Friday, October 23, 2009

The Story of the Neglected Blog

I apologize for my negligence of keeping up this blog. The internet connection that I have is dial up, and when it can actually connect, it drops the connection after about 30 seconds, so trying to upload the blog webpage has been nearly impossible. This is the first day that I have been able to work on it since my last enthralling entry of "I have internet...sometimes!" So I will continue to keep notes jotted down in word documents, in hopes that I can log on and post them every once in a while. I'm sorry about the lack of pictures. I know that those are far more interesting than my dweeby comments about my every day life, so I understand if you've lost patience with me! I will keep trying to upload them... I appreciate the encouragement!


I’m living in a place called Sonapani. Before I left, I was telling people that I was going to the foothills of the Himalayas to live in a small village called Sonapani. “Oh, don’t feel bad that you’ve never heard of this town before,” I would tell people who were familiar with India’s geography, but were stumped by the name. “It’s a village of about 80 people and so rural, it gets electricity about 60% of the time.” I laughed at myself when we arrived to this place that I had painted a picture for so many people.
Sonapani is a resort for tourists, mainly from Delhi, but tourists, nonetheless. It is managed by a wonderful man named Ashish with is young family, and every year they welcome UW students to live here for the duration of the program. To draw a more accurate picture, there are about 12 cabins, 3 beds and a bathroom in each, and a dinning hall that sits on a hill that has the most spectacular view of the Himalaya mountain range. On a clear day, I can see the Himalayas from my bed. Sonapani is a magical haven – I feel like I’m in some sort of rehab facility. I mean, I’ve never been to rehab, but I imagine that it is something like this. There are thousands of different wildflowers in between our cabins, giving the eye waves of yellow and pink and purple and green and white and orange and red. The paths of rock and sand are comprised of mica, so everything sparkles as you walk. On Diwali and my birthday, I dotted my cheeks with the sparkles from the path, and no one could tell that I had put dirt all over my face. And when I walk through Sonapani, I breathe out butterflies. Butterflies are as common here as seagulls are at the beach, and they flutter and dance in front of me as I walk. At night, the sky is clear and crisp; I think that I can see every star that was ever formed. Every night, I find myself stopped in my tracks and gazing up. For some reason, seeing these stars reminds me to take deeper breaths. And, of course, there is the clairvoyant spectacle of the Himalayas. I wake up every morning, walk the sparkle path up to the dining hall, passing the flowers and my butterfly friends, and sip my warm chai while taking in the arresting sight of the Himalayas. I still can’t believe they are there.
On the morning of our arrival, after experiencing what I might claim as my closest encounter with hell (a.k.a. the Delhi overnight train), a two hour jeep ride up the narrow roads that hug the mountain, and a 2 km hike with our luggage piled on packhorses, we arrived to Sonapani. After spending five days in horn happy Delhi, I was taken aback with how peaceful this new place was. I was welcomed with chai, and as I sat down to take in the view of the mountains, Keith, our coordinator, gracefully said, “This is your home.” We all commented on how good the chai tasted, and Keith replied, “Here, Sonapani revolves around chai.” To which Rebecca, our professor, corrected, “Life revolves around chai.” My heart grew happy from that moment forward.

A Game of Cricket


I was told that I play cricket like Jonny Depp acts in Pirates of the Caribbean. My cricket nickname is Willie Nelson, purely based on how I dress for cricket. My performance, needless to say, is awesome. There are video tapes floating around of me dancing, by myself, in the outfield and antagonizing the…batter? For people, like me, who are unfamiliar with the game of cricket, it’s KIND OF like baseball, but instead of a bat, you have a big paddle that you hit the ball with, instead of a ‘pitcher,’ you have a ‘bowler,’ and instead of four bases, there are two that you and the other batter or paddler run back and forth between until you’re out. Two people can run back and forth all day long before getting out. You just have to keep the ball from hitting the wicket, which are sticks in the ground behind where the batter stands. To people who do know the game of cricket, I apologize for my gross interpretation.

While the Sonapani staff taught us UW students how to play, natives to the hill area began to emerge, literally, from the woodwork. At first, they kept their distance, watching a bunch of white kids wearing bandanas and sunglasses prance around some sticks and chase the wondering cows away as they botched the national game of cricket. Pretty soon, however, there would be a guy that no one knew up to bat and slamming the ball clear out into the woods. Within a half an hour, pretty much ONLY Indian men were batting and bowling and fighting over who was out. It was fun to watch a real game of cricket, but I don’t think they really were all that impressed by my dancing in the short stop area.

