to sleep, or not to sleep

(post from several days ago…)

if you’ve traveled in developing countries before in backpacker-class, you’ll know what I mean when I say that the hotel I stayed at when I was in the field falls into the category of “establishments where locking the bathroom door is a must if you wish to avoid having giant sewer rats exploring under your bed”.  Or potentially on top of your bed, if they have a way to get up.  Thankfully, after one giant-rat-under-bed incident on my last trip to India, I’ve adopted proactive bathroom door lockage.  In fact, this trip to India has been chock full of preventative measures: 2 pepto bismol chew tablets before any questionable meal (coats the stomach to prevent pathogen penetration), first time using a bed net nightly, telling people I don’t drink milk tea as soon as they get a tea-making gleam in their eye, etc.

In case you aren’t familiar with this type of establishment, here’s my room:


I’m not a complete supporter of the bed’s architecture, seeing as the 2 inch compressed straw mattress provided no buffer for the gaps in the bed boards and the fact that the bed boards had quite uneven heights.  This created an exciting sleeping environment wherein my butt was several inches higher than my head and feet and allowed me to fully appreciate how nice it is to sleep on even surfaces on the nights of the year when I’m not in this bed. 


Since this place has an Indian toilet, I voted it lowest-class-hotel-where-I’ve-stayed in India.  But it was great to be on the same hall as the team of surveyors and as long as I don’t have bed bugs I will make do.  

How many stoves do you have?

In the developed world, we “stack” technologies. How many devices do you have that have overlapping purposes?  My phone, computer, ipod, stereo, and now kindle can all play music, although all in slightly different ways. When I get a new piece of technology that can play music (for example, my droid), it didn’t make me stop using my ipod.

In India and other developing countries, stoves technologies are “stacked”. In rural areas, everyone has a chulha, or traditional stove.  Everyone.



But some people also have stoves that burn more cleanly, such as kerosene, electric, biogas, or LPG.


However, they don’t stop using their chulhas just because they have a cleaner and more efficient stove, and there are a lot of reasons for this.    Here, a woman shows me her biogas stove (you can see the hose connecting it to the biogas plant).  It is next to an impressive stack of wood that fuels the chulha in the other corner of the kitchen. 


And here it is.  Cooking technology and fuel stacking – a working biogas stove and a chulha.  One burns clean gas, and the other has stained the walls black with soot (just imagine her lungs!). 


Wood is a lot cheaper than gas or kerosene or electricity, especially since the time it takes to gather and prepare the wood is not generally considered as a “cost” to the family. We’re asking questions about  every stove that they have, how often they use them, fuels, kitchen construction, etc.  Using a chulha will turn your pots black, but some say that it gives a better taste to the food.

Of course, we’ll see what the data from all 500 households shows, but my reaction from spending a week in the field is that stove “stacking” is prevalent.  Improved stoves do not replace their dirtier counterparts entirely.  This is certainly what we expected, and it’s at the heart of the improved cookstove conundrum.  It’s stilly to compare my stacking music player technologies with use of multiple cookstoves, because of course, my ipod isn’t killing me.  Our goal in this research project is not to encourage people to use their cleaner stoves, but rather to better understand who is using what, and why. 

Waste Not, Want Not.

This post should perhaps be entitled Poop 101. 

There’s a lot you can do with the poop from your cows.  That shit is useful!  (ha) If you are using a traditional chulha, you can make ghasi, or a flat cake made from straw and cow dung. It’s not a cake you eat – it is a free and very dirty fuel. In rural villages women walk around with wicker baskets and scoop the poop inside. Ghasi are formed by hand, and they are left out to dry in the sun to dry on all conceivable surfaces: vertical walls, roofs, the sidewalk, the dirt, steps, etc. (hands are simply rinsed after forming ghasi)

It’s a bit of an art form.  Some are squashed into little balls of fuel:


Others into flat cakes:


(Here laid on top of a roof to dry – handprints to help future life forms identify these as human creations)


I snapped these ghasi in the riverbed of a very urban city in Cuttack resting on some bricks.


