Apparently it becomes a lot harder to write a blog as your research life gets busier. It took me much longer to write this one because the frustrations of developing world research increased and my motivation to spend my free time back on the computer typing decreased. To some extent, this is just a medley of small stories from the past couple of weeks and a commentary on my observations.
The field teams for Eawag’s 4S project are now all trained and ready to go. The past couple of weeks have been a lot of site visits to wastewater treatment plants at schools, office buildings, and factories and we’ve seen the whole range of successful and catastrophically failed. I’ve been working to select communities that have community-based sanitation systems (meaning these systems are intended to have some level of community participation and community-based management after they’re constructed, as opposed to a hired outside operator or a commercial application) to study for my research. That’s the struggle of the century. I’ve read more about sanitation in India than anywhere else, but somehow it’s incredibly challenging to encounter the diversity of community-based sanitation systems practically here that I’m seeking. There is almost no organized information or available documentation on existing projects, especially if they are community-based. If we combine this with communities that have been over-studied and are uninterested in further interviewing, and with organizations that are almost paralyzed with inefficiency and being overworked, and add language barriers and traffic and power outages, then we arrive where I’m presently sitting, in a state of frustration and patience-building. I knew going into this that the human aspect of my research would absolutely dictate the timeline and that even my most ambitious efforts to arrange the work I’m striving to accomplish may fall short of the ideal, but that has been a difficult adjustment regardless. Anyway, Lukas and I have co-selected about thirty sanitation systems that are relevant to the 4S project and my own research and I’m hoping we will have site visits arranged for those over the next three weeks. There is also a community-based system right next to our office that I may be able to use as an opportunity to pilot my interviews and make adjustments before I further select additional communities. I also got thirteen mosquito bites while writing that paragraph, and I’m wearing bug spray. It’s almost like I’m back in Panama.
So recently, I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about the different regulations, organizations, and cultural dimensions that govern the community-based and small-scale sanitation sector in India. Sometimes, while feeling like a sponge, I wonder how it’s possible for people to not like learning (and laugh at myself for ever seriously considering not going to grad school). It’s the actual most complex issue that I think I have ever encountered. You have a government that’s trying to end open defecation by 2019 and create more regulations so that more of the waste is treated and transition the lowest caste out of street-sweeping, waste picking, and toilet cleaning as their only employment. Then you have a society that perpetuates the castes by being unwilling to acknowledge them or entertain the thoughts of paying someone more to do the same undesirable job. Then you also have a level of corruption that permeates every societal strata, often meaning that regulations are only created to provide more levels at which officials can accept bribes. It’s cyclical and it sometimes feels quite hopeless until you meet some of the people that are working within the organizations I’ve encountered. There are people like Pradeep who know seven or eight languages and try to buck the system at every opportunity. There are people like Geeta who are well-spoken, forceful women whose intellect, creativity, and motivation may very well change the entire system. Maybe they are the ones who will actually make a difference.
One of the most characteristic things here is that nearly every issue is surrounded by lots of talk, but very few witness action. I watched a talk from TEDxBangalore
that keeps surfacing in my mind as one of the best ways to describe India (or maybe just people as a whole). The anonymous speaker is presenting the Ugly Indian movement, where groups of anonymous citizens band together to clean up particularly ugly spaces within the city, with the hopes that once something becomes beautiful, it stays beautiful since no one is willing to be the one to turn it back into a trash dump. Anyway, one of the most impactful things the speaker says is that in India, nothing ever changes because no one ever does anything and expects the responsibility to be someone else’s job. To run the risk of generalizing, Indians are so hospitable, but when you put them in a car, an ‘everyone for themselves’ mentality comes out. Traffic stays horrifically awful, because no one follows the rules because no one else is and no one is willing to make a change. Solid waste piles up on the street because someone else threw it there first and I’m not going to clean up my neighbor’s mess. The Ugly Indian movement is so revolutionary because he emphasizes the obligation to get out and do something instead of complaining and expecting someone else to make the change.
