Friday, July 25, 2008
Monday, July 21, 2008
July 20, 2008
Finally today I have started the true “field work” component of my research. Literally, I sat in fields and talked to farmers under the shade of palm or banyan trees. And it was so much easier than I thought it would be. I worried about how I would find farmers who would be willing to talk to me if they had no idea who I was or why I wanted information. I thought about offering them money, I tried extensively to find organizations who worked with farmers, or lists of producers from sugar cane plants. Turns out, if you just walk out into a field where someone is working and ask if you can talk to them about their farm, they are very happy to give you as much time as you like. In fact, usually, you’ll get their attention and that of any other locals who happen to be around. It is a curious thing to them, some white girl walking into a farm field and jotting notes about everything they say.
More than just that, these are just such friendly and open people. This is one thing I have truly come to love about India. The people are really wonderful. Here I am, an American who carries around a bag of electronics that are worth more than they will make in three years, and they do not ask for anything from me in return for their help. The most anyone asked was that I go use my English to talk to the government, tell them how poor they are and that they should give them money to help.
Granted, I did need a translator and a driver to facilitate this wandering about and conversing, but that wasn’t so hard either (especially with the oh so helpful connections of my dear friend Ari who has been here for a month already).
So for the next week, I will be running around talking to as many farmers as possible about how they grow their crops, how they use their crop wastes, and what they use for cooking and heating water. Turns out, the stories of the biomass power plant that uses crop residues to generate electricity are not true (not surprising…they have lied profusely about many things). Even on their Clean Development Mechanism application, they say that all these materials are not used at all, they just get burnt or rot on the side of the fields. But in this country, hardly anything gets wasted. There is too much need and too many resourceful people for good things to lie by the wayside for long.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
July 16, 2008
Just so you don’t think too well of my ability to accept the inconveniences of loss of electricity and simply take on a philosophical approach, this morning I was at the same café but with one hour to leave to Bangalore for a meeting with the chairman of the power plant I’m studying and the person I have to convince to voluntarily disclose all sorts of data and help connect me with the communities from which they gather crop residues… basically the guy who will either kill or resuscitate my project. I needed to find a few reports online and the power was out again. And then on for 10 minutes, then out halfway through my download. Needless to say, my blood pressure peaked as I was waiting for my “lifeline” to resuscitate.
Now I’m on the train back to Bangalore, I’m sick of going over reports and outlines and questions, so I’ll put the work aside for bit and tell you a bit about Mysore.
Mysore is a place where I could actually live. I don’t know if it will make it into my often cited favorite cities of the world (San Francisco, Buenos Aires, and Lawrence, Kansas), but it is a place that lets you breathe and stimulates at the same time. Mysore is a small city (by India’s standards) with less than a million people. I’m staying at a hotel in the center of the city, but I’ve spent much more time at the Yoga shala away from the bussle of the center.
As the world-renowned capital of Ashtanga Yoga, and there are hundreds of yoga students from Europe and the U.S. living here to practice yoga with the highly respected gurus. The relief I feel when I am able to hang around with other Westerners makes me feel slightly ashamed at my inability to “integrate” with Indians, and it also makes me understand why I see foreigners, especially if they have a different language or skin color self-segregate in the States. When you come from similar cultures, the level of effort of interaction just drops drastically. Although, I must say that my most interesting conversations have been with those who are have grown up surrounded by the culture of India, but have become somewhat Westernized, which eases the cultural barriers.
Granted, the inability to integrate is mostly just language barriers. Less educated people here generally do not speak English unless they have a job as a shop keeper or auto-rickshaw driver, in which case they know either enough to get by or have a surprising command of the language. Although you really cannot tell who is highly educated or not simply by their job; I hear there are surprising exceptions.
People in high positions and with college or graduate-level educations usually speak English fluently. Yet Indian English is very different from American English and often times the lack of comprehension goes both ways. My problem has been that during interviews, I expend so much concentration translating the Indian English to American English in my head that I have far fewer brain cells left for actually processing what is being said and coming up with something intelligent to say in response. So I end up coming across very dull-witted.
Back to Mysore, where you can gain a dozen friends in an afternoon hanging out in the open air café behind the yoga shala, I could easily be happy for months. Plus the locals are so nice and laid back. Even when I get into arguments with a group of rickshaw drivers over the fare, it is more of a friendly banter than an aggressive exchange.
