How to Eat Like a Dane at Christmas

“There is no word in any other language for hygge,” Maria says quite matter-of-factly. “The closest we can do is ‘cozy.'” The rain was coming down outside Copenhagen’s new Torvehallern food hall, and hygge, pronounced hyu-guh, was definitely not what I was feeling.

In the 24 hours I’d been in the Danish capital, I had become convinced at once that the Danes do everything better, from architecture to mulled wine. And, hell, they even did coziness the correct way (because the sun sets at 3:30pm and they have little choice but to hole up at home). I looked longingly at a gløgg stand just a few paces away.

Typical foods from Copenhagen Food Tour

For the first weekend in December, the lack of snow on the ground didn’t detract from my heart swelling for Christmas time. Everything seemed to have an extra sheen, from the glossy windows of Scandinavian design shops to the pop-up Yule markets. And there were evergreens. Real, prickly evergreens for purchase. Enough to make this Grinch’s heart grow three sizes in one day.

So, knowing nothing about Danish cuisine but pickled herring and a thing for open-faced sandwiches, I hopped onto a Christmas cuisine market tour with Food Tours Copenhagen

Torrehallerne Food Market in Denmark

Inside Torvehallern, the marketing wasn’t just humming; shoppers popped between shops selling everything from Scandanavia’s one fresh winter crop, kale, to organic wine and exotic spices. One of the glass and steel buildings held a full-on food hall; the other promoted products in small shops. Maria led us to a corner shop peddling food from the island of Bornholmer, a far-flung island south of Sweden.

“These are the inventors of our hygge,” Maria says, passing out paper plates with several small treats on them. “They had no choice but to become self-sufficient and make most of their goods at home, many of which we eat at Christmastime. Don’t be shy; grab a plate or the food will be nabbed by someone else in the market!” Starting at the top, we tried ground mustard spread over a flaky rye cracker, a sweet toffee and black licorice, followed by a lingonberry jam and a berry liquor. 

Typical food from Bornholmer Island

All this in under 90 seconds, lest a market-goer get a free sample. Maria followed up with a 40-proof grain liquor called Acqua Vit and a shout of skål! Oh, so that’s how the Danes stay warm in winter, I thought to myself as I shuddered from the taste.

Gløgg, an even more potent version of mulled wine, was ladled out for us at a nearby stand that faced a courtyard between the market’s two main buildings. The Scandi sort also includes vodka-infused raisins and almonds at the bottom of the glass, and I could feel four liquid ounces of hygge give me a boost of warmth as we tackled an outdoor stand.

traditional gløgg mulled wine in Copenhagen

Kanuts Kitchen, a free-standing food truck bridging the food hall and market by way of Viking-insprised dishes. The owners use only ingredients that existed in the first millennia – think pork sandwiches and root vegetables. We sampled aebleskiver, an apple dumpling made over a naked flame. Lingonberry jam and powdered sugar brought them into the 21st Century (and the food truck, which is a thing of its own on Copenhagen’s Paper Island).

Apple turnovers at Torrehalvern Copenhagen

aebleskiver Danish pastry

At this point in time, I’d figured savory treats would not be included on the tour, so I let my sweet tooth have a field day. Back inside the market, Maria led us to Grød, the Danish word for porridge. Smells of leeks and carrots wafted in our direction every time a frazzled shopper opened the heavy glass doors behind us, bringing in a gust of chilled air.

Rice porridge typical Danish food

She handed us a cardboard cup of rice laden with cinnamon, sugar and a hunk of butter. Legend has it that Danish children once believed that gnomes helped clean the house and look after the livestock, and grateful parents asked their children to leave them a small bowl of rice porridge, risengrød. It was probably my favorite dish of the day, even though my blood sugar was through the roof!

It seemed that everything I’d heard about the new Scandi food movement was wrong – we’d eaten porridges, enough butter to put a cow into retirement and had heaps of grain liquor. What happened to the fresh, inventive cuisine I’d been expecting?

Scandanavian food is having its moment of glory, thanks to the NoMa revelation in the early 2000s. What was once known as a butter-heavy, bleak gastronomic landscape was transformed thanks to local products, a focus on what’s fresh (again, just kale in December, often paired with – what else – herring) and the mastermind of René Redzepi. A restaurant of the same name – the hybrid of Nordic Food, or Nordisk Mad – is consistently among the world’s best.

