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Delhi’s oldest spice market

September 2, 2016
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The most famous place in India
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Chandni Chowk

This is chapter 2 of the Graduate & Live 2016 Summer Tour of Asia, where three traveling freelancers take advantage of their freedom. In this installment, Ryan, Aom and Ashley travel back in time as they explore the back alleys of Old Delhi.


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Ashley Lombardo

 

When it comes to helping those in need, there's often an overwhelming feeling that we cannot make a difference. A trip to an old Indian market proved a small gesture can really change someone's day.

On my second day in India, we headed to the country’s oldest outdoor market. Known as Chandni Chowk, the market is famous for its potent spices, hectic energy and hidden corridors.

We booked a room at the Hotel Krishna, a three-star stay in the Paharganj neighborhood. We had to venture 20 minutes to reach the market, so we decided to skip a cab and hop in an auto rickshaw. These open-air vehicles are the preferred method of quick, cheap travel. And they’re absolutely everywhere.

 
Zipping in an auto.

Auto rickshaws have a distinct style: a three-wheeled carriage, mirrors with dangling fringe and dashboard statues of Hindu Gods. I climbed into the boxy green contraption and, like any law-abiding citizen, I immediately reached for my seatbelt… only to discover that there wasn’t one.

auto-rickshaw

Aom, a Thai person fond of tuk-tuk taxis, seemed unphased. She draped her body through the windowless, doorless gap to video the bizarre sights. Our fearless rickshaw driver honked his horn and weaved the compact car through crowded streets.

As we dodged dozens of cows and carts, waved to newborns wearing eyeliner, passed by barbers advertising Bieber haircuts and buzzed beneath thickets of exposed electrical wiring, Aom flung her selfie stick back and forth to get the best shot.

The free-for-all had no defined flow of traffic, and I couldn’t help but cringe. Ryan, a fourth time veteran of Indian travel, teased me as I clutched the roof and brainstormed how not to die.

Despite a few close calls, we made it to the outskirts of the market alive and unscathed. The first order of business, Ryan said, was to find a tour guide. After a few minutes of negotiating with an eager pack of natives, Ryan picked Mukesh. Mukesh, a Muslim cycle rickshaw driver, wore a cream-colored khan dress and an unusually clean smile.

There are three requirements when driving in Delhi: a good horn, good brakes and good luck.

 
Turning up the heat.

Mukesh parked his cycle rickshaw on a corner and led us into the market. He zigzagged through a section of vendors peddling dried dates, mango teas and sun-dried chilis. The minute Aom laid eyes on the barrel of spices, she called for a chilli-eating contest. Ryan, never backing down from a dare, proudly accepted. They invited me to join, but the 112° weather gave off all the heat I needed.

Ryan could only stomach one single chilli, but Aom’s Thai taste buds devoured two full pieces. A few minutes later, the pair doubled over in pain. They ran to a nearby water stall to slow the spreading fever.

Mukesh guided us under a covered chunk of market dedicated to the purest spices. Specks of curry, coriander and cumin filled the air and drew tears from my eyes. We weren't used to all the spice, but Mukesh kept us going. He had a lot of ground to cover. And he wasn’t slowing down.

 
Manpower.

Mukesh had pulled us through the market’s narrow streets, never bumping a cow or clipping a person. The thinness of his frame had no effect on his strength or stamina as the temperature hit 120°F.

We passed through the inferno only to climb five staircases to reach the top of Chandni Chowk. The peak point revealed the width of the market and showed the extent of Delhi’s crumbling infrastructure.

Mukesh darted down the stairs and gestured for us to take a seat on the back of his bike. He pulled Ryan, Aom and I through the market, peddling our weight with his own power.

As we moved through the market, I spotted people sitting in strange positions. A woman carried pounds of potatoes on her head and young men lugged bags of spices on bent backs. One older man, with hair neatly combed, perched like a frog and spread his knees wide.

I realized that many Indians are so dedicated to their work that their bodies get molded by their occupation. The frogman's body hugged the workspace; his posture fascinated me. I was hypnotized by his actions. His hands moved meticulously as he mixed areca nut, tobacco and lime and folded it into a betel leaf. Mukesh grabbed the package and popped it into his mouth. I kneeled down to take a photo, and when when I looked up, I locked eyes with a group of staring men. Clearly, the fascination was mutual.

Bargaining in India is not for the weakhearted.

 
A rip off or a right of passage?

We stopped in an an antique section of the neighborhood, tucked away on an Old Delhi sidestreet. Mukesh led us there to visit a thousand-year-old Jain temple. No technological items or menstruating women were allowed inside. It wasn’t mine or Aom's time of the month, so she and I made the cut, but unfortunately our cameras didn’t. The beauty of this temple exists only in my memory.

After the temple, we were invited into a nearby store called Viraaj. The proprietor, a well-fed salesman and ex-Bollywood actor, coerced me into the back room to look at Pashmina scarves. He asked a workboy to whip up some chai.

“These scarves are from my hometown of Kashmir. They’re knitted by hand,” he said, handing me the tea. “You won’t get anything like this in the United States.”
“See? See the beautiful design?” he said. “These are double-sided, which means they’re more expensive.”

He wanted ₹2,500 rupees for a soft, sun-colored paisley piece. I negotiated the price to ₹2,000. He looked disappointed. When he told me to “just take it,” I felt bad and forked over the ₹2,500. Aom watched the exchange, crept up behind me and whispered, “Too much, Ashley. Too much.”

Later on, I found out that the same scarf might cost ₹500 rupees. I have no way of knowing if he really ripped me off, but if he did, I’m not upset. It’s a rite of passage in India.

 
The value of a dollar.

Delhi is stuck in a dusty haze. It’s so saturated that I could actually taste the pollution. I started to overheat and had to call it quits. I’m a Florida girl who prefers warm weather, but the sun boiled me like a hot potato. After a few hours, the heavy air was too much.

Mukesh dropped us at an auto lot and arranged our taxi home. At the beginning of the tour, he set the price at ₹50 rupees. I hopped off his bicycle, knowing that it was my turn to pay.

For two hours, Mukesh pulled three adults through choppy, uneven streets. And he asked for only ₹50 rupees. That is equivalent to .74 cents.

I looked in my wallet, filled to the brim with hundreds. I could barely fold it because I had so much money. When I handed Mukesh ₹500, his face lit up. He looked surprised.

“Thank you, thank you so much Madam,” Mukesh said.
“You worked so hard, you deserve it,” I said. “Thank YOU for a great day.”

The joy on Mukesh’s face had wiped away the heat exhaustion. Even though it’s not a part of Indian culture, he reached out and gave me a big hug.


When I first arrived in Delhi, the poverty hit me hard. I knew I wanted to make an impact, but I couldn’t figure out how, especially knowing I can’t give to everyone. But in this one instance where I gave away ₹500 rupees, the equivalent of a Chipotle burrito back home, I learned that I don't to right every wrong in the word. All I have to do is what feels right when presented the opportunity.

It’s time to catch up on some online work before heading to the Taj Mahal. Thankfully, Hotel Krishna has pretty good wi-fi, which is a luxury in India. Catch you next time!

Ashley Lombardo
Ashley Lombardo
Ashley Lombardo is a freelance writer.

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