Category Archives: Sabbatical

Indian Bureaucracy #2

After everything that happened on our last trip to the FRRO office, I was naturally trepidatious when we had to go back a few weeks later to request a further extension (Our initial visit got us an approval only until December 8th, but our plane ticket out of India is on December 22nd). As usual, day number one was a flop (we spent the entire morning gathering all the paperwork, we thought, and when we arrived we were informed that applications could only be submitted in the morning, 9:30-1). Now I’m back here trying to pass the time on day 2, and I have suddenly had an insight that changes everything: Somehow the whole experience has turned into a game. Here’s how it goes:

Where we have now spent 7 days of our trip.

There are three desks in the building. Your goal is to exit with a visa extension, but you can only do this by passing through every desk. Think of this as leveling up. Points are scored for fewest visits to the FRRO office and/or fewest hours spent there. Extra points if your children manage to stay entertained without getting kicked out of the building (ours are currently very excited about checkers). Points lost if you don’t make it through before lunch and end up spending the whole afternoon here as well.

10:30: We are currently at level 2, on day two of our visit, 1 hour in. How did we get here? First off, we scored at least 100 extra points (reduced the effort by one whole day) by asking the right question yesterday just before leaving. We stopped at desk #1 to ensure that we had the correct information about the fees owed. The correct number was different than what our support staff person from IIIT had told us, and we were able to correct the mistake yesterday after we returned. Second, we managed to get both our driver and support staff person moving early enough this morning that our applications are numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 instead of 22 or 62.

On level 2, we had a near disaster: We were informed that the rules had changed (not an uncommon event in this particular game), and my husband no longer qualified for an employment visa, making any extension impossible. This is because our salary is really small at IIIT: just cost of living plus free housing. Would we have to leave the country on december 8th after all? Click to find out ….

Continue reading Indian Bureaucracy #2

Indian Bureaucracy

The scream, Edvard Munch
The scream, Edvard Munch

I hesitated to post this for a few days (not least because I can never seem to spell the word bureaucracy correctly), but I’ve decided this story is worth sharing, if only so that it prepares other travelers for what they might face. As an added bonus, a usability bug made the experience about 10 times as bad as it might otherwise have been.

I and my children are in India on an entry visa (accompanying my husband). Due to an error on the part of our travel agent, my visa expires in a few weeks (November 18th), more than a month before I am due to leave India. This is because (unlike what our travel agent told us), our 6 month visas began on the date they were issued, not the date that we entered India. As a result, I needed to visit the FRRO (Foreign Regional Registration Offices), at the old airport about one hour from my home, in order to request a visa extension. According to what little information I could find online, we would need to submit a request, and if accepted, we would then wait up to two months for the visa to actually be extended.

Being somewhat familiar with the difficulties of interacting with this office, I prepared as well as I could (printed out the official government form, filled it out, gathered the necessary photos; a copy of my husband’s employment letter; a new letter stating that IIIT Hyderabad wished us to stay until the end of may (carefully written to include the passport and visa numbers for each of us), a copy of my husband’s registration (he was required to register when he arrived, as a resident of Hyderabad, in addition to having a valid visa), and all of our passports. I also requested the help of the IIIT Hyderabad employee who has experience with the FRRO (and can speak Telugu, Hindi, and English) and arranged for our driver to be available. I left the children behind, because I knew that the chances of success were about 0.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the office, I was told that I had filled out the wrong form. Additionally, I was told that I and the children all needed to register as Hyderabadi residents in addition to my husband (news to us!) and that I would have to pay a late fee ($30 each), and bring a letter verifying my residence at IIIT Hyderabad. I filled out a new form, which they provided, with the same information as the old, and was then sent home to get bank checks ($30 each, plus $80 each for the visa extension) and fill out an additional web form for registration. This meant going back to campus to collect my paycheck in cash, and then to the bank to get the bank checks. I was unfortunately sick with the flu, so the day blurred by, but the whole effort took from about 9am to 5pm.  I was given a 10am appointment the next day when I could complete the process.

That night, my husband and I both struggled to fill out the web form, with no success. After completing the whole form, we repeatedly ran into a bug in which it requested an exit date, but claimed that each date we entered was invalid (either because it was before the arrival date, or after it). We tried every possible combination of exit and arrival dates with no success, and were stumped as to how to complete the visa extension process.

At 9:15am (15 minutes late), my driver showed up without his helper (who apparently did not want to come and/or had assumed things would go smoothly from here on out, which I doubted highly). No one on campus could explain what I should do about the broken form, but finally a friend suggested I simply print out each page of the form in the hope they would accept them (a long shot). And hour and 40 minutes after we were supposed to leave, and a full 40 minutes after our appointment should have begun, the kids and I (all still sick) began the journey to the FRRO. When we got there, they would not accept the printouts. Luckily, I had my laptop and a 3G modem with me, so they assigned a technical support person to help me fill out the form (a laborious process given the network speed we had over the modem). He made a few adjustments, and we ended up with the very same bug. However, through some miracle unexplained to me, the piece of paper we needed to proceed magically appeared on the printers of the FRRO.

