Tag Archives: India

More to the Story

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Recently, there has been a lot of negativity in the press about India. I get comments like: “I can’t believe you went there.” and “I’m glad you’re not over there now.”

I feel compelled (and was asked) to share my own thoughts and reflections on my experiences in India and how they compare with the image of India that is being portrayed in the news. I am basing this response specifically on the CNN iReport that was widely circulated in the past few weeks, though I caveat this post with the following: I do not mean to trivialize anyone’s individual experiences there, nor do I claim to be an expert after only spending two plus months there. What I would like to do is add my voice and perspective to paint a more holistic view of what it’s like for the many Americans and foreigners who may not get(or choose to take) the opportunity to travel there.

I would first ask that you at least skim this piece and realize that this has become part of a caricature of the current state of affairs in India: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023053
(which I argue, while being an important part of the narrative, is not complete and therefore alone it stands as an unjust representation). Warning, the piece is a bit graphic. I will not be offended if you scan it.

Personally, I never experienced sexual harassment in the slightest which is why I feel compelled to respond. Though, I will be honest, two Italian girls were killed in the state I visited the week before I arrived. Many of the what we would call counties were closed to foreign visitors. While I wouldn’t take this lightly, I don’t find it remarkable either, having lived in Dallas, Washington, DC, and now outside of New York and Philadelphia. It’s not that it isn’t newsworthy, it’s just not unheard of (unfortunately).

Despite being in one of the poorest, most “backward” states (as classified by the government), I was working with a fairly “progressive” group of men–all college educated and interested in development, helping the impoverished, dedicating their professional lives to it. I would most closely associate my coworkers with 12 year old boys–even the married ones. I don’t mean that condescendingly, but in the way my brother’s and my relationship was when I was 16 and he was 12–it’s relating to a culture they are not fluent in and the norms for gender interaction are different–like speaking a different language.

So to that extent, some of my colleagues were awkward around me (as I’m sure I was around them), but always very kind. We developed a type brother-sister bond which I very much appreciated and made being far from home less difficult. When I left they called me “sister” (still sort of like a 12 year old brother would relate to his high school sister–sweet, endearing, a bit hard to relate to, though professionally treated me like an equal). I would say where I was it didn’t seem they don’t interact with many women professionally.

I also dressed as appropriate for my village (in a salwar kameez–the long shirts with leggings), followed customs for shoes, and didn’t venture far without a male escort (driver and translator were with me most the time). I don’t know how much of this was required, but it was appreciated. I didn’t go out after dark often. I stayed at my apartment in the evenings after work except to walk with a friend to the store or a nearby restaurant both within a 3 block or so radius of the apartment (and one rogue evening hanging out with some local college-aged women at the Pizza Hut).

I ventured to Catholic Mass most Sundays–about 40ish minutes away in an auto-rickashaw/tuk-tuk by myself–that was a little scary, but more for the arranged marriage proposals I received after Mass. (“Funny, I’ve had a difficult time arranging my son with an American Catholic woman. Can I have your father’s phone number?” Um, no. I’m still working on a more polite way of saying arranged marriage is just not my style in preparation for my next overseas adventure). [Side note: If Hillary Clinton is only worth two camels, I don’t want to know what they’d offer for me. I should clarify, this references a story that was in the paper all summer about a terrorist group putting ransom up for someone willing to kidnap Hillary when she was Secretary of State, NOT my colleagues wanting to marry her.]

I never felt particularly unsafe, except riding in a car in Delhi and that’s not because I am a woman–the sheer amount of traffic and chaos would frighten most American drivers. Did I stand out? Yes, my friend and I were the only white people in our part of the city. Everyone stared as we walked down the street–but out of curiosity. There is no feeling in the world that replaces this experience–being a physical minority and attracting attention just by your appearance–a very valuable life lesson.

If I’m honest, I did flirt with/was flirted with by some lovely gentlemen (mostly bartenders in Goa) in the more touristy/European areas, but nothing was threatening, and everyone was friendly. No major problems. One invited me to a party with his friends–which I SO would have gone to had my friend and I been traveling with a male companion, but we didn’t. We were cautious, even though it was probably fine. This to me is a reality of traveling in a country where you don’t speak the local language or even going out in the States by yourself or with only females.

