Sunday, July 22, 2012


I just got back from a trip that kept me away from home for over a month. I spent the first week in the Lake District of England with my cousin Eka. I met her brother, also my cousin, for the first time, and her new boyfriend that I had heard so much about. I was pleasantly surprised. He’s a really good man compared to all the others I had heard about. I also met her two friends. Together the 6 of us rented out a flat near the shores of Lake Windermere for the week. We visited the home of 18th – 19th century English Romantic Poet and National Poet Laureate William Wordsworth, friend to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordsworth wrote famous poems such as “Daffodils” and “Tintern Abbey” and volumes such as “Lyrical Ballads” (jointly published) and “The Prelude.”

Wordsworth was one of a group of poets who lived and wrote poems around and about the lakes in the Lake District. It seemed like an ideal life except for the issue of mice or rats. I don’t like them and I have trouble believing their natural habitat is the human home. But hey, that’s just my opinion. Luckily I don’t face that in my current London home, though it is a problem in the city. The trip with family was really great, and I just enjoyed the chance to relax even though I had a lot of reading material related to international development issues such as governance, democracy, energy, internet access, and employment. J

What wasn’t so great was that I packed for India which was experiencing 40-45 degree weather (Celsius) each day in Delhi. We had a few good days of weather in London so I thought “summer’s here.” I thought wrong. When I got to the Lake District I was introduced to the fact that the UK is one of those countries where you always need a jacket . . . year-round. And it rains . . .  and rains . . .  and rains . . . a lot. So though we took a row boat out on the lake, it was a cold row (I relaxed while Mark and Tom, the boyfriend, rowed). I was freezing in the Lake District. Luckily Tom had a few jumpers (jerseys, sweaters depending on which English you speak) for me to wear and Mark had a jacket he didn’t like (yay!!) so those were my best friends on the trip. It was a wonderful hanging out with all of them; Tom’s great; Mark is sweet; and I loved Eka’s two friends.

Reaching India was a shock. The heat in Delhi made Phoenix seem light and refreshing. It was almost unbearable. I arrived there on a Saturday being required to work on a weekend (ridiculous) to help train someone who was to teach a pilot class of our new curriculum. So it was a work trip, but I viewed it as my service trip for the year because my best friend wouldn’t respond to me about doing a service trip in Cuba this year. So for my job, I had worked on a curriculum for about 6 months (probably much less in reality) and we were now testing it out with two classes: a class of adult business-related people in the morning for 4 hours, and after a 1 hour lunch break, another class of university-age students. I was usually working during the lunch hour answering questions and helping people; this was possible because most days lunch arrived late. So I was working for about 9 hours a day. Now, I did not want to go on this trip and saw it as a waste because I didn’t want to travel to observe someone teaching for two weeks especially if another colleague was going and could do the observation. But here I was traveling to India to sit in a classroom for 2 weeks and arriving in India early on a weekend to spend two days teaching someone to teach the material. This teacher was someone from the training centre that would possibly teach the material for us in India and elsewhere.

To make a long story short, I didn’t meet with the person on Saturday or Sunday, and I was asked to teach the material for 2 weeks. Thus started the best 3 weeks of my job since I began in January. I have two titles: instructional designer and training development specialist, though my manager doesn’t acknowledge the second for some reason (internal confusion with this role). So he actually wasn’t happy that I was enjoying the “training” part but was thankful I was there to handle it since no one else felt comfortable with the material. But it was just lovely because I was able to stand up during the day (I hate desk jobs) and interact with people (I dislike jobs that do not have interaction with others) much more than I have been doing in 6 months.

It was aMAzing. I’ve included some pictures for you to see, but I actually became friends with my students. They went from being a group of people who were moving in slow motion due to the heat, intermittently swiping their foreheads and languishing in their chairs, to friends who invited me to events, had conversations with me, and hosted me at their homes. On the last day of the two weeks, the entire group of students in the Student Class gave me a white kurta (Indian top), white pants, and fancy cream shoes! They also gave me a super-large card signed by all of them (those that hadn’t left the course early). The Business Class students were less attached; however one woman from that class (she is a teacher at the training centre) and another teacher from the training centre who was not in the class, gave me a homemade gift bag with a Ganesh statue and 3 cards. One of the cards was homemade and included a picture of them and a picture of me which they got from Facebook. They were very sweet. I think what really amazed me was that I naturally expected that the second card was from a different or larger group of people, but it was still from the same two teachers. So then I thought the 3rd card was from someone else—no, it was still from the same two people. And that is different from my culture in which you would only give someone one card, not three. So I thought it was quite funny and very sweet.

