Elizabeth in India

Elizabeth is a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering in the Lyle School of Engineering. She was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Internship for summer 2013 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. Elizabeth will be working in Bangalore, India, with the Leave UR Mark organization on a water conservation and literacy design project.

Challenges, but an incredible journey

This last week in India has proved to be by far the hardest week I can remember having in a long time, if not ever. This can probably be attributed to a few things.

For starters, all of the Leave UR Mark interns traveled to Ooty, Tamil Nadu, for my last weekend trip. It is an absolutely gorgeous area in the mountains with tea plantations and the highest peak in southern India. However, on Sunday, despite choosing a restaurant that appeared nice, everyone came down with food poisoning. On the 6-hour bus ride back to Bangalore, I was the first to fall, shortly followed by 7 other interns. One girl had it worse than the rest of us, and we had to take her to the hospital. Side note: this will not be the last time I am in the hospital this week.

Due to my sickness, I had to miss work on Monday, which was disappointing because it was my second to last day. I will definitely miss my job. It was incredibly sad to say goodbye to everyone in the office, especially because I was saying bye to the entire family. I may not have gotten any firsthand engineering experience, but working abroad allowed me to immerse myself in a problem, and it was very eye-opening.

Obviously I could not expect to travel to India and solve the water crisis, but I still feel like I made a difference, no matter how small. I know that by helping Water Literacy Foundation publish a book in English, it will be able to reach more and more people. Volunteering my time to an organization that has a real chance of making an impact, and in many ways already has, is satisfactory in and of itself.

Tuesday evening began my journey to north India. The plan was to take a 35-hour train ride to Delhi, arrive and explore Delhi on Thursday, catch a bus to Agra on Thursday night, spend the night in Agra, see the Taj Mahal on Friday, catch a bus back to Delhi on Friday night, stay the night in Delhi and then fly back to Bangalore before leaving the next day for Texas. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well, first of all, I would like to start by saying that the 35-hour train ride was the most enjoyable part of my journey, if that is any indication as to what is to follow. I stepped off the train at 8 am Thursday into a wall of HEAT. Oh my goodness, it was hot. I was just so incredibly unprepared for the heat, despite the warnings I got from just about everyone. I was definitely under the impression that if I can handle Texas heat, it wouldn’t be that bad. Wrong!

The first thing we did in Delhi was go to the Red Fort, which was actually very cool (although not as cool as the Red Fort in Agra). After spending an hour there we were ready to move on. We all thought it would be a good idea to go to the local bazaar. Mistake number one. So we took a rickshaw to the Sadar Bazaar, not an auto-rickshaw… a guy on a bicycle. Mistake number two. I cannot explain just how many people, cows, rickshaws or trash there was.

Side story: during my time in Bangalore, the other interns and I saw a really terrible movie called Pacific Rim about robot monsters invading earth. These robots were classified like hurricanes – category 1, etc. So the running joke among the interns was when anyone was being sassy or unpleasant, they were referred to as category 5. Needless to say, I hit category 5 in the bazaar. What happened next I am not proud of. All of us got an auto-rickshaw to the nearest mall and spent two hours in McDonald’s. Judge me! I have never been so happy to see a McDonald’s, and I hate fast food. It was such an American thing to do, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

The day got better after that. We went to Asoka’s pillar and a mosque, and it was there I met some of the nicest people I have encountered in India. It was very enjoyable, and there was a lovely grassy area that allowed us to just chill until we had to catch our bus to Agra. Once we arrived in Agra, we took a rickshaw to our hotel. Hotel Sai Palace. When we were taken to a very sketchy part of town, I thought the driver didn’t know where he was going. I very vividly remember turning to my friend saying, “If this is where we are getting dropped off, I am not getting out of the rickshaw.” Sure enough that’s where our hotel was; sorry, Mom and Dad. But a bed is a bed and a shower is a shower. Plus the hotel had a rooftop view of the Taj Mahal.

