I like Mumbai’s New York energy better than Delhi’s L.A. style. The latter is so sprawling, you need a car (or rickshaw) to get anywhere, and people are wealthier in a “You’re only going to Paris for five days?” way, whereas like New York, Mumbaians just pay more to be in certain scenes, and go about their business. Because Delhi’s the capital, the biggest urban area in India, and the gate to the Taj Mahal, it’s also more of a tourist trap.
My dad and I are staying in a boutique hotel called the Manor in South Delhi. Yesterday was our first day together, and we started in Old Delhi, at the Red Fort. I realized I’d have to kind of guide him, show him how I’ve been traveling, to let him get the most out of it, and since he’s my old man, he’s pretty amenable to following my lead. But when we first got out of the cab, he agreed to a rickshaw tour of the Spice Market after we were done seeing the Fort, and then he was suckered in by the politeness of a tour guide to take us through the site for only 200 rupees per person. So there we were following this portly Indian, listening to him tell us about how much he loves “U.S.” and repeat the same wisecracks he’s rehearsed thousands of times, for thousands of Westerners, leading us through as quickly as possible so he could go back to the entrance and pick off another couple of other unsuspecting dudes.
Dad had been told by a colleague that Indian beggar children love pens, so he brought fifteen pounds of them in his backpack to distribute throughout the trip (Pops is a doctor so the medical sales reps give him tons of swag). Instead of a tip, he gave our tour guide a pen. The old feller really appreciated it, actually, though he still turned to me and asked if I had any cash. We were glad to be rid of him.
I didn’t blame Dad. I said, “We can’t be doing these tours. I hate being seen as a tourist and a Westerner because I’m not. I’m not just some sucker with a big camera. You know how many tourists they see a day? They give ’em the same shtick. I like to feel the people and know the area without being taken to the touristy spots. If we’re going to get there, we’ll find it ourselves. Trust me, it’s much more satisfying to explore by foot. Don’t worry, I’ll take you to the Spice Market.”
“Fine,” he said, “You tell them no.” Thinking maybe we could sneak out, I knew they’d be waiting. But I was resolved, honest and straightforward, telling the rickshaw driver it wouldn’t be worth his time to show us the sights by foot either; we wanted to get lost.
The Old Delhi bazaar is a jungle of humans. It was lightly raining so that if you walked in the street wearing flip-flops as most people do, your feet would get slightly wet. And even under the tarps and awnings and electrical wires it was easy to get dripped on or walk into puddles. The rain started and stopped. Dad kept pausing to look through windows or take a picture. “You’re going too fast, you’re missing it!” he said.
“I’ve had a lot of practice. I can absorb it faster.” I had to be patient with him; let him get used to traveling again.
We made good progress down the colors of Sari Lane and yes, then to the Spice Market. The smells of tea, vanilla, pepper, dried fruits, nuts and other indistinguishable spices lingered, more pronounced by the day’s dampness.
We walked past the marble floor of a Sikh temple guarded by an orange-turbanned man holding a long spear. He had a gray beard and was straight out of The Jungle Book. Another man swept muddy water collecting on the white marble; it was raining harder now. Up ahead was incredible rickshaw traffic, hundreds stopped as far as the eye could see. We filed singly past the stands where men sat twirling their mustaches, squatting or cross-legged, past flea-ridden dogs sleeping with hind-legs hanging off perches. I led, pausing to wait for Dad. As he caught up, a cross legged Sikh said something to him, and I figured he was trying to sell him something. I walked on, trying to avoid puddles, but when I stopped and turned, they were still talking, having a moment. Rather than interrupt I stood where I was, raising my hand to his call. They shook hands, talked, pointed to their foreheads, Dad looked confused, the seated man looked confident, they talked more. I made myself thin so the masses could file past me. After a couple of minute, they shook again and Dad departed.
“What did you talk about?” I said.
“He said I have good karma, that I help people.”
“He could see it in your eyes?”
“Ah, your chakra.”
