“Until you stood up, I thought you were a boy.” – Meri Dadi Jii

We are here in the middle of our third week and starting to feel the momentum (or whatever rural India’s equivalent is) propel our projects forward.  The “9 days of heat” which everyone has told us precedes the impending monsoon, has been extended several times now and I’m beginning to feel like the impatient professor waiting interminably for my delinquent student’s final paper.  The heat isn’t as unbearable as everyone has described.  In fact, I quite prefer it to a painful, bone-chilling cold.  I’m more excited to see the jungle reemerge and watch the fields resurrect themselves as the villagers have told us, well, every day since we arrived. 

This anticipation is largely the result of the multitude of interactions we’ve had with the village women in these last two weeks.  Following orientation we embarked on a cash-flow study of six villages, dividing them between Keena and myself and our two colleagues, Sanjita and Jyostna.  The aim was to provide a comparative study of income and expenditure patterns across several categories of income generation in this community:  landless laborers, marginal farmers, and displaced peoples.   Central to improving programs which target the financial health of each family is an understanding of how money is spent and for what purposes in every household.   Though we identified several salient trends across families, it was alarming to see the considerable variation in savings and incomes.  One of the families in my study was displaced by a dam construction on the Narmada River 5 years ago and relocated to a waterless, landless area near the town of Kantaphod.  Though they were compensated, albeit poorly, for their lands by the federal government, as shuttle boaters on the river they lost their source of livelihood as their current location is far from any body of water.  To earn incomes they must rely on the capricious nature of wage labor and are currently surviving as a family of 4 on less than $300 per year.  Yet during our visit I was offered tea, nimbu pani (lime water), and brought a snack of spiced popped rice.   I am continually amazed that in places of true scarcity, people are always the most generous.   This is a quality I’ve found across my travels – a quality that inspires, brings perspective, and reframes my relative standing in the world for the better. 

On a lighter note, during this particular visit to the displaced village I also met a grandmother who took specific liking to me and my well-being.  She was constantly refilling my glass, smiling, and telling me how good-looking I was.  Given that it’s about 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, my hair and skin is fried, and I’m sweating like Chris Farley after a round of chili dogs, I appreciated this woman’s kindness.  Alas, the ego-stroking did not last.  As soon as we stood up to go the grandmother exclaims, “Ahh!”  Upon inquiry she explained, “I thought you were a boy!  You really need to stop being lazy and wash and wear your saris more.  I don’t know how people in your country tell the difference between men and women when girls are walking around in pants and t-shirts.”  So yes, in the village of Kantaphod I will be known as the handsome, All-American boy that came to ask questions about their seed, fertilizer, and wedding expenditures.     

These last two days have also been marked by a few interesting events and developments.  Last night I had my first non-vegetarian meal prepared by our village veterinarian, Dr. Bhopal.  Once a month the “non-veggers” go to a separate kitchen and prepare themselves some stringy bird.  I actually don’t mind eating vegetarian and have enjoyed the food in the vegetarian mess hall tremendously, but I figured I’d check out the clandestine operations of Indian non-veg cuisine.  Let me just say, never again.  Once the steaming pot of chicken was brought to the center of our non-veg circle, the chili in the air immediately drove everyone to their kerchiefs to stop the flood of streaming tears.  Earlier that day I had also ignored warnings not to try chutney made from the hottest pepper in the world, so my stomach was already suffering from lunch.   I felt like both my digestive system and sinuses had blow-torches taken to them and mid-way through the meal I put in my Rs. 30 contribution for the chicken and returned to my room where I could privately and dignifiedly nurse my pain in the fetal position.  On the way to my room I had a close run in with a black cobra slithering across the path.  I think even he knew that I was in no position to chat and luckily retreated into the bushes.  

On Sunday we took a drive to the middle of the jungle to visit a forest temple and hike along several waterfalls, albeit they were mere trickles at this time of year.  Aside from our insane driver who replaced our beloved Caca Jii (daily driver who was unavailable that day), we had a great time chatting away, washing in the river, and taking a whopping 900 pictures in a mere 3 hour span.  Keena and I agreed that instead of “We came, we conquered” it should have been “We came, we snapped, we left”. 

Apologies for the fragmented nature of this entry.  I am abusing the acceptable incoherence of blogging.  This week I have been involved in a study on honey-hunting practices in the forest district of Udainagar.  In light of their remote nature, SPS research efforts with this population have been somewhat limited.  Honey-hunting is quite different from standard bee-keeping in that these people live deep in the forest and scale huge trees to harvest honey from single-comb hives hanging from the highest branches.  The tradition is not only an integral part of their income as landless tribals, but also sacred and enmeshed in other cultural practices.  During my preliminary research this week I have learned a considerable amount about the precarious nature of bee populations across the world and the severe implications the absence of bee colonies would have for the planet’s ecosystems.  The problem is most acute in countries with vast deciduous forest cover and severe poverty since high market prices for wax and honey create a tragedy-of-the-commons situation as destitute honey-hunters are driven to plunder their forest and decimate bee populations in the process. 

Tomorrow I will be headed with Jyostna into this area to collect data that I will use for a report on honey-hunting practices in Madhya Pradesh as well as a proposal for funds to support SPS involvement with this community and the improvement of their marketing.  I am happy to go with her as she has become, in our short time here, my closest friend in the organization.  It’s incredible that she, a tribal girl from Orissa, a kid from an Irish-Catholic family in Philadelphia can have such similar backgrounds.  She’s the eldest of four kids and I’m the eldest of five.  Both of her parents as well as my parents are teachers.  She was raised Catholic and has studied for a masters in social work and educational development, writing her thesis on tribal education, as have I.  Her unequivocal kindness and generosity of self has made my experience here thus far.  I look forward to our honey-hunting study and to continue to forge bonds with others here similar to the one I have with Jyostna. 

 

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