At this point, things got very strange. The man whose desk I was near (and who had been yelling at people left and right all morning) tore into me for wasting their time when clearly I knew how to print the form. He told me to go to an Internet cafe and fill it out again for the kids when I tried to explain that I had no idea where the printout had come from and ask for further help. He did not seem to understand that I already had an Internet connection. I went ahead and filled out the form again on my own (for about the 10th time in the last 24 hours), got the same error, and went to find the person who had magically appeared with the missing piece of paper. In doing so, I apparently entered forbidden space, and this time the angry yelling man tore into me so loudly, and so threateningly, that the children were in tears. He told me he would revoke my ability to stay in Hyderabad if I did not go to an Internet Cafe and refused to let me seek help from the tech support person. Everyone assumed that I was at fault for the form’s problems (classic!).

I hate to admit it, but at this point I was in tears too. I don’t handle being yelled at well. No one seemed willing or able to help us, and I was ready to leave India in November when my visa expired rather than continue this process. I sat down and tried to collect myself, and at that moment, I was reminded about the other side of India. A complete stranger walked up to us and handed the kids candy with a smile, telling them to cheer up. The IIIT helper accompanying me suddenly got moving and found a way to bring the tech support person back. Suddenly, I had all of the forms I needed.

You might think that at this point things would proceed smoothly. You would be wrong. I won’t go into as much detail about what happened next, but a few highlights: I was in trouble for not having registered within 2 weeks (or at least 3 months) of arriving despite never having been told to register; I was only going to get a visa until December 8th (still too early) because my husband’s registration (not his visa) expired then; I was kicked out for engaging the kids in a card game (they were miserable, and needed entertainment, but the people in the waiting room are not allowed to enjoy themselves because the FRRO folks are working!); I was stranded outside on a curb for about 30 minutes because my driver and helper had absconded to get themselves lunch (not thinking of us); I had to cancel my 3:30pm talk because all of this took until 5pm to be complete (despite my original appointment being at 10am); and finally I was told to return (without the children, thank goodness) next Tuesday to complete the process.

As it happens, I am simultaneously applying for my swiss visa (which requires birth certificates for the kids for some reason, which I have had to request from the states they were born in as they have vanished from my house in Pittsburgh). Even with those bumps, it is a far easier process!

Wish me luck finishing all this off! I still don’t know whether my new visa will expire on Dec 8th (in which case I will cut my trip short rather than face all of this again!) or in May.

Scanning books to explore the future role of technology with respect to climate change

I have been reading up on the discipline of futurism, which academically speaking provides methodological hints for exploring what may happen in the future. One of those approaches, monitoring, and in particular environmental scanning (looking for signs or indicators in large volumes of relevant information) can be of value [1].

Inspired by that and the work of Dourish & Bell in “Reading science fiction alongside ubiquitous computing,” I have begun to work my way through a collection of science fiction, science, and non-fiction books that look forward into the future with respect to climate change. In choosing books, I explored a combination of indie fiction, activist monologues, mainstream science fiction, and scientific writing. In reading these books, I am particularly focusing on how they portray science (or what they say about it) and its interaction with other trends.

I have not had time to read many of the books I’ve found yet, but I have started on a few: Forty Signs of Rain (Robinson) depicts scientists at the NSF in the near future as they try to rethink the role of the organization as the climate reaches a tipping point; The Ultimate Choice (Hinsley) depicts a society in which population growth has eaten up the land needed to grow food and the government is forced to watch its people slowly starve or take more drastic measures; Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Rheingold) discusses the interaction between technology and the social nature of human society (but has only one paragraph that mentions climate change); The Windup Girl (Bacigalupi) portrays a world already changed for the worse by genetic engineering but relatively untouched by climate change; Flood (Baxter) posits a world that is slowly drowning in oceans rising at an exponentially increasing weight (non-anthropogenic climate change).

Some of these are books I just happened to read recently for pleasure or research while others were selected specifically for this project. All of them take very different perspectives on what may happen with the climate, and equally different perspectives on technology. For example, Robinson’s book is set in a future whose technologies are exactly those of today, while Hinsley posits an Orwellian society in which most citizens are lucky to have food and a map is a technological luxury. Television, of course still exists, but only the state has modern technologies (and they, again, match todays). In Rheingold’s book, the purpose is to explore cutting edge technology; the role of applications, and their interaction with culture and society society (specifically how to avoid threats to liberty, dignity, and quality of life while enabling tho promise of these technologies). Bacigalupi creates a rich portrayal of a world whose technological innovations are new engineered species (semi-human and others) that are at times indistinguishable from (or competitive with) existing species. In Baxter’s world, technology is more prominent than in the other books, despite the fact that technological innovation has (almost) halted (after the creation of the ultimate music player, one which connects almost magically with the brain, without cords) due to the focus on surviving the disastrous consequences of the unstoppable flood. The most prominent technology in the novel is a 3d projection system that can render the earth and illustrate the coming catastrophe. Perhaps equally important is the solar powered mobile phones that allow climate scientists to “convene” virtually once each year as they pay witness to the disastrous flood overtaking the earth.

At this point, I’m still trying to process all of this. I think it is interesting that technology and climate are so divorced in most of these novels. The exception is technology’s role in science in the Robinson and Baxter novels (supporting communication between scientists, visualizations for non-scientists, and so on). None of the books discuss technologies intended to help save energy or otherwise influence behavior; homes are not smart in these books and phones are just phones for the most part. I wonder if the non-fiction books about dealing with climate change are any more likely to mention technology. I suspect not: There is an aspect of luddism to some of the climate non-fiction that would

[1] Bell, W. (2003). Foundations of Futures Studies: Human science for a new era: History purposes and knowledge (Volume 1). Transaction Publishers.

