Exceeding Expectations

My teammate, roommate, Duke classmate (etc.) Alyssa just posted an excellent write-up of the actual status of our field work compared to theoretical expectations. Please check it out: http://alyssaqed.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/in-situ/

I thought I’d add a few of my own observations:

In Theory: We are staying in an AC room.
In Practice: We only have AC a few hours a night (if we are lucky), and a fan (if we are lucky).


In Theory:In case of a power outage, the building has a bank of batteries and an inverter, so that power will continue to be supplied to fans, lights, and the modem.

In Practice: The power is out so often that the bank of batteries is always running low (since it gets very little power to charge). Therefore, when the main power supply runs out the backup will follow after some time, leaving us to sweat (sometimes in darkness) and consider the meaning of still air.


In Theory: We are in India for field work, and will explore India on our days off.
In Practice: There has not been a single day off in one month.


In Theory: We ask a community questionnaire to the village leader, or pradhan, in every village or hamlet we visit. This allows us to understand infrastructure, nearby industries, and many other characteristics of a community rather than repeating these questions for each household.

In Practice: It can be hard to find the pradhan, or elected village leader. Instead, it is often necessary to group together several knowledgeable men in the community, frequently teachers (who laugh extensively about the fact that they are the most learned men in the community, including in English, but cannot understand a word of what you are saying). Also, they may not actually know anything about the village.


In Theory: I absolutely, positively love Indian food. I could eat it all the time and never get sick of it! In fact, I’ve never come close to getting sick of it on any previous trips to India, and miss it when I’m home (true).
in Practice: I got sick of having the same things for breakfast, lunch and dinner after about a week. Turns out that yellow dal, rice, roti, and some sort of veg actually can get old all by themselves.

Variety is priceless… particularly in the form of Honey Loops, my new favorite treat when I need variety. I’ve found a local shop with soymilk and the two together are unbeatable. Honey Loops are a somewhat less sweet and less-chemically colored version of Fruit Loops.


In Theory:
We are very well hydrated after drinking well over 5 liters of water a day
In Practice: Our urine is constantly a shade of dark yellow/brown that it has never been in the USA. I often go 8-9 hours without needing to use the restroom after being in the field and drinking this much water – we are sweating out almost every drop of the water we drink.


In Theory: 120 degrees is very hot.

In Practice: 120 degrees is like living inside of a hair dryer. You are being baked from the inside out. If there is any time during the day that I am not sweating, it is a rarity. This is not hot – this is like living in an inferno. Somehow, even in this heat, people spend hours a day cooking (top pic) and scientists we are working with spend long hours in an enclosed room testing stoves (bottom pic).



In Theory: Hats are a useful way to protect one’s face from the sun.

In Practice: Without this hat, I would be a burnt piece of matzoh.


In Theory: Peer reviewed publications explain the challenging living conditions and environmental concerns in developing countries like India.

In Practice: These are experiences for which there is no substitute.


Daily tales

There’s a reason I’ve barely been posting on this blog, and have only had 2 conversations with my parents and less than five with my sig oth. The reason is that I may be working harder that I’ve ever worked in my life, which is a bit remarkable. Wake up at 5:30, either go for short run/walk, or start working. Stop working for meals, and then keep working until sometime between 11pm and 1am. It’s grueling. Sometimes it’s made me quite sad, and sometimes I feel so much adrenaline and enthusiasm for the work that the entire day just flies by. I often feel sick of sitting, so the past few days I’ve gone out for a brief evening walk just to stretch my legs.

Vasu, Dave and I went to check out the local sewer. It’s apparently quite an attraction and a place the kids go to play. At dusk, it was curtained by mosquitoes and bats.


Vasu and I were not enjoying the incredible levels of smoke on the walk.


I wish I had time for a lot of things – exploring nearby Lucknow, reading, shopping for a few new outfits that I could keep cool in, cooking a bit, taking photos, blogging, and calling dear ones back home. But there’s tremendous pressure to do a million things and I’m trying my very hardest to keep up. I had to make the decision to work – and not think about everything else I could be doing.

