A Day Away: Puri

On Sunday, I took a day trip to visit Puri, a nearby town that is very holy to Hindus.  We didn’t visit the famous Jagganath Temple, since we couldn’t go inside, but we did visit the lovely beach.  I was skeptical (and so was the lonely planet), but my friends here have found an incredible place – an off the beaten path restaurant that has private beach access.

It’s a 20-30 minute walk through a beautiful national forest to reach the beach with A., A. and A.:

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And a truly incredible beach it was. Beautiful (other than a fair amount of trash washed up from the ocean), and an army of crabs each time a wave receded:


We didn’t see another soul except for these fishermen and our friends.



Twas a fantastic afternoon relaxing on the beach

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Except for the two dead turtles than I found on a walk with A1.  One empty turtle shell was sad- but the second was heartbreaking, particularly because it still had a turtle in it.  And I was reasonably convinced that the turtle was in the process of digging a hole for it’s eggs when it had been bludgeoned to death, since its head and shell were bloody, and it was very much in egg-laying pose.





And then a slightly delirious walk back for a late lunch:


Wonderful trip.  RIP turtle friends… I’m sorry about whatever happened to you.  But also quite impressed about the secret existence of this beach.

The restaurant was full of Indian patrons, but only our group of foreigners were on the beach.  I’m not sure whether to believe it- but my friends say that the restaurant owner only lets foreigners go to the beach, since Indian tourists would be calling him on his cell phone and telling him to bring them things or throwing trash on the beach, whereas the foreigners just fend for themselves and are more respectful to the beach.  I can imagine this being true, but still quite interesting to find. I can’t help but be glad that this place is not in the lonely planet or similar tour book. What a traveling conundrum – with hundreds of tourists, this beach would have a completely different feel…but to willingly keep it secret also seems to go against the traveler’s code of sharing discoveries.

There is sick, and there’s Sick

One thing India does exceptionally well is exceed itself.  You see something so incredible (a temple, or a heartbreaking child begging and doing tricks) that you can’t imagine something more incredible (an even grander temple, even more heartbreaking child begging, etc.), but everything can and will be outdone.

Similarly with sickness.  I thought I had Delhi belly earlier on this trip, only to find myself reminded that what I had before was a mere shadow of true gastrointestinal discomfort.  Got quite, quite sick yesterday.  Sick enough that I started the antibiotics my travel doctor prescribed before I left the USA, and today I’m feeling substantially better (and able to hold food down). Of course, most medicines, including antibiotics, can be self proscribed here – just walk up to any druggist counter (they are ubiquitous) and ask for your antibiotic of choice and they will hand it to you – hence the rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria!

I particularly needed to get better quickly since today we had an all day training session with the survey enumerators (the 14 men who go to house to house giving the survey).  Survey training went really well – and I was fortunately able to make it through the whole day with only mild-medium discomfort.  The men (yes, they are all men – all of our team leaders at the research organization where I am working, and all of the enumerators) have all had some experience giving surveys, some on education, some on maternal health, etc.  So they were shocked and impressed by the thoroughness of our survey – which asks questions on basically all topics affecting the household, including education, migration, broad panel of health questions, socioeconomic and time survey details, cooking and fuel, etc.

The training was given in Oriya, the local language, so sitting for the entire day and just listening to Oriya was quite an interesting experience.  In some ways it was soporific, but I could also follow a lot of what was going on as they worked through the survey so I would add comments here and there (in english).

Tomorrow we are doing mock surveys in the office and more training.  Hoping my stomach continues to recover, and that I don’t receive a lesson in just how much worse things can get!    

surveying soon

A few days ago, we called the printer and he came by.  After a discussion, we settled on a price and a time frame for when the surveys will be ready. It is 100 pages long… and will be double sided. Now we’re doing the final translation work, checking all of the numbering, and getting ready to send it off in the next 24 hours.  There has been a LOT of work spent on this survey.  It was piloted in 50 households over the summer, and since then it has undergone extensive revision.  The survey is the foundation for our study, and we will use additional health and environmental measures in certain households. Plus, of course, it will collect all of the information that we will analyze in an attempt to explain people’s cooking (fuel and technology) choices – in short, who adopts cleaner stoves, and why?  

