Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Week 1

This first week in Delhi has been a bit of a waiting period. The first 4 days I was here, I did not really know anyone. I arrived on a Wednesday night, and first visited my NGO (Shakti Shalini, a women's rights NGO that focuses on domestic violence) on Friday. However, my primary contact was not in the office that day, so I was told to come back on Monday. This meant I had the weekend to myself. I chose to wander around the old tombs that are close to where I am staying on Saturday. I visited Humayan's tomb, which is apparently the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. It was absolutely incredible, but also incredibly hot. I barely made it up the stairs of the tomb without falling right over...

By the time Monday rolled around, I was more than ready to meet new people and get to work (doing what, I wasn't so sure). I went back to Shakti Shalini and met with everyone as they arrived (everything seems to start about 2-3 hours after it's meant to around here...something that is actually very much my style). Unfortunately, we have found that the language barrier is really...well...a barrier. Many of the women in the office know only a few phrases in English and I don't know any Hindi. Luckily, there is a girl my age, named Sakshi, that is also interning at the NGO, and she speaks excellent English, and has become a very good friend.

The two of us have embarked on a very excited project. We are going to be working in a community called Nehru Nagar, researching the effects of gender in the community. It is a very broad question, but we are breaking it down into many different topics (education, reproductive health, domestic violence) and will be holding meetings with the girls in the community to talk about these things. We really just want these meetings to be fun discussions with the girls in the communities, and eventually serve as a form of consciousness-raising, once they start to see that many are facing similar situations.
Our hope is that these discussions will be able to continue once we are no longer in the community, and form into a women's group.

I am very excited about what's to come, and hope that it works!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Day 23: Only four more days left!

After this weekend’s epic journey we decided to have a more chill day. Erica stayed home sick while Mitch, Mike, Jon, Zoha, and I left for the Setco Factory at 10:30.

Around noon, Zoha and I went to a workshop for adolescent girls. When we walked in, they were doing an activity on communication skills. However we were so tired that our communication skills were sub-par and we spent most of our time quietly sitting with the girls while they cut out pictures from magazines and wrote down the emotions of the people in the pictures. After that activity we left for lunch at the factory.

After lunch, the boys (Jon, Mitch, Viral, and Mike) went to Dolatpura to talk to some of the men of the town to try to set up a formal interview. There were a bunch of kids and teenagers hanging out at the end of the street and they invited the boys over to talk. They talked about our weekend adventure to Gir and showed them some pictures, and then they got to talking about the town drainage system. Few days before we checked out the drains and noticed a lot of blockage and debris. Sangeeta Ben, in our formal interview with her, also talked about how waste water removal is a big problem. But when the team asked the boys on the street, they said they thought it was clean. According to Mike, it seemed like the people of the village have better things to do than worry about junk in the drainage system. Apparently, it is the local government’s job to clean it. Prakash said that the government came by only six days ago to clean the streets, but the drains looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in at least a month. They walked down the road to where some bricks were sitting in the drain. When the team asked about that, the villagers explained that whoever put the bricks there didn’t want their neighbor’s dirty water passing in front of their house. The team asked about what Prakash did with his wastewater. He has his own drainage ditch that goes into fields to which he adds boric acid to kill insects.

The team also asked about Prakash’s wood stove which sits outside under a thatched roof in the back of their house. The ceiling was blackened and Prakash said he had to replace it once a year. They asked if he was bothered by the smoke and he replied that it was only bad for about the first five minutes, but otherwise it doesn’t bother him much. They also asked him if he cooked and he said he didn’t. When we talked to another woman she said that the smoke from cooking really bothered the eyes and lungs. We are starting to see a disconnect between the men and women with what they think the biggest problems in the town are. It’s something we’ve been warned about so we will be looking into it more throughout the rest of the week.

With only four days left, our trip is nearing an end. The pressure is now on to find a solid project idea to pitch to the Setco Foundation. Ever since we started focusing on a small community we have been able to more accurately pinpoint needs in the community. I’m waiting for that eureka moment when we figure out exactly the problem we want to tackle. I feel pretty confident that it will come, the way things are going. We’re getting a lot better at asking questions and people are become more comfortable in talking to us.


