She + heroes. But I’ll get to that later.
You have to keep on your toes in India; everyone has an angle. I’ve learned to be cautious, as an international traveler, with anyone who approaches unsolicited and offers a taxi. At the Delhi airport last spring, a taxi hawker beckoned for me to follow him. “It is prepaid, 1,300 rupees.” Stepping outside I could see the police prepaid booth—that was the one I was looking for and had read about, only 400 rupees. I was directed to the queue for the black taxi line, clutching my receipt to give to the driver.
Vehicles crowded the road. Three lanes were drawn, but there were five lines of traffic, including motorcycles and tuk-tuks small enough to weave in and out. We drove down the line that divided two lanes. Drivers talked to each other constantly with their horns, a raucous conversation. Once we entered the Karol Bagh neighborhood in New Delhi, my driver pulled over three times to ask passers-by for the hotel name, and then again consulted his GPS screen.
Jet lagged, having just flown from Denver with a switch in Frankfurt, using my carefully saved flight miles, I needed a nap. Pigeons cooed outside my window, workers down the hall were having loud conversations, rhythmic hammering banged from somewhere in the hotel. Just as I was drifting off, a knock at the door—the sweet looking bellboy: “Can I get you anything? Water?” “I just want to sleep!” After a few hours of catch-up, I ventured out.
Broken sidewalks here and there, but most people walked in the street, dodging cars, bikes, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, bicycle-carts hauling people, and even a white bull pulling a load with a turbaned man squatted on top of the sacks of cargo. On every block, a man or two called “Excuse me” or “Miss, please look” to try to sell me something or entice me to follow him. I felt as if I was leading a small parade, always attracting followers. One dropped off, another one joined, three at a time.
No restaurants were to be found in a many block area or along a busy street, packed with tech and cell phone shops and stalls. So, after searching for something more formal that might be cleaner, I pulled up a seat at an outdoor food stand where men, women, and families sat around on stools. A little girl smiled at me and said hello; I chatted with her mother who had a lovely smile and was swathed in scarves. I ordered a hot (both temperature and spicy) vegetable dish with fresh looking naan. After I had eaten about a third of the plate, I felt my stomach wriggling, so I trashed the rest, hustled back to my hotel room just in time, and threw up. A touch of Delhi belly on my first try. As I was told in Guatemala, even tortillas can be made with dirty water.
The hotel attendant had notified me that all in-hotel restaurants in New Delhi had been closed for sanitary reasons, but they had room service. In the morning, I called and ordered a cheese omelet from the menu in my room that had photos of the dishes.
“Sorry but we don’t have, since we don’t have our restaurant. I have only cheese sandwich, banana, juice. OK? Can I send?” “Yes.” Not much choice there.
My tall, bearded and turbaned young Sikh guide in Old Delhi kept asking if I was tired; thinking I was an old woman, not used to walking, hah! I will most remember his tour of the Sikh temple, obviously close to his heart. “Take off shoes, wash hands, and walk with bare feet through a pool to wash them.” After prayer, we walked through the kitchens—women cutting vegetables and rolling dough on the floor, men flipping naan as they cooked, lentils simmering in pots. “We feed 10,000 people a day!” he stated proudly. Later he took me around New Delhi to notable Gandhi sites, telling tales of British occupation and rebellion. When I asked what he thought about Brexit, he gave me a blank look. He had no knowledge of current events in the UK and hadn’t heard of the European Union. Perhaps he was more aware of political situations in nearby Asian countries.
My driver for the next few days was Raza, an interesting, charming fellow who regaled me with stories of history and culture during our long drives. (If you are looking for a guide in the Golden Triangle area, email me for his contact information.) In Agra, we welcomed the sunrise at the stunning Taj Mahal and wandered through forts and ancient cities along the route, then continued on to Jaipur, completing the triangle. Jaipur was a riot of color: yellow and pink buildings with a fresh look, better maintained than the stained and sometimes crumbling concrete walls in Delhi and Agra. Colorful textiles, shards of mirrors, saris, intricately patterned scarves.
On my “free” afternoon in Agra, my heart was touched by Sheroes Hangout. This small eatery is run by and is a refuge for women who were victims of acid attack, who had had acid thrown on their faces and were horribly disfigured. I was welcomed to a small table and placed an order, then got up to look around. I spoke with a journalist who had brought their plight to international attention, still assisting them with fundraising and visibility. Soon to be displaced by an expanding highway, they were planning to move to a larger place down the road with more cafe space and an extensive library. (And now, with more women on board and curtailed business due to the coronavirus, they are struggling.) A documentary recounted heartrending personal stories of abuse, shock, grief, and recovery; and told about the project and the supporting family they provide for each other at Sheroes. These women were attacked by husbands, boyfriends, or other family members for being independent or rebellious in one way or another; punished and scarred for life for acting against the norm and for being themselves. Yet these gentle survivors were beautiful; look closely and you can see what their faces once were; talk to them and you can feel their beauty within. The tears came, and soon I was sobbing. The women all gathered around to hug me. Heroes they were, having emerged from hurt and anger with an inner strength their attackers couldn’t destroy. SheroesHangout.com
The hotel had called me a tuk-tuk for this outing, driven by a small kind man in his fifties, father of five and grandfather to two, who, refreshingly, told me he was not worried about haggling for money. He assured me to take my time and waited for an hour and a half while I was inside the cafe. When I came out, he asked “How do you feel?” It was obviously a moving experience for me, as he knew it would be. We rode around a bit, talking, and made the obligatory stop at a shop from which he would get a kickback, a way of life in India. Dropping me off at my hotel, he asked “Are you happy?” I gave him a hug and a generous tip.