Archive for December, 2010

Fact: Indians love to celebrate.

In India, they recognize Hindu holidays, Muslim holidays, Christian holidays…topped off with village, state, regional, and even a few national holidays. Sometimes they are celebrated throughout the country, but spelled differently or fall on different days; other times they are absolutely unique depending on the successful harvest of a particular crop in one village. Short of Ghandi’s birthday and Independence Day, I admittedly consider myself quite ignorant in this area. Let’s just say I enthusiastically learn as I go.

Last week, one such holiday occurred in a village just outside of the Valley. In all honesty, I had  absolutely no idea what it was they were celebrating…but, whatever it was, seemed like a good time so I eagerly jumped on a bus with a few other staff members to go watch a children’s dance performance at the village temple.

Awhile back as I was conversing with a school visitor, bobbling my head from side to side in the Indian “I’m listening, I’m listening, I’m listening…” manner, he stopped mid-sentence noticing what I was doing, stared at me and asked, “So exactly how long have you been in India??” This is how long: as we excited the bus in the village we were led into the tiny, stone temple by two half-naked, Hindu priests. Without even thinking, I removed my shoes, walked in, stood silently while they performed their puja and rang bells at the little blue god sitting on a pillow of flowers and offerings in a carved-out hole in the wall. As the priest came towards me with his candle, I said my name for him to repeat back to me in his prayer, wafted the smoke from the candle in my face and dropped a coin on the plate. I placed my right hand over my left to form a small cup for a bit of water that was poured into it, threw it back into my mouth and munched on a tulsi leaf that I was given as I exited the temple. Just another night in India.

We were then led to the crowded main hall where I found a place to squeeze in on the floor in the middle of a mass of children. The whole village, it seemed, had come out to watch the performance and, when I emerged from the crowd at the end of the show, someone had placed a bindi on my forehead, a girl had pinned mostly-wilted jasmine flowers in my hair, and an old, toothless woman sitting behind me had shared half of her coconut with me. The puja was beautiful, the dancing fantastic…but the love I got sitting knee to knee was truly worthy of a celebration.

The final treat of the night was watching members of the village come together outside and take part in what one local kid told me was a “break dance” that they would do all night long until the sun rose. A group of people danced in a circle, sang songs, and rang bells to the beat of a drum – I could have stayed and watched forever.

Given this love of celebrations from near and far, it came as no surprise to look out my window on Christmas Eve and see Santa Claus yelling a (quite) jolly “ho ho ho!”. While the younger kids decorate the common room of their hostels, it is a school tradition for the 11th grade students to go caroling at each house on Christmas Eve. Naturally, one lucky student is elected “Santa” and then appropriately dressed with a cotton-ball beard and a stuffed belly. This year, it seemed a reindeer also made an appearance.

So, after a full evening of cooking American + German holiday desserts with friends, I eagerly jumped into the mass of students to join in the caroling and sing songs from my homeland…sort of. Christmas cards were exchanged, sweets were distributed, and Santa managed only a slight wardrobe technicality – alas, a merry time was had by all!

I spent my Christmas Day celebrating in my own, small ways – a complete change of pace from what the holiday has become back home. I slept in until a whopping 7:30am, drank two cups of coffee at breakfast, visited with friends longer than usual, watched a movie, and called my family. In the afternoon I ventured out to a nearby village to meet with a group of women interested in starting a tailoring business. Knee to knee we sat, once again. While they discussed the details, I enjoyed the beautiful day and tried to follow along with my broken Telugu. In the evening I went for a run just as the sun was setting, ate dinner, and then joined the kids in the assembly hall for the Saturday night movie.

Next weekend the near year begins…hard to believe. I hope that all are healthy, well, and finding small ways to celebrate the beginning of a new year, the love of family – however it takes shape, friends near and far, and the joy that community brings.


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The mystery of the disappearing letters: SOLVED!

A bit of digging through local “common knowledge” has informed me that there are approximately two ways of mail reaching me here in my remote corner of the world: 1) by sea, and 2) by air. It seems that the first option takes months, years, decades even. The second option, however, takes merely 2-3 weeks and (I think), not a penny more.