The final week was spent training a bunch of instructors who flew into Delhi to learn the material so they could then train other instructors and start teaching the material itself. They also treated me quite well. They took me for a night out in Old Delhi (which reminds me of Old Istanbul or Old Marrakech) and I got to eat at a famous (only seats maybe 25 people) parantha street shop. I got parantha made with cashews. It was amazing. I wasn’t supposed to eat street food, but it turned out ok. I mean, I never had a solid bowel movement my entire time in India but I also didn’t have recurring bowel movements each day. So what does that say? (Don’t ask me)

All in all it was a good trip. The pilot went well in that it pointed out large problems with the material. This made some people think it was not a success or the training of instructors wasn’t successful but that’s not true. It served its purpose to illuminate the problems, and the instructors were introduced enough to the material to go back and learn it. I had a really good time, and my weekends were free for travel which is what I tried to do. I also tried to go for a swim each night if I got home in time and if there were no functions or events going on at the pool.

India is a strange, complex, and amazing country. As is always the case, when you first travel to a country you can write and talk volumes about it and its people because you know and understand it from your visit. But after being there for a few years you have less to say because you understand it less. After being there 5-10 years you realise you have nothing to say because you now know you don’t really know. Well, I was only there for 3 weeks, so I “know” a lot. Ha ha!

India is a country of over 1.2 billion people according to the 2011 census data, second only to China. But with China’s one-child rule, growing concern with overpopulation, and older-aged population, India’s population is expected to overtake China’s population making India the largest country in the world by 2030. The linguistic, genetic, and general cultural diversity of India is staggering. They have over 2,000 distinct ethnic groups and every major religion represented. I saw Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, and Baha’i temples. I even saw a Catholic cathedral. They have four language families (Austro-Asiatic, Dravidian, Indo-European, and Tibeto-Burman) plus two other languages (Nihali and Burushaski). Have you ever been told that “everyone speaks English” in a country to which you are about to visit and you arrive and you talk to people who don’t speak English? No? This always happens to me. And it makes sense in India. I think most people speak at least one of the two languages—Hindi or English. But you can find people throughout the country who might not know either. I had students in my class that struggled to speak English back to me.

What I wasn’t prepared for was this recurring conversation. I would meet someone who looked like she was from a different country.

“Where are you from?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean ‘where are you from?’ What place?”

She says something I don’t recognize which surprises me because I thought I knew all the countries in Asia.

“Where is that?”

She giggles. “In India.”

“Oh yeah, right. I knew that.”

One woman actually explained it to me. A lot of these people that I thought were Chinese or Burmese were from border regions of the country. I immediately rushed to find a map and was dumfounded at what I saw—India borders countries: Pakistan, Tibet/China, Nepal, Myanmar (Burma), Bangladesh, and Bhutan. It also has maritime borders with Sri Lanka (and some would say the Nicobar islands of Indonesia). And lastly due to border disputes, it possibly borders Afghanistan through the “Pakistan Occupied Kashmir” region. I knew some of these borders, but not all. I also didn’t realise it had a piece in the northeast that barely squeezes through Nepal and Bangladesh to allow it to connect with Bhutan and Burma. It’s a really big country and a hugely diverse one and has had border disputes and wars with Pakistan and China through its history. In New Delhi, I didn’t realise how close we were to the borders of Nepal, Pakistan, and China.

I could talk for hours about it (remember I’ve only been here a short time—ha!) but I’ll just mention a trip I took one weekend to Varanasi. Varanasi  is a holy city. I didn’t realise before going that it is the place that the original Buddha (Prince Siddhartha who was Nepalese) preached his first public lecture, meditated for 5 months, and was cremated. It’s a national heritage site, and there so many temples there in that site. Across from the temples was a museum and what was special to me was that out of all the artifacts they had (from roughly 200 B.C.E. to the medieval period), everything was from that town and that town only. I had never seen a museum like that in my life.

However the main attraction of the town was the activity about the Ganges River. Yes, the town was on the banks of the Ganges and there were dusk and dawn boat tours. The dusk tours were timed so that they ended at the start of the daily night festival where Hindu priests or adherents performed a ceremony with fire. It was quite amazing to watch. It looked like a Hindu carnival or festival which concluded with a fire show. And it was beautiful watching from the boat. However the morning was the most spectacularly strange part of it. I’ll tell you about that in a moment.

