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Magic and Mayhem

I saw a huge contrast between the rich and the poor everywhere I went in India, but it was most pronounced in Delhi, where the Plaza Hotel bar rivals any in Los Angeles and little children with bloodied arms bang … Read More

By / May 4, 2007
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I saw a huge contrast between the rich and the poor everywhere I went in India, but it was most pronounced in Delhi, where the Plaza Hotel bar rivals any in Los Angeles and little children with bloodied arms bang on car windows begging for coins.

“The blood’s fake, I know it is,” insisted one of the American wedding guests. “Well, I fucking hope so,” I said to myself.

I didn’t stay in the city long, but four days was enough to get me off my bearings. We arrived late at night, en masse, on a private bus from Jaipur. The hotel where we first disembarked was wickedly overpriced and the beds were made of sand. Jeff, Michael, and I hopped from hotel to hotel in subsequent days, but we never found anything better.

Delhi’s not the best place in India to be without a plan. You especially don’t want that “without a plan” look on your face. That’s when someone wants to take you a hotel, muttering, “Very nice, very clean.”

A driver from the expensive sand hotel took us to a place his cousin (or maybe it was his cousin’s friend?) owned called Dreamland. Dreamland was the kind of temporary home that only worked if you were passed out asleep.

The only night I slept there, I insisted on staying out late and getting as sauced as possible so I couldn’t think about the shirtless guy next door who kept talking to an invisible parrot on his shoulder. The only bar open in Hindi/Muslim Delhi at 10 p.m. on a Thursday was at the Plaza. We got a dazed 13-year-old rickshaw driver to take us there, and when we walked in it was a different world. The perfectly manicured bar was poolside under a giant disco ball. Well-groomed twentysomethings—a mix of nationalities—danced and flirted in $500 shoes. Our driver napped in the rickshaw, and I was glad he couldn’t see the extravagance inside. The cost of a beer could probably feed him for weeks.

Continually barraged by the traffic, poverty, and chaos of Delhi, and with nowhere to regroup, we all started to reach the end of our tethers.

I spent most of my time in the old city, where it’s best not to get too attached to any concrete notions about where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Once we wanted to find a kite. Another time it was fabric. Then silver.

Originally called Shahjahanabad. Old Delhi was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1638. In its day, the Muslim Mughal Empire reigned supreme, controlling a huge population and area. Today its narrow winding streets are still occupied mostly by Muslims. At the edge is the giant Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. No cars can pass through the narrow lanes; the nicest way to see everything is on the back of a bicycle rickshaw, confusingly known as a “helicopters.”

The streets wind in and out of darkness and light. This part of the city, like Jaipur, is also lined with deteriorating old havelis. Once ornate, they now have plastic signs advertising whichever store occupies the first floor. Here in the old city, some of the cautionary tales I heard about India made some sense. Bad smells and oceans of flies emanated from the butcher shops. At one shop, two young goats napped in the sun while a butcher hacked at one of their brethren a few feet away.

Not long after I spotted the doomed goats, I tried to cross an Old Delhi street after lunch. Considering there are no cars and the lane was about 15 feet wide, this shouldn’t have been that hard. But with people and rickshaws and motorcycles all bumper-to-bumper (they all literally touch) yet miraculously moving, I couldn’t do it. At midday the heat pounded, and as I stepped into the road, I got past one direction of traffic but was unable to cross the other.

I looked down. Next to my right foot was a fully flattened dog’s head. Its ears were splayed out as if it had just perked up at the sound of a cat. A Halloween costume? Did they have Halloween in India? Or dog costumes,? I started to feel dizzy, glanced up at the sky, then looked down at it again. Maybe it was a goat and not a dog? Someone yelled at me to hurry up, and I threw myself across the street.

On the other side, my friends were hopelessly haggling with a rickshaw driver. He wanted to put all five of us in his cab, which was clearly built for two. Michael, whose arm was, at that moment, being stroked by a beggar lady, finally snapped.

“Look, buddy,” he yelled in his Aussie drawl while the driver stared blankly, “I’m really beginning to lose my patience with you.” Finally, comic relief.

We climbed into another, unsuspecting rickshaw, this one driven by a boy no older than 13. He looked like he had actually never done this rickshaw thing before, and proceeded to charge off in the wrong direction.

It was impossible not to enjoy the Old City, though. Everything there was magic and mayhem, and why else does one suffer a 15-hour flight if not for magic and mayhem?

Finally, on my last day in the country, we went to a place called the Red Fort, or Lal Qila. This was the 15th-century palace of the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan. Behind its walls were intricate halls and buildings that made up the center of Indian life centuries ago. There were also serene, well-tended lawns where visitors played and picnicked.

How did we not know about this place? It may have been the most peaceful spot in Delhi. You could even hear birds chirping. We all lay down and napped immediately. If I learned anything in India, it was to treasure peace and quiet, and nap without delay.

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