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!

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.



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

The Help

Let me start by saying that I’ve never had anyone do my laundry or clean for me other than my parents when I was a child.  Now, I do all of those thing on my own.  I even had a summer job in high school as a maid, and gained a very deep appreciation for how hard of a job it is (plus a lot of ridiculous stories, since I found that people treated the maid more like a psychologist).

Now, in India, I have two men seemingly at my disposal.  They are the “caretakers” of the apartment I am staying in … and that’s about all I know.  They were sleeping in the apartment before I arrived, but now they sleep in the basement of the building, presumably in pretty unfortunate and minimal conditions.  (My mind keeps flashing to the description of a basement that the driver sleeps in from the book “White Tiger”- literally swarming with roaches.)

The men seem to be very determined to work hard – in addition to their role as caretakers, they also have day jobs, so we are all at work at the same time.

One of these men, Ananta, has been instructed by the flat owner to accompany me wherever I go (other than work). This meant that my he very kindly arranged transport to lots of temples when I visited on Sunday. He insisted on coming with me to the mall and was walking around showing me things I might be interested in, until I told him to wait outside until I had finished shopping. However, I definitely go places and just don’t tell him.  Every night when I walk to get dinner at the restaurant nearby (a 2 minute walk along a busy road) he insists on coming and sitting outside while I eat, so I don’t walk alone.  I don’t fight him about this because dinner time is 9 pm. My first two days I was so lonely I invited him to join me for dinner and bought him food, even though I am very aware it is not “appropriate” by indian standards.  Now, he’s put his foot down, and doesn’t come inside while I am eating.  I don’t think he was shown much respect in the restaurants, either.  He now eats dinner for Rs. 20 at a roadside stand, and mine is about Rs. 80-120 in the restaurant.

He and the other man, C., come around 6:50 am to see if I want tea, then around 7 pm when I get home from work. C. is always bowing and running ahead to open doors and saying “yes, madam”, “please, madam”, “sorry, madam”. If I say I want tea, it is served on a platter (below).  There seems to be an unspoken rule that we don’t touch. But I’m not sure about it – in fact, I have a million questions about this whole situation…



1. What exactly are these men supposed to do?

2. How often is appropriate for me to ask them to sweep the floor? (They weren’t doing it, but since someone came to sweep the floor every morning when I stayed with friends in Delhi,I figured it was appropriate and asked them to do it.  They have done it twice in 5 days.)

3. Can I tell them to go buy a clean sponge for washing dishes, or should I just do it myself? Let’s not talk about the current sponge.

4. Can I tell them to dust?

5. The kitchen is smelly and has flies.  Can I tell them to clean it?

6. Is is rude for me to not invite them to stay in the apartment or watch TV, at least occasionally?

7. Am I supposed to pay them or tip them for things?

8. Will they do my ironing, or am I supposed to?

9. The sinks (bathroom and living room) seem like they haven’t been washed in months.  Can I ask them to do it?

10. How much are they paid per day to do this caretaking? What do they think about me?  DO they ever wash the pot that they make tea in? etc.

I really struggle with this set up , because I know I am fully capable of being self sufficient and doing my own cleaning, but I also think that these people are here to do (and paid to do) these services. But I feel really silly even thinking “wash this sink!”  I have decided to go buy some sponges today and just do some of the things myself (I’ll start with sinks and dusting).

I struggle with wanting to be nice. But also wanting to have things clean. Not being able to speak the same language.  Not knowing boundaries about what is appropriate for me to ask them to do. I really want to pay them money – but I know the landlord is paying them.  Last night I asked Ananta if he is going to Cuttack with me this weekend, where I’ll stay with my adviser’s mother. He said he is going to his village, because his daughter has a special ceremony (I think), and he needs to buy her a Rs. 200 dress – he has been saving up.  I wanted to just freaking hand him the rupees (less than $5) right then and there.  I’m still thinking about it.  Is it bad to buy them meals and give them money (which to them is a LOT of money)?  I want to do it.  My only concerns are that it goes against the culture to have me giving them money – might make them try to take advantage of me – or something like that.  But I just feel horrible about how expensive my meals (and camera, and computer) are- and he’s working really hard to save up Rs. 200 – and he has been helpful to me. In other cases, I would be concerned that someone would spend the money on alcohol – but I don’t get the impression that he would.

