Author Archives: melinda39

All Good Things…

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Well. Here I am. Today is my last day in India. I can’t believe how much time has passed and how much has happened in the last year. I can distinctly remember January 9, 2012, the day I found out I’d been selected as a Global Health Fellow and probably one of the happiest days of my life. I’d been so nervous all day I was almost feeling sick, then came back from lunch to the best email news ever and had to let my friend Mike have his favourite “I told you so” moment. I can remember most of April, when people kept asking me, “Are you excited yet?” and my answer was always “…Uh, no. Not really. Not yet.” I don’t think the excitement really ever came; I was so busy trying to cross things off my to-do list and trying desperately not to freak out that I just went into business-mode as the departure date got closer. I can remember how disoriented and isolated I felt initially when I got here, and how every little task became a personal triumph because the challenge was so real (“Successfully negotiated coriander with the wallah! I am a CHAMPION!”). I remember the unbearable heat and sweat at Agra and Jaipur, the beauty, peacefulness, and smell of coconut oil in Kerala, the kitschy beaches and annoying men in Goa, the magical spirituality of Varanasi, and the fly-buzzing reality of the slums of Lucknow. This whole trip has been such an emotional ride, and I think that was the part I was most unprepared for. Five months ago, I was a disaster, wondering what I’d gotten myself into and how I was going to last till October. Three months ago, I was pretty mellow, was settling into my new life and looking forward to the rest of my fellowship. Two weeks ago, I was in near-panic mode and was completely miserable that my fellowship was almost done. I always thought of myself as a pretty even-keeled kinda person, but I’ve felt a lot of waves rocking my proverbial boat here. Now, I’ve accepted the inevitable end and, while I can’t say I’m happy to be leaving, I am looking forward to home, and most of all, my people. Oh, and those pesky pets too.

But first things first: trip report! As I mentioned previously, I went on a field visit last week to Lucknow, in Uttar Pradesh. I visited the CARE office and two projects: Urban Health Initiatives (UHI) and Join My Village (JMV). Both of these projects concern reproductive and maternal health – I asked specifically to see health projects because I needed some fodder for my GHF essay. And also, this is my favourite area of study.

On Wednesday, I woke up very early to catch the first flight to Lucknow. As an aside, the weather here has FINALLY changed for the better, with daily highs in the high 20s. In the morning, it was a little brisk. I wore my fleece. But I noticed in the taxi on the way to the airport that the few people who were up at that ungodly hour were wearing TOQUES. I kid you not. People are in sweaters now. At yoga, they turned off the overhead fans and now I’m sweating like a beast again while other people are putting on socks. Unbelievable. Anyway. Uneventful flight to Lucknow, found my driver, got to the hotel, had a 15min nap when I should have been eating breakfast, then went straight to the local NGO office for UHI. CARE is only one of the partners involved in this project, and we have partnered with SWARG (I don’t remember what that stands for) to implement the project on the ground. This project is for family planning in urban slums. The way it works is SWARG recruits and trains Peer Educators from the slums. They select women who are well-regarded in their communities so that they will be accepted and hopefully the message will have greater success. The PEs start by mapping their geographical areas with the women who are married and of childbearing potential (basically aged 15-49), how many children they have, and what form of contraception they’re using. They meet with the women one-on-one once per month individually to advise them and educate them about their family planning options. They also have meetings with all the women and play competitive games to educate them about birth control methods, like snakes and ladders, mendi competitions where they draw the different forms of birth control on each others’ hands in henna and whoever does the best job gets a prize. Or stick the bindhi on the woman (like pin the tail on the donkey). They try to make it fun and informative and get women more comfortable talking about these things, because there is absolutely no discussion of reproduction or sexuality at any point in their lives. There are a lot of myths, fears, and resistance to the use of family planning, partly due to religion (Muslim, in this area) and partly lack of information and education. Depending on their circumstances, how many kids they have/want, and all the fears and pressures in their lives, they may chose one of none of these options: condoms, OCP, DMP (injection every 3 months), IUD, sterilization, emergency contraceptives, and abortion. And pregnancy. Only 2 men have gone for sterilization, they’re terrified of it. Women are scared of it too, but since they bear the entire risk of pregnancy and childbirth, they tend to go for it more often.

The PEs were really interested in talking about their work – the CARE worker translating for me couldn’t keep up with them! I really loved seeing the PEs take so much pride in their work, they loved showing off “their” women and it looks like they have great relationships with them.  We went on a walk around the slum to meet them. The women looked so young to be having this many children. They’re very shy about talking about birth control and would sort of hide behind the door or hide their faces (also, we’re complete strangers asking some pretty personal questions). Some of the women looked very sick, they were up and dressed and talking, but you could just tell by looking that something wasn’t right, like anemia or something chronic like that. Side effects are a big reason for discontinuation of some of these methods, particularly the IUD and DMP. There is no requirement for tracking AEs in India but the project does keep track for their own purposes (yes, I asked specifically about this!). Most women only want 2 kids, the average is 5. The religious leaders are not on board. Once in a while they have one who is more moderate and this goes over really well because the men and women are more inclined to listen to them. I think a lot of religious leaders of all stripes are against contraception, but it’s interesting that people will only listen to them up to a point. Abortions aren’t allowed either, but women will still have them because they’re more desperate at that point and will do anything to not have the child. I also found the spacing of children interesting. Because these women marry and start families so young, and typically do not work outside the home, they actually have more freedom than women back home in terms of spacing out their kids. One woman had a three year old at home and wanted to have the second when he was 5, so she was on a 5-year IUD. At home, I think women try to “batch” their kids more, and our time to have kids is such a narrow window since we spend a lot of our prime fertility years in school and getting set up in careers and such, so our kids tend to be grouped more closely in age. A woman in India (with access to birth control) might only want 3 kids, has one at 18 or so, then has at least another 20-25 years to get around to having the other 2.

