Monday, January 31, 2011

I Think I Should Have Been a Farmer

Greeting from the field. Sorry I have been a little MIA the past few weeks but I have been in and out of constant Internet access while spending some time in the more rural parts for work. My first “assignment” was to stay in Narayankhed, a small town five hours North of Hyderabad, and home to SKS’s flagship school. I was sent to spend extended time at the schools there, see how they operate, and maybe help out where I can. I stayed on the school’s campus—a couple of buildings surrounded by woods and hidden from the main road. There is the school as well as a few living quarters built years ago for SKS's first micro-finance work. While there I was reading the autobiography of SKS's executive director, Vikram Akula. At one point I was reading about the exact spot I was sitting-- a little surreal. Anyways, Narayankhed itself is a small city consisting of a few streets packed with dabas (little informal restaurants), stores, and tea stalls. The surrounding area is rural with fields of paddy and the common herd of goats, sheep, or buffalo.
Fields of paddy
All of my coworkers seemed to be so concerned that I, a single female, would be staying there alone. But secretly, I couldn’t have been more thrilled about it. I was looking forward to the quiet time, time to get out of the city, breathe, and relax. The problem about that though, is that a white person in the village doesn’t exactly go unnoticed. After an early morning and a long trip to get to the school I was tired and looking forward to reading or napping. Instead, I was immediately escorted to one of the teacher’s homes for the evening. Her house was modest but certainly not poor as she herself described it. There was a proper bedroom, an empty room used for eating (on the floor of course), a kitchen with both a traditional stove (ie fire) and modern gas stove, and a living room of sorts with a TV.  When I reached her home we were just hanging out, looking at her pictures and her marriage saris when before I knew it the entire village seemed to be in her small home. At one point I tried to count how many people were in the room just looking at me, but lost count at around 30. Since it soon became obvious that I was the entertainment for the evening, I couldn’t think of anything else to do but teach them the Hokey Pokey. And by teach them, it was more like me dancing and the neighborhood watching and laughing. While Rajeshwari, my hostess, was cooking dinner I sat with her neighbors in the front room watching TV. I had one of those “Is this real life?” moments when sitting on the cement block that acted as a bench in Rajeshwari’s living room. They turned on an English station for me, which happened to be playing the new James Bond movie. Looking to strike conversation, I looked at the woman to my left, someone’s grandmother who had more wrinkles then I’ve ever seen on a person and asked “Do you like James Bond?” As soon as the words came out I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Did I actually just ask that to someone who doesn’t speak a word of English and has no teeth? Yes, yes I did.

Later that night we ate dinner, in which I pretty much had a religious experience with Rajeshwari’s cooking, and then went back to my room and slept like a baby. Being that I was alone and a woman, my coworkers took extra precautions to make sure I was always safe and comfortable. First off, I was either fed or offered food all the time and secondly, there were at least two men on the campus with me (staying in an adjacent building) at all times to make sure I felt safe. At one point when I had to be alone for a few minutes one evening I was made to sit inside my room with the door locked. While this whole in-the-woods-with-two-young -men thing might sound intimidating, as it turns out in India, men don’t even come near you. The guys I stayed with strictly adhered to Indian standards of etiquette between men and women. They never stood too close to me and if there was a moment when we had to be in somewhat close proximity, they were clearly visibly awkward about it.  This point was demonstrated so clearly one evening while eating dinner outside on our respective stoops. Instead of grabbing a chair to sit somewhere between the two stoops (meaning a little closer to me), Sidu and Sudaker preferred to pretty much sit on top of each other on their own stoop. This is also a commentary on the touchy-feely nature of relationships between Indian men. It is common to see men holding hands, leaning on each other, and just being physical with each other. They aren’t gay or anything like that, it is just how they express friendship and mutual adoration for one another. I am convinced though it is a result of the culture’s conservative rules about PDA with people of the opposite sex. 

Anyways, I left Narayankhed desiring only to return with more time. I want to get to know the teachers and spend time on the beautiful school campus. The mornings there were worth it alone. I sat on the stoop of my little brick building surrounded by woods, and grass, and silence. I could read and clear my head and actually breath. That is until exactly 9am when an SUV packed with school children (literally packed, there isn’t the same standard of safety here as there is back home) would come speeding in on the dirt road. 

After one night home, a group of my coworkers and I from the head office headed to Kusimanchi for a two day Teacher Training Workshop. I never thought I would be saying this about a trip that made me work on the weekend, but we had a blast. The workshop took place in a building still under construction—with no second floor and no walls—in the middle of red chili fields. It was a very Indian thing that while we were conducting a professional conference construction work went on like nothing changed, so although we had to deal with the occasional sounds of falling construction materials, the location was beautiful. My coworkers, all city-dwellers, went nuts for the scenery and needed pictures in front of the fields or next to farm materials.

The view from the training in Kusumanchi
That's me!

I'm on a boat.
After the training on the first day we took a motor-boat ride on a lake at sunset and then went out to dinner in a bustling little city, Kammam. While walking to dinner there was not one person on the street who didn’t stare at Nurit and me walk by. I think we made half of the town’s night. So much so, we were in the newspaper the next day! It always makes me feel uncomfortable, but just by the color of my skin, I am often given celebrity status. Like at the end of the training, I was bum rushed by the crowd asking for pictures and autographs. At one point, people had to form a line to take a picture with me on their camera phones and I often caught the teachers taking a picture while I wasn’t looking. 

