Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sometimes I feel like I live in a circus.

This past weekend was our Independent Student Travel weekend. I had done some research on places around Jaipur to travel to, but nothing was really catching my eye. So, unmotivated to travel very far, I decided to just stay here. Fortunately and unfortunately, there was a crazy amount of things happening in Jaipur that weekend, so almost every single hotel in the city was booked. Instead, Mary, Hannah, and I decided to go to a village called Samode, about 40 km out of the city for a night. Samode was a really small village with an old palace that was inhabited by a royal family 350 years ago. Now, the palace has been turned into a really beautiful hotel. We stayed a bit out of the village in Samode Bagh, the old family’s farm and country house. Cabins with tent-like canvas roofs were all arranged around a grassy, treed area. English gardens completed the atmosphere, with fountains, walking paths, and badminton courts. Instead of car horns incessantly honking, I could hear birds. It was really peaceful: a needed break from the city. Inquiring at the hotel how to get into the village, we were told to rent a jeep. So we did. The hotel owner insisted that a hotel employee come with us too, so we were not only chauffeured into town, but had an escort as well. There really wasn’t much to do in the village-- we saw bangles being made and a gem cutter, but that was about it. We all agreed that the palace would be a great place for a honeymoon though. The rest of our time at Samode was spent relaxing. In the morning we rode the bus back to the city, trying to deflect the stares we got from strangers.

The Jaipur Literature Festival took place this weekend, as well as a pediatrician conference, the Jaipur Marathon, the Jaipur Heritage Festival, and a stone festival (not really sure what that is.) The Literature festival consisted of seminars and lectures given by authors and other intellectuals on myriad topics. I attended one very interesting panel discussion about Kashmir. Apparently the festival is a pretty big deal: it was swamped with people. Actually, the whole city has been swamped. Definitely the most foreigners I’ve seen on the whole trip. They hail from all over the world, but I’ve noticed many from England. At the festival, it was like a whole different India. The Indians there were clearly very wealthy, and the difference really shows. It was rumored that J.K. Rowling was attending the festival. I couldn’t believe it. But she unfortunately decided at the last minute not to come. Sad. Next year, I hear Barbara Kingsolver and Malcom Gladwell are among the authors who will be attending.

I also ran the 6k Dream Run that was associated with the Jaipur Marathon, which turned out not to be a marathon, but only a half. It was like no other race I’ve ever run in. First of all, there were 25,000 people at the venue. Either I missed the start or there wasn’t actually an official one, because as I got to the start line, there were some people running from behind me and some already on the course. So I decided to just start. I had to weave and dart in between everyone. The majority of participants were men, and they would start talking to me and shaking my hand while we ran. One asked me what I ate to get so strong, to which I responded “non-veg!” (the common term for a meat-eater here.) At the finish, I was the only girl for a while, and so I was swarmed with more people asking to shake my hand and take pictures with me. The trees along the road were adorned with bunches of balloons for the race. One man broke off a branch and made me take the attached balloons. It was overwhelming! I felt so famous, yet so out of place. But it was a blast. Now I can say I’ve run a race in India. And I have a medal and t-shirt to prove it.

We switched worksites last week and we’re now working at a government research facility called SIAM. We’ve been making various products such as juice and gel from amla and aloe plants. A reprieve from the poop.

We’ve been continuing our studies in sustainable agriculture with our readings and seminars. I’m so happy to see that it has been challenging many people’s views on the sustainability of their food. Local organic versus industrial organic versus corporate industrial agriculture is a main point of discussion. I feel like I’ve had a head start in this issue, as my family eats organically all the time and locally as much as possible. I’ve had exposure to the ideas and importance behind the slow food and efforts toward feeding the world sustainably. However, our studies have made me realize the true importance of it all. Without sustainable agriculture, how can we continue to live and feed ourselves? Industrial agriculture, with its CAFOs where animals are kept in confined cages and fed food that is detrimental to their health (and subsequently ours) and genetically modified crops simply cannot be our future. They are unsustainable, and thus by definition cannot last. The health of the environment and the people of the world are declining. It’s so vitally important that we become aware of what is actually involved in the production of our food. So many people simple don’t know the effects of the choices they make when they check out at the grocery store. It’s scary to think what might happen if we continue on our path. I’ve always thought that simply switching to organic was the way to go, the solution to solve our agricultural dilemma worldwide. But after some of our readings, I see that it’s not feasible for everyone. For example, in Bangladesh, farmers simply cannot get enough cow manure to provide adequate nitrogen to their soil. So what can they do? Using chemical fertilizers and pesticides provides for them in the short term, but ultimately depletes the soil of nutrients, forces dependency, and causes numerous other problems in the long term. I think a really important point to make is that sustainable agriculture needs to be exactly that: sustainable. It isn’t a set formula necessarily; it just needs to be good for our planet and us, to ensure long-term success. I still believe in organic farming wherever it is possible. So for now, please, support local farmers, buy organically and locally, consider everything that went into producing your food!

