Goodbye, Koraput

Corey writes:

Gina and I are now in Kolkata, waiting to leave India. Everything feels kind of unreal right now. Everything is in flux. It feels very much like Oct 2009, just before we left the US.

We said goodbye to friends that we will genuinely miss. It wasn’t until this last week when I had to say goodbye to people and places in Koraput that I realized just how comfortable it had become. We had friends, we had work, we had a home. We’d grown roots without noticing. I feel sad that we have to uproot ourselves again. I feel proud that we thrived in a foreign place. I feel excited to have an adventure in Nepal and Thailand. I am greatly anticipating coming home.

Our last memory of Koraput will be the train station, with all of Gina’s co-workers helping us with our bags and finding our seats and giving us flowers.

To the people of Koraput, we say "thank you". The shop owners who I visited every week on market day, co-workers who eventually learned to trust me, friends and neighbors who invited us into their homes for meals, the tribal villagers who endured our staring during field visits, the children with their never-ending "hihowareyous".

There’s not much else to say about Koraput that hasn’t already been said on this blog. I’ll end by stealing something that Gina said on Facebook that’s worth repeating:

Dear Koraput, I usually loved you, I sometimes hated you, but I never regretted meeting you. Goodbye. I will never forget you. I hope to see you again.

One Last Time

Gina writes:

On Saturday, I had the last-minute opportunity to go on a field visit, accompanying an external evaluator to hear about the impact of SPREAD's programs from the perspective of the villagers. The evaluator turned out to be an American with decades of experience living and working in countries all over Africa, Asia, and South America, so it was interesting to hear about his life. I was more interested though, to soak in the experience of being out in the villages for what I knew would be the last time. We leave Koraput on Sunday morning!

Even on the 2+ hour drive to the field area, I had to fight back a tiny tear, thinking about the vistas that I'm leaving behind.

Both villages that we visited had been told that this visit was extremely important to the continuation of SPREAD's programs in the area, so the welcome was extra-special, with garlands of flowers, turmeric and seeds thumbed on our foreheads, and drums and dancing.

When the villagers crowded around to discuss SPREAD's activities, I realized that it was possibly the last time in my life when I'd be able to quietly observe the dynamics of village life in rural India.

In the first village, the women and men were separated into two groups and I sat with the women's group while the evaluator asked questions through a translator. Since the women don't talk much if there's only one group, it was interesting to hear how SPREAD's activities have affected their lives directly. The translations made for slow going though, so I had ample time to take in the small details that I love about village life.

Boys with their arms wrapped around each other, love it!

A small baby enthralled with a tiny goat.

Boys playing on a bike.

We visited two villages where the whole village came together to discuss SPREAD's impact. Between those visits, we went to Kajuripadar, where SPREAD has a field office that I've visited before. There was a women's group meeting taking place there, with women from 10 different villages. The evaluator asked some questions about the operation of the group.

After the translated questions was the most heart-wrenching part of the day. Malti, who is the president of the entire women's group, is a tribal woman who lives in Kajuripadar and has led the group to do amazing things to fight for forest rights, ban liquor, and more. A few months ago she was in the SPREAD office and, somehow, we ended up really connecting. I was just using my basic Oriya and she was just laughing at my pronunciation, but it was the first time that I'd had the opportunity to spend time one-on-one with a tribal person without them feeling extremely shy and me feeling extremely awkward. It's hard to explain, but her caring and lighthearted nature came across in that hour sitting outside the office. I saw her again a few days later and we made tentative plans for me to visit the village again, since SPREAD has a field office there. With winding up work at SPREAD, however, there wasn't time. So I was ecstatic to know that we'd be dropping in to Kajuripadar.

After the meeting, I asked if I could have a picture taken with her. She happily agreed.

Tribal women are small!

Then the rest of the women's group wanted a picture with me, which made me so happy. I love this picture!

I wish I'd met Malti earlier in my time here in Koraput, but even the small connection that we had is something I will always cherish. Seeing her again and sitting in the midst of these amazing women really did make me catch my breath, because I know that the closest I will ever come to being "one of them" is right now. I of course will always be an outsider even if I visit later in life, but after two years of practicing Oriya, making field visits, staying in their villages, and building relationships with the SPREAD staff so that they know they can trust me, I feel comfortable sitting in a village with these people and they feel more at ease with me.

People have been asking us a lot lately when we'll come back to Koraput. The answer that we've taken to giving is, "Sure, in 5 or 10 years, we'll come and we'll bring our children." Whether it's the response that we've settled on for ease of answering or it's a true prediction, only time will tell.

