Dosa

Tėte, this one’s for you:

This is basically a South Indian crepe. Like crepes, it can be filled with pretty much whatever you want, though I’d stick with savory fillings. If you would like an example of a traditional filling this one sounds delicious.

Dosa (Crepe)

3 parts rice

1 part daal

Salt (and fenugreek seeds if available) to taste, about the same amount of each

Oil

Soak rice and daal separately in enough water to cover the mixture, plus, a centimeter or so extra. Leave at room temperature for 6 hours. Grind to a paste after soaking, mix with salt, and add a little more water. Leave it at room temperature again, this time for about 12 hours, so it can ferment.

When ready, put some oil on a flat, wide, non-stick cooking surface and let it heat up. Each dosa should be about a teaspoon of batter, you want them thin. Add the batter and spread in a circular motion. Keep the cooking surface as clean as possible for flawless dosas.

 


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Excursion to Aligarh

A Woman and her son working in a field beside the rural health clinic

I’m going out of order, but I’ve skipped a few key trips, so here is the story of my third week in India:

The week after our visit to Agra, our teachers accompanied us on an excursion to a small city/large town in Uttar Pradesh to see government healthcare in action.

Aligarh is not in most guidebooks, and is not exactly a tourist destination. It is a mostly Muslim community, and far less glamorous than Delhi. There is a high proportion of impoverished people living in and around Aligarh, but there is also a good university (Aligarh Muslim University) making it the ideal place to observe government healthcare in real life for most North Indians. Our visit, unlike later trips would be, was not flashy or exciting, but looking back it has been really helpful to experience healthcare delivery in action on the ground.

Women standing beside an HIV-awareness sign at a women's health clinic

They say seeing is believing, and this was surely the case in Aligarh. I had heard for the past two and a half years in my classes what the healthcare sector is like in the developing world, and i had heard for weeks what it is like in India. In Aligarh, however, I got to see it firsthand, and I might have learned as much there as I have in all of my classes put together. We visited a medical college and its teaching hospital, where we observed the out-patient clinic for the departments in which we were most interested; visited primary, secondary, and tertiary level rural clinics; met with Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs, village women who are trained to supervise the growth of children from 0-5 years); interacted with college students; and had a tour of an Unani (traditional) hospital. These visits were each unique and completely new experiences, and I feel like I have a much better understanding of healthcare delivery in the developing world, especially rural areas.

~

Holi: Most Colourful Day of the Year

A Holi celebration. Mine was much more tame.

Holi is many things. First and foremost, Holi is a Hindu festival celebrating the triumph of faith over evil. One story behind the holiday revolves around the demon king Hiranyakashipu. After a period of penance, he was rewarded with the inability to be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal; neither by astra (weapon) nor by shastra (treatise, more or less)”. Emboldened by this power, he demanded to be worshiped as a god. His own son, Prahlada, was a fervent devotee of Vishnu, and so refused. This angered his father, who set out to kill him. His first several attempts failed, until finally he went to his sister for help. The demon king’s sister, also a demon, was given a similar boon to her brother’s: she was unable to be killed if she stepped into a fire. Prahlada was ordered to sit in his aunt’s lap in a fire. Apparently her power did not apply if she was not alone, so she burned while Prahlada survived. This sister’s name was Holika, the origin of Holi. To celebrate this part of the tale bonfires are lit the night before the celebrations. The demon king is also killed later by Narasimha, an incarnation of Vishnu, who kills him at twilight (neither day nor night), in the form of a lion-headed man (neither human nor animal), using his nails (neither weapon nor magic).

Powdered dye thrown at Holi

Holi is celebrated as the Festival of Colour. This involves throwing powdered dye around, rubbing it on people’s faces while wishing them a happy Holi, and getting everyone wet to make the dye stick. It is all in good fun, and both kids and kids at heart relish the holiday as an excuse to surprise people with paint and water balloons. The act of celebrating Holi is calles “playing Holi” and only this accurately captures the true spirit of the festival. Holi is both a photographer’s dream and a photographer’s nightmare. The colors and sheer joy are kind to the camera, but the dyes and the water are not. Never having celebrated Holi I was too scared to risk bringing my camera out into the celebration. If I had, however, I would have hundreds of photographs to show you. Unfortunately, my quest to find disposable cameras was fruitless. Someday I’ll return for Holi and make up for it.

