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Like a Bird on the Wire

Like a Bird on the Wire

If my chronological time here can be measured in toothbrushes and Lariam tablets, my actual “living” time can probably be measured in bags of atta (whole wheat flour). I’m almost ready for another big bag – which is none too shabby considering I don’t have an oven. I figured out paratha the other night (similar to chapatti, but with more grease), and even made perogies, pancakes, and Jamaican griddle biscuits. Still not quite as good as I can do in Canada, but I think it’s because using 100% whole wheat just makes things a little TOO dense. Plus, everything I make now is coming out turmeric-coloured because my pots and pans have all been haldi-ed to death.

Ukrainian fusion! I’m quite proud of these, actually. Not that I plan on making them again anytime soon.

Not too much new here. As happy as I was to finish my course, I’m finding myself in a bit of that post-school funk where I have free time and don’t know exactly what to do with myself. My crewel work and books are great, but I’ve considered them procrastination tools for so long that I feel strangely guilty whenever I pick them up. CARE got a new intern, a teacher from the UK who’s been working in Bangkok for the last year. So now I have someone new to do things with again, which is nice. I find I’m at the stage now where I feel a bit like I’m just biding time (7 weeks left!) so having someone else who’s new and more of a go-getter than I am helps get me out of the house and reduces my inclination to hermit myself away with my books. It’s also hot again (or still?). Last week it seemed like it was getting better, but this weekend was back up in the 40s. This is the 5th month of this heat now, and I’m kinda done with it. Enough’s enough, y’know? I find I’m starting to miss home, and I think it has to do with autumn being a nostalgic time and I just KNOW you guys are having nice weather right now and I’ve missed three seasons of Canada.

I’m a little frustrated right now at work, to tell the truth. My projects are not going anywhere fast and I’m concerned about meeting my objectives because they’re all so reliant on organizational stuff and this organization just isn’t particularly motivated to do anything on any kind of timeline. I’m doing all I can, but I really feel like I’m paddling alone. The meetings won’t happen unless I schedule them and even then not everyone replies to the invite or shows up/dials in. I set the agenda and share in advance, but no one adds any agenda items, and my follow-up emails and minutes go unanswered. People contribute in the meetings, but not in any decisive way; it’s more about identifying barriers and hurdles to every little thing rather than moving forward to solutions and actual planning. I didn’t make this project up on my own, I’ve been told it’s very important for the organization, but people seem too content to just float along so long as I’m, well, “nagging” is a strong word… They’re happy with me, they seem to go along with me pushing things, but won’t really contribute that much. There was an interesting post-meeting discussion on Thursday after a teleconference about the Livelihoods Learning Circle I’m trying to get off the ground. One of the managers was commenting that people are busy and they aren’t going to want to participate in this Learning Circle because they’re just going to see it as taking up time, and “what’s in it for them?” I can’t vocalize the answer I really want to: you tell them it’s a part of their job and they have to do it. We’re a Knowledge Organization? Everyone is a Knowledge Worker? Guess what – it’s not a title, it’s a role. You make them participate. This NGO culture is just so foreign compared to Pfizer, where we’re all clamoring over each other to be a part of anything new and interesting, and I’m very unused to this style of leadership, if we can call it that, which seems so consensus-based. I understand the need for compromise and agreement and respect for peoples’ time, but at a certain point you need clear direction from the leadership; if Learning Circles have been determined to be something that CARE needs, then we have to do it. Everyone has to do it. Lead by example, make it reward-based, show how it adds value to the organization… something… anything… rather than letting passive resistance and inertia guide our organization.

