I don’t even have the energy this week to make this blog funny and I wrote most of this sitting in a hotel room trying to ignore the dirt splotches on the bedsheets. I’m starting to get used to the cows. They lay in piles of each other in the medians in the mornings. I also have mistakenly thought baby calves were dogs three times so far because they’re so skinny. This one ate my mango skin within one second of me throwing it out. Our open defecation field next door is really starting to look nice, lush, and green thanks to all the rain that we’ve been getting every day.
We didn’t have internet at our house for almost six straight days. While it meant several canceled skype calls (sorry, everyone), it was kind of nice. My evenings and mornings weren’t spent trying to catch up on the hundreds of messages from home (thanks to Mom, sister, and a couple best gals) and I instead finished three books in as many days. Oops.
I ordered a phone case for my India phone on Amazon only to discover that it was faster and cheaper than even Amazon Prime. While I don’t have any complaints in India nor am lacking in any item, it was a dangerous discovery to learn same day delivery is real. In other news, I found out that there’s an app you can install where you can recharge minutes & data on your phone whenever you want yourself and it’s the actual most convenient thing—and I think I pay less than $5 for my service every month. There are some things India does really well.
As mentioned in the previous post, I was asked to give a guest lecture at CDD as part of their internal capacity building program. They printed posters of my face and bio and put them all over the notice boards. Then, a visiting group of other researchers showed up that day and wanted to give a surprise presentation, so it wasn’t until less than an hour before my scheduled time that I actually found out I was presenting. But it went fabulously, and quite a few people wanted to set up meetings to discuss more, and they want me to create a multi-part lecture series to teach more about some of the data analysis methods I’m using. So that’s grool. This was the best picture from my lecture, and I learned that when I public speak, I speak only out of the right side of my mouth.
On Friday, I got to do a new site visit for my research and it was perfect. Actually it was extremely challenging at the beginning, but I left with so much energy and excitement that multiple people said I was “glowing”, although that probably was the sweat and sunburn…
I went with a driver, but since none of the cars were available, we took a motorbike. The community was started when slum dwellers were expelled from the city and told to settle in the open fields outside. The government provided no services, no water, electricity, sanitation, roads, houses, nothing and actually didn’t do much in the community until recently. Most of the houses are little concrete squares, packed tightly together on uneven roads. There’s a bright, white masjid on a hill in the community, surrounded by a cluster of old houses and tangled electrical wires. In the center-ish of the community, there is a large, open square that now is the bus stand. On one side of the square, is a line of small shops, selling tea and cigarettes. Adjacent to that is the government-run hospital, which is at maximum 15 feet by 45 feet, and hospital seemed like an exaggerated term. Just behind the hospital, is the shared community toilets and the treatment system. For the sanitation-interested followers: The sanitation system is connected to a block of shared toilets and bathing facilities, which up until a couple of years ago, was the only sanitation option (besides the fields outside) in the community. Now a few households have their own toilets and are connected to the underground drains that supposedly lead to a treatment system somewhere. The system is a DEWATS (decentralized wastewater treatment system—the coined name in South Asia) has a fixed-dome biogas settler, a twelve-chamber anaerobic baffled reactor, and a planted gravel filter. Based on what I’ve learned over the past couple of days, the system worked really well for about eight years, and then the moment that the system needed major repairs (some of the chambers collapsed and the entire system had never been desludged), it stopped working as the community had no means to pay for the repair work and had no external support.