Simultaneously, we’ve been refining our sampling plan (what districts in the state of Orissa should make up the sample population? which villages will we survey?  which households within the villages? what % of households should be using which fuels?) … It is quite exciting, but also a very busy time. 

Dhanyavad (Thank You)

Back home, it’s Thanksgiving.  People are off work, eating turkeys (or not), spending time with family, and pausing to give thanks.  Though I’m not doing any of the first three, I certainly love opportunities to reflect on how very much I have to be thankful for.  A short list:


  1. The most supportive and loving family, boyfriend, and friends I could imagine. 
  2. The opportunity to work on a project that I really care about. We begin field work next week – so research-dedicated posts are coming at last!
  3. My Health. So thankful that I don’t have malaria, that I have anti-malarial pills, that Delhi Belly has faded, and that I am generally in good health
  4. New Home. I am now staying in a different apartment with other foreigners working on rural development and health.  I now sweep and mop my own floors, do my own laundry, and sleep on a cot.  And I need to set up my mosquito net tonight.  But it is truly wonderful to have friendly housemates, a quieter house, and a 10 minute walk to work.
  5. Cold showers.  Every second may be miserable, but it is a lot better than no shower at all.  Every day that I shower (which is not exactly everyday, due to my non-excitement about the water temperature) I stand facing the shower and imagine I had no shower and wait until I feel a genuine sense of gratitude before I turn it on and let the shivering commence.  I guess I’m a wimp- some people clearly don’t mind cold showers.  It’s just a bit hard for me.  I even do a bunch of push ups/sit ups to try to get sweaty so it will feel refreshing… but doesn’t really work after the first 10 secs.
  6. The blender in my new apartment. In the past 24 hours I’ve made two giant banana+chocolate soymilk smoothies.  There has never been a better smoothie.  Bananas from one of the farmers on the street (they are tiny bananas, not the USA-variety), soymilk from the market that’s a 15 min walk away.
  7. Helpful Indians. In particular, Auntie and Uncle D., parents of a friend of mine from Duke. I don’t think I’ve ever met a kinder couple.  They invited me over for dinner to their unforgettable modern, tasteful, *CLEAN* flat.  We had intellectual discussions about religion, music, and life in India.  Nothing tastes as good as homemade food cooked with love and enjoyed in a peaceful setting like their home.  It’s also deeply touching to me that people in India can give so much of themselves to a foreign guest.  Another reminder that I must do more in America to be welcoming to others.  It means so, so much.  Mrs. S., who lived near me at my old apartment, was also very kind- always offering me tea and biscuits (below).  Whenever I accepted her offer, she brought me in past the living room couches, dining room table, and sat me on her bed, pushing her sheets out of the way.  And they she turned the TV on.  So interesting to me that this is clearly the place she feels is most worthy of a guest. 
  8. I am blanketed in riches. It’s obvious – I have so, so much.  I walk down the street past cows eating garbage and carry with me a laptop, SLR camera, kindle, ipod, and cell phone. I think constantly – and feel guilty – about the value of what I carry in my backpack, and how many people it could help.  IMG_0818
    I have so much.  Back in my apartment a USA passport is sitting, waiting to apparate me out of this country whenever I want.  If I want.  My endless fretting about my retirement plan back home seems pretty ludicrous at times like this.  Today, on thanksgiving, I’m giving to everyone who asks me for money.  I’m handing out smiles left and right, whereas I am usually cold and ignore people.  I’m stopping to talk with all of the children, and waving at them across the street.  Maybe I won’t stop it, either. But of course, that’s just one small, small step.
  9. Exercise walks/jogs in parks. I am so happy that this city has parks meant for walkers and runners. I’ve been waking up early and going for super brisk walks (while my knee still heals).  The parks are FULL of people walking. Women wear the same things they wear all day, but men can wear shorts and tank tops.  Whatever- just glad so many people are out moving!  I don’t have any pics from the park in Bhubaneswar (which is far enough that I have to take an auto), but in Cuttack I could walk to this great park.  Do you notice that there is GRASS next to all of the dirt? Men fill the field playing cricket.
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    Then there are parks like this, with trash next to the dirt.  But that doesn’t stop these young men from waking up at 6 to go out to play before work/school/whatever.
  10. Ingenuity all around me. The office across the hall needed some new desks.  I realized this because one day in the parking lot of the building several men showed up with a bunch of wood.  Over the past week, I’ve seen them cut it to size, nail, sand, glue on a hard plastic coating, and now carry it upstairs.  Desks created from scratch in this building, for this building.  Scenes like this are everywhere –people making baskets on the street, curtains out reeds/straw, farmers biking the food they picked that morning in to sell on the street.  It’s so refreshing to see things from their origin to completion – and see it everywhere.  In America, all we tend to get is the “Made in XXX” label.  Here, I’m surrounded by the Making.IMG_0835
  11. Living here, where everyday brings new adventures. Today I took the alleyway to get to the office, rather than the front door.  The poor people that live on this road had all painted their (dirt) stoops for Laxmi Puja (apparently every Thurs this month).  An unexpected, beautiful treat.
  12. My education, teachers, mentors, and role models. I feel very shaped by my previous experiences and the incredible and inspiring people in my life. I’m so grateful to have a solid foundation from learning and these leaders – to give me strength, an open mind, a desire to seek out new challenges, and a will to try to make a difference, no matter how small. 