Things in my homestay are still great. Whenever Hannah and I return home in the afternoons, our host dad asks us, “You have come?” to which we respond, “Yes, we have come.” We’re trying to think of dramatic ways to change it up. I don’t really know why I’m about to write this on my blog, but I realized this week that I haven’t done laundry for four weeks. Don’t judge me. I’ve done some handwashing in a bucket, but who knows how effective that has been...

India continues to amaze, shock, confuse, and excite me in new ways everyday. Who knows how many monkeys I might see tomorrow. How many men will I spot peeing on the side of the road? And will we get evening chai? Vital questions. Who ever thought these would become usual, everyday things for me? It seems that the out-of-the-ordinary has become the norm.

Monday, January 24, 2011

India Post: the service for mail and chai

Everything on this trip is an adventure. Some are more exciting than others, but they’re all adventures nonetheless. The past few weeks though, I’ve been on some especially crazy ones. The first involved me going to the post office. Alone. With no way to contact anyone, and really no idea what I was doing.

For over a month, I had impatiently been waiting for a package sent from home to arrive (six to ten business days was such a lie.) I kept checking its tracking number to make sure it wasn’t lost—supposedly it had arrived in India and cleared customs weeks before. I was about to give up on it altogether when I decided to give it one last shot and call the foreign post office. I had not been notified that my package was stuck there because of “unidentified medicines” that it contained. All I had to do was go to the post office before 5 p.m. with my passport to claim my package. Easy. Or so I thought it would be.

We had a guest lecturer that day who spoke around in circles with a heavy, incomprehensible Hindi accent. Time ticked by--4:15, 4:30, 4:40—until I was finally able to run out the door and catch the first tuk tuk, getting me to the post office around 4:50. I was then directed around to the backside of the building and up a flight of stairs to the foreign post office, which turned out to be a few run-down rooms filled with men sitting around. I got there at 4:58. I gave my spiel to a man sitting at a desk, asking if I could please retrieve my package. Next thing, I was led back to a tiny office crammed with more men and had to go through the whole thing again. Their response: come back tomorrow before 2 p.m. But after waiting for that cursed package for so long and being so close to it then, I was not going to give up. I pleaded with them to allow me to get it, as I was only in India for a short time. Eventually, they led me back to another room and brought my package in. I thought that was the end of the endeavor. I was so wrong. They ripped open my package and started going through every item, asking me all of the contents were. I can understand why they would have held my package—protein powder and vitamins in Ziploc bags could appear quite questionable in a customs officer’s eyes. The men asked me why I didn’t have a prescription for the medicines, and couldn’t comprehend when I told them I don’t have a prescription because the medicines don’t require one.

“They are made of herbs and fruit and vegetable powders,” I told them.

“But why don’t you have a prescription?”

“Because they are not sold that way in America.”

“But how can you not have a prescription?”

“Because I just don’t!”

It went on like that for a while until they opened the Ziplocs and started taking the vitamins out. One man even grabbed a multivitamin, popped it in his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and bobbled his head as if to say “not bad.” It was maybe the most bizarre experience ever. There were also stretchy exercise bands inside the box. When the officers saw those, they picked them up and, after finding and reading the accompanying sheet that described possible exercises, began playing with them.

Apparently they were satisfied with my explanations because after a while, they told me I needed to write a letter to the assistant director of customs asking to release my package. I was then taken to another back room, where a man dictated the content of the letter to me.

“Now you wait an hour or two while we bring this down,” he told me when I was finished.

So I waited an hour, and then two.