Finding posters of the Taj

Finding posters of the Taj

Which, funny story about the Taj Mahal… it is closed on Fridays. I traveled halfway across the world and halfway across India, and the one day I can possibly see the Taj it was closed. I was just absolutely heartbroken. It just goes to show you, you really must expect ANYTHING to happen in India. Although this one was definitely our fault. It could have been easily prevented with just a little research, but honestly no one thought that one of the Seven Wonders of the World would ever close, not to mention on the weekend. We were determined to not let this get us down, though!

I am just so grateful that I was traveling with such amazing people, if it weren’t for them the trip would have been beyond recovery, but we all still managed to have a good time. We chipped in for a taxi that drove us to all of the other historical sites in Agra, and we still got a pretty decent picture with the Taj Mahal’s backside, and every poster of the Taj we saw hanging up as well :)

From here on out, all of my other travels are a part of my journey home. Unfortunately, it involved a headache that became a full-blown migraine during my flight home, resulting in my airline calling me in as a medical emergency, a trip to the hospital and a missed flight to Dallas. However, my parents managed to get me on a plane the following day and they booked me a five-star hotel for the night, where I had a nice, juicy hamburger. It was the first meal I had eaten in over a day. It was so glorious! My headache still persisted, but Tylenol and coffee do magical things. At the end of the day, getting sick was worth my time in India.

So that was my difficult week. I haven’t decided if it was particularly hard because of the actual events, or if it is because my body just started to crave home. I think it might be a bit of both.

I truly did experience all of India. I saw the beautiful side with all of its culture and landscape, but I also saw the poverty. The conditions some of the people live in are heartbreaking. The faces of some of the people are so hardened from the daily struggles they face. I witnessed a mother with her baby run to see if the bus station had running water. When she discovered it did, she washed herself and her child and then took some for drinking. The homeless sleep wherever they can lay down, no matter the conditions.

At the same time, there is an incredibly rich side of India as well. The rich are very rich, and the poor have almost nothing; there is no middle class. What middle class there is I think all reside in Bangalore, but definitely not Delhi. Not the Delhi I experienced. Two months abroad has been life changing, but it is a long time to be away from home, and right now I just really want a large pizza from Dominos.

My flight home (which is when I am typing all of this) has been so enjoyable. Never before have I been on a flight where both the people I sit next to are interesting to talk to.  I could not have asked for a better end to my journey.

And with that, my story comes to an end. My time in India may be over, but the adventure never ends. As long as I am living and able, I always hope to serve others in whatever capacity I can.

PS: the airline lost my baggage.

Pony up at the (closed) Taj Mahal

Pony up at the (closed) Taj Mahal

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Where my feet have led

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My feet are scratched, bruised, calloused, blistered, and I am pretty sure my baby toe is broken. I have never been in so desperate need of a pedicure in my life. That being said, I have never appreciated my feet more. It is custom in Indian culture to take off your shoes before entering a building, so it is very normal to wear flip-flops everywhere, and once people get to where they need to go, it is even more normal to walk around barefoot. Thus, I walk around barefoot. It took some time to get used to, but once I got past how disgusting my feet were every day, I learned to take pride in all that my feet can accomplish.

This past weekend, I went to Hampi, a town in Karnataka that is completely covered with rocks and boulders. It is the absolute perfect location for hiking, from a non-hiker’s perspective. Which is a good thing, because in order to reach the majority of the temples, it is necessary to climb. I spent more time barefoot than I did in shoes. Pardon my transcendental moment for a second, but I have never felt so connected to nature like I did when I climbed barefoot. It felt so natural, and my feet felt so strong… until I smashed my poor baby toe. Then the transcendental moment passed.

The other interns and I were taken to an overview of Hampi. The view was absolutely breathtaking, and after an hour of yoga and silence, it felt as if I was on top of the world… no matter how cliché that may sound. Before coming to India, I did not consider myself a nature person. I try not to sweat, and I am pretty sure I have expressed my hatred for bugs, but when such beauty surrounds me, I could not care less about those things. Especially when the Hanuman (monkey) temple is 570 steps above ground level – try not sweating then. I will admit, I complained the entire way up, and the locals made fun of how heavy I was breathing, but it was SO worth it. Monkeys are the happiest animals, in my opinion. I just can’t help but smile when I see them!

