I was woken up this week with a notice on my phone from my weather app: “clouds are clearing today in Bangalore, Allie. Enjoy the sunshine!” Google clearly has not collected enough metadata on me to know that sunshine and my skin aren’t friendly. When I spent a day as a tourist in Mysore, people literally audibly laughed at how red my face turned after ten miles of walking in the heat.
I finished the bulk of my data collection and work in Bangalore just after my previous blog post. I plan to return for a week in May to finish any last follow-up interviews and make another attempt to track down some of the elusive government officials. This means that until at least the middle of May, I live out of my backpack and a new hotel every week.
The first new hotel was in Mysore. I took the train down early on a Sunday so I could spend a day as a tourist in a city that comes highly recommended within Karnataka. Supposedly, Mysore resembles Bangalore fifteen years ago, before it exploded with development (and traffic and pollution). Mysore is known for its opulent maharaja palace and for several beautiful temples. Arriving in Mysore did immediately feel like a different world. For one, the tourists (white people) that are conspicuously absent of my favorite corners of Bangalore flock to the city; I rarely ate a meal in a hotel (what they call restaurant here) as the sole white girl. The second (actually honestly the first) thing I noticed was the painful difference that a two-degree temperature increase makes, and it’s still not the hottest time in India.
I spent the day marching around the city until I could barely walk. I’m writing this a couple days later and the bottoms of my feet are still crying about how much I forced them to walk. The opportunities for touristic enjoyment and exercise are few and far between with all of my interviews, so I had to take advantage. The most exciting part of the day was visiting the Mysore Palace, the residence of the royal Wodeyar family who ruled Mysore state for 200 years, ending only in 1950. When you think the word “maharaja” you probably picture something reminiscent of the Mysore Palace. Located on huge grounds that, in the absence of the beating sun and heat, likely are full of beautiful flowers and gardens, the Palace towers rise above with their red and golden colored domes. To go inside, you hand over your shoes in a chaotic mess that bestows little confidence of getting your correct shoes back. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, to the extent where security guards will actually chase people who do and force them to delete the photos. The best room is one on the second floor that is filled with turquoise and gold colored columns. There are roomfuls of intricate oil paintings depicting the ceremonies and histories of the maharaja. One of the highlights of the Palace comes at night: in one sweeping motion, thousands of lights attached to each facet of the Palace are lit and a tiny Palace band plays music for the crowds for an hour. I went back to the Palace another night with my intern and translator for the light show, where they play music and a story (in Kannada) and lights change to the story. Something about a marriage and a fire and a wrestling match.
From the palace, I walked to the bottom of the steps at Chamunda hill. Had I known that the hike up to the famous temple on Chamunda hill was 1001 steps, I probably would not have walked the forty minutes to the bottom of the hill. Right at the base to greet me were men in their underwear doing yoga and a mixed family of dogs and monkeys eating old coconuts. The hike to the top of the hill reminded me of a hike I did to a temple on a mountain in China, except this time I suffered through 6,000 less steps and avoided the paralyzing knee pain. Similar to that hike, people hiked in heels and saris, which served as a small bit of encouragement for my sweating and tired body. Along the way, the hill provides sweeping views of the city and you can see the domes of the many palaces, government buildings, and fancy hotels. One of the only benefits of pollution is that it makes for some really beautiful sunsets. At the top of the hill is the crowded Chamunda temple. The outside was unfortunately (for me, not the temple’s longevity) under renovation.
The work we did last week happened in a slum resettlement, just a few kilometers outside of Mysore. The sanitation system is one that I’ve heard about from people all over India as a great example of success. But, like in many other places when seemingly everything is fighting in the system’s favor, the success does not last. In this community’s case, despite having extensive support from the implementing NGO, a skilled operator, a dedicated O&M committee, and a community that values health and sanitation benefits, one government decision derailed the system’s trajectory. A couple of years ago, the Karnataka Slum Clearance Board constructed 200 new houses across the street and despite free engineering designs and feasibility studies and continuous promises that they would expand the treatment system, they connected the new houses suddenly overnight to the treatment plant. The system has since been massively overloaded. Soon after, a monsoon broke the nearby drainage canal, flooding the system even more. These challenges are insurmountable for the community, as the Slum Clearance Board holds the financial and decision-making power (and legal system ownership) to rectify the system. The “system” now more closely resembles a pond. I followed GPS coordinates to find the system and walked in circles around the pond until I finally noticed the inauguration sign and realized the system is entirely under three or four feet of wastewater. Another rather surprising twist in this sanitation system’s history is that a neighboring community has continually deposited trash and dead animal carcasses in the access chambers for the outlet pipe. The pipes are buried at a depth that is quite shocking because of the effort and cost required for construction for a relatively small system and small community. This means that the manhole access chambers are thirty or forty feet deep in sometimes, and make for a great hiding spot for unwanted items, at the expense of the treatment system’s functionality. The government agreed to allocate funds to clean, fix, and expand the treatment system, but the bureaucratic process took over two years between design submission and approval, and now the funds fall woefully short of today’s market prices.
I gave a camera to someone to ask them to take a few pictures of our interviews. The camera was returned with these four gems, and no others. Thank you.
This week’s only interview horror occurred when I had to attempt to focus while a dog vomited and ate its vomit no less than twenty times inches from my feet.
