Not my cup of chai

I arrived in Delhi in an excited state of exhaustion from almost two nights of little to no sleep (the night before the trip due to packing and anticipation, and the overnight flight itself). The flight to Delhi was just under eight hours, and my seat-mate was a girl named Manasi, a Bangalore native just returning home from a six-month work period in Gottingen. She recommended a list of foods to eat while in Delhi, as well as markets (my hands-down favourite thing to do in any new city is to browse the local markets), and we each recommended a few books. After the flight, I hired a cab from the airport to my guesthouse (via AirBnB) in Defence Colony in New Delhi. First impression: driving is an absolute clusterfuck (not that this was unexpected).

The guesthouse owner, Vinod, is a very kind, elderly man who has been more than accommodating, ensuring that I always have fresh fruit and clean drinking water stocked in my room. His grandfather originally built this home and his family members have lived here since. Born in western Pakistan, his parents were both medical doctors (his mother born in Kenya and his father in Myanmar) and were stationed in different locations, including northern India and Myanmar. They had to emergency-evacuate their homes and relocate several times due to war. He himself was an officer in the navy and retired in 1996, then working with the World Health Organization to help make polio vaccinations universal in India (India has been polio-free for a few years now).

For my first meal here, I walked to the Defence Colony market nearby, considered one of the more posh areas of town (“posh” is only relatively speaking, mind you—no Ferarris or Louis Vuitton purses here). I was immediately accosted by a persistent duo of kids begging for money. They eventually stopped stalking me, and I walked into a restaurant called Sagar Ratna, a small chain in Delhi well-known for their South Indian food. It was bustling, and I could understand why after eating my vegetarian masala dosa, basically a crispy fried pancake made from rice flour with peas and a few other veggies. The colorful sauces accompanying it were served in small dishes, each a unique flavour—some of them spicy and all of them delicious.

I also met the mother of a friend (Chiara) I had met while traveling in Thailand four years ago. We recently caught up a bit, and she had mentioned that her mom is living in Delhi (where Chiara was raised). I met Helga at a coffee shop next to the restaurant and was immediately struck by her Indian accent. Despite living and travelling all over the world, she prefers to call Delhi home. She was born in Poland during WWII and fled with her family to Germany. She speaks English, Hindi, German, and Italian fluently, and is eccentric and animated. There is wisdom and curiosity in her bright blue eyes. I hope to meet her again during my stay in Delhi.

Day 2 in Delhi can best be described as a full-frontal assault to the senses.

I began my second day with a quick breakfast at my guesthouse, and then plunged myself into the chaos of Delhi without a second thought. I arranged a private tour (as there were no groups to join that day) with Street Connections, which is a guided tour run by former street kids helped by the Salaam Baalak Trust. The organization takes children off the street and provides them with the essentials of a new life. The children live in dormitories on site and receive classroom-based education. My guide, Khursheed, was a 21-year-old boy who came to the Trust when he was 13 after having a pretty rough childhood, including parents who abandoned him to his grandmother and working in factory conditions for 12-14 hour days. I took the metro to the city for the first time, and Khursheed met me in front of Jama Masjid mosque (after a harrowing rickshaw ride down dusty, bustling Chawri Bazaar). We immediately veered off the main street into the narrow alleyways of Old Delhi.

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We visited a Jain temple, a haunted 300-year-old tree, an embroidery factory, a screen-printing factory, a bread maker, a jewellery market, and my favourite, a chai vendor (sweet, hot, milky tea). I admit that the pungent aromas of Old Delhi made me gag a few times, mainly from inhaling the suffocating, spice-filled air of the spice market, which is the second-largest in the world (after Istanbul). I can’t put my finger on it, but there is one particular spice that really repulses me—it’s not something I’ve ever eaten in western-style Indian food (which I’m beginning to suspect is modified to appeal to the western palate). Anyway, it seems that there is no escaping it in this city—unwelcome whiffs while walking on the street are unavoidable, so I better get used to it fast. Combined with the noise (honking must be the national pasttime), heat, dirtiness, pollution (extreme), and chaos enveloping you, you can imagine that tolerance levels can drop rapidly, and I am not zen enough to fully embrace this type of atmosphere. I’m hoping I have gotten past the initial sensory assault and will be better conditioned for the rest of my trip. I get the sense that there is always something new to discover in Delhi, but I’m not sure if I would give the city another chance beyond this visit (I will also be here for one day at the end of my trip). On a positive note, the colors are vibrant and the people are cheerful.

Later in the day, I found myself seeking out another famous South Indian restaurant called Hotel Saravana Bhavan in Connaught Place. I was looking forward to trying the bread and sauce platter (thali) I had ordered. The place was full of Indians, but a westerner sat at the table next to me and ordered the same meal. I struck up a conversation with him and learned he was a Polish academic (let’s call him Indiana Jones) who had lived in Delhi for his PhD studies in post-colonial literature and was visiting for work. Unlike me, he could speak and read Hindi fluently. He was fond of this city. My second example that there are westerners who have found the secret to appreciating this place. Also unlike me, he quickly devoured his identical meal while my stomach turned over it. That sneaky fucking spice again. I instead sipped watermelon juice and ate the crispy bread that came with my meal. Afterwards, I joined my lunch companion for an excursion to a bookstore before I ordered a second meal elsewhere (tandoori chicken and naan—a bit more familiar and appealing, although the tandoori spice blend was not like what I’ve eaten back home), and then we wished each other a good trip before he headed off to Amritsar by train, in search of a manuscript (hence the Indiana Jones reference). This is one of the great things about travelling: sharing a few moments (or a few hours) with a fellow traveller, and then you’re both on your merry way. I’ve crossed paths with some interesting people in the past by being open to conversing with strangers.

Oh, and I saw a monkey eating a popsicle.

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