Let it Be

Working in another culture is tough. Especially when its 110+ every single day. Navigating a workplace that operates in a totally different way, missing out on 97% of the conversation because you don’t speak the language, not picking up on social cues that would really help you out. You’ll experience the highest of highs but also the lowest of lows, sometimes within one day, sometimes within one hour.

I had one of these days this past Sunday. It was my last-ditch effort with data collection in two different villages.  The first, Malariya, has been difficult. Visit after visit (and this includes a bone-crushing 2 hour bus ride to and from the village) the youth center has been closed, boarded up, and no one around to talk to.  After hearing my frustration with this particular center, Nitesh (my supervisor) agreed to go with me and offer a bit of authority. I wised up and rented a private car, and we left at about 8am.  Well, two hours later guess what:

We stood there, pouted a bit, scratched our heads and resolved to just move onto Dhar- the next village on the agenda.  We weren’t due to arrive there until about 4pm, but what other option did we have? I was feeling a bit down though, because the center being closed meant that practically one entire village is missing in my study, and this means a big gap in my work. Of course my mind starts to spiral: “Well, this means an inconclusive study, which could mean a bad presentation to Seva Mandir, which could mean I’ll never get a job, and then I’ll be forced to eat canned food and turn into a spinster with 100 cats”. You know.  As if on cue, though, about 10 seconds after pulling away from Malariya, a song starts to play that reminds me that it’s not such a big deal:

And let it be we did. We drove to Dhar and had a wildly successful afternoon, full of interviews and focus groups, lots of laughs, and a beautiful nights’ sleep under the stars.  Within 12 hours, I went from feeling like my project was a total failure, to feeling like I should soon be up for Nobel prize consideration.  Well played, India.



We may as well have titled this blog “Interning in Undaipur, India: Our gastronomic experiences”.

Because I’m about to write about food…again. And I notice that food really is a theme of all of our posts.

This time, I want to talk about biscuits. And development. Hear me out. If you refer to the one learning camp video, you will see my deep appreciation for biscuits. My English heritage has taught me that tea is not properly drank (drunk?) without a nice hearty biscuit being dunked in it. It was heart warming to find the glucose-packed Parle-G brand of biscuit everywhere I looked here. If  I receive a cuppa, I can find Parle-G biscuits without any fuss. In town or in the middle of some village where the street before the street before the street I took to get there has no name…Parle G is there.

And then last Saturday, I realized how completely insane that is. I was driving through some randomly remote area with my supervisor, Nitesh. We pulled over for a chai break, purchased a double pack of Parle-G, and and tucked in. As we were enjoying the pause, Nitesh laughed to himself and said “Parle-G, its the unofficial official biscuit of India! We are here in this village and can’t get clean water, but at least we can get Parle-G!”.

I mean seriously! It got me thinking of the question we explored a bit in the past year: whether development happens unilinear-ly or if its possible to “skip steps”. A common example that was used in recitation was the fact that there is no need nowadays to install ground phone lines because everyone has cellphones. So, the way I saw it, we are here in a village with no system for clean water access, but are enjoying the product of a very modern large scale business operation. Those biscuits were made in a factory that was likely hundreds of kilometers away, and the supply chain stretches as far as  this remote village (and yes, even west Africa! they are all over…weird). So, the question is: Has this village skipped a step, and moved one small notch up on the development chain because it is part of a massive capitalist enterprise, or is it still totally stuck in neutral, OR worse off? I don’t really know but I sure enjoyed the snack.

Alice J

Staying Relevant

I know I just posted, and I promise to keep this short. I wanted to just put some thoughts out there of stuff I’ve been mulling over recently. Isn’t that what people do on blogs in general anyway? I’m still getting the hang of this…

This past year during some classes, I’ve taken a bit of a look at education in conflict.  Prevailing in a lot of the literature and best practice guidelines is the theme that education during conflict must be relevant (flashy dime word alert!). It makes perfectly good sense though: in exceptional circumstances such as conflict, education ought to follow suit.  But here’s the thing, I’m wondering why we aren’t really thinking more about relevant education for other populations as well.   As I go to visit the some rural areas in Rajasthan, I’m left wondering why there is an expectation for children to learn “by the book” when their educational needs may actually be altogether different.  Why not focus rural curricula on good farming techniques, animal husbandry, etc.  Sure, basic literacy and numeracy must not be neglected, how could a farmer otherwise barter his or her goods?  Of course, when I actually think about it, creating relevant education for anyone and everyone is a logistic and practical nightmare, if not impossibility.  Aslo, nailing down what children’s specific needs actually are is an entirely different can of worms. But I suppose what I’m left thinking is that education should serve to expand livelihoods (and human flourishing and….capabilities?) in whatever way that may look like for each individual.  And, I think to do that, it’s got to be pretty relevant. 


Alice J

Soup-ey Dal, Power Outages and the 22 Rickshaw

After a few weeks now, I guess I can say that I’ve got a good “routine” going. Please interpret that word as loosely as possible. Perhaps “rhythm” is better? Whatever you want to call it, there are now at least a few predictables tied in with the total unpredictables of each day. Predictables: The power will go out twice a day for one hour, I will have 4 chapatis, soupey dal, and some oil drenched vegetable for lunch, I will sweat, I will drink as much chai as possible, I will take the 22 rickshaw to Seva Mandir to get to work. Unpredictables: pretty  much everything else.