Last week, I got to sit in on a meeting with the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board chairman and former chairman. This is like meeting with the chairman of the California State Water Resources Control Board (except a slightly more dysfunctional version of the board). CDD was presenting two major requests to the chairman: that the KSPCB would develop an operator certification process and system to formally recognize operator training programs; and that they would develop regulations for fecal sludge treatment plants. The latter of these means it would pave the way for the construction of more (there are extremely limited numbers in Karnataka now, possibly only one) plants that can treat the fecal sludge that is pumped out of septic tanks, pit latrines, and other treatment modules. It was so interesting (not that anything in India so far hasn’t been ‘so interesting’) to be a fly on the wall for this one. The red carpet was rolled out, and coffee and pastries were served for this fifteen minute presentation that was filled with formality and a lot of clapping, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this is just another example of talk without action. It definitely was one large moment of ‘how did I get here?’
I had a fascinating conversation with three of the CDD field interns about arranged marriages and dowries in India. At least in the south, they all agreed that Kerala has the best practices, as the man’s family does not ask for dowries and the negotiations are more focused on the woman’s education levels and family status. But even in some of the more ‘progressive’ parts of the conversation, never once was the man’s worth, qualities, or character mentioned and the girls seemed to accept that. In another conversation with some of the older women who work at CDD (and by older I mean age 30-40 who look still 15), I found out that two of them have chosen not to get married because they are so fed up with the process and the priority that so much of Indian culture places on marriage. I also had a wonderful cab driver this week who is Muslim and was so interested to hear about religious conflict in the U.S. and was more than willing to tell me his experience as a Muslim in a predominantly Hindu country. It seems like the southern part of India is much more open, accepting, and peaceful to live (in general) than the north, likely due in part to the fact that they are much farther away from their Muslim neighbors (Pakistan, Bangladesh). I’ve realized how unique it is to have the opportunity to discuss things like politics and religion and arranged marriage so openly here. Maybe it’s because I’ve mastered the Indian head bob so my listening skills are now impeccable.
There is a group of brothers/cousins who run a dosa (sort of like crepes or other wheat blobs that you dip in mystery sauces) stand right outside the EcoHouse, which is our most frequented dinner place. I’m thinking of proposing the concept of a punch card since we come so often. Surheendra is a mechanical engineer and works for a rice mill machinery company and his brother, Pradeep, is an electrical engineer who also has a company that makes the control panels for Surheendra’s machines. They invited us to tour their factories, so bright and early Saturday morning, we hopped on the back of their motorbikes to the factories. The first was Graintec (if anyone is in the market for rice milling equipment) and not much to report other than (1) whitening of rice is an entirely mechanical process, (2) welding with barefeet and no protection is obviously just fine, (3) just in general safety equipment is unnecessary when you’re using presses, drills, and any sort of metal or fire. Pradeep’s place was admittedly way less interesting, probably because to this day my engineering ability has fallen short of understanding circuits, and I was much more excited about the goats that had invaded the cardboard box factory next door. I’ve had so many more offers from neighbors and nearly everyone I’ve met to come see their home, tour their place of work, meet their family. Most seem really genuine and not creepy at all, and it’s really nice to be getting to know my neighbors. I still get at least one free mango every time I buy fruit.
On another weekend outing, I went to the Lalbahg Botanical Gardens for a small retreat from traffic and city pollution. It’s a gorgeous park that’s over 240 acres and big enough that you can actually go a few minutes without seeing people, which is quite the feat in India. Besides adding macaques to the list of wild animals I’ve encountered in Bangalore, I added India to the list of places where complete strangers ask to take pictures with me. I’m not really sure why, because I was wearing my most sweat-wicking clothing, had some missed sunscreen displayed on my nose, and had tucked all my hair up into my hat and certainly looked bald, possibly male. Clearly always striving to look my best here in India. I went to a café near the gardens to read and spent more money on one mojito than I do all week on food combined, but it was worth it because it was still only about $3.
