Happy Halloween! It feels so strange to be in a country that doesn’t celebrate one of my favorite holidays. I can’t even convey how much I miss seeing carved pumpkins, scarecrows, weird fake spiderwebs with little plastic creatures strewn about them and strangely dressed kids roaming the streets at night! Although I did just get to celebrate the most important holiday of the year here in India, called Divwali. Hannah and I returned from out internship (more on that later) for a few days to spend the holidays with my host mom in Jaipur. Divwali is also known as the festival of lights and for good reason – the festival itself it seen as the triumph of good over evil and starting a new year with high hopes and good intentions. Everyone decorates their houses quite extensively with dozens of strands of colored and white lights and tiny little oil lamps are placed around the outside of the house, lining walkways, gardens and fences. Our neighbors on both sides have little kids in the family and they were setting off incredibly loud and crazy fireworks for hours on Divwali night; the whole city was in fact, Hannah and I camped out on the roof for a few hours, watching the never ending displays. Honestly, it would have put most American fourth of July shows to shame! (Except my dad’s annual show, of course.) My host-sister took Hannah and I on a driving tour of the city as well – all of the big malls compete with each other to see who can decorate their buildings the most elaborately. It was really crazy to see these huge, six or seven story shopping malls with hundreds and hundreds of lights strung about! There were tons of other families out looking at the sites as well, most of them dressed in the finest saris and shawls, taking family portraits in front of the displays! We also had a lovely family dinner with all sorts of special Divwali sweets and Hindu prayers during a special puja. It felt like experiencing an American Christmas in a strange, altered reality, viewed through the the colorful, brilliantly lit, shape-shifting lens of a kaleidoscope. All the traditional elements of a festive season were there – family coming together, good food, decorations – but they had taken on a distinctly Indian adaptation. It was a wonderful experience and one I will not easily forget! I’v included a few pictures from the celebrations below! I’ve also put in a few pictures (the ones of the temples and country landscapes) from my new internship site! To better explain what I’m doing with my new internship, I’ve included a copy of the first “field note” assignment I was required to write, located below the pictures!
Field Note #1
For about a week now, I have been working with an NGO in southern Rajasthan called Prayas. Translated from Hindi, the word prays roughly means “an endeavor”, a name aptly chose for an organization working to improve the quality of, access to and education about public health care in the rural villages of north India. While the main office is located in Chittorgarh, a small city famous for having the largest for in India, the campus where I and another intern, Hannah, have been living and working is located in Devgarh, a very small town about four hours from Chittorgarh by government bus. It is populated mainly by villages in small clusters of mud-clay huts with thatched grass roofs. There i a town center though, where a few small shops and the ancient Raja Mahal (King’s Castle) is found. The surround area is primarily agricultural fields, which is the principal source of employment for the people living here. With a landscape composed of gently rolling hills, carpeted with fields of grain and other crops and dotted with a few small lakes, historic temples, and the intermittent clusters of five or six small huts, Devgarh stands in sharp contrast to the bustling city of Jaipur. Hannah and I have found our lives completely transformed overnight. The most immediate challenge of living in Devgarh has been the language barrier. There are five or six people that seem to live on the Prayas campus full time – a general site manager, a government health care worker, a cook and three or four other people heading research projects in the area. None of them speak anything more than very basic English, roughly comparable to my and Hannah’s Hindi. This has made for some very interesting conversations, most of which end up falling into rather comical game of charades. Much to my surprise though, this significant hindrance to communication has not been very difficult to overcome. Casual conversation is certainly in short supply, but seated around the outside table where we have dinner as a group each night, we are often laughing comfortably together, using the few words we know in each other’s language to convey a general sense of friendship and contentment.
