Monthly Archives: May 2012

Growth in all directions

Growth in all directions

I promise I’m not turning this into a food blog, but I don’t have much to write today so…

Last night I made Matar Paneer. Or Cheesy Peas, if you want a more Anglo-descriptive term. I’d been looking forward to making this dish because, as a now-practicing vegetarian, I do find myself getting a little tired of the legumes. Gotta mix it up with some dairy protein. I had a hard time finding tomato sauce though. Finally, I did find something:

If there’s one thing I learned in Italy last fall, (aside from “mi scusi, signore, mi sono perso”) it was the word “pomodoro.” So when I saw two cans of this, and CONCENTRATO no less, I bought out the whole bazaar (of all two cans). If only I’d known what “doppio” meant.* My dish turned out a bit overly tomato-y, even though I’d diluted the tomato paste. I don’t deep fry things, so the paneer fell apart a little bit, but whatever. I mixed some dahi (yogurt) in so you can’t really tell. Had it with kulcha (leavened flatbread) and it was good. Sorry about my presentation, I don’t have a lot of dishware that would lend itself well to artistic plating. And I’m only doing one dish/night, so that’s why the plate looks a little bare!

On Monday night, I had dinner with my landlady. She gave me some tips on the pressure cooker and got the guard to show me how to use the washing machine. We had rajma (kidney beans) and rice, green beans, tomato and cucumber salad, chapatti (like pita bread) and a paneer dish I really liked. Mrs. Prakash had this way of saying, “Please take some rice” or “Please take some paneer” that wasn’t phrased even remotely like a question. Needless to say, I left pretty much stuffed. To everyone who was worried about my pants hanging off me after having been sick: you can stop worrying. In fact, you can probably start worrying in the other direction now.

What else… I just handed in my draft outline for my epidemiology study design class (it’s a school and community based obesity prevention intervention for the James Bay Cree secondary schools). I’m having a little trouble deciding on my sampling and randomization plan because there are only 10 schools in the whole board (my sampling frame) with high variance in populations in my target age group. I feel like I should get all the schools rather than even take a sample to avoid bias… Population proportional to size sampling? Matched-pair randomization by cluster with direct standardized analysis? This isn’t like an “options, options!” mental exercise, there should be a correct answer in here somewhere.

At CARE, I’m working on my case studies and trying to figure out how to present the information I’ve collected: focus on the process? On the outcome? Consolidate the interviews into one case study on the CBO, or keep them separate as individual learnings and perceptions? Highlight the difficulties I had getting certain info as a jump-off point for future discussion? I’m learning a lot about case method, models, and theory of change; this really influences how we’re going to go about making the shift from our project-oriented approach to a programmatic approach and position ourselves as a knowledge organization. I’m mostly doing a lot of reading, actually. It’s very, very different from what I do at Pfizer: not nearly as forced or procedural and the focus is not the end product, it’s the process of change. I haven’t heard the word “standardization” once, I think it would be the complete antithesis of what we’re trying to achieve. It’s much more conceptual than anything I’ve done before, so between this and my epidemiology study design quandaries I do feel like I’m getting a mental workout, even if my “output” feels like so much less than what I’m used to. See? I think I just learned something there.

Oh, there’s a general strike today (“Bharat bandh”). I think they’re protesting increasing fuel prices, so all the taxis and rickshaws are off the roads. I didn’t see any action on my way to work, but apparently demonstrations in other parts of the country turned violent, with buses being burned and stoned. The empty office was really nice and quiet today, though!

Here’re a couple more pictures of my neighbourhood. This weekend I’m going to Agra and Jaipur to do my thang at the Taj Mahal and interact with painted elephants at Fort Amer. Tune in next week for the full report!

*it means “double.” So it was extra-concentrated tomato paste, not just “regular” tomato paste.


Let’s play a game: “Name That… That Thing-Thing.”

Let’s play a game: “Name That… That Thing-Thing.”

I made moong dal last night. I’ve just been looking up Indian recipes online and doing the best I can on my own self-instruction. Sometimes I have trouble when I go to the market because I’m trying to find ingredients by only the English name (cuz that’s what the recipe has) and I don’t know what the Hindi name is, or what the ingredient itself looks like. For the record, tamarind pulp is “imli,” and it looks kind of like dried dates in a big hard clump. I’m sure it’s available in Canada, I’ve just never had occasion to use it. Or try to find it.

I’ve started writing down the English and Hindi names, but they seem sort of variable sometimes, like not necessarily describing the same thing at all times, or the pronunciations I find online are totally different. Oh, I found garlic! Rejoice! Anyway, back to last night: so most of these recipes use pressure cookers. I’ve never seen one of these in Canada, let alone used one, but thanks to the genius of iPad and FaceTime, I took my mum on a tour of my kitchen and she identified a pressure cooker for me. I tried to look up instructions for it online, but couldn’t really find anything specific for mine and couldn’t identify the parts since the models weren’t the same as mine. Decided to wing it. [don’t make that face at me!]

