Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Burning to leave

I have been in EduCARE long enough to see two dozen interns come in my life and leave it. Most likely forever. No hard feelings there, just a cold fact.

The life of every EduCARE intern flows more or less the same course: confusion, understanding, hard work, leaving party. In between, the glances at the life we all know back home are few. Some search for them harder than other. End of the line, everyone had to abandon such things as a good piece of cheese, maple syrup, or barbecue parties.

Over the months, leaving parties have become less and less appealing to me. I became more distant to the whole exercise. Not that I didn't care anymore for the people ending their stay in India. Quite the opposite actually. But, it is always the same ritual. It usually involves a restaurant. Maybe a cake and a gift. Most definitely a card with kind words written in the secret of someone's laps or behind a kitchen door. Some boredom came over the months.

And then it was time for Whitney to leave.

And I knew she would make sure that every generation of Naddi interns will pass to one another the story of the grandiose feast she was to organise.

And she did.

Whitney renounced many of her small pleasures of life, just like the rest of us. But her passion for grilled meat was never one of them. She kept talking about pork, chicken, lamb and turkey. Grilled, fried, sautéed, or pan-fried.

It started in mid-August, a good month before the party was due. Arnaud, my roommate and civil engineer in the making, came to our flat. He also happened to be a DIY amateur. Whitney immediately saw the potential of the young man for her grand scheme. He was to build a barbeque. A tool capable of supporting on its shoulders a whole party to be remembered by subsequent interns until the end of time. For four good weeks, Whitney harassed Arnaud to have her weapon of mass food creation ready. And the harassing was not your regular harassing. It Whitney pursuing her will. There were only two ways out of this: you run as far as possible and change identity, or you accept.

India being India, Arnaud became resourceful in his Eco-Building functions. He no longer looked for a store to buy wood, or used a specially designed piece of metal to have a container for the coal. No. In the greatest of secret, he scavenged wood from a broken bed lying on our rooftop, an old paint barrel from a waste dealer nearby, reused a few nails, and the grills that were available in our office. With a bucket of the ingenuity that characterises Arnaud, he managed to build us a superb grill with a cover and two side stands. The whole thing looked like a real barbeque. One you would buy on a lazy Saturday afternoon in your neighbourhood hardware shop. With a ghetto style that definitely adds to the project. All of that during his weekend, and without Whitney noticing any of it until a few days before the party.
Arnaud DIY barbecue! 

Of course, as the D-Day drew closer and closer, we started to tease Whitney about the grill, and how the chalk picture Arnaud drew on the wall was the only BBQ party she will ever get in India. But, we finally reached the point where we couldn’t hide it from her anymore. We had to show it. And it was Revelation.

Her culinary imagination just got unleashed. And nobody could tell where it would lead us. Probably in a world made of grilled meat and veggies. Where paneer will happily co-habitate with ribs and chicken wings. And who knows other marvellous dishes.

The day before the party I came home to a marvellous smell embalming the whole four stories building we call home. And I knew it was on. The demon had been released. When I pushed the kitchen door, I saw my friend in front of the stove, a huge pile of marinated meat on her right and even more already cooking, exhaling those divine fumes.

Delicious marinated meat getting ready in "The Barbecue"

6:30. Our guests are already arriving for what is promising to be an epic evening. I started the grill on our small balcony. The wood began to smoke and vanish into the clear sky. It is good to be out after two months of monsoon and the daily curtains of rain. I looked at the embers getting redder and redder. As the evening grow later, the zucchinis and aubergines, the chicken and the pork slowly cooked on the grill. Inside, the fifteen Naddi team members and other EduCARE interns were peeling potatoes, chopping tomatoes and cucumbers. Pineapple and curd mixed and frozen to concoct us an as amazing desert as India can provide. And of course, the finally result was foodgasmic.

EduCARE interns enjoying the feast at Whitney's farewell party

Whitney definitely set the bar high for her leaving party. So high, that I can’t see anyone coming close to it any time soon. And so be it. Some records are not meant to be broken. They are to be looked at and admired for the pugnacity and efforts that they require.

