For the next few weeks, I’m going to post about my recent trip to India – my first on the sub-continent. For those of you dreaming of a trip to India or for those of you who have been, feel free to add tidbits of your travel stories in the comments section!
Our first full day in Delhi started off early – really early – with an Islamic call to prayer at about 5 a.m. I live in mid-America and there aren’t a lot of calls to prayer. I should probably look up what time these are if we’re going to be in a hotel within throwing distance of the largest mosque in India: Jama Mosque.
I went to the rooftop of the hotel to listen to the calls to prayer bouncing around the city from multiple mosques and to wait for sunrise. The sound was magical, but my first sunrise, like every other I would encounter in India, was a wash. There was too much fog – which would turn to smog as the day went along – meaning there wasn’t really a sunset either. The days simply get progressively lighter or darker without the accompanying color that I associate with these times of day. I love to photograph at sunrise, but on this trip it was not to be.
I did see a group of moneys playing across the rooftops as the morning lightened, but was later warned that they did sometimes jump onto our rooftop terrace and become aggressive. Apparently they were hooligan monkeys. Later, in the rats nest of electrical cables strung over the market, we’d see other monkeys. They seem to be to India what squirrels are to our area of the world – everywhere. Cute, but a bit of a pest.
After a lovely breakfast, my husband and I went for our first walk in old Delhi. Talk about jumping into India with both feet!
Our first goal was to find a way in and out of the warren of passageways that lead to our hotel. We couldn’t use the tried and tested method of hailing a cab if we got lost; cabs can only take us so far in old Delhi. We made our way through the maze until we came to a major thoroughfare, and then tried to memorize the shops at the entrance to the alleyway to insure we took the same one on the way back again. Looking back I don’t remember seeing one street sign. They may have been there, but so were 100 other signs and things to distract my attention.
We were within sight of both the aforementioned Jama Mosque and the Red Fort. Even though we were near a main road, nearly all the sidewalk space, when there was such a thing, was taken up with all manner of carts and rickshaws and people doing everything from washing their laundry – yes, on the street and I don’t mean in a tub of water – to being shaved by a barber.
This is when we encountered our first of many, seemingly hundreds, of rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers wanting to take us to many places, but mainly the spice market. I’m not sure why the spice market in particular, but they seemed insistent. The drivers were nothing if not persistent. Just as we’d shake one, another would appear. There’s just no way of politely refusing. A quick and firm “no” and then ignore all the salesmanship that came after was the only way to go.
We made our way, fairly slowly as we were often part of the weaving traffic pattern, towards the Jama Mosque. We found it easily enough and walked right in – after handing in our shoes, for 100 rupees, and me donning a flowing robe marred only by it’s bright neon yellow color. I’d come already conservatively clothed, or so I thought, but I still needed the robe. We only found out later that we could easily have carried in our shoes for free. It would take us at least a week to get the hang of the Indian marketplace where services and goods would be given, without us asking for them, only to find out that these weren’t gifts at all, but sales with the expectation of money.
We spent a great deal of time at the mosque slowly walking the huge courtyard and climbing to the top of one of the minaret towers, for 200 rupees – plus another 100 in tips for a guide who we didn’t realize wasn’t included in the price. We’ve really got to learn this lesson. We’d fail this test at least twice more as the day went on. We must learn to say “No” to everything.
There was a small reflecting pool in the courtyard, which seemed to be a place for people to gather, contemplate, and have a ritual wash. I got my first really nice photos while we sat and watched the world evolve around us.
We traversed the streets around the mosque for a bit until the crowds overwhelmed us and we dove into the safety of our hotel. Our travels through the crowds around the mosque were a mere warm-up for the main event of the day: the market Chandni Chowk.
The narrow streets of the market, the press of people, and the rickshaws and motorbikes trying to use all available space meant that the journey through the market was hazardous. I’m surprised that neither I nor my husband received a souvenir bruise or broken bone.
The maze of streets meant that we constantly had to keep track of where we were and retrace our steps to make sure we could find our way back again. We should have brought some breadcrumbs from the hotel. Google was useless as the buildings blocked the satellite signal and on a map the area simply looks like a solid block. Streets? No streets there!
There were some lovely textiles for sale, but I simply didn’t have the attention to keep myself upright and shop at the same time. Soon we reached an even busier road, if that was even possible, and I gave up. The smog and crowds had beaten me.
We’d left time in the afternoon to visit the Red Fort. Unfortunately, our travels took us to Delhi on a Monday – the day the Red Fort is closed. We still have some time tomorrow so all is not lost.
After fighting our way across a busy 4, 5, 6 lane road depending on how you count it, we gave up and gave in to one of the rickshaw drivers. “Take us to this spice market of which you speak!”
And he did.
He traveled back through the crowded market that had beaten us earlier in the day with ease – at least for us. He did all the work and the yelling. Even pushing bikes out of the way if need be. This is the way to travel!
There was no way we would have found the spice market on our own. He guided us through the market on foot and took us back to our hotel, with only a brief side trip to an “underground” market, which was basically a basement shop. We weren’t interested and stayed not long at all. It was a hit to his commission, but we paid him well for his time.
Today, we had a full introduction to the ways – and traffic patterns – of India.