I had been trying to figure out the best way to describe India for weeks. Delhi was our final city in an attempt to “see” India. The country is enormous, the cultures varied and at best we simply “tasted” the pleasures that India has to offer. I rolled over in bed after a thirteen hour nap and I asked Carmen “What is the opposite of tranquil?”. Urban India is intense, smothering and exhausting, but equally liberating, flavorful and exciting.
We were proud. Few Indian delights crossed our eyes without entering our mouths. But finally we found the one-day gremlin that lurches in the tastiest of of banana-leafed bowls of street food. The exhaustion of travel caught up with us and a mild case of “Delhi belly” sent us to bed (thankfully not the bathroom). It was impossible to visit India on our terms; in no way could we control the bohemoth and not one day had worked out as planned. Thus we submitted and embraced (again) seeing India’s India. Being a tourist here has a steep learning curve; and we are fast learners. During our last days we stuck with what we know best: the food, the history and the markets.
Our success with food works on two principals: we are open-minded to eat what locals eat and stubbornly insistent to eat where there are locals eating. Our morning stroll of dry spot and trash-free hopscotch was not interrupted by hacking, but by the slurping crunching sound of serious food enjoyment. We peered over some shoulders (not difficult because everyone is 3-4 inches shorter in India) and freshly fried four inch disks were moved from a mound to a bowl and topped with a thick potato mixture and mint chutney. We used the disk to scoop up the potatoes as we ate standing up adjacent to the busy street. We walked away happy with plans to return.
The craft museum was a welcome sight to view and learn about many of the various cultures across India. We saw storyboards depicting the lives of gods, elaborate and delicately woven textiles and a huge wooden chariot.
The timeless architecture of India exists in two forms: imperial and religious. Every sultan built a palace, or ten, and a tomb, and only one. Across several millennia there have been several sultans, but the most grand of Delhi’s sights is Humayun’s Tomb. This red sandstone and marble structure is surround by grass and palm trees south of the heart of Delhi. The modern Baha’i Temple is an impressive concrete lotus flower and a welcome and cost-free sight.
It is the markets of India where Carmen and I embrace the craziness of India. Bumping shoulders and rubbernecking at the green beans, sarees or ugly sweaters is a perfect afternoon of entertainment. Seriously, at the next ugly sweater party I only wish I had the outfit I saw on the subway- bleach-faded jeans, green striped dress shirt and a red, shag sweater vest that had an iridescent quality to it that could only be called glitter. Everything is sold in markets, there are no big stores, only tiny road-side shacks, push-carts and tiny urban cubby storefronts.
Food is everywhere in India. And Delhi has one of the most elaborate and wonderful street-food scenes on the planet. We can’t walk anywhere without catching a scent of some delectable spice or cooking happening. We discovered these decadent fried fritters called jalebi as well as an array of almost tempura battered vegetables with a chickpea curry on the street near our hotel in Paharganj. For breakfast we frequented an aloo paratha stand serving potato filled wheat pancakes and daal (lentils).
One of our days was spent wondering through the streets as we walked from New Delhi to some of the major sights in Old Delhi. We found ourselves deep in a Muslim neighborhood that saw few visitors, but everyone was kind. The trek was all worth it when we saw twenty people crammed in this tiny room eating one of our favorite Indian dishes. Chana bhatura is a large puffy dough ball that is peeled apart and eaten with spicy chickpeas. With a couple gulab jumun (honey-soaked dough-nuts) we walked out of the place having spent $1.20. There is something magical about restaurants that focus on one specific dish, cooking it to perfection everyday for many years. This was one of these special places that everyone knew about and where the best was expected. Now full, we clamored our way through the streets towards the mosque.
The gem of Old Delhi is the Jama Masjid Mosque. This enormous complex can support 25,000 worshippers and was built over 350 years ago. We explored the prayer halls, the plaza and even climbed the south minaret for a smoggy, but enjoyable view of the city. On several occasions we took photos alongside families, or with a small child in my arms or with a group of teenage girls. The locals must like my blond hair. In the photo above, the girls appear to be mad-dogging me, but just minutes earlier they were giggling to take my photo.
India has created a mix of emotions within me. I love it and I hate it, there are so many wonderful things about it and others that disgust me. Because I am an engineer, here are the numbers:
22 days total (too little to experience or really “know” India).
16 make-shift cricket matches encountered on plazas, alleys and dirt courts.
30 auto rickshaws taken.
400 times we were asked to take a Rickshaw
4 times Nathan stepped in shit, with sandals.
5-1/2 hours waiting in line for a single train ticket in New Delhi (5 attempts).
70 people insisted on taking photos with us.
15 of those were successfully convinced to take a jumping photo.
200 times asked “which country? What is your name? How are you?”
20 wonderfully complete and various thali meals eaten.
60 chapatis, tandoori roti and naan eaten.
22 miniature bananas eaten.
Countless super nice, helpful and friendly Indian people.
45 tourists seen wearing funny parachute pants.
50 successful negotiations (10 losses)
I have walked away with a greater appreciation of India. The vast amount of people and the complexities of spices used in so many foods is amazing. We have had no trouble learning how to eat here, but it is the nuances of the culture that have intrigued and challenged us. We have become masters of negotiation. Everything is negotiable in India, and by the end of our trip I was haggling with hotel owners,Rickshaw drivers, fruit vendors and tailors. If someone wanted to sell me something we were going to bargain dance. The follow-up to any agreement would be the proper head waggle. There is a subtle motion that Indians make with there head that is not quite side-to-side, or up-and-down, but more a bobble head motion describing that we have an undstanding. With great yearning we asked our Indian-American friends to teach us this skill. They refused! Deep in the trenches of restaurant and market communication Carmen and I waggled our way to understanding. For those that are interested in this art,the most elegant and direct head waggle is achieved by drawing an six inch horizontal figure eight with your chin two to four times. Repeat as necessary.