And thank you for reading!

How long can you hold your breath?

New Delhi is now has higher levels of urban air pollution than Beijing, the New York Times reports in it’s blog about India, India Ink. This isn’t just hazy air, or smog, or exhaust.  This is life-threatening.  I was in Delhi just over a week ago, and I could barely believe how horrible the pollution was.  When I took off in a plane from Delhi’s airport in the morning, the cloud of dark brown smoke (an “atmospheric brown cloud”) was blatantly visible.  It sat on the city like a pancake of death! 

According to the article, the US and Indian governments have measured levels of particulate matter (PM) pollution in Delhi at 320 (India Meterological Dept downtown) and 380 in the Noida suburb on the AQI scale. I went to see a movie in Noida when I flew into Delhi.  The EPA classifies an AQI above 300 as “HAZARDOUS- Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.” An AQI of 320 translates into a PM concentration of 270 micrograms/cubic meter. The EPA standard for protecting health is currently 35 micrograms/cubic meter. 

I’ve been told by four separate, highly educated Indians (living in the US and India) that air in Delhi is much improved/clean now.  In air like this, you are recommended to stay indoors (although unless you are rich, you don’t have AC and your windows are open), avoid exercise (if you are poor, you are likely to be doing manual labor), and avoid exposure to the air.  Can you imagine if the air was this bad in the USA?   I want to walk outside.  I don’t want to come to India and live a life totally removed from these realities (eg, if I stayed in nice hotel rooms with purified air).  But I want to exercise without imagining the particles penetrating into my lungs in highly hazardous quantities.  And I watch the men and women carrying stacks of bricks for construction, peddling a cycle rickshaw, pushing their food cart through the streets, and want clean, delicious, healthy air for everyone of them.  

How long can you hold your breath? 


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(Pictures from Bhubaneswar)

Empty Beds

The woman I stayed with over the weekend has two full-time, live-in caretakers.  One is mainly the driver, the other is mainly the cook.  But in reality, they do everything.  Unfortunately, she is not in the best health, so they take very close care of her.  She also has a woman who comes twice a day to massage her and help her change, etc.  She cannot walk well (due to arthritis), so she spends most of her awake time sitting and calling for them if she needs anything. 

They sleep in one of the bedrooms- but not on the bed.  On the marble floor.  On top of a sheet, right next to each other.

I walked into the kitchen (which I have a habit of doing, because I am curious) and found them sitting in the middle of the floor eating their food.  They jumped up to see what I needed and I quickly walked out because I didn’t want to disturb them.  There are three dining tables throughout the apartment, tons of chairs with gloriously thick cushions, but apparently the only appropriate place for them is on the kitchen floor.

