That Time I Woke Up In India: Chandni Chowk! (8.10.2008)

…and Jama Masjid, the Red Fort, and marketplace adventures! AKA The first half of my first day in Delhi. I had a lot of things to write about. Pictures included.

I started the day relatively slowly, waking up around 8:30 and eating a nice Korean breakfast with Mr. Mun. He gave me a rough idea of places to go, recommended a place to go for lunch (aptly called the All American Diner), and promised that we would have a nice Indian dinner when I came back. I tried to take a shower, but the water abruptly stopped. Apparently, Sunday mornings were a difficult time to shower, since everyone was taking a shower in the morning. I myself was in the middle of applying shampoo to my hair when the water started slowing down, so I frantically rinsed out of my hair. Or at least tried to. I wasn’t completely successful, so I tried other sources of water. No, I didn’t try the toilet. I wasn’t that desperate. It was my first day in India! But it did worry me that even Mr. Mun’s house was subject to water and electrical shortages. I mean, they were by all means well off in Korea, so I would never expect such problems for them, even in India. Evidently I was wrong. I worried that I would face more inconveniences like these, even in the best of places.

After my failed attempt at a shower, I tried to put on my contacts. That was equally unsuccessful. I managed to get one in rather easily, but the other one kept on popping out. I didn’t think I’d ever get used to those slippery bastards, but I guess there are some sacrifices one has to make to wear snazzy shades. Until a better form of corrective eye surgery is developed, I’ll have to spend my morning trying to shove contacts into my eyes whenever I want to wear shades. I’ll probably succeed on half of those days.

Eventually, I was successful and set out from the house around 10. The driver Kumar (yes, it’s actually a real Indian name in India) had been waiting since around 8. I felt bad because I wasn’t used to people waiting on me. However, I soon learned that drivers were used to that kind of thing, not just in India. It was a strange feeling, having someone who would wait on you (almost) unquestioningly. An exhilarating feeling of power, some might say. Addictive. I personally found it interesting. Too bad it only lasted a day.

The morning streets of Delhi were chaotic, what with rickshaws and buses going all over the place and people crossing the road all over the place. Literally. If there was a road, people were crossing it. It was a miracle that no one got hit by anything. Kumar was a nice fellow, so I didn’t feel like dragging him all over the place, but I did anyways. I mean, it was probably my last time in Delhi for a long time, possibly forever.

AAAAAHHHH RICKSHAWS!!!!!

AAAAAHHHH RICKSHAWS!!!!!

So, first stop? Obviously the Red Fort. Closed for Independence Day preparations. Damn. Well, I guess I saved an hour there. A rickshaw driver insisted on taking me to the Jama Masjid (originally my second stop and now obviously my first) and was offering a reasonable price, so I obliged. After overcoming my initial fears of falling off the rickshaw and embarrassing myself and making a bad name for tourists in general, I found that we were going in the opposite direction. No, it wasn’t that we weren’t heading towards the Jama Masjid. It was just that all the cars and autorickshaws were heading toward us. Luckily, we turned into a different road before we got involved in any major accidents. At this point, my driver switched places with an elderly man he claimed was his father. He actually might have been, but I could never be sure. I don’t want to seem racist by saying they were all related.

The new driver drove me past a tourist couple also riding a rickshaw. I was relieved to see them, as I had not yet seen any tourists and was starting to get a little antsy. Oh well. The driver was especially helpful, pointing out places to take pictures of, and even offering to take my picture for me. Although I was unsure of trusting my camera to anyone but English-speaking tourists or Asians, I figured I could trust him. After all, if he tried to run off with it, I could easily knock him out with my bag. It was a very heavy bag, lethal, even. It held everything I would need in case my luggage got stolen, including a bottle of water, my Lonely Planet guide book, a cell phone and charger, a transformer for my Korean electric appliances, my Korean electronic appliances, some toiletries, a change of clothes, some snacks, some notebooks in which to jot my travels down, my digital camera, some medicine, a couple of books to read (I believe they were Terry Prachett novels), and my IPod. And some other things. So if I was to swing the bag at a thief, well, may God protect him, cause that change of clothes won’t do much to soften the blow.

