Leaving the mosque towering over us in the background, feeling a little jaded by our experience with the guys at the gate and with sweat in our eyes, the hot midday sun scorching our scalps, we find ourselves deep in the maze that it is the streets of Old Delhi. It feels, well, old, in the sense that it is well-worn, tired like an old jacket, or a much-loved pair of shoes. Old Delhi is a like family heirloom, handed down the generations, every amenable inch of it being utilised to the fullest potential by those that call it home, old and young alike.
There are hundreds of stalls, shops, doorways displaying everything you can imagine. Rows of traders selling copper pipe, followed by rows of little stores selling door handles, or those old-style dial telephones, or shoes, hankies, books, chicken wire… Men cart huge flat trays on wheels through the hoards of people, these carts overloaded with potatoes, or fabric, or cardboard boxes, or stones, or paint. Others carry oversized boxes atop their heads, or bulging mounds of dried leaves, grass or vegetables. Others have long rolls of carpet, or metal tubes balanced on their shoulders. There are surprises around every corner, and a great, great many corners. Life is all around, and much of it is in a mad hurry to be somewhere else.
I find it hard to focus on any one thing, my eyes darting from the pavement and all the trip hazards of potholes, kerbs without pavements, people sitting or sleeping on the ground, and general STUFF, up to the mass of, what I would consider to be, ridiculously unsafe electrical cables and live wires bulging on wobbly wooden posts and poles along the roads. They flit over an abundance of small billboards and signs, many in English, many in Hindi, many in both languages; adverts for Airtel, Aircel, Vodafone, Gionee selfie flash camera phones, photocopying, shoe repair, fresh juice, fancy clothes, hand made sarees… the list is endless. It’s a shoppers paradise, as long as you’re the kind of shopper that doesn’t mind not knowing the price of anything and has little-to-no social anxiety. The practice of retaining a calm demeanor with the thousands of blaring distractions around you is exhausting. In crowds this dense, with the deafening noise of traffic, of metalwork, of sawing and welding and cutting, of animals carting heavy loads through the narrow streets, of mopeds and rickshaws, of bicycle bells; with the constant hum of a city full of people all talking at once, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed here.
One minute the streets smell of aniseed or garlic, the next of burning metal, as sparks fly into the air from a man welding on the kerbside. A few steps more and it’s the scent of urine that fills your nostrils, and just as you gag from this, the air is banana flavoured, or the aroma of curry suddenly makes your mouth water. There are goats tied to steps, icecream stalls with young children shouting “hello! hello how are you” at us as we edge our way through the crowds. Streets that are mere metres wide have scooters whizzing along them, cows drag carts of people and produce, chipboard, hosepipes.. everything you can imagine is somewhere in front of you if you look hard enough. All the vehicles on the road are going whichever direction they need to, and people weave in and out of them wherever there is space for a foot or a front tyre. The sound of horns, again, is incessant.
As we make our way down a particularly narrow alleyway, Vitor stops to buy a samosa from an open stall of hot silver metal and glass panelling. An old man in a beige short-sleeved shirt with linen pants smiles as we look through the array of fried treats on his table. I’m not hungry, but the boys buy some chaat, some aloo tikki, and more samosas, all served with little tin foil trays of spicy red and green sauces. A kind looking man on the opposite side of the alleyway pulls up a plastic bench, which he covers with cardboard for me to sit on as the boys talk about food and tuck in. He shows me some Indian coins, and some american cents. I give him a few English coins, and despite our inability to communicate well verbally, we smile and gesture enough to keep each other smiling and laughing. He has the kindest eyes, a delightfully common trait in India. A friend of this man comes over from an adjacent doorway, and motions to me and then to a rather shady looking young chap in denim stood just out of my eyesight to the right of me. He then points at my bag which is beside my feet on the floor, the strap wrapped around my wrist. Suddenly, my old friend reaches for my bag just as this other man makes a dart for it. I am a little taken aback, unsure if these men know each other or if I’ve just been lulled into a false sense of security and I’m about to be robbed. There are some raised voices, and the shifty looking man scurries away. “Many cheaters” my friend says to me and the boys. “He is looking for you” he says, as he points up the alleyway in the direction of the denim clad guy, who, despite scurrying away, has come back towards us and is now very blatantly staring at me. Our new friend takes Dawid’s rucksack from his back and swivels in on to his front. “Take more care” he says. I start to feel like we should move on, we have drawn quite a lot of attention, so we say our goodbyes and thank yous, shake hands and start back on our way into the streets.
