Monthly Archives: August 2012



I can’t quite believe it. After weeks, no, months of stressing about this, I finished my Grant Application for my course a full day ahead of schedule. I figured I would have to take advantage of my current geography relative to the Prime Meridian and squeeze some extra hours out of the Aug. 31 deadline, but by 3pm on August 30 I’d finished performing sacrifices to the Maximum Word Count Gods and wrestled my work into some semblance of a coherent epidemiological document. That evening I did my final review and submitted it and will hopefully I never have to think of it again [this is contingent on a passing grade]. What a relief.

I’m also finally well again, thanks to my new colleague and his antibiotic recommendation – and a week and a half of starving myself on the blandest diet in the world, ugh. I had brought some azithromycin from Canada but he recommended something else. Here’s how you get drugs in India: you call the pharmacy, tell them what you want (“hi, I’d like 10 tablets of Drug X, please”) and they take your address and 30 minutes later it’s delivered to your door, for free. Total cost of drug regimen was Rs. 107 (about $2.00 CAD). The sick patient in me was pretty happy; the pharmacovigilance professional was horrified. No prescription, no consult, no patient information sheet, no ID. But, um, I’m better!

I barely know what to do with myself now. I could read a book for fun. Or start making use of the needlework and knitting my family went to all that trouble to send all the way to India. Or get out and enjoy the stench of drowning garbage and swarms of flies in the streets (I’m kinda over the whole monsoon thing now; it’s one thing to open my door to witness a magnificent downpour but quite another to wade through the muck trying not think about what exactly it is. ‘Cause it smells exactly like what it is.).

Here’s something I thought some of you would find interesting. It’s a building under construction just around the corner from my apartment.

There’s always a lot of construction going on; I guess it’s like that pretty much everywhere now, though.  The interesting thing about these builds is that whole families are involved as labourers and they actually live at the site. These are mainly migrant workers – a group that CARE is thinking will be our third program impact group. Of course, it took be about two months in-country before I figured out that the women I passed every single day carrying bricks on their heads were actually the people I was working for, but that’s a story for another day. Anyway, these migrant workers live in the partly constructed building as it’s going up. It’s not plumbed or anything and there’s no electricity. In the morning, I can see the women cooking and doing laundry. The little kids play on the big pile of sand in front of the site. There is no heavy equipment and definitely no safety equipment. The scaffolding and supports is made of simple stripped tree branches and it all gets reused – they carry the poles on bicycle-towed wooden carts between sites. Huge lengths of rebar, too, get transported on bikes this way. Bricks get reused as well and there’s usually a huge pile of them in front of the site. On the day these pictures were taken, the task was making and moving concrete. It gets mixed on the ground, then the mixer barrel is hauled up that double ladder-y pulley system thing and emptied onto a tarp on the floor they’re working on. The men load it by shovel onto trays, then one of the guys will help get it up onto one of the women’s heads. She then walks it over to where the work is being done, another guy helps her lift it down, dumps it into another pile, and she takes the tray back to the pile to be reloaded. What really struck me is how fast they move. This is basically a human conveyor belt: there are about 5 or 6 women carrying cement on their heads and they are really walking at a pretty good clip. There’s no standing around or chatting that I can see, just a smooth operation using humans instead of machines. Even the holes and ditches are dug mostly by hand. The soil here is pretty sandy, but still. It’s a lot of physical labour.

I think I’m going to make some tea and start reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Expect it to be quiet for a while 🙂


Playing host


So…. Nothing much new here. Just posting so you all know I’m still alive.

Last week a HR person from CARE headquarters in Atlanta was here for a visit. She was actually one of my interviewers waaaaaay back last December and we’ve kept in touch since I got the position. Anyway, she was really nice and I was happy to finally meet her face-to-face. This was her first time visiting a developing country, and it was really interesting from my perspective to see someone else go through the initial shock phase, with all the “oh my GOD!” and “what was that?!” and covering her eyes in the rickshaw in preparation for certain vehicular death. She did really well, actually; and I think I took care of her pretty well too. You become pretty protective of newcomers; her hotel was only 1km away from my apartment but there was no way I was going to let her walk alone, or cross the street alone, or take a rickshaw alone. I was pretty sure CARE India would just leave her to her own devices to fend for herself, and sure enough, they did, so I wanted to make sure she had someone to take care of her a bit so she didn’t have to eat alone in her hotel every night.  It’s certainly what I would have wanted when I first came here. Talking to her was interesting too in that she revealed that a lot of the issues I’ve encountered here are actually systemic CARE issues rather than India issues (even the “taking care of visiting colleagues” part…). The lack of strong leadership and preference to operate by consensus rather than decisiveness (which doesn’t work when no one values decisiveness as a trait anyway), the “big clunkiness” of their operations, and difficulty with strategy are organization-wide, it seems. Working for a non-profit has been a big eye opener for me in a lot of ways. I think we have a tendency to think of NGOs and people who work in this sector as somehow more virtuous or something: it’s not true. Some people are just here because it’s their job, like in any other line of work. While many people are passionate about the issues, I’m sure, I don’t think that colleague engagement is particularly high here and I don’t think it’s a priority for the organization. I don’t feel that the staff has a strong sense of their corporate identity or is particularly attuned to their own work culture, and even though I’m well aware that my ideas of “productive work” are rather narrowly defined in the broad scheme, I do think CARE could demand more of their colleagues. Apparently my manager here told the HR colleague they’re very happy with my work here. I guess this is good, but I was honest and told her they need to raise their expectations a bit because I’m certainly capable of more. There just isn’t really any drive to excel. Is it the lack of a financial bottom line? I would think that the poorest and most vulnerable women and girls would be “bottom line” enough but it seems like we’re so removed from the field work that it’s difficult to translate that into day-to-day motivation. I understand that expectations in this line of work need to be realistic, social change doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes stamina to truly care about issues in the long term and I think there probably is a lot of fatigue and numbing that comes with this work because it can be pretty depressing. But then I wonder, can you be truly effective in this role if you’ve emotionally checked out? Where’s the balance between not being able to sleep at night because the world is such a sick, sad place and complete apathy? There must be a place for tempered optimism and hope, right? I know I’ve certainly wrestled with this, not just recently because I’m here, but ever since I started reading newspapers. I guess I’m just surprised I don’t hear anything about this at CARE when it seems like it would be an important consideration.