It gave me some good time to do my readings for seminar at least. The men seemed very interested in my reading as well, and took it from to look it over. They asked me what I was doing in Jaipur, which prompted the whole TBB explanation (we are all too well versed at giving that by now.) Apparently it was also tea time, so they gave me a date to eat, as well as chai to drink. I was the only customer there. The whole time, the package was sitting about ten feet away, tempting me to just grab it and run. But I kept waiting.

At around seven, I was told that all I needed to do was give my signature before I could leave with my package. I waited some more, rather impatiently at this point, as a man entered other people’s information into a book. One customs officer started talking to his friend and pointing to my package. I picked up the word chocolate a few times and got a little worried. My worry was confirmed when he said to me, “the customs officers try your chocolate to see if it is tasty or not.”

“YOU ATE MY CHOCOLATE?!” I almost yelled at him. (Okay, not almost. I did yell. Chocolate is serious stuff.)

“We open your box,” was his response.

So, for the third time that afternoon, my box was opened. The man took out one of my protein bars and repeated again “chocolate.”

“Oh, no, no,” I told him. “That’s not chocolate. That’s a protein bar.”

At least they didn’t eat my chocolate…

“Protein bar? Customs officers will try it.” He told me.

Right before my eyes, he opened the protein bar and broke it into pieces, sharing it around with the other men. “Not chocolate, but tasty and sweet!”

All I could think was…SERIOUSLY? Is this actually happening?

Yes. Yes it is. I’m on TBB.

After that was all done, I was offered a ride home from one of the men on his motorcycle. I declined and walked home, carrying my package, literally laughing out loud to myself. After all that, it felt like a victory march.

Despite all of the frustration and waiting involved, I feel like my post office mission was a success. Out of it, I not only got my package, but some excitement and a story. I truly was able to see India up close and personal, in a very non-touristy way. On this trip, I’ve been questioning my status as “tourist.” I’d like to think I’m not when I’m living with families in each country for so long, volunteering and interacting with its people. But then again, I can’t escape the reality that I AM a tourist on a visit. Ventures like this, though, make me feel different than your everyday traveler to India. Maybe I’m just wishing too hard. Either way, it’s something I’ll never forget.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Over the Hump

I mean that literally and figuratively, as this past weekend consisted of a camel safari as well as the halfway point in my journey.

Last Friday, we loaded into a bus for a three hour journey West to the town of Pushkar. Pushkar attracts tourists of all sorts—Indian, Isreali, Chinese, American, European. Many Hindus will make a pilgrimage to the town to visit one of only three temples in India dedicated to Brahma (there’s a myth that anyone who builds a temple dedicated to Brahma will die…) and also to see the Holy Waters, which is what it just what it sounds like: a big lake. The whole town of Pushkar is actually a holy city, so meat and alcohol are illegal! In contrast to Jaipur, which has shattered the Disney-fied Indian world I’ve had in my head, Pushkar seemed much more like the stereotypical India I had been imagining. Narrow streets filled with old mustachioed men, heads wrapped in turbans; women doing henna; the sound of sitars and the smell of incense.

Arriving to our safari Saturday afternoon, I was barraged by the camel drivers, each one nearly pushing me toward his respective camel before I even had time to put my backpack on our luggage trailer. The camel I ended up with was draped with colorful, beaded netting and decorated with ribbons, fake flowers, and pom poms. I christened my camel Lucille, which I thought would be an appropriate name until it dawned on me that she was potentially a he. It remained Lucille though, because I really didn’t feel the need to accurately assess the gender of my camel. My camel driver, Nanu, was a little boy—he couldn’t have been older than seven years old. And it made me feel horrible. I’m sure he wasn’t attending school. But I’ve been debating with myself whether or not this is a good thing. An education would prepare him for the world and his future, possibly giving his family a boost in the poverty struggle. But is his job now sustaining his family? If he’s not making money now, will it take a meal away from a baby brother or sister? I’ve been struggling with questions like this lately as I see people living in extreme poverty along the sides of the roads. Either way, it was hard for me to sit on the camel while he walked through the dust, holding the lead rope.

