India was actually a long layover on the way to Africa. I’d land in New Delhi at 4:30PM and have to get back on a plane at 3:10AM the next morning. Factor in immigration and security, and I figured I had a good four or five hours to see Delhi. It’d have to be quick, but how could I not venture out? I wasn’t about to sit in an airport for 10 hours, in a country I’d never visited. By the way—by my rules—you can’t “count” a visit to a country if you never leave the airport. All the more reason I had to get out and see the city. India would be country #75 for me.
I’ll spare you the details on the clusterf*ck of my arrival, but between a miscommunication with the tour company and confusion on how to handle my bags, I was a couple hours late to meet my guide, and I had all my luggage in-tow; definitely a major fail—a rookie mistake for sure. There actually was a moment where I almost said, “Forget it,” and turned around to head back to the airport: it was when I realized I’d have to squeeze into a crowded subway car like an Indian sardine, with all my bags. But I powered through it, because that’s what us extreme travelers do. Often the thrill is that of accomplishment, after clearing the setbacks and obstacles. It often makes the adventure sweeter, if you can survive it.
I finally ascended from the Rajiv Chowk Metro Station after a challenging journey into town, to meet my guide, Shehnaz, two hours late. It was dark now. I apologized, we exchanged quick pleasantries, and it was off to start our New Delhi food tour. It was immediately back down into the subway station and onto a car five times as crowded as the last. When the doors opened and I saw the subway literally stuffed and crammed full of Indians, I didn’t think for a minute we’d get on this train.
“You have to poosh,” said Shehnaz.
And before I could even start to question whether I could actually “push” other human beings to board a subway, the pushing from behind me commenced. Like a giant wave takes a piece of buoyant seaweed to the shore, I just kind of went with it, as I pushed forward and got pushed forward, over the gap and into the car, bags and all. Now we were both in, as the door closed and the subway started moving. I couldn’t even lift either arm to hold on to anything, but it didn’t matter, I couldn’t fall in any direction; I was securely padded by people. I was in fear that the money in my back pocket would be gone by the next stop though. My wallet, phone and passport were tightly nestled in my front pocket, but I had a wad of singles in the back. I was so tightly wedged in between the masses, I knew there’d be no way I could tell if someone was removing them from my person. We were all so smashed together, I probably could’ve received a rectal exam and wouldn’t be the wiser. Luckily it was just two stops later when we exited and headed up into Old Delhi.
Old Delhi was just like I pictured it, only more intense. It was just like movies, but more people. I was immediately overwhelmed with how much traffic was going by in every direction, but these weren’t cars! People, scooters, bicycles, and rickshaws—seemed like millions of them—filled the narrow streets of this old neighborhood.
Shehnaz put us both in a rickshaw and now we too, were part of the madness. I took video where I could. I wanted to document this ride, but also didn’t want to lose my iPhone. At the same time I was also making sure my suitcase and backpack didn’t disappear, all the time making sure I didn’t fall out of the rickshaw. It definitely was a balancing act and a little hard to relax, but it was fun.
Cruising around in that motorized rickshaw reminded me of a ride at Disneyland; it was just like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride! Bumps and sharp turns, people and things coming at us in all directions in the dark, lots of horns and loud music. Yup, it was exactly like one of those rides at Disney. Except this one was real.
We cruised through the metal market, where most of the shops were closing or already closed down for the day, and disembarked at the spice market to take a walk and browse. It was pretty neat to see all the bushels and barrels of stuff out in the open, some of which I recognized, and others I didn’t. Shehnaz explained each item that I didn’t know. We passed a few stores that had bushels of potato chips, pasta and other edible thingamajigs. The shop keepers were pretty cool, inviting us to “Take a taste take a taste,” as I walked by capturing some images for Instagram. We got to the chili market, which was unfortunately already closed, but the experience of sneezing and then coughing up chili dust as we passed the area, I will never forget.
It was time to eat, and I was starving. Our first stop was the best. We found some room to sit and eat at Giani’s Di Hatti and Shehnaz ordered up both a plate of chole bhature, which is chana masala and fried bread called bhatoora made from maida flour from the Punjab of India. It was absolutely delicious and I now have a quest to find an Indian restaurant back in the states that serves chole bhature. I was pretty impressed.
Back out onto the streets, next we tried jalebi, which I was only familiar with because it’s the fried dessert you see in almost every Indian documentary or movie, when they show street food. In fact, I’d just seen the movie Lion less than a week ago, and the beginning features a scene where a little boy is staring at a jalebi stand on the street, wishing he had one. Unlike the chole bhature, which I loved at first bite, I wasn’t a big fan of the jalebi. Its consistency alarmed me…it was a fried pastry, but yet it was soaking, and mean soaking wet. I thought it was grease, but Shehnaz explained the liquid was sugar syrup. Either way, I didn’t ask for seconds.
Next we jumped on a bicycle rickshaw and headed a few blocks over to a giant temple: the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib. This was a new one for me. I’d experienced my first time at a mosque, just three months ago in Algeria. Now it was time to spend some time in a Sikh house of worship. It was past 8PM by now, and this place was packed; tons going on.