In the last couple weeks, we’ve had a couple internal newsletters from our HR group and Disaster Management Unit which have contained tips on avoiding illness during the monsoon (See? It’s not just me). The first one from DMU contained such gems as “dancing in the rain” leading to the common cold;  if you do get wet, avoid the AC and ice cream so you don’t catch a chill. The treatment for a cold is a glass of hot turmeric milk. Also, flies are the most common cause of Hepatitis A. HR warns us that digestion during monsoon is slow, so don’t eat much. A collection of common spices aids digestion and improves immunity. Keep your feet dry so you don’t get foot infections. Bathe your child in an antiseptic solution when s/he returns home from school after playing in the puddles. Now, some of this comes from Ayurvedic medicine principles (any talk about turmeric, for example) and I don’t want to culture-shame so I’ll leave that alone. And maybe kids should be doused in antiseptic because human waste disposal is an issue here and puddles are cesspools. But the rest of it is just urban myths and old wives’ tales. I can’t believe this is an organization that purports to work in the health care sector, is considered a valid partner for a Global Health Fellowship, is trying to position itself as a Knowledge Organization… and this is the kind of knowledge being officially disseminated to its own employees. How are we supposed to have any credibility in our field like this? We keep talking about how important evidence-based knowledge is to our partners and impact populations, but internally we can’t even hold ourselves to that standard. Colds are caused by viruses, everyone knows that – at least, they should, people in this office are educated. You can blame flies all you want for Hep A but proper sanitation and hand-washing is a lot more helpful than a flyswatter for that whole oral-fecal route thing. A lot of these tips are widely shared in various newspapers and magazine articles, so it’s not like CARE thought them up, but spreading misinformation from headquarters is still pretty bad, and makes me wonder what is going on in the field. On the other hand, this is probably giving me some excellent insight that will be beneficial for my Epidemiology of Communicable Diseases course next year. Gotta look at the positives, I guess.

Hmm, this is looking a little negative and critical, so I’ll close by highlighting some things here that CARE does well:

  1. I have a soft voice. In meetings or teleconference calls with a lot of people I have a hard time being heard. This happens at Pfizer and here at CARE – I just have a really hard time finding a way to get into a conversation with a lot of people. At the Rubaru workshop in August, when I could get a word in it was often just to the person beside me. This person would then use his/her louder voice and presence to share my thoughts, and would publicly give me credit. Sometimes during telecons, my manager, seeing that I’m being drowned out on the phone line, will push the phone close to me and say “Melinda has something to say.” I really appreciate their efforts to let me have a voice; I have to say, it actually doesn’t happen as much at Pfizer and I often leave meetings or calls frustrated.
  2. This is the first time in my life where I’ve seen so many men talking about women’s issues. Back in high school, my Grade 10 history class was mostly boys and I think I was one of only 2 girls in the class. The guys tried to shout down the unit on the history of women and feminism in Canada and our (male) teacher had to really work hard to keep the class on track – and I think he made that unit test particularly challenging on purpose to force them to study the material (thanks, Mr. B). I think it’s interesting here to hear so many men passionate about these issues whereas in North America, we don’t hear men defending women or women’s rights very much at all; most men seem to be of the opinion that legislated equality = equality in practice and anyone still arguing for women is branded a “misandrist”. Personally, I like to live under a rock the assumption that most men with whom I associate are, in fact, feminists and just aren’t comfortable using the word for whatever reason. But I know there is still a lot of misogyny in the West and we can’t be complacent about that. The contrast between the male colleagues at CARE and what I’m reading in the news about all the “personhood” and right-to-life stuff in the US run-up to the elections is really pretty ironic if we’re actually considering the US a developed country in a position to assist the developing world. Or maybe “terrifying” would be a better term than “ironic.”
  3. People here have an opinion. It may not be original or particularly useful or insightful, but if you ask someone what they think they’ll come up with something rather than leave you hanging. I may complain about the amount of talking for no reason, but when it comes down to the meetings, most of the managers are willing to engage. I don’t see apathy at the higher levels, more inefficiency and unwillingness to make a decision. I think it comes from fear of failure and a lack of confidence – and an reluctance to own up to this. There’s a lot of fronting, I sense, and people use superfluous words to hide their uncertainty or lack of actual content. I’m optimistic that this could change – if people are already talking that’s a huge step; we just need to do it better. Opinions need to be more based on fact or experience and meetings need to be managed a lot better, but the fact that people can communicate with each other and that everyone is given a voice (at least, in the meetings I’ve attended) is certainly important.

