Friday, May 2, 2008

Photo: Unfinished School, Nepal

A little Nepalese boy, Nitesh, is bouncing a soccer ball on a dirt path trekked hourly, daily, seasonally, by foreigners in the Himalayan foothills. Your friend’s brother, who picked you up from the airport a couple days earlier, told you that soccer, err, football, is the favored sport here. Not cricket, like in India. Still, at 6:30am the previous morning, while jogging with your sister in Kathmandu, you watched a group of Indian boys, living in Nepal, playing cricket. But this boy, Nitesh, 5 yrs old, up to your own knees, with his shaved head and mischievous smile, is bouncing his soccer ball through his legs. Basketball. He’s imitating a basketball player, with his soccer ball, on a dirt path, in a village near Dampus, in Nepal. 5 Dutch travelers - sun burnt, silent, thick - trek by. You wonder if they’ve been arguing. It’s that kind of silence. Or maybe it’s the exhaustion seeping inwards from their sunburns. Namaste, they say, without expression. To you or to the boy you’re watching, you’re not quite sure. The boy resumes his bouncing, careless to the foreigners, of which you are just one, and your constant gaze. He’s dribbling his soccer ball like a basketball. You know basketball. You love basketball, the game, and everything it gave you. And even though you don’t play much these days Everything It Gave You is with you in everything you do.

Right now all you know is that you love watching this kid with his shaved head and mischievous smile bounce his soccer ball. But, you notice his nose is running. You’re not sure why. You hate that his nose is running because it’s so cliché. This child is happy. He’s playing, in the mountains, his family lives and works 5 ft from the path he’s dribbling on. There’s a school being built just below his house. A school with a blue door in the front yard. He’s better off, you think to yourself, in this village with his family and this soon-to-be-new-school, with these foreigners coming through, than on the streets of Kathmandu, breathing in bags full of dendrite, smoking beedies, with other little boys, until his eyes burn red, head goes light, falling asleep in piles on the sidewalk. And yet, his nose is running. Just like theirs. You hate that you are thinking about his runny nose. He bounces the ball quickly behind his back. Nice move, you think. But not nice enough, because you steal the ball, dribble in circles around him, as he giggles and tries to catch it. Then he gets shy and stops, you decide to be nice and give the ball back. He goes back to his own dribbling.

You have a naïve thought: How does he know how to play basketball up here, so high in this village. How does he know to use that soccer ball with his hands, between his legs, behind his back? Where did he, only 5 yrs on this earth so far, learn those moves? And then you remember the sound of voices streaming through the other villages you trekked through. TVs. Yes, of course, how else do we know about things we’ve never seen first hand? TV! Even if there’s only electricity a couple hours a day, there is still TV!

And you remember some article written by some smart people at some private school in Cambridge. ‘What poor people spend their money on’, or something like that, was the title. TVs. Poor people in poor countries spend a lot of money of TVs. And, weddings. Yes, lots of money on weddings. You wonder when this boy, Nitesh, will get married. Will he be in love? Will he be nervous? Will she be from the same village? You wonder whether he is even poor. You wonder. His older sister is making you breakfast, because you’re a guest in their guest-house. His older sister, like your own, will be getting married sooner. Lots of money will be spent on her wedding. You decide to leave a bigger tip when you leave. You flinch at yourself for having this thought, but decide to own up to it, the thought, anyways.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Spinning Left and Zooming

Photo: Gulf of Kutch

I’ve been using GoogleEarth a bit too much for work. My thoughts tend to follow continually zooming streams and locations: World. Continent. Country. State. Village. Town. City. Neighborhood. Household. Individual. Then back out: Me. Siblings. Parents. House. South Amherst. Amherst. Massachusetts. New England. US. North America. World. Then back in: World. North America. US. West Coast. Northern California. Bay Area. San Francisco. Oakland. Richmond. Yusef. Selina. Turhan. Mallichai. Hannah. Me. Then back out: Me. Saath. Satellite. New City. Old City. Ahmedabad. Gujarat. India. South Asia. World. Then right back in: World. Middle East. Iran. Tabriz. Borujerd. Grandmothers. Grandfathers (someone else’s memories). Uncles. Aunts. Mother. Father. Me. Then I see my parents playing as children. My mother as the tough tag-along to her brother and his friends. My father as the leader of his raggedy pack of 13 siblings. With this imaginary (silent) home video I fight back tears, close my eyes and plead with my mind to log off.

GoogleEarth. What a crazy tool.

