04 December 2010 – Saturday - Guest House, Delhi, India
It’s H’s birthday today.
I’m embarrassed because I never got her anything to acknowledge it.
And to make things even worse, The Little One fell off the bed – clunk – right on her head this morning. She’s completely OK after her tumble – no lumps or bruises or anything like that at all - and she really cried for only a couple of seconds till H picked her up and soothed her. So that was a blessing. But it really didn’t really help set the celebratory mood of the day at all. The Little One also appears to have caught cold. I suppose there are a million ways she could have caught the cold here in India, but I blame the asshole who sat next to us on the plane. If you want to make someone really sick, then sit a nearly dead guy, swollen with the sick and pumping out about a billion germs a second with each diseased breath, next to them for 12 freakin’ hours on a plane. That’s a sure-fire recipe for how to make anyone sick as a dog in one easy step.
So H, The Little One and I went to the Jama Masjid Market this morning to try and change money on the black market and get, what H assured me, would be the best exchange rates available. I don’t know if you know anything about the Jama Masjid Market, but take it from me that the place is a fucking madhouse! The Jama Masjid is the biggest mosque in all of India. It’s also very old – being built back in the 1600s. So when you have a mosque that’s been around for nearly 400 years, the market area surrounding it is going to be pretty ancient as well.
And it was.
It’s pretty much as I would have imagined it was 2 or 300 years ago – minus the auto-rickshaws and cars crammed into the narrow little streets, of course, but everything else would have been identical – small, crowded and cramped little streets, swarming with people selling and buying everything under the sun, deafeningly loud, dusty, dirty and virtually ageless.
Our driver took us through some unknown back alley to find parking and right into the middle of this kind of camping/living area for the poor people who live and work in the market. There were tents and makeshift shacks surrounding us. We parked right beside two ragged and dirty little children, naked from the waist down, squatting and pissing in the red dirt. Just in front of them was a squatting sari-clad woman trying to get a smoky pile of garbage and sticks lit into a cooking fire. Thick plumes of choking white smoke were billowing out, adding to the low-lying fog that enshrouded everything and everyone around us. I noticed that all around us, the same kinds of fires were lit by the same kinds of people as life in this little makeshift cantonment area was gearing up for the day ahead.
The big white Mitsubishi car we travelled in was so completely and achingly out of place there, standing out like a sparkling diamond in a box full of dirty rocks, just like we were.
Looking around I noticed that absolutely everyone within sight had stopped what they were doing and were watching us. I felt suddenly vulnerable and exposed. It was an awful feeling and I don’t know why I was feeling it, but it kept building inside me.
Through the bustling crowds of people we fought our way forward, bumping into people and fighting to avoid the cars and rickshaw walas passing inches away from us. We had just bought a new diaper bag the day before for all the baby stuff we carried everywhere that was pristine white. Everyone I looked at checked out me and then checked out the big white bag that I carried at my side, and then checked me out again. I felt people intentionally brush against it, bicycle rickshaws knocking it with their wheels. I suddenly felt that it had turned into a big white target that everyone we passed was eyeballing and wondering how to separate it from me. My fear grew more intense with each step we took.
When we finally reached a money-changer, a dozen people who had been following us stood around and watched while H spoke to the fellow in the booth. My insanity was bubbling out of me and I didn’t know what to do. I saw H haggling with the guy through the crowd and finally she broke away from the booth and took my arm and started to march back to the car. The crowd of people who had gathered started to follow us as well. She said the minute the money-changer saw me, the exchange rates dropped. We would go and find someone else, she said. I honestly felt we would never make it out of there alive, so I grabbed her arm and dragged her across the busy street, through the metal detectors and up the stone steps to the side entrance of the Jama Masjid. We passed through the huge archway and suddenly we found ourselves standing upon the ancient stone blocks in the magnificent mosque. Compared to the jarring madness outside, the peacefulness inside was startling. So we stayed within the confines of the beautiful old mosque for nearly two hours, while I snapped photographs. It was such a relief.
It was not a great birthday for H, but it got better and better as the day went on.