So I’ll sign off now and here’s a picture of some green birds on a wire I saw this morning. I have no idea what they are but they’re kinda pretty 🙂




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!

Monsoon? BRING IT.

Monsoon? BRING IT.

Monday morning dawned like any other Monday: way too damn early. I hit snooze on my iPod alarm a couple times, got up, showered, and went to put on the kettle. It seemed like it was taking a long time for the water to boil. Oh wait, it wasn’t boiling at all. Plugged it into another outlet… still no power… finally dawned on me that it was a power outage. Usually these happen in the evenings, not the mornings. I hadn’t noticed earlier because I haven’t been sleeping with the AC on (it’s too loud, it sounds like it’s powered by 45 hamsters on individual wheels) and I shower with cold water anyway. Yeah, I’m tough like that. So no biggie, I had bread instead of toast and milk instead of tea. My driver was picking me up later than usual because I had to go to the post office first thing to GET MY CARE PACKAGE!!! My family still loves me!!!!

Of course, when my brother was shipping this parcel, he did ask them how the parcel would be handled once it was in India, because previous Fellows had said to avoid India Post at all costs. He was told it was handled by Fed Ex.

It was a lie.

So I got to the post office and walked in, wasn’t entirely sure I was in the post office because it looked a bit like a warehouse, only no one was doing anything. They told me they couldn’t do anything on account of the power outage. Considering the utter lack of computer equipment or electronic anything, this seemed dubious, but they were unhelpful and told me to go to the post office in Kalkaji (not because my parcel was there, but because they wanted to get rid of me). Obviously I didn’t go to Kalkaji, I went to work and decided to try again another time. It was then, when I opened my work emails, that I found out the power outage was affecting ALL of Northern India, 370 million people. That’s a lot of people. The trains and metros were all stopped, all lights out. Commuting in New Delhi is quite the experience to begin with, so this really added to the fun. Anyway, I was fine, we have a generator at work and power was restored by mid-day with only the usual temporary blackouts for the rest of the day. *

This morning, I went for Round Two at the post office. I wish I’d had my camera, but I’ll try to verbally paint this for you.

It was raining. Not hard, just a bit of rain to cool things down and increase the hair frizz factor. I walked into the front door, where I’d gone in yesterday. A woman was sitting on a chair by the door and told me I had to go outside and around back to go in the back door. So I did, there was a guy at the wicket who looked at my handwritten note from the postman and told me to go through the side door where I ended up in the exact same place as I had by initially walking in the front door. Then I was told to go upstairs, so I went up a couple flights to the delivery room. There may not be any babies there, but I imagine a lot of chaos is born in this place.

Picture some paper. Picture a little more paper than that. Now picture every horizontal surface – floors, tables, desks, shelves – covered in stacks of paper a couple meters high. Some of the paper looked really old, like moldy and falling apart antique paper, but then it’s incredibly humid and there’s no AC so maybe it wasn’t all that old. The tables had more recent looking paper, and by that I mean dot-matrix printer paper. I didn’t notice any particular organization of the paper, no labels or files or anything. Of course, some of those piles kinda slid over and made a big papery mess. There was a woman sewing bags shut with a big tapestry needle and a bunch of men – I think they’re the actual postal delivery men – sorting some piles of envelopes. They have desks set up down the middle of the room with cubby hatches for manual sorting and the guys were literally throwing envelopes at each other, like the way kids throw things off “their” side of the room if they have to share bedrooms with siblings. And there was the usual collection of people standing and sitting around with nothing to do. The funny thing is that no one really pays attention to you. I mean, you’re clearly not a post office employee but no one there is interested in talking to you. I was directed to someone, then someone else, but they just sort of wave vaguely in another direction without stopping what they’re doing to get rid of you. After a few minutes, my driver, probably wondering where I’d gotten lost this time, showed up. He also got sent around to a bunch of people who didn’t care about finding this package. I actually spotted it on the floor, I recognized my brother’s handwriting upside-down. Even once we’d found it, there was more milling around while they decided about maybe trying to find a paper for me to sign. I signed and dated something, they actually checked my ID, and, after about 20 minutes total in the post office, we were able to leave. My driver told me later they would have made me pay for it if I’d been alone. If I’d have been able to get it at all, since they were rather disinclined to speak with me.

