Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road.
I stare at the small black vertical line painted on her forehead. Most Indian women I have seen in New Delhi have a red dot called a bindi between their eyes, which means they are married. But hers is a slim black stripe, so I ask her what it means, hoping I'm not offending.
"Oh, it's just like wearing makeup a new way – I like the way it looks," grins my guide, Priti, pronounced "pretty."
She is not pretty: She is gorgeous, with straight black hair, huge eyes and high cheekbones. Her bright-green silk sari clings to her olive skin and her gold bangles clink as she gestures with delicate hands. It is my first day in India, and I have treated myself to a private guide and driver.
Old Delhi, Priti tells me, is 1,000 years old. It is only 10 a.m., and there isn't much traffic so far, but that doesn't stop the cars from honking endlessly or the rickshaw drivers from ringing their bells non-stop. "Maybe this will be your auspicious day," says Priti. "Maybe you'll see an elephant."
"An elephant, here?" I ask.
"This is the only city in the world where an elephant and a Mercedes wait at the same traffic light," she says. "People on the river keep elephants as pets and they're important for weddings."
"Do you see elephants every day?"
"Oh, no, maybe one or two times a month," she says.
An earlier civilization, Hindustan, was recorded here 2,500 years ago on the Indus River, now Pakistan. The first people were Hindus, an agrarian society. Our driver scoots around a cow sitting in the middle of the road.
I ask Priti why cows are so sacred and she says, "Back then they needed cows, so they said that cows and priests were made on the same day of creation. And no one has ever killed a cow since." A second cow sits off to the side of the road. "You see?" she says. "This cow doesn't have to worry. No one will run her over or disturb her. She even knows where to go when she wants lunch."
Women in neon-coloured saris of pink and orange and turquoise walk along the edge of the road and she tells me that Indian women wear bright colours because anything else against their skin would look faded. "Do you know the Greeks brought the sari here? It's a toga, and, there are 66 different ways to tie it," she says.
Traffic has begun to build, and we now share the road with bikes carrying two, three and even four people, along with bike rickshaws, auto rickshaws, buses, trucks and even a tractor with eight people clinging to its sides.
We drive past Delhi's imposing Red Fort to the largest mosque in India, Jama Masjid, whose courtyard can hold 30,000 people. Priti tells me that long ago, when the sun wasn't out, the Muslims didn't know which way faced west, so they made their prayer carpets with an arch to depict Mecca. That way, when they knelt down and faced the arch, they'd always be facing the west and Mecca. "But doesn't Mecca face east?" I ask before remembering I'm on the other side of the world.
The roads of the marketplace we are about to visit are much too narrow for cars, so we take a bicycle rickshaw. Our toothless driver pedals along a maze of stalls crammed into narrow alleyways so narrow the sun cannot reach them. When it gets too crowded to move, we get out of the rickshaw and walk past stall after stall, the smells of incense and jasmine oil wafting in the air. We pass stalls selling only essential oils or turbans, bicycle parts or bangles, saris or Ayurvedic medicines.
A rickshaw just misses running over my foot. We fight our way past bikes laden down with sacks of flour or carts with natural gas and endless crowds of people pushing, shoving, speaking Hindi or Urdu, attempting to move around the cows standing in the road. "The only way you can safely cross the street is by being a cow," Priti says. "So either you cultivate a bovine expression or hold on to the cow by its tail."
We leave the market, find our driver and get back into the car to visit the sites of New Delhi with its wide boulevards, government buildings and presidential palace. New Delhi is modern and clean, and it reminds me of Washington, but it lacks the charm and old-world feeling of Old Delhi.
It is almost dusk and I am dozing off when, suddenly, Priti says, "Look!" She points to the other side of the road where there is not one, not two, and not even three, but four elephants. I stare in utter amazement as the procession continues down the road. This is my auspicious day.
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