Snapshots of urban life

For something different I though I’d share a few photos of urban India, 2013.

I spent 24 hours passing through Delhi on my way from Orissa to Uttar Pradesh.

Across India trees are both protected and hunted. There is a growing movement to protect trees in urban areas as an anti-pollution measure. Delhi even has a Tree Ambulance that roams around helping trees (supposedly). However, deforestation still occurs across India as land is converted to farmland or used for mining and rural households search for firewood.   At the nice hotel where I stayed in Bhubaneswar I woke early one morning to see a poor woman cutting down one of the branches from a large tree in front of the hotel – she was there at the crack of dawn before the guards arrived.



AC units on a building in Delhi



A common scene – motorcycle parking lot. More and more vehicles “ply the roads” of India- many of them motorcycles.


This Jeremy Scott collection seems utterly out of place at the Delhi Adidas store. The idea of wealthy Indians in India wearing clothes styled after the totem poles build by pacific northwest Native American (“Indian”) cultures (like this and this) is so strange.



View of Connaught Place, Delhi, against the ever-polluted sky.


A relaxing dinner solo in Delhi at Sidewok.


Delhi now boasts a few Starbucks – a the only coffee shop in India I’m aware of where I can add soymilk to my drinks. It was mobbed… but a delightful treat for a vegan in a foreign land – and a very attractive place to rest and work, too.






Yesterday we came to Lucknow for meetings (a 1.5 hour drive from the TERI guest house and office in rural Uttar Pradesh). Here’s a classic view of a cow walking though a very busy urban street. These cows generally survive by eating trash left on the street. I find this to be a ridiculous double standard for a culture that believes the cow to be a very sacred creature.



And finally, a reminder of home – Durham, NC


Loving it

I’ve been really enjoying the excitement of this trip for the past couple days. More frequent calls with home (thanks JJ and ACT!) have really helped, and I’ve relaxed into my situation here much more. 

I love the chaotic rush of everyone and everything.  I love how even a walk down the block is an adventure, dodging cows, cars, bicycles, refuse piles, and gawkers.  I love how every inch of India is so full of life.  I love the enormous strength and determination of the people. 

Bhubaneswar doesn’t have traffic signals.  The most crowded intersections all have an Indian man (like below) in a little tower who directs traffic.  These men are always wearing white gloves that reach up to their shirt sleeves – when I’ve asked, I’ve been told the purpose is both sun protection and because everyone has “the obsession with whiteness”.  


Good mix of bikes, walkers, auto rickshaws (which are what I take to work every day), trucks, and men pushing carts.  I live on this road.



The picture below is my favorite.  Auto rickshaws dashing every which way.  A proud history of ancient war, and promises that this land would be full with success. And behind it all, construction – new growth that is unstoppable, perhaps, doesn’t reach the poor. IMG_0695

The Help

Let me start by saying that I’ve never had anyone do my laundry or clean for me other than my parents when I was a child.  Now, I do all of those thing on my own.  I even had a summer job in high school as a maid, and gained a very deep appreciation for how hard of a job it is (plus a lot of ridiculous stories, since I found that people treated the maid more like a psychologist).

Now, in India, I have two men seemingly at my disposal.  They are the “caretakers” of the apartment I am staying in … and that’s about all I know.  They were sleeping in the apartment before I arrived, but now they sleep in the basement of the building, presumably in pretty unfortunate and minimal conditions.  (My mind keeps flashing to the description of a basement that the driver sleeps in from the book “White Tiger”- literally swarming with roaches.)

The men seem to be very determined to work hard – in addition to their role as caretakers, they also have day jobs, so we are all at work at the same time.

