2018 India – Delhi

Part 2: New discoveries in the North West

Checking in at an Indian airport is always a chaotic experience but flying Air India brought it to a new level. But as the procedure seemed nothing extraordinary to the locals I followed the masses, passed all security checks (during which I had to open both check-in and carry-on luggage), and finally boarded Air India flight AI880 to Delhi. After an uneventful two hour flight we landed in Delhi, miraculously my luggage made it as well so I grabbed a taxi to my hotel and had the remaining part of the day to relax. Part two of the Big India Immersion 2018 had officially begun.

Next morning I had a slow and relaxing start after which I took a tuk tuk to meet my friend Neha from Saffron palate. It turned out her place was not that far from my hotel so within ten minutes I was at her lovely place in Haus Khaz, a wonderful neighborhood in South Delhi.

It was like we only met each other the other day instead of 2 1/2 years ago. We had some time to catch up before the other guests arrived and as soon as the group was complete the cooking class started. Neha explained the dishes we were going to make and gave us an introduction in the spices (and spice blends) most frequently used in Indian cuisine.

First we prepared the four dishes for our main course; a chicken korma, a biryani (fried rice), tangy chick peas and jeera aaloo (potatoes with cumin seeds and Indian spices). Neha’s instructions were perfect as usual so we could not mess up…

After a short break we made three different breads. A flat bread, plain parantha, and a stuffed parantha (filled with potato). Also these were made according Neha’s instructions and once done we were invited to the dining table to try out our own creations.

Food, as expected was perfect and we had a nice conversation during lunch. The American mother and daughter had to leave about two, after which Neha, Annabel (an English girl), and myself went to a local market. It was the same market Paul and I went to in 2015 so I knew what to expect in this colorful place.

A couple of people were already completely covered in colors so Holi seemed to have started early. I did some shopping, bought a traditional white kurta, a wig in the colors of the flag of India and some bags with color dust, an essential for Holi. I was ready for the big event the day after, at least I hoped so….

I said goodbye to Neha and took a Tuk Tuk back to my hotel. I was not surprised my driver had to ask a couple of times but we did make it in the end. Time for a shower, a refreshing bira (Indian white beer I had not tasted before) and update my journal.

Before dinner I had a short nap and as I only had to be at Neha’s place the next morning at 11:00 I stayed up a bit longer than usual. It had been a lovely day…

After a good night of sleep things were about to turn crazy although I did not know that at the time… Things started of nice and quiet and after breakfast I dressed in my kurta while I could already hear music at the streets.

My drive in a Tuk Tuk to Neha’s place was a strange one, as the streets were virtually empty. I could see some people covered in color and that was the only thing to be seen at the moment to announce what would be an amazing day…

I arrived at Neha’s place but before going there I went to a flower stall at the street to get a nice bunch of flowers to say thank you for the invite. The first people had already arrived and I said hello to two friendly couples from Wales and Florida. It was their first time celebrating Holi as well and everybody was anticipating the event. More guests arrived and then the fun started.

Indian music filled the air and people started dancing. Water guns added to the fun and it did not take long before the first people were soaking wet and covered in color. It seemed our faces changed looks several times, depending on the color that was thrown over it or rubbed in…

It is difficult to describe but I cannot recall having had such outrageous fun for a long time.  The mix of people, both local and from abroad was electrifying, the Indian music brought everyone up their feet and dancing. Finally I met Anmol, Neha’s husband, and he turned out to be a real party animal, setting the atmosphere and infecting everybody with his joy, laughter and dance. Neha’s parents in law were also there, as well as other family and friends.

There were some traditional games we were invited to participate in which were great fun as well. Great Indian home made snacks, Kingfisher and soft drinks added to the joy, what a party it was.

As a surprise Neha had arranged two musicians playing the drum to come to the roof terrace and their infective beats produced a rhythm that no one could ignore. Everybody was dancing, smiling and having a fantastic time. Holi, a festival of colors, but also a festival of immense joy.