What else is important in my life?
|This cup of chai that costs 2 cents and is amazing.
The latest arrival in my rotating roommate saga is an old Swedish man named Jan-Olof. He arrived at 3:30 am without a key, so I spent about ten minutes debating how dumb of an idea it would be to open the door in the middle of the night to whoever had rung the bell a hundred times. Ended up being a safe decision, although his bottle of port wine had broken and spilled all over my bare feet. He’s the co-owner and mastermind of the EcoHouse and comes about four times a year to tinker around and make adjustments. Apparently, the house is only a year old which makes some of the unfinished pieces make a lot more sense. He’s installing a bathroom in the downstairs bedroom (my room) which maybe will mean that I don’t have to shower with an army of cockroaches, or the army might move downstairs. All kinds of important people have come by to see the house (architects, rich men, etc.) so Jan-Olof is trying to make it even more presentable in such a way that inspires its replication all over the world. It’s never not going to be strange though to live here in this house that overlooks an open defecation field.
I’m also really starting to understand why so many people here are ‘veg’ (as opposed to ‘non-veg’). There are only so many times that you can watch a cow eat trash and still want to eat said cow. But then again, if my diet was entirely mango I think I would turn orange, shrivel, and die.
I’ve already been invited to a wedding. Unfortunately, the invitation is all in either Hindi or Kannada so all I can read is the date. An enthusiastic man brought 150 invitations to the office and handed them out to everyone, I guess allowing him to bandage my bleeding knee was sufficient contact to be invited.
I got sick for the first time here, but I think it was more acid reflux than food poisoning or India. But you know you’re a nerd when you accidentally throw up into the urine diversion part of the toilet and then google vomit and urine nutrients to compare and make sure you didn’t ruin the whole fertilizer system.
For the days that I go to the office, when I leave I engage in ten minutes of physical activity (ten is about the limit before you run the risk of passing out or just generally horrifying the public with how much you are capable of sweating) while I wait for my pickup. The girls from the little slum settlement right across the street usually play badminton (learned right now that word isn’t spelled like the glove variant) and have all learned my name and will literally yell the moment they see me leaving the office to have me come play. I’m actually extremely good at the version where we used ping pong paddles and the birdie, and am unbelievably awful at the real version with a badminton paddle (paddle is probably the wrong word but I’m too focused on my athleticism to care). It’s actually really fun until a gigantic herd of goats goes plowing through the street and you feel like you’re going to be knocked into the sewer and never recover.
An embarrassingly large number of people have asked me if I’ve found an Indian boyfriend yet so I thought I’d give a global update and say that while I have not, I have been offered (begged, really) to take someone’s son home with me to the U.S.. The man used the same breath to tell me that marriage to an American is ‘very favorable’ and my dowry could be his son’s visa. Quite flattering, really. I will be seeing this family quite a lot, as they are my second favorite restaurant in my neighborhood and have offered me both free delivery and free ‘leg soup’ while I’m here. I never did get an answer to what kind of leg the soup is from.
A dog followed me home from the store this week too. It was terrible. Most of the dogs thus far have had a great ‘you don’t touch me, I don’t touch you’ mentality that I’m totally on board with. Except this one tiny, annoying dog. I think he wanted a share of my weekly shipment of mangoes and basically nipped at my heels for 2 kilometers. I think I crossed the street like eight additional times to avoid this dog and by the end I probably was running and maybe even crying and all of my neighbors were laughing at me. The scariest encounter I’ve had so far in India.
In other news, I discovered that the many signs that warn you of ‘leopard crossings’ aren’t a joke and are a real thing and most of my friends have ‘frequently’ seen leopards eating trash on the outskirts of the city. So I guess neighborhood dogs aren’t the only terror to be afraid of here.
Also, here are some of my friends:
That’s all for now. Going to go back to sitting in shock that I’ve been here for almost an entire month already.