India is like a blender on high speed … with the lid off. —Chris G.
When I stepped into the rickshaw I knew another world awaited, one so foreign that I might as well be boarding a bathysphere bound for the bottom of the ocean. I thought of a magnet I kept on my refrigerator in college, when exotic travel was just a dream for me. Underneath a boy astride an elephant, it read, “There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes wide open.” Little did I know that these were the words of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Now, twenty-five years later, I was in the oldest part of his country’s capital.
Our guide negotiated with a young driver in a pink-and-black checkered scarf, then waved goodbye to us. Yugesh, who would pull our rickshaw through Old Delhi’s bazaars, stood on his bike’s pedals then pushed down with all his meager weight. As horns and shouts assailed us from every direction, we merged into the quagmire of rickshaws, pushcarts, overloaded mopeds, a slurry of pedestrians, and the occasional car. We clocked about one mile an hour, the perfect speed to absorb the frenzy that unfurled around us.
Every bit of space was taken by someone or something on the move through the narrow streets. Each market, or bazaar, sold items according to its specialty—from saris to housewares. And garlands of Indian-flavored Frito-Lay snacks festooned every third stall and storefront.
As we cruised beneath a gonzo tangle of power lines, the aroma of chaat—snacks that masterfully blend hot, oily, spicy, and sweet—made my stomach do a happy dance. I watched a man stir potatoes in an enormous cast-iron pan then douse them with mysterious spices. I thought about the nurse back in Chicago. Easy for her to say don’t eat the street food. Had she seen it? Smelled it? It was more tempting than buttered popcorn in a movie theater, and no doubt far more satisfying than Frito-Lays’ take on masala.
Yugesh pedaled deeper into the pandemonium, and the smell faded behind us. I expected it to be replaced by stink, but the air was stenchless. Monsoon season had just ended. That was the only explanation I had for why, despite the unseasonable heat, the only fragrance now wafting in and around bare feet, goat heads, and trash was that of incense. I checked with Chris to make sure I wasn’t missing something, and he agreed. I wouldn’t guarantee the same results any other time; but we felt good about our luck. That is, until the traffic finally clogged and our rickshaw rolled to a stop.
Up until now order had somehow reigned amongst the maelstrom of too many people going in too many directions. Chris said it was like watching a slow-moving school of a million minnows. I didn’t mind the pause. Now I could spy on people from my ringside seat. To my left, a brittle old man and a young boy crouched over a backpack on the ground. As the man pulled a needle and thread through its flap, I envied his ability to focus calmly on his task despite the crush of humanity that flowed past him. The boy watched in silence, learning. Together they formed a tiny oasis.
To my right, a woman in a royal-blue sari leaned out of a rickshaw. She had three children with her, one in her lap, and seemed to be searching for something on the ground. I looked down to see if I could spot what she was looking for. A pacifier or toy thrown overboard? A dropped coin? Then, with no warning or fuss, her lunch simply left her mouth and splattered on the street between us. I leaned into Chris, relieved that I’d passed on the chaat and so had nothing to add to her inspirational pile of saffron-colored rice. I smiled at her in commiseration. I’d been sick on a plane recently and could imagine her humiliation. She smiled back.
Meanwhile, drivers in every direction continued to honk, whistle, yell, and point directives. But still we didn’t budge. Finally, Yugesh dismounted from his bike and approached the source of the traffic jam, an unmanned rickshaw in front of us. He matter-of-factly moved it over two feet and we were on our way.
Once again, the riotous amalgamation of colors, sounds, smells, and faces pummeled us at one mile an hour, and we were broadsided by the effect of seeking with our eyes wide open. “I expected ugly and sad,” Chris said. “But it was the opposite.”
I had to agree. Beauty sprung like weeds from the squalor. Which made me wonder: What brain-busting things would we see next? In just a few hours the Maharajas’ Express would take us on an eight-day adventure through the rest of India’s Golden Triangle.
[The last two photos courtesy of Susan Hunsberger.]