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An 'ugly American' tours crowded India by rickshaw

NEW DELHI

I came to love India when the rickshaw bicycle driver taking me and another journalist through the market in Old Delhi swatted off a young beggar clinging to my left trouser leg. If that seems contradictory, so is India, a place so fertile and teeming it's hard to separate the vitality from the rot. Best to surrender to it, not always easy for a coddled Westerner like me.

I visited India in July on a trip hosted by Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, a luxury hotel brand. The rickshaw tour through Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi's ancient market, was a way to introduce us to the flavor of the country. The tour gave me close-up looks at all manner of human and beast, including a dog I at first thought was dead. Not the case.

What else was a dog to do but sleep, even in the middle of that old bazaar of unparalleled scope, with the temperature soaring and the humidity off the charts? Wish I'd had the dog's presence (or absence) of mind.

In the Old Delhi market, I saw men in suits, women in multilayered saris, motorcyclists in full gear. I was in a short-sleeved shirt, shorts and sandals, but even that was too much. The summer heat in India packs a singular, even mystical, punch.

Just because I fell in love with the country's energy and variety and history doesn't mean I was comfortable with it all, however. From what little I saw, in brief stays in suburban Delhi and the coastal state of Goa, a far more tourist-oriented area south of Mumbai, it's crowded, environmentally suspect (the open sewers can smell rank) and the poverty is inescapable. All are particularly prominent in Delhi, a northeastern city of many sections in which 14.5 million people live. Delhi is the political capital of this complex country of 1.1 billion. Mumbai, to the south, drives the country's business.

New Delhi, heavily influenced by the British, evokes Washington, D.C., in its wide boulevards, orderliness and handsome parks. Chandni Chowk, by contrast, feels positively medieval, as if it has changed very little in the past 500 years. It's a maze so narrow that no car, not even the tiny Indian Maruti, can make it through.

The market also is a template of niche marketing, with tiny cubbyhole stores where you can buy everything from the freshest spices to machine parts, from saris to tandoori chicken, from cut-rate electronics to fruit.

The rickshaw ride was one of the highlights of my stay. I stared down my discomfort and came to appreciate how hard work can be. The accommodations were sparse (no cushions on the rickshaw seat), our driver absolutely heroic. I've never seen a man work so hard; because our hosts arranged the ride, I don't know what he was paid, but it probably wasn't enough.

It was too hot and jiggly to take notes, but I took as many pictures as I could, wiping away sweat all the while. The street signs were in Urdu and English; the overhead wiring visible through patches of metal-gray sky was scary. Wiring scrabbles along the sides of buildings, meets over the street and clumps erratically, and to a Westerner used to hidden infrastructure, it was disquieting. If an electrical fire started, the whole area would burn down. Our guide told us he'd never heard of such a thing. That was reassuring.

So was our driver. Every so often, he'd point out a different section of the market as we snaked our way through. Here was the wedding section. Here were machine tools. Here were jewelry display boxes, here jewelry. The buzz of conversation went with the buzz of the flies. We never got out of the rickshaw. So we made the most of it, peering into all kinds of establishments, often making eye contact with the proprietor. The atmosphere was friendly.

At least it was until this poor kid popped up on my left and grabbed onto my pants leg, beseeching me wordlessly. I wanted to dislodge him but I knew any move I'd make toward him, let alone looking at him, would bond us more.

Finally, apparently through some kind of extrasensory perception, the rickshaw driver grasped the situation and batted the kid away. I was relieved and a little ashamed. After a traffic snarl involving an auto rickshaw ferrying some kind of dignitary and another bursting with Indian schoolkids, we made our way back to the starting point.

We paid the rickshaw bicyclist 200 rupees (about $4) as a tip; he indicated sullenly he'd worked particularly hard, so I forked over another 100 rupees — and resented it, resented the driver's pushy attitude.

There are times I want to kill my inner Ugly American. I hope I left him — at least a part of him — in the old market in Delhi.

Cleveland freelance writer Carlo Wolff writes about the hospitality industry for the trade magazines Lodging Hospitality and Asian Hospitality and for the trade hospitality Web site hotelnewsnow.com.

An 'ugly American' tours crowded India by rickshaw 08/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 29, 2009 5:30am]

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