The yellow-stained shade cracked as I cautiously pulled back one corner to peer outside. It didn’t look too bad, less threatening now that the sun was out to brighten the dingy, crowded alleyway. I could even hear music coming from somewhere.
I eyed the scene in front of me, plotting my intended course, step by step from the front door of my hotel directly across the street to where the little man wearing a faded John Deere hat was selling water bottles and candy. I had been watching him for two days and my mouth watered at the thought of a Snickers or Hershey bar. Food. Finally.
I arrived in Delhi seventy-two hours ago and had yet to leave the safety of my securely, double locked door; my strong, wooden, protective door that was currently keeping India out of my room. The chaos, the heat, the stink, the dirt, the incredible volume of noise, the insane traffic, the people who had no sense of personal space, the amount of people…what was I doing here?
My first twelve hours in India were spent in the sweltering waiting room of the Bombay airport. Our plane was broken, the weather was bad, birds crowded the runway, the pilots were sleeping – nobody ever told me the real reason, but the flight was delayed and we had to wait. I sat in my rigid chair with my chin tucked on my knees and my eyes trained on my shoes. Three bodies crowded on my armrests, and a child slept on a stack of cardboard under my feet. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move, and although I was uncomfortable, there was no way I was entering that foul, miniature refugee camp mistakenly labeled restroom.
Welcome to India!
It steadily went downhill from there. When my flight eventually arrived in Delhi, I was immediately harassed at the exit terminal by fifteen male touts, all trying to pull me in different directions and perfect the dexterity of their wandering hands. I tried to hold my luggage, keep a close eye on my money, and negotiate a deal with a dozen taxi companies all while standing in 115 degree heat. Frustration quickly surmounted intelligence, and I hastily picked a random driver to take me to my pre-booked guesthouse in the Paharganj district. I should have known better.
After I was nearly decapitated when my driver disobeyed every traffic law known to mankind, we pulled up to the wrong hotel. My shrewd taxi man refused to take me elsewhere and then demanded extra rupees for unloading my single backpack. I was too tired and irritated to argue. Clutching his fistful of hijacked fees, he grinned widely, jumped into his car and left me coughing in a cloud of manure dust and orange filth. Grabbing my backpack, I nearly tripped over a legless child who scooted out of the way and then proceeded to grab my pants leg and beg for two rupees. I didn’t have two rupees. All my small bills and change was given to the mean taxi driver. It broke my heart to step over the little girl but I did so. I ignored her pleas, walked up the deteriorating steps of the Jama Hotel, sat down on my soiled bed and cried in disappointment.
The prayer bells and angry horn honking kept me awake for the next two days. As the dance of daylight reddened, faded, disappeared, yellowed and reddened again, I composed an India specific road rage brochure in my head and subsisted on wheat crackers and granola bars from the States. However, my airplane snacks quickly dwindled along with my single bottle of safe, airplane water. I was thirsty and wasn’t about to touch the contaminated sink in the bathroom. I wouldn’t even take a shower in there since the concept of a bucket bath in cold water did little to appeal to my senses.
I took a deep breath. It was time to at least buy some water to keep from fainting in this unpleasant heat. I stepped outside the entrance of the Jama Hotel and stood on the sidewalk to look around. All around me people were skewering, baking, simmering, roasting, frying, or mixing some sort of food. The smells were simply fascinating and my stomach quickly reminded me how hungry I was. I gingerly crept across the short distance between the sidewalk and the wooden cart stacked with plastic bottles and colorful wrappers. My heart beat wildly as a rickshaw rushed by and narrowly missed slamming into my ankle. It was suffocating outside. A thin layer of sweat and grime already coated my exposed arms and neck. I craved the safety of my room and briefly wondered if I should head back and veto the idea of satiating my thirst.
As I raised my gaze from the manure covered street, I looked directly into the startling green eyes of my little man by the cart. He looked…friendly. Seeing me, his weathered features suddenly broke into a big, warm smile that engulfed his entire face. I abruptly relaxed and felt my fears melt into the hot pavement beneath my feet.
“My name is Tom. Welcome to India! Where are you from?” He spoke only with a slight accent and his pronunciation was nearly perfect.
I approached, answered his questions, and Tom went on to ask what I had seen and done so far in Delhi.
“Well…,” I paused, wondering if I should make up a lie and then went on to admit, “not much. I’ve been sleeping in my room…for three days.”
I went on to explain that I was just a bit timid and overwhelmed at all the sights and sounds of India. I told Tom that I was craving sugar and also needed some water before I went back to my room.
“And you came to me to get chocolate bars? No, no, no. my little American friend. You are in India my friend. You have some Indian food. We have the very best food right here in Delhi, the very best food you will ever taste. Perfect! Come, my friend. My very own sister has a restaurant. Yes! You like paneer? Come, come, let’s get some paneer! Palak paneer! And dhal! My sister has the very best dhal you will ever taste!” Tom’s energy was so addictive and captivating that I quickly forgot my misery and accepted his invitation.
