A tour of India, north and south

Greetings again to everyone who reads my contributions AIF blog and perhaps even finds them interesting. I have just returned from an unexpectedly long and salubrious tour of India. For lack of any major news that I can share regarding my project, I’ll discuss my observations of traveling through India after calling southern Rajasthan home for the four months from September to January.

I began my hiatus on 10 January, traveling to Hyderabad for the biannual conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons. In predictable fashion, my flight was delayed leaving Udaipur, so I missed a connection in Mumbai (it’s still more fashionable to call it Bombay). I can, however, recommend the Civil Restaurant in the Crawford Market area for great ‘non-veg’ (goat) curries. It’s right next to the Hotel Bengali and a few other of the less outrageously priced hotels in Mumbai. It has a great (and authentic) 1950’s-style décor, and the owners are Muslim, which indicates expertise in handling meat in India, as another AIF fellow wisely pointed out. If a lifelong vegetarian is preparing your biryani or Afghani curry, think twice, people.

The conference was an excellent, if truncated, experience, with talks by Nobel Laureate in economics Elinor Ostrom, and other excellent scholars of ‘social-ecological systems’ and other interdisciplinary theoretical approaches. The thali of economics, ecology, political science, and anthropology/sociology was a perfect combination.

With my mind rejuvenated by the heady academic atmosphere, I wandered to the Hyderabad bus stand to get a bus to Mandanapalli (which I will never be able to pronounce properly), the town nearest to the Rishi Valley School, where fellow Clinton fellow Lindsey is working on the environmental health aspects of pesticide use among farmers. Now, as I arrived to the bus stand, my mind was peacefully humming about theories of cooperation, game theory, institutions, and other abstractions. I snapped awake when I found a terminal filled with very old government-run buses, with lines of people who could comfortably fit on perhaps three of said buses. Walking past signs written in squiggly, foreign Telugu, I searched madly for a bus. Because of local festivals, I could only connect via Bangalore, which left me a frazzled mess. Two major travel delays and sleepless nights in one journey—I began to feel defeated.

The following two days consisted of hiking, eating ripe tamarind off the tree, and learning about efforts in the Rishi Valley to regenerate common lands after overgrazing, create a seed bank for local crops, and understand the role of synthetic pesticides in health and livelihoods.

From my exposure visit with Lindsey, we traveled to Lonavala, a hill station outside Mumbai, for our AIF midpoint conference. I am sure that others will mention this wonderful time, so I will summarize by saying that we are probably AIF’s best program. I think that we all needed to broaden our vision from the small victories and defeats that we have at work, to see that we had a collective outsider’s understanding of the state of NGOs and social issues in India that I would challenge anyone to match. The potential to promote high quality NGO initiatives and Indian-American professional ties is there. It’s a work in progress, that sometimes seems not to progress, and perhaps does not progress in places, but the seed of something good is there.

From there, a large number of the fellowship group traveled back to Mumbai for a weekend of the cosmopolitan life. Fellow Clinton fellow Adam and I impulsively tried to book train tickets to Goa, the Indian beach Mecca where prawn curry and body surfing awaited us. Through a maddening attempt to book from the waitlist (booking Indian trains last-minute is one of the more harrowing things that I’ve ever done), we found ourselves in a grimy sleeper car. Our reward was one of the most delicious, relaxing, and architecturally unique times of my life. I cannot glamorize colonialism in any form, but the Portuguese did leave soccer-football instead of cricket, some Indo-Iberian architecture, and the acceptability of eating beef and pork. After nearly five months in India, I saw the continuity and drastic differences that each region contains. India contains worlds within worlds, and sitting at the small hut restaurants and seeing Goan cathedrals brought home the vast differences that I had noticed over the previous two weeks.

From there, AIF business brought me to Delhi for more cosmopolitan adventures, as well as to the Dharamshala area, where the snows still sit on the Himalayas near the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Government in Exile. In Delhi, I enjoyed more culinary rarities like real coffee, cheese, and other temptations for foreigners, between trips to the beautiful ruins of Humayan’s Tomb and Lodhi Garden. Dharamshala gave me my first glances of the Himalayas, one of the world’s great mountainous areas with a long past of human occupation. What will I find here in terms of natural resource needs, traditional environmental knowledge, and livelihoods, especially compared to what I have seen in the high deserts of northern Arizona and the Andes? This remains to be seen. What I can say without doubt, is that it was a marvelous (and mostly AIF-sanctioned) month around India.

To conclude, here are some old fieldwork and workshop photos for the public’s viewing pleasure:

From February Blog Post

Some things are so similar worldwide. Local buses have a certain feel everywhere. Here the Catholic paraphernalia of Latin America is replaced by Hindu flair. Laxmi takes the Virgin Mary’s spot in the center.

From February Blog Post

Houses in Dodawali (sic?) village, under the hills that provide wood and non-timber forest products.

From February Blog Post

I think that India’s step wells are beautiful.

From February Blog Post

Tata Institute of Social Science volunteer Brijesh. Even Indian volunteers come as foreigners into tightly knit village communities. Getting interviews and good data is not guaranteed.

From February Blog Post

I still hesitate to publish photos of people whom I encounter in the village, but this girl was so sweet, and the photo came out well. I would be happier to report that this girl of about ten years was in school, however.

From February Blog Post

Baby goats!

From February Blog Post

Nazlee, also from Tata Institute, trying to get data from a focus group. Gender, class, caste, and other power dynamics control can influence who will say what in these situations. The identity of the interviewer, language barriers among English/Hindi/Mewari, and the technical expertise needed also pose challenges.

From February Blog Post

A workshop with ethnic Raika camel herders in Ranakpur, Rajasthan. Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan, an NGO in Rajasthan and local branch of League for Pastoral People and Endogenous Livestock Development, Germany, organized the event.

From February Blog Post

The men got tired of sitting for hours on end, so a traditional Rajasthani clay chillum came out, packed with tar-laden Indian tobacco. An intense smoke, but with friendly people. Warning: smoking causes cancer.

From February Blog Post

I wasn’t convinced that many Rajasthanis wear these traditional pointed shoes, but they were the norm among the Raika.

From February Blog Post

GIS? Who needs GIS? Understand changing land-use policies through color-by-number!

From February Blog Post

An homage to Udaipur’s finest dining establishment, Soul Meet. The quintessential backpacker’s place. The kitchen sends a boy out to buy vegetables whenever you order something…which guarantees a one-hour minimum wait. Get a lassi (banana, pineapple, special), a beer (in a coffee mug-no liquor license), and plug your Ipod into the sound system. You won’t notice that any time’s past. Slow down, you’re in Udaipur.

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