Monday, August 30, 2010

As Easy As “3, 2, 1”

(Feel free to sing the title in the style of young Michael Jackson.)

My Youth Empowerment class is nearing the end of our digital story. I’m getting stressed out because of the deadline. My students, on the other hand, are not. They also seem to have lost interest over the past few days as we entered into the phase of serious working.

In today’s class a few things happened to remedy this situation. My strategy can be summarized as follows: 1) give everyone an active way to be involved that makes them feel necessary, 2) make even the hard work fun. This may seem like an obvious strategy but I viewed it as an accomplishment because it’s difficult to find a role for everyone at this stage and it’s difficult for me to make things fun if I’m stressed and the students aren’t working.

As is often the case, the solution to involvement and fun was surprisingly simple. We were practicing the narration as we added photos into iMovie so we used a movie style countdown (starting at five with fingers up for all to see and going silent for the last numbers). Then everyone else was in charge of watching the slideshow during the narration and yelling “Cut!” if anything was not matching. I couldn’t believe how silent people went at the end of the countdown, I should have started using this technique months ago!

And then, of course, because class was fun and relaxed, everything went well and we got tons of work done. Everyone presented great ideas on which photos to use, how to order them, whether or not to change the speed of narration, and minor yet insightful edits to the script. Days like this make you realize how worthless stress is!

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Some of you may have picked up on this already, but I just wanted to clarify some of my writing on this blog. I have noticed a tendency in myself to use writing as a cathartic method of working through problems and dealing with frustrations in my life. When I’m happy, I simply enjoy being happy rather than sitting at my journal or computer analyzing the cause and writing about it. However, I would hate to give the impression that my life and work in India has been an unending stream of challenges and aggravation. Those moments have existed, of course, as they would anywhere, but there have been as many and more wonderful and inspiring moments. Especially as my time here comes to an end I’d like to take the opportunity over the next few weeks to document some of my favourite memories and experiences both work-related and in general during my time here. So please excuse the chronological discrepancies and enjoy the read!

Coffee Therapy

As I go through the familiar process of making coffee – measuring out clean water, turning on the gas for the stove, pouring a heaping spoonful of Stumptown into a metal bowl – I notice how tense I am and consciously relax my shoulders. As the water boils and I mix it with the coffee before covering the bowl, I breathe in the scent (aromatherapy?) and focus on my negative thoughts, allowing them to pass, clearing my mind. A few minutes later I pour the coffee through a chai strainer and take my mug up to the roof.

Ten minutes earlier I had found myself sitting in the lab, staring through my computer, blinking back tears of frustration. It’s taking less and less to set me off these days. Today it was a piece of fruit. Well, the lack of a piece of fruit, really. Of course my frustration is not actually about the fruit, that’s only a representation of my sense of helplessness and inability to control key aspects of my living situation.

Fortunately, the last time I wanted coffee and there was current I had the foresight to grind all of the beans. The first time I made coffee I folded a handful of beans in newspaper and pounded them in a rock. The “grind” was not quite as fine as I like, but better than nothing. Next time I used a rolling pin to further crush the beans. This method was more successful but still required a full ten minutes of elbow grease. Luck was mine, however, when the kitchen purchased a blender. Ahh, sweet, sweet development. Thankfully, I now have French Press coffee (minus the French and the press part) readily available for those moments when I need a little coffee therapy to get me through the day.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Oh, By the Way . . .

I’m moving to Colombia! And yes, it is a one-way ticket :)

Yup, in less than a month I will board a plane for Medellin, Colombia via Delhi, Chicago and Miami. Check out a globe, India and Colombia are literally on opposite sides. Despite this, I expect the transition to be quite smooth. Colombia is also hot; also a developing country; also filled with bright colours, music, and beautiful scenery. Plus I expect Spanish to be a whole lot easier to learn than Chinese, Thai or Telugu!

True to form, I made the decision to leave India early based on a gut feeling that this just isn’t the right place for me anymore. Since then I’ve managed to sort out some more precise reasoning and have gotten as far as recognizing that although I like the work and I like India, I no longer enjoy doing the work in India.