A few other stores of somewhat amusing daily events:

It’s hot here – you’ve heard that before. Women must cover their entire legs in villages like mine – I know this. However, when I wake up at 5:30 every day to start working, I tend to work in my long shorts in the bedroom. I think they count as decent for around the house clothes (they come to the middle of my knees) and they are infinitely cooler than pants. However, I know they should NEVER be worn outside the house. One morning I was working hard in the bedroom and went upstairs to tell other teammates about something – and when I walked in the room (still early in the morning) the driver Dinesh was sitting there. There was such pure shock on his face. He got up and walked out of the room, and went to sit in the car because he was so shaken (as Vasu told me when I pushed her, sensing something was very wrong).

I felt horrible that I made him so uncomfortable – and worried that he’d hold my “indecency” against me. These calves, ankles, and knees are too much for Jagdishpur… sigh. 

IMG_2270(Men, on the other hand, can run around in skimpy shorts like these on the Muffin Man. Ram swears he would be laughed at if he wore them out of the house – but at least he can wear them around inside without making people flee!)


Thankfully, I think Dinesh has forgiven me, forgotten, or just filed the incident away in the catalogue of our oddities.



Vasu told us about about an Indian joke:

“Theres this popular saying… ‘You’re in heaven if you have an american salary, chinese food, european job, and an indian wife. You’re in hell if you have indian salary, european food, chinese job, and an american wife.’ The joke is that she would demand equal rights.”

“Well, that would be hell. Definitely.” – Alyssa

Well said, Alyssa. Indians definitely have a thing with Chinese food (or indo-chini as they call it, I think). It’s nothing like the chinese food I love back in the USA, which is surely nothing like authentic chinese food. Our favorite dish to order at the only restaurant near where we live is “Singapore Noodles”- a completely made up dish with nothing to do with Singapore consisting of stir fried ramen and veg (veg in this case = onion, chili, and some cabbage if you are lucky).

And an Indian wife is preferred because she is known to worship her husband as a god – we americans may not always be counted on to do the same (!).


“Is David a fighter?” the field boys ask. David bhaiya (David brother) as they call him is fit but slim with the look of someone who may have recently completed P90X. To them, he’s something magical. Part of it is because of the muscle-obsessed culture India is becoming (see this video proving my point, if you can handle it!). Part of it is also, I think, that he is American – and of course, part of it must be that he is friendly. Dave goes to play cricket with the field boys a few times a week – and I’m determined to join some day soon when I can find the time! I’ve now started calling dave “the fighter” in my best indian-english accent, and Ram posed with us Americans to prove the point.

IMG_2278-Now Ram’s back in Bhopal, Vasu has migrated to Delhi, and Omkar is our one remaining companion.

The fighters continue – we’re launching the survey in 2 days.

Training- in the field

After about a week of training in the TERI office, we took our selected team of enumerators to the field.

Here I am with some of them – imagine the heat! It was 115-120, and I quickly learned to bring about 4 liters of water to make it through the day. I don’t know what I would do without the hat you gave me, Mom! This thing is an absolutely lifesaver. In these villages, it is essentially a requirement to wear a kurta (long top) with a duperta (scarf over chest), or a sari. Men wear long pants and either long sleeve shirts or t-shirts (more casual). Village men also wear a dhoti (I forget what it is called up north, but that is the term for it in the south).


After being placed in a household by their supervisor, the enumerator begins the survey. On our first day we quickly realized some of the complications our study would face. If our enumerator was male, when we asked to speak with the primary cook, the head of household would reply something like “You want to speak with my woman?” And often forbid it. I sat in on many interviews where the primary cook sat next to the head of the household but didn’t speak, and the head of household answered the survey questions. (We record who is the respondent for each section.)  So, it was extra clear why we had initially wanted to use female enumerators.

They can talk to the cooks so easily. Several of our stars get along so well with them, speak in the village dialect, just plop right down on the floor next to them, etc.


We don’t take health measurements in the survey other than mid-upper arm circumference, which Asha is doing here.


Many times the giant extended family observes the interview. In this muslim village, household sizes were often above 18! Asha is in the center – this was her first interview, which took almost 3 hours. Now that she’s had much more experience, she can do it in one hour.


Here’s one of our male enumerators at work, showing a respondent one of the conjoint cards (used to help us understand their preference for different stove characteristics).



