The delectable and displeasing scents of Delhi

I enter the street through the shiny glass door that sighs heavily as it opens, gently breaking the airlock that separates me from the pristine marble floor and wall tiles lining the foyer and the turmoil that lives on the other side.
The doorman, an elderly gentleman dressed in a crumpled uniform hanging wearily from his shoulders, has jumped to attention from the lopsided, rusty brass handled chair that defines his importance as hotel guard, warding off unwanted visitors lurking in the darkness of night and as the concierge, providing a friendly greeting to guests as they come and go from his hotel.
I exit the building, practicing the five Hindi words I have learnt, with the old man.  He laughs, looking exceptionally pleased with my attempt to speak his native tongue, and after responding with a paragraph of fluent hindi, he laughs again, this time at my bewildered response to the garbled sentence I have no chance of understanding. ’Taxi Miss?’, ’No thanks’, He cocks his head to the side and looks at me with a puzzled expression. Using an exaggerated swinging arm movement I indicate we are going exploring on foot. Smiling, he returns an understanding head wobble. He politely waits for us to leave the perimeter of his designated area before retreating back to his chair, letting his eyelids drop gently to rest until the next guest enters his domain.

From the moment I leave the sanctuary of the hotel, the assault on every sense in my body begins….

I am immediately enveloped by a delightful conglomeration of sights, sounds and smells. I tingle with anticipation as my brain goes into overload in an attempt to take everything in.
A dingy food stall with a torn piece of tarpaulin hangs precariously from ropes tied around lamp posts, a token cover to protect the cooks as they work under the heat of the sun.
Sweat beads glisten on their brows as they work quickly to churn out plates of spicy dal to the line of customers gathered along the path. I drift into a relaxed food coma at the scent of freshly deep fried puri being pulled from the wok of dark bubbling oil.
I stop and peer inquisitively into the depths of the roadside kitchen hoping to gain a deeper understanding of this intriguing and rustic operation. It is like a production line. A little man sits in the corner kneading the dough, someone else cooks the puri, one man stirs the dal pot, yet another takes the money, calls out the orders and waves the customers along the table to the guy at the end passing out uniform portions of plate after plate of this delectable breakfast snack.
Whilst observing the organised chaos of this busy stall, I promptly sneeze as a whiff of chilli dust hits the back of my nose and back away from the heat of the wood fire that is more fierce than the mid day sun.
A man casually saunters past with a cigarette dangling from his lips and unknowingly gifts me with a puff of herbal smoke that lingers in the air. The smell briefly overpowers the putrid open sewerage drain that has come to my attention where an old lady is sitting washing a pile of carefully balanced dirty plates.  She sits cross legged on the dusty ground, dressed in a vibrant yellow sari, that upon closer inspection, is filthy and warn on the edges. She clangs the stainless steel pots and pans together adding to the cacophony of noise pollution piercing my ears. From the squeak of bicycle rickshaws to car horns, truck engines and children squealing as they play in the streets.
Outside a local school, a sweet vendor stands next to his cart attracting a noisy group of excited children with his colorful display of sugary sweets and blissfully hypnotic music blasting out from crackly old speakers.
I glance up through spindly trees to see the blaze of an orange sun, mellowed by a layer of thick pollution covering the city like a giant fog. My desire to breathe deeply ceases momentarily and I attempt to cover my face with the edge of the scarf that is wrapped around my body, protecting me from the suns harsh rays. With every step, I am embraced by new sights, sounds and smells.
We push our way through the crowded streets and dash across roads, stepping out in sync with confident locals who duck and weave through the constant stream of traffic and finally arrive at our destination.

We enter the gateway of the Red fort, a spectacular religious centerpiece, situated in Old Delhi and sit on the steps leading up to the top of the mosque. Whilst the chaos and confusion is audible and the fast pace of life on the streets is visible through the gates, there is a stillness present here, an opportunity to step back and simply observe our surroundings without being completely overwhelmed, or is it?
A few beggars are camped inside the corner near the entrance. One old man with piercing blue eyes squats against the wall and stares out blankly. A family sits on  eating scraps procured from passers by. Children in dirty clothing, and babies with no pants play with spinning tops on the ancient concrete slabs at the base of the mosque steps.
A little boy in a filthy white kurta is following tourists with one hand held out palm up and the other hand motioning to his mouth indicating he wants food or money. He looks like he has not bathed in days. I am torn.  I loathe giving money to beggars, especially children, as it simply encourages parents not to send them to school.

Beggars in the Red fort

A few moments later, I notice two older beggars sitting on plastic bags being gifted a few coins by a lady dressed in a beautiful green and white salwar.  I decide I need to research, learn more and gain a deeper understanding of how and why begging is so prevalent here, how the local people feel about it and the best way to approach this.

