Monday, January 25, 2010

Our five day vacation in Baroda and Anand

This is the story of our wonderful five days in Gujarat Province, to the cities of Anand and Baroda. This blog is set up from each of our perspectives on the adventure.

Cecilia: it was AWESOME! it was GREAT! we took a few days to visit vinisha's family and see the kite festival. her family was wonderful! it was great to meet and hang out with all of them for a few days and have a real vacation! the kite festival was awesome! we hung out with her granma, cousins and aunts and uncles. really great family who were just wonderful and happy to have me join in their clan! i learned a good number of words in gujarati and hindi while being here (most important of which has been "muchar" - mosquitoes, "bus" - enough, "ha" - yes, "ney" - no, "bol" - speaks/ing, "sou" - what, "cha" - 4 or tea, "pani" - water, "conheh" - who is this?!). we went to see the movie "3 Idiots" - i've downloaded it to my computer (like a proper grad student) and you all HAVE to see it! i could understand it pretty well just through context, so i was REALLY pleased with myself with that. so i think that you all would be able to understand it too -- we shall see! but its a GREAT GREAT movie! i loved it so much and am looking forward to watching it again tonight with our Mumbai host family!

vinisha flew kites - i tried, but mine started to fall.... so it was quickly taken away from me. because the real idea with kite festival is yes, celebrate the end of winter, but also to eat sweets, and to fight kites. so the string - which was a total shocker to me - is run through dye and then run through some small pieces of glass (yes. glass. the whole weekend all i could think of was this) so people get their hands cut too -- which is why everyone has their hands all taped up. but i took tons of photos and it was a really really nice experience!

Vinisha’s: On a different side of the story, it was very entertaining to see Cecilia learn Gujarati, mostly by force. I was terrible at translating because there was just so much happening and so many people to see and sooo many things to talk about. The significant part of Cecilia being forced to learn Gujarati was that I started speaking to her in it. I would be speaking with a family member on one side of me in Gujarati, and would turn around the pose the question they were wondering about to her. Unfortunately my brain did not turn on the English switch, so I would still be asking the question in Gujarati until Cecilia would slightly annoyed, say “I don’t understand… you are not speaking English.” That was very frequently the line she used, but we got better! Also, in my family, there is a lot of pointing with your eyes or head happening, which is mixed with some standard question phrases. Cecilia soon picked up on them, and we had to quickly adapt to her understanding our conversations and include her in them.

Kite flying was also a great experience. I of course was dying to fly them, and I am a self proclaimed pro at kite flying and fighting. You see, I forgot to disclose a very important detail about Kite flying to Cecilia, it’s more than just happy, la la land, flying, IT’S A COMPETITION! You must eliminate your neighbor’s kite, or yours will be gone! I suffered a few cuts but also won a few fights. Cecilia managed to sneak some awesome action shots.

Now the tale of our bold and daring excursions:
To start, getting there was an adventure. We went to visit with the Tata Institute for Social Sciences and met with one of the professors who is also from the New School - Usha Nayar. She's GREAT! And she introduced us around to so many people in the campus, it was really really great! (See other blog posts for more information on the TISS meetings.) Then because of traffic, even though we were leaving TISS at 7:30pm, and our train was at 11pm, we left and went directly to the station. We had been told that we'd gotten tickets for AC 3 tier. So there's AC. check, and awesome. 3 tier? ok, so what we were told was that it was three beds in a compartment. sure. so the third person will just have to deal with us talking and then Cecilia possibly snoring through my cold.... so we got to the station (Cecilia took as many photos as she could without calling too much attention to myself... but really, Cecilia does not look like ANYONE in this country. so not calling attention to the two of us kind of goes out the window in reality). We found out at which platform our train was coming to and then sat. and sat. and sat some more. In this process to waiting we gathered a lot of stares, but no beggars- surprisingly. Cecilia’s nose was pretty runny so Vinisha went on a mission to find her some tissues while she watched our bags. After going to three tea stalls, Vinisha found some, but the young man running the stall made her purchase the whole pack for 40 rupees. Jerk! Vinisha was pretty sure he got them for free, because it was a branded stall with the brand on the napkins. Then finally two trains left and ours came in! We didn’t know what seat numbers we had (Cecilia’s ticket had only been confirmed a few hours before leaving the house that morning....... there had been a lot of freaking out between the two of us of what a plan B could possibly look like.... for a while, it was looking pretty grim) so when the train comes into the station one of the conductors of the train runs alongside of it and sticks pieces of paper to the doors saying the names of the passengers and what seat they're in. So there goes EVERYONE and their mom's and the porters and just general onlookers to the doors of the train to see what seat they have. Cecilia pulled the bags while Vinisha mozied up to the door and found our seat numbers. The mob of people wanting to read the names was a little terrifying, simply because it was a mob. We don’t do too well with crowds and try to avoid them if we can. Also, while Cecilia was pushing the bags and Vinisha was trying to find our “compartment” the train was still moving, at a very slow pace, but still moving, and so some more caution was added when seeking out the compartment. We had seat numbers (thank goodness! Cecilia was still a little worried..... but it was all alright!) So Cecilia climbed on first, then Vinisha shoved our bags into the door hopped in, opened the door to what Cecilia thought would be a corridor a la darjeeling express or hogwarts train (although not as nicely painted of course.... after all we weren't first class....) and doors to different compartments..... ONLY TO FIND that the "compartment" as defined by Indians is the whole car. yes. the whole car. and no, we did not have three beds in a whole car.... it was well - when you think of a compartment, there are the compartment sections, just no doors. so a three tier really means that you have three on one side of the compartment, three on the other side of the compartment and two facing your compartment (here we are using "compartment" as we had understood it previously to getting on the train). So really three tier means eight. oh, and again we found ourselves in a pretty much womanless section. We don’t have the faintest idea how we get ourselves in these predicaments. We looked around us, saw the amount of stuff we had, and then realized that this wasn’t fitting anywhere but on the bunks we were sleeping on. So Vinisha climbed up first, shoved the first bag up to the top bunk, then on to the bottom bunk. We had to negotiate with each other about the rest of the luggage so we could sleep in only a semi circle. Regardless, much giggling ensued...... and then quickly stopped and we fell asleep a bit crunched up. We had quite a bit of luggage (one bag, the largest of them all, was not ours! we are not crazy packers!!) so Cecilia was on the top most bunk with one luggage behind my head and vinisha was on the second bunk with another bag behind her head. Cecilia fell asleep very quickly (as she is known to do on modes of transportation...) and then woke up once and looked around and the car was full and sleeping. And then woke up again because vinisha told her we had arrived in Baroda - 5 hours later. Vinisha was not so fortunate. She is a bit lighter sleeper than Cecilia and was constantly woken up by the two men in their area discussing their medical schools, and then later having issues with their bunks. Much later, it was just to painful to sleep in such curled up position for sooo long, but it was better than just sitting. woohoo for sleeper cars! no matter how slightly creepy and misimagined they might have been! To be honest, when I was all over, we agreed that it wasn’t so bad at all. In fact, besides the initial irritation, the whole thing was great, and even a tale to be repeated over and over.

