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Himalayan Dreams

This last week I took an unexpected detour to Bangalore. My computer stopped working entirely and, although I seriously contemplated chucking out the whole thing and reverting back to the mighty pen and paper (can I get an Amen?), I decided to attempt a repair and give technology one last chance. So, as so many things here do, what was a promised one day repair turned into five…and so it goes.

But alas, with barely a pin-prick in my pocket book, I am finally back in the Rishi Valley with a working computer…that seems to have a brand new counterfeit operating system on it…but one that’s working, nonetheless. When it comes to all things computer-related in India, I’ve learned the fewer questions asked, the better. I’m pretty sure that licensing, like a traffic law, is taken merely as a suggested activity – but one that actually doesn’t apply to the majority of the population. I’m down.

So, this week I’m scrambling to finish up a bit of work, pack up, and then take off on my month-long adventure up north to the Himalayas. I can already taste the crisp, mountain air and see the jagged, peaks of snow – prayer flags strewn throughout the forested hillsides. Four weeks of blissful, cool-weather freedom, a bit of meandering on the hippie trail, mouth-watering Tibetan food, and a return to one of my favorite places in India.

My tickets are all booked and schedule set, but I’m currently in an overwhelming “just roll with it” mood, so I’m feeling like my plans have a pretty large degree of TBD associated with them…and it feels good. Really good. But, here’s what I’ve got so far:

Week 1: I take off the evening of the 30th and head to Delhi where I spend the night with friends, cook a delicious Sunday morning brunch, rest, and then hop on a night train – then bus, then another bus – towards Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj deep in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. I’ll spend a week with a fellow friend of mine visiting his project site, get in some hiking, and re-explore the home of the Dali Lama and exiled Tibetan government.

Week 2-3: From Dharamsala, I’m headed slightly southeast to the town of Dehradun where I’ll be volunteering on the biodiversity farm at Navdanya – an NGO founded by my she-ro, Dr. Vandana Shiva. I have no idea what to expect, what I’ll be doing, or who will be there – but I’m sure some good ol’, hands-on learning is in store.

Week 4: After a few weeks of playing in the dirt, I’ll catch a bus north to a small village in the area known as Utarkashi to spend my final week visiting the home of my wonderful downstairs neighbors from RV. (My directions, by the way, go something along the lines of, “After half a day’s journey on the bus, someone will tell you where to get off. From there you cross over a river, go through a village, and then ask anyone you see where our home is.”) Along with deep conversations, freshly-brewed coffee, homemade bread, and as many mangos as I can stuff my face with – I was promised a trek to the source of the mighty Ganges river where it runs clean and pure straight from the mountain snow. From the mountains I’ll head back to Delhi by train, spend a few days visiting a friend of mine and her family, and then return to the valley by Sunday May 29th. Whew.

Naturally, I’ll be writing along the way and posting blogs when I can. I’m excited for the chance to travel, to explore, to breathe – to get out of the valley lowlands, move around, and stretch my legs.

I’ve been in need of some elevation in my life – perhaps many of you know the feeling. So up I go…

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The Good Rock

Life is pretty slow in the valley. Slower than usual. The kids and staff (except for about 10 of us) are all on summer holiday – escaping the heat of a rural Andhra, desert summer for the sanctuary of an air-conditioned city home.  Apparently the sudden reduction in population also means that the generator isn’t really worth turning on…so the long-lasting power cuts are always an extra treat.

Lately, I’ve been reminded on a daily basis how my body has clearly not evolved to withstand a tropical climate. I’ve totally succumbed to carrying an umbrella (I call it a parasol just to make life more interesting…) on my walk to and from work to protect my head from the sun and pretty much can’t make it through the day without a power nap to recharge myself from total exhaustion. Even my computer has decided that it doesn’t like to start working until after 10am when the humidity goes down and the dry heat turns up. Sometimes all I can do is lie on my bed, try not to move, and wait for the fan to turn back on…Jedi mind tricks, by the way, have not yet proven to be a successful tactic no matter how serious my focus. In summary: it’s hot.

The heat of the day, however, has made me look forward to the slightly cooler evenings and their fantastic sunsets. I don’t know if it’s all in my head, but I swear that the sun in India looks so much more dramatic than back home – like this giant ball of fire rising and setting in the hills, commanding worship, dancing, or the offering of a sacrificial goat.