We make our way back through the noisy streets to the hotel, the only space in this city that is spared from the chaos. I close the door to our room, and sit for a moment in the silence.
Its quiet, actually, it’s too quiet!! I turn on the TV, the sound of a familiar Bollywood tune blasts through the speakers. I boil the jug, make a cup of chai and the aroma of tea spice fills the air… The sounds and scents of India fill the air…. ‘Ahhh, that’s better!’
Chandni Chowk Bazaar outside the Red Fort

A man, a goat and a cauliflower

‘Nothing opening until 10am’ the hotel attendant advised us with a wobble of his head, as we left to explore Chandni Chowk Bazaar, and he was right. Apart from a couple of office workers sitting on makeshift wooden stools drinking chai waiting for the gates of the DCP commission to open, the street sweepers cleaning rubbish left from the previous day and a congregation of rickshaw drivers sleepily sprawled on the passenger seats of their bikes, the normally chaotic street was empty.
Our immediate adventure plans foiled, we did what you do in this situation… stop, drink chai and contemplate!
We sip the deliciously sweet gingery hot brew and chat with a fellow who has boldly ventured over and engaged in a conversation with us to practice his English. He proudly announces how wonderful his mother country India is, and how much he loves Australia, although he has never been, and we take an obligatory ‘selfie’ with him.
We finish our tea and the crowd that has gathered to look at the foreigners, errupts into laughter at our attempt to thank the chai-wallah in Hindi ‘Dhenyavaad’! We wave goodbye to all our new friends and set off down the road that is still semi life-less. We have decided to continue our walk until 10am rolls around.
A couple of rickshaw drivers spring to life as we walk past, hoping to pick up an early fare, but mutter grumpily under their breathe when we decline and make exaggerated arm motions, indicating we are ‘excercising’. A most effective way of convincing a driver you do not want a ride, as most refuse to believe you are walking just for fun and continue to harass….. Exercising, however, is a common and legitimate reason to refuse a ride. (I was given this advice from a host family I stayed with one time in Tiruchirapalli, India, and it really works!!)
As we make our way down the main road, the shutters on a few shops are starting to open, but it primarily vegetable sellers, that have set up makeshift blankets on the roadside, displaying their fresh produce. Old women with wrinkled leathery skin and dirty, frayed, thread bare sari’s sit cross legged with handkerchief sized displays next to bare footed teenaged boys with wild unbrushed hair in dusty skinny jeans and torn tshirts with fruit piled precariously high on wooden carts.

As we approach an intriguing little lane way off the main road that has quite a few people entering. I motion to Cadence to turn in so we can check it out. The entry is no more than 2 meters wide and as we carefully navigate around vendor tables, over broken drain slabs, piles of rubbish and rotten off cuts of unwanted vegetable stems, we get swept up in a wave of movement. From behind I hear someone yell out with urgency ‘Chalo, Chalo’! I glance back to see a small man bent at almost 90 degrees carrying a white rice sack larger than his body, veins popping from the side of his head and sweat glistening on his bare head.

We try to move to the side, but the laneway is now crowded with people, pushing and jostling each other in both directions. I usher Cadence to move faster and get out of the way, when suddenly the lane opens up into an enormous courtyard full of fruit and vegetable vendors.
The rainbow of coloured produce is vibrant, and the cacophony of buyers and sellers bargaining is deafening. We find a spot out of the way, and survey the area. I pull out my camera to take photos, when a man starts yelling at us and waving his arms like crazy. I shake my head, unsure of what he is saying, but wonder if we have inadvertently stumbled into a private market, and should get out before we get mugged!
We start to head back towards the laneway exit when a second man, sitting on a pile of green cauliflower stems, yells and points back to the first man, who is now motioning us over and pointing at something around the corner.

I hesitate for a moment, assessing the potential danger of following this stranger around the building, when I hear him shouting, ‘Got, Got’, as he continues to point and wave at us. We strain to see behind the man, and spy a ‘Goat’, munching on green scraps. I smile, and the man breaks out into a big grin, still waving at us madly to come over. I think he wants to show us his goat, I whisper to Cadence.