[2] Dourish, P. & Bell, G. (2008). ‘Resistance is Futile’: Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous Computing. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing. In Press.

Centre for the Study of Developing Societies

I am in Delhi for the week (mostly with family obligations), but I was able to sneak away for a few hours this afternoon (less time than I hoped) to visit the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, also home to innovative programs likeSarai and IM4Change.

I have been trying to get in touch with them for a few weeks, ever since a collaborator recommended I visit, and it was well worth the trip. I knew about their Hindawi project (which was one of the first attempts to localize the computer experience (specifically, RedHat, because open source meant possible to modify), and that they have a library of social science research.

When I got off the Delhi Metro and walked to their building, I found myself in a quiet area of Delhi. The complex is unassuming and not very guarded (how different from the experience of visiting more high-tech offices). I simply walked in and was taken quickly to the office of the one person I knew a name for, Mr. Ravikant (from the Sarai program). We had an interesting conversation about the Hindawi project and his studies of movies in Indian society, and then I headed off to the library.

The library is about 6 rooms packed with books, and when I arrived also hosted an art exhibit that took over much of the main room (and cut it in half, literally, via a diagonally placed window pane). Despite the whimsy of the room-sized exhibit, the mood in the room was rather serious. The library was run by an older man working on his PhD who pointed me at the room where I might find books on health and sustainability. I had less than an hour to explore it, so I moved quickly to pick out the most relevant books. I came downstairs, arms loaded, and was greeted by a frown and the information that I should be only picking up 4-5 books at a time. Undaunted, I started working my way through my finds only to learn 30 minutes later that the library was closing 15 minutes earlier than advertised.

In the end, I had time only to write down the references for the most interesting books, skim 2 or 3 of them, copy a few quotes, snap photos of a few pages, and so on. The collection was truly unique, with many books published in India or even self-published. I fear I will not be able to find many of these anywhere else. I end this post with a smattering of what I found.

After leaving the library, I ended up walking home beside a member of CSDS who works on media and journalism. His work attempts to translate information needed to improve the accuracy of indian journalism, and we had a long and interesting conversation about localization and stereotypes during my metro ride home (we overlapped for quite a ways). We had a very interesting conversation about his work on IM4Change and indian society overall. We talked about the difficulties I am having in developing an intuition for “india” and the fact that one reason for this is the diversity of who india is and where it is going — this requires a form of localized thinking that echoes the need to think at the individual level in assistive technology. It is not easy to hold on to both the specifics of one environment/context and also the generalities of a whole (and very diverse) set of societies/country. One interesting insight I gained from the conversation is to think about in what ways (and how universally) scarcity defines Indians. Overall, the visit was a reminder that I need to further immerse myself in Indian culture, especially rural culture, if I am to have anything useful to say about those settings. As we’ve learned in HCI, each user is unique. Similarly, in India, each locality is unique (there are 17 languages and over 800 dialects here, just to give a sense of the diversity of different regions across India). While good HCI eventually comes to conclusions that can generalize across users, it is often very effective to first get to know specific users very well. This becomes even more important when the user is foreign to the designer. I don’t know if I’ll get there in my short time here, but at least I have a sense of the road I need to travel now.

Relating to Sustainability:

ML Dantwala (1996). Dillema’s of Growth: The Indian Experience. Sage publications: Looked at agricultural policy; rural development. one chapter concerned with the adoption of high yield seeds.

Conservation for Productive Agriculture. published by the “Publications and Information Division; Indian Council of Agricultural Research; New Delhi. Ed: V.L. Chopra; T.N. Khoshoo: Articles contributed by scientists worldwide. Chapter on water conservation (#7, p. 98)  discusses india’s vast water resources

Rabindranath Mukhopadhyay (1999). Growth of Indian Agriculture: A study of spatial variation. Classical Publishing: Abridged doctoral dissertation. Statistics oriented

Mahmood Mamdani (1972) The Myth of Population Control: Family, Caste and Class in an Indian Village. Monthly Review Press, New York.

B. K. Pradhan, M. R. Saluja, S. K. Singh. Social Accounting Matrix (SAM) for India: Concepts, Construction and Applications. Sage Publications, New Delhi. Detailed modeling (input out put, and SAM ) for workers in india, exploring gender differences, etc.

Sumi Krishna (1996). Environmental Politics: People’s Lives and Development Choices. Sage Publications: Very nicely focused on India and environmentalism. Suggests at the end “Perhaps it is environmentalism that we need to redirect” Raises 4 areas of concern. “First, the environmentalist approach to a range of interlinked inequities, such as gender, caste, and class, seems to be limited because many environmentalists, despite their varied approaches, actually share ‘ideological roots’ with the very paradigms that are sought  to be changed” (e.g. “ecofeminism restricts women just as patriarchal systems do” … “Second, environmentalists have been largely unconcerned with the mechanics of establishing the decentralized institutions (like panchaayats) necessary to achieve sustainability. Centralised environmental management prgorammes … can have little chance of success, if they are conceived by administrators and technocrats, who may themselves be insensitive to the people in the environment … Third, the recognition that commercialization and market forces have a powerful corroding effect on the natural resource base does not mean that we should sentimentalize the traditional interaction of communities with their local environment. … the question is of choice and control – who determines the course of change? and of anticipating the consequences of change. And fourth, environmentalists have had little idea of how to create the necessary ‘value-orientation’. Values operate through interests. The strength of the environmental movement … mobilizing people who do not face an imminent threat is a much more difficult task … how can we build a base of shared values?”