Last week a new colleague joined our Impact Measurement/Knowledge Management team. He’s a volunteer from a pharmaceutical company, like me, and will be here for three months. He’s a physician and is just the nicest guy, bringing extra homemade food for me for lunch, giving me ideas for things to do in Delhi, and offering up his wife’s kitchen instruction skills. He’s struggling with trying to understand how to form concrete objectives here and figuring out what exactly he’s supposed to do… Sound familiar? Anyway, I’m really looking forward to working with him and hopefully we’ll find a way to be corporate-style productive in this setting.

I’m sorry the tone of this post isn’t as positive as usual. I’m finding that I fluctuate between being pretty happy here and mildly irritated, and today is an irritation day. Some days I love the crazy rain, and other times the thought of wading through the muck disgusts me. Most of the time the traffic doesn’t bother me at all, and some days the deeply held belief here that honking in unison makes the light change faster really gets on my nerves. I’m also sick again, so that’s probably a big part of it. A lot of people are getting sick here, actually. I can’t believe how hard it is to stay healthy here, every time I’m doing well some bug decides that I’d make a good host and sets up residence. I’m fine, don’t worry; I’m just getting tired of rice and bananas!


If I Was God, That’s Where I’d Live Too


This past weekend I went to Kerala. Kerala (“God’s Own Country”) is a state in the southwest along the coast. It has the highest literacy rate in India and the highest Human Development Index rating in India. Also has the best sex ratio. It’s a highly socialized state; up to relatively recently was governed by Communists. A lot of people work in the Gulf so that’s basically where they get all the money; industry doesn’t really have much presence there because the unions are so strong. It’s also more religiously diverse.

We flew down on Thursday night, were picked up and taken to the hotel. The first thing I noticed is that it wasn’t hot! It was pretty damp and rainy and everything was green, that’s what I remember best. Our hotel was a small 4 room building, more of a guest house, I guess, and was very nice. Friendly people, comfortable rooms. We left early the next morning and drove a couple hours to the Athirapally Waterfalls. It was POURING rain. The falls were not that big, but still noisy and misty. I loved being around nature again, so many trees and birds and everything was clean and green! Such a welcome change from the city.

Then we drove to Kumarakom, a few hours away (we’re not covering great distances here, but it’s not highway driving). The hotel we were at was beautiful. It was right on the Vembanad Lake, it had a canoe you could paddle in the little canals, and a pool, and lovely grounds.

We had a nice relaxing evening there and the next day, got on our houseboat. Houseboat tours are very popular through the backwaters of Kerala, and I can see why. It was so peaceful, just passing fishing boats and rice paddies while people living on the banks go about their lives, swimming, doing laundry, and washing dishes in the water. It actually reminded me a lot of camping, in terms of the weather, water travel, and overall pace. We even had Tang, camping and cottaging beverage of choice.

We shored up for the night along the bank and went for a little walk.

The next morning, we got into a slight boating accident near the wharf and ended up taking a water taxi the last 5 minutes of the way to Alleppey. We got picked up again, and went for a drive through Cochin. We stopped at Fort Kochi and walked along the coast of the Arabian Sea and saw the Chinese fishing nets and some goats.

Then we drove through Kochi some more, and saw some stores and churches then headed to the airport. It’s a really nice city, has a sort of Euro feel to it due to the early colonialism by the Portuguese and Dutch. Food-wise, the South is quite different from the North, and in Kerala it tends to be more fish based. It’s supposed to be a lot spicier than Northern Indian, but I actually found things pretty bland for the most part. Maybe they see white people coming and take out all the heat or something. They also use coconut oil for everything. The smell of it burning is pervasive, and I didn’t really care for it. My travel companions went for massages at our second hotel and they poured coconut oil all over them, even their heads and hair. It took four shampoos for my friend to get it all out.

