I have forgotten to mention that we share our house with some of the area’s long-term residents. All sorts of bugs and even some reptiles enjoy romping around. Of particular abundance are the ants. Not just in our room, but throughout the entire compound. We have seen ant colonies that are taller than us and everywhere you go you can observe an endless line of ants working to keep their community going. It is also common to see a bunch of these little guys going at a scarab or similarly large insect and we regularly try to save the big guys. Of course, walk back a half hour later and you may see remnants of a shell, if you see anything at all.
On Saturday evening, we went to Berhampur (the closest main town) and took in the sights, sounds, and food. It basically involved avoiding muck from open gutters, buying seriously needed snacks, drinking something cold, buying some alcoholic beverages, and eating Chinese food. It was a good break from our daily routine but the town itself was nothing to be excited about and it was difficult to see how people were living there.
As we were leaving the city by Gram Vikas shuttle, we headed down a narrow road, made worse by the excess of abutting huts. It was really an experience: our large bus pushing past within 6 inches of these slum dwellers’ home entrances. As we passed on particular dwelling, a baby was standing outside screaming and crying for what appeared to be her mother and grandmother. They were on the opposite side of the road, cleaning their bowls in roadside muddy puddle water probably contaminated with all the traffic going by. Once that was done, the elderly woman walked a few feet behind a bush and started relieving herself.
India is a country which spans the entire spectrum of hope and cannot yet find the strength to work for the collective good. The ants around here have figured it out, hopefully the rest of us can too.
P.S. – for more updates, you can follow along with me at http://niluam.wordpress.com
So here’s our comedy movie moment of the week:
Our Capstone team is working in rural East India on water with a local NGO. We have been cooped up on the NGO’s main campus/compound for roughly a week now. We have not even stepped foot beyond the entrance gate, and we are all starting to get a little stir crazy. We have been reading a lot of papers and checking our emails a lot,yet aren’t we working on Capstone in the summer to actually go to the field? But a day anywhere off of the campus would be a blessing.
We were given hope at the beginning of the week of leaving GV for a few hours, on Saturday night. Bus leaves the campus at 4pm to go to Berhampur, and returns by 9:30pm. FOUR HOURS OF FREEDOM! That meant different meals (which was very important for most of us, because the slightly bland Indian meals with rice and daal were starting to become a chore), REAL FOOD (we could buy coconuts, and mangoes! and other joyous things!), walking around in newer areas, and the potential of purchasing some cheap bangles and sandals!
We began the countdown to Berhampur a while ago.
It started with just ideas of eating Chinese food. Then pizza. Then mangoes, and bananas, and coconuts. Then we could go shopping! And so it became a daily game of imagining what this marvelous, elusive Berhampur would bring us. We even planned our trip around our tastings. We talked about trying to get one meal in every hour while in Berhampur, just so that we could revel in the diversity of foods we’d find.
Every meal, every break, we talked about, "Just two more days until Berhampur!"
So last night, we were walking to the mess hall and ran into the founder & Executive Director, Joe. (Very sweet guy, very lovely, and he rides a bike everywhere. He is the leader of this grand pack, in every possible meaning of the term. He’s kind of like a swami or royalty. He is the man of this post’s image.) And we chit chatted for a little while about how our project was going, how the heat was, about the snakes and scorpions on the compound, and so on.
We said goodbye, and the team started jovially trotting again towards the mess hall, with relieved thoughts of Berhampur in our strides. Yet right away, Joe turns around on his bike and says, "Oh, before I forget, you are all invited to my house tomorrow night for supper."
A quick note before I continue: Awkward silences. They seem to be the standard conversational garnish in all of our interactions with Indian locals, particularly with GV staff members. I can’t tell if it’s language barriers, cultural differences, or what, but there it is.
And so, after the whole teams’ hearts stopped while Joe invited us to dinner, and there were no words to use, we experienced yet another awkward silence. Only this time, it was a silence brought on by mixed emotions and internal screaming, not just the standard awkward sincerity that we usually have in our talks.
We all eked out some, "Yeah, sure, great, thank you…" remarks.
Joe looked at us, and with an awkward "Ok…." biked away from us. We panicked after his leaving, worried that our week-long dream of Saturday’s ice cold drinks and different foods had come crashing down. What are we going to do?! All of our talk of Berhampur for nothing?! Both honored at the privilege of dinner with Joe & heartache from the idea that we were still stuck on campus, we brainstormed what was the best way to go about the situation. And so, we decided to eat 3 dinners today (Saturday): 2 in Berhampur, and 1 after coming back at Joe’s house.
A few minutes ago, Joe’s wife came to us and offered dinner tomorrow instead of today, so that we could paint Berhampur red tonight. The news couldn’t have come in any better form.
As we boarded the plane to leave Delhi behind, I couldn’t help feel a spark. For so many years I had been behind a desk doing work that I knew was not where I should be, and here I was about to fly to rural India to work with tribal people who are tremendously removed from what my life has been so far. Being in Delhi had afforded us a good transition phase as we had access to anything we needed, from food to internet to air-conditioning. I have no doubt in my mind that Orissa is going to be much, much different.
We still have no real understanding of our project’s aim and I worry about how much time will pass before that becomes clearer. We need to be sure of what we’re doing if we are going to pull the right information in the field and not having a focused agenda may lead to unnecessary inquiries. Are we looking at Gram Vikas’s efficiency? Are we going to assess the impact of the water and sanitation on factors that may not be obvious or at least less well understood (of course, improved water and sanitation would promote a more healthy environment, but how does it directly contribute to pushing folks out of poverty, create gender and caste equality, etc)? Are we here to document successes of the Gram Vikas model, look for holes that could be filled, and then relate these practices to India’s national plan?
We’re going to make a play for leaving on the 29th so that we can have a day or so to meet with folks in Bhubaneswar. I hope we make the most of the short time we have here.
We spent about 2 hours or more after landing trying to get cell phones. After that, we had a great meal that only cost us about $4 including tip…total. The same meal in Delhi would have probably been at least $4 each if not more. Amazing what a 2 hour trip can lead you to. Then we began our 4 hour journey to the Gram Vikas headquarters. I was floored by the differences between here and Delhi. You can see the lack of development all around and while the view was amazing and the air the freshest I’ve ever smelt in India, it was hard to feel comfortable. Maybe that feeling will change over the next few weeks.
We got to the Gram Vikas headquarters and it seemed like a very large compound (200 acres we were later told). All along, the four of us had thought we would be staying in their dorms, but when our driver pulled up to a small house, we all got pretty excited. Yes…we have our own house here: 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a common area, and even a terrace! The three girls are in one room and it’s me by my lonesome in the other. The area is beautiful and we are surrounded by trees, it sort of feels like summer camp. The mess hall takes a few minutes to walk to and dinner was good. Mr. Jacob is the first person we have met here, and I am not sure of his responsibility. I think he is in charge of taking care of guests.
Tomorrow should be interested. We are supposed to meet our contact, Chitra, and hopefully get started. It’s been a long day…