A few weeks reprieve in the UK had served to lighten the bags/ add weight to the waist line. It was exciting heading home for those weeks and our excitement was not disappointed. With new babies, ever growing bumps, Simon's brother's wonderful wedding and much socialising and catching up too it was an action packed time that only proved to confirm how wonderful our family and friends are. Now that we knew home hadn't changed too much and it was actually pretty fabulous, we could get on our way with as much to look forward to heading back to Blighty as leaving it.
Dirty Delhi doesn't have the greatest of reputation. With rumours of chaotic roads, jam packed streets, even a belly condition named after it; a sense of trepidation arrived along with our e-tickets. Having been to India twice before I had only known Delhi as a place where I was escorted by my uncle and aunt who had lived there or as a place to avoid; to catch the next available transport out. Simon's insistence to have a look around was the only reason we had booked ourselves in for two nights.
The taxi journey to our hotel would have been straight forward if it wasn't for not reading the Lonely Planet. Our taxi driver was a friendly chap who had undercut the others we had asked. This should have been red light number one. As he chatted about cricket and 'lovely jubbly' he mentioned that today was a big festival for Hindus. He drove past a police cordoned street and said that was where he needed to drive and that our best option was to head to the tourist information office to ask where was open. Red light number two also ignored. Simon was taken to the tourist information office where a performance of faux phone calls to the hotel, a grilling about our plans and a general sussing out would have left the gullible traveller with a day tour, train tickets, a sari as well as a considerable sum missing from their budget! I'm sitting in the car now reading the Lonely Planet and there it all is. Taxi scams, ruthless tourist agencies, false festivals...in a state of panic I start beeping the taxi's horn (futile really as it just merged with the general din). Now whilst I am no weakling myself, Simon has a particular talent for the no nonsense approach. Simon's assertive manner and firm line appeared to communicate to our 'helpful' agent that he wasn't going to succeed in his cunning plan so as Simon left the office it was thumbs up. We could be dropped to our door. Whilst the journey had started calmly, as the day progressed the traffic was becoming significantly more claustrophobic. Enthusiastic beeping, black billows from exhaust pipes, motorbikes weaving with microscopic precision against a constant sea of unpredictable rickshaws, bikes, trucks, buses and carts and of course the occasional cow. Delhi traffic is stereotypical of Delhi traffic. Mayhem that somehow, eventually, gets you to your destination.
Central Pahar Ganj in Old Delhi is an enclave of guest houses, shops selling nik naks, touts, pizza restaurants. Everything Simon and I like to avoid. After collapsing into bed for a snooze, we headed out into the streets of Delhi, away from tourist town and into the alleys around. Delhi is a tangible, human tapestry. Full of noise and smells and colour like you don't see in most other cities. Whilst some could get distracted with the grime and disorganisation, Simon and I had obviously become some what immune (all credit to Dar es Salaam). As we walked through the alleys each glance told a different story. A large balding fellow in a sweat drenched vest sat cross legged on a grubby blanket watching a tiny screen in and enormous TV. A family sit in a corridor eating dinner out of shiny metal tins, a man irons shirts with a large coal heated iron, a woman brushes her friends hair, children play with fallen kites. Amongst the winding streets each tiny window, each doorway led to Indian life. Smells of sweet chai mixed with mange ridden dogs. Rich masala mixed with strong body odour. Rose scented sweets mixed with stagnant water. Above our heads hung a rainbow of wire upon wire all disappearing to different rooms, precariously tied with string, cloth and scraps of wire. A slither of daylight through the high buildings showed a grey/ blue sky making the light of coal stoves and small bulbs hanging loosely all the more atmospheric. 'I like this' said Simon, and I did too.
We wandered for a couple of hours. People stared, some said hello. A tall, tired looking young chap on a scooter stopped to tell us we were headed for a dead end. Sunil introduced himself but unlike touts we had met earlier that day he was just interested and keen to share his story. He invited us to tea with his family. Why not? Sunil introduced us to his wife ("as you can see she eats well"), his smiling son who was running in circles in his squeaking shoes. We met his mum, his sister in law all busying themselves in the small 3 room apartment. He asked if we liked pigeons to which Simon wasn't sure what the answer should be. Luckily I thought he said pizza so said yes enthusiastically. We walked the four flights of stairs to the roof top where two large coops of pigeons sat coo-ing. His champion racers were pointed out. "All just for fun." On the roof were his three brothers taking turns in the Delhi sport of kite flying. The vast view meant kites could be seen for miles! Both Simon and I had a turn; it's harder than it looks. The paper kite on a solo string not only had to contend with changeable breezes but the nearest kite would battle it out until one or others strings had been cut! The brothers lost 3 kites whilst we were watching...