And here a woman boils rice using ghasi.  I’ve developed the unforseen ability to determine what is burning when I smell smoke (which is about every 30 seconds).  Burning leaves and other agricultural products has a very distinctive smoke smell, as does burning plastic (which is ubiquitous).  But thus far I haven’t been able to distinguish between ghasi and other firewood products – the point being that it doesn’t smell like dung while it’s burning.


Dung is also used (bear with me) clean and tidy areas on the ground.  I first learned about this ready Gandhi’s autibiography, but it is widespread.  Scooping some dung onto the stoop of their houses, women mix it with water and “paint” their stoops.  It results in something like a sealed and smooth dirt floor, keeping dust at bay. 


And this brings us to dung’s (potentially) most glorious use – clean energy from biogas plants.  Here’s a simple description of how this works:Slide1

Dung is added into the tank, and stirred.  It then enters the underground tank – the plants in our study are generally 1, 2, or 3 cubic meters. In the tank, the dung breaks down and releases methane.  When this happens naturally (in fields in USA, or these small hamlets in India), methane is released.  Methane is a quite potent greenhouse gas (it is about 4 times more powerful than CO2, but has a lifetime of 20 years, shorter than CO2s).  When this methane is released in a sealed tank like the biogas plant above, it can be burned much like propane.  In the USA, some landfills are being capped and the methane they release is burned – so smae idea here, except the gas is powering a household stove.


A new low.

India has – once again – surpassed itself. 

After a frustrating day (personal and very expensive internet has stopped working once again; store to fix internet is closed; internet at work was not working, etc), I went to the refreshing Cafe Coffee Day to get my favorite vegan shake.  Stop reading now if you want to continue enjoying life without dreaming that things of a certain caliber of awful can in fact exist.


While enjoying the vegan shake I noticed there were some chunks – which I ate, figuring they were ice or coffee bean or something.  I drank every last drop of that shake while reading on my kindle.  It was delicious.  I slurped up everything I could using the straw and sat back to relax.  Except that I noticed a fairly large number of dark chunks still in the glass, stuck to the ice cubes.  When I looked closely, I realized with dawning dread and a disgust so deep I cannot name it that they were pieces of cockroach.  Truly.  Wanting to cry and scream and rewind time and throw up I walked to the counter and explained to the staff, showing them my cup. At first they shook their heads, No, but then reached in a took out a cockroach leg stuck to an ice cube, and fear settled on their faces. 

I was barely keeping it together, racking my brain for any possible solution that could even come close to making this right.  Of course, I found nothing.  I wanted to scream in the middle of the store (which had about 12 other customers) that there was a cockroach in my drink, and tell everyone to leave, but I was finding it hard to form thoughts other than I have just eaten pieces of cockroach.

Of course, the staff barely spoke english. I said “I want to speak to the manager.” “Madam, I am the manager”. ““This is completely unacceptable.  How has this happened?  How is this possible!?” “Madam, it must have gotten in with the ice” (which was crushed). I wanted them to freak out – to check everything – look in the ice, look in the coffee – to DO SOMETHING – but while I was standing at the counter they kept making drinks and served a lava brownie.  Although it was completely inadequate, I demanded a refund (that’s what you do in America, right?), and told him I wanted a comment card, which he happily gave me.  It was clear that my comment in his hands would be incinerated or quickly disposed, so I intended to send an email.  When I told this to the manager, he took the card back and took me to my seat to sit down and talk. 