Holi is fun. I was upset about missing Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but I would trade it for Holi most days, and I didn’t even get the full Holi experience for a multitude of reasons.

Holi is like human tie-dying: you never know what colors will wind up where, or in what concentration, but it always looks cool. I have my shirt that I wore hanging on my door, avoiding the laundry because it may wash away the colors.

Holi is joyous. Like New Year’s Eve in the US, Holi is a way to celebrate the good things of life with friends and family.

Me and my host sister after Holi celebrations

Everywhere you look people are smudging their loved ones’ faces with color, wishing joy on them. For some it is a barbecue and family/neighborhood holiday. For others it is an opportunity to party with their friends. Hard.

For this reason, and like New Year’s Eve, Holi is one of the most dangerous holidays as well. The women in my program were warned against participating in “street Holi” and told to always stay with their families, for good reason. The tame, family-style Holi that I had (with organic, herbal dye) is a completely different from the Holi that most of Delhi’s denizens experience. Holi is the day with the highest proportion of rapes and assaults in India. There are drunks wandering the streets and bhang, a mixture related to marijuana, is a traditional part of many celebrations. (Not ours, don’t worry, Mama) Allof these factors combined made my experience exiting my homestay an interesting one, a mix of trepidation, excitement, and curiosity.

Then I was promptly soaked with a hose and decided to just enjoy it. I made friends, got to meet more members of my neighborhood, and (of course) got covered in colour. Happy Holi!

Recipe: Pakoras

Crispy and delicious

Can use any vegetable you want. We used paneer, potato, eggplant, cauliflower, onion, and spinach.

1. Combine in a medium bowl approx. 3 cups of chickpea flour, 3/4 T salt, 1 T turmeric, 1 T ground coriander, 1/2 T red chili powder, 2 T dry mango powder, 2 T cumin seeds, and 3/4 T Hing.

2. Slowly add lukewarm water into the dry ingredients. Be sure to get all the lumps out while stirring it with your hand. Continue adding water until the mixture is the consistency of paste or thick cake batter. If you would like, add fresh coriander leaves (cilantro) into batter for extra flavor.

3. Heat pot, then add frying oil. The hotter the oil, the less saturated the dough will get.

4. Dip desired vegetables into batter coating evenly.

5. Add a few vegetables into pot at once. Let cook until batter puffs up, then flip over. When golden brown, take out, and let drain on paper towel.

6. Enjoy with your favorite chutney!

In Which I Finally Fall in Love

Warning: Long post ahead:

I had other posts planned first, but in my post-my-laptop-is-not-broken euphoria I have to get something off my chest: I loved India the minute I got here. But I wasn’t in love.

Until this last week.

I’ve been to New Delhi, Agra, Aligarh, and had been starting to worry because I never go the fireworks I had read about. (I guess falling in love with a place has a lot of the same feelings as falling in love with a person.) All that changed the minute I set foot into Udaipur.

Udaipur

Udaipur is sometimes called “the Venice of the East”, but never having been to Venice I cannot speak to the accuracy of this name. From what I’ve heard of Venice’s beauty, though, this seems like a perfect description. Udaipur is filled with lakes of all shapes and sizes, and built around the lakes are palaces, temples, homes, hotels, and shops, packed tightly and stacked on top of one another. Every building has a rooftop from which one can look out over the lake, and the many bridges connect islands to the mainland.

Getting to Udaipur from Delhi consisted of an overnight, 12-hour weekend train ride in sleeper class. After the long trip for which I was thankfully able to sleep on-and-off, we packed ourselves and our things into a bus for the drive from the train station to the city. When the bus dropped us off our first view was of Lake Pichola, the same
lake that we would find our hotel rooms looking over. At just past 8 o’clock in the morning, the sunlight shimmered on the water and cows ambled past us on the bridge. We walked through the streets of downtown Udaipur, which are both typically Indian and unique to Rajasthan, until we got to our hotel. Turning to our teachers in awe, we ran to the bay windows overlooking the lake as they smiled knowingly. Our hotel was a gem.

