Thursday, 20 November 2014

Autumn and Diwali in Punjab

Now that I have lived in India for over a year now, I am quickly learning to appreciate the autumn season.  The weather cooling down is a welcomed reprieve from the beating sun during May-August, and it’s much drier compared to monsoon season. I’m not one to usually enjoy the cold, but being able to wear a sweatshirt at night in Punjab is wonderful compared to enduring 45-degree temperature.  Lots of fruits and vegetables are in season and one of my favorite street foods, chilly potato, is on the market. 

In September I had the fortune of celebrating Dussera in the camps and in October I got to celebrate Diwali.  Diwali is known as the festival of lights and some people call it the Christmas of Hinduism.  This festival marks the coming home of Lord Ram after being in exile for a number of years and defeating an evil demon.  People celebrate this day by giving sweets to loved ones, decorating the home, lighting candles, and setting off fireworks. 

On the actual day of Diwali all the interns gathered and visited the camp.  We donned our Indian best and the camp loved how we looked!  They kept telling us we looked so beautiful and it really made me happy to gain their approval.  We took lots of pictures and everyone was loving the festive ambience.  We shared sweets and fireworks with the camp and they all seemed to appreciate it.  We offered them jalaabi, which are fried dough soaked in sugar, and delicious when eaten fresh and warm.  In the evening we enjoyed a nice celebration in the Dholbaha house.  Thomas and Manon set up a wonderful space for us on the roof to watch the fireworks, including a bonfire.  We decorated the area with candles and set off some fireworks of our own.  The most memorable was ‘the Bomb’ it started with an explosion of colors followed by the loudest blast that would scare even the deaf. 

Unexpectedly, while cooking our celebratory dinner, our gas ran out!  Fortunately, we had the fire going and were able to finish the dinner by campfire.  I’ve never tried pressure-cooking beans over a fire before, but I can now attest that it is possible.  Although it wasn’t planned, at the end we ate Bengan Bharta, Chana Masala, and salad all made from the fire and ate on the rooftop under the stars and fireworks.  Living in Punjab teaches us to live naturally, and that night was a testament to what we’ve learned.  The celebration was a lot quieter compared to my Delhi experience but I loved every moment.  For most of us, Diwali is not a customary holiday that we practice, but this year we got to partake in the celebration and soak in the excitement that is Diwali.  I’m so happy that this year I got to spend it with the camp members and fellow interns, it was a day I’ll never forget!

By: Margaret Arzon

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

India has my heart. 
I’m addicted to her madness. I’m helpless to the way she constantly flirts with my emotions and teases my good intentions. She is every colour imaginable and every grey shadable. I often hear other travellers talking about India as if they think they understand her, that they know everything there is to know about her. But India is beyond explanation, beyond statement. Just when I think I have her wrapped around my little finger, she evades me. Because whatever I could say to you about India, the opposite is also true. India is as sweet as she is scary. As beautiful as she is ugly. 
Like many women travellers, I spend some of my time here questioning my emotions. Because being with India means I must choose to give up a part of myself. Here, my femininity is a curse. I should always be aware and always be cautious. I cover up. I avoid eye contact. I remain silent. I am expected to respect a man more than I would my fellow woman and to take their discourteous and often inappropriate behaviour towards us as an acceptable by product of the culture and of my life here. But when you have to give up a part of yourself to be (with) someone else, where is it that you draw the line? It’s a lesson I’m still trying to figure out.

