Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Weekend Trip: Ooty!

From October 4th to 6th, we went to Ooty, a city in the hill region known as the Nilgris. In fact, Ooty is one of three “hill stations” which were started as summer house/retreat locations for British soldiers during the reign of the British Raj because of the cooler climate found in the mountainous areas. I was really excited to go on the trip because it would be my first cool weather (read: fall) experience since coming to India. I have been really missing the autumn weather. We woke up freaking early just like the Madurai trip and headed out to Ooty, which is luckily a much closer location than Madurai was. Unfortunately, the drive is slightly more treacherous because the roads up and down the mountains consist of many hairpin turns. As in, there are 33 of them and they are literally called “hair pins” and there are signs telling you that you are on “hair pin 17/33” (cue the “REALLY?!?! We have sixteen MORE!?!?” groaning). I have never gotten carsick in my life, but even I wasn’t feeling well during that drive. The plus side was the view. We got to drive along this road that had gorgeous views of the valley and all of these little monkeys sitting on the side of the road. It was so great!

When we got to Ooty, we visited an NGO called Freedom Firm, where they rescue underage girls who are working in the sex industry. In India, it is illegal for girls under the age of 18 to be prostitutes, so if they are in there, it is totally legal to get them out, but removing them is a tricky business because if they don't want to come out there isn't really opportunity to convince them to come. Freedom Firm has men who go into the brothels while hooked up to video cameras and try to find and rescue the underage girls. 
 Unfortunately, due to demand in the sex industry here, it is only possible to purchase about seven minutes at a time with a girl, so the agents who go on these missions must convince a girl to trust them and come with them and call authorities within a seven minute window. It is all very complicated and sounded really stressful! After the girls have been removed from the brothels, they come to headquarters in Ooty where they get some rehabilitation. One of the things they do during this time is make jewelry that is used as an income for Freedom Firm and for themselves. Another part of their rehab is assisting with horse therapy for special needs children; this lets them feel like they are helping others and aren't just the ones being pitied and helped all the time. 

After learning about Freedom Firm, we headed back down the other side of the mountain to a place called “Quiet Corner” which is a retreat center. It really was quiet, too. Quiet Corner is technically within the boundaries of a place called  Mudumalai—a national wildlife reserve. After unpacking our bags, eating lunch, and resting a bit, we headed out on safari! Well, it was really just a drive through the wildlife reserve in the cars that our school already provided. But apparently in India "safari" means a ride through the jungle areas (whereas when I think "safari," I think of the grassy plains where lions prowl and gazelle lope). There are wild elephants and even tigers in Mudumalai. We saw several trained elephants, lots of deer, a few monkeys, a herd of bison, a peacock, and ONE little wild elephant chomping away on some greenery. We didn't see any tigers, unfortunately.

The next morning, we headed back up the mountain to Ooty where we stayed in a guest house run by CSI (the Church of South India). It kind of felt like the Von Trapp family because the style of the house was European lodge-ish and it was on the mountainside looking out over the valley and stuff. We had a class there, a lecture about the history of Christianity in India. We also got a tea break that included CHOCOLATE CAKE! It was glorious.Then, for lunch, we went to a woman name Queenie's house. Queenie was an orphan and was brought up in a group home by a Canadian couple. Her husband was raised in the boys' group home by the same people. So she grew up with a very westernized perspective. And better still, a very Westernized palate! She made us delicious, bland, American food. And she cooked for us for dinner that night and breakfast the next day as well! She made pancakes! We were so excited.

In the afternoon, we visited a tribal group called the Todas. They live in a place that REALLY feels like the Von Trapps would live there-- it's even called "Little Switzerland"! But that's just named such because of the scenery of the mountains, not the way their houses looked. Even still, the mountains and all of the grassy hills reminded me of home. A lot.
The Toda tribe was beautiful. They live in this secluded little area and farm and do enbroidery on these really intricate shawls that are their traditional garment. I wish I could have bought one, but they're ridiculously heavy and cost a couple thousand dollars I think. So that wasn't happening. But the people themselves were just all really beautiful.
There are many different little enclaves of Todas, but the one that we visited is all Christians, converted from their original tribal religion. It was interesting to hear all their different cultural practices though, like the way their marriage works. It's kind of like an arranged marriage, but after the families pick the marriage, the couple has a "trial marriage" for a year and they have to conceive a child within that time. If they do conceive, their marriage takes place in the seventh month of pregnancy. If they don't, it's just back to the drawing board on the marriage front, I guess, and they get to try again. Anyway, my favorite part of that trip was the two beautiful little girls that were there. I drew them each a picture (a peacock and a butterfly) and smiled at them a lot. They didn't know any English and I don't know anything from their tribal language, but I didn't even care. They were so presh.