Nørrebro Bryghus Brewery in central Copenhagen

After a quick stop for more chocolate and a spicy chai tea at an exotic spice market, we braved the cold once more to head to the Nørrebro brewery. As it turns out, the Danes begin their Christmas season a month earlier than Spaniards with the annual J-Day, or Julebryg beer day. 

Only on the market for 10 weeks, the special Christmas brew kicks off the first Friday in November with bars offering the first few rounds on the house. Nørrebro treated us to their version.

Dios, these daneses even have the Christmas spirits market cornered.

After two more rounds, I left the brewery and started back for the market, determined to find some food souvenirs and maybe another snack. Unlike most food tours, I wasn’t ready to roll home but had snacked enough to be comfortable. I did as Maria suggested – a hot dog on the street, mustard and fried onions dripping all over my hands.

Danish hot dogs typical lunch in Copenhagen

It would still be another few days before I got an open faced sandwich, called smorbrød, and I justified more than one pastry a day on account that a snegl was cheaper than a burger. After four days in Copenhagen, I’ve got little idea what the Danes eat but have pulled out Christmas cookie recipes for my family’s upcoming visit for a very Spanish navidad.

My Christmas memories as a kid tasted decidedly more Scandinavian than Spanish – gingerbread, warm drinks and a few sips of schnapps when I reached my teenaged years. Two hours and probably more alcohol than I needed at that time of the day, I was ready to hole up for hygge and feel nostalgic for my homeland, where snow falls for Christmas and it’s dark before dinner on a stark winter night.

Food Tours Copenhagen kindly offered me a discounted tour, though I was under no obligation to write a review for them. That said, I learned that Danes ALSO do Christmas better than we do, and that is an opinion Maria shares. Find out more about their tours in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo on their website.

How to

Torvehallern is located at Frederiksborggade 21, close to the Norreport transportation depot and only steps from Rosenborg Castle. You can find the Nørrebor Brewery at Ryesgade 3 across the canal, and buy candy in bulk at Somods Bolcher at Norregade 36, just around the corner from the market.

Have you ever been on a food tour on your travels? Do you eat any typically Danish Christmas foods n your family?

The Truth About Traveling in Sicily

“This is the part of Catania I wanted you to see,” the Novio cooed as we passed a fifth consecutive butcher windows displaying carne di equino. To be fair, I’d seen little else than the local airport, a roadside bar and enough near-traffic accidents to turn me off from getting into a car in Sicily. And now, before we’d hit the beautiful Piazza del Duomo or even had a slice of pizza, my husband had brought me to the back streets of the immigrant section of Siciliy’s second city. It was not what I had anticipated on a weekend I let him have complete control over.

Italy has never been to foreign a concept to me – my mom studied in Rome in the late 70s and brought her love for the Eternal City back to Chicago by way of spaghetti and meatballs and an addiction to ice cream. But traveling in Sicily is not for the novice traveler or faint of heart. I felt exhilarated as many times as frustrated and that it was equally the most beautiful place on earth and a dump. But overall that I’d barely scratched the surface (and one cannoli in three days is simply not acceptable).

The Truth AboutTraveling in Sicily

Sicily is like every place you’ve been, and nowhere you’ve ever been

I was unimpressed with Sicily at first glance. The chevron shaped island didn’t have any destinations I could recall outside of Palermo, and the little research I’d done online left me with only a few places jotted down on the inside of a book cover. I was willing to let the Novio recreate Driving Miss Wifey and usher me around.

After a harrowing ride into the heart of Catania, we parked nearly two kilometers from the attractions. The Novio led me down darkened alleyways that reeked of garbage and urine until we’d reached Via Plebiscito. Catania was shabby, with lopsided houses teetering amongst overgrown bushes and converted car parks. We saw no one until we’d reached the main drag, which, at nearly 8pm on a Friday night, was buzzing with commercial activity. 

Catania street scenes

To me, this slice of the city felt like the roadside markets of Jaipur, with butchers and barbers sharing sidewalk space. Vespas weaved in and out of the sidewalk displays of plastic toys and ripe vegetables. Shopkeepers yelled at one another across the busy street. It was as much Jaipur as it was Istanbul, feeling familiar for a city I’d only begun to know. 