But this reminds me: Of all the times I’ve been to Iran I’ve never seen where my father and his siblings grew up. And I’ve spent very little time with the children of those siblings: My cousins. That doesn’t feel right. I’ll need to make sure it changes..... Which itself reminds me of how I've been feeling a lot of this these days:

Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.” –Jelaluddin Rumi

Thursday, March 27, 2008

An Update

Ok, so I totally lied. I told you I’d be a better blogger, but it just hasn’t happened. It’s apparently not IN me. I’ve been writing plenty during my time here, but hardly any of it has been making its way onto this blog. In any event, an update:

It’s nearly the end of March, which means I’m rounding down month 7 of 10 (crazy). Up until a few weeks ago my post-AIF future was fairly open. I fancied thoughts of staying longer in India, then jaunting over to Iran to pay my amazing grandmother a long overdue visit, maybe even intern with an NGO in Tehran, before making my way back to Massachusetts, then later back over to San Francisco. But as of the past few weeks I’m about 99.8% sure that I’ll be in graduate school come September (urban planning), which changes everything. I'm okay with that, though, because I'm getting fairly excited about doing some hard-core learning for the next couple of years (although, the truth is I've learned more since college than in college... but for now I'll take my friend Darzen's words that "grad school is a whole new ballgame").
Between the reality of potentially being a student again, a good-ol case of heart-ache, a visit from my parents and younger brother, and the urge to go to Old Farm Road in Amherst to give one of my best friends a big hug, I’ve found myself thinking about life back in the states quite a bit this month. The strangest part, though, is that when I think of the states (mostly I picture laying in bed watching the parrots outside my old bedroom window in SF, and a setting sun splitting through my family’s screened in porch in Amherst), I immediately start missing my life in India: the work I’m doing with my NGO (Saath), my friends, the animals, my yoga instructor… It’s a really strange feeling considering I’m still here, sweating and typing, in Ahmedabad.

Leaving the immediate future where it actually belongs, I’ll tell you a bit about what I’ve been working on through the Urban Resource Center at Saath. Up until a couple of weeks ago I was working on a project that links household data (of residents in two of the major slum pockets we work in) to a GIS (Geographic Information System). Alas, as the weeks went on it became clear that the project was way to big for just one NGO to handle, so my focus shifted from making myself useful on the project, to writing a proposal for partnering with Ahmedabad’s prized architecture/planning school (CEPT), and a local government body (Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation), to complete the project. I'm crossing my fingers that it works out because a) I think it's a really important project, b) It would really be a perfect partnership and c) it'd be a great use of all of Ahmedabad’s different resources: we (the NGO) have all the data that the project needs (let alone the most knowledge about the slum communities), CEPT has the technology and professors that have already laid the groundwork, and the AMC has both the funds and the NEED for this kind of information in order to target their schemes for the urban poor. So, now we just wait and see if the powers to be agree (what an awful sentence).

In the meantime a new and very interesting project has somehow landed in my lap, which involves sifting through surveys, charts, graphs, and data about the construction industry, in order to come up with a viewer and reader-friendly socio-economic analysis of the industry (by viewer friendly I mean making simple sense of the charts, graphs, and data pumped out by the stats package, and by reader-friendly I mean the reader shouldn’t need to know anything about development or the industry to understand it). I should mention that the construction industry is relevant to our work with the urban poor because a majority of construction workers here are migrant laborers who have settled--temporarily (mostly on construction sites) or permanently (mostly in slums)-- in the city because [prepare yourself for an oversimplification] their rural (or maybe I should say non-urban?) livelihoods were insufficient. I’m only two weeks into it and already learning tons, but also finding that I simply have a lot more to learn (that has actually been the trend with all of my experiences and work to date). I’ll make no promises, but I hope to share some of what this project is making me think about in my next post…. but in case that never happens, which my record implies as highly likely, I’ll tell you that it’s title would have been something along these lines: Cheap Labor Makes The World Go ‘Round Until our Cities Drown!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Traveling with Books hurt my Head

Photo: Taj Mahal at Sunset, Agra

I become absurdly attached to the characters in the books that I read. Even if it’s not meant to be a sad or emotional book, I have a hard time keeping my eyes dry as I close the back cover and say goodbye to people I’ll never meet, people with whom I became intimate with over the course of reading the pages that brought them to life. Some people never re-read books. Call me overly nostalgic but I re-read books all the time in an attempt to meet up with old pals, remind myself of who I was at the time that I was first introduced to that person, a figment of someone else’s imagination, or a recreation of someone else’s friend/lover/enemy/parent.