After leaving the Todas, we visited the botanical gardens in Ooty…which were kind of lame. It was just all these potted plants really. But there were some pretty cool shaped shrubs. Bunnies, swans, peacocks and the like. That night we had a campfire. It was really fun because the air was so crisp and it felt like it was really fall in New England. Our two faculty guides and two drivers had never toasted marshmallows or had s’mores before, so we got marshmallows from the sweet store downtown and set them to work over the fire. They told us that they liked the s’mores, but I couldn’t tell if they were just saying that to be nice. The marshmallows were weird and supersweet and a little bit flavored, anyway, so it wasn’t exactly like American s’mores.

The last day of our trip, we visited a tea estate. All the hills in Ooty are covered with tea plants-- it's crazy. Tea grows in shrub-like bushes and they have lines for the workers to walk along and it looks to me like zen gardens. But they were seriously everywhere. In some places, tea fields were all you could see when you looked out the window of the car. We got to tour a factory where they dry and grind and sift the tea leaves to collect the different types of tea. We also go a demonstration of how tea is harvested in the fields.

On our way out of Ooty, we stopped at another tribal village, the Kurumba Tribe. They were a bit out of sorts because all of the men from the tribe had taken someone to the hospital that day, but it was still cool to spend some time with them. A bunch of us got to dance with the little kids, and after we left we learned from our faculty guide that the song they were singing was about Jesus! It was apparently a song they'd learned when a local church ran a VBS for them.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Little Bit of Homework.

For one of my classes I have to read Amartya Sen's book Development as Freedom. I don't recommend it. Sen is some super genius economist who works at Harvard and has won the Nobel Prize in economics and the book is really complex and confusing. We're supposed to read different sections of the book, develop a question about the reading and answer it. You don't even have to actually come to a conclusion; it's more about the thought process and attempting to wrestle with the content of the book. I felt like the wrestling I did during the last section was really valuable, so I've copied my paper below for you all to enjoy. Just in case you didn't have enough homework.

In this section of Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen writes extensively about what poverty means to individuals living in their own countries, and how location and median income of that area affect the quality of life those individuals can have. The theory, which seems to be logical, is that even if a person has a greater income than many others in the world, if it is significantly less than the average in their area, that person will probably suffer because the standard and cost of living are higher and they can’t keep up. If this is true, then is emigration based on hope for economic increase or better healthcare or something of the like actually advantageous?
In my personal life experience, through novels and historical trends and the typical American perspective, I have always rather thought that America was the best place to live. Not “best” as in no other place is good, beautiful, or rich in culture and experiences, but “best” as in I have never been excessively hungry, I have a place to sleep, I receive a very good compulsory education, I can drink any water that I want and not worry about getting sick. Even though I know it is a fallacy, deep in my mind I still think that the best way to improve people’s lives is to bring them to America, the land of opportunity! Therefore, tasks like teaching people English are of the utmost importance because their ultimate end goal is to be in America someday, where life is better. This probably sounds really stupid to anyone reading it, but I’m just being honest. Even I take this perspective with a grain of salt; it isn’t as though I have a dream to bring every poor, sick, or starving person to Maine and think that they will all flourish there. But it has always seemed to me that America is the best place to live.
After reading these chapters, as well as having a conversation with someone experienced with refugee work in America, I have started to seriously overhaul this line of thought. If it is true that more important to quality of life and happiness is an individual or family’s economic standing compared with those surrounding them, rather than the world as a whole, then it is most certainly not in a person or family’s best interest to immigrate to America to start life over. Chances are they don’t know anyone in their new area, and apparently even refugees are only given governmental assistance for eight months upon arrival in America. If someone doesn’t speak English, they may have a difficult time finding work, especially within an eight-month time frame. Furthermore, refugees are given less than one thousand dollars with which to start life over completely new. In the scheme of American finances that amount is virtually nothing to survive on. When these people come to America, they are leaving behind a place where they are understood and probably feel comfortable for the hope that they will have a “better” life. But because they are economically disadvantaged by American standards, they will be financially hurting just as they were in their home country and possibly even worse off. This leads me to believe that America isn’t the best solution for everyone. It seems like an obvious answer, but it really did take all that thinking through to come to the conclusion that America isn’t the answer. America is not and never was the Promised Land.
The realization that America isn’t the answer to every third world country’s problems led me to reconsider a few other ideas that I had previously taken for granted. At my internship, on of the potential opportunities for American interns in the future was to teach English lessons. It seemed like such a great idea, something that I am able to do relatively easily and that could be a really valuable investment of my time into the community. But after realizing that America is not the final goal of these people and shouldn’t be their goal, it was a little less clear why the people should all learn English. Yes, English is spoken in this part of India a lot, and it would certainly be beneficial to the overall economy to have a common language, but why does it have to be English? The language of their oppressors for so many year shouldn’t be the language everyone is required to learn to function in society when they already know the language of their cultural heritage. I have come to doubt and wonder whether the skills I, as an outsider, possess can really be that beneficial to the communities here. Help needs to come from within, as World Vision has already realized. Their plan is to work from within the culture, with offices right in the areas they want to improve, employing locals who know what is going on and what can be done, to try to get the underprivileged educated and get them the resources they need to have the same opportunities to fill potential as those around them in India.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