A Delhi Story

I assume that a lot of people will want to know, “What’s India like?!” and honestly, I have no idea. One would have to spend several lifetimes in India to accurately illustrate the depth of her temperament. Looking at India from the West, it is…unpredictable. It is impossible to make any sense out of the cascade of contrasting images. You see something that you think might represent this country, and then you turn around and see something that completely contradicts your previous generalization. I refuse to limit India to any sort of line of adjectives. At first, all you hear is, “This is India,” as an explanation to any questions that are written across your face. Then you just start to adopt the phrase as your own explanation as to why you are doing the things that you are doing.

Delhi was a whirlwind, but I think that I can muster up a couple of snippets of my time there, just to paint some sort of picture:

I flew into Delhi from the States around 9 PM. A few other people in the program had arrived around the same time, so Keith, the program’s coordinator, split us up into two groups to take a taxi to our hotel. Had I been left to coordinate this by myself, I would either be still at that airport, back in America, or completely off the radar. This was my first taste of my own severe helplessness. With three months worth of luggage, I waddled out into the muggy night air of the airport’s taxi service station. This was also the first time that I would feel the weight of people staring at me. I couldn’t have looked more out of place.
True, I had been running on no sleep and had just got off a plane ride that was long enough to skip an entire day of my life, but nothing could have prepared me for the chaos that was about to ensue. As horns blared, pre-paid paper tickets for the taxis were flying all around me, and men repeatedly throwing my bags into cars while someone else would pull them back out while arguing in a language that I don’t know a single word of, I stood there blankly, uttering, “uuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmmm…am I…in the way?”
Eventually, my bags were loaded up into a van and as I climbed in, I introduced myself to the only other girl riding with me. Keith was not going to ride with us, so he explained the directions to the hotel to our driver. Even though the driver hadn’t a clue where our hotel was, he was insistent of driving off, which caused my heart to get a little excited, and inspired a whole new sound from me, “aaahhhh…?” So Keith jumped into the moving vehicle and explained further in Hindi where to take these disheveled American girls. Keith then jumped out and said, “If he takes you anywhere else besides the Blue Triangle, call me.” Haylee and I replied with a soft and nervous, “k,” and we were off.
This taxi-van was a beat-up piece of metal that sounded as if a jack hammer was running the engine – purely exhilarating. As the young male driver weaved in and out of traffic, he turned back and asked us, “You speak Hindi?” We shook our heads, “Nope.” He smiled. “I don’t speak English,” he said. “Well, at least we’re all on the same page,” I joked. I looked out the window with excitement. I had been looking forward to the experience of driving in India. I made the observation to Haylee that lanes are not really acknowledged by drivers here. A number of times I could have stuck my head out the window and licked the car beside me.
Once we were in what seemed the heart of Delhi (but how the hell would we know), our driver pulled over on the side of the road. “Hmmmm,” I poignantly remarked. “Are we…in Delhi?” Haylee, a much braver character than I, poked her head up to the driver’s face and asked, “Why did we stop? This isn’t right. That sign has a red triangle on it. We need a blue triangle.” The driver ignored Haylee’s English words and started to talk with a man in the driveway of this red triangle place. After talking with each other for a few minutes, the stranger got into the seat in front of me. “Who’s this guy?” Haylee asked, raising her voice a little bit louder. I could only smile. As the driver turned the car around, we suddenly hit a curb and our bodies smashed against the seats in front of us. Oh, I forgot to mention that the seat belts that once were in Indian cars are now in some vortex, never to be seen or hear of again. We resumed driving. Haylee’s body was now squeezed in between the front two seats as she demanded answers. “Excuse me? What’s going on? Where are we going? WHO IS THIS MAN?” The new guy turned and smiled at us, confidently telling us he knows where our hotel is. “You work for the hotel?” Haylee interrogated. “For how long? What’s your position in the hotel?...etc.”
Two minutes later, I was practicing my ‘thank yous,’ in Hindi with my driver and driveway-man, for we had made it to the elusive, “Blue Triangle.”


Go to the people
Live Among them
Love them.
Start with what they know.
Build on what they have.
But of the best leaders
When their task is accomplished
Their work is done
The people all remark
We have done it ourselves.

