India or Bohemia?

In the time I’ve spent in Udaipur since I last blogged, I’ve often found myself with the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody stuck in my head. Mostly this is because I’ve been asked multiple times, whenever my coworkers get together in a group whether it be the car ride to the field or a celebration, to sing a song and found myself suddenly unable to recall any song lyrics. Thinking back to my days in my school choir, I luckily remembered how this song went. Although my singing skills are not much of anything, I was excited to share this song with them which has been very representative of my time here.

“Is this the real life?”… After spending the day exploring the wonders of the City Palace in the Old City of Udaipur and saying goodbye to Alexandra who came to visit for the weekend, I called an Uber to pick me up and bring me home. While waiting at the designated pickup spot, two of the FES interns from Uttar Pradesh that I’d made friends with were passing by! How serendipitous that of all people in the crowded Old City and of the millions of street corners they could have been traversing, they happened upon my path. And as happens with Uber, I had some complications with cancelling and arranging the pick up spot and they invited me to wait with them at the restaurant they were headed to and even talked with my driver to sort out the situation. Then the next day I was catching up with a friend who was just trekking in Nepal and we found out that we have a mutual friend here in Udaipur! She knew her as a fellow Fulbright Scholar and I knew her through a friend I met when I visited the nearby NGO, Seva Mandir and we now often cross paths at the local wifi cafe. Do these coincidences actually happen in real life?

“Is this just fantasy?”… I visited Mount Abu this past weekend, which was lovely for getting a bit of a break from the oppressive heat, and here I visited the Delwara temples. These were built around the 12th century out of marble which was carried up the mountains from miles and miles away by a hoard of elephants. And every square inch is covered in unimaginably intracate carvings, including the high domed ceilings. And the 27,000 workers that carved the temples had only hand tools to use. Walking through, barefooted as required in all temples, and in complete awe, I felt like I had walked straight into a fairy tale setting. And after that I had a most amazing sit-down meal of spinach dosa with coconut and mint chutneys in a beautiful location for only two dollars… sounds like fantasy to me.

“Caught in a landslide”… At any tourist destination I visit I get swarmed with obsessive fans. Yes, me, who none of these people know or even care to know. I still have trouble wrapping my head around why all these people want me in their family photos or why each family member individually needs to get a selfie with me. But that’s how it is. They just want a picture with this girl who looks different from them. And once one person gets up the nerve to ask me for a photo, it sets off a chain reaction of photoshoots. I certainly have more sympathy for celebrities who deal with this constantly… certainly feels like being caught in a landslide.

“No escape from reality”… There’s more of similarities between America and India than differences I believe. I do activities everyday that I do back at home like working out in my yoga class, playing games with my yoga teachers little girl, taking bike rides, going to cafes, even getting pizza at a restaurant. With these, I feel so removed from the hustle and bustle and the feeling of all my senses being overwhelmed that I associate with India. I forget where I am, and that I am nearly halfway around the world from my home. But reality always sets back in. The cows appear, I’ve sweat through my clothes, there are crowds of people everywhere and not a single one looks like me. For some reason, it always gets me that most everyone in India is Indian… thought I’d have gotten that by now.

