It’s been almost six weeks since I have come to India, specifically Himachal Pradesh, and even more specifically CORD. Sounds like a lot of specifics, but honestly one of the main things I have learned about rural development NGOs is to embrace the ambiguity and vagueness. My team at CORD strives to foster long-term change towards sustainable agriculture practices and women’s empowerment. Therefore, after arriving with an enthusiasm to see action research unfold, I have learned to never underestimate the time, sweat, and patience needed to conduct a seemingly simple task in the field.
Anyways, after living here for six weeks now, I have experienced everything from learning to do laundry by hand (Note to self: never EVER wait until two weeks of clothes pile up), to the awkward moments of silence as people gradually realize I do not understand Hindi (after talking AT me in Hindi for a good 30 seconds), and even the major, major embarrassment of having a crowded bus pull over on the side of a major highway because my co-intern, Rhea, and I missed our stop a few kilometers back. Picture this: an entire Indian bus worth of people all dedicated to the single task of asking YOU specifically where you were planning to go and why you did not get off at said stop all in the lovely local Pahaari language.
In terms of mentors, it is a little daunting to be in a setting where most of the higher management consists of older men and sometimes the expectations for Indian-looking girls, like Rhea and I, clash with how we were raised (I’ve lost count of the number of times I have gotten yelled at for laughing too loud… come to think of it I may get yelled at for my laugh wherever I go, but still). However, one lady, Kusum Didi, who is one of the few female program leads and the head of the Non-Farm Community Based Livelihood Sector, has been an amazing mentor for us to freely talk to and express our doubts and concerns. The other day, Rhea and I had an interesting conversation with her. She wanted to organize a cultural program for the staff and trainees staying here at CORD and asked us to showcase any talents. We jokingly responded saying, “LOL when the American students perform for an Indian cultural show,” but Kusum Didi agreed. She explained how Indian children rarely learn various art forms or participate in extra curricular activities beyond their normal education. At Penn, where everyone seems to be satisfied only by doing everything, from running their own small businesses and volunteering at the local elementary school by day AND attending all the late night festivities and being that bubbly socialite by night, it’s easy to think that is the norm. Our various sets of translators here in Himachal Pradesh, ranging from young girls in 10th grade to biotechnology students in the local college, have all been amazed with the opportunities we have to study economics but also pre-med or comp sci, to join performing arts teams and have a campus family when you’re living away from home, and to be able to intern in local urban nutrition initiatives during the school year and travel thousands of miles to explore similar initiatives in the summer.
With monsoon season just about here, the next few weeks will be a combination of further development of our individual projects and continuing to learn how to adapt to culturally and professionally. More importantly, I will be looking forward to the rare occasions where we are served some fruit after dinner YUMM!