Posted by: jeanne | November 3, 2018

escape from new delhi

escape from new delhi, another unfortunate pun, i’m afraid. i just can’t help myself.

so here we are at delhi airport, on thursday morning half an hour before our flight to istanbul. the last two days of our stay in delhi were epic indeed, with drama, intensity, moments of sheer terror, and a whirlwind of shopping experiences. let me explain.

when i last wrote, both of us were sick. well, we’re still sick, but they’re only colds, and we hope the change of atmosphere will put us right at last. delhi is incredibly polluted this time of year, and we were under a ‘very poor’ alert, with visibility fading after only a hundred feet – less.

on tuesday jim was in bed much of the day, recuperating from his episode, which we’re well able to deal with at this point. i packed up all our stuff, and repacked several times (good thing gabi has an industrial set of scales in the house), worked several orders that had come in during the night, and took several naps, because i still wasn’t right after my migraine.

jim went shopping for saris among gabi’s stock – he won’t wear them; they’ll end up as art

in the evening, we ventured out to get several things we needed still. i kind of forget what at this point. more wood blocks, some clothes for the kids (did i already go over this?). we ate up all the rest of the spaghetti i’d made before we went travelling, and went to bed early.

our friendly neighborhood money changer, as we turn a bunch of rupees into euro, for istanbul

skeeter the dog has a hard time in this season, because it’s getting close to diwali, the festival of lights, and people were shooting off firecrackers every few minutes. like many dogs, he hates the sound, and got up on the bed with us – a dog as big as we are, snuggling against our legs for protection and reassurance. we took turns patting his head and smoothing his back. poor baby.

skeeter, needing comfort

kaliya, needing nothing

we had lots to do on wednesday, our last day in delhi. we had put off going to old delhi as long as possible, and now there was no time left. so we gathered up all the packages going to the post office, and went to the street of tuktuks. the first guy said 150, and i said 80 and stormed off across the street while he shouted for me to come back. we took another auto rickshaw, and they’d heard the exchange, and were more than happy to overcharge us only 30 rupees. didi wasn’t at the post office, because she was sick, and there was some guy taking her place, so i was dubious, but he stashed the packages in the same place, and took the roll of tape and put it in a lockbox, so i assumed he was up to speed.

digging up the street – again – by hand

when we got back to the auto rickshaw stand and asked for jama masjid, some guy came up and spun us a line to get us away from the driver we were going to use. i’m still confused about whether there’s a bell-captain type of position at that stand, or whether they compete to see who can fleece the tourists with more finesse. he said, oh yes, you’re going to old delhi, and you want a bicycle rickshaw to tour with, and he will make stops for you, and wait while you shop, and show you all the sights. i agreed that’s what we wanted, and he said, i will take you to tourist bureau for 20 rupees only, and they will arrange everything.

i was dubious, but we got in. i became suspicious when he stopped only a couple of blocks away, going the wrong way up a street for those blocks, and ushered us out at a tourist bureau. in an air conditioned building. with desks and suited people. we were shown to the largest office, where a guy behind an empty desk listened to my proposed itinerary, then whipped out a calculator and punched in 50. it will cost $50, he said, brightly, used to dealing with tourists right off the bus. how much is that in rupees, i wanted to know. he figured it out. 3600, he said. i got up, furious, said we’re paying 400, and stalked out. jim followed. i told the driver he could now take us to jama masjid, and asked how much. how much you want to pay madam, he asked, and he turned the keys over to someone else when i insisted on 150 (still an overpayment).

psst, hey mister, want some lamb? just fell off a truck in front of my car

so we went off to the largest mosque in delhi, right next to the red fort, and both places tourists want to go. but we were a bit burned out of the desire to see forts and palaces, even tho it had a step well, and scouted around the front of the mosque for cycle rickshaws. only we were on the wrong side of the road. the side where there were shop stalls selling lamb and live chickens, along with all the other things you can find on the sides of the streets in delhi (everything). we started walking, knowing we’d be spotted right away as tourists, and sure enough, a little guy in a turban and lungi waved at us. i told him where i wanted to go and asked him how much, and he didn’t understand a word of english, so agreed to everything.