“Open your eyes”… This trip has opened my eyes to countless nuances of understanding and adapting to another culture. I’ve only just dipped my toe in. I’ve adopted the head wobble. I’ve learned how to navigate the streets on foot and cycle. I’ve discovered all kinds of Indian foods that are more palatable for me. I especially love the chilras my host mom makes (they’re like sweet roti pancakes). I’ve learned that whereas Americans tend to live with bubbles around them that provide some personal space in crowded areas or room for passing by each other, this concept does not translate to India. Cars and scooters pass and pull up to each other with only an inch to spare. When waiting on lines the person behind me will stand against my back. Scooters will carry four adults and a small child or two on the one seat. But Indian’s have the utmost care and respect for their guests. Even a boy I met at a coffee shop offered me some of the food he had ordered and even to buy me a coffee because I am a guest in his country and he wants me to feel welcomed. And the biggest understanding I’ve gained is how different the pace of life is here. As with cuisine, language, and traditions, this finding isn’t true across all of India I’m sure with metropolises like Mumbai and Delhi around. But, life has a relaxing pace here (which was not so relaxing when I got here and was used to rushing across campus from class to research to meetings to the gym to the library). It was difficult transitioning from a where I hardly ever had more than a few minutes not scheduled out in a day to a life where we may be waiting in the field to meet up with someone with no idea whether they’ll show up on time or a half hour late and where the drafted timelines I came up with for my project were just words on a page and had no correspondence to the work I would actually do that day. Not speaking Hindi has also certainly hurt my ability to effectively understand when and how things are going to happen. But I’ve learned to adapt to this. I can take my time with conversations here and have often had unplanned conversations with friends and coworkers for over an hour. And there may not be a lot of regularity, but I know I’ll be offered chai three times a day 🙂

“Look up to the skies and see”… In Dehra Dun I witnessed the most spectacular sunset. Meeting up with Safia made me fall into another lapse from reality. It was a strange feeling how comforting it was to just talk easily with someone with no language barrier and a mutual understanding of how the other is feeling. Hiking away into the Himalayas was also such a rejuvenating feeling. For the first time since I arrived in India I didn’t hear cars honking or dogs barking. We saw only a few villagers and our guides the whole trek up. I got so cold I had to put on a sweatshirt! And then of course the sunset was a magical mix of pink and orange and purple and the sun turned an electric pink as it sank over a mountain hidden by the clouds.

“I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy”… The most exciting part of my internship has been the field visits. Here we travel to the rural villages of Gogunda, about 40 minutes from out office in Udaipur, and explore FES’s ecological interventions and the communities’ interactions with them. I’ve been mostly exploring Diversion Based Irrigation here which has been interesting to explore the crossover between engineering and environmental work (although this is particularly civil engineering work I’ve been exploring the optimization of the system which is a fairly general engineering principle and getting experience on the field and working in a rural, international setting is supplementing my education more than I could ever have achieved in a classroom). But one thing that especially hit me about these field visits is that I didn’t even realize how poor the people living here were until I had to explore their economic backgrounds for my study. They wear such brightly colored clothing and gold and silver jewelry that they could have fooled me. The culture here is beautiful beyond economic boundaries. But after inquiring further about the poverty I was led into an hour long teaching on the lasting effects on the caste system here I can’t go into all of the details, but I learned that the castes in India dictate social status the way economic classes in America do. The Brahmins (descendants of priests) are the elite, the Kshatriyas (descendants of warriors) are comparable to the upper middle class, the Vaisyas (descendents of farmers and merchants) like the middle class and the Sudras (descendents of servants) like the poor. And these villagers are so far down in the caste system that they are below the Shudras. Because of this they are denied any way of moving up in the ranks like education or marriage into a higher caste, just as all lower castes are.

“Because I’m easy come, easy go”… Although I cannot believe I have been here for over a month, it will be my time to head home soon. I finish my internship on Friday and head out this weekend to explore Rajasthan for my last two weeks. Because it has been almost six weeks now, I suppose it’s no surprise that I feel so at home here, but I still can’t wrap my head around it. The nerves I felt on my first drive from the airport to my host home are so dulled that I no longer even raise an eyebrow when we drive across the middle of the road into the oncoming traffic to pass a slow moving car ahead of us. The shadowy figure of my host mom that greeted me upon my arrival is now my best friend here. The first few times I rode my bike to my workplace after having been shown the way by supervisor, Girdhari ji, I could never tell which turn to make because every street corner looked the same with signs projecting indistinguishable Hindi lettering and similar-looking street carts selling sugarcane juice and mangos. But now I know the route like the back of my hand and can even judge how far I am from my destination by the cows and fruit sellers and familiar faces I pass. I no longer feel like an outsider here. I used to worry about just going outside. The sounds and smells and sheer numbers of people and dogs and cows overwhelmed me. Now, I am a member of this community. I know to take my shoes off before I enter a shop. I automatically greet friendly faces by putting my hands together in prayer and saying “Namaste”. I finally know (almost!) all of my coworkers names. I’ve gotten to that point where I call this place home. Maybe it wasn’t so easy a “come”, and it certainly will not be an easy “go”.