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Saturday, May 24, 2014

One week in

It has been one week now since arriving in India. I am currently working on a Public Goods Game experiment with the research and development team, which consists of 3 other interns from India, the department head, and myself. I knew I would have difficulty outside the office due to not knowing Hindi or Gujarati (though I am learning, 'pett bhraygyu' has been my most common phrase which translates as 'I am full' but I typically use it as 'Please...please stop putting food on my plate or I might actually burst'), but I didn't expect the difficulty in communication in the office because they all speak conversational English. Being the only one on the team not knowing their primary language can often times be difficult because they will, understandably, slip into Gujarati or Hindi or some mixture of all 3.
Every other Wednesday the organization meets for Wednesday Morning Masti at a complex by the river where Gandhi lived and led the revolution for independence. In a city where loud and chaotic are understatements, the peacefulness of this complex was a welcome reprise. Gandhi is also such an important man in the city's, country's, and the world's history that simply being there made me feel somehow more connected to all three. They have a guest speaker typically, and this week it was a man who had worked with PM Modi in the past. PM Modi has been a supporter of Yuva Unstoppable and the organization (and seemingly all of India) is very excited to have him as the new PM.
Since this is my first time abroad, everything about their culture is new. There is hardly an hour that passes without learning something new about the culture. However, I didn't expect to learn so much about my own culture. Growing up in a small town in the Mid-West you tend to think having a culture is something reserved for places like India, China, Africa, Europe, the American coasts, Mexico, South America...basically any place but the good ol' Midwest. However, after receiving countless amounts of questions about my life back in America, I realize that everything about my life in America is apart of my culture. Everything from PB&J's for breakfast, knowing how to handle -20 degree winter days, to going to Tiger games. Even when my mom taught me to wash my own dish after dinner so many years ago she was actually handing down a part of our culture to me, because it is not something that is globally done for males. Learning about Indian culture is exciting and I know my three months here will only scratch the surface but learning about my own culture back home has been an unexpected surprise. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

More Adventures...

I thought having a palm-size spider on my shoulder was bad, and the crazy bus ride was the worst I had and will ever experience, but I was wrong. Not only is Waste Warriors, the NGO that I am working with, is an organization that focuses on daily waste management throughout the area, it also organizes weekly clean-ups at major tourist spots by any short-term or long-term volunteers.
This past Monday was the first time I went to Triund, the foothill of the Himalayas, for one of the clean-ups. The team this time consisted of nine who were from all over India, New Zealand, France, and myself. As someone who has zero hiking or trekking experience and without proper climbing shoes, I was already struggling from the beginning. After about five hours of rocky mountains (two to three hours for normal hiking but we were cleaning up along the way), we had finally reached Triund, which is almost 10000ft. from sea level. The temperature dropped from over 25 to around 10 (Celsius). From there one can catch a glimpse of the Dhalaudhar Ranges (the White Ranges) of the Himalayas. Besides the majestic views, one technical problem would be the lack of a bathroom.
After the clean-up and the segregation of the waste, the team would usually start to head back at around 2 and arrived downhill at around 4:30. But this time, everyone was pretty pumped about exploring new places so we decided to go to Snowline, where there is snow all year around. As one of the (relatively) long-term intern/volunteer, I stayed with my manager to finish up while other people had already left. By the time we finished, it was around 5:30.
About 10 minutes after we departed, it started hailing. It was not any hailing, it was about the size of a marble. For some of the oddest reasons, the thought of retreating back to Triund did not even cross our minds even though none of us had any proper rain gear (although my manager had really good hiking experience). Part of it was probably because we just wanted to head back asap, part of it was also because we did not expect the situation to be that bad. BUT IT WAS BAD. I CAN CONFIDENTLY SAY THAT IT WAS THE CRAZIEST EXPERIENCE I HAVE HAD SO FAR.
For once in my life making it back was more important than taking crazy photos. For once in my life the only thing I had in my mind was “As long as I get home, I will not ask for anything else.” Walking in thunder and hail of the size of marbles while watching landslides right in front of me and had no choice but to march through, losing my laptop on the first day of my trip had reduced to nothing. Now I don’t know how I’d feel when I hear people complain about having no shows to watch, being too cold or too hot, or Michigan weather… Here I also apologize for the lack of judgment and responsibility to those who are responsible for my safety. At that moment I was unable to think of the best possible way to get out of the situation but to move on. I also completely trusted the judgment and decision made by my manager.