The rest of my time in Hampi was spent eating amazing food. OH! And the hotel I stayed at had a hair dryer. It’s amazing how much of an emotional response that stirred in me. I know people say that they learn to appreciate the little things after going abroad, but I did not realize just how true it is until I saw the hair dryer. It is definitely the little things in life. :)

From Hampi, I traveled back to Gadag for my boss’s daughter’s wedding… well, I tried to travel there. All I had to do was catch one bus that went directly to Gadag. Easy enough. Too bad the bus never came. I waited for two hours before I gave up and began looking for other options. I went around the bus station looking for people who spoke English until I found a brother and a sister who were waiting for the same bus as me. Now that was lucky. They were so nice and helpful, and they took me under their wing as their own responsibility. I ended up following them on a bus to another town in order to catch a bus to Gadag. When we finally got the bus we needed, it was so crowded that we had to stand – for two hours.

DSC02542The Indian wedding was incredible. After hours spent researching the different traditions, I have determined that I will never know what I witnessed. It was all so intricate and detailed. The bride and groom didn’t even know what to do half the time. It was beautiful chaos. There were so many people running around, eating food, and taking pictures. The little kids latched onto me, and for the afternoon I was their plaything. They helped me wear a traditional sari, and gave me a bindi and jasmine to put in my hair. It was so much fun!

I have officially entered my last week of work. It is so surreal to think that two months has passed so quickly. What is even more bizarre, though, is there is a new intern working with me. All of a sudden I became the expert on India. I answer all of her questions and walk her through daily life in India. Can someone please explain to me when I started actually knowing what I was doing? I think I have reached the point where I have been in Indian for so long, that I will definitely miss it when I go home: 11 days!! I have settled into a routine with work. I occasionally get to do cool things still, but I finished my book project and there currently is not any work left for me. Especially since there is a new intern. So I basically hang out with the family and do small tasks around the office. I cannot complain.

I cannot wait to see where else my beat-up feet take me for the rest of my time here. I predict that they may carry me to Delhi! I hope that for the rest of my life I keep the same sense of adventure – and that I never stop traveling.

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Learning to go with the flow

I mentioned previously that in order to survive in India, it is important to manage your expectations. I should clarify. You MUST be flexible! Monday night at 9:30 I got a phone call from work: I would be leaving on a three-day trip to my boss’s farm in Gadag, Karnataka, eight hours away, and we would be leaving at 4 a.m. I quickly did laundry, ate dinner, and packed my freshly wet clothes in a backpack before setting out on my journey back to work. This will be nothing less than an adventure.

Upon arriving back at work, I promptly went to sleep so that I could get some rest before leaving. At 5 a.m., I, along with my two French co-workers, my boss, and his wife crammed into a little van with our luggage. The opportunity for more sleep was lost, so I stared out the window daydreaming for eight hours in order to keep myself entertained. It was actually quite nice to be able to withdraw for a while and just think.

Before reaching Gadag, we stopped at a farm. There, I talked with the farmer and learned all about his harvesting processes. He rotates crops and keeps them in different “compartments” on his land for maximum results. At this point, I think I could be a farmer… or at least a successful gardener. I talked to him about the rainwater harvesting systems he implemented, and he seemed pleased with how well his crops were doing. Before leaving, the farmer gave me a fresh pomegranate and chai. Yum!  This was about 2 p.m. We did not arrive in Gadag until 8 p.m., at which point we were not finished with work.

My boss took us to see a giant lake that he constructed for the benefit of the entire village. Due to the lake, over 300 surrounding bore wells were replenished. Afterward, we were taken to another farmer’s house so that we could talk to him and ask him questions. As we were making our way to the house, more and more Indian children began to follow us.