Instructions on sending a letter “airmail” vs. “sea-mail” are as follows:

  1. Write letter
  2. Stick letter in envelope
  3. Seal envelope
  4. Address to me
  5. Apply correct postage (~3 stamps, perhaps?)
  6. Write, in large letters, “AIRMAIL” on the front of the envelope
  7. Drop it in the mailbox and think good thoughts.

That’s it. Simple. I don’t know the logic behind this but it seems to work. (Obviously, I am more than thankful to all of you have sent/attempted to send me letters, postcards, and packages. You have no idea what a fantastic feeling it is to come home to find a letter wedged into my front door. You are amazing.)

This past weekend I attempted to climb Rishi Valley’s own Three Sisters mountain (.in) with a few friends. There aren’t really “trails” to speak of around here so a few poorly planned executive decisions led us on a bush-whacking adventure up the steepest part of the hill. We were about <50 ft. from the base of the top when we decided we had to turn around if we were going to make it back down by dark (a lesson I learned the hard way on a previous “adventure”). Bummer.  We did, however, manage to highly entertain a few village women watching us from below…as usual.

Alas, a challenge for another day…

Thinking of you all and wishing you safe journeys to wherever your holiday travels take you! Will write more soon.

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Marionberry Ice Cream

Today I had a conversation about marionberry ice cream, bicycling to work in the Willamette Valley rain, and the Oregonian ritual of a Saturday morning farmer’s market.

An old friend of my supervisor’s was on his annual family visit to India and stopped by Rishi Valley for a few days. He and his wife had spent the last 10 years in Corvallis but recently moved to Chicago for work. So, over a lunch of rice, dal, sambar, and okra – spread out on our banana leaves – we waxed poetic about the beauty of the Cascades, neighborhood food co-ops, and trips to the coast. We shared stories of trips to South Sister, Crater Lake, and the McKenzie. I mentioned Dufur and he replied with a chuckle and a familiar, “Oh yeah, on the way to Maupin!”

As a testament to his devotion of returning to Oregon one day soon, he proudly wrote down the “541” area code in my notebook as we exchanged contact information. He has no plans to change it.

It’s funny the things that we do to stay connected to a place – to that piece of our identity that represents comfort, safety, and origin. That place where we make sense. Where we fit.  As the holiday season is upon us…well, you…I’ve been thinking about the things that I can do to stay connected to my home and my own traditions. It’s easy to get swept away in the sadness of not being able to celebrate with my family and those that are closest to me – the tree, the music, the food…the Ugly Sweater parties. But it’s actually turned into this fun way of re-evaluating what’s most important to me and finding a way to honor it. I get to totally make up my own holiday and celebrate it however I like…because it’s just for me this year.

So, in a mix of holiday traditions blended to personal taste, my plans so far are to decorate one of my potted plants over a cup of South Indian coffee, sing carols with the kids, and learn how to bake Bavarian bread from my German friend. I think it’s going to be a good one…

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Groove: On

It’s been a whirlwind of a few weeks – the kids returned in a fury two Sundays ago increasing the volume of the Rishi Valley by a sudden 200%. Dormitory’s blasted music, swingsets creaked non-stop, and general screams of teenage excitement wafted through the campus. Life has returned to the Valley. 

In addition, my project has finally picked up speed and is in full swing. For the first time in 3 months, the thought occurred to me the other day as I was going from the health clinic, to a class I’m teaching, to Telugu lessons, to yoga…that perhaps I’ve actually found my groove here.  I’ve nestled into my niche and am feeling like a contributing part of this community and school. I’ve become more than just a visitor, a volunteer, or a traveler – and it feels fantastic. To celebrate, I adopted a few stray potted plants for my house; it is now officially a home. 

