Paharganj likes to sleep in. The early mornings could even be called tranquil in this normally bustling corner of New Delhi. The fog hangs low in the air, late into the morning, and only a few merchants and traders man their stalls. I wandered down the dirt road to a pair of carts where I could smell breakfast being cooked for a small crowd of locals. The carts were wooden ramshackles, with stove burners and storage compartments elaborately built in, placing function over form.
I took a look at what the locals were eating, and I ordered the standard street omelet The chef behind the cart sprung into action, cracking eggs, chopping chilies, and spooning oil into his blackened pan. He tossed ingredients into his pan, flipped them, and caused little snarls of flame to crackle into the air with the casual skill of a Top Chef competitor. While he worked, I ordered a chai from the man in the next cart. He turned a dial on the propane cylinder strapped to his cart, the flame on his burner grew, and ladled milk into a pot from a huge metal container. He spooned black tea leaves into the pot and it quickly began to boil. To keep it from boiling over, he slowly sloshed the bubbling tea in the pot, lifting it from the flame in a circular motion, moving up and towards me, and then back down to the flame. He did this until he was satisfied with the condition of the chai. The mixture was then strained and expertly poured into a small glass.
I took my chai, and my omelet and ate with the local men, sitting on a rickety bench, made from 3 boards, nailed together. The meal was delicious.
After breakfast, I caught a bike rickshaw and asked him to take me to the market. I had a few hours to kill before my flight to Mumbai and I thought I’d explore a bit more of New Delhi. The city was coming to life, and the honks of traffic were beginning their daily crescendo. We took a long ride through the city, riding through traffic-choked streets, fighting for position with cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws, carts drawn by donkeys, and carts pulled by groups of men, piled high with barrels and boxes of who knows what, precariously lashed together. We were immersed in the exhaust fumes and the honk honk honk of the streets. The off-key opera of engine horns. The ballet of lane changes.
Inner city chaos at its finest!
Check out this video to see and hear what it’s like to ride a bike rickshaw through New Delhi!
At the end of all this madness, there was supposed to be a market. But instead of the labyrinth of shops that I had anticipated, I found only a single row of stalls, stretching down a nameless street. I wandered through, browsing the array of textiles or bike parts, or broken radios, or old clothes, laid out on the tables that lined the street. Eventually, I found my way to a hole in the wall curry shop and ordered myself a plate of Palak Paneer and naan.
When I say the place was a hole in the wall curry shop, I mean that quite literally. It was as if the front of the building had been town off to make room for the street. The concrete walls and ceiling abruptly ended and rebar and wires jutted out towards the street. The room was shallow, only a few feet deep, but there was room for a makeshift kitchen, with burners propped up on boxes, and a small table with three plastic stools. I sat across from a rotund Indian man who was finishing his meal.
In the kitchen, a young boy spooned ingredients into a pan, and just outside, two younger boys crouched in the gutter, washing the previous guests’ dishes in a big plastic tub. I watched them work, bare feet, standing in the collective muck of the street gutter, dunking dishes repeatedly into the sudsy water of the green plastic tub, then placing the cleaned dishes on a stone in the sun. Cleanliness was important, that much was clear, but their methods were lacking.
The meal was by far the best Indian food I’d had thus far on my trip, and one of the cheapest. The shop keep poured me a glass of water, and looked at me like I was a lunatic, when I refused the water, and pulled my own bottle from my bag. Dodgy street food is one thing, but I wasn’t taking my chances with the water just yet. I would have really liked a cold beer, but sadly, Kingfisher was not on offer.
I finished my meal, and looked at my watch. It was getting late and I still had to get back to my hotel, get my train ticket from Prakash (he’d booked it for me), and get my ass to the airport to catch a flight to Mumbai. I grabbed the first auto rickshaw I saw, and we were off – once more into the fray.
The rickshaw zoomed out of the lot, and abruptly came to a halt, faced with a wall of traffic. Apparently, on my leisurely stroll I had inadvertently wound myself deeper into the serpentine center of this city. As the day had worn on, the traffic had coiled and tightened its constrictor’s grip on the maze of streets. The already horrific Delhi traffic had become what we in Los Angeles lovingly refer to as GRIDLOCK.
My rickshaw driver took the traffic head on, shooting through narrow gaps, moving through impossible spaces, dodging cross traffic at light-less intersections, and basically being damn good at his job. It was exhilarating, and my neck hurt.
My phone rang. Prakash was on the other end yelling, “Where arrre you Justiiin?? Your flight is in 2 hourrrs! You must leave immediately!”
“I know. There’s traffic. I’m in a tuk tuk now, on my way.”
He calmed down.
“Please hurry, sir. I will have a taxi waiting for you.”
I tapped the driver on the shoulder and showed him my watch, tapping the face to indicated that we needed to hurry. He smiled and wobble-nodded his head with a flat smile, as if to say, in the nicest way possible, “I know, but what more can I do?”
We passed a man riding an elephant on the overpass that crosses the train tracks at New Delhi Station. He had one of the lanes blocked entirely, as he lumbered up the grade, one beleaguered step at a time. When I finally got back to the hotel, I had exactly one hour to get to the airport. I grabbed my bag, Prakash handed me my train ticket, shook my hand, and then I jumped into the taxi he had waiting for me.
That’s good service, I thought, as I waved to Prakash from the taxi window.
Traffic, traffic, traffic, and yes, more traffic. But, I made it to the airport with 20 minutes to spare, and tipped my driver excessively. I breezed though security and after a quick and painless flight, I was in Mumbai!