Today is Independence Day here and I have the day off. To do homework. We had a little party in the office yesterday afternoon. They played a singing game in Hindi (I kinda ducked out for some of this because I knew they’d probably ask me to sing some song “from my country”) and we all had to dress in flag colours and national dress. Then we took my friend Kristin for sushi and sent her home to the US… I was very sad to see her go. 😦

Well, that went fast.

Well, that went fast.

So, I changed my toothbrush last week. You know what that means? Yes, I am diligent about oral hygiene. Also, I’ve been here three months – I’m halfway done this Fellowship. Crazy, eh? Doesn’t feel like three months. I can tell the time is just going to fly by now too.

Last Wednesday, I went to a Secret Cinema event at a new restaurant in Hauz Khas Village. They have this tiny little movie theatre in the backroom of the restaurant that seats only 15 people. True to the exclusive nature of events here, you give them your number and they call you that day to let you know if you’re on the list. You don’t know the movie until it starts. Anyway, I got the call so I went. The movie turned out to be North by Northwest, by Alfred Hitchcock. I’d actually never seen a Hitchcock film before so this was new for me. Interesting portrayal of blondes.

Thursday was Rakhi, the festival celebrating the bond between brothers and sisters. We didn’t have the day off, but a lot of people didn’t come in. Traditionally, a sister will tie a sacred red threaded trinket around her brother’s wrist to express her devotion and feed him sweets, and the brother will give his sister gifts and vow to protect and watch out for her. My brothers have already abandoned me and, as the eldest, I still feel like it’s my responsibility to watch out for them in some ways, so I didn’t really have anything to do with this holiday other than eat the jalebi (a tooth-achingly sweet deep-fried street “food”) that kept going around the office. So imagine my surprise when my maid showed up on Saturday (not one of her workdays) to give me a rakhi! Is that the sweetest thing or what? I was very touched; I didn’t have anything for her so I gave her a hug and I hope that’s ok.

Yesterday I came home to quite the treat: another care package! This time it was sent by my lovely manager back at Pfizer with contributions from my Safety team. It was totally unexpected and very welcome! I didn’t really need anything, but I really appreciate the thoughtful “comfort” touches. Coffee, oatmeal, toiletries restock… you guys are the best!!! It’s so nice to get something from home and just to know people are thinking of you J My team back home is very busy this summer; I’m out and there’s a maternity leave as well and neither of us could be replaced, so they’re down two full-time workers. They really have to work harder to make up for us being gone, so I think they deserve some public recognition for their efforts. Any contribution that I’m able to make here to CARE India is due in large part to the support I receive from my manager and team back home, who are shouldering my share of the work and still making time to check in with me through email, telecons, and trans-Atlantic coffee shipments. Thanks guys! YAY TEAM!

Love and comfort from Pfizer Canada Safety!

How excited am I for Brulerie St-Denis coffee?!

Work suddenly got really busy here. I was asked on Friday to start doing some work for one of our program groups for Dalits (Untouchables). They send me their notes Friday after hours and wanted feedback on my synthesis Monday. Seems like it’s all or nothing here.  I’m not involved in the external consultations due to the language barrier, so I’m doing the documentation synthesis, gap analysis, etc here in Delhi. I feel like the timeline is a little rushed and I’m not sure we’re really getting to the root of the issues. As I read through their notes, I keep seeing “there needs to be” or “there should be” and I’m a little concerned we’ve gone into these consultations with our minds made up about what the issues already are and are just “consulting” with externals who support these ideas. We haven’t even consulted the Dalits themselves, which seems pretty important if we’re talking about empowerment and engaging them in their own programming. We’re jumping to solutions about what to put in the program before identifying the problem. Anyone who’s done their Yellow Belt training knows this is a problem! Unfortunately, from what I’ve been reading about development in general, this is a known issue. We talk a good talk about letting go of our bias and prejudice, enabling and supporting rather than actually “doing,” but we don’t follow our own guidance when it comes to practice. One of the items was actually about “improving intellect” of the Dalits [this is coming from external parties, I think, not CARE staff] but still, to me that suggestion seems baked in judgment. I hope he really meant ignorance, as in, the Dalits are ignorant of their protected rights and thus have difficulty accessing services and entitlements. The intern is working with the Tribals group and she’s noticing the same thing, the kind of information we’re getting just isn’t adding value to the current knowledge base, in part because we haven’t developed a knowledge base of our own before running into consultations. Aaaaaanyway……. I’ve brought some of these gaps up but haven’t received any feedback yet, so we’ll see how well that goes over.

This weekend I’m going to Kerala (South India) with a couple other people. This is my first trip since Agra/Jaipur and I’m really looking forward to it. Tune in for the vacay report next week!