  

I found the idea of the mother-in-law and husband being the decision makers in the family about the wife’s body to be very strange. I knew it happened, but I can’t imagine what it must be like for a woman to have no say in what happens to her body. They do include the MILs in the education and games too, but social issues take so much more than education, I’m finding, especially when status and power is so tenuous in women’s social circles.

The next day, I went to a village just outside Lucknow to see the Join My Village project. This project has several arms, but we were looking at the maternal health part. CARE works through another local NGO who meets with mothers’ groups in villages to talk about what to do for a healthy pregnancy. They also have men’s groups, which talk about supporting maternal health – which is quite a revolutionary idea. The biggest issues are the social issues. The women do everything in the villages, all the housework and cooking and working in the fields, and it takes up all of their time. Everyone else eats first, and if there’s nothing left, the woman just won’t eat. This is a problem for anyone, but particularly pregnant women. They don’t have time to rest, they still have to do all the heavy lifting (water, firewood, kids), and they just can’t afford to take care of their own health. Trying to get the men involved would be helpful, but there are so many social barriers to this. They admit they want to play with their kids and are willing to help out in the house, but the stigma is so great that they can’t be known or seen to be doing this. When the MIL comes to “help” as the due date comes up, any help the men were doing stops because they can’t let their mothers see them doing anything around the house or they will lose face. The MIL doesn’t really help either, because the MIL and DIL relationship is really something else…  During the meeting, a young mother with a newborn sat beside me and had her sari up over her head and she wouldn’t make eye contact or say anything. At first I thought it was because of me, but then discovered it was because her MIL was sitting beside her. It becomes almost a form of self-effacement. Like as long as the MIL is present, the DIL doesn’t really exist. The NGO worker obviously isn’t going to “make” anyone remove their head coverings, but she did ask the MIL, “What’s going to happen if she shows her face?” at least to prompt some thinking. It was all women there, and we were discussing proper nutrition and eating enough while pregnant and breastfeeding. So what’s going to happen if a woman shows her face here?

    

It’s hard for me to understand that sort of disconnect between what people know and what they do. The MIL may attend all the sessions with her DIL and understand and agree with what is being taught, but it doesn’t change her behavior or the behavior she expects from her DIL. Surely she must remember what it was like when she was the DIL, but rather than change, she maintains the status quo. I wonder if it’s the fact that this is the only time in the MILs life when she has some power, and doesn’t want to give it up. Of if there is a perception from the larger community that if the MIL starts changing things by allowing the DIL more freedom, that she will lose status. It seems there is so much desire to change some of these social norms, like dads playing with their children, and MILs and DILs having mutually beneficial relationships, but so little will to change – or perhaps it’s fear of change, and we just have to wait until the one or two brave people can lead by example.

Another one of the things that really struck me was the initiation on discussions about human sexuality. I suppose I’ve taken it for granted because I’ve always lived in North America, where sex is discussed fairly openly. We’re taught the biology and health in school, and other literature on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of sexuality is widely available. My relatives and friends talk openly too, and men and women will discuss in mixed company. There is certainly a sense of personal space, respect, and privacy, but the topic itself is not taboo. It is hard for me to imagine what it must be like to have that whole idea of sexuality a complete mystery – even after marriage. It made me realize just how revolutionary this approach is, talking with couples about their relationships as a way of improving maternal health.

I loved seeing the CARE staff and the NGO workers, anganwadi workers, and peer educators so engaged in their work, I think that was the best part of this field visit. I had asked to go see these health projects because I wanted to be inspired after spending the last several months in Headquarters and I’m happy to say it worked! After the village I was able to do a bit of sightseeing in Lucknow, then left the next morning for Delhi.

     

Anyway, I could go on, but I have only half a day left in office and I need to summarize my last six months of work here… so I better get this posted. By the time most of you read this, I will be on a plane. The clock keeps ticking and counting me down here. It’s such a strange feeling to have this all come to an end now, just when I thought I was finally getting the hang of things. I’m so, so grateful to have had this opportunity. As tough as it was sometimes, there were also times of true wonder, insight, enlightenment, and fun. I’m so glad I did this, it’s been a dream of mine for years and while the experience itself is just about over, I know that I’ve changed and I’ve even made some positive change at CARE. I’ve met new people, done crazy things, and learned so much. The world is just such an interesting place – aren’t you glad you live here?!

Finally, thank you to everyone who has followed me on this blog. I know it was sometimes funny, sometimes kinda boring probably, but I’ve appreciated your support and encouragement and having a small audience to report back to really helped me make the most of this adventure. Not sure if I’ll be posting from Hawaii, but in any event, I will see those of you back home soon, and I will cook you some dal and let you dress up in my sari 🙂

 

And… out.