Of course Neha had taken care of a great Indian buffet and it was amazing to see how a dancing and steaming group of people suddenly sat down and quietly enjoyed Neha’s outstanding food. But as I knew her food already that should not have come as a surprise.

Holi, after having heard so much of it I am now extremely happy to have experienced it by myself. I cannot imagine anything coming close to this atmosphere of joy and laughter, but if it is it must be carnival.

The first people started to leave and I also felt I had used up all my energy of the day. It had been fantastic and I met quite a lot of wonderful people, all sharing in joy, all sharing the Holi spirit. When people arrived they still had this look on their face not knowing what to expect. When they left their faces were one big smile, and mine was no exception to that.

I thanked my hosts for their wonderful hospitality and took a Tuk Tuk to my hotel. First I was afraid I would not get the colors of my face and body but a shower and an abundance of shampoo did miracles. Then it was time for a long nap.

I woke up somewhere after seven and headed for the restaurant for a drink and a light bite to eat. I wanted to update my journal but met Jagdeep, a friendly Sikh, and we got engaged in a great conversation. A bit later he got picked up by his wife, I had a bite to eat and it was time to return to my room. In spite of having had a long nap I still felt exhausted, but that was a small price to pay for having enjoyed the most fantastical day!

Much to my surprise I slept through the night but woke up early enough so I could work on my journal, something that I did not finish the day before. After breakfast I took the metro to old Delhi to visit the red fort and the old bazar. They were the first two places Paul and I visited on our first trip to India and I simply wanted to go back there to revive the memories.

As it was a Saturday the metro was not too busy and I was amazed how effective and clean it was. Within 20 minutes I arrived at Chadni Chowk metro station that was located in the heart of Old Delhi. As soon as I left the station I found myself in the middle of the chaos. Crowded alleys, stalls with food and hawkers everywhere and within steps was a  busy Hindhu temple that was buzzing with activity.

At it’s side free meals were given out and those who wanted a meal queued in a very civilized way. As food came in batches the waiting line was long but as hungry as the men must have been they did not loose their patience.

Again everywhere I saw stalls selling marigolds, butter lamps and other items much wanted by worshippers. Also in India religion means business…

As I did not know exactly where I was I decided to go on a stroll and let my eyes lead me to wherever it looked interesting. Small alleys, even smaller lanes between houses, they might have been cramped and at times dirty but not a single moment did I feel unsafe or insecure. I must have been hardened by my previous India experiences.

Most streets lead to somewhere and that was also the case this time. Without a fixed goal in mind I suddenly found myself at a main street leading towards the Red Fort. And now I knew where I was.

Due to the extremely busy and chaotic traffic it was almost mission impossible to cross the road but whenever in doubt, just follow the locals… I somehow made it to the other side without even a close encounter and slowly walked towards the red fort.

My first stop was at one of my favorite places from my first visit, the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib temple. The Sikh guards were not only good looking with their long beards and colorful clothing and turbans, they were also extremely friendly and helpful as they guided me to where I was supposed to leave my shoes and pick up a scarf to cover my head (one guard even knotted it the perfect way to save me from the embarrassment of it falling off during my visit).

After having waded through a pool of water to clean my feet I walked up the immaculate kept clean marble stairs. Somebody was constantly busy wiping them clean with a cloth. As soon as I entered the compound I could hear the music and singing from three long bearded musicians singing next to a shrine where an, also bearded, priest was performing some rituals.

In front of it was a large place reserved for worshippers, both men and women. As Jagdeep had explained me the day before one of the pillars of Sikhism was to break with the Hindhu cast system as well as treat men and women equally.

I sat down for a while, closed my eyes and soaked up the wonderful atmosphere. Like on my first visit I simply loved this place. After a while I left the main hall and moved towards the communal kitchen. Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib offers free food to over 10.000 people a day and has a massive, yet atmospheric foot-hall behind it. As the steppes towards the kitchen were blocked by a fence I was not sure whether I was allowed to go there, like last time, so I picked up my shoes, returned my scarf and was on my way again.

