Sunday, December 8, 2013

Traveling India

The past two days have been a bit of a blur, traveling all over rural Trichy and beyond in Southern India, taking three flights to Nagpur, and traveling around the rural area here. (One note for foreign travelers to India - you have to go through security again at each new airport when you are making connections. Had I been alone, I would've stood around trying to find the way to transfers - since I had my boarding passes already for the day.)

I feel lucky to have experienced places in India that most tourists would never see. However, in doing so, I have also seen what a struggle it is for the people we work with to meet their basic needs. While many of them have been able to build toilets or construct a private water point, they have to work very hard to repay their debts. They are beautiful and vibrant people, full of hopes and dreams for themselves and their family's futures.

We met a particularly remarkable woman today who has been able to build a lovely home, a toilet, a water point and a successful goat business. She recently sold off most of her inventory to marry off her two daughters. She told us, "Before we were able to get a loan to build a toilet, the men did not see us as equals. Now that we have been able to build toilets, we have been empowered. Now we have a voice." She was asking the staff I was with about ways she can help other women in her small village start a business so that they are able to have a better life as well.

A lively discussion took place about maybe starting a canteen lunch program for local students and bachelors. Most of it was not translated for me but I could tell by the reactions from the women that they were thinking about it as a real possibility, giggling when bachelors were mentioned. Sometimes I forget that I can't understand what is being said. Some things just make sense without words.

When you walk from house to house, village to village, things can start to blend together. For a brief moment I thought, "another toilet? another tap?" But then, I saw the pride in each woman's face as she shows us how water comes out into her vessel or how clean she keeps the toilet and I want to see more.

The man in the bottom right corner is Kathirvel, a 65-year old "retired" mason who has worked to build over 200 toilets in his community over the past year. He works for the women who have taken out WaterCredit loans and it takes him two days to build each one. He is visited by many people who come from far away to meet this community hero. He chatted with us briefly and went right back to work. Namaste.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Real India

In my last post, I was giving myself a hard time for sticking around the office and my hotel. Today I got out and experienced India fully, complete with eating with my hand this lovely South Indian lunch above. The staff in the office were giving me a hard time about using the spoon they provided, so I dug in, literally today.
Also, for those of you who know me, I can be a bit of a picky eater and avoid sauces or food I don't recognize always. I wanted to put on the record (Mom) that I tried everything on my plate.

I spent the day with one of the partner organizations we work with. In the morning there were presentations and Q&A time with the Community Health Workers who go into the villages and educate people on the importance of having a toilet in their home. They also teach hygiene education in the local schools. The kids sang me four songs about the importance of clean water and sanitation and asked me to return with a song - I chose Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, which they clapped along to.

After visiting several of the classrooms, the headmistress (left), and Jayanti, my co-worker in the India office (right), had photos taken outside of the school's toilet block. I am pretty sure it's normal for visitors to come and be most excited about the toilets.

The teacher of the first-year students was teaching them the alphabet, using the floor as a chalkboard. I thought this was my best photo all day.

Tea time is very serious, so we stopped on our way to visit some of the villages (and yes, the toilets there) at this roadside tea shop. This was only half of the group of men and boys standing directly in front of me, watching me drink my tea. The other half scattered when I started to take a picture.
After tea, we visited three villages and met women who serve on water committees and work together to save money to lend to each other for water and sanitation improvements. After the visits were over, one of my other co-workers picked Jayanti and I up for dinner at his house with his wife and two sons. Dinner was delicious and the children's dance recital video we watched for two hours was interesting but I was so tired that I turned down the last tea of the day. Thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Today in India

Sometimes when I travel, I try hard to find interesting things to see/do/eat so that I have "good" things to blog about that hopefully will entertain anyone stopping by here. That's not to say that I am trying to contrive things (too much) but it definitely keeps me moving so that I can create something. When I used to travel for my old job, I would find places to check out after work so I could share something interesting about my travel, even if I'd been working all day.

I've been working for the past three days in the India office (sitting at a desk all day, except at lunchtime when I move 10 feet to the table and back) and eating my meals before and after in the hotel. I like to explore new places but sometimes it's too dark to wander around or seems overwhelming when I don't speak the language or know what anything is on the menu. (I will be traveling more with a colleague starting tomorrow for the rest of my trip, so I would imagine my blog posts about India will be enriched from here on out.)

That brings me to today. I read a story the other day about a guy who captures his everyday life in pictures, even though it may not be particularly exciting stuff. His photo blog on Instagram has built a large following and he just posts objects or scenes from his everyday life. In a society where everything is innovative, high-tech and shocking in some way or another, I think it's easy to look past things of perhaps lesser excitement. These things, though, tell a story, like my day below.

The feast on the left is like all of my lunches this week - containers and baggies full of lots of sauces, curries, rices, plant parts, etc. that I can't remember the names of. However, what I can remember is how everyone comes together for lunch and swaps all the things they've brought, tempting each other to try things in the tiniest containers (which is a warning sign to me that the item is either very spicy or very bitter, or both!) and giggling when I say something is too spicy.

The tea on the top right comes to me twice a day, sweetened with condensed milk, in the morning and afternoon. Although I can't spell her name, there is this lovely woman in the office who takes care of the cleaning and the beverages everyday. In the morning she brings two biscuits, tea and water with little plastic plates on top. She clears everything away with a smile and comes back in the afternoon with more tea and water.

Finally, the last photo is from the fourth floor balcony, which is the floor our office is on. The street below, at this particular moment, held one cow grazing in the trash, a man on a two-wheeler, a woman walking, and a construction site. There is an abandoned looking preschool across the street which reminds me of places I've seen before that I've thought were old but were in fact new.

Thanks for enjoying my day with me, may you find beauty in your day as well. Tomorrow I am visiting one of our partners' offices and I will finally make it to the field to see our work firsthand.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Warming Up in India

I arrived in India on Saturday night (or morning, I guess it was 1am) and spent the night in Chennai. Sunday I hung around the hotel, caught up on three weeks of work emails and then flew down to Trichy (where our office is). It usually takes me a day or two to start getting the hang of things when I get to a new country and my experience so far has been great. The people are friendly and helpful and I have enjoyed my time so far.

Today, I went to work after a good night's rest (not feeling too jet lagged, thankfully) and a nice Western-style breakfast. The office was quiet and I enjoyed spending time with the people who were in the office (everyone else is traveling). At lunchtime food was ordered for me and I sweated through my first authentic Indian meal. It was delicious but my tastebuds are going to get a workout. So many flavors and spices even in simple dishes. Definitely not like the Indian food I have had in the U.S.

Before I left the states, one of my co-workers tipped me off to max as the place to shop for great, work-appropriate clothing for India (thanks, Janet!). Luckily, there was one right next to my hotel that I stopped by after work. I bought three half-sleeve tunics and a scarf for under US$30. I am here a few more days, I might be back before I move on to the next city this weekend.
Afterwards, I headed down to one of the hotel restaurants and had some dinner. The spicy golden prawns (left) were gum numbingly hot, but still tasty and the cheese dosa was yummy and almost as long as my arm.
I am pretty sure all the black tea I had today is responsible for keeping me upright all the way until now, and it's after 9:30pm. Thanks for stopping by and seeing what I'm up to!