Forests, Environment and tribal economy. Deforestation, impoverishment, and marginalisation in orissa. W. Farnandes, G. Menon, P. Viegas. Indian social institute, tribes of india series.  1988.  Looks at tribes and forests. Tribal traditions, causes of deforestation, consequences, official solutions (10) devolpemnt progammes and people’s solutions (11). Complements agarwal?

D. R. Sha (1985). An economic analysis of co-operative dairy farming in Gujarat.  Somaiya Publicatinos LTD:  Analysis of a specific market economy in gujarat…


Human Development Report  Uttar Pradesh — Lots of status on health spending & so on. Get the same for AP?

Tribal Health: Socio-Cultural Dimensions (1986). Edited Buddhadeb Chaudhuri. Inter-India Publications, New Delhi: Goes into great depth about medical anthropology in india. has a whole section on interaction of traditional and modern medical practices. Ch. 26 (p.  311- 321) deals specifically with the conflict between traditional medicine and a western program that was implemented, and how these interacted. “This study depicts the failure of state government health programs in motivating the Santals, whereas the health programs initiated through Sriniketan influenced the Santals in a positive way” (no surprise here!). In general the chapters in this book are short.

Sheila Zurbrigg (1984) Rakku’s Story: Structures of ill-health and the source of change. Printed by George Joseph, on behalf of the author! She is a canadian doctor. Sems to be an ethnography, very interesting if I can get it. Available from Centre fro social action, gundappa BLock, 64 Peme Gowda Rd. Bangalore, 560 006 or Sheila Zurbrigg, 1120 the parkway, london, ontario, n6a 2×3 canada.  Talks about the medical model of health and the fact that social factors (food distribution & access for example) have much more impact on overall health than individual disease, and in fact were responsible for improvements in world health before the germ model was even developed.

Om Parkash Sharma (2000). Rural Health and Medical Care in India (A sociological Study).  Manak Publications Study of the “modern healthcare system” in india, focuses on Uttar Pradesh.

J. P. Naik (1977). An alternative system of health care service in india: Some proposals. Allied Publishers Private Limited.

Meera Chatterjee, 1988. Implementing health policy. Manohar,  Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Policy focused. Looks at community participation in health care (chapter 5) and the role of the private voluntary health sector (6) spreading primary health technology (7). Life without food? (8).

Not specific to India:

Andrew Jamison. The making of Green Knowledge: Environmental Politics and Cultural Transformation. Cambridge University Press 2001. Not specific to India, but very interesting. Looks at the dilemmas of activism in  chapter 6 p. 147-176

Eco-Phenomonenology: Back to the earth itself. Edited by Charles S. Brown and Ted Toadvine. State University of NY Press. Also not specific to india. Has a chapter on Heiddigger 😛

Ecology, Politics & Violent Conflict. Mohamed Suliman (Ed).  ZED Books, 1998.  International perspective on conflict driven by environmental issues.

Isomäki (r.) and Gandhi (m.) (2004). The book of trees. Other India Press. Global look at trees, written and published in india. seems more manual than introspection.

Triangulating health content

Fitting together @_boris, Flickr
Fitting together @_boris, Flickr

Ever since completing my study of individuals with chronic lyme disease [1], I have been working on (and working out) ideas around several tools that I believe can improve the online experience of patients looking for information relevant to their condition. One of the surprising findings of our study was the extent to which the people we spoke with (most of whom had become experts in searching for information relating to their illness) triangulated data before trusting it. This goal of triangulating data was not just an individual act, but also a social one. For example, one participant reported how forum members  were reminded to provide multiple types of evidence for new information,

even regular posters, if they post about something that’s a little outside the [minority model] mainstream… they will say, ‘Do you have any studies to back that up? … why is that true for you?’

while multiple participants compared the type of evidence they were getting from different resources. We also found that people placed different amounts of trust in personal reports and research studies (some participants trusted one more, others trusted the other more), and that this was influenced in part by what they believed about their condition. All of this points to the importance of exposing information about where different viewpoints are found (across types of resources), helping people to judge the trustworthiness of online resources, and helping people to identify different types of resources when searching for information.

Unfortunately, I have struggled to find students who want to work on theses sorts of tools (perhaps a topic for another post), and our work has not proceeded as quickly as I would have liked. However, I was very pleased when a former student pointed me at the new site, Medify, which explicitly links research studies, personal reporting. Their page for Lyme Disease (or any other condition you care to search for) is a great example of how one might support triangulation. They link directly to studies about the conditions, list institutions, related conditions, and top treatments. They also include a patient community for sharing search results and discussing them. It’s great to see these things juxtaposed, and made so accessible (in terms of presentation). However, it would be nice to seem them take the next step and integrate patient-generated evidence and opinion into their presentation of information about conditions, treatments and so on.

[1] Jennifer Mankoff, Kateryna Kuksenok, Sara Kiesler, Jennifer A. Rode, Kelly Waldman (2011). Competing online viewpoints and models of chronic illness CHI ’11, pp. 589-598.

Health and Sustainability

Although much of this blog has been about travel, I also want to use it to take the opportunity to write about how my trip is influencing my research. I came to India hoping to explore two topics that are already a focus of my research. Although the funding fell through for one, and the class I had hoped to was vetoed (limiting one path to exploring the other), I am still hoping to learn something about both.