And Catania continued to surprise me – its city piazzas had me reminiscing about its northern counterparts. Its shopping streets might as well have been Madrid or Paris. The pizza we ate as good as I remember it in Naples, fifteen summers earlier.

streets of Catania, Italy

The following day, as we drove to Siracusa and Agrigento, the landscapes changed dramatically, from neat olive groves that neatly backed up to rolling hills – just like in Andalucía – to towering hills crowned with castles. Sicily could have been Tuscany or it could have been the Côte d’Azure. It could have been the Greek countryside. It could have been Northern Africa. 

Yet at the time, Sicily was unlike any of these places as far as flavor and flair. The natives we came across were jovial, and we were never scammed or overcharged. I could barely find a place to buy a postcard. Maps are unreliable, and I found one person that spoke enough English for me to ask and be answered. Sicily is a little more “off the beaten path” than you’d expect, especially once you’re out of the ports of call.

Sicily felt worlds away from the Italy I’d gotten to know in three previous trips, anchored to the boot by little else than the common language and the pizza. It’s like the underbrush, or the boonies, as far as Italy is concerned. And for as backwards as it seemed, the way Sicilians live all made sense.

Let’s just say that when boarding my plane on Sunday, I didn’t feel ready to go.

Driving is like dangling your mortality right in front of the devil

I was clued into the manic driving practices in Italy when I was 15 and was nearly taken out by a moped in Naples. Half a lifetime later, as we pulled out of the Fontanarossa Airport, I said a small prayer to Saint Christopher.

Whoa.

If you’re in a roundabout, be prepared to stop. Don’t trust stoplights. Park where you feel like. Most highways are not lit at night. And Exit ramps are perfectly acceptable places to drive up when you’re not exiting the highway. 

Our Saturday plan was to wake up early and check out the catacombs in Syracuse, the Greek temples in Agrigento and the preserved mosaics in Piazza Amerina. Syracuse was easy enough to reach, but we’d have to return to Catania to reach Agrigento. After an hour on the A-19 that snakes between Catania and Palermo, we turned off just after Enna. As it turned out, the entire section between the motorway and the city famous for its Valle di Templi is under construction – we were driving behind trucks on gravel highways, making it nearly impossible to pass. 

Three hours after leaving Syracuse and air braking until my ankles were sore, we finally arrived, though we’d have to scratch the Villa Romana del Casale off the itinerary. 

Exploring Siracusa Sicily

That said, renting a car is far more reliable than the bus system, and there are few trains that operate between the major sites. I had worked up enough courage to take the car to Piazza Amerina. I got the feeling that the car was made of cheap plastic as it rattled and hummed to life. I immediately stalled. And stalled a second time, vowing to obey speed limits and turn around if necessary.

We had looked in earnest for a gas station when driving back from Agrigento, and let me warn you – Italian highways are not the places to run out of gas. Though I had one-third of a tank when leaving Catania, within 50 kilometers, there were no bars left, only a piercing beep every ten seconds.

Syracuse Italy

Like getting stranded in Romania, I was glad to not be a novice traveler. I remembered seeing a service station the day before, just past the turn off for Piazza Amerina. I was nearly confident that I could make it the 12 kilometers, but my heart was racing. I had bought data, so I could Skype the rental car company and try to speak to them in Spanish. The Novio was working until noon, four hours from that moment. I had a credit card to pay a towing company.

I watched the miles tick down to the service station, pulling up to a self-service station. “CHIN-QWEN-TI…espera,” I spit out, cramming my hand into my pocket and looking for a scrap of paper with the word for unleaded gas, “BENZINI.”

“Benzina,” the attendant corrected as another washed my windshield. Whatever.  

fusball table

I grew more confident in the car, taking turns past Pergusa with more speed, eventually arriving to the Villa Romana del Casale, my third UNESCO World Heritage site of the weekend. I’d long given up the use of the Italian GPS and instead used my phone’s. After an hour traipsing around 2500-year-old mosaics, I jumped back in my car, set to avoid the steep climb through postcard-esque Amerina.

I was again taken through dirt roads to reach the highway, convinced the plastic car would fall apart around me, cartoon style. I won’t even get into the thrill ride that was the trip to Acitrezza that afternoon – my eyes were transfixed on the GPS! 

The colors are more vibrant than you’d imagine

I was still in a haze from an overnight trip and two planes when I touched down at Fontanarossa Airport, and Mount Etna was veiled in its own smoke. After a nap, I gasped at how regal the volcano was, midnight blue against a clear day with smoke curling out of the top.

