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Archive for February, 2011

Getting Saree’d…Again.

On Friday morning I attended the marriage of one of the young nurses from a nearby village that works at the health center with me. As is tradition in this area, when she invited me a few weeks ago she dipped her finger in a bit of red paste, placed a dot on my forehead, and announced the date of her wedding. Then she said, “Lin-see, you come to my marriage….and you wear saree!!” I smiled (with a bit of an eye roll knowing that this had been previously plotted along with other female staff at the clinic) and agreed, thanking her for the invitation and welcoming the opportunity to be someone’s entertainment…yet again. She walked away giggling.

So, I borrowed a beautiful silk saree (the one I own – a mere synthetic/cotton blend – was “indirectly” deemed inappropriate as well as a poor color choice for my skin complexion), was be-decked with jasmine flowers for my hair, and immediately criticized for my lack of bangles… flashbacks of being forced into frilly, Easter dresses as a child danced in my head.

Sarees look incredibly beautiful on Indian women – I’m told it’s “how you carry yourself”. But I disagree; they are made for the bodies of Indian women…not western women…no matter how we “carry ourselves”.  As such we look absolutely ridiculous in them. All of the time. No exceptions. We are simply built differently – from the head to the hips to the feet.

I’d like to elaborate on how difficult these things are to wear, while also noting my deep respect and admiration for the Indian women that wear sarees every single day – in the fields, at the office, out on walks, swimming in the ocean – I’ve seen it all and I’m impressed.

You begin with a tight-fitting blouse that all but cuts of the circulation in your arms and chest and exposes your mid-drift…not always a part you really want to “highlight”. If it takes you 10 minutes to squeeze into it and you have to wipe the sweat off your face in the process, you know it fits just right. Next, you pull on a draw-string petticoat, or underskirt, tying it as tight as you can stand since this is the single, most important factor in your saree not coming totally un-done. After you’ve got your undergarments securely in place, you take your 6 meters (yes.) of fabric and, holding it length-wise, begin tucking it into your petticoat as you wrap it around yourself…tucking and wrapping, tucking and wrapping. After you’ve been successfully tucked n’ wrapped several times around, you start your pleating. So much pleating. You first pleat the piece that goes over your shoulder, positioning it just right so you have the appropriate amount behind you, then you pleat all of the excess fabric in front so it all pulls tight. Finally, you take your wad of pleated fabric and shove it into your petticoat around the navel area – again, accentuating an area that most women prefer smooth and flat rather than round and bulging. A couple of safety pins later and you’re off and rolling…feeling like one bad step could send the whole thing unraveling to the ground.

So, after I’d been appropriately “saree’d”, we took off down the road for the wedding ceremony. What’s more fun than seeing a western women dressed in a saree walk into a room of several hundred Indians? Seeing a western women dressed in a saree walk into a room of several hundred Indians in a village. Ah, the story of my life this year.

However, weddings are fantastic to watch in India – a total adventure each and every time. My only experience has been with south Indian weddings which are, I’m told, very different than north Indian weddings…along with differences depending on the caste of the family. It’s all quite ceremonious, lots of pomp and circumstance, and very, very loud. There’s fire, drums, flowers, rice being thrown all over the place, hundreds of people cramming in to get a view of the whole thing, and it ends with a big, traditional, south Indian meal. I dig it.

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And my February updates…

My most recent excitement has been that I successfully ran my first half-marathon in Pondicherry last weekend! It was a ton of fun and a great push for my body and mind. The running community in India is just starting to take off so there is a lot of positive energy and everyone is super welcoming of beginners – it’s seems to be the same circuit of people that go to all these races around the country. Sadly though, the marathon season has come to an end in India as the weather has taken a turn for the hot. The days are getting more and more humid – summer in the south is quickly approaching.

