Saturday, 30 April 2016

India and its hospitality

I have been now back home for a few weeks and whenever people ask me how I would best describe India and Indians, I always tell them the same episode. I always tell them of that evening when Claire and me spent Diwali with a random Muslim family in Bikaner while waiting for our night train to Jaipur.

We had just got to Bikaner that evening and we were strolling along the main street, when a girl followed by her family stopped us to pull our kurtas even more down than how they were. From that, a simple conversation began. In less than few minutes we were invited to visit their house. If I have to be sincere, we were a bit hesitant at the beginning, but then we decided to entrust our Diwali celebrations in serendipity’s hands. 

Dewali in Bikaner streets

So there we were an Italian and a Canadian girl sitting on a bed in a house of a Muslim family in Bikaner old city we did not know. We were given chai, endless quantities of bhujia and other Indian snacks. As per usual in every Indian family, “Bas Bas!” to food was not even contemplated. We were fed until we could explode. The evening was pleasant. We shared funny life moments, and we showed and took plenty of photos. The best part of that evening though was when we went out to the streets and played with the children lighting fireworks and firecrackers. It was nice to see how a Muslim family, who does not usually celebrate Diwali, was doing all of this to make us have a great experience. They wanted us to enjoy Diwali so much that few months later I found a firecracker in my bag that one of the children might have put on the sly when we departed. 

Our amazing hosts
As cheesy as it may sound, this memory always warms my heart whenever I think of it. Even if I did not meet that family anymore after Diwali, they gave me a big lesson about Indians and hospitality. You do not have to be the Prime Minister of India to receive extra care. Any guest is treated like a King or Queen, and they really make you feel like that!

Ilaria Iovieno - Italy
Gajner Centre Coordinator and Microfinance Project Manager

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

See you EduCARE….a tribute.

In the winter of 2011, I embarked on what I thought would be a three month internship in EduCARE India. Having just finished my Masters degree in International Development, I was looking for a challenging and innovative opportunity to learn and apply my university skills in the field. What I didn’t know then, on that fateful day when I accepted with excitement and trepidation the internship offer, is that India and this NGO would capture my heart and mind in all ways imaginable. And what was meant to be a 3 month internship in microfinance and women’s empowerment, turned into a 5 year life changing epic journey that changed both mine and my families life forever.

Working with marginalized communities

It only took a few short weeks after my arrival at EduCARE for me to know deeply that this was a place I wanted to stay, to learn, to work, to explore.  I was given incredible freedom to develop and implement projects, share ideas and even contribute to the development of the organisation from within.  I knew almost immediately that 3 months was just not long enough for me to really have any sort of impact, as it takes almost that long just to settle in.  So after a few weeks of my internship, I made the decision to extend my stay….first for 6 months, and then for one year, and eventually it became an open ended indefinite stay.  My family also joined me, with my children initially spending half the year in India and half in Australia.  They quickly adapted to Indian culture and cuisine, but it wasn’t without its challenges for them, or for me.  Yet despite the ups and downs, I always knew within my heart that this was exactly where I belonged. 

Five years on and I was blessed to experience a plethora of job roles and locations.  From grassroots development worker, to Operations Coordinator, Assistant Director and Training and Development. From the plains of Punjab to the spectacular Himalaya’s and the wild deserts of Rajasthan.  I initiated various social enterprises and developed an online training platform.  I was given total support and freedom to try and sometimes fail, even though I had no previous international development experience.  I worked with and coordinated hundreds of interns from all around the world, and was honored to work with such a dedicated, passionate and inspiring group of young people.  My children grew up, matured, and learnt a totally new and beautiful way of living and being in the world.  India was home for all of us.

It wasn’t always easy living in paradoxical contradictory India, and I experienced all the emotions that came with such an intense ride.  Beauty, excitement, adventure, elation, passion, peace, love and harmony along with frustration, sadness, devastation, confusion and chaos.  India offers it all on one big curry bowl of life.  It IS Incredible India.  But I learnt very quickly that openness, surrender and bucket loads of patience is really the only way to survive in this incredible land.  And I totally loved it…even when I hated it.  India just got under my skin and into my heart in every way possible. 

After my initial year there I stopped making plans for ‘how long’ I would stay.  I just continued to stay, one crazy moment at a time.  It became my home, my families’ home and a beautiful part of me. 