I can’t describe how sick I felt.  I could not stop thinking about everything I saw in the cup, and the feeling of eating the chunks that were in the shake.  I was fighting to keep it together, but I don’t think this guy has any idea.   He told me “If you send that email I will lose my job. We have had a lot of cockroaches, it has been a problem, but I have called pest control, and I am working on it. Please, tell me what I can do. Please do not send in the email.”  After repeating how completely unacceptable this was, I told him that it was my right to send in the card (he agreed).  He then talked about how the real problem is that the men behind the counter are so rushed, so something like this happened without their noticing.  This cafe chain is the nicest in India – their Starbucks. It’s always air conditioned, and targeted at the young and hip.  Would an errant cockroach make it in to a drink at Starbucks?  Really hard for me to imagine. So I eventually extracted my refund (such a pitiful repayment) and the comment card, on which I wrote the managers name. 

As I went home I was filled with all-consuming feelings of disgust and revulsion.  I hate cockroaches – in my book they win first prize in the “least favorite creature” category – at least for creatures I have met. I struggled with irrational feelings that baby cockroaches were going to hatch in my stomach, or that I was going to sprout cockroach legs, or become a roach queen and thousands of roaches were going to flock to me … on and on.  I fought to keep this in perspective, but found it impossible.  Yes – some people in other cultures willingly eat cockroaches all the time.  On american gameshows morons have surely had to eat cockroaches and also done so willingly, hoping to win a pot of money.  Although this felt indescribably horrible, I tried to remember that I’m still incredibly fortunate, and always have enough to eat, and this country is full of people who will never experience a luxury like a vegan shake at cafe coffee day. I tried thinking about ahimsa and how a cockroach is just another form of life and all life is one.  I tried thinking about how realistically I would probably be completely fine.  I tried telling myself that there’s always a minute percentage of cockroach and rat feces in food we eat, and I’ve just gotten a larger dose in one shake.  But nothing worked.  I felt a complete sense of betrayal – I had ordered a beverage with the implicit trust that it would not contain a cockroach.  I felt so tricked and covered in filth.  I haven’t made up my mind about the comment card.

It wasn’t until this morning, after only being able to sleep for a few hours that I realized – this is why people sue over finding repulsive things in their food (in america). It’s because you want something to possibly make up for some sort of traumatizing experience and this feeling of disgust, betrayal and loss of control.  I really get it now.  Litigation hadn’t even entered into my imagination last night, and it doesn’t seem like the right course of action (I don’t live in India, didn’t keep the roach glass, would struggle with the concept of suing, don’t know if this is really a suable-offense etc) – but I really understand the appeal.  

I’m feeling a bit better this morning.  Of course, I’m still alive, and this latest experience in India is just another reminder of how many challenges can arise in the course of trying to do research I care about. And how many things are not in my job description. The fact that it was (of all things) a cockroach made it a lot worse for me, and particularly the fact that I have a persistent vision of the chunks in the glass and can remember eating them makes it hard to forget. But I will keep fighting to keep this in perspective, and hopefully it will work soon.  I will fight to make the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” true in this instance. Just as this feels like a new low, surely there will be another even lower yet.  I will try to be ready for it.

PS – upon relating this story to my parents, I learned that something similar happened to my dad in Italy, and my mom found a cockroach in her food in a restaurant in the US.  These things help me keep it in perspective.  Soon it will be just another story souvenir.  

Surveying the Village (photos)

We spent two days “in the field” surveying households last week. 

These rural villages aren’t far from urban centers or highways, and in many ways can resemble the city slums, but (in my experience) are more spread out. 

We have been visiting a selection of houses with biogas plants (and stoves that burn the gas), traditional cookstoves (or chulhas), and improved cookstoves (kerosene, LPG, electric, or “rocket stoves”). 

Here is a traditional chulha (no chimney) in an enclosed brick kitchen – the window nearby at least offers some escape for the smoke. 


I’ll give a primer on biogas plants in my next post.  Here, a woman uses a stove running with the methane produced by her biogas plant.  What clean energy!


This man was a bit better off.  Here is his biogas plant – in the background is a chicken farm he runs. [aside: the chicken farm building had wire mesh walls, so at least the chickens had some air, and plenty of room to run around inside]


To be surveyed (for about 3 hours), he brought out two chairs and a table from his house. 