My humble bed, complete with rice for a pillow

By the time we arrived, Mr. Masagi decided that the interview was futile, so instead we played with the children and drank fresh buttermilk. I can deal with this. The children were so eager to laugh and smile. We let them play with our cameras and phones, but the most fun they had was when they passed around our sunglasses. Eighteen hours later, our workday was finally over and it was time to rest. Funny story, though… A Bollywood movie was being filmed in the same village, so all of the lodges were full. Awesome. The French girls and I ended up sleeping on the concrete floor of my boss’s mother-in-law’s house. At that point I was thankful for a roof over my head.

Our second day was spent traveling to more farms and homes of clients for interviews. I truly got a firsthand look at the lives of a rural Indian village. Each stop we made I was provided with chai and food. I cannot emphasize how hospitable this culture is. I ate so much over the three days that I wanted to explode. Blah. However, watching me finish and enjoy a meal brought so much joy to the Indian women that of course I was going eat every last bite. I can workout later.

There really is a different perspective on food here. Due to overwhelming poverty conditions, it is unacceptable to let food go to waste. I am definitely guilty of not finishing a meal because I am full, and I am equally guilty of blowing off Umphrey Lee’s initiative to prevent food waste. It was a humbling experience to witness the emaciated people, and going forward I will be careful not to take more food than I can eat.

As amazing as this experience was, I definitely experienced frustration. Considering I treat my “me time” as a prized treasure, I became very irritable. Under normal circumstances, little sleep and no shower would trigger an unpleasant Elizabeth. But I think the trending theme of the blog is that India is not normal! My ability to go with the flow and enjoy the little things has increased exponentially. It had to.

For the Fourth of July, I ate steak! It was so nice being American for a day. I have not eaten meat since getting here, so I am convinced the steak was the best piece of meat I have ever had. Probably an exaggeration. Regardless, it was delicious.

I have not seen Snickers in a week. I fear the worst.

Driving Lessons in India:

1. Learn to use the horn

Reasons to use horn:

  • Let people know you are behind them
  • Let people know you are going around them
  • Let people know when you are next to them
  • When someone cuts you off
  • Scare away cows
  • Scare away goats
  • Scare away dogs
  • Scare away people
  • You are mad
  • You are happy
  • You wish to be annoying
  • To make your presence known

2. Don’t hit other cars

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Service before self

With my co-workers

With my co-workers

With a co-worker

With a co-worker

My boss has taken to calling me Strong Lady this week. I mentioned to a co-worker that I am a second-degree black belt, and the news got around the office fast. Now everything I do suffices as a reason to call me strong. It is nothing other than a compliment to me, but it can sometimes be a little off-putting when it’s mentioned after I finish my meals. It’s all in good spirits, though, and in all seriousness, it means a lot.

I have needed to be strong a lot during my time here. For starters, the amount of bug bites covering my body is enough to cause a mental breakdown by itself. There is no relief! Additionally, rickshaw drivers and local restaurants constantly rip me off just because I look completely clueless, which to their benefit, is more often the case than not. At first this made me mad, but then I realized that even if I get scammed out of 50 rupees, it is only the equivalent of one dollar. Most of these people need that dollar more than I do.

With co-workers

With co-workers

In general, all of the obstacles I face derive from the fact that I am experiencing withdrawal from Western culture. I miss daily showers, my car, and meat. Three weeks is just not enough time to assimilate into life in another country. I guess it is a blessing I have five more weeks! Even though it is not the easiest thing I have done, I have daily encounters that remind me that it is all worth it.

My second boss (for lack of a better description) and I spend a lot of time in the office together. For days we sat in silence, until one day I mentioned that I was going to go see the new Superman movie (which I did not enjoy, but I’m no movie critic…). That spurred an hourlong discussion of our favorite movies, which are Finding Nemo, Forrest Gump, and Gladiator. We have also enjoyed conversations regarding Metallica, traveling, and family. Our developing relationship is contributing to a stronger work environment, and he is always willing to answer any of the questions I may have.

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A farm with WLF’s system (on right) compared to one without (on left)

I also get to talk to many of my boss’s clients when I travel to project sites. So many of the farmers, industries, and homeowners express their gratitude toward the work Water Literacy Foundation is doing. I have seen firsthand the difference between farms that have implemented rainwater harvesting systems, and those that have not. Despite occasionally feeling estranged, I am constantly reminded that the work I am doing is to help others. These same obstacles that I face provide the best opportunities to grow. The white board above my workspace appropriately displays the phrase “Service before Self.”

