Saturday, February 21, 2009

"Actually, this is India only."

Gobi and outside villages

Why are you photographing me?

Couldn't help but take several pics of this guy- he didn't really understand what we were doing at his farm.

Kanna and I playing with the animals. Turns out Kanna was the biggest animal lover of us all

Love the turquoise! And this house provided us with endless coconuts. Many thanks..

I loved everything about this building, from the colors to the arches, to the men who lounged around in its shadows.

Karavadi Dam

The boys going for a swim in the dam

Wow! Certainly no Chennai.

Falling in love with the peace and quiet

Our trusty boat and boat-captain

Another honeymoon pic of Meera and I before leaving the dam
Nomadic sheep farmer

Me, a baby goat, and some cute boys

The group at the sheep farm

Village outside of Gobi

A woman VLE!! (village level entrepreneur)

Photos upon Photos

Me and Meera
Strength! Sans muscle.

Hindu gods and goddesses on top of the temple.

Group photo at rear of temple

Saying hello in front of a beautiful Gobi temple

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A visit to rural India

Greetings from Gobi! I didn't think I'd manage a bit of internet time while I was here, but due to a recent change in schedule (and an unexpected allergic reaction!) I'm here to write. First things first- just got back from a visit to the pharmacy to purchase some anti-histamines. I think that a combination of the hotel's towel/soap irritated my skin and gave me an allergic reaction. No fun! Although I'm a bit freaked out, this happened to me once a couple years ago in China so I'm remaining calm...except at that time I blamed evertyhing on my being allergic to my friend Marcus. Anyways...enough of weird skin talk.
I've been having an absolute blast in Gobi! Let's start from the very beginning. Tuesday night, a group of 10 of us left Chennai en route for Gobi, which was said to be an 8 hour ride. Only half of our group's tickets were confirmed at this time, the other half still on the waitlist. Apparently this is no big issue, as we all just showed up at the train station and managed to get seats. This was my first time on a sleeper train in India and I've got to say it wasn't so bad. We had beds in the AC compartment, which I wasn't thrilled with at first (a night of sleeping in AC makes me feel sick the next morning), I ended up being pleased because it gets pretty hot during the night. The small cots are supplied with a sheet, blanket and pillow. Not a bad deal conisdering I thought I would be lying on a steel cot only. I didn't get as much sleep as I would have liked, but that was mostly due to the early-bird snorers and the baby. Ahh yes, lucky me to always have a dear child near me on all my long distance traveling. I can only imagine how my Dad would have handled being woken up a few times in the middle of the night due to her whines and cries. Ha!
Around 6:30 am, we arrived at the Erode train station. From there, a bus met all of us sleepy travelers and drove us 45 minutes to our hotel. I really wanted to sleep on the ride but couldn't bring myself to do so, as the scenery was too good to miss. We passed through small towns that appeared bustling, but nothing as claustrophobic feeling as Chennai. We had the windows open and I was suprisingly cold! The early morning air was refreshing- it tasted and smelled clean. I took several long awaited fresh breaths.
Yesterday was packed full of activities from early morning until the evening. We visited the Samruddhi office where several of RIN's/Samruddhi's employees work. The morning was spent with introductory sessions to the workings of Samruddhi and UCID; we're a really inquisitive group who arrived, and left, with tons of questions. Samruddhi held their own though, and managed to fill us in on everything related to agriculture, local village organization, and ideas for future business plans. After breaking for lunch, we spent the entire afternoon and evening visiting different villages and farmers homes. We met with VLEs (village level entrepreneurs) who basically serve as "rural salespeople" and sell Samruddhi products to farmers in his/her village. I'm not sure if I explained this in my last post, but the idea behind Samruddhi is that they ascertain the wants and needs of farmers in rural, poor areas byp conducting field visits and interviews with the farmers. Afterwards, they seek out innovations as possible solutions to these problems. After an innovation has been created and brought to the market, they employ local VLEs (whom must be farmers themselves, and influential in their community) to sell and distribute these products to other villagers. It's a pretty cool idea, and unique in the sense that it's employing locals and encouraging village participation in the market.
We visited the homes of a few differnet VLEs and were able to ask them questions about their connection with Samruddhi, the history of their village, and were able to determine what sorts of problems they encounter in the field. We then drove around and visited field sites, played with baby goats, walked in and out of beautiful, palm tree lined fields. We eventually caught the sun set over the rice paddies and I must have said a hundred times, "This reminds me of Indonesia!!" The excursions were well planned and I learned a lot- I can now identify different types of tobacco, tapioca and ladyfingers plants!
The end of the day marked a visit to a maize field, where the farmer provided us with a couple dozen coconuts. My sheer love for coconuts was quickly revealed, as I not only downed my first coconut water, but also managed to ask for a second with more coconut meat Tamil. I haven't learned much in Tamil but I've made a pretty solid attempt to learn what I think is useful (coconut small-talk ranks high on that list).
Lastly, I'll mention that this morning some of us woke up extra early to visit the Karavadi Dam, about 15 km south of our hotel. The dam was beautiful, and although I wasn't up for a swim like some of the other boys, I did manage to score a boat ride on something that looked like an old floating wicker chair. Supposedly the makeshift boat (I think made of bamboo and coconut husks?) had a maximum carrying capacity of 10 people. I made a personal preference to ride with no more than three, because even that many felt sketchy. We toured around the dam for 35 rupee, though, and managed not to sink! A peaceful ride indeed.
I've really enjoyed this trip so far and I hope I'm able to explore more of rural India in the next few weeks. The air is far cleaner, the people friendly, and the scenery beautiful. I've got a couple videos I'd love to share if the internet connection holds steady...
Till next time!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Field trip