Sorry this was a rambling post.  I am (obviously) quite confused about how to live with this type of “help”, and how to find an appropriate balance of doing what is culturally acceptable and doing what I think is right.  But I am deeply grateful for their kind and helpful service. If you are reading this and have any insights, please share 🙂

Edit: I should be sure to say that this place is by no means “very dirty”. Many places in America are equivalent, and it is quite nice by Indian standards.  I’ve stayed in many places that are orders of magnitude worse than this apartment. The only reason I’m even mentioning wanting to clean the sinks, etc, is that I’m here for a prolonged time, and I wasn’t sure if cleaning was included in the list of responsibilities of the caretakers. But I feel very lucky to have such a nice place to stay and two people to help look after it. 

exiting the haze

yesterday was a bad day.  i arrived in bhubaneswar after many hectic hassles at airport (go to counter to check in, please go to that counter over there to pay for your extra bag, then come back here, then go through security, take a tag for every bag you are carrying onto plane, forgot to check pocket knife, so go back and pay for another bag at cashier counter, then check in bag, oops- too late, flight has closed, go to that counter to get special permission, etc).  A man waited for me with a sign that said “JESSICA” in nice handwritten letters.

I am staying at a flat that belongs to my adviser’s sister.

It’s fine. 

The furniture in the living room is quite nice. 85% of my room is occupied by a giant bed- king size in the USA.  The frame has a thin mattress- maybe 3 inches thick and dense – covered by a sheet and thin blanket.  There is a bathroom attached to my room with a toilet, sink, and shower head.  It’s a pretty awesome lavender coordinating design- sink and toilet are lavender. There’s a modern TV in the living room and a red rusty fridge from approx 30 years ago. The kitchen is the scariest room in the flat.  It has a certain smell that is hard for me to pinpoint- might be asafoetida, which is an Indian spice I have a strong aversion towards.  There are fruit flies and open bags of grains.  When I took a plate to eat I discovered it hadn’t been washed, at all, but was put back in the plate rack.  The apartment has a water filter that allows me to forgo buying bottle water by the bushel, which is wonderful.  The caretaker prepared two pitchers of water for me, and also purchased a pack of arrowroot biscuits, some bananas (of a type we do not have in America), Kellogg’s corn flakes and milk.  One of the pitchers and the biscuit container are orange tupperware, which is a wonderful reminder of home, although these have dusty dirt settled into tupperware’s textured surface.

I went to find a 3G wireless modem for my laptop, and came back emptyhanded after 3 hours of dogged searching through a very Indian market.  To say I was dispirited would be generous. 

The otherness had overwhelmed me.  I found people colder and crueler seeming that usual.  I missed the congeniality of staying with friends in Delhi, and my slight familiarity with that city.  I had no internet.  I sat in the apartment and remembered that in my excitement to return to India I undervalued the price of the experience – pollution worse than I remembered, ubiquitous dust, heartbreaking and undiluted poverty everywhere, not understanding if I’m insulted in a foreign tongue while others smile and laugh, stomach problems, cold showers, showering out of a bucket, fear of malaria, missing the people I love, challenges to exercising, feeling unable to have an impact on the problems around me, different sanitation standards. 

I remembered the goodbye party A threw for me, a farewell dinner at my adviser’s house, bro and E helping me pack, and my parents meeting me at the airport on my layover.  I sat in a haze, a stranger in a stranger land, overwhelmed, reconsidering, dark.

But now things are better.  Talked with friends and family on the phone, toured some ancient temples, got a vegan coffee drink, and relaxed into the situation a bit more.  Details and pics in another post…

But my sad day in Orissa made me think long and hard about how easy it must be for foreigners in America to feel isolated, and how I must work harder to make people feel and know they are included.