When I decided to resurrect this blog from last summer, the first thing Google asked me was “Why not blog in Hindi?” I could probably think of many reasons ‘why not’, the first being I don’t know Hindi, but thanks Google maybe later. I also am going to preface this by saying, I promise I’ll update the background to something more interesting once I actually take pictures that aren’t of trash and snakes here.
|My personal favorite: the cow in central central central Bengaluru that wouldn’t mooove.|
I wrote this whole post and then realized that I keep dropping all these names and terms that maybe less than four people would actually understand so I’m going to give a quick intro to why I’m blogging from India:
Most of you probably know that I just finished my first ‘year’ of classes as a PhD student at CU Boulder. I’m studying Civil Systems (think holistic approach) and Engineering for Developing Communities (EDC). As part of the EDC program, we get the opportunity to travel during our first summer to work with a development organization abroad. The program does a nice job of organizing practicums for us, but I was interested in working in a context that was more relevant to my research. Through a series of extraordinarily lucky events, I was able to convince a Swiss research organization called Eawag to let me join them this summer to help with one of their current research projects and start some of my own data collection. Eawag has a project called 4S: Small-Scale Sanitation Scaling Up funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where they are investigating the state of small (less than 5,000 served) sanitation systems in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and potentially Pakistan in order to make recommendations for how to improve the sustainability and institutional framework that supports such systems. This stems largely out of a widespread lack of knowledge of how small sanitation systems compare to centralized, larger systems both in terms of cost and treatment quality. Many communities are better suited by smaller, contextualized systems, but India presently doesn’t know how to regulate, support, and encourage these systems. Presently, the 4S project is run by a Swiss guy named Lukas and supported by an Indian guy named Rohit. They have 8 field teams from the India Institute of Technology who are primarily master’s students, and from CDD Society, which is a major implementer of small sanitation systems here. They are also working with BORDA, which is CDD’s mother organization that also does tons of sanitation implementation and research. The 4S project includes a broad investigation of 350 systems in India and 50 between Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. They are mostly studying the technical, economic, and institutional aspects of these systems to identify challenges and places for improvement or governmental support. My research coincides with the 4S project, as I am also interested in studying what makes small sanitation systems sustainable in India and what aspects of these systems need improvement. My research diverges as I am focusing specifically on the combinations of existing community conditions (community priorities and needs), implementation strategies (community participation and consultation, training, decision-making, design, construction, etc.), and technology choices that lead to success and failure in small sanitation systems. I will compare these pathways to success and failure between conventional sanitation systems and those that have resource recovery potential (such as anaerobic digestion technologies that produce methane gas for cooking fuel or digestate for fertilizer). I will be joining some of Eawag’s field teams to visit the community-based sanitation systems and the anaerobic digestion sanitation systems and then will hopefully select a few of these communities to pilot my full data collection protocol. More details later.
I gave myself three full days of summer vacation and flew to California to go camping with my best pals in Joshua Tree. All you need to know is it involved a lot of Bermuda shorts, monochrome outfits, crab cakes benedict, and a newfound discovery that I enjoy rock climbing. Less than 24 hours later, I moved to India. After 27 hours of travel, I finally arrived to my apartment in Bangalore (Bengaluru now—the pre-colonial name). Really the only things to report from the journey are 1) apparently you can survive nine hours in the middle seat of an airplane, and 2) I love old Indian women. A large group of them were crowded around the mirror in the bathroom in the Frankfurt airport meticulously applying their beauty spots, prompting my first Indian Google Search to be “what do Indian beauty spots mean.”