It's Just Not the Same...

As one might expect, things in India are a little bit different than things in America. Sometimes the differences are dramatic, like the clothing options, but sometimes the differences are subtle so that you don’t notice them for a while and all of a sudden you realize that it isn’t what you are totally familiar with. Those are the differences that tend to be either shocking in their sudden appearance or else highly entertaining. Here are some examples:
Trash. There is no real system of waste management here. Everyone just throws everything onto the ground. It was really jarring to see one of the most Western acting students still crumple up a piece of paper and throw it over her shoulder. I was horrified. But then I realized that probably the trash that we leave out in little baskets every morning to come and be collected is still ending up on the ground somewhere. There really isn’t a good way to beat the system. And don’t even get me started on recycling. It’s like the concept never even occurred to them.
Traffic. I’ve mentioned this before, but there just aren’t any road rules. They don’t even exist. It’s terrifying.
A silly sign in Ooty.
Language. Not as in I-speak-English-and-everyone-else-speaks-Tamil-or-Hindi (although that is sometimes the case), but the words people use and the pronunciation here are just different. Because there is such an influence of Britain in this country, especially in the education sector, the people who know totally fluent English sometimes come out with words that seem to me to be really sophisticated and random. For instance, in class the words that teachers use are sometimes really surprising to me and even though I know them, I can think of three other easier words that a professor in America would have used. And the pronunciation is really funny, like people pronounce “only” so that it sounds like “one-ly” (which actually kind of makes sense).

Food. Cooked and eaten using mostly your hands. The meat here is totally bone-in. It’s kind of disgusting, especially when you see a big pile of raw meat with all its bones and blood just chilling, waiting to go into a dish. And then you find the pieces of liver and heart and all sorts of nasty in your food. BLECH. Also, the juices here just aren’t the same. They are more like fruit drinks than actually fruit juice even when they tell you they're 100% juice. I can’t wait to get some juice when I go home.

Bathing. Instead of showers, most people take “baths” which we ISPers refer to as bucket baths. As in you fill a large bucket full of water and then you have another cuplike one (think of a large liquid measuring cup) that you use to splash it over yourself. It really helps to conserve water, but they are a pain and a half to do. In our apartment, I usually just take a regular shower.

Henna by torch light (flashlight) during a power cut.
Electricity. As in, there isn’t any half of the time. Coimbatore has power cuts 12-15 hours per day. My apartment runs on a generator, which will power our lights and fans as well as our few outlets, but the water heaters, fridge, and washing machine aren't connected to the generator. Overall, our basic comforts are covered and it still gets annoying for us. The people who can’t afford generators are the ones who really take a hit from the power cuts, and typically use one or two candles (or, if they're lucky and can afford it, some portable lights that you plug in to charge when the power is on) to light their homes. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Weekend Trip: Madurai!

On September 21st and 22nd we took a weekend trip to Madurai. Despite the fact that we had to wake up at four thirty in the morning to start our five hour journey, we were all really excited to be going on our first trip. In previous batches of ISP students, the Madurai trip has been referred to as the “Coimbatore appreciation trip” because of the very different climate in Madurai. Though the actual temperature in the two places is pretty much equal, Coimbatore sits between mountain ranges and catches an excellent breeze, whereas Madurai is humid and gets no breeze whatsoever. The entire weekend it felt like we never stopped sweating.