And then spontaneously one monsoon evening mid last year, I spontaneously knew, that it was time to leave India….at least for a while.  It was a deep and instant knowing, not born from logic or reason, but came from something higher and deeper, not unlike the knowing I felt all those years ago when I knew I just had to stay.  But I also knew that to leave India and EduCARE would not be a goodbye, as that would not be possible.  Even though EduCARE and India would always remain in my heart and soul and I would remain connected, I just knew it was time for me to go on a new journey of discovery.  To connect with other aspects of myself and my passions, to learn knew things, to create new communities.  I gave myself 6 months to transition before I finally left in January 2016.  It was for the most part gentle and natural, but the final step into Mumbai airport was deeply heartbreaking for sure.  I was leaving behind my home, my love, my life and without any real destination or plan.  But still I knew…I knew…I knew I that this was the next step for me.

More than two months on, EduCARE is still with me, in my heart and life.  I have been in Germany supporting a former EduCARE colleague and deep friend during the birth of her beautiful twins.  I am now in incredible New York City and in the first two days met two former interns with more to come.  So just like I always knew, EduCARE is and always will be within me wherever I go.

EduCARE reunion in NY

Rachael Donovan
Assistant Director
EduCARE India

Saturday, 16 April 2016

A sad but fond goodbye

Six months ago my Internship with EduCARE began and now I’m on the way back home to England! As with everything in my last days with EduCARE and in Naddi; I’ve definitely been stalling knowing that my internship and the times with my wonderful Naddi family will soon be over, so this blog post is the end point of an amazing Indian adventure.

During my six months I’ve created so many memories and had crazy experiences that I’ll remember a life time! I thought I’d use this blog post to share some of them:

Sick in my Shoes

In October I was on my way to Delhi on an overnight government bus, after about an hour or so I managed to drift off to sleep whilst my Tibetan neighbour was continually vomiting out the window because of the bus drivers mental driving! At 3am I wake up and the bus has stopped for a short break so I decide to get off the bus to stretch my legs and use the toilet – stupidly when I went to sleep I’d taken my shoes off and left them underneath my seat. So as I put my feet into my shoes, I notice one of them is wet… and well, you know the rest of the story – disgusting certainly didn’t justify it. Only in India can someone be gross enough to throw up in your shoes and then say nothing as you put your feet into them.

A Holy Baptism

I was walking from the Indra intern house in Naddi to the main square to go to Omi’s for lunch, one particular part of the path is always slippy and has water on it. Clumsy me decided that this day was the day to completely stack it! I ended up lying in the field below half under barbed wire, half in a field and covered waist down in a combination of mud, cow poo and water. Only in India is being covered in cow excrement seen as a good thing.

Animal Encounters

o Raging Bull Being charged at not once by twice by an angry territorial cow in the Jaisalmer Fort.
o Stray Dogs Constant accosting on the way to McleodGanj.
o Cheeky MonkeysBeing completely surrounded by Langur’s on the walk home from Triund and having no idea what to do!
o Monsoon Critters Providing my feet as lunch for many a leech whilst in Shenney during the Monsoon.

Transport Frustrations

As a student in India utilising the cheapest transport option was always my go to, however this incurred many memorable moments:
- Never being sure whether a bus was ever going to arrive, let alone arrive on time.
- Driving from Naddi to Dharamshala and fearing for your life because the driver seems to have forgotten about using their breaks and official speed limit.
- Using overnight buses to get from A to B and the bus driver plays consistent Bollywood and Hindi music all night at full volume when you’re trying to sleep.

The start of a long 36 hours traveling from Naddi to Khuri.

My favourite method of transport, Tuktuk!!

Christmas in Kerala 

Kerala is somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, so when myself and Siobhan decided our Christmas Holidays would be spent there I was over the moon. Whilst it certainly didn’t feel like Christmas in 30+ degree heat surrounded by sandy beaches and palm trees, the opportunity to experience a complete contrast to North India was amazing. The South of India is a land of chilled out people, amazing food and beautiful scenery and a great choice of location for a deserved rest!

Alleppey Backwaters

Fort Cochin
Khuri and Jaisalmer 

In October, I was fortunate enough to venture out of Himachal Pradesh and visit Rajasthan for 9 days during the coordinators retreat. Whilst the hot desert weather was something pale and ginger me hated, the Rajasthani lifestyle and culture was so so fascinating. The retreat was culminated by us all taking a camel ride (a very painful and jolty camel ride) into the desert for a night under the stars.