So I didn’t take a picture of the resulting mess, but suffice it to say that there was no whistling of this cooker, dal just started spraying out of the top… thing (vent? Valve? Whistle hole? I don’t know). I turned off the heat and managed not to burn myself, let it depressurize on its own, and the dal was actually ok. I don’t have a blender, so the texture isn’t “correct,” but it was cooked, anyway. I tried to make rice in what sort of looked like a rice pot thing to me, it’s the insulated one in the picture, but it wasn’t heating at all and with the plastic handles, I’m not even convinced it’s for stovetop use (though based on the melted plastic and charred bottom, it’s definitely been used that way). So I put the rice in the flat bottomed wok-thingie and cooked it that way and it was fine.  If anyone can name that other pot-type contraption with the weird lid, and advise me on the correct use of ANY of these things, I would be much appreciative!

I also can’t figure out how to use the washing machine. It doesn’t seem like it should be difficult, but I wonder if the water is controlled somewhere else… or something. Nothing happens when I try, and I’ve reset the outlet (they all have on-off switches). And there’s no plugs or stoppers for any of the sinks, which has made washing dishes difficult, and handwashing clothes impossible so far. My old place had a bucket, but this one doesn’t. I guess it’s just expected that the maid does the laundry….? There isn’t even a broom in here, she must bring one from the other unit. I spent the morning washing most of the dishes in the cupboards and cleaning the cupboards themselves, as some things were put away dirty by the last tenant (yeah, gross) and there was that grungy oil + dust mixture and spilled masala on everything and I already have ants so I need to keep it a little cleaner – if that will even help. Where are those geckos when I need ‘em?

You know how you never miss something until it’s gone? I didn’t think I used my oven at home all that much, but now that I don’t have one here, I really find myself wanting to bake cookies or something. On a side note, did you know that the term “care package” was actually coined by CARE, the NGO I’m working for here in India? Just after WWII, they formed their organization based on hunger needs and started sending boxes of food to war-torn Europe.

I’m sure you brilliant people have already put all this together and I don’t need to spell it out for you any further. My address is as follows:

Melinda Platte

R-249, Greater Kailash-I

New Delhi, Delhi, India


No pressure. GET IT??! Hehehe…..

Cultural Learnings of India for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Canada and Separate and Distinct Nation of Quebec

Cultural Learnings of India for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Canada and Separate and Distinct Nation of Quebec

Maybe this isn’t the best time in my journey to talk about cultural differences, because so far the “differences” have mostly come to light through difficulties that I’ve encountered. I don’t want this to be seen as a Negative-Nellie post, but I think it will be interesting to revisit this in 6 months and see if I’ve adapted or learned to understand things differently.

 So, to start things off… remember when I complained about the noise here in the office? A lot of it has to do with phones. The problem (at least, part of it) is that voice messaging is not enabled. The phone just rings and rings and rings and no one answers it. I don’t know if, for the caller, there’s a set amount of time they’ll allow this to go on before giving up and ending the call – for me, it’s about 8 rings, but obviously there are people out there who have much greater stamina than I. People will answer each others’ phones as well (for example, if their colleague is not at his/her desk and the phone is ringing, someone else will answer: “Tom’s desk, Jerry speaking”). I thought this was weird until a phone nearby started ringing and went on for about 3 minutes. That’s a lot of rings. I don’t know why the caller stayed on the line letting it go that long. And I don’t know why an organization like CARE doesn’t have voicemail! Cell phones are the same, no voicemail, and people will ALWAYS answer the call. People will actually answer a cell phone DURING a landline conversation and just hold a phone to each ear and tell landline caller to hang tight for a minute. Any face-to-face conversation can be interrupted during a phone call at any time, there’s no call waiting or screening or anything either. And the expectation seems to be that you’re constantly reachable by phone; if you don’t answer because you’re talking to someone else or busy, you will be asked later if there’s a problem with your phone.

A lot of roles are very specific in the non-professional side. Like, we have some CARE drivers, some messengers, custodians, some guys in “pantry” (kitchen – they bring coffee to meetings and sometimes pass around snacks), a guy at the travel desk, and a few security guards. The whole office has only about 50 people, so that’s a lot of “other” jobs. These workers aren’t busy, they’re here all day, probably don’t get paid all that much, but when they’re not actively performing their function they’re just sitting upstairs or beside the kitchenette. In the West, those roles would likely be combined, contracted out or not even performed (it’s expected that we get our own coffee and make our own travel arrangements). Perhaps because there are just so many people of working age here the labour market is very different; they don’t seem to be looking for ways to improve processes or increase outputs, I don’t think it’s seen as necessary when there are so many people willing to work for relatively little.

I had some confusion with non-verbal communication when I got here, and I’m still figuring it out. I’d heard of the famous Indian Head Wobble, which is a basically moving the head repeatedly in the frontal plane (tilting the ear to the shoulder); it’s sort of like a “yes” or “ok” of comprehension (I think). People also don’t smile as much in conversation. Back home, for example, usually at the end of a conversation there’s a slight smile and nod, which shows your understanding and agreement with the verbal transaction. You know the conversation is over at this point. But here, that doesn’t happen. I kept looking for a glimmer or recognition that the other person understood what I was saying and was ok with it, and didn’t get anything. So I just kept smiling and making eye contact like a doofus until they basically walked away. They also don’t use please/thank you/you’re welcome as much, particularly in the retail and service industry. I don’t think it’s meant to be rude or anything, and I don’t think it’s just me being white because I see it happening in front of me too. It’s just that the purpose of the interaction is purely financial; they’re not concerned with making you a happy customer.