so we arrived and went to one of Vinisha's very close family friend's house and were fed (we're ALWAYS being fed here!) it was nice and relaxing but Cecilia quickly OH SO quickly realized that no one speaks gujaratlish (gujarati-english) like they speak hindi-english in mumbai.... so she sat in the room just being talked to and over and basically trying to stay awake and pick up on what might possibly be the conversation happening around her. But she was pretty good at picking up when she was being talked about and asked for explanations from Vinisha when she failed to translate. After a while we went to visit other family friends (the ones with the luggage that we were given to bring back from the states). We ate again (told you. always eating! i'm almost convinced that i'll need to be rolled back on the plane!) and hung out.

Then we went out with the nieces from the house and took a rickshaw in to the city and went shopping. oh what an experience that is. at least oh what a difficult experience that is for Cecilia in India and for the people helping her shop. “i will never in my life take for granted walking into a store with all the clothes hanging and easily visible for me to touch and feel and see all the varieties” she promises. She tweaked. As Vinisha has said multiple times. shopping in india at normal stores is terrifying for me. Not sure why, but Cecilia just basically loses it. The vendor starts bringing out shirts and she hate them. ALL. “So then I feel bad that I hate them and that I cant articulate why I hate them.... and then i start to have a minor panic attack.” The store is small... and then we basically have to rush ourselves out of the store with a trail of Vinisha and the nieces behind Cecilia. In the end she did buy some things in that trip - surprisingly. Actually, Vinisha used a trick to help, she told the shop keeper that her friend gets very flustered with too many options, and if they don’t stop pulling stuff out when Vinisha tells them to stop, she will freak out and leave without buying anything. So they better do only what we ask them and nothing more. It worked out. Things put in front of her were limited and manageable. She bought stuff. Then back to the house in a rickshaw for - you guessed it, dinner.

Food in Baroda is awesome! its all salty-sweet, lots of sweet. For Vinisha, it was comfortable and pretty amazing as she had her favorite food- Gujju food.

We started to fall asleep at the house of the first family friends, so it was decided that this was closer to beds, and so we slept there. OOH I forgot! At this house they have a mosquito racket! Its actually pretty sadistic - its an electric racket that you swat the mosquitoes with and then they die. Sometimes they explode. but OOOH MAN after two weeks of being eaten alive, it was nice to get back at those awful little bugs for once! Vinisha walked around with it in her hands, and sought out the mosquitos, and attacked them while they napped. The were lots of oohs and aaahs, the uncle, aunty, and their son Chirayu were thoroughly amused by the girls pleasure in killing all the bugs. Then Vinisha felt bad for killing them. It was rather cruel.

So the next day we went with the second family and we went to the village of the nieces (they study in baroda because their village doesn’t have as good universities). it was great! and also an adventure.

it was finally kite festival! Getting there was a bit scrunched up, but come on- this is India, we like to be tight. It was actually super fun. So we were there, met the family, had some tea and then headed to the roof. the roof. This could have been ok if it was like EVERY OTHER ROOF IN THE COUNTRY THAT I HAVE SEEN, but no. its like American roofs. they slant down. but this one was made of corrugated steel. slanting. but since the family and the kids were convinced that we couldn’t make it.... we did it to spite them. Cecilia was surprisingly way more chill with it than Vinisha. Again, we broke into hysterical laughter. So we slinked our way up the roof holding tight to the concrete molding and then Cecilia sat herself down and didn’t move for a good long while. Vinisha got her sea legs (roof legs?) and was able to move around a bit better and fly kites. Although it took a long time for them to stop shaking. She announced to Cecilia that this reminds her of the times she climbed on her roof in the US to clean the rain gutters, but to be safe dad would tie a long dog leash on her. Cecilia took photos. LOTS of photos. and then she was joined on the molding by a three year old (yes 3.....) and they sat and actually had a lot of fun sitting and for the first few hours, he was mostly staring at Cecilia trying to figure out who she was and what she was doing there. then he took some photos with the camera and we were soon great friends! yes, friends with a three year old. he was the only one at Cecilia’s vocab level. The two of them were also the talk for the family for the rest of the day. The family kept on asking the little boy what they were talking about. So then we flew kites for a while more and then went back downstairs (at this point we were a bit more comfortable on the roof --Cecilia still always sitting though.... but she did walk over to other side where there was more shade and everyone else from our group hanging out). we went downstairs and then headed out to the farm that the family owns. It was really nice - full of cotton, castor seeds, mustard seeds, lentils, squash, flowers. more photos and little understanding of what was being said, but it was nice nonetheless. Then we headed for Anand.

anand is a smaller town about 45 minutes from Baroda where Vinisha's mom’s family lives. Her granma lives with her uncle, aunt and two cousins and not too far away are three more cousins with another aunt and uncle. It was great! Her family was sooooo welcoming, and Vinisha again snapped right back to getting caught up with people! And Cecilia started to catch on to stories and things while she was just hanging out - so now she claims to be at the level of maybe a 5 year old..... but a slow 5 year old. Cecilia had lots of conversations and made good friends with all Vinisha’s cousins and family - it was SO SO nice!