Gina writes:

While here in India, I've done some web design and print design projects for the 2 NGOs that I've worked for (SOVA and SPREAD) as well as for a few other NGOs that have VSO volunteers. When fellow volunteer Sheila asked me if I would consider redesigning the website for Shakti, the organization that she works for, I was confident that I could use what I've learned in the past 2 years to manage the project efficiently and with minimal frustration.

There were aspects that highlighted the specific considerations necessary when working across cultures:

  • Working for free - Based on a negative past experience when working for free, I knew how important it was to clearly define the scope of the work and to be firm about limiting request after request after request for "one last change". I developed various decision points or "gates" after which no changes could be made -- the template was chosen, then look and feel was customized, then navigation was finalized, then content was provided. I was flexible to some extent, but Shakti understood and respected that requests for changes after the "gate was closed" were limited.
  • Working via email - Communicating primarily online is not a preferred method of working for most Indians, who greatly value the personal relationship and face-to-face contact. Fortunately, Sheila was at Shakti helping to manage the project from that end and vouching for my expertise. She and her boss also made the 4-hour trip to Koraput in July, which helped her boss to trust me more and showed me they were serious about the project.
  • Designing for Western and Eastern - The website has varied audiences: other Indian NGOs and international funding organisations. The Indians expect lots of color and don't mind flashing, moving elements. Western viewers prefer more subdued, polished sites. It was interesting to keep both sets of expectations in mind when determining the look and feel. I also had to be firm in my declarations of what was "best practice" in responding to some requests from the boss.
  • Training - Part of the project was a visit to Shakti to conduct updating/maintenance training for the staff. I really enjoyed developing the training materials, trying to meet the needs of 3 people with varying levels of English comprehension and very little knowledge of HTML and basic web design principles. I was proud of what I developed and of my delivery, remembering to speak simply and slowly and check often for comprehension.
  • Free, off-line tools - It goes without saying that Shakti cannot afford to purchase expensive web design software like Dreamweaver. They also are determined not to use the widely-available pirated software, which is respectable. Thus, I needed to find a tool for them to make changes that was free (or very cheap) and easy to use. It also needed to allow for editing off-line, as Shakti's power/Internet situation is extremely unstable. I spent a lot of time evaluating different options and found one that really impressed me.

The goal for a "go-live" date for the website was early September. Of course that deadline is long past. Even so, the site is well on its way to completion.

I was in Rayagada for 2 days this week training the team and was very pleased with their understanding of the concepts. To Shakti staff, thanks for being great students and welcomings hosts. Now I just hope we can get it to a public-ready state in the next 9 days before I leave!


Gina writes:

Do you ever have a moment when you're super-relaxed, feel totally calm, and have successfully kept all of life's worries at bay? Corey and I had a whole 3 hours of that today on our picnic. The walk there, the scenery, the weather, the food, the conversation...perfect!

There's an area just under 2 miles from our house that I've gone to while running a few times. It's an isolated area with lush vegetation, rolling hills, and rivers and ponds. The feeling of running alone through such beauty was something I wanted to share with Corey, so we decided to plan a picnic for today, which is the second day of a three-day holiday.

We packed a small American-style picnic lunch, which was fun to plan and prepare. Corey made his famous cornflake-breaded chicken and we made a mayo-based pasta salad. I made apple pie, but it had been in our wimpy little oven for 3 hours by the time we left and was just about finished, so I shut the oven off and looked forward to coming back to warm pie!

We were a little nervous to hear some loud chewing/crunching not more than 20 feet from us, but were relieved to find out that it was just a herd of about 10 water buffalo grazing! Seriously, these guys were hanging out just 15 feet from us!

Of the 8 bottles of wine that we've had over the past two years (I know, we should slow down, right?), we saved my favorite for last, Corey's parents' homemade wine. It's (I think) the last of the 30 or so bottles that they made about 3 years ago, a fantastic white wine, sweet-but-not-too-sweet, called Symphony. The picnic spot was the perfect place to enjoy it.

Don't worry, mom-in-law and dad-in-law, we mostly drank out of cups!

After our meal, we read and relaxed for an hour or so. Corey fell asleep shielding his face from the sun (and didn't know that I took this picture)!

We walked home and, just as predicted, the apple pie had finished baking in the shut-off oven and was still warm. Add a little homemade caramel sauce and it was a delicious finish to a fantastic afternoon.

Final Field Foray

Corey writes:

Last week my VSO Programme Manager, Praveen, came to visit Koraput. He was here to do my final review and to check up on the progress of the SAMADHAN project. He was also here to make a field visit and he asked me to come along. More about that later.

