|Our Eawag team on one motorbike. We only bottomed out once.
Totally unrelated to India, but I discovered this week that China is piloting gigantic buses
where cars can drive underneath the passengers like a tunnel. I will be buying a ticket immediately to see this.
My last couple of weeks in Bangalore went at a slower, more relaxed pace than the past couple of months. I’ve been organizing my audio transcripts from my interviews (trying to cut out the multi-minute detours when baby goats get plopped into my lap or when we take a break for tea) to send for transcription. In this process, I realized that my translator has been introducing me and Alan Davis for the past three months. That’s always positive.
One of the days while leaving work, I was really struggling to find a taxi and all the autos were trying to charge Rs. 400 (I usually can fight it down to Rs. 150). I was on my way to giving up and walking home when a car pulled up and inside were some of the friends I’d made at the Ramadan festival I went to. They took me home, and this time it was a significantly smoother ride, since my friend now had a month of driving experience as opposed to the two days behind the wheel that he’d had the first time he drove me home. It made me realize that India actually has started to feel like home, when you have people that you randomly run into who are good enough friends to drive out of their way to help you. That is something I will really miss.
I had my final interviews at one of the communities on the outskirts of Bangalore. They were a community who at first were a little hesitant to speak with me, I think being wary of strangers who come in and ask questions only to disappear forever. Surprisingly (to me at least), the best method for trust-building with my interviewees has been the sheer volume of questions asked and time spent in their community. I’ve learned that, to them, my persistence to return and ask follow-up question after follow-up question demonstrates that I care about their stories and want to invest in their lives beyond my own project objectives. While there are definitely times where I feel like a giant burden spending so much time in their lives, I have truly loved getting to befriend some of the community members. One of these community members has texted my Whatsapp number every morning for the past three weeks to ask “had your breakfast?” That’s basically the Indian way of saying, “hi, how are you?”
The thing that does feel incrementally helpful is that I have felt like I can be a messenger of information between communities and other agency offices. I try not to promise anything, and wait until my questions have been answered, to capture their authentic perspective and knowledge, before sometimes divulging that I’ll be meeting with the NGO that they haven’t spoken with in four years and could try to see if they have a copy of the MOU, or going to the town panchayat office to ask if it would be possible to have the toilets open for a few more hours each day.
In this one community in Bangalore, the system is managed by five dedicate community members who sacrifice so much time, and very often so much of their personal finances, to keep the community toilets and treatment system running. Recently, they’ve really struggled with the lack of external support, and their system is on the verge of total failure if they don’t receive assistance (financial, managerial, and technical). I think the organization that implemented the project actually had what they thought was a clear, well-thought out exit strategy. The woman I spoke with talked about how they provided more and more trainings for the community over time so that their knowledge would be built to a level in which they could take full management responsibility over the system. She mentioned that the slowly reduced the daily visits to weekly, the weekly to monthly, the monthly to biannually. They even met with the community at the end to emphasize that they would no longer be active in the community, as the community was (theoretically) equipped to be in charge moving forward. Somehow, there was a breakdown in communication and the community was under the impression that the NGO had completely abandoned them. They thought the NGO should still be providing financial support and assistance when repairs were needed. They felt they needed the NGO’s presence in order to have some security in maintaining the land under their control. The power of information and how often I take my instant internet access for granted came to a sharp revelation when they told me that ever since the NGO moved offices, they haven’t been able to speak with them since they don’t know where the new office is. I had Google it earlier that morning, it was so easy for me to find the address and multiple phone numbers for the NGO’s employees, and my friend texted me to say they have a meeting with the NGO in a week.
