So the bikes were sold in a flash and we’d washed as much of the Holi colour out of our hair as we could. Now what? Our flight home wasn’t till 29th! It only took a few days till we started missing our bikes, the challenging riding around and the exiting freedom they gave us. We made use of the better than average WiFi at our hotel and started planning the next part of our trip, fantasizing about being reunited with Pippa and Seven and salivating at pictures of all the yummy European food we’d be cooking in Berlin. So many days were spent on this, we upgraded the ‘Sliced Monk’ to be made with real mangoes and started making friends with Rufus, our chipmunk neighbour.
Of course we didn’t hovel up all the time. The rain had stopped and the short ‘winter’ was over. So on the rather rare occasion when neither one of us suffered from Delhi Belly we jumped at the chance of exploring India’s busy capital.
We walked into Old Delhi where barbers opened shop on stools or on the floor of the pavements and cart pullers and rickshaw wallas washed under hand pumps by the roadside. Electricians were hard at work, splicing cables into the chaotic main grid to connect the adjacent shop. While the wires were live of course.
The famous Friday Mosque looked too tourist busy to tempt us in, so we squeezed through the crowds along the butchers. Lambs heads and feet were being prepared and live chickens sat in stacked cages, shitting on the ones below, waiting for their inevitable death. The stench of chicken poo, raw meat hanging in the heat and blood running in red rivers into the mud at our feet was nasty. Surprisingly the touts had no chance of tempting us into one of the restaurants that interrupted the line of slaughter dens.
A bustling bazaar with stall after stall selling the same shoes, belts and T-shirts held up the traffic along the road to the red fort. Some kid tried to pick-pocket me, but was outsmarted by the zipper on my belt pouch and only got a nasty growl off of me. We found a quiet side street along its walls with half a mind to go inside, given that we hadn’t really visited any big forts on our journey round India. This one was based on the giant one in Agra and had a pretty House of Audience inside. But once again the long queues of tourists put us off and we went to find a yummy lunch closer to home instead.
The Jantar Mantar, an observatory from the 18th century, which had been used to measure positions of stars and constellations to a surprising amount of accuracy, provoked our curiosity. Set in a quiet park which many couples use for a romantic rendezvous it looked intriguing. We soon discovered that ropes and watchmen forbid climbing up the steps onto the various geometrical giants. The placards told tales of markings by which the measurements were taken and explanations on how it’s done. But years of insensitive restoration with concrete and red paint had all but eradicated these markings, turning the carefully constructed measuring instruments into a park of colossal sculptures. Not quite what we had expected, but well worth the visit nonetheless.
On our way back we walked past a rusty yellow Enfield with a red beacon declaring to be a police bike. While I stood bemused at the idea of an Enfield trying to catch a thief on a Pulsar or something, a kid staring at me, his eyes almost popping out of his skull, got run into by a beeping scooter. Everyone around was in stitches, including me. Don’t worry, he wasn’t hurt, just really embarrassed. I know we might be strangers here, but it serves him right for rudely goggling like I was a naked alien or something.
At some point I went to the other side of town to finally get my tablet fixed, while Aidan stayed in our room to work on his photos. Getting there and back on the super modern Delhi Metro was an experience in itself. The trains work without delay and service is smooth; not like the London Underground I am used to. Unlike anywhere else in India, people queue neatly at the ticket counter and where yellow arrows announce the position of the doors of the imminent train. There is even a carriage reserved for ladies at the front of each train.
But rush hour changes everything. Queuing for my entry token, the fat man behind me was breathing down my neck. Each cold breath made me cringe and I turned to throw him an evil glance, but to no avail. Even loud disapproving tut tut noises made no difference. A guy behind approached and offered to buy a ticket for me while I wait at the side. Thing is, I was in a major rush to get to the repair shop before closing time.
