Dear girls on the metro,

I am aware that I’m white. And that there are no other white people on this metro. And I know I’m pretty darn good looking. But seriously, this is New Delhi- I’m sure you’ve seen other white people. Do I really merit a sneaky cell phone video? I mean, staring and/or smiling/giggling- not an issue. A picture…sure. “Look at this white girl on the metro! She is really tall! And pale like a sickly ghost!” But a video? I wasn’t even doing anything except reading. And did you really think that I couldn’t see? This is 2013 ladies- everyone knows a sneaky cell phone pic when they see one. And the lady behind you was watching your footage over your shoulder and grinning up at me. A budding Ken Burns I suppose.

Hope you liked my purposeful wink at the end. And I really hope that in India a wink isn’t construed as some kind of insulting gesture implying that I wanted to defile your mother or something. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t have winked?

See you next time girls. We both know I’m not mad. I already signed over my privacy when I opened a facebook account. So thanks for making me feel like Brangelina for the day.


Tired white girl on the metro


Photoshoot in Old Delhi

IMG_6131 IMG_6166 IMG_6172   IMG_6209 IMG_6213  IMG_6178 IMG_6197I was out and about in the winding lanes Old Delhi doing a photo shoot for the WHO- trying to get pictures for lead and chemical safety at a wholesale market which sells any type of chemical you can think of (although, to be fair, I can’t think of that many chemicals- chemistry was  my weakest pre-medical subject). It was a fascinating visit to a this Muslim part of town that doesn’t get too many foreigners because chemical market is not usually in the Lonely Planet guidebook.

From a professional standpoint, however, it was pretty difficult. No one wanted me to take their photo. This was strange because people in India have been amazingly generous about allowing me to take their photos, especially when asked in my special brand of Hindi/English/charades (Hinglrades?). In fact, some people are downright insistent that I take their photo even when I don’t especially need or want to. I will almost always oblige (yay digitial cameras) unless it’s a particularly insistent group of young men because you never engage with a manpack.

For example, earlier I was trying to get a shot of an old man drinking from a watertap. But by the time I had communicated my request he’d stopped drinking. A young man nearby saw me ask and eagerly jumped in to pose for me. Errrr, OK. Seeing this, the old man subsequently pushed him out of the way and started to drink again, even moving his hand to give me a better angle. Another young man attempted to elbow his way into the scene for a moment of glory but by that time I’d thanked everyone involved and moved on. Phew.

Back to the chemical market: no one wanted their photo. My companion from a local chemical safety NGO asked why and it had something to do with terrorism investigations and the police (like they thought we were the government shaking them down I guess). Not entirely sure but I managed to snap a few shots that should do the trick.

The funniest moment for the daywas when we were grabbing a bite to eat and I was washing my hands at the sink in the middle of the dining area (common here). I reached for what I thought was a bottle of soap until I heard some kerfuffle, and my Indian companion came hustling over: “no, no! That is toxic floor cleaner!” I looked over and the cooks were shaking their heads like “stupid foreigners.” To be fair, it was in a bottle right next to the sink and it looked just like liquid handsoap. It was like a sanitation boobytrap.Is there any end to the mistakes I can make in India? Love it anyway.

Independence Day!

On this day, in 1947, India achieved independence from Britain after a remarkably non-violent movement led by thought leaders including, famously, Gandhi.

We had a small celebration at work on Tuesday with traditional songs and yummy Indian snacks. In fact, the South East Asian Regional WHO office celebrates national days for all 11 member states because there are staff members for all countries. But our office is in New Delhi and thus there are lots of Indian staff members so today is particularly special and we all get the day off.

And me? I celebrated Indian independence at the American embassy (hah!). This was mostly because there was a security risk throughout most of New Delhi based on terror threats. Therefore, I tried to avoid any crowded areas such as the Red Fort where the prime minister hoists the flag and gives a speech. Instead, I enjoyed my day swimming in the pool with my boss 8 year old and eating tricolored Indian pastries. Of note: I am an equal opportunity celebrator, I celebrated American Independence Day by wearing red, white and blue and eating watermelon with a fellow American colleague- a tradition that baffled our Japanese friend.

But today I was feeling quite patriotic about India. It was one of those days where you just feel happy to be alive. And boy do I have a lot to be thankful about. Everything was cooperating: the autorickshaw drivers agreed to use the meter, the weather was comparatively mild, I got to practice some Hindi, the food was good, and I got to be part of a great family for the day. Tomorrow off to the sacred Ganges for the weekend. I’m already feeling sad about the fact that I only have a mere couple weeks left here.