Tomorrow one of my oldest friends in EduCARE will be gone. My partner in cooking crimes. But she went away on her own terms: grandiose, flamboyant, and most importantly freaking delicious.

Elliott Messeiller - Switzerland 
SWASH Coordinator, Naddi

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Eating the Fruits (or Vegetables) of my Labor

Cucumber salad and roasted sesame French beans were menu items for dinner at the Maiti house. Uncle-ji and I picked three large cucumbers and two giant handfuls of French beans from the Maiti house organic kitchen garden! Even though when we picked the cucumbers, they looked oddly like squash because the color was off, they tasted fresh just the same. I don’t want to be a mother anytime soon and weeding the garden is turning into a chore, but I consider the vegetables growing in my garden, my babies!

It all started at the beginning of July when we lost internet in Maiti for a month. What to do, what to do…I know! Create a garden and plant some seeds before the monsoon! I had planted French beans, Indian beans, cucumbers, okra, spinach, bitter gourd and garlic with Gyani, a fellow organic farming intern. We were warned that it was possible that none of the seeds would germinate because we were planting them so late into the season and so close to monsoon. But I didn’t care, I just wanted to garden.

Two weeks later, my French beans had germinated! One week after that my cucumbers had germinated! A couple garlic bulbs and one okra seed had germinated after that, and that was it. I considered it a huge success. Then the monsoon hit. It was heavy rain everyday and all I could do was look at my garden from my window. On an afternoon where the rain had paused, I went out to look at my garden and I found my bean plants struggling to keep standing. They needed my help! The next clear day I chopped bamboo with a broken slicer and a hammer to make supports for my beans. This thankfully saved most of my bean plants and I was able to rest.

The French beans germinating before monsoon
Then in August, after taking two weeks of holidays and no one to weed my garden I came back to find my garden overgrown with weeds. I had a minor heart attack. My babies are suffocating! I started to pull weeds immediately and then discovered baby French beans hanging from my plants. I was thrilled! They were still alive and they were beautiful! A few days later is when I able to eat the first batch of the beans and I think they were the best French beans I’ve ever had. Am I over exaggerating? Maybe, but a mother has to love her babies! Since then, the Maiti house have had the pleasure in eating more beans from our garden. The vegetables of our labor taste so good!

My little babies healthily growing with the bamboo supports

Michelle Fujisaki - US
HR Coordinator, Maitee (Himachal Pradesh)

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The magic of a smile

A month ago I had the chance to visit the different centers of EduCARE and when I arrived to Paro, in Punjab, and we walked by the migrant camp, I instantly fell in love with Yjoti, a little boy of one year and a half that was crying in the arms of his young mother. When we approached to the tents made of bamboo and plastic, all the children run to us to introduce themselves with big smiles on their faces, even though they barely spoke English. One of them got my attention when she pretended to be angry and crying with a tousled wig on her head and asked for a photo. Two seconds after clicking the button, Paravati was laughing. 

Paravati pretending that she's crying for the photo

The migrant community in Paro works as trash pickers and wake up really early in the morning to collect plastic bottles that can be sold in order to get some money to buy food for the day. The girls, unfortunately, do not go to school since they are needed in this arduous task. While other children are running on the schoolyard or learning Hindi, math and English in high school, girls like Paravati work everyday under the Punjabi sun, carring big bags of trash and suffering the unbearable humid heat of the region. I frankly have to admit that, despite coming from a hot region in Spain, the heat in Punjab was too much for me. I was sweating through every single pore in my skin during the whole day and the only thing I wanted was to lay down under a fan and work from there. 

Yjoti, Sonia and me

So when the next day in the afternoon the children from the migrant camp welcomed us again with a big smile and willing to do some activity, I felt grateful and it made me realised that heat cannot be a reason to hold us back, because it was not holding them back from spending some time with us. That day we did mhendi, henna tattoos, with the girls and we took thousands of pictures with our cameras. Yjoti, the little baby, was also there with his mom, Sonia, a young girl of 19 years old. I decided to start playing with Yjoti so Sonia could participate in the activity with the rest of the girls and do some henna to the younger girls. Probably, they do not have access to henna every day and that is why they were all so exited about it. 