I love heading to the villages with the team. We all pack lunches (to save on transit time by eliminating the need for a lunch break) and come home covered in sweat and dust. Sitting for an hour or more for each interview in the heat just feeling sweat issuing from every pore isn’t pleasant, but I’m definitely getting used to it! And of course, it’s harder for the enums, who are busy trying to keep the household engaged and responsive.

IMG_2212When return to the office, after giving a debrief to the team, there’s only one thing we want – watermelon! I don’t have any good pictures of us eating watermelon because as soon as it is cut open we devour it (usually in one sitting). We leave the watermelon in the fridge while we’re in the field, so it’s the coolest treat possible in Jagdishpur.

As Vasu says, the watermelon keeps us all from going crazy out here! Life without it would be tough 🙂


What’s it like to prepare for a survey of 2,000 households in rural India? (Start with applying for funding, receiving it, and about a year of preparation work.)

Now, we’re in India with our field partner, TERI, preparing to launch the survey. TERI found and hired a team of enumerators, who will give the survey to the households. We initially hoped to hire a team of all female enumerators, since it will be easier for them to talk to the primary cooks in the household (and we want to ask the cooks lots of questions about stoves, cooking, health, etc.). However, it was pretty tough going. The women were trying hard, but we found many of them really struggled with understanding the survey. None of them have ever done survey work before, and I don’t think that any of them have ever held a job outside the home except for a few teachers.

One of our PI’s (who has run projects like this in dozens of countries) said that he’s never seen a group struggle so much. These women all have at least a high school diploma – but it was a bit heartbreaking to see how much they struggled.  


Due to these struggles, we had to let many of the team go, and we tried training a group of men. Educational and cultural disparities in India became sharply apparent – the men as a whole caught on more quickly, and are much more self-assured than the women. As one of our group commented – perhaps we should be doing work on female education in India rather than stoves :/ … there are so many worthy causes!


All of this took place in the TERI field office. With the AC going out many times throughout the day, outdoor temps above 115, and over 10 people in a small room, training was brutal at times!




After giving the women two rounds of written tests, and then men one round, we took the team to the field for three days of pre-testing. This was pretty intense – the survey is pretty long, since we planned to shorten it after learning what questions are the most important from pre-testing. The first surveys the team did took about two hours (and sometimes much longer). But after a few days, many could do them in an hour.

Coming up next, pictures of training in the field and an explanation of why I haven’t blogged more!

Alyssa included a picture of where we are in Uttar Pradesh, if you want to see approximately where we are (and check out the blog of one of my fellow field americans).

Life in Jagdishpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

I am staying in the TERI office building (cum guesthouse) for the duration of our training program in Uttar Pradesh (UP). More on the training in a separate post soon.

UP is hot and flat. The high temperature has been above 100 every day I’ve been here, and 115 degrees today. It’s literally baking and hard to think if I’m not under and AC and a fan. Of course, the AC goes out constantly throughout the day, so I have a permasweat on my forehead and sometimes all over.

Here is Alyssa in our first shared bedroom – now we’ve moved to the first floor and share with V as well. It’s somewhat crowded, but we don’t spend any time in the room all except for sleeping, since we’re busy with the training or other jobs upstairs all day and evening.


Here’s  where we eat our meals. There aren’t any fans in this room so it’s pretty steamy.


Here is where the cook makes the magic. He is a vegetarian cook, which is great for me! I enjoy his food, and haven’t been sick here at all – going a week without some sort of stomach issue is practically a first for me in India. For breakfast, we usually have paratha (lightly fried bread) and some vegetable. My favorite is anything other than aloo/potato- I just get sick of rice, bread, and a starchy vegetable on top of that. In India, when people say “veg” (as a dish or filling) it’s usually potato. I’m not used to thinking of potato as a vegetable back home!

For lunch, we have dal, rice, chapati, and some sort of veg (yes, you guessed it, often potato). For dinner, there’s dal, rice, chapati, and some sort of veg. Sound familiar? Good think I like this food! Yesterday we had some truly amazing mangos from a nearby market and now I’m determined to have them every day both to be healthy and because they are really like candy.