I did have one colleague who always said things like (at the beach) that my friend and I should bring our boyfriends or husbands back so we could swim next time. He’d say that about most activities. As an independent, adventurous, and-yes-American woman, I thought, “Newsflash, we came halfway across the world by ourselves, we don’t really need our boyfriends hear to walk barefoot in the ocean.” But, of course, the truth is that is a part of his culture and no matter how you conceive of it or what similarities there are, there will always be some differences.

Also, I knew locals and India is a higher context society than ours. We don’t have a caste, so they have to know where to place us. My local contact was very well respected–so I felt that I was, too. Many Indians I encountered wanted to know what my parents did for a living, because their jobs have been traditionally divided by caste/social class.

It’s not that there were not difficult parts about it, but my most difficult parts were (keep in mind I was not in the most cosmopolitan of places, but rather in a more rural and less international area):
1) It’s just a different culture with different values. You have to learn/become “fluent” so to speak in the new culture. Body language, intonation, eye contact norms, etc.
2) The caste system made less and less sense the more they tried to explain it to me. It’s connected to their last same…so someone with a surname like O’Reilly or O’Connor is obviously of Irish decent and that you are Hispanic as a Garcia, Singh means warrior caste–it’s in your blood so to speak, who you are. Some people didn’t understand that I don’t have a caste. The divide between rich, middle class, and poor is incredible.
3) There’s a lot of materialism in the big cities like Delhi or Mumbai. I see materialism as the result of believing that faith causes conflict and that religion (all of it) is backwards.
While I also met a lot of very devout Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims,Buddhists, and Baha’i followers, it doesn’t seem that most people they encounter from developed nations are religious (think about many Ambassadors, government officials, UN officials, aid workers, academics–in the U.S. many of them tend to be not religious–or not publicly religious).

I would keep in mind that I did not spend much time in major cities and that India is one of the most economically, physically, and culturally diverse places I’ve ever visited. More languages and races exist in this one nation than most other places in the world. More important than my individual experience is that there are many vast and varied experiences in India and not all of them are violent or chauvinistic or what we would consider immoral. The more we perpetuate this myth that these negative experiences are “what India is” the more fear we foster among our fellow human beings and the less open we are to working together to tackle common problems and share in friendship.

Out and About in Odisha-Part I

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Here are some photos of our Wednesday journey! We took the day to go to the Peace Pagoda, Konark Temple, Puri district, the beach (Bay of Bengal off the Indian Ocean), a heritage artisan crafts village (never seen anything like that in my whole life!), and a market place.

This is Part I. I came prepared with 4 extra AA batteries for my camera (that I bought here), at least so I thought. They last for 1 photo at a time, so Allison took pictures for both of us. Stay tuned for more Konark, art village, and other pictures! Luckily, I also found the extra batteries I brought from home for future adventures.

“There are less ants on the toilet and that makes me happy.”

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I brought a notebook with me to write and reflect about my trip. My mother is such a talented journal-er that often when we talk and I am away her first question is, “Are you writing this down? Are you keeping a journal?”

Well unfortunately, between my blog and my research report, I can’t say I have that much energy to write more. Plus, as much as I love to read the journal my mother kept about me growing up, I hate rereading my old journal entries. I probably have 2 or 3 entries in 20 journals that span my nearly quarter of a century. The rest of the pages are blank.

My intentions are good. A travel journal. A prayer journal. A self-improvement journal. An inspiring quotes and poems journal. An overdramatic I’m 13 years old journal. A To-Do list journal (now that one was just depressing). A things I could do with my future journal…actually come to think of it, most of them fall in that category—even my first journal entry as a newly literate 2nd grader.

But let’s be honest. I’m not my mother and I don’t have her talent for keeping a journal. I’d like to think I got some of her talent for writing. I brought a journal with me on this adventure. I don’t think I can make a packing list without one. All of the pages sit next to my bed, neatly bound and blank. And waiting. Waiting for me to animate them.