Don’t get too comfortable…

Oop, there goes that horn again. And there Reenu goes with that pot again… Funny it’s taken me three weeks to figure out that this daily routine I’ve observed almost everyday since I’ve arrived is the milkman coming by and making his rounds. There are so many horns going off nearby and so many people coming and going and bringing and taking in this household that I simply assumed that the horn was some driver on their scooter and coincidentally someone needed to borrow a pot. Now it’s all coming together! I also realized recently that the obnoxious music that plays (the same song everyday!) outside every morning is the garbage collection. So many rituals here are just so different from what I’m accustomed to that I’ll never run out of new things to learn.
Sometimes it seems like time is going pretty slowly here. I think the pace of life and heat have a lot to do with that. But, when I realize how slowly I am adapting to life here, I appreciate that. I sometimes feel a little couped up here, stuck at the office for eight hours, stuck inside at night, but it makes me more appreciative of the times I get to explore the shops with my host mom and go around the BEAUTIFUL Old City with my host sister and relax in an air conditioned cafe with my host brother and explore a peacock sanctuary with my host father. I couldn’t be more grateful for how my accomodations turned out. Not only is my host family so accomodating and caring, but they’ve even recently taken care of me at my worst.
I must have gotten too used to living here that I forgot to be extra cautious about the heat. After being out when the sun is strongest at midday and hanging around the old city until evening, I only just realized I had barely had anything to drink. When sitting down to dinner, it hit me, and I got sick. I felt awful and even worse that my host family would have to deal with me like that. But right away my host brother came up to me and pushed a pressure point in my head that made me feel slightly better. I laid down and my host mom came over and placed wet towels on me to cool me down. They accomodated me downstairs where it’s cooler than my appartment and my host mom kept my towels wet until I was falling asleep. I was more thankful than I’d ever felt. When I’m sick it feels better than anything to be taken care of. I thanked everyone tremendously in the morning (after a long sleep… which I continued most of the day and the next night) but my host mom only said that there was no need for me to thank her, it’s what you do for family. This is the best thing I have found in India so far, something I wasn’t even expecting to find, family.
As for the heat, it is more dangerous than I thought, and I am taking extra precaution now. But it keeps climbing! Highs of 110 are coming up… Luckily I will be headed to cooler grounds and the Himalayas this weekend. Will give updates afterword!!
As for the pictures I promised, I’ll attach.

