December 22: Street Walking in Old Delhi
This day starts with a walk in the streets of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Chaos wakes up early, as street sleepers and tuk tuks, taxis, cycle rickshaws, cows, dogs and all others who share the roads begin their frenzy. “Chai omelet chai omelet” yell the markets’ breakfast wallahs. Misplaced punctuation makes a traveller curious.
Sobering is the number of kids on the street in the cities here. In a population of 1 billion, there are a million kids living on the streets in India. A million runaways, cast-offs, lost, forgotten, displaced and simply abandoned or not-forgotten children who could be potential game-changers for the next generation. We connect with a NGO called Salaam Baalak Trust, working to help these boys and girls get off the streets and rise to their dharma. According to their website, Salaam Baalak Trust translates literally to “salute the child,” and they do this by providing a safe haven for such a slim fraction of these kids.
So after a walk in the gnarly, dirty, busy, noisy, somewhat smelly but not as bad as I expected streets, we met some of the new arrivals at the Salaam Baalak Trust boys’ shelter in Paharganj. Here, they dance, they sing, they learn, they look for their families…many of whom don’t want them back. My heart nearly exploded when a very small boy, maybe 7 or 8, took my hands in his little warm mitts, stared directly into my eyes and asked me, “what are your dreams?” He wants to be a footballer.
I keep coming back to the tuk tuks because they are literally everywhere! And so, this day, I survive my first-ever tuk tuk ride… I have determined that a tuk tuk ride through the streets of Delhi is as good an adrenaline rush as a roller coaster. This one had a big Om on the back window. Regardless of the implied security (doors, what doors?), we nearly lost our lives… 6 times minimum.
Even with millions of homeless in India, it is said that one cannot go hungry. If there is a Gurudwara (Sikh temple) nearby, regardless of caste or heritage you are invited in for a free meal. As seva, we hand-rolled chapati alongside the automatic chapati machine issuing forth dozens to our single-digit creations. Being part of the well-oiled machine that feeds thousands each day felt like the right thing to do.
Here, it seems everything is either for sale, negotiable or remedied with rupees. Case in point, muslim custom dictates that women should cover up in a mosque and that photos are not allowed. In Jama Masjid, one can pay a camera fee to bring in a camera (I am soon to find out that this is common at most tourist attractions – I’ve never seen that before!) and one can opt to a) walk past the guy asking you to cover up with a borrowed robe or b) use said borrowed robe to cover up and pay $10 rupees for the privilege. I was shuttled towards the guy by the queue, so had little choice in the matter.
The day continues with another couple of tuk tuk rides: from Connaught Place to India Gate, a blur of fog, color, hawkers, visitors (99.9% Desi – Indian) and preparations for an upcoming event…then back to our hotel to get ready for the next leg of the adventure: an overnight train to Jodhpur. I feel like I’m on the Amazing Race, and they’ve forgiven my not quite first class map-reading skills.