People don’t necessarily assume the best about you or give the benefit of the doubt when you ask a question. My second day here, I asked about all these piles of crumbling bricks around the office neighbourhood and was told to keep an open mind and not be too judgmental. I was asking about the piles (is there a brick company around here? Is there a lot of construction or something?) but it was interpreted as if I was commenting on the shoddy state of the bricks. If someone from India came to Quebec and asked about our famous potholes, I’d explain the concept of frost heave, not assume they were making snide remarks about our government turning a blind eye to the Montreal Mafia’s involvement in our construction industry. I think this just shows how our background can really shape our outlook and assumptions about different groups. I usually try to assume the best and I’ve assumed in turn that others will give me the benefit of the doubt, but I’ve learned that’s not the case and people can be pretty defensive over totally innocuous things. I’ve started prefacing a lot of my questions with “I know this is probably a stupid question, but….” to try not to offend people, because I’m not an offensive person!

At the same time, while I’m asking questions about India and other random things, not very many people have asked me at all about Canada, or anything about me personally. I don’t know if they don’t care or if it’s considered rude to ask. I know if we have visitors from afar, we tend to ask a ton of questions, and like to talk about the similarities and differences in our countries and cultures and we consider it polite to show a genuine interest in their background. It does feel as if they don’t really care to know or remember; in Hyderabad, they kept introducing me as “from Atlanta” (the CARE head office) when I kept saying Canada and explaining I was a Pfizer Fellow. I had to explain it was a different country, and someone actually waved a hand and said Canadian and American was the “same thing.” I had to bite my tongue to not comment sarcastically on Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh all being the “same thing.” The only question that was really asked about Canada was in reference to Canadians’ attitudes and perceptions of India: “What do people think of when they think of India?” I wonder if some of this comes from the fact that this is a poorer country with a more recent colonial experience, and people are just automatically a little less trusting and don’t really want to get to know someone from a richer country, or if they really are much more autocentric.

So that’s the highlight reel from my cultural experience so far. I’m having to grow a thicker skin here and I’m learning not to let things bother me. Overall though… glad to be Canadian. I have no intention of “forgetting” how to be polite and considerate while I’m here, but I probably will be learning some other interpersonal skills! Don’t be surprised if I come back and start answering your phone for you if I think you’re taking too long to get it! 🙂

Last night I moved to GK-1. It’s a nice apartment, the AC works really well and the windows seem to be sealed better so hopefully no more sandstorms in my home. The bathroom fan is likewise sealed, so no more pigeons in the bathroom. The kitchen is smaller but somewhat better equipped, so I can start cooking a bit more now.

I successfully found the Kailash Colony market from home and got some produce from the “veggie wallahs” (roadside carts) on the way home. [Lee Ming, this section is for you] Produce is really cheap. I didn’t want to carry too much home since I was walking, but for 130 rupees (less than $3) I got:

2 small eggplants

3 tomatoes

1 green pepper

1 hand of ginger

2 mangos

A bag of baby potatoes

1 cucumber

Grocery stores are really small and don’t have nearly the same kind of variety as we’re used to in Canada. Prices are variable; for more commonly used Indian things it’s really cheap and for things that are more foreign or for prepared things (canned sauce, condiments) it’s a lot more expensive. For example, a half liter of yogurt is less than a dollar, a liter of tetrapak milk just over a dollar, half dozen eggs just over a dollar… small box of Bran Flakes around $10. Dried lentils and chickpeas and rice are super cheap, Indian spices are also pretty cheap. I love trying new things in the kitchen, but there’s no oven and just the typical 2 burner gas stove (like car camping!) so I don’t know how fancy I’m going to be getting here. Plus, cooking when it’s hot is no fun, even with the AC. And I still haven’t found garlic, which is ridiculous because it’s used in everything. I need a garlic-wallah! I don’t think there will be a lot of “leafy greens” or salads featuring either, since a) greens are really wilted even if you CAN find them and b) it’s hard to wash the E.coli off. Maybe saag since it’s cooked. While I’m looking forward to some experimentation, I do find when I look at all the Indian recipes that they’re calling for the same sorts of seasonings all the time. I like variety… we shall see how this goes. There will probably be some bizarre combinations and substitutions. No laughing at me!

New “friends” and old places

New “friends” and old places

So I’m back in New Delhi again. People in India seem to have the same sense of “competitive weather” that we do in Canada: Hyderabad residents are oddly proud of their heat, and think that it’s hotter than New Delhi. Honestly, 42˚C in Hyderabad or 41˚C degrees in New Delhi… It’s all the same. Hot. When I got back to my apartment, it was 38˚C inside. I’ve had the AC on all night and it’s still 28˚C in here in the living room, and not likely to get any cooler. I have to pretty much stay in this room because the cool air doesn’t really reach the other rooms, even with the fans on. In the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, you’re just covered in sweat. The water coming out of the taps is warm, the shampoo is warm, the bar of soap is warm, my contact lenses are warm, sunscreen is warm… All the drugs that I brought are being stored way outside their registered temperature ranges.  Anyone want to look up the stability data for me? 🙂 Even though the maid (Asha) comes every Saturday and I wasn’t even here to dirty the place all week, this apartment gets filthy. The doors and windows aren’t sealed at all and we get these blowing dust and sand storms where it all comes into the house and settles on everything. The pigeons also made quite a big mess in the bathroom while I was gone. I’m usually pretty ok with dirt and grunge, but when you come out of the shower and have to stand in bird crap and there are feathers and gunk and bits of nest everywhere, it’s hard to feel clean. Yesterday I hopped in the shower when I got home and when I looked up, noticed I had company.


