We’ve made it to Connaught Place, on the hunt for sim cards and, in all honesty, some shade from the sun and some refreshment. It’s early afternoon, and must be 35 or 36 degrees outside. Coupled with the dust, the exhaust fumes and the people it feels more like 100 degrees, and when we spot a sign for “BEER- 80 RUPEES” we decide to take a break. We follow the arrow on the sign through a narrow corridor, up some stairs and walk smack-bang into another unrelenting attack on the senses.
We are in a ridiculously loud, dark, dingy bar. The kind of place in the UK you would expect to be playing rock music, heavy metal, there is honestly no need for music to be that loud in the day time.. It’s decorated with low light, wood, whisky bottles, shisha pipes, small wooden tables in neat rows, and thick, musty, earthy-smelling cigarette smoke, enveloping the room and everything in it. The place is heaving with Delhi natives, Indians in, what I would describe as “business casual”. No saris or salwar kameez in here, no one in the bright, colourful, traditional dress that has been so prominent my people watching so far, it’s all jeans, jackets, polo shirts, trainers. We take a table and a waiter comes over, takes our order for 3 white beers, and we struggle to talk over the blaring beats of… Justin Bieber. American style pop/dance music seems to be the playlist for the day, the kind you’d hear in any club around the world.
I roll a cigarette, and 2 Indian guys on the table next to us ask for my tobacco tin. I hand them it, and they look at it, trying to figure out if I’m smoking weed. They want to try it, they can’t roll, so I roll them a cigarette, and they excitedly ask about places in the UK, Europe and America. Then they buy a round of tequila. We accept, thinking we’re being polite, but it turns out they want tequila in return. “Now you will buy the tequila” my new friend Vikash exclaims. I decline, explaining that I came in for the 80 rupee beer, which doesn’t seem to be available anywhere, and I’m on a budget. “But you are white!” he laughs, “you can buy everyone a tequila!”. “Little does he know…” I think to myself. This was not the first time someone assumed I was rich because I was from another country, and it certainly was not the last. They ask the boys about women, in England, in Brazil and Poland. “White women are much more care free, and they show you everything” he says. “White women want sex a lot”. I laugh, nervously, aware that I am a white woman, probably the only one in the building at present. I try explaining that stereotypes exist the world over, and that it’s not a pleasant stereotype to have, it has no real grounding, the media, movie portrayal, songs etc..but my argument is stalled as Vitor is showing them pictures of naked women on the beaches of Brazil. They shriek with laughter, and I squirm, changing the subject. I write down some ideas of places to visit in India, places they suggest for relaxing. Khajuraho, Manali, Kodaikanal, Goa.
Our new friends are polite, but quickly resort to teaching us how to say “sister fucker” in Hindi. We laugh and joke, mostly about how much women cost in other countries, my arguments falling on deaf ears. They borrow our sunglasses, saying how cool they are and we take a few photos. A girl comes to our table and ask Dawid if he will pose for some photos with them, as it’s someone’s birthday. He’s more than happy to oblige. It’s an unnerving but exciting feeling, being the spectacle of the room.
After another beer and another tequila, we shake hands, make our excuses and leave. I feel a little drunk and more dehydrated than I had previously, but we make our way back outside into the scorching heat of the afternoon, the sunlight reminding us it’s still daytime, after the darkness of the bar tricked our brains into thinking it was the middle of the night.
We head through a park where a man approaches us, asking us to read some writing in a little scrapbook. Suddenly there are a small crowd of men, dressed similarly and all holding out these little books – “I am very best ear cleaner in Delhi, very good price”, one of them professes. We have stopped as we are intrigued, and quite suddenly without asking, one of the men sticks a little metal rod into Vitor’s ear and pulls out a HUGE ball of, well, it must have been earwax. Vitor recoils in horror, but is ultimately fascinated by what these men are claiming to do. They lead him over to a crate behind a market stall, and one of the men proceeds to rummage in his ears, wiping the excavated wax on the back of his hand. He takes a little oil out of his pocket and drips it into Vitor’s ear. I am flabbergasted but amused by the whole thing, reading through the man’s scrapbook as I wait. “I can hear again – Jacob, Australia” “I could’t recommend this service highly enough, I feel so clean – Ali, USA”. All these wonderful testimonials! Who knew ear cleaning on the side of a road next to a pile of mouldy, rotting food was a thing. I joke that we can’t see any Indians having their ears cleaned, but hesitate to wonder if it’s because they are all clean already? Perhaps they have better ear health? Surely you need a very small degree of wax in your ears for, like, protection or something, I don’t know. I don’t believe the big pile of gloop on the back of this guy’s hand came out of Vitor’s ear, but, I’ve spent too long thinking about it now, it’s time to move on. After a heated debate over the price, at first being asked to pay the equivalent of about £70 for the ear cleaning service, Vitor settles his bill and we carry on wandering through the crazy streets.
Monkeys are lounging in the sun, people are being tattooed, with henna and with needles in a square by a small hindu temple. Dawid stops for some food again, I still have no appetite at all. It is still only my first day in India, despite the fact I have had a lifetime’s adventures in one day already.
Beggars accost us all long the roads. Hands, whole and deformed, outstretched stumps, men, women and children, tiny little children in filthy underwear, tug at our clothes. I struggle to ignore them, but if I engage with a polite “No, sorry” I am followed for several minutes, the pleading intensifying and the guilt overwhelming. We see a huge white and golden temple ahead, and follow the road and hoards of people towards it, walking towards my first encounter with a Sikh place of worship.