Prior to doing the dusk boat tour we had walked along the banks and watched the many cremation ceremonies taking place. According to the locals, 200-250 cremations occur there in Varanasi a day. I actually watched one; I watched a dead body being walked around, kissed, and burned. I smelled burning human flesh. I’m not sure what it smells like, but it’s strange. Cremation is a part of Hindu culture; I didn’t see any cemeteries there while traveling. However not everyone is fit for cremation. For example, often lepers are not cremated. So in the water you will find the ashes of hundreds of millions of people, I suppose, not that you will necessarily see it, but people put the ashes in the water. In the morning during the dawn boat tour we saw what else happens in the water.

It was quite strange to sit in a row boat where the rower rowed you past people who were bathing. It felt like we were invading their privacy; however, they were used to it. Some people swam in the water. Others bathed in the water, some used soap, most didn’t. Some people washed pots and pans in the water, some washed their clothes in the water. Some dumped ashes in the water, occasionally a body was dumped in the water (I never saw this). Some people drank the water, some urinated or defecated in the water. And the most amazing thing? Some people fished in the water. I met an Australian friend who couldn’t believe things lived in the water, but they did. I saw fish jump. I also saw a dead fish and . . . dead body floating right next to my row boat. It looked like a mummy. It was quite strange.

I wish I had a few days with you because there is so much more I want to say about Varanasi and India in general, but suffice it to say it is unlike any place I have ever been to. I was immediately hit in the face with the obviousness of the number of different lives one could live there. I was following Prime Minister Singh’s comments at the Rio20 summit and I liked what he said, to be honest. I have been having a very tough time at work explaining that I think our small project was low impact but people have trouble hearing what I’m saying. And then, there, amid all the talk of financial stability in Europe and climate change, Prime Minister Singh said eradicating poverty was the number one priority for his country and government. I loved that. I loved that he said “eradicating.” I love that he laid that as the foundation against which all other acts of the government must be judged against.

India has the largest middle class in the world. At Company all we talk about is emerging country and emerging markets of which India is sometimes considered chief. But what I don’t hear anyone saying is that just as India’s GNI and GDP are growing so is its inequality, and this is worrying to me. You see, India also has the largest poor class in the world depending on how you define it. I have no desire to see India grow in the same way as the US with the same kind of inequitable growth. I want something better for India. And India scares me because I think its potential inequality is even greater than that in the UK and the US. So it’s an even scarier situation. Just because a project sounds good, it doesn’t mean it’s actually positive. It might be neutral or worse yet, unintentionally negative. And I fear that our project has gone into the land of unintended negative consequences, a project that helps people--yes—but only serves to help increase growth among those that are part of the growth, doing nothing for those that are left behind, marginalized, not included. In other words it exacerbates the growing inequality instead of fighting it. This is my worry. And judging from the students in my pilot classes, I’m pretty sure they would have been fine without the course and would have, if needed, found another class to learn how to create a website, for instance.

Even though I call it developing countries, in my work group it’s called emerging markets because we think of these places as markets for our products. Because we’re profit-driven we don’t think so much about stagnating markets or diverging countries within the developing world, only the emerging ones. And so in some instance, we’re just trying to jump on a moving train. However, I don’t like the direction the train is moving in some of these emerging countries with unequal growth and widening inequality. I’d rather steer the train in a better direction or start our own train. No one in my area seems to understand this; if they do, they aren’t moved or they are on the philanthropic side of the firm. It is much harder work with a lower probability of success to do the high-risk high-reward (reward for the “other”) high-impact work of helping people who are not being helped, without resources, and would not be helped if you don’t help them. It’s easier and more likely to succeed if you go into a market or area where there are other people to provide what you provide (low impact) but at least you can say that you had the superficial impact of  providing it (even though you know, there is no difference if you were there or not). Does that make sense? Imagine a person in a small village suffering from a headache. I decide I’m going to make headache medicine. He buys my medicine. My superficial impact is that his headache symptoms were alleviated. That’s my biochemical top-level impact. But that’s only what I added to the situation (value-added is a common phrase in many organisations I’m finding). I judge impact not by the addition but by the difference. If I did not make the headache medicine and sell it to him, what would have happened? If he was simply able to buy another headache medicine from someone else, that Is very low real impact (or no real impact in this case). It’s much harder to do real high-impact work; if it wasn’t hard, everyone would be doing it. Often you are alone, you’re a pioneer. But when you’ve made a road or a path, other innovators will follow and you will have created an access pipeline for the group you targeted and helped. It’s much harder work, harder to get right and do well, but easier to measure impact if you are one of the few or the only one working in that area or with that people. And even though it is much harder work, in general, it’s much better work, a far, far better work.

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