The last interview felt like a surreal experience where all of the stress of data collection and accomplishing my goals and navigating a sometimes challenging translator and an always challenging transportation system all of a sudden came to an end. It’s definitely not my last interview, since I’ll be coming back to India again soon, but it was the last of the summer and most likely the last in the communities that I’ve been spending so much time in. My goal was to complete a pilot study of four communities so that we could begin to draw some conclusions and make some adjustments to our strategy before I come back and plunge full force into the rest of the case studies. I was able to “complete” data collection in six communities, but I’m sure that I’ll have so many unanswered questions and “If only I’d asked…” once I return to sort through my data this fall. But overall, it’s been excellent. There have been so many interesting surprises, contradicting stories, triumphs and challenges, and when I look back at my pictures or listen to some of the recordings, I can still feel a bit of the warmth emanating from the communities and people who so kindly welcomed me for a short period into their lives. I think I already feel a large India reflection blog on my horizon.
Lukas and I threw a seven-month delayed housewarming party for his move into the EcoHouse/going away party for me. I dragged a particularly gracious Uber driver all over the city in search of cheese that didn’t resemble plastic, of tonic water (that didn’t exist), and of the few remaining mangoes lingering from a tragically ending season to make salsa.
Rohit invited Lukas and me to his cousin’s wedding, so Saturday morning we took a series of busses from Bangalore to Madanapalli (in Andra Pradesh, my sixth Indian state!), and from there went with Rohit’s father’s driver to their village. I got to put on my sari for the first time by myself in my hotel room, which increased my usual getting ready time from sub-five minutes to over thirty. Although Rohit had told me there was no dress code (lol—if I had shown up without a sari that would have actually been massively unacceptable), I spontaneously bought a sari two days before the wedding at a sale in our neighborhood and ran around in panic to find a tailor who would be able to custom make a matching blouse in less than 24 hours (since Friday was a Hindu holiday and most tailors would be closed). I found this great gal who spoke excellent English and didn’t laugh too much when I tried the blouse on backwards (who knew the clasps go in the front??). My one mistake was that I didn’t buy a full silk sari, which is the accepted version for weddings. I instead bought this really nice one with cream lace-like cloth and blue flowers that I had to fight to keep in my hands while multiple women tried to convince me to let them buy it instead. Still, that didn’t meet the expectations of a particularly strong-willed grandma, so I was forcibly wrapped into silk for Day 2. More on that later.
|Rohit, my sari, & Lukas
After meeting Rohit’s sweet mother and father, he took us to their mango farm, which just was the most gorgeous and peaceful place on earth. Really felt quite silly marching through this farm in a sari, but at least the sunset helped romanticize it a bit. We’ll be returning for camping in hammocks underneath the mango trees the next time I’m in India.
Andra Pradesh is beautiful, rivaling Tamil Nadu as my favorite parts of India. It has these nice rolling hills with weird piles of rock formations everywhere, which really reminded me of California, but that is probably mostly due to the fact that these were the second set of hills I’ve seen in over three months. The countryside is spotted with hamlets and villages, tiny farmhouses and even smaller temples.
After the tour, we were driven to the wedding venue, which was held at one of the private schools that Rohit’s uncle (and the groom’s father) owns. Literally everyone that Rohit introduced to us was some sort of aunt or uncle or cousin or brother. In India, every relative is given one of these titles, and they only clarify first cousins by saying “my own cousin” and sibling brothers by saying “my own brother.” It makes for a very confusing mental family tree.
The Saturday evening portion of the wedding was almost entirely a photoshoot, where the poor bride and groom had to stand for over four hours and pose for pictures with each and every one of the thousand guests in attendance. That included Lukas and myself, the only two white people in miles, who were dragged up to the front by Rohit’s aunt, uncle, and grandma. The grandma held onto my hand fiercely for half an hour, and by the end of it we (she) had decided that we (she) needed to find me a real silk sari to wear to the wedding the next day. At the end of the night, she dug through her bag (which was full of at least five other saris) and decided on a bright magenta, green and gold sari and strictly instructed me (which my stubborn personality ignored) to find a woman, any woman, to help me put it on in the morning.
