Paul Colombini

Paul Colombini (Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group): Paul graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a BA in art history and a BS in international business. He also taught English abroad for several years, first in Japan and then in China. At the time of his fellowship, Paul was studying for a Masters in international development at The American University in Washington, DC. After his fellowship, Paul wrote: "This experience helped me understand India and Indian society and also gave me a greater appreciation of the enormous difficulties of development and grassroots efforts in particular."

The Delhi Commute & Paul in the Time of Cholera

30 May

The Delhi Commute

[youtube]–NnEZSlWR8[/youtube] Video footage of my auto rickshaw commute through the narrow streets of the Paharganj Bazaar in Delhi

View from the shotgun seat of a Delhi public bus… note the hindu statue on the dashboard

“To Lajpat Nagar?” I enquired of the driver through his open window. “Yes, goes” he replied, beckoning me to climb on. My commute to work then began as I boarded the big, rickety green bus labeled 455, one of dozens of similar buses idling in front of New Delhi Train Station. I was relieved to find myself only the second passenger and the driver offered me the “shotgun” seat next to him, which I gladly accepted. Fifteen minutes later the bus started off on its journey to the Southern part of Delhi, but before picking up speed the driver spent about thirty minutes creeping along the streets calling out the destinations so as to completely fill the bus with passengers; a common practice in many developing countries. It was during this time that a loud obnoxious drunk man decided to sit next to me and introduced himself: “I am condom!” he firmly declared. For the next ten minutes he proceeded to badger me in an incomprehensible mix of English and Hindi, the gist being that I should find a way to bring him to the USA. “In my bag?” I suggested, pointing to my backpack. Evidently he didn’t find this amusing and eventually stopped talking to me.

Drunken guy on the 8:00 AM bus who demanded I take a picture of him

For the last week I’ve been commuting each day from Hotel The Hash; a very cheap guesthouse where I’ve been staying for about $7 a night; to the Chintan office via either bus or auto-rickshaw. The Hotel is located just off the Paharganj Bazaar, a giant, filthy, fascinating market street which begins in front of New Delhi train station. I settled on the room on the night of my arrival because it was the cheapest I could find, but it has turned out to be satisfactory. The only problem is the distance: Paharganj is on the opposite side of the city from Chitan, which is located in the more fashionable Lajpat Nagar district. My only choices for commuting are the bus or an auto rickshaw, with the bus costing about 25 cents and the auto rickshaw costing about $2 each way. While riding the bus is something of a social experience (as described above, although I have also met really cool people on the bus), taking an autoricksaw is nothing short of a terrifying adrenaline rush, as the driver plunges into fierce Delhi traffic at 40 MPH, tearing between invisible lanes and passing larger cars, trucks and buses in tight maneuvers. The auto rickshaw takes less than half as much time as the bus.

Driver’s eye view from the inside of an auto rickshaw

Paul in the Time of Cholera

I knew stomach problems were almost inevitable this summer, but I hadn’t expected to get them so soon or with such ferocity. I’m not sure precisely what caused it; it could have been a meal I ate with an Indian friend in a cheap restaurant by the train station (the food was excellent, but the conditions were unsanitary); or it could have been a glass of water which I drank at a real-estate agent’s office, which he assured me was filtered (but perhaps the glass had just been washed in tap water). In any case, it began this past Wednesday evening as I was eating dinner with fellow Chintan interns Melissa and Justin, only to discover that I had absolutely no appetite and felt nauseous. When I returned to my hotel room the bug kicked in full swing, and I was unable to sleep all night due to the intense stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Around midnight I went down to the front desk to ask about seeing a doctor, but was told I would have to wait until the morning. The next nine hours were excruciating: I grew feverish and delusional and started yelling random things, which I expect were probably incomprehensible. The next morning I woke up feeling slightly better but still quite sick; I asked a bicycle rickshaw wallah to take me to the nearest private doctor, which he did. Private doctors in India are wonderful because they can see you immediately without an appointment, are well trained, and extremely cheap (this visit cost $3.50). The doctor looked me over and asked about my symptoms, quickly concluding that I had drunk microbe-infested water and proscribing the appropriate drugs. The four kinds of drugs he perscibed cost a total of $4.00, demonstrating how ridiculously over-priced medicine is in the USA.

I’ve gained two bits of wisdom from experience: one is to never drink any water but bottled water (which I was already trying to do), and the other is a greater appreciation for the suffering of the hundreds of millions of poor people who do not have access to clean water. People in many parts of India, Africa and other areas suffer diarrhea, parasites and often deadly stomach infections as a result of drinking feces-infested water. According to the World Health Organization, 80% of diseases in India are caused by water-borne diseases, which are directly related to improper sewage disposal.

Most people in India don’t have the money to either buy bottled water or see a doctor; in this sense I felt blessed even in my terrible condition.

Posted By Paul Colombini

Posted May 30th, 2008


  • Kristina

    May 31, 2008


    Ohh no! I’m glad you have recovered from your illness…it is just a matter of time until you start seeing stomach related blogs from the rest of us!

  • Amy Burrows

    June 5, 2008


    Paul! That is not fun.. but man alive, I know the feeling of stomach cramps…. and then you’re trying to wrack your brain to figure out *what* you ate or drank to cause it. In the end, you’ll never know how you got sick. You just know that you did, and how much you NEVER want to be sick again. 🙂 I liked your title “Paul in the time of Cholera.” Very catchy! Also, a nice reflection at the end.. we take our health for granted. And good to know that good doctors are readily available and cheap!

  • Amy Burrows

    June 5, 2008


    Great use of video! 🙂

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