Here’s where the dung is added to a biogas plant, and presumably stirred with this stick.


This woman shows me her stove that runs on biogas.


This man showed me to a well – functioning biogas plant, and I asked to take his photo in front of it.  After the photo he started laughing and I learned that it wasn’t his plant but belonged to his neighbors – here it is nonetheless.


Another biogas stove:


My favorite photo- this woman has a kerosene stove (pictured) although she generally uses her chulha.  She didn’t feel comfortable having me take a photo of her kitchen, so we settled on her doorstep.  Her husband stands to the left.


One of our star surveyors, hard at work in the foreground below.  Since the survey takes so long, people can get quite bored and want to get back to their work.  The best story of a dedicated surveyor is S., who was surveying a farmer.  After 40 minutes, the farmer said he needed to return to the rice paddy.  Undettered, S. accompanied him and stood in the paddy asking questions for an additional 1.5-2 hours while the farmer worked.  If it were appropriate, I would have bought S. a drink. Instead, I congratulated him enthusiastically and said “5 stars work!”


First day in the field

After months of preparation, we launched the final survey today.  The past few days have been hectic getting everything today, but at last we had a stack of surveys, conjoint analyses, scales, tape measures, and pencils ready for today:


The front page of the survey was printed in 5 different colors, which coordinate with the version of the conjoint option cards that each family is shown. 

The team for our first day consisted of:

  • a team of six enumerators (who actually ask the survey to the household) – the quality of our survey really rests of the shoulders of these men.   if they do not ask the questions properly, don’t record the answers, or miscategorize the household, the data quality is compromised.  i have so much respect for these men – they must convince the household to answer the survey (which can take 1-3 hours), try to keep them interested, and remain highly alert themselves… and do this for about a month.
  • the field leader, U., who is really wonderful at his job.  he is very organized, trained the team, and has come with the entire field plan.  he has a 2 hour commute every day to our office from the village where he lives with his wife, parents, and young son – a village not that much different from the villages we are surveying. 
  • the project manager (for our partner organization in India)
  • 2 drivers

What an very interesting day – I’m so exhausted from it that it’s hard to find the energy to write, but I want to do it while everything is still fresh. 

Today we were sampling in an industrial zone – cement and iron plants are off in the distance.  The air was grey/white, all day (from 9:30 until 5), not even a glimmer of blue. I suspect this is due to air full of fine particles, trapping light, but we aren’t collecting environmental data yet so I can’t be positive. 

This photo was taken at the top of a very small hill where the government is building an ecotourism site, so that people can come and admire the view from a temple at the top.  It’s a nice view, but thoroughly obscured by the cloud [of pollution] squatting on top of the region.




So here we are – Sapanpur.  It took us about 30 minutes of driving on dirt/paved roads from the nearest highway, through endless rice paddies in the middle of the harvest.  Some houses were built from cement, others from brick and straw.

Cows are sprinkled evenly throughout villages – and the sight of a cow eating straw rather than trash was such a happy vision, after spending so much time in the city. 

The village was clean and wooded – though clearly poor. 













We first asked our community questionnaire at the school.  Painted in large letters on the sign of the school was a student helpline phone number.  My immediate assumption was that this was for students to call if they are in trouble – since that is what a similar sign in America would mean.  But I learned that here, in and Indian village, the number is for parents or students to call if their teacher did not come to class. 


This school was a happy place. Every student had a teacher and a group of students.  All the students were sitting on the floor.  In the office where we talked with one of the head teachers, a poster hung with the name of each teacher, their degree, the date they started teaching at the school, and their retirement date. The earliest was 2023, but others weren’t until decades later.  I don’t know if I would want a reminder of that hanging on the wall – but it’s fascinating to me that perhaps this indicates that the teachers expect to stay at the school until retirement.


More to come in the next post about the households!