The girls happily showing the henna design

And then I realized, looking at those girls and at the little Yjoti, that I was also smiling, a sincere smile that I hadn’t shown in a long time. And then I realized that it’s true, that you can be happy with less and that happiness is not the fancy cars that go around the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Delhi or all the clothes that we can afford to buy back in Europe. Those kids without anything were happy because we were there, because we were all having fun and because for a couple of hours they were not thinking about the unbearable heat and the arduous job of the next day.

Me with Yjoti while the girls were doing henna

Laura Sabater Zamora - Spain
Communications coordinator, Maiti (HP)

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

"Garmi, garmi". Dealing with the heat in Punjab

Before I arrived in India at the beginning of June 2015, the news at home was displaying stories on a near daily basis about the insane heat waves across India. The south was experiencing temperatures nearing 50’C, Delhi was a toasty 44’C (112’F for my fellow Americans), countless photos of people guzzling water crossed my BBC news app. My friends and family loved to alert me of these temperatures, but I assured them I wasn’t going to places mentioned in the news, and thus should be ‘chill’. I was right….sort of.

While Punjab was never mentioned in the history-making heat wave, that did not mean the Punjabis were relaxing in balmier weather. Much of my experience with Educare, and thus living in rural India, has centered on the unrelenting heat. I believe on one of my first days I (naively) asked if the house I would be living in would have hot water. The answer, technically, was no. However when your black water tank sits on the roof baking in 40’ your water really will be hot, whether you like it or not. Living in Janauri I quickly had to be accustomed to stepping out of a shower and not being able to differentiate between what were water droplets from my freshly washed hair, or new beads of sweat already starting to do away with my recent cleaning. It’s a never-ending, and sometimes futile, battle.

You learn to embrace this heat though. Everyone’s affected by it and brings you all together at a basic human level. One of the first Hindi/Punjabi words I learned was garmi (hot), and it is the perfect way to break the silence when meeting people. If one is ever at a loss for their Hindi (which happens in every conversation I’ve entered in India), they simply feign an exhausted face, fan themselves with their hand and mumble “garmi, garmi, garmi”. It is a perfect way to connect with whoever is in the room, and most likely they will respond with the same motion, and you both will chuckle.

I won’t lie, aside from vanity reasons; this heat is difficult to work with. Children that should normally be running and screaming with excitement lay exhausted in the shade. Getting “rambunctious kids” excited for after school activities is often one of our biggest challenges in Punjab. Community engagement is difficult when the majority of people in the villages are sitting inside with their fans on. But we make it work.

I don’t mean to whine about the heat because in fact, life thrives here. Everyone still adds just as many hot spices to their daal (well, maybe not every intern), everyone still drinks their daily hot chai, and we still manage to play games of tag in the migrant camp that leave us dripping in that Punjabi sweat. If anything, the heat just adds a little more flavor to the experience! But that doesn’t mean I’m not excited for that autumn chill!

Madeline lighting up fireworks on the 4th of July

Madeline Zdeblick - US
Paro center manager and microfinance project manager, Paro (Punjab)

Monday, 14 September 2015

"No matter where I went, I always loved being back to Himachal"

My internship in India was comparatively short but incredibly eventful time. Though I stayed in India for 2 months only it feels like spent here much longer time. Every week was full of events, both work related activities and personal joy. As a MicroEmpowerED Project Manager in Rait Center within two months my partner and I managed to kick off a new microfinance activity, i.e. stitching self-learning platform, take mushroom farming – the other microfinance activity that has been already in place – to the new stage and we are holding the new training for mushroom farmers in couple of hours from the moment when I started writing this post. I’ve been involved in SWASH project activities, Girls Club and Fun Club, and even visited migrant camp in Rajhol where we teach those who are deprived from formal school education basic literacy (it is surprising how wide is the age range of our students in Rajhol). I’ve prepared monitoring plan and evaluation design for microfinance activities in Rait that can serve as an example and template for other projects in EduCARE. Initially monitoring and evaluation (M&E) was my focus as I plan to center my career in international development on these activities, but to my own surprise I got so engaged with project activities that it even makes me reconsider my career focus.

