The Tea Is to Die for, the Water Likely Survivable: Sampling the Old Delhi Spice Market

"Clear, pure, cold water." I was parched, it was 105 degrees out and the airborne spices of the Old Delhi spice market were starting to irritate my eyes and throat.

I must have made some sort of subconscious assessment of the likelihood of the water before me being contaminated. I seemed to be thinking.....well, optimistically. A sign on the vendor's cart had a picture of plastic cups and even said "disposable cups." However, instead the street vendor handed me a 12 oz discolored glass (the fragile kind) full of water he had pumped from his own personal container of water.

I drank it quickly, neglecting a conscious risk assessment with the ludicrous rationale that if I drank it really quickly I was less likely to get sick. I had already eaten some street food just prior, and since it was my last day in India, unofficially decided I would go all in and test the waters. This decision required repressing my memory of flying sick for 24 hrs after taking a risk with noticeably "expired" shrimp in Australia last year.

As I write this, I'm really wondering why I would take such a risk...hmmm.

Back to the water. I downed the glass with a flashing vision of the hundreds of potential mouths that had already drank from it since it was properly washed by overly-obsessive western standards (it was 5pm), followed by a quick scan to confirm there was no on-site method of washing them.

I had given the man Rs 5 for a Rs 2 glass of water, so when I put out my hand for change, he naturally pumped another glass of water for me. I drank that one so fast I don't really remember it. He gave me Rs 1 change. I'm going to guess he was trying to avoid the incremental karma of handing me an additional, unwanted half-glass of water.

I walked away, my irritation promptly swallowed by the hustle and bustle of Old Delhi - cars, vans, scooters and rickshaws all negotiating through the streets, coming from all directions, ever-wary of wandering sacred cattle. The only traffic laws, like many developing countries, are "bigger has the right-of-way" and "however it flows."

The shops were full of spices spilling out onto the sidewalks, and the sidewalks consisted of various services. There were lines of barbers seated up against closed storefronts, their razor blades upon the faces of customers seated facing them. There were seated milk tea vendors over propane mini stoves. There were sidewalk ironing services and cobblers.

Just over the curb were hundreds of tired rickshaw and passenger-bicycle drivers, sleeping with their bodies hanging over parts of their vehicles, with cattle wandering among them, and street food vendors stationed.

Interspersed still were blanket-covered street surfaces, occupied by vendors selling spices, dates, clothing and bulk detergent, among other things. It's not the best of places to daydream unless you're daydreaming about getting hit by a vehicle - a momentary lapse of awareness is almost certain to result in, at minimum, a reminder of the physical vulnerability humans face regularly but which our systems and routines have served to protect.

I walked around the market for a while looking for a specific street. I previously had a moving experience in Old Delhi (the topic of a future blog) and while I knew I couldn't recreate it, thought I might just be able to get a little taste of that past happening. I couldn't, of course. In fact, everything was different. No better or worse....just different. I was reminded that nothing is the same twice, and expecting anything of an experience is my quickest way to disappointment.

I made my way to an approximate 1 km square predominantly Muslim part of town I had visited before, and upon noticing most of the men were at Mosque and the shops were closed, began walking toward the metro/subway station to head back to the hotel and prepare for my flights home. On the way back, I stopped at one of the seated sidewalk tea vendors for one final chai tea (but since learning "chai" and "tea" mean the same thing, asked for "milk chai" this time), figuring "what the hell" when it came to my bowels. I bought two teas and sat down with an old Sikh man with a cataract. He asked where I was from and told me about his aunt who had worked in Washington DC at the World Bank.

Eventually, and unlike me, I headed back via the Metro with plenty of time to spare toward the Wood Castle Grand home stay in Tagore Garden, to pack my things for my 3:30am flight via Doha. I was so ready to go home.

Now, as I sit here with a slightly irritated bum in Doha, I make the following request of the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority: Given the amount of money you've clearly spent on your airport, could you please invest in a slightly less coarse sandpaper in your airport restrooms? It's a clever bait and switch - when I paid the small premium to fly Qatar Airways, I was expecting Angel Soft.


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