Closer to the counter the queue now began to push along and my fat friend behind me made no effort to avoid being squashed against me. I turned around and scowled and swore at him. He just gave me an innocent not-my-fault look. Another guy from the ‘exact change’ queue offered the space in front of him. But again I had to decline, as I only had a big note. Luckily it was my turn soon and once I acquired my precious token, I loudly voiced my disgust at the man behind, making sure the entire ticket hall could hear. Publicly losing face is a huge disgrace in India. But he deserved it!
When the trains are full, all queuing systems are abandoned and people start charging full force into the doors long before everyone has got off. Two guys caught in the tiny gap between the train and the barrier that is supposed to stop people falling onto the tracks threw me a half worried, half apologetic look as I got lifted off my feet and over the barrier, swept towards the no spitting sign. (Many Indians chew pan which acts as appetite suppressant and wakes you up. You can’t swallow that stuff so brownish red spit marks decorate walls, staircases and even hotel room corners everywhere.)
The shops around Main Bazaar Road sell all sorts of touristy stuff from all over India. When we had first arrived, it was all strange and wonderful to me. Since then we have seen the places where these things are made. Embroidery from Gujarat, leather shoes and bags from Rajasthan, warm, wooly garments from the mountains and incense from Mysore…. Walking down the road is like visiting India all over again. Some things never cease to amaze, like the giant oxen that pull the carts through the busy cacophony of beeps and honks of the city streets.
One morning, watching from Club India’s rooftop restaurant, I spotted a guy who had blatantly just woken up from a good night’s sleep in the street’s busy square, the pillow and blanket still in place. Dressed in nothing but the typical underwear of boxer shorts and wifebeater, he received a leg massage from another man, seemingly oblivious to India’s strict rules on public ‘nudity’.
A few times we treated ourselves to a super yummy Indian breakfast: An omelette folded between two slices of bread, that had been fried into it. But street food is always a gamble. One day the egg was spilled over the side of the cup. Undeterred by hygiene concerns, the wallah simply poured the raw egg off the dirty tray back into the pan. Unlucky for Aidan, whose sandwich it was (his had chilly, mine did not, so no doubt as to whose it was). He never strayed far from the toilet the next day.
On my tablet-fixing ventures I had spotted a pretty park next to the intriguing Lotus Temple. So once Aidan was better, we went to have a look. The temple belongs to the Bahai faith, a modern religion that welcomes all, regardless of race or faith and everyone is welcome to visit and pray there. The building is magnificent, a lotus with 27 petals hovering over nine lakes (which are also part of its natural cooling system) inside a big park. The building is stunning and you can see the beautiful white concrete lotus leaf structure on the inside too. The acoustics are fantastic, so much as a whisper can be clearly heard by all.
Speaking and taking photos inside was strictly forbidden and to my surprise everyone complied (so I stole a couple of pics off the internet to show you what it was like inside). Only a certain amount of people are allowed through the door each time to avoid overcrowding. But you are allowed to stay as long as you like. We sat down for a while, soaking up the intensively comfortable, warm atmosphere of the space. With its cool air and silence, it offered a welcome respite from the outside world. In fact it reminded me a bit of the various Steiner buildings, like the Goetheanum, which I had visited, but without the stineryness.
Afterwards we walked the adjacent park which metamorphoses from well-kept flower beds and lawns where middle class people were picnicking on their packed lunches, several smart phones lined up in front of them at one end, to the wilder, unkempt parts, complete with tarp-tent slum at the other. My delight at every flower and strange tree spoke volumes about how much I felt deprived of a bit of nature and greenery. Not long now, till we would be camping in the wilderness of Bulgaria, freezing cold or not!
A craving for grass and trees had been sparked, so our next excursion took us to Green Park. Past an old ruin among the trees we got lost and discovered a big herd of spotted deer. The triple fence did not allow for any decent photos, so we just watched them for a while.
The internet had promised a wickid little travellers cafe where hippie-type travellers indulge in ginger-lemon-honey tea, reading books from the book-swap (you can leave the one you finished and take a new one). A yummy cup of coffee sounded alluring. But the cafe was nowhere to be found. Arty design shops and horrible wannabe posh bars lined the streets, catering to the middle class Indian tourists. Adverts for gyms hung off lamp posts and joggers were running through the parks. Outdoor gyms had been created. This was in stark contrast to the muscle and body mass building drinks and foods we had seen in the shops in small towns and poorer areas.
