Friday, July 25, 2008

Contrasts in Village Life

Today is a typical Friday here- I almost ran into a cow walking down our alley this morning, watched the children of the dalit (lowest caste) community unload a rickshaw of garbage, sidestepped cow manure and construction material while walking down a street with large homes behind gates, and made it here to the library at Seva Mandir in about 4 minutes time. While this week has been relatively quiet here, I wanted to share some thoughts about the contrasts in the town where I am working- Delwara, about 30 km north of Udaipur, up and down a winding mountain "highway," upon which bikes, trucks heavy with marble loads, jeeps, cows, water buffalo, and monkeys all fight for space.

I have been spending this week interviewing women in the town about their ability to access water, toilets, and soild waste management. I have spoken with women in a few different communties, the Bhoi, Khatik, Yadav, Muslim, and Jain (lowers castes to more wealthy communities), and I can't say any of them have it easy. While better than the Meghwal community I interviewed inititally (no water connections, closest open field for bathroom use is 3km away), I wouldn't call it a secure access to water. As I am learning, having a government provided water connection does not guarantee water access- it can come anywhere from once every 2-4 days, and less frequently in draughts. Some people have latrines, some have to walk to open fields next to the national highway, where the women have to fend off passing truck drivers who often stop to whistle. There are some encouraging moments of resistence to the poor water conditions here- women in one community blocked the national highway until someone from the government came to fix their water pump. But there is still much here to be desired.

So, a few days ago I was a little bored, as my translator had to do some other work, and I just couldn't read any more of my book so I decided to visit Devigarh Fort, an old palace of the king of Udaipur c. 1800s cum luxury hotel. The town of Delwara rings this fort that towers above the village below. The fort is now an exclusive luxury hotel, surrounded by gates and numorous guards, and extremely exclusive to enter, unless you are a white foreigner. Then you can walk right in without a problem. Someone from the office walked me there, and dropped me at the gate, where I was saluted by a uniformed guard and called "madam" and escorted to the next turn, where the same process happened again, and again, until I made it to the dramatic stone steps that lead to the actaul entrance of the hotel courtyard, where a uniformed staff member met me to give me a personal guided tour of the property. It is an exquisite place, perfectly maintained grounds, wonderfully preserved fort with twists and turns, well maintained architecture, and is complete with a spectacular panoramic view of the green "hill-tains" (bigger than hills, smaller than mountains?) that surround the area. I saw a lady's courtyard, complete with an original swing, that guests can still use, the different dining areas (one of them in a place where the king used to receive his audiences) and a private suite, which was pretty fabulous, and complete with a flat screen tv and screened in balcony-gazeebo. There are only about 40 suites in the place, and rooms start at Rs 18 000, and go up to about Rs 58 000.

However, once you look out over the edge of the hotel's balconies, the poverty that rings the fort is all too obvious to miss. One of the familiy's homes I interviewed shared its back wall with the towering stones that supported the fort (this home had 7 members, 4 cows, 5 goats, and one latrine that spared a septic tank with 10 others in the community). I thanked the woman for the lovely complimentary tour of the fort, and made my way out of the (original) enormous wooden doors, which had spikes protruding on the outside of them to prevent elephants from busting into the fort, back to the reality of Delwara. Through the several gates down the hill one can see the homes of Dewara's residents, monkeys jumping from rooftop to rooftop, and kids walking around without shoes. I made my way through the last gate, was saluted, and walked by my friend Bilkish's home in the muslim community, a yellow-painted house whose back fence is the first round of security gates to Delwara. Walking through a narrow alley, with a semi-flooded mud path and littered with trash, up a small the hill and stepping over the open drains, I quickly made it back to the office.

While such stark levels of clashing socio-economic statuses are obvious in this country, and make for shocking observations for many foreigners, it is important to remember that disparate living conditions exist all over the world, including in America. As my professor Dr. Dalton recently reminded me, only 7 subway stops in New York City separate the wealthest congressional district (upper east side) and the poorest congressional district (south bronx) in America, and another friend has reminded me that inequality glares at us in such dramatic terms as India, outside of America. Many people in the world live in conditions that seriously compromise their quality of life, and millions of people around the world, not just in rural Inidia, lack access to basic services, decent education, and viable economic opportunities. We needn't look far for such disparity, unfortunately it surrounds us all.