Adjusting to India

Week one in India is complete! I am starting to feel adjusted to the countless changes I’ve experienced so far. And there have been many. Since leaving the airport, I have not seen another American, or person not of Indian origin for that matter. This is something I did not expect, especially coming to a city known for tourism. I have been spending most of my time in a more residential area, so I suppose this is understandable. Just with a city of SO many people pooring over the streets, it is strange not seeing any of the diversity I am used to in American cities. This was especially evident to me when I first arrived because it was a constant reminder that I am an outsider here. Now, at this point in my stay, I have grown excited by the vibrant strength of the culture it brings.
What I have seen peppering the streets that I was not expecting are many cows and stray dogs. They’re as frequently found as our squirrels and chipmunks, if not more so! The problem is that they are much bigger than squirrels and chipmunks and often cause traffic problems (and leave much bigger, smellier presents behind). But they keep things exciting 🙂
Beside these, the biggest adjustment has been the heat. It is constantly over 100 degrees during the day, so hot that it’s hard to do much of anything. I felt so sluggish after first getting here. I am used to exercising everyday and walking miles and miles across campus. Here, I was nervous to walk outside at all and too hot to do any sort of exercise. The best fix for the heat (still I find it to be this way) was taking that first shower and instead of drying off, walking into my room to stand under the ceiling fan. I finally felt cool enough that I could move! I often do this throughout the day, now. At the office though, I find it hard to concentrate in the heat, especially in the hours of peak heat which is most of the working day. This, I am still adjusting to. But I do feel much more comfortable in this new environment overall. I am getting more exercise by practicing yoga every morning at the studio my host mom goes to, riding my bike to and from work, and joining my host father for evening walks. My host family is so invested in my well-being. They keep check on my hydration, like to talk to me about life, offer me “chai” three times a day, and have even adjusted some of their cooking for me to be less spicy and dense. Moreover, they have introduced me to their friends and their favorite local  shops and cafes. They’ve made the lifestyle and community here so much more accessible to me, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
About the food, I was naive in thinking that I could handle Indian food for all three meals everyday. In just over a week, I have been successful in staving off sickness *knock on wood*, but have felt uncomfortably full on multiple occassions, even though I often don’t finish the servings offered to me. (I did at first to not seem rude, but have realized that my host family really has my interests at heart, and they were very understanding once I explained how the food was affecting me) They serve this traditional bread called chapati, which is lovely and made of whole wheat which I prefer to white breads served otherwise. However, chapati is deceivingly much more filling than other breads and I have had to switch to rice with my dinners instead. I plan to eat chapati again now that it’s been some time because home made chapati is not something I will get back in America. Eating heavy, savory meals for breakfast is also something I was unaccustomed to, tried, and realized I needed to work my way up to. I am used to mostly eating fruit or nuts not so flavorful cereals for breakfast. With so much fruit available, I was surprised to find that at least my famiiy does not eat it often. But, my host mom explained to me that if she doesn’t eat super spicy meals, she feels sick. I had to explain to her that for breakfast, I was mostly the opposite. She has been kindly spoiling me with french toast and pancakes recently 🙂
I sometimes feel that I am wrong to try to adjust the norms here to accomodate my comforts. But, converting from the only customs I have known for the eighteen years of my life so far to radically different ones in the span of a week is too lofty a task. I will give myself time, and hopefully find some middle ground. I am also excited to experience the wide variety of customs and cuisines offered across the country. I am tentatively planning a weekend trek in the Himilayas with a fellow SiSA intern and a day trip to the Taj Mahal with another, so far! I so hope these will work out, but am still working to find people to travel with for the two weeks I will have after my internship.
Speaking of work, it has been a trying time to get my internship project off the ground. I was expecting my role in the project described to me in applying for the internship to be decided before I arrived, or at least for some options to be. However, I have had to spend all my time so far researching the innerworkings of the foundation and the project and revising my potential project proposals. I know that I will have time to complete my project once I get it started, but I just wish that I was at that point already because timing is starting to worry me.
On the upside, I got to visit the field this past Friday, and it was an incredible experience. I saw the water harvesting structures, continous contour trenches, and loose boulder structures I had spent all week reading about. I climbed a mountain that provided an exquisite view of the whole Aravali Hills mountain range and project area.   I met some of the villagers working on building a boulder structure which excited me! Seeing the process and progress FES is making in the villages helped me realize what an impactful organization FES is, and I get to work for them!
I am planning to do some more sight seeing soon, so get excited for some vivid descriptions and beautiful photos 🙂