We watched chapatti's being made, drank chai and shared cultural differences. He showed us a great local place to have dinner and even popped back with a friend whilst we ate. A fantastic Delhi day beyond expectation.
The next day we decided to take on the Delhi underground system with plans to see all the highlights. A simple enough system much like the Oyster card meant we were off! First stop was Chandni Chowk and various bazaars. Our initial budget-saving idea of metro and foot soon got a little tiresome not because of the 40 degree temperatures but because we clearly had no idea where we were going. Having walked the wrong way for quite a distance we decided that the cycle rickshaw guy that had stalked us, and of course watched us go the wrong way, may be our saviour. Poor chap didn't know what he was letting himself in for! His spindle like legs and delicate frame had to work double time to get us the 4km over bumps and puddles to negotiate standoffs with motorbikes and finally to the spice market. We found the entrance and started our decent into the shadowy unknown whereupon Simon decided he didn't like markets anymore and wanted to go to the fort.
The fort is vast and as we wended our weary sweaty way across enormous, now 42 degree, plazas, across long and perfectly straight raised paths. We sat often. We didn't say a lot. Occasional mention of a passing chipmunk or the highlighting of yet another tower of scaffolding (Chris & Malcolm....) was about all we could muster as drawing breath would instantly sap all moisture from your palette thus rendering a full conversation impossible, although somewhat amusing.
We left the fort to head to the largest Islamic place or worship in town. Prem, our new cycle rickshaw saviour peddled his merry way though sky high parcels of raw tea, through white turbaned, skinny legged cart pushers taking a snooze in the shade on their crumbling wooden carts. We arrived at the vast Jama Masjid, climbed the stairs where we met a significant entrance fee and someone taking my shoes whilst another wrapped me in cloth like a samosa. I turned to see Simon doing a strange and exotic dance in his newly adorned skirt. I was about to applaud when his expression told me he was in quite some pain. The searing heat on the naked sun-drenched steps seemed to be causing some discomfort, and only when he had found a shady patch to place his well covered behind was he able to raise his feet off the torturous slabs! It was clear that he hadn't worked out to follow the paths of hessian.
Lesson learned, we wandered around a big open space where person after person asked us to leave. The tower we wanted to climb was closed and it was now prayer time so we were forcefully asked to evacuate. Simon, with crisped feet and a hole in our budget, was not best pleased and as a new kind of jumping up and down began, I left him to it.
Frustration released we were back with Prem and on to the tube station for a long queue, a security check and a short tube ride. Whilst standing in a crowded carriage, absorbed in conversation it is easy to forget where you are. Just one glimpse, however, and your gaze will be met by hundreds of wide eyes and serves to remind you that you are a stranger. That we are, indeed, strange.
We hopped out at India Gate; an Asian equivalent to L'Arc de Triumph. It was another long, sweaty walk through arid gardens. The central pond sat stagnant and green although to those without a home or running water this was there central water source. Washing lay strewn on the sunny brown grass whilst women scrubbed the next piece. Men, half naked in their sarongs, used hose pipes to give themselves a thorough, if not public, scrubbing down. Delhi life is laid out for all to see. From birth to death and all bits in between, you're never very far away from bearing witness.
On our painfully slow walk towards the gate we had the pleasure and relief of being approached by Asim. The usual conversation was had ("where are you from?", cricket, English weather...) which I had no energy left to even politely respond. Luckily Simon came to the rescue. "Mr Simon. Can you guessing my occupation?". Well, we had a pretty good idea. "I am in fact rickshaw driver!"
We took Asim up in his offer of ferrying our pink and shiny selves to all the sights. He showed us the gate and Parliament House. He took us to his temple and taught us a little of Hindu tradition. We shared a Thumbs Up coke before he bundled us back in his blue and yellow rickshaw and took us home.
Another night and another meal of pure scrumptious-ness, along with a small audience of curious locals. It was an early night. Not only because we felt sapped of all energy but we also had to be up at 2.30 a.m. for our flight into the Himalayas...