One of my favorite places to go in the evening is this great sitting rock that overlooks the valley. The view is nice, the atmosphere peaceful, and the rock has a slight groove that I can nestle my back into just perfectly. But the reason I love going here the most is because if you sit quietly, you can hear the whole of the valley heading home at the end of the day. Shepherd’s yelling “ey!” to their sheep to guide them along the path, women calling back and forth to each other as they collect firewood in the hills, tractors heading back to the village, cows mooing, and birds chirping – even in the dead heat of summer you can see and hear life all around you.

The other day I attempted to take a movie of one such evening from my perch above the valley floor, although I’m not sure I truly did it justice. Better left to the imagination, perhaps…

City Fix

I just returned from a fantastic week of traveling through not one, but two, of urban India’s bustling metros… a much needed city fix for this village girl. As beautiful and peaceful as the valley is, lately my senses have been aching for a brush with humanity – to be pushed, pulled, twisted, and turned by the other 1 billion people that live here. I needed to feel like I wasn’t alone. I needed stimulation. I needed India.

So, off to Delhi I flew…another nostalgic return to the India I first met not so long ago. I met up with the other five public health fellows for a one-day conference we had planned and then spent the next few days wandering the streets, taking in the smells, and catching up with friends – new and old. I explored a few markets, attended a lecture, tried out the brand new metro, and enjoyed the simple feelings of familiarity of a place and connection to people….millions of them. It was exactly what I needed.

After a few days in Delhi, I headed to the far east state of West Bengal to get a taste of Calcutta – a city that’s been on “my list” for a while. In a word? Love. Complex, deep, painful, raw, mysterious love. I only had two full days to see the city so it was a whirlwind full of first impressions that left me eager to explore even more. The nooks and crannies, back allies, and hidden markets give the city this rich, “old world” feel my mind could totally get lost in in the best of ways – I’m hopeful for a return visit.

Beyond the food, the culture, and the excitement a city brings – the highlight of my week was simply being surrounded by people. All kinds of people. I spent hours engaged in wonderful conversations with friends talking it all out, laughing through it, solving the problems of the world…or at least identifying them. I got to see their India and the people that have shaped that experience. I met a guy who grew up under a bridge but now served coffee, an old Rajasthani man on the metro who wanted to know my philosophies on God, and a kid that fell asleep on my arm on the plane.

Back home, when I need to breathe, to realign, and to regroup – I seek space, solitude, “alone-time”…because that’s what we do. In India, I’m realizing that when I’m off-balance I find my center through interaction, through connection, and by feeling like I’m a part of a whole. Here, being shoved, pushed, and bumped into by millions of other people on the crowded streets of a city gives me that same feeling of sitting by a river back home in the woods, listening to the water ripple over the rocks, without a person in sight – the feeling of being a part of it all, of being not so alone.

Maybe some of you saw this article in the NY Times: Rapes of Women Show Clash of Old and New India (March 26) – I think it’s an important one to read.

I have found that one of the most difficult things for me to describe to people is what it feels like to be a woman in India. It’s a complex and messy clash of two worlds with little to no enforcement of human rights. Family expectations, religious traditions, deeply rooted oppression, societal stigmas, and gender roles leave women ultimately powerless legally, socially, economically – and that’s just the surface.

Sick Day.

Well friends, it happened. My immune system finally met its match. Give me luke-warm street food, questionable drinking water, and Indian toilets any day of the week – I’ve got a gut of steel and sleeping habits to match. Delhi Belly has been but a myth in my India existence. I’ve survived extreme temperature changes, visits to the slums during monsoon season, and more shared mystery food from village celebrations than I can remember.

My body’s bacterial Goliath: Children.

Last week some stomach flu-type bug spread through the school and surrounding villages…I didn’t stand a chance. Before I knew I was good and fevered, my up-turned stomach thinking about the “special pasta dinner” from the night before. But the best part? Summer has set in nearly full blast in south India and it’s getting hot. Like…really hot. So, naturally, the power goes out for several hours every day and all the fans…including the one in my upstairs room…stop working.

After spending a rather hazy day in and out of fever-induced sleep and laying in an afternoon sweat on my bed waiting for the fan to turn on, my supervisor forced me to go to the school’s hospital…or, “hospy” as the kids call it. I didn’t have the strength to argue. So with a stifled giggle from the night-nurse (a friend of mine), I selected my cot from the metal-framed beds lined in double rows in the Girl’s Ward. Someone had scribbled on the nightstand next to it, “Tulsi wuz here 4 a lame cold!”. Despite feeling a bit like I was in some warped version of Harry Potter, the hospy was cooler than my room, I got my food served to me, and my temperature checked every few hours. Actually, it was really nice to be taken care of…I stayed for 2 days.