Mila during her trip to Manali
Another factor that has made my work experience in EduCARE very diverse is that I was part time Operations Assistance – that was an opportunity for me to polish my admin and NGO management knowledge and skills. Though I prioritized microfinance in-field activities over any other job I was doing in EduCARE, I’m very glad I managed to contribute to other areas of the organization’s work.

I was extremely lucky to work with fantastic team of interns. We worked together, we helped each other, we lived together, we shared meals, we traveled together, we got into all sort of adventures together – the people I met made my experience in India rich and so enjoyable.

The way one gets engaged with the community is fascinating. I transformed from being basically lost in our small village to not being able to make a 10 min walk to the market without stopping to talk to one of the villagers. The process of integration with the community was quite natural for me. My job duties involved interacting with the community members we already work with as well as to reach out to wider audience. Slowly step-by-step my interaction circle in Rait extended significantly. Working with kids and girls also contributed to smoother community integration.

Mila with three members of the community

Apart from work in just two months I’ve visited six different states, and saw the most treasured spots in India (Goa, Amritsar, Jaipur, Agra, Delhi, Manali, and other amazing places). Every place I’ve visited for work or leisure purposes is fascinating and unique. And every time I had the feeling that I don’t have enough time to get better understanding of new places I visit and people I meet. Still, no matter where I went I always loved being back to Himachal Pradesh, to the village of Rait.

Amazing view of the mountains from Rait

Mila Pestun - Belarus
Microfinance project manager, Rait (Himachal Pradesh)

Friday, 11 September 2015

An English class in Naddi

A carpet on the floor, a black board against the wall, the gorgeous mountains behind; here it is, the scenery of our weekly English classes in Naddi.

A few minutes before the class starts, the temple often hosts a group of children playing: they know that on that day, at that time, something is going to happen. This gathering appeals more and more children as the teachers arrive. Sometimes, there are too many people, and some of them show a disruptive behaviour, regardless, the class has to begin.

During an hour, children fill in gaps of simple exercises, listen to songs and try to hear known words, answer our questions and win candies. We want them to have the bravery of leaving their native language behind, during a few minutes, twice a week. But these classes are also an opportunity for us to learn more Hindi through them, and we can feel how proud children are to teach it to us.

Harmony helping children with the English exercises
A lot of issues have to be dealt with, and running English classes is far from being easy. How to strengthen the children's commitment to the classes, how to make them feel they are improving, how to make them understand the usefulness of speaking English nowadays?

Through these classes, I had the chance to witness the incredible energy and positive attitude of the children. With their genuine happiness, curiosity and will to learn, they stand out as an example that I want to follow in my own life! I spent great moments with them, and I really hope that this project will help to broaden their horizon.

Chloé Morel - France
After School Program Manager, Naddi (Himachal Pradesh)

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Coming full circle

Sitting on the rooftop of the Gajner intern house, I hear religious melodies travel across the desert’s horizon by speaker. The horn of a passing train blows in the distance, as below, the engine of a tuk tuk shakes in anticipation of its next customer. Looking up, the moon illuminates a slowly dimming sky. Looking around, I see hues of green, blue, and brown— Gajner is decorated with buildings of brick and cement, sandy roads and footpaths, isolated trees, and a small lake—it’s beautiful! The aroma of garam masala and other spices blow along in the wind, as the evening’s cool breeze offsets the Rajasthani heat. Closing my eyes, I take everything in: my surroundings, my thoughts, the nostalgia, and this peculiar blend of every emotion possible. I’m happy, sad, anxious, reminiscent, confused, and thankful. Sitting on the rooftop of the Gajner intern house, I’m reminded of the February quarterlies—where it all began.