The view from our hotel window in Udaipur

The next few days were spent with an ideal balance of lounging about in our beautiful hotel room, exploring the gorgeous city of Udaipur, and making educational excursions to rural Rajasthan. Within Udaipur, a few friends and I found the most beautiful rooftop restaurant, and were able to look out over the lake at sunset while sipping lassi and munching on veg sizzler (what appeared to be fried vegetables topped with cheese fries and some sort of fatty, orange, delicious sauce, more or less). It was particularly satisfying to be able to order in Hindi, but not as satisfying as the awe-inspiring experience of watching the sun sink below Udaipur’s patchwork skyline and dark lakes. Our wonderful teachers even planned a cultural night for us atop our hotel’s roof, complete with traditional food, music, and dance, and late into the night they showed us what a real, crazy Indian party is like.

Aside from exploring beautiful Udaipur, our trip’s itinerary included excursions to health centers, school, and small villages in rural Rajasthan. Now, describing these places as rural is not the same as describing my childhood hometown in Pennsylvania as rural. This is rural. Like three small homes, kilometers of poppy fields and wheat fields, then another home and a tiny preschool. Rural. And beautiful. I’ve driven through quite a bit of the United States in my day, but none of it had me glued to the window like driving through the bumpy roads of Rajasthan.

Rajasthan: plains, desert, mountains, lakes, and fresh air

Far from the noise-filled streets of Delhi, most of Rajasthan (“the Land of Kings”) is desert. Don’t let that conjure up images of barren, dusty plains, however, because somehow Rajasthan manages somehow to be almost lush despite the climate. Cacti and  palm trees grow side by side next to fields of chickpeas, wheat, chili peppers, and even poppies. While driving by the fields one will also pass women in the brightest of saris carrying baskets of crop and pots of water on their heads, as well as children that stop their play to wave at passing vehicles.

We made this drive three times, to visit three different types of NGOs. Rather, three similar NGOs which interact very differently with the government to carry out their missions. The first of these was a mobile clinic that travels to different village centers to provide a day of medical care once every few months to these communities. The day we visited the mobile clinic it was stopped at a village center beside a school, so 30 or more children ran out of their classroom to watch us walk out of our bus. Talking with doctors, government liaisons, villagers, and the occasional brave child, we got an idea of the way the government works with NGOs to get to healthcare to rural, mostly inaccessible populations. The next NGO had a less cooperative, but still pleasant relationship with the government. They would go fill the gaps in healthcare delivery, nutrition, and women’s empowerment, then wait for the government to take over where they started. Here we visited another school, this one full of even younger children.

The last NGO, however, was by far the most interesting, as well as the most breathtaking, experience. Prayas, a 32 year old organization in Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, works for the communities it serves in a number of ways. It empowers women in the community, works to change rather than impose changes, and has drastically improved the health of everyone in the community, especially women and infants. We spent a night and two days at Prayas and they were some of the best days I’ve had in India so far. We talked to girls at a local, free boarding school for tribal women, we asked questions of traditional healers and birth attendants, and we closely observed the way a successful and beloved NGO works on the ground. With this NGO in particular we were able to see the way an NGO can work to protect marginalized populations from their own government, as is needed in the tribal communities of Rajasthan.

Traditional birth attendants discuss a question

All of that was extremely interesting, but what has stuck out in my mind has been the extra-curricular activities during our stay there, somewhat of an introduction to what life is like for most Indians (70% live in rural areas). Our last night in Rajasthan was spent at Prayas and after a full day of travelling and observing we were all ready for sleep. I chose, however, to take a walk with a few others down the moonlit highway through the hills near Prayas. The walk was beautiful, spent looking up at the stars I miss in Delhi. On the way back, not quite ready to go to bed when surrounded by such beauty, we sat on the roof and talked. Someone was struck with the brilliant idea that the five of us should steal mattresses from the floor where we were to sleep, and move them to the roof. So we did, and it was stunning to fall asleep under the stars, and wake up to the sunrise and the sounds of nearby villagers beginning their days.