When we arrived at the site, we found it to be locked, although I had asked someone to confirm that the operators and managers knew we were coming and had triple checked that they would be there. After a couple of minutes, it was clear that I was totally out of place, which thankfully for once meant that a couple of curious men came over to ask what we were doing there. The two men, after some convincing, went away somewhere and brought back the key to the system. We were then able to walk around the DEWATS for a bit and it seems that the present challenge is people climbing the fences at night to drink and pass out in the area. There was quite a lot of trash, bottles and other, and the system had a strong smell both from sludge that was never removed years ago, and from new deposits. I have no idea why anyone would be interested in adopting a broken public toilet as a party location. After I felt that we’d sufficiently looked at the system for this visit, we went back into the square and I asked to speak with the former operators or managers. My translator kept telling me “no no, it’s not possible.” But I urged him to ask some of the shopkeepers if they knew anything, thinking that if they sit here all day facing the square, they mustremember who used to take care of the system. It wasn’t that long ago. One shopkeeper, upon first discussion, repeated “no no, it’s not possible.” Theme of my time in India so far. My translator asked if I was ready to go back to the office. We could easily just go back and I could move on to the next community on my list and hope for a more organized experience. But I couldn’t give up that quickly, especially not after we’d made the trip out here. So I thought, it can’t hurt to just walk around the square, and maybe even go to a few houses to ask what people remember about the system. I’m not sure whether that gave my translator the motivation, or if a second conversation with the shopkeeper changed his mind, but something changed, and suddenly the guy remembered the name of a woman who would know something about the system. But of course, we couldn’t talk to her. No no it’s not possible. She isn’t here. She’s gone. No one has her phone number. No one knows how to reach her. Ok. Well, then we will go walk around the community and ask people what they know. Again, that seemed to be the magic line, and a few minutes later, I found myself on the back of a motorbike and we were going to this woman’s house. Sure enough, she was standing in the garden outside her house and was more than happy to invite us in to chat. So much for “no no, it’s not possible” and “she doesn’t live here anymore.” One of my biggest lessons learned of the day (and maybe of all of the month in India) is that ‘no’ is never actually ‘no’, and there is always more to the story, you just have to be willing to ask a hundred times and threaten to speak to more people to convince someone to ‘remember’ what they know.
This woman was almost an entire foot shorter than me. She invited us inside and offered us tea and toasted cakes, giving me the option to have disdainful, black, ‘American’ tea, or ‘normal’ tea full of sugar and spice and everything nice aka milk. We talked for over an hour, and I learned so much about the community and this group of seven women who truly seem entirely responsible for the years where the community had a sanitation facility. We then were able to go meet with three of the other women who were part of this women’s self-help group that planned and managed the system for eight years. They’re all older ladies, with knee and foot trouble who hobbled up the cramped staircase to the sitting room in one of their apartments. We spent an hour and a half talking about the past sixteen years of their lives, the struggles they faced fighting the men in the community who didn’t think a group of women could complete a sanitation project—and didn’t think they should, the hours they would spend working from 4 am until 9 pm every day making sure the toilets were cleaned and the trash was packed away, the way they felt empowered by accomplishing something for themselves and for their community, the difference 30 rupees a day made in their lives. I ended my time with them by explaining photovoice and showing them how to use the cheap, digital cameras I had brought. They took pictures of each other’s hands as we learned how to turn the cameras on and off and view the captured photos.
As we walked back to the square, we went at a slow pace. The women’s knees wouldn’t let them go quicker, and they wanted to tell their neighbors about the student who had come to learn about their community. I’m going back next week to pick up the cameras, and to speak with these ladies some more. Most of my field work has been marked by a massive amount of chai tea or sugary coffee, even if you refuse six times, some of the ladies won’t let you leave their house until they’ve made you tea and fed you a mango or biscuit or other mystery consumable item. I also think that the obscene number of mosquito bites I have (despite diligent bug spraying) is a blessing, since I get to bond with Indian slum dwellers over the bites on our arms and ankles.
|My new Indian church dress|
This weekend I attended a church on the other side of town called Bangalore Christian Fellowship Church—it took an hour to get there and two hours to get back in officially the worst traffic I’ve seen, save the one time in Panama when Grace and I had time to go order dinner and come back to an unmoved car on the highway. The church was only 13 miles away, which in India, it might as well have been 100 miles. It was in the northeast corner, and I live in the southwest, so these places are as far apart and as different from each other as it gets. The two kilometers leading up to the church I wish I had walked because the streets were filled with people selling brightly colored thick blankets, ripening mangoes, all to the sound of to music to celebrate some Hindu festival. The church itself was a great experience. This wasn’t the first time that I’ve randomly marched by myself to a church in a different country, and it made me audibly laugh that here I am, back at it again. The service was two hours long, with the clapping and vocalizations that you don’t find in most stuffy, western churches, and four ten minute sermons followed the main sermon, whether planned or not. The best part was that it felt like everyone was genuinely welcoming, not just because it was obvious that I was new and out of place, but everyone seemed to know each other’s name or would make sure to greet the people they didn’t know. This came in handy when I got stuck trying to direct a cab driver to this church tucked in an obscure corner of town that I had never been to before.