On December 18th in the amazingness that is Bombay, an AIF Fellow lent me a book - The Namesake - about a family, the Gangulis. For reasons that exist between the lines of my life, the Gangulis tugged at my heart throughout my time in Bombay, they appropriately accompanied me to the pink city of Jaipur where I attended an American-Indian wedding of an AIF fellow on the 21st, and joined me back at work in Ahmedabad. A week later I left Ahmedabad again on an overnight train to New Delhi, read the final word of The Namesake on the top bunk of a 3-tier AC cabin, wiped my eyes with my green hat purchased at Cliff’s Variety in SF, and fell asleep in the dark blue sleeping bag gifted to me by my parents before we hiked Mount Blanc together in the French Alps. 30 minutes earlier I had said goodnight to my bunkmates, with whom I had exchanged a few thoughts on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto - an event that chipped the spine of my perennial optimism. On December 30th I paced around the Indira Gandhi International Airport waiting for a flight that carried my greatest friend from San Francisco, to London, to me. Feeling nauseated all morning, 15 minutes before her arrival I sprinted to a trashcan in the corner of the airport waiting room, in front of men who, finally, were not starring at me For No Apparent Reason: this time, at least, I had undigested food flying out of my mouth.

On the evening of December 31st I was gifted What is the What, by Dave Eggers, a story about Valentino Achak Deng, one of Sudan’s Lost Boys. 5 hours later, the year 2008 was brought in on a New Delhi rooftop, and by 10am the next morning I stepped off the Taj Express in the tourism-destroyed city of Agra in order to see one of the world’s wonders. I left Agra wondering how much longer the Taj (which was certainly surreal) can withstand the city’s pollution, and where the $20 (US dollars) they charge per head goes if not to help preserve the place. The next 15 days were spent traveling around the magical cities of Rajasthan, but following me throughout my travels – in shadows cast by the Taj Mahal, in the reflection of India’s holiest lake in Pushkar, whispering through the wind in the Thar Desert, hiding behind the blue houses and magnificent fort walls in Jodhpur, peering down on me from the tiled rooms of Udaipur’s City Palace, and starring up at me through the carpet looms in a Kachchci craft village – were Valentino Achak Deng, his childhood friends (William K and Moses), his girlfriend (Tabitha), and his mother- whom even I began to long for. I’ve always loved Dave Eggers’ writings, fallen in love with his characters before, but this was different. I can’t yet tell if these people, not characters, were introduced to me at the perfect or least perfect time: I was traveling in some of India’s more touristy cities (where, for every warm heart you meet there are three more, calloused by Life, waiting to swindle you; where for every mind-blowing historical structure you see there are many more squatter settlements and pavement dwellers), I was still feeling great disappointment in the World over Bhutto’s assassination, and I was reading one man’s account of walking elsewhere to escape a civil war turned ongoing genocide, one day finding himself in the US only to experience more challenges, more pain. Overwhelmed is an insufficient word.

So why am I writing all this? I’m not really sure. My observations and experiences over the past month have given me new things to think about but simultaneously turned my brain to oatmeal. In Pushkar I knowingly got cheated out of 25 US dollars by a man claiming to be a Brahma Priest, but three minutes later I told a street child that I couldn’t give her 10 rupees (the equivalent of 25 cents), a pen, a biscuit, or shampoo. In Bombay my cabdriver happily told me he would kill a Muslim, no problem, because “they have dirty blood”; in Kachchh, a local friend was perversely asked how, as a lower caste, he had managed to court 5 American women; and all the while I was battling my own demons and simultaneously reading about the Gangoli’s struggling to mend generational gaps, and about Valentino’s real life, the horrors of which are repeated daily, as I type, in Sudan. Now don’t get me wrong: I had many positive experiences, I really did, in fact many more positive than negative, more beautiful than ugly. The traveler in me had an exhilarating, fulfilling, romantic time, but the intellectual in me had a sobering, confusing, aggravating one. Someday I’ll learn to merge (or better separate?) the two successfully, but right now, thinking of my travels in light of Bhutto and Pakistan, in light of Valentino and Sudan, in light of Gaza, in light of Kenya, in light of the fact that my homeland’s administration is still trying to find reasons to demonize my parents’ homeland, in light of the fact that the democratic candidates are acting like insecure high-school cheerleaders, and in light of other things, the emotions I’m feeling right now are much closer to anger than anything else.