a man rolling up paan

then a guy came up with good english, and convinced us that we wanted to go with him. an argument ensued when we got out of one rickshaw and into another, and i had to give the guy 10 rupees for his trouble. but we were now with someone who could understand what we wanted to do. only too well, of course. i asked how much, because you never get into a rickshaw without establishing the price, and he said, oh madam, if you don’t like my service, you pay me nothing; if you like my service, then you pay what you wish. i said, oh no you don’t. give me a price. that other man agreed to 400. i repeated that number several times. it didn’t seem to phase him, but he still insisted that the price was up to me. so finally we got in.

we wanted to see some lace, and some handmade paper, go to the spice market to get a view of delhi from the top of the building, and get some cheap cotton saris. and then we wanted to go to karim’s restaurant because it’s highly rated in all the guidebooks. and he was fine with this, so we took off. bicycle rickshaws are more basic than auto rickshaws – no springs, for instance, and rock hard seats. you’re in a cage, tho, which isolates you somewhat from passing vehicles and pedestrians. but the moment we turned down into the narrow streets of old delhi, the traffic noises died away, so we gave thanks for the small things.

we went down a lane only a few feet wider than our rickshaw, filled with shops displaying lots of brightly colored things. we were in kinari bazaar, where they sell ‘lace’, but really it was trim. all kinds of trim, from beads to pompoms to crocheted gold and silver zari thread. but no lace that we could see as we trundled down the street. it was extraordinarily crowded, so our driver/guide said, because of the runup to diwali, which is thankfully after we get home. everybody was out buying presents and decorations, and all the stores were featuring bright yellow and orange doodads.

we did pass an off-branch of a perfumery i’d only recently read about in a review of old delhi, an old maker of attars (non-solvent based essences). it took me a moment to work out the name, but it matched my memory, just not the right street. so the driver turned around, and i left jim in the rickshaw and stepped inside. it was a wide and shallow room lined with cabinets full of glass bottles, half a dozen men sitting around, and one woman (who handled the credit card transactions). i wanted to smell my usual (rose, patchouli, sandalwood), and several other blends i’d heard of, and sat there while a guy unstoppered sampler bottles and dabbed the skin of my arm with a small amount from each bottle while i rubbed it in and smelled it. of course, the full aroma doesn’t develop until it’s been on for a few minutes, but we didn’t have that, and i had to make up my mind at the first sniff. i said no to the patchouli, because it was suspiciously thin, and almost said no to the rose, because it was a pale yellow (and true attar of rose is a dusky color (but i’m no expert)), and one fragrance smelled like sweat. but otherwise, i got 4 little bottles of nice oils, and then a pack of 8 soaps (mostly for allison), and the whole cost me about $15. so not too bad.

then it was back in the back of the bike, and more jolting thru the streets. i wanted to go down the sari street (nai sarak) but the driver had his own idea of the route, and explained this to me as if i were achild. so we went to chandni chowk, the heart of old delhi. we’d once seen a movie called ‘from chandni chowk to china’, staring one of the bollywood greats, but i don’t remember much of the beginning of the movie, just its improbable middle and end. so it was no preparation. it started out as a wide street (meaning houses and lanes were razed by whatever king decided he wanted it), with a canal in the middle so people could enjoy the reflection of the moon in it at night (which is what the name refers to). but now it was a wide street chock full of cars, rickshaws, and people. we hadn’t actually seen any cows in old delhi, and didn’t really wonder if all the meat eating muslims in the area hadn’t scarfed them up (you go to jail for killing a cow in india). we were heading to the spice market at the end of the street, and soon our guy pulled his rickshaw over and we got out. you couldn’t take a rickshaw into the spice market, he said, and we were afraid he was going to point us in the direction and let us make our way itself. jim would have stayed with the rickshaw if that were the case, but he got out and took jim’s elbow (impressed that he’s 80), and led him across the road and down the sidewalk (again, not really a sidewalk, but rather a platform raised up from the street that had vendors on both sides, making a very narrow passage for people to walk thru.