But, the important thing is I have my package! The box is basically mush, it looks like it was drop kicked across the Atlantic. The homemade cookies are likewise pretty crumbly and a little dry, but they’re not moldy! Not bad considering they were made 6 weeks ago and spent almost 5 of those weeks on ocean freight.

Got my knitting, crewel work, raincoat, and hiking boots. I’m hereby ready to ride out anything this monsoon has to throw at me, like rain, mudslides, and cabin fever boredom. I shouldn’t really be bored though, considering I have only one month before my grant application assignment is due and I’m completely stuck with my sampling methodology. So I need you to send me something else: a kick in the academic pants. Address it to Melinda’s Hiney.


You have no idea how hard it is to get hiking boots, knitting, and cookie-eating into a self-portrait.

*update: As of Tuesday afternoon, both the Northern and Eastern grids have failed and more than half of India – 670M people – are now without power. Office generator is still going strong so far. This time the collapse happened at mid-day, and people are now stranded on trains and metros all over the country. You people at home are probably getting some interesting footage. Wonder what kind of evacuation plans they have here…?


Well, hello again! As I warned you, nothing’s happened, hence the delay in blog posts. The monsoon is lagging, we’ve been a week with no rain and it’s back up to just the usual hot as hell; they keep calling for thundershowers but so far they’ve been sadly mistaken. I’ve learned to gauge the humidity by the amount of shoulder force necessary to open my front door (I don’t mean merely pushing the door, I mean throwing my entire body into it. I will probably need a running start soon). My indoor gecko is getting around quite a bit so he must be getting used to me and my outdoor gecko (I usually see him on the outside of my bathroom window) is hopefully making short work of the ants in my shower. Mangoes are still good!

Last week I went to the Lotus Temple, a Baha’i worship centre. It’s huge, a big nine-sided concrete structure shaped like a lotus with pools all around. Inside it’s fairly bare, there are stone benches and a lectern and that’s about it. The real draw is the outside.

We were actually just killing time there until the main attraction started: a piano recital in the auditorium of the Information Centre. It was put on by the Canadian High Commission and featured Canadian pianist Berenika playing Chopin, Debussy, and Glass. It was a good concert, she played beautifully and it seemed the audience was appreciative, if not the most attentive. It was nice to hear some Classical that wasn’t on my iPod. 🙂

The recital was only about an hour long, but when we got out we got to see the temple lit up, which was pretty cool.

Unfortunately, we had another appointment to keep so I didn’t have a chance to socialize much with the other concertgoers. There weren’t all that many, to be honest. This event was open for the public, but I’ve found the Canadian High Commission doesn’t really do much to advertise outside of its own circle and a lot of events are for base staff only. There is a certain idea of exclusivity here that I’ve noticed too, it’s much less of a “come one, come all; the more, the merrier” attitude. I tried to go to a screening of a French Canadian film a couple weeks ago but when I called the India International Centre (the cultural arts centre, like the NAC or Place des Arts) I was told it was for IIC members only. And to be a member, you have to be over 30 years of age, be nominated by two other members, pay significant fees, and anyway they weren’t accepting any new members at that time. Someone at work told me it was basically an old boys’ club – who knew they were so into French Canadian films? Another woman here tried to join her local swimming pool but was told it was only for Indian nationals.