These are just a handful of the memories I’ve made and it’s a shame they have to be put on pause until the next time. But I’ll be back, Naddi is certainly not a place you can forget in a hurry!! And as for EduCARE, it’s been a crazy up and down ride but I’ve loved every second.

Rebecca Lewis - United Kingdom
Disaster Management and Emergency Planning Coordinator in Naddi

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Rait and the progress of its Vika Centre

It’s now a couple of months that I landed in India. First experience in this incredible big Country.

My new home for the following months is Rait, a village situated 20 km from Dharamshala, in Himachal Pradesh, the State in the North West of India. The town is quite nice, every morning I can have my breakfast facing an incredible view of the Himalayan Chain, I can hike along the river as well as walk throw the wheat fields. Such an amazing location!
There is just one thing I like more of the extraordinary nature in Rait: its inhabitants.

It’s incredible how the people living here are very kind and always ready to help for everything you need. Of course we are the foreigners coming from all over the world, so they are curious about us, about our families, our countries, but it’s not only that. If you need any help, no matter what, you will find at least one person ready to help or support you to come out of the situation.

One example that shows the kindness of these people happened just few days ago:
During the last weeks the team focused its energy on the VIKAS Center. VIKAS has a double meaning : in Hindi means development and, at the same time, is the acronym of  Village Knowledge, Awareness and Sustainable development. The idea is to create a proper space built for the needs of the community. The Center may include several facilities, which the more important will be : an Education and career Resource Centre, an ecoStore / REstore, a public health assistance and First Aid centre…  In the long term, we hope that these ViKAS Dev Centres can be run directly by the village communities where we work in, as a platform to help them address some of the social, environmental, educational and health issues in their own communities.

Following this mission we are renovating the space, where the VIKAS Center will soon open. Our priority was repairing the wall of the center with the plaster and then coloring it. The people were really interested in and often they stopped by. They love talk with us, have a chai together, try to help in every way they can. The community or at least the neighbourhood  were really helpful. They borrowed us brushes and spatula and they also gave us suggestions. Even the children wanted to give their contribution on helping us to paint. It was really funny!

Painting with the children from Rait
What can I say…within the village I feel at home: smiles and good friends! I’m very glad to be part of this supporting community, always ready to welcome the new entries. 

Thank you to our helpers!

Andrea Putelli - Italy
Centre Administration Coordinator and Forestry Project Manager in Rait

Saturday, 9 April 2016

The Missing Girls of India

India is a wonderful country. The culture is diverse, the food wonderful, and the people amazingly kind. However, India also faces a lot of problems, and the more research you do, the more complex the problem seems. According to Indian law, your husband cannot rape you. Although it its prohibited by law to marry before the age of eighteen, girls get married when they are fourteen years old, and pregnancy will follow soon after. Furthermore, because of selective abortion and malnutrition, India is now missing millions of girls. In a lot of areas a women is still perceived as almost worthless.

How this affects me? Actually, it makes me pretty sad. A foetus that does not even has the chance to be born because of her sex, a women being immolated because of a dowry, these are things that should not be happening. No one deserves to be killed because of something random like gender. And still, it happens daily.

However, it also reminds me every day why I am here, why I am doing this job. Every month, I see how young girls are getting married, and are not always ready for it. A week ago, I was in Gajner for a coordinators retreat. While talking with the nineteen-year old Pooja, the niece of our hosting family, she was telling us that she will marry in a year. Right now, her mother is looking for her future husband. This will be someone of the same caste as Pooja’s. Pooja answered with a firm “No.” when we asked her if she was excited to marry soon. Pooja does not want to leave her family yet, and you could see in her eyes that the thought of it made her upset.

Sharing moments with girls in Rang Mahal 
In the centre I’m working it, RangMahal, some girls even get married when they are fourteen. Most of the girls are from the most marginalized community in the village, the Naat community. The people within this caste almost all have not received education, are illiterate, and live from begging. Although I have not researched this yet, I would not be surprised if these girls don’t know how sex works. How to have safe sex, how birth prevention works, or how to say no to sex and realize that you are the boss of your own body. ‘Sixteen and pregnant’ could scout a lot of girls here.

However, there are also girls that cannot wait to be married. For example, a couple of days I was watching a cricket game on the television with a family living in RangMahal. All of a sudden, a girl pops up on the screen, holding a huge sign that says “I’m finally eighteen, marry me!”

