Ariana van den Akker
Major: Journalism and Mass Communication
Hometown: El Dorado Hills, CA
Study Abroad Program: UNC Summer in India
My last day in India was, after careful consideration, spent wandering around Old Delhi, desperately trying to soak in the essence of the city one last time before I boarded the plane bound for more familiar traditions. I took the Metro (one of the only places in India where I was actually cold) into the heart of the old city, crammed between a handrail and several women in sarees, laden with shopping bags. Disembarking at the Chawri Bazaar Station in Old Delhi is quite an experience; there’s just something so enchanting about walking from an underground air-conditioned escalator and stepping into the heart of mid-afternoon chaos, surrounded by buildings that are twice as old as our country, and draped in thick clusters of electrical wires.
A few minutes later, I boarded a cycle rickshaw that took me through some of the narrow, winding streets and dropped me off in front of the Jama Masjid (the largest mosque in India). I decided to take my time walking back to the metro station, trying to savor the smells, the sights, and the sounds surrounding me. After stopping in some of the shops along the way (mostly either selling stationary or metal- in this part of the city, it seemed that every street was dedicated to selling just one or two different types of items), I grew tired of the monotony and was a bit exhausted from the afternoon Delhi heat. While crossing the street to buy a “cold drink” (any type of soda, juice, water, etc is called a cold drink in India) to relieve my thirst, I spotted a tiny woman behind a little wooden table entirely covered by some sort of cooking pot contraption, a small jug, and several metal cylindrical containers. This was even better than the cold drinks that I was looking for- this was a chai wallah!
India is a country known for small, hole-in-the-wall businesses, but even by Indian standards, this was a small business: one cart, one woman, one pot, one jug of milk, a strainer, several spices and six small glasses. I walked up and asked, “Yeh chai kitney rupiyeh hey?” (How many rupees is this chai?), and she answered that it was paunch rupiyeh (5 rupees, which is about 10 cents). I asked for some, and right then and there, she started brewing it, asking me if I wanted it bahot mita (very sweet) or just plain mita. I didn’t realize that I would get customized chai! Seeing that I was carrying a considerable number of bags, she invited me to sit on her bench with her. As the chai simmered, I asked her where she was from (Delhi) and whether or not she liked the city, and she asked if I had brothers and sisters, where I was from and if I liked India. The remarkable thing was that she knew no English and I knew tora tora (just a little) Hindi, yet we were still able to communicate. In fact, this was the first time I actually had a complete conversation in Hindi, which I would have never thought possible only a few weeks before.
During the pauses in conversation, she added spices and more sugar to the chai, straining it and testing it to make sure it was the right flavor and temperature. This whole process took about 10 minutes outside in the searing late afternoon Delhi heat, and in the meantime, more customers congregated around the little table, patiently waiting for their caffeine fix while engaging in daily gossip.
When it was done to her satisfaction, the woman poured the chai into the 6 small glasses and collected the money while the customers savored the drink and continued to chat. Slowly, I sipped my chai and eagerly attempted to eavesdrop the best I could after only a few weeks of Hindi 101. I finished my glass and thanked the woman, bowing out of respect and telling her “Bohot shukria. Namaste ohr salaam,” (thank you very much, goodbye). Namaste is the general greeting, but since Old Delhi is overwhelmingly Muslim, I decided to add “salaam”, just in case. At this, she took my hands in her weathered ones, nodded her head, smiled, and sent me on my way. With renewed energy, I finished the short walk to the metro station to return to the guesthouse across the city.
That afternoon I got more than just a taste of the best chai I’d had during my six weeks in India- I also gained a glimpse into the Delhi that most Westerners simply overlook on their quest to see all of the sights. Not only was this an unforgettable experience, but it was also the highlight of my study abroad experience. What did I learn? Slow down, look around, be patient and talk to the people you encounter. Otherwise, you might miss real life going on around you.