On the positive side, there are thousands of people and organizations out there in the world looking to address issues of development, and it can be really inspiring to work alongside these people. Everyone here does share the desire to work with different communities to together improve life here, and Seva Mandir, along with many other NGOs in this area, have had a long legacy of social work in Udaipur and its surrounding regions.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rethinking the "work" I do

A lot of people have been responding to my emails I have been sending out, and I recently got a note back from a very dear friend and teacher of mine, who said, "I love to see how you reveal deeper and deeper layers of Indian culture,grounding your revelations in details of the glaring contradictions thatare omnipresent everywhere in India. But don't forget that they are here, too. Remember how Jonathan Kozolbegins his book, Savage Inequalities: step on a subway in the upper EastSide, wealthiest congressional district in the U.S., ride just 7 stopsand get off in the South Bronx, the poorest cong.district in America. Thedisparities of wealth that you describe brilliantly there exist in NYC.They are of course more massive in India, given the degrees of povertyand the huge population, but the dramatic contrasts are still apparent." (DD, 17 July 2008).

And I started to think, and talk about it with some fellow workers here in India. I came to India because I thought the problems here were so much worse than in America, that the problems in other parts of the wprld were somehow more pressing and more real. There is certainly an issue of scale- India does have 4 times as many people as does the United States, and its economy is not as strong as many other countries around the world. India faces an pandemic array of public health challenges, everything from accessing potable water to malaria and HIV/AIDS to inadequate opportunities for childhood and adult education. However, DD's comment made me think. There are pressing problems in all of our countries- serious problems that compromise people's abilities to live full, equal, and honest lives. DD is 100% accurate to say that these problems are glaring within a short distance of one of the world's premiere cities, and the problems of accessing basic services, issues of social and economic inequality, and injustice unfortunately exist all around us.

The work any of us do, in any part of the world, that helps people improve their quality of life, is meaningful and important. Working with kids in the South Bronx in afterschool theatre programs, bringing health care to the Appalacian Mountains, being a teacher, making people happy, helping women create economic opportunities for themselves, being a social worker, are just a few of a million things we can do to improve this world, and your location makes your work no more and no less important- I am coming to understand it is the people we help that is important. Wherever there are social injustices, no matter how great or small, attention paid to individuals makes the difference.

I hope this makes sense. It is just a thought I have been tossing around lately, and look forward to your comments.

July 3 email

Howdy y'all,

So I made it safely to India- what a place! It is like nothing I have ever seen. It only took exiting the airport to make an impression on me- the driver's car was blocked in by a van, so instead of finding the driver to the van, my driver just started pushing the van (yes, pushing it) until we could get out (of course, there is no break on the car whe you are pushing it, so it gently rolled into the car in front of it. we pulled out of the space and not 2 km from the parking lot did i see my first animal (an emaciated donkey?) on the road. after a semi-chaotic drive to the apartment> where i have been staying, via driving on a road that better resembles a> sidewalk, i met the very lovely and gracious family that has been hosting me> during my stay in delhi.>> i have spent the past 2 days touring a bit around the city, yesterday's> highlight was Gandhi Smriti, which is the house Gandhi was assasinated in.> The other highlight was the first sighting of a family of monkeys hanging> out on a corner (I was in a car, so not to worry about getting bitten),> which is much more interesting than the mangy dogs and goats that roam> about. Today I went to Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, and I got
> ripped off by a guy who gave me a tour, after a Rs200 fee for the camera he> charged another Rs250 for his "service" as a guide, most of which he said I> couldn't understand. However, the grand total of Rs450 is less than $10, so> it wasn't a large financial loss. But now I know better- it is like NYC,> you just start to ignore people as they come up to you and try to push> whatever they are hustling- and everyone is trying to sell you somethign.> However, the old city of Delhi was pretty disgusting and filthy, and doesn't> capture a charm I think many westerners expect in older city centers.>> One striking thing about Delhi is the mass amount of people here, sleeping> everywhere, selling everything, and existing all over the place. We have> driven through some informal settlements/slums. It is really a terribly sad> state of existence for the poor living in India's large cities- garbage is> piled in large heaps of plastic bottles, waste material, and who knows what> else, children are bathed on the side of the road, and hoousing structures> are lopsided, but standing. You can't compare it to anything in America.>> I will be flying to Udaipur tomorrow- known as the "most romantic city in> India" because of its beauty. i will be meeting with the ngo i will be> working with for the rest of the summer (seva mandir) and will be able to> begin my work in earnest.>> I hope all is well with everyone, and do stay in touch this summer- a lot> less people speak english than I had anticipated, seriously , what tourist> by choice would be here is this weather (it is like a hosuton summer, minus> he AC), but the lack of tourists makes India much more real.

July 17 Email

Namaste Everyone!