The city is also quite clean. The train station, which were always rather revolting in the North, is practically spotless. There are trash cans (this may not sound significant to those of you back home, but a trash can in India can be exceedingly hard to come by). My nose is rarely offended. And it is very safe. Oh did I mention the weather is amazing? The monsoon is in full swing, so it rains every afternoon, but the temperature stays between 75 and 85 with a nice breeze.
Yet, the most noteworthy thing about Mysore is the architecture. There are some truly amazing buildings strewn all about the city. The Maharaja’s Palace is quite magnificent. But the ones I really love are the old buildings that once must have been rather glorious mansions for some very rich people who lived in Mysore long ago. Most of them are now quite run down. They look like they haven’t seen a can of paint in decades and that is likely the least of their troubles. Some of them have been converted to auto parts stores or other such unexpected commercial pairing. I am trying to think of how to describe them in words, but I think I will just post a few pictures in a few days.
The thing I love about them is how their grandeur has been reduced to a shadow, yet the beauty is not gone, just transformed and worn in by a long, difficult life. They’ve seen countless monsoons, layers of dirt and diesel, and have sheltered the lives of many. It is the same sort of beauty that you see in a very old woman with deep lines, hollowed cheeks, and tired, but wise and exquisite eyes. You can see that she was once gorgeous and now has worn her body to its limits. Yet this beauty is in many ways more stunning than that of a girl of twenty.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
July 15, 2008
I’m sitting at a café behind a Yoga shallah listening to the monsoon rains hammer down onto the city of Mysore. I have a tiny orange kitten in my lap and his purr provides the undertones for the rain and the occasional clap of thunder.
The electricity, today, has been out more than it has been on, and my frustration with the loss of wireless internet has dissipated as I have resigned to being still for awhile.
The intermittent power has an unexpected side effect. When the power goes out, work stops. When work stops and electronics lay silent, then we turn instead to conversation, books, or simply to our own thoughts. In Delhi, the best night we had together was when the power was out all night and we sat and delved through long enriching conversations by diffused flash lights instead of sitting behind 5 Macs and exchanging thoughts intermittently while multi-tasking on work and photos and blogs and emails.
When the electricity goes out at the offices where Alyssa, Claudia, and Steph work, it becomes an excuse to sit and talk with your coworkers instead of staring at a computer screen. Less work gets done, but are we really worse off?
It is somehow reassuring that when I am eating in restaurants or cafes and suddenly I find myself in the dark, no one skips a beat in their meals or conversations. It is a perfectly normal occurrence. There are no angry calls to the electricity company, or if there are, I have not heard them. This is just a part of life. And once you accept that these essential conveniences are not always going to be there, you realize that they often just block out the true essence of living.
There is a bit of irony here, because I am working on a project to improve the availability of electricity (in an environmentally friendly manner) and I am currently staring at a computer screen by virtue of laptop battery…
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Bangalore – Day 1
I’ve been spoiled by my accommodations thus far in India. In South America, I thought a place was nice enough even though they had exposed wiring in the showers or sunken in beds. Here, I am in my own room with a TV, private bathroom, and ceiling fan for about $13 a night, and I feel like I’m paying too much for a shithole. Okay, so it is a shithole (the shower consists of cold water taps and a bucket, the door hasn’t been cleaned for about 10 years, I have “cohabitants,” and generally, its something that might be considered cozy if it were in a mental institution). But really, what do I expect for $13 a night in a prime location in Bangalore, one of the most expensive cities in India? I nearly checked into a different hotel that was half the price in a “lively market area” but my instincts were dead set against it. Plus, even if it is somewhat obnoxious to be in an area that wishes it were Times Square, it seems much safer than the crowded and somewhat seedy city market. (See Mom, I am being careful!)
My former traveling companions had slightly classier tastes (and perhaps more flexible budgets). We stayed in lovely places in Rishikesh, Jaipur, and Agra. Porches with comfy chairs and tables looking over the Himalayan foothills. Delicately painted ceilings and a rooftop terrace outside our doors. And a window in which the Taj Mahal was perfectly framed. But I’m willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort in a city and then be able to splurge a bit later when it matters more.
So here I am down South on my own to pursue the field work portion of my research. It will be interesting to travel alone for awhile. I always am so much more observant and reflective when I’m by myself. I make many more random connections with people along the way. Even my sense of direction improves markedly. The downsides are there, of course. I’m always on my guard and I have to be far more cautious with what I do and where I go. Plus I’ll miss the company of my lovely friends.