After waking up, but before breakfast, we walked down the road not even a kilometer and found not one, but three ancient temples built into the hillside, ripe for exploring. Feeling like Indiana Jones, I walked through temples that felt like time portals and ran my fingers across time-worn stone carvings. At one temple in particular I walked inside, then a local woman followed me inside. Wordlessly, she pulled aside a curtain to show me a shrine. The whole experience felt so surreal. I thanked her, then walked around the back to find a wide, deep well with narrow stairs leading down to it, and bird’s nests hanging from the branches above it. There, again, a local man (the woman’s wife) was eager to show me hospitality. He called me over and we struggled to converse in my limited Hindi as he pointed out things for me to photograph. Eventually joined by my friends, we talked to the whole family and thanked them again.

We walked slowly back to Prayas for breakfast, admiring the scenery all the while. After finishing our food we visited the girl’s school (much to the girls’ amusement), then walked through the village center.to a garden area. We relaxed there for a while before meeting barefoot in front of a shrine with the traditional healers and birth attendants. Surrounded by old shrines, incense, and intricately knotted banyan trees we observed the meeting of East and West in the way this NGO dealt with the existing traditions of the community. Then we were lucky enough to see firsthand traditional healing in action. Hearing drumming in the distance, a traditional healer interrupts our teacher to ask something in Hindi. Our teacher translated for us:

“Would you like to see a ceremony to cure a woman possessed by evil spirits?”

A tribal woman possessed by an evil spirit

We jumped to our feet and ran outside to observe the procession. Led by a small group of men, a line of women in bright Rajasthani saris danced an eerie dance to the drum beat while balancing full pots of water on their heads. Following that group were a few straggling children and men, and then the woman in question. Her face covered, she moaned and writhed while the women around her directed her in the direction of the drumming. Like so many experiences that week, it was truly surreal.

After that excitement we returned, said our goodbyes, and left for our final field trip before returning to Delhi: Chittorgarh Fort. I’ve walked past Agra Fort, and through Ranthambore Fort, as well as castles in Wales, but none of them have inspired as much wonder as Chittorgarh Fort. For one thing, it is gargantuan, and carved into a cliff face looking over Chittorgarh District. Clambering over walls, running down stairs, walking barefoot into temples, and balancing gingerly on railings, I was overwhelmed. On the one hand it is massive and beautiful and ancient, every corner filled with stories. On the other hand, it is wide-open and beautiful, the air is fresh, and there is so much to explore. I kept thinking how fun it would have been to be a child and play hide-and-seek in these walls.

From Chittorgarh Fort two stories stick out, one of legend and one personal experience. One of the famous stories of the fort revolves around a particular palace in the middle of the lake.

I will defer to Chittorgarh’s own websitehere:

Rani Padmini's Castle

Rani Padmini's Castle

Desperate to have a look at the legendary beauty of Padmini, he sent word to King Ratansen that he looked upon Padmini as his sister and wanted to meet her. On hearing this, the unsuspecting Ratansen asked Padmini to see the ‘brother’. But Padmini was more wordly-wise and she refused to meet the lustful Sultan personally.

On being persuaded by her husband Rana Ratansen, Rani Padmini consented to allow Ala-ud-din to see her only in a mirror. On the word being sent to Ala-ud-din that Padmini would see him he came to the fort with his selected his best warriors who secretly made a careful examination of the fort’s defences on their way to the Palace.

On seeing Padmini, in the mirror, Allah-ud-din Khilji decided that he should secure Padmini for himself.

The rest of the story is almost like a Greek tragedy and can be found on the website, I highly recommend taking a look at it if reading this post hasn’t tired you out. I got to stand in the tower where Allah-ud-din Khilji stood and looked into an angled mirror, across a moat, onto the dais of Rani Padmini’s island palace.