I wanted to spend some time in this blog to talk about my project…as I’m not sure I’ve really written much about it. Up until now, my work has been filled with total information absorption – listening to patients, reading research articles, meeting the staff, field visits to villages, and so many questions. In trying to make sense of what it is that I’m exactly going to do during my time here, I was able to acquire all kinds of knowledge about life in the Rishi Valley and India – on more levels than I could have imagined.

Some new friends from Canada-Singapore-Germany were traveling through last week and I offered to take them on a scenic hike one morning off of the campus so they could see a bit of the Valley. As I led them through the winding dirt trails passing rice paddy, coconut groves, grazing cows, and villages, I passionately talked their (tolerant) ears off about preservation of native cattle and sustainable cropping patterns in a South-Asian draught prone area. Aside from realizing that I hadn’t gotten lost once on the entirety of the hike (a rare occurrence), it dawned on me what an incredible learning experience this has been already and the immense education I have gotten from those that surround me. 

My “official” project falls into two parts and, at the end of my year here, will hopefully paint a nice, holistic picture of the intersection between agricultural and health in the Rishi Valley…and perhaps more broadly, a snapshot of some major issues facing rural South India.

Part 1: Rishi Valley Rural Health Centre

In order to understand how the use of chemicals is impacting the health of farmers and coolies (agricultural laborers), I designed a survey that we will give to 500 patients over the course of the next 4 months (hopefully). After several months of research, adjustments, and headaches, we finally began and have completed about 50 interviews so far. With the help of a few nurses on staff here to act as my translators, I sit with each patient for 10-15 minutes and ask questions about their personal health history, occupation and income information, rates and types of chemicals used, how they use them, where they store them, etc. Afterwards, I sit with one of the doctors and go over each patient’s medical diagnosis. Although this is absolutely not a scientific or conclusive survey by any stretch of the imagination, we hope that the information will give us a feel for what the trends are in this area to understand what kind of outreach needs to be done.

Aside from the chaos of attempting to put “order” to a system of random selection of patients each morning from the mob of hundreds swarming the small registration window, what makes this piece of my project a bit complicated is how little information the patients actually know. Most farmers don’t know the names or types of chemicals they spray on their 1 acre of land, store inside their homes, and breathe in without any protection. They take the suggestion of the salesman at the chemical shop in town (who is taking the suggestion of a certain set of favorable companies, no doubt) spending, many times, well over 50% of their meager annual incomes of around Rs. 20,000 (~$450). Then they come to the health clinic with all kinds of skin allergies, eye infections, fertility issues, respiratory illnesses, and beyond.

Part 2: Rishi Valley Special Development Area

But…when wanting to improve patient health, you have to look at the big picture facing the community – there are just too many outside factors and no quick fix. Enter Part 2 of my project: the Rishi Valley Special Development Area. Officially declared a conservation area just a few years ago by the Andhra Pradesh government, the RVSDA (= me + one other woman) seeks to understand why there has been a rapid increase in the use of chemicals in agriculture in this area and what the RVSDA (= me + one other woman) can do to intervene. We want to encourage farmers to shift back to native crops (i.e. don’t grow rice paddy in a draught prone area) and reduce their reliance on the chemicals that are severely affecting their health and pocketbooks. 

So, along with my newly acquired PPPM degree, my work on this end involves going out into the villages and hamlets to talk with farmers to get a better understanding of what’s going on, what community resources exist, and the level of willingness to work towards conservation. The next step is to develop a community-driven model that the RVSDA can use to create a plan of attack. Community participation! Strategic planning! Documentation! Model development! It’s love.


In other updates…the weather has cooled off quite a bit here and requires me to use a heavy wool blanket at night + socks. As much as I love not sweating every time I move my body, I’m realizing that India wasn’t really built for the cold. I’m anxiously awaiting the return of the sun.

This weekend I head to Bangalore to run my first official 5k in…awhile. I’ve been “in training” for the last 5 weeks, waking up to watch the sun rise over the coconut trees as I run down the (one) road through the Valley. Word has spread quickly and people keep coming up to me asking when I’ll be running my “marathon”. I’ve given up trying to explain the difference between 40 kilometers and 5…besides, it adds to my village street-cred.

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