Happy Independence Day, India!

Learning to tell their stories: visit to a leprosy colony

ImageIn addition to my work at the WHO I have been trying to hone my journalistic skills. At this point, that means doing what I do best: talk with people. Rickshaw drivers, my colleagues, fellow train passengers, chai wallahs, doctors…anyone and everyone. I spent an entire 2 hour car ride this weekend discussing bribes and corruption in the healthcare system with our driver. Today I stopped someone for directions…and spent 15 minutes talking about healthy eating choices at universities. It’s great. Instead of just being a really friendly chatterbox I can now blame my verboseness on “journalism.”

In service of this, I headed out on assignment last week. I’m going to be writing a few stories for an Indian newspaper called The Hindu. My first article? Leprosy of course. I almost laughed when they told me- I feel like I’m finding a niche. In search of a new angle I met up with Meeta, a photographer for the paper who served as my translator, and the two of us went to a nearby leprosy colony. (note: because leprosy is fully curable with antibiotics, people who live in these colonies are usually persons who had the disease in the past- and may have suffered consequent deformities- and their families.)

We walked from home to home and finally found someone who spoke Hindi (as opposed to a more regional dialect). I don’t want to spoil my story but we found an incredibly kind, interesting, articulate gentleman. He welcomed us into his home and spoke with me for more than an hour. I was captivated. During the interview a rat crawled over his wife, it was hot, and I was tired from a full day at work beforehand. But I could have stayed there all day. I was struck by his story and his quiet insistence that leprosy-affected persons deserved the dignity of work, no matter how humble the job.

IMG_4275While Meeta set up her photos I was led around the colony by an impromptu volunteer tour guide- an older gentleman who spoke no English but insisted on taking me to every dwelling and had me take pictures of everyone, young and old. When he wanted to get my attention he would call my “name”…”eeeleee” and (Hayley is hard to pronounce in Hindi) and off we would go. When the “tour” was over he brought me to his home/small shop, insisted on giving me tea and a coke and refused any and all forms of payment. Remember: I was a complete stranger, coming into their community, asking them deeply personal questions and offering nothing in return. I couldn’t even communicate without my translator, relying instead on the universal currency of pointing, gestures and smiles.

By now I should be used to this amazing generosity. During the International Leprosy Summit in Thailand I met Mr. V Narsappa, the chairman of a national advocacy group for leprosy affected persons.  He was diagnosed with leprosy at age 9 and was kicked out of his house at that time. He too spent hours talking with me about his experiences. At the end he asked only one thing of me: “write something that will help people affected by leprosy.” His injunction is one that I take seriously and it reminds me that be it medicine, journalism or public health…with great privilege comes great responsibility.

The generosity of my impromptu tour guide, the gentleman I interviewed, the leprosy patients I met at the hospital last month is so intense and humbling. They make me want to be a better person- more generous, more optimistic, more hospitable. In the meantime, however, I will just try to take advantage of this incredible fellowship so I can learn to tell their stories.



Our yoga class at Lodi Gardens (Photo credit: Adriane)

We all know that exercise is important blahblahblah.  

But sometimes when I come home I just want to eat a mango, read my book and bother my friends at home for a bit. Luckily, my commute entails about 45 min of walking everyday and my office is on the 4th floor (I am generally a stairs >> elevator type of gal). Also, the WHO offers yoga classes three times a week and I’ve started attending that. 


Another tomb where we did our 7 min workout (also not the right tomb for yoga)

I am in India after all and I would rather see the sights than pound the treadmill but I’ve been trying to keep exercise a part of my daily routine after work. I take the dog for a long walk every day in Lodi garden near my house and then do the 7 minute workout.


This was apparently the tomb we were aiming for. Maybe tomorrow?

This morning I thought I’d get up at 6 and go do some free yoga at Lodi Gardens. Grace, my incredibly kind friend who let me stay with her, goes regularly and gave me some instructions- go behind Mohammed Syad’s tomb. Well, let me tell you that there are so many tombs and ruins in this garden that I ended up wandering around looking lost.  A kind passerby saw my mat, my white skin and my confused expression and pointed me in the direction of another tomb where I saw a yoga class, joined my friend (she saw the same yoga class)…and then realized that the whole class was in Hindi. Womp Womp.