My first locale-specific research goal was centered on health care decision making. In the U.S. I begin a project exploring how individuals with a chronic disease cope with differing opinions on how to treat a condition that is (primarily) in their own hands. We focused this work on Lyme disease, and discovered that patients were shifting across two conflicting models of care over time, and that this process took place online. Our work (still in a U.S. context) also showed that patients developed a resistance identity during their shift from one model to the other.

India is an ideal place to take up this thread of research further. It is a country in which multiple models of medicine exist. In speaking with people here, the list they mention includes, at a minimum: Ayurvedic, Unani, English (Western Medicine), Naturopathy and Homeopathy. The different methods do not seem to overlap much. For example, when attending a first aid class, the discussion was entirely focused on western medicine. In contrast, the Ayurvedic doctor I took my daughter to when she had a high fever used almost not artifacts common to western medicine (not even a thermometer). Yet people I speak with seem to mix and match from across multiple models of care as they see fit. I would like to understand how and when people chose among them, and how this might differ across regions of India and different socio-demographic categories. I am currently reading the ethnography “No Aging in India” [1], which explores what happens to elders in a country where the responsibility of the family for elders is no longer a given. I would particularly like to understand how the differences in the social context of healthcare as well as the differences in what options a person chooses might affect the success of technological interventions such as those that some NGOs use to bring health care to rural communities.

My second locale-specific research goal is centered on sustainability. I have taken the opportunity to read quite widely on the topic in the last few months, touching on such diverse topics as economics (such as dematerialization [2]), futures studies [3] and biodiversity [4]). From these readings and ongoing thought I have developed a perspective on sustainability that argues for the value of information technologies in exploring a very broad set of issues from education to politics, in a culturally-relevant (but globally-focused) way. However, none of these readings is all that helpful in integrating the experience of being in a developing country into my understanding of sustainability.

For this I must better understand the experience of living in India, again across both regions and socio-economic classes. My personal experience is one of a country that is more careful with energy than the west (every plug, for every appliance and wall element has a switch off, for example, and is switched off if not in use). Among the upper class, high-tech individuals I have come to know, sustainability and environmentalism are common, and very important. In helping with a clean up of a local natural preserve, I witnessed the organizers pledge the students who came to help them to continue taking care of their natural environment. In Agarwal’s study of forestry management in rural India [5], environmentality (as he calls it) develops only through personal involvement by individuals and in fact is affected negatively by governmental involvement of the wrong kind. Even assuming universal environmentality within India, the question still remains: what is the right future for India (and for each of the countries in the developing world)? How in the world do we move forward, continue to develop, and simultaneous address the climate crisis? If we put aside the simplistic assumption that developing countries should somehow not develop, the alternative must be a leapfrogging of the most egregious technologies used in recent history in the first world, combined perhaps with a designed recent ion of cultural elements that enable a more sustainable lived experience.

While my prescription for success is grand, as we often say in research, the devil is in the details. And I cannot speak to the details with what I know yet, I am hoping that some of the nascent collaborations I am developing here, combined with user research, will create a beginning.

[1] Cohen, L. (2000). No aging in India: Alzheimers, the bad family, and other modern things. University of California Press.

[2] Luzzati T. (2001). [PDF] Growth theory and the environment: How to include matter without making it really matter. In Salvadori, N., The Theory of Economic Growth: A Classical Perspective.

[3] Bell, W. (2003). Foundations of Futures Studies: Human science for a new era: History purposes and knowledge (volume 1). Transaction Publishers.

[4] Pimm, S. L., Russell, G. J., Gittleman, J. L. & Brooks, T. M. (1995). The future of biodiversity. Science269(5222):347-350

[5] Agrawal, A. (2004). Environmentality: Community, intimate government, and the making of environmental subjects in Kumaon, India. Current Anthropology, 46(2):161-190.

Visit to China

Getting anywhere required photos since we could not pronounce or write the language
Getting anywhere required photos since we could not pronounce or write the language

We began our two weeks in China on the outskirts of the city of Xi’an. China came across to me as much more western (in terms of cleanliness, architecture, goods for sale, fashion, and so on) than India does. However, it is also clearly an ancient country with a rich and very different culture from the West. One big difference was immediately obvious on arriving in China: Unlike every other country I’ve visited in recent memory, English was not going to be of much use. Since I couldn’t read the writing, this meant that a great deal of preparation was required, something I don’t excel at with travel. Luckily, we had a printout with the hotel name on it, and were able to procure a taxi (though we were charged twice the normal rate, we later learned). Later in the trip we would discover that Taxi drivers mostly didn’t like us — one time Anind was forced to hail 42 cabs before one took pite on him and brought him home.

Our hotel in Xi’an was situated near a mountain near a natural hot spring, among fields of ripe pomegranates. The hotel had a spa, with 40 or 50 separate stone pools of hot water containing diverse “soup” and “tea” concoctions such as lemon, cucumber, aloe, jasmine, carrots, marbles, and many I

Pomegranates ripening
Pomegranates ripening

could not recognize spread out among peaceful walkways surrounded by greenery, flowers, and ripening fruit. Unlike spas in the US, this one welcomed children (for free), and had a special larger pool intended for a play space. The kids loved the spa, and we spent several half days bathing in pools,
playing, resting on hot stones (heated from underneath), and eating snacks at the spa’s small snack house. Afterwards, we would go to the hotel’s excellent restaurant and fill ourselves with delicious chinese specialties. Since it was raining most of the time we were in Xi’an, this was a perfect way to pass our first few days in China.