There were two of them, actually. I think they’re just common house geckos and if they eat bugs, they’re welcome to stay. I think these are also the ones that can lose their tails if they’re scared, so I’m eager to keep them happy and in one piece. Asha delivered a note from my landlady saying the apartment in GK-1 is now available so I can move soon, I think it’ll be Monday. Thank goodness. I have high hopes that the windows are sealed and the AC reaches more than one room. I know, I’m such a princess.

Before I go on any further about my time in India, I just have to share some really exciting news about my youngest brother, Noel. He was just asked on Thursday if he would be interested in being a delegate to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this coming June. Check it out here: Obviously, he said yes, because when someone invites you to a UN conference, there’s really only one answer. He’ll be representing the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF). He doesn’t have a lot of details yet, but it looks like he’ll be going through his own fun visa experience in the next few days, after he gets accredited for the UN. I mean, how cool is this?!?!?!? My baby brother is going to a REAL United Nations Conference!!!! Let’s hope our actual government sends an actual delegation of real live parliamentarians this time, though I’m not sure sustainable development fits with their “mandate” (sarcastic quotation marks entirely intentional).  I’m ridiculously proud of my brother and so excited for him, and I can’t wait to hear all about it!  

Now back to Hyderabad. My last day in the field consisted of just one site visit to IRSD (I don’t know what it stands for, it’s an NGO), a female sex worker community based organization. They’re a fairly new group, only two years old. It was quite a drive to get there, even though it’s in the same city. Traffic doesn’t move particularly quickly, so that’s one reason, I suppose. I met with the director of the NGO first, then just sat briefly with some of the women. I think by this point I was having a hard time thinking of original-sounding questions. Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to ask the same thing over and over again to different people to get a variety of answers, but since I still don’t have a firm grasp of what I’m supposed to be doing with all this I was just asking pretty basic stuff about their CBO, how they make it work, what sort of HIV/AIDS programs they have set up, etc. Most of the women, if not all, have been trafficked. They are double victims, in this sense: victimized the first time when they were trafficked, and then harassed, abused, molested, and stigmatized once they were working in an industry they never entered by choice. I asked about mental health issues and was told it’s a big problem but not even on the radar. Then I asked if the female sex workers are viewed as victims or if the stigma is such that they are simply viewed as a blight on society; I was told that some people sympathize, but the overall attitude towards sex workers is not one of pity. I also asked if there was more interest in getting women out of sex work and to more socially acceptable jobs, or if the goal was to try to legitimize the sex industry. It seems like people are on the fence about this everywhere: do we consider CBOs a risk-mitigation strategy or the start of a new workers’ union? I don’t think there’s a clear answer at this point. I don’t even know entirely where I stand. On the one hand, good for them for taking responsibility for their lives, work, and health. On the other, this isn’t a life they chose, not one they would want their daughters to have, so why push to make it acceptable? Will doing so improve conditions to the point that women (and men) could choose sex work as a viable career option without fear of stigma, reprisal, or social limitation? Or will this just make trafficking even more lucrative? Will society ever be accepting of sex work as “work”? Or is this just the work of desperate people trying not to starve? By legitimizing it, are we just throwing a blanket over the issues of poverty and inequality to make ourselves feel better? Really, I have no answers, just a lot of questions.

One thing you may find interesting about these women is that they don’t “look” like the sex workers we usually think of in North America. Obviously we shouldn’t be judging books by covers and whatnot, but these women are not typically involved with drugs at all, so they actually look considerably healthier than those who are strung out and in really bad situations with substance abuse. They’re all ages, from 20ish to 50s, all shapes and sizes. They dress in saris and wear nice jewelry like everyone else, and it’s only by certain gestures or signals that they would use when they’re working that you would be able to know their profession (and someone like me would be entirely clueless).

So, that was work; now for the weekend! Today (Sunday), I met up with JC and Sue, Global Health Fellows from the US, and went to Connaught Place and then Red Fort. We wandered around for a bit looking at Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, a Sikh temple, where we were accosted by children wanting us to buy them ice cream. This is supposedly a common occurrence. As JC and Sue are working on diabetes interventions with Project HOPE and I’m writing a grant application for a childhood obesity study for my Epidemiology Study Design class, we decided we were not being cruel in NOT acquiescing. I’m trying to think what my mother would have done if I had harassed strangers for ice cream… I don’t think she’d be too impressed.

