I spend a great deal of time with these men as I’m usually in a cab, almost daily, for an hour or more. I know the villages where most of them grew up and that many of them have been Embassy cabbies since the early 1960’s.
I genuinely like these drivers and I like learning about where they come from and what they think of the city in which we live. But my daily quality of life also depends a great deal on whether these men like me as well–at least enough to drive a little more carefully with Will in the car, wait for me at the various places I go and, once in awhile, help me with my unruly collection of bags, water bottles and child-containment devices.
So, in addition to finding out about their lives and their families and their favorite places in this fair city, I also tip these cab drivers. Extravagantly.
As a result, they all have an outsized interest in my personal safety. The crazy lady with the kid and the camera might not have a lot of sense, but she is going to be paying for the next big celebration at the Singh household, after all. (Most of the drivers are Sikhs, the reason for which I have not yet asked after.)
Which is why, I think, my favorite driver (two kids in college, grew up in a hill station 600 km away) told me three times today to be careful and to watch out because Chandni Chowk is “not a nice place.”
“Put my number in your phone, ” he said. “If you have any trouble at all, call me and I will come.”
People, Chandni Chowk market in Old Delhi is usually crowded, chaotic and a glorious haven for pickpockets and touts alike. But it certainly shouldn’t be confused with a minefield. It’s kind of just like the India I used to live in a few years ago.
I’ve been meaning to get to Old Delhi for over a month now, but wasn’t sure I wanted to attempt it alone with Will. It’s still 95 degrees here everyday and people always talk about the traffic jams in Old Delhi and how pick-pocket-y it is with so many people there, tourists and locals alike, rubbing shoulders as they pass each other on busy streets and in narrow alleyways.
But I wanted to see it and I’m beginning to realize that just because I want to see a place doesn’t mean I have see it all in one go. So Will and I headed out early this morning for a quick little glimpse of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk market.
It sounds so simple to say that you don’t have to attempt a marathon tourist adventure for it to be a worthwhile outing, but it’s been a real hard-won revelation to me. I’m so used to a “no pain, no gain” philosophy of tourism that says that it’s better to walk 10 long, hungry blocks past the decent-looking restaurant in hopes of finding the really great back-alley pop-up kitchen. I’ve always thought that the more miles walked, the better the adventure–even if everyone is cranky and tired by the time we reach our destination.
Now though, I think that part of the reason Will and I are able to get out fairly often here (besides the fact that Will still fits in his Ergo) is because we don’t set big goals for any one trip. We try to only stay out as long as we’re truly enjoying our surroundings and we head home as soon as we aren’t having fun anymore. It’s much easier to psych myself up to pack the diaper bag for a trip across town when I know the goal is only a quick 45 minute trip. We go, we get a lay of the land and then we make plans to return again and again, slowly uncovering, over the course of many short trips, everything that a place has to offer.
So yes, that was a lot of words that have nothing to do with Old Delhi. Except that we went and we enjoyed it.
Because I’m not that ambitious, we headed to Chandni Chowk before any of the stores opened, while the streets were still crowded not with shoppers and tourists, but with chai-wallas pouring tea, temple-goers pouring in and out of the big beautiful Sikh temple, cooks crouched over huge black woks, frying up puffy balloon-like bhatura (delicious, by the way), laborers breaking down giant blocks of ice bigger than anything I’ve seen since Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, and coolies delivering wholesale bundles of clothes, bangles and plastic junk to the still-closed store fronts up and down the street.
People stared, they grabbed Will’s justifiably irresistible cheeks, they thought I was nuts. A few people posed for pictures. One guy somewhat creepily followed me up and down the street but I wasn’t entirely sure whether he was a very patient tout biding his time or if he was simply bored. He disappeared after I loudly announced to Will that we were heading back to the cab to go home. No harm, no foul.
We’ll go back to Old Delhi many times I’m sure. There is so much to see there: the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid mosque and so many other interesting places hidden down winding alleyways too narrow for any taxi to travel down. But for a first visit, our early morning stroll through Chandni Chowk was about as good as we could have hoped for. And, as I am beginning to understand now, we can always go back for more.