In between spa visits, we also did some sightseeing. We spent a half day in Xi’an, biking around the top of the city’s large old wall. We also had the unexpected opportunity to view a concert in the city’s bell tower, where women danced to the sound of traditional chinese instruments. The instruments included bells, a flute, a bowed single string, and a plucked string instrument. The children were entranced. We also spent half a day at the Terra Cotta warriors, tromping from building to building in the pouring rain to see one of the greatest archeological finds of the last century. The detailed carvings of the warriors and their sheer number were both impressive.

Steep steps (but not as long as our biggest climb!)
Steep steps (but not as long as our biggest climb!)

After about four days in Xi’an we headed by overnight train (always an adventure) to Beijing. Our goal there was to attend parts of the Ubicomp 2011 conference, but we also had a great deal of sightseeing planned. These plans were waylaid in part because every one of us got the flu, one after another, during this trip (ending with my husband having it on the flight home). However, as there were a few days where no one was sick, we still managed to do some sight seeing.

My favorite thing by far was the great wall of china. We went to the MuTianYu section of the wall. Our driver encouraged us to arrive there early (it was over a 1 hour drive), so at 7:30, when the shops were just opening, we found ourselves eating freshly made dumplings for breakfast at the base of the wall. I somehow never realized this, but the wall is built along the peaks of a mountain chain, so we had to take a cable car up to the wall itself. We were the only people on the wall for the first few hours of our hike, which made it a very special, peaceful experience. We had intended to walk toward the flatter section of the wall and head down after an hour or two, but the children saw the wall rise along the side of a a nearby mountain through the mist in the other direction and insisted that they wanted to scale that peak. After passing turret after turret, we finally reached the section of

What a view! We have to travel to the end of the visible wall and beyond to get home.
What a view! We have to travel to the end of the visible wall and beyond to get home.
Looking back over the mountains
Looking back over the mountains

the wall that rose to the peak, and we worked our way up the stairs. My son was especially brave, alternating between hugging the ground and forcing past his fear of heights to scale the next few steps. At times, when we encountered stairs that were especially steep, he clung to my back, eyes closed, as I walked up (or, earlier in the walk, down them). The view from the top was beautiful, as was the sense of accomplishment that we all felt. Amazingly, my son had no trouble at all going back down, his fear conquered by his own success. Following this, we retraced the route and began to walk toward our original goal. My daughter ended up scraping her knee and we carried her much of this way. Finally, we reached the way down: A toboggan with a brake lever and room for one adult/child combination that traveled down a metal track to the bottom. We ended with more dumplings for lunch, and a purchase of the obligate tourist trinkets.

Carved ramp in the Forbidden City
Carved ramp in the Forbidden City

Although the wall was my favorite, we did see some other beautiful sights. We spent a day wandering around the Forbidden City (prelude: A bicycle rickshaw ride and an attempt to change the price from 6 yuan to 600 yuan at the end of it!), followed by the notorious 42 taxi refusals and a visit to one of the top acrobatics companies in China. The feats we saw on stage were impressive, including bike acrobatics, a ballet dancer who danced point upon the shoulders and arms of her partner, tumblers, balancing acts, juggling of balls by foot, and more. We also visited the summer palace, during the evening reception of Ubicomp, which included a series of performances, including a sampling of the Beijing Opera and a mask dance that ended with firebreathing.

More bike magic Bowl dance

We topped off the trip with a special visit to the musical instrument sales district of Beijing, promised to my son who was missing having a cello. We took a 45 minute taxi ride to an obscure section of Beijing, and found ourself on a street filled with stringed instruments of all kinds, both western instruments (cello, violin, even viola) and traditional chinese instruments (a ceramic type of whistle with finger holes, a reeded bamboo instrument with a drone and fingered section called a Hulusi, a bowed string instrument, and more). Our first goal being a cello, we stopped at the first store that had child-sized instruments and I encouraged my son to try more than one. It was an eye-opening experience for him to compare the sound and feel of more than one instrument and see how much they differed. However, the price was high and the instruments out of town and badly made, so we kept looking. We quickly discovered that the highest quality instruments (both traditional and western) were found at shops where skilled musician played music to attract customers and display their wares. One shop even specialized in baroque instruments, including an (unfortunately out of tune) 6-stringed Arpeggione, which they let me try. In the end we settled on a beautiful, well-made 1/4-sized cello with a nice sound, and a Hulusi for my daughter. After a comedic visit to about 10 banks with no success in retrieving money, we ended up having to go back to the hotel and purchase the instruments the following day.

In the end, our time in China, despite having many “wasted” hours waiting out sickness in hotel room, was a wonderful success. In between spa visits, we were lucky to enjoy much music, acrobatics, and dancing. We ate a huge variety of food in dinners both in Xi’An, at our hotel in Beijing, and thanks to the conference at two separate conference events. We saw palaces, nature, and city walls. We bought blatantly overpriced tourist tchochkas, paintings, and even a chess set. And to top it off, I had the opportunity to attend a conference I rarely can (though I often submit to it and read its papers). The day I spent at Ubicomp 2011 was intellectually stimulating and full of wonderful discussions with friends and colleagues.