I finally bought some Indian clothes – just two kurtas and leggings. A kurta is long tunic slit up the sides. They’re one-size-fits-most and you can’t try them on which is why I only bought two, but now that I have it on I wish I’d got more. The leggings are even made long enough for Germanic-heritage giraffes like me! Then we went for lunch at a hotel where I actually had a burger (!) and then we went to Red Fort in Old Delhi. It’s a big red sandstone fortress built during the Mughal reign between 1638 and 1648. We were the only foreigners, I think (there’s a separate line for us because we pay more for admission… and we were the only ones in line) but hey, it’s a short line so I won’t complain. People kept taking our pictures or asking if they could have pictures taken with us, which was a little weird. It was an interesting place, but I wish they’d maintained it a bit better. The grounds used to have beautiful gardens with all these little channels cut in for irrigation and ponds and such, and there’s really not much there now (Mark, there were some roses. I assume they are “hardy” if they survive in the desert at this insane temperature, but nothing was in bloom so I didn’t take any pictures). I guess since it’s the dry season they don’t try to fill the pools, but other than the buildings, there’s not all that much to look at or really get a sense of the place. The carving in the pavilions was really beautiful though, and there was some really pretty stone inlay in the pillars.

We were so hot at the end of it, we crammed into a rickshaw and went all the way home from Old Delhi that way. It was a long sweaty ride, but I got Sue to take a picture so you can finally see the proof of life yourselves. Red, sweaty face? Check. Believe me, this is the best we could do. 🙂


Suraksha Pride


Happy IDAHO!

Yes, it’s another acronym: International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (I think the “T” was added later and that’s why it’s not in the acronym). Why May 17th? That was the date, in 1990, that homosexuality was removed as a mental disease from the International Classification of Diseases of the WHO. And just coincidently, I spent today interviewing and meeting with the community-based organization (CBO) Suraksha (“protection”), a  self-formed CBO of gay and trans men, and community faculty and mentors from some of the other female sex worker (FSW) and men who have sex with men (MSM) community-based organizations.

The interviews with the community faculty and mentors were more difficult than I was expecting. I’m supposed to be writing up some success stories in the form of case studies to add a bit of a personal touch to the knowledge collection. I was prepared with my list of questions but translation was difficult and I don’t know that I really got much of a “personal” aspect. They were willing to talk about the work they do, successes, challenges, etc, but when I got to the part of “how has being a member of the CBO made your life better or easier?” I didn’t really get very good answers. For the mentors, I didn’t ask that since it wasn’t really applicable: they’re mostly social workers, not sex workers themselves. I don’t know if it was too personal or the translation wasn’t working or they just couldn’t think of a good answer, but I’m going to have to sort of work around what they DID say to determine the lessons-learned story since it wasn’t explicitly stated or told in any story-like way. I think I must have had 7 interviews back-to-back, and I’m really lousy at manual note taking so my hand was getting really cramped!

After lunch (curd rice, if anyone’s interested – I’m taking it super easy on my stomach these last two days), we went to Suraksha. It was in a more industrial area with lots of glassmaking, hardware, and autobody shops. We went down this alley and up some stairs and found the group on the balcony. I’d already met the leader at the annual meeting and had seen some of the community members. We all sat cross-legged on the floor and my feet fell asleep. It was a fairly decent sized group, probably at least 15-20 guys, the two CARE people I was with, plus me. We were outside and it was really noisy from the street traffic below, as usual, and hard to hear and understand them even with the CARE colleague who was translating sitting right beside me. I forgot my camera today, but to be honest I’m not sure I would have even asked if I could take pictures. While I’m pretty comfortable talking with male sex workers, I do recognize that it’s asking a lot of them to open up about rather personal matters to some white girl they’ve just met, and photos may have felt like an objectification of their lives. I am here to get their story, but the open discussion and trust is more important (my opinion, anyway).

 These guys have not had an easy time of it, that’s for sure. Most of their families do not accept them. There is a very high risk of assault by the police and harassment from everyone else. They are highly stigmatized and mocked for the way they walk, speak, and their mannerisms (these particular individuals were more on the effeminate side of the spectrum). They are typically very poor. There seems to be a pretty wide grey area encompassing homosexual, transgender, and transvestite. When I was looking through photo albums, it seems like almost all the members participate in cross-dressing, at least for special occasions, some have had breast augmentation, but they were still all dressed as men, some with minimal makeup, when we were all sitting together. I found this interesting just because in Canada, there is so much sensitivity and debate, even within the LGBT community, about self-identifying with particular groups, labels, who gets called what, what pronouns to use and when in the reassignment process to switch over, whether “transgender” should have an “-ed” at the end and all that, whereas here I don’t know that the debate is the same – or even happening. Maybe when you’re so marginalized already, it doesn’t make much sense to engage in a nomenclature debate and open any other worm cans. As I said before, homosexuality is still illegal in India, but they have been lobbying the government and hope to have it decriminalized in the next little while. It’s before the Supreme Court right now, actually. People don’t usually get charged with “homosexuality,” they get thrown in jail for trumped-up charges and held for weeks, at times. This group has worked really hard to sensitize stakeholders such as the media and the police to gain their support. They said they’ve made some gains, police violence has been reduced by 8-10% over the last 8 years. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s in the right direction and considering the magnitude of the violence problem, it’s definitely made a difference for them. They also invite the media to all their events to show them what they’re up to. There is a big generalization problem with the media and the uproar one story about violence within the gay community can generate. Everyone will start saying that all homosexuals are violent, it’s a widespread problem, when it’s really only the one individual. They told me one story of a man who was charged with pushing someone off a train and people say “it’s because he’s gay, he asked someone for money and when they refused, he pushed him” when the accused said that the other guy saw him and recognized him as gay and jumped rather than interact with him. In any event, it’s one story that has been used against the whole community as some kind of testament to their inner nature. When I started digging about the “how” of what they do, though, I was really impressed. For such an ostracized group to have the courage to mobilize into a distinct organization and work this hard to effect change in a very traditional society shows not just guts but good administration, management and (Pfizer’s gonna love this) ownership. They are a Learning Site now and CBOs in the early stages of formation get a lot of support and hand-holding from Suraksha. They teach by example and encourage responsibility in the groups by giving tasks/roles to people who may have no experience but are willing to try. And this trust is usually returned in spades – people who are so alone are happy to finally have a community of their own. They rise to the occasion and in the process learn meaningful job and life skills. They want a voice in shaping their future and the world around them, and I have so much respect for people that are willing to fight this long and hard for their rights.