My own story, much less grand, felt almost magical to me so I will share: While wandering child-like around the ruins I stumbled across a darkened temple. I heard lovely music and smelled sandalwood emanating from inside, so I slipped off my sandals at the door and stepped inside. Feeling the cold marble under my feet, the air itself almost felt different and suddenly there was a cold breeze. The carvings inside were intricate and beautiful, and I turned around to find a turbaned man, and behind him a three-headed statue showing the faces of Shiva. My friend joined me inside and he beckoned us over, offering us an orange mixture to place dots upon our foreheads. We bent down and he put the wet dye between our eyebrows. My friend dropped a ten rupee note in the shrine’s bowl for the two of us, then we left feeling strangely light. We shared a look and smiled in wonder at the temple, India, and the world in general.

India is incredible, as the posters say.

~

Secret for Success in India #1: Have a Sense of Humor

I love India. I am having an amazing time here. But India is far from perfect. And when I say far, I mean far. Not more so than any other country, just more noticeably so than my own. But slowly, while I get established here, I’m learning the secrets to success in India. Secret to Success in India the First involves kind of a shift in worldview. I’m a funny person, and I like to think I have a good sense of humor, but you really need to be able to bend your sense of humor in new directions here.

Children by our program center

Take Brick Baby, for instance. Brick Baby is a running joke in our program. Brick Baby is also a toddler. Her parents work as construction workers in the neighborhood in which our program center is located. Brick Baby is so named because on one particularly culture-shock-filled day we walked by her makeshift home to find her tied to a brick outside of it. Covered in dust and left with nothing to amuse her, she was shockingly quiet. Despite our initial gut reaction of shock, we all looked at each other and burst out laughing. To an outsider this might appear callous, or even cruel. For us, in this world we barely understand, forced to make sense of situations we would never have to encounter in the US, this was how we could deal with it. Though sad, it was kind of funny to see her taped to a light pole the next day. We joked about starting a twitter account. (@brickbaby: Today a fly landed on  me. It was so exciting.)

When I go home to see a child throwing a temper tantrum in a supermarket I know that I will think back on this and be greatly saddened.  But for now, being amused and keeping a (short) mental distance from the realities of life in India is a way to keep from getting jaded. This is not to say that I don’t understand or think about the poverty and harshness of India, or that seeing it doesn’t make me want to change it, just that I will better do these things if I can take the seriousness with a pinch of salt. So when an auto-wallah is rude to us, overcharges us, then doesn’t know where he’s going, or when the train is delayed by 5 hours, or when you are taken to the Taj Mall instead of the Taj Mahal, it’s easiest just to laugh.

Agra-vation

My second weekend in India was spent journeying to and from my first wonder of the world (which apparently is considered by some not to be wonderful enough for that title anymore). Like everyone else from the West who thinks of India, one of the first images to come to my mind has been the Taj Mahal, looming grand and white over a long reflecting pool.  This image is the reason several of my classmates and I found ourselves on a last-minute, crowded train trip to Agra, Uttar Pradesh.

Cold is not something I expected to be in India. Chilly, perhaps, but not cold. On this train to Agra, though, with the wind blowing at me through the leaky window, I was pulling my thin sweater and my thinner dupatta (long, light scarf) close. I tried to sleep, but sleep comes slowly when punctuated by the nasally call of the chaiiiiiiii-wallah selling his tea.

Much smaller than the train station in New Delhi, the one in Agra was easy enough to navigate, unlike its parking lot. With our bags and cameras strapped across our chests, even in our salwar qameez, we looked like tourists. In India, looking like a tourist and trying to find transportation is like bathing in blood then jumping into a shark tank. Upon exiting the train station we were surrounded by a barrage of men shouting numbers and destinations at us, most of which were laughably high. After unsuccessfully negotiating with some belligerent auto-wallahs, six of us decided to abandon ship and swim to the Taj. Though we left foot, however, we did not make it on foot. On our trek, while being chased by the pushiest of the auto-wallahs, we came across a sign: “Taj Mahal – 10 km”.

