Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Day in the Field

So I just returned from my second field visit. Instead of writing all the details and boring you and, well, me, I'll just put up some photos. A successful day in the field entails...

Going to your first focus group discussion way early so it's only 90 degrees. Make sure to bring three men who will work to piece together their English to translate. The women's houses will be made of desert clay of sorts that has sand and cow dung in it. The houses keep the heat out quite well.

Then you ask the most respected village elder for directions back to the cluster office. He got mad at me for not accepting chai with milk. Lactose intolerance simply doesn't exist here. 

Get cajoled into taking the MOST awkward group photo with the rest of the group of women. Then take my hoard of men, all wrapped in scarves to keep the dust out, back to the cluster office. We rode on motorcycles this time since no jeeps were available. I thought we were quite the crew as we rode around all wrapped up, skidding out in the sand, and with a white girl on the back.....

 Go back to the cluster office for lunch and while everyone naps and lounges during the heat of the day, I review all the interviews from the morning. One of my translators, Shrikant (to the right), came to check on me and took a creepy picture of me. I found it while uploading these to my computer. Despite his creepiness (my first night I slept in my underwear and a t shirt because it was really hot. He came in to make sure all was well, and talked with me for a half hour as I held a small blanket over myself), he was very helpful and had the most comfortable motorcycle. After a great discussion with the women on the right, I got on the bike to go to our next village. The women and men died laughing when I got on. As we left the village, Shrikant turned around to say "You sit like a boy, and now the laugh." Here, all women ride side-saddle on motorcycles. I find that slightly suicidal and terrifying, especially when we skid out driving through the sand. Women here do it in sarees, but I guess I'm just not as much of a cultured woman.

These last women are being scolded by the woman on the left for keeping their faces covered for the photo. Women in rural areas practice a system called purdah in which they cover their faces and don't leave the house. The self-help groups I was talking with are actually one of the rare times they can leave the house. However, since my translators were men, they almost all kept covered. The women above are actually Muslims, and they never covered themselves in front of us. It was only the young Hindu women.

Hope the picture helped to put it all together

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The research begins

So I recently returned from my first "field" visit as they call it, and I'm taking advantage of the time in front of my wind tunnel. The field basically means that I was outside the city living in a compound of sorts in the desert doing fieldwork, aka my research. I'm working with an organization called GRAVIS, which you should look at. The work they do is unbelievable. Seriously, click this. Their office is located in place called Milk Men Colony. Neighborhoods here are called colonies, which I find wildly ironic considering they've only been a free country for about 60 years. This colony is exactly what it sounds like. Nearly every house here owns lots of cows, which of course are allowed to roam wherever they please. The streets of the colony is exceptionally crowded with cows, more so than anywhere else in India I've seen--which really is saying something considering how much freedom cows have here. All day long, men on motorcycles and three-wheeled trucks come to this colony and fill up huge metal jugs with milk to distribute throughout Jodhpur. The streets are just a caked, dry layer of cow shit and the area smells as such, but it's a wealthy neighborhood because people value their milk.
Anyway, everyone at the office warned me that this ominous "field" place is quite hard to handle and really awful living conditions. The field office is about two and half hours into the desert outside of Jodhpur and villages are about 20 minutes to an hour from there. I think they were making gross assumption about my expectations since I'm white and all because the field was exactly why I came to India. That's not to say I was completely comfortable there, for there was no AC or water coolers and the temperature was a balmy high of 115 each day. I also had quite the interesting shower experiences considering I forgot to bring a towel. So I'd change out of my sweaty, sand-blown clothes from the day to shower, only to put them right back on drip dry while wearing them (I tried to pack light and had barely any clothes). By the last day I was a little sick of this process, so I decided to suck it up and use the mystery towel that was hanging on the door when I arrived. It didn't smell bad, especially in comparison to my sandy clothes, so it couldn't have been that bad? Without checking the towel, first thing I did was wipe my sopping face. Little did I know a couple cockroaches had made this towel their home and they gave me a nice scrub. Is it weird to say thank gosh they were cockroaches and not something I could have squished and rubbed on my face? That was my consolation anyway.
Other than that misstep, the trip was fantastic. For three days, my translator (she spoke about as much English as I do Hindi, so that of a slow four year old) and I traveled by jeep through white desert to get to these villages in the Thar Desert. It was like raiders of the lost arc, as everyone had handkerchiefs tied around their faces and thick sunglasses on as we drove through barren flat and over sand dunes to get to these remote villages. Once at a village, we usually went to someone's house and just started talking to the women who lived there. I had the director of the field office with me, so he knew some of the women and could arrange for us to come to their houses. These women are still practicing purdah, which is the women's behavioral tradition in which they cover their faces and don't leave their homes. At least 80% of the women kept themselves veiled the entire time they talked with me. Some of them wouldn't speak at all and had other women speak for them, especially if they had older relatives present. If a woman's husband was present, forget about her even looking at us. She usually just sat and looked at the ground or didn't make eye contact as her husband literally answered every question. At one point the woman's husband was facing my back, not even in the group I was addressing, yet he was still shouting the answers for her. After that time I had to ask any husbands to not be present, but that wasn't always an option considering that some of the discussions were held in people's homes. By the the time my discussions were coming to a close, the news had spread that a white girl was in the village, and almost every child in the village had come to watch. At some points we'd be a in room no bigger than your average college dorm and there would be about 40 people crammed in the space. Now since it was a remote area, I often ended up boiling the water available so that I could drink it without fear of sickness. I would put some of it in my water bottle to hopefully let it cool. However, I stupidly only brought my metal water bottle, which did a great job at keeping that water hot.So for much of the time I'd be in boiling weather drinking just about boiling water out of a metal bottle. Clearly I didn't think that one through very well.
An interesting experience to say the least. I go again this coming Monday to a different field office to do the same work. Yesterday, I bought my own towel and a plastic bottle to bring along.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What a new blog post?!

