Over the Munnar about Kerala

To celebrate the end of the most grueling portion of my data collection in India (the community-based fieldwork), I stopped for a couple of days in Kerala to fulfill a promise to myself that I wouldn’t leave India again without seeing the backwaters in Kerala. I exchanged the dusty roads and blistering sun of Tamil Nadu for the lush greenery of Kerala jungles. I began my stay with two tiger prawn meals back to back. Literally walked from one restaurant to the next without meaning to, but thoroughly enjoyed both meals. The first meal came spontaneously to prevent death from heat and exhaustion, although the temperatures here are about ten degrees cooler than in Tamil Nadu (if you can consider 97 degrees to be “cool”). The difference in heat means that you’ll sweat just as much and be just as tired out in the sun, but you can successfully come home to a non-AC room and survive the night without melting. In Tamil Nadu a non-AC room in April would probably kill my weak, unaccustomed, spoiled Western body. Despite promises from the Indian government that cash shortages post-demonitization would cease March 31, ATMs are still often understocked, so I walked miles through the small, shady streets in Kochi before finding a functional ATM.

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I was still a ways away from the restaurant I’d picked out for lunch, when I paused to look at a menu for a restaurant that was no more than an umbrella, a cluster of small tables, and one outdoor grill. I ordered and immediately saw a young boy set off running to return five minutes later with a bag of king prawns clutched in his hand, just purchased from the seafood market up the road. I soon discovered that you can walk along the seafood stalls, bargain for your fresh choice, and bring it to a number of small pop-up restaurants that line the park and they’ll cook it for you (for a fee).

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Kerala is branded as “God’s Own Country” by the tourism ministry and is home to the largest population of Christians in India, evident immediately with the frequent churches and even large Catholic basilicas that have been around for hundreds of years. I started in Kochi, a small port city that actually reminded me of Panama City with the large freighter ships pulled by tiny tug boats in and out of the harbor. On the edges of the “beach” in Kochi, fishermen display Chinese fishing nets, a four-pronged structure that is raised and lowered into the water to catch fish in mass, requiring four men to operate. Historically, Malayali (the people of Kerala) fishermen used a similar method, but with much smaller fishing nets. Then, the Portuguese arrived and brought industrial-scale fishing practices. The Chinese fishing net technique was born from the two, and is still used today to supply the fish markets and nearby restaurants. Mostly, the nets are used during the monsoon season and serve as a tourist trap during the off-season (like now) where the old fishermen coerce young blonds up to their nets, take pictures, give a brief history, and then shame you for not giving them a Rs. 500 tip.

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My favorite part about Kerala was the homestays. Kerala’s tourism department has invested in encouraging regular people to open their homes to tourists and they’ve vetted and marketed many of the homestay options well. The homestays vary from a couch-surfing feel with the spare bedroom saved for guests to expanded homes with three or four newly attached rooms to larger layouts with small cottages. I stayed in a different homestay for each of the towns that I visited in Kerala and had a great time in all. My first homestay was in Kochi, at a place called Casa Mia run by a woman named Usha. She previously worked for a local bishop, but the job kept her away from home frequently, so her husband agreed to build extensions onto their house so she could be home more often but have a business to occupy her time. I sat with Usha, her vociferous teenage son, and her silent mother in law for breakfast and an afternoon while they told me about life in Kerala, their Christian faith, and the less-strict observance of the caste system as compared to the neighboring states.