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Getting Older in the Oldest City in India

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This weekend, a friend and I went to Varanasi, a holy city situated on the banks of the Ganges. We left on Friday night by overnight train, spent Saturday and Sunday there, and returned by overnight train (it’s about 10-12hrs journey) Sunday night. I got home by about 8:45am Monday morning, and got ready for work… and I. Am. So. Tired. Now.

First, the train: as I’m sure you can guess, the trains of India are an adventure on their own. I wasn’t really sure what to expect – if you read too much TripAdvisor, you can get put off by some of the horrific reports. Anyway, like most things in India, the system works as a whole, but it’s very confusing, there’s not much signage, and no one will help you. There are tons of people everywhere, and a lot of people sitting and lying on the floor on the platforms or flash mob dancing to Jai Ho a la Slumdog Millionnaire. We did eventually find our train, and our car. We had booked Second Class AC, which is an air-conditioned coach with sleeping berths two high.  There are 4 beds per curtained off area on the right side and then others running lengthwise along the left side. It’s… cozy, to say the least. As soon as we found our berth area and sat down (across from the two men who were sharing our cubby), we were an instant attraction for everyone else on the train, especially the kids. It was a very rickety train and didn’t go very fast, I think the average speed was only between 50 and 60kph. The washrooms were, shall we say, basic: squat toilets that open straight onto to the tracks below and there’s a grab bar to hang on to as the train rocks and jerks its way along. It took some balance. I actually liked sleeping on the train, despite the fact that it was a clunker. I woke up at 4:30am – on my birthday!!!!!! – when people started getting up and getting ready for earlier stops and couldn’t really fall back to sleep. Someone did come to tell us when it was time for us to get off (no announcements, no signs or anything) but it was still very confusing. We were standing there at the open back door and the train was still moving, albeit slowly, and this guy was telling us we “must get off now” and I wasn’t sure if he meant we had to jump down. I honestly didn’t know if the train was going to stop at a platform, because I couldn’t even see the station at that point, or if we were just expected to jump from a distance of 6 ft off the ground from a moving train and walk the rest of the way. I mean, people were running up to the train and getting on while it was moving, so my thinking here really isn’t all that unrealistic.

Fortunately, the train did eventually stop at an actual platform. A driver from the hotel was there to meet us (one of the only good things about being a token whitey is the ease with which a driver can find you) and took us to the hotel, where we had breakfast (greasy aloo paratha and curd), rested for a little bit, then went to Sarnath where there is a Buddhist museum and temple ruins and where Buddha is thought to have given his first sermon. After, we went down to the ghats for the Ganga Aarti, a fire ceremony that is performed by a group of priests every night. [Unfortunately, something is up with my camera so I could only take pictures with my iPad this weekend. The pictures are ok, just the size and weight of the iPad meant I didn’t take any unless I was sitting down, so no interesting “street views” this time]. We sat on the roof near a temple to watch. It was awesome, my favourite part of the weekend! The chanting is recorded and blasted through a sound system (though I think the 5 priests are still chanting along at times) and there were a few musicians with bells and drums being played constantly. The noise is just fantastic. Each of the priests also has a smaller bell which is rung almost continuously with the left hand while the right works the torch, incense, and all the other objects I don’t know the names of.  The priests were all pretty young and what struck me the most about them was how they moved their hands and arms so gracefully, it was almost balletic. The whole ceremony lasted just under an hour. We bought puja flower candles and floated them in the Ganges, then went on a walking tour of the ghats through the back alleys. They’re very narrow and winding and you really have to watch where you step because there are droppings (cow, goat, dog…) and garbage everywhere, but it’s really interesting to see in all the open doors to the little shops and homes and shrines on almost every corner. It’s Durga Puja right now, and Dussara is on Wednesday so there’s a very festive atmosphere, with coloured lights strung up everywhere and music playing in the streets. We went and saw the burning ghats, where they do the cremations, but we didn’t get too close. After, we made our way back to the hotel and had dinner (oversalted dal and mushroom Peshawar – I’m looking forward to a repeat birthday dinner, if anyone’s interested) and went to bed.

 

Sunday morning we got up at 5 and met our guide who was taking us on a boat ride to see the ghats from the water. The ghats really come alive at sunrise, as people meditate, wash in the holy Ganges, perform personal rites – and do laundry and brush their teeth. It’s hard to imagine using that water to actually clean anything – we considered ourselves lucky the only dead body we saw in the water was a cow’s because the dead who aren’t burned are just thrown in with a rock – and hand sanitizer played an important role in our weekend. Some ghats were busier than others, but it was just incredible to see that huge human experience going about the different parts of life alone or in groups. As a holy city, Varanasi is a big pilgrimage site so there are lots of religious rituals going on all the time, it’s really fascinating to have a glimpse into something so meaningful and personal even when I don’t fully understand what’s going on.