No matter, we enjoyed our breathing (but had to keep one eye open to make sure that we weren’t left behind- which we were…the entire class). We were hoping to blend (hah!) but one of the instructors kept coming over and breathing loudly until we breathed as fast as he did and until I almost passed out from lack of oxygen to the brain. We did have a smug moment during our back bridges when the teacher told us that our poses were “excellent” and we were “experts.” I would like to thank Penn Med Yoga and of course Donna/BodyTrio 🙂 

I think that people romanticize the idea of yoga in India but the truth is that it’s more practical here,  less glamorous but also less pretentious. No lulu lemon-clad lithe little girls doing complicated poses…more like a middle aged man with a small gut or an older lady in traditional dress breathing rapidly from the belly. We fit right in! It’s refreshing and fun. And when it came to the laughter part (yes, laughter is a big part of some yoga practices here), my laughter was totally genuine.  Here I am in the stunning Lodi Gardens in New Delhi, doing an outside yoga class totally in Hindi- what’s not to smile about? 

Next week I will try to find the correct (English) yoga class/bootcamp but for today, this was just right. 

Hey Laaadies!

ImageSo one of my favorite things about New Delhi thus far is the incredible metro system.  It’s sleek, has incredible signage, the trains come around every 5 minutes and it has a very convenient smartcard system. My commute to work takes around 30 min and costs 13.6 rupees (around 23 cents). This metro system has totally spoiled me and I am dreading my return to the US and its sub par public transit.

But probably my fImageavorite thing about the New Delhi metro is the Ladies Car. Not women’s car- ladies car. Because all the women in New Delhi are ladies for some reason. Only three years old, this is a part of New Delhi’s initiative for women’s safety that feels appropriate in the wake of horrible gut-wrenching acts of violence against women that gained international attention.

So the first car of every train is marked by pink signs and reserved for the fairer sex. It’s less crowded and FAR less smelly than the rest of the metro. Image

It’s very hard, however, to refrain from shouting “hey laaaadieeees” ala Outkast every time I get on the train. But I already get enough stares for being white and having blue eyes so I don’t think I need to add “crazy psychopath” to that list. But we all know that my inner filter is shoddy at best so you never know…

But what if I’m a lady in New Delhi and have to run to catch the train and/or can’t find the ladies car? Fear not, fellow female traveler. There are provisions for you in the regular cars as well. Signs and periodic announcements remind male passengers to kindly give up their seats for “the elderly, physically disabled or women.” Because, you know, it’s all kind of the same thing, right?

This ladies only concept has proved very popular and is very much appreciated by this lady.

ImageNow to end I would like to introduce you to my favorite subway sign creature: a be-snouted, afro-sporting, skirt and clog wearing man(woman?)-bear-dog hybrid: enjoy.





All ready for work in my new Indian clothes

I’ve arrived in India! As some of you know, my preparations for this leg of my journey were somewhat…err…complicated. Getting a visa and trying to find housing in New Delhi felt overwhelming at times but things worked out splendidly as they always tend to. So I’m not homeless! And I didn’t get deported yet!

Jet lagged view from my apartment

Jet lagged view from my apartment

Women selling dahl at my local market

Women selling dahl at my local market

One of my great sorrows is that I am not allowed to blog about my work at the World Health Organization (WHO). Because it’s already been incredibly fascinating and I feel very lucky to be here. Seriously lucky. And I have a supervisor who is committed to making this a great learning experiences. By my second day she has started to arrange a meeting with a major newspaper and TV station here and we have arranged a field visit to a rural hospital with a large population of patients with leprosy. But that is all that I will say.

Given that I am unable to talk about my job I will have to work hard to ensure that this doesn’t turn into a chronicle of my inevitable gastrointestinal misadventures. But even if I manage to avoid the salacious tales of digestion, I know it will be hard to refrain from talking about how hot it is here. Spoiler alert: it’s really, really hot. I was walking with the woman I’m staying with (an incredibly nice American who works at the world bank and offered me shelter just as I almost hit a panic mode) and she remarked that it was “pretty nice out and not actually that hot.” Not wanting to appear a pathetic, weak newbie I agreed that it was “very temperate.” Meanwhile I could have filled a swimming pool with the sweat of my pinkie finger alone and I was strategizing how many more steps I could take before I could invent an excuse to stop under a shady tree to “admire something.” Which I did and felt very successful until I realized that I was standing near a dead cat. Signing off now so I can chug some water.