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