The safari was two hours in total. It wasn’t the epic trek through a barren, hallucination-inducing desert that I was hoping for, but rather a mellow jaunt on roads through fields and rural farms. But, you know, I guess that will work too. We camped in tents that night, on cots with comforters. Actually, the only part of it that really reminded me of camping was the big, warm fire we had, which I sat next to all night. This camping experience further made me think about the contrast between my position and the position of a vast number of Indians. I am so incredibly lucky to have the life I do, to be supported emotionally, financially, and otherwise. And the sights I see hurt me. I know I’m not personally responsible for them, but it’s hard to reconcile the comfort and luxuries I enjoy when I see families living in the dirt, cooking their meals on median strips. I just don’t know what to do or how to react when children approach me asking me for “just one chapatti.” The IDEX employees told us that giving to individuals is bad, as it encourages dependence. It breaks my heart that I must just walk away. BUT, the point of this trip is learning how to be an agent of change, so if I try to look for the good in everything, I can view this as inspiration to change things and to somehow find a way to help these people.

We’ve continued our work at Go Sewa Sangh this past week, which has consisted of (take a wild guess) lots of cow poop. I’ve rotated through organic farming and vermi-composting, as well as the production and packaging of naturopathic medicines. We actually stirred the concoction of amla fruit and cow ghee cooking in a huge pot over a fire, skimmed off foam from the surface of boiling cow urine, and mixed huge bags of sugar into a vat of some sort of liquid. If I really tried hard to pretend, I could have been in potions class at Hogwarts. Wishful thinking.

A major cold front came in last week. And when I say that, I mean that it’s in the 60s during the day and gets down into the 30s at night. But it NEVER gets that cold here. My host mom told us that the last time the temperature hit 0 degrees Celsius was in 1905, and it got down to 1.5 last week! Whenever Hannah and I would walk upstairs to breakfast, the first thing we’d hear was how low the temperature got last night. We haven’t gotten many weather updates this week though, as it’s warmed up a bit.

The smells, traffic, and noise of the city have been starting to get to me, so I’ve been attempting to find ways to relax and block it out. Our daily chai helps (Sujith has started giving us a cup in the evenings now!) And lots of reading. We found a market nearby our house that sells Western snacks, so I got my jar of peanut butter and finally found some dental floss. Who knew it was so hard to find in Asia?

When Hannah and I got home today, our host brother called us up to the roof to practice for tomorrow’s kite festival, national holiday, where people hang out on their roofs and fly kites all day. I learned that there are two types of strings—a hard and soft kind. The hard kind is used so that you can cut other peoples’ kites down. But you have to be careful because they can also cut human skin! I’m a little bit intimidated by how serious people are about their kites here…hopefully I’ll be able to hold my own if it comes down to a duel with a neighbor’s kite.

I miss everyone lots and hope all is well!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Camels, and Monkeys, and Goats-- Oh My!

I looked out the window of the bus to see a camel, hair shaved into ornate designs, pulling a cart full of fruit. Then a huge Reebok billboard met my gaze: the backside of a woman seemingly only wearing bathing suit bottoms and a t-shirt. Our first bus ride in India, from the airport to the IDEX office, felt like a crazy dream to me. After flying all night and sleeping on the cold tile floor of the Mumbai airport during our midnight to 6 am layover, I was a little wiped. I was unable to focus enough to determine whether or not the things I was seeing were actually real, or abstract figments of my exhausted mind. Reaching our destination, IDEX, our partner NGO here, greeted us as their office with chai. The rest of the day was spent lounging around on the cushioned floor and having orientation talks before (surprise!) we met our homestay families around 5.

Here in India, we have homestay partners again. I’m with Hannah and am loving it so far. Our host family lives in Duleshwar Garden, which is in C Scheme (for anyone familiar with Jaipur.) We’re in walking distance to restaurants, two malls, and Central Park. Maddie and McKinley live two blocks away as well. My host mom, Reeta, and host dad, Rakesh, are very nice. We also live with Anant, their son, who I’m guessing is in his late 20s/early 30s. Hannah and I live on the ground floor of the house. Grandma (we don’t know her actual name) and Sujith, the housekeeper, also live down there. Grandma is pretty old and spends most of her time in bed but occasionally will get up and walk past the door to our room. We know she’s coming because we can hear heavy breathing and footsteps (picture Darth Vader in the form of an old, kind Indian woman.) I’m not gonna lie, it’s a little creepy. But she’s actually really sweet and will occasionally pop her head into our room and laugh or smile. Sujith sleeps on a mattress on the floor in the family’s prayer room. When we first got here, Hannah and I didn’t know the appropriate way to act toward him, since the caste system still does exist here. We don’t interact with him much, other than saying hello and thank you as we cross each other’s paths. We want to try to get to know him better, once we find out if it’s okay for us to do that… An outside staircase connects our section of the house to the second floor (where an Italian couple lives,) then to the third floor, which is where the family lives. Their floor is nicer and newer and definitely less dungeon-like than our section of the house. The stair case continues up to the roof, which is a flat, open space that you can fly kites on or do whatever else you choose. It’s so nice to sit up there on a sunny day, like I’m doing right now.

