Naan-Fiction from India

The two most exciting things that I did this week were (1) spent 48 straight hours sorting through a list of 7,500 sanitation systems to delete the duplicates, and (2) started some interviews for my research. I’m piloting my data collection methods in a community that is a resettlement from a slum. The community is very low-income, but there is a small amount of government funds that helped with housing and road construction, and still subsidize electricity and LPG. They have a DEWATS (decentralized wastewater treatment system), but less than half of the households in the community are actually connected to the sewers that lead to this system. The system has two biogas settlers, an anaerobic baffled reactor, a horizontal-flow planted gravel filter, and a polishing pond. What I’m really interested to learn is how community priorities and needs align or diverge from the system design and operation. For example, the system produces methane gas, which can be used for cooking fuel, so I’m asking questions about community perceptions of using biogas generated from their own excreta and questions about existing cooking fuel practices to determine if biogas use motivated the technology design or influences existing community acceptance of the system. Five years ago, some of the households in the community were actively using the biogas for cooking fuel, but the smell and its unreliability caused them to stop. The community, like many (most) in India, suffers from extreme water scarcity. They are not connected to the Cauvery (municipal, from the river) piped water supply and thus pay for tankers to bring in water once a week. The tankers pump water into these storage containers for twenty minutes a week, and then the families adjust to make this limited water supply last as long as they can. A few families grow some vegetables or have fruit trees and are interested in using some of the treated water in their gardens, but they don’t have the money to be able to pipe and pump the treated water to their homes.
I’m also interested in learning about how the system was implemented and how the implementing organization included (or excluded) the community in that process. So far, it really seems like the community had limited involvement with this sanitation system, and no one can remember anyone from the organization coming to ask their opinion or inform them about the system in any way. I can’t tell so far if there really was no community participation in the system implementation, or if this is more owing to the fact that it was so long ago and not something the community has retained.
A translator friend and I, upon recommendation from the local organization president, randomly selected households to speak with. There isn’t really any community meeting space or location where I could hold private, uninterrupted interviews, and due to the heat most participants preferred to sit on their front ‘porches’, so listening to the audio recordings is kind of a comical adventure. Occasionally my questions are drowned out by the passing bleating goat, or screaming children, or call to prayer from the nearby masjid. The front porch setting also provided the opportunity for other community members to sit in on the interviews out of curiosity. For the first couple of interviews, they functioned just like regular one-on-one conversations. The rest ended up turning into mini-focus groups where men and women would chat with each other briefly to answer my questions. This ended up being great, since I’m interested in community perspectives, so more participants was welcomed, but just meant that I repeated my introduction and request for consent a million more times than expected. In just these few interviews, I’ve experienced the whole range of things you expect from fieldwork. In the first couple of interviews, the women I was speaking with seemed to be genuinely interested and willing to talk with me and providing long answers to my questions. The very next interview though, lasted a tense thirteen minutes, and was mostly one woman repeating that her street has no problems, but the rest of the community has the problems.
One of the other data collection activities I am trialing this week is photovoice. This is a method that has been largely used in the health care sector, where individuals use cameras to document aspects of their community or personal life that may be challenging to discuss openly or in a conventional interview setting. It’s funny, because many of the research-minded colleagues that I have, both in India and the U.S. often respond thinking photovoice is a cool, creative technique and are interested to learn the outcomes. The majority of the engineering-minded colleagues here, however, struggle to see why I would have someone take pictures of a problem in their community, when I could simply ask them to show me the holes in the roads or the clogged sewer and take a good picture myself. I guess I’m hoping that photovoice will surprise me with something that I never saw coming. It’s been easy to have people tell me about their challenges with lack of water, unreliable electricity, overflowing sewers, and no bus service. But I’m hoping that the use of photovoice in combination with my interviews will bring forth something different, and capture a piece of the community’s story that may not have yet been unveiled. 
Rohit came back from his academic vacation in Germany so our little team of four is in full force for the first time this summer. We celebrated his birthday, which was in stark contrast to how I celebrated my own (aka, not telling anyone it was my birthday and getting stuck inside because of a massive rainstorm). He brought a giant platter of desserts to the office, and we had people coming in all day to shake his hand and make fun of his old age. Over the weekend, he hosted a party at his apartment with all of the younger crowd from CDD, which introduced me to Indian wine and Indian whiskey (in moderate amounts of course, Mother). I also learned that trying to explain the concept of IPA to Indians is kind of a struggle to get them to understand that drinking a regular pale ale while in India means something very different from an India Pale Ale at home. Two of us had that conversation four separate times during the night, but I don’t think that was my fault.  
There is a father-son duo who have approached me in my neighborhood four or five times now. Each time, the son sees me and gets really excited and wants to come over, and the father says he wants to practice his English with me. Invariably, the son then just stands there shyly and stares at me while I try to ask all kinds of questions in English and make him feel less scared of the white girl. I also recently discovered that nothing I do or wear causes the men on the street to stare at me even less. One day this week I accidentally wore an entirely grey, monochrome outfit and that made no impact on the staring (or maybe it was the renewed source).