As part of my personal growth, being apart from Western culture has sparked re-interest in past passions and hobbies. For example, for six years I practiced Taekwondo to the point of becoming a second-degree black belt, as mentioned above. I quit only because I chose to focus my energy on percussion and high school drumline. I was a percussionist for seven years before coming to college. Being separated from the things I love, though it had to be as drastic as traveling to India, made me realize the importance of holding onto those aspects of my life. Those things are such a huge part of who I am, and I would hate to lose that. So, I have resolved to teach myself the ukulele and begin taking Jujitsu classes. Maybe it’s ambitious, but I have done it before, so I believe I can do it again. ☺

Snickers the cat

Snickers the cat

This week the office got a new kitten. He is my friend, and he keeps me company. No, I am not a crazy cat lady; in fact I am allergic to cats. However, sometimes the office is empty, so I am ecstatic to have any form of companionship. The family has not named the cat and probably will not, so thus, he shall be named Snickers. Honestly, I am afraid for Snickers because of all of the stray animals surrounding the office. So I think I will take it upon myself to take care of him. Though this does not have anything to do with providing water to people in need, I would be upset if anything happened to him.

This update hopefully provided more insight into my personal experience in India. I hope to focus more on the work I am doing, and the cause I am fighting for with more detail next week. As a last remark, my weekend travels took me to Goa this past week. It was absolutely beautiful, and I can now officially say I have been in the Arabian Sea!

Weekly cultural update: I have ridden on the back of a motorcycle multiple times this week. Indians do not believe in helmets … sorry, Daddy.

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The wonders of India

Visiting Mysore

Visiting Mysore

As I continue to navigate through daily life in India, I find myself constantly wondering, how did I get here?!

I think back to last semester at SMU, and everyone around me was panicking over summer plans. People were constantly updating their resumes, systematically visiting career fairs, and relentlessly networking with everyone with whom they came in contact. I cannot remember anyone telling me to do otherwise.

As a then freshman, I knew that I did not see myself in a traditional internship. To me, engineering is finding solutions to problems that people don’t know exist. But what about the problems that are prominent in the world? As an engineer, I am a problem solver, or so I like to believe. Combine with that the heart for serving others, and I started to form an idea of what I wanted to do this summer. Fast forward four months, five vaccines, and two loving and supportive parents, and that is how I ended up in India.

Touring the factory

Touring the factory

It is estimated that by 2020, India will face a serious food and water crisis due to the mismanagement of water. Years of drought and near-drought situations have made a significant impact on formerly decent soil, leaving it so dry and hard that the annual monsoon rains quickly gush through the ground without leaving any long-term moisture behind to sustain growth.

Enter Water Literacy Foundation (aka, where I intern). The founder of WLF, my boss, graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and proceeded to work at an Indian industrial company for 23 years. After purchasing farmland and experiencing firsthand the effects of water scarcity, he quit his job and devoted his life to providing water to those who need it most. My boss has worked to develop many different systems to utilize India’s most precious resource: rain! He has designed roof rainwater harvesting systems, as well as many non-irrigational methods of replenishing water to soil used for farming. However, he doesn’t stop there. His whole organization is based on the premise of educating the people. Making people “water literate.” He travels all over Southern India holding informational programs to teach people the importance of conserving water.

As for my job, I wake up every morning not knowing what to expect. Some days I am guaranteed to do intern “grunt work” (i.e. paperwork, carrying around the computer, making sure presentations go smoothly), but other days I am surprised with going on an adventure. Last Friday, I got to go to the Indian soft drink factory. The entire time I was “geeking” out! I accompanied my boss on an assessment trip so that he might help the factory conserve water. He walked me through the questions he normally asks, and even though he spoke with the clients in Kannada, Karnataka’s native language, I got to survey every last corner of the factory with him. It was so cool!

