Talk about an assault on the senses. Today, we went to Chandni Chowk.
We arrived in Delhi yesterday after a five-hour drive from Chandigarh, and this morning, we took the metro (which is relatively new in Delhi) to Chandni Chowk. Instead of Metro Cards, they have plastic tokens, which you scan over the turnstile counters. When we got to the platform, I realized that it was much larger than those in NYC, and much cleaner. The trains were also roomier, and despite the large crowds that kept pushing themselves into the train at each stop, it was a pleasant ride.
When we got off the train at Chandi Chowk, I was sure it was going to be the most intense cultural experience I’ve had in India thus far. The narrow roads were jam-packed with cars, bikes, rickshaws, and scooters, and it took giant leaps of faith to cross those roads because the traffic was so chaotic that you were sure you would get run over. The sidewalks were entirely cracked and broken, which was unfortunate because the only shoes I brought to Delhi were boots with 3-inch heels. Stray dogs were everywhere. I kept staring at the ground as I walked, trying hard not to trip and fall, especially on a dog, because well, that would not have been fun. Chandi Chowk was dirty; garbage coated the grounds of the little alleyways. It was an extremely congested area, with little shops squeezed in next to each other, selling clothes, food, and jewelry, among other things. I still don’t understand how we managed to find where we were going because the whole area felt like a maze, with tiny streets that turned into even smaller alleys, with no signs of where you were. There was also clearly more poverty here than there was in Chandigarh. Like the India I remember from years and years ago, many people were seen begging on the streets, sleeping in ripped-up blankets on the sidewalks, following people around asking for spare change. It hurts to see that.
We visited my grandma’s sister and some more family in Rohtak today,and then left for Mayur Vihar, an area in East Delhi where my aunt, uncle, and cousins live. It was my sister’s birthday today, so they brought her a delicious chocolate cake and we had a nice dinner. Desserts in India are amazing, by the way. Cakes and pastries are made with the fluffiest, lightest icing, and they are absolutely delicious. After devouring a lovely meal, we sat for hours talking, sharing stories, looking at old pictures, and laughing. I love spending time with family. It’s the simple moments like these that I’ll never forget.
My sister and I told my parents that during this trip, we had to visit Agra so we could see the Taj Mahal. We left for Agra early in the morning, and reached there in the afternoon. When we got out of the taxi and started walking towards the Taj Mahal, a bunch of auto-drivers and men driving carriages on the back of camels began shouting “5 rupees,” “10 rupees,” “20 rupees,” “1 kilometer!” in an attempt to get us to take transportation to the site. (We decided to just walk and realized it was definitely much less than one kilometer.) I remember people saying that the area was really dirty, which was confirmed when I saw the garbage covering the areas next to the road, but once we got to the entrance gateway, it was very clean. Plus, you wouldn’t notice the ground anyway because you’d be gazing up at beautiful architecture.
They charge 20 rupees for an entrance ticket if you’re an Indian national, but if you’re a foreigner, they charge 750 rupees. (How insane is that?) After getting in line with our tickets, we proceeded to enter the area beyond the gate, and soon enough, the Taj Mahal was in full view. At first glance, I could’ve sworn I was looking at a postcard hung up in front of me. It was really that beautiful. A reflecting pool stretched from the entrance to the white domed marble mausoleum, with walkways on either side. As we made our way into the structure, I looked around in awe at the incredible architecture, the intricate detail, carvings of flowers and vines, engraved paintings, calligraphy of Persian poems…it was all so beautiful.
When we left the area, and proceeded out the gate, we stopped to check out a souvenir store and get some snacks. Just outside the shop, a handicapped man made his way over to us, and tried to sell us some Taj Mahal key chains. When we seemed uninterested, he started lowering the price, pleading that we buy some souvenirs. My dad offered him some money, but he refused to take it if we weren’t buying his merchandise. Finally we gave up, and took a pack of key chains from him, and gave him money. He flashed us the widest smile and my heart melted. I wished there was something else we could do to help him. A few minutes later, my sister was looking at the pack he gave us, and said something about how a few of them were broken. I don’t know how he heard us, but the man came limping towards us, pointed at the packet my sister held in her hand, pulled it away, and replaced it with another one. We smiled at him and said thank you, and he smiled wide again, revealing the few teeth he had. We continued on our way down the road to the taxi. On the way, young boys who were probably around five-years-old began chasing us, asking us to buy souvenirs from them. We gave them each some money and they were happy as ever. As I watched them running off, a few extra bills in their pockets, I wanted to cry. Who knew whom they were working for, who was exploiting them, and whether that money ever brought them any good? It bothered me that life was so unfair to these kids, but in that moment, there was really nothing else I could do. It broke my heart.