Delhi is filled to the brim with a fairly well preserved history, and with a preserved history comes all of the monuments and artifacts one would expect from a country thats modern state is influenced by over 1000 years of military and political conquests. On my first full day, I committed to visiting some of the more popular tourist sites, hopefully leaving time later in the day to experience the bazaars, and with any luck some of the local arts and crafts (apart from the tourist trinkets). I normally like to venture on my own so I can keep my own (snail’s) pace with camera in tow, keeping my head down when approached by peddlers and politely declining any goods or services they are offering.
I don’t know why I veered from the norm. I’m sure I would have ultimately visited more monuments on my first day, but I may have missed out on the experience… so after turning down a few suiters, I finally humored a younger looking fella with a full, budding mustache. His English was quite good. I was actually very surprised to see how much was written in English, even in the “smaller” city of Agra. He plopped me in a rickshaw, driven by human pedaling power and took me from the Red Fort, which I had intended to tour on my first day. He chauffeured me down Chandni Chowk, literally “Moonlight Square”, as the streets were once canals that reflected the moonlight.
History aside, I got a glimpse of the markets that I wouldn’t have gotten alone. The mustached man and the feverish rickshaw peddler took me through the markets, into the alleys, and up to the rooftops, a venture I likely wouldn’t have dared on my own. I will never forget the aromatics of cumin, coriander, and fennel that hung in the air of the spice market alleys–it was like accidentally inhaling cayenne pepper, but it was completely unavoidable. I did everything I could not to cough uncontrollably. The view from the market rooftop was staggering. I wondered how some of the buildings stayed erect. What used to be a well appointed residential market area had become a dilapidated warehouse for spices, textiles, metal, leather, shoes, and just about any other handmade good you can think of.
The pedishaw commanded presence. Keeping my hands within the frame of the wagon, the steel bars did well to clear a path and punish anyone that didn’t get out of the way. After a bullish trip through the bazaar’s alleys, the other half of the “India tourist” experience began. I read all of the warnings about being dragged to particular vendors where tourists pay an inflated price and “guides” get a commission. That said, the first place he brought me seemed legit with teas and spices tidily packaged and clearly marked, and though I’m sure I could have bargained, the price tag wasn’t astronomical. (The conversion to Sing Dollars is a tricky one… it’s roughly S$45 to 2000 Rupees, so my best reference was 450 Rupees equalled about S$10.) The manager of the spice shop said they keep all of the saffron well accounted for, though I didn’t ask the selling price. I splurged on some masala chai, darjeeling, and mango green teas.
From there, by my request, he took me to the metal market where I was hoping to find some filagree. Some of the jewelry was lovely. The shop where we landed was less clear cut. Nothing was openly priced, but I would say that even after politely declining several times, the shop clerk never really wavered from the originally quoted price… often the threat of losing a sale magically makes the item cost less, even when they were making nothing on the original offer. The clerk gave me every sales line in the book. “This will only go up in value. You won’t think about the money you spend today tomorrow, but you will always have this. I don’t even know why I said that price, it just came out of my mouth.” This is about the time that I wondered how much of a cut my newly found friend, and we did have good conversation, was going to get. I wish I had met my Saturday driver one day sooner… I didn’t leave unscathed.
After a fantastic visit to a Jain temple and a great local lunch (which I didn’t get sick from), things started to get very dicey. I should have caught it much sooner than I did, but the trickiness stems from the fact that just about any travel agent can masquerade as an affiliate of the government. Granted, the government does actually have a sanctioned tourist department and an actual government run tourist office, but even the government program seems like a con right down to its name, Incredible !ndia.
Incredible !ndia offered free tourist SIM cards at the airport, and the cubby was manned by another fella with a well appointed mustache sitting on a stack of luggage playing a game on his mobile with an HP all-in-one sitting on a pile of books next to him, almost certainly running a free tourist SIM–though I did learn that the government offers locals data-only SIMs with unlimited data usage for roughly 200 Rupees (US$4). I don’t think these SIMs offer voice or text, but this would explain why everyone has a smart phone with the Uber app and a second candybar phone circa 2001 to talk on. Needless to say I opted to spend a few bucks, keep my Sing number, and let my data roam (the interwebs makes it seem like this SIM is completely legit for tourists with an eVisa, which is easy to get for a few bucks and 4 days advance notice… now they just need to make it seem legit upon arrival).
Looking to round out the remainder my trip since I had planned only one day, I thought my friend was taking me to the government run office in Connaught Place, which is where the Incredible !ndia office is actually located. Fast forward nearly 2 hours and a quarter of my first day’s sightseeing, and I finally smelled the stink of the con and walked out without being scammed. That’s how legit the operation seemed. I’ll never get that 2 hours of my life back, I didn’t get to see the inside of the Red Fort, but I felt good exiting without getting the wool pulled over my eyes. And I feel like I got the other side of the Indian experience. I escaped to a sweets shop as an excuse to get away and devoured the most decadent gulab jamun I’ve ever eaten from Nathu’s… crisp on the outside; floral, sweet, and tender on the inside. Maybe it’s psychosomatic, but it was amaze.
This… this is why I’m so conflicted. The city is amazing. The food is sinful. The people are fantastic… Very welcoming… Customarily hospitable… Relentlessly accommodating. But the entire thing seems to be underscored by an agenda. I think that agenda, and the very way of life in this impoverished city, is guided by the very real threat of extreme poverty. Even exiting a train, the urgency… the scuffle… the fight to claw your way to the front almost made it seem like there was a prize on the platform to be claimed.