But no matter how you look at it, a thing is clear: marriage is really important. After this, the main task for women is to get children –preferably boys– and take care of the household. Energic, enthusiastic girls slowly transform into shy women, hidden behind a sari.

Fortunately, I see examples within this village of women that have empowered themselves. Nila runs her own shop at the back of her house. She sells fabrics in all colours you can think of, and if you give her your measurements, she will make a perfectly suiting kurta for you. It is clear she is also highly respected by the men, and I rarely see her faced covered by her sari. Or Rika and her friends that run twice every day, and are involved in competition in- and outside Rajasthan. Although this may seems like something small, compared to other women in India this is already a huge accomplishment.

Celebrating Holi with the girls in Rang Mahal
What also fascinates me, is how I as a western women can enjoy privileges regarding my behaviour towards men. I am allowed to shake hands with men, or join parts of the wedding that are normally only allow male participation. Why can Indian women not do this, what makes me different from them?

In the upcoming months, I hope to create some foundations to make women aware of the rights they have. That they have the right to say what they like and dislike, to become more independent, have a bigger saying in their lives. Shortly, to become leaders of their own life.

Iris Workum - The Netherlands
Project Manager Women's Empowerment and Health

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

A week at Mamta’s

I have been in India for two months now. Two months already! I can’t believe it… There is much to say, many stories I would like tell. It took a long time for me to decide what I really wanted to talk about. I finally decided to tell you about my first week here and, more precisely, where I spend this very first week.

As every new interns, I had to start my internship with EduCARE in Gajner, Rajasthan to do my Induction. They told me I would spend the week in a homestay. What an exciting perspective! A bit scary too. I mean, spending my first week in India with a family I don’t know, with a completely different culture and who probably doesn’t speak English… it sounds challenging! I was afraid to not be able to understand them or to do something inappropriate or awkward. Well it finally turned out to be one of the coolest experiences I had so far in India.

I arrived at night in Gajner and the COM team directly brought me and two other interns, Costanza and Kelly at the homestay to spend the night. There I met Mamta, 17 years old, her younger brother, Anand, her mother and her father. She also had an older sister and older brother but they did not live in the house anymore.

Well, for sure the first moments were a bit… awkward. It was the first time they hosted foreigners and they seemed at least as uncomfortable as us. We spent our dinner basically looking at each other, smiling, and practicing the famous Indian head-wiggling (a right-left nodding that can mean ‘yes’, ‘I got it’, ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re very welcome’ all at the same time). Thankfully, the kids spoke some English and we tried to have some pretty limited conversations.

The day after, we learned some Hindi words, from other interns and from the kids around. At night, I was ready, my notebook in hand, to try out my first Hindi words! After having said ‘Aap kaise ho?’ (How are you?) and ‘Khanaa barut achcha hai’ (the food is very good), I was done… Still limited but it was a first step!

Kelly and me with Mamta's family

And day by day, by playing games, watching Punjabi video clips together, speaking some words of English and some words of Hindi, doing a lot of mimes, and having a lot of fun, we created a very nice relationship with the family. We showed them pictures of our family members and they proudly showed us the wedding book of the older sister. Mamta taught us how to make chapattis (I still have some work to do in this matter…) and Kelly taught her how to do pushups (I learned at the same time).

But what I will not forget is the last day we spent at Mamta’s. We came back for lunch and at home were only Mamta and her Mum. I don’t really remember how it started but Mamta’s mum ended up making us try her most beautiful saris and bangles. So much fun! After the picture session, Mamta even sacrificed her hands for my first try of henna. It turned up by being a complete disaster but she smiled and said that it was not so bad for a beginner… Hum… Sweet girl!

Drawing with henna

My first disaster with henna

Saying goodbye was pretty hard, much harder than I expected, to be honest. It was definitely a great experience.

I have been working in Harike, Punjab for two month now. My henna skills have improved a lot and now my chapattis are (almost) round. I am still in contact with the family via WhatsApp. I haven’t had the opportunity to see them again but when I come back to Gajner, I definitely know who I will take my first chai with.

Big up to Mamta and her family, the sweetest ever! I will not forget!

