2009 Creigh Weyer Scholar Ruth Swift, Olathe, Kan., is in India volunteering for the Foundation for Sustainable Development. She is working to advocate for safe working conditions for women, helping them find jobs and health services.
See what Ruth says about her experiences in India, and return to her story series for weekly updates.
My India Bucket List
It’s not a bucket list, but I don’t know what else to call it – my list of things to do before I leave India. It’s not a formal list by any means, and it’s grown and changed over the months I’ve been here. On the whole, I think I’ve been pretty successful in checking things off. I wanted to learn how to cook traditional food, to have at least a limited conversation in Hindi, and to make Indian friends. I didn’t manage to visit a big city, or really see much at all outside of Udaipur, but I’m glad to have gotten to know one city so well. I’ve ridden a camel, worn a sari, hit a cricket ball, drank a Thumbs Up soda, bargained a rickshaw wala down to my asking price, and accepted a ride on a stranger’s motorcycle. My list is not very thorough, and I’m sure if I’d put more thought into it I could have done a lot more on this trip. For the most part, though, I tried not to have too many expectations or objectives other than to learn a lot and serve in whatever ways I can.
I believe by these criteria, it has been a successful stay. I’ve learned the answers to questions I would have never thought to ask, like, “How many people can fit on one motorcycle?” The answer: 3 adults, or a family of 4, or 2 men and 3 goats. I’ve learned about Indian culture, and I’ve gained the experiential knowledge of how to integrate into a new culture (something I hope to do again.) I’ve learned about international development work – the ups and downs and daily grind. And I’ve learned about myself. I’m nervous about returning to the U.S., because life is so different here, and I think I am different here. Will I lose the appreciation for simplicity that I’ve gained? I’ve had an amazing stay, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I still can hardly believe that I’m really in India, let alone that I’m leaving already.
For the past few years, Indian has been my favorite cuisine. After three months of living on almost nothing but Indian food, I’m proud to say it still is. Yes, there were times when I needed to escape to the unreasonably palace-like mall that houses the swanky Udaipur McDonald’s for a McChicken sandwich and fries (even at McDonald’s, you’re not going to find a beef burger in India.) And the day I found, to my great excitement, whole wheat bread, peanut butter, and strawberry jam – I realized how American I really am. But with only a week and a half left in India, I am certainly not seeking out Western food. I’m eating all the Indian I can get and learning how to prepare my favorite dishes. I’ve gotten particularly hooked on street food – dishes sold from road-side carts for just a few rupees. Pav Baji (pictured) and Pani Puri are both amazing.
My time here has gone so fast, and there is so much I will miss. Right now I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about life in India that I have come to love and will miss when I’m back in the U.S., but I do know that I will miss the food.
Stars and Seasons
India is in the northern hemisphere, which means its seasons roughly align with those in the U.S. and the same constellations can be seen at night. While I understand spring is late this year in Hastings, it has fully arrived here in Udaipur. With temperatures in the upper 90’s every day, it feels much more like summer to me. Even though winter and summer correspond to the same months in India and the U.S., I feel that the life cycle is reversed. It is spring, but instead of blossoming flowers and budding trees, dry leaves fall from the trees and clutter the streets. I wish I had taken more pictures in the winter, because that is when the land is green and alive, quite unlike our dour Midwestern winters. Instead of seeing the world come to life again after a long hibernation, as I always look forward to in the spring, I am seeing the heat set in and the parks empty as everyone seeks the shelter of their cool homes. The world has gone from bright and fresh and clear to hot and hazy, and it’s not even summer yet.
As this transition has taken place, India has felt more and more like another planet, not just a different culture. I am weary of the heat and the emotionally draining work I’m doing, pushing up every day against deeply ingrained social structures. But every once in a while something grabs my attention and changes my outlook. Even as the daytime highs rise, the nights are still cool and clear. One night last week as I was walking home, I passed two men lying on a pile of gravel they would mix into cement the next day. They were looking up at the sky in a peaceful and carefree manner that some deep part of me recognized and identified with. I looked up, too, and there was Orion staring down at me, reminding me that I am still on planet Earth. In some ways, the perspective from India and from the United States is not so different after all.
Last weekend was Holi, one of the major Hindu festivals. It is a lively event full of color. In the weeks leading up to the festival, I tried asking around to learn what it is all about. At first, people just told me about playing with colored powder and water, but then I eventually heard an abridged version of an ancient Hindu story about a boy devoted to Vishnu whose father tried to have him carried into fire by his sister Holika, who had a special power that she didn’t burn, but Vishnu intervened and kept the boy safe while Holika burned instead. It struck me as an odd thing to celebrate, though I recognize a similarity with stories from my own religion, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. I also couldn’t get anyone to explain what the colored powder has to do with it, but then again, if someone from another culture asked me why we hide eggs on Easter, I would have a bit of trouble answering, especially in a language that isn’t my mother tongue.
Despite having only a vague idea of what we were celebrating, I enjoyed observing and participating in the festival. On Saturday night, all over town, pyres of straw with firecrackers attached were lit to commemorate the burning of Holika. The celebration continued the next morning when everyone took to the streets armed with colored powder to throw on friends and strangers alike. My friends and I bought some color and joined right in. Later in the morning, we retreated to a short-stay home for women and children run by a local NGO. It was great to play with the kids there and see the smiles on their faces as they squirted us with water guns. By lunchtime, I was exhausted and more than ready for a shower and a new set of clothes.