One of these men, Ananta, has been instructed by the flat owner to accompany me wherever I go (other than work). This meant that my he very kindly arranged transport to lots of temples when I visited on Sunday. He insisted on coming with me to the mall and was walking around showing me things I might be interested in, until I told him to wait outside until I had finished shopping. However, I definitely go places and just don’t tell him.  Every night when I walk to get dinner at the restaurant nearby (a 2 minute walk along a busy road) he insists on coming and sitting outside while I eat, so I don’t walk alone.  I don’t fight him about this because dinner time is 9 pm. My first two days I was so lonely I invited him to join me for dinner and bought him food, even though I am very aware it is not “appropriate” by indian standards.  Now, he’s put his foot down, and doesn’t come inside while I am eating.  I don’t think he was shown much respect in the restaurants, either.  He now eats dinner for Rs. 20 at a roadside stand, and mine is about Rs. 80-120 in the restaurant.

He and the other man, C., come around 6:50 am to see if I want tea, then around 7 pm when I get home from work. C. is always bowing and running ahead to open doors and saying “yes, madam”, “please, madam”, “sorry, madam”. If I say I want tea, it is served on a platter (below).  There seems to be an unspoken rule that we don’t touch. But I’m not sure about it – in fact, I have a million questions about this whole situation…



1. What exactly are these men supposed to do?

2. How often is appropriate for me to ask them to sweep the floor? (They weren’t doing it, but since someone came to sweep the floor every morning when I stayed with friends in Delhi,I figured it was appropriate and asked them to do it.  They have done it twice in 5 days.)

3. Can I tell them to go buy a clean sponge for washing dishes, or should I just do it myself? Let’s not talk about the current sponge.

4. Can I tell them to dust?

5. The kitchen is smelly and has flies.  Can I tell them to clean it?

6. Is is rude for me to not invite them to stay in the apartment or watch TV, at least occasionally?

7. Am I supposed to pay them or tip them for things?

8. Will they do my ironing, or am I supposed to?

9. The sinks (bathroom and living room) seem like they haven’t been washed in months.  Can I ask them to do it?

10. How much are they paid per day to do this caretaking? What do they think about me?  DO they ever wash the pot that they make tea in? etc.

I really struggle with this set up , because I know I am fully capable of being self sufficient and doing my own cleaning, but I also think that these people are here to do (and paid to do) these services. But I feel really silly even thinking “wash this sink!”  I have decided to go buy some sponges today and just do some of the things myself (I’ll start with sinks and dusting).

I struggle with wanting to be nice. But also wanting to have things clean. Not being able to speak the same language.  Not knowing boundaries about what is appropriate for me to ask them to do. I really want to pay them money – but I know the landlord is paying them.  Last night I asked Ananta if he is going to Cuttack with me this weekend, where I’ll stay with my adviser’s mother. He said he is going to his village, because his daughter has a special ceremony (I think), and he needs to buy her a Rs. 200 dress – he has been saving up.  I wanted to just freaking hand him the rupees (less than $5) right then and there.  I’m still thinking about it.  Is it bad to buy them meals and give them money (which to them is a LOT of money)?  I want to do it.  My only concerns are that it goes against the culture to have me giving them money – might make them try to take advantage of me – or something like that.  But I just feel horrible about how expensive my meals (and camera, and computer) are- and he’s working really hard to save up Rs. 200 – and he has been helpful to me. In other cases, I would be concerned that someone would spend the money on alcohol – but I don’t get the impression that he would.

Sorry this was a rambling post.  I am (obviously) quite confused about how to live with this type of “help”, and how to find an appropriate balance of doing what is culturally acceptable and doing what I think is right.  But I am deeply grateful for their kind and helpful service. If you are reading this and have any insights, please share 🙂

Edit: I should be sure to say that this place is by no means “very dirty”. Many places in America are equivalent, and it is quite nice by Indian standards.  I’ve stayed in many places that are orders of magnitude worse than this apartment. The only reason I’m even mentioning wanting to clean the sinks, etc, is that I’m here for a prolonged time, and I wasn’t sure if cleaning was included in the list of responsibilities of the caretakers. But I feel very lucky to have such a nice place to stay and two people to help look after it. 

mild vegan victory

Found at the small grocery across the street from my office:


Its available in four flavors – Chocolate, Mango, Pistachio, and Original.  I especially love this panel on the side of the carton that says : 1 serving contains vegetarian protein equivalent to 1 egg, and fiber equivalent to 1/2 cup of yellow lentil.  Awesome, India.