With the decision made, I talked to Vandita who was not excited about the proposal but accepted my decision. The date of my departure was set by the fact that my visa expires on September 23rd, although I will continue to work for RDF remotely through the end of October.

So what’s a girl to do with an open ticket anywhere in the world, nowhere to be, and nothing to do? Well, charmed by Miles’ tales of Medellin, the City of Eternal Spring, Colombia seemed the natural choice. Do I have plans? No. Do I have ideas? I’m overflowing with them. Am I happy? Yes. And really, at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Marriage (without dowry)

First, as Indian weddings are such a barrage of the senses, especially visual, I must insist that anyone who reads this blog also view the photo album!

I met Sid soon after arriving in India and, as he claims, he became my first friend. The timing of our meeting also happened to be very shortly before he became engaged in a semi-arranged marriage. As a result I’ve been somewhat peripherally on the scene through the engagement, the dating that followed (I explained to Sid’s dad Jagan that this is actually the reverse order of how we do things at home!), shopping for the wedding, and finally my first Indian wedding. Perfect excuse to wear my new saree!

I was invited to stay at the family’s house and experienced every part of three of the four days worth of ceremonies. Aside from the extreme length of the wedding (4 days with the actual marriage day ceremonies lasting over eight hours), and the sheer number of guests (somewhere between 6 and 800, rough estimate), I thought the biggest difference had to do with the family aspect. The marriage is very much viewed as a marriage of families not individuals. This aspect was especially accentuated by the fact that Divya will be moving into the joint family household. Due to the sharp contrasts with western weddings, Sid’s marriage, more than any other experience I’ve had, drove home how focused on the individual western society is.

One of the best parts of the day was when Sid decided he didn’t actually want to get married and announced that he was off to Varanasi to become a monk! Ok, so this wasn’t actually that surprising as it’s a traditional part of the ceremony. He was even aided by the priest who outfitted Sid with a monk’s bag, a hat, a scarf, and an umbrella. Sid then marched out the door of the marriage hall, pursued by an “angry” crowd of Divya’s cousins. One took Sid’s shoes to prevent him from going any further and another berated him for leaving. The crowd that gathered was much amused and even included a 95-year-old aunt who hobbled out to observe the antics. Eventually Sid was convinced and returned inside to continue the ceremony. Crisis averted.

Another highlight took place at the after party, a small gathering of about twelve close family friends for dinner and drinks. We mingled, discussed the wedding, took turns toasting the new couple, and sang and danced along to “100 Nostalgic Songs.” Himkar Uncle, who it was decided could be a character straight out of Seinfeld, treated us all to his Kung Fu Fighting dance routine. By the end of the night, when the song was on possibly its 10th or so round, Jagan, Himkar, and two of their friends jumped up and put on a show stopping performance complete with high kicks, killer jabs, and appropriately fierce karate faces. I’d take that over the Electric Slide any day!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Dowry Dilemma

My Youth Empowerment group is making their digital story about dowry. So far they’ve been meeting with alumni and junior college students on Saturdays to discuss the dowry situation. I was particularly excited about this setup because I expected the Telugu medium would allow for more in-depth discussion of the topic. That may be the case, but there are certain limits to the views discussed because all students come from the same cultural background, which has fostered the dowry situation. I, however, have no such limitations! I am strongly opposed to dowry and I don’t face the opposition of my society, family, or future husband (I hope!) in this belief.

Yesterday, I led a discussion on dowry in which we talked a lot about what exactly the money is used for. We also pinpointed one of the main reasons people want dowry is because it is "free money". Ah, so, LAZY! I exclaimed much to the delight of the students. We then talked about how good it can feel to earn your own money and not rely on your parents.