On Saying Thanks

One of the things that constantly surprises me here is how welcoming everyone we encounter is*. The surprise is not so much that the folks I encounter here are so caring, open, and giving, as that I don’t expect it: This tells me that my training back home was to expect closed doors, minds, and hearts much more than I realized. Not so much from my close friends as from those I am just getting to know, acquaintances, familiar strangers, and so on. Some examples of small daily surprises here:

  • The stable owner where we ride each morning invited us to watch a Polo game. At the end of the game, a complete stranger came up to us and handed each of us a bag of chips and a box of mango juice, left over from what a student group at the same game had been given.
  • I forgot to bring any cash with me when I left for the game, in a rush, with a sleeping daughter in arms. When I exclaimed aloud about this without thinking, a passenger in the car, whom I barely knew offered me 1000 rupees with the vague notion that I would see him in the next day or so to pay him back.
  • The GHAC members we have meet invariably show the kids with snacks and candy and requests for photos. When we finally organized the cleanup of our local playground that the kids have been requesting since our hike to Ananthagiri hills, one GHAC organizer offered to attend and bring the leadership of GHAC with him to help. We assured him this was not necessary, but he and others at GHAC helped me to find gloves appropriate for picking up broken glass, and were generally supportive of me and full of praise and support for the kids in doing the cleanup.
  • Other families in the block have offered to watch the kids, include them regularly in happenings such as Pujas (as well as myself), and generally made us feel completely at home and as though we’d lived here for a long time already.
  • The staff at IIIT have worked hard to meet our every need, often coming to our flat to bring things to us if we were not able to come right away to their offices.
I’m sure if I stopped to think about this I could come up with many more examples, including many from our time at RGUKT, others from my interactions with the GHAC and Hyderabad Polo and Riding Club, and more. But my goal is not to document every example. Rather, it is to take note of how nice it feels to know that a neighbor is a friend, how friendly it feels to help and be helped by those around us, and how open and open hearted a society I find myself in.
For the most part I believe I am adjusting well to these differences, both as one who can give and as one who accepts help and affection from those around me. I want to adapt to this new way of doing things and hope to bring some of it back with me. However there is one thing that I find most difficult to change: One of my friends here asked me very nicely to please stop saying “Thank you.” It makes her uncomfortable, and is abnormal to say it so often.
Each time I am touched or surprised by the givingness of people around me, calling it out and thanking them for it is my instinctual reaction. However, it is culturally awkward to do so (and perhaps would seem less necessary if it seemed more normal to me to be surrounded by such giving). So I will try to adapt, though I fear I could step wrongly in the other direction (or that I will simply find this change too hard). But allow me an indulgence, here on this blog, one that may help me to rein myself in later: Thank you, to everyone I meet here, for being who you are and doing what you do.
*I am not claiming that there is nothing negative here. For sure, we have been asked for money (beyond simple borrowing), stolen from, and beggars are also common. However, the overwhelming feeling is that of a positive, giving environment in which far more people reach out to help each other than the reverse.

A day of firsts

Today was a day of firsts in India (and in some cases ever) for me. A wonderful day of firsts. I had my first motorcycle ride (without a helmet, no less, as I don’t expect to do this often and don’t own one). It was an unexpected feeling. The power of the machine underneath is inescapable, and the seat is wide and comfortable so it requires little concentration to stay on board. Yet there’s a sense of balance that engages similar to a bike, and a need to stay seated as speed changes and over bumps. Then as a passenger there’s a lack of warning or control that adds to the overall need to stay focused. Throw in the Indian traffic, and the ride gets quite interesting at times (video below). Speaking of Indian traffic, I’m pretty sure I observed traffic stopping at a red light for the first time every today. I suppose a day I’m on a motorcycle without a helmet is a good day to see traffic laws obeyed (sort of) though.

The reason for my ride was a trip far out of the city to take a first aid class thanks to the GHAC (updating my knowledge from the baby-focused class I took when my son was born). My driver was unavailable and a GHAC member kindly volunteered to give me a ride. Have I mentioned how much I love this club and the people in it? Ok first aid is more of a pun than a first, but it still fits the theme.

Another first — first violin in India. After the class we stopped by a music shop that had violins in Secunderabad. I put one together (bridge was down, bow needed rosin) and played my squeaky heart out for a good 30 minutes before the owner had to close up. I didn’t realize how much I missed my viola until I saw that instrument and set bow to string. It was glorious, even with the cheap ingredients and need for transposition.

Final first, which I will enjoy with the kids tomorrow: I saw a pork shop on the way to the music shop, and bought bacon. A whole kilo. With a huge smile on my face, thinking of how happy it would make the whole family.

A reminder that when far from home, sometimes a mix of totally new and totally familiar can be exactly what one needs.

Greater Hyderabad Adventure Club cleanup of Ananthagiri

Cleaning up
Cleaning up

*Photo credit: All photos by GHAC. Thanks for sharing!