India has been different in a lot of ways from the places I’ve traveled, but until now it hasn’t shocked me in the ways that I expected it to. I traveled this week to Tamil Nadu (the next state over) to visit a couple of community-based treatment systems that are being included in Eawag’s 4S project, and may be relevant for my research. It started with a sudden notification that Jayakumar confirmed a visit in Erode, and four hours later I found myself on an overnight bus, traveling by myself through India. The bus gave the illusion of being the nicest bus I’ve ever been on—it had AC, thick blankets, snacks, water, and wasn’t crowded. I thought it was going to be a great night’s sleep until I realized that the Tamil movie playing was going to be kept on full volume for three hours, and the clown-like horn was going to blare in my ear every time we passed a car, so every other second basically. I had barely started dozing when they pulled off to the side of the road, said Erode to me, and dropped me off. Contrary to what the travel company said, they dropped me on the bypass road, which might have happened because I was the only one getting off in this town. I found myself standing on the side of a mostly deserted highway at 3 am, ten miles away from where I expected to be left and had booked my hotel. Then a dog barked at me and fear set in and a snap decision to ditch that reservation led me to basically run the five minutes up the street to the nearest hotel Google Maps showed. I had to wake the receptionist up, who had laid a blanket on the lobby floor and fallen asleep, and had no idea what I was paying until I checked out in the morning, aka five hours later. I think I spent the next two hours amped on adrenaline and barely got any sleep. Waking up feeling almost hungover and sick caused me to venture out to by headache medicine, which meant two orange pills in an unlabeled bag, but I felt too dead to care and took them over a tiny cup of sugared coffee. It’s been a couple of days, so don’t panic, I’ve survived. Things got immensely better when I met Jayakumar and Milan (two of the guys who are working for IIT Madras and part of the Eawag 4S field teams) at their hotel and I felt like a functional human being again, until I looked in the mirror and realized that my nose was bright red with sunburn and the rest of my face was paper white. I’m really becoming convinced that all the staring is because of just how dumb and terrible I consistently look.
Erode is sooooo different from Bangalore. I thought the U.S. and Bangalore already were night and day, but Erode is a completely different India. First of all, none of the app taxi services exist here and almost no one speaks English so that’s an adventure. It’s also ten degrees (celcius) hotter than Karnataka, so the couple of weeks I’ve enjoyed with cool breezes in Bangalore came to a sweating halt. Whereas Bangalore has smaller pockets of slum dwellers that are often just two or three tents wedged between buildings, Erode is almost all a slum, save the two large streets that run through the middle. And I mean slum, the kind that makes you want to look away because it hurts and you feel like you’re intruding when a glance is enough to see the entire of someone’s household and worldly belongings, but the kind that also is impossible to turn away from. I also have been entirely living in my Chacos, but that probably was a mistake for this trip, since the community we visited literally discharges their wastewater into open drains that are clogged, overflowing, and pooling everywhere.
Every household has an Indian style pour flush squat toilet, which actually probably means this is a village that’s been declared ‘open defecation free’ and as having access to ‘improved’ sanitation for the good feelings of the government and global development, but the pour-flush toilets discharging openly into the walkways I’m certain is so much worse than if everyone was just pooping outside without water to stagnate. Plastic bottles, leftover rice, cockroaches, and poop are just pooling together in this nice, thick glop. Add to that the poop from goats and pigs and cows and chickens that roam freely on the street. Add to that the actual largest rat I’ve ever seen outside of the Bayou. Impressively though, this is the one place I haven’t gotten eaten alive from mosquitos. Usually my skin is the litmus test for the survey question that says “Any mosquitos or flies present?”
The sanitation systems we were assessing were constructed almost thirty years ago, and haven’t been working in ten years, probably because they’ve never had an operator and the documentation for the systems is buried somewhere in an office on a yellowing piece of paper–if it even ever existed. The managing department at the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board has changed three times, and none of the engineers can even say what the system used to be like. Which isn’t surprising, because I probably wouldn’t pay someone to know about a failed system ten years later either. So we spent a few hours walking around the community, taking pictures, stepping in sewage, and trying to piece together the story. Still though, there were these fabulous people who were more than willing to talk to us—and by us I mean Jayakumar and Milan since I can’t speak Tamil. Everyone to me would mostly offer coffee and lunch at their house—probably because the peppermint colors on my face made me look more like a corpse than a human. I booked a room at their hotel for the next night (which incidentally was my original hotel plan) and we left early the next morning on a bus to Coimbatore, another city in Tamil Nadu.
I’ve successfully made it back from Tamil Nadu to Bangalore, and it’s actually the biggest relief to be back home. I don’t have the energy left in my soul to say everything, but the past three days have involved sixteen hours of bus riding, two hotels that expected me to use the hose instead of toilet paper, four focus groups, six interviews, and visits to six sanitation systems for the 4S project.
|Here’s a picture of a canal that ‘treated’ wastewater discharges into.|