Horns, Culture, and Butter Chicken.

Standing on the sidewalk, I struggled to carry two bags packed with worries of my mother, the stress of schoolwork, and the preconceived notions of India on a cold morning this past November. After the prolonged goodbyes and best wishes, I sank into the gray leather interior of the spacious Collegiate short bus. Never before had I felt so relaxed. The comforting vibrations of the wheels lulled me into a deep sleep. Was this what heaven felt like?

After 10 minutes on the road, the sagacious Dr. Tracy checked the group’s passports (the group: Colin Berger, Sarah Newsome, Brianna Lee, Mr. Follansbee, Dr. Tracy, and myself) and asked me if I knew the location of my Green Card. I rummaged through my backpack and pockets, and muttered an expletive.
“Dr. Tracy, I think my mom had a switch up with the documents.”
I still remember the weight of the knot in my throat as the words rushed out my mouth. I still remember the one hour wait in the parking lot of the Wawa on West Broad. I still remember the relief I felt when I saw the pesto-colored Nissan Murano drift into the parking spot adjacent to us.
What did I truly take away from my trip to India? When it comes to travel, I should never rely on a woman who forgets that, when she trashes the house in search of her sunglasses, they’re on her head.

While the airline experience was phenomenal (8 hours to Paris, 2 hour layover, and 8 hours to New Delhi without a shower), I will be discussing the meat of the trip: shenanigans in New Delhi during the Community and Development Leadership Summit (CDLS) at Modern School in November.

When we arrived at the gate, I tried to take notice of the environment around me; new sights and sounds waiting to be discovered. I landed in a country 7000 miles away from home! However, I was immersed in a mass of smog, blinding me from seeing the weak infrastructure, packs of stray dogs, and homeless beggars. That night, I asked myself, “Did I want the smog to blind me?” I knew the truth, but chose not to believe it.

On a less serious note, the first words I spoke to my host, Soham, were, “I’m sorry. Don’t hug me, I am sweaty.” My social skills were prime. Since the driving age in New Delhi is 18, many of the teenagers who attend private schools have drivers whom they treat like family. Nevertheless, I sat on the edge of my seat as the driver sped down the expressway. Although there are traffic laws in India, not a single person follows them.
Speed limit 80 kmh? Might as well do 120.
No seat belts in the car? You won’t wear them anyways.
You use your headlights to indicate a lane change? You’re doing it wrong; you need to tail the driver in front of you and blare your horn as you’re accelerating into the other lane.

My host insisted that Colin and I not wear our seat belts, but a Collegiate education prepared me for the situation: Just say no. The fact that my host blasted music through the car made me realize that we weren’t so different after all; we were all teenagers who loved listening to rave music.

The first day of the conference involved a lot of ice-breakers; we discussed certain facts about countries, ourselves, and our schools. The importance of the ice-breakers was to allow the students to “indulge in the serenities of our different cultures.” I enjoyed the activities, but everything changed when we discussed Laos: when the moderators of the ice-breaker session asked for the capital of said country, I confidently responded, without a doubt, may I add, that the capital of Laos was Sri Lanka. My response resulted in uproarious laughter; did they laugh at my school name or my name when I introduced myself to answer the question?
No. They laughed at my extensive knowledge of global geography. You see, the capital of Laos is Vientiane (Yes, the name of the city is etched into the recesses of my mind), not Sri Lanka. For you see, Sri Lanka is a country whose population is roughly 3.5 times greater than that of Laos, on an island thousands of miles away from Laos. I maintained my dignity and sat down, burying my head into the program booklet.

The second day of the conference included sight-seeing and noting the wonders of New Delhi (Actually, New Delhi is beautiful and chaotic at the same time). The city has some of the most wonderful structures I have ever laid eyes on. Humayun’s tomb, a structure built in the style of the Taj Mahal, was dedicated to Emperor Humayun by his wife! The Taj Mahal was the reverse; Mughal emperor Shah Jahan constructed the structure for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Photo taken by Pete Follansbee.
Humayan’s Tomb.
Photo taken by Pete Follansbee.

Another marvel of New Delhi was the Qutb Minar, an ancient monument of my people, the Muslims. It is a part of the Qutb complex, a collection of ancient structures and ruins. The monument, dating back to 1192, stood the test of time; it has seen the Fajr mornings of Islamic prayer, the colonization of India by Britain, and the independence of India from Britain. The true beauty of the red sandstone tower cannot be captured in a photo, just as many of the monuments in India, or the world around us for that matter.

Photo taken by Pete Follansbee.

Qutb Minar.                                 Photo taken by Pete Follansbee.