Coming back to my own project, besides covering one of the waste workers, I also initiated a new project for the NGO. After following the lives of the workers, I saw gigantic hips of plastic bottles and that water bottle is the biggest issue throughout the area mainly due to tourism. Because as a traveler myself, I completely understand the demand for bottled water which is supposed to be cleaner and safer. So I think it’d be nice to have water filtration service throughout the area as to reduce the consumption of bottled water. It sounds ideal but there remain a lot of technical issues such as preference of travelers and the conflicts between businesses. So for the next couple weeks I’ll have to sort these things out in order to have better ways and a clearer picture to solve these issues.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Day 13: Election Day!

There was a lot of activity on the streets morning as the vote counting began. We saw people sitting outside watching the election on the TV and precautionary police gathered in public areas. Elections are a pretty big deal here. The voter turnout was a whopping 66%--an all time high. The winning party was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with candidate Narendra Modi for Prime Minister.

Today I finally got to meet Urja Shah, President of the Setco Foundation. We met with her and Salma Ben and told her about our project and its progress so far:

Now that we’ve spent a good two weeks collecting information on local culture, water, and health practices all around Kalol, we’ve decided to narrow our scope to one village. We found that it is really hard to interview people when we attract such a large crowd. We also feel that we haven’t had enough time to build up the trust to ask more personal questions. So that’s why, in the next two weeks, we want to focus on the village of Dolatpura.

We will start off next week by asking people of Dolatpura some more questions about drinking water and hygiene, just to get acquainted with more families in the village. We also will ask about daily activities to gauge when would be an appropriate time to visit the community. Then we will give a more formal introduction to our project: telling them exactly why we are there and what they should expect in the next few weeks. After that we will continue to visit and ask questions. Once we establish a relationship with some of the villagers we will ask if it would be okay for us to join in some of their daily activities such as washing dishes or preparing food.

I think it will be easier if we divide into small groups. Smaller groups seem to attract less attention and it would promote more one-on-one conversation. I know we will still have to face the language barrier, but we have been getting really good at communicating with body language. It would be also good if we divided our group by gender, so that people feel even more comfortable talking about personal health. I have been surprised by how welcoming and open to answering questions people have been. I can’t thank them enough for taking the time to sit down with us.

A big part of our needs assessment is gauging how the community might react to a change in daily routine. This will become important when we implement our technology in the next visit. It will also be good to know how excited the community is about our project, which will drastically effect how easy it will be to build and maintain our implementation. This has really been a great learning experience and I can’t wait to get in touch with our team back home to talk about what we’ve found.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

On way to airport

For the past few weeks I have been wondering what would be the best time to write my first post. I think this is a great time and, out of necessity, my last chance. I have no idea what to expect and am most likely far less prepared than I think I am. But I suppose we'll find that out in the next few days.