I asked Suraksha about gay women and female-to-male transpeople. It’s not really on the radar at all. I don’t think this group has been possible to mobilize; I understand they’ve been invited to events but it’s hard to issue an invitation when you don’t know where to send it. I told them about the Integrity group I know of in Ottawa (an Anglican LGBT/S group) and they were curious about the challenges that gay Canadians face. We talked a bit about civil same-sex marriage and the resistance of some people and religious organizations to it. As much progress as I think has been made in the human rights aspect, I think we still have a ways to go yet – and meeting with this community really reminded me both how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go. The situation in Canada was basically just like that in India not all that long ago, and look at how long it’s taken us to recognize gay rights as human rights – and even that’s not universally accepted. I really hope India isn’t going to take 50 years to get there.

More from Hyderabad

More from Hyderabad

SO. Let’s talk about SAKSHAM II.

This project is also going to be coming to an end this year, and there is no planned extension. The community-based organizations (CBOs) are supposed to be self-sufficient at this point so they will be able to continue the work the NGOs started. There is a bit of a conflict of interest here though: for the NGOs, these projects are their work – their livelihood – so handing it off means they’re out of a job. Consequently, I understand there has been some lagging in this respect as the local NGOs aren’t particularly motivated to give up the reins on the CBO leadership. As I was preparing for this trip, I did some reading on the failure of aid and problems with the current development scheme. This is an issue which has been raised and I think is worth noting now: we can’t afford to forget that the purpose of development is service, not job security. By its own definition, development means that there is progress towards some goal – ideally, independence, self-sufficiency, self-determination – all those good things should be in there somewhere. International development is an interesting field and I can understand people who want to do this as a career, but I think sometimes we have to be careful about keeping our own interests in check. When we come from a position of privilege, we already have structures in place looking out for our interests and security; people coming from underprivileged backgrounds have none of this. Our job is to enable them to advocate on their own behalf, not create a structure that allows only other people to do it for them.

Sex work here, as in Canada, is not legal. I’m still not 100% sure of the laws, but from what I understand, it’s the solicitation that’s a problem, and brothels are not allowed. Home-based sex work, which is actually the majority here, is ok. Most of the women who go into sex work do it for reasons of extreme poverty, but there are a couple pockets where it’s accepted as a way of life and has been in place for generations.  There is not much link with drug use here in AP, the women are just unbelievably poor and have no other option. They are complete outcasts in their communities, which makes the idea of CBOs not only attractive in the community sense, but also necessary because a lone, isolated, and ostracized woman is a very vulnerable woman.  As bad as the women here have it, though, I think the MSM might have it worse. Homosexuality is still considered illegal. There is simply no avenue to be openly gay – in fact, I’m not sure the word is even used. Of course, I asked about the terminology of “MSM” versus “homosexual” or “gay” or “male sex worker.” My contact told me that most of the men who have sex with men aren’t homosexual, they’re bisexual, married, and usually have a family. I’m not sure this jives with our usual definition of bisexual – to me, these seem like gay men who can’t live openly and have wives just because that’s the cultural expectation. I’m sure there is a bi group in there, but MSM also comprises the trans community. I did not ask if these individuals considered themselves MSM or FSW. I think, if you were born with XY chromosomes and made it through puberty, regardless of how you choose to identify yourself, you are considered a man for most purposes here in India. And there were “genetic” men at this meeting yesterday, some who described themselves as male sex workers, and I think the rest were trans. Essentially, using “MSM” describes a certain behavior that puts these individuals at risk, rather than giving them a label. For the same reason, we say “female sex worker” as opposed to “prostitute:” describing the work is less judgmental than applying a derogatory term to the individuals in this practice. I think it is so difficult for most MSM to be out at all that this community is very hard to mobilize. The men who are having sex with men but are married to women cannot just become a community leader for a CBO and attend a two-day meeting in another city without raising some questions, and since this would potentially put his life and livelihood at risk, it’s understandable that reaching this group is particularly difficult.

