Risking It All In Old Delhi

The streets of Old Delhi are like nothing I have seen before. When I think of the most densely occupied places I have visited, with their street markets and vendors and utter crush of humanity pressing in on all sides, nothing comes close. In terms of bodies pressing on bodies, Naples at its busiest has parallels, but it doesn’t share the grime, poverty, and cows in the street. It doesn’t have the auto rickshaws.

There was one night in Jogjakarta with Peter that perhaps draws a parallel, with pedestrians pushing against each other as we work our way through bottlenecks on the street. But that’s not a fair comparison because Old Delhi is so much more massive.

The drive from my hotel, near the airport, to central Delhi was remarkable only for the density of vehicles on the road and the murky persistent brume covering everything. My driver pointed out a few things along the way, including the presidential palace, and parliament, the shadowy figures of which were scarcely visible through the haze.

Once at Connaught place (in New Delhi), Ramesh parked and I left the relative safety of the van to find my tour guide. Stanley immediately identified me, and and as soon as we found a British couple who were joining us, we were on our way to the Metro and Old Delhi. Old Delhi encompasses the very oldest neighborhoods of the city, and is famous for its street food. Delhi is also famous for gastroenteritis, Delhi Belly, so I was hoping for the best.

As soon as we left the safety of the subway, the press of people began, with individuals pushing against one another aggressively. Stanley led us forward to a clearing and then disappeared, returning shortly with dahi bhalla, fried lentil balls with yogurt, pomegranate, and tamarind. One of the principles of avoiding illness is avoiding uncooked food. The yogurt here was clearly uncooked. Then again, I considered that it is probably also probiotic, so I dived in. And it was delicious.

Abandoning our empty bowls to a pile on the ground (there are no trash bins) we continued forward to our next stop, not far away. Here they were frying up hearty bowls of spiced potatoes. Also here it became clear that my constitution is more accustomed to spicy food than is my British compatriots’.

While we were waiting, Mrs. Anand called me to see if everything was OK. I confirmed that I was doing great and informed her of where I was. With some concern in her voice, she cautioned me that I should watch what I’m eating – which I definitely am. Then the potatoes were ready and I had to say goodbye.

At this point we took a break from the eating so that Stanley could point out the Sikh temple nearby, telling us stories of the Sikh faith. On some level, it’s amazing to me that this stands here amongst the chaos of the throngs, grime, poverty, and food.

We passed the temple in search of sweet, crispy, jalebi, which Stanley says is India’s national dessert. He inquires as to whether we have a national dessert, and I’m left with the somewhat disappointing answer of apple pie. Apple pie just doesn’t inspire me.

We took some rides on an auto rickshaw tonight, the four of us crammed tightly into its tiny seats, navigating congested byways, some of which had once been paved, always in search of our next meals.

Such as this chole bhature, with its spiced chickpeas and poofy bread.

And we visited the pepper market, where the spice in the air was so dense we could taste it and a dog huddled, curling himself up against the din in the corner.

And we sought out Indian fried chicken, which Stanley bragged is better than KFC. I will attest to this statement.

Many rides on rickshaws and walks down unnamed streets and alleys separated us from our meeting point, and as the night wound down the three of us were utterly lost. We agreed to being glad that we had taken the tour, because we would have never found any of this on our own. Old Delhi is just overwhelming

With one last stop, for dessert, including a lassi, rice pudding, and bread pudding, under our belts, Stanley led us back to the metro. He continued telling us stories as we rode back to Connaught place where I found my driver for the trip back to my hotel. I have been traveling a long time, and now that I was sated I was ready to find my bed for the night.

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