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I had hoped to partake in Alleppey’s world-famous houseboats, but soon discovered that attempting to houseboat while you’re traveling alone is both out of budget and out of the question for most tour operators who aren’t willing to take their boat out for just one person. Instead, my homestay host, Johnson, arranged a backwater canoe tour for me and the two Austrian girls also staying at his place. We first enjoyed tea and fried plantains at a little house tucked between wet marshy fields, and then boarded our canoe, where I sat on a red beanbag on the bottom of the boat. We rowed (he rowed, actually) through the small canals of the backwaters before entering one of the larger lakes. Kerala boasts the highest proportion of household toilets (nearly 100 percent coverage) and least amount of open defecation in India. The difficultly is that Kerala also has extremely high groundwater tables in the coastal areas and in the backwaters that extend far inland, meaning that septic tanks with leach pits or the commonly used twin pit latrines are terrible hazards for groundwater quality. As we made our way through the small canals, I noticed latrines perched precariously on the edges of backwater-front property, sometimes discharging directly into the canals or otherwise leading to pits dangerously close to the lifeblood of the villagers. Some of the backwaters seems to be kept extremely pristine, but many of the canals have a greasy sheen on the surface of the water and everything from plastic water bottles to candy wrappers to soggy diapers float on the water’s surface. Guidebooks and tours for the backwaters provide recommendations for choosing eco-friendly operators or forgoing diesel-powered houseboats for a more fuel-efficient choice, but seem to ignore the challenges the environmentally sensitive area faces with sanitation and solid waste management (issues exacerbated by large tourist populations flocking to houseboats throughout the year).

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We stopped mid-tour for a fresh coconut drink, that truthfully still has not grown on me and will always resemble raw whale blubber, and a break for fishing. We were given thin bamboo sticks and tiny balls of dough and sat down to rather unsuccessfully fish for small minnows, a practice we saw replicated by a number of women whose homes are along the lake. I hope they experience more regular success than we did. Shortly after our fishing break, a storm rolled in and we had to escape to a stranger’s house for safety to wait for the end of the lightning. We rowed back to our guide’s house, where his sons prepared us a dinner of Kerala curries and vegetable sides.

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I also had time to again rent a scooter and take the bike to a secret beach several kilometers north of Alleppey. Since the advertisement for the secret beach is included in Johnson’s laminated list of things to do near Alleppey, I assumed the beach was not so secret and was shocked to discover a perfectly beautiful, clean, and completely empty beach. I saw a total of four people in the eight hours I spent on that beach.

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From Alleppey, I took a public bus up the winding green hills to Munnar, a hill station known for wildlife preserves, trekking, and most importantly Indian tea plantations. I was dropped off a few kilometers before Munnar, where I took an auto to my reserved homestay, only to find out that they’d double booked and no longer had an available room. I walked down the hill to the next homestay (that according to Google was available), only to discover a similar story. I kept going down the hill in hopes that eventually one of the homes would have an available room to rent, with no success. Nearing panic, only because of the lack of motorized transportation in this remote hill area and because of the prospect of marching back up hill in the sun with my bags full of heavy documents collected from government offices and cameras used for my data collection, I sat on the side of the road and pulled out my laptop and internet stick (I broke down a purchased one a week ago after having two straight weeks of broken wi-fi and broken promises from hotels) and found another homestay a couple kilometers away—walkable if need be. Guessing that an auto would pass by me I started walking to the homestay, but found myself on an even smaller road than before. The hills surrounding were lush and beautiful and the uphill climb wasn’t so horrible so I was able to make it a while. I finally flagged down a passing jeep and convinced the driver to take me the final kilometer to the homestay, where I was welcomed by the eight year old son into forest paradise.

The place I stayed, called The Shade is a homestay that tops the rest I’ve experienced in Kerala. The homestay is extremely remote, so much so that the sound of insects far exceeds the sound of the occasional car or motorbike that passes and you can go hours without hearing a horn honk. The house has a terrace that overlooks distant hills, tea plantations, and fruit trees. Their garden has its own supply of fresh fruit and flowers and is made complete with a rope swing. The toiletries in the bathroom are actual toiletries, not just cheap shower caps and half bars of soap. The family’s hospitality was incredible, they arranged for a guide to take me trekking, for a tour of the tea plantations, and served wonderful home-cooked meals each morning and evening. My only regret is that research called and her demands refused to let me stay here until the end of May.

