making waves

the wanderings of a California beach girl

Lessons from the Field: Appreciate the People and their Problems

Last week, my colleague and I gave a presentation about our experiences working and living in developing countries. For those who haven’t been following along, we spent five weeks in Rwanda and four weeks in rural India consulting on two nutrition projects.  That brief time “in the field” introduced me to the unforgiving reality of the day-to-day life of the people I’m idealistically and naively trying to help.

I took the above picture while visiting a tea estate in rural Rwanda. We were trying to understand how life worked for the women who worked there. How much money did they make? How many hours did they work? How far away did they live? How often did they eat? How often did they eat meat? Did they have enough food for their children? Where did their husbands work?

As we spoke with this woman, I couldn’t help but notice how she emanated strength and beauty. She was one of the “good” workers–one who consistently picked the most leaves–and you could tell she was proud. She was responsible for feeding herself and her family from the meager wages. When asked how often she eats, she replied that she would eat one large meal at night and one small meal in the morning. We were later informed that she was politely lying: none of the women eat more than one meal per day we were told. She only eats meat on Christmas.

It is difficult to know how to help. One of the hard parts about being a humanitarian scientist (as opposed to simply a humanitarian) is having to prove that something works. I can’t just do something that I think is helpful. I don’t want to do something that makes things worse. What if I wanted to create a program to give these women lunch?  I couldn’t just do that; I’d have to prove that it makes their life better. That means I have to only feed half of the women, but how can I ethically not feed them all?  And if it works, how would I sustain it?  It would be unbelievably cruel to introduce a lunch program, prove that it improves the quality of women’s lives, and then abruptly stop it.

The woman in this picture is  real. I talked with her and took her picture and then took a picture with her. It is 7:30am for her, and she is probably walking to the tea estate right about now getting ready to start her day. She has two children. She almost certainly doesn’t have the food her family needs.

In honor of her and the countless other hardworking women in Rwanda and India, I lend money through Kiva–a non-profit organization with a mission to alleviate global poverty–to enterprising women around the world. Right now some of Kiva’s supporters are sponsoring free trials. If you are interested in helping women through microfinance, please consider signing up for a free trial.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make this Rwandan woman’s life better.  I have learned from listening to her story. I have a richer (though by no means a full) understanding of the hardships she lives with. The picture of her face galvanizes me whenever I lose motivation, and I remember to appreciate the people I hope to serve.



I’m back!

After three months of near-constant travel and looming deadlines, I have presented the results of my efforts at a national conference and submitted my grant proposal. Here I am in front of my poster at EB along with members of our lab group.

May 1st was my mega-deadline–the deadline that I had been working towards and focusing on since November. Now that it’s come and gone I feel strangely untethered to my academic pursuits.

Last weekend was also my last ballroom competition of the year. I danced with my partner Dean for all four dance categories (Smooth, Standard, Rhythm, and Latin).

Here’s a picture of us dancing a Standard dance. We got 5th place in Syllabus Viennese Waltz and 6th place in Gold Smooth Waltz/Foxtrot/Tango.


Here’s a picture of us doing a Rhythm dance. We got 1st place in Silver Cha Cha/Rumba and 4th place in Mambo/Swing.

“What’s next?” you might ask. First of all, I have a lot of catching up to do with family and friends. I haven’t had a real conversation with many of you since before I went to Rwanda.  Much of that was due to the challenges of being in a developing country, but a part was that I simply didn’t know how to talk about what I had experienced. Now that I have some time to breathe, I’ll be calling people. 🙂

I have some upcoming goals and deadlines that I’ll talk about here soon. In the meantime, I’ll be getting ready to fly to California for one of my best friend’s weddings!

Desperate Measures

I mentioned in my previous post that I have some important deadlines coming up. This past week has illustrated that my own internal motivation is not enough to focus me on the tasks at hand. The time has come to set up external barriers to distractions. 

As of tomorrow, I have set my computer (using StayFocusd) to block the following websites entirely during the hours of 7am and midnight:

  • (it’s amazing how much unnecessary time email takes)
  • (hey, looking at ballroom dresses is addicting)
  • (ditto)
  • (ballroom is guilty again)

I am also making myself very difficult to reach in order to devote large chunks of time to uninterrupted work. All ballroom activity will cease until my partner comes back from Asia. 

Mediocre, distracted work is no longer acceptable. 

Like all desperate measures, these will not be permanent. I plan to resume normal life on May 2nd. 

Check in

It’s been almost a month since I last posted here. Since then, I’ve returned to Ithaca and started on my own work. April is the craziest month in the nutrition department because our biggest conference of the year, Experimental Biology, is April 21-25. The entire department is invested in this conference, and we’ll all be relocating to San Diego in about three weeks. I have a poster presentation for which I’m frantically trying to run statistics. Additionally, I have a grant application due May 1st. It’s pretty critical to my work that I get put on this grant, so I’m a little stressed about putting forth a good proposal. 

I haven’t written much about India. It’s difficult to answer the inevitable “oh, how was India?!” with anything other than the perfunctory “good”–much like answering the pleasantry “How are you?!” when you’re not “fine”.

Things will be quiet around here while I’m preparing for the conference. Have a happy Easter!


Posing with the kitchen ladies


After ten days, I finally got internet on my laptop.

When we first arrived at our hotel in Sarole Pathar, we were excited to see ethernet cables in each of the rooms. Yes, we thought, we would have internet access! Only two of the four rooms worked. We inquired at the front desk which then sent someone up to look.

He plugged in the ethernet cable to my laptop, looked at me, and said: “Internet works now.”
Me: “No, no it doesn’t. See, I can’t open any pages.”

Him: “But it’s plugged in.” He points to the cable.
Me: “…I know it’s plugged in, but it doesn’t work.” I point to the error page.
Him: “Ok, I have someone come look at it tomorrow. No problem.”

Tomorrow comes and the “expert” takes me into the room with the modem. He points to it and says proudly: “See, the light is on. It works now.” I take the ethernet cable and plug it in. Nothing happens. “No, it still doesn’t work.” “But the light is on.” “Yes, but something must be wrong with the cable.”

Messing with the modem, however, got the internet in the boys’ room and one professor’s room to work. My advisor simply switched rooms.

The next day, my roommate was able to get online with the cable in our room. I tried without luck. Then I went next door and tried with the boys’ cable. No luck there either. Something was wrong with my computer. I tried disabling the firewall. I tried messing with the network settings. Nothing. By that time I was resigned to the fact that I’d simply have to use someone else’s computer to check my email and wait till I was home to check Facebook. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but inconvenient.

Fast forward to today. Before heading back to Mumbai to fly back to the US, one of the professors mentions that he knows how to set it up on the Mac operating system or on Linux but that he doesn’t know how to fix it on Windows 7. Wait, I thought, I haven’t tried it on Linux!

I restarted my computer, this time selecting Ubuntu. It had been a few months since I’d used Ubuntu on my laptop, and I stared blankly at the screen. Then I sat up, looked around, realized that I’m the only one around to fix this, and thought: What would Drew do?

Of course, the answer was obvious. CLICK STUFF UNTIL IT WORKS.

It took me about ten minutes, and I have no idea what I did that finally worked. The important thing is that I got my laptop to connect to the internet all by myself. Triumph.

Half an hour later, I got the hot water to work for the first time since being here. Today was an excellent day.

Week 1 in India

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.