I arrived at 3 am, so the months I had spent preparing myself for the shock of ‘there are people everywhere’ were a total waste. We didn’t hit any traffic, and the largest crowds I saw were piles of dogs laying in the street. I’m staying in a place called the EcoHouse, it was built by a Swedish professor who does research in India. The top floor is Lukas’ apartment (my main contact from Eawag) and I’ll be staying there for two weeks while he is on vacation. The two floors below are another apartment, which currently houses two Swedish students, Jasmine and Carolina who are here sort of researching solid waste management in India. I’ll move into that apartment in two weeks for the rest of the summer and may or may not share it with the occasional visitor, one of whom might actually be named Olaf. The basement is an office for BORDA, one of the sanitation system implementing organizations that I will work with and may study this summer. It’s an interesting place. It’s supposed to be environmentally designed with natural lighting and air flow, but I think the latter of those may not have been as successful as intended. My toilet is a urine diversion toilet that supposedly recycles the urine to use as fertilizer on the garden by the lower apartment. Not sure if that’s actually happening. One of the toilets in the lower apartment is a composting toilet (think camping) and the girls downstairs said they don’t use it ever since a four inch cockroach was found sitting on the seat. The funny part about this place is that literally seven feet from us is a giant makeshift landfill where I was instructed to dump my trash.
|View at sunrise from the roof of the EcoHouse|
I got four hours of sleep before it was too hot to subconsciously survive. Lukas spoiled me by giving me full access to anything in his cabinets or fridge. This apartment (as well as the one below) have full kitchens complete with fridge, microwave, and gas stoves. I made coffee and then immediately put it in my freezer since the thought of drinking something hot made me want to pass out. I spent the morning chatting with Jasmine and Carolina.
Rohit, one of the people who works for Eawag on the 4S project came to pick me up and take me to the CDD office where he and Lukas work. Shockingly, he was almost an hour early and shattered my expectation that everything in India happens on a fluid time schedule. We took an Uber to the CDD office which is about 4.5 miles from the EcoHouse, again no traffic. If it wasn’t for the cows that live up to all stereotypes and just wander in the streets, I would think I was mistakenly not in India. The CDD office is a giant orange building, also right next to a ‘landfill’ full of baby goats eating trash.
|Goat eating trash.|
This one is actually quite successfully environmentally designed—it has large open breezeways whose breeze can make you feel cold pretty quickly. My first day mainly consisted of introductions to the forty or so people who work in the CDD office. I also received a quick introduction to Indian food and the practice of eating entirely with my hands. If I thought I was a messy eater before, this is a whole new level and I’m going to have to practice eating bowls of rice alone in my apartment with my fingers quick or risk massively embarrassing myself the whole summer.
When I got back to the EcoHouse, I went downstairs to look at the BORDA office and found the director of the Asia programs working there. Apparently I surprised him and he thought I had come for a formal meeting so he launched into a whole professional explanation of his work and ordered coffee for us before realizing that I was just there to see what the office looked like. I also was able to meet the maid, Sushilama or Aka for short, and the janitor, Rupesh. They’re both employed at the office full time I believe, which is interesting since there’s maximum one person working at the office and two people living in the EcoHouse.
Later, Rupesh took me to the store to buy a few things. It started by me asking where the closest supermarket was and if I could walk, to which he shook his head all over and said “no, we will take my bike.” Thankfully, this did not mean a tandem bike or riding in the front basket, as I feared “bike” could. Unthankfully, it meant, he put on the only helmet and I clung for dear life to the back and tried not to panic when street dogs would sniff my ankles as we drove by.
Rupesh then told me he’d wait outside, which apparently meant he would not wait outside and would instead follow me around the store with the basket and not allow me to hold an item in my hand for more than a few seconds. I had originally planned to expand my mental grocery list from “shampoo and toothpaste” on my walk to the grocery store and obviously hadn’t gotten the opportunity, so I panicked and ended up with shampoo, pink perfume soap, toothpaste, two mangoes, seven carrots, toilet paper, and two packages of instant masala noodles.
Jasmine, Carolina, and I went to dinner at a family restaurant a half mile from our place. They’ve been hesitant to try any restaurants that Lukas hasn’t vetted yet and are a little apprehensive of eating meat or anything unrecognizable in India which mostly meant that I ended up with all of the leftovers. One of the highlights of the walk over was seeing one of the largest snakes I’ve ever seen in the ‘wild’. Didn’t expect that from Bengaluru.