I work long days, and my hours are constantly changing. I sometimes have a hard time understanding instructions, and if it weren’t for my German co-worker, I would often be lost. She likes to make fun of my school spirit … the concept of “pony up” is lost on her. Honestly, though, it is so exciting not knowing what could possibly happen any given day. Even though I am very much a foreigner, I am treated like family. In early July, I was invited to attend my boss’s daughter’s traditional Indian wedding. I am convinced that it is impossible to have a better experience in India.

At a Hindi temple with fellow interns

At a Hindi temple with fellow interns

On the weekends, I get to play tourist. So far I have been to Mysore and Kerala, as well as many local spots around Bangalore. I travel with a group of interns with whom I live. We are all a part of the organization Leave UR Mark, which coordinates volunteer work in India. I live with people who are volunteering in hospitals, autism clinics, and environment organizations. Living with such a diverse group of people has been an experience in and of itself, and it has been great getting to travel with them.

In India, you truly have to manage your expectations. On our way home from Kerala, after spending the weekend on a houseboat, it rained the entire time. Not just a small rain, I am talking about monsoon-season rain. We crammed 10 people into a 7-person taxi, and our overnight bus back to Bangalore was late. Regardless, everyone had a great time with each other.

Renting a houseboat in Kerala

Renting a houseboat in Kerala

As I continue adjusting to the culture, one thing is clear: I have a shopping addiction no matter where I am in the world. Until next time, Namaste.

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First week in India

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At work with the Water Literacy Foundation

Oftentimes when you are traveling, you have to put your trust in random strangers. No? Well, maybe that’s just my experience then.

Traveling to India alone was a journey in and of itself. When I boarded the plane in D/FW, I had no idea what or who was waiting for me on the other end. I have only ever flown alone one other time in my life, but I was young enough to be a part of the program where flight attendants escort you to where you need to be. So I did not know what to expect after I landed in India, let alone what to do during my connection in London.

Luckily, I met some pretty awesome people on both flights. On my way to London, a 16-year-old French foreign exchange student sat next to me. It was great to see how we both helped each other out. The way she talked about being away from her family for six months gave me courage about being away from mine for two, and I was the older girl who offered her protection. Together, we made our way through the London airport until we were forced to separate during the security process.

The person sitting next to me on my flight to Bangalore was equally awesome. She went by Sunny, and she gave me all sorts of advice for my time in Bangalore. She really helped to calm my nerves, and I am so thankful for my time with her. However, once I landed in India, my nerves came flooding back. What if the guy who was supposed to meet me wasn’t there?! After all, it was 4 in the morning. Everything went smoothly, though, and after about an hour waiting for my luggage, I was in a car on my way to the city. After 20 hours of traveling, I slept the rest of the day.

Journey to the Water Literacy Foundation

Path to the Water Literacy Foundation

The next day started my adventure in India. The only thing planned was to map out my path to Water Literacy Foundation and meet my boss. This took all day. I wish I could write about all of my bus adventures … but they would make up an entire blog alone. Never again will I be afraid of the Dallas public transportation system. I am constantly lost and unable to communicate with the conductor. I can only imagine what the locals are thinking.

Rice for dinner

Rice for dinner

I arrived to meet my boss, who works from his home. While I was waiting, I became acquainted with his entire family. Indian families truly are remarkably hospitable. They cook me a traditional Indian meal twice a day, which is normally rice that I eat with my right hand, and oftentimes serve me chai, which is my new favorite thing in this world.

My boss is an incredible man. I will go into more detail about him and his mission at a later date, but it is an amazing opportunity that I have to work with him. Right now, my work includes a lot of PR due to the fact that I speak English. In return for this, Mr. Masagi takes me to his project sites and teaches me about his rainwater-harvesting systems. For more information, his website is www.rainwaterconcepts.co.in

Overall, my first week in India has been, what I would call, crazy. Some interesting facts about adjusting to the culture here: I shower out of a bucket; as I mentioned before, I eat with my hand; and traffic lanes are more like guidelines that may or may not be followed … especially when there is a cow in the middle of the road. Also, do not eat the street food.

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