So we had, more food. OH! water! I forgot about the water! When you come into a house in Gujarat they give you a glass of water to drink (they all gave us purified water -- they were REALLY great about it! Vinisha's granma made sure to boil the water and then cooled it for us to drink -- She was sooooo nice to go through the extra effort!) but apparently Cecilia drinks really slow, which Vinisha didn’t notice because both ways were common for her. The custom is that the person who brings you and everyone else the tray with waters waits for everyone to finish.... everyone else would finish in a flash and then the person with the tray would hang around waiting for Cecilia’s.... it was awkward to say the least until she caught on or vinisha would grab her glass- absentmindedly of course. Cecilia couldn’t get the drinking fast down.... but everyone else just finally understood that she drank slow and let me keep my water.

when we arrived to the house we hung out and then Vinisha's cousins came over and all of us crowded in the kitchen for dinner. Cecilia learned that the tradition is that you eat on the floor - OH also, did you know that traditionally in India you eat with your hands -- RIGHT hand in particular. i've learned LOTS.

Then we hung out with all the cousins in the bedroom for a while until the cousins who didn’t live in the house were sent home and we all went to sleep. But just before we parted our youngest cousin cranked out the details of the next day’s kite flying plans.

In the morning there was chai and some puri (spicy cereals) and other dry grains/goods. then we slowly got ready to continue flying kites at the other cousins' house. the kite festival is only really on the 14th, but everyone loves it so much that no one goes back to work and just keeps flying kites the next day too. There really wasn’t much to do but to fly the kites because the whole town was pretty much closed. Now, to get to the other cousins house we tried to get a rickshaw.... which didnt work out. Vinisha and my stealth had to be challenged - we had to take a two wheeler, a scooter. Not something that Cecilia was looking forward to, and Vinisha just continued to live by the slogan everything is possible in India. So we went three of us on one two wheeler - so if anything happened, we were very well packed onto it. Luckily it was a very close ride! It ended up being just fine. this is a good thing because really, its the ONLY mode of transportation that's good for anything there. no walking (really no one walks anywhere in this country from what I've seen....) and buses just don’t make sense for where we're going, rickshaws were taking too long or were flying kites themselves, and there was no car - just scooters. so away we went! Scooters are pretty functional mode of transport also because they are cheap and require little fuel and also, since you can’t walk a lot due to heat, anti-pedestrian friendly roads, and the overall dirt that we would have had to walk through had we walked. Two wheelers it is! With scarves tied around our faces like burkhas to stave off any loose kite strings (covered in glass remember?) and the dust we rode our strange procession to kite flying.

We were there for a while and then just were generally hanging out. It was a nice relaxing day. Lunch was served by Vinisha’s other aunty. She had especially prepared Vinisha’s special dish, gulab jamun (a sweet dessert that you can typically get in Indian restaurants in the US – the brown doughy balls covered in sugar and syrup). Yuummmm. Even typing about it makes her mouth water. Then we went to Vinisha’s third uncle’s house, who isn’t an uncle, but rather an adopted member of the family. We flew A LOT of kites there too. Cut a few and lost a few. Mostly, tore a lot of them in the air. Not sure how that happened but it did. Trees here were dotted with kites, which is sad but pretty bold symbol of how much people love the kites. From here, we returned to my younger uncle’s house where we were flying earlier that morning. The little cousin had made us promise to come back to fly some more at night (he was trying to attached LEDs to the kites!), but it didn’t happen. Technical difficulties. So after much more hanging out we went back to gramma and eldest uncle’s house, where we were staying. There for dinner was CHAAT! mmmm best food ever! ok, not ever - mostly since I’ve had amazing foods since being here... but its WAY up there with delicious things I’ve eaten! We decided kind of late that we wanted to go see a movie. None of us had seen the movie "3 idiots" which has been the talk of India every single day we've been here. It was totally completely worth it! Again all seven us hopped on two wheelers (not all of us on the same one - we're not completely crazy!) and headed off to the 9:30pm show. Which we left the house for at 9:30, of course. Because really, everything is on indian time – well, it just makes sense! then we arrived at the theater and Cecilia kept her scarf covering up to try to fit in a bit more... we were in a lower class area in which the seven of us stuck out a lot. And again, our group was mostly women (5 to 2) and the audience of course was mostly men (because that’s how we roll). We went into the theater and here you buy tickets for specific seats and rows. We had bought the tickets pretty late so we had slim pickings for the seats - we got fifth row from the front. So one of the cousins tried to negotiate with the person who takes you to your seat to get us other seats - but being as we're 7 that was a bit difficult. My next request was made- “where should we sit?” The person working was really annoyed, he said “well, wherever you are assigned, of course!” in a “who do you think you are?” tone. So we told him, well show us to our seats then! Defeated, we accepted and marched to our lousy seats to watch the much recommended film. Unfortunately when we got there, there were people sitting in our seats already. Who had the look of shock on their faces when the theatre employee demanded them to move. They looked at the worker and then us who obviously didn’t fit in, a slightly uncomfortable posse of seven, then annoyed, moved to their assigned row- a row before ours. We took our seats, and immediately heads began to turn. This was a group. 5 girls, one of them white, and a 13 year old boy, and then a 20 year old male. there were two shows that evening in the theater: (1) 3 idiots (2) 7 idiots, 7 people who were obviously not part of the usual crowd in the theater. it was a fun time had by all (seriously -- it was great! and a REALLY REALLY good movie -- again, Cecilia has it on her computer and she will make you watch it. its AWESOME) do NOT be deceived by the name - its not a 3 stooges type film, its typical bollywood with random songs at odd moments- minus the overly romantic love story, but its SO SO GOOD! we totally got what the hype was about!

then we had another first - the seven of us were the ONLY people on the road. india with no traffic and no people. it was another universe. Unlike Mumbai Anand shuts down at 8pm. On a different note, to get on the road we had to get to where our two wheelers were parked. We unfortunately exited the theatre on the absolute other side from where they were. Also since no matter where in India, space is always scarce, so we ended up walking through a totally jam packed parking lot to the opposite side, again our group getting plenty of annoyed and curious looks. So we rode away on the deserted Anand streets to my uncle’s house where we were staying, dropped the first batch of children there, including Cecilia, and Vinisha rode with the older cousin to escort the other cousins to their home. After all the streets were eerily quiet and we couldn’t let the little ones go on there own so late. It was also a REALLY cold night.

