Delhi: Grand Hearts, Shining Brightly

DSCF2367I have learned that Indian people have hearts as big as their smiles. Yes, there is greed and unrest and poverty and inequality and laziness (maybe all just components of human nature?) everywhere. And among the throngs and the close-quartered humanity there are amazing souls to encounter here, where so many believe that now is good and the practice of bramacharya (restraint, limits, and the knowledge that there is such a thing as too much) actually is a way of life.

DSCF2381On this, my last day of freedom and my last day in Delhi, I spent the day with the uncle of an old friend. This is a man I had never met. He is as old as my father might have been, with a family and responsibilities of his own. Yet he cleared his slate to play tour guide to an energetic American girl hell-bent on breathing in this city and seeing it through a local’s eyes.

He opened up his heart to me and told me stories about his experiences in India, about his family and about his personal philosophies… all this while he brought me on a sightseeing journey throughout the enormous and mesmerising city. I am eternally grateful.

The day’s adventures included tourist spots Jantar Mantar, which is this larger-than-life astrological park and sundial that looks like a comic book skate park. I think one needs a helicopter or hot air balloon to properly absorb the site. We wandered through Qutab Minar, a 12th/13th century mosque and religious site with a 73 metre high minaret and some truly impressive old stonework. There was the requisite pass by India Gate, Parliament, all the embassies… And because I was curious as to the difference between saag and palak, my gracious host took me to lunch at Cosy Restaurant  in Hauz Khas, explained the seasonal differences and how saag is prepared this time of year, and we ate a simple, yet excellent, meal of Saag Mukhan Wala (looks like a pile of creamed spinach, but tastes like ginger-cardamom-garlic heaven!) and butter rotis. There is nothing in this world like freshly-made Indian bread. After lunch, we made a quick stop to gawk at the outside of the outlandish Baha’i Lotus Temple, which looks like a cross between a spaceship and a sex toy springing from the ground to escape (or perhaps devour) the throngs of tourists and devotees alike.

2015-01-06 17.20.19The last stop of the day was my favorite: tea and sweets in a bustling cafe in the Bengali market. The sweet shop/cafe reminded me of a cross between a chinatown dim sum place and a coffee shop in the North End or Little Italy. Here we had chai, an Indian ice cream called kulfi, and I had my first taste of
, cooked in a giant wok-like fryer. It’s the Indian jalebiversion of fried dough, only 4000% more spectacular. Made well, it is hot and crispy on the outside, sweet and oozy on the inside (the perfect street food…I am unquestionably hooked!). The racket was as warm as the tea, and we talked and laughed about the Indian chatter.

When my newly-adopted uncle dropped me at my hotel, we were talk- and walk-weary. It had been a long day. What strikes me still to this day is the sense of inclusion one feels in India. On a continuous basis in this country, I have been invited to enjoy local custom, to ask questions, to learn about what makes this place tick. Strangers and merchants alike have shared food and tea and toothless smiles and namastes that warm me and make me feel like part of this great machine that churns and vibrates and belches and screams and whines and beeps and sings and shines brightly…

Street Walking in Delhi

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.