Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Day 10 - Delhi

Delhi, like all of India’s large cities, tells two tales.  That of economic advancement and prosperity and that of utter poverty, living literally side by side.  Outside of my relatively posh hotel window, an untouchable woman sweeps the adjacent alley, as a monkey walks across a fence behind her, a rundown and abandoned apartment building sits empty except for the squaters living in its shadow.  Tall skyrises look down on slums housing millions.

I had breakfast in the hotel before heading out to explore.  As I sipped my chai and ate my uttapam and aloo bhaj, my eyes scanned the room.  Europeans and Americans tourists milled about, fresh stringed marigolds placed around their necks, fanny packs and cameras in tow, picking out the most Western food they could recognize from the buffet.  Western businessmen prepared for a day at the office.   I found myself yearning for the home cooked breakfast of the housemothers, the smell of the open fire heating the morning coffee at Rourkela, the children peering into our dining area waiting for us to come out to play with them.   I missed the cities of Ranchi and Rourkela, where a Westerner was not to be seen for days, the locals going about their business while we peered in on their world.  I wanted to go back to my room and go back to bed rather that visit the markets I feared would be populated with Westerners trying to haggle, or the sites I had on my list to check out that would likely be filled with tourists. 

As I hit the streets, it felt like India again.  Busy, congested, full of color and life.  I walked several blocks around Connaught Circle towards a couple of large markets that I had heard about.  Along the way, street vendors filled the air with the smell of spice.  In Delhi, I got approached more often by someone trying to get me to go into their store, use their taxi or cut me a special deal “just for me” than I had in the rural cities.   I purused Janpath, the Tibetan Market and the underground Palinka market, which sold handcrafts, materials and saris, jewelry, shoes and clothing.  I also went into Central Cottage Industries Emporium, which has all fixed pricing (versus haggling at the street vendors).   I picked up some dresses, bindis (beaded stickers that Indians stick on their forehead between their eyes) and anklets for my girls, a couple of scarves from some hard bargaining tribal woman lining a back alley, a hand carved drum that I was pretty impressed with (got him down to $16US).  I think I did pretty well with haggling which is not only accepted, it’s expected and part of the process.  Both parties in the transaction need to feel satisfied with their efforts and the outcome.

After a quick lunch, I headed back out towards The Red Fort only to find it was closed on Mondays so I had the driver take me to South Delhi to Hauz Khas, a relaxed setting of thin alleys sided with contemporary Indian art galleries, upscale boutiques, antique shops and rooftop cafes.  Also in the area are a set of ruins and tombs from the thirteen hundreds which was pretty cool to walk through.  I wound down with a beer at a contemporary hip bistro and some dinner before my waiting cab took me back to the hotel to grab my luggage and on to the airport for my 11pm flight back to the states. 

What an amazing trip this has been.  To see and interact with such smart and positive children in a truly humbling environment, to see such diverse Indian culture, from the cities to the hillsides, from the traditional to the tribal, crossing many religions and cultural boundaries, the bright colors and ornate dressing of the woman regardless of class or status, the chaotic roads, filled with cars, trucks, pedestrians, rickshaws, motorcycles, cows, chickens, water buffalo and goats, the train through the country, the added unknown of the Naxalites activities and the celebration of Dewali “The Festival of Lights”.

I’ve heard people say “You can leave India but India never leaves you”…now I know exactly that they mean.

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