My project continues to move ahead. I’ve interviewed about 300 patients so far at the health center and we’re making plans for “next steps” for the data analysis process. In addition, since I’m less of a statistician/researcher and more of a do-er, I’m going to wrap up my work with taking the information I’ve been learning about environmental health in local agriculture and put it into education materials that can be used at the clinic, in the villages, and the schools.

On the other side of my project, we’re in the process of forming two coalitions of area farmers. We’ve identified some public, micro-finance-type funding that will cover start-up costs of the two groups and allow them to begin to build credit with a local bank. These groups will not only act as a support system for the farmers, but it will also allow them to exchange information on sustainable farming practices and learn from each other. We’ve had success in this area with a similar group of shepherds and goatherds so I’m really excited to see if this takes off. I’m hopeful…

Otherwise, life is at its usual pace in the Valley. I’m doing my best to stay present and soak all this in for my remaining time here, but it’s difficult not to think about my own next steps – where I’m headed, what I’ll do when this is over (i.e. get a job vs. become a vagabond hippie, or maybe some beautiful combination of the two?). In the meantime, however, I’m continuing to enjoy my time here, the people that surround me, the solitude, pace of life, and all of my daydreams…

Sending love and good wishes to home.

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The Power of Perspective

Warning: I need to get on my soapbox for a bit so if you knowingly swing opposite of me on the political spectrum…simply bear with me.

It’s come to my attention that certain members of U.S. Congress have opened up the very serious discussion of cutting back funds to AmeriCorps (among other things) – perhaps even cutting elements of the program entirely. I understand the fiscal strain our country is under…trust me. As someone who is going to be unemployed in a few short months, I really, really get it. But my question is simply this: If we won’t pay for education, if we won’t pay for healthcare, and if we won’t pay for programs that foster community involvement in the hearts and minds of youth…what exactly are our priorities?

I’m a proud AmeriCorps VISTA alum…but in all honesty, it was a headache of a year. I was placed in dysfunctional organization with dysfunctional management in a rural community making half of minimum wage. It was tough. But rather than fleeing for the corporate sector, it gave me –and many others I served with – the fuel to continue working in social services and community development. We got a first-hand, personal experience of what’s happening on the ground and the injustices faced by the millions of American trapped in the cycle of poverty. Beyond that, these programs give you an inside look at the social service systems – their strengths, weaknesses, red tape, and gaps. When you’ve been there, when you’ve felt it, when you’ve built relationships with the people…it’s difficult to turn your back on the issues, especially when you catch a glimpse of the way out. The perspective I gained – as difficult as it was – will stay with me the rest of my life.

It’s no secret that our world has issues. Lots of them. Take your pick. Poverty, poor health, gender discrimination, illiteracy, drugs, crime, discrimination, polluted water, degradation of natural resources…these aren’t things that just occur in the “developing world”. Each city, state, country, continent experiences these issues in their own way. So when we’re faced with all of this – a world in crisis, so to speak – should we really be cutting back on programs that encourage young people to get involved? Isn’t the goal to expose people – young and old – to new perspectives that give them that drive to be active and contributing members of their communities? To work to change the systems in place? To challenge the status quo? And as Americans, shouldn’t we be instilling a sense of civic responsibility towards the democracy that we so vehemently preach to the rest of the world? After all, civic participation is the cornerstone of democracy…is it not?

I’m currently living in the “the world’s largest democracy”….or rather, “the world’s largest [corrupted] democracy”. And the corruption runs deep. From national officials to local politicians – you can’t trust anyone here. The scariest place I’ve been in India was my district’s Chief of Police compound. Simply registering my FRRO felt like I was begging for my life. I see the issue as two-fold: it’s the role of the people to uphold their rights, demand public accountability, and refuse to give bribes; it’s also the role of government officials, police officers, and elected representatives not to abuse their power and keep the public interest at the forefront of their work. But here, the people don’t always know their rights and power is the weapon of choice for politicians. So, essentially, you’ve got a mess…which is improving…but very slowly.