Then too sleep! and then again we woke up with chai and some dry cereals for breakfast. During the trip, Cecilia was eating foods that were much spicier than she’s used to in the States, but having no problems at all with the heat. That was a total and good surprise! And good because she culd eat it spicy the way that everyone else in the house does and then fit in more and the families have been even happier with me. which is AWESOME! In some cases Cecilia’s spice tolerance was even higher than Vinisha’s, who usually downs 3 glasses of water at each meal.

The next day was set for shopping - this time we had a car for the whole day because we traveled from anand to baroda. we went first to get some saris for vinisha which was an event - but much easier than the last time that we tried it. hint: dont go sari shopping if you only have 15 minutes. and also, be prepared for a variation on the definition of "simple." at the first place we went (in mumbai -- sorry this is going back to another day in our trip...) for these fifteen minutes of sari shopping with our two aunties and vinisha kept saying "simple!!!!! SIMPLE!" our favorite moment was when a guy showed Vinisha this really nice simple sari (simple - our definition) and said, "look so simple! look! very nice" and then all of a sudden we were BLINDED BY THE UNGODLY AMOUNT OF SEQUINS HIDING INSIDE! oh simple. vinisha learned from this time and in the second attempt at sari shopping she was successful. what was her trick? being as aggressive as the vendor. she got three beautiful saris - two for her and her sister and one for one of the aunty's here in mumbai.

from there we went to the crafts fair with the aunty of the luggage. We were really looking forward to the crafts fair but were pretty disappointed unfortunately. it was all the same stuff that we had seen in all the stores... nothing that was "crafts fair" like. but it was nice to see anyway.

at some point during this day we had some tea (of course) at the house of another family friend of vinisha's. it was a top notch display like high tea! so. much. food. the most interesting part of the tea was the wedding photo. singular. they had one photo of the younger daughter printed earlier than all the others so that her mom could show it to potential in-laws.

then finally back home to anand and had dinner and then hanging out some more with the family and then sleep.

on our last day in gujarat we were stressed and pulled in a variety of directions. the beginning of the day was nice and relaxing, hanging out at the house while family shuffled in and out and talked with us. then we headed out with vinisha's aunt and uncle to baroda. thank goodness for them being there! they were a beacon of patience and zen in our chaos and stress. it all started when we left and headed to the friend's of the family's house that we had stayed with, as we had left some papers there. they said that they would be home... we drove all the way there and for a nice start to the trip, there was traffic. so it took a long time to get there. they had originally said that they would meet us wherever we were... but then changed their minds and asked us to meet them. when we got to their house, they weren't there. they were not at their home where they said they would meet us! so we started calling, and turns out they had stopped at a place in town ... with more traffic... to get a bite to eat of some street food...... we just needed our papers!!! and we had to goose chase around the city to find them! finally we met them.... and headed off to get more stuff (we tend to be like teenagers apparently who walk into a house and leave shoes at the door, coat on the floor, and various other belongings in random places all over the house. just that we do it in an entire city.) the next thing we needed was this luggage that we were bringing back to the states for family friends..... and some other things that we had bought during the stay in the city. We were fed (again of course! -- oh i forgot that the first night we were in baroda we were fed two dinners...... tip: NOT A GOOD IDEA! not at all! even to keep up appearances..... its painful.) after dinner Cecilia was starting to get antsy that we weren’t really moving to the door to leave and catch our train.... there as still a little packing that had to happen. we got to the train station in time. the thing that freaks Cecilia out about this is (1) She is a nervous person right before travel and prefers to be at the train station or airport MUCH earlier than might be necessary... and (2) trains run on time in india! they actually run on time!!!!!!! so we got to the train station and vinisha's friend and her parents (the friend's parents) met us there too. The whole reason we left Anand early and took the back road into the city was to see them, which went out the door between chasing down our papers around the city, and waiting to pack the bags. We saw them, and Vinisha started us crying. vinisha started crying because her friend had made such a great effort to meet her before she left the city, and Cecilia started crying because vinisha was crying... she couldn’t help it. It was just all out waterworks! they gave us some sweets (more food! HA!) and then we got on the train. it was pretty empty this time around AND it was just as we had originally imagined (or sort of) what the train would be like!

we got AC 2 tier this time and what a difference this made! we had much more room in each bunk (Cecilia took the top bunk again) and there were two bunks facing us. but THERE WAS A "DOOR!" a curtain that separated these four bunks from the rest of the car! it was awesome!! we digested the last few hours of our day in the hour ride from the baroda station to the next stop, there was some photos taken and Cecilia used her swim team quick changing skills for getting into her pjs in pseudo public before that first stop when more people were getting on the train. and then we went to sleep. it was a bit more sleepless than the first train ride - Cecilia woke up to people on the other two bunks talking (its ok if its us.... but it wasnt....) and she shushed them. we had a LONG day ahead of us and we wanted to sleep as much as possible!

we arrived in mumbai at 4:45am and took a taxi to a guest house that was very very VERY nicely provided by the couple for whom we’re bringing back and forth the luggage. its a guest house used for the company that the uncle works at (the same company that vinisha's dad used to work for). its a place where company representatives can stay in while having meetings in mumbai. it was GREAT. a five minute drive from the TAJ HOTEL!! yes! Cecilia and Vinisha were invited to meetings at The Taj!!!! wow did we not expect that! so we took a quick nap - then we were woken up by a variety of mom's (vinisha's mom in the US and our aunty here in mumbai) to make sure we made it to our meetings on time. we got ready and then headed out to the taj for a full day of meetings and touring around slums. A lot of learning happened, but we will get in to in a blog post later. we ended up staying in the guest house for two days because the first day of the conference ran late and with traffic (oh the traffic!) it didn’t make sense to go and come back from one end of the city the other extreme.

back to baroda/anand for a moment with some things that we should highlight: it was SO cold!! we never would have thought that it actually would be cold...but its a big country so yes, the northern parts get really cold - but we weren’t very far north in the least. but it was COLD! and then in the day it was HOT! The perks of living in a semi-desert, very schizophrenic…but livable and nice to not have all the mosquitoes ALL the time.