Home Sweet Udaipur
I am amazed at how quickly I can become attached to a city. I’ve now spent a couple weekends in other cities in Rajasthan, and, while I enjoy seeing a new place, I quickly become homesick for Udaipur. Last weekend I was sitting at a very nice restaurant in Mount Abu, and all I wanted was a large bowl of Mata’s dal. Mata is Hindi for mother, and dal is a lentil dish. Mata’s is soupy and has the perfect level of spice.
I have become very comfortable here in Udaipur and particularly in my home-stay. There is still enough to explore and learn that I am rarely bored, but there is also enough familiarity for me to relax. One of my favorite things is learning the layout of a new city. In the U.S., that usually means a lot of driving around in my car with the help of Google Maps. Here, it has meant a lot of riding tempos (public auto-rickshaws that run on fixed routes) and asking for directions in my best Hindi. I am now confident about finding my way around the main parts of the city, but that is only part of what makes Udaipur feel like home. There is the comfort of a daily routine and the sense of belonging found in having a job rather than just being a tourist. My relationships ground me here, particularly those with my host family. I have a host nephew who is just darling, and with him I have one relationship where the language barrier is not an issue. Peek-a-boo and rattles are pretty much universal forms of entertainment at his age. He and his mother will be moving back to Delhi in a few weeks. They were here with us in Udaipur because it is customary for a woman to return to her parents’ house to give birth to her first child. I will miss them both.
I have been working with Jandaksha for a month now, learning about their daily activities, vision and goals. I have been working to develop a project that I can complete in my limited time here that aligns with their vision and furthers their goals. To that end, I have designed a study regarding violence against women that we are beginning to conduct within the migrant and day-labor commuter population. Jandaksha considers itself a women’s empowerment organization, even though they do not work exclusively with women. They have well-developed programs in place to assist the men and women who migrate or commute to Udaipur City for daily wage labor, but they recognize that the women face unique hardships that require more targeted assistance programs. While there are many NGOs in Udaipur and throughout Rajasthan that assist the migrant populations, Jandaksha is the only organization I am aware of that has a specific focus on the smaller population of women migrants. Thus, very little research has been done by other organizations regarding the challenges faced by these women. This study will investigate the prevalence, manner and risk factors of violence against women who come to Udaipur for work that occurs in the home, at the workplace or during transportation, with a view toward developing a sustainable intervention program to address the problem. It is also our hope that the results of the study will prove useful for political advocacy and for bringing these issues to light in the community.
Why I Hate Taking Pictures
I don’t like doing things I’m not good at. It’s not my most virtuous character trait, and one that nearly precludes learning to speak a new language. But when it comes to photography, I feel my awareness of my mediocrity and consequent reticence is more justifiable. Even the best photographer in the world could never capture the essence of this place. Any picture I take can only highlight a small aspect of my environment and thus, I fear, will tend to limit your perception rather than expand it. I give you a picture of a cow in the road eating trash. Your response is probably, “that’s odd.” But it’s not odd. It’s normal. Indians don’t take pictures of cows; they take pictures of funny-looking white women in traditional Indian clothing walking to work.
Since I have not been so keen on pulling my camera out this week, this photo was actually taken by my friend Paul. I stole it (with permission) from his blog, justtheground.blogspot.com. I promise I will start taking pictures again soon.
India is teaching me patience. Life moves at a slower pace here, which can be quite an adjustment for a compulsively punctual American. Some days, when I feel it’s impossible to be productive at work, it is very frustrating. Other days, I find myself enjoying the relaxed pace and wondering if it isn’t a more natural rhythm for human society.
Thus, I am learning to be patient with other people in a culture that understands time differently. But the more difficult aspect of the patience lesson has been learning to be patient with myself. I can’t expect to learn Hindi in two weeks, or even to be able to produce the Hindi I know in conversation. I might get off the tempo bus at the wrong stop or get on the wrong tempo bus a hundred more times before I understand the layout of this city and its public transit system. Until then, I will enjoy the sunshine and the chance to walk.
When I am frustrated with the uncertain schedule at work, I think of the people my organization works for, the migrant laborers who come into the city every morning and wait for hours for a contractor to pick them up. Some days, and for the women almost more days than not, they are not hired at all. They wait all day to take the evening bus back to their village, just to try again tomorrow. I doubt I will ever have such patience.
This weekend I moved in with my host family, and Monday I started work at Jandasha Trust, a small, non-governmental organization that addresses social issues surrounding migrant labor. My experience of Udaipur has certainly broadened now that I have left the part of the city dedicated mainly for tourists.
This week with my coworkers I visited chowktis – the locations where day-labor migrants wait to be hired – and a livelihood training course for women in a village outside the city. In these places, and just walking around the city and taking public transportation, I see dirt and refuse and poverty, but also a beauty more raw and deep than that of the lakes and palaces.
Welcome to lake city!
Udaipur is a beautiful Indian city. The lakes reflect back the elegant architecture of the many palaces, and the whole city is framed by mountains. Our hotel in the center of Old City is surround by little handicraft shops, and signs everywhere announce tourist attractions – camel rides and safaris, cooking classes, yoga. It is odd to start off the week as an American tourist, knowing that soon I am going to be living with an Indian family and working full time.
Each day is an adventure as I figure out this new world with cows in the street and monkeys on the rooftops, the aroma of spices and incense everywhere. Auto rickshaws are still rather intimidating, but fun nonetheless - think of a taxi that runs more like a go-kart and is shaped like a small carriage. There are so many sights, smells, and experiences to take in.