We make our way through the crowd to the man who is now carrying the goat. All the other men around him are laughing and pointing at the man and then back at my camera. I hold up the camera and he poses for a picture. They laugh again and he promptly drops the goat onto the green scrap pile and gestures for me to show him the photo. He roars with laughter, waves at me to show the picture to all his friends and promptly presents Cadence with a green cauliflower.
We thank the man, and as we walk out onto the street, Cadence looks at me and says, ‘what the hell am I supposed to do with this?’ And we both start laughing.
We continue our journey through the side streets of Chandni Chowk, spotting a beggar squatting on the sidewalk. Cadence gently approaches and carefully hands her the cauliflower. We both feel good about our decision to pay it forward and agree it has gone to a worthy cause, as we had no way of using this generous, yet unusual gift.
Later that day, we look at the picture I took of this lovely act of kindness, and I am sure the look in the old woman’s eyes says, ‘What the hell am I supposed to do with this?’ We both laugh! Only in India!!!

Welcome to India

A shrill high pitched wailing pierces through the darkness, I stir from my sleep and my mind scrambles to find its bearings. The lone monotone male voice strains out the adhan “call to prayer”, projected through distant tinny loudspeakers, that have long lost their ability to enhance the grating sound – and morning is broken.
Yet again, I have failed to check the location of the local mosque before booking a hotel!! When will I ever learn? I think to myself before I quickly realise, their is no escaping the noise! If not a local mosque, then the chain reaction it sets off…dogs barking, car horns honking, band practice (At 6 am!! With drums AND saxophones!!) I sigh, roll over and the prayer stops with a final salute to ‘Aaaallllllaaaahhhhh’! Exhausted from 16 hours of travel from Australia to New Delhi, India, I drift back to sleep musing over the events of the night before… and smile to myself, ‘Welcome to India’!
This was my daughter, Cadence’s first trip to India with me, and we were a little excited about the prospect of being greeted at the airport, with my name on a placard, no less, Ooo la la! I rummage through my bag as we get to the exit door at the airport to find and recheck the hotel information, as it was evident we could be led astray by rogue Indian drivers, and end up, well, anywhere else BUT our hotel.
Got it!
“Thanks for showing interest in our hotel. I confirm your booking and airport pick up. Our driver will be present outside the Airport Exit Door No-5 with your name displayed on hotel placard. Please take a print out of these instructions to keep with you. In case any driver tells you that the hotel is full/closed/under repair, Don’t trust the driver. Touts at the airport copy your name on their placards and cheat. So don’t trust anyone until you arrive at the hotel. In case you are not able to find driver at the exit door-5 1. Stay calm, we will surely help you 2. Use the pay phone outside Exit Door-5 on your right 3. Call the hotel phone no. 01123276465 or 01123276566 4. We will give you driver’s mobile number and car number 5. Call the driver and tell him to come to exit door no-5”
We make our way to the exit, and our guy is waiting rather shyly holding a printed sign with my name on it. I nod my head and smile. He points to the sign and nods back with what looks like a ‘Are you sure this is you?’ sort of look. I check the sign again, just to be sure, and my mind searches for clues of any evidence to suggest, this is NOT actually the guy, he has just copied our real guys sign and is pretending to be our guy so he can get a commission, and we could end up…at his brothers uncles hotel in the middle of the red light district ( this actually happened to us once in Mumbai – not the misled with a dodgy sign bit, just the brothers uncles hotel in the red light district.. but that’s another story!)
I am not sure what it is, but taxi drivers in India, all seem to have a scruffy kinda, just slept in my taxi for three days without brushing my hair or changing my clothes and I’m not in a rush, but I need the money type of look. This guy, however, once he had confirmed who we were, by showing us the hand written Airasia flight number on the back of his printed sign (which also gave me a little more confidence that WE had the right guy) took off out of the airport, motioning us to follow him at a pace that reeked of ‘let’s get outta here before the real guy can catch us’… Welcome to India!
He sped ahead, joined the queue to pay for parking and signaled us to wait. We moved to the side of the pay booth and I watched him getting slightly agitated, as the guy in the booth fumbled with the computer, pushed and pulled a few cords to stir the cumbersome and rather antiquated looking machine back to life, before processing the parking ticket.
I saw the 180 rupee total pop up on the computer screen and as our guy handed over a 100 rupee payment, a heated exchange between our guy and the parking attendant took place. Ahhhh…. that’s why he was in a hurry, the parking time had ticked over into the next price bracket! The attendant stood firm, and our poor guy had no choice but to extract an additional 80 rupees from the wad of notes that he had plucked out of the back pocket of his dusty skinny jeans. He shook his head and motioned us to follow him. He took off again, ducking and weaving through the car park in search of the car. I probably should have then picked up on the notion that this guy liked to move fast, but that’s not what your thinking as you are scrambling to keep up with your guy whilst squeezing between cars in the middle of a car park full of frantic taxi drivers all converging on a single exit. It was 10.30pm and the traffic was chaotic. Not chaotic in the western world sense, that is, many cars in their lanes and moving slowly, this is chaos on a whole other level; many cars, no set lanes and apparently for our guy… no rules!