Every day here is filled with new experiences, thoughts, tastes, and colors. We have a new roommate in our flat- a french girl studying in Scotland, who is a riot (doesn't like Indian food, and ordered mac and cheese for dinner last night). I have started seeing herds of goats everywhere, in addition to the multitudes of cows and water buffalo, and monekys about once a week. There are several stories I could share with you, but I wanted to describe my past Tuesday here- I think it perfectly sumarizes many of my feelings toward my experiences in this corner of the country.Tuesday was a typical day. I woke up, had a chai at the "open air cafe" (a guy on the corner with a wooden flatbed cart upon which he boils chai on his gas burner), said t'fliat ha'derech (traveler's prayer, something I find comforting before embarking onto the roads with the wildness of Indian drivers), and headed out to Delwara. While sitting in the Delwara office, the electricity went in and out, a pretty common occurance here. I spent part of the morning working there (in the office), and stepped out into the coutryard, looked up, and saw a family of monkeys in the courtyard's tree, turned around, and saw another two scampering across the balcony of the second floor. Certainly that was the visual highlight of the day- 12+ monkeys romping around this piece of property.Manoj, a local youth from Delwara, who doubles as my translator, and I headed off to the Meghwal community, one of the lowest castes in Delwara (actually, right above the lowest caste- harijan- who are the street cleaners), to continue with our interviews of women and accessing water. We met with two women that day, and both had similar stories to share: neither had a toilet and had to defecate in a field, located over a hill a few kilometers away, while having to navigate the high grasses and the snakes that slither through them, especially after the rains. while this isn't such a bad thing- i hear it is a nice walk in morning, and the exercise is a good way to start the day, problems can become acute if one is ill. The women are also the ones responsible for all water collection (almost no one in this community has piped water in their home), and have to spend an hour a day collecting drinking water, plus making several trips to a different water tank to collect water for cleaning. The "showers" in both homes were outdoors- one behind a stacked stone wall, and the other one on the porch in the family's courtyard.After the interviews, I was invited to one of the office worker's home for a farewell sendoff/birthday party, as it was his last day at Seva Mandir. It was on the family farm. There were about 40-60 people there, lounging on pastic tarps and stone walls amongst the cows and women pulling water out of a well. We sat down in a long oval shape on the ground, on plastic tarps, and men came around with buckets full of bati (a traditional rajasthani bread- a ball of dough soaked in oil and then baken, which resulted in a hard outer crust and crumbly inside), dal (lentils), curry, lali (a sweet dessert), and chach (curd, water, and jeerz- a spice here used in the basics of cooking). Clean up was a cinch- everyone tossed their paper plates and plastic cups in a small clearing behind where we ate.After that full day, I was looking forward to a quite night at home, maybe making some western dish like scrambled eggs or something. However, I ran into my roommates as I approached our street, and was marched around and then into a rickshaw, as we were called for dinner at the home of the family that started Seva Mandir decades ago. We arrived at a wonderfully historic building, and sat in the courtyard, drinking wine (didn't expect any of that for 7 weeks!) and whiskey soda, and many people flitted about, preparing dinner and refilling the bowls of snacks on the courtyard tables. While I was full from the Rajasthani feast, I wanted to try the colorful dishes that lined the dining room table. Everyone gathered plates full of food (mine was a bit more modest than usual), and lounged around the courtyard, under the balconies that surrounded teh courtyard, or sat on the small couches in the dining room. There were people constantly refilling the platters, and walking around offering more chappatti (bread, which doubles as a fork) to everyone. After a lovely dessert of fresh mangos and ice cream, a driver dropped the three of us back home.

Clearly it was a day of different lifestyles. But it is this notion of extremes that is coming to shape my understandings and expereinces in this small corner of India- the country that has some of the most exclusive residential towers adjacent to some of the poorest neighborhoods in the world, a place where it is common to defecate in the open while navigating wet roads from rain runoff and snakes in rural areas, to the better off having the ability to fly in planes over the poor infrastructure that characterizes the country's landscape. It is a country where appearance is very important, where button down shirts tucked into trousers are almost a uniform for all men, regardless of socio-economic class, even if it is the only outfit they might own, and a place where women wear gold and silver jewelery and shockingly bright and colored saris, while walking around the dirt floors and roofless rooms of their homes. My time here is revealing a country of contradition, of these bright optomistic colors people wear mixed with poverty and filth, of a wonderfully falvourful cup of chai made outside on a stove fueled by a fire of sticks and cow dung, while later that day eating a dinner, prepared by family workers and served on fine ceramic plates in the setting of a finely preserved traditional home.

