After the contrasts of Kathmandu and then the remote cold catharsis of our Everest trek we spent a few days in the steamy Chitwan National Park and one day in Nepal’s second city Pokhara.
In between were 8hour bus journeys on unmade winding sandy mountain roads in bright heat.
With the poor roads and sanitation and heat and dust of Nepal we felt like we would take India in our stride.
Landing in Delhi and flying across to the old town was like Kathmandu with added chillies.
Street food, street kids, crazy courageous challenge just crossing the street.
Colour and car horns and temples and incense and three or four on a bike. No helmet. Smog. Fumes.
Ganesha, grime, Vishnu, oranges and orange flowers. Smiles welcomes stunning sarees, smell. Litter. Sacks of spice, stray dogs, Shoe shiners, streetside shavers and weighing scale kids.
Pani puri sellers, parathas, samosas, poppadums, peanuts and plums. And poverty. The poverty is stark.
Amongst Tuks tuks and buses and taxi touts and traffic and more traffic – little shoeless children beg silently in between the cars.
In Delhi life is lived in the streets.
The average street scene a kind of barometer of a persons standing in society here.
The poorest people sleep on and it eat from it, some make meagre money and sell their wares along it. Fruit, veg, clothes, water, fabric. A whole section of street is taken over by people selling by giant inflatable paddling pools. There’s 100s of them.
In a country with a real clean water problem where 40% people have no access to a toilet, the fact these street sellers sleep on the floor next to their ‘stall’ surrounded by these paddling pools is quite ironic.
I can’t help thinking someone has taken advantage of their desperation and convinced them it would be a good seller, a kind of Delhi-boy trotter type deal.
How you travel depends on money just like anywhere and in any big city moving across town takes time but again a good scale of wealth and how comfortable life is or isn’t.
Walking involves dust and barging, ‘non consentual rubbing’ (great description nicked from my current read ‘Ghost train to the Eastern Star’ by Paul Theroux).
If you have some money and you want to move more comfortably from a to b you could maybe afford a cycle rickshaw where a wiry wisened man strains the pedals in the heat with you in the back seat;
some pay a little more to take the metro or the bus.
Quicker still for extra rupees (still the average cost £1-2 a trip) a hairdryer flyer auto Tuk Tuk can weave the way in a traffic jam; but a taxi cab is quieter and cooler though.
The richest few afford their own car and cruise quietly along behind black windows with air con.
The way you travel kind of shows your status and I’ve been most of the above so far. Eating from the street sellers and squeezing along the smog filled roads on foot to taking an air cooled taxi to the airport.
I feel very guilty sat in traffic with my guide book and ray bans while a tiny child taps my leg and begs for food and money.
It’s a challenging enjoying exciting exhausting place and sometimes I want to click my fingers and be in the hotel room. Calm and quiet and cool. It doesn’t help I’ve got the ‘belly’. But to be fair to Delhi I have had it since Kathmandu.
We’ve been advised not to give to street kids but to donate to charity instead. Parents deliberately keep children from school to beg as they can make more money than an adult.
We tip everyone we can who works hard, we try almost always eat local, use small shops and avoid chains (apart from one trip to Nando’s I needed something other than Indian).
We visit some beautiful and amazing places here, I could write an impressive list of the tourist sights and temples, but it’s the people here who make the biggest memories.
Rajishpal and his friend Bish help us to Chandi Chowk metro,Bish a student of philosophy talks colonialism with me and we both agree sheepishly that mistakes were made but swap addresses as the lads want to host us next time we’re in Delhi.
Our taxi man from Nepal who works 12 hours days here seasonally for 6 months away from his wife and children.
Former street child pickpocket who’s parents died when he was 8yrs old Asif who through the work of charity Salaam Baalak received an education and now leads tours and promotes education to the next generation.
The plum sellers who gave us some for free.
The samosa wallah who posed for photos.
The tuk tuk driver who waited for us for half an hour a the post office, the lad who packaged our post in the street and the man who paid for our passport photocopying so we could send airmail.
The men at the Moti Mahal who make Veg Jalfrezi and fresh naans for us despite the late hour and their being 8 staff to our 2.
Our guide Shaktipal who invited us to his family home to meet his children and wife and uncles and grandparents to celebrate Holi in Jaipur, throwing paint on each other and giving us rum and welcoming warmly.
As famous Indian actor Amitaph Bachan – or ‘Big B’ – says in the Bollywood film ‘Padman’ which we watch in a Jaipur theatre:
‘Let us not see see India as a country of over a billion people, but of over a billion minds’. And as
‘Padman’ himself says ‘India is a country of many problems , so therefore many opportunities’.
So the disparity in India is impossible to ignore, but so is the optimism and change is happening slowly. The are many people and projects to try and reduce the gap. Indeed in the film itself we see the true story one mans (Lakshmi Prasad) crusade to end the taboo of sanitary health for women (at one point only 14% of women were using pads). What can we do as passing tourists? Not sure, but we’ll make a donation to the Saalam Baalak charity for now and filter the rest of our thoughts later.