    

burning ghat; all that wood is for cremations

pilgrims across the Ganges waiting for sunrise

After, we had breakfast, chilled for a bit, then went and saw the temple at the university and then the Muslim area of the old city where there is a lot of silk production. Then late lunch, then we went and wandered around the ghats some more and just soaked it all in. I think Varanasi probably has the highest proportion of dreadlocks outside of Jamaica – and that’s on the white people. We saw part of that night’s aarti at a different ghat, got blessed by a little boy, attacked by a bunch of street children, then had dinner at a pizzeria overlooking the ghats before heading back to the train station. Because of the festival, we’d been advised to get there early but we ended up really early and our train wasn’t on the board yet. First we went into the Women Only 2nd class waiting area, which was empty because it smelled like a urinal, so we left and found some space on the floor of the train station where once again we were a source of incredible interest to young and old alike. At first we had quite a bit of space to ourselves, but eventually as the place got more crowded the men started settling closer and closer and, while I’m not claustrophobic, it’s one thing to be stared at and quite another to be stared at from less than a foot away.

one of my many juvenile admirers (I got blessed at the aarti, that’s what the red is for)

 

So we went to the platforms; our train still wasn’t listed on the board or on any of the platform signs, but when I looked down I happened to see the number on the train on Platform 3 corresponded to our ticket and that was the best link we’d seen, so we got on, found our berths, made up the beds, and were asleep in no time.

 

This return train was nicer, actually; first of all, they gave us ice cream just for finding our berths. Score 100 points right there. The ride was smoother, faster, and they had Western toilets and gave us tea in the morning. Spoiled, I know! We made it back home from the station in a rickshaw, got ready for work, and came into the office like the troopers we are.

Overall, it was a great experience and I’m so glad I went. I’m not the bravest sort when it comes to travelling with a lot of unknowns, but think this little adventure was a good way to kick off my thirties by doing something different and just diving in. We met a Canadian family at the hotel who were in the middle of a 6 month trip all through South Asia – with their 10 and 13 year old kids. That takes some guts. They were a lot of fun and we did some sightseeing with them (their travel blog is http://mcewansonthemove.blogspot.ca if you want to follow their journey too). I have one more trip this week; I’m heading to Lucknow for a field visit, then in only a week I’ll be done and on my way to Hawaii. I can’t believe how fast it’s gone, how much I’ve seen and changed. I’ve pretty much made peace with the fact that I’m almost done now, and I am getting excited to see everyone, but leaving still feels bittersweet.

Just Beachy

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Just Beachy

Finally got down to Goa this past weekend! C&C and I flew down on Thursday afternoon. It was a three hour flight, fairly uneventful though the plane seemed to already be in party mode with lots of loud, excited groups. I was a little surprised at the condition of the airport in Goa; it was the oldest and most rundown of all the airports I’ve seen here, and considering Goa is the richest state in India and a major tourist destination, that seemed a little odd.

It was very humid. We got picked up by the shuttle for our hotel (Taj Fort Aguada in Candolim) and drove for about an hour and a half to get to the resort. As usual, it wasn’t that far, only about 45km, but it’s not highway so it moves slowly. They don’t have any streetlights or stop signs that I saw; all traffic control is speed bumps and turning circles. The resort was very nice, very welcoming and friendly staff and comfortable accommodations overall. Since we booked at the last minute, we were in a different room (actually a detached villa) for the first night. On Friday we just hung around the resort and went for a long walk up the beach. It was a surprisingly quiet beach area, considering we’d been told Goa was so touristy. We were in North Goa though, which is less built up than the southern and central parts, I believe. The beach and the water was nice and clean, not a lot of weeds or garbage or jellyfish. We went for a swim and I got very sunburned, even though I was wearing SPF 50 :(. I did feel a little strange as one of the only women in a swimsuit going in the water. Goa is very popular with Indian tourists too, not just foreigners, but Indian women don’t really swim. They will wade into the water fully dressed and get completely soaked, but they’re not in swimsuits. I was wearing a very modest (by Western standards) black once-piece granny swimsuit, but we were still getting stared at a lot and guys kept taking our pictures. At one point some boys came and sat right beside us (this was a very uncrowded beach, I’ll repeat) and started taking pictures of us with their camera phones. I’ve figured out by now that staring just isn’t considered rude here, but c’mon… getting right up close to a woman and taking pictures of her in a swimsuit? It feels just a tad invasive.

     

 

On Saturday, we hired a car and went to see the ruins of Fort Aguada and the lighthouse, then went into the market area of Calangute beach. The fort was built in the early 1600s by the Portugese.  There’s not really all that much to it inside. The market at Calangute beach was a little different, in that it didn’t feel very Indian at all. It felt almost like southern California or something, with Indian knickknacks instead of surfer magnets. Cute and kitschy, but not sure we really got the Goan cultural experience. We didn’t have time to go to Old Goa, unfortunately, since it would have been a long drive, so didn’t get to see too many churches or Portuguese influenced buildings. That evening, we went for a walk down the road outside our hotel. I find walking around is the best way to really see the life of a place. We didn’t have much time since the sun sets early and quickly here, but we saw some boats and houses and bar huts. Goa has a party reputation, and alcohol appears to be a big draw – something to do with the excise tax, I believe.