After stopping for breakfast during our drive, our first stop was at the Gandhi museum. The information was really interesting, with walls filled with the entire story of the Indian independence movement from way before Gandhi’s time, up through specific details about the work during his lifetime.
Unfortunately, much of the area devoted to Gandhi’s personal life and beliefs contained signage exclusively in Tamil. What I really loved about that place was the architecture—the museum was housed in an old exhibition pavilion called the Tamukkam Palace. It was built around 1670 AD, during the Nayak Dynasty. All the windows and arches were gorgeous!

We spent the night at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary (TTS), which was this beautiful oasis right in the middle of the city. I’m not kidding, either. You are literally driving through the middle of the city and you turn down a road that you probably didn’t even realize was a road because it’s right between two buildings and then you drive for a ways and are suddenly on this spacious, coconut tree filled campus with chickens roaming about and plenty of walking paths. All you can hear on the TTS campus are crickets or cicadas or whatever chirping even though five minutes away the city is bustling. It was crazy! We spent the afternoon resting and visiting with the TTS “principal” (as opposed to the American version that would be president). TTS is unique in that they are making a marked effort to help the untouchable caste or dalits. The caste system is still a major detriment to the people and society of India and TTS is attempting to empower the people who are still being abused in this dysfunctional system. Hopefully I’ll have a post exclusively about the caste system and the dalits sometime in the future, but for now just take my word for it that it’s totally messed up and lame.

That night, we went to the Thirumalai Nayak Palace and saw a sound and light show. Which meant that different parts of the palace were lit up with colorful lights and voices narrated much of the history of that place. It was really interesting—if only we’d all been awake enough to truly absorb everything we’d heard!

We spent the night at TTS, but the rooms were so blasted hot that everybody had a hard time sleeping. While the power was on the fans kept us relatively cool, but when the power shut off and the fans stopped, it got positively sweltering in our rooms. I slept pretty well throughout the night, but lots of people had a rough time.
On Saturday, we visited the Sri Meenakshi Temple, which is a huge Hindu temple that gets lots of traffic both from worshippers and also from tourists every day. It really was enormous. And so much of it was beautiful. But at the same time it was weird and a little eerie. Okay, at times a lot eerie. There was an area of the temple that had all these idols on the pillars and people came and prayed to specific ones for specific things (kind of like Catholics with the saints), and one of the idols on the pillar was for something to do with bearing children and they had this cloth tied over it and men aren’t supposed to look at it and it was smeared with goop and it was just really gross and unnerving.

We did get to do sweet things like take pictures with the temple elephant! And inside we found a small stone elephant and took pictures "riding" that too! On the way out, there were all there pigeons on the ground and I ran through them and made them all fly away. It made me feel like a small child, and it was lovely. So basically, my favorite part of that visit was the photo ops...

On our way back from Madurai, we had the opportunity to stop at a “hospice” called Arugalam, which means hope. But a hospice here is not the same thing as hospice care in America. Instead, this hospice was an outreach through TTS that takes care of people, predominantly children, infected with HIV/AIDS. Obviously, the children who have it have mostly gotten it through genetics rather than unsafe choices of their own, which made it seem like a potentially depressing place to visit. But it wasn’t depressing AT ALL. In fact, stopping there was my favorite part of the entire weekend! We got to hear all about how the children receive treatment and are loved and cared for and given an extremely nutritious diet so that their bodies can be as healthy as possible. And best of all was that we got to play with them. Seeing the way those children were loved by their caretakers was absolutely heartwarming, and seeing how they all interacted as siblings was also beautiful.
When our time there was over, none of us wanted to leave! One of the boys reminded me of Jon like crazy except for the fact that he was shorter than I am and is sixteen instead of thirteen. But it seems that all Indians are shorter than Americans for their age and all Indians also look younger than they really are. It can be really confusing to try to figure out a person’s age!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Interning, India Style.