I am a citizen of a country that I believe exercises democracy with a lesser degree of corruption. We’ve instituted checks and balances, principles of equity, and values of transparency that continue to be a work in progress – but progress none the less. Freedom, individuality, and an understanding of our basic human rights constitute American values that are at the core of our very existence. But we can’t forget – not even for an instant – that it is our role as citizens to uphold these values, to improve the systems, to work towards positive change. It seems to me that when we’re a community, a country, a world in crisis – economically, socially, environmentally – we need people involved more than ever before…young or old, left or right, radical change-makers and  idealistic pace-setters, thinkers, dreamers, wishers, and do-ers.

Because, if not now…when?

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A Feminist Goes to India

This morning I ate breakfast with a friend of mine who is the father of one of the most inquisitive and curious 6 year old girls I’ve ever met. She boldly questions absolutely everyone and everything. As any father would for their daughter, he wants her to be healthy, happy, and enjoy freedoms he only dreamed of in his childhood. He spoke of this and, as it seems to do quite often here, the conversation then turned towards societal differences between eastern and western cultures. Beats a cup of coffee in the morning, I’d say.

So here I was, with the banner of feminism all but tattooed on my heart, talking to a middle-class, Indian man brought up in a rural village about marriage, gender roles within a family unit, and parental expectations of children. He works at the school and makes all of the decisions in the family while his wife spends every minute at home with the children (literally). For those that know me, it was a lethal combination…

But, I know this man well…so I bit my tongue out of respect and friendship. I know where he comes from and I know that he struggles with balancing his own marriage and upbringing with all that he wants for his two daughters in life. I’ve not yet earned the merit badge of parenthood, but it’s perhaps a not-so-uncommon dance of the generations, wherever you are in the world. You want your children to have a life that is better than yours. You want to give them the chance to do things that you can’t.

I asked about his wife. Did he want the same things for her? Had he thought whether or not she wanted to leave the house and work? He told me a story. The day that they were married, his new wife’s grandmother came up to him and asked him – begged him – to not force his wife to work. He explained that to a middle-class family from a rural, Indian village of his parents’ and grandparents’ generation, being able to not work and stay home is considered a luxury…whereas, to my western eyes, forcing a woman to stay at home and raise the children without the option of working if she so chose was about as antiquated and oppressive as it gets. Is this what he wants for his daughters? Probably not. But in his eyes, he’s living up to the expectations of his parents.

As our conversation came to an end, I still respected him as the friend that he is to me, but knew that I fundamentally disagreed with about 99% of what he said based on the values and principles that I chose to live my life by…namely, my take on the basic human right of choice and equality. I don’t condone his behavior in his own home, but I appreciated that he shared what he did with me. It made me reflect on how little I know about the experiences of others and that judgment comes from one’s own perspective….which is a warped mixture of cultural norms, values, beliefs, and societal pressures. He lives his life based on the generational norms that he was raised in with an understanding that his daughters will grow up in a totally different world – one that will allow them freedoms women of his generation rarely knew. He welcomes it whole-heartedly for them, yet exercises patriarchy and control in his own marriage.

In the field of development, I’ve learned there is this really smudged line between doing actual community development work and shoving your “stuff” down other people’s throats. Sometimes, it’s pretty hard to decipher the difference. I might fundamentally know that forcing a woman to fulfill a specific gender role and robbing her of her individual economic, social, and reproductive freedoms is a violation of human rights…but what’s harder to see is everything behind it all – the family, religious, societal pressures that seem to rule our lives. How to break the cycle of conformity seems to be the endless goal of development work; but what our role in it all is – as outsiders with our own perspectives, beliefs, values, norms, and “stuff” – is the question.

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The Many Layers of India

This past week was incredibly special – Dufur, Oregon came to south India. My wonderful aunt and uncle trekked half-way around the world to see the sights, taste the tastes, give much needed hugs to their long-lost niece…and hand deliver a giant bottle of conditioning treatment for my out-of-control hair. It was a perfect reminder of home, the endless love I have from family and friends, and a chance for me to slip back into my American self for a few days. It was a breath of fresh air.