On a nice random note, which has nothing to do with our trip, but we found it interesting and we wanted to share it with you: There's a great ad that was showing on tv that she really liked and says a lot about the culture. it was an ad from a jewelry company (in english... she cheated). it was the story of a couple, told from the point of view of the woman. "ours was an arranged marriage" and there are images of them being really tentative and unsure with each other and him on the phone and her not sure what's going on or what to do. and then they're at a train station and she's looking around. "then two years 11 months and two days later, we found love." and then she realizes that he's not on the train and he realizes that she's not on the train, and they find each other in the crowd (ooh aah) and look at each other and smile and run to each other (ooh aah). and the voice over says, "for your platinum day of love." so its a ring that the couple "should" buy when they realize that they really love each other. it was a really cool ad.

if you made it this far we hope it was entertaining at least - thanks for reading!! and we give you major props. That was 9 pages, single spaced.

Friday, January 22, 2010

We're leaving... on a jet plane!

Hi everyone,

It's been a WONDERFUL three weeks and an AMAZING start to our research papers for next semester!

We'll be working while offline at the airport on some posts for you about our trip to Baroda and Anand to see Vinisha's family, our time at the Cities Alliance conference, and our last two meetings of the trip.

Right now, we're prepping ourselves for a few sunrises between here and whatever day it is that we land in New York!

See you all there!
Cecilia and Vinisha

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Aaaand we're back with more updates!

Last week we had a meeting with PUKAR. Prior to leaving New York we had been in conversation with PUKAR’s director to see if we could become their sort of interns for our three weeks here in Mumbai. In the end our trip has turned out to be just as our proposal calendar (posted early on in our blog): first week with SPARC and then a day or two with other organizations. This was our first meeting with another organization and one that wasn’t directly related to the Mumbai transformation efforts.

We had originally thought that we would be meeting with the director but she was caught in meetings all afternoon so we met with the program officer who was a bit rushed as well. There were big programs happening next week so the office a bit more fasted paced than normal. We were given a bit of an overview of the programs and we had some difficulty in getting questions answered because of this rush. We learned about their work with various organizations such as the biometric health survey that is being conducted with representatives from the Harvard School of Public Health, another project looking at the impact of the redevelopment in the former mill areas on residents, and a survey program that is taking place in Dharavi. After some time one meeting let out and another program officer of PUKAR met with us but there as some translation problems this time. Vinisha wanted to translate for her from Hindi to English but this didn’t work out. Then the officer working on PUKAR’s projects in Dharavi. Reshma was a bit less rushed even though she had programs next week as well. Reshma works with a community scholar team in Dharavi doing some research, although it wasn’t completely clear exactly with what sort of focus. The project was just getting started and she talked about having us meet with the community scholars and join them in the field.

The community scholars are an interesting concept that PUKAR has implemented as a program for empowering the youth of Mumbai. Youth come to PUKAR on their own and form groups, typically groups of 10 friends or colleagues, with a particular interest or question. We were told that one focus in a past project was from a group of women asking “What does the burkha mean to me?” or the participation of women in politics. We were actually shocked by the controversial questions that these groups were asking from within their own communities. The groups learn the various methodologies of research, are given funding to conduct the research that interests them most and then they begin. Each individual creates a biography prior to starting the project and a secondary one afterwards. This helps to provide context and information to the changes that happen with each person taking part in the program. The final products of this research are not papers because there are enough youth who participate who are not literate, and more importantly, writing is too formal – a final product which is more creative is more traditional and in the end more empowering. Individuals who participated tend to come back each year and take on more research projects and learn new advanced research methods and more complex topics as well. Those who take part do not necessarily change their line of work or bring themselves into a higher level socio-economically or academically, but rather the research informs them better of the world in which they live and the opportunity that they have to take a more participatory role in it.

The Dharavi research (as we understood it) that is being undertaken is a mapping project, and one that will look at case studies and gather data for longitudinal understanding. It's a project which will be looking at the impact of globalization and gentrification on the livelihoods of the residents. In projects like this the community is informed of the research and why the data is being collected. There is no formal presentation made to the community of the final results, but rather the community is informed of the projects and in this way they help to disseminate the vision of PUKAR and create interest in the collection of the data.

The main goals of PUKAR are very interesting and ones that would be nice to explore some more. They are most interested and work towards projects that are research based and use the research to promote action and transformation of youth into empowered citizens. PUKAR focuses mostly on youth because they form 40% of the population; India is a very young country. The research is a way to include the youth and individuals in global debates and bring their voices to the table. The programs are intended to build citizenship, democracy, and participation.

We unfortunately have not been able to set up the meeting with the community scholars this week. It seems that Reshma will not be going into the field until next week, once we have already left. Although the meeting was not directly helpful with our current research topic, it was interesting to know of the work that is being done by another of Mumbai’s important NGOs.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A day at the SPARC office, part 3

Later in the day, we found out that Sheela was still not close to being done with her conference call. While contemplating what to do next, wait for her and be late for family dinner, or leave, we spoke with Avery again. It was once again a very informative conversation. Throughout our stay with SPARC there was repeated mention of the Orissa Project. We did not know what this project was, so we asked her for more details about the project. She explained that right now SPARC is in the process of bidding on redevelopment projects, which will take place in one city in Orissa, Bhubaneswar. SPARC is now in the process of bidding on an upgrading project in Puri, Orissa. (We were just recently told about this program application.) The central government of India (GOI) is going for a slum-free India under it's soon-to-be-released Rajiv Awas Yojana plan. However, as the final plan has not yet been released. Avery mentioned that with a major focus on speed, there may be less of a focus on quality. But this is yet to be seen, and Avery continues optimistic.

