Saturday, 23 April 2016
The garbage in the alleyway didn't look any more pleasant come morning so I thought to postpone any advances into Delhi's streets and went to find breakfast. The Hotel Perfect has a delightful rooftop terrace, I sat happily in the sun (weather was just as perfect) and wolfed down an "Indian Breakfast" of roti and daal and chai: my tastebuds have never been so happy first thing in the morning. Shortly after that two young women joined me and we learned we were travelling with the same tour group.
"Let's go to the market!" said Megan after a while.
"Do you mind if I come along?"
Not at all, said Lauren her friend. Megan had a face full of fun, a pretty girl with a killer laugh; Lauren wore her hair with a topknot, a sort of "blip" on the top of her head secured by a scrunchy. Both were from Australia and because I have a special afinity for Aussies, and I learned that most of us were from Oz I knew this was going to be a fun group.
Now I have to admit that the idea of just staying on the terrace did occur to me. Not that I was afraid of going out in New Delhi's streets with nothing to protect except two engaging nineteen year olds you understand. But just as they mentioned it, I suddenly realised that that was exactly what I wanted to do.
So off we went.
It hadn't been my exhausted imagination the night before, the streets were simply strewn with garbage in some places up to a metre high. I learned there was a municipal workers strike; this was its tenth day. We had no choice but to skirt it or cross over it just like everybody else. I saw no cows; not yet anyway. The streets were crowded but I have seen worse at the Saturday market in Puerto Banus. The Karol Bagh market is one of New Delhi's busiest. I expected perhaps a separate area, maybe covered but in fact it was no different from the one in my local town: stalls along the length of the street, regular shops behind.
One of the things I had been most nervous about was being approached by beggars, being touched, even grabbed, or worse robbed: against that eventuality I wore a small cotton bag around my neck which made me look four months pregnant (as the same did to everyone else within the group, even the men!). But except for some very prolonged stares we were barely notice at all. In fact I didn't mind this at all because it allowed me to stare back. Shoes were cheap, clothes were cheap, scarves were dirt cheap. I saw many women in western dress (many more here in the capital than in other cities I was to visit). One store I passed was a wedding suit shop for men. Outside there was a model of a rather western-looking maharajah type flanked by two tiny childlike mannequins: one in a kurta, a hip-length collarless shirt, this one highly decorated, and the other in what the Spanish call a "smoking". Other shops we passed had whole families seated on the floor surrounded by shelves and shelves of bolts of material: the bride and all of the women who had already taken over the rest of her life.
A little girl with a beauty queen's smile highlighting her pretty and dirt-creased face and supporting very ragged clothes was picking over the garbage for pieces of cardboard. She flashed me a grin that was as much eyes as teeth. We did not speak. On the way back down the road (past the two "dusty trees") I saw her again, still stuffing paper into her bag. We were beside a shoe shop. I beckoned. She came. We went into the shop: "I would like some shoes for her please," I said as if this was the most natural thing in the world. The shopkeeper looked quite surprised and asked me to repeat. "Some shoes. What size are you sweetie?" We all looked down at the oversized, very much scuffed and worn pair of navy blue school shoes. The shopkeeper went off and brought back a pair very similar and at least two sizes smaller. But I had another idea:
"No. Not those. These." I held up a pair of glistening gold sandals with rhinestones and a small heel. Clearly the shopkeeper now confirmed his suspicion of my madness but off he went and back he came. Little Smile tried them on, all the time looking at me as though I could vanish at any time.
"How much are they?" Two hundred and seventy rupees: just over three euros.
I handed the money over and somehow wished they had been more expensive.
With that, she fled and I did not see her again. Whether I should have bought something more sensible I don't know but what is the point of buying school shoes for someone who never goes to school? A yellow-haired goddess had emerged from some distant fantasy land and bought her the shoes of her dreams and that was that. Whether she got to keep them or her mother found some way to sell them, I don't know and I don't care. The thing is it made me just as happy as it made her. Few things in life are so equally balanced. To celebrate I bought myself a scarf: 60 rupees.
Meg and Lauren got their hands hennaed. It was a much more delicate process than I had envisioned so I declined. I had noticed a hair salon across the road from the Perfect so suggested a pedicure and Megan took me up on it immediately while Lauren went to rest.
I confess I have never before had my toes pedicured. They do a very reasonable job of stopping my legs from fraying at the end and for that I am thankful, but other than washing and occasionally oiling them, we sort of go about our own business.
So it was a bit of a shock when, having sat down next to Meg, a man appeared - two actually - to attend to our toesies. Wash and scrape, nip tuck and clip, and joy of joys a thorough leg massage and I was being offered a dizzying number of colours to choose from. I chose turmuric yellow. Hey...why not? (Incidentally, this colour lasted through my six weeks in India and then some.)
The sign next door to the Perfect said:
EXTRAORDINARY IS ADDING A LITTLE EXTRA TO THE ORDINARY.
Let the adventure begin ... I'm ready for it!
Next: Night train to the desert.