My first impressions of India: crowds, horns and smells. I will discover that this first impression, this assault of the senses, is just a small taste of what’s to come. Everything will be different: languages, people, cities, religions, food, colours, streets, road rules. It is crazier and busier and better than I ever could imagine.
Delhi is the best way to kick off our Indian explorations: immersive, overwhelming, exciting. It immediately strikes me as somewhere completely different than anywhere I have ever been, strangely jarring in its chaos and constant beeping (there are no road rules, being in a vehicle is terrifying, and the horns do not stop).
We visit Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, a Sikh temple that feeds 23,000 – 24,000 people per day. We don yellow bandanas to cover our heads and enter its kitchen, where men stir curries and women prepare chapattis. This food will soon be served to thousands of people, varied in their colour, caste and creed, for the lunchtime service. As we leave the kitchen, we see crowds of people filing into the vast hall. They begin to form lines facing each other, and there, they sit cross-legged, waiting. It’s almost rush hour.
Then, there’s a rickshaw ride through narrow Delhi lanes. Our rider is experienced, but the traffic is insane, and we barely miss pedestrians, cows and traders carrying heavy goods on their heads. If I reach out, I would be able to run my fingers through the beads, flower garlands and fabrics being sold on either side of us – the lane is barely wide enough for our cart. The ride is rocky, we’re thrown around and our heads hit the metal roof, the bumps sending shocks through our bodies.
We stop to try jalebis from a local vendor, an Indian dessert made from deep fried flour batter. The jalebis are warm and sugary and delicious, and our group unanimously loves them.
We arrive at the biggest spice market in Asia, and it affects us physically. We pass by sacks of chillis that make our noses run and our throats burn. We sneeze and splutter; the air is thick with spice and heat. Then we’re climbing up a damp, dark staircase tucked into the corner of the markets. The climb is steep, punctuated with glimpses of the hustle and bustle below, but we emerge onto a rooftop. The market and the homes of the traders are sprawled out before us; the view is lovely but dislocating. Washing hangs, corrugated iron rusts, pigeons perch.
Delhi is all around us.
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