The road we got stuck in the middle of

Now don’t get me wrong: 10 kilometers is totally walk-able. Usually. Not, however, when the streets look like this:

After getting stuck in the neutral ground in the middle of the highway, we decided (reluctantly) to hail an auto. Two pulled up nearly immediately, smelling blood in the water. With the goal of stuffing the six of us into an auto made for two (sorry, Mama) we let them start the bidding. The first offered us the ridiculous sum of Rs. 200. The second, after I spoke to him in Hindi, offered to get us to the Taj for half that. We crammed ourselves into his auto and, luckily, he was friendly and honest. After some chatter we wound up right where we wanted to be. This was lucky because another group was taken to the Taj Mall, then charged extra for their real destination.

We arrived in one piece at the south gate, but were delayed in buying our tickets because some lucky EU official was getting a private tour. As the long line grew behind us we waited patiently, then were finally allowed to enter into the area in front of the south gate, for 10 times the price of Indian citizens. Later, I would be glad for that. Finally after walking across the lawn and through the south gate, we got our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, the lovely memorial to Mumtaz Mahal. Frankly, I think this building is the least Shah Jahan could do for the woman who bore him 14 children.

It is every bit as beautiful as it’s supposed to be. A lovely white jewel in the dusty, pushy city of Agra. It is a pearly white, with verses from the Quran written across it’s face around engraved marble flowers. The building is surrounded by four tall minarets, tilted away from the Taj to protect it should they fall. The mosques on either side of it are perfectly symmetrical, the gardens are lush, the reflecting pool is stunning, and the Yamuna river behind it is wide and serene. It truly is wondrous.

Wandering across the lawns it is impossible not to stop and take pictures every few minutes. Eventually, as we climb onto the white marble barefoot, we are ushered into the line for tourists, which is probably 5% of the length of the Indian line. Though taking pictures is not allowed in the tomb area, I was probably the only person to obey that particular rule. Exiting out the back we took more pictures, then made our way back out, excited to eat. With the help of Lonely Planet we found a lovely rooftop cafe that looked out over Agra, with a stunning view of the Taj Mahal. My fatty, creamy Paneer Butter Masala was fantastic, and the chai was sweet and delicious.

Left with only two hours until our train departed, we finally decided to wander toward the Agra Fort. We walked through streets straight out of Aladdin, and down a highway, and finally came to the Agra Fort, hassled by rickshaw-wallahs all the while. We took some pictures of the exterior but, unable to find the entrance and left without time, we departed for the train station. Finding an auto-wallah to take us home was another adventure. After turning down more outlandish offers, we clambered into a full-to-the-brim rickshaw again. This one, we were pleased to find, was the party rickshaw, apparently. With bhangra music blasting in the background we returned to the train station, ready for a late-night trip back to Delhi.

Auto-Wallahs

I’ll get to my adventures outside of Delhi soon, but while we’re on the subject of driving I want to talk about auto-wallahs.

A cycle rickshaw in Jasola

There are two kinds of rickshaws on New Delhi streets. Cycle rickshaws are rickety bicycles with with ricketier benches attached to the back and covered with a canopy. My first ride in a cycle rickshaw, the distance of a 10 to 15 minute walk, was like a roller coaster, my hands gripping the sides with white knuckles as we rattled down the busy street with cars whizzing by (and honking, of course). Once past the fear that the whole contraption would tip, it was actually kind of fun, not to mention cheap (About 30 cents for one person, 40 for two). Unfortunately, because it is man-powered, the distance is limited to the distance one man can bike with the weight of two adult women and their things bouncing around behind him.

Where I live it would take about an hour and a half to commute by Metro to my classes, so my roommate and I are left with two options: Leave the house before 7 o’clock, or take an auto-rickshaw. Faster than a cycle-rickshaw or the metro, abut cheaper than a taxi, it would seem ideal.

It’s not.

Autos, as auto-rickshaws are called here, are an interesting piece of machinery. They are about the same size as a circus car, with all of the reliability thereof. On top of that, auto-wallahs seem to have been put on this earth just to test my patience. As a white girl living in India I am put in a unique position: I am foreign enough that I am usually offered the tourist price, but I have been here long enough to be acutely aware of just how exorbitant that price is. I have to take an auto 5-10 times in a normal week, so I cannot afford to pay the tourist price every time. This means I have had to learn to bargain, which has been quite difficult at times for this smiley Midwestern girl. Bargaining usually goes like this (keep in mind meter price would be around Rs. 85, or just under two dollars):

Me (in Hindi): Will you go to Jasola?