Julia Stuart – Before My Travels

My best friend’s favorite childhood restaurant in New York City was a colorfully decorated, authentic Indian restaurant. However, when she took me there for her birthday, the only food I could will myself to try was the naan (and the mango lassis of course!).  Its funny to think that I’ve come such a long way from then, barely able to gulp down the least foreign pieces of India cuisine, to now, heading off to a completely Indian diet of home-cooked meals where I could be served practically anything. I realized that since that day at that restaurant, I had changed. I had branched out in my eating habits, taken a real interest in yoga, made many Indian friends, and even watched my fair share of Bollywood movies. These signs pointed me toward further exploring India. So, I took up a research position at UMich, looking at evapotranspiration levels in India. The work was exciting, and I have learned a great deal, but I have always thought of myself as an independent, worldly explorer. I wanted to have some sort of direct experience. I wanted to incite change. I don’t know that I will ever be able to put into words why I’ve decided that this change is what I want and what I need, but when I sat in on last year’s fellows’ talks about their experiences in India, I knew that was what I wanted and what I needed. The Summer in South Asia Fellowship is my launchpad for becoming that independent, worldly explorer I’ve always seen myself as.

That’s what I thought, until the application process became a huge roadblock. I spent all of first semester and winter break emailing and skyping with NGOs in sustainability-related fields (my area of interest), trying to secure an internship. Many provided no response, a few made offers, but in the end, none were able to provide me an internship. I was beginning to lose hope when  a friend of mine in my research lab got me in contact with an organization she used to work for, the Foundation for Ecological Security, which manages natural resources. Within a week, I had an internship secured. My assigned project was to help restore water catchment areas, create water bodies, and establish an official managing body. As my engineering project team and research both center around water sustainability, I am heavily invested in this topic. I also have gained many skills from these involvements that I can bring to FES’s project. On my project team, we took a similar approach of deeply researching and gathering data on Nicaraguans’ lack of water access to create parameters for our rainwater catchment system. From this process, I gained experience in analyzing literature reviews, implementing brainstorming techniques, creating objectives trees, pairwise comparison charts, and numerical evaluation charts, and creating CAD models. In my research, I learned about the interactions of precipitation, evapotranspiration, and runoff. I also analyzed NASA’s MODIS satellite evapotranspiration data using ArcGis, R, and MatLab which gives me great insight to the water shortages especially prevalent in arid areas like Rajasthan. From my background knowledge and the project description, I concocted my research question: “What are the factors that contribute to water scarcity in Rajasthan, and is FES effective in combating these factors?”. All of the pieces of this puzzle fell into place. Elated, I submitted my proposal, only to be heartbroken a few weeks later. 

I did not receive funding from SiSA. I would not be a worldly explorer this summer. I tried to apply for a few other sources of funding, but knew that if I didn’t have a strong enough application for SiSA, I didn’t really stand a chance. Nevertheless, you know I somehow made it to SiSA fellow status since I am writing this post, and you are correct. Soon after, I was notified that I had been placed on a waitlist, and a spot had opened up. I was overjoyed, dropped everything, and called my mom. It’s when you actually say the news out loud that it becomes real. “I’m going to India”. That was a wild day.

And the whirlwind hasn’t stopped since. After having to renew my passport, file for my Visa, open a new banking account, find a homestay, fill out a million forms, get the proper vaccines and prescriptions, pick up enough deet and hand-sanitizer to last a lifetime, and assure my friends and family at least a dozen more times that I know not to drink the water or go out at night or travel alone… I’ve finally reached the point where I’ll be taking off in a few days. I’ll be IN UDAIPUR on Friday. I’ll be living with my host family, a mile down the road from FES. From my research, I’ve deduced that it is very much a tourist destination. It is, luckily, the coolest (temperature-wise but otherwise as well) area in Rajasthan. Udaipur is known for selling some of the most brilliantly colored textiles. And, it is home to several lovely lakes, temples upon hills, and a wildlife sanctuary. I still can’t really believe it. It hasn’t quite registered yet. But I feel extremely prepared, and more excited than I have been for anything before this. I can’t express how rewarding it is to have worked so hard on this for almost a year, and to see it coming to fruition. I almost want to stay in this state of excitement for longer, just to soak up the anticipation. However, I’m also getting anxioius. India, here I come