Taj Mahallie


This week’s most important thing is our coffee machine finally arrived. After two months of dreaming, I finally have something that will make me a glorious full cup of coffee that doesn’t involve me filtering coffee grounds through a tea strainer. Game. Changer. Actually I wrote that sentence a full month ago, but it’s still just as important now as it was then.
I have a new roommate! She’s an Israeli American from MIT (like the MIT), and once we got past the fact that my first questions was, oh where is MIT?, we’ve become great friends. She’s an undergrad doing an internship with BORDA for eight weeks, what exactly she’ll be doing is still a mystery to everyone involved, but it’s great to have another EcoHouse resident.
I left at 2:30 am for the airport to fly to Delhi in time for a morning meeting at the U.S. Embassy with USAID (which normally pulling an all-nighter before meeting with your dream future employer wouldn’t be a great idea, but my excitement for it managed to make up for the lack of sleep). I got to meet with the director of the WASH programs at USAID (there are five programs) and one of his project managers, and while they were slightly offended I hadn’t reached out to them to work with them earlier (sorry, didn’t know that was a thing), they were thrilled to hear I was planning to come back to India. I have a skype call in two weeks where I’ll be presenting my work to them and their colleagues at the Embassy. When we left, the U.S. ambassador to India walked past and everyone panicked and quickly stood at attention to pay respects. My reaction may have been to immediately ask when his position was going to be open.
We then rode in an Embassy car, where I literally had to sign a waiver to get inside, to the CURE office (Center for Urban and Regional Excellence, an Indian NGO that does water, sanitation, and solid waste management projects in slum settlements). I got to be a little fly on the wall for a partnership development meeting between USAID, CURE, and WaterHealth (another Indian NGO that builds small RO (reverse osmosis) water treatment plants in slums that transport water to ATMs, where slum dwellers can pay a tiny fee to collect drinking water).
Later in the day, I made my way to the WASH Institute, another NGO that does research, curriculum development, capacity building, and sanitation implementations across India. Many of these organizations are funded to support the efforts of India’s Swacch Bharat Mission, or “My Clean India”, a central government-led initiative to improve sanitation in the country. The SBM has allocated a lot of funding and resources to the sanitation sector, largely focused on ending open defecation by 2019 and improving the government’s technical and managerial capacity for sanitation projects. I’ve skyped with the WASH Institute people before, and they are just these really generous and lovely people who were willing to sit down with me and discuss how they think the government has influenced (positively and negatively) sanitation in the past couple decades.
Another thing I was able to do was visit one of CURE’s slum projects. They have three sanitation projects in slum communities in Delhi and Agra and were able to arrange for me to visit one of them. In this particular community, CURE (being largely a group of urban planners) has addressed all types of infrastructure projects. They have 800 families participating in a solid waste segregation and collection program, where the wet waste is composted and sold by one individual. They have several rainwater harvesting systems, with carbon and sand filtration. They recently constructed a sanitation project, that they call a CST, or cluster septic tank, although it’s much more comprehensive than that. Household toilets are connected to little individual collection tanks that feed into a simplified sewer system. The sewer empties into a large improved septic tank and then a planted gravel filter. The community wants to reuse the treated water, but is unable to do so since the treatment system does not provide high enough nutrient removal for this to be possible. The really interesting thing about this system is that only half the number of the intended households are actually connected. The rest of the households in the community have pit latrines underneath their concrete houses, making it very difficult to change the plumbing and add a connection to the sewer line. Some households want to connect by physically or financially cannot. Others constructed pit latrines after the system was implemented, since they didn’t trust that the treatment system would be effective, and they didn’t trust that the system would remain functional after CURE leaves the community. Like in many communities I’ve worked with, the system is managed by a group of twelve community members who have formed an operation and maintenance committee. Again, it is mostly women as the men in the community are either busy with day labor jobs or equally busy with gambling addictions.
On the way back from the site visit, I asked them to drop me off in Chandni Chowk, the market sector in Old Delhi. I don’t think I’ve been living in India until now. Old Delhi was exactly what I expected all of India to be like. When people told me that I would come to India and be overwhelmed by the traffic, the noise, the amount of people, the trash, and the sewage in the streets, I was surprised by not having this happen immediately. But when I walked into Old Delhi for the first time it was a complete sensory overload. There were men pushing handcarts full of trash or onions or piles of cloth. Others were carrying hundreds of pounds of spices in burlap sacks on their shoulders or heads. Others were driving bicycle rickshaws through the nearly stationary clumps of traffic. On both sides of the street and down the middle, there were people camped out to sell flowers, vegetables, fruit, phone chargers, men’s pants, jewelry, everything. I got out of our car and into the drizzling rain and headed in search of the spice bazaar. Google led me to believe that the spice bazaar was a network of small streets in a square area, kind of like the spice bazaar in Istanbul. This was not the case, as I found out after walking down three or four different alleys only to find that I was staring into the back of the spice shops and was actually in the loading and unloading (and male loitering) zone. Potentially my most dangerous decision (but I don’t know for sure) was buying 250 grams of yellow raisins from one stall and some completely random, semi-fried wrap thing with tomato and paneer and sweet, spicy sauce from street vendors. I ate these as I spent the next three hours slowly walking through the market stalls and looking at the saris I would never wear and the jewelry I’d never buy. I ended at the Red Fort, which is a massive structure in the center of Delhi, that would probably an hour to walk around the perimeter completely. 
In between my meetings, I was able to also run (sometimes literally) to my long list of temples and tombs to see in Delhi. My favorite one, the Akshardan temple, was also the only one that wouldn’t allow cameras or phones inside the grounds, but that also created a more relaxed and intentional atmosphere. Here are some pictures of the ones I was able to document:
 