While there are many moments that make me sit in shock of how I got here, I’ve really enjoyed spending evenings with my Swedish roommate. Jan-Olof has decades of experience working in water and sanitation all over the world, and remains extremely well-informed about the sector. He also has a keen interest in American politics, which recently has been a saving grace to have someone with whom I can vent and receive therapy on our government’s dismal state. He also has a fierce tea addiction that has been the hardest part of having him here, since it means that I’m served several cups of boiling hot tea every day and expected to consume them without sweating like a total idiot.
I was given false hope on Jan-Olof’s arrival that I would have a completed personal bathroom in my room. Instead, I mostly just had a large influx of cement whose dust covered all of my belongings and although J-O paid the masons twice, they still didn’t finish the job. Jan-Olof’s last day here was yesterday, which ended in a disastrous firing of the mason. So it seems that the upstairs cockroaches and I will be showering together still for the next two months. I was also left with a small list of maintenance tasks that “for a stubborn woman” like myself (in his words) would be within my ability to accomplish while I’m here. Lukas, Jan-Olof and I spent a couple of hours one evening coming up with a design for a fecal and organic waste compost system for the EcoHouse. Two years of coffee farm compost and heavy lifting of cow manure in Thailand may finally be paying off.
It’s actually going to be so sad to not have J-O here, since my three floor apartment is now quite empty and lonely (if anyone is interested in a summer vacation in monsoon season in India, let me know). I wrote the previous sentence two nights ago, and already have a new part time roommate, so my loneliness was long-lived. Geeta, one of the new employees for BORDA, will spend the night a couple days a week when she works out of the downstairs office so that she can get a feel for changes that can be made to convert the EcoHouse to an EcoHome. More importantly, she’s staying to teach me how to cook Indian food and be a fellow extrovert in the house.
I haven’t written that much about the food, probably owing most due to the fact that often my fingers are so covered with sauce that the option for photos is nonexistent. During the week, our meals end up frequently looking quite regular. For breakfast, I switch between mango, papaya, and apple. I recently learned that the specific strain of mango is exceedingly important, and something that each region of India will fiercely argue for their own local mango. I’m positive I’ve bought at least six different types of mango, and as long as they’re ripe, I can’t tell the difference. Lunch is usually roti/chapatti which most often means a few rounds of wheat bread, thinner and softer than naan. The chapatti is paired with some sort of mix of wok’ed vegetables that are a bit spicy, and if you order a meal, comes with rice and a couple of bags of curry-like sauces. I still have yet to learn the name of any of these items, and have made it five whole weeks without crying or burning a hole in my tongue from the spice. Sweating happens, but that’s probably more of a heat and humidity and genetics induced issue. We recently switched our habits and are now biking up to a restaurant nearby in a quiet neighborhood for lunch. Unfortunately for my PTSD, this means that I’m back to biking somewhere daily on a road full of dogs, cows, fly-infested trash piles, and potholes. It almost feels more like dirt biking than anything else, and is extremely fun (for the neighborhood) when you do it in a floor length, bright green striped dress. (I promise I’m wearing a helmet and being safe, Mom and Grace). For dinner, if it’s a Monday—Friday, we get dosa from our dosa stand friends. The best one is Mysore Masala Dosa which is a crepe with yellow potatoes and onions spread on the crepe and cut into thirds. If it’s a Sunday, we usually get biriyani, which is a spicy rice dish served with chicken or chopped vegetables, from Mama’s Biriyani. They’re the ones who are still trying to convince me to take their son back to the U.S. with me, but at least they have free delivery. People have started making fun of Lukas and me for the lack of variety in our dinner routine, but as long as I’m not getting sick and not cooking for myself, I have no reason to complain.
One day for lunch we became real adventurous and had ragi balls. Omg. This is a type of food that is restricted to Karnataka, maybe only Bangalore, and is the popular lunchtime meal for the neighborhood laborers. The only way to describe a ragi ball is that it’s a purple blob of dough the size of a newborn infant’s head. You pull off pieces and squish them with your fingers in a sauce and then you’re supposed to gulp it in one bite, which to be honest I haven’t been able to successfully do yet. I’m not sure if the crowd that gathered was to watch the white girl giggle with embarrassment over being unable to gulp ragi ball, or if it was just the normal lunchtime rush.
I went to another garden sanctuary in the city this weekend, only to discover that the tree I was sitting under wasn’t dropping brown clumps by accident, and was instead full of the largest bats I’ve seen outside of the Dark Knight. Honestly was a little too startled to take a picture. Speaking of startled, I like to think of myself as good at masking my surprise especially when something culturally new happens. Totally failed at that when I was walking on the street and this woman walked up to me and whipped a giant rope onto the street in front of me with a loud crack. I was so shocked that it took me several seconds to realize I hadn’t been whipped and this was a begging tactic. A man walking past literally stopped to laugh at me. Apparently, the woman is part of a nomadic group called Potraj who worship the goddess Kadak Lakshmi. They balance wooden altars on their heads, methodically play round drums, and seek alms from the religiously superstitious in exchange for their artistic and worshipful performances. There is so much happening in this country, I will never even begin to know. 
The weather has gotten so much nicer since my first couple of weeks, I can even make it a whole day without sweating through my clothing. Mostly. I also have accidentally started taking outdoor showers because walking two blocks up the street without a raincoat is enough to get entirely drenched in the increasingly fierce monsoon season. I’m not sure it’s socially or physically acceptable to wear a rain coat–no one here does–and I think the humidity inside the jacket would probably kill me.

Here are some pictures of when I was trying to be introverted in a park and kept getting interrupted by Indian men. I’m a little embarrassed to admit these are some of the only pictures that exist of me in India:
Here are some other pictures of some of the toilet-themed pieces of my life:
Anyway, I’m giving a guest lecture for the employees of CDD this week as part of their internal capacity building program, and hoping to have finished a whole pile of initial site visits this week so the next post may (Lord willing, plz) be a long one. J
Love,
Al
P.S. Personal emails are much welcomed and appreciated to keep me company in the world-ending monsoons.

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