Trying on some beautiful saris 

Sacha Belle-Clot; France
Finance Coordinator and Microfinance Project Manager in Harike

Saturday, 2 April 2016

A weekend in India

Before coming to India, I was assigned to work in Rait, Himachal Pradesh. As excited I was to get to know this community, I also wondered how much I would travel and see the areas outside of this village. I read all the blogs on this website to obtain as much information as I could about what my weekends would look like (in addition to information about the projects in Rait, of course). Regardless of how much I read, nothing could have prepared me for the adventures that were to come. 

Now that I have been in India for more than two months, I, alongside my fellow Rait-ians, have travelled every weekend to villages and cities near and far. Included in the growing list is Shimla, Kashol, Manali, Dalhousie, Chandigarh, McLeod Ganj, and Udaipur. 

Shimla will never be forgotten (not that any of these weekend adventures would be) because It was riddled with both the good and the bad.

During one of my first weekends in Rait, I went to Shimla with Sylvja and a friend from the Harike centre, Sacha. It was a perfect opportunity to un-wind and seek some adventure outside of the Rait. So at 6:00 p.m. on a Wednesday (the last day of the work-week), Sylvia asked, "So are we going somewhere?" We looked at each other with that "oh-what-the-the-hell" look, and we quickly packed small backpacks not really considering logistics or considering; we were our the door by 630pm. Let me tell you, travelling by local bus during the night is not exactly fun. To all the future interns reading this, just know that local overnight buses will become your norm. Sylvia and I must have taken the world's worst bus driven by the world's worst driver (all of the buses in india will seem like this but, seriously, this bus was bad). With foreign smells and broken windows, we spent the next eight hours of our lives holding on to our seats for dear life. We literally could not rest our grip for fear of flying to the opposite side of the bus or inadvertently elbowing some cute, unsuspecting child. Sylvia and I also did not anticipate just how cold it would be in Shimla and on the way there. By the end of those grueling eight hours, we ended up wearing literally every single piece of clothing we had brought.

Arriving at 4:00 am with no reservations, Sylvia and I proceeded to walk the hills toward the main area. For two hours, we knocked on guesthouses door to door inquiring about availability. What made it worse was the snow. Yes, it was snowing. The two pants, two shirts, and two sweaters I was wearing could not keep out the cold. We finally found a guesthouse and slept for a few hours. With tired still in our eyes, we met Sacha mid-day. The first destination was the monkey temple. As you can guess, there were monkeys everywhere, but these were no ordinary monkeys; these monkeys were monkey thieves. Slowly creeping towards us with a nonchalant and calm demeanor, one monkey was just asking for trouble. He suddenly leaped toward my head and stole the sunglasses of my face. I wish I could say that my wonderful friends, Sylvia and Sacha, jumped to my aid, but no. They shouted and stared at me. I have to admit that my reaction would have been no better! 

Over the next 18 hours, the three of us unexpectedly went on a hike; visited some interesting and not-so-interesting temples and monuments; and nibbled on everything imaginable from coconut and peanut brittle to Chana Baturi to pizza. Finally, on Friday evening, Sylvia and I said our goodbyes to Sacha and we parted ways. We got on yet another gruesome overnight local bus back to Rait. We returned to our centre at 5:00 am with zombie eyes and strained backs (as we always do after a weekend of travel). After sleeping for a few hours, Sylvia and I went to the main market for the weekly house grocery shopping. As I was buying vegetables, several locals gathered around Sylvia and asked if she had been in Shimla the previous day. In a state of confusion, Sylvia and I pondered how they could have known that. A man came running to us presented us with the Himachal Pradesh newspaper.

Low and behold, a picture of Sylvia and I was on the front page. In Hindi, the caption read, "Tourists are enjoying the snow in Shimla" (or so we were told - I won't pretend I'm cool enough to read Hindi). Sylvia and I had no idea that we were being photographed! Being that Sacha is not in the photograph, I assume it was taken before her arrival. On one hand, I suppose it's kind of cool to be in the state newspaper, but on the other hand, it is somewhat disconcerting... We were 8 hours away from Rait yet everyone in Rait knew exactly where we were!

All in all, my weekend in Shimla was, like all the other weekend travels, unforgettable. For any future interns coming to India, don't do what I did and try to obtain as much information about as much as possible. Much of that information still won't really prepare you for this great adventure. Just know - You will be cold; you will be hot; you will be happy, you will be sad; and you will be sick. 

Just take it as it comes and have fun :)

Kelly Strautins - USA
Women's Empowerment Project Manager in Rait