We asked how this is possible, as redevelopment in Mumbai is taking decades? It’s a political move, to be able to say that within one’s time in office, the politician can claim their achievement within his or her term. We wondered about the logistics, such as surveys and building models and such. Avery explained that the project in Orissa is going to be very similar to the project in Pune. The kinds of buildings that will be built are different compared to the ones in Pune, because there is far more land available in Orissa. Pune has just finished the surveys, designs, and biometric IDs, but have not yet started construction. Orissa has one year to go from surveys to finished construction. Although this is a very short timeframe than one would like, this will be possible because the general plan is still the same: the general implementation and financing (in this project, the JNNURM projects in Pune and Orissa don't use a market component, the breakdown is about 50% central gov't, 10% beneficiary, and 40% shared between the state and the municipality). Moreover, the move from kaccha (informal) to pakka (formal) houses, construction of sewers, and bringing the roads to code will be also done, just as in Pune. In the Orissa project, SPARC was a bidder and has won the project. So, now SPARC needs to complete all of this in one year. One of the reasons SPARC got the project was that it had a model that it could draw from in Pune, which was approved by the state government in Orissa. By using the same model in Orissa, the state would be able to utilize the central resources to redevelop.

An interesting highlight in this conversation, which we believe can be understood for most locations, is that people on the ground floor will be allowed to stay in the same location with upgrades. However, others will be rehoused to different locations, such as in the apartments above the ground floor. Not being able to stay on the same plot of land can be a site of tension.

Mahila Milan acts as go between for the residents and architect, and relay the messages of what they have learned through cooperation to other communities. Avery said that in this way, Mahila Milan also explains that although the residents might not be living on the ground floor, the lofts that they would be provided has more floor space.

We do not have much information on this subject matter, but we think it is important to share that Avery briefly touched on another SPARC bid that is currently taking place in Bangalore. SPARC is likely to get the Orissa project because there are not many builders wanting to put in so much effort for a project that might not turn a large profit. In Bangalore, however, there may be a bit more competition because the bid is solely for conducting a survey project over 6 months. There may be more competition because the project is calling for a system in which the ID cards which contain all the biometric information of residents be swipable. So there are probably going to be a number of IT companies bidding for the project. Bangalore has many tech companies that can do this task far better than SPARC, but SPARC still provides a higher expertise in conducting the surveys themselves. In an unpdate received from SPARC, we were informed that they did not win this bid, but they are happy to hear that anohter CBO has and that they will be including some community mobilization components as part of their surveying.

A Day at the SPARC Office, part 2

We fell into conversation with a recent architecture and urban planning graduate of KRVIA, Adityas. We moved the conversation to our corner office (have you noticed how we enjoy being able to say that we had our own corner office with a window?!).

Adityas was very open and highly critical of the current government plans. One of the highlights of the conversation was the lack of transparency in the entire process and implementation of redevelopment.

He explained to us that SPARC is working with KRVIA in order to critique the current plan and to put together an alternative plan for Dharavi. “The government plan is developer driven and profit centric.”

The original plan that was created was to divide Dharavi into 5 separate sectors. This was done without any sensitivity to the actual location and people. “Dharavi was seen as a clean slate where lines were drawn as they pleased.” This sounds very similar to the scramble for Africa in the 1800s.

The government made it clear that they did not have the funds to finance the redevelopment, so the money had to come from the market. This means that private entities would be the leaders in the redevelopment and re-housing and thus no strict regulations would apply. The government is not involved in listening to the community, rather they expect the developers will be taking the residents’ views into account when creating and implementing their plans. The government is not involved, Adityas says, because it is easier to change policies or to stay out of it if a developer chooses a wrong plan. The government would then still be out of it.

Developers plans included housing residents in 17 to 18 story apartments which would free up more space for commercial use not by residents. Residents were able to negotiate to have 6% of the redeveloped land be for their own industry. The developers however, want to be able to use land at a ratio of 1:33 for their own commercial use. This continues to show the anti-slum driven sentiment in the policies. SPARC opposes this sector plan. The advisory committee, on which SPARC sits, has told the developers in June 2008 that they are not in favor of the 17 to 18 story buildings.

There are certain requirements that have been set by the government for the redevelopment. They are: a floor space index (FSI) at 4 which is a very high number), a 1:33 ratio for free-sale commercial use, and the fact that Dharavi will be divided into sectors. “Through these guidelines we need to create a new approach or to make the redevelopment more humane.” SPARC would prefer the following: no buildings above 12 floors, for there to be design guidelines to the homes, there be open spaces in the sectors, 6% of the land be set aside for commercial industry of the residents, spaces between buildings has to be set, and other necessary amenities as requested by the residents.

The plans for redevelopment have not been made public. Because Chatterji is in power and he is sympathetic to the slum residents, he passed along the information.

There were 20 contractors or consortiums bidding for the redevelopment. Due to the financial crisis there are now only 14 bidders. The bidders needed to present their plans for the 5-sector redevelopment to the Office of Slum Development (OSD) and to the Advisory Committee. According Adityas, the OSD announced that the developers have to show plans to the communities and that the community and has to have a voice in the designs. But this voice might not be as important as that of other stakeholders. Previously, it was decided that there had to be a 75% consent by the people but this is no longer the case. The consent was going to be arrived at by going door to door. The OSD says that the developers are chosen by community participation, but it’s unclear how true this is.

Adityas’ major concern was that the redevelopment plans are too big, “It needs to be done at a worm’s eye view, at street level.” He also suggested that development start in a small part of Dharavi, and then based on the results move on to another. “We need time to experiment, to find out what will work.”