Sicily and Italian flags

Sicily has some serious bragging rights when it comes to the rich colors of its landscape. My book stayed packed in my purse as we drove through low-hanging vineyards and climbed steep mountains will houses and church spires dripping down and rolling towards the Mediterranean. This place is seriously jaw-dropping. The smoky ombre of ancient buildings, the dusty green of cyprus trees, and turquoise blue of the ever-present sea.

The outskirts of Syracuse, known as Siracusa locally, are nothing exciting, but its city center is spectacular. Once the center of commerce on the Ionian Sea, the city has 2,700 years of history and was one of the few places we saw Anglo tourists. Think cobbled alleyways, massive fountains and a spotless marble Duomo. 

Duomo de Siracusa

center of Syracuse, Italy

Valle dei Templi, which we arrived at just after 4pm, shone in the waning light.

Greek temple in Sicily

Valle dei Templi Argigento

And Acitrezza, a small beach neighborhood with port side osterias and craggy black rocks, enchanting.

port of acitrezza

I only wish we could have has a panini or arancini with these views!

Sometimes, you have to make your own plan

I’d been warned that Sicily was kind of a Choose-Your-Own Adventure type of place. Reliability was not necessarily something to be expected, and that frustrations were rampant. Because I hadn’t done the planning, I was ready to roll with the punches.

mosaics at Villa Casale Romana

Food was the first – I’d been on an overnight trip, and my cheese bocadillo was a thing of the pat by the time I hit Fiumicino and chowed down a croissant and a macchiato. The Novio had been raving about a pizza place across from the first hotel he’d stayed at, but the place was shuttered for the winter season. It was either loading up on pastries, or eating at a hit-or-miss restaurant down the road.

We went with the latter, and it was a hit. Five tables were crammed into what looked like the family’s living room, and there was no menu. We had four pieces of bruschetta placed in front of us as soon as we’d sat down, plus a plate of pasta piled high with clams, shrimp and fresh parsley, followed by a plate heaped with fried fish. I fell into a coma-like nap later, and it would be the first in a series of small victories that were almost immediately followed by a travel mishap.

Typical Sicilian Fare

The most notable: when we finally made it to the Valle dei Templi after several wrong turns, dirt highways and slow-moving vehicles (and maybe a few near accidents), I was over seeing Greek temples – that’s why I’d gone to Athens. At the foot of a ridge lined with cyprus trees, the columns of the Temple of Heracles pierce the sky, so we drove up the road adjacent to them.

“No, no, you must to pay parking at the next road,” a souvenir stand attendant said. There were bus loads of cruise guests and a very exasperated Novio. Looking at his watch, he announced that we’d never make it to Piazza Amerina before it closed, but that he didn’t care to pay the entrance fee for the temples. I suggested the castle at Enna, but he flashed his teeth and grabbed my hand.

Valle dei Templi walking paths

Construction signs blocked a walking path that would have otherwise been open. I devised a “play dumb” plan should we get caught, but after around 300 metros, the path led to the Temple of Concordia. We spent over an hour walking around the seven temples and the ruins of Olympeion Field, snickering to ourselves when passing guards and other tourists. 

Sicily wanted to play hardball with us, so we threw them a curveball and did things according to our terms.

Valle dei Templi Sicily

We got the payback the following day: first with my no gasoline coasting, and then in Acitrezza when we couldn’t find a place to eat, much less have a beer with a view. We ended up at a self-service bar with overcooked pasta. You win, Sicily.

Much like the south of Spain, Southern Italy is its own place. It’s more rugged, more of a challenge. But it’s delicious and sensual and downright different to most of the other places tourists flock to. I’d love to make a trip back – if only because I didn’t get to eat nearly enough.

Have you ever been to Sicily? What did you like about it? Check out my Bobby Pin map of the places I saw (and where I ate) in Western Sicily for more!

Exploring Chicago’s Old Town with the Second City

“You know you’ve really made it when Lorne takes you out to dinner,” Margaret quipped, stopping short for effect while the 25 or so of us leaned in. “I’ve slept with him before, but have yet to get an invitation to dinner.”

She was, of course, talking about Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live Fame. And I laughed. I was at Chicago’s famed Second City, and the satirical, oft raunchy humor was to be expected.

chicao's second city tour

When I was a teenager, I never once complained that my weekend curfew was 10:30 p.m. during the school year – I‘d arrive home, switch on NBC just as the band was finishing up the opening theme and grab a bowl of ice cream. Saturday Night Live was always my Saturday date, and I grew up watching comics like Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan and Molly Shannon personify the immortal Spartans, Mango and Mary Katherine Gallagher.