I can recall the conversations of sustainable development, an all-day workshop on project management, and the many, many tea breaks that took place right here. I had been in India two weeks prior and was already feeling overwhelmed about my project; fortunately, this week of workshops, discussions, and challenges put a lot into perspective for me. I remember feeling ready to get back to my village and being eager to start working. I knew the anticipation, just as vividly as my recollections of disillusionment. Coming to India, I thought I would be working with an already-existing Young Women’s Association, tackling issues such as gender inequality and helping village women enhance their skills, so that one day, they could become the community’s leaders. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way. In fact, we still don’t have a Young Women’s Association in Rait.

Of the many lessons I’ve learned, the planning and the failures are as much a part of the process as the successes. Our initial strategy for establishing a YWA in Rait didn’t happen the way we hoped. The community wasn’t ready for a formal institution like such, so we used other ways to engage and empower local women: the health camp, informal English lessons, our research proposal, various microenterprise activities, and a multitude of broken-Hindi-limited-English conversations coupled with smiles and sweet cups of chai. Serving as centre manager, I’ve seen the Rait Centre progress from none to facilitating six operational projects within the community. Looking back, I’m so thrilled to have been part of this team. The motivation we took from February’s rooftop sessions in Gajner helped us initiate, expand, and continue our work throughout the village.

Interns in the Rait Center

To ensure a holistic approach to rural sustainable development, the Rait Centre uses a unique strategy for teamwork. We each devote at least an hour each day to working on one another’s projects, offering each other support, and finding ways to integrate our projects with others. This strategy caused me to become enthused about waste management, and it also improved my gardening skills! Some of my most meaningful work came from running other projects, such as the After School Program in the migrant camp. The way the children’s faces beam with huge smiles each time we arrive—excited to learn and play games with us—these are memories I won’t forget. Likewise, the relationships I have built with various community members are interactions I will hold onto for a long, long time. A lot of what I have encountered here in India has changed me, but I find myself in awe of who this experience has shaped me into. Every namaste, smile, peculiar stare, and curious feel of my afro, are all moments I will take with me as I leave India.

Girls in the migrant camp playing with Alanah's hair

Reflecting on my seven months here, I’ve seen many sides to this beautiful country. I’ve seen India’s wealthy and urban, just as I’ve seen her rural, and her poor. I’ve seen her pride and glory; her relentless, hard work; her pain, and I’ve seen her struggle. I’ve seen her masses, and I became familiar with her marginalized and ostracized. I’ve witnessed a number of India’s beautiful landscapes, took part in her customs and traditions, learned her history and invested time into her future. I was fortunate to experience her warm embrace, just as I, too, have encountered her hostile hesitation towards the unknown. Countless times, I have been hassled, harassed, and hustled, and I learned to haggle my way around. It’s only been seven months, but it’s all so fascinating! India has this way of forcing you out of your comfort zone, breaking down the barriers you’ve psychologically built up around yourself, and making you begin again. 

Alanah playing with children in the migrant camp in Rait

On this rooftop, six and a half months ago, I sat back, receptively listening and taking note of all of the other interns’ contributions to each discussion. Returning to Gajner, as my internship comes to an end; I now observe and impart knowledge regarding the women’s empowerment projects on ground. A few months ago, that quiet, confused intern became project coordinator. Sitting here, on the rooftop of the Gajner intern house, I am reminded of where I began—completely overwhelmed and unsure of my place within the community and the organization. I found it! I often say that I have taken a lot more from my time with EduCARE India compared to what I have given. Nonetheless, I am grateful. I am thrilled. I am humbled. As nostalgia sets in, thoughts take my mind everywhere: I wonder what my girls in Girls Club will grow up to become; whether they’ll pursue higher education as well as the aspirations they have expressed at the tender age of twelve. I’m curious about the migrant children and what the future holds for them; will they go to school; will they have more economic opportunities; will they be able to settle in one place, and be part of the community. The main road is quiet and the stars now sparkle from a distance. I can hear the laughter of the Gajner team below, as all around me is quiet. Looking at the empty rooftop, I remember the faces from that February gathering. I remember how and what I felt. A lot has changed since then.

