The first surprise was seeing Poonam behind the wheel of the car. Though in her early 20s, she looks even younger due to her petite size and shy, youthful smile. But as she expertly drove through Delhi’s famously chaotic traffic, a steely side emerged, and I leaned back to enjoy the ride with an obviously capable driver. This was the first time I experienced a female driver during the course of my 10 trips to India, comprising about three-and-a-half years spent in the country.
Poonam picked me up in South Delhi to take me on two guided tours of two very different parts of Delhi. We were accompanied by another female driver, Rakhi, and Anna Alaman Torres, owner of Open Eyes Project, a travel company that promotes local experiences and supports female empowerment in India.
Poonam and Rakhi are two of only a handful of women drivers in Delhi, and indeed in India. The day they picked me up, they were also practicing to become guides – an even rarer role for women in India.
Our first stop was Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, an area famous for crowded, narrow lanes, street food, and a mind-boggling array of markets from wedding clothes to silver jewelry, from auto parts to books. Our target was the spice market, the world’s largest. Here, the air is filled with the scents of all those heady Indian spices and tables laden with dried fruits and nuts as well.
Poonam and Rakhi led us through the crowded market, stopping at various stalls to point out spices and telling us how they can be used. We saw dried turmeric, which looks like ginger, and Rakhi said it can be ground and added to warm milk as a tonic (haldi dud) or added to sauces gravies, and curries for flavour and colour. We discovered that bitter almonds are good for diabetes, and dried fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi) adds a tantalizing aroma to curries.
The second surprise was when Poonam and Rakhi ducked into a dark hallway, and we saw a vaulted ceiling, walls aged with the patina of time, and a non-stop flow of men carrying huge sacks. They led us up a dark staircase with sagging steps to the rooftop of the building where we had a spectacular view of Old Delhi. This is Gadodia Market, and the building it’s housed in is more than 130 years old.
I’ve been in Old Delhi several times, but Gadodia Market was a new discovery – and this is why walking tours with locals is such a good idea. They really do give you an insider view of the city, especially valuable in a city that is as old and culturally rich as Delhi. It was also a delight to be shown a spice market by local women – who genuinely do use these ingredients in their own cooking.
After our tour of the spice market, we stopped for lunch on our way to South Delhi to visit Dastkar Nature Bazaar. Over a fragrant and spicy lunch of rice and various vegetable curries – using, no doubt, the same spices we saw in the market – I learned that both Poonam and Rakhi had been trained to become drivers through the Women on Wheels program of the Azad Foundation. They both worked for a year as private drivers before getting their commercial licenses, which is the norm.
Rakhi is a warm and gregarious women with a ready smile, who is very good with people, and not afraid to take charge of a situation if needed. She joined the Azad Foundation in 2015, after her husband lost his job, and trained as a driver. She told me that she now works two jobs – the other is distributing electricity bills – while her husband stays on and takes care of the house and their two daughters. “My husband is very cooperative, I’m so lucky,” she says with a warm laugh. “I love driving.”
She learned English from her daughters, by helping them with their homework, and also practices when she picks up foreigners at the airport. She said she feels very positive about the future because of the opportunities this training offered her.
Poonam is a young woman who, though shy, exudes positive energy. Her smile is enchanting and lights up her face as she talks about her experience as a driver. She was trained in 2014, and has now been driving for four years. Her mother never went to school, and never learned to read and write, and her parents were intent on making sure their kids got a good education. Poonam went to an English medium school and says she is “very grateful for this opportunity to earn for her family.”
After lunch, Rakhi drove us to the Dastkar Nature Bazaar at Andheria Modh in South Delhi. Dastkar is an Indian crafts NGO that supports local artisans and craftspeople all across the country. The Nature Bazaar showcases their work at dozens of stalls and a food court. Here, you can buy quality crafts and regional cuisines too. It’s a bit like the more famous Dilli Haat, but much more focused on empowering crafts people. I like the products at Nature Bazaar much more than Dilli Haat, and I find it less crowded, too. Each month, they hold a 12-day mela, each with a distinctive theme such as Summer Weaves or Festival of Lights.
As we walked through the bazaar, we stopped to talk to craftspeople from all parts of India selling things like shopping bags made from recycled plastic, organic herbal products, tribal art and jewelry, and textiles made with traditional methods unique to the region of origin, such as embroidery or block printing. Poonam and Rakhi translated for us, and we learned a lot about regional specialties – and also about NGOs and cooperatives that help local people to learn and distribute crafts.
Walking through this unique market with Poonam and Rakhi was a wonderful experience. It was much more than a shopping experience. It was a deep dive into India’s colourful handicraft traditions, an authentic cultural experience, and also a bonding activity for us, and all the women involved. After all, women all over the world shop – what a great way to experience India’s rich cultural diversity!
Finally, at the end of our fabulous day, Rakhi drove us home through the rain and Delhi’s intense rush hour traffic during wedding season! She adeptly handled driving in these extreme conditions and made us feel that we were in safe hands. I said goodbye with the knowledge and conviction that these women are real pros, and that anyone who gets into a car, or goes on a walking tour with them, will be lucky indeed.
About Mariellen Ward – Breathe, dream, go
Mariellen Ward is a travel writer and digital storyteller. Her award-winning blog Breathedreamgo.com is one of Canada’s top travel blogs, and one of the world’s leading travel blogs about India. Mariellen is an advocate of female solo travel and responsible travel. She has been blogging since 2005 and splits her time between Delhi and Toronto. Mariellen recently won the Outlook Media OSM Award for Traveller of the Year in India. Though Canadian by birth, Mariellen considers India to be her “soul culture” and has spent many years immersing herself in the culture.