Large cities in India aren’t quite my cup of tea. Not that they don’t have amazing things to see and discover, but the traffic and the pollution and the people can be a little too much. And with the exception of the old and the possible exception of the very new and modern, Indian cities don’t seem to focus much on architectural ascetics. I’ve been surprised by some of the very hot and trendy areas in Delhi. They will have amazing and rather pricey restaurants that are gorgeous on the inside, but the outside looks more like a storage center with signs indicated with slot is a restaurant and which is a shop. The trendy and very pricey areas that do look “nice” on the outside seem to have adopted their design directly from the American suburban shopping malls and movie complexes. I know I’m being rather critical (I’m on three hours of sleep), but it is just sad to see a culture that has produced such incredible feats of architecture and design either completely ignore it or co-opt Generica.
I have observed already what a difference some of the pollution control measures put into place in Delhi but not Bangalore have made. Delhi required all auto-rickshaws and public buses to switch to cleaner burning compressed natural gas instead of diesel. The roadway air can still get pretty bad, but it is a huge improvement over the air here in Bangalore where nearly everyone still uses diesel or gasoline. It is so bad that I won’t smoke a cigarette near busy roads because I don’t want to inhale all of the incredibly toxic air too deeply into my lungs. Yes, laugh if you will. But I really think that someone could smoke a pack a day in Kansas and still have healthier lungs than someone who just lives in Bangalore.
Bangalore Day 2
Bangalore is truly a different kind of India. The traffic is terrible, but it is a great place for young professionals (Bangalore is the center of the IT boom in India). There are coffee shops everywhere, with real (aka non-Nescafe) coffee. Some are very cool (I’m sitting in an outdoor café next to a tree that plunges through the roof). I just passed one with hookahs! But it looks like there is an epidemic sweeping the wi-fi services around town. Everyone says, “not working.”
And, as my friendly rickshaw driver told me as I asked him about safety and crime in Bangalore, women are respected here. No one bothers anyone. According to him, there is no crime and you can walk alone at night (I think I’ll not be following that advice!). I have noticed a major drop in hassling. And far less blatant staring. And when I say, no I don’t want a rickshaw, they seem to actually believe that I mean no I don’t want a rickshaw. It’s incredible.
But the biggest indicator that you’re not in Delhi anymore… no cows. Where did they all go? (I did eat beef at a restaurant last night… it felt kind of naughty.)
Today I went to the Malavalli Power Plant about 3 hours outside of Bangalore. It is powered entirely on crop residues (like palm fronds, sugar cane ‘trash,’ and rice husks) and serves as the poster child for a successful model that works symbiotically with the surrounding communities to supply these fuels. It seems very promising as a way to put unused wastes to use to generate power. And it provides many much-needed jobs for rural areas. I am going to pursue it as a case study and try to verify its effectiveness as a way to provide electricity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote rural socioeconomic development. I’ll be meeting with them again tomorrow to get data and more information on other reports that have been done. I hope to find out whether what I want to do is redundant or useful. I’m also meeting with a UNDP sponsored initiative on rural biomass gasification, so that is another potential direction if this dead-ends. I am just really antsy to get out and start talking with people in rural communities and see how this all really works. And even though I like Bangalore, I’d love to base myself in a small town for a while.
Bangalore – Day 4
As my dearest Indian friend pointed out in my blog comments, India really isn’t a place you can stereotype. Going from Delhi to Bangalore has shown me how unbelievably true that is. The culture is so completely different here. For one, in Delhi, I wore Indian clothes and blended in. Even below the knee skirts looked a bit risqué. (Only for women, the vast majority of men have adopted Western fashion in its entirety.) Here, when I where my Punjabi suit, I stick out among jeans and t-shirts, at least in the cafes and trendy districts. There are saris and Punjabi suits, but mostly on older women. Although it is somewhat ironic that in Bangalore, there are also many Muslim women who wear full black burkas that only reveal their eyes.
Men still travel in packs, but they don’t act like dogs eyeing fresh bacon when girls walk by. Women work in shops and restaurants. They drive. They seem to be in control of their lives.
It feels very different to walk down the street. I don’t feel like I must put on a stone face and trust no one. I don’t feel like a target.
And, I might add, that there is one area in which Americans should look upon their record with shame. We like to fancy ourselves as a much more progressive, egalitarian, and free society, and we scorn many other countries for their oppression of women. Yet, India has had a female prime minister. Forty years ago. Pakistan has had a female president. So have Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. And when a highly qualified women runs for office we devote months and stacks of newspaper space asking, “Is America ready for a female president?”
The oppression of women is a very real phenomenon. I wouldn’t change what I said about my experience in Rajasthan. But I must qualify that and say that this problem is not uniform and there have been many advances in the position of women in many areas of India.