Days 21 & 22: Gir-ing Up for the Weekend

Mike here, along with the input of the rest of the team. This weekend, SETCO generously took us on a sightseeing excursion to the western coast of Gujarat. We saw Palitana, Gir, and Somnath, and experienced a lot in between.

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First up was Palitana. At 4 PM on Friday, we (the team, plus our friend Viral, Raju bhai, Gayatri ben, and Fuzela bhai) packed into a large van and hit the road. Eight hours later, we pulled into our hotel and immediately went to bed; we had an early wake-up ahead. At 6 AM the following morning, we got up and left for the Jain temples in Palitana. Like the Mahakali Temple (which we visited last week), the Palitana Temples sit atop a lonely mountain surrounded by plains. There is a footpath that runs all the way to the top, boasting an impressive 3500 steps.

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As a rite of passage, devout Jains run up and down this path 108 times in 60 days, and are not allowed to have food or water during trips. We met someone that was running up and down seven times in a single day. We, however, were just planning on doing it once. The hike itself was great, and even though there were three times as many steps as at Mahakali Temple, we all felt that this hike was easier. We started at 7 AM, long before the heat of the day, and were bombarded by cool wind the entire time. The atmosphere on the trail was very calm; there were no stalls or shops to create crowds and noise. When we finally got to the top, we took in the view and explored a few of the beautifully intricate temples. Also, compared to many historical sites in the US, there was much more freedom to explore. There were few barriers or restrictions; any staircase or door was fair game. After descending, we stopped for sugarcane juice and headed back to the hotel.

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Following lunch (featuring a killer mango raas) and a midday nap, we hopped back on the road to travel to Gir, a lush preserve famous for its lions and other wildlife. Late that night, we finally arrived. Our journey took several hours longer than expected due to an unforeseen detour; the road we had planned on taking closes after dark because of lion activity! After a short night of rest, we again got up at 6 AM, but this time, it was for a safari. We climbed into the tour bus, not really sure what to expect. Mike felt dumb because he was wearing the brightest, most fluorescent, neon green shirt in the history of the universe, while there were signs that warned that colorful clothing scares away the animals. Regardless, we saw four lions and many other animals, and none of them seemed too bothered by the squeaky bus brakes, let alone Mike’s squint inducing t-shirt. After the safari, we had delicious aloo paratha (think potato tortillas stuffed with veggies) with yogurt for breakfast before getting ready to drive back to Baroda. Mitch, Mike, and Erica threw a Frisbee for a while, and remembered just how quickly 100+ degree weather will drench you with sweat!

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On the way back to Baroda, we stopped in Somnath to see the Somnath Shiv Mandir, an enormous temple on the western coast of Gujarat. This was our first glimpse at the Indian Ocean, and Brianna, Erica, Mitchell, and Zoha took full advantage of it by wading into the water. Erica and Mitch, unknowingly volunteering to captain the “wet row” of the van, jumped all the way in and body surfed. In the meantime, animals surrounded Jon and Mike; there were many people on the beach selling rides on camels, horses, and donkeys. We also stopped for coconuts at a local stand. After we drank the water, the owner chopped up the coconuts (in a fashion that would terrify any boy scout troop leader) so that we could eat the fruit inside. Finally, we began our long car ride back to Baroda.

We spent upwards of 24 hours in a van this weekend, and that time was an adventure in itself. Because most of us are experiencing India for the first time, car rides are the perfect opportunity to soak up what is happening around us. The villages and cities that we pass through are bustling with a kind of activity that is foreign to the US. In New York City, for example, busy means thousands of people rushing up and down the sidewalks in one frame of vision. But even with so many people, few people stop on the street. In Gir, though, there are few people rushing up and down the streets. Busy means countless shops and stands on the sides of the road. There’s always people standing outside at these shops, or working a trade, or stopping to chat. In the places we’ve visited, roads aren’t just a means of transportation, they are the life of the town. All in all, it took us 13 hours to travel just over 300 miles, and we got home at 3:30 AM Monday morning. While this may seem slow, even with traffic, the road system we traveled on was different from the interstate system we are used to in the US. Many times, the highway ended and we had to drive through towns or on back roads, slowing us down significantly. We also stopped periodically to enjoy, as Mitchell would say, the wide varieties of roadside chai. Another interesting point is that, according to Zoha, many people don’t use GPS in India, even if they have access to it. Navigation is often accomplished by word of mouth alone. Viral, Raju, and Fuzela, for example, didn’t use GPS at all, and would periodically pull over to a stand and ask for directions.

We had an amazing weekend, and are extremely grateful that SETCO gave us this opportunity! 