I have been hoping for an opportunity to join the Greater Hyderabad Adventure Club (GHAC) on an outing ever since I discovered them two weeks ago. They have meetups ranging from local bird watching to multi-day trips that all seem exciting and fascinating. Today I finally was able to follow through. The meetup was slightly later than the usual 6:30 meeting time, and on a weekend when the kids were free. Equally important, the kids were excited: It involved both a hike and a chance to do something for mother earth (pick up litter). Both kids have been asking about volunteering recently and how children can be involved, and my son seems especially intrigued by the concept. Both children were very excited when I told them about the meetup, so we signed up. The day began with an alarm clock, a little horlicks (ovaltine) and a long wait at a local bakery after we were dropped off. Luckily, new friends showed up shortly and introduced themselves — both were as new to GHAC as us, and very friendly. Good thing too, as the usual hurry & wait of travel set in. Once we were settled in the bus, we were surrounded by friendly faces, many of whom offered the children food and drink as we drove. The GHAC is an organization that started three years ago. Because of the special nature of this trek (cleaning up), there were many folks involved who had helped found it or been involved for some time. Most other events have two organizers (a leader, and someone to mop up the crowed at the back end), who have been extensively trained in safety, outdoor survival knowledge, and so on, and are limited in size to a manageable number of folks accompanying those leaders (around 15 maximum). The club started small, but about a year ago began growing dramatically and now has over 5000 members, only about 100 of which are trained leaders. As a result, most meetups book up very very quickly after they are announced, even though there are many each week. This meetup, again unusual in nature, had no limit. In fact, a group of about 30 college students met us there and helped tremendously with the cleanup. After a quick stop for Idli and other breakfast yummies, and a long drive, we finally arrived at the temple marking the start of our walk. We headed down a set of steps into a valley near the temple and began picking up garbage.

Cleaning up
Cleaning up
We filled about 15 of these bags
We filled about 15 of these bags

The GHAC leaders helped to organize us (and the students when they arrived a few minutes later), provided special gloves and facemasks to anyone who wanted them, provided garbage bags, and generally kept things moving. The kids documented what we did with videos and photos, and had a great time exploring the forest. We helped make sure they avoided any spiders and snakes. The kids were far too noisy for me to worry much about the bears, boars, and other animals that live in the surrounding forest. I did run into one spider web myself, and discovered a VERY large spider walking down my neck a few minutes later. After seeing me doing a bit of a dance, someone suggested I just hold still and calmly grabbed its silk and moved it. Wish I’d had the presence of mind to think of that myself! It was BIG, though.

The forest here is beautiful if you can ignore the litter (or remove it!)
The forest here is beautiful if you can ignore the litter (or remove it!)
After ... the litter is in bags now instead of on the ground. In the background are some of the many college students who helped us.
After ... the litter is in bags now instead of on the ground. In the background are most of the many college students who helped us.
Heading home
Heading home
The view from the top of the hill station area
The view from the top of the hill station area

Although we didn’t spend much time touring, the organizers were kind enough to take us around a bit. We were surrounded by the constant sound of birdsong, and drank in the beauty of the surrounding forest while trying to ignore the litter that hadn’t yet been cleaned up. Most beautiful of all to me was the eucalyptus grove. We did try to look for birds, but we heard them far more than we saw them. Instead, we saw boar tracks, a toad, a very large spider, and many kinds of plants. The organizers of the event did a great job of using it to educate as well as clean up. After the main cleanup, we piled the bags high and joined in a circle to pledge to protect the earth.

Next, we piled back into buses and traveled on to a beautiful overlook, where we discovered more litter. This time, we were able to gather more than half as much litter in 10 minutes (there was a lot, all in the same area) as we had in 3 hours before. The kids delighted in taking on the role of time keeper as we cleaned.

The event ended, after lunch and relaxation at the hill station’s main resort hotel, with a long ride back to Hyderabad. This was a chance to talk and make friends with the wonderful group of people who helped the cleanup to happen. The children were playful, as were the grownups and we shared a great deal of laughter during the long drive home.

When we finally got back to our flat, it was long past dark. After a quick snack, I put the children to bed. When we stopped as usual to make wishes and thanks, the importance of an event like this was made abundantly clear. My children had absorbed its meaning far more deeply than I had imagined. Both children talked about how bad litter and plastic were. My son wanted to organize a cleanup of the play area near our flat that all the children use. My daughter planned to invent a special device the fairies could use to tell everyone on earth never to litter again. However, after finding out that plastic takes a long time to degrade, she wanted my reassurance that we would not gather the litter up simply to throw it in a landfill where it would continue to bother mother earth. Her fairies, she told us, needed material to make there houses, and couldn’t we use the plastic for that and other projects?

Despite the joys of the day, there was one thing about the event that concerned me. My son refused to take an oath to help the earth when others did. Later, as he went to sleep, he asked me how he could possibly make up for all the bad things he does to mother earth (especially driving so much). It breaks my heart to think that by letting the kids know when we decide to take a train instead of fly, or bike instead of drive, I may have led my son to feel he was doing so much bad that he couldn’t promise to help her. Perhaps I should never have done more than show the kids how beautiful the earth is at this age, letting the rest come when they were ready. For sure, striking the best balance is difficult.

Since I can’t undo what’s been done (and I’m not sure I know a way to describe the choices we’ve made in the past that’s truthful without creating guilt), I tried instead to explain that the impact of what we did today was far greater than the garbage we picked up: If what we did ensures that the students and others who attend never litter again, or stops other visitors from littering, we’ve saved lifetimes of garbage from being thrown out. That sort of impact is bigger than any one person.

So my hope for my son (and all of us) is that we can again and again create the kind of waves that today’s event did. If that happens enough, if enough people create waves, perhaps each of us can “make up” for the negatives inherent in today’s lifestyle, or better yet change lifestyle and culture enough that living on this earth is once again a shared act of creation rather than destruction.