Last week I got the opportunity to check out my friend Sandeep's concert in Mylapore. Sadly, I had not yet been to a concert since coming to India, so the chance to hear some of South India's finest music performed by my LA born, Indian brother- Sandeep (aka-"the man") seemed like a great deal. Sandeep had told me he came to India two years ago to pursue his passion- South Indian carnatic music.
I went, and quickly discovered that Sandeep has an amazing voice. The music was absolutely beautiful...I've been trying to post a video of the show online but haven't had much success yet. When I have more time, I'll upload photos and video this weekend.
I've been really busy with work recently, as this entire week is RIN's annual induction program. Basically, the week is filled with speakers, workshops, field visits, and introductions to the many projects that go on at RIN. Myself, along with about 10 other people whom are new to RIN, have attended the presentations so far. Although RIN isn't such a large organization, there are numerous different projects that RIN works with that I have not had a sound understanding of thus far. It's been interesting to become more familiar with what the organization does as a whole, especially since the majority of my work doesn't involve interacting with other RIN staff.
Today we visited the office of one of RIN's innovators, as well as his factory, located about 1/2 hour outside of Chennai. Mr. Mukunthan has been made "famous" by creating a more efficient and affordable kerosene stove. The stove seems to be doing quite well in the marketplace and has been made accessible to the rural poor. It was interesting to see an example of an Indian factory as well; approximately 20 or so people were crammed into a small warehouse with machines all over the place. Some of the machinery looked dangerous (open flames, sharp tools, etc) but there was a complete lack of safety equipment. Someone in the group made an observation that they actually spotted a pair of safety goggles but they were just lying on the ground next to the workbench. The work conditions are obviously quite different here..
I'm making this quick because I leave in about a half hour for the Central train station- my first overnight train journey in India! Don't know if this is something I should be excited for or not- I'm exhausted and just hoping I manage to fall asleep on the sleeper! The group and I are heading to Gobichettipalayam (name is a mouthful) for the next three days. I have no idea exactly how far "Gobi" is from Chennai, I only know that it's going to be a 7 hour or so train ride. In Gobi, we'll be visiting the field site of Samruddhi, one of RIN's projects. Samruddhi focuses on improving affordability and accessability of innovations for rural markets. From my understanding, they have a retail shop that's made by and for poor people. In addition to the Samruddhi project, we'll be visiting with UCID, a project that focuses on "user centered innovation development." I'm excited to actually visit some of these field areas where the projects are taking place. It's one thing to just talk about the implications some of RIN's activities have on rural populations, but it will be that much more rewarding to understand the issues from the field itself.
Anyhow, I'll write more when I get back, and hopefully post some pics!
adios amigos

Monday, February 9, 2009

What do vitamin C and politics have in common? This blog.