My friends surprised me for my 18th birthday with a pack of Marlboro Lights and tickets to see a show at the e.t.c. stage of Chicago’s Second City. The show, Pants on Fire, was politically fueled and so hilarious, I had hiccups that my virgin strawberry daiquiri couldn’t cure.

Touring Old Town

Back home this summer, amidst wedding prep, the city of Chicago has become my escape (and my sister just moved back!). When searching for fun things to do with the Spaniards pre-bodorrio, I came across tours of the Old Town Neighborhood with improv artists from the Second City Theatre.

A gorgeous Chicago afternoon, a tour guide that actually had personality and one of the city’s most emblematic cultural pockets? And for $15 a head, it was a Chicago experience I could actually afford.

Tour Writer and Guide Margaret started by asked where we’d come from, adding insult to injury when she found out that my sister and I are from Bibletown and cracked a few jokes (well deserved, I might add). Shockingly enough, there were 10 of us from the hometown crowd and, much like those in attendance on show nights, we were the most vocal during the 90-minute tour.

Improv tours at the Second City Chicago

Margaret herself is a 20-year Second City student who took an improv class. Having a sound knowledge of the theater and its philosophy, the tour started at iconic 1616 N. Wells just like any tour – with the company’s history and its philosophy.

The Second City came to life at the University of Chicago thanks to a few beatniks who used techniques designed by Viola Spolin, a woman who dedicated her life to helping immigrants integrate into mainstream society. The games Viola played, eventually called Theatre Games, sought to relax participants and teach them how to react to different situations, soon became the foundation of improvisational techniques (and the club’s improv school). The Second City opened in the Old Town neighborhood in 1959 under the supervision of Paul Sills, Viola’s son.

Twin Anchors bar Chicago

The tour wound around a few residential blocks, past balloon house frames, old brick churches and local bars. Margaret pointed out favorite haunts of troupe members past, like Bill Murray, who recently stayed behnd to clean up after a Grateful Dead show in town. Like many Chicagoans or people who truly love the city, you keep coming back. She spun tails of some of the more famous alum like Gail Radner and Chris Farley before asking the audience for their favorite members – and then told stories about them.

We got a bit more hisotrical than I expected as we stood under Saint Michael’s bells, but the history lesson intertwined with humor and anecdotes was a winning combination.

scenes from Old Town, Chicago

Old Town is about as Chicago as it gets (and the same can be said about Second City). Being a stone’s throw from the skyscrapers of the Loop and in the shadow of the Sears (the skyscraper is a Chi Town original), the neighborhood was burned down during the Great Fire, becoming a vibrant part of the Northside.

“LIKE A PHOENIX!” were Margaret’s words. 

The tour ends back at Piper’s Alley, a mecca to comedy lovers, where you can read hate mail all the way up the stairs to the main stage. But as Margaret mentioned, it’s ok to fail in Chicago. It’s ok to rebuild (or build bleachers outside of the Trump and invite people to watch). It’s ok to keep doing what you’re doing and trust that someone believes in you.

balloon houses in Old Town

And it’s totally fine by us that New York thinks they’re better at everything – it was journalist A.J. Liebling who gave us our famous nickname as a nod to the Big Apple’s superiority anyway. Pizza and hot dogs? Fine, we’ll give those to you so long as you let us keep the lake, our sports and the best damn improv theatre in North America.

The Second City Neighborhood Tours are held rain or shine every Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. Expected to walk about two miles, and bring your sense of humor. Tickets are $15 and reservations are recommended.

What’s your favorite thing to do in your hometown?

Take the Grilled Cheese and Run: How a Desperate Family Committed a Christmas Crime

It was on my fifth Christmas abroad that my father decided to make us accessories to a crime.

Since moving to Spain, my family had made the effort to follow me around the globe. We’ve spent Christmas with the monkeys on the Rock of Gibraltar, making gingerbread in Germany and visiting the cliffside Monserrat Monastery near Barcelona. In seven years in Europe, I’ve spent just one Christmas in my native Chicago.

But in Killarney, desperation meant my father had to pillage a hotel cafeteria for the sake of his hungry daughters.