The past few days, I’ve been getting to know the city a little better. Turns out, the sights I saw on our first bus ride were not, in fact, hallucinations. It’s just India. Camels, monkeys, pigs, goats, chickens, and dogs roam the streets. Fruit stands and tuk tuks are everywhere. Brightly-clad women balancing baskets on their heads line the sides of the road. Kites circle and dive above the tops of houses. And then there are the less-appeasing sights, like men peeing on the sides of the road; poor women and children pleading for money, food, anything; piles of dung from all of the wandering animals. I can’t even describe Jaipur—the words that come to mind right now are vibrant chaos. It’s a big change from China, and has taken some adjusting to. For women, clothing is important to pay attention to. We are supposed to wear long pants and cannot wear tank tops or tops cut too low. Even around our homestays they advised us to be careful of wearing capris. For our work, we need to wear traditional Indian dress. So we all went to the market to buy our own traditional Salwar Kamez, a loose tunic-y dress with pants or leggings. They're so comfortable, I think I may start wearing them at home!

In the mornings, Hannah and I wake up and head upstairs to breakfast at 9, which is always followed by a cup of chai. Then we catch a tuk tuk in hopes of getting to our worksite by 10. That doesn't always go as planned though. On our first day, we got a tour of the city (and the slums) when our tuk tuk driver circled us all around and got out at one point to talk to friends and drink chai, and got to work a half an hour late. At our worksite, Go Sew Sangh, they raise cows and use their byproducts for pretty much everything you can think of, besides meat. They milk them; use their manure for compost, which they utilize on their organic farm; water down the dung to make biogas to use in their kitchen and cars; and make naturopathic medicines from the byproducts as well. For the past few days, I’ve been working on biogas. The first day, we hosed water into a pit of cow dung, which then flowed into a holding tank. An anaerobic process ferments the bacteria and a few chemistry lessons later the gas is compressed and available for use. It seems to be a very sustainable process, as they even use the left over dung as fertilizer on their farm. I learned that biogas can even be made with human waste! The problem I noticed is that it seems a bit water-intensive. 25L of water and 25kg of dung are required to make one cubic meter of gas. I’m interested in doing more research into whether or not this method could be successful on a larger scale. The next day, we shoveled fertilizer onto a cart drawn by bulls, which we proceeded to ride over to the field, where we’d unload our pile. The facilitators at Go Sewa are hilarious. Three old men lead our groups around and inform us on the various parts of their farm. My favorite quote by Dr. Bhundary is “age is no boundary, look at the playboy man who marries 25-year-olds!” After work, we always have a cup of chai.

For lunch, we head back to IDEX and eat on their rooftop. After that, we have our seminars or other afternoon activity. Dinner at our homestay is usually around 8. My family is vegetarian, and our lunches are vegetarian as well. So let’s just say I’ve been missing meat. I was searching for non-vegetarian restaurants all week that I could eat at on the weekend, and today I finally got some chicken! Other than the lack of meat though, the food tastes good! And of course, there’s chai. I have at least two cups every day, but I don’t think I’ll get tired of it! I hope not. Fun fact: chai is the hindi word for tea.

The weather has been cooler than we expected. It’s in the high 60s during the day, and gets chillier at night. Our host parents always tell us how freezing it is for them, but I’m just happy that it’s warmer than China! So far at least…

I wish everyone the best of luck in the new year! I spent my New Year’s Eve at the program leaders’ house with everyone else that didn’t have plans with their host families. We played games, watched a movie, and celebrated with poppers and horns at midnight. The next morning after breakfast, we even streamed the ball drop in New York!

I can’t believe it’s only been a week—there’s so much to tell! But I’ll stop here for now.