Week 1

If I were to sum up my very first week in India in one word, it has to be "once-in-a-lifetime". But wait a second, don't you jump in and assume what I have to say for the rest of my journal is one of those overly tempting stories that would make you want to hop right on the plane, what actually happened is the complete opposite instead. It was my own fault, but it is also India - SHIT HAPPENS.
After almost a day, I landed on Delhi at around 11 at night, which I thought was a pretty bad timing for a newbie in India. Debating on whether or not I should wait until the next morning to take the bus to Dharamsala, I decided to just take the cab to the interstate bus terminal (I was told to take the bus but I decided not to out of my gut feelings, also because I was hauling around a huge douffel bag). Before leaving the airport, I picked up a prepaid phone and a prepaid taxi (one charged me 1200Rs and the other 600Rs).
After around 45 minutes, I got to the bus terminal at around midnight. In major cities like Delhi, the conditions were worse than what I had expected. Since it was already late, everything was close and the station looked empty, with only tons of flies and some people sitting and laying around, waiting for their buses. The next bus to Dharamsala did not run until 4:30 in the morning. Another thing that was easily noticed was that there was hardly any women on the street, let alone girls who were on their own. How I actually got around feeling safe was that I was a "guy" the whole time in Delhi (as a safety measure I shaved my hair and sort of pulled off as a guy). Much to my speculation, everybody at the station were staring at me because 1) they were skeptical about my gender. 2) I looked like a little boy who would not usually travel alone at this hour. 3) I was the only foreigner.
With zero Hindi, I asked around where to get the right tickets like an absolutely crazy illiterate.
After 4 hours of waiting accompanied by my flying buddies, the bus finally came. I could not find the proper words to describe the vehicle - any parts could have fallen off at any time. Beyond being exhausted, I couldn't care less. I JUST WANT TO GET TO MY FINAL DESTINATION ASAP (later I found out that it was a common bus that I had hopped on and there were actually deluxe buses with better conditions and AC, although I did not recall seeing such thing the whole night observing buses come and go).
Here the most heart wrenching experience was about to take place. After about an hour, half asleep, the driver yelled and everybody rushed out and into another bus while those on the other bus kept rushing in. All I could do was frantically repeating the city name that I wanted to get to. Fortunately somebody actually responded and directed me to the other bus. During the whole bus ride, people constantly cramped in and left. I was pushed to a seat by the window with my legs and everything else squished. I told myself not to fall asleep. However, I finally gave in to extreme exhaustion and fell asleep briefly at one of the stations. When I opened my eyes, the bus was on the road again. It was not even exaggerating to use heart attack to describe that infinite moment. My bag was opened. My prepaid phone and my laptop was gone. I told the incident to two of the guys that seemed to be more reasonable and knew English. I knew they could not do anything, but at least I felt better to have someone to share. They also helped me to call the manager of the NGO that I was working with and let him know that I was on my way.
It did not stop there. When we were about 4 hours away from Dharamsala, the bus broke down. Because I was going to the last stop and had a lot of things with me, I was not able to catch other buses that were passing by like everybody else did. About after an hour, the driver eventually fixed the bus and we were on our way again. From that point on, things seemed to get a little smoother. I mean, what else could be worse (besides losing my life in a car crash).
After 14 hours of cramping in the bus, I finally arrived at Dharamsala. Despite everything that had happened, the driver nevertheless showed me some sympathy and got me another bus that would take me within town to get to where I needed to be. Another guy also helped me to get a cab to finally get to my NGO.
So, before anything even started, all I got was losing my laptop and having my entire face and hair full of black dirt that could be scratched off. I did not want to admit, but I was never so helpless in my life. Day 1 alone has already sharpened my instinct and tolerance to the max. I never thought those things could happen, but they did. It didn't hit me that I was actually in India until these things happened. So for those of you who have not started the trip, you might think that I was probably stupid and it was only because I was unprepared. To a certain extent, it was, but I just want you guys to be more aware. So if things go well, great; if not, you will be prepared.
Dharamsala is a town where the Dalai Lama takes refuge, located in northern India in the State of Himachal Pradesh. It lies within the mountains at the foot of Triund, one of the hills of the Himalayas. The landscape is undoubtedly fascinating. However, as a city person who lives her whole life the farthest away from mother nature, the living conditions are yet to be adjusted to. I have not washed my hair and have taken only one shower in eight days (it was more like rinsing, they only have buckets). One night, I discovered a huge brown spider in my room that was about the size of the palm with legs stretched. I failed to kill it because it ran too fast and my broom was too soft.
Coming back to the NGO where I am working with, it is an organization called Waste Warriors that focuses on the waste problem and the management of the waste workers around the area. Since I am interested in documentary, my general plan is to cover the life of the waste workers and the difference before and after the help of the NGO. On a side note, if you remember me mentioning that i was a "guy" since I landed on Delhi, the manager also thought that I was a guy until 3 days later when I finally found a chance to correct him before it was too late. Not surprisingly, when things finally started to settle in a little bit, I got a bad stomach on the fifth night after I had a home cooked meal for lunch.
Up to this point, even after a week, things are still slowly settling in based on the fact that this lifestyle is completely different from what I am used to. I am still familiarizing myself with this mountain area and I have only covered an environmental promotion event and a cultural concert. Moreover, without my laptop, I was not able to start to work on a lot of things. So now I am still waiting for a chance to get a new one (the closest store is 6 hours away). Tomorrow, I will start to cover one of the workers. Despite all the discouragements so far, I am excited to see how things will unfold.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Fourth Day in India