Today’s class started with three solutions suggested by the students: 1) If the girl works, then no dowry; 2) Rs10,000 from the boy’s family and Rs20,000 from the girl’s family; and 3) 50/50 split money from the boy’s and girl’s families. Notice that “no dowry” was not a suggestion, highlighting what I see as one of the current roots of the problem (in the case of my students, at least): the perceived lack of money and resources available to them.

The students listed the following uses of dowry money, which are real needs: the marriage ceremony and reception are expensive, jobs are hard to find, one often has to pay bribes to apply to or obtain jobs, buying a house if living apart from the parents, medical treatment for health problems, and helping to pay for a sister’s or daughter’s dowry (hm, vicious cycle?). We discussed other ways to make money to cover these costs: jobs, part-time work, borrow from family, or take loans from the bank (not very glamorous).

Out of this information I framed the choice of dowry in a new way. There are many costs a couple will face after marriage; there are also many ways to cover these costs. One way is dowry, which is the free and easy way – the boys cheered and the one of the girls exclaimed “Lazy!” (Uh oh, I’ve started something…). The other way is working hard. BUT, if we say yes to the dowry system, there will be easy money now, but what about twenty years from now when the money for a daughter’s dowry must be raised? Then there will be much hard work. So, my question was: When would you rather work hard, now when you are young and strong (demonstrated by flexing my arms)? Or later, when you are old and tired (demonstrated by hobbling like an old man with a walking stick)?

I don’t expect the boys to convert to staunch no-dowry advocates in only the few weeks of this class. But I do hope that I can get them thinking about the less obvious long-term effects of dowry on themselves and the other people involved. Also, I realized after today’s class that I need to bring attention to the complicity of the girls in perpetuating the dowry system. After all, it takes two sides and the girls are often also benefiting from the “free money.”

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Beginning of a Beautiful Thing

About a year ago, soaking wet from the rain we had just escaped, Molly and I huddled over beers in a dark New York bar. She told me about her work and I told her about mine and together, we devised a plan. A few months ago, waiting in line for the ferry from Lopez Island back to reality, we again shared our recent work stories and, revisiting our plan, we decided it was time. One week later Molly called me from DC and subjected me to a grueling interview. Actually, it was loads of fun and with minimal prompting I talked her ear off for about an hour about my work with Bridges to Understanding and RDF. Molly diligently wrote the information into an article for WorldWatch, a DC NGO where she works on project called Nourishing the Planet. Later, Molly even wrote a new article for the Seattle Times. Check out both articles below to see the first step of that plan hashed out months ago in a dive bar. Here’s to a lifelong collaboration between ourselves and the amazing organizations for which we will work!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Natural Henna

How to ensure a lazy Sunday? Paint your hands and feet with crushed mahindi leaves that must be left at least an hour in order to dye your skin.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


If you want to make yourself understood in a new country with a different language, there are a few approaches you can take: charades, broken English, or the local language. When I lived in China, I always used to wonder how people managed to travel there without speaking Chinese. It wasn’t until I moved to Thailand that I appreciated just how far one can go with a little bit of charades and a big smile. However, learning the local language is my preferred approach, so day by day, I worked more and more Thai vocabulary into my exchanges. Depending on the situation, though, I would sometimes find it necessary to call on my housemate Lauranne and her excellent knowledge of broken English.

Believe it or not, broken English is a language unto itself, consisting of a varied pronunciation of English words, a different interpretation of grammar, and literal translations from the local language. Although this type of English varies from country to country, I was recently informed of the rise of “Globish,” which refers to they type of broken English that allows speakers of English as a learned language to understand each other better than they do native speakers. Below are some Telugu/Indian phrases that I have found myself picking up.

Please turn on the light . . . Please on the light.

I’m tired . . . I am getting so much sleepy.

I’m going to go . . . Shall I go?

The power is on . . . Current has come.

It’s going to rain . . . Rain will be coming.

Will you take those papers? . . . Will you catch those papers?

Will you wear bindhi? . . . Will you keep bindhi?

Add “only” for emphasis

- I am one person, only.

- I will go today, only.

Add “yeah?” or “no?” at the end of a question

- I will need to be wearing a sari, yeah?