The redeeming parts of all this, however, is that I was traveling with someone who makes me feel safe and calm deep down in the anxious darkness of my growing gut, and, after the storm within began to settle I returned to the Urban Resource Centers to continue working with hardworking, intelligent, committed slum residents who wake up in their respective homes each morning thinking about how to make their own communities a better, safer, more just place. So even though I’m angrier, even though my optimism is slightly numbed, I trust that the idealist in me will be just fine. I know that the Hindu cab driver who thinks his Muslim neighbor has dirty blood may never change, my conversation with him -- his irrational response when I calmly asked if he thinks a Muslim man feels any different about his family than a Hindu man -- made this much clear. But his two sons, the ones he works two jobs for in order to send to private school in Bombay, it’s the minds of his two sons that I’m concerned about. Will they grow up with the same prejudices as their father? It’s very likely. But maybe somewhere along the way, before it’s too late, they’ll meet someone who influences their outlook; that someone is out there, and s/he just needs to find those proverbial lost boys before another generation squanders its energy in unnecessary hatred. That someone needs to find those boys and talk to them. Right. Now.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Ch-Ch-Ch Changes, Not only in Color

Photo: Mandvi Shipyard, Kutch, Gujarat, India

I must first apologize for my absence, but then promise that you'll be seeing (reading) more of me. I’m done being a bad blogger. But I do have an excuse: of the past 5 weeks I’ve only been consistently in Ahmedabad for 1; I also stopped back in for a few days on Jan 14th and 15th for the (most amazing) Kite Festival (I still have sliced up fingers to prove it), but then was off again to Bhuj and Mandvi (in Gujarat’s most-Western state of Kutch) to take a swim in the Gulf of Kutch with all my clothes on and explore a ship yard where men in flip-flops with strong, dry, calloused and cracked hands make big beautiful boats for oil-rich Arab countries. My recent travels still have my head spinning, and my room reflects the going-ons in my brain. Settling back into my routine is also somewhat surreal, as 3 of my closest friends in Ahmedabad have moved (London, Bombay, Kolkata), and half of the staff in my office has shifted to a new site. Everything feels slower, calmer, quieter - but there is a storm brewing inside me which I’ll try to get down in words soon. Once I finish unpacking the bag that carried me (rather than I it), get used to waking up at 5:30am again, catch up on some Bollywood films, call my sister to congratulate her on her engagement and acceptance into her first choice of ophthalmology residency programs (she’s a superstar), buy a new fountain pen, remind myself of why I’m here and what I’m doing at work, I’ll begin the second half of my postings. Sounds like I’ll never post again, right? Wrong. Shouldn’t be more than a couple days. Welcome back.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Two photos

Want to see my face? Here's your chance!

This is me with two of my friends/colleagues: Hiral (URC coordinator and trusty driver), and Shashi (Research/Documentation Manager and trusty sandwichee). That's me on the right, in case you forgot what I look like. In this photo we're heading back to the office after a meeting at one of the Urban Resource Centers (aka "in the field"):

And below is me in the Old City's Sunday market. The old city - it's people, architecture, and general feel - makes my heart bleed. The guy in the middle fixes old shiny watches. I, for obvious reasons, was immediately drawn to him. As we started to chat, his buddies joined the conversation. The photo was taken by my friend and colleague Gauri. She's an architect, and probably the best person in the world to have on hand when walking through the old city. Gauri has done a lot for me since my arrival in Ahmedabad, including, but not limitted to, lending me a bicycle for riding to yoga class, lending me her amazing mother-in-law as a yoga instructor, and endowing me with Vietnamese coffee and an adorable, shiny, single-shot, Italian espresso maker:

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving Feast for the Virus in My Belly

One thing I know I'm thankful for in this world is access to safe drinking water. What I'm not thankful for is the stomach infection I acquired in Pune, after 5 days of visiting some friends down there and discovering on the last morning that the tea they served me each day was made from tap water that was boiled for a whopping 30 second. No thanks to that. What I'm also not thankful for is my ego, which allowed me to pass off sharp stomach pains (and other symptoms I'd rather not gross you out with) as 'gas' for a good week and a half, until I woke up one morning knowing it was time to see the doc. So, instead of being in Bangalore with loads of food and other AIFers who adore the day of turkey, I spent thanksgiving in a room that sure didn't look like a doctor's office, but from which I exited with prescribed medicines. Really, though, I'm very thankful for safe drinking water. And I hope you are too.