One thing I learned, and that I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around, is the sheer magnitude of the population here involved in sex work. Obviously, it’s a reflection of the population of India, but it’s still hard for me to fathom at times. When I think of a CBO in the context of a community association in Canada, I think of maybe 30-50 people. Here, a CBO is thousands of sex workers. There are 55 groups (this includes CBOs, CBO/NGO partner groups, and NGO-led groups) which can reach over quite a geographic spread. I mean, there are 84.6 million people in this state, which is smaller in geographical area than Labrador. There are over 27,000 female sex workers (FSW) and men who have sex with men (MSM) registered under these projects – but obviously that’s only representative of the areas in which this project has had success, it’s not a census. So when you think of the scope of this project, the idea of CBOs at this level is really quite ambitious. The fact that it’s been successful is extraordinary.

The meeting was… ok. I’m going to have to be honest – I wasn’t super thrilled with being asked to document a bunch of presentations that were in languages I couldn’t understand. It’s not a great use of my time, I don’t think. Some of the slides were in English, so I could get that info, but it seemed like a lot of repetition between groups so I’m sure what they were saying would have done wonders in helping me to understand the differences in the approaches these CBOs were taking. The meeting was held at a residential school and we were in the auditorium. There was some AC and the fans were on, but the power kept cutting out which made it absolutely unbearable. There must have been over 120 of us in that room. There were two MCs who made the opening remarks and guided the course of the day. All the visiting NGO partners, guests, and visitors were presented with flowers (including me). Then they lit a lamp, which I’m sure has symbolic significance but I’m too ignorant to know really what it was for. The presentations were done by the CBO leaders (who are democratically elected by their CBO members). There was also singing and dancing interspersed between the presentations. I was surprised at how the audience behaved during the presentations, though. I would have thought that because these women (and men) had had to rise to positions of leadership from positions of very low status, they would be a little more considerate of each other when they were speaking. If you know what it’s like to be ignored and considered unimportant, wouldn’t you try NOT to make someone else feel that way? But cell phones were going off and were being answered right there in the auditorium, people were talking, walking in and out… and when they decided they’d had enough of someone, they would just start clapping to shut them up and get them off the dias. Though I couldn’t understand much, it didn’t seem like there were any major epiphanies that came of this meeting. I’m going to have to write out some questions and get someone to help me dig a little deeper to really understand what’s going on that makes these groups successful. They kept talking about community mobilization, advocacy with the police, etc, but they don’t say HOW they’re doing this. I’m pretty sure you can’t just walk up to a sex worker on the street and say “Hey, let’s mobilize and start a community.” There’s got to be a little more to it than that.

I think I promised you stories of lunch and staring games. Lunch was served in a big dining hall, cafeteria-style. You pick up a round metal tray from a pile, then go through the line. They put a big mound of white rice in the middle, then all the other things around the side (some spicy rice, a chicken dish, a vegetable dish, curd, a dessert biscuit thing…). Then you sit and use your right hand to break up the chunks of white rice and mix the other things into it – and then you use your hand to put the rice in your mouth. It’s messy, everyone has rice and the associated juices all over their hands. I don’t think there’s any way to do this elegantly. I was pretty slow at it, but I think they liked that I was trying. I didn’t really have much choice, there was no cutlery available and it was after 2pm and I was so hungry I was shaking. They gave me way too much food, I couldn’t finish my tray, but others were going back for seconds and thirds. The food was so hot (spice wise and temperature wise) that my right hand was tingling for hours after. You know if you cut up jalapenos and don’t wear rubber gloves? It was like that, whole hand.

So while I’m learning to eat like a toddler again and trying not to make a mess, people are staring at me. It happens as soon as I walk into the hotel lobby; the staff are used to me now and are very nice and polite, but I think I might be the only white guest so the other guests are looking. In the car, other drivers, passengers, and bystanders just stare as we drive by. I try to avoid eye contact, especially with men as I understand direct looks can be considered provocative or something. But it’s really an uncomfortable feeling, being constantly watched. I’m not being harassed or anything, just stared at. I’m not usually self-conscious in Canada, but here, I can’t help but be aware of the attention.  Especially when I’m eating, or trying to figure out where I’m going, or anything like that. I know I’m supposed to be “culturally sensitive” and everything, but I’m not sure why it’s considered perfectly acceptable to stare here and how I’m supposed to be totally ok with it. We’re always taught it’s impolite to stare in Canada, and I think most of the West, so even though they may not mean anything by it, my instinctive reaction is to feel like I’m being treated rudely. I don’t expect it to stop, which means that I just have to get used to it. I can say that for the women I met yesterday, when I did make eye contact and offered a small smile, I usually got one back and they were happy to shake my hand. But other people and children just continue to stare.

A little more about Hyderabad… My hotel does have AC; the car does not. This means that we drive with all the windows open and enjoy the variety of smells and particulates in the air. I think the air quality here is actually worse than in New Delhi, but it may just be the area I’m in. There are these open dumps basically right at the side of the road, and a lot of tire stores (?). Based on the smell, perhaps tire recycling. And this weird sulfurous rotten egg smell on top of it all. On my way to the school where the meeting was being held, we passed all these small herds of goats and chicken flocks outside the stores. I’m guessing they were for dinner.