As so often in India, the squalid homes of the poor were just around the corner, clinging to the edge of a government-owned forest. The area was unexpectedly delightful, houses painted all colours of the rainbow with makeshift brick huts haphazardly attached to the square concrete buildings. Kids played ball in the street and cows roamed next to the ancient ruins to one side. Grain was being dried on those charpoys you usually find in dhabas and colourful laundry decorated everything.
We gave up on the cafe idea and climbed around the local ruins instead. The local teenagers had the same idea, hanging out in groups and couples sneaking romantic moments holding hands. Somehow there is no stairs down to the lake on this side, so everyone is finding places to jump down or scramble up the wall.
We climbed down too, and wandered around the lake. A little boy attached himself to us, playing tour guide, pointing to the ducks on the lake which I was photographing. Of course we didn’t understand a word he was saying and he soon found something else to do. On the way back we made one last attempt to find the cafe and ended up having a beer in a bar instead. The horribly electronic music didn’t reach the balcony and hey at least it’s sort of a pub 🙂
The Sindhi music and Sufi food festival had us pop over to Nehru Park one evening. The music wasn’t as exiting as some performances we had seen on our travels around India.
But the Sufi thali was yum with unusual spices and herbal popadums. There wasn’t a space for us at any of the tables, so we settled in a grassy corner. As we were munching away, the people from the food stall came over with a bowl of a hot, sweet dessert for us to try. They called it halva but it was more like a mixed nut marzipan and surprisingly yummy, even with the deep fried sweet bread. Real nice of them 🙂
On the way down we had spotted a jazz festival in another corner of the park, so we popped over there. The young crowd was spread out over the surrounding grassy hills and the place was alive with an excited buzz. These were the modern teenagers. Guys were wearing T-shirts instead of shirts and the girls looked almost European in their tight jeans and T-shirts. Aidan even spotted some of them drinking alcohol! If you were young and middle class, this was the place to be. We hung around as long as we dared before we had to take the long walk back to the last Metro home.
When we’d been in Karol Bagh to get the bikes cleaned, we’d bumped into a guy called Dick Tango. He had mentioned that he was staying in the Tibetan Colony in the north of the city. It sounded intriguing, so we went to have a look. Tibetan prayer flags decorating a bridge across a busy highway announced that we had found it. We dove into the tiny lanes between tall concrete blocks where monks in red robes wandered between the stalls and shops selling typically Tibetan stuffs decorated in turquoise and woven from yaks wool. It was nice to see some different stuff for sale for once. Everything was decorated with the colourful flags and tourists were sitting in cafes while locals were playing board games in courtyards. Shame we weren’t hungry enough to try the fabled local cuisine.
All too soon the little lanes ended, opening onto a gravel road where busy construction was evident everywhere. This colony had started as a temporary place for Tibetan refugees. But with time their stay became more permanent and the cheap concrete housing so typical for fast-growing Delhi is rising up everywhere. Across the gravel road, past heaps of bricks and sand a river delta was separated by raised soil into small patches where people try to grow enough vegetables to feed their families. As families grow, these patches are divided between the sons and so the patches shrink in size over the years. Makeshift branch and tarp shacks dot the delta where people live permanently.
We watched a bunch of kids play in a little stream of sewerage water running down from the concrete colony. It was such a hot day with the sun blazing down, I almost envied them. They loved having their photo taken and even got the cool sunglasses out for the occasion.
A nearby worker spotted us taking photos and posed, his pickaxe over his shoulder, to have his taken too. Excited he ran over to his mates, calling for us to take their photo, but they didn’t look too convinced. On our way back through the little lanes a couple of gravel workers stared at us forgetting all about the heavy metal bowls heaped with gravel on their heads. Here they don’t use wheel barrows much. At road works and construction alike, a chain of scrawny looking, hard-working men and women load up metal bowls with sand or gravel, heave them onto their head and take them to the next person in the chain, who heaves it onto theirs like in a relay race.