Each of the consortiums is backed by a different politician. In our opinion, this probably makes the process all the more complex.

We asked Adityas if he had any preference between the 14 bidders. He said that, “there were only 2 or 3 consortiums that really got it. Others see it like a housing project, like a beautification project. Those that got it provided good typology which had use of mixed use materials and were sensitive to requirements (building heights), had a phased strategy for clearing, and worked more with low rise and high density options.” Why don’t they all think about the sensitivity, we wondered? “It depends on their ethics, there are no extra incentives. It’s all about the effort that they are willing to put into the thought for being sensitive to the residents’ needs.” The advisory committee provided critiques in February 2009 and then the consortiums have to redevelop their plans based on what they were told. Nothing has since happened. This could in part be due to the fact that elections happened in October 2009.

Should the redevelopment happen? “If you leave the area as it is, there is no money from the government that will come in. There are questions of safety standards, hygiene, and flooding that need to be addressed. This should be redeveloped. Some land should also go back to the city because it is a strategic location.”

Vinisha asked what would, in his opinion, happen if secure tenureships were provided. “This is something that has not been done anywhere. If you have fixed tenureships the fear is that the people will resell the land that they were just given and then move into slums elsewhere. But, it hasn’t been done before so we’re not sure how it would change the issue.” Another comment that Adityas made, which is important to remember is that, “Informal sectors work because they are informal and not necessarily lucrative enough. So maybe we are not really helping them if we formalize everything.”

“Right now we are working on voicing what will not work, because we do not know what will work.”

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Day at the SPARC office, part I

Our second day with SPARC.

We started the day imagining all sorts of questions we would ask Sheela Patel when we met and those that were still lingering from our previous days’ trip.

So we got ready in the morning and as it turns out we were running on India time again, but only by a few minutes, but those were Indian few minutes. Certainly, we were not allowed to leave the house without breakfast, so even as we were rushing out, there was the whole, “Stop! Eat before you go! We shuffled into our chairs, and inhaled Upma (some rice noodles cooked with peanuts and spices) and booked it out the door.

At this point it is important to note how fast our driver is: we got to the office in an hour and a half. That might sound like a long time, but this trip was supposed to take us 2 hours. We even stopped 3 times for non traffic related issues. Also, before leaving the house, Vinisha got an earful from Aunty about the area that we were going to. She pointed out how unsafe the region is, and we are not allowed to laugh on the street there. We laugh too loud and it attracts a lot of attention, and because of the area that we are going to, it can be misleading. We followed Aunty’s directions very very carefully. This meant though that we had all our laughter of the entire day stored up and once we got into the car for returning home, we burst out laughing over nothing at all.

On our way to the SPARC offices we got a call from Avery saying that Sheela had gone into a meeting and would not be available for us until much later in the day. However, since we had already left the house and were half way there, we decided to continue on and meet with whomever was available. We arrived that Alankar Theatre and walked to SPARC office. The neighborhood was very much under construction and most of the shops around were metal workers.

At the SPARC office we were told to go to the second floor. We went up the first flight of stairs and walked around. No SPARC office, just day care centers. Then we realized that Avery had been in India already for 4 months and was speaking Indian English, which meant that first there is the ground floor and then there is the 1st and only then the 2nd floor. So we wandered up one more flight of stairs, and found SPARC. After greeting Avery, she showed us around the office. The office consists of Sheela’s office, a room with many accountants (each at their own computer) and an office manager, and a final room where the program managers and Avery sit (again, each with their own computer). Because Avery and others in the office were busy when we first arrived, Avery gave us some reading material from the SPARC archives and we quickly found our “office.” It was nice corner office, with a window overlooking an almond tree, with nice cane furniture. If you came into our office you might have just seen couple of couches in the hallway under the window, but since this is where people came to find us and we did our reading and theorizing, it quickly became our corner office with a great window.

We began with going through the literature that Avery has pulled out for us. We flipped through the pages of a fantastic book, “Dharavi: Documenting Informalities” ( produced by The Royal University College of Fine Arts, Art and Architecture department in Sweden. The book, we were told, does not offer as much information as it could, but it brings the issues of Dharavi and the transformation process to light. We were thrilled when we were told that we could bring it back to The New School so we have much more time to pour over it.

Our first meeting of the day was with Aseena, the Program Manager. She was very helpful in presenting us with a clearer picture of SPARC’s role within the transformation processes. Aseena explained a bit again of SPARC’s history. SPARC was started as a charitable trust, which focused on housing and sanitation rights. In order to prove the work that they were doing was creating positive change, they had to continually create exhibitions for government and community groups, which would show in real life scale, the work that they were looking to produce in that location. “We had to always show that we could design community toilets that function, in order to prove our knowledge and that communities would mobilize.” SPARC sought out cities in which to do their work, and began in those where the city government was sympathetic.

Aseena stressed the reason for which the government was so interested in redeveloping Dharavi. The reason is that it is located at the center of the city and is bordered by the Western and Central rail lines. Also nearby is the financial district where many foreign companies have their offices. Therefore there is a lot of profit to be had from capturing some of this land for profit.

Aseena described the relationship between SPARC and the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF). NSDF is and entity that brings together many people from within the slum communities. Because it is difficult to deem whom in the government, and at which level in the government the people should voice their concerns and needs, “SPARC becomes the face of the people and of NSDF.”

SPARC also began doing construction of houses. This is a relatively new model for a charitable organization. Because of how NGOs are defined legally, which is within very conservative parameters, SPARC created a new organization, which was solely concerned with construction. This is how Nirman came into being (we got the name of Nirman from SPARC’s website, not from interviews).

SPARC is interested in implementing a plan that she called “Incremental Housing,” in which upgrading happens incrementally. “First a resident is provided with a loan with which to begin to create a permanent residence and then later, when you have more funds you continue to build and formalize your home. You make your home permanent as you can afford int. Right now we are trying to write a plan, which will help to implement this idea. We need to make the infrastructure ready and only then continue.”