- There will be many people there, no?

When in doubt, add a ‘u’

- straight . . . straightu

- left . . . leftu

- right . . . rightu

Friday, August 6, 2010

Cochin, In Good Company

For years now, Estalyn, Nikhar and I have discussed traveling in India. At long last those dorm-day discussions have come to fruition! Nikhar was visiting home in Delhi on a break before starting his PhD, Estalyn was traveling on a break after completing her Masters, and I, of course, am living here. I secured a few days leave from work and hopped a 22-hour train to Cochin where I joined Nikhar and Estalyn for the last stop of their travels together.

Fort Cochin has a Mediterranean feel to it left behind by the Portuguese. It is beautifully derelict, with faded and peeling paint on multi-coloured, shuttered buildings. During our few days there we did just about everything that could possibly be on a Cochin to-do list. Boulevards, squares, Chinese fishing rigs, monsoon, traditional Aryuvedic massage, delicious food, elephant baths, backwater houseboat, Dutch Palace, “Jew Street,” synagogue, Dutch cemetery, Kathakali dance, spice market, and Kerelan cooking course. Whew!

And all of these activities were punctuated with exactly the type of love, life, and pursuit of happiness conversations that I have been missing. Having only seen Estalyn and Nikhar ever so briefly on occasional visits to New York in the past few years, it was great to get the chance to do more than just catch up. And what better place to do it than over a few Kingfishers in the beautiful and relaxing Cochin!

Volunteer in India!

RDF is in the market for more volunteers. If you are interested in getting a taste of the Indian NGO life for yourself, follow this link:

Please also feel free to direct anyone else here as well. You/they will have the opportunity to be interviewed by yours truly, Elizabeth Sewell, Volunteer Coordinator Extraordinaire!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Riding the trains in India is a unique experience. The interactions between people while jostling for space would be interpreted from a western point of view as just plain rude. People glare stony-eyed at each other, shaking their heads and speaking harshly as they hold seats for friends or family. However, as soon as the train starts moving, the general mood switches to one of pure pleasantness. No one seems to bear a grudge, they just settle into the space they have managed to secure and make the most of it. Conversations and friendships are struck up for the duration of the ride, food is shared out, chai is bought for neighbors, babies are passed from lap to lap. This atmosphere makes for pleasant rides even when five are squeezed on a bench for three, people are crammed in the aisles, and people sit and sleep on the luggage racks above.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sunday With the Jagannaths

The house that I am staying at in Hyderabad right now is very close to the Jaganath family’s house. I met Sid, who’s my age, several months ago and hanging out with him has been a highlight of every trip into Hyderabad. I met his father, Jagan, not long after and almost immediately became a yoga student of his. Always a wonderful and invigorating experience despite the 6am start time! Recently I have been seeing Divya, Sid’s fiancĂ©e, more frequently and it’s been great getting to know her. I’ve also met Sid’s older brother and sister-in-law, Harish and Sharda, a couple times during visits.

Yesterday I spent a great day with the entire family. Piya, our new RDF volunteer, and I had breakfast with Jagan and then spent the afternoon at the mall with him, Sid, and Divya doing wedding shopping. Afterward, we went back to their house and whiled away the hours until dinner playing Scrabble, Pictionary, and cuddling Flash, their adorable seven-week-old golden lab puppy. Pictionary only finished when Flash decided to pee on the board, probably to return the attention to himself! Harish and Sharda joined the games when they came home and Divya’s parents came over for dinner.

Harish and Sharda live at home with Jagan, and Divya will join Sid there after the wedding. Joint households are still quite common out here but this was my first time really experiencing one. The Jaganaths aren’t the Brady Bunch and I’m sure there can be conflict with so many people living together, but on this Sunday I saw one of the best sides of this living setup. Hanging out, chatting, playing games, and eating dinner with family who came and went freely reminded me of weekends with close friends at home, whether on Lopez or Fire Island, in San Francisco or New York. It was the perfect dose of friends and family and relaxation.