Praveen arrived on Thursday and we spent an hour catching up. We haven’t seen each other since June and he just returned from a month trip to Kenya and Canada. It was interesting talking to him about some of the differences between North America and India. Praveen is also very knowledgeable of development in India so I like to pick his brain about different topics.

One of the topics that has been debated in the press and government recently is the upcoming BPL survey. BPL stands for Below the Poverty Line. Basically the Indian government is responsible for surveying the population and identifying which households are BPL (poor). Once your household is identified as BPL you are then entitled to a number of social security plans, including subsidized rice, flour, and kerosene. If you are interested to learn more, you can check out the Wikipedia page.

There are many reasons why this is a hotly contested issue. Citizens and NGOs want to widen the social safety net and make sure that no one that is poor is left out. The government wants to limit the social safety net and maximize the tax revenues left over for investment in other areas like public works, education, defense, etc.

As a development professional, Praveen is concerned that the proposed criteria for the next survey will exclude many families with disabled people in them. He wanted to interview some families with disabled members living in Koraput and to find out the real costs associated with supporting a disabled family member in rural India. Towards that goal, we set out at 8am on Friday to Bandaguda, a village about 20 km from Koraput town.

We arrived at the village along with some staff from Ekta, another local VSO partner. Praveen and the Ekta staff sat down at the first households to interview the first family. It consisted of three members: a daughter, a mother, and a grandmother. Domni, the daughter has multiple disabilities and is totally dependent on a caretaker. In addition, the family’s earning ability is really curtailed without an adult male member. So the mother, 40, and the grandmother, 65, have to do manual labour to support the family. Every time Domni needs to go to the hospital, the mother and grandmother have to forgo a day of wages and spend about 600 rupees in transportation and medicine. They have spent around 10,000 rupees over the last ten years caring for Domni. But because there are non-disabled adult members of the family they are not considered BPL.

Next we went to another part of the same village and interview two more families. Both were in similar financial straits to Domni’s family. The first included Mitun, a young boy with multiple disabilities. His family is a little better off as his father can work and earns about 2000 rupees per month. However, the family took a loan of 10,000 rupees to pay for treatment for Mitun and are still repaying this loan. The last household has three brothers and a father, the mother recently died. Two of the brothers were disabled which meant that the third brother and the father had to forgo work or school to care for them. They have also taken on a loan of 20,000 rupees at 10% interest. These last two families are also not counted as poor under the latest iteration of the BPL criteria.

As always, I liked the chance to get out into the field and do some work. This will probably be my last time. I hope that Praveen is successful in his efforts to revise the BPL criteria so that these families and others like them will get some help.

Indian English 2

Gina writes:

More than a year ago, we collected Indian English phrases that were common in Koraput and blogged about them. Since, there have been quite a few other turns of phrase that we can add to the list.

Our friends that visited us in March said that they noticed slight changes in our patterns of speech--that we spoke more slowly and with fewer words. It's true, plus we have adopted the use of some of these phrases/words even when speaking just with each other. So if you're confused by our language once we return to the U.S., just refer to this blog entry!

  1. "I didn't get you" - You say this when you didn't understand someone's language. I like this one, because it's clear that the person talking doesn't need to speak louder, but just repeat themselves, probably enunciating more or using different words.
  2. "Googly" - I have no idea where this came from, but Google is often pronounced Googly and Skype is often pronounced Skypee. You try keeping a straight face when your boss says to "check it on Googly"!
  3. "Cyber-caf" - Pronounced cyber-calf, the alternative to internet cafe.
  4. "Side" - I've fully adopted this one, it's how to say "please move so that I can get past you" with the fewest words possible. Less confusing than "excuse me" also.
  5. "Like anything" - Appending this to the end of a statement expresses intensity, such as "These people will cheat you like anything."
  6. "Tiffin" simultaneously means the container that you carry your meal in, breakfast, and snack.
  7. "Time-pass" is when you do something for leisure but with no particular goal, like chatting with friends. So if I'm talking with friends or reading a magazine and someone asks me what I'm doing, I just say "time pass".
  8. "Rubber" - This is a new addition to my list. Just today, a co-worker asked if I had a rubber. It took me a startled second to realize that he must mean an eraser and not that other thing!
  9. "Maximum" is used in many cases, such as "The maximum best place to visit..", "..maximum quality beer..", and "..maximum people do this..".
  10. "Do one thing" is a common way to start giving advice and it's hardly ever followed by just one thing! For instance, if I were having computer problems, an Indian might say: “Do one thing. Clear your history. Delete your cookies. Defrag your hardrive. Run a virus check. Restart your computer.”
  11. "Peon" - This one is hard for me to say without thinking of the derogatory usage that we ascribe to the word in America, but in India, it just means the lowest-level worker, like a gardener or cleaning lady.
  12. "Prepone" is the opposite of postpone, duh! Except it's hardly ever used in my experience, because meetings never happen early!
These are the Indian phrases that have come to mind (or that I've jotted down over the past year). I'll make the point in closing that this list is not meant to insult Indians, but just to highlight a charming aspect of my time here.

