Tag Archive for: India

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

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!!