Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Back in Town

I'm back! I've come a long way to get here and a ton has happened. I got as much of it as I could on tape, but of course all I can show that way is the small slice I can point a camera at. There's plenty that I couldn't record that deserves to be shared.

Example: Have you ever been blessed by an elephant? I have.

I was walking barefoot through the entrance to the Virupaksha temple in the ruined capital city of what used to be the Vijayanagara empire when I spotted something big and gray immediately to my right. It was a ceremonial elephant, paint on its head and garlands at its feet. Our professor told us that if we gave it money, it would bless us.

So I stepped up and the big guy stuck the end of a trunk my way. I dropped a five rupee coin in a nostril. The elephant caught it and whipped the trunk back to give the donation to the handler. It then lifted its trunk up and gently laid it on top of my head for a couple seconds before gently lifting it up again to receive the next offering.

I'd just been blessed by a giant pachyderm. Wow.

That's a drop in the bucket. I've climbed hundreds of steps to see temples commemorating everything from two-foot cylindrical shivalingas to hundred-plus feet statues of the relatives of Jain saints. I've explored the tombs of Muslim sultans, scrambled across steep rocks to find artifacts from the stone age, swam in the Indian ocean, sung karaoke for the first time in my life in a Goan resort at the request of a group of Russian tourists, helped throw a birthday party in the windowless back room of a hotel bar with highly irregular electricity, only two working lights and at least one cockroach as long as my middle finger, chased mice around a train car, and a lot more besides.

I have lots of stories, lots of footage, and lots of pictures. I'll be uploading as much as possible over the next few days but it's gonna be tricky; the Internet connection where we're staying is down so I've had to be... creative in my methods of posting. Don't worry, if everything goes to plan I'll have a new photo album up each day for the next few days.

More pressing though is that my time is almost up. As I'm writing this Wednesday is drawing to a close. I have Thursday, Friday, and Saturday left here in Pune. Midnight Saturday night/ Sunday morning I catch a shuttle to Mumbai and the International Airport where I'll be flying home by way of a stop in London for a few days.

Three days remain.

I'm not going to kid myself into thinking you will be checking multiple times a day to read the hundreds of stories I could post to this thing over those three days, (many of which I already have written out). Besides, I've got a lot more I want to do with my last few moments in India than sit in front of my computer all day, (I'll be doing plenty of that already as I have one last 10-20 page final paper due Saturday).

Expect more photos for sure. If I have time, I'll toss in a blog post or two too. I'll definitely have at least one more before I leave the country. Until then...

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Indian Sanitation.

If you are eating right now, do yourself a favor and finish before reading any further. This is not going to be pretty.

We get the newspaper (Indian Express or the Times of India) delivered to our room every morning at our hotel. Yesterday, a random quote on the second page made me do a quick double-take:

“'Earlier, we were prone to infection. My husband and son had frequent stomach complaints. After the awareness camps by people who helped us install these toilets, we realized it was all because we were defecating in the open. But all that's over now.', says -----.”

I searched for and found the beginning of the article. It was above the fold on the front page. Here's the opening paragraph: “In Kakhorda at Tamluk in East Midnapore, life has changed for ----- ------. Her six-year-old son has not had cholera even once in the last three years. Her husband too has kept in good health. No longer does she go to the woods every morning. The concrete toilet, the new addition to their thatched hut, has seen a blessing.” Later: “Gone are the days of open air defecation, embarrassing situations. West Bengal is one state where rural sanitation has taken tremendous strides.”

What struck me the most about this was that these people were not horror-story subjects, they were presented as ordinary, middle-class, suburban Indian citizens. It was no more remarkable than a middle-aged man in northern Illinois describing how he used to have a hard time getting out of the driveway in the winter before the county put more money into clearing snow from the roads.

I guess this shouldn't be too surprising to me. Indian culture used to (and in some places still does) consider cow dung to be a purifying agent; comparatively speaking, it wasn't all that long ago that it was used to clean people's houses here. In many questions issues about sanitation seem simply to be a question of basic education. Not only that, but in the scheme of Indian sanitation issues, the availability and use of toilets is a drop in the bucket compared to say, the combination of the Mumbai open sewer system with the monsoon season. For the sake of readers such as yourself, I will refrain from going into any further detail.

In a country that seems to be concentrating on proliferating broadband Internet, fast cars, mobile phones, and advanced cardiac surgery, it's strange to find such basic needs silently going unmet. You can't have Internet without steady electricity. You can't use fast cars before you make good roads to drive them on. You can't spread mobile phones without a well-developed land-line phone system. And it seems a little strange to be concerned about advanced medicine without taking care of the most basic health needs first.

