Week 1 in India

by Sarah Luna

March 1, Day 1, Mumbai

I arrived at 9:40pm at the Mumbai airport. It took me about an hour to get through immigration and customs and find the van that was to take me to the Emerald Hotel.

I did make it to the Emerald without a problem. There wasn’t too much traffic on the ~20 min drive from the airport, but I saw enough to make me wonder. Children wandered into the streets, cars and motorcycles wove around each other, trucks and buses honked ominously. Cows munched on mountains of garbage. Mumbai was a stinking cesspool of human waste.

The Emerald, however, was very nice. The staff greeted me by name as I entered the lobby…well, they called me "Miss Sarah" because that is the only name the Indian university gave them. The front desk person informed me that one of my colleagues had arrived earlier and that a car would be waiting for us tomorrow at 11am. It was nice to have those arrangements made already.

My room had a double bed (literally two pieces of foam made up my bed), a sitting area, a vanity, and a bathroom with a Western toilet and shower. I showered after my long day of travel and went to bed. I would meet up with the boys the next morning.

March 2, Day 2, Mumbai -> Sangamner

I woke up without my alarm at 6am. Thank you, jetlag. I started my tour of Indian food with vegetable paratha for breakfast. Paratha are essentially flatbread with vegetables baked in the center. They were very good.

The boys came down for breakfast about an hour later. It felt very normal for the three of us to be reunited. No matter how strange India will get, those two boys will remain constant.

We walked down to the Indian Ocean. The beach was filthy. There were random feces (dog? human? I don’t know.) and spatters of blood on the sand. Even so, it was still a beach.

We met with the collaborators at the Indian university and then went out for lunch–my first complete Indian meal. We let our collaborator order for us. The waiter came out and spooned two vegetable purees (goops? conglomerations? chutneys? I’ll learn the real names eventually) onto our plates. One was bright red and chunky while the other was deep green and smooth. Then we each got chapatti which are flatbreads made out of wheat flour (I had these in Rwanda. I like them; they taste similar to tortillas.) The objective is to break the chapatti into pieces and use it to sop up the vegetables. There is no silverware involved. The left hand is not involved either. The first bite was an explosion of flavor. Indian cooking makes it easy to enjoy vegetables. But after that first bite, my mouth burned. My tongue, cheeks, lips, nasal passages, and even the insides of my ears smoldered.

After lunch, we made the five hour drive to Sangamner where we will be staying for the rest of our time here. The boys are sharing a room, and I will be sharing the adjacent room with a girl from the Indian university.

March 3, Day 3, Sangamner & Sarole Pathar

I got a normal 8 hours of sleep last night! The four of us went to the school where we will be collecting data in Sarole Pathar. We set up our labs and got reacquainted with the research assistants. We were given two classrooms for our labs. The classrooms have no furniture and only one chalkboard. The children sit on mats on the dirty floors.

Lunch was an interesting affair. We were shown into a room with two long strips of fabric (like table runners) about four feet apart. We took off our shoes before entering the room and then sat on the fabric facing each other. Two young girls placed metal plates on the ground in front of us that had four compartments for food. A young boy then came around with pumpkin soup which he poured on the plate. Then a girl gave us each a serving of lentils in some sort of broth. Then a boy brought a huge bowl of rice which he portioned out with a paddle and his bare hand. Yes, his bare fingers were all over my food. If he washed his hands before, the "washing" would have been simply with well water. (I, on the other hand, Lysoled the crap out of my hands before lunch.) One way or another, my stomach is going to get very strong here.

Anyways, we then got bhakari which is a flatbread (are you noticing there are a lot of flatbreads?) made from pearl millet to use as our "utensil". But really, I just got to play with my food. Fingers dive right in to feel the food, mix the food, break it up into manageable bites, and then shove the food into my mouth. It’s amazing how much of the eating experience we miss out on by using silverware.

The professors arrive tonight. We will begin training tomorrow and get started with our testing Monday or Tuesday.

Day 4, Sunday March 4

We showed the professors the setup of the two lab rooms. They were pleased with what had been done. We had visitors from Harvest Plus today. We held a meeting to explain all the different parts of the study and demonstrate the different tests.

We went to a restaurant for lunch. I saw a "milkshake" on the menu and curiosity got the better of me. I think it was just milk and chocolate syrup.

I tried to find an internet modem at market. Unsuccessful. We did, however, find/rented a generator for the part of the testing.

Day 6, Tuesday March 6, 2012

I’m staying at the Malpani Spa & Resort in Sangamner (song-um-NAIR) for the duration of my time here. “Spa & Resort” may be a bit optimistic of a name though this place does boast a pool, a weight room, an aerobics room, and tennis courts. The rooms are quite large as well and have A/C, televisions, refrigerators, internet, and water heaters that function about 50% of the time. Internet and A/C are the only ones we care about. So far, internet has only reliably worked in the boys’ room. While frustrating for me, this is disastrous for my advisor. I mean, I have lots of work to do, but he has Work. It is incredible how much work cannot be done without an internet connection.

I finished training my RAs today. My main role until we begin the actual testing is to be a practice subject for the other training. This entails getting my head measured and written on and manipulated in order to fit a special net over it. Apparently I have a very symmetrical head and “serious hair”.

I have only spent 270 rupees so far (200 for internet in Mumbai and 70 for a bowl to eat oatmeal in). The exchange is 48 rupees to a dollar. Easy way to convert is to look at the price in rupees, divide by 100 and multiply by 2.

Day 7, Wednesday, March 7

Tomorrow is Holi. Most of the kids left for home today. It is amazing how quiet the school became. After we got back to Sangamner, we explored the market for a bit looking for miscellaneous things. I saw no less than ten heaps of dried dung patties just waiting to be lit in celebration. Some were decorated with colored powder and sugar cane. We walked past a group that had already lit one. About ten men walked in a circle pouring oil around the fire and singing. The smell of incense overpowered me.

What impressed me most about this evening was the light. We began our walk in full daylight with the sun illuminating the tropical green plants, the dusty brown riverbed, the contrasting pinks and reds of the painted houses, and the menagerie of human and animal life. A pale, nearly full moon was barely visible against the bright sky. As we continued our walk, the sun began to set, and the light shone from a different angle making the buildings glow. The scene now looked as if it had been cast in copper and gold against the darkening sky. Holi fires blazed all around us. It was completely dark by the time we headed back to the hotel. We navigated the moving maze of headlights along dark roads flanked by the silhouettes of buildings. Eyes reflected the light of cooking fires. The moon shone like a coin.