And yes, the TERI building has an LPG stove (this is a stove blog, after all). This means there is no cooking smoke filling the building, except what spills in from outside.


Here is the view from the second story. The building faces a new construction site where workers toil in bare feet and bare heads through the hot day carrying and laying bricks.


This is one of the restrooms in the building. There are no western toilets, so it’s all squatting. The showers work in 2 of the bathrooms, and the other only has a tap for a bucket. No water heater here – and none needed! A cool-ish shower is a treat in this heat. There aren’t fans in the bathrooms either, so they can also be quite sweltering.


The building opens onto a large open air hall on both floors, with reflective windows to the interior rooms.


This is the stairway in the open air hall. I’m particularly fascinated by the giant gap between the metal lattice – it would be quite easy for me to jump down through the railings if I wanted, let alone a child! Thankfully, there aren’t kids running around here.



Flew into Delhi, took a 9 hour train to Lucknow. We were surrounded by babies screaming on every side, but (jet lagged) we slept and slept.



In Lucknow, we were very fortunate to stay in an Army guesthouse as a courtesy of the friend of one of the members of our team. These officer’s quarters were truly wonderful – it’s amazing what a difference AC, a hot shower, and a nice bed makes. Alyssa and I shared the bed – the cost for the room was less than $5 a night – what a treat.

We went for a run in the morning that almost ended in trouble – apparently, non Indians aren’t allowed to run through the area (since it is military owned) and we were stopped by many guards on our way home. Fortunately, there were no consequences other than a call to our team mate – “Do you have two Americans? Tell them to go back to living quarters.” – which we had already done.

In summary – Indian Army families are given very posh living estates (rent free, I think like American military families) and the residential areas are very, very nice. However, not a place for exploring.


After doing errands to acquire materials we need for the survey, we made a stop at the Bara Imambara for some quick sightseeing. What a place! Signage at the site was very poor (we assumed it was a palace), but wikipedia tells me that it was built in 1784 as a mosque built for the purpose of Azadari (a specific type of mourning). The entrance, below, was magnificent (weather was 90 plus).


V, D, and A pose in front of the mosque.


The building complex is covered with hundreds (surely thousands) of these little peeping holes – or “breads” as I like to call them, since their top half often looks like a slice of bread.


A royal bath was fed by a natural spring. Many beautifully carved windows look down…



And finally, the most exciting part – a labyrinth! The complex has a labyrinth – we figured it must have been for defense, even though it didn’t really seem to go anywhere. However, if wikipedia can be believed, it didn’t serve a very functional purpose. Here is the view from the top of the labyrinth looking back towards the entrance:



One of the side walks of the labyrinth – there are many narrow, dark hallways leading off on the left. It was pretty creepy, especially with voices bouncing off the walls. I would have been quite uncomfortable if I hadn’t had my trusty headlamp with me (luckily I never take it out of my day bag, just in case!) and it really helped me negotiate the steep, twisting steps and and spot where other people were.

All in all, it was great! In the center of the labyrinth is a large open chamber that contains a tomb.


After a nice lunch, we headed to the field site. Our field partner, TERI, has a guesthouse where we will be staying. I had set pretty low expectations for the site, and I was very, very impressed with what we found. The building looks quite new, has fresh and colorful paint, AC units in the bedrooms, and an office with wifi (enabling me to submit this post). There is a cook who made a delicious meal of dal, eggplant curry, fresh chapati, and rice. It was great to have some nice, simple, homemade indian food.Once again, A and I are sharing rooms.


We are going to transform this bedroom into the training room for the survey training this coming week – move out the beds, move in rows of chairs, and put up chart paper on the wall for taking notes.

I’m very happy to be here. We have a ton of work to do before we begin the training, but it’s only a few days away. The heat is really intense, so again, having AC is a treat I had completely not counted on, but makes a huge difference. To stay cool (and yet proper), today I wore a very thin cotton dress purchased on a previous trip to india with traditional indian light cotton pants (a loyal blog reader was curious). It’s not appropriate to show any ankle or too much arm – I may need to wear 3/4 sleeves when we get to the field sites, not sure yet.

Tomorrow, we’ll start the day with an exercise walk to learn the lay of the land, then spend the rest of the day preparing for training, getting equipment, finalizing changes to the survey.