 
Qutub Minar, the tallest tower in Delhi (slightly lower than the Taj Mahal)
The mosque next to Qutub Minar.
This is an actual pile of poop in the street. Delhi had piles of manure everywhere. Maybe in an attempt to collect the cow manure in one spot and make the rest cleaner?
Completely God-ordained, my solo travel came to an end exactly eleven hours before I got massively sick. Tchelet (the BORDA intern from MIT I mentioned in my last post) and her friend Malte were both in Delhi the same weekend I was, so we made plans to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal together. We were adamant about arriving in time to see the sunrise (and avoid the crowds) so we piled into a hired car and entrusted our lives to a poor man who had to stay awake for the four hour night drive to Agra. I unfortunately got zero sleep in the car because about one hour into our drive, there was a sudden screeching of tires and burning of breaks followed by a loud metallic noise, as our car ran over some pile of metal in the road. No damage done physically to anyone or the car, but significant damage to my sleeping future. I swear our driver said we ran over a dog, but when I looked back to verify I could only see a crumpled pile of metal in the road. We arrived in plenty of time for sunrise, and somehow our hired driver came with a free guide, who I accidentally completed ignored in my excitement and didn’t even notice when he was no longer guiding us. We were the first people in line and had to spend the most tortuous fifteen minutes waiting for the armed guards to open the gates. If they hadn’t had guns I probably would have run through the tiny munchkin door that was open at the bottom of the gate. We then spent another painful, painful five minutes going through security and five steps after that I caught my first glimpse of the top of the Taj Mahal, and may or may not have audibly squealed with unquenchable excitement. Anyway, I basically immediately started running and we arrived at that picturesque spot at the front of the gardens where you can see the whole structure mirrored in the garden pools. Literally not a human being in sight (besides the crowds swarming in behind us). Thankfully, we were able to take our fill of solo pictures with the Taj and then proceeded to explore the rest of the grounds at our leisure. The great surprise was I ran into my friend Laura Kohler, who just graduated with her PhD in May from CU and now works for CAWST, a Canadian NGO that is doing some capacity-building research and collaboration with organizations here in India. We’d been trying to meet up for dinner while I was in Delhi but typical India prevented this from happening, and instead chose to facilitate a surprise encounter at 5:45 am at the Taj Mahal. Within one minute of us leaving the Taj Mahal itself, I started feeling terrible and successfully threw up in a second Wonder of the World (re: Machu Picchu circa 2013). We managed to make it to a hotel, whose terrace restaurant overlooked the Taj Mahal, and I survived a full four minutes on the roof before deciding to pay everything to book a room for four hours to lie down and wait until we returned to Delhi. I’m positive this is the seediest, lowest quality hotel I’ve ever stayed in, including even that one bungalow I once stayed in in Thailand with a 4 foot hole underneath the bed…The bed itself was very damp because the roof was leaking and so the tiled floor was also soaked. The AC unit didn’t work, which was sometimes a God-send to my fever and sometimes hellish torture. The toilet also didn’t flush, which really was more of an unfortunate circumstance for whoever had to then observe my stomach’s deposits. But, it also saved my life since it meant I got to be horizontal for a bit. Also has anyone ever had their hands levitate? I probably was completely hallucinating in my sick, delirious state, but at one point my hands were just rising in the air and I couldn’t stop them with all of my feeble efforts. So strange. Anyway, Malte ended up being a true savior and came back to the hotel with fever breaking meds that I could take on an empty stomach and force-fed me weird electrolyte mixtures highly reminiscent of public pool flavor. We made it back half-alive to Delhi where I lay horizontal for another hour before piling myself into a cab and then onto a plane back to Bangalore. I successfully made it home to Bangalore and recovered after another full day in bed. Our sweet cleaning lady Aka was so shocked to see me still laying in bed at eleven in the morning and then stayed to watch an episode of Friends with me, mostly I think because she was fascinated by seeing people speaking in English emanating from my phone.

Overall, really successful first trip to Delhi.

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