we were going along the dried fruit and nut market to get to the spice market. dried fruit and nuts everywhere in all the shops, and throngs of people clamoring to buy them, with sellers of copper-stamp pictures, silver-tint presentation boxes, sets of assorted nuts and fruits piled high on carts and tables on the street side. it all looked very tempting, and if we hadn’t had a guide leading as fast as jim would go, i might have stopped for a kilo or two of pistachios, walnuts, dried mango and ginger and apricots etc etc.

the two of them turned down a little lane with an arch above it (the very first time jim walked ahead of me this entire trip, because usually he lags behind from 6-10 steps and keeps his following distance no matter if i slow down. i have to stop and wait for him, often with impatience on my face, because if he’s going to match my speed, at least he could walk close to me). the smell of chili accosted us, and i wondered if he were suffering, because he can’t take spicy food at all. but he was fine. i was really enjoying the smells of so much chili, so many actual spices – cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, anise, and all sorts of spices i can’t even name. all in big burlap bags lining the alleyway and filling the floor of each shop we passed.

our guide knew we wanted to go to the top, and knew right where the stairs were, and led us up floor after floor to get there, leading jim by the hand (because men hold hands here and think nothing of it) or elbow, and finally we were at the top. the view into the central courtyard of the building was amazing, with activity everywhere, sacks of spices everywhere. it was a very old building, centuries old, and the same things had gone on there day after day for the entire time. you could write a novel set there, and not run out of things to say about it. but the real treat was going to the outside of the building and looking out at old delhi.

of course there was so much smog that it was impossible to see the horizon, and i’d thought that would make a trip to the top useless. but i was wrong. we couldn’t see all of delhi, true, and what we could see was obscured by a dense layer of smoke, but it was still fascinating.

who doesn’t love papadum?

just below us on a lower rooftop, people were drying papadum on bamboo screens in the sun (and nasty air). as i watched, a guy came out, lifted a huge screen onto his shoulders, and ducked inside a thatched lean-to with it, to take all the round papadums off and package them for sale, i suppose. there was a smallish mosque (very famous, very old) just next to the spice market, and its gardens were laid out for us to see, all very quiet with a fountain.

but the big treat for me was a slightly higher rooftop adjacent to it. as we went up to that, a guided party of white people came up the stairs and went to the same spot we’d just been, so that’s why our driver had no hesitation in finding the stairs. at the end of the upper level, over a parapet, we could see the bustling chandni chowk crowds swarming like ants on a donut. trucks unloading, big bundles being carried on men’s heads, honking and blaring horns.

so much activity – pandemonium. and as an added treat, there was a man in his underwear, washing his clothes the way they do by hand here – rubbing soap into them, splashing water onto them, then gathering up the clothing into a bundle and pounding it into the surface of the roof, over and over again, like tamping flour into a container. half naked men doing the laundry, you can bet i got a photo.

then jim had had enough, so we went down again. this time our guide was not so solicitous, and i had to wait to let jim catch up several times. but we made it back to the rickshaw, and were off again. but instead of going down nai sarak, he pointed out a second floor shop on a corner of chandni chowk, and said that was the best place. i should have insisted, but let him stop and get out and escort me upstairs, where i found myself in a showroom flanked by half a dozen men. i told them i wanted cotton only, and they made me sit down instead of going over to the stacked saris and looking for the colors i wanted. so i could only say blue and red, and a young guy went over to the stacks for me and began pulling saris and throwing them at my feet. or rather the head guy’s feet, who swiped the bundle up and presented them to me. very nice, very beautiful, a bit too fancy. but some really cool ones. i kept pushing them aside, now and then putting one by my feet. and interestingly, they saved the really attractive ones until i’d made my decision of one or two saris, and then tossed one irresistible one after another my way.