Whilst I walked toward the fort I saw a narrow alley leading into a labyrinth of even narrower streets and alleys and somewhere over there had to be the “wedding lane” if I remembered correctly.

So I moved left into the chaos of what is called Old Delhi Bazar. Food stalls, little shops, not bigger than a couple of square meters and electricity cables everywhere. Somehow it seems to be humanly impossible to maintain this extreme chaos of cables, but then somehow it seems to work and apparently without major incidents. I guess when a cable fails or breaks they just leave it as it is and add a new one.

Old Delhi also inhabits an almost countless amount of homeless people and beggars. It was a tough world, the other side of the mirror but also that is India as well. You simply cannot focus on all of it’s beauty and ignore the immense cases of human misery.

One of the homeless people, a barely alive looking man, was sleeping in the middle of the street, too tired and exhausted to be woken up by the chaos surrounding him. Maybe sleeping was the best way for him to forget his misery and not feel the hunger. This was really a case that broke my heart so I grabbed my wallet, took out a banknote, folded it up and put it in his hand. He did not even notice… A small gesture perhaps but at least now he could afford a couple of meals to strengthen.

I continued my walk through extremely small alleys, making sure I would not go to far into the maze so I could find my way back. And there it was, the wedding lane. An alley with an abundance of shops providing everything that a future bride and groom would need for the most important day in their lives. Shops full of gowns and dresses. Carefully stitched fabrics to make sure the bride looks immaculate. Colorful accessories, lots of bling and countless jewelers, shoes and so on, and so on. Oh, did I mention the electricity cables?

As narrow as the lane might be it did not stop rickshaws, bikes and hand pulled rickshaws loaded with goods to be coming through at high speed as everybody in Delhi seemed to be in a rush. I simply loved the atmosphere, the food stalls and the colorful people in the streets. This was India in it’s most pure form.

Somehow I made it back to the Main Street and headed once again towards the Red Fort. I passed the Sikh temple once again and after an easy stroll, trying to avoid the people coming my way (and who were not making the slightest effort to avoid me), I made it to the final barrier that was laying between me and the Red Fort, a major road with lines full of traffic. Again I followed the locals and made it safe to the other side.

The square in front of the fort was filled with people. Unlike last time I wanted to get in but the lines in front of the ticket counter were massive, it would have taken me an hour or longer to obtain a ticket so I decided against it and returned to Chadni Chowk.

I was getting rather thirsty by now and as I could find nowhere a place to buy a bottle of water I got a can of coke at a food stall.  At least that was safe to drink. By now I was over a month in India and until now did not have stomach problems. A good reason to not risk Delhi belly by drinking anything not canned or bottled.

I strolled to another unknown territory whilst intensely enjoying everything around me, both the good and the bad… At one place masses of garbage was collected in a hall, the smell was terrific. Somehow I felt cleaning the streets was a job impossible to start, especially looking at the amount of garbage carelessly left at the sides of the road, but at least something was done.

Somehow I made it back to the metro station and as I was starting to feel tired and my dizziness was taking over again I bought a ticket back to Green Park where I arrived just twenty minutes later.

Back at the hotel I enquired once again for my laundry, that I had handed in already three days ago, but like so many times before I was told sorry sir, it will be here later, it was Holi yesterday, as if I had not noticed. I had heard this excuse already too often with new delivery times set on every inquiry so I got a bit tougher and demanded it by the end of the evening as I had an early train to catch the next morning and was not going to leave without it.

Then I went to my room and slept for a couple of hours, only to be woken up after six when the doorbell rang and one of the clerks with a big smile on his face returned my laundry. Please check sir if everything is alright. It was!

At the restaurant I enjoyed a couple of white beers and updated my journal. I really wasn’t hungry so I skipped dinner and once my journal was up to date I returned my room and prepared everything for an early start.

Continue to the Rishikesh Experience