Finally back to blogging. I originally stopped when I got exceptionally sick and couldn't keep food down for four days or so. After I recovered from the fun incident, I visited a friend in her research spot, traveled to meet up with other friends, and then spent the next week writing my 30 page paper about my research. Once that was finished, I spent the next two weeks traveling around India with family and friends, so I had pretty much no internet access.
However, now that my family is back in Amrika and my friends are again scattered throughout the country and world, AND I'm living in 114 degree heat everyday, I have reason to take refuge in my room with my computer. Yes, today the high was 112 and yes, I was walking around in the height of it. I haven't seen a cloud in over 24 hours. However, in four days I get a nice little break with a high of 107 and partly cloudy! Anyway, I'm in Jodhpur, the second biggest city in Rajasthan. It's also known as the Blue City since many of its buildings are painted blue, and when viewed from the historic fort, the city looks like a desert speckled blue. This is my second time visiting this city; the first was with my school and oh how manageable the temperature was then. I arrived yesterday by train and am staying in a great little guest house outside the old city that is also home to a very small, grassroots women's empowerment organization. How perfect for the work I'm doing, especially since Gravis, the organization I am supposed to work with, has yet to give me much information or help me find a translator. We'll see how all that pans out.
It wasn't until I had dinner with some of the other guests last night that I realized how long I've been here. One of the girls has been here a grand total of three days now and the other couple has been here for a week. It was so strange to talk with them, as they were just freshly experiencing things that I had become desensitized to. Not that I'm any sort of veteran or connoisseur of India; I've just somehow just stopped baffling at all the cows lying in the streets. It wasn't until then that I realized how long I've actually been here. It's been almost half a year that I've been gallivanting--not really--around this sub-continent. Until two days ago, I didn't even have a flight home yet. Technically, I'm not legally allowed to stay in India until that day, July 19th, but that's another feat with which I'm still wrestling. The employees of the various Foreigner's Registration Offices I've visited are amazingly good as passing me along to the next city and office without giving me any definite answers except that the next office will definitely figure it out for me. I suspect I'll need to start throwing down rupees in order to get real results. We'll see how that one pans out too.
So back to what I've been doing in my cyberspace absence. Here's a map of where I've visited:

Took a flight from Jaipur to Trivamdrum in Kerala, the southern most state. Traveled up the coast of Kerala, visiting beautiful red clay beaches, canoeing through the canals of backwaters in tropical village areas and biking through Portuguese influenced capital city. From there, took a train to Goa, the teeny-tiny state below Maharashtra. It was the off season for this state which is crawling with foreigners, so we got to have the usually chaotic beaches for ourselves. Because this state is so small, we decide to rent a motorbike and take it to explore for ourselves. Bad idea considering it was made for two people at the most and we stuffed three on. None of us knew how to drive either and the streets here are insane. It was terrifying but fun, or at least I had fun. My friends took a cab back to our hotel. I had a terrific time doing it by myself then on the back roads. From there, took another train to Mumbai. Mumbai was insane, but not in the chaotic, over-crowded way we were expecting. It looked like London with tropical plants growing everywhere. There were black and yellow ambassador car cabs, gothic architecture everywhere and Indian food was actually quite difficult to scope out. We spent two days eating great western food, drinking real coffee and being total tourists. Mumbai did have its crazy crowded bazaars and an unimaginably large slum area, but nothing like we expected.
From there, I flew to Sikkim, the small state in the North East above Bihar. I meet my parents and brother there and we spent four days hiking and doing eco-touristic stuff. We woke up in the clouds every morning and watched them consume Mt. Kanchenjunga, 3rd tallest mountain in the world. Then we traveled back to Jaipur and despite all my warnings about not eating meat, my brother ate mainly chicken only to end up violently ill on our travel day from Sikkim to Jaipur. The day started at 5 am and ended at 9 pm; he had an awful time. Oh the perks of vegetarianism. So now I'm in Jodhpur, sitting in a tooth-paste green room without air-conditioning in this crazy heat. I do however this wind-tunnel sounding machine that cools water and then blows the evaporating cool water into my room; it's mildly pleasant and obnoxiously loud. Tomorrow I officially start my research. I arrive at the office at 9:30 and that's all I know. Here goes the last leg of my India adventure