As we exit the airport and join the highway, our guy roars up the inside lane swerves left, then right, narrowly missing the back end of a brand new Audi on one side, and a rusty old truck with well worn tassels swinging from the bumper displaying a colourful “Horn Please” sign, which our guy happily acknowledges, on the other side. This game of ducking, weaving, honking and flashing lights at anyone who got in our way for the entire 40 minute car race to the finish line ( ie, our hotel).

I look over at Cadence who shakes her head in disbelief and says, ‘When can we go home?’ I check the seatbelt buckles, thankfully they are operational, smile knowingly and say…’Welcome to India!’
I ask our guy his name, ‘Deepak’. Do you speak English? ‘Little, Little’ he says as he gestures the universal symbol for small with two fingers held out close together. He then says ‘AC ma’am?’  The February air is a cool 17’C outside, and I’m not much of a fan of air conditioning, however, as I reply ‘No’ and he rolls down the windows, the famous Delhi pollution assaults my nostrils, I feel the gritty air scratching my eyeballs and immediately regret my decision not to opt for the blood chilling air con over the crisp gritty pollution… Welcome to India!!
As part of my due diligence ( trying to avoid being completely misled… because’ yes, that time in Mumbai still haunts me ) I had checked google maps so I would have a vague idea of a few landmarks along the way,
All is going well, our guy points out India gate, as we whizz past at what feels like 100 kms/ hour, overtaking everyone on the road. I see the massive Delhi police headquarters, and the sign to Delhi railway station, so we are getting close, and yes, going in the right direction, as far as I can remember.
Next minute we take a sharp left down a side street, no street lights and two dark shadowy figures walking down what appears to be a dead en street. The car comes to an abrupt stop. My stomach churns, this is not right! The driver mutters something under his breathe, throws the car into reverse and he does a three point turn, back onto the main road. A moment later we turn down the next street on the left and are blinded by lights, cars and motorbikes parked on the roadside, a cacophony of horns pierce the air and a traffic jam of tuk tuks and cars cramming to pass each other on the narrow road. Again the car stops and our guy says one word ‘Marriage’!

We look to our left and see not one, but two huge wedding halls, coloured saris draped on metal frames. Chandlers hanging precariously from thin metal poles, multicoloured lights dangling from flimsy tree branches and a gaudy sparkling sign hanging at a very stylish designer angle in fluorescent pink and silver, announcing ‘Manu weds Ramshi’. We can see the shadows of the wedding guests through the sheerness of the fabric, and at the entry halls, the departing guests, dressed in their finest clothes are piling into autos and climbing onto motorbikes. After a lot of manoeuvring back and forth, to get through, we drive around the corner, and our guy points out the barrackade that had prevented us from entering the previous laneway, again uttering the words, ‘marriage and traffic’. Ahhh… Our street had been blocked due to the weddings! The street is dark with the exception of a brightly lit building, proudly displaying the sign, ‘Hotel Tara Palace’ . Our guy turns and wobbles his head that signifies, here we are, I smile, nod and think to myself… Welcome to India!

Fear of the unknown

We arrived at Gold Coast airport bright and early with our backpacks ready to go. I was nervous and excited about flying (after 40 years and with about 100 flights under my belt, I still experience butterflies getting on a plane!).

We had traveled to Malaysia and Thailand 18 months ago as a family and the kids were feeling confident as ‘seasoned’ travelers, however, that trip had only been for two weeks, and we had planted ourselves in base camps, IE; pre-booked hotels and flights. One hotel was booked for a week in Malaysia, and one hotel for a week in Thailand. Both were in locations I had traveled to in the past, and was happy to take my kids. Both were places I felt comfortable being in, comfortable with the culture, comfortable with the food, confident in knowing I could navigate my way – familiar!

I held my composure, for the sake of the family, but I had a gnawing feeling inside me, and it was making my head spin, maybe I should have done more research, booked all the transport, organized tours, collated a complete itinerary instead of simply booking the flight into Bangalore, then leaving a blank canvas to create our own adventure along the way for 5 weeks until the flight home out of Kolkata.

I had never traveled to India before, I hadn’t tested the waters before exposing my kids, like I had on previous trips. What if I got lost, what if India was like a strange planet I couldn’t navigate or communicate, what if I lost my money, what if I lost someone, what if….. BLAH BLAH BLAH!! I am beginning to think I am somewhat CRAZY!

What sort of parent just books tickets to India for their family with no plan and no ‘Indian experience’!!