Auto-wallah (in English): 150 rupees. [This is frequently even higher if I approach him in English]

I laugh, and begin to walk away, then he chases me. How much, madam?

Me (in Hindi): Go by the meter.

Auto-wallah: Sorry, madam, the meter is broken.

The meter is always “broken”. I start my offer at 80 because anything much lower than meter price makes them run away. Eventually we whittle it down to around 100, maybe a bit more if I’m running late.

That is the typical exchange. But every once in a while we get a particularly nice driver (usually an older man with a Bollywood actresses picture taped to his rear view mirror) who offers us the meter right away. On Monday, we were even offered change for our 100 rupee note, without even asking. This particular gentleman has reaffirmed my faith in auto-wallahs, and I wish I could have thanked him somehow besides not taking his change. In essence, taking an auto is always an adventure. I would never expect less from India.

[Insert “life is a road” metaphor here]

I’m coming to the conclusion that one can tell a lot about an area by its roads.

Not just the physical state of the web of asphalt laid across its face, but the way the people and vehicles interact with the laws and lay of the land that govern the streets. All infrastructure says something about the way a city is run, but roads reveal integral aspects of the priorities and attitudes of the people driving over them. Nowhere, in my opinion, are the roads more indicative of an area’s culture than here in New Delhi.

The winding, hilly roads of rural Pennsylvania were beautiful and sparsely populated, if a bit monotonous. It is friendly driving, and though the scenery is beautiful and open there is not as much to do as in a city. Like the roads, life in rural Pennsylvania is simple and sweet, with nature and your neighbors to keep you company.

Chicago, as a big city, has traffic for much of the day. Just like Chicago’s neighborhoods, though, the styles of driving on different roads vary widely. There’s the drag-race friendly Edens, the commuter-friendly lanes of 294, the scenic and hectic Lakeshore Drive, and the dark, mysterious, and distinctly Chicagoan Lower Wacker. In a city where a large proportion of denizens use public transportation, the variety and personality of the el and the Metra are also revealing.

Much more similar to my current locale, the streets of New Orleans are unkempt at best. Like the people, New Orleans streets are always messy, sometimes beautiful, rooted in history, often littered with signs of alcohol, and always lead somewhere interesting.

In a maddening metaphor, Delhi’s roads are a microcosm of life in this city. First of all, they are crowded. Like the people in any Delhi crowd, the cars on Delhi streets are uncomfortably close to each other. Drivers are not shy about touching bumpers, or pulling into an impossibly narrow space between a bus and a wall. For everyone at home who thinks I am a less-than-perfect driver: come visit me here. We’ll take an auto down the highway and you will never fear again on an American road. Coupled with the densely crowded, law-of-the-jungle driving, there is a soundtrack of a million different horns. At first the sound of so many horns, beeped for no apparent reason beyond perhaps greeting every single car passing by, was funny. When I am tired or frustrated the constant beeping is annoying. But now I barely notice it, like a ridiculous parody of birdsong in a forest. And yet somehow the “look-I’m-driving” honking and the “they’re-more-like-guidelines-anyway” driving has some sort of organization to it. The way that incongruous shards of multicolored glass become a recognizable image in a mosaic, all of these cars somehow know when to turn illegally, and when to stop on a dime at a red light (for once). There is a method to the madness, it appears. I just have yet to find it.

The other thing about Delhi roads is the contrasts seen everywhere. Between a chicken cart and a colorfully-painted truck, one is liable to see anything from a woman in a sari on the back of a motorcycle to a Lamborghini to a pedestrian deaf to the honking around him. Rich cars are cut off by rickety auto-rickshaws and silk-clad women walk by as working men packed 20 to a truck bed stare. There is so much…everything. Noise, smells, sights, every possible sense is stimulated as I hold on for dear life to the rickshaw I paid too much for.