I hope all is well with everyone.

July 14 Email

Namaste Everyone!

I hope all is well with everyone! I have made it 10 days in India, and I am loving it here. Life is quite different than almost anything I have previously experienced, and basic daily practices, such as showering, using the toilet, or driving, are like a shock every time. But I am getting used to having a wash (while there are shower heads installed, most people fill up a bucket with water from the spout, and use a mug to pour the water over oneself), squatting while using the bathroom (I am not quite hard core enough to give up toilet paper, and I am on the search for it this weekend, as the roll I have been rationing is dwindling), and the erratic drivers on the road (while driving merits a separate paragraph in its own right, pretty much everyone is out to advance his place on the road, lanes are merely a suggestion, and vehicles compete for the small amount of paved road that exists).

I am finally getting into the work I am going to be carrying out over the next several weeks. As many of you know, I am working with a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Seva Mandir, which means Temple of Service. I am working on understanding the relationship between women and water, in the peri-urban (think small town) area of Delwara, a town about 30 \km north of Udaipur. I began my first round of interviews on Friday, meeting with a variety of women from the Megwel community, one of the lower castes in the town. While there are some kinks to work out in the translations, I am beginning to hear from the women about their relationship to water. While this is not a problem in the Western world, for the most part, many people in India do not have viable/reliable connections to potable water, thus resulting in the need to collect drinking water and water for cleaning from various resources, either near or far from their homes. This also means not every home has a toilet, and household members are forced to find alternatives for restroom use. I am studying the issue of water in relation to women, as they are almost exclusively (as is the case in many parts of the world) responsible for tending to the home, cleaning, cooking, thus the responsiblilty of collecting water rests on them.

One of the women I met spends 2-3 hours a day collecting water. She has to walk a kilometer each way, to collect water for cleaning. Then she has to walk another km the other direction for drinking water. The place alloted for women in her community to bathe is 1km away, at the place where she collects water for cleaning, and consists of a 1 meter high wall, enclosed on 3.5 sides, with a drain in one corner to let the used water out into the open sewers. To use the bathroom, she and her family have to walk 3km from their home, over a hill, to an open field. Certainly there is the issues of having to walk over a mile to use the bathroom- couple this with the issues of snakes, the Jain community sometimes preventing the people from a lower caste to accessing the area for restroom use, and poor road conditions when it rains, and releiving yourself becomes a challenge. While there are certain things that culturally are different in terms of daily practice, people do not want to live this way and are looking for ways to improve their living conditions. That is one thing Seva Mandir is working towards- getting proper drainage in the communities, putting toilets in peoples homes, and engaging people in community affairs to create change themselves. I am really enjoying the work I am doing here in India, and I am excited about the next month I have here.

On to other interesting things...On friday, 3 friends and I hopped onto a sleeper bus and made it out to Jaisalmer- a desert town in the western part of Rajasthan, about 100km from Pakistan. Well, I know I just spoke about the discomforts of village life here, but riding on a bus, with no suspention for 13 hours on poorly paved roads that follow the curvature of the hilly landscape leaves sometime to be desired (also note that we were going to a place only 545 km away and it took 13 hours). As Jaisalmer is near a desert, naturally we trekked on camels for most of our time there. We went through sanddunes and scrub, and camped out under the stars. The next day we went through some rural villages, and were accosted by children asking for school pens and rupees (pens here aren't great, and many children ask foreigners for them). We also watched women collect well water (this time only 1/2 km away from their homes). The women wouldn't let us take pictures of them unless we paid them, so we sat and watched them throw old plastic containers with their tops cut off and long ropes tied to them into the well and pull it up to fill their matkas (water container that holds about 15~20 liters of water). Then they would balance the matkas on their heads, sometimes one large one and one small one, and water back to the village.

I decided to come back to Udaipur last night, and took another 13 hr, 40 minute bus ride back (and that was a direct one!) I am really into the work I am doing here, and want to be as productive as possible in the short time I have with Seva Mandir.

I hope all is well with everyone, and that your summers are great!

Urban Cowgirl Jen's First Attempt at "blogging"

After many requests (well...I'll be honest, one inquiry) and some desire on my part to attempt "blogging" (I am not even sure what it is), I figured out how to set up an account (one can do anything with a gmail account), and will attempt to keep this site updated with my thoughts on the time I am spending in Udaipur and Delwara, India, the conditions that exist here, the challenges a foreigner faces working abroad of his/her home country, and some funny comedic cultural clashes that make me stop and laugh to myself. I hope you enjoy, and feel provoked to respond to many of the things I have to say.