But today, I thought of a new journal. I had a realization today as I was going to the bathroom (TMI?). There are less ants on the toilet today than yesterday, I thought when I turned on the light, and that put me in a better mood. Well, THIS ought to be an interesting journal, you’re thinking…where is this going?

My friend wrote an email to her mom that went something like this: “How am I? Well, our hot plate doesn’t work all of the time, the power goes out several times a day, our refrigerator is broken, we don’t really have real mattresses-more like mats, our air conditioner unit leaks so we have buckets under it. There are ants (and now flea-like creatures) in our bathroom and kitchen and food. We’re pretty much out of food because the monsoon has flooded the streets the last 3 days on the way home from work. But we’re doing okay.”

She read the litany to me and we agreed that all of that was true. We’re not whining about it, this is how things are. Do we get tired of it? Sometimes. Are we happy here? Absolutely. In fact, we laugh about things every day—usually caused by something in that litany. We’re doing just fine. More than anything, it’s just different. And that’s alright because we didn’t come here to acquire old experiences.

As we decided earlier in this experience, “What we’ve learned this summer is that attitude is everything.” It is very true and I am so thankful that we are both upbeat and adventurous. I could go into the “Well at least we have electricity”, “at least we have air-conditioning” mode, which is all true. But that’s not where I’m going with this.

I think after all of this that my journal is going to be one of reminders. That when I buy my first house or any house, I don’t need to have the best master bathroom to be happy. Or if I lose something material and can’t afford to replace, it’ll be okay. That I can in fact be happy and enjoy where I am and that moment. Ultimately, aside from being able to meet my basic needs, my circumstances are not that important. It won’t be anything monumental. Especially to anyone else.

The first entry? “There are less ants on the toilet and that makes me happy.”

Note: First, as with most of my posts, I wrote this entry last week and I’m just now posting it. I have one week left in this location and it has been a blast! My next entry will be photos from sites around Bhubaneswar–today we went to the Tribal Museum and tomorrow we’re going to a temple and Puri (a beach).

Tea time, Newspapers, and Power Outages

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Here the power goes out frequently—multiple times a day. At first we thought that would stop when the monsoon came…cooler temperatures and I don’t really know what would affect the power grid. But everything I’ve ever learned about a good thunder storm living God’s Country (and by that of course, I mean Tornado Alley) tells me that a good t-storm also often is accompanied by power outages.

When the power goes out at work, the computers (sans Allison’s and my laptops) shut down, the fans stop whirling, and the lights go dark. The internet’s done for. Our saltbox cubicles turn into saunas and we migrate to the front lobby of the office—a few pieces of furniture huddle around a table scattered with newspapers.

What is one thing I love about life in Bhubaneswar? Time every day to read the paper. This method is one of my favorites for learning about a culture—who is in the front page news every day? Here? Pakistan. What did they do today? What themes are important? Education and hard work. What’s in the Lifestyle/Culture section? My horoscope and news about festival and fashions. Thanks to my newspaper reading, I now have a trendy anklet, just like all the other India women. I also know that wearing gold and red bangles on both wrists means you’re married—as do anklets on both ankles. I also know that children’s boutique clothing (costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars per piece) is gaining popularity in Mumbai and New Delhi. What’s going on with Bollywood stars? I know.

What the wealthy value, what the community is doing to help the impoverished, and what foreign policy attitudes and agendas are held are exuded from the  pages of the daily paper. Cultural rituals, religious devotions, and daily life are all recorded in one location. …I wish print news was not a dying art in America. I’ll take my Wall Street Journal any day of the week. Now for the time to sit down with a cup of tea and read it thoroughly…that I am still searching for!

But when the power goes out during the monsoon, the sky is already dark and eerie. The rain comes down in buckets, flooding the partially paved partially dirt roadways. There is no light to read the paper.

Yesterday, this daily ritual occurred as it often does, during tea time. (I have since begun to measure the passing time at work by morning tea, the homemade Indian lunch, and afternoon tea time). Armed with all of our teacups, the men in the office and we stood out on the covered porch, watching the rain rage on. And what did our coworkers decide it was time to do? I think the phrase was “take a click” or “take a snap”…as in click or snap a photo.