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Since the tea plantations (and other farms) in the Munnar region are private property (and accessible via hidden paths and roads unknown to Google Maps), it’s recommended and required to have a guide take you on the treks. My guide was a middle-aged man named Assayya, who has lived in Munnar his whole life. We walked downhill from the homestay (always a bad sign for starting a hike) and then spent the next four hours slowly climbing back up the mountain before ending with a short downhill portion back to the homestay. Assayya literally took 103 pictures of me during the five or six hours we were hiking—I think I would have asked him to take about five total of those pictures but the breaks were a welcome relief from the uphill climbs (except for when he made me pretend to be a tea harvesting woman and I felt like a giant insensitive idiot). When we finally made it to the top, we enjoyed a Kerala meal and freshly brewed tea (without milk!), overlooking the sprawling and vast tea plantations below. Throughout the hike, Assayya would march up to a tree, pluck off ripened fruit, and chop it open with a tiny knife for a snack. Then, we’d march even farther downhill to find a farmhouse who could spare some coconut oil for him to wipe off the knife. We’d trudge back uphill (at one point we were walking up a black rock that lasted forever and must have been perfectly vertical), before he’d remember a nice waterfall or see a cardamom tree and we’d turn straight back down. Assayya has amassed a long list of international pen pals, many of whom were people who went on one of his treks and have since kept in touch by sending post cards of their hometowns and receiving gifts of honey and pictures of tea plantations in return. As Assayya and I exchanged addresses, he asked that I send a picture of my family with all our cows. When I told him my family doesn’t own any cows, he literally teared up and spent the next ten minutes apologizing profusely for our terrible misfortune. I *think* he was genuinely distraught, but perhaps it’s all part of his jovial charade.

I technically didn’t finish all my community data collection before going to Kerala, as I had several days of follow up interviews to conduct in two of the communities in the Bangalore area that I visited last summer. I reunited with my translator for this work, since my intern is fluent in Tamil and struggles with Kannada (the language of Karnataka). My relationship with my translator has turned 180 degrees from last summer. I think I’ve gained the confidence to just bulldoze past his attempts to usurp our schedule with his own itinerary and he’s gained a better understanding of sanitation and how I like to do things. His background is primarily translating for pastors and Christian missionaries who come to southern India, so he knew next to zero about sanitation when we first started, but he was one of the few willing to accept my low, grad student price. Now, he’ll start our interviews and meetings by explaining the intricacies of my research, talking about resource recovery and evaluating system performance and comparing success and failure, without even my own prompting. He can explain the treatment technologies and will make sure to tell me all of his own observations on our bus rides home.

My intern’s time came to an end right as we were transitioning out of full-time community-based data collection to follow-up NGO meetings and data organization and analysis. He was supposed to continue as my assistant until the end of May, but he was offered a job on a government contract and couldn’t pass up the opportunity. In the midst of the redundancy of my research, I would wonder what my intern was learning from sitting through yet another interview to hear how a community was informed about a sanitation project, what he was gaining from being asked to make countless phone calls to TWAD officials and navigate the public buses, what skills or understanding he gathered from thinking about sanitation when his personal goals and professional dreams aim for work in water resources planning and management. The job he recently accepted is a job with a company who has a contract with the central government to assist with the successful implementation of the Swacch Bharat Mission. I’ve mentioned the SBM previously, but it’s the highly ambitious initiative nicknamed “My Clean India” that aims, among other things, to end open defecation in India by 2019 through the provision of toilets in each and every household across the country. Sridhar’s role will be to perform village surveys, make assessments of needs, and develop useful strategies to engage households in the SBM initiatives, with the goal of increasing household toilet coverage. The past four months of research with me has actually equipped him well for understanding some of the existing challenges for community acceptance of sanitation, for behavior change, for government support, for capacity building, and for sustained success. Even though he sometimes despised how much time we spent talking about sanitation, to the point where he had restless nights full of dreams of unending interviews, he told me he was grateful to have been selected for an internship that so perfectly prepared him for his next job in the sanitation sector. In a lot of ways, it feels like my research’s impact will be so small and meaningless to the specific communities I study and that tangible change for sanitation in India as a result of my work is a lofty and unlikely goal, but I have some hope that at least one of the people now working for the SBM knows about the challenges of government toilets being constructed too small or subsidies not being given to families fast enough or the importance of formal handover, and maybe in a small way, that will make a difference. When we said goodbye, my sweet intern thanked me for my “endless support and guidance”, which secretly I think is a euphemism for my unrelenting stubbornness, high expectations, and non-stop work schedule.