         

Sunday checkout was at noon, so other than a last beach walk we didn’t get up to much. Overall, food was ok, a little bland but I’ve found that’s pretty typical of hotel food here (Hyderabad excepted). They use a different spice mix that has more of what I think of as “Christmas” spices – nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon – which isn’t my favourite pairing with seafood. The flight back was again uneventful; I was knocked out of Gravol so if there were any events I totally missed them. The one weird thing we noticed was that there were almost no women in the airport for the return. It’s a strange feeling being one of about 13 women (C counted) in the entire place, and we have no idea why all these men were travelling on a Sunday afternoon. But no complaints. It was a good, relaxing holiday overall and maybe this burn will offer me some protection when I go to Hawaii!

More than just a pretty face

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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Hope you enjoyed the long weekend and have some great turkey sandwiches for lunch today!

It’s been a busy few days since the 2010 GHFs arrived for a visit. Very interesting to see India through their eyes, meet their friends, and visit their old stomping grounds since the CARE office changed location from this swanky neighbourhood…

To this somewhat rougher area.

My driver can’t get down the street now, so we have to hike over these piles of rubble and jump the “moat” they’re building when the “drawbridge” (whatever door or post or plank they can find to lay down over the ditch) isn’t available. Fun times!

On Thursday night we went to Nizamuddin Dargah, which is the tomb of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin to see some live Sufi music, Qawwalis. To get there you have to go through the Nizamuddin bazaar, which is like a whole different world. I couldn’t really stop and take pictures because it was so crowded and we were trying to stick together, but all the shops are very close together, and we’re going through winding alleyways covered in awnings and tarps, upstairs, downstairs, having to duck under hanging drapes and climb over animals and children. The place was packed full of people and stalls – and this was at 9pm. When we got close to the dargah we left our shoes with a shopkeeper and came out of the bazaar to this:

There were tons of people there, even late at night. We walked around a bit, but women can’t go into the buildings so we just stayed in the courtyard area. We had been warned it could be crazy there once the music started, people can go into a frenzy and be overcome and you really have to watch yourself, but I guess it wasn’t the night for crazy. The music was beautiful though, and it wasn’t too crowded so we were able to see and hear from where we were sitting on the floor fairly close to the Quawwals.

On Sunday we met up with some other CARE colleagues who worked with our former Fellows for lunch, then went to a Kathak dance performance at Purana Qila, the oldest fort (mostly ruins now) in Delhi. It was a great backdrop for a beautiful performance. Kathak is one of eight forms of Indian classical dance; it comes from the North and has more Persian influence than some of the other Indian dance forms. It involves a lot of pirouettes, thought to be influenced by “whirling dervishes,” and demanding percussive footwork; the dancers wear many, many bells on their ankles to emphasis this. We weren’t able to get seats so we were standing in the back but it was only an hour long, so probably only lost 1lb in sweat and gained 20 bug bites :).

hard to get a good pic of the dancers while moving, but the castle looks nice!

It’s still hot here with daily highs in the mid-30s, if anyone was wondering. As I was making chapatti last night before bed, I thought that is one thing I will not miss about India: sweating in the kitchen. And the bugs – we had ants again yesterday and I’m getting drain moths coming up through the pipes in the kitchen and bathroom. I’m trying to decide whether to just deal with them or put mothballs in the drains like everyone else does and then try to deal with the smell of camphor in the house. I bet you Canadians still have that good turkey smell in your houses…

Work-wise, things are moving slowly, again. I’ve never had to push so hard for things to happen at work. I’ve been working on a couple presentations for the management here to try to describe the plan for implementing our Knowledge Management strategy and path for becoming a Knowledge organization. The thing that kinda gets me is that we had a consultant here waaaaaaay back in June who was facilitating these discussions in the office. We didn’t get the full report from him till August, and I don’t know if anyone else has noticed but it’s actually not finished, there’s some copyediting that wasn’t finalized, references missing, etc. The problem with this document is that it’s 17 pages long and doesn’t say anything useful about how to move forward, there’s just not much real content [CARE likes to hire former CARE colleagues as consultants, which is, IMHO, poor practice]. So when I’m making up this presentation for the leadership team, I’m basically making up the implementation plan as I go along. The Livelihoods Learning Circle is going nowhere. I can’t make people talk to each other. I laid out three options (make it happen, allow it to fail, delay until we get managers more onboard) and we still haven’t come to anything. I think we’re kinda doing all three (this presentation I’m working on for the managers, then force the LLC to happen – which I know it won’t – and allow to fail then hold up the failure as an example of what shouldn’t happen. I’ve reached the point where I have no problem using shame as a tool). It’s pretty clear to me that no one actually cares about this and I think this is a really good example of the importance of objectives, alignment, and strategy in an organization. I can think of no other place where it’s perfectly acceptable to go 4 months with zero progress on something to which upper management has already committed. There is so much wasted effort, starting, stalling, restarting… foresight and planning is so critical for an organization’s overall work plan and when you don’t have that, it’s really hard to convince people that something is a priority. Even when this same management team was the one who said it was a priority to start with! I mean, it wasn’t my idea to call CARE India a Knowledge Organization or try to turn them into one….

