Around Town / India / Life Lessons from Overseas

Chandni Chowk Market

Chandni Chowk 9am_MG_1249October 10, 2012
There is a taxi stand at the Embassy populated by a half a dozen drivers who have been taking foreigners around Delhi for their entire lives.

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.”

Chandni Chowk 9am_MG_1253October 10, 2012

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.

Chandni Chowk 9am_MG_1220October 10, 2012

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.

Chandni Chowk 9am_MG_1262October 10, 2012

Chandni Chowk 9am_MG_1277October 10, 2012

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.

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Chandni Chowk 9am_MG_1227October 10, 2012

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.

Chandni Chowk 9am_MG_1234October 10, 2012

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Chandni Chowk 9am_MG_1277October 10, 2012-2

Chandni Chowk 9am_MG_1272October 10, 2012

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.

Chandni Chowk 9am_MG_1268October 10, 2012


17 thoughts on “Chandni Chowk Market

  1. I’ve been taking cabs a lot here since we’re still waiting for our car and I always tip. One cab driver even took me to the grocery store, waited for me, helped me load the groceries into his cab, pushed the cart back to the store and then helped me load the groceries onto the elevator of my apartment building.

    I love the pictures! I am still trying to get over feeling awkward and touristy taking pictures of random things/people in public. But the candid shots of unsuspecting people are always the best!

    • what a nice driver! The taking pictures of people in public thing is so different depending on where you are, why you are doing it, how you are doing it, etc etc. I read somewhere recently that “true” street photographers only use prime lenses because zooming is seen as “cheating.” Personally, I use my zoom lens because, with Will on me, it’s sometimes a lot easier to zoom in and out than it is to move the two of us. Still, I’m never very far away from what I’m shooting so people always know I’m there. What I feel “ok” and “not ok” shooting changes a lot based on circumstances but having an idea of my personal code of photography conduct helps me feel much more comfortable going in for shots because I know exactly what I will and won’t feel good about photographing. For instance, I never take pictures of kids up close unless they ask me to or unless their parents ask me to or unless their parents give me permission. Same goes for women here in India, I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I try to make sure that my photos preserve the dignity of the people I’m taking them of, they should be photos that I’d be happy to show them and they would likely be happy to have or at least not mind seeing. So no pictures of people sleeping on streets or begging or what not unless they themselves ask. As far as men, well I take a lot of pictures of men here because, as long as they are all staring at me, I don’t mind taking pictures of them! And truly, it’s amazing. When you show a genuine interest in what people are doing, when you get down to look and ask questions with or without your camera, people are usually more than happy to let me click away. But that’s just me, here in India. Like I said, it can change from country to country and person to person!

  2. I have also been using the cabs here a lot. Our car is here, it’s just going through good ole customs! I also believe in tipping a little extra here and there because I want the taxis to take care of me, too. I also tip movers/unpackers because I know I’ll see them again. In response to Natasha, I’m also still learning how to be comfortable with taking candid shots of locals, etc., and I have to agree that, Dani, these photos are wonderful and inspiring!

    • Thanks for reading Tiffany! I wrote a big long response to Natasha’s comment about street photography, but basically I think it boils down to taking a genuine interest in what people are doing and showing that interest, as well as having a set of personal rules about what and what not to photograph so that you can come home at the end of the day feeling good about the shots you’ve taken. Also, being obvious–not drawing attention to yourself but not feeling like you have to sneak the shot. Nothing feels worse than sneaking a photo. Sometimes it’s necessary (especially for new-type photogs) but for me, letting people see my camera and see me using it makes me feel better because if they really don’t want me there taking photos, they can always tell me.

  3. wow. the pictures. Which lens? I am just awestricken by the one of the steamy tea. In fact….I’m “pinning it” onto my photog board. Same old advice? Take a thousand shots and savor the one that turns out? Keep tinkering with settings, etc? Did you use a preset with that shot? Have you (or anyone else reading) found a good book to use as a guide? My photos have been so crummy lately….
    Gorgeous as always, Dani!!