“He’s a fortune teller. He said I have a very big heart, but that I don’t help myself.” I could hear the befuddlement in his voice but I didn’t feel like playing psychoanalyst yet; we have two weeks together.
On the left through the fog was New Delhi in the distance. In the foreground was a slum, low wires, piles of garbage bags on top of shanties. My camera created a flurry of attention, so we decided no to enter. We opened our map for the right road, but couldn’t identify where we were. We walked on, getting splashed and honked at by the cars, and finally asked men sitting at a outdoors “hair saloon” where we were. They were very helpful, telling us we were on a road called something entirely different than the name on the street signs. One man even tried to get me directions to Connaught Place via his Google Maps app, but we had figured it out already.
The street we were supposed to take had a lot of cow excrement, which rilled over the sandy ground so I said, “Dad, I think now‘s a good time for a rickshaw. Dad asked if the driver had anything to dry the seat for him. The man used his scarf. We drove bumpily in the wet a good mile, past the main Delhi train station to Connaught Place. When the driver dropped us off, Dad only had big bills and needed to find change. Meanwhile I talked with the rickshaw driver’s friends who “worked at a bank” and said there would be nowhere to get food at this hour, (2:30) and that the city of 22 million shuts down tomorrow because of state elections, that Delhi sucks and to go to Rajasthan, and to help me plan my trip there’s a government tourist office just down the way. He was insistent we go there. I distrusted him and was eager for Dad to return.
Dad handed them all pens for their patience. The guy who had been talking to me said his was broken, that he needed another. Dad took it and clicked it and it worked fine and the guy told us we should go to the government office again and his other little friend said they could take us but I think the first guy sensed my eagerness to leave and said importantly, “No we don’t have time.” I couldn’t help but wonder what the deal was with these government tourist offices.
Just across the street was a nice restaurant called Veda where we had crispy glazed spinach, eggplant curry, yogurt sauce and vegetable rice. From there we walked around the corner to Connaught Place. We were accosted by rickshaw drivers and other hustlers who told us not to go into the Place (here I remembered reading about the Place, that it was a beggar’s paradise, and that it was the best place to get hustled as a tourist in Delhi) and to go to the Indian mall, or even better, to plan the rest of our day with the help of a nearby government tourist office.
Fine. We agreed, were led by another man who worked for a bank. We found ourselves sitting with Zafi, with posters of Indian monuments on the wall behind him. He asked us if we wanted coffee, espresso, coke, “Indian hospitality,” so we had to accept. After finding that Dad had done a pretty good job of planning our trip together he turned to me and said that he could plan me an itinerary for Kashmir after Dad leaves– plane, a week’s room and board and a jeep ride to my next destination for $250. Tempting, and not a bad deal– to a tourist. But I knew after talking with Rit, the woman I’d met over breakfast, who’d been in Mecloudganj, that a day’s food for a king in the Himalayas costs roughly $6, and lodging no more than 10, and that I can buy my own plane ticket for around a hundred, which means I’d save about a hundred if I did it myself. This knowledge and something in Zafi’s way, his determination and drive to make the sale, made me feign indecision and poverty. And even though I stayed strong, I left feeling uneasy, as though I had been swindled, despite the fact that it was he who had bought us drinks. He swore he wouldn’t make a commission, but we knew better. Travel agencies, government or private, set itineraries, click and charge. No thanks– an itinerary goes again the whimsicality and open-mindedness of the backpacker’s grain.
We decided to skip the cafe scene in Delhi and head straight to India Gate, their National Mall. Young girls approached us selling bead bracelets with names on them for two rupees. Dad took off his backpack to give them pens. As soon as he handed out one, there were five little girls wrapped in green, pink, and yellow, thrusting their hands in his face. Our memory of the government tourist office was still fresh, and we didn’t want to feel like tourists any more. “I don’t give gifts to people who ask,” he said, but the little girls were relentless, “Please mister, please,” in the cutest little voices. So he took out one pen more and held it above their waiting eyes. As soon as he placed it into the hands of one little girl they were like a flock of seagulls fighting over a crust. The pen touched all of their hands until it fell into one.
