Travel Story Colour, spice and sensory overload: A visit to Old Delhi's spice market

Five years ago, Anita Revel attended a writing workshop with Travel Editor Stephen Scourfield. She took to heart one piece of advice... to write descriptive lists as the raw material for vibrant stories. Here she uses that technique on a visit to the spice market in Old Delhi.

“Please madam ride in my tuktuk. Natural air-conditioning! Just 10 rupees to the spice market!”

Clamber past motorbikes, street vendors, cows, children, dogs and a goat. Into the waiting vehicle. Off we go. Red light, what light? Does anyone care? Traffic is a dance. Toot toot! Two lanes? Bah, let’s make it three! How about four? Toot toot, swerve, brake, beeeep! Clip-clop clip-clop. Swerve, toot some more; pray.

Who cares if the road isn’t paved? Bump, bounce, buzz, blur, scarf flying in the breeze, busy, colour, movement, feeling alive, toot toot, shop-upon-shop, all crowded, all busy. “Please madam look in my shop, shopping is healthy!”

More colour, near collisions, wayward pedestrians, sweat, fumes, horns, turn-on-a-dime tuktuks, look both ways (don’t stop!), gahhhhh! (Sorry!) Head down, cross the road! “Please madam look in my shop, no foreigner tax!”

Tasting, looking, smelling, feeling, touching. Absorbing: colour, frenetic energy, shouting, traffic, bartering, bustle, beds under benchtops. Sensory overload! “Please madam look in my shop, we have been in business since before Separation.”

Piles of nuts, seeds, tea leaves, dried figs, dates, coconuts, spices (cough, cough — must be the chilli section!), potato chips, flowers, samosas, unidentifiable mounds, more nuts: walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews. More spices: turmeric, garlic, saffron, black pepper, cardamom, cloves. “Please madam look in my shop; the cricket is on, Australia losing!”

Scales, jars, baskets, sacks, trolleys, paper packages, plastic bags, head baskets. Is that a satellite dish? Carry bags, baskets, clutched tight to bodies, moving through the crush, over-the-head money exchange, grim determination, patience, relentless momentum, breathe. “Please madam look in my shop, Indian prices!”

Children begging, children playing; women cleaning, women spruiking, women calling to children; men arguing, gesticulating, killing time, lifting, weighing, cooking, chopping, nodding (sideways head wobble), reading the newspaper, sitting, reclining, sleeping. Voices, full volume, angry tones, happy vibes, jokes. “Please madam look in my shop, give me one chance to rip you off!” Laughing. What a line! Oops, breathed in chilli. Cough! 

Sun belting down. Phew: tarps ahead. Wow: tied with rope to statues, window sashes, bundles of exposed power lines. What the .http://wan-cciweb.wanews.com.au:7003/newsgate/images/SmallCode.png.http://wan-cciweb.wanews.com.au:7003/newsgate/images/SmallCode.png. “Please madam, look in my shop, let me help you spend your money!”

Welcome shade, from the washing lines above. Shade is good. Some relief in the crush of bodies. Sweat. Lots of it: under my hat, around my eyes, down my back, dripping, coursing, sticking, tracking. Maybe sweating is a detox, so: breathe. “Please madam look in my shop, everything is free to look.”

Swept along in the crowd. Yes, a driver! “Madam, please you come on my city camel!” Directions. Negotiations. Questions. Answers (sort of). Trusting. Climbing aboard his motorbike. Cling on. Wind in my face. This is living! 

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