Uttarakhand, by Matt French

After three months, my fiancé Sophie and I (we were fortunate to be placed with the same organization) have more or less adjusted to life here – quite a bit slower and more laid back than what we had in the States – and we are beginning to find our place/role within the organization. This experience has helped me realize that there is no substitute for time. Obviously you want to hit the ground running; we hit the ground and didn’t really even roll. We have spent a lot of this initial period feeling out the organization and looking into our positionality. It has been frustrating, but a good introduction into the challenges of international work. We had, and still have, a lot of questions:

– How do we walk the fine line between having personal space and being antisocial?

– Is our NGO properly serving the community? What are the alternatives?

– How can we best serve the community?

– When is it our responsibility to communicate our concerns and when should we just
shut up?

It is a challenge, but one for which we feel equipped. We made a conscious effort to focus on the positive elements of this placement, as opposed to the things we dislike. The staff here enthusiastically welcomed us (they continue to be gracious and helpful) and we have a great amount of freedom. Up until now, we have done a lot of proposal/grant writing and report editing, and are constructing a new website. This kind of work is something concrete we can offer and a responsibility we are more than willing to fulfill; involving us in real programmatic work, however, does not seem to be a priority for our NGO. While this is frustrating, we have had the opportunity to accompany staff on several field visits/trainings in the surrounding rural areas. These are interesting forays into generally unseen areas of the country.

After such outings we are able to provide feedback on what we observed – this seems to be taken seriously by some in the organization and will hopefully be used to inform future endeavors. Some anxieties still remain, but time has provided us with a greater understanding of our situation and some strategies to deal with it. We also have some good prospects on the horizon – I will soon be meeting with local government officials about a small hygiene intervention and Sophie should begin work on a female feticide project in January. Ham dekhengue!

Life outside the office has been more fulfilling. We have had ample time to explore the hills, visit pilgrimage sites and other mountain towns in the state, read, write, practice yoga/meditation, etc.

We have also formed some nice relationships – just the other night we cooked a pasta dinner (quite a novelty in this town) for our friends and their two children. I am a bit snobby about pasta (as Sophie says); I hate to pour a fabulous sauce over “macaroni and cheese” style elbow noodles, but it turned out pretty well.

We have also had the opportunity to get away from the things of man. In late October Sophie and I went on a trek deep into the Himalayan wilderness. Our destination put us close to the Tibetan border, which unfortunately became an issue. We had to take the path less traveled, as we couldn’t get a permit for the more regulated route (i.e., we took the road that had no India Tibet Border Police checkpoints). We hired a guide and a porter, as it was late in the season and foul weather threatened. We had never trekked with any assistance before, but it turned out to be a smart and enjoyable decision. We were resolved to make it as equal as possible, so everyone carried the same amount of weight and, after some pestering, they let us do our share of the meal preparation and chores. We felt safe with them, or at least a hell of a lot safer than we would have by ourselves. The trail was peppered with rockslides; in some parts the path was just gravel and loose dirt about six inches wide, sitting at about a 45-degree angle. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was in your back yard, but looking down a sheer 300-foot drop onto unfriendly jagged rocks, made it a harrowing experience. Other than the rock slides and the cold (we were camping at 3,600 meters and the running water was frozen over by morning) things were perfect. We ate good and simple food; saw awe inspiring views; got used to walking all day with heavy packs; and had some peaceful quiet time. We were out in the hinterlands over Sophie’s birthday and it was a very special time and place to be with her.

As for our current living situation, I spend the bulk of my time in one of the field offices, while Sophie can usually be found at headquarters; we are, however, often together. The initial tour of my living accommodations had us worried, but we successfully turned the cottage into a cozy little refuge (after quite a bit of cleaning and renovating). The house has a comfy bedroom, a large kitchen, and we converted the front sitting room into a meditation/yoga space.

The back door looks out onto terraced fields and beautiful Himalayan hills. The morning and evenings are peaceful and increasingly chilly (its at about 5000 feet).

The only drawback is that the bathroom/bathing facility is outside; well, it’s enclosed, but where there should be windows, there are none. Also, the roof does not connect with the wall, allowing a wide and windy gap. It has no hot water or shower and the water we do get only flows from 4am – 8am (got to get up early and fill up the buckets!). There are huge spiders too. They like to hang out near the light switches and wait for unsuspecting human hands. Apparently, they are not dangerous… unless they bite you or you eat them! But hell, I love it down here!

Hindi is going well. I knew only the basics upon arrival, but have developed my skills enough to get around and have some friendly chats. I don’t get into any deep philosophical discussions yet, but, as people around here are fond of saying, “practice makes a man perfect!” As we are learning Hindi, the staff members at our NGO are also improving their English proficiency. When enough interested people are in the office, we give an informal class. It’s fun and interactive—a lot of laughing, loud talk, and, of course, learning.

I came to India for the first time in 2003 as a traveler; the Service Corps experience has been much different and in many ways more rewarding. It has given me a chance to really engage with the culture and make more lasting personal ties. It has also afforded me the opportunity to give back – to make an impact. And while it is slow going, I have faith that this placement will ultimately be beneficial for Sophie and I, our NGO, and, most importantly, the marginalized rural villagers of this region.

-Matt French

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