Today was super productive since everyone actually had some sleep. This morning we visited the village of Dolatpura. We caught the eyes of many and soon had a large crowd surrounding us. One important thing we found out from them was that not all villages receive water from the municipality. These villagers got their water from underground. All of us climbed to the top of the water tower, even Erica, who is afraid of heights.  We got water samples from the ‘sump’, a ground level concrete water storage tank, and from the anganwadi. Hopefully this will help us finda the point of contamination. We got a chance to sit down in the anganwadi, and try out our Gujarati. I can’t count the number of times I said “Maru nam Brianna Che” that day.  

After that we left to go to a workshop for girls with Salma Ben. This was my absolute favorite thing we have done so far. When we got there we sat right down with all the girls and joined their session. They kept glancing at me and and giggling. I would point at my camera to ask if I could take a picture of them.

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After talking to them, we got to sing and dance in a large circle with the girls.
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I was really nervous at the start of the workshop, but I ended up having a lot of fun and I hope the girls enjoyed our presence. I can’t wait to go back.

At the water treatment facility in Kalol we met a man named Girish. Girish lives in the facility with his family and runs maintenance. The process was really neat: water gets pumped in from the municipality then it is mixed with “alum” in these larges circular vats. The alum causes (stuff) in the water to precipitate out and settle to the bottom of the vats. That water is then sent to a biosand filter. After that, the water is chlorinated with Cl2 gas. We took samples from before and after the treatment process. If we find contamination after the water is treated, it will be very important to figure out and fix this problem, since the facility serves such a large area.

After the water treatment facility, we met up with Jon and Zoha and went to the Setco Factory Canteen for lunch with Gayatri who works in the Setco office. I got to practice my Hindi with Gayatri and I was pretty embarrassed about how bad it was, but she didn’t seem to mind.

We debriefed after lunch, then Mitch, Mike, Priyank, Viral, and I went to the village of Gokulpura. We were invited into the home of Jagdesh and he let us see his water storage. Their home was beautiful: modestly decorated with a smooth, cool concrete floor that felt good on the feet. An elderly woman offered us water but I had to refuse because it didn’t come from a bottle. We told them where we were from and what we were doing. Jagdesh told us that when Modi came to visit, he just drove down the road and waved, but when we came to visit, we actually came into the village and into their homes. I think they really appreciated that we were there trying to understand.

We collected another sample and the villagers watched me as I plated the samples. We also got invited into another home….but I’ll let Mike tell the story:

We were invited into a home for a quick beverage and a place to sit. About 15 locals followed us in to meet us. The host was very nice, and offered us “bottled” water, however, we noticed that the label on the bottle read “Thums Up” (the Indian equivalent of Pepsi). Realizing that this was obviously not bottled water, Mitchell and I exchanged smirks, and tried to politely convey that we, being Americans, have weak stomachs and would not be able to drink the water. Being cultured, refined college students, this meant rubbing our bellies and yelling “no, no, julab!” (diarrhea in Gujarati). The room had a good laugh, and we were proud that we had actually managed to yell “julab!” in context, as opposed to in an inside joke.

So…we went back to the Setco Factory.  At 5:00 we met with the owner of Setco and University of Michigan alum, Harish Sheth, and we talked about the plan for the project. Mr. Sheth said that he learned a lot about India when he went to the states, and I think that I am learning a lot about America by going to India. Values that I held and never really noticed have sprouted from my hands. So many things that I am used to doing on my own are done for me now: Cleaning, driving, and especially speaking. I guess I have to find a happy medium where I can still maintain my sense of independence and continue to remain within the sphere of cultural appropriateness.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The departure date is getting closer, and the excitement is growing!
This summer, through the Summer in South Asia Fellowship, I will be working collaboratively with Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, a development organization, engaged in building a new civil society in India through its grassroots to policy-level action in Health, Education and Community Development sectors. 
I can't wait!