A day earlier, my company and I had shamefully returned to our cold, air conditioned hotel lobby sporting a layer of sweat that stuck our clothes firmly onto our bodies. “We cannot be in Delhi and hide in our hotel all day,” I had hissed. “No, no we can’t.” My company’s forehead was lined with beads of sweat. “Do you want to go out there?” “No, no I don’t.” “What are we going to do? We need to look at the map, but don’t open it in front of the tour guide promoter or else he’s doing to hassle us into buying a tour again.”
15 minutes earlier “Sir! Sir! Listen to me, sir, if you do not listen to me and take a lift, you will end up in a very poor and bad area. There are many beggars here. The people will throw shit at your feet!” — unknown man #1.
Our first trip out of the hotel had lasted 10 minutes. We had walked the wrong direction trying to find Connaught Market and ended up bright eyed and confused with our maps in our hands, and my Company being exhaustingly over-friendly, attracted hustler after hustler who followed us for blocks, incessantly trying to get us to come to his shop, sit in his auto, or buy his goods. As I had angrily muttered under my breath, “D—-, stop it [talking]”, the men had left me alone and focused on the more welcoming of the pair. When I had protested aloud, I had been given the hand and told, “Ma’am, please.” Fortunately, we had managed to make one full circle and found our way back to the hotel, dejected, unworldly, and thoroughly intimidated by the hectic fray of life that lived on top of itself and in layers, wedged into every crevice of every space beyond the guarded gates.
So there we were, back at our hotel, thoroughly failing as tourists and avoiding the tourism desk (Before our educational 10 minute exploration into the slums, I had asked the hotel concierge for the direction to Connaught Market. It was the concierge who directed us to the tourism office inside the hotel, who then tried to direct us to take a tour with the hotel that involved cramming an entire week of visiting India into a single day for a fee an order of magnitude above market value).
We stood near the elevators, hiding, looking at ours maps. We had taken a left instead of a right, and we were going to fix that error and go back out there, and most importantly of all, we were going to make it to Connaught Market regardless of the number of men I would have to wave off (and even if this meant my Company would be silenced and muzzled). I was militant, and my Company knew better than to argue, so we stood there practicing breathing in and out deeply, gave ourselves a pep talk, and fiercely walked out the door. The guards watched us and smiled. Inside they were saying, “Those poor, foreign fools. How long shall we bet before they come back again?”
The humid air hit us immediately, the cold of the air conditioning clung to us as a nauseating cold sweat. By the time we got to the corner intersection, approximately 100 yards away from the hotel gate, we were approached by pedicab drivers and autos. The ones who recognized us were thrilled: “Clearly, the tourists have realized they cannot reach their destination by foot. There are too many barriers between here and Connaught Market - a dozen conversations, poverty, a family on the street with a pet monkey, and beggars.”
“Sir, sir! A ride sir? Where are you from? America? Hello!” - unknown pedicab driver #10 And on the main street, walking stride by stride alongside us, “Hello, sir, I am not selling you anything. Where are you from?” - unknown man #2 “Sir, are you lost? Would you like me to direct you to a tourist company. There is a very good one I know of. The others will overcharge you.” - unknown man #3
We barely made it a block past our hotel when we were finally approached by a man who did not want to sell us anything, but instead, offered a kind gesture that we were - indeed - on the right path and just needed to continue walking about 400 meters to the roundabout ahead. He explained he always wanted to travel to America and wished us a fine visit to Delhi. After he left our company, we were met by less welcoming escorts, including one man insisting that he show my Company his wound, which attracted the attention of another man, who insisted that he could direct us to a nicer spot, which then attracted the attention of an auto driver, who insisted he could take us to the market easily. For several blocks, my Company ignored the driver and the other man and kept looking back at the beggar, and then without warning, he suddenly shouted louder than all three other men surrounding us, “No, I don’t want to see your wound! You need to be taken to a hospital or a doctor! You need someone who knows what they’re doing to take you! I have no idea what I’m doing! I can’t help you!” The traffic screamed at us. We had made it to the intersection of the roundabout. We turned from both our escorts and realizing we were across the street from the market, we measured our success at leaving our hotel and getting close enough to our destination; not knowing how to cross the traffic, we promptly returned toward the hotel, stopping by a nearby bar where we ordered four drinks each.
In Lodhi Gardens, I craved a cold lime soda. The redness of the old mosque gave away the green parrots that rested against it, and couples sat around benches or strolled along the park gardens in the evening heat. Earlier that day, our second day in Delhi, we had met up with the rest of our India travel group, L— and I—-, and we were escorted by a friend of I—-‘s, M—-, who lived in Delhi. Suddenly the impossible streets tucked themselves away into a background that M—- waved off with her hand or scolded in Hindi. After M—- had arrived, we had filled ourselves with a South Indian meal at noon and had taken the auto, which we avoided so vehemently the day before, to the Park.
We climbed through the old mosques and gazed at the beautifully deteriorating paintings inside them. In the darkened silhouettes of openings that served as lookout windows, we saw feathered or furry visitors of the old tomb sites and the buried royal family. The planted flowers which lined the pathway to Sheesh Gumbad danced wild with the green landscape.
A stroll through the gardens reminded us of our thirst, and our group left the remains of sultans and dynasties to head toward a tea shop, where we satisfied the romantic heat with lime sodas and lassi. The city had unraveled itself into a sense-mirage of silks and pashmina, cinnamon and cumin, jasmine and lotus soaps.
Wandering through the hip, young alleyways with the busy restaurants and cafes of the neighborhood, I felt under dressed: the young Indian men and women were far more fashionable with their Seven jeans, Converses and Gucci bags. No one said hello to us. No one paid attention to us. I looked across the street from our cafe, and I realized the Delhi of the previous day was still there, but that somehow we had crossed an invisible barrier that allowed us access to the other sides of Delhi, the highly educated, the young and rich, the traveled, the old money. There was still an entire family sleeping and cooking on the street, but somehow, we were now apart of this other world which operated on top of or alongside or beneath everything else which we had experienced the day before. We weren’t sure which one to believe, but we saved the digestion of all this for another night; for now, we were busy being inundated by colors and smells.
M—-, I—- and L—- left my Company and me at a well-known restaurant in the area called The Big Chill which played Rihanna on the radio, and we talked about politics and inevitably ended with my yelling, “It’s my turn to talk now!”. At the close of the evening, we flagged an auto to bring us home. After some negotiating on our end (we demanded to see the taxi fare rate sheet and to have the man turn on the meter, which he at first said was “broken” until we stepped out of the auto which was when the odometer was suddenly, mysteriously “fixed”), we finally decided to get in. This is when I threatened the man. When we arrived at our hotel, security demanded to see the man’s rate sheet to make sure he did not overcharge us. I turned to the guard and said, “Don’t worry, we have it handled.” Feeling guilty, my Company gave the driver a 50% tip, and in India, this would not be his last time doing so.