We went to a movie last night called Baraka. It’s 20 years old but it’s really good, I’d recommend it. I don’t really know how to describe it, it’s a photodocumentary with no plot, actors, or narration but has scenes of different religions, nature, people and cultures. Makes you want to travel a lot more when you see just how beautiful and interesting the world is. One thing I noticed though is for the Indian scenes (I’m thinking of the footage of Varanasi), while I still want to go there someday, I realize now that this interesting visual is just a small part of the experience. I think this is what has contributed to the West’s over-romanticization of India in some ways. You see all these people bathing in the waters, performing rituals, cremations, boats, cows, and can’t help but be fascinated by humanity and that whole collective conscious Life Is So Beautiful feeling. But then I’m trying to imagine what it would be to actually be there: surrounded by millions of people crushed up against you, the overwhelming smells, the cacophonic noise, the complete chaos, the heat, having to watch where you step, beggars hanging onto your clothes. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to go someday because that is the experience, but I think it almost becomes harder to appreciate the visual when the entire sensory experience is so overwhelming. It takes a long time to adjust, as I’ve found here. At first you can’t really “see” anything because the amount of processing required just isn’t possible. I guess this is why people take a lot of pictures, but I’ve never been a picture person, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I think for me, the visual experience isn’t always the thing I remember best or even want to remember best, it’s the whole experience of the presence with the sounds and smells and people and weather that I tend to want to look back on. And India has certainly provided its fair share of that experience :).

People, People

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I really can’t believe my time here in India is coming to an end. Four weeks left. I’m not really homesick, but I’m looking forward to seeing everyone again. Technology is wonderful in that it’s allowed me to stay in touch with people back home so easily. I was talking about this with my mum and even though she “sees” me almost every week on her iPad during our call, she says it feels like I’ve been gone forever. You certainly appreciate “those back home” in a new way when you’re so far away. Even though there are sooooo many people here, I’ve found the experience to be pretty solitary and isolating, especially at first. As a foreigner with no connections here, you exist very much on the periphery of society. I don’t feel like I’m a part of anything; sure, I have work and some friends now, but I’m not really a part of the collective. No one depends on me for anything, I have no responsibilities towards anyone (or anything – may as well count my pets here) and no one really needs me for anything. It’s a weird feeling, not being needed. I think we have a tendency to define ourselves in terms of our relationships and when you don’t have these, you do feel rather undefined.

I can see how friendships form so differently here too in the expat community. People don’t stay put for very long so they tend to form friendships very quickly – it almost feels a lot more like social networking than really getting to know people to form deep, lasting relationships. I don’t mean to say that people are superficial, their friendliness is genuine, but the circumstances just aren’t as conducive to the way I would usually make friends. It has forced me to be more outgoing, but really, I can only force myself so much and I realized that early on. I really admire all the brave, extroverted people I’ve met here who just throw themselves in, and I’m very grateful that they’ve been kind and open enough to include the quiet, reserved girl who probably isn’t the most exciting company. 🙂

There have been some of the harder “have to grow up sometime” lessons, though, when it comes to the ways in which I think of and interact with people. My trust has decreased a bit. I don’t like to be cynical, but I’ve realized you can’t always trust people to tell you the truth, a lot of times the answer they give is what suits them, not you. I’m a little more jaded in realizing most people are looking out for their own interests first and a lot of people aren’t nice just for the sake of being nice, there’s an expected return on that investment. For example, when my driver helped me get my package at the post office, I thought he was just being nice. He’s my contracted driver, I see him on a regular basis and he’s always pretty friendly. But on the way back from the post office, he made he sit up front with him, started in with the “how old are you, are you married, how many brothers do you have, what does your daddy do” questions, and said he wanted to start an NGO and wanted my “help” when I was back in Canada. Like financially and networking-wise. Maybe this is just the way the world works and I’ve never had to put it into words before, but for me, that “niceness” is a personal investment: all I can control is my end of the interpersonal interaction. Sometimes the only way I can win is to insist, even to myself, that niceness and good manners can’t be beaten down. Manners are so important because it’s not something you’re doing “for” someone else, it’s a reflection of you. It’s the way I can maintain my side of the situation – it’s keeping me civilized, it’s not necessarily about the person on the receiving end. Even if my rickshaw driver was a jerk, I try to exit the auto with a smile and thank you. It’s like proving that someone else’s jerkiness has no effect on you. Sometimes (ok, a lot of times) this means that you get taken advantage of and that’s something I’m learning to handle better, because being polite doesn’t have to mean being a pushover. Of course, this can still backfire: last week a random guy in the street started talking to me and wanted my number. I was super polite in saying no and started to walk away, then got bear-hugged by a complete stranger, like this was somehow ok.

I’ve also become a little shrewder in my appraisals of people and their abilities, including higher-ups at work. I’m less likely to see them as examples and I’m more critical (not openly, just to myself) of their ways. I don’t automatically accept that their ideas are better just because they’re coming from management. In a lot of instances, I think I’m right, this has taught me to trust my own judgment more and be more outspoken in defending my views, even if they ultimately don’t go with my idea.

On the other hand, I’ve learned to find kindness in small things. Remember when I said that at the market or the veggie carts, the people were unfriendly and it was purely a financial transaction, no smiling or thank-yous or anything…? Well, it’s still like that, but there’s more to it: if the wallah notices that one of the bananas in the bunch I’ve picked out is really small or banged up, he’ll rip that one off and find me a new, more appropriately-sized or blemish-free banana. When I’m at the bazaar and getting ready to pay, the guy at the cash will tell me if one of my items was a 2-for-1 and wait while I go back and find my freebie, even if there are a lot of people waiting behind me.  They don’t have to do that. There’s still no smiling or greeting exchanged, but this is a way of treating customers with respect and I appreciate that.

