Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Eco-kitchen, a way to fight the unbearable heat inside the house

When I arrived to Gajner one of the first things I realised was how incredibly horrible it was to cook there. There wasn’t any type of ventilation and we had to turn the fan every time the fire was lit. Beside that, considering that sometimes at night we had 40 degrees, cooking there was literally like tucking into a sauna. It was unbearable.

I was ordered to build an open kitchen on the rooftop and a room for more interns to sleep there. When I arrived, there was not enough space for everybody and some interns had to sleep on the outside. At the same time, I started working on two technical projects: the solar project, from Johann Kieffer and Vjay and the sand filter. It was about building a solar panel on the rooftop in order to obtain hot water for cooking and for the shower. The sand filter project, from Lucía Villamayor consisted on two sand filters, one on the terrace and the other one down in Manoj´s backyard, our logistics manager and neighbour. The sand filter aimed at cleaning the dirty water used for washing in order to reuse it to supply a small garden. We realized soon that the most logical idea was to make everything work together as an Eco-Kitchen, by fixing the hot water tap and putting there the sand filter.

For the Eco-Building I started with the material: Bamboo. It is very common and popular in Asian architecture and it still remains an integral part of their lives. Moreover, it is incredibly flexible, resistant and cheap, and it is more sustainable than normal wood since it’s production doesn’t waste a lot of energy. In addition, during the growth period the bamboo has a positive influence on the climate of the region and helps to control erosion and floods. So it was perfect for the Eco-Building project, in spite of not being endemic of Rajasthan (bamboo can not grow in desert areas and had to be imported from more humid places of India). 

The Eco-Kitchen that I designed is basically a bamboo enclosure of 2.7m per 6m, with a sloping roof that sheds rainwater sinks toward the terrace. It presents a versatile philosophy, which means that the space can be adapted for different uses such as kitchen, bedroom, meeting room, etc. The walls are designed to be movable and placed in different positions. The roof is made of small bamboos that are supporting a tarpaulin that can be put on or removed as needed. Finally, the design takes into account the location and the possible climate issues during the year.

I would like to say that I like the result of my work on the Eco-Building project, but I am specially proud and excited about the solar project and the water sanitation project. Some people got really interested on those projects and are currently trying to do the same in other places. At that moment I felt that we were doing something great and beautiful for the community.

Enrique working on the Eco-kitchen on the rooftop of the interns' house in Gajner

Enrique Reig Navarro - Spain
Eco-building project manager, Gajner (Rajasthan)

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Burning to leave

I have been in EduCARE long enough to see two dozen interns come in my life and leave it. Most likely forever. No hard feelings there, just a cold fact.

The life of every EduCARE intern flows more or less the same course: confusion, understanding, hard work, leaving party. In between, the glances at the life we all know back home are few. Some search for them harder than other. End of the line, everyone had to abandon such things as a good piece of cheese, maple syrup, or barbecue parties.

Over the months, leaving parties have become less and less appealing to me. I became more distant to the whole exercise. Not that I didn't care anymore for the people ending their stay in India. Quite the opposite actually. But, it is always the same ritual. It usually involves a restaurant. Maybe a cake and a gift. Most definitely a card with kind words written in the secret of someone's laps or behind a kitchen door. Some boredom came over the months.

And then it was time for Whitney to leave.

And I knew she would make sure that every generation of Naddi interns will pass to one another the story of the grandiose feast she was to organise.

And she did.

Whitney renounced many of her small pleasures of life, just like the rest of us. But her passion for grilled meat was never one of them. She kept talking about pork, chicken, lamb and turkey. Grilled, fried, sautéed, or pan-fried.

It started in mid-August, a good month before the party was due. Arnaud, my roommate and civil engineer in the making, came to our flat. He also happened to be a DIY amateur. Whitney immediately saw the potential of the young man for her grand scheme. He was to build a barbeque. A tool capable of supporting on its shoulders a whole party to be remembered by subsequent interns until the end of time. For four good weeks, Whitney harassed Arnaud to have her weapon of mass food creation ready. And the harassing was not your regular harassing. It Whitney pursuing her will. There were only two ways out of this: you run as far as possible and change identity, or you accept.