An interesting point that Aseena made clear was that SPARC is the face of NSDF in the legal sense because NSDF does not want to be legally recognized as it involves much higher operational costs. For SPARC, “there is no personal agenda, we only work for what NSDF wants and needs because we need to register and be a legal and formal entity. NSDF does not want to do this. It’s a big hurdle if they are registered as a formal entity – you then have to trust your accounting and income taxes to be done to specific standards – each of the 70 centers has to be worried about their accounting. So, receipts and payments are sent to SPARC and we put it in a form that is acceptable and understood by the government. It’s better to do it here than to get individual accountants in each of the centers.” SPARC works on formatting and translating all the financial documents for submission. This is why there is a very large team of accountants in the office, each is working with different centers and grants. It’s important to note that, “SPARC receives new grants because of its connection with NSDF,” Aseena said that because of this connection, “if we did it on our own it wouldn’t be seen as viable for lending.”

Aseena’s time was short so we started getting to some of our more particular questions based on observations we had made in the last two days. On the tour, Sharmila made note that the children’s toilets in the new toilet compound were not being used. Aseena explained that, “This was due to the design of their facility. It didn’t work because when the children squat in a circle in an enclosed space they become conscious of their gender. We need to work on a better design.”

We were still not getting clear responses to our question on pro-activity. We were told that if a person or group arrives in Dharavi after the cut-off date, SPARC is in no position to be of service to them. When Mahila Milan becomes aware of the new arrivals, they do inform SPARC, but there is nothing that can be done from their perspective. They are working solely with communities that have formed into federations and have been in their particular location before the cut-off date of 2006 for Dharavi residents or 1995 in other settlements. Aseena said that, “The municipality wants SPARC to clear the pavements and keep them cleared. Yea right! We do this with the locations that are partially cleared. We provided the municipality with the idea of placing flowerpots or formal shops in the recently cleared locations. We’ll see if they do this.” There is still no defined solution in terms of the new arrivals as we see this as perpetuation of the problem. Aseena also said that new arrivals can come to NSDF to create a biometric profile which will then be presented to the municipality. But again, from our understanding of what we have been told, nothing more is done.

Another question that we were interested in was why Mahila Milan and other individuals in the slums don’t use the banks for keeping their savings. The reason is that people want the money that they have been saving quickly. In an emergency, they need the money as soon as possible and do not want to waste their time getting to or standing in the banks. “The banks had some schemes at times when they want to open a lot of accounts and increase clientele and will allow the residents to open an account. When they see that there is very little money flowing in the accounts – they don’t open any more.” People in the slums need money and the credit and debit cards are not accessible to poor. Banks will not put ATMs in slum areas, no matter how formal or old the area is. The bank is concerned about the security and use of their ATMs, but it is interesting to note what Sharmila told us, which is that there have never been any thefts in the Mahila Milan offices. The offices are functioning during the day with Mahila Milan women, and in the evening are watched over by street children. “We have learned that during the first year or two a community tends to need additional support before people are brought in completely to the system and that they understand that they now will have a set monthly payment.” In order to save on maintenance which could make fees higher y residents, communities have come to agreements, such as not running the elevator at certain times.

We posed a question regarding the conflict of interest that might arise in projects, specifically when working with various communities who all want land. We based our question on the story that Shahnaz told us about Dharavi residents unhappy with the pavement dwellers choice of land, as it encroached on their own. There was again, not a very clear answer. What we were told was that there is severe land scarcity and a question of how accessible a particular piece of land is to people.

With regards to the political scene, Aseena told us that SPARC is a-political and does not involve itself in political campaigns and works with all parties that are in power. No SPARC members run for election and during election time, all work stops so as not to seem influenced or biased towards any particular party, politician, or scheme. Sheela is, however, a member of the Advisory Committee, which is commenting on the Dharavi transformation plans. In a conversation we had later with Avery, we were told that “Sheela has a big say in the way that RAI will be written (RAI will take over the current policy, JRNNURN) and so this won’t really change the SPARC methodology, but rather will influence the policy based on the work that SPARC has done. These changes will be affecting states and politicians a lot because there is a lot of difficulty in changing from one scheme to the next and understanding what is new and different and what is positive from that change.”

There are different reasons for why the talks on transformation fall apart. The first time talks failed was due to the fact that there was no participation from the residents in the planning process. The plan very well could have gone through if NGOs and residents hadn’t at the last moment received word of the plan. Residents would have woken up one morning in 2008, to find the demolition teams in at their doorsteps. The second was due to economic and financial difficulties. The third reason, which is where the process is currently stalling is due to a continued lack of participation and collaboration.

Residents are requesting that the plans include: larger square footage, space for industry and commercial properties, and more rights for renters.

We ended our meeting with Aseena and then picked out some food for lunch. Vinisha and Cecilia retreated to their corner office for some reading and then joined Aseena, Avery, Adityas, and Kayela for lunch. It was a nice informal time to talk about planning and studying in India versus the U.S.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What goes on bakstage?

While we were typing up the previous entry, this is what was happening to us and among us.

Uuugh…it hurts. *SCRATCH*
Make it stop!!!
Ok I’m putting on my socks.
Help me…uhum…uhum…
Vinisha: Oooh that’s a good one. My toes…aaahhh….it won’t stop.
*SPLAT* HA! GOT YA! Oooohh that feels better *scratch, scratch scratch*
Cecilia: nooooooo! StopitstopitstopitSTOPIT!
Vinisha: Did you say yesterday toothpaste works?
Cecilia: I didn’t really try it? But washing the bumps didn’t work too much either.
Vinisha: Ok that’s it, I’m darking them out.
Cecilia: What do you mean?
Vinisha: well we turn off our light in our room and watch them follow the light out.
Cecilia: NOOO! Don’t turn the lights off, it’s never going to work. Our computers are on!
Vinisha: it’s ok, we’ll just dim the screen.

IT WORKED!!! It was a peaceful night no mosquitos.