The third day of India saw one of the highlights of the conference, a trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Let me begin by stating that whatever you will read in the next paragraph, or see in the following pictures, will never come close to the true beauty of the building. It stands for so many symbols: the flower in the desert, the consummate beauty of mathematical design, and the quintessence of the Mughal dynasty. The four columns surrounding the building are designed so that, in the case of an earthquake, the falling structures will barely miss the centerpiece of the Taj. When we got to go into the complex, we saw crowds of hundreds of people standing outside the Taj begging to go in. We assumed we had to wait for hours, but the fact that there were Americans in the group prompted the entire CDLS body to enter the complex in a matter of minutes. When I saw the building with my eyes, I felt the perfection of the Taj rock me to my core. I had gone from the city of Agra, a chaotic mix of cars and people and cows on the streets, to the most amazing art I have ever seen. I did not think of this disparity at the time, yet it rooted itself in my head; how could I see something so beautiful in an area so dirty? Why was the world so cruel, neglecting families the right to food yet managing to pay homage to an inanimate object? As I finish the my years in high school, I will carry these questions with me to college, and I will search for an answer. As right or wrong as that answer may be, it is only as powerful as the meaning I designate to it, and I intend to find the truth through my own research and study. However, I will always think of the Taj Mahal as one of the few buildings that moved me, that made me happy, that confused me. However, it was the first building to truly change me.

Introduction to Taj Mahal. Photo taken by Pete Follansbee.

Introduction to Taj Mahal.
Photo taken by Pete Follansbee.

Entrance into the Taj Mahal Complex. Photo taken by Pete Follansbee.

Entrance into the Taj Mahal Complex. Photo taken by Pete Follansbee.

Entrance into the Taj Mahal. Photo taken by Pete Follansbee.

Entrance into the Taj Mahal. Photo taken by Pete Follansbee.

The days throughout the conference saw many activities that united our cultures. We ventured to the Roshanara club to learn about each country’s culture, then we debated amongst ourselves to define culture, and we listened to lectures from some of the premier leaders in India, including CEO of the Tata group, Cyrus Pallonji Mistry. At first, I thought nothing of the events; they were protocol that we needed to follow in order to go to India. However, after a learning so much about so many people, I realized that one of the few uniform characteristics we have left in the world of growing individualism is culture.

We are taught to express diversity and culture at a young age; whether it was being proud of skin color or lineage, we were encouraged to stand at the front lines of our culture and spearhead it into the growing medley of American identity. As a matter of fact, the identity of America being a conglomerate of many cultures suggests that diversity is inevitable in our land. However, one thing that we are taught which allows us to remain a hodgepodge of culture is the idea of acceptance. Many countries continue to praise one culture above others, especially in my homeland of Syria, where Islam is the dominant culture. Along with being taught to be proud of our culture, we are taught to accept other cultures. Accepting cultures can be difficult, as sometimes they might differ greatly from your culture. Indeed, the main source of ignorance is the lack of knowledge and awareness of the cultures surrounding us. While most, if not all, of us at Collegiate School accept most cultures, some percentage of the American population will battle with this notion throughout their lives. One question that I continue to fight with is whether or not it is our rightful duty as fellow human beings to force acceptance into society where it is not welcome.

The end of our celebration saw another exciting aspect of the trip:
Coming from an Arabic family, I was prepared for the spices India had to offer. Whether it was saffron, cumin, nutmeg, or green chilli, my stomach developed iron linings that allowed me to tackle Indian food with happiness, and a never-ending and curious appetite.



My affair with butter chicken is one for the world to observe. When I heard of the inability for certain Indians to eat beef due to their Hinduism, I was a little shocked, but I realized that the cow was a sacred animal to them. I knew, however, that the Indian teenagers I hung around with loved chicken. When we first went out to dinner, they told me to “prepare my American taste buds for the ride of their lives.” When they ordered for me, I began heighten my expectations for this dish. When the waiter delivered the food to me, I smelled the heavenly aroma of the buttery sauce and the sharpness of the parsley. When I took my first bite of the chicken, I could taste the delicious creamy goodness that was the “butter sauce”. Then I could taste the chicken, and its ability to compliment the sauce amplified the sharp taste of both the chicken and the sauce. It was as if both the chicken and the sauce performed a dance on the middle of my tongue in perfect unison. Truly, I was blind to the power of chicken and sauces prior to eating butter chicken. Nowadays, I am much more appreciative of the idea of combining certain foods, which may seem like polar opposites, to generate an enticing flavor. #Ratatouille

As I wrap up my experiences in India, I want to take the time to encourage anyone who is interested in traveling abroad to do so. You will most likely miss a considerable amount of schoolwork, but the opportunity to experience a culture that is greatly different from your own allows you to expand your perspective and personality. In turn, a developed perspective will enable you to view the world in a manner most extraordinary. A developed and culturally immersed perspective can bestow upon you a rare vantage that many search for. Furthermore, it is not every day that you can travel to India or China and witness firsthand the traditions and cultures of that country with a host family. I highly advise every student to take advantage of the opportunity to travel abroad, as Collegiate also works wonders with students who need financial assistance for traveling.
India will always remain in a special place in my heart and mind. I will always draw back on my experiences at the conference, and I will continue to share these experiences with those who want to hear about them.

About the author

Mo is a junior at Collegiate School.