He was shocked. They ringed around him, holding him back. “Please mister, pleaseee.”
“No, you grabbed,” he said. “Uh-uh.”
“Please mister, please,” they smiled winsomely. But this time his resolve was greater than theirs. Soon they dispersed, leaving us to admire the dramatically spartan arch with the sun setting over the president’s house in the distance, cotton ball clouds dappling the high light blue sky.
I watched a little girl wash her hands in drain water and skip over a low lying-chain onto a grassy field. “It’s strange they ask for only two rupees,” I said. “You’d think they would ask for little more than a penny…”
“I’d give them fifty rupees just to leave me alone!” Pops said. We laughed and walked up the hill to Lutyens’ Delhi, the mass of columns and red sandstone England’s version of the Red Fort, which ironically became an Independence Gift to the Indians soon after it was built as a throne of British imperialism.
A man rolled up to us in an auto rickshaw and offered to take us to our hotel for 70 rupees, since it was on his way, “Good for me, good for you,” he said. We agreed, but first we wanted to finish walking around. We admired the garden with hedges shaped into elephants, saw our driver and got into his rickshaw. “My friends, I was thinking it is very far to your hotel, so maybe I take you to Khan Market (where we told him we had originally wanted to go) we look at my store, then to your hotel. All 200 rupees.”
“No, no, no, no more stores–” Pops said.
“My friend, listen, I cannot drop you at hotel. Khan Market, then we go to my store for 70 rupees.”
“Listen, I’ll give you 100 rupees just to go to Khan Market. No store.”
“Okay,” he nodded smiling, “It is deal. Business is very slow today but after I drop you I come back here because I am happy!”
We drove under the wide leafy lanes, listening to a cacophony of birds. The Indian crow— good God, how unlike any other bird in the world it is! But they weren’t making all the racket. Swallow-relations drowned out the hum of the auto rickshaw… “They’re so loud,” I said.
“They get ready for sleep,” the driver said. “It is Indian way of birds. My India.” He was still pleased Dad had agreed to 100 rupees. “You have very good father. Very good.” Dad blushed and said, “All these compliments.” Then he turned to me and whispered, “Let’s see what he does when I give him a pen.”
When we arrived Dad handed him the cash and a plastic wrapped pen. “I want to take a picture with you, sir,” Dad said.
“No, sir, I’m sorry, not like this.” He touched his gray stubble, his dirty shirt. I said, “Aw come on, look at me,” pointing to my dirty tank top.”
“No I cannot,” he said, “In nice clothes yes, but not like this.” I knew he was serious so I said, “Come on Dad, let’s beat it.”
“Okay,” Dad said.
“But thank you sir! Now I have gift for my daughter!”
Khan Market is a bunch of Western stores, cafes and retailers, sandwiched together in a bazaar style. Besides a good cafe, L’Opera, where Westerners hang, it’s a gimmicky, not-all-that-nice shopping area. On the way home we took the Delhi subway four stops, to bring us closer to our hotel, but mostly to compare it to our other favorite subway systems–those in Moscow, New York, London, Paris. The fare was 12 rupees, the train was brand new and full and comes every 8 minutes on Saturday night with the last one at 11:38. From there we hired another rickshaw, who drove us the couple of miles to our hotel gate, spitting betel-juice the way, for 150 rupees.
It was nearly 9 when we sat at the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, Indian Accent, for black lentils, wasabi yogurt, smoked eggplant, moo-shoo lamb wraps with three sauces, of which mint was the best, watermelon juice, Perrier, shots of mushroom soup, and blue-cheese cashew naan. When they placed it onto the table, Dad wanted to take pictures. He asked me to get the camera in the room. I said no. He left, came back, and to my chagrin, stood over the table as the flash went off, again and again.
Breathing deep, I thought, “Patience, Daniel, patience…”