Munna, the cook, has been here for seven years.  Every day.  He does not have a wife, who he would never see.  Is this a job he will keep forever?  Does he like this job?  I know he is from a small village- perhaps sleeping on a floor in an enclosed apartment and eating on the kitchen floor are – to him – signs of his success.  His family grows rice in a village.  I’ve tried to ask him other questions about his life when he gets a break from work, but the language barrier is too tough to break.  He is so dedicated and thorough- I really get the impression that he cares about Auntie-ji, and also really wants to do a good job.  I don’t feel the same way about the driver.  He often seems to have an annoyed smirk on his face when being asked to do things, but I don’t think she notices.

It’s interesting for me to imagine if my grandmother had two live-in assistants and another person to come and clean, as well as offer massages. The whole institution of “serving” in India is deeply, startlingly foreign to me.  But since labor is inexpensive, it’s possible for even low class people to have someone even lower class assisting them.  And even though standards in India are different (I bet a majority of the population sleeps on the floor rather than a bed), it’s still strange for me to see these men sleeping on the floor at the foot of a giant bed. The bed looks empty, but clearly it isn’t.  Something is lying there on the mattress, getting the best breeze from the fan.  The bed must still be occupied by India’s past, the historical standards like serving people don’t sleep in the beds of the people they serve are still here, silently present. I want to shake this sleeping behemoth awake, kick it out of the bedroom, down the hall, into the dust where it belongs.

All Poverty is Not Created Equal



“There are more people living in poverty in India than live in the entire United States”.  This graphic is from Design Impact – an org based out of my hometown (Cincinnati, OH!) that is doing similar work, designing improved cookstoves for rural Indian populations, among other projects.  You can read their full post here.

This info-graphic addresses a common refrain I hear: “you know, we have poor people here in the US, too.”  The thing is- it’s really not the same.  I care a lot about problems in the USA, strongly identify as a US citizen, and feel a very deep desire to work to improve my home country.  But I can’t shake the belief that problems are worse elsewhere, and that I am more needed there. 

In India, destitution is a continuous image – poverty, lack of education, poor sanitation, and environmental abuse saturating the land.  Over 408 million people are living on less than $1.25 a day.  Endless scenes make me want to scream until the whole world can hear that things are not OK.  Things that seem to really “matter’ in the USA (dressing fashionably, having a great time hanging out with friends, going on vacations, getting into the best schools, always being happy) seem truly hollow and disconnected compared to the realities of daily life for so many… So many that urinate on the street, bathe in a river, drink water from a fountain… build a house by the road from bamboo sticks, sheets of plastic and cloth, and can’t even send their children to school.

I do not believe that lack of sanitation is fully someone’s “fault” in these conditions.  If the government does not come to pick up your trash – what would you do with it?  Clearly, take it out of your house.  Maybe leave it outside in a pile, so that animals will come and eat it and thus it will be gone.  Or burn it, if you want to get rid of it.  Of course you don’t know that burning plastics has toxic emissions for you and the planet.  Also, if your house is without electricity or running water, where will you go to the bathroom?  Somewhere outside of your house, surely.  Maybe into a small waterway so that things will be washed away.  If you have no water, what will you drink? If you cannot buy soap, would that prevent you from eating?  If you have no electricity or cleaner fuels, would you not burn whatever wood you could find to cook with?

I have met tourists who are in India and say: “These people are filthy and disgusting.  This country is full of trash.” [These people were in Bhubaneswar] But again, unless the government provides basic public essentials (such as water, trash pickup, etc.) I cannot bring myself to blame the destitute who must do something with their waste and have very few options.

If you live in a country with these public services, you are a very, very, VERY lucky person.



A family experience in Cuttack

I’m spending the weekend in Cuttack with a friendly family.  Some recent experiences:

Bus ride (1 hour, 30 rupees (<$1)).  Most likely to be the source of any bedbug issues, TB, or other respiratory infections I may develop in the future.  About 120 people squashed into an aisle.  I thought I was done with this form of transport (AKA the lowest-common-denominator), but apparently it needed to happen one more time to convince me.  So ironic that I am getting over-mothered by people here about not going out late at night, don’t talk to people, etc… but everyone was fine with me taking this bus, even though I had men smashed against me and breathing an inch from my face for an hour.  A lot of men.