I’m still not back to 100% (“You’re looking dull today”, I was told at breakfast…thank you, India.), but am feeling more together than I was the last few days. Getting sick in India sucks. It really sucks. Beyond being in a tropical climate where the sudden heat can make you feel all kinds of strange things, “Western sick food” is quite different than “Indian sick food”…kind of like how the cock-a-doodle-doo that a rooster makes sounds different in Spanish (coo-ka-ree-ki?). So after several days of stomaching the “Indian sick food” diet (spicy/sour broth, lots of rice, curd, and warm buttermilk), I had a “but where’s my Vitamin C???” freak-out and have been supplementing with oranges. I think it’s working. I’m quite certain I’ll live…although I questioned it for a brief period of time.

***

The kids are leaving for their two-month, summer holiday towards the end of this week. Most of the school staff go visit family or travel during this time so the campus becomes really…really… quiet. I’ve got quite a bit of writing to do over the next month or so for my project so I’m looking forward to the solitude.

In May, the clinic will be closing for a month – my supervisor says “it’s a crime” to make people work in the heat…hurray? I’ve got my route set to head north to the Himalayas and have started getting my train tickets booked. First I’ll be returning to one of my favorite places in India and home to the exiled Tibetan government, Dharamsala/McCleod Ganj, to visit another Fellow and his project. After that, I’m headed to Dheradun to volunteer for 2 weeks with the biodiversity farm at Navdanya, an NGO started by Vandana Shiva. From Dehradun, I’ll head nearly 6 hours north to Utarkashi to visit the home of my lovely Rishi Valley neighbors, who have invited me to stay with them for a week. I was promised good conversation and a trek to the source of the Ganges…couldn’t say no.

In the meantime, I’m headed to Delhi this upcoming Sunday for a mini-conference (plus karaoke night…) with all of the other AIF public health fellows. Then on Thursday I’m headed to Calcutta to visit a few fellows, see the deep layers of the grey city, and engage in theoretical discussions about poetry, culture, and the arts over sickly sweet tea….like true Bengalis.

Hope all are healthy, well, and enjoying the beginnings of spring… 

Yesterday while I was at the health center, a man and his wife came in for a follow-up with the doctor. After they finished, they immediately came over to the room where I work and eagerly greeted me. It took me a minute to recognize the farmer since it had been well over a month since I met him, but then he reached into his plastic, shopping bag which contained all of his medical records, pulled out a slightly crumpled piece of paper and handed it to me with a big, slightly toothless grin on his face. It was a contract – written in English – between an NGO and the farmers of his village, of which he had been designated as the leader. It was dated from 2006 and as I read it over he pointed to his signature – written in Telugu – which was displayed at the bottom.

Sometime ago, I had spoken with this man and his wife about the crops they grow, the number of livestock they have, and their current health concerns. When the conversation turned towards the use of chemicals on their land, he told me about an NGO from Bangalore that had come to his village several years back to encourage the farmers to move away from chemical-based agriculture. Surprised to hear this information since I hadn’t heard of anyone doing this sort of work in the area, I asked him for more of the specifics…which, since the NGO was no longer active in his village…he couldn’t recall.

So, when he returned to the health center this time, he brought along the paperwork he had received from the NGO to show me. I won’t name names on such a public domain, but the story of this alleged “development project” – as told by an alleged “beneficiary” of the services – is one that resembles the “work” of so many NGOs all over the world (apologies for so many quotations marks, but it’s hard to accurately convey my mood without them). Just like I’m sure many of you in the field of development have, I’ve heard this story too many times to count…but, nevertheless, each time it leaves me with a pit in the bottom of my stomach – feeling angry and ashamed. So…

Once upon a time, in a far- away (but not-so-different) land known to the West as the “Developing World”…

 

…there was a big NGO with a flashy name and some donors with deep pockets. This NGO was most likely founded on an ideal that came from the hearts of a group of do-gooders and well-wishers – a mission with honest roots. But over time, the big picture got lost among the shuffle of this and that, grant obligations and donor requests. With so much focus on the “scalability” of projects it was difficult to maintain quality…if quality was ever there to begin with. But no matter, all it took to please the donors were a couple of bullet points in the annual report.