And I’m back!

Apologies for the radio silence – but rather than detail everything that has happened since my last post (which includes a short two week trip to India), I’ll pick right up with where I am now.

I arrived in Delhi this evening completely excited for a summer of research in India. With me are D and A, two fellow Duke graduate students. We will be launching the baseline survey for our USAID-funded project on improved cookstove adoption and correct use. Since D and A haven’t lived in India before (although they have lived extensively in other developing countries), I’ll get to help them adjust to everything that is India- a role I am looking forward to. One of our PIs will also be here for two weeks to direct the training of the field team, so I will have a much larger group of fellow researchers than in the past!

I can’t wait for delicious Indian food every day. I can’t wait to start running again – which I’m determined to pick back up in India after losing my routine in the US. I can’t wait to see what adventures are in store. I can’t wait to see the two project areas where I’ll be splitting my time this summer – Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. I initially wavered between excitement and resignation about this trip (since I would be gone the entire summer), but have fully embraced the decision to be here and to learn as much as possible and really dig into the work. I’m determined to make some progress writing papers while I’m here as well. With any luck, I’ll be able to gradually improve my Hindi as well, since it is the primary language in these two project sites, unlike the areas I have spent time in on my last two India trips.

I’m spending my first night in the second nicest place I’ve ever stayed in India (following some 5 star old hotel in Moussorie). It’s a guest house run by one of our field partners, and it is such a wonderful treat. Everything is clean, there is AC, and (even though it looked too nice to host any) my bed bug check brought up nothing remotely suspicious – the mattress if the most spot-free I’ve seen in India.

Here’s to a good night’s sleep and a summer to remember.

A challenging start

2012 clearly knows how to make an entrance.

This morning while sitting on my bed in a quite nice guest house, I saw a bug ambling towards me that pumped fear into my veins – it looked (unfortunately for my happiness) to be a bedbug.  I was shocked and confused (I haven’t had any bites during my past 2 nights here), and sufficiently terrified to take a quick photo before dashing his/her guts out. 


(Above; the nemesis of all happiness)

To my absolute horror (after spending 20-30 mins comparing my photo to internet photos) I confirmed that it looked exactly – perfectly – like a bedbug.  The only sliver of hope I held onto was that it went out wandering at 11am, and they are nocturnal.  But after strapping on my headlamp and doing a careful inspection in the crevices between the plywood (that goes under the 3 inch mattress) and the bamboo bed frame, I found several telltale “skins” (bedbugs shed their skins as they mature after blood meals) and panic ensued. 

My largest fear was that bedbugs had entered my things/luggage and I would transport them with me to other hotels, and back to the USA, where they would invade my home and 2012 would officially be the worst year of my life. I felt like this was a reasonable concern because when I found the bedbug crawling across the mattress all of the contents of my luggage were laid out on the other half of the bed, meaning other bedbugs could be happily crawling through the stuff. 

I called other hotels (all of the ones I thought I could expect to be bedbug free were either booked or too expensive to be considered). I googled.  And I ended up moving to a different room in the same guesthouse on a different floor after doing a VERY, VERY thorough headlamp check.  But of course, just because I didn’t see anything obvious doesn’t mean they aren’t lying in wait.  So I spent a few hours packing my bags, shaking out everything was on the bed ultra intensely, and zipping and sealing everything. Tomorrow I hope to find somewhere else to go. And I’m counting down the days until I’m on a plane to the USA.

I told the guesthouse manager about the bedbugs and showed him the skins with my light, but he didn’t seem to care or have any idea what I was talking about (he thought it must be mosquitoes, cockroaches, or ants). Tomorrow I’ll call the owner. I really felt an ethical dilemma about going to another hotel if I did in fact have bedbugs in my things, since it would be really disastrous if I became a bedbug carrier.  But I’m hoping that my preventative measures were enough.

In the spirit of trying to cheer myself up and keep a positive attitude about the new year, I’m also reminding myself it could always be worse.  At least I wasn’t bitten by a bedbug.  At least I’m still profoundly lucky in other ways and healthy — and going home soon.  But #%^#@ bedbugs really suck.

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.