The belly of Delhi and Andy of Jaisalmer

[Re last post – the mercenary troops Captain Imodium and Lieutenant Rehydration-Salts have been called into action on my behalf, and we have a ceasefire. Let’s hope it’s not just temporary. It is tempting to think that my 48 hour stop-over in India’s capital was the cause of a dose of the Delhi-belly rumblings, but I think that would be stretching a point.]

Having arrived in Delhi last Wednesday night, one of my first tastes of the city was on the following morning – through the eyes of a street-kid. Mel who I was staying with, had arranged a tour with The Salaam Baalak Trust, a charity set up in 1988 by film-maker Meera Nyal (Monsoon Wedding, and the upcoming Shantaram film version).

For myriad reasons, thousands of children flee their hometowns across North India and end up living as street-kids in Delhi. Inevitably many get co-opted into various unsavoury lines of work along the way. Salaam Baalak employs a “pull” rather than “push” approach to helping them, setting up “contact points” near the areas of greatest population. These provide above all an initial place for kids to come and mess about together. Basic education and health support is on offer in huts in some places, with the option to get off the streets when the time is right.

Our guide had fled his Bihar Province home at 8 when he was abused by his uncle; he was on and running drugs by 12; did a few things I am sure we weren’t told about; and ended up with Salaam Balaak over the last 5 years. He is now one of 3 guides running these innovative tours. (To avoid the accusation of “slum pornography”, Salaam Balaak concentrates on visiting their own contact points and telling stories of those that have been helped rather than slavering over deprivation).

Towards the end of the tour, we walked down a back-alley less than 200 yards form the Delhi Railway police station. Cheek-by-jowl with a store offering to “unlock your i-Phone”, two heavily-creased men smoked heroin off tinfoil in the middle of the alleyway. In the next door shop an elderly man was making terracotta piggy-banks. The tour was a brief but fascinating insight into a city of contrasts.

I stayed with Mel (of 5-legged elephant fame) and her husband Jason, who are living as ex-pats in one of the smarter areas of Delhi, Defence Colony. It was wonderful to have a hot shower for the first time for 6 weeks, and to lie on a sofa was heaven. Daily ex-pat life here is clearly not easy though – things that seem amusing when they happen once clearly get tiresome with daily repetition.

To lighten the mood, Mel and I found time for a session of “Laughing Yoga” in one of the parks on the Friday morning. With out 4 new-found laughing friends, we practiced belly laughing (quite simple really -“1…2….3…. hahaha”) and silent laughing (even simpler (1…2…3……[ ]). Both were surprisingly effective.

The three of us escaped that evening by train heading for the Jaisalmer Desert Festival. The cheap seats in the 1740 from Old Delhi are clearly a favourite with local daily migrants – my seat (designed, sensibly, for one) quickly became a haven for me and 4 new-found temporary Indian friends, all of whom I became more intimate with than I ever intended. We beat the record from an earlier journey, getting 27 into an 8-person compartment this time.

As the train slowly spewed forth these returning commuters into suburb towns, my Indian fellow travelers (i.e. those that had actually booked seats) started to get out their books. One of the wonderful things about bookshops in India is the random assortment of English language titles available to a middle-class with a passion for reading, and this was reflected in the compartment – an old 1960s copy of Anna Karenina, A PG Wodehouse “Jeeves” title, and Douglas Adams Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. I felt rather boring as I took out my copy of the Booker Prize winning title White Tiger.

The festival itself was a little disappointing – although the ride into the desert on a camel did present me with my first opportunity to don the flat cap and earn the epithet “Andy of Jaisalmer”.

Inevitably, now that the tourists have gone Jaisalmer is much more pleasant. I will spend a couple more days here to rest and plan what’s next.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, India '08-'09, North India

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