I’m up early this morning, grab a 7:15 breakfast and head out at to meet Ritu, the owner of When In India, whom I met last night, as she’s invited me to take her tour today. I take the metro and head over to the Red Fort as the tour departs across the street. It’s a big week for students here as it’s the beginning of exams and the train is filled with students cramming in some last-minute studying. Arriving just before 9:00am, I see Ritu standing on the street talking to an American couple. After a few minutes, we’re joined by another American couple and their parents.
We spend a few minutes introducing ourselves and making small-talk after which Ritu begins showing us the locations we’ll travel to on a map. She describes the inside of the Red Fort, as well as the temple we’re standing in front of. Attached to it is a bird hospital where people take sick and injured birds. We’re told that often, children will be seen carrying their injured bird into the hospital in a box. If you bring a bird in, you shouldn’t expect to get it back, as the hospital believes that birds are meant to be free and therefore, after the bird is nursed back to health, it will be released. There’s even a visitors’ house on top for the birds to come see their bird friends.
After a few minutes, we climb aboard our rickshaws and head through the streets of Old Delhi. We listen to Ritu speaking through our headsets describing the sometimes chaotic scene. It seems that India streets used to look much better, with fountains and towers lining the streets, But, due to earthquakes, political changes and poverty, most have become quite rundown. And the British rule, well, don’t even get them started. Ritu explains that there are so many poor people in Delhi because there are so many temples. The temples distribute food and clothing on a near constant basis so, if you’re going to be poor, Delhi is a good place to do it as, at least you won’t starve.
We step off the rickshaws periodically to see various temples (I wore the slip-off shoes today as I’ve learned that much of India requires bare feet), before entering the market area. Here we climb from our rickshaws and are led into a small, simple restaurant where they’ve prepared plates for us to try some local specialties. There’s roti (bread) as usual which always helps to make the spicy Indian food bearable. We try some very sweet desserts which some find too sweet, yet I think are yummy.
Before long, we’re back on our rickshaws headed to the Spice Market. As we pull up in front, the morning Flower Market is just ending. It’s the beginning of a colorful journey which continues inside. The smells and colors inside the Spice Market are overwhelming. We see spices in their original form as well as ground. For some reason it reminds me of the room in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where “everything is edible. . . eatable. . .you can eat everything in here!” Ritu explains which spices are which and offers things to smell and taste. If you come to Delhi, be sure you stop here.
We continue riding our rickshaws through the marketplace where we travel down a street which has everything you need to throw a wedding. Indian weddings are a big deal, usually with a thousand people attending and going on for up to a week (nearly as long as a Kardashian marriage). The colors here are as spectacular as the spice market with flowing, silk Indian-style gowns in the windows sparkling with rhinestones and gold thread.
Three-hours later we arrive at our starting point, which is also our ending point. We thank our strong-legged drivers and Ritu and bid each other farewell. This tour is well worth taking to help you appreciate the atmosphere of Old Delhi.
I begin walking back to the metro station and stop at the Sikh temple on the way, as I’ve heard it’s quite interesting. I ask a guy standing at the wash basin out front how this works. As instructed, I wash my hands and head to the left where there’s an information room in which I can leave my shoes. I walk towards the entrance of the temple, stepping into the small pools in front in order to cleanse my feet. As I walk through the temple, I notice that men and women are sitting and praying together. It’s noticeable because, in many religions, they’re separated. I later learn it’s because Sikhs believe that everyone is equal; men and women and dogs and cats. Every living thing is equal.
I walk around the back and notice that small bowls of food are being distributed from a booth. I’ve been told that, if I come here, I’ll have the chance to try the food so I step up to the window where I saw people obtaining a ticket that seems to be traded for the bowl of food. The lady simply says, “No.”
“Can I have a ticket for food?” I ask again.
“No,” I’m told
I offer to make a donation as I see a sign mentioning something about donations but, once again, I’m turned down.
I step over to the food booth and ask for a bowl, but the man points me back to the ticket booth. I give it one last shot, asking the other person working back there for a ticket and again I’m told no. I’m the only person in India who is turned down for food.
Dejected, I return to the information room to gather my shoes and leave. I notice a Sikh man sitting at a desk and ask if he works there. He says he does and I tell him the story of my experience. His name is Singh and he takes the time to explain that the small bowls of food are sort of an offering. You get it, and then immediately give half or more back to the guy standing aft the booth just by the back entrance of the temple. You can also share it with others in the temple. It’s a way of symbolically giving back. Singh offers to take me on a tour of the place which I excitedly accept.
We walk through the temple and he points out the men and women sitting together. I also notice some people eating (apparently they weren’t denied the food). Singh explains the whole small bowl of food offering in the back, but then takes me to the kitchen where they prepare full meals on a daily basis for anyone who wants to come eat.
The kitchen and dining room is a completely separate building from the temple. This is done so that people can feel free to come eat, without feeling coerced to go to the temple. The food donation is very separate from the prayers and religion. I see women rolling dough into circles and am told they’re rolling chappati, also known as the roti bread we ate at the restaurant earlier. I’m invited to sit down, grab a rolling pin, and make bread.
I sit next to a tiny lady who seems a bit irritated but throws a few dough-balls my way, spreads some flour out and hands me a rolling pin. I put my heart into rolling my chappati and, I must say, I think I found a new career in chappati rolling. I’m not bad at this.
After ten-minutes of chappati rolling, we move on to the hot part of the kitchen where, for some reason, they’re burning butter, but then throwing in flour and water to make, well, something, to feed the crowds.
We step into the dining room and I see rows of people sitting on the floor enjoying the free meal. I could sit if I want, as all are invited, but I was really just looking for the experience and I’ve had a great one touring the place with Singh.
We head back over to the information room where I thank Singh for explaining his temple and his religion to me, put my shoes back on, and head to the metro.
Next, a stop at the underground market and a day at the museum.
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