I let the driver take a picture of me (yes, he did not try to steal it), and then he offered to take me around Chandni Chowk for 200 rupees, which was far too expensive, but I wasn’t really interested. He lowered the price to something much more attractive, so I agreed. For those of you who don’t know (probably most of the people reading this), Chandni Chowk is one of the oldest and busiest markets in Delhi. It was portrayed in the hit Bollywood film Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham as a vibrant cultural center filled with grumpy yet well-meaning vendors and sassy young Indian girls dancing in colorful saris. And from personal experience, I have to say, THAT IS NOT TRUE. It is crowded, confusing, and really not as clean as the movie set shows it to be. And there were no dancing people. I was not pleased.

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Chandni Chowk, a bombardment of the senses. All six of them.

In retrospect, Chandni Chowk was the one place I swore not to go to, since there was a supposed terrorist threat against the area, and I really wanted to leave India with all of my body parts. In retrospect of that retrospect, I realized that of all the days that terrorists would think of attacking Chandni Chowk, Sunday would be the least effective, since most of the shops were closed. Even then, there were a heck lot of people. I was glad that I had decided to go to Chandni Chowk that day instead of the next day, when it was supposed to be busiest. Kumar had warned me of pickpockets, but there were simply too many people to keep track of. It seemed like everyone was about to pounce on my beautiful bag and rob me of its contents. No, I wasn’t being racist, just paranoid. After all, Aladdin has taught me well what goes down in market places. But then again, I doubted anyone could pickpocket someone on a moving rickshaw and if they could, touché.

Chandni Chowk, to the average tourist, would have been an awful, smelly, confusing maze of narrow streets choked with lots of people. Fortunately for me, I’m not the average tourist. My rhinitis has dulled my sense of smell, so it was just a confusing maze of narrow streets choked with lots of people, which provided for some great picture moments. As I was guided through the maze of streets, I was relieved that I had decided to go by rickshaw, since I doubt I could have passed through the market alone. I probably would have gotten lost in the middle and no one would have been able to find me since there are no exact maps of Chandni Chowk. Maybe a few weeks later there would have been news about a Korean tourist found dead in Chandni Chowk with all of his belongings stolen. Who knows?

The driver stopped me at a row of houses that he explained had been built in the Mughal era, and took my picture in front of one of them. Some children were playing cricket in the alley, so I took a picture of them too. After all, I can’t take pictures of children playing cricket anywhere else. It’s always basketball or soccer or some other sport that I can actually understand. I mean, it’s not everyday in India that you see someone playing cricket. More like every hour.

Something about wickets and runs.

Something about wickets and runs.

After some more twists and turns in Chandni Chowk, I arrived in front of the Jama Masjid, one of the great buildings built by Shah Jehan, who also built other tourist attractions such as the Taj Mahal. The driver said he’d wait outside, so I climbed up the stairs to the entry. With my bag, of course. I didn’t trust him THAT much yet, and I doubted that I ever would. I was supposed to take off my shoes to enter the Masjid, so I placed them with the other shoes outside. I wandered around the area taking pictures, when I found that my wandering had led me to what seemed to be a favorite spot for the masses of pigeons. The entire area was covered in bird poop, and as I was barefoot, I was less than please. I tried my best to step around the bird poop, but I think I stepped on some spots. I closed my eyes and told myself that I was probably mistaken, that it was just some light blemishes on the stones. Eventually I got myself out of the bird poop area of the plaza and wandered over to the tower ticket counter. Thank God.