But it was also a chance to show my India to a piece of home. To show them why I’m here, what I see, and how I experience it all. When they arrived to the Rishi Valley, my aunt and uncle had just finished a whirlwind tour up north going from the Taj to the Himalayas (and everywhere in between) and still had a bit of that wide-eyed expression on their faces. Rightly so. Although this wasn’t their first venture East, I’m not sure anything can prepare you -emotionally, physically, metaphysically – for the sensory shocks of India at first glance. The smells, the traffic, the city pollution, the garbage, the slums, the immense poverty, the spicy/sour/sickly sweet food, the people – so many people – babies being toted around on the hips of young kids, women huddling around fires under overpasses, men without legs begging on the street, and the millions of others that crowd around you in markets, on busses, on sidewalks… everywhere. Coming from the west, it’s an immense about to take in and even more to process. It takes time.

This is my second venture to India and so far I’ve racked-up a combined total of about 8 months actually living here – first in a city of 20 million and now in a valley of 6,000. I’m certainly no local and still have an incredible amount to learn and experience, but I do feel like I’ve gained a bit of a different perspective than someone who is simply traveling by. Peel back the surface level – that top layer that attacks your senses with a harsh blow and a punch in the gut leaving you with a head full of frightening “what-ifs” – and that’s when you can actually, truly, honestly start seeing, feeling, tasting India. That’s when you’re really here.

So when I met them at the airport, my aunt and uncle had had their fill of temples, palaces, museums, and air-conditioned bus rides through city markets (maybe…). I got the chance to take them slightly off the tourist trail and give them a taste of my life here. We went on walks through fields of banana trees, sugarcane, and turmeric. I showed them how to pick tamarind off the trees and introduced them to a friend of mine from a nearby village who gave us each a jasmine flower and excitedly toured us through her few acres of farmland. We ate coconuts on the street, drank true, south Indian coffee…lots of it….and they willingly tasted every mysterious food item I put in front of them. They took their first auto-rickshaw ride, learned to be ruthless when bargaining with vendors, and got an informal, hour-long history lesson from the owner of one of Bangalore’s long-time, local restaurants.

Aside from simply spending time with them, the best part of it for me was watching them have the chance to meet the people – adopted family, friends, and strangers – that have entirely made my experience here. The people make India special to me, and it was wonderful to get to share that with a part of my family. But you have to peel off a layer to get there, to see it, to feel it…and it’s not easy.

Unless you have a heart of stone I’m not sure the sensory shocks of India ever go away, but I know for sure the depth and beauty of this country only gets richer…

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Updates, Updates…

Greetings family and friends!

I hope all are healthy, well, and preparing for the groundhog’s big debut tomorrow. More winter? Less winter? Exciting times. A friend of mine wrote me reminding me of this tradition of ours and wondering how I might explain it to the people that surround me….I’m imagining blank stares. Lots of blank stares.

The big excitement in my current life is that my wonderful aunt and uncle are en route for a visit! I’ll be in Banaglore on Friday to meet them at the airport and then play tour guide for nearly a week as I get to show them my home, my people, my life, and my India. I get to be-dazzle them with my broken Telugu, cunning bargaining skills, and right-handed eating techniques. Lucky them…

My half-marathon training continues (in the forward direction…). I did my longest run EVER on Sunday and felt great afterwards – quite surprisingly. Although I don’t see a gold medal in my near future, I actually think I’ll be able to do this, which is a pretty cool feeling.

My project continues to be on track…mostly. It’s taken a bit of a different turn, but all for the better (less report writing, more revolution starting). More about this later.

All in all, life is good in the Valley. The whether is warming up, my bicycle tire finally got fixed, and I’m continuing to settle in here surrounded by kind people and the excitement of my small, daily adventures.

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