But despite all this, the bond we share is undeniable. I love her for all her simplicities and all her complexities. And in return she forces me to be present, makes me second guess myself and shows me how to live simply. She challenges me. She changes me. She brings me easy but beautiful friendships, makes me laugh constantly and she doesn't mind that I eat to excess or that I don't wash my hair. And she always, ALWAYS makes me marvel. But man does she test my patience….
India. She’s a bus driver that stops for a 30 minute chai break when you’re half way home. She's THAT uncomfortable stare from men. She's garbage lined streets. She’s a broken system. She’s a caste based identity. She's inequality. She’s a mange covered and unloved puppy or a ‘sacred’ cow dying a slow and brutal death. She’s ALWAYS a yes, when what she really means is no….
But she's also a local bus with your head out the window and the wind in your hair, she’s a 70 year Sihk with a hot pink turban, she's THAT head wobble. She’s a stranger who invites you in for chai, a monk with an iPad and a Naddi sunset. She’s an elephant walking on the highway, a bollywood movie and a giggling five year old migrant with perfect white teeth.…. She's eggplant masala with a garlic naan.
Oh LOVE. I may occasionally win the battle but I’ll forever lose the war.
Two weeks ago I travelled to Gajner, Rajasthan to help open up a new community cluster. As Renata and I are walking the camel lined and dusty streets, we hear a small schoolboy shouting. When I turn around, he races after us, as excited as he is anxious. As he and his friends chase us up the street, and in a rush of nervousness in what I think may well be the first time he’s ever tried out his English skills, he blurts “WHERE DO YOU BELONG?” They pause and wait for my answer. I laugh in a way he doesn't understand. India. She's always pulling these little tricks on me. Constantly testing me. Redefining me. While they stand there and watch. 
My absolute favourite place in India, is the local bus. Its also where our love affair was confirmed. In my fourth week here, and twice daily thereafter, I am sitting on a crowded Punjabi bus in 35 degree heat, hindi music is blaring from the speakers and Im sharing a tiny broken seat with 2 school girls, 3 kgs of vegetables, a bucket and a small baby, a bag in my face, sweating from brow to butt cheek. All eyes in the bus are on me. We suddenly come to a screeching halt because of a cow lying in the middle of the road, and I grin and brace as we all launch forward. I lose my heart on impact. India. She’s madness and she's magic. 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Educare Research Reflection - Nikita Simpson

The experience of being a research intern was invaluable for me over this summer. I spent 6 weeks in Naddi and surrounding areas at the Educare base. As a student of Social Anthropology, my prerogative was to do intimate fieldwork in the Gaddi community to answer my research question - How have changing rape
culture discourses and legislation impacted rural areas of India?

My experience was so positive for three reasons. First, because it forced me out of the western rational model of space and time that I was used to. Second, because I learnt to understand the Gaddi community on their own terms because of the intimate nature of our interaction. Third, because the grass roots philosophy of Educare facilitated me to understand the complexity of the social links and imagined identities that make up the cultural context of the Gaddi people.

I turned up in Naddi with a serious plan. I had amassed the secondary resources that I need - reading from complex these on Neoliberalism to the daily updates on Modi’s new government. I had a list of the kinds of people I wanted to meet and was all ready to slot them into my calendar in delineated time intervals. I was in for a shock. The first rule of ethnography that I leant was the necessity of blending into the pace of life that I was faced with. This meant dropping the burning desire to write succinct dot points and come to quick conclusions, and instead simply sitting and hanging out before I came to any tentative plan. I learnt how arrogant it must have seemed to think I could simply march in and collect information. This is not to say one should be defeatist when coming to India - it drove me mad to listen to people complaining that nothing works. Instead, the process of adaptation and acceptance of flexibility was necessary in order to suck the marrow from my experience.

More than anything, I learnt that an afternoon spent more productively was one where I spent my time chatting to the members of the community. Over the course of my stay, I slowly gained their trust. It was very important not to see them as a resource of information, but instead to appreciate the growing friendship that I had with them. Though snippets of information I was able to work out the power dynamics, cultural conceptions, imagined communities, aspirations and grievances of individuals. I was able to probe their subjectivities and attempt to understand the relationships they formed. From this platform, I came to know what external resources - both textual and in terms of interviews - I needed to draw upon in order to answer my research question.

Hence, I came up with a long list of people I needed to meet. From doctors to state officials to human rights activists, I was encouraged by Educare that the sky is the limit when it comes to approaching external resources. My facilitators at Educare in the beginning facilitated my interactions with these parties, but as I gained confidence they helped me to realise that I could make these connections myself. The outcome was a 50 page interview log that sets up the infrastructure for my research project and allows me to contextualise my experience with the Gaddi community. My experiences at Educare were formative in my understanding not just of what it is to be a researcher, but in how to approach different cultures and forms of sociality in general. Their grass roots ethos combined with a highly supportive network of peers and leaders is a recipe for success - if you are willing to adapt and grow into the place where you choose to be.

