Day 5: F is for Friends who do stuff together

Hi my name is Kabir and this is my confession….my ability to grasp the Hindi language is garbage, but we’ll get into that later.

‘Twas a hot day and all was bright, we started the day off right: chai, breakfast, and going to Setco. After arriving, we headed to Dolatpura where we met the toilet contractor. Thanks to Natalia and Nisha we were able to easily convey to him what needed to be altered with the design and what further work we needed him to do. We detailed covering the husk pipes inside the toilet, covering the ventilation pipes with a fine mesh, digging 10 foot deep holes to compare soil samples, constructing a filter for the drainage water, and opening up the bins. The ladies met up with Sumitraben afterwards while Parth, the stove R&D specialist, Rajeshbhai, and I chilled outside. We came back for lunch and sat down with Salmaben to clarify a few points regarding the meeting with the Sarpanch yesterday and also planned the rest of the week. 

This is where the confession starts, but first some background context: ‘Twas the winter of 97’ and a young boy (me) was born into a Hindu household. In this Hindu household, English was the primary language but the boy foolishly thought he had an understanding of a language that his parents had grown up with, Hindi. 

So there we are, we just arrived to the guest house and Nisha, who does 99 percent of the translating, goes to take a nap. The caretaker, Narayan, pulls me aside and starts speaking Gujarati. Being the chivalrous gentleman that I am, I decided not to wake Nisha up and asked if he could speak in Hindi. This was my first mistake. He spoke and I understood it as “I am going with the driver to get food (I thought for us) and won’t be back until 8pm”. I conveyed this to the group, Narayan left, and finally they all agreed to let me teach them Euchre, a card game. This was my second mistake. The game is partner based and as a result Nisha and I were together so obviously our team name would be “Nibir”. Well let me tell you Nibir lost every round to Rachel and Sarah. 

It was 8 pm and no word from Narayan. Nisha called him up and asked him where he was. Apparently, he left with the driver to get his own food and wouldn’t be back until 8 in the morning thinking we were going out to dinner. But don’t worry, a painfully long conversation and twenty nine 50-rupee notes later, Domino’s had arrived and everyone was fed. To quote the great Hannah Montana, “Everybody makes mistakes, everybody has those days” and what really matters at the end of the day was that we are all still friends, friends who will continue to do stuff for the next 25 days together. Also we all came to the unanimous decision that I can’t open my mouth unless English comes out. 

 P.S. I was already attacked by the rest of my team so please don’t yell at me in the comments Mom.

Day 4: E is for Eggcitement

Hi guys – Sarah here! I’m super excited to be back in India with this team and to be able to start my mornings off with a fresh cup of chai. After a breakfast of poha and tea biscuits, we headed to the office to finish up prep work for our meeting with the sarpanch of six potential communities for our needs assessment. The Setco Foundation office was abuzz with people going to and returning from meetings – we were even whisked away from our prep work to be introduced to the Setco Foundation field team. The field team includes the community health workers, teachers, and workshop leaders who work on Setco’s Early Childhood Development and Women’s Empowerment initiatives. Though brief, it was great to meet all of them and see how many people make Setco Foundation’s work possible.

Afterwards, we headed to lunch where we stuffed ourselves with dal, bhindi (okra), rice, and roti before a short meeting with Mr. Sheth – the Setco Automotive chairman. We gave a brief update of the project’s progress since winter break and our experiences thus far on the trip, then we were off to our next meeting with the sarpanch of the six communities.

On the way to the meeting at the sarpanch’s home, we noticed the beautifully built homes along the street she lives on outside of Taravda. We received a warm welcome from the sarpanch and her family. It was refreshing to see a woman in a position of political power. Nisha and Salmaben did the majority of the talking – introducing our team to the sarpanch, and asking about the communities she oversees. We learned about some of the big problems the communities face, such as lack of uniform electrical distribution and drinking water, and that the most common professions include factory and agricultural work. None of which I understood at the time because the entire conversation was held in Gujarati, but I occupied myself with taking pictures of the team and notes on whatever snippets of the conversation were translated back into English.


