Khari Baoli in Old Delhi is the location of the world famous Spice Market. Our crew in Delhi was myself and my teacher, Jeff K., Michael B., a master negotiator who specializes in startup companies, Catherine I., a meditation teacher, Mark K., a vegan restaurateur from Australia, and another aussie, Ashley H., a world-class model.
Brother Pankaj, he of the Bollywood good looks and charm, loaded us up into taxis. When we approached oldtown, we switched to rickshaws. Mark and I shared a rickshaw (an ancient rusty bicycle with a bench seat for two behind the rider) piloted by an old man in his seventies in a suit. I was concerned for him, as both Mark and I are hefty grown men, but he was unworried. I gathered from the way our guy authoritatively commanded the other rickshaw drivers in our posse that he was the elder, the boss, and I would never deign to disrespect him or his ability to power us along with strength and agility. We plunged into the maze.
The Spice Market is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways barely wide enough for two people to squeeze by shoulder-to-shoulder, yet we seemed to be sharing the lane with goats, monkeys, motorcycles, people from age two to eighty, men with wheelbarrows full of spice sacks, tuck-tucks (three-wheel auto rickshaws), and the occasional man with what appeared to be a monstrous eighty pound sack of grain on his head.
Our driver negotiated handily through this obstacle course, and, as all drivers in India, was absolutely fearless. The etiquette for drivers is as follows:
- Never hesitate
- Use your horn. It is not rude. It is essential to letting the other driver know you are in the vicinity, or coming up behind rapidly.
- Displays of temper are unheard of. Everyone seems to have an easygoing acceptance of whatever is happening.
- Never take things personally.
The weird thing about this system is that it absolutely works. Everyone goes like a bat out of hell, but I never witnessed one accident.
Our seasoned driver took time not only to face down certain death again and again, but give informative asides to us, and seemed knowledgeable about local history, architecture, commerce and the nuances of trade. He also seemed to know everyone in the market, from the slickest international peddler to the lowliest chai-wallah (tea delivery maven: see Slumdog Millionaire), and greeted everyone with equanimity. All without putting so much as a wrinkle in his shabby suit-jacket as he pedaled a one-speed bike that appeared to be made of solid iron in 1948. Did I mention that the temperature in New Delhi in February easily approaches 80 degrees? And it’s not a dry heat. Mark and I discussed how we would have been dripping wet and panting had we tried bicycling even without pulling two middle-aged geezers, but here was our dude, keeping up with guys half his age, conversing without even breathing hard. Homeboy’s dress shoes weren’t even scuffed. I realized that my definition of a hard day at work in the States was a bit wussified at best.
I should take a moment to describe the smells in India in general, and the Spice Market in particular. Imagine the most delicious, savory, delectable odors coexisting with, well, shit and vomit and all things detestable. That about sums it up. Now ratchet that experience up, and put it on steroids. The market stalls are narrow and cramped by Western standards, but one sees entire families huddling comfortably in tiny spaces piled high with intensely-hued dyes, fabric, produce, ridiculously beautiful bowls of saffron, turmeric, cayenne, tamarind, mint, cinnamon bark and fresh vanilla pods, each passing scent awakening sense memories from childhoods I am not even sure I lived. It was all a bit overwhelming, and I did not want it to stop.
I bought vanilla pods for Alison, and was given cinnamon bark by one generous vendor. I have since tried to replicate the quality here in the states. Not the same.