Because Hannah and I arrived just five days before the start of Divwali holidays, there hasn’t been much activity going on at the Prayas campus. We spend out first day just getting settled in and accustomed to our room. The loveliest part of our new living arrangement is the large rooftop terrace, where we often spend time looking out across the surrounding landscape, taking in the beauty of seeing unencumbered nature for miles in all directions. We can even see the Milky Way at night. The next day Narayan, the site manager, took Hannah and I on a walking tour of the agricultural fields and a few homes near the Prayas campus. We made our way through peanut fields where a mother and her two small children were cheerfully bent over, pulling up the little plants from the ground to gather the clusters of nuts growing under the soil. The mother insisted Hannah and I try a handful of peanuts each, which were very delicious. We continued past little herds of cows and goats, into a shady grove where three little houses were lined up next to each other with women outside doing laundry. Here we also saw one of the several water storage ponds in the area.These in ground, stone lined pools provide water for the villages, primarily for bathing and washing purposes. The are huge, ancient looking structures with steps leading from the top down into the water all the way to the bottom of the pool, hidden beneath a few dozen feet of water. On the Prayas campus there is a water pump which draws directly from an underground well. All throughout the day, at least every quarter hour, different women and children come to the pump carrying huge water pots on their heads, to fill with water and take back to their homes, up to several kilometers away. This pump is the only source of clean drinking water for miles around and it’s thanks to Prayas that these villages have this vital resource for good health. On the way home from our walking tour of the area, Narayan stopped in to do some trading with one of the villages, brings lemons and tomatoes from our small garden on the campus in exchange for our weekly supply of dall (a mixture of lentils and pulses), which is our primary source of protein here in Devgarh. We have dall for both breakfast and dinner every day, along with other vegetables and flat bread called chapatis. We don’t each lunch in Devgarh, which certainly took some getting used to. We do have afternoon tea sometimes though.
The following day, Hannah and I spent the morning with the only woman at our site, reviewing the paper she is writing about her research, which she has been conducting for three years now. Despite the fact that this woman doesn’t speak English, the draft paper she gave us to read was, which led me to believe she had had it translated by someone, an idea immediately reinforced by the large number of grammar and spelling errors. Her paper discussed the importance of having additional sources of income besides agriculture for villagers, such as bamboo handicraft work or animal husbandry, to ensure the people have a steady source of income year round – a necessity for paying for out of pocket health care, the only public option available in India. We also received another report via email from the director of the Chittorgarh office on how out of pocket health care expenditure is causing thousands and thousands of Indians to go bankrupt each year. It’s really a horrible system in dire need of reform. Prayas hopes to garner support for implementing change by raising awareness about the dismal condition of the public health sector in India. They have also organized large community meetings in the past, where they discuss how the villages can get in touch with the government representatives to voice their resentment about this unjust situation.
On the final day before we left Devgarh to return to Jaipur for the Divwali holidays, there was really very little work going on. A cheerful, festive mood had settled over the place. A few of the workers families had come to visit so Hannah and I spend the day playing with two little girls; we all watched an episode of the BBC documentary series Life on my computer, which was really fun. I’ve also introduced the game of Frisbee to our friends at Prayas and it’s a huge hit; they ask us to play every day. They call it “thali” though, which is the Hindi word for plate, because that’s what they though the strange flat, shallow disc was the first time I brought it out. Hannah and I find this absolutely hilarious and have actually started calling it thali ourselves.
Overall, I’m really enjoying my time at my internship – it’s so fascinating to see the contrast in city and country life here in India! It’s been another experience highlighting Indian hospitality to be certain, with everyone being constantly worried that Hannah and I have enough to eat and are happy in our rooms. Luckily we’ve convinced them to let us help out with the dishes and we get to help pick chilies, tomatoes, and lemons from the little garden on site, so we don’t feel totally useless. Hopefully after Divwali break, Hannah and I will get a little more hands-on activity with some of the projects Prayas is conducting. We’ve at least been told we’re going to tour the local Public Health Center (PHC), basically a government funded bare-bones hospital which is the only public health care option in the area. It’s clear that Prayas is important to people living in the area – as we were walking around, everyone came out to greet Narayan and were certainly happy to see us, but I’m interested in seeing a bit more about their specific projects when we return.
Well that about covers it for this blog update! I’m working on getting together some of my memories from my trip to Varanasi a few weeks ago. It was by far my favorite place we’ve visited so far but I haven’t yet had time to sit down and get my thoughts together. I have posted pictures from the trip on facebook though! The public link to view the album is posted below, you don’t have to have a facebook to see them.