Saturday, April 30, 2011

So in case you don't know where Dharamshala is, here's two maps that should help. One is of India, showing the state where I am (Himachal Pradesh) and the other is of the state with the cities and what not. I've spent most of my time in Dharamshala and just spent three days visiting a friend on apple orchards in Kullu. Unfortunately, I wasn't there during "plucking" season, so no fresh apples. Being an apple addict around all those apple trees was slightly torturous, but the area was unbelievably beautiful. In two days, I will head to Shimla to meet up three other friends for the end of our independent study projects.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

This is a picture of one of the women's self help groups that I visited. Just to give an idea of what it all looks like, sort of. We're sitting in a circle talking about the group and its effects on their lives. The meetings are usually held in school, hence the alphabet in the background

Saturday, April 23, 2011

One's gotta preach

The more I'm here, the more I understand the effects of the West's over consumption (particularly the US, including myself). I see now more and more the detrimental effects of it on the people of developing countries. Don't write me off as a Marxist just yet.

We have been told to reduce our consumption, reduce our emissions or make such and such sacrifice in order to save the environment and the world. If people absolutely don't have to change their lifestyle and they can't see the tangible effects when they neglect to do so, then they won't. However, the poor, uneducated and often voiceless rural and tribal populations of India experience these effects as our consumption destroys their livelihoods. I know, I'm sounding dramatic and riled up (I am riled up), but just bare with me.
So many of the tribal and village people of India live in the most mineral rich areas. They are extremely poor and uneducated. Big mining companies want the minerals under their land, so they bribe the government to give them permits or ignore their activities. But first, the tribes have to be moved. So the government tells the tribes to get out and they will be provided with other land as well as some sort of monetary compensation. The tribes don't know they have the right to stay since they own the land. Most of these people have never left their communities much less gone to the state capital to file for a land title deed. So these tribes are moved to land that is actually owned by other tribes or villages, which causes conflict between these people. The land is usually infertile too, so they're livelihoods are destroyed. The monetary compensation filters down from the larger government and each level siphons off a little for themselves. By the time the money reaches the tribes, that is if it ever reaches them, it is significantly less than it should be-- not that many of the tribes know the amount they deserve since they're uneducated and don't understand their rights.
Meanwhile, the mining companies are destroying their land to get bauxite that will be converted into aluminum. They will sell this bauxite on the international market because they can make a ton more money than if they sold it domestically, starving any local people of profit or benefit. The mining companies are like hit and run whirlwinds: they come very suddenly, use big, fast machines instead of any manual/local labor, and then disappear without doing any of their dutiful land reclamation, leaving the area useless and damaged.Tribes can't return and continue farming. And this is all so I can get my new iphone with cheap aluminum.

Then, in countless areas throughout India, and the world, farmers have switched to growing cash crops (cotton often). Many times, companies like Monsanto will come to poor farmers and sell them their genetically modified seeds that promise to earn higher crop yields, and thus more money. This is true if there is sufficient irrigation. However, these are poor farmers in rural areas who don't have complex irrigation systems. They rely on the rain and some forms of groundwater. Also, these plants are not as resilient to pests, so then farmers come back to Monsanto to buy pesticides, putting them into debt. Unpaid debt is a highly dishonorable quality; many times farmers commit suicide because of it. They eat the pesticides that Monsanto has sold them. It can be said that Monsanto is literally killing people throughout India (If you know nothing about Monsanto, look it up. Watch Food Inc or read Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy. Find out something because this company that is destroying domestic and international food security).
So these farmers don't get the high yields they're promised. What they've grown is no longer a food source, but a corporate crop. It has to be sold though, so they sell it and get a pittance of money, which they will then turn around to buy food that they could have grown themselves. When they can't afford enough food, it is imported through aid programs or from other areas of the country.These poor, rural farmers can't rely on what they grow to sustain themselves and then the aid creates dependency and brings in more genetically modified crops and soils that make them reliant on corporations.

