Discovering treasures in back alleys

In a quiet lane in the back alleyways of Georgetown, I paused outside an open door, noticing the dark silhouette of a man standing in the corner of the concrete workshop.

He was hunched over an upside down cane basket, gently swinging his arms in a circular motion.
As I squinted and strained to see what he was making, he spun around and stared at me.
My face instantly flushed and I froze on the spot !!

The man cocked his head to one side and broke the tension with a smile.

“What are you making?” I shyly enquire. ‘Putumayan’ He replies and invites me to come inside to watch. ‘Please remove your shoes’ he says. His face now beaming proudly as I enter into the small dimly lit room.    A small bench along one wall, a stack of broken baskets, a bucket of dough next to a plastic chair, a dusty shrine of hindu pictures hanging from the wall and a large gas steamer sat in the corner.

For the next half an hour my new friend, Navi, continued the rhythmic motion making noodle swirls, as he shared his story.
He was an accountant who gave up this career 13 years ago to take over the family business and learn the traditional craft of handmaking this delicious steamed noodle Street food from his grandfather.
He tells me he is faster and makes better quality Putu Mayan than the new machines many others use, and that he simply loves his work. ‘I will never return to being an accountant’ he announces defiantly, ‘way to stressful!!’

His helper plops a ball of dough into the old wooden paddle and Ravi continues to squeeze the noodles onto the basket.  The process is strangely mesmerising, and before I know it, he has stacked up 3 basket loads whilst we have been talking.  There is no time to stop, he has an order for 1000 pieces to be delivered before noon!

I thank him for his time and as I turn to leave, he asks me to come back in 1.5 hours, after he has finished steaming the noodles and made his delivery.
I gratefully accept his invitation, and when I return his wife, Sonar, who has returned from a successful morning of selling the Putu Mayan at the local markets, loads me up with a newspaper package filled with some of the freshly steamed noodles, and a generous topping of shredded coconut and brown sugar!! The taste is delicious!!
Who knew a simple detour down a deserted alleyway would lead me to find new friends and an amazing tasty treasure!!

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

Our first morning in India

Our first morning in India!
We wake early despite the fact that we arrived so late after 15 hours of travel.  I am too excited to sleep… I am actually in India!! Yahooo!!!  It was dark when we stumbled into the hotel last night and we are keen to survey the landscape of our local surroundings.
A quick glance out the window reveals an overgrown block of vacant land beside a half finished derelict building across the dusty laneway.  I notice sheets wafting in the breeze between unfinished concrete walls on the second floor, and realise it is an haphazard attempt at privacy for the squatters that have set up camp inside. As the sheets swing up with a gust of wind, I see a lounge chair, the flickering of a TV and a family busily preparing breakfast in a small pot, balancing precariously on top of a single flame cooker on the floor of their makeshift home. Sounds of the latest bollywood tunes waft through the window, amplified by the empty concrete building for the whole street to hear.  There is a cow eating from a pile of rubbish on the roadside who seems to be blissfully ignorant of the motorcycles, tuk tuk’s and odd car whizzing past. We can hear the distant sounds of traffic and horns, but the hotel is tucked away from the main road and just like the cow, we are blissfully unaware of the chaos that is unfolding at the end of the street, in the middle of India’s 5th largest city, Bangalore!
Filled with excitement and anticipation, I grab a pen, notebook, my pristine copy of Lonely Planet India and head down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast.  The intoxicating smell of sizzling mustard seeds and curry drifts from the kitchen, I draw a deep breath and float into the restaurant – I have arrived in food heaven.
The waiters nervously nod their heads and shy smiles emerge.  They appear to be as unsure of us, as we are of them. We are both foreigners! Our uncertainty of what to expect is equally matched by them.  The waiter hands us a menu ‘Continental Breakfast’, my heart sinks!  Toast, Jam Eggs?? NO!!!!  The waiter notices my disappointment and quickly turns the menu to the other side.  I glance down and am pleased to see a variety of pictures featuring traditional *Thali breakfast options, with accompanying Hindu descriptions. This is the moment I have been waiting for, I point to the tea (Chai) and hold up my hand. “One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Yes Five Chai please!” My first REAL Indian Chai, in INDIA!!!  We all laugh and cheer, even the waiter breaks out into a chuckle.  The ice is broken.  We order way too much food, trying everything on the menu and begin the fun of planning what to do on our trip….
The next hour is spent sipping tea and chatting and arguing about who wants to go where.  We map out a very rough ‘ plan’, each person throwing in a suggestion.  Maddison and Matilda want to hang out on the beaches in Goa, Adelaide wants to see the Taj Mahal, I am keen to visit the home town of my Idoil, Shah Rukh Khan and experience the spectacular ghats at Varanasi.  Just as we finally all agree on the plan, a lovely English couple come into the restaurant and we strike up a conversation about their experiences in India over the past three months.  We show them the mud map, highlighting all the sights we want to incorporate starting today, until our departure from Kolkata in 5 weeks, and chat about how we are now working on the transport logistics, whilst consulting the Lonely Planet India Travel guide for best value and budgeting. I mention I have heard many wonderful stories about trains in India, and am excited to make them a key part of the trip.
At this moment, they both stop and look at us with a peculiar expression and ask, “Haven’t you already booked your train?  We had to book online and pay for ours 6 weeks before we left home! You can’t just turn up, they sell out weeks in advance!”
Holy Sh*t!! The thought of not being able to just turn up and buy tickets to anywhere, had not even crossed my mind! I had envisioned thousands of trains laying in wait at stations across India, waiting for passengers to make last minute, impromptu plans to travel. In fact, it is quite the opposite.  Indian people, are avid local tourists and as the safest form of affordable travel, trains are extra-ordinarily popular in India, booking in advance is essential if you want to guarantee a seat!!
This is a disaster! Day 1 and my expected budget for travel and our timeframes for getting to our final destination on time has been shattered before we even step out the hotel door!
Ok, time to re-group!!
Mud map in hand we ask the hotel manager to help us find someone who can ‘pre-purchase’ our transport for the next few days, so that we do not end up stranded in Bangalore for four weeks.  He hails us two Tuk Tuk’s and before we know it, we are speeding up the lane way, weaving through traffic with the wind in our hair, to see somebody’s brothers father in law, who is a travel agent!
Well, almost!!
We arrive at a small shop sporting a faded promotional poster of the Taj Mahal in the window. All five of us bustle in and the manager quickly pulls out a couple of extra seats from the back of the shop for us all to sit on. His english is not bad and we manage to convey our needs.  There is a second man behind a desk that must be 50 years old with a computer almost as antiquated who comes over and offers to buy us a cup of chai each, we all nod and wait for the computer to reboot.
There are no train tickets to anywhere in the next two weeks, and certainly not five tickets together on the same train.  He does however, have bus tickets!!!  AWESOME!! Bus is good! We can do buses, they even have fancy overnight sleeper buses that you can, ‘sleep’ on.
And guess what…. they are cheaper than the train!  Bargain!! Two hours later, we have bus tickets booked for the next three destinations, and the budget is back in check!  Life is good!
Back at the hotel that afternoon, I do some research on bus travel….”not recommended” was the general vibe! Pickpockets, dangerous driving and accidents were a few of the reasons not to travel by bus.  But it was too late! There were no trains, the option for a private taxi or plane was not in budget, buses are cheap….so, bus it is!  How bad could it really be?? It’s a sleeper!  We will sleep like babies all night…… or will we???!!!!
*Thali – a selection of various South Indian dishes served in small condiment cups with rice and indian breads.