Arrrhhh, yes, that would be me!

My love of adventure, the yearning to simply go and BE in India and the prospect of eating authentic Indian food daily for five weeks had intoxicated my intellect and completely overridden my sense of responsibility. Now while the thought of no structured travel plans as a parent was nagging me a little, I happily justified in my own mind… “Being spontaneous is fun and more often than not, it allows you to engage in extra-ordinary situations that are rarely possible to plan!”

I still hold this to be absolute truth, however, it also turned out to be one of the biggest challenges on our trip. Being spontaneous as a single backpacker, or even as a couple, is significantly easier when you are trying to negotiate accommodation, or a taxi, or jump on a moving bus as it pulls out of the station or even arrange a simple tour, than it is when you are a family of five. Especially when that family are not well known for their ability to co-operate or agree on anything, or be organised!

Our destination was Bangalore, for no other reason than, that’s where the cheapest flight to India landed! Simple!! The extent of our travel plans consisted of a hotel booking for the first two nights so we had a place to go to on arrival. Straightforward and easy, right! Well almost…..

There is definitely a certain level of vulnerability in not knowing where you are or what to do when you are in a foreign country. This is particularly evident when you need to ask someone for help if you arrive into an airport in the middle of the night without a clue as to how the local taxi service operates, if they can speak English, or if they can read the invoice with the hotel’s name (or are willing to take you to that hotel without diverting to another one that is ‘a much better hotel, madam’!) or indeed if there even is a reputable or reliable service! Is it safe? Or should we just find a piece of floor in the corner & lay on our backpacks until daylight? (Everything always feels safer in daylight!)

However, what I have found, it is this vulnerability that opens up the channels of communication and allows the local people to expose their generosity and a sense of pride in being able to assist strangers on their turf – except for airport taxi drivers who appear to be exempt from this as they have a captive audience!!

We joined the immigration line and I started chatting with the man in line behind us. Turns out he was working for a telecommunications IT company (Bangalore is the biggest IT hub in India – if you have ever chatted to an Indian sounding tech support from Telstra, it was possibly this guy – or not? the odds are probably a million to one!!! ) He fly’s in and out of Bangalore occasionally to visit family and was more than happy to share the process of hiring a legitimate taxi service and more importantly what it should cost – thank you lovely IT man, our first kind Indian hospitality experience.

Unfortunately the taxi rate ended up being a very rough estimate & possibly our most expensive taxi in India – with the exception of the taxi service to the airport in Kolkata! There is clearly an unspoken difference in rates for locals and foreigners!!! It was now almost midnight, we had been traveling for more than 15 hours, the taxi was already piled high with all our luggage and the five of us were squished in to a four seater car like sardines, I was in no mood to argue with the driver.

We left the airport at high speed, joining the highway into the city a few minutes later, which was under construction. The staccato of the broken shock absorber’s vibrated through our bodies as the driver unsuccessfully attempted to navigate around the pot holes that were illuminated only by the high beam headlights of oncoming traffic. The condition of the road did not appear to slow down our driver or the hundreds of other cars rushing into the city, jostling to pass each other like they were in a dodgem car race. The jolting stopped periodically as we swerved onto the detours around areas being dug up with heavy machinery only to be replaced by the noise and thumping of jack hammers pulsating through the taxi. The melodic cacophony of truck and car horns pierced the air generating a deafening intensity.


The sides of the road were lit with street lamps, then every now and then we would pass a pop-up tin shed with multi-coloured banners and signs, flooded with lights, full of people hustling to buy the wares. We questioned the driver who did not speak much English about this midnight shopping frenzy, and he started to make a crazy banging noise with his mouth and flapped his arms about. He noticed the puzzled expressions on our faces and promptly pulled over at the next shed to invite us in for a look.

Hundreds of varieties of firecrackers lined the large wall behind a long makeshift timber counter, like a carnival show-bag stand. The city was preparing for Diwali, the festival of lights, and once a year, it is legal to buy fireworks – it was pandemonium! People waving money in the air, trying to reach across the counter and over the top of other people, pushing to fill their bags with the magical crackers, as if the shop would close when the clock struck Twelve.

Diwali firecracker pop up shop

Our bedraggled group arrived bleary eyed at the hotel after midnight, checked in and climbed the stairs to our rooms on the 3rd floor. The hotel entrance was quiet, off the main road and the outside was in darkness except for a small street lamp shining down the alley. The silence was broken by the occasional random firecracker and shouts of excitement, but we were too tired to be worried about what might be out there. We had a comfortable room and beds with fresh sheets. It was time to sleep, so we could wake up fresh to the first day of our adventure in India….. tomorrow!!