After a lengthy discussion, the sarpanch took us for a walk to see her farmland, which was impressive in both size and agricultural method. They had a field of vine vegetables elevated off the ground and a drip irrigation system, which supposedly would eliminate any chance of you getting cancer if you ate them. We had a bit of excitement when they took us to see their variety of mango trees and spotted a large monkey running away from them into an adjacent field. But the real excitement was when they handed us a dozen freshly picked mangos to take with us when we left! We gratefully accepted them, and some salted mirchi to eat them with, before leaving.


Back at the office, we re-hydrated and cooled down before heading back to the guesthouse for some naps, Rajastani egg curry for dinner, and a recap of the days events. I’m looking forward to what the next few weeks bring with the needs assessment and our existing projects.

Day 3: D is for Dogs

Hi all, Natalia here. We began our day with a hearty breakfast of omelets and buttered toast, supplemented with a healthy dose of Nutella on butter cookies. As we sipped our morning chai, we watched music videos from Bollywood movies on the TV.

Along the car ride to the Setco office, we napped to the sound of honking car horns.

We spent the morning working in the office. We were brought chai, potato chips, and safety equipment for working with the toilet prototype. Around noon, we went to visit the sarpanch (kind of like the mayor) of the nearby village of Katol to learn more about the community. We received a very warm welcome, and were pleasantly surprised to find that an entire panel of government people were there to meet us. We had a very productive discussion on current affairs in Katol.


We returned to the factory for lunch, making light conversation about the stifling heat. After a quick debriefing on the meeting in Katol, we set out on a shopping trip to Kalol (yes, those are two different places) to find some equipment for measuring the toilet.


After ducking in and out of countless shops looking for a meter stick, we finally managed to locate a tape measure and 7-foot-long wooden stick. Close enough. Nisha was initially hesitant to haggle with the storekeeper, but nonetheless managed to bamboozle him out of 8 rupees. Meanwhile Sarah took some awesome pictures from the car, including one of a scruffy dog.


Back at the guest house, we chilled in the air conditioning and snacked compulsively until dinner was ready. After eating, we retired to Kabir’s room to discuss the day’s events and prepare for the rest of the week. Nisha got bored and bamboozled us again with this hand-drawn meme of a dog.


Day 2: C is for Canal

Hi! This is Rachel. Our second day started off with chai and breakfast at the guest house. We got in the car to head to the office. Halfway there, our driver asked if we wanted to take a detour. Kabir, being the adventurous soul he is said “tikah ee”, which means okay. We veered off the highway and onto a side road that ran along the side of a large canal.

We stopped once to enjoy the view before getting back into the car. Our driver offered us a way to kill another 5 minutes before stopping the car again, this time by a bridge. He explained that if you feed the fish you can see them as they come to the surface. He went to a roadside vendor and came back with 2 bags of spiced snacks. Before we even started throwing the food we could see dozens of fish just below where we stood. When we threw down the food, they went crazy fighting for it, many of their bodies breaking the water’s surface.

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We finished amusing ourselves and returned to the car. We were at the office within a few minutes. Our morning included a meeting with the Setco Foundation team about our plans for our needs assessment. Nisha did a wonderful job of describing the methods we plan to employ over the next few weeks. The team was impressed by the presentation and offered some helpful feedback about our plans.

After some work in the office, we headed to lunch with the team, which included some delicious mango russ (pureed mango). Once we got back, we packed up and headed to Dolatpura.


We met with Sumitraben, who has built 12 stoves since winter break. It was great to see her and catch up with her family (she’s now a grandmother!). We talked about the stoves and learned that there is still room for improvement in terms of durability. We got to see two of the stoves that she built when we were last here over winter break.


After saying “bye” to Sumitraben for the day, we headed to Chatrasinhbhai’s house. We asked some follow-up questions about the toilet based on our discussion yesterday. It was good to get additional information before we move forward with any alterations to the toilet. We still plan to meet with the contractor on Friday to learn more about our options for making the toilet more user-friendly.