Running My Butt Off

Gina writes:

About 6 weeks ago, I saw that there was going to be a big half-marathon (13.1 miles) in Bangkok, Thailand on the day before we were scheduled to fly back to the U.S. It seemed to be such a great opportunity -- a momentous event to mark leaving Asia, just enough time to train, and reason to be more serious about my on-and-off running regimen.

From conversations with friends and hours of running by myself with my rambling thoughts, I realized that my experience running around in rural India is probably pretty interesting to my runner friends (and hopefully my non-runner friends too!).

"My" Stadium

We're extremely fortunate to live just 1/3 mile from an outdoor stadium/track. It's not an ideal place to run -- it can by muddy and/or rocky, cows and dogs use it too, and there are often dozens of guys playing cricket with one eye and watching me with their other eye! If you can get past those downfalls, it's a pretty great resource to have.

Actually, substitute the blue skies for gray skies and you'll see exactly what I was running in for most of the past 6 weeks. I had the track completely to myself for a vast majority of my runs, since the rain prevented a lot of the guys and teams from coming out! Just me and the cows...

Taking to the Roads

When my training took me above 3 or 4 miles per run, it was way too boring to just go around the 1/4 mile track over and over, so I took to the roads outside of Koraput town. These roads aren't heavily traveled by vehicles, so it's just me and a bicycle or motorcycle every few minutes. It's hilly and sometimes I have to literally wade through dozens of cows making their way to a pasture, but the scenery cannot be beat!

On my run two weeks ago, there was a wedding procession in the small village that I pass through. I had to navigate my way through dozens of grabby, drunk, dancing men and kids trying to shake my hand!

Too Rainy, Too Sunny

Monsoon season this year was extremely mild...until 6 weeks ago, when it started raining 14 of every 15 days. Not kidding, there were only 3 days without rain in the past month and a half! The rain made it difficult to plan runs exactly when I wanted to, so I had to be flexible about running whenever there seemed to be a clearing of the clouds for an hour. The upside was that the constant overcast cooled the temperatures to a comfortable level.

Yesterday and today were the first days of almost complete sun. The thing about temperatures in Koraput is that it's very dependent on the sun, so with the sun shining, the daytime temperatures are above 90 again. It made my run this morning VERY difficult. I have to adjust my training times for the next few weeks, I guess.

My Progress

I'm not a very fast runner and the farthest I've run before is about 6.5 miles...once. Now I'm running 3 times during the week, runs of 3-5 miles, and a long run on Sunday. The long runs increase by about 1 mile each week. Last week's long run was 6 miles and yesterday's long run was 7.5 miles, which makes it the longest I ever ran at one time! There are 4 more Sundays left in Koraput, so I'll run 9, 10, 11, and 12 miles. I'm feeling good about it and can feel my muscles getting stronger, but I'm still nervous about the race. This is a good thing actually, because it gives me less of an excuse to skimp on training or take a day off my running plan.

Stop Staring, Dudes!

I've run on and off since arriving in Koraput almost 2 years ago. It used to be really hard for me to deal with all the "stare bears". At the stadium, the guys playing cricket or volleyball just watch me whenever their not involved in the game. On the roads, if someone sees me running, their eyes never leave me and their body turns as I pass them (I call it the "traveling stare" happens when I'm just walking too, but not with such predictability). I'm not very fast, so it would embarrass me. Only in the past few months have I blocked out the anxiety about that completely; now I just feel proud to be a model of fitness!

A Plug for Nike

The best fitness product that I ever bought was my Nike Plus unit. It's a little chip that attached to my shoe and a little connector that plugs into my iPod. The movement of the chip calculates my distance, pace, and time and communicates it to the iPod so that I can check the numbers at any time during my run. It was only $30 and has allowed me to run anywhere I want and has motivated me to get faster and run longer.

Half-Marathon Fundraising

I'm not (yet) doing a full push of fundraising for the half-marathon, but I do have a fundraising page set up here that you can check out. You can easily support specific projects in India for as little as $5 with Paypal, credit card, or Google.

Wish me luck on 20 November at my first big race!

