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!

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