Sorry I have no pictures or exciting events to report back, but Crystal, 2010 GHF with CARE and great all-round gal, is going to be arriving tomorrow night for a visit so hopefully we’ll have some shenanigans with which to regale you later. We’re also trying to squeeze in one more trip, this time to Goa, so I can proactively get my beach on and see a different part of India. I would have liked to go up north but it takes time to adjust to the altitude and I wouldn’t be able to do it on a weekend. I’m booked for Hawaii for my post-India vacation. I’ll be connecting through Tokyo so if anyone’s familiar with that airport and has some tips for things to do, I’ve got several hours to kill there. Also, thanks to the magic of the International Date Line, I’ll manage to do 25 hours of travelling on October 31 and still arrive in Kauai before noon on the same day! Brilliant!

Monsoon-Almost-Over Wedding!

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Monsoon-Almost-Over Wedding!

It’s funny: six months ago, I was starting to freak out about the fact that I had a mere five weeks before departure. I was worried that I wasn’t “excited” about it and what that said about me and still had an administrative to-do list as long as my arm (that was probably contributing to my lack of happy-excited feelings). Here I am, with five weeks to go in country now… and I can’t believe I have to leave soon. Last Thursday, I got up in a headstand unsupported for the first time. Didn’t stay there long – but I did it. I’ve started making my own chai now that I’ve found whole cardamom here (they keep it behind the counter) and I’m doing quite well with it, if I say so myself. And I went to my first Indian wedding on Sunday so I can cross that off my bucket list too. Things are going well, in other words, in terms of just living here. But I have a lot of stuff to accomplish in the next five weeks, and I’m not particularly excited to leave. Interesting how things come full circle.

So, as I promised, this is a “work-y” post… what’s that you say? You want to hear about the wedding? Alright…

It was a Sikh wedding; the son of a colleague at work was getting married and the whole office was invited. Sunday was the wedding ceremony and reception – Sikhs get married during the day, unlike Hindu weddings which are usually at night. The venue was pretty far away, took us a couple hours to get there by auto, metro, then another autorickshaw. It was hot and sunny and when we got there, and even though we were hours late, there really weren’t that many people there. They had a bunch of chaat stands from different parts of India and guys coming around with drinks (non-alcoholic) and snacks (all vegetarian).  The couple was supposed to have gotten married before they arrived, but y’know…  Indian Standard Time. So they came to the reception and did their processions and pictures and all that before they technically got married. We had lunch, it was a big buffet and was, of course, excellent. There wasn’t any dancing or entertainment at this one, though the groom’s procession had a band that marched him in. I really wanted to see the actual ceremony, so we went to the gurdwara for that. Seems like a pretty straightforward ceremony; there are some prayers and readings and the couple walks around the altar (not sure if that’s what it’s called) four times, and then they’re married. Overall impressions: it wasn’t nearly as crazy as I was expecting. I was told later that the Sikhs are much better behaved at their weddings while the Hindus are responsible for more of the wild weddings we think of when we thing “Indian Wedding.” It was also much less about the bride and groom than other weddings I’ve attended. People just come, eat, socialize, and go as they please, there’s not really any pressure to be there for a certain time or stay for the entire event, especially since it’s not particularly structured. It was very sunny, but mercifully not humid. Still, when I got home I just collapsed with a sun-headache for the rest of the evening and drank about 3L of water and was not at all hungry for dinner.

the kid was covered with Rs. 10 notes… I’m not sure why, but I think it’s a symbol of prosperity or something

we’re in suits instead of saris, as this is a Punjabi wedding

bridal procession

photobombing the bridal procession… this was massively embarrassing for us but our colleague just threw us in there and said they wouldn’t mind

ceremony in the gurdwara

Now, back to business. Because I’ve had some real concerns here about the likelihood of meeting my objectives, I’ve been paying careful attention to the other side of my development: my professional development against what those of us at Pfizer know as our Core Competencies. I was surprised that my development here has been much more about soft-skills and organizational understanding than technical skills or even cultural understanding. My work has actually been going a lot better in the last couple weeks. Basically, I reached the point of frustration where I refused to accept that this six month best-professional-development-opportunity-of-my-life was not going to come to anything. So I started getting a little pushy. Let’s call this self-directed leadership. I started booking meetings and hosting teleconference calls to get this Livelihoods Learning Circle moving, and lo and behold, people seem quite happy with me for taking the initiative. I felt a little funny because it wasn’t really my initiative to take – but it’s in my objectives to do something with it so I was being selfish in wanting to make some progress on this. I still find I have to do a lot of pulling and pushing of people to make things happen, but it’s working and my manager and colleagues really seem to appreciate my work. I’ve found that leadership has more to do with others’ perceptions of your ability to be in control than how much you may actually be in control. I don’t have a lot of control here; I can’t make people do anything but if I call a meeting and set the agenda and take ownership for a lot of the action items, people start looking to me to lead the process – I think they’re just grateful that someone else will take this on and are comfortable just participating. A lot of the important stuff that needs to happen here is in the organization and administration/management side of work. Some people have great ideas but they need someone else to build them the platform and organize things. This is fine with me. I’ve found it can be hard to get “ideas” people to stay on track when we need to discuss the boring things, but these technical and administrative parts are really important if this is going to work. In this sense, leadership is really more facilitation than visionary: building an environment that lets others do the best work they can do. What I’ve found is, rather than asking people what they want, I instead present an analysis that I’ve already done and give my suggestions. They can then yay or nay it, and they generally just go along with whatever I suggest. It was just taking too much time letting people “think about things and get back to me.” I can’t make them think on my schedule and I have deadlines. In order to move forward, a decision has to be made. There’s a tendency in CARE to let change happen organically and I actually think this is a big mistake, particularly in our situation right now where we’re going through significant organizational and work culture changes. I don’t think I’m going to change it, but while I’m here I think I can help move things along.