On Day 2, I woke up, ate a mango, and introduced my neighbors to their first ever white girl on a bike. Felt like a giant idiot when I didn’t realize the bike seat was a couple inches too tall for me and I couldn’t get on. But I found a tool, fixed it, and marched along the road to the CDD office. I spent probably the first 25 minutes of the ride laughing at myself because I’m sure I looked massively ridiculous. I also started getting excited since I would frequently pass motorbikes, but that’s probably owing more to the fact that they had three people on them and slowed down to stare. About 30 minutes in, my first big India adventure happened when a nice little white car (Mom, Grandma, stop reading please) plowed into my bike and sent me flying. Everyone kept telling me later to be careful, but I honestly don’t know what I could have done since the car literally just turned into my bike. Going to preface the rest of this with, I’m totally fine. The biggest bummer about this whole thing is that my best, most favorite pair of travel pants are totally covered in blood and ripped mostly to pieces (the sweet cleaning lady Retna kept coming by the whole rest of the day to pout at my pants), and Lukas’ bike has a flat tire—hopefully someone can help me find tire supplies ASAP. Anyway, once I recovered from the shock that my glorious morning ride full of laughter and sweat rapidly turned into intimacy with the road, I picked my bike up and moved to the side of the road. I think I just kind of stood there for a few minutes not really sure what to do. The car did stop and the man got out to apologize, but I hadn’t quite had time to research ‘accident protocol’ in India and figured there probably wasn’t a whole lot I could do there so I think I just mostly stared at him trying to figure out what to do next. I poured a little water on my hands and knees, fixed the chain on the bike, and got back on in front of an audience of probably at least 30 males who just literally stared at me the whole time. I don’t blame them, I’m sure I looked like the giantest idiot. I biked the remaining 2 kilometers to the office and immediately ran into Molly, who is one of the admin assistants. She kind of panicked upon seeing me and told me she’d take care of me. Then I waited for ten minutes while she finished feeding her street dogs, one of whose legs are in basically a dog walker with wheels. I definitely agree they were the priority. We then went to the office where no less than eight people, including the CDD CEO and the Dean (of what I’m not sure, or maybe his name is just ‘Dean’), hovered over me. They wanted to chop my pant legs off, but I didn’t want to crush my dreams for Indian patches that quickly, so instead we opted for a nice bath of hydrogen peroxide and what I think was antibiotic ointment in red form. I tried not to pass out as all eight people doused their cotton swabs and poked at my wounds. They taped bandages on me, and literally each person applied a piece of tape and taping strategy proved to be a prolonged group discussion. I’m most afraid now of taking them off since I have at least four pieces of tape wrapped around my wrist and I’m afraid of how much hair loss that means. Anyway, survived my first accident, but this will give me an excuse to go buy some Indian clothes as two remaining pairs of pants may not get me through the next 3.5 months. I’m up to date on tetanus boosters and don’t think a hospital visit is necessary at all, but since everyone kept asking about tetanus I thought I’d look up the symptoms just in case. Unfortunately, sweating is one of the major symptoms, so I’m not sure how I’ll differentiate tetanus sweating from the constant sweating that happens in the heat and humidity.
Following that story, I should probably reinforce that I’m fine, I’m being spoiled by how kind and helpful everyone is and by the sheer number of people who have been awaiting my arrival, and I can’t help but think I could live here forever. Everyone I’ve met knows me as the PhD student who is coming and are thrilled with how the Eawag team has grown immensely, from a whole two to three people!
Most of my work so far is what Iyesha, a recent hire at CDD, calls ‘experiential learning.’ We have quite different definitions of ‘experiential’, since I would not consider reading through reports and literature and preparing for interviews to be as ‘experiential’ as other activities I can imagine. On my third day, an engineer named Ravan (which means ‘breeze’) gave me a tour of CDD’s knowledge sharing center. Basically that means that they have several rooms of educational exhibitions related to sanitation and solid waste management. You follow a sanitation system around the halls from toilet to discharge, and it’s an excellent display of their work and the idealized system in India. They have all of these models of different treatment technologies and examples of how they have implemented the systems at hospitals, schools, and communities. They also have a history room that details the evolution of sanitation from the beginning of time. I had no idea that sewers existed as early as Mesopotamia. They also have this horrible display of the Ganga (Ganges to the West) River contaminants. It’s a cubic meter box that has different sized balls inside to show how many different types of contaminants and of what amounts are present in a m3 of Ganga River water. It’s horrible because it is so polluted, and this is the river that is revered in the Hindu faith as holy, because it represents the Hindu goddess Ganga. It’s the most sacred river in their faith, causing millions of people to pilgrimage to bathe in the river every year. Unfortunately, it also is the fifth most polluted river in the world. One of the interesting things that Ravan told me is that many Indians are aware of the need to separate their trash into trash, recycling, compost, etc. and to stop the practice of open defecation, but since the masses have a large inertia for actually making these changes, nothing happens, except for a tragedy of the commons.You see this everywhere–by my apartment every day I’ve seen people dumping trash and openly defecating, and this is the same plot of land where I was told to dump my trash. There are so many juxtaposed examples of environmental management and degradation, wealth and poverty, equality and lack thereof. India, everyone.