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Apartment Homestay for the Weekend: Most likely place to find delicious homemade food, stories, welcoming hostesses, and grandmotherly concern.

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Morning Puja (for the eldest child): Most likely to produce “pita” (delicious mix of rice/white dal filled with coconut and jaggery, wrapped in banana leaf) and billows of incense smoke.  Also seems like most likely way for grandmotherly types to strain themselves (2+ hours of standing up and carrying out rituals), even though she claims this is where she gets her strength.

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Mosquito Death Racquet: Most awesome. Swing it through the air, and it electrocutes any mossies it touches.


Around neighborhood: Most typical scenes of India. Waterway is for urination, dumping trash, and who knows what else.


Bikes can hold a lot.  Have a big ladder to carry?  Two men and a bike get the job done.


Or a million pots, etc.  (sorry it’s blurry… stealth photo)


(From Bhubaneswar) typical cars flying every which way, meanwhile man carries basket with big pot of food on his head.


(From Bhubaneswar, on Friday) Truck full of chickens.  When I walked by in the morning the truck was full.  When I walked by in the evening there were only about 4 left.  They slaughter them right there by the road.  Breaks my heart.  Oh, and guess what they cooked for lunch at the office? Chicken.


Elevator. Most likely to induce the feeling that you have stepped into a horror movie (as you slide both sets of doors shut and it slowly rocks upwards).  It’s hard to see, but there is no glass, just two open metal sliding doors.


Me after my first hot [bucket] shower since Delhi: Most likely to be really, really happy 🙂


“In Orissa, there is no pollution”

Thus spoke the Governor of Orissa, at a conference organized by the Asian Institute of Public Health (AIPH).  “When I moved here [from Mumbai] and became governor, I added five years to my life,” he continued.

Though I disagree with that sentiment, a different quote by the governor really struck home with me:

I do not mind the rich becoming richer,

Richer becoming richest,

But I do mind and I object to the poor remaining poor.

The governor’s keynote speech praised AIPH – the first public health institute in India – and called for more work on the environment in Orissa.  I appreciated his enthusiasm for the environmental cause (he seemed most passionate about mining), but I disagree with him about Orissa’s lack of pollution.  If one spends any time outside on a busy street (or in my apartment when rush hour hits) you cannot help but be overcome by clouds of the stuff engulfing you.  Everytime I cough I can taste it in my mouth, and my mucus is dark with it. “No pollution”  indeed!  One of the scientists at the event, Dr. Lesllie Elliot (University of Nebraska Medical Center) gave a presentation about PM levels in the state of Orissa- all of which were above the WHO levels.

Below, Dr. Risto Rautiainen (UNMC) gives a presentation in the truly lavish conference center.


Loving it

I’ve been really enjoying the excitement of this trip for the past couple days. More frequent calls with home (thanks JJ and ACT!) have really helped, and I’ve relaxed into my situation here much more. 

I love the chaotic rush of everyone and everything.  I love how even a walk down the block is an adventure, dodging cows, cars, bicycles, refuse piles, and gawkers.  I love how every inch of India is so full of life.  I love the enormous strength and determination of the people. 

Bhubaneswar doesn’t have traffic signals.  The most crowded intersections all have an Indian man (like below) in a little tower who directs traffic.  These men are always wearing white gloves that reach up to their shirt sleeves – when I’ve asked, I’ve been told the purpose is both sun protection and because everyone has “the obsession with whiteness”.  


Good mix of bikes, walkers, auto rickshaws (which are what I take to work every day), trucks, and men pushing carts.  I live on this road.



The picture below is my favorite.  Auto rickshaws dashing every which way.  A proud history of ancient war, and promises that this land would be full with success. And behind it all, construction – new growth that is unstoppable, perhaps, doesn’t reach the poor. IMG_0695