Part of my semester through ISP is participating in an internship in an NGO here. I was placed with World Vision India, specifically KADP which is the Area Development Program in Coimbatore (I can't remember what the "K" is for...). All that I knew about World Vision before I came was Operation Christmas Child, a program where people assemble shoeboxes of gifts to send to children in underprivileged areas of the world at Christmas time. As it turns out, World Vision does a lot more than that (I mean, who would have guessed they did more than mail shoeboxes, right?). KADP is present in twenty-six different slums in the Coimbatore area alone, running programs to raise awareness about health, cleanliness, education, and alcoholism, as well as running the child sponsorship program.
The beginning of my internship was kinda rough, mostly because “internship” means something different in India than it does in America. Honestly, I would have been fine just doing desk or office work, running around and alphabetizing files or something. Even better would be doing some actual field work, getting out there and helping people in the slums. But no, the reality is that in India, “internship” often means more like observation by American standards. One of my classmates from ISP told me that at her internship she learned that social work students here in India are required to participate in internships but they are only concerned with getting the required hours to complete their degree, so they aren’t really invested and don’t put much effort or dedication into it. That could be a contributing factor in why we aren’t taken seriously as a potential source of help to our NGOs. Or maybe the NGOs just view us as more work to be supervised and led, and not worth their time. Either way, it was disappointing to sit in the office for the my first two visits to World Vision India with nothing more than reading material about everything from what their area development program has been doing to workbooks from a leadership conference the program manager attended.

It has started to get better though, as we’ve been assigned to do a case study in a specific slum called ELGI (at first, I thought it was LG, like the phone. But nope, it’s a spelled out word). So far, I’ve been to ELGI slum three times. The first time was to attend a distribution of lunchboxes to the sponsor children who live there. The program was to run from five to six, so my fellow ISP intern, our BACAS student guide/translator and I arrived at about 4:45. We spent the time before the program touring around the slum. It was really interesting! In a way, the slum is both beautiful and disgusting, peaceful and disturbing. There is a sense of community there like none I’ve experienced in America. Everybody wanted us to take a picture of them or their children. It was a little strange (especially when somebody thrust a baby with a naked bottom into Ashley’s arms) but it was overall a really beautiful evening. The actual ceremony, which finally started an hour and a half late, was pretty boring except that they started it with two different dances. The first group of dancers were three girls aged about eight to ten, and the second group of dancers was four older girls, probably about fifteen years old. The older girls were much better, but the little ones were still very cute.
My subsequent trips into the slum were intended for gathering research for my case study on it. Even though they were really information heavy and not as much based on interaction, we still got to see and take pictures with some of the kids that we’d met the first time we visited.
One of the girls there even reminds me of my sister! I took a picture with her and tried to communicate to her that I thought she reminded me of Britt, but I’m not sure she really understood. Oh well. What I’ve learned during my research is that the biggest problem that slum faces is the fact that it sits right on the banks of this disgusting body of water which flood during the rainy season. There is a hospital right next to the slum and even the hospital dumps all of its garbage into the water! And so do the slum-dwellers, because they have no garbage bins or anything, and then it all floods up into their houses for a couple of months every year! YUCK.
All this to say that the internship experience I’ve had so far has been unexpected, interesting, and sometimes just boring. But I’ve really enjoyed my time in the slums, learning about the people who live there and having the opportunity to get to know them as people a bit rather than just thinking of them as anonymous statistics. Their world is so different than the world that I grew up in and so different from what I could ever have learned before I went there myself. Four of my ten visits are over at this point and it’s crazy to think that I’m just scratching the surface of implications of slum life and won’t really be able to orchestrate change for the problems that are so blatantly prevalent.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Lesson Three: Use Your Right Hand

In India, there is a very big distinction between which hand you use for what. See, Indians don’t use toilet paper, they use a sprayer-thing and a personal towel to dry themselves with and their left hand. As one of my classmates has labeled it, the left hand here is the “poop hand”. Yet Indians don’t use silver wear, and instead eat all their food (each meal consists mainly of rice and different “gravies” which are actually curry type dishes with different ingredients in them) with their hand. Yes, hand. As in singular. As in only the right hand. Furthermore, the right hand is preferred over the left in almost every situation. On the bus, you hold on with your right hand if at all possible. When reaching out to receive or give something, you use your right hand. I’ve even heard that money should be paid using only the right hand, which I found particularly interesting since in America, money is considered one of the dirtiest things around. When I can remember, I try even to wave to people with my right hand because I'm afraid that they'll be offended if I use my left. It kind of sucks for the left handed people in our group because they have to learn to do all their daily tasks with their right hand. And I always feel like it's a bit awkward for them when they're using their left hand to take notes during class. There are, of course, exceptions to the right hand only rule. Like in cuisine class which requires both appendages and during art when we work with clay and all sorts of things like that. But for the most part it's important to remember that in almost every situation right is right.