I’m also trying to set the example of my expectations by “announcing” my activities, in this way drawing attention to the things that I think are useful or important. Yes, it could be argued that I should be more sensitive to their way of working, but as far as I’m concerned, their ways aren’t working and I don’t think you can get into any sort of cultural sensitivity debate on this. So in a meeting, I’ll start wrapping up by announcing the time. “OK, it’s 11:29 now so just to recap…” to illustrate that it’s important to me that we end on time. And I’ve actually had comments about my well-managed meetings, so I think this is appreciated. I’ll promise during the meeting to send an email that afternoon and in it I’ll reiterate others’ points, with credit, to make everyone more involved. It reminds them of their own contribution, which I think encourages them to contribute even more. I try to let people know they’re wanted and welcome; even though I’ve found exclusivity is important to people here, I don’t think it’s conducive to the organization CARE wants to become. I also start almost every group email by saying thank you – even if I need to do a smack-down “why haven’t I heard from you yet?”, I start by thanking everyone for their LAST contribution and remind them how fruitful the last meeting was. I also give them a verbal warning that there will be a follow-up meeting so they aren’t left wondering when we’ll be talking about this again – it helps to reinforce the importance of the topic if it’s shown that it can’t wait for too long. One thing I’ve noticed is that just because people aren’t doing things the way I think they should be done doesn’t mean they’re actually happy with the way they’re doing things, I think they just feel sort of powerless to change when everyone is doing the same thing. So if my work habits present them with another option and I can show that it’s working for me, they might be more inclined to try things this way. Realistically, I know I have no hope of changing this Indian office into a well-oiled Swiss timepiece, but I have to make this situation work for me in some way, so while I’m here, I’m taking on the job of demonstrating follow-through, commitment, organization, and time-management.

I’ve noticed that how you talk influences how people think of you: they’re very impressed by the way I word things and my “Corporate Tone of Voice” so I’ve been using that a lot more, and I’m becoming a lot more outspoken. They like lots of long words and the kind of punctuation you can almost see in the air. I have to lower my pitch a bit and change the cadence so I have less of the Canadian upwards inflection, which sounds too questioning and uncertain in this context. It’s partly my accent, but, according to what I’ve read, partly the way women speak in general because we tend to look for agreement in our audience. And, while consensus is considered important here, decisiveness isn’t, so we often end up at an impasse if everyone sounds like they’re still thinking about things. I’m also doing a lot of writing in “convincing” ways, rather than just presenting facts. For example, to get people to want to be a moderator we’re using the tried and true Pfizer way of promoting it as a development opportunity to get someone to do more work. I’m having to “sell” my ideas more by the way I word things and I’m trying not to sound too much like a cheerleader but still make things fun and exciting. This office doesn’t have much fun; I wouldn’t say there’s a good sense of corporate humour, even though I think people like to laugh.

I’m also learning a bit about presenting ideas in ways that make sense for others. It’s hard for me to put myself in someone else’s shoes sometimes when it comes to preparing platforms and materials. I have no background in design or any aesthetic sense at all, and visual representations just don’t matter that much to me. I’m not very good at formatting things because I really don’t see that much difference in fonts or understand the importance of space on a page; it makes absolutely no difference to my understanding or appreciation of the content. So to put an abstract organizational concept in a visual schematic that not only makes sense but adds sense for people who rely on this kind of thing is actually quite a stretch for me. I launched the Program Approach microsite last week and web design is certainly something very new to me. It’s just a free Sharepoint platform so we’re pretty limited anyway, but IT was showing me how to add space between webparts and honestly, the need for this just never would have occurred to me. I think I’m pretty good at empathizing with people emotionally, but empathizing with others’ learning styles and visual/mental processing is a lot harder. At first I found it annoying (“Really? You want me to draw coloured bubbles on a page and pretend that’s work?”) but people here REALLY like what I’ve done, and in reality it was a useful mental exercise for me. So now I’m getting more requests for schematics which is a little strange for me as I neither need nor like them, but apparently no one else is very good at coming up with them either. 🙂

So overall… still some frustrations in that I feel like I’m alone in trying to drive these projects a lot of the time, but I’m definitely learning a lot in the process. There are a lot of challenges left to tackle and unfortunately I won’t be here for a lot of the big changes, I’m just laying groundwork. People love what I’m doing for the most part, though sometimes I’m not sure if they need a standards adjustment, or if I’m actually doing a good job. It’s taken me a long time, but I think I’ll actually be able to call this trip a personal and professional success!