Leaving the Tibetan colony behind, we were intrigued by a colourful spire sticking out amongst the concrete buildings. Our search had us wandering into a sort of monastery by accident. A man sitting on the entrance floor advised us to take our shoes off. As we wandered in, past a giant kitchen and many closed doors with flowers on them, looking decidedly lost and unsure, a robed guy came up, asking if we wanted to see the temple. He led us to the entrance and said he’d wait on the other side for us.
At the bottom of the stairs we found the machine that makes all the racket early in the morning, like one that woke us in Varanasi each day: drumming and bells chiming, faster and faster till a noisy climax. I had always imagined some devout Hindu monks waking up extra early and beating the shit out of the instruments so I was amused to see it’s just a machine on a timer.
The temple was in the cellar and all tiled in overwhelming gold. A tunnel so low you have to duck leads you down to a tiny room where various life size deities sit in niches. Of course it came complete with some Indian tourists taking pictures on their phones, so I snuck a couple of photos too. As we emerged up the tiled stair case on the other side, the robed man greeted us and told us to wait a second. Here we go, we thought, and got our wallet out to make the donation we expected him to demand. But instead he pressed a packet of biscuits and a bag of rice puffs used in puja – an offering to the gods – into our hands.
Shame, we didn’t like those biscuits much, so we gave them to one of the many beggar children roaming round the Tibetan colony. The cheeky fucker took them and then asked for money anyways. The rice puffs went to Rufus. He even preferred them over Nachos!
It was the nine days of Durga Puja (nine days of spring cleaning the dusty old garlands and offerings from the shrines and replacing them with fresh cloths and marigolds, culminating in a big procession with music…. or so we are told). In the recent day we had spotted stalls everywhere selling those triangular red cloths with gold embroidery, chains of marigolds and jasmine, red and pink powders, rose petals, clay pots in which to make the offerings, cow dung fuel for the little fires lit, incense and little red ribbons you tie around your wrist to show that you have fulfilled your puja. Random little processions through the streets were a regular occurrence.
As so often the enthusiasm and wonder with which the newcomer tells of these things capture the reader. But after half a year here, our eyes have accustomed to these exotic curiosities and we watch the street life with an element of dawning understanding for the customs and habits of the locals. Where before they all looked colourfully the same, we can now tell the well-to-do from the poorer people by their dress and activity. I have spotted different ways of wearing a sari and varied types of salwar kameez. Things like those hand-pedaled tricycles for those who cannot walk or cycle, have become a common sight, as have scooters with support wheels.
Of course I would never claim we know it all, but we have subtly learned a lot about India and its people. I no longer feel a complete stranger walking around the streets of Delhi. We have got to know the real price of things, learned to joke with the locals without offending, but still making a point if need be, or how to fob off touts with a smile. We have a much better feel for who to trust and learned to disarm complete bullshit with a big laugh, bringing out the real person behind the dodgy character just trying to extract cash from our pockets. Even walking among the crazy traffic in the streets has become second nature.
And so, just as I was beginning to feel more comfortable and at home, no longer fazed by people staring like we are zoo animals or having to haggle for everything and anything, it was time to go home. The visa was expiring and the flight had been booked long ago. As luck would have it, we bumped into Ali, who’d been busy the last couple of weeks and got a chance to hang out and say good bye over a cup of coffee. Then it was time to cram our belongings, which had magically multiplied, into our bursting bags, say good bye to the guys at New King Hostel, who’d so kindly looked after us all the time, and head to the Airport.
Good bye India! It’s been ….. well, it’s hard to say in just a few words…. intense, lively, emotional, colourful, stunningly beautiful, frustrating, dangerous, relaxing, immense fun, educational, unbelievably incredible…. I think it will take us a while before we can sum it up in just one sentence and I’m so happy we did it! 🙂 We’ll sure be missing the lively craziness!