 

One day, the NGO decided to bestow their services on a small, rural village in the name of do-goodedness. They identified 20 farmers, distributed education materials, and promised them a better life. A local bank account was opened in the name of the NGO project leader (because bank accounts are much too complex for village people from the Developing World) which was filled with the promised start-up funds to be distributed by the NGO project leader as deemed appropriate (because village people from the Developing World don’t know what they need and would just waste the money on silly things).

 

So, for 3 years, the NGO worked in the community with the 20 farmers – all of whom were expected to contribute monthly to increase the funds in the bank account. The bank account grew large – totaling Rs. 170,000 – and everyone was excited at all the possibilities!

 

And then, just as abruptly as they had entered the community, the NGO left. They only had funds to work in the community for 3 years…and there were so many other people that needed saving in the Developing World. So the farmers were on their own, once again.

 

In the course of all of this, the NGO project manager – the one who had sole access to the farmers’ bank account – died. Or so the farmers heard through some chain of indirect communication (because direct communication doesn’t make sense when an NGO is no longer working in a particular community). The Rs. 170,000 was never seen again.

 

This particular NGO, however, lives on and continues to better the lives of poor villagers from the Developing World, just as they did for the group of farmers. And if you check out their website, might I add, their bullet points are truly inspirational.

“But what of the farmers?” you might wonder. Well, all but 1 out of the 20 went back to chemical-based farming, but now with a deeper hole in their pockets and greater distrust towards NGO programs. The farmer I spoke with still has the contract and remembers the names of each individual involved in the project – including the name of the bank where the account was opened. He has high hopes of tracking down the Rs. 170,000 that he and his neighbors lost…

 He just doesn’t know the questions to ask.

The Last Drop

On Monday afternoon I joined some visiting German friends on a trip up to Horsely Hills – a nearby hill station and government-owned (run down) tourist attraction. It’s supposedly the highest point in Andhra Pradesh and home to a pack of black-faced, languor monkeys. Although it’s a mere 30 minute drive from Rishi Valley or a few hours of hiking, it hadn’t really made it to the top of my to-do list for perhaps obvious reasons …namely, creative differences with the AP government around the term “recreating”.  But the invitation arose so I decided to join in.

As we turned off the main highway and began the serpent-like climb into the hills, lush forests of eucalyptus trees shaded the roads – a stark contrast from the dry, rocky brush we started from just minutes before. It was refreshing to be amidst so much green – for a minute I even forgot I was in India – but I couldn’t help but feel like something wasn’t quite right.

When we arrived at our destination, we took a walk around the small cluster of hotels, shops (all closed down), and ice cream vendors. We checked out the view from all directions and I wondered aloud as I stepped over a potato chip wrapper what this strange place was like just 50 years ago.

And then I saw it: a pool.

Now, it may only seem natural for a tourist attraction to have a swimming pool – even in the middle of a draught area. In the U.S., after all, we’ve constructed thriving metropolises in the middle of deserts with hundreds, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of swimming pools. Right? But something doesn’t seem quite right about that, either.

The one thing I find most beautiful about this country is its complete, pure – even brutal – honesty. I feel like someone, somewhere once said something along the lines of “above all else, give me truth” (paraphrasing from the far depths of my sun-bleached memory…). You can’t hide the truth in India…because where would you hide it? And as harsh as it can be at times, it’s something I’ve come to respect a great deal about this place.

So what shook me so deeply about seeing an imported (literally) pool on top of a hill in the middle of the vast, rocky, draught-ridden land was that, down below, people are struggling to survive. Water is the lifeblood of any place and it is well beyond the crisis point in this region. A 2009 land use report I once got my hands on described the groundwater as “over-exploited” and so much of what we’re working on is education around efficient cropping and water management techniques to sustain the livelihoods of farmers. We’re talking subsistence here, people…not just improved comfort levels. Even I’ve been made acutely aware of my bad water-use habits and had to learn how to use as little as possible. But I guess, so the story goes, you can get whatever you can pay for…for now, at least. If this experience wasn’t a big, fat symbol for the way the world works, I’m not sure what is.

I’ve come to learn that the U.S. is a fantastic magician – probably the best in the world. We’ve got layers upon layers of cover-ups and never-minds (plus deep pockets) that allow us to lead our comfortable and “protected” lives at the expense, or ignorance, of the rest of the globe….well, until we have to go to war with them. But the more honest truth I’m exposed to over here, the more I wonder exactly how long we think we can go on like this? How much do we really think we can consume and at what expense? How many young lives are we willing to sacrifice to maintain our lifestyles? And at some point – in the very near future – is our perceived entitlement to these precious resources going to come down to pocketbooks or populous?