We had feared that by the time we reached our last day in India, a 20 hour stint in Delhi, we would be so tired, tired of India, and homesick that it would be a slog to get through it. The plan we formed a week or so ago was to go to Old Delhi, walk around, buy some spices, and punt the rest of the day. When we landed in Delhi our travel manager met us at the airport and we talked over the plan. He suggested that walking in Old Delhi alone was unwise, and he would arrange a driver to accompany us for the day. This sounded reasonable. It turned out the driver would be the same fellow who took us to the hotel that evening, so we finalized a pickup time for the next morning–he suggested 9 am, as any earlier there wouldn’t be much open anyway. The day dawned misty and chilly. We had gotten a very good night’s sleep and we awoke enthusiastic about the day, against all our expectations. Our visit to Old Delhi the second day in India had been brief–just a bicycle rickshaw tear through, up the hill to the big mosque, a walk around the mosque and then a tear down to be dropped at the Red Fort which is more or less across the street. This time we parked the car, one of the first ten cars or so in the dusty, unpacked lot, and set out walking to the disappointment of the ten or twenty rickshaw drivers who hollered for our business, “take ride to spice market! walk no good!”
The sun was coming out, warming the street just enough and we felt more and more excited about the day. Our driver and guide, Santosh, pointed out all kinds of things and guided us along the already somewhat crowded streets, holding us back as motorcycles and rickshaws and handcarts came from every direction. The fruit and vegetable carts and stands and sidewalk displays were out and lots of commerce and bustle kept us entertained. We turned up a main thoroughfare, perhaps a full lane, or, for bicycle rickshaws ample two lanes, wide. Many storefronts were still closed, metal gates down, but many were open including breakfast poori and dal stands, and of course tea shops/stands with battered aluminum pots of milky tea at full boil over charcoal fires. We made our first commercial stop at a large–for Old Delhi–incense, oil and perfume shop.
We bought a few packages of cone incense, each with a little ceramic dish for burning them in, and got into a chat with the proprietor. Where are you from? Where have you visited? Very nice. We kept walking, watching the city come fully alive alleyway by alleyway. Santosh suggested leaving the main thoroughfare so we turned into one of the very, very narrow alleys.
What a delight! Many sari and bead stores were opening, as we were in the sari district, and vegetables were for sale from canvas spreads on the pavement. I stopped to look at what I thought were ginger bulbs, but the ends were orange.
They were fresh turmeric! I bought a few (15 rupees) and hope I can bring them into California. We shall see. Cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes, purple and spring onions, bananas, apples, star fruit, and a few things we couldn’t name. A few monkeys ran ahead of us on overhangs and, frighteningly, the sagging tangle of electric wires.
At one alley corner a fruit monger was tossing bananas up to them, and it appeared to be a morning ritual as the monkeys each waited for his or her banana and one dropped down to the pavement to eat it. Off to the side of one alley was a wide, quiet, beautiful and ancient-seeming row of houses, a commercial office of what looked like an antique or arts dealer having a chat on a speaker phone, and at the end of the block a white marble building which must have been a temple of some kind. We took many pictures…it reminded me of the row of painted ladies in San Francisco in that it was impossibly picturesque.
We wandered from one commercial district to the next–housewares, books, paper goods/stationery, saris, sari lace and beadwork, brass work, jewelry…and it got busier and busier as pretty soon every shop was open. It seems impossible that all this stuff gets sold, or that an establishment produces a sufficient income. But this is largely a wholesale district and it apparently all works. We insisted on getting to a spice market but Santosh didn’t know of it. We begged him to ask and he did, and we made a u-turn. The we were in the shoe district, the clothing district, the watch district–and I remembered that my watch and was fraying and so we ducked into a store, like most about 5 feet wide with glass cases up one side and a counter on the other. Yes, they had them! About five minutes later and 150 rupees lighter (a few dollars) I had a new watch band installed. Yeah!
We came around a bend and store after store was selling nuts and dried fruits, including almonds from California, but mostly local. Santosh had us duck into one, and they sold a wide array of spices and masalas (spice mixes). A salesman started taking us through everything that they had. There was a open tray of compartments and he had us smell or taste each one–all, except Szechuan pepper, of Indian origin. “Taste this salt–it tastes like hard boiled eggs” as he picked up two large rocks of purple crystal, rubbed the, together to drop a few flakes in our open palms. Yup! It did, because, as I confirmed, it has sulfur in it. This is the black Himalayan salt–some of which I have at home but believe me it tastes nothing like this delicious stuff and I said right away I wanted some.
Tellicherry black peppercorns. Dried mace flowers. Dried whole turmeric. Vanilla bean. Cinnamon bark. White peppercorns. Coriander seeds that are light yellow and oval, unlike the ones in the states. The we went on to the masalas. Fish masala, chicken tandoori, and about five others. And chai tea mix. We ended up spending $140 or so…what fun!
We wandered back through the side alleys, gawking and taking pictures. The sun was shining and it was like the whole of India was crammed into this amazing place. Schoolgirls in uniform buying little dishes of noodles, all crowded around and pouring orange and green sauces on top. School kids jammed 6 or more into bicycle rickshaws to head to school. Muslim men, and some women, milling around the mosques. An oxcart racing, incredibly, up the street. A man hurrying down an alley with a washing machine balanced on his head. Poori stands (a puffed fried bread).
When we returned to the parking lot it was a mass of cars, so crowded and busy with cars coming in I couldn’t see how we would ever get out. But it took only a few minutes and we were on the road, which was midday full. We stopped at Pindi, which had been our favorite restaurant in Delhi, for our last, and most delicious lunch of paneer tikka, mutton saagwala (lamb in a spinach sauce), rice and paratha. Heavenly.
Delhi. Goodbye India. Thank you for treating us so well and for showing us your beauty, squalor, messiness; for saving your history, your palaces, forts, temples; for your generosity, openness, curiosity; your spices, food, salt lassis; your Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims; your friendly children, beautiful and inspiring women, pushy businessmen; your cows and water buffalo, your dogs and cats and monkeys; soaring kites, both avian and paper, screaming parakeets.
We won’t miss the dusty roads, uncollected garbage, constant honking horns, beeping motorscooters, ringing bicycles. We won’t miss the unending construction, piles of bricks and sand and lumber, or having to buy bottled water or having every single meal at least a little bit spicy. We never expected to love it as much as we now do, and hope we will come back someday.