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Day 18: Less of a Novelty

Hi all, Mike here for Day 18. Today was our third day in Dolatpura. In the morning, we split up into two groups to talk to two different families. Jon, Mitch, and Brianna spoke with Prikash bhai and his family, and Zoha, Erica, Priyank, and I talked to Bhupad bhai and his family. Bhupad bhai was happy to speak with us, and made us feel welcome in his home. He has six brothers, and all 45 members of his family live adjacent to each other. After introductions, Erica and Zoha broke off to speak with the women of the household, and Priyank and I stayed behind to talk to the men. We did this to create a better environment for open conversation. Bhupad and his family are hardworking farmers who grow corn, wheat, mangoes, and tamarind. They eat the food they grow, and sell the rest at a market in Kalol. Instead of getting water from the water tower, the family uses a personal well that they (the previous generation) built in 1972. There is a branch that lies across the opening of the well, which is used for pulling the water up with rope and bucket. Over the years, as the rope slides across the branch, deep crevices form in the wood. The well is 55 feet deep, and was built entirely by hand; I cannot fathom the skill and precision that was required for that project! After talking, a friend of Bhupad wanted to see an American dollar, as he had never seen one before. I broke out a $1 bill, and we exchanged equal currency.

Tomorrow and Friday we will be learning as much as possible about the water system in Dolatpura. We will be speaking to the pump operator, who comes to the town at 7 AM each morning to turn on the water for an hour. At 8 AM, the water is shut off (despite the short window for running water, there is no apparent shortage in the village). We are particularly interested in the chlorine that is added to the water tower; we do not know how much is added, or with what frequency. In addition, we will redo our water testing at several different points, on the same day, to help ensure consistent results.

In between the more structured tasks, we’ve been trying to start organic conversations and interactions as much as possible. For example, Mitch, Jon, and Brianna played Frisbee with several villagers for over an hour today.

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From this, Mitch was able to ask a local farmer if he could try his hand at farming sometime (the farmer said yes, and that he would follow up soon). I managed to play a quick game of cricket with members of Bhupad bhai’s family before leaving. Erica captured the attention of dozens of young girls by drawing animals and exchanging their English name for the Gujarati translation.

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All of these interactions help us build rapport with the village. The more comfortable people are with us, the better we’ll get to know the community and their needs. Plus, we hope to strengthen our connections to the point where we can ask people to sit down for “formal” interviews: conversations where two team members can ask questions away from the crowds and public eye. On Thursday, Erica, Zoha, and Brianna will interview Sangeeta, a woman who works and lives in the Dolatpura anganwadi.

We have noticed that each day we go back to Dolatpura, there are significantly fewer people that crowd around us. We think that as people are getting used to us, we are becoming less of a novelty. This is a good thing!

After work, Baroda life has been great. Many of us do a core workout each day to unwind. What started out as “10-minute abs” has turned into a 45-minute daily ritual. Mitch has convinced Erica to hop on the “wheat grass train” and down a cup of the healthy green concoction every night. We are enjoying the many fruits (ones with harder skins of course) and deserts in Gujarat; the mangoes are amazing!

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– Mike

Day 13: Election Day!

There was a lot of activity on the streets morning as the vote counting began. We saw people sitting outside watching the election on the TV and precautionary police gathered in public areas. Elections are a pretty big deal here. The voter turnout was a whopping 66%–an all time high. The winning party was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with candidate Narendra Modi for Prime Minister.

Today I finally got to meet Urja Shah, President of the Setco Foundation. We met with her and Salma Ben and told her about our project and its progress so far:

Now that we’ve spent a good two weeks collecting information on local culture, water, and health practices all around Kalol, we’ve decided to narrow our scope to one village. We found that it is really hard to interview people when we attract such a large crowd. We also feel that we haven’t had enough time to build up the trust to ask more personal questions. So that’s why, in the next two weeks, we want to focus on the village of Dolatpura.

We will start off next week by asking people of Dolatpura some more questions about drinking water and hygiene, just to get acquainted with more families in the village. We also will ask about daily activities to gauge when would be an appropriate time to visit the community. Then we will give a more formal introduction to our project: telling them exactly why we are there and what they should expect in the next few weeks. After that we will continue to visit and ask questions. Once we establish a relationship with some of the villagers we will ask if it would be okay for us to join in some of their daily activities such as washing dishes or preparing food.

I think it will be easier if we divide into small groups. Smaller groups seem to attract less attention and it would promote more one-on-one conversation. I know we will still have to face the language barrier, but we have been getting really good at communicating with body language. It would also be good if we divided our group by gender, so that people feel even more comfortable talking about personal health. I have been surprised by how welcoming and open to answering questions people have been. I can’t thank them enough for taking the time to sit down with us.

A big part of our needs assessment is gauging how the community might react to a change in daily routine. This will become important when we implement our technology in the next visit. It will also be good to know how excited the community is about our project, which will drastically effect how easy it will be to build and maintain our implementation. This has really been a great learning experience and I can’t wait to get in touch with our team back home to talk about what we’ve found.

– Brianna

Day 10: “Baroda Belly”

Hi all, Mike checking in with Day 10. Today we visited Barola, a small, quiet village near Kalol. We chose Barola because we were told that the town was one of 37 receiving water from the GWI (Gujarat Water Initiative) water treatment plant. Exploring this town would allow us to find out what process each village must go through to receive GWI water. We would also be able to gauge the effectiveness of the GWI plant by testing the water. However, despite our excitement, five minutes after beginning to talk about water with villagers, we learned that the town was not yet getting water from the plant; the Panchayat (11-person village leadership committee) had merely enrolled. The government had not yet followed up on its promise to build water infrastructure, and thus, left Barola’s villagers to walk fifteen minutes to nearby farms each day to get potable water.