Because of jet lag, I keep waking up at 6 am, unable to sleep. Unfortunately this means that my morning mango breakfast is over by 6:20 and lunch isn’t until 1:30 at the very earliest. The CDD office does have an espresso machine and a constant supply of homemade chai, which usually tides me over. Retna refuses to let me try her chai without sugar though—I’m positive I’m the only one who drinks it with sugar. Maybe because she met me when blood was pouring out of my knee and she thinks I can use every break I can get. Anyway, today at lunch Rohit told me I am allowed to use a spoon. I think the fact that it took me three times as long to eat my bowl of rice as he did prompted that comment. Still, I’m determined to become good at eating with my hands, and I’m not about to let my bottle of Indian Purell go to waste on using a spoon.
|The Palace we suddenly drove past in Bengaluru|
Saturday, Jasmine, Carolina, and I splurged on an Uber (taxi service, Gram) and spent $4.50 to go 48 minutes to the center of Bengaluru. It was only 14 or so kilometers from where we live, but takes way longer due to the calmly chaotic driving tactics and the occasional section of road that someone forgot to pave. The cows don’t really help with traffic flow, and neither does the practice of turning right across four ‘lanes’ of traffic from the farthest left ‘lane’. My nightmare would be having to make my living driving in Bengaluru. My other nightmare I think is attempting to cross a street in Central Bengaluru. Omg. You can either choose to play Frogger, which is the fastest option. Or you can find the few intersections that have crosswalks (some even have crossing guards) and wait four or five minutes for the light cycle to change. That’s not a sure-fire solution though, because every time a brave group of motorbikes decides they’re bored of waiting at the light, they plow forward into traffic and change who gets to go through. It’s a cheap thrill, but the key is to make sure you’ve got at least five people on either side of you as a buffer just in case.
Jasmine and Carolina had a few things they wanted to buy that are more expensive in Sweden (like Converse shoes), which normally wouldn’t have been my favorite activity except it meant that every thirty seconds I got to go to a new air conditioned store and exhaust my joke of asking the owner how much for his air conditioner (no one would give me a price. I don’t know why they thought I wasn’t serious). Another plus was the one book I wanted to read about India was half a million dollars in the U.S., but when I went into a used bookstore here, the owner called a friend who could bring it across town for me that afternoon for only $2. Freedom at Midnight, here I come.
Eventually we made our way to Commercial Street, which was more like five large streets and even more tiny alleys filled with shops and street carts selling everything from brightly colored and slightly rotting fruit to saris to pashmina scarves to little drums. We spent almost four hours weaving our way through the maze of people, animals, and colored cloth—I could happily have spent days at Commercial Street. I walked away with four Indian shirts and two colored leggings, both to supplement my recent loss of a cherished pair of pants and to hopefully alleviate some of the unbearable sweating that even my most trusted sweat-wicking shirts have failed to do. Since I don’t have a phone yet here, we couldn’t book a cab back and no actual car taxis exist outside of phone applications. Hour long rides in tuk-tuks are going to have to wait until I can bend my knee again without bleeding everywhere, so we kind of just stood on the street corner and practiced looking white, lost, and hopeless. Two sweet women talked down the tuk-tuk driver who was unwilling to except my ‘no thanks’ for an answer and called us an Olataxi (like Uber). Another $4 and 45 minutes later, we were home.
Next week, we are having the field teams from CDD and IIT (India Institute of Technology in Chennai, Tamil Nadu) here for training and then hopefully this will mean I get to start going with them to visit communities and sanitation systems! More later.