Take my week of site visits last week. Tuesday, I had predicted (planned) to visit a Youth Resource Center (YRC)—where I will be doing my work—in the unfortunately named village of Malariya.  When I arrived, it was boarded up and closed. (Turned out to be an adventure of an afternoon, which I may just share with you one evening over drinks.) Either way, the day got nothing accomplished in terms of my “work” here.  Thursday was kind of the same thing. I took a rickety bus to village called Dhar to visit another YRC and happened to meet one of the most fantastic, optimistic women I’ve ever met.  She is a volunteer for the YRCs and actually said to me “I just want to work with girls, to make sure they have the education opportunities i never got (after only finishing about 8 years of schooling before I was married)”. She was so sincere, and I just sat there grinning, beaming with the optimism that I used to be totally full of (Yes! We really CAN change the world!). We had a nice chat but I can’t say that it really advanced anything that I’m trying to get done. However, on both of those days, the power was out for 2 hours, I had chapatis and soupey dal for lunch, I sweated, drank a ton of chai, and took the 22 rickshaw to work.

I would like to briefly interrupt my own writing by saying that: IT JUST STARTED TO RAIN. For only the second time since we’ve all been here…man does it smell good.

I think we’re all coming to terms with the unpredictability of our time here.  We know that there is not much time, and there’s a seemingly infinite amount of work to do.  Boy, does that sound like some lofty existential issue. But seriously, papers are due, reports need to be written, questionnaires need to be completed.   But centers are closed unexpectedly, schedules change on a dime, interpreters cancel last minute, and sometimes, when you’re least expecting it, the 22 rickshaw isn’t running and my host mom doesn’t pack me soupey dal for lunch.  I learned to have infinite “hankuri” or patience during my Peace Corps service, so that when things come to a halt, it’s not the end of the world. Eh, I had two entire years to sort things out.  I am now learning the delicate balance of patience and a necessary drive to complete a project.  Of course, all sorts of questions come to mind when I think about this (what am I sacrificing in terms of quality of work, how respectful of the culture am I actually being, and all those fun things).  I start to question what side of the fence I fall on (going back to my first blog entry)…am I taking those baby steps and turning into someone with timelines, deadlines, requirements that don’t really square with the local “rhythm”.  I’m not really sure, but I do know that someone in New York City is waiting for a term paper at the end of all this.

Namaste y’all. Alice J

Oh, PS….I feel like Sarah really should be the one to post this. But, there’s nothing like a Bollywood dance party to break up a lazy Sunday and put you in a great mood. You should try it sometime 🙂

Some extra initial thoughts!

So…India! While my focus and energy is all-in for my experience here in Udaipur, my internal clock seems to remain in Manhattan.  So, good morning to you! It’s about 4:45am here, and the day will likely bring about temperatures of about 45 degrees Celsius – things seem to be in sync.

First impressions? I can offer some general first-glance observations, and then perhaps some bigger questions (ie. related to school) that I’m starting to ask myself. I do have to put the disclaimer out there that after serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, it will forever be my point of reference.  Bear with me as I work through this comparison.

Well, it’s hot.  Suits me quite nicely, especially after a bit of time in the Sahel and the general fact that I hate being cold.  The monsoons are rumored to come in about 2 weeks’ time, and I think everyone here is waiting on bated breath for the event. Evidently, it cools drastically, but I’m personally not really looking forward to the critters that will likely surface with the rains. Ah well! Udaipur as a city has a natural beauty given its location at the foot of several mountains and skirting around three main lakes.  The actual town is built straight onto those mountains in such a way that reminds me of the “ville perchées” in S. France.  I’m surprised to find similar flora to that in Niger: neem, eucalyptus, and plain trees.  Also, a few brush-ey type plants that probably have names I just don’t know what they are.  It’s likely that the dry sandy soil suits these types of plants just fine anywhere.  Oh, and underfed cows here look like underfed cows everywhere else, and they are universally entitled to occupy the entire road. Life is public, vibrant, full of commotion, and providing me with energy despite my total lack of sleep (I also must give credit to the endless supply of chai and coffee).

Last night, I moved in with my homestay family.  They were described by our facilitating organization, Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD) as a “traditional Rhajput family”…whatever that means, I suppose I will learn.  All I know after about 5 hours around the house is that my host brother, Harsh (short for some much longer, more complicated name) speaks brilliant English, by host mom Rheka is a fantastic cook, my host grandfather is very welcoming, and my host dog, a Pug, snorts alot.

Ok, onto the thinking part. INGO and LNGO partnerships. There is an underwhelming visible presence of large INGOs (Care, MercyCorps, Plan, StC etc).  I have yet to see their headquarters, expats who run the show, or big white Land Cruisers, as is the case every time you turn the corner in Niger.  From what I have gleaned in two days’ worth of orientation, it seems to me that they are here, in a big way, but just “behind the curtain”; they are funding the endless pool of local NGOs .  This is very interesting to think about.  There seems to be an infinite number of locally based NGOs, focusing on every facet of development conceivable.  I imagine that those who extol participatory development done by searchers rather than planners would be jumping in their seats to see the apparent grassroots, bottom up action being taken here.  However, ever the cynic, I am curious to see the limitations on how local and organic the work done by LNGOs actually is if they are being funded by INGOs (or, even more, bilaterals).  I think it goes without saying that with funding from INGOs comes guidelines and timelines that encroach upon the actual vision of local actors.  So, who wins out in Udaipur? If anyone out there can speak to this, particularly in the Indian context, I’m all ears.

I’d be tempted to banter on about my conflicting thoughts on whether development issues are actually quite the same  everywhere and thus can be addressed by similar approaches, or if a one-size-fits all approach is rubbish (my original belief).  Also, there is some interesting stuff going on here with education and processes of “learning by unlearning” typical school structures and exploring intellectual development in very unstructured ways.  (Attempting to break the idea of the school that “flies around the world” as my TA from last semester called it).  Perhaps next time. But alas, the sun is rising, and I think I’d rather work out for a bit before the temperature is too scary.  Namaste y’all.

Alice J