As I stroll the Delhi streets at 7 am looking for a place to eat breakfast, all of my senses are assailed. Garbage burns and bits of ash float between tall buildings, rotten fruit putrefies the air, blending with the sweet smell of jasmine and rose petals. Dust makes it hazy and car fumes cloud the narrow dirty street. Strands of marigolds are stacked on tiny, wooden carts for temple goers to buy an offering, fruit stands spill over with ripe bananas, green grapes and pomegranates.
I love it all – the tension of opposites so acutely displayed.
As I walk on, I see peeling paint from towering buildings, countless thin rickshaw drivers pedaling by, many barefoot, chai wallahs making fresh chai on the spot with real tea and fresh milk. They skillfully pour the milky chai from a 2 to 3 foot distance into another pot, back and forth to make it frothy.
I feel the familiar sense of alertness, and relaxation at the same time.
I amble down the street littered with trash, listening to the cacophony of sounds– horns honk like geese, rickshaw wheels spin past on the dusty black top, children in uniforms chirp to each other on their way to school. There are no sidewalks, the ground underfoot is uneven at best.
I float along in the flow, unhampered by anyone peddling me something.
And then he arrives. He sidles up to me and opens, “Where are you from?” Always the first question.
“America,” I answer with a cropped tone, not wanting to open the door to conversation.
“Chicago?” he persists.
“California,” I say because people know it better than Washington.
I don’t want to walk with him, nor do I want to talk to him. It’s my last day. I want my time to stroll and take in every detail like a sponge. He is a distraction who has his own agenda. I wait for it and keep my own pace.
“Are you married?”
“What are you doing today?” He asks.
“I have plans.” And I do. I have plans with a driver to take me around Delhi for my last 8 hours here.
“With an Indian friend?”
“Listen, just 5 minutes of your time. Just listen for 5 minutes,” he presses on. At which point I turn to face him directly so I can look him in the eye. This is my break away point. I want to do this only once. As I look into his blood shot eyes, I see the longing – of something. I feel the pinch of rejecting him, that sense of discomfort in standing my ground and knowingly disappointing someone. I forge on as I notice his red stained teeth that look like they’ve had no dental work.
“Whatever it is you’d like for me to hear, I appreciate it. But I want to walk alone and I do have plans today. So thank you, but no.” I give him no energetic room to push in. He backs down gently. I put my hands together at my heart, bow slightly and turn to continue my walk down the street. Surprisingly he doesn’t follow and press in more.
He calls out after me, “You have beautiful eyes.” To which I turn back, smile and give a head wiggle as acknowledgement.
I continue my walk and not two minutes later an auto rickshaw slows down on my right and I hear a voice say, “I want to marry you.” It’s him. He is smiling and in the back seat.
I keep walking, smile and tell him, “Maybe next lifetime.” He and his friend laugh, and to my delight, keep rolling down the street.