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Wow Place #249: Old Delhi, India

Two of my favorite countries in the world, Japan and India, are also two of the most different.

Japan is a country of organization. All the streets are paved. People line up neatly for buses. The trains all run on time.

By contrast, India is a country of chaos. Except for the big cities, sidewalks are few and far between. Nabbing seats on a bus is pretty much a free for all. The trains operate on “rubber time,” ie. the departure time can stretch and stretch and stretch.

No section of India is more chaotic and random, in my opinion, than Old Delhi. Founded as a walled city in 1648, it was officially named Shahjahanabad, when Sha Jahan decided to shift over his Mughal capital from Agra. The symbolic heart of the mega-polis, Old Delhi today is known for its bazaars, street food, shopping and Islamic architecture. Not to mention its disorganization!

Every day in Old Delhi is like an impromptu parade. Cars, bikes and rickshaws jockey for position in the narrow streets and alleyways…A Sikh in a white turbans honk-honks his scooter as he weaves between traffic…a donkey lumbers along a straight-ahead path, hauling a multi-colored spice cart behind him as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to do.

As I sit in my café in Old Delhi, between a sweet shop and an ayurvedic drug store, taking in all the tumult, I can’t help pinching myself that I’m actually here, half way across the world from home, essentially in the middle of a Bollywood movie (minus Shah Rukh Khan). Minutes later, a chaiwala boy stops at the window of the café and asks if I want some tea. A little girl asks if I would like to buy a comb. An older woman in a deep-red sari offers me a loaf of bread for sale. For better or for worse, India is that kind of place; you can never just sit and observe. There’s no duality here, no separation. You’re always drawn into the parade, and perhaps that’s how it should be.

(When you arrive at a party, what’s the first thing you do? Chances are you “check it all out,” get the lay of the land. In other words, unless you know everyone there and you’re the life of the party, you probably start with a period of observation. What are the dynamics here? Who should I try to talk with first? Are there cliques I need to be aware of? Generally speaking, observation is smart. But it can also lead to judgment and comparisons. “Her clothes are SO tacky. I would never wear THAT hat? What’s up with that guy’s pencil moustache?” As an experiment, the next time you attend a party, look instead for similarities. “He’s got shoes just like me. Wow, our pants match. That guy is exactly my height.” Taking it further, see if you can vibe on how everyone there shares the same human struggles. Everyone is lonely. Everyone was once a child and is now aging at a scary pace. Everyone just wants to be loved. See how your attitude shifts when you start viewing yourself and others as just part of the big, human parade of life.)