It didn’t occur to me that I probably shouldn’t follow a strange man through the back alleys of Delhi, but that’s exactly what we did. Tom pushed his cart and I followed behind.
We walked for a long time and Tom filled in the gaps with his non-stop chatter. Our stroll took us past tiny sari shops filled to the brim with silky fabrics and incense shops emanating intoxicating perfumes. We passed spice stalls heaped high with rainbow arrays of powders and tech stores that flaunted everything from pirated DVD’s to laptops. The great gateways of Jama Masjid loomed in the background as we passed food stands, jewelry stores, textile shops, and fruit and vegetable stalls. They lined the streets, hugging the crumbling walls of beautiful, European buildings and created a small, claustrophobic pathway for pedestrians.
Tom kept a close eye on me as we squeezed through the crowds of shoppers and sellers. He seemed to know everyone and we stopped frequently to chat with his cousins, his neighbors, or other friends that crossed our course. I was introduced as, “my American friend who slept for three days and now I’m taking her for a real lunch in India.”
As our walk took us deeper and deeper into Delhi’s hidden reality, I watched as Tom paused often to give small pieces of candy to the many children trailing on our heels. Pubescent girls with huge brown eyes and babies perched on their narrow hips stared from doorways and brothers pulled siblings along in makeshift cardboard scooters. They smiled promptly and then the sugared offerings quickly disappeared into their eager mouths.
We eventually arrived at his sister’s restaurant, a dingy looking room with a bright yellow sign shouting, according to Tom’s interpretation “Rupal’s Heaven.” Inside, the plastic tables and floor were spotless. We sat down at a miniature counter and I immediately looked around for a menu.
Tom laughed, “No menus here, my friend. My sister will fix you right up, no need to read about it first.” Before long, Rupal herself came booming out of the backroom, all 250 pounds of her. She grabbed Tom in a great hug and then pulled me out of my chair for the same treatment. Rupal had the same jovial attitude and incredible smile as her brother. I liked her right away.
Tom explained that this was my first time in India and that we needed something special to introduce me to Delhi. Rupal’s eyes lit up and she exclaimed in the same, perfect English, “Sit, sit, sit! Oh my, your first food in India? And you came to me? Oh my! Perfect, perfect! Sit, sit! We need food right away.”
The next few hours can only be explained as a veritable banquet of the senses. As everything was laid in front of me, Tom took the time to explain what each dish was called, how it was prepared and how it was eaten. We used our fingers to mix the dishes and to fork the delicious morsels into our mouths. Rich dhansak and hot palak paneer began the journey. As soon as I tasted the delicately intertwined flavors of Rupal’s creations, my heart instantaneously belonged to India. The spices exploded in my mouth and I had to close my eyes to fully absorb the experience.
It only got better from there. Thick, deliciously fresh chapatis, some plain and others stuffed with spinach, arrived in heavy baskets. I started to eat them alone until Tom showed me how to use the unleavened bread as a scoop to gather all the savories together. Refreshing bowls of cucumber raita and dahi, a type of milk curd, appeared to counter the heat and sooth our flaming mouths. Empty dishes were pushed aside and room was made for saag masala and crispy pappadums and, true to Tom’s word, the very best dahl I ever tasted. A plate of samosas, dripping with grease and smelling so wonderful I nearly lost my train of thought, was plunked right down in front of me. I couldn’t keep up with the different tastes and I had to take frequent breaks to let my taste buds adjust to the various, new sensations.
My stomach was satiated much too soon even though mounds of food still lay on our counter. Tom and I took a break as Rupal brought a teapot of chai out to the table. The steaming concoction of milk, sugar, ginger and cardamon quickly became my favorite drink. While our stomachs settled, we talked about our families and lives. Tom had a degree in architecture, was married and had lived overseas for several years. However, he returned to Delhi when his mother grew ill. He was taking care of her now while he sent money to his wife and kids abroad.
I told them about my family in Chicago and pulled out some pictures to pass around of my home, my parents and my sisters. We laughed about American politics, discussed the confusing mess of war, and talked about the upcoming Olympics. Another pot of chai found it’s way to the table and our conversation continued.
The sun was setting when Tom and I finally hugged Rupal goodbye and stepped out onto the still swarming alleyway. Tom’s cart was waiting for us and we slowly started home. My new friend walked me all the way back to the Jama Hotel, promising to pick me up again the following day for another “teaching lunch.” No longer afraid of my surroundings, I consented and agreed to meet him on the sidewalk. Then I went inside to experience my first ice-cold bucket shower. It wasn’t too bad.
Over the next few weeks, I saw Tom, Rupal and the kids in the alley every day. Tom took me on walking tours around the city and Rupal spent hours in her kitchen, introducing me to all the tastes and flavors that India had to offer. It was through food that I found my footing and grew to love India’s twists, turns, highs and lows. It was a country full of endless contradictions and exasperating confrontations. It was a country I grew to appreciate and respect, one that I find myself returning to again and again. My journey as a traveler and love for adventure began in the alleyways of Delhi. All it took was a little push from a man in a faded green hat, a man with a cart of candy and a heart of gold.