The photoshoot is followed by the world’s largest buffet, with the world’s longest buffet lines which we promptly skipped when Rohit’s persistent aunt handed us plates and ushered us to the front of the line. The buffet had easily ten kinds of chutney and sambar, piles of syrup-infused jack fruits (or apples or carrots, depending on who you asked), and endless dishes of rice and vegetables. I couldn’t attend an Indian wedding and not try everything, so I signed myself up to suffer gastrointestinal cramps for the next 48 hours from caloric overload. The rest of the night was spent meeting more aunts and cousins.
Sunday morning I had the opportunity to feel really positive about my body when I tried on two different blouses for my borrowed silk sari, only to discover that neither would cover even half of my chest. The women who loaned them to me were not exactly stick thin and I would have thought I would easily fit into their blouses. I’m convinced that Indian women perform some type of secret magic when they put these things on. Anyway, I decided that wearing my blouse that wasn’t silk and didn’t match the sari perfectly was a much better option than leaving half of each boob exposed, but I still got many comments from all sorts of Indian female strangers who wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing the correct blouse.
After probably the eleventh woman giggled in my direction, a sweet girl’s mother offered to take me to a room to help me fix my sari. This meant taking me to a room full of at least fifteen women who got quite the comedy show watching a woman unwrap me and rewrap me like a burrito like modesty was a non-issue. The two tricks that I learned were (1) you cheat by using much bigger pins than the tiny little safety pins I thought everyone used, and (2) you put the pins in vertically so that the pleats stay together better. The largest noticeable difference was that I was no longer self-conscious, feeling like my entire body was about to be exposed any second when the sari fell off. I also noticed that the number of picture requests increased, probably because they would no longer have to pose by a human embarrassment to their culture.
|Harika, the girl, came up to me every 30 minutes at the wedding and said goodbye at least six times before actually leaving. Her mother saved my sari two minutes after this picture was take.
The official wedding ceremony began at 9 in the morning, with a procession of the bride and groom into the wedding tent. Why Western weddings choose to play boring songs like the Wedding March instead of having full marching bands is a mystery to me. But then again, maybe that’s why I’m single. Following the Mardi Gras-esque entrance, the ceremony begins and is guided by a Hindu priest and two helpers, with the parents of the bride and groom playing central roles. At one point at the end of the ceremony, the priest takes the bride and groom outside to show them twin stars. Since it was daylight with no visible stars, this is mostly just symbolic. The groom first shows the bride the stars, then the bride shows the groom the stars. The meaning of the twin stars is that unlike most star pairs where one star orbits the other, the twin stars orbit each other, as a couple should in their marriage. I didn’t understand most of rest of the ceremony, so my pictures will do the rest of the talking:
After the ceremony, they served breakfast and a few of the wedding attendants took it upon themselves to ensure that we were again overfed and brought us pile after pile of chutney and sweets and dosa. Rohit gave us the full tour of his school, complete with childhood memories of being a five year old in the dormitory and of snakes disrupting test taking.
We then had another gorgeous tour of the countryside and ended at his parents’ house, where the acquiesced to my begging to see Rohit’s baby pictures. At the end of our stay, his parents over-spoiled us in the most generous way by (1) giving me a gorgeous blue sari to keep, justifying the generosity by saying they don’t have an Indian daughter to spoil; (2) refusing to let us pay them back for the cost of our hotel; and (3) sending us off with homemade tiger rice (rice with peanuts & other spices, not real tiger) in typical Indian tiffin containers so that we wouldn’t have to hunt down dinner when we arrived back in Bangalore late at night. Rohit and their driver Ramesh escorted us on one last drive through the rice fields and rocky hills to the bus stand where we boarded the world’s coldest bus:
|Lukas (right), with his full body inside his suit carrying bag, and E.T. (left)
My perfect weekend in India was only potentially upstaged by my last dinner where Lukas (my Swiss colleague) again spoiled me by treating us to authentic Swiss raclette dinner, complete with a candle-powered raclette machine, real live raclette cheese, Swiss wine, and most importantly Swiss music. I don’t know how I’m going to survive the next few months until I come back to India.