How a Family Stole in Ireland

I come from an Irish family (red-headed, freckled and deathly pale are my hallmarks). A family that marches in local Saint Parick’s Day parades. Still has ties to the homeland in Country Mayo. One whose prized heirloom fiddle cries with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” at weddings. In fact, my surname is synonymous with Irish sport. The Emerald Isle has always been my father’s greatest travel dream, so he booked round-trip tickets to Ireland for Christmas without asking anyone’s permission.

But this vacation was doomed from the beginning – satellite photos showed the entire UK covered in snow. This meant a seven-hour ground delay for me in which my mom texted me, “R U hungry? I bought u a bagel” followed 20 minutes later with “Srry ate ur bagel.” I arrived famished and grumpy, and having not seen my family for a year, they were less than thrilled at my reception.

Dingle Peninsula

And there was more: the frost meant the pipes were frozen solid, leaving us without running water to shower or brush our teeth. Roads were shut down on the Ring of Kerry and thus rerouted us more than once, and sites that claimed to be open during the holidays didn’t bother to post that the snow had them shut down. My sister even came down with the flu and missed seeing Cork and exploring Amsterdam on my family’s layover.

But our lowest moment came on Christmas Day, where we had to stoop as far as breaking the law to save the holidays.

cliffs of moher

Christmas Eve dawned bright but cold in Galway on a bustling shopping day. We awed at the Cliffs of Moher before heading to Limerick for the night. After we shared a hearty Christmas meal, my dad and I went to the bar for a drink. My vision suddenly became cloudy and my head began to pound.

Apart from inheriting a love of beer from my Irish father, I also got his tendency to get sinus infections while traveling. I called it an early night and hoped to be over it the next morning (because I also, luckily, got my mother’s iron immune system).

Having plowed through Angela’s Ashes on the long flight delay, I was eager to walk around Limerick that morning before setting off for the Dingle Peninsula. It was just as desolate and depressing as Frank McCourt describes – the morning still was interrupted by an occasional car passing by, or the honk of a goose. Squat, dilapidated houses lined the “historic” quarter.

Limerick Ireland

My dad chucked his map in a nearby bin, and we chucked the city.

Climbing into the car, I warned my family that we’d have trouble finding a place to eat on Christmas Day. Dad came to the rescue with a gas station English breakfast – soggy hash browns, pale grey sausages and a pack of cookies for good measure.

The ride around the damp Dingle Peninsula that morning was torture: every pothole sent a jolt of pain through my head and any time we stopped, I’d have to be coaxed out of the car. I grew hungry and restless to just stop somewhere and have something warm to drink, but storefronts were dark and the nearest gas station was back in Limerick. 

Galway Ireland

If I was grumpy and starving, my sister was far beyond that point. We passed the majority of the day in absolute silence.

Driving into Killarney, Mom spotted a sign for McDonald’s. “Don!” she squealed, “TURN AROUND! McDonalds will surely be open!”

After another strike, my dad pulled into a hotel nearby. We kept the car running to stay warm, but it took him 20 minutes to return.

He handed us each a Styrofoam plate with a steaming grilled cheese and french fries. “I told them we were guests at the hotel and that I’d check in once we ate, and they allowed me into the kitchen to make sandwiches,” he snickered as he put the car into first and sped off.

Guinness in Ireland

As I ate a tasteless grilled cheese and some cold french fries once we had safely escaped the scene of the crime. I smiled at my father, who was rifling through his suitcase for some more sinus congestion pills. 

Even at the most desperate of moments (and the most disastrous of family vacations), I knew my father would do anything for us, particularly if it included a good story and a plate of food.

Have you ever done anything desperate on your travels?

Yes, Boss! : On Learning to Drive a Tuk Tuk in India

“Ok Boss, you take over now.” Mukul grinned widely as he took his hands off of the glorified bike handlebars that constitute the steering wheel, ignition and gas pedal of a tuk tuk, and motioned for me to take over. We were in the middle of rush hour traffic in Agra, India (which is, for the record, every waking hour of the day in my observation). My eyes most have grown wide in the rearview mirror because he took over again just as soon as I’d shaken my head no.

A tuk tuk is a ubiquitous symbol in many Asian and African countries, used to transport passengers most commonly. It’s like a motorized tricycle with a rudimentary automobile body resting on top. We had been warned: keep your hands and feet inside, and don’t take any babies offered to you on street corners.