Also, Cafe Coffee Day still has the Vegan Shake that was on their menu last year.  It’s a delightful drink – hope the soymilk is palatable 🙂  This will be a wonderful improvement over my current breakfast plans of 1) dry cereal, 2) crackers, or 3) fried spaghetti and veggies, served in my office.  I love street food breakfasts, but I’m really trying to eat from trustworthy sources to improve this bout of India Belly, so that’s out for now.  Hello, SOYA MILK!

ps in case you are curious, sofit is a Hersheys product manufactured in Mumbai

exiting the haze

yesterday was a bad day.  i arrived in bhubaneswar after many hectic hassles at airport (go to counter to check in, please go to that counter over there to pay for your extra bag, then come back here, then go through security, take a tag for every bag you are carrying onto plane, forgot to check pocket knife, so go back and pay for another bag at cashier counter, then check in bag, oops- too late, flight has closed, go to that counter to get special permission, etc).  A man waited for me with a sign that said “JESSICA” in nice handwritten letters.

I am staying at a flat that belongs to my adviser’s sister.

It’s fine. 

The furniture in the living room is quite nice. 85% of my room is occupied by a giant bed- king size in the USA.  The frame has a thin mattress- maybe 3 inches thick and dense – covered by a sheet and thin blanket.  There is a bathroom attached to my room with a toilet, sink, and shower head.  It’s a pretty awesome lavender coordinating design- sink and toilet are lavender. There’s a modern TV in the living room and a red rusty fridge from approx 30 years ago. The kitchen is the scariest room in the flat.  It has a certain smell that is hard for me to pinpoint- might be asafoetida, which is an Indian spice I have a strong aversion towards.  There are fruit flies and open bags of grains.  When I took a plate to eat I discovered it hadn’t been washed, at all, but was put back in the plate rack.  The apartment has a water filter that allows me to forgo buying bottle water by the bushel, which is wonderful.  The caretaker prepared two pitchers of water for me, and also purchased a pack of arrowroot biscuits, some bananas (of a type we do not have in America), Kellogg’s corn flakes and milk.  One of the pitchers and the biscuit container are orange tupperware, which is a wonderful reminder of home, although these have dusty dirt settled into tupperware’s textured surface.

I went to find a 3G wireless modem for my laptop, and came back emptyhanded after 3 hours of dogged searching through a very Indian market.  To say I was dispirited would be generous. 

The otherness had overwhelmed me.  I found people colder and crueler seeming that usual.  I missed the congeniality of staying with friends in Delhi, and my slight familiarity with that city.  I had no internet.  I sat in the apartment and remembered that in my excitement to return to India I undervalued the price of the experience – pollution worse than I remembered, ubiquitous dust, heartbreaking and undiluted poverty everywhere, not understanding if I’m insulted in a foreign tongue while others smile and laugh, stomach problems, cold showers, showering out of a bucket, fear of malaria, missing the people I love, challenges to exercising, feeling unable to have an impact on the problems around me, different sanitation standards. 

I remembered the goodbye party A threw for me, a farewell dinner at my adviser’s house, bro and E helping me pack, and my parents meeting me at the airport on my layover.  I sat in a haze, a stranger in a stranger land, overwhelmed, reconsidering, dark.

But now things are better.  Talked with friends and family on the phone, toured some ancient temples, got a vegan coffee drink, and relaxed into the situation a bit more.  Details and pics in another post…

But my sad day in Orissa made me think long and hard about how easy it must be for foreigners in America to feel isolated, and how I must work harder to make people feel and know they are included. 