This brings me to A Sensitive Topic: living as a visible minority. It does feel strange. I knew it would, but I didn’t know how awkward it could be. There’s a very bizarre double standard here when it comes to white people. I don’t watch TV here, but my friend told me there are ads all the time about skin whitening products and having darker skin is really seen as “bad.”

Meanwhile, in Canada I have no problem being very pale even though tanning is still a popular (stupid, dangerous, etc) grooming activity. Here, knowing that white skin is prized but still having the ole’ White Guilt complex makes for a strange feeling. I do feel like there is a certain resentment here towards white people; I’m not sure if it has to do with the relatively recent colonization or the way expats live here or just the idea lots of people around the world have of the West. I don’t really think there is any such thing as colour-blindness, as much as we may try, but I was brought up to be so careful of colour being a neutral topic that having it raised, however indirectly, is uncomfortable. My friend said she got the impression that being white was an instant upgrade (this was in terms of male attention – they like white girls but I don’t know if it’s because we’re seen as exotic or just “easy”); at the same time, she feels like a target everywhere she goes. I don’t feel like I get preferential treatment, if anything, it seems like the opposite. For example, if I’m buying something I have to wait while Indians are served before me, even if I got there first (there aren’t really lines or “queuing up”). I pay more for things too. The thing is, I’m honestly not sure if this is something to be upset over or not. If I can afford it, I shouldn’t mind, everything is still pretty cheap. It just feels unjust because I know I’m being singled out because of my race and I don’t like that. At the same time, if paying above-market prices for things (rickshaws, fruit and veggie wallahs) allows them to keep the prices lower for people who actually can’t afford the inflated rates, maybe I shouldn’t feel this way; maybe geared-to-income pricing is ok. I’d be a lot more comfortable with that though if I had any faith that the vendors actually did keep prices lower for poorer people – and so long as they’re being kinda jerky with me, I can’t confirm that. But the idea of being racially profiled for anything, however minor, is offensive; you can say “don’t take it personally”, but that’s the very thing that makes it so bad: the impersonal judgment.  You are assessed entirely by the colour of your skin and so many judgments are made on the spot. No matter what colour you are or in what environment and whether the resulting treatment is preferential or discriminatory, there is no way this can ever feel good. The ambivalence towards white people is just confusing. Even though I feel there is some resentment, at every tourist attraction I go to, I’m pounced on by gangs of teenage boys who want to take pictures with me. There must have been 25-30 boys at Lotus Temple and they get REALLYCLOSETOYOU with their arms around you, trying to make it look like a girlfriend picture. They would never touch an Indian woman that way. It’s very conflicting, and I feel sort of powerless because the impression people have of me has nothing to do with the way I actually conduct myself. I feel obliged to say yes to the photographs because I don’t want to be a bitchy white girl, but I don’t like it. Then, when I don’t protest about them touching me, I’m just reinforcing the stereotype that Western women are fine with being touched. I can try to haggle with the drivers, and I do, but even if they come down 10 rupees I’m still not winning. Maybe I shouldn’t argue at all, I feel like I need to make recompense for all the whites who have come before me. At the same time, I’m not a summation of my one characteristic of whiteness, and I resent their judgment. And then I tell myself that racial minorities in North America have to feel this way all the time (or worse) so maybe this is just me paying my dues.

So yeah, not that much new… went to a really good South Indian restaurant last Friday which makes me very excited for Kerala. Work-wise, I’m coming up to my midpoint assessment and last week found myself redrafting my entire scope of work for my objectives. CARE India is starting up the preliminary work for the two programs we’re going to start with and I’ve been assigned to the Dalits (Scheduled Castes, sometimes known as “untouchables”) program. I’m having a hard time motivating myself to do my schoolwork but I know it really needs to get done. I’m having better success with my chapatti in getting them to puff up, but it seems to vary according to the humidity. Tomorrow we’re trying out a sushi place. In short, I’m feeling more at home here, finally, am getting into a routine and hopefully the motivation and productivity will follow shortly!

Lotus Temple and other big white things