Old Delhi, India. We have often been in homes or offices with magnificent views and wondered how the occupants could ever keep away from the windows. And then, having found ourselves resident in hotels or other accommodations with views like, say, Lake Como, we realized that the view eventually fades into the wallpaper. Yes, there is that initial burst of awe and enjoyment of all the day’s various lighting effects, but then, there comes a time when you Just. Don’t. Even. Notice. It.
That odd tipping point has come to us in regard to India. Not so much about beautiful things, though there are many of them here. No, it’s about the visual chaos and the garbage and the cows and the garish posters and the crumbling buildings. Like Lake Como, they have become our wallpaper and it’s very difficult to actually see them anymore. It’s just India, it’s just what you expect on the streets.
We have been so jealous of the fabulous hair of both men and women, so admiring of the beauty of so many women’s dresses, so charmed by the grace and dignity of even the most humble people we see, so relieved by the generally high level of personal hygiene (superior to the average New York subway crowd), and so captivated by the charm of the children we encounter. They are incredibly self-possessed yet clearly as mischievous as kids anywhere else in the world. (Don wanted me to say that about the hair and to add that we haven’t seen any bald men. Yes, we are very shallow.)
India has been full of surprises, because we were expecting a level of chaos and makeshift modernity that we hadn’t seen at all – till we took a rickshaw ride in Old Delhi.
As usual, we were staked out by a guy outside the Red Fort who offered some good information about the Fort, and in exchange wanted to drive us around for a few hours. We hadn’t used a rickshaw yet, but realized that they were the preferred manner of transport in this area. Tuk-tuks, it turns out, are almost too large to navigate the streets we were about to encounter. We learned that they feel like an armored car compared to a rickshaw. No body parts should hang over the sides!!
Our man wanted to show us several special parts of Old Delhi, starting with the spice market, which he said is the largest in Asia. The road we took there, Chandi Chowk, was once a beautiful posh Mughal avenue, with trees and a water canal in the middle. Today it is the most crowded, busy, congested and commercial mess of a street we have ever encountered – and it was fabulous.
Here’s what part of our ride was like:
But somehow, we’re totally acclimated to the chaos. When we got to the spice market, we were expecting something more formal. The ground floor of this former Mughal residence (meaning it is very old and was once very elegant) is dedicated to retail sales of spices, and porters with huge sacks on their heads are constantly moving around. It is a huge square building surrounding an enormous courtyard. We ultimately climbed four flights of stairs which OSHA (Health and Safety for you Brits) would have shut down in two seconds.
Yet the three of us climbed to each level, dodging – and being shoved aside – by the porters speeding their way up and down. The upper floors are devoted to the wholesale spice trade, and what a trade it must be. It was amazing to think that some of those sacks of every spice imaginable might end up in divided into small jars to be sold for high prices in our local grocery store.
The chili floor had us sneezing for quite a while, but try to enjoy the chaos without the aromas.
The rest of our ride was through tiny lanes, each with their own specialties. There were opticians, saris galore, accessories for glamorizing weddings, jewelry, dentists – whatever you desire. Observe the wires running amok over the streets, causing us to wonder when we would all burst into flame. The traffic jams were extreme, but when an overloaded rickshaw kept getting stuck under the overhead wires, everyone got out to help – or to loudly supervise. What a trip.
After our lunch, which Don described yesterday, we walked past the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India.
It was built between 1644 and 1656 and can accommodate more than 25,000 people, which it does every Friday. We were totally out of energy, so just admired it from across a street crammed with street vendors, food servers, live chickens, and every manner of transport, on our way to the metro stop and home to nice calm New Delhi.
We were so lucky in Delhi, with cool weather and relatively low pollution levels. It would take a lifetime to explore it in depth, but we are so happy to have had this time to at least sample it.