Ooooh pretty

Ooooh pretty

A thing I love about India is that foreign tourists have to pay jacked-up prices to enter anything, while Indians pay practically nothing. I guess that’s what I get for being a person of the developed world who is simply not satisfied with staying safe at home. As I walked on the ramparts of the mosque to the minaret, I realized that I was sweating profusely. I mean, it was rather hot. However, I also realized that not only was I sweating profusely, but I was sweating profusely into my eyes. As I climbed the endless stairs up to the tope of the minaret, I felt a burning sensation in my eyes and staggered up to the top, where I took a few haphazard souvenir shots since it was really crowded and I really needed to wash out my eyes. As I was reeling from the (literally) blinding pain, I realized that I had left my beautiful and expensive-looking Nike running shoes in the protection of an old man who looked as if he would overlook a young Desi boy “accidentally” taking the wrong shoes. I stumbled down the stairs, wiping my eyes and blinking tears as if I had found the panorama of Delhi too beautiful for mere words, and walked/ran toward my shoes, taking pictures as I went. I mean, if someone had already taken my shoes, there wasn’t much I could do. Might as well enjoy the scenery. I mean, if they were to be stolen, someone probably stole them and was selling them off to some black market trader of American shoes deep in the dark alleys of Chandni Chowk. Probably fetched him a pretty penny, enough to live like a king for a day or two. Meanwhile I would be stuck shoeless in the middle of Chandni Chowk, and I’d have to buy an overpriced pair of flip-flops that would break down in a couple of days, and my India trip would be ruined. Perfect. I was ready to accept that fate. Luckily, my shoes were still there, next to a near identical pair. The old guardian of the shoes asked me if I was paying for both, and with my faith in the Indian people temporarily restored, I smiled, shook my head, and said, “One.”

A picture of Delhi taken while blinded and screaming in pain. Are those pigeons?

A picture of Delhi taken while blinded and screaming in pain. Are those pigeons?

My driver had not abandoned me, as I hadn’t paid him yet, so we set off back to the car, where Kumar was patiently waiting. Or so I thought. The old man stopped at a souvenir shop, saying that it was his company’s store. Of course. There’s always some sort of tourist trap where the driver would be paid a handsome commission for the hapless customers he brought. I wasn’t going to fall for that trick. Unfortunately, as I stepped down from the rickshaw, the strap to my bag suddenly snapped, and I was left vulnerable with a strapless bag. The storekeeper kindly offered to fix it for me, as it turned out that nothing had broken, but one of the metal buckles had been bent out of shape because of the weight of the bag. It was that heavy. And I carried it all around India. Am I not amazing? Anyways, the storekeeper’s assistant quickly mended my strap buckle and gave it back to me, which left me slightly indebted to them. The storekeeper asked me if I was interested in India shirts for Independence Day, claiming that he was selling them wholesale as a special Independence Day sale. I wasn’t really interested, as the shirt looked rather cheap and tacky. He then showed me some traditional Indian clothing. I strongly considered buying a shirt to horrify and embarrass tourists, but then I realized how horrified and embarrassed I would be. The storekeeper offered the shirt at 600 rupees, claiming that although the price was usually 1000 rupees, he was lowering the price because of Independence Day. I though about it, managed to lower it to 500 rupees, but realized that I really wouldn’t look good in it. As I exited the shop, the shopkeeper cried out a final price of 400 rupees, but I politely declined. Maybe another day, another customer. If only I was as good at bargaining for things that I actually wanted to buy…

The driver drove me back to the car, where I paid him his charge plus a nice tip, which came to the amount of 200 rupees. Yup, I ended up paying his asking price Maybe that was what he had in mind all along… But I had nothing to complain about. After all, he didn’t try to scam me of greater sums of money, so might as well be generous. The fact that I really don’t know the transportation costs in India also added to my generosity. Kumar welcomed me, turned on the A/C, and drove me to Raj Ghat, the final resting place of Mahatma Gandhi. Or at least that’s what I though it was. Crap. I really should have prepared this kind of information before I went.

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