India being India, Arnaud became resourceful in his Eco-Building functions. He no longer looked for a store to buy wood, or used a specially designed piece of metal to have a container for the coal. No. In the greatest of secret, he scavenged wood from a broken bed lying on our rooftop, an old paint barrel from a waste dealer nearby, reused a few nails, and the grills that were available in our office. With a bucket of the ingenuity that characterises Arnaud, he managed to build us a superb grill with a cover and two side stands. The whole thing looked like a real barbeque. One you would buy on a lazy Saturday afternoon in your neighbourhood hardware shop. With a ghetto style that definitely adds to the project. All of that during his weekend, and without Whitney noticing any of it until a few days before the party.
Arnaud DIY barbecue! 

Of course, as the D-Day drew closer and closer, we started to tease Whitney about the grill, and how the chalk picture Arnaud drew on the wall was the only BBQ party she will ever get in India. But, we finally reached the point where we couldn’t hide it from her anymore. We had to show it. And it was Revelation.

Her culinary imagination just got unleashed. And nobody could tell where it would lead us. Probably in a world made of grilled meat and veggies. Where paneer will happily co-habitate with ribs and chicken wings. And who knows other marvellous dishes.

The day before the party I came home to a marvellous smell embalming the whole four stories building we call home. And I knew it was on. The demon had been released. When I pushed the kitchen door, I saw my friend in front of the stove, a huge pile of marinated meat on her right and even more already cooking, exhaling those divine fumes.

Delicious marinated meat getting ready in "The Barbecue"

6:30. Our guests are already arriving for what is promising to be an epic evening. I started the grill on our small balcony. The wood began to smoke and vanish into the clear sky. It is good to be out after two months of monsoon and the daily curtains of rain. I looked at the embers getting redder and redder. As the evening grow later, the zucchinis and aubergines, the chicken and the pork slowly cooked on the grill. Inside, the fifteen Naddi team members and other EduCARE interns were peeling potatoes, chopping tomatoes and cucumbers. Pineapple and curd mixed and frozen to concoct us an as amazing desert as India can provide. And of course, the finally result was foodgasmic.

EduCARE interns enjoying the feast at Whitney's farewell party

Whitney definitely set the bar high for her leaving party. So high, that I can’t see anyone coming close to it any time soon. And so be it. Some records are not meant to be broken. They are to be looked at and admired for the pugnacity and efforts that they require.

Tomorrow one of my oldest friends in EduCARE will be gone. My partner in cooking crimes. But she went away on her own terms: grandiose, flamboyant, and most importantly freaking delicious.

Elliott Messeiller - Switzerland 
SWASH Coordinator, Naddi

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Eating the Fruits (or Vegetables) of my Labor

Cucumber salad and roasted sesame French beans were menu items for dinner at the Maiti house. Uncle-ji and I picked three large cucumbers and two giant handfuls of French beans from the Maiti house organic kitchen garden! Even though when we picked the cucumbers, they looked oddly like squash because the color was off, they tasted fresh just the same. I don’t want to be a mother anytime soon and weeding the garden is turning into a chore, but I consider the vegetables growing in my garden, my babies!

It all started at the beginning of July when we lost internet in Maiti for a month. What to do, what to do…I know! Create a garden and plant some seeds before the monsoon! I had planted French beans, Indian beans, cucumbers, okra, spinach, bitter gourd and garlic with Gyani, a fellow organic farming intern. We were warned that it was possible that none of the seeds would germinate because we were planting them so late into the season and so close to monsoon. But I didn’t care, I just wanted to garden.

Two weeks later, my French beans had germinated! One week after that my cucumbers had germinated! A couple garlic bulbs and one okra seed had germinated after that, and that was it. I considered it a huge success. Then the monsoon hit. It was heavy rain everyday and all I could do was look at my garden from my window. On an afternoon where the rain had paused, I went out to look at my garden and I found my bean plants struggling to keep standing. They needed my help! The next clear day I chopped bamboo with a broken slicer and a hammer to make supports for my beans. This thankfully saved most of my bean plants and I was able to rest.

The French beans germinating before monsoon
Then in August, after taking two weeks of holidays and no one to weed my garden I came back to find my garden overgrown with weeds. I had a minor heart attack. My babies are suffocating! I started to pull weeds immediately and then discovered baby French beans hanging from my plants. I was thrilled! They were still alive and they were beautiful! A few days later is when I able to eat the first batch of the beans and I think they were the best French beans I’ve ever had. Am I over exaggerating? Maybe, but a mother has to love her babies! Since then, the Maiti house have had the pleasure in eating more beans from our garden. The vegetables of our labor taste so good!