I took the train back to Bangalore from Mysore and spent the three-hour journey trying to read Harry Potter while an endless stream of salesmen and women passed through the aisles advertising their snacks, water, or toys for train entertainment. I had a few hours in Bangalore to pack my things for the next two months, and overlapped with Jan-Olof, the Swedish professor who owns the EcoHouse, for just long enough to share a dosa and catch up on his research, my research, the EcoHouse, and American politics.
From Bangalore, I set off on a night bus to Pondicherry. My bus picked us up an hour late, so I spent an hour and a half on the side of the road. Not to worry, four young college girls adopted me since they were worried about me traveling alone (although none of them had ever taken a bus overnight before). We played Uno and ate Snickers to pass the time. I arrived at 6 am, paid too much for an early morning auto to the hotel, and promptly slept for three hours, acquiring ten new mosquito bites on my tired face. I had the whole day to relax and explore the old town in Pondicherry, alternating between peaceful garden cafes and the beach. Pondicherry is a small city/state on the east coast of India, with a heavy European influence since it was formerly a French colony. Pondi feels entirely different from the rest of India: it’s noticeably cleaner (at least compared to Bangalore), has tons of French bakeries and French-Indian fusion restaurants, and is full of European tourists. The city transitions quickly from a busy, bustling, horn-filled atmosphere, to a quieter French quarter with European architecture and rented bicycles, to a beach promenade – empty in the daytime and beyond crowded at night. My Eawag friends and some new friends they’d met at a conference in Chennai joined Friday night for our beach vacation weekend. The next two days were spent in exactly the same way: we breakfasted on pan au chocolat and real black coffee at a French bakery, took an auto to Serenity beach where we spent hours in the decently clean and pleasantly warm ocean, got lobster colored sunburns, ate fried calamari and prawn curry for lunch, later feasted again on seafood for dinner, finishing the day with a walk on the promenade and a beer on the hotel roof. My ideal day, and I didn’t open my computer for a full 48 hours.
On Monday, I found myself thrown back into research for a dismal, patience-testing day that likely would have been a nicer shade of mediocre, had I not just come off of such a perfect beach vacation weekend. I took the public bus in the morning to Chennai, a four hour adventure where it’s a race against time to find out whether my knees banging the back of the metal seat or my ears subjected to constant ear-splitting honking would bleed first. I met my intern, Sridhar, in Chennai where we marched boldly into the Tamil Nadu Water and Drainage Board (TWAD) headquarters. I go back and forth between thinking it’s helpful and a total waste of time to blindly call government offices to set up meetings. Today we opted for showing up unannounced, which proved semi-fruitful. I’m starting to think that when a government official isn’t aware of a project or some piece of information, they confidently tell us the project doesn’t exist or that the government without a doubt was uninvolved, rather than admitting that they might not be the person who is the most knowledgeable. Despite having several reports and sure-fire proof that TWAD was the main implementing agency behind several of the treatment systems I’m studying, multiple officials adamantly denied TWAD involvement. But we persisted and finally gained a small amount of information that sent us next door to a spider-shaped building where we wandered through the hallways in search of an assistant engineer.
The rest of the week has been spent spoiling myself on fried fish and prawn curry after long days of interviews. I get to prolong my stay in Pondicherry, as it’s the best jumping-off point for four of my communities, but I’ve returned to my hotel after dark every day—missing out on swimming opportunities. The next few communities I’m studying are also resettled communities, displaced not by the government clearing slums as are the communities in Bangalore, but by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The first four communities are in the Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu, and while they are within reach of a growing industrial economy and exploding cities, people’s livelihood remains fiercely tied to the sea. Most of the communities live in organized housing clusters, built by a patchwork of international NGOs in response to the tsunami. Combing through hundreds of pages of government documents and tender records yields a confusing and convoluted process through which these communities gained sanitation systems. In many cases, houses were built with toilets and twin pits or septic tanks, only to be “upgraded” a year or two later to a centralized treatment system when the government finally had the funds to provide more “robust” infrastructure. One small silver lining of the catastrophic tsunami is that all of these communities relied on open defecation before the tsunami, and only used their first real toilets a couple years later. It’s interesting to see that while the communities are now equipped with alarm systems, evacuation signs and posters, and in one case, monstrous evacuation shelters, many of these fisherman communities are still spitting distance from the sea.
We focused first on a small community about forty minutes north of Pondicherry. The houses and buildings are all tinged with pink, the distinctive choice of the NGO who constructed the shelters. We arrived in time to see the sun set over the sanitation system and the fisherman’s boats on the ocean, a strange and lovely juxtaposition of some of the things I love the most. This community is perhaps the most hospitable and generous community I’ve visited so far. The village leaders sent me home with bags of grapes, the women provided an endless supply of hot tea and cool drinks, the young kids kept interrupting interviews with neon colored baby chicks, and the teenaged boys scaled the palm trees to cut down fresh coconuts for us to eat and drink. I’m not kidding. Parts of it felt like a movie, or at least like I was going on one of those tours to “see an authentic fisherman village”, but the reality is that they are just generous. Indians possess true gifts of hospitality. We ended our time in this community with a focus group of mostly women who kept taking a break from the activity to ask how many children I have, why I’m unmarried, and if I’d like to trade earrings with them.
On the way back to the main road to catch the bus, our auto driver stopped at an expansive salt mine and asked to take a selfie with me in front of the salt. I forgot to get a copy and it’s my biggest regret.
I’ll leave you with some recent Indian menu & signage humor: