alone in Old Delhi. “Santos” pedaled us down the narrow rickety streets where only foot traffic was allowed. Above the cobblestone walk, cobwebs of tangled wire smoked and sparked above dimly-lit pegboard signs. “Wedding street” hosted a complex network of shops selling highly decorated gowns, stationary, trimmings and tableware. Wandering into the city spice market, people covered their noses and mouths to protect themselves as we coughed and sneezed from the chili dust entering our lungs. Store-keepers shooed us toward pointed piles of powdered turmeric, cumin and curry. Dried dates and long golden raisins spilled out of brown burlap bags, garlands of pressed figs hung from red strings in the rafters, and white-bearded men wearing all-white suits and crocheted caps weighed spoonfuls of star anise and cinnamon.
The famous Dilli Haat Bazar was extra vibrant against the brick-and-mortar merchant stalls and sun-stained desert backdrop. Sellers are are sparked by our appearance and they excitedly welcome us to peruse their possessions. Amongst the arid dust, they’re selling bright bolts of fabric, wood-block prints, leather-bound journals, handmade paper, fine twisted tie-dyes, and batik fabrics like I’ve never imagined. The hawkers seem friendlier than in most countries I’ve visited. You feel like a princess as they try to impress you, offering sweet chai tea as they roll out goods on the floor in front of you. Even when you don’t buy something after their grand showcase, they end the session with, “No problem miss,” a head-bobble, and a smile.
Alena Horowitz | Miss Potato