Random observations:

Remember when I said only men wear helmets on motorcycles? I guess it’s only the law in New Delhi – no one at all wears helmets here.

Hair scrunchies are popular. As per SATC, no one’s from New York.

A clown car joke would make absolutely no sense here. I can’t believe how many people can fit in a rickshaw, I’ve seen whole families stuffed in, with luggage.

Tatas come by their reputation honestly as crappy cars. I witnessed an accident – fenderbender really – between a Tata and rickshaw yesterday. I think the back bumper was completely off the car, and he was only hit at about 15kph. By a rickshaw, no less.

City of Pearls

City of Pearls

Hello from Hyderabad! Pronounced “HIGH-dra-bad,” this is the capital of Andhra Pradesh; I’m in the southeastern part of the country now. Just in case New Delhi wasn’t hot enough… did you know the UV Index could go to 11, or “extreme?” I thought it was a 1-10 scale. Silly me and my pasty whiteness. I’ve been careful with the sunscreen and so far, so good. It’s a blazing 42˚C during the day, dropping to about 30˚C at night. And it’s not even humid.

My journey to Hyderabad was more complicated than it should have been. First, I locked my keys in the house when the door autolatched behind me as I was struggling with my suitcase and trying to remember every last thing with the taxi waiting downstairs. Still haven’t figured out how I’m going to get back in on Friday, but I notified my administrative manager (and personal savior) and I think she has the spare. Then the taxi dropped me off at the wrong terminal. So I had to take a loooooong bus ride to the correct terminal. Flight was fine. Oh, if anyone’s looking for a job, IndiGo Airlines is hiring flight attendants. Here are the requirements: you must be female, between the ages of 18-27, speak English and Hindi, passed high school, be at least 155cm tall with “weight in proportion to height,” and be well-groomed with a clear complexion. Send in headshots AND full length shots if you’re interested. They do allow them to wear flats as part of the uniform, but the skirt is definitely above the knee. The picture in the ad had this pilot standing in some gangsta Pitbull –aviators and all – pose with a chevron of sexy flight attendants fanned out behind him. So let’s talk about female empowerment, eh? Oh, the best part of the journey: there was some miscommunication and the driver didn’t come to pick me up. Several phone calls later (can I tell you how hard it is to make phone calls from the arrivals area of an open-air airport?!) I was told to take a prepaid taxi to my hotel. So I did, and all’s well that ends well on Sunday night.

On Monday, I went to the CARE office for AP. It’s set up much differently, there are all these small rooms that are separated by double doors and lead one through the other, then up some stairs, then the same on the next level. They keep the doors shut all the time for temperature control. I met with the two project leads for SAKSHAM II and Balasahyoga. I learned a lot about these projects and about the groups towards which they are targeted. Balasahyoga is aimed at households led by women, grandparents, or orphans. Not all women headed households are widowed; in many cases they’ve been thrown out of their husbands’ home when the mother-in-law thinks that the wife was responsible for bringing HIV into the house (in reality, it’s nearly always the man who brings it home from other partners). In some areas, multiple partners is the norm for both men AND women; however, condom use is not. They just don’t use them. CARE’s role in this project was to work on food security. Food insecurity was assessed by a questionnaire: households were moderately food insecure if the adults had missed a meal in the last couple weeks. They were severely food insecure if the children had missed a meal during this time. These were the groups the project targeted. This project worked by giving women a small loan through which she could build her own business, usually in the service sector (breakfast hut, fruit cart). When the women make money, we can be virtually certain it will be spent on food for her children; there is a very high correlation. For orphan led households, it was very difficult because they wanted to get them back in school. For that 15 or 16 year old, though, if he or she is the sole provider for younger siblings, there’s no way s/he can give up employment to go back to school. So they tried to get people on the government programs for which they were eligible, with mixed success. HIV/AIDS carries such a stigma here (everywhere really, but I think it’s worse when people are so uneducated about the disease) that people would not want to apply for government programs because that would reveal their disease status. They also did some stuff with kitchen gardens and risk-training as people in poor circumstances are very risk-averse. This was just an interesting learning experience for me; the project is wrapping up so there’s nothing for me to do with it.

Today I was offsite for the SAKSHAM II project. They are having their big 2-day annual learning meeting with all the leads of the community based organizations of sex workers and I’m supposed to be helping to document it. I’ve been having a difficult time of it, however, because the languages used for the presentations are not English, so my note-taking has been rather sparse. And since I only have a crappy camera, my pics aren’t that good either. Anyway, it was a long day and I have to hit the sack, so I’ll summarize this some more tomorrow and tell you all about SAKSHAM, my first experience eating rice with my hands, and what it’s like to be constantly stared at. CONSTANTLY. There’s a reason I ordered room service tonight!

(For those who are interested: it was paneer bhurji, curd (yogurt) and naan. The food here is notoriously spicy. I have to keep Pfizer’s Global Security team informed of my movements and whereabouts, and when I told my contact I was going to AP, he actually took the time to notify me of the spiciness and to tell me to be careful with it. He wasn’t kidding. So the curd is necessary to try to tone the heat down a bit.)