We headed back to the office (and AC!) and received an invitation to dinner that night and a meeting with Harish, the Setco Automotive CEO, in the morning. We finished up any wifi-related tasks and finalized an outline for our meetings the next day before heading home.

Around 7:30 we headed to the restaurant, where we met Salmaben, Rajeshbhai, and Viral. We enjoyed a lovely buffet meal (including three desserts). Afterwards, we gave Viral a gift because it was his last day at the Setco Foundation before moving to Ahmedabad to be with his family. We were told a few weeks ago about his departure, but it was still really hard to say goodbye to someone that’s been vital to our team since its beginning. Hopefully he’ll make good use of his Michigan tie at his next job.

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Day 1: B is for Birthday

My birthday celebration in India had an early start with a fresh cup of chai as we headed off to the Setco office for the first time on this trip. We arrived after overcoming the morning traffic and headed into a meeting to have introductions with Setco leaders and discussions regarding our initial plans for the Needs Assessment. We watched a video and presentation that detailed the history of Setco and the impact that the foundation has had, highlighting the relationship that our team has formed with them over time.

With tasks assigned and more work to do after the meeting, we began creating detailed timelines and protocols for the upcoming interviews with community members. Our work was relieved by an incredibly decadent, multi-course lunch at the office with other Setco employees.

Full and excited to be in Dolutpura, We shifted from side to side as our feet cooked on the burning ground near our composting toilet. I was able to meet Chatrasinhbai for the first time, working alongside Kabir to translate questions regarding the toilet’s use as our team continued inspecting it. We made plans to return again that week and begin tackling some of the problems we had identified.


Our mid afternoon break consisted of more chai and biscuits that we snacked on as we finished up our work in the office.

The five of us went out to dinner, ordering plates overflowing with paneer and fresh naan. To celebrate, the team took turns as each fed me a bite of Gulab Jamun, most of which made it into my mouth.

We had a late night, working to complete plans for the rest of the week, finishing up lists for a toilets shopping trip and more needs assessment preparatory work for out meetings tomorrow.

Day 0: A is for Airplanes

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Ah yes day zero. A day filled with wailing babies, small meal portions, uncomfortable sleeping positions, and sub-par new movies. Hi my name is Kabir Rastogi, incoming project lead for BLUElab India Project, and I will be describing the day where we beat the menacing antagonist – jet lag. 

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Today was our day off. We had just flown from Chicago, USA to Doha, Qatar to Ahmedabad, India where we embarked on a two hour car ride to Vadodara, which will be our home for the next thirty days. For me, I’m Indian and have traveled many times to my motherland, but I can only imagine the bewilderment that our first-time traveler Natalia (our incoming toilets and new technology lead), experienced as she witnessed immense amount of traffic, animals roam the street, the vibrant colors that coat Indian street corners, and stands that sell 2 rupee chai (3 cent tea). 

We arrived at the guest house at 5 am where Rachel, outgoing project lead; Nisha, incoming education lead; as well as Natalia slept for the next 5 hours. Sarah, outgoing stoves lead, and I stayed up for the next five hours. Not the best idea. Sarah whipped out her new camera and started clicking away pictures. Obviously this forced me to channel my inner model and “werk it” to see the quality of the images.

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When everyone arose from their slumber we all sat down for a nice meal, some chai and then headed to the shopping areas to buy kurtis (indian clothing for women). Somehow we ended up at KFC where I devoured my body weight’s equivalent in chicken sandwiches. We came back to the guest house, played lots of cards (actually consisted of four engineers who pride themselves on being the leaders and the best attempting to figure out the rules of Go Fish), planned out this week’s logistics, and ate some dinner. At this point the sleep that Sarah and I put off for so long caught up to us, and we were knocked out until this morning.

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This is my second trip with such an amazing group and we have a lot planned. Over the next thirty days we wish to conduct a new needs assessment and continue the pre-existing plans with our current technologies – stoves and toilets. I am extremely excited for the near future and to be back in this wonderful country.