Feeling Like A Local

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A picture of me playing Simon Say with a young girl in Gajaar village.

While sitting in the Chirag office trying to figure out what I am going to write for one of my last blog posts I cannot help but think wow how time has flown by. With only six days left to my ten week internship in the beautiful mountainous region of Kumaon, Uttarakhand, I am experiencing a sea of emotions filled with sentimental thoughts of saying farewells to great friendships I have developed and leaving behind what has been my home for the past two and a half months… but there is also this alluring magnetism to the idea of returning to family and friends as well as the comforts and familiarities of the US.

Coming into this internship I did not know what to expect. I knew it would be something new, something completely different than anything I had ever experienced before, but I had no conception of what it would be that I would take away from my time in India. I think the greatest memories and lessons I have learned have come from the people, from the relationships I have developed with my colleagues at Chirag, and the local villagers in Kumaon. It is one thing to know a village, or a city like the back of your hand, being able to walk the streets without a map, and having a local tea shop you always go to; but it is another to be able to walk down the road, or through a local village and have people in cars and on motor bikes stopping to say hi to you, or women calling down from houses along the road inviting you in because you are a familiar face. You are no longer an obnoxious tourist, but a local, a friend.

This Tuesday was Harela, a holiday celebrated only in the state of Uttarakhand, it is a time to pray for a bountiful and rich harvest for the next year. All members of the region do not work on this Tuesday and stay at home with their family cooking delicious Kumaon delicacies and relaxing. Through my micro-finance work with Lata-ji, an employee of Chirag who is in charge of all micro-finance activities, I have become very close with her and she thinks of me more as a daughter than a colleague. She invited me over to her house to celebrate Harela. I brought Jason along with me; unfortunately Nathalie and Shobana could not come because they have a big workshop to prepare for this Thursday and Friday, the 18th and 19th. I will not steal their thunder, but I am going to brag for them a little bit about their projects because what they are doing is really cool! Nathalie and Shobana are giving presentations to the Chirag health team about their findings and suggestions on water borne diseases and STDs from surveying people at health camps and Ashua workers. They are working with translators to translate their presentations and handouts for the workshop.

At Lata jis we had a delicious breakfast, where Jason and I learned how to make the famous chai tea everyone drinks multiple times through out the day. And we also learned how to make sweets special to the Harela holiday, bad and pua. I am not sure how Indians stay so thin because they eat a lot of deep fried food!

 It is great to have such a close relationship with Lata ji because I learn so much about the region; she has been working for Chirag for 18 years and is able to recount many stories of Chirag’s impact on the hills. One of the stories that really sticks with me is how about 20 years ago, before Chirag, women had no power at home and in the community. They were not even allowed to leave the house; if someone came to the door and knocked they would have to get a man to answer the door because it was not acceptable for them to step outside to see who the visitor was. Many leaps and gains have been made since then with women now working in local businesses, starting their own businesses, forming self help groups, and even changing the type of dress they wear from the traditional sari. A lot of her stories have influenced my conclusions about my own research on women’s empowerment through micro-finance.

The warmth and kindness of the people I have met on this trip rivals few and far between. It will certainly be hard to say my good byes, but until then I will enjoy every moment. Lata ji has invited me and the other interns to go to her house to make cake, a rare find in the hills of Uttarakhand because most people do not own ovens! 🙂

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About Alexandra Iqbal

I am an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. This summer I am traveling to the northern region of India where I will be working for CHIRAG - The Central Himalayan Rural Action Group for 10 weeks. I will be working with micro finance and supply chain management of the fruit cooperatives in the region. I am looking forward to an exciting and cultural experience this summer! My journey in India starts on May 17th when I arrive in New Delhi.