then they showed me linen. unless they were lying and it was some sort of plastic, it was the finest linen i’ve ever seen, and in a lovely dark blue. and only 800 per meter. so i got 3 yards, and after that they were throwing saris at me right and left. i stopped them by saying, now let me see your cheapest cotton saris, and that got me some costing 1500 each. and i’d been looking at saris for 7000 apiece, about $100. in the end, i got 6 saris and some yardage, and when they ran the credit card it came to over $200 (at least i hope i didn’t spend $2000, i’ll find out when i examine my credit card bill once the charge hits). i was happy to have so many lovely lengths of fabric, but pretty tired of the guide and his choice of what i wanted to see. as we went down the stairs, i remarked that i hoped he was getting a good commission for bringing me to their shop, and he turned all innocent and no, madam, i do it to bring you the most lovely blahblahblah

jim had been sitting in the rickshaw this whole time, talking to the proprietor of the store, so he was okay. and then we turned down nai sarak, and there was store after store, filled to the brim with saris, and prices in the windows showing less than half of what i’d been paying upstairs. i was pretty pissed off by this, as much at myself for not seeing thru his game and refusing to be diverted. but i’m pretty easy that way (even tho delhi has made me much harder than i was before).

we only needed to get some paper, and at this point the guy started bugging me for how much i was going to pay him. i started by reminding him of his tacit 400 agreement, and he got all frowny. i know, he said, you pay me 2000, 1 for you and 1 for him. i said no, i don’t think so, and he dropped it. we drove to the paper area, and by paper he thought i meant printed paper – the cheap calendars and posters they sold by the side of the street. or maybe textbooks and used novels. or maybe wedding cards, all painted and perforated and bejeweled. handmade paper, i said. he looked blank. we kept scanning the shops as we passed. finally we stopped him at a shop that sold wedding paper, and i got out and asked for handmade paper. the guy waved me across the street, and we saw a window full of exactly what we wanted.

our guy wanted to be paid at this point, and wanted to drop us right there and merely direct us to karim’s restaurant, but i was having none of it, having been pushed far enough. so jim and i got ourselves across the street while he sulked in the driver’s seat, and went into the shop, with had a party of indian women shopping for wrapping paper. the paper was very thick, like cardstock, and all very nice and nicely done. a lot of the paper we can get at home, and a lot of very fancy, jeweled paper we’d never seen before. if it had been me, i would have come home with a roll of 30 sheets of various highly decorated paper, especially after i was told they were 30 rupees each. but jim only wanted a warm white, and only bought 5 sheets of it, even after looking at every kind they had (rolling shelves that moved away to reveal more shelves behind them). but we were soon done. we’re done, yes? he asked me as we returned to the rickshaw. you pay me now? i have to go. hah.

and then off to karim’s. the idea that we could have found it on our own was laughable. first our guy parked in his usual spot against the wall of the mosque and pointed vaguely down a side street. no way. so he led us, quite rapidly, and without any care for jim’s slowness, down the street and paused to let us catch up before turning again into an alley and down the few yards to a courtyard of restaurants, all of which said karim’s. at this point he wanted his money. so i took him aside and reminded him that he had said i could pay him nothing if i wasn’t happy with his service, and reminded him also that he had taken me to the most expensive sari shop in delhi. on the other hand, he was very helpful and solicitous of jim’s lack of confidence in the street, and i appreciated that. so i gave him 1000, which is 2.5 times as much as gabi had told me they’ll settle for, and he gave me a very sour look as he took the money. i would have done it entirely differently if i’d had more experience there, but innocents abroad…

so there we were, standing in the middle of an courtyarded alley, looking blank. we were heading for the restaurant with tablecloths, and trying to avoid the stand-up restaurant areas. but a waiter approached and said, two? and we said yes and followed him into a karim’s with an upstairs and a downstairs, led us upstairs, and sat us at the water station, where they stage carafes of water before putting them on the tables. under the air conditioner. the place was packed, with a passel of americans at one table and the rest indians. the waiters all had skullcaps on, so they were muslim. and karim’s was an old (1913) mughal-style restaurant from the british days. mughal means mild food, as opposed to the firey food of hindu delhi, so we were hoping to find safed maas on the menu.