Tuk Tuks in India

From the first time we took one in Delhi – from our hostel in M Block to the Lotus temple – I was hooked. In fact, we’d skip bicycle-pulled rickshaws and even elephants to get around India, always amazed at how fast the little things zipped, and how easily they’d maneuver through traffic.

Tuk tuk drivers have to have their driver’s license, but you’d never know. On more than one occasion, I was nervous the thing would tip over (or I’d fall out) when a driver would take turns to fast, or that the whole “Oh, everyone honks their horn, even though it’s illegal” excuse was enough reason to garner a fine. It was thrilling but oftentimes scary. 


In Delhi, we preferred taking the women’s only train car on the underground, but gritty Agra merited a tuk tuk. Mukul was employed by the homestay we’d be staying at and offered to be at our service the whole day – for 6€. The ride from the station took ten minutes, as the road ere clogged with commuters in trucks, cars, motorcycles and tuk tuks, along with the odd cow or goat. I was impressed with how the tuk tuk’s three wheels could navigate roundabouts with no clear traffic signs or lanes.

“You see, to drive is so fun!” Mukul said. I would take his word for it. 

After dropping our bags and adding our names to an ancient guest book that registered travelers from all over the world, Mukul took us to the Taj Mahal. Built along the Yamuna River as a mausoleum to Shah Jahan’s third wife, the whole reason we’d come north was to see the building said to make the sun and moon shed cheers. He dropped up near the bazaars to the south of the complex and told us he’d wait there for two hours.

Visiting the Taj Mahal Agra

The Taj was stunning, just as I imagined it would be.

And that made Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned until his death, facing the mausoleum, all the more meh.

Deciding to skip the Baby Taj that afternoon for a nap (old habits die-hard, even while traveling), Mukul was waiting for us outside the homestay, napping himself with his feet sticking out of the tuk tuk. “Hop in boss! You drive?” he asked, stepping out of the vehicle.

Tuk Tuk Drivers

We again declined and had him take us to the Mehtab Bagh, manicured lawns facing the northern facade of the Taj. We admired the temple from afar as the sun begin to wane. It was one of those moments where the world seemed to stop and I found myself nearly short of air – it’s that magical, and I felt at the same time 8 and 80 with wonder. I made an announcement:

“I’m going to ask if I can drive Mukul’s tuk tuk.” Hayley gave me the same bewildered look that I had given our driver that morning.

Mukul was having a chai tea at the stand across the street from where he’d left us, chatting with other drivers and holding the cup with just three fingers. He immediately sat up, gulp his tea down and unleashed the grin when I told him I’d like to take him up on his offer. 

How a tuk tuk works

There wasn’t much of a learning curve: you switched on the engine, then rolled the handbar throttle to get the thing going. We tuk-tukked down the road back towards the Red Fort, Mukul sitting at my side to steady the handlebars. The cylinders seemed to be in the steering mechanism – I could feel all of the energy pulsating through my hands.

I felt like I was speeding, risking an accident (or insurance claim), like I could maybe take on the traffic on the ring road. 

Tuk Tuk Driving

Then another vehicle passed and I told Mukul I was finished, just before we found the Muti Mahal neighborhood buzzing in the wake of the elections, which took place that very day. Marigold garlands had been strung in doorways, and people were drinking fizzy water while sitting on plastic chairs. We sped past them, honking.

“Ok, Boss! Next time you come to India, you drive to the city!” he offered, but Agra was sadly a disappointment overall.

Riding in tuk tuks in India

We took one more tuk tuk ride with Mukul, from the home stay to the train station, stopping for a milky chai tea at a roadside hut. Ali would be waiting for us on the other side of  a sleeper train with a decked out tuk tuk, stories from his guru and the same large grin it seemed every Indian we encountered had.

When I think about India, I can almost feel the two-stroke engine under my butt and the potholes, just the same as I taste a warm butter naan or smell the sandalwood. 

The Colors of India - Tuk Tuks

On our last day in India, trying to spend our rupees as we suffered through a humid day in Mumbai, a street vendor on Elefanta Island was peddling small, plastic tuk tuks. We bargained him from 100 rupees each to 100 for both – about 1.30€. The toy barely fit in my bag, already replete from clothing purchases, tea and spices. It’s now sitting near my desk as a reminder of road trips, of awakened senses and that lonely road near the Mehtab Bagh.

Would you ever drive a car in a country like India?

Want more of this eye-opening country? Check out Learning by Watching | The Colors of India | The Hawa Mahal

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