I feel honoured to be part of the Educare team and hope that somehow the information I have amassed and conclusions I am yet to draw will make some mark on the projects they run and the lives of the community that welcomed me with open arms.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Chaos, Children, and Ferris Wheels

India is a country filled with millions of people, and in each region there a different

traditions, religions, and festival practices. One thing I’ve learned while being

here is that people in India take their festivals seriously. Returning to Punjab after

being in Dharamshala for our Quarterly Meeting, we arrived to find large festival

preparations and people buzzing with excitement. Right now there is an ongoing

10 day festival happening called Dusserha. Toy stands, food vendors, and small

children’s rides abounded within earshot of the community we visit every other

day. All the excitement from this fair has tempted the children with its presence

everyday, meaning that we couldn’t ignore it. The children in our community asked

us repeatedly if we could take them on the Ferris Wheel nearby, and they were so

persistent that it distracted them from our educational activities so much that we

finally had to give in.

After about an hour of begging, the 7 of us foreigners came trailing into the fair with

about 20 little boy and girls in tow ranging from 2 years old to 13. The excitement

from the children was chaotic. For these children, this is the opportunity of year.

Riding a Ferris Wheel is exciting, and scary, fast, and dangerous. They were terrified

of the height and screams abounded as we all reached the curve at the top. Of

course, this was a sight for the community. They aren’t used to seeing foreigners,

and they definitely aren’t used to seeing them with a bunch of children that live in

tents along the government’s trash dumping site. This was a big deal for us too,

as we hardly ever leave the camp with the people who live there and receiving

attention from the outside community felt a bit strange. But ultimately nothing

could distract us from the shear joy and excitement on the faces of these children.

This was as much a treat for them as it was for us. They probably never have the

chance to enjoy the fair even though it was only a few meters away, and we also

would have never ventured over there otherwise. We all had an amazing time

(despite the precarious condition of the Ferris Wheel), and it was a day I’ll never

forget. This was not only a once in a year event, for most of us it was a once in a life

time opportunity.

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”~Howard Thurman

I have felt more alive in India than anywhere else I have travelled. It may be because of where I am in India. It may be the culture. It may be EduCARE. It may be the people. It may be the Dalai Lama living close by. It may be my proximity to nature. It may be a combination of everything I just mentioned, but whatever has caused this feeling is something I have embraced during my six month internship in India. So much so that it has made me question whether or not I should leave Educare. I must say goodbye at the end of September but this is not an easy goodbye for me and I might be back soon.

I was privileged to have an authentic conversation with Mr. B during my first in person meeting with him. Not everyone has the same experience and that is a shame but we immediately bonded over our shared gluten intolerance. I have a passion for food and health and the strong relationship between the two and Mr. B immediately wanted me to work on that. The project role I originally thought I was coming to work on wasn't operating yet, so this conversation gave us the chance to figure out what I wanted to do. Figure out what would make me come alive.

The cooperative cafeteria emerged from this conversation and the long term goals of this cafe made me come alive. They connect to my long term personal goals of starting a holistic healing center and the sheer excitement I felt after finding direction within the organization felt so right. After my conversation with Mr. B, I was so excited and this 30 minute conversation propelled my motivation throughout my time at Educare. I think that Mr. B and I come alive the same way, by being inspired by education/learning, and then sharing that knowledge in order to evolve and create progress in all aspects/subjects of life. I sincerely respect Mr. B's goals and hope that I've contributed in a small way to making at least one of them come to fruition. Whether or not anyone else benefits from what I have done here at Educare, I feel that I have come alive over the past six months. Which means the world is better off now that I've been here. I feel confident in knowing that I was and am exactly where I'm supposed to be in this moment in time. Thank you Educare for the space you created for me to feel this.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Gulshan aka God

Gulshan a.k.a. God for two of the other clusters here in India. He handles house maintenance, business relationships, the intermediate between the migrant camps and the interns, all around go-to person for Punjab and Rajol and Maitee. Not an easy job for anyone. He's got all kinds of "I once saw him stories". I once saw Gulshan break barbed wire with two rocks. True story, and I was looking around for scissors... We were taking abandoned barb wire which they call fencing here to use for the garden one of the interns is building. I turned around to see him smashing the rock down on the wire, I think twice was all it took to break it. Impressive to say the least.