    • It’s my Sigma 17-50. As I said to Natasha, some street photogs think it’s cheating to use a zoom lens, but with Will on me, I need a little bit more flexibility! Plus, topping out at 50 means I’m never very far away anyways. Tinkering with settings is necessary (remember that blasted aperture, shutter speed, ISO triangle! :)) but a little bit of post editing (or on camera editing) doesn’t hurt either. Especially with street photography, I think upping the contrast on my photos either on the camera before I take the shot or afterwards on my computer renders them much more vivid and true to life!

  4. The lighting and shutter speed on on that tea shot is amazing Dani! And that was early in the morning?! Looked hot already. All I kept picturing as I was reading was Will with you on your back the whole time that you are exploring and taking photos, and I thought how immensely inspiring all of this exposure will be for him – to go and do what you love, despite the heat, the risks, the inconveniences, and the weight on your back, because the world is an awesome place not to be missed for anything. Wow!

    • Thanks Dee! It was about 9am I think? Not so hot for the day yet but I think we’ve finally adjusted! Sometimes I do wonder what Will is thinking as I take him around. I think most of the time he likes it–at least until he’s restless or too hot or wants to stretch. He’s always on my front though, I’ve tried the back carrier but he’s not a fan. On one hand it’s nice because I can see him (and see who is touching him) but it definitely makes it harder to crouch or go in for a shot!

  5. Dani, you are my hero! You went to Chandni Chowk alone with Will and managed to take those amazing pictures – wowie, wow, wow! Paul and I went to Old Delhi, sans kids once hoping to see Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk. We saw Jama Masjid and then we headed to Chandni Chowk but I was so intimidated by how narrow the streets are and how huge the crowds that we decided to leave it for another day. I love your idea of going in the morning though. We should probly try that before venturing out in the middle of the day on Saturday like we did.

    Absolutely loved your pictures. They reminded me of how much I liked being there. I can’t wait to be back. I also have a personal picture-taking code of sorts. I don’t like taking sneaky pictures because I don’t want to get anyone upset, so I usually make eye contact with whoever I want to take a picture of and have an unspoken two-second conversation with them. I raise my camera and point to it and then to them questioning with my eyes if it’s OK to take their picture. 99% of the people in India are thrilled to have their picture taken, so it’s almost never a problem but I like to do it anyway. Now, that means that I may miss some genuine moments and expressions but treating people respectfully is important.

    • The morning is definitely a good time to go, much much much more manageable! I hear you on the eye-contact permission. That’s something I do too. I feel much better doing that than sneaking in a picture–and the photos are usually better too when I’m not trying to put away my camera as fast as possible!

  6. The pictures are stunning. Absolutely wonderful. I also love that you have discovered that an outing can be just as wonderful and satisfying if its only a short trip. Enough to get Will ready for his first nap and just enough time for you to get some great photos and see something other than your four walls.

    This is key Dani, this realization will help when you go alone with Will and also when you go as a family places. Things in small doses is what traveling with kids is all about. Everyone’s happier this way. I can see your expectations are adjusting right on schedule. Good for you.

    • Thanks Sara, it is funny how we all say “oh kids won’t change us!” and sure, they don’t right away but eventually, down the road, we find ourselves saying the exact same things that everyone said to us back when Will was just a newborn! Now if only Will’s first nap wasn’t his only nap of the day right now (and he wasn’t also waking up at 4am to play argh!!!!) 🙂

  7. Wonderful writing and stunning photos. I was in Dhaka over the weekend and loving reading a few of your posts about your experiences in India – you really bring all the atmosphere of South Asia to life on the page.

    Keep them coming!

      • Dhaka is on the up – Gloria Jeans just opened in Gulshan, which is always a good sign!

        Weather was stunning – warm and breezy.

        It’s a fabulous country, incredible people, despite the hard hitting issues which confront you everywhere you turn. The traffic is a nightmare, worse than Delhi by a country mile!

        How you getting on in India?

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