Alanah in the migrant camp in Rait

Alanah Grant - US
Women's Empowerment Manager and Rait Center Manager, Rait (Himachal Pradesh)

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Growing Mushrooms, Growing Oneself

At the beginning of June, we began our first microfinance project: three women attended a mushroom cultivation training course.

Shushma, Sarita and Pushpa learnt how to grow oyster mushrooms in their homes from a two-day workshop, facilitated by EduCare India interns and taught by Dr. Deepika from Kangra University. The first day was dedicated to lectures in the office and the second was practical training on how to prepare the bags of straw and spawn, which later grew into mushrooms. 

Several women learning now to cultivate mushrooms in Rait

By the end of the training, the women went home with one bag each which they are able to keep for three months. A few days later they made four additional bags each all by themselves.

When we first began working in Rait, we engaged several women interested in starting various microfinance businesses with us. We chose to start with mushroom farming because Shushma took initiative and showed a genuine desire in getting a business started.

The women preparing the mushrooms and the straw 

She came to us and continued to do so because she felt it was taking too long to organise the mushroom training. On day two of the course, Shushma was the first person to arrive at the intern house to get started. She was there at seven in the morning and had begun preparing the straw for the practical training. When the women planned to meet at the intern house two days after the course, Shushma was the first one there to make arrangements for the preparation of the women’s other bags. One month later and Shushma still hasn’t given up. She didn’t give up when her mushrooms took longer to grow or because one bag became sick– Shushma has persisted and persevered throughout this process.

Women like Shushma have the will to do something and are proactive. She is a mother of two and uses various innovative means to generate another income for her household. Shushma’s example shows us that some women are already empowering themselves, and sometimes, they just need a bit of help, or a nudge of some sort, to be able to do something big.

Emma Vayssade - France 
Microfinance project manager, Rait (Himachal Pradesh)

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The monster in my stomach

First of all, I’m not pregnant. Gajner is not one of those places where young people go and parents are scared their girls will come back with a baby in the belly. No sex, drugs and rock n’ roll around, trust me.

Still, somehow a monster came to live in my stomach when I arrived to India, and it’s always hungry. I used to eat a lot back in Spain, but I never reached the levels of the monster. NEVER.

Food in India is delicious and it’s everywhere. I think what attracts the monster the most are the spices. I walk in the streets and the monster is always alert, smelling around, looking for the best samosa. Even when it fails and the samosa was not that good, it doesn’t surrender, and makes me purchase (yes, purchase. In India no one ”buys” stuff, you “PURCHASE” it) another one.

The monster gets very excited when families in Gajner invite us to eat. I personally don’t really like the way of having people invited to eat here. You sit with the other guests, all alone in the floor of some room, and the hosts bring food, nonstop, but they don’t eat with you. My way of understanding the point of having people home to eat is to share the food and the time with them, and talk…but that is not how it works here. The monster does not think much about that, though. Every time there is almost no more dahl in the bowl, or veggies, or there are only two chapatis left, or rice is starting to disappear, more food comes. The plates are never empty; food is infinite, which is like a theme park for the monster.

When all the normal guests are done with the food, the monster keeps on asking for it. It sees though my eyes and it really struggles to stop eating if there is still food on the plates. So after everyone else stops eating, the monster and I have a long discussion while still feeding it. My shame of eating alone against its hunger. I win after a while, as even the monster realizes how people stare at us, trying to understand how is it possible, and it feels ashamed too.

The other interns in the house are frightened about the monster. When they cook, there is always this fear, “will it be enough”? When they serve the food, they look at the monster through my eyes, asking for its approval. When the food is over and the monster makes me wipe clean the few leftovers in all plates, there is always a moment of tension.

But the monster is cool, it’s peaceful. It would never hurt anyone, and it’s very easy to make it happy. If you want it to like you, you know what to do.

Cheers from the monster and me!

Lucía cooking Dahl for the house 

Lucía Villamayor - Spain
Bikaner Cluster Coordinator, Gajner (Rajasthan)