My little babies healthily growing with the bamboo supports

Michelle Fujisaki - US
HR Coordinator, Maitee (Himachal Pradesh)

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The magic of a smile

A month ago I had the chance to visit the different centers of EduCARE and when I arrived to Paro, in Punjab, and we walked by the migrant camp, I instantly fell in love with Yjoti, a little boy of one year and a half that was crying in the arms of his young mother. When we approached to the tents made of bamboo and plastic, all the children run to us to introduce themselves with big smiles on their faces, even though they barely spoke English. One of them got my attention when she pretended to be angry and crying with a tousled wig on her head and asked for a photo. Two seconds after clicking the button, Paravati was laughing. 

Paravati pretending that she's crying for the photo

The migrant community in Paro works as trash pickers and wake up really early in the morning to collect plastic bottles that can be sold in order to get some money to buy food for the day. The girls, unfortunately, do not go to school since they are needed in this arduous task. While other children are running on the schoolyard or learning Hindi, math and English in high school, girls like Paravati work everyday under the Punjabi sun, carring big bags of trash and suffering the unbearable humid heat of the region. I frankly have to admit that, despite coming from a hot region in Spain, the heat in Punjab was too much for me. I was sweating through every single pore in my skin during the whole day and the only thing I wanted was to lay down under a fan and work from there. 

Yjoti, Sonia and me

So when the next day in the afternoon the children from the migrant camp welcomed us again with a big smile and willing to do some activity, I felt grateful and it made me realised that heat cannot be a reason to hold us back, because it was not holding them back from spending some time with us. That day we did mhendi, henna tattoos, with the girls and we took thousands of pictures with our cameras. Yjoti, the little baby, was also there with his mom, Sonia, a young girl of 19 years old. I decided to start playing with Yjoti so Sonia could participate in the activity with the rest of the girls and do some henna to the younger girls. Probably, they do not have access to henna every day and that is why they were all so exited about it. 

The girls happily showing the henna design

And then I realized, looking at those girls and at the little Yjoti, that I was also smiling, a sincere smile that I hadn’t shown in a long time. And then I realized that it’s true, that you can be happy with less and that happiness is not the fancy cars that go around the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Delhi or all the clothes that we can afford to buy back in Europe. Those kids without anything were happy because we were there, because we were all having fun and because for a couple of hours they were not thinking about the unbearable heat and the arduous job of the next day.

Me with Yjoti while the girls were doing henna

Laura Sabater Zamora - Spain
Communications coordinator, Maiti (HP)

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

"Garmi, garmi". Dealing with the heat in Punjab

Before I arrived in India at the beginning of June 2015, the news at home was displaying stories on a near daily basis about the insane heat waves across India. The south was experiencing temperatures nearing 50’C, Delhi was a toasty 44’C (112’F for my fellow Americans), countless photos of people guzzling water crossed my BBC news app. My friends and family loved to alert me of these temperatures, but I assured them I wasn’t going to places mentioned in the news, and thus should be ‘chill’. I was right….sort of.

While Punjab was never mentioned in the history-making heat wave, that did not mean the Punjabis were relaxing in balmier weather. Much of my experience with Educare, and thus living in rural India, has centered on the unrelenting heat. I believe on one of my first days I (naively) asked if the house I would be living in would have hot water. The answer, technically, was no. However when your black water tank sits on the roof baking in 40’ your water really will be hot, whether you like it or not. Living in Janauri I quickly had to be accustomed to stepping out of a shower and not being able to differentiate between what were water droplets from my freshly washed hair, or new beads of sweat already starting to do away with my recent cleaning. It’s a never-ending, and sometimes futile, battle.

You learn to embrace this heat though. Everyone’s affected by it and brings you all together at a basic human level. One of the first Hindi/Punjabi words I learned was garmi (hot), and it is the perfect way to break the silence when meeting people. If one is ever at a loss for their Hindi (which happens in every conversation I’ve entered in India), they simply feign an exhausted face, fan themselves with their hand and mumble “garmi, garmi, garmi”. It is a perfect way to connect with whoever is in the room, and most likely they will respond with the same motion, and you both will chuckle.

I won’t lie, aside from vanity reasons; this heat is difficult to work with. Children that should normally be running and screaming with excitement lay exhausted in the shade. Getting “rambunctious kids” excited for after school activities is often one of our biggest challenges in Punjab. Community engagement is difficult when the majority of people in the villages are sitting inside with their fans on. But we make it work.