This is CHIRAG’s philosophy in which they run their NGO under. As some one who studies development, I look at the work of NGOs with a critical eye. After meeting with the director and staff of CHIRAG, conversing over cake and tea with the founders of CHIRAG, and listening to the villagers in which CHIRAG works for, so far, I approve of this NGO’s position in these villages  It is impressive that an NGO is as responsive as CHIRAG. Honestly, I could gush for hours over how amazed I am by CHIRAG and the effectiveness of their projects, but, like my mom told me upon creating this blog, I am probably addressing an audience who cares more about my feelings and personal experiences than the academia realm of my trip. Those stories will inevitably trickle through my work with CHIRAG, and I just hope that I can convey the honest spirit of CHIRAG. For now, I just want to stress the meaning of CHIRAG’s philosophy and how I think it is so unique to find in a developmental organization. They are not some foreign crew who arrogantly sets up shop in a region that they are out of touch with the needs of those who live there and tells them what they think they need, and after a few years, packs up and leaves. The founders of CHIRAG are from these hills and still live here, the 240 people that CHIRAG employs are from the villages they work for, and every facet of this organization, “Starts with what they (villagers) know, Builds on what they have.” CHIRAG knows they are not without flaws, and that’s why most of what their doing is responsive work – when something’s not working, they try something else, keeping the lines of communication between the locals and the organization open.

…but I won’t gush…

Sunday, October 4, 2009


So I told some people that I would start this really great blog that helped others track my trip and bragged about how I would post all of my lovely pictures and it would be so much fun...I said this under the disillusion that I would have access to the internet. I barely have phone service, let alone world wide web service. And pictures will take days to upload, so basically, this is the best blog ever.

Not all hope is lost. I will be posting more frequently now, but at the moment, I have to go. My room mates and I have to share the modem, and one room mate just informed me that her grandmother is dying and so she would like to check her email...I told her to get lost.

haha...pray for me

Umm... maybe next time I will actually write about my time in India.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Environment & Development in the Himalayas: A description of the study abroad program

Hello, friends! Welcome to the journal of my endeavors in India! Before I get started, I am compelled to note a few disclaimers - I apologize for being cheesy, sentimental, stupid, whimsical, naive, and all other emotions that I foresee being evoked while in India. I am, after all, fulfilling a dream that I have been building on for a long time and my emotions will get the best of me. I decided that it would be appropriate for my first entry to write the nuts and bolts of what I will be doing with in India. In February, I was accepted to be a part of the study abroad program titled, Environment and Development in the Himalayas 2009. Below is a wordy description of the two courses and three internships that will be keeping me busy for three months.

As a geography major, my concentration is focused on Regional Geography and International Development, Urban Social and Political Process, and Society and Environment, all of which the India program caters to. Along with the internship, I will be taking two courses. One course, 'Political Economy of Indian Development', considers how local people interpret, appropriate and resist a variety of development initiatives without losing sight of the broader social, economic and political factors shaping the experiences of ordinary Indians. The second course, 'Work, Gender and the Environment', considers the working lives of Indians with particular reference to ethnographic research on children, women, and the rural and urban poor. I will be mainly doing ethnographic work, which entails me writing my observations down constantly.

These courses and internship provide a trans-disciplinary framework for me to join researchers and area residents in their collaborative efforts to identify their ideas, practices and experiences of sustainability and development. Each week scholars in forest ecology, development, health, education, cultural studies and the arts will present seminars and lead hands-on field study. To draw together these varied & unique learning opportunities, I will work as an intern with the Indian non-governmental organization, the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (CHIRAG), based in Orakhan, Nainital District, Uttarakhand. People ask me if I’m nervous at all to go, and this is the area of which I think of, and reply with a slight smile, “yeah...” My first choice in internships, of which I will be graded on and will be spending the majority of my energy on, is focused on the region’s agricultural sector. I will be conducting case studies of the impact of CHIRAG’s insistence that payment for procurement of fresh fruits and vegetables will only be made in the hands of women. Specifically, CHIRAG wants to know whether this makes a difference to women. I am worried that I am so under-qualified to perform this study that my lack of, well, competence, will render me completely useless! However, I am so excited for the opportunity to learn more of what I’m passionate about hands on - the politics of food and the global food network and working with women.

A second internship that I am very excited to be involved with is conducting a survey of parent’s understanding of “quality” in education and their expectations from schools. Here is where I will learn about how western ideals clash or coincide with eastern ideals in the classroom.

I will be involved with a third internship, but I couldn’t decide between three programs, so I left it up to the director of the NGO to place me where I can best be utilized. I will either: Interview women on their livelihood and household responsibilities; or conduct a study to identify and analyze community perceptions of leadership. I would classify the different kinds of leaders in select community based institutions and the different training/support needs to foster this leadership.