And with all this, we are telling developing countries to become more like us and become developed like us. The West often projects the image of success as the ability to consume things beyond your necessities. If you can consume at a certain level, you are an image of success--you can buy a BMW; you can buy a high tech laptop. There's aluminum in the laptop I'm using now that was cheaply mined in a developing country and I bought it not for necessity, but for the convenience of having a smaller computer. People in the developing world now are told that their aspirations for success should include being able to buy a cell phone or wear good designer clothing. You should develop to be like us.
BUT don't do it the way we did because we destroyed lots of the environment and emitted all kinds of shit into the atmosphere. So you should reduce your emissions and develop in an environmentally friendly, but expensive, way. The United States will continue polluting more and consuming more than any other country in the world. We'll continue business as usual, but you destitute, developing countries have to make major changes. Half your people live in poverty and don't even have electricity from which to create emissions. We on the other hand drive everywhere, run our AC when we get least bit sweaty, and buy all the minerals that were unethically exported from your country; and no, we won't reduce our consumption of the earth's goods or significantly reduce our emissions. Except if everyone in the world consumed at the same level at which American people do, the earth's resources would be completely and devastatingly depleted.

A lot of the foreigners I've met here are looking for some sort of spiritual guidance. They want to escape the superficial lives of their homes and enter into some new kind of life that is more in touch with existence and reality. I've unfortunately run into a lot of disappointed and unsatisfied seekers as well. From what I've seen, this global escapism masquerading as spiritual hunger results at worst in individual madness, at best in an awareness that these life-changing gurus are little more than sky-writing, and that the mystic East could teach the West a thing or two about materialism.

Wasting here is just not an option, especially with food. You don't get the obscene portions they serve in the US. You finish what's on your plate. I was scolded incessantly for not finishing one day at my homestay. If there's any food left, it is given to the cows or pets. People buy milk almost directly from its source; they cook their own food instead of buying packaged and frozen food. They use vegetables, chicken, lentils, and actual food as their sources of sustenance. There are far fewer chemicals; less processed protein substitutes or any other artificial food. Plastic bags are illegal. People use newspaper or old clothes sewn into bags. Things are constantly recycled and reused. People take bucket showers here. While I think it may be a learned art form at which I'm still horrible, it does use A TON less water. I'm not saying these things about everyone in India; just like not everyone in the US is a senseless consumer. But in lieu of capturing every category of people, I'm making generalizations. Deal with it till the end of this post.

 Consumption can't stop altogether because then the economy would crash. It's all about the sale and purchase of goods. In my mind, more service oriented activities are the answer. Instead of buying a new tv and cell phone just because there's better ones out on the market now, why not fix/update our current ones? We're just generating more trash and consuming more materials by buying a new version of something we already have which works perfectly fine. i fall into this category all the time. I like buying stuff. I have high-tech devices. I'm just now starting to see the potential of my changes This is all too idealistic and undeveloped, but something to think about nonetheless.

Maybe people should just consume more ethically. But that constitutes more thinking and effort in buying. When you're in a hurry, or you really need something, you don't think about where it came from, the emissions produced by transporting it half way across the world or anything of the sort. You buy what's cheap; doing otherwise would just be a sacrifice. You're going to buy what's cheapest. Of course you are. So how do you send the message to people that consuming ethically is important? Well, you can't market it as a sacrifice-- that will never work. What you need are the same excellent minds that are marketing the unethical products, the ones that drive consumerism at its source by advertising and telling you what's available and why you want it. Consumerism is often driven by the need for products that are portrayed as desirable by excellent marketing minds. It works and people want what is marketed as new and trendy. So in order for people to change their consumption, they have to see it as desirable; it has to be effectively marketed as new and trendy. You need those strategies and those mindsets that created this problem in order to combat this problem. And so on ad nausem.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Small Talk

After doing group discussions and personal interviews, I've gotten to know some of the women in the self-help groups pretty well-- especially when they spill their life stories about their husbands' alcoholism, beatings, female foeticide, harrassing in-laws and what not. Except it goes from them to Jyoti in the local dialect, then she thinks a bit to process it in Hindi, and then translates it to me in English. By this time it's a 2 minute delay before I can try to show compassion to the women sitting right next to me. Anyhow, they often invite us back to their houses for chai and to meet their families. Here are some phrases that I never anticipated using in small talk:
"Is that your cow?" In reference to the cow half in the doorway since cows can literally do whatever they want.

In response to the question are you married, which I get about five times a day. "Not yet. No I don't have children. No, I don't want any children." This get about 30 seconds of frustrated Hindi mumbling and the question "Really?" about six times. "Yes, I will have a love marriage. No, my parents won't be angry about a love marriage. Okay, I will try to come back to India for my marriage ceremony."

"Were your in-laws mad that your first three kids were girls? Have they pressured you to have an abortion?" Mother in-laws in India can be SUPER cruel and awful.Also, sex-selective abortions are a huge problem in India. Some states have as much as a million more men than women.

"No, at home I don't eat burgers everyday."

"No, I've never met Barack Obama."