Gina writes:

When I go on field visits, I get to observe tribal culture and customs in a way that never comes across in my photographs. That's because my personal "code of ethics" regarding photography is fairly strict; I don't often take pictures of the villagers for fear of offending them and using them for my own gains without giving anything back.

The SPREAD staff, however, are in a different position. They speak the language of the villagers, they've built rapport and gained trust, and the villagers can specify how the staff member has helped them (hopefully!). Thus, the following photographs, taken by my coworkers, can do what mine cannot -- give you a glimpse into what I see when I visit the field.

First, the tribal women. Each tribe has certain jewelry, clothing and/or tattoos that signify their tribe.

(The camera is not part of her tribe's accessories, but it looks cool!)

The tribal men often wear Western-style shirts and just a wrapped cloth around their hips instead of pants.

ALL Indians have the ability to squat for hours on end. With their feet flat on the ground, it's not uncomfortable for them at all and is their preferred position of rest.

This picture of villagers waiting to pick up their subsidized rice shows a few interesting things. First, see how tightly they're packed into that line! This was taken in May, so it was likely more than 100 degrees. Second, see how there is a line for men and a line for women.

This picture is the best one I have that shows what typical village looks like.

All around Koraput, you can see women carrying jugs of water on their heads. They start practicing when they're little girls, with small cups of water. It's cute and sad.

This picture is interesting to me because it shows the reality of the village kids. They take awhile to warm up and start smiling and laughing and sometimes never do. Oftentimes, they're just confused about strangers coming to their village. Also, Indians don't usually smile for photographs, so smiles are more common in candid shots.

A village meeting will either take place on the cement platform that is in almost every village for just this purpose or in the school. A meeting is a good chance to see the Indians' different definition of "personal space". They crowd into the space even if there is plenty of room, very interesting.

Having the chance these past 2 years to spend time with these people, even just in observation, has been amazing. Thanks to my coworkers, I now have some better pictures to remember it by!

Gina writes:

Yesterday was SPREAD Foundation Day. 22 years ago, Bidyut signed the papers (or something) and the dream that he and his friends had to start an organization to help Koraput's rural poor was realized. To celebrate this day, SPREAD invites all of the staff to a celebration.

In the afternoon, staff began arriving. The office was filled with chatter and commotion, which in all honesty, just made me feel lonely, working in my office, wishing I could speak better Oriya. I wanted to join in and help, but my presence sometimes makes the field staff, who speak no English, uncomfortable. Eventually, all the staff gathered in a circle and started peeling garlic and onions and cutting gargantuan amounts of vegetables.

I joined in and kinda sorta mixed in with the group. My pitiful Oriya is always a good ice-breaker.

A few hours later (notice how our sense of time has changed? a few hours of waiting around is no big deal...), pretty much everyone was there. We gathered in a tight circle around a bright pink cake and talked about SPREAD.

I only caught the gist of the conversation, but the long-time workers were recognized for their service and people shared their memories of their first day at SPREAD. Even though I couldn't understand the specific words, it was cool to know that the whole room was thinking about SPREAD as an organization and what it means to them.

After story time, the cake was cut. In accordance with Indian tradition, certain people (the kids, in this case) fed cake to each other. I was wondering how they were going to efficiently distribute cake to the 50+ people crowded in the room, but I shouldn't have worried. Hands dived in from all sides, pieces were passed around to those standing on the outskirts (me), and the cake was demolished in under a minute!

Then there was the obligatory cake fight, which I did not participate in. :)

After finishing the cake, we sat down again and Bidyut discussed SPREAD's proud accomplishment from last week. Almost a year ago, 9 boys aged 11-16 were lured to migration work in Pune. After working 16-20 hours per day for many months, the contractor stopped feeding the boys and was killed as a result. After 1 boy escaped and travelled back to Koraput, SPREAD worked with other NGOs and officials to locate the boys, get them a fair sentence, and transport them back to Orissa. As of last week, all 9 boys are safe at home!

Then I was invited to speak about my experience at SPREAD. I was not prepared to speak and am not used to speaking with an interpreter, so it was awkward. But I managed to convey my gratitude to SPREAD for treating me as one of their own rather than a VIP, express my belief that I've gained more from them than they have from me, and invite them to contact me for any help via email in the future. It was sweet and sad at the same time, sort of a good-bye for me.

Soon after that, dinner was ready. It was as delicious as expected, complete with kheer (Indian rice pudding)! When I finished eating, I realized that it was after 10 p.m.! My landlord was upset that I hadn't called him to let him know that I'd be late (oh India), so I hopped a ride home on a co-workers motorbike right away.

Happy birthday, SPREAD! Here's to 22 more years!