The good news behind this of course goes right back where I started: the newspaper article I found. It covers the achievements of sanitation efforts in West Bengal. The country is noticing. It knows there is a problem and it is working to solve it. According to UNICEF, the West Bengal state sanitation coverage has risen to 65%, (which may not sound great, but is a great deal higher than the nationwide average of 32%). Thanks to independent NGOs and charities, we can expect things to continue to change for the better.

...reading that quote while eating my breakfast still made for a strange way to start my morning though.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

"Just two things of which to beware: don't drink the water and don't beathe the air."

There is a near-universal complaint among non-Indians who have been to India: they always get sick. No matter who they are, how long they're there, or what precautions they take, they always come down with something in the end. Even the ones who don't admit to it at first. I asked one the trip leaders if she'd ever gotten sick here. Her answer was something like this:

"What? No, I've never gotten sick here. I hear people complain about it all the time but I'd never really had any problems myself... well except for some minor digestive problems... well, okay, there was the time I got dengue fever..." etc.

Still I was pretty proud of myself for going nearly seven weeks in India completely healthy.

Not everybody on the program has been as lucky as I have; there seem to be at least two people in our group that are sick at any given time. One of the last bus rides we took, I had to collect plastic bags for my friend sitting next to me, who had to stop the bus at least three times to vomit. Another one of my friends was told by a doctor several weeks ago that she would need to get her tonsils removed when she returned home. Every outing we go on as a group seems to leave at least one person behind, sick. Sometimes it's from drinking the local water, sometimes its from food. Most of the time though, we have no idea what caused it.

So when I woke up with a sore throat Monday morning, I wasn't a happy camper. That first day I figured I might be getting a cold. By Tuesday I was sure of it.

When yesterday rolled around with no other symptoms except a worsened sore throat, I started to wonder. Then this morning came. I woke up practically gargling phlegm and with a voice about an octave deeper than it had been eight hours previously, but no runny nose, no sneezing, and no nasal congestion.

So I when I came down to breakfast and found Mark and Jaime (the program's director and assistant, respectively) and asked them between coughs what the deal was, they told me:

Air pollution.

While I do consider myself an environmentalist, I always thought the image of people having to go outside with gas masks to be a scare tactic. The idea of it actually happening was laughable. But lately I've been seeing more and more people wearing veils and scarves over their nose and mouth, and I'm starting to find out why.

I had only noticed for the first time a few days ago the signs around the city with numbers representing the recent recorded level of air pollutants next to the standard "permissible levels". I'd known about the fact that the auto-rickshaws that practically run the streets around here ran on diesel fuel, and having ridden around in them a lot it had occurred to me that I was often stopping at intersections in a wide open-air vehicle surrounded by other motor-vehicles whose exhaust were pumping out fumes at about my eye level.

It wasn't until this week that it finally came to a head.

So while I guess I'm technically not "sick", I'm not in great shape. We're running low on water right now (we get shipments of bottled water from a neighborhood grocery store, but the most recent one was first delayed almost a week and then sent back when one of our teachers saw the shipment and decided he didn't like the brand) but I've been trying to drink as much as possible while leaving enough for my roommate and whichever other five people happen to actually be sick. I'd like to think it helps. In the meantime, I'm just hoping for rain, and will be trying hard to stay out of the auto-rickshaws for a while.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Too fast?

I move fast. I like moving fast. I can and will cram as much experience into 24 hours as I can; I like the fact that within the last few days I have seen centuries-old cave temples on the other side of the state, watched movies at the National Film Archive of India, cruised the biggest bazaar in Pune, taken cooking classes with a local yoga teacher, visited an ashram on the northern end of town, and half a dozen other things that I've gotten a chance to try on the spur of the moment.

I do all this and still end up thinking I need to get out more.

Already I have only one week left in town, and even though I knew that's what the schedule was going to be it still feels like a surprise. It seems like I only just got back here a couple weeks ago, (...then again, I suppose that's because I did only just get back here a couple weeks ago... hmm.... right). We've got lots more to do and lots more to see and we aren't stopping any time soon.

This comes at a cost. I'm already going to be pretty busy with trips and program outings, not to mention tests, papers, and homework.

The thing is, I've met all these people along the way. But because of the break-neck pace we've been moving at, I've only been able to do that: meet them. We exchange names, email addresses, smiles and waves, then I never see them again because I've run off with the program to trek through ancient ruins or something. Yes, I love the ruins, but I wish I could stick around and actually spend some time with the friends I just might make here. So far, all I've got is a list of contact information for people who I want to see and don't have time for.

Like I said, I don't like missing opportunities.

I have absolutely no regrets about going on a quarter-long program. It fits perfectly into my life; while I'm having a great time here, I'm looking forward to going home in December. But I'm starting to realize that while moving fast fits me and lets gives me an incredible range of experiences, it does mean I'll miss a thing or two along the way.

It feels very strange to relegate real people to the status of “things I missed along the way”.