Yo! It's been awhile since I've written. What's the deal? I regretfully inform everyone that my last week has been, well, quite ordinary (ordinary is relative, though, right?) I've been really busy at work, interviewing and meeting with people all over Chennai to discuss the social entrepreneurship course and its implications for their social enterprise. Interesting stuff, and I'm learning quite a bit about what the challenges are for some of these organizations- particularly NGOs. This job is my second internship of the year, and is making me think about what sort of work I want to continue to involve myself with in the future. Right now, I don't feel completely sold on working for an NGO. I think there's plenty of good work being done by these organizations, but a common challenge is the inability of NGOs to leverage power to impact decisions of policy-makers and government officials. There's amazing work being done at the grassroots level, but the guys on top play a pretty crucial role in scaling up programs for social change.
Anyhow, aside from work, I've been keeping it low-key around the Chennai parts. Finding a daily rhythm is something I feel I'm always trying to escape from, but never seem to do so completely. It's no secret that I long for some adventure every now and then- hey, this year away from the United States is partially meant to fuel this mentality! I'm bored in the states, but I'm realizing that my boredom is equally a result of my attitude and actions as much as it's a part of just living in the states. Make sense? For example, while I can't say there's ever a dull moment living here in India, there are moments which are in fact, duller. Those are the moments when I find myself slipping into the pull of the routine. The work, sleep, eat, wait for a bus, drink pomegranate milkshakes, rinse and repeat- routine. In the U.S., my routine is only narrowly varied. For example, instead of waiting for the bus, I wait for my car to warm up. Instead of going to karaoke every Thursday, I sing really loud in the car. Things of this nature...I guess it's the whole "you are what you eat" kind of attitude. Except that you are what you want, what you need, what you consume, what you do. I'm sure there's a profound quote somewhere out there that relates exactly to what I'm talking about.
So yes, all this to say that I've been too boring recently and need to spice things up a bit! Inspiration is everywhere around here- recognizing it and acting on it is the challenge. Wish me luck!
Aside from all this blabber, things have been going well. I've moved into a new flat and am no longer living at IIT's campus. I can't say I miss much about IIT except for the trees. And the monkeys. And maybe the 6 rupee idlis for breakfast. But really, I'm now staying in Alwarpet in a small flat with another girl, Leila. She's Moroccan, but born and raised in Belgium, speaks a million different langauges, is a fabulous cook, and is here getting her masters in international studies. We talk about the history of Berber/Arab politics in Morocco and the American failed health care system- all while sipping on sweet sweet sweet Moroccan mint tea. Good company :)
Hopefully I'll get some pictures up of the flat soon. I find that it's exactly what I need. It's very basic (there's no furniture) and small, but gets the job done as they say. The walls are painted brightly with hot pinks, turquoise, purple, and various shades of yellow. The biggest personal adjustment to the flat has been getting used to the Indian squat toilet in my bathroom! That, and the fact that I had no running water on my side of the apartment for the first couple weeks. Such things teach me patience and resourcefulness above all else. (Getting water involved hulling a bucket a mere 50 meters over to Leila's side of the flat, filling it up under her tap, and carrying it back over).
PS- I've had a bad cold the past few days and am interested in renting a mom/boyfriend for a day. Interested candidates should be able to provide the following:
water refills
bowls of soup
back massages

Thanks :)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Aqui y alli

Well, aren't you quaint? Pondicherry

Mr. Rickshaw, me, and what should show 4 pairs of legs in the backseat.

Beach at Besant Nagar

Arun and Anand= EPIC (Ee-ndian Partners in Crime)

Wedding Bells

The gang!

Her cuteness definitely has me beat.

Athulya: She was the best part of all the festivities

Building the reception was in.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to go to a friend of a friend's (times 3) wedding reception. While it might be inappropriate to invite several strangers to a wedding ceremony in the United States, it seems more or less welcome to do so here. I was excited to attend, although a bit nervous that I didn't have the right dress. Most Indians wear really beautiful dress to such occasions, but I have yet to purchase anything too fancy. I decided on a red kurta I'd bought a couple weeks ago, and headed over to the "Nungambakam house" to meet up with my friends. The reception was for Nico's colleague at work, and the invitation said to come from 6-9. When I got to Nico's house, him and the four other blokes were dressed to the nines. Button down shirts, ties, and polished shoes.
Being the foreigners that we are (American, Belgian, Norwegian, French, Colombian), we showed up at just about 6:00 pm on the dot. However, being punctual isn't exactly the norm here. The party wasn't quite hopping by this point in time, to say the least, but we were all hungry, so we decided to leave for a bit to grab some food. Silly move, again, on our parts. None of us knew what to expect at the reception (food at a Hindu wedding reception? nahhhh) so we didn't know whether we would be fed. We munched down on quite a bit of food at a local joint, some of which was new to me. Chenna masala and chapatti for me. (Chenna masala is basically chick peas in a spicy sauce-- chapatti a bread made of flour, water, salt, and ghee) After filling up on dinner #1, we headed back to the reception. It was quite crowded at this point in time, with a live band playing and a line of people waiting to have their picture taken with the bride and groom. I was instantly approached by a little girl who proceeded to impress me with her English skills. She was an adorable chatterbox, and she led the way for us to have our photograph taken.
I must have had my picture taken a hundred times over the course of the evening, posing with different people's kids and families. After a while, we took a break from the smiling and greeting to have dinner #2. We should have known- if you're invited to an Indian wedding celebration, there's a pretty good chance you'll eat...a lot.
There were rows of chairs of people, already mid-eats. At each seat there was a palm leaf (which acts as a plate) and several small piles of curries, sauces, and rice. It looked like quite a bit, but we knew we had to go over it. Turns out, what already was in place on the palm leaf was a mere fraction of what was to come. Servers came around with steel buckets of food, and one by one, slopped them onto the leaf.
I will say I managed to put quite a dent in dinner #2, but alas, was not able to finish it all.
After dinner we just kind of stood around awkwardly, smiling at people and playing with kids. The reception was fun, although not what some of us had expected. There was live music, but that scene wasn't as big as I had pictured it to be. No boisterous dancing to be had (except by me in my chair). Overall it was a good time, and nice to experience a Hindu celebration.

On another somewhat related note, my one and only twin sister, Alison Leigh Ransom, is gettin' hitched!!! This is truly the craziest news I've heard so far in 2009! Although I was quite disappointed to find out via the internet (I cried!), I'm very happy for her. Congratulations girl!
Oh, and for those of you wondering when I'm going to tie the knot...don't hold your breath.