Regardless of the stares and the mosquitoes, the squat toilets and the little lizard that ran around my room, my time in the field has been refreshing. The rural scenery is breathtaking and strangely enticing. Maybe it is just the unknown that is exciting for me, but whatever it is, maybe in my next life I'll get to be a farmer.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Signs You Work in an Indian Office

A few observations written out of love for my coworkers...

1. Hidden resources. There is a surprising lack of resources for such a large office. Just to remind you, I work in an eight story corporate office complete with elevators, security badges, and a parking garage. There are four or five people at the front gate alone who greet you as you walk in, including one guy who runs a mirror along the undercarriage of your car. There are three elevators, two restaurants, a whole floor designated as the cafeteria, and one fax machine. That’s right, one machine for 350 employees. I learned about this because a couple of weeks ago I had to send a fax. To start, I needed to print a professional letter on letterhead. I wrote the letter but am not connected to a printer, so I recruited a coworker to help me print. Then I had to find the admin.  guy to ask him to get the paper who had to ask another girl for the key to a locked cabinet. He handed me two sheets so that when the printer messed up on the first, I had one chance to get it right. Letter in hand I was told to go to the first floor to talk to the fax operator. She was out to lunch. I returned back only to learn that the fax machine had moved to level three in legal services. I had to walk through rows of unknown cubicles to find the fax machine and wait for the fax operator to return from a meeting. An entire afternoon down and my fax was sent.

2. Motorcycles. My coworkers all drive motorcycles into the office. While that might be the case if I worked at a Harley Davidson shop or something in the states, here driving motorcycles and mopeds is completely normal, even the preferred mode of transportation. When cars are expensive and roadways are so jammed pack that eight modes of transportation are squeezing into four lanes, motorcycles are simply the best option. I was so amused by one of my coworker’s cool black helmet that one day I insisted on putting it on in the middle of the office. I’m pretty sure they all thought I was a little weird after that.

3. The chaiwallah. There is a person in my office whose whole job, as far as I can tell, is to bring us chai- very milky, very sweet tea-- twice a day. Once at 11am once at 3pm, like clockwork. I feel like one of Pavlov’s dogs because everyday exactly around 11 and exactly around 3 I start to feel a little parched. I look around my desk and Ganesh, my chaiwallah, is usually standing there with a tray of little tiny cups filled with the delicious treat. In many offices when the chai comes nobody does anything but stand in groups sipping to themselves, the equivalent of gossip around the water cooler. Most recently though, tragedy struck. My office outlawed the personal delivery of mugs so that I have to leave my desk, go to the little kitchen outside, and pour my own chai. The new rule had rendered Ganesh’s job pretty much obsolete but in this service-oriented society no one seems to care. I find that in most restaurants, hotels, gas stations, salons, and stores there seem to be a whole lot of employees doing absolutely nothing at all.

4. Lateness. Not to be rude or culturally insensitive, but Indians are kind of lazy. The office opens at 9:30am every morning but people don’t usually start trickling in until around 9:45 or so. It is what they call “Indian Standard Time.” Punctuality can be so bad that the education department implemented a daily check-in for our morning and evening meetings to ensure that people actually come on time. You color green if you are on time, yellow if you have an excused absence, and red if you are late. Who new that coloring would actually hold people accountable, but it does!

5. Lunch room etiquette. I know I have spoken about this before but I feel like it deserves another mention. Lunch time is so much fun. For less than a dollar I get a huge tray of two types of rice, naan, three varieties of curry, yoghurt, and a dessert. I sit with my coworkers who sometimes buy, sometimes bring from home. They open their “tiffins” (ie lunch boxes), take out spoons, and begin scooping their food onto each other’s plates. It is a strange experience for me because obviously I would love to share my food. It feels very uncomfortable though to just take from my plate and plop onto another’s without asking them first.  A few rules I learned the hard way: 1) If you are eating food with a spoon do not use that same spoon to scoop food for another person. This should be obvious for hygienic purposes but everybody shares everything (even the same bottle of water) so I didn’t think it would be a big deal. 2) Don’t bring the same leftovers twice in a row. This isn’t a huge no-no but one of my coworkers looked horrified when I told her the coconut curry I had made was the same one I brought in the day before.  A lot of people make (or have their cooks make) a fresh curry and rice every morning for their lunches. 3) Wash your hands before and after. There is a row of about six sinks attached to the cafeteria for this purpose alone.

6. Christmas. I think one out of about 25 people in the education team at my work is Christian. Nonetheless, it was insisted we decorate the meeting room for Christmas. Being the intern, it was naturally my job. The team spotted a potted plant in the lunch room that they intended on repurposing for our Christmas tree. The admin guy ended up doing most of the work- stealing the plant, wrapping it with read and green sparkly streamers, lights, and topping it with a Santa Clause stuffed animal. He hung a star from the ceiling and scattered the floor with balloons. The “tree” was hidden in the conference room so that when everyone came in for our morning meeting it was a pleasant surprise. I couldn’t help but crack up seeing my coworkers excitement about the dinky tree and balloons, which I think they interpreted as my genuine excitement. I spent my afternoon that day building a giant snowman to accompany the tree. Perhaps that excitement was genuine…