So I run inside to search for my camera in the sea of my oversized bag in the depths of the dark office. I fish out my camera and return only to find Allison and Ashok posing as they “cheers” their teacups. And so began the photo shoot of Allison and me with our coworkers—first one by one and then a group photo.

I spent the afternoon in the dark and arrived home soaked to the bone from the auto-rickshaw ride of a lifetime (don’t worry, I didn’t slip out the side…but we did forge some roadway rivers a la Oregon Trail). But I am so glad we don’t have a generator. With a generator, we all would have watched the power flicker, remained seated at our desks staring at screens, and continued the craziness that ensues as the foundation attempts to get financial reports from local partner organizations to submit to European donors and as Allison and I analyze our research. We can do that tomorrow and every day after that.

Work is wonderful and necessary. But so is play brought on spontaneously by a power outage and a rainstorm.

You would think from their facial expressions that Allison and I were the ones suggesting we take photos!

“Live the life you have imagined.”

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Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.
Live the life you have imagined.
—Henry David Thoreau

Do you ever just “feel” a blog post coming on? Well I do. I actually have another post written—a story from last week. It’s a good one too, though it rambles a bit. I also have a collection of pictures from the impromptu photo shoot we had last week at the office. Ah, well…sometimes you just need to write. I don’t consider myself a “writer” or an “artist” by any means, but I do love to create—something new and totally my own.

Today I woke up and came to work, continuing typing up the report on my study. As I was typing, I realized a few things. First off, I care way more about layout than I should…I like aesthetics, so sue me. (I will not get off into a discussion of the Beautiful right now.) But more importantly, I am much better at asking questions than answering them. I also really only have some interest in the answer.

My report so far is full of far more questions and suggestions for future studies than actually analysis (I know…I’m working on it!!). I noticed at the museum here, I turned into that six year old—constantly asking my host, What about this? How did this come about? Why? (Who are we kidding? I WAS that six year old and probably never grew out of it. Thank you, Mom, for putting up with me.) But my interest lies in the possibilities of a problem or an issue, rather than implementing the concrete solution. Now if only I can find a job that requires me to be an ideas woman…

The quote which fixed itself into my brain this morning sometime between breakfast and morning tea time was the Thoreau quote above. Admission. I am part transcendentalist at heart. I know this quote is a perennial of every high school yearbook ad and commencement speech—every spring without fail, someone somewhere is looking out at bright, young, optimistic graduates spouting this call to action.

How is this relevant to India? Like a broken record, the second part of this phrase is spinning in my brain. Is this the life I have imagined? (There I go again with the questions…) I don’t think I would have in 1,000 years have imagined coming halfway across the world to India. I don’t think I would have dared to dream of India. And yet, going confidently, doggedly, in the direction of my dreams is something I’m well-practiced at (notice I didn’t say “always succeed at”, because I don’t!). I have dreamed of going to Nepal after a particularly awesome Tulsa Town Hall Lecture years ago…it was never a someday sort of dream, however. It was an I AM going to Nepal—even if it was qualified by an ambiguous “someday.” In 3 weeks, I am going to Nepal.

I think the point of this blog post is two-fold…first, I am constantly amazed at the opportunities I have. My Grandmother once told me, “Molly, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. You are lucky.” I would like to think my indomitable spirit—and my ability to submit as many scholarship, grant, trip, graduate school, etc. applications as necessary (until someone says YES!)—has some to do with it. But I know every step of the way that I am blessed and that others have sacrificed so that I can have these opportunities (my mother and grandmother just to name a few!).

Second, I am in the middle of trying to figure out what to pursue upon completion of my master’s degree. And while I decided as a middle schooler that my dream was to travel the world and meet new people (and I am well on my way there)…I am faced with the question, what is the life that I imagine?

Nine years ago I read a quote from Ben Stein that haunts me to this very day. “The first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: Decide what you want.”

Going confidently? Done. Living the life I’ve imagined? Damn, I wish I was better at answering questions.

Now back to get back to the study I’m conducting…

If you can use some exotic booze, there’s a bar in far Bombay!

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Life’s a beach…

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