India, Redux.


  1. Always keep my eyes open for ideas of new projects (professional or personal). Try to write a new idea down at least once a week.
  2. Take time to keep a health body and mind
    1. Time to relax, away from work context
    2. Exercise – this is a problem, since it isn’t feasible to run outside, and walking outside is something of a health hazard. I’m hoping to investigate exercising in my room (P90X, Pilates, etc.)
    3. Sleep enough
    4. Eat well – lots of fruit and veggies
  3. Keep an open mind in project, learning from others, but also keep a retain my assertiveness.  On my last trip working in the field it was common for the male office workers to clearly expect less of the women, and I intend to work from the beginning to address this.
  4. Stay determined and very hard working on the project through what will surely be many difficulties ahead…
  5. Stay vegan.  On my last trip, I was only vegetarian (well, mostly vegan, but I drank tea and had occasional eggs.  It is hard for me to tell people that I don’t want to eat things that they value (like chai), and that are delicious, but I want to hold fast.  I will make an effort to tell people quickly that I don’t drink milk (to avoid them making tea) and explain my reasons openly if anyone asks.  I’m reading Ghandi’s autobiography right now, and in a way, this makes me feel better about my decision, since he shows tremendous strength while struggling to explain hi choice to people.
This isn’t a complete list, but some of the first ones that came to me.  Any other goals I should add?

To Infinity and Beyond

Returning to India. My last visit ended in June 2010. Now, over a year later, it all happens again. I feel so different this time, but my emotions are at least as complex. I’m brining with me a suitcase of equipment for our environmental study in India (air pumps, Teflon coated air filters to gather PM particles, and so much more). Packing last night reached an all time high on the stressmeter- thankfully, Bro and Edie came over to help (new champions of the master packing grand prix). And of course, Alb was ever helpful. Thus far, a few notes of things I’ve forgotten to remember for next time:

· Watch

· Toilet paper (travel roll)

· Clothesline

· Extra wallet (I use one for dollars, kept in my passport belt), and one for local currency, easily accessible

· Souvenirs I bought last time but didn’t use, and are best used in India anyway (bindis for the forehead, bangles). I’ll use em in India or give them away.

Good flight timing meant that Bro and I were in RDU at the same time to catch flights – he to JFK, me to CVG. Because he is awesome, I got a stack of free drink/snack coupons. And a lucky layover (not that lucky- I picked the flight that had it) in CVG allowed me to see the parents, who gave me bags of sliced apples, carrots, celery, and humus for the flight, as well as all of the things in the list above (many of which my mom just thought I might like, and it wasn’t until I saw them that I realized *I meant to pack that!*)

And we’re off. I ordered my first in-plane cocktail using one of the free-cocktail-coupons, and realized that it will likely be my last drink until Thailand. India doesn’t prohibit women drinking, but it is strongly frowned upon, particularly in rural settings. One of my goals is to work hard to show that foreign women are kind, respectful, modest, and should not be automatically categorized as sex-crazy lushes. So, even though I am a very moderate drinker in the USA, I will abstain in India.

To infinity and beyond.

Still here, but gone soon

I leave for my second trip to India on Tuesday.  Much to do before the trip – pick up D batteries for the air pumps, fittings for the rotameters (which measure air flow into the pumps), contact my health insurance company, and fill my anti-malarial prescription… among many.

Filled with anticipation.  Even though I’ve been before, I still feel a cocktail of nervousness, excitement, fear, and joy bubbling in my stomach.

This time, I:

  • know a bit more Hindi.
  • will be traveling to a new part of the country
  • know what to expect when I get off the plane
  • will have the right clothes
  • know I can handle the challenges to come
  • am leading fieldwork, rather than an intern under a local field team
  • am part of a potential solution (a plan to improve environment, health, and livelihood (aka, our research))

This time, I mean business.