As we entered the outside area of the building, Shehnaz noted that the lines of people were all folks waiting for a meal from the temple’s community kitchen . People of all faiths, genders, ages and social statuses were welcome to come eat at the temple. I thought that was awesome.
Next we entered an area where we had to take off our shoes and socks and turn them in through a window; kind of like at the bowling alley. I was now completely barefoot. Anyone who knows me knows that this is a “thing” for me: I can’t stand being barefoot. I won’t even wear flip-flops! It grosses me out being barefoot in my own house, and now here I was, barefoot in India…with thousands of other barefoot Indians. I just tried not to think about it and went with it. We exited the “shoe area” and touched the pavement outside the temple for a few steps and that really freaked me out! But I was immediately relieved when we stepped in a trough of clear water at the entrance to the temple. But I only enjoyed it for about one second–until I realized that thousands of other people are using this same water to clean their feet. Ugh, I couldn’t win!
Finally we’d made inside the temple. A guy at the door wearing a giant turban and holding a huge metal staff handed me a colorful towel to put on my head. When this guy tells you to put a towel on your head, you put a towel on your head! We walked in to a giant room and took a seat on the carpet and relaxed as I tried to make sense of what was going on around me. At the front, there were three of four guys singing and I think a drum and guitar; all playing really cool Indian music as the lyrics displayed on overhead monitors in three different languages. There was something happening in the very front, next to the singers; inside a grand canopy or pulpit of some kind. Seemed like that’s where all the action was coming from.
Shehnaz informed me that pictures were allowed inside the temple and I should feel to “snap away,” however, “selfies” were not permitted. Before we left this main room, I headed to the very back to take some shots. I then asked Shehnaz to take a picture of me, with the pulpit behind me. Soon an angry man approached us and starting making a fuss about the pictures and even demanded that I delete them. Shehnaz calmed him down, as I erased the photos. When we left, Shehnaz explained to me that the man was upset because I had my back to the service, and that was disrespectful. Apparently the perturbed Punjabi wasn’t even an official of the church, just an angered worshipper. This is the reason I roll with guides in countries like India. In countries where the cultures are so different, and you’re rolling into locals-only scenes, a native guide can almost always get you out of hot water.
We walked out into the courtyard and had a seat and Shehnaz told me the fascinating story of the meaning behind this temple, including the “Gurus,” and some history of the Siekh religion. Fascinating stuff.
She then took me for a behind the scenes look into the community kitchen where I saw a guy transporting a giant vat of rice in a barrel the size of a Jacuzzi; pulling it with an old steel cart that looked like it belonged on an old railroad or mine. The guy pushing the cart was barefoot too (as everyone was), and I couldn’t imagine the pain of getting your foot rolled over with those steel wheels. I noticed an army of cockroaches marching up and down the doorframe to the kitchen and a small cat under one of the tables. The scene made me so appreciative of US health codes.
The tour of the temple was outstanding, but I’m not gonna lie, I was so relieved when I got to put my shoes and socks back on. Shehnaz and I jumped onto another rickshaw and made our way over to our next food stop.
We were now in the Muslin area of town, on the second floor of the Haji Mohammad Hussain Chicken and Fish Fry. It was 9PM now and there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. We waited for a table to clear and then sat down to devour a plate of fried chicken. But this wasn’t just any fried chicken—nope, this was Indian fried chicken and it was fantastic. It had some crazy spices all over it that gave it an amazing kick. We dipped it in a sauce and scooped up some onions and lime with our tortillas. So so good! The chicken was as not as meaty as I was used to, and I’m guessing that’s because India doesn’t use the hormones and chemicals we use to fatten the birds up. I’m not sure, but it was very different, and very delicious. And not a tourist in sight! Half of the room stared at me, probably wondering where I came from and what I was doing there. I washed everything down with a Thumb’s Up soda.
It was getting late, but we had one last stop: dessert at Kallan Sweets. This place is famous for sugary treats. Shehnaz ordered a rice pudding for me (kheer) and we split a bread pudding dish (shahi tuda); both good, and very different from anything at home. Sadly, our tour had come to an end.
It was back on a rickshaw and over to the metro station, where Shehnaz made sure I got on the right train headed for the airport. I thought it was sweet that her father had called her during the end of our tour to check up on her and make sure she was okay. Shehnaz was a gem, and I was so lucky to have a guide like her. She was friendly, super accommodating, was a wealth of knowledge, and had a super sweet smile.
By the time I checked in at the airline counter and passed through security and immigration, I had about an hour to enjoy the lounge before heading to my gate and boarding my next flight.
Though I wished I’d had a couple of days to do more, like visit the Taj Mahal, we really packed in a lot for just a few hours. India was everything I thought it would be and more. Crowded, noisy, chaotic, smelly and spicy. Very spicy! If you ever have a layover there with enough time, definitely venture out into the abyss that is Delhi, and secure a guide like Shehnaz to show it all to you. I’m happy to say that I will never forget country #75.
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