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To me, it sounded like there may have been a miscommunication between different government departments. According to the government, 60+ villages are slated to be covered by GWI, of which 37 (including Barola) are “already receiving water”. A GWI plant engineer directly told us that Barola was getting water, yet apparently had no idea that Barola would still need extensive underground piping, as well as a sump (very large concrete storage vessel) to even be almost ready to receive water. Pictured below is a drinking water pot, corroded due to high mineral content.

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Besides our initial frustration, we learned a lot from Barola. We further confirmed that groundwater is generally cleaner than canal water. We learned the dangers of thorn bushes when Jon got his shirt caught and it was hilarious. We also learned that cows love to interrupt conversations. Further, I noticed the unquestioning generosity of the man that answered all of our questions about water. After an hour and a half of showing us around town while taking questions, we exhausted our list. When I asked him if he had any questions for us, he asked: “Why are you here?” I was taken aback; I realized that this man had taken 90 minutes of his time to answer nosy college students’ questions while only having a vague understanding of why we were asking them- definitely a testament to Indian hospitality. A typical Barola residence is pictured below.

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For me, as the trip goes on, the language barrier stands out more and more.  For example, yesterday, Jon, Erica and I had a group interview (pictured below) with a microbiologist, chemist and GWI Plant engineer. Communicating via translator can be difficult. In some instances, it is necessary to ask the same question a few different ways to get a full picture. Many times, on both ends, the meanings of questions and answers were misinterpreted. It is hard to be patient, and keep from being frustrated at my own lack of Gujarati skills. The language barrier also appears in the many signs and advertisements written in English. During our daily morning commute, we pass by a hotel called “Hotel Decent,” which, in America, would be read as the literal equivalent of “Hotel Meh, We’re Alright”. We suspect a similar story behind “Hotel Relish”. A parallel in America might be “Panera Bread,” which someone who speaks Italian and English would read as “Bread Basket Bread.”  I’ve decided that I will be learning Gujarati this summer… I need to find someone to hold me to this.

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At the end of the day, 5 of us did our brutal daily core workout, up from the previous 4. Hopefully by the end of the trip we’ll be able to call it “Team Core”…. We can can’t let Ramesh’s awesome cooking turn into “Baroda belly”!

– Mike

Day 2: Meeting SETCO

Hey everyone,

This is Mike checking in. Our second day was super informative… and jet-lagged. Most people are still running on a 5pm-1am internal sleep schedule, but we’re getting there.

After eating breakfast, we headed over to SETCO Headquarters to meet with Neethu (Exec. Director of the SETCO Foundation) and Viral (who has been helping with our project too). The day was largely informal. Using our design review presentation, we talked out every aspect of our project and progress (over some unreal Indian Chai tea), and got great feedback. Neethu and Viral also clarified a ton of information about Kalol and the water situation in the town. After that, we planned out our first few days in Kalol; tomorrow, after we move to Vadodara, we will go to Kalol and get oriented in the SETCO factory. We’ll also get to meet Priyank Gandhi!! Priyank is a Civil Engineering student who lives in Kalol, and will be helping us with our project. It will be awesome to get to know an engineering student who knows the town and is the same age as us.

Later in the day, we explored Mumbai some more. We went to the Phoenix mall and the Hanging Gardens of Mumbai. As we were moving around the city, the income disparity really stuck out to me. We would see homeless people and run-down shacks, and then a Lamborghini or million dollar house, all within the same line of sight. There must be a middle ground between poor and rich, but it is certainly hard to spot. For example, we passed by Antilia, a billion dollar skyscraper, staffed by 600 people, that houses ONE billionaire and his family. This is estimated to be the most valuable private home in the world, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. For this reason, I think it is misleading to just say that the per capita income of Mumbai is three times the national average… the few that are super wealthy (and/or tied to Bollywood), drive up the average.

A few other things that we noticed: Firstly, “Head Bobbling,” which looks similar to shaking your head to mean “no”, can mean “yes,” “no,” “I understand,” or “okay.” We’re definitely still trying to get used to different social cues. Secondly, a lot of cars have bumper stickers that say “Honk OK Please,” because honking is strongly encouraged on the roads. The way that the driving culture is, cars are constantly weaving in and out of traffic, and getting very close to other cars. Because of the close proximity, drivers cannot pay as much attention to their mirrors, and just look forward instead, honking to signal their presence to other cars. The sheer skill of the drivers on the road is pretty amazing, though. It makes sense; it’s obvious that bad drivers would be weeded out super quickly here.

Our day pretty much ended around dinner time. A bunch of us passed out early at 7pm. We have an early 4:30am wakeup Tuesday, and a 7:55am flight to Vadodara to look forward to. We’re excited to see what Vadodara and Kalol are like!

Mike