He sleeps at the male intern house for weeks on end and then goes home to his wife and two kids maybe once a month to spend time with them. He helped to organize the food for the quarterly meetings that include everyone in the organization. I asked him why he had stayed with the organization for so long. He said, “I love what I'm working on. I can't imagine doing anything else.” I asked if he ever thought about moving back home and working near his family. He said, “I can't go back there because no one understands what I’m doing here. They think I’m crazy.” He doesn't like the feeling of judgement and he knows what he's doing is important and when he's working he feels free of the judgement. He likes being around similarly minded people who are crazy too. Made perfect sense to me, and he was so honest and real in our first conversation that I immediately felt like he's a friend.

He also had so much joy from little things like me. We did a drawing exercise together as part of cross cultural workshop and he laughed for 10 minutes at our drawing we made, made me laugh so hard I cried. I miss crying from laughing, there's something special about your body reacting so fully to an image, and another person’s reaction. I appreciate Gulshan. His dedication, passion, kindness, and joyful spirit. One of many special people I've met here in India that is a part of this organization. I hope to meet more “crazy” people like myself and Gulshan in the future.

- Katherine Rothschild, USA
- Hospitality project manager

Friday, 25 July 2014

What it's like to be illiterate

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve never known what it’s like to be illiterate. At some hazy point in your childhood, you were unable to read, but you did not need to interact with the written world back then. Until recently, I also didn’t have any but the most general of ideas what illiteracy was like. Moving to a country where not only do the people speak a language that I’m not familiar with but also write in a script that is completely foreign to me gave me a taste of what illiteracy is like. During the most recent work I did on one of my projects, I faced the rounded script of Gurmukhi directly.

A fellow intern and myself are standing in front of a sign for the Forestry Department that on one side is entirely in Punjabi, and on the other, English. It’s the last sign we’ll see with any English, and we are without our typical (amazing) translator. We have to navigate the maze of the area on our own. We quickly gravitate to anything with a sign – the larger the sign and the bigger the letters, the more likely we figure it to be important. We pass a sign that even has a special welcoming shape, and assume we are likely headed in the right direction. When you can’t read, you quickly learn other rules for getting around. Something with a sign is more likely to be important or something you can enter, as someone put it there to tell you something; the bigger the lettering or a sign is, the more likely it is to be important; and shapes both on and of signs can give you basic information about a place. However, when you can’t read and you’re not trying to find your way somewhere, you pay hardly any attention to what’s written around you. For my first two months here, I assumed most things were written in both Devanagari and Gurmukhi (the alphabets that Hindi and Punjabi are written in, respectively), because I never paid signs enough attention to notice otherwise. It was only when I started learning Devanagari that I realized nothing around here was written in Hindi. Being able to read also gives people a type of mysterious knowledge. Everyone always seems to have secret information that comes to them as if from thin air, in what appears to be some form of Indian telepathy – until you realize that they can read many of the signs around you, and that’s why they know what bus to take or when all the stores will be closed. It is information transported silently from one mind to another, but it’s via paper rather than telekinetic waves.

Having the ability to read expands a person’s world dramatically. In trying to teach an alphabet to the individuals in the camps we work with, we are attempting to provide them with the ability to interact with the world around them on a different level. To have access to the same information that others in the society around them take for granted. Exclusion from the community they live near is a major issue for the migrants we work with, and in a small way, being able to read will allow them to become more a part of that community than they are now. And of course, being able to read will also make books accessible to them – one of the most powerful educating tools. Literacy will give the communities we work with the opportunity to better not only their own place in life, but hopefully that of their family as well.

I always thought of being able to read as something that was simply enjoyable; having now experienced illiteracy, I realize how important it is. How being able to read can expand someone’s world.

- Kayleigh Walters, USA
- Organic farming and SWASH project manager, Punjab