the menu was in english, and we could hear indians discussing the menu with their waiter, in hindi, throwing in the engligh names of the dishes as they spoke. we asked ours what jim could have with NO spices, and he suggested mutton burra. we agreed – a half plate only. i chose half a plate of mutton korma, ordered rice pilau, and some buttered naan bread. with bottled still water. and all this took some time. the place was packed. all of the little sub restaurants were packed. it was 3pm. we were exhausted, and hungry. and when the meal came, the burra was a dry dish, just meat rolled in spices and roasted over an open flame, like shishkabobs. jim took one bite and reached for the water, and i got to finish that. my korma wasn’t very spicy, so i gave him a few pieces, and he cut them up and ate them with a lot of rice, while i ate most of both dishes and mopped up the korma sauce with my naan.

so then we were finished, and the meal cost us 800. so we went back out to the street to hail an auto rickshaw, and who appeared at our elbow but the guy who drove us mad all afternoon. he helped us get one, and stood by when i negotiated the price down to 150, and shook our hands, calling jim father. whatever. have a nice life.

our auto driver took us immediately down a narrow lane that i had thought too small for motorbike rickshaws. it was filled with sellers of car parts. all kinds of car parts, and each shop specialized in something else. want an engine block? need a new windshield wiper fluid reservoir? got a busted headlight? want to replace that worn upholstery? got a ding in your hood? it was all there. with repetition and competition. and mostly there was one guy per shop, staring at his phone or watching the street or sleeping, or two or three guys sitting and talking, and not a lot of business being done.

the rickshaw was on very rough roads, and we were bounced around an awful lot – more than normal. i kept finding groans forced out of me, and at one point we were thrown against each other and knocked heads hard. the guy never noticed, and there was nothing he could do about it anyway – we were already going at a snail’s pace. and then we entered a street where a small truck (too large for those alleys) was coming toward us, and the brave little driver headed down to meet him. there were carts lining the road, with their drivers sleeping in them, and tho at one point the truck rammed right into this one guy’s cart, he never bothered to get up and move his cart, but just kept dozing on. there was a lot of shouting between our driver and the truck driver, with locals helping by shouting their bit over them. we sat there for ten minutes or so, until the press of public opinion convinced our driver to back up to the end of the lane and let the truck pass. and then we went on, along with a dozen or so other vehicles that had collected in the meantime.

we got a personal tour of old delhi that afternoon. down the most unlikely laneways, and when we hit a larger street, traffic was stopped completely for many long minutes, with drivers getting out of their vehicles, and pedestrians hopping over the front wheels of rickshaws, and passengers sitting and staring at one another. but finally we were moving, only to get stuck again, but closer and closer to the ajmeri gate that marked the end of old delhi and the edge of the train station, after which was paharganj.

so around 5 we got back to the house. the guy dropped us off at banki behar mandir, the hindu temple right in front of gabi’s house, and we were inside and falling on the bed within moments, grateful not to be vibrating and shaking anymore. and of course as soon as we relaxed just a little bit, shaloo came to clean. she’d missed the day before, so there were lots of dishes to do (i wouldn’t let jim do the dishes – it’s bad enough when he has hot water to wash with, and this was a cold water kitchen). i had to finish packing, so i got up and went to it, and jim alternately rested and read his new book (captain corelli’s mandolin, written 20 years before the nick cage movie).

packing was interesting. i’d been packing the rolly bag carryons inside the large suitcases, filling the smaller bags with the breakables, and packing all the fabrics around them. but when i weighed the big bags, two of them were up to 29kg, which is 9kg overweight. so i had to pull both small bags out and repack them so i could use one as an actual carryon, and check the other one. i put all our carved wooden blocks into one bag, with the books and nothing else, and it too was overweight. so i had to distribute everything more carefully. except for the medium sized bag, which was stuffed full of fabrics and only weighed 15kg. but in the end, thanks to industrial scales, i got every bag down below its weight. i have loads of space, but not a lot of weight room left, so i’m going to have to be judicious in istanbul. but other than a few blankets and a bunch of evil eyes, i don’t really need anything else.