Being aware of pickpockets is one of the single most pressing mindsets you have if you are a responsible traveller/tourist, and this is especially pressing in crowded areas like markets and tourist attractions. All of the guide books, the blogs, vlogs and fellow travellers you meet implore you to mind your belongings, keep your valuables out of sight, stash your money in a few separate places just in case you are victim of a pickpocket. It’s hard not to feel vulnerable as a traveller. You are generally carrying all of your worldly goods on your person quite a fair bit of the time. Since leaving the mosque we hadn’t come across a single other person that looked like they were travelling or backpacking, or indeed one that looked lost; everyone seems to be heading in their own direction with great determined purpose. As 3 backpackers, 1 in a football top, 2 in shorts and all 3 pointing their cameras at very average everyday sights like cows in the streets, or guys chopping and selling fruit, we may as well have had TOURIST stamped on our foreheads in amongst the hundreds of Indians in the streets.
As we continue walking, I’m very aware that the denim clad man from before is following us. The boys are a few steps ahead of me, and it’s very easy to get separated in the crowds. My bag is in front of me and I feel this man tap my shoulder. I continue to walk, thinking he will leave me be if i ignore him. He doesn’t. A few more shoulder taps and I turn to tell him to leave me alone, go away, I have nothing to give. Again, he doesnt. Having stopped briefly, the boys are now quite far ahead of me, and I start to feel a little panicked as I rush to catch them up and stalkey man also rushes, grabbing loosely at my bag strap. I push him away, firmly shouting “NO” and as I turn to walk ahead, he reaches down and firmly squeezes my bum! Now, in my research into India, I had read the occasional horror story, the odd tale of groping in the streets or on the bus, of men brushing themselves against you, peepholes in cheap rooms, of men attempting to take your picture without your knowledge, and I’d been told to be aware of eve-teasing; the practice of men making unwanted sexual remarks or advances on a woman in public. India has this reputation to the outside world, that some of it’s men, not all, hold derogatory or old fashioned views towards women, and some men and women believe that white women are..morally loose. There is no denying the preconceptions I was given. There is a section in the Rough Guide about how incidents of sexual assault are on the rise in India, and how to best observe the very stark cultural differences so as not to draw attention to yourself as a solo female traveller. To my mind, India couldn’t be that much worse than other places in the world, and I wouldn’t ever tar every man in a country with the same brush. I have worked in the bar industry for years in the UK, and I have been subject to all kinds of smut, groping and inappropriate behaviour throughout my career from men and women alike. I don’t think much can prepare you for when something untoward actually happens, and yes, it is always uncomfortable and wrong. Thankfully, I really don’t believe this kind of behaviour is common practice, and even though this was my first day in India, and I just got followed through the streets and groped in public, it only happened once in three months, and I dealt with it the exact same way I would do in the pub – by slapping the guy straight in the face. “DON’T EVER FUCKING TOUCH ME” I shouted, pushing him as hard as I could away from me. He cowered, and the kerfuffle drew attention from other men, who started to come to my aid and shooed him away. I am a little stunned, but it’s not the worst thing that could have happened. And to be honest, at the time of writing this, I have just been groped by a group of guys on bikes in East London, who rode off laughing. So it’s not something that’s specific to India, in any way.
Dawid and Vitor spy me over the sea of fuss and we meet again. They seem bemused. Vitor’s phone is hanging out of his pocket and Dawids backpack is open. I urge them to secure their things and they shrug. I think maybe I’m a little more conscious of the environment than they are, I’m certainly a little more stressed than they are. I tell them I feel a little unsafe and they assure me it’s fine, but they take up their positions either side of me for the rest of our wander.
We head to Connaught Place, my senses heightened and my heart beating a little quicker than I’d like. Connaught Place is a large westernised shopping circle, encompassing a park and some market stalls. We’re looking for simcards and somewhere to book train or bus to our next destination. Dawid has a ticket for Jaipur so we figure we’ll stick together. Shouldn’t be that difficult hey..