I don’t mean to whine about the heat because in fact, life thrives here. Everyone still adds just as many hot spices to their daal (well, maybe not every intern), everyone still drinks their daily hot chai, and we still manage to play games of tag in the migrant camp that leave us dripping in that Punjabi sweat. If anything, the heat just adds a little more flavor to the experience! But that doesn’t mean I’m not excited for that autumn chill!

Madeline lighting up fireworks on the 4th of July

Madeline Zdeblick - US
Paro center manager and microfinance project manager, Paro (Punjab)

Monday, 14 September 2015

"No matter where I went, I always loved being back to Himachal"

My internship in India was comparatively short but incredibly eventful time. Though I stayed in India for 2 months only it feels like spent here much longer time. Every week was full of events, both work related activities and personal joy. As a MicroEmpowerED Project Manager in Rait Center within two months my partner and I managed to kick off a new microfinance activity, i.e. stitching self-learning platform, take mushroom farming – the other microfinance activity that has been already in place – to the new stage and we are holding the new training for mushroom farmers in couple of hours from the moment when I started writing this post. I’ve been involved in SWASH project activities, Girls Club and Fun Club, and even visited migrant camp in Rajhol where we teach those who are deprived from formal school education basic literacy (it is surprising how wide is the age range of our students in Rajhol). I’ve prepared monitoring plan and evaluation design for microfinance activities in Rait that can serve as an example and template for other projects in EduCARE. Initially monitoring and evaluation (M&E) was my focus as I plan to center my career in international development on these activities, but to my own surprise I got so engaged with project activities that it even makes me reconsider my career focus.

Mila during her trip to Manali
Another factor that has made my work experience in EduCARE very diverse is that I was part time Operations Assistance – that was an opportunity for me to polish my admin and NGO management knowledge and skills. Though I prioritized microfinance in-field activities over any other job I was doing in EduCARE, I’m very glad I managed to contribute to other areas of the organization’s work.

I was extremely lucky to work with fantastic team of interns. We worked together, we helped each other, we lived together, we shared meals, we traveled together, we got into all sort of adventures together – the people I met made my experience in India rich and so enjoyable.

The way one gets engaged with the community is fascinating. I transformed from being basically lost in our small village to not being able to make a 10 min walk to the market without stopping to talk to one of the villagers. The process of integration with the community was quite natural for me. My job duties involved interacting with the community members we already work with as well as to reach out to wider audience. Slowly step-by-step my interaction circle in Rait extended significantly. Working with kids and girls also contributed to smoother community integration.

Mila with three members of the community

Apart from work in just two months I’ve visited six different states, and saw the most treasured spots in India (Goa, Amritsar, Jaipur, Agra, Delhi, Manali, and other amazing places). Every place I’ve visited for work or leisure purposes is fascinating and unique. And every time I had the feeling that I don’t have enough time to get better understanding of new places I visit and people I meet. Still, no matter where I went I always loved being back to Himachal Pradesh, to the village of Rait.

Amazing view of the mountains from Rait

Mila Pestun - Belarus
Microfinance project manager, Rait (Himachal Pradesh)

Friday, 11 September 2015

An English class in Naddi

A carpet on the floor, a black board against the wall, the gorgeous mountains behind; here it is, the scenery of our weekly English classes in Naddi.

A few minutes before the class starts, the temple often hosts a group of children playing: they know that on that day, at that time, something is going to happen. This gathering appeals more and more children as the teachers arrive. Sometimes, there are too many people, and some of them show a disruptive behaviour, regardless, the class has to begin.

During an hour, children fill in gaps of simple exercises, listen to songs and try to hear known words, answer our questions and win candies. We want them to have the bravery of leaving their native language behind, during a few minutes, twice a week. But these classes are also an opportunity for us to learn more Hindi through them, and we can feel how proud children are to teach it to us.

Harmony helping children with the English exercises
A lot of issues have to be dealt with, and running English classes is far from being easy. How to strengthen the children's commitment to the classes, how to make them feel they are improving, how to make them understand the usefulness of speaking English nowadays?

Through these classes, I had the chance to witness the incredible energy and positive attitude of the children. With their genuine happiness, curiosity and will to learn, they stand out as an example that I want to follow in my own life! I spent great moments with them, and I really hope that this project will help to broaden their horizon.

Chloé Morel - France
After School Program Manager, Naddi (Himachal Pradesh)