Coming back to Bangalore felt like coming home. One of my favorite places in the city is the KR Market in the center of the city. The KR Market is a wholesale marketplace where everything from vegetables to fruit to flowers to trinkets can be found sold in mass quantities. The ground has a thick, squelchy layer of mud mixed with cow manure, bits of straw, shredded flowers, and vegetable scraps, so when you walk your feet slip slightly. Cows meander through the market as ladies yell at them and hit them with bamboo sticks to keep them from grazing on their day’s income.

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I walked from the KR Market to a mall a couple miles away and Google Maps took me through a slum. One of the things I continue to love about India is the country’s ability to still surprise me after almost eight months of living here. I walked through this slum early in the morning and drew a lot of attention since I was so out of place. A group of women got so excited to see me and refused to let me pass without a selftake, tea, and idli.

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I also spent a couple of days this week back at the CDD Society office in Bangalore, which has its own feelings of home. CDD has provided either engineering design services or post-implementation monitoring for several of the sanitation systems we’re studying, so they have a wealth of knowledge and insight to the successes and challenges of these projects. I’ve struggled to see the practical benefit of my research, since I’ve sensed that many of the NGOs I’ve interacted with will not take responsibility for failure or have permanently moved on from their projects of the past. However, things may have taken a positive turn after a meeting I had with a few of the engineers at CDD. I wanted to give them an update on some of their projects, as I knew that some of those systems had not been visited in two or three or more years. One engineer in particular was really excited to learn of the depth of my research into the failures of these systems (he was shocked actually, although I’ve spent over twelve months now telling him and his colleagues about my research and trying to create a more meaningful partnership), as he had recently wanted to commission a similar study so that he can take steps to partner with the local government to fix the problems those systems face. The exciting thing is that I may have the opportunity to share some of my data and findings with his team, which can then serve as the basis for recommendations and solutions to fix these systems. Unfortunately, the hope I have for a better sanitation future in these communities hinges largely on the local government’s willingness to take action to address their local sanitation challenges and to implement long-term infrastructural and institutional solutions.

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I had a meeting with a retired chief engineer from the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board. BWSSB exclusively aims to provide underground sewerage and treatment through massive sewage treatment plants for the entirety of the greater Bangalore area. It’s interesting, since in many of the slum communities it’s still the party line that household toilets are not a possibility due to space constraints, yet BWSSB is finding ways to still construct household toilets (albeit small ones, that in some communities, are too small for people to find comfortable to use) and lay sewer lines. I’ve been in India for eight months and have had numerous meetings with government officials of all levels and from many different corporation and infrastructure offices, but I still cannot understand who is in control of what and why—I have a sneaking suspicion that the government also doesn’t totally have this clear either. Five of the communities we’re studying in Bangalore are either slum resettlements, where the government required a company to build houses for families that they displaced due to construction of massive developments like the cricket stadium in the city center, or informal-turned formal-but may not actually formal slums. The slum resettlements seem to have a slightly greater level of legitimacy in the eyes of the government and while the government still is slow to provide adequate infrastructure services in these neighborhoods, they at least are familiar with the community names and know the communities certainly fall within their jurisdiction. In the other slums, the municipal government is slow to recognize the slums as legal settlements, because this means that they are mandated by law to provide water, sanitation, streetlights, and roads. As a result, this has created the chaos that I’ve entered into, where each office of government deflects responsibility to the next and ultimately, the communities suffer as they have no meaningful government support and are strapped for time and resources to maintain often technically complex (at least, for these communities) sanitation systems.

The rest of my time in Bangalore was spent with Eawag, CDD, and other local friends who are a huge reason why I love India so much and will be dearly missed.

Finally, I’ll leave you with an article shared with me by an Indian friend to give some food for thought on climate change and water scarcity in Bangalore: https://www.wired.com/2017/05/why-bangalores-water-crisis-is-everyones-crisis/

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