then we went to bed. we were still waiting for vijay, our replacement house sitter, who was supposed to arrive around 9, when he got off work. but it was 11 and he still wasn’t there. i’d called, he said three different things (i’ll be over right away, i’ll be over around 12, i’ll be over at 4 to get your taxi), and finally sameer called him from africa and told him to get his ass over there. so i had a short conversation with him about what he needed to do (money for dog food, arranging the cab for 4:30, not 2, and the same charade shaloo had gone thru when it came to accepting our tip as thanks), and then went to bed. i might have gotten 2 hours of sleep.

at 4, we got up, and had to wake vijay, who had to borrow my phone to call the cab, because his was out of minutes. he helped us drag the bags down the alley to the front of the temple, and the car was there as soon as we were. already there were people on the streets, even in the dark of night, and already there were people looking for a cab to the airport. our driver had to do a series of shallow turns to get himself oriented in the street, almost hitting one of those would-be riders, and then we were off. he got lost immediately, trying to find a gas station, and then demanded payment so he could get gas. my instructions were not to pay him until we reached our destination, and that was what i’d thought would be best, given the history. but i confirmed that he was now paid off, and he said thank you, and asked us to get out of the car. but this was because of a sign in the gas station that said no passengers can be inside when gas is being pumped. huh. if there was an explosion, it would take out the entire gas station, so what good does it do to get out of the car? whatever.

after that he got on the expressway, and we got to the airport. then we stood in line at the entrance to the terminal, while soldiers checked passports and tickets, which we didn’t have. i submitted our passports and showed him my daybook with the flight details, but that wasn’t good enough, and beside, we were in the domestic line. so we trundled down to the other end of the terminal and tried again. people have their tickets on their phones now, or printed out on copy paper. but we didn’t, because it’s not necessary any more. so the guy looked really confused, then found his supervisor, who brought out a manifest, and found our names on that. imagine the hassle if i had to show a ticket without being able to get to the ticket counter or a printer.

the rest of it went smoothly. the ticket agent showed us the damage to our ancient bags, just so we would know when they came back the worse for wear after our flight. then going thru the baggage xray line, we had to wait behind an ancient befuddled american who couldn’t function without his wife, from whom he’d been separated when they split the passengers into male and female lines so they could all be individually wanded and patted down. and then i had jim’s passport and boarding pass so i had to get it back to him before they’d let him go, and then they wanted to closely examine jim’s backpack with all the electronics in it. but then we were out of that, and thru duty free, and walking to our gate. so we sat there for half an hour. jim nodded off along with most of the other passengers (it was still predawn), while i got the computer out and started up this post.

and then we were on the plane, waiting. we were already a few minutes late for departure when the captain announced that a woman who was six months pregnant had fallen ill, and didn’t want to travel, and they’d gotten hold of her doctor who said she and her baby were at risk, and so they were going to open up the plane and let her get off. and then he was back saying that regulations stipulate than when a passenger refuses to fly, they have to do a thorough luggage and cabin search in case this was just a ruse to plant a bomb somewhere. so we both slept thru the racket of overhead storage bins being opened and slammed, and an hour later, we were taxiing to the runway. yay. the plane was half empty.

the smog lasted until the mountains of pakistan

an hour into our flight, over the dry mountains of afghanistan,  they brought us a delicious breakfast with a chicken toastie, an egg and cheese pie, spinach and roasted pepper in the main dish, and side dishes of raw vegetables and cheese and olives, a dish of yogurt, bread rolls (with fake butter, sigh), water, and sour cherry juice, followed by coffee too thick and bitter to drink. i ate all of jim’s vegetables. it was the first green food i’d had since i came to delhi. then, i was looking out the window at the incredibly arid and mountainous region, when one after another flight attendant came around to tell me to lower the shades, because even tho it was then 9:30 in delhi, they wanted to pretend it was night so that when we landed at 11:30am in istanbul, the passengers could eat another breakfast? i’m not sure, and it pissed me off to be told again and again, so eventually i slammed the window shut and got out the computer. it’s cloudy out now, anyway.

so that’s where i’m leaving it for now. there are no photos yet, because the photo transfer process from the big camera failed last night (might be the cord), so i’m not sure when i’m going to post this, but i think it had better be right away, because it’s already almost 6,000 words, and there’s still two days in istanbul to describe.

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