Tag Archives: hyderabad

Leaving India (the hard way!)

It started when we realized we had far too much stuff. Even after giving away boxes and boxes of it, we still had to buy three large suitcases, at which point we had eight suitcases, a cello, a carry on suitcase, and our backpacks and briefcases, and one large picture.  Where did it all come from? Perhaps a topic for another post, but the focus today is the impact that had on our travels.

On Tuesday night, we called the airline to check that this many bags would not be a problem. We were told that  our bags would be checked through. We called back again Wednesday to check on the number of bags allowed and overage fees. At that time, we were told that in fact the tickets were not joined, and our bags would not be checked through, which would mean difficult times in the Mumbai airport. As a result, late Wednesday night (11pm and later), a day before leaving india, we found ourselves exploring shipping options. We went online and found many descriptions of the complications involved in shipping through the postal office, the cost of shipping through companies such as DSL, and so on. They all seemed very extravagant or complicated. But we had too many bags. We kept packing (hoping it would at least all fit in our suitcases) and discussed what to do for too many hours.

The next morning we heard that there might be an inexpensive boat shipment option from a neighbor. Turns out this wasn’t true, but it prompted us to ask IIIT for help, which worked out well. They arranged for someone to come and weigh our bags and we were quoted a price of around $600 for 100 kg of shipping. We decided to take it, since we were expecting to have to pay around $200 in extra luggage fees in any case to take those things. We schlepped the other six bags and the cello to the airport.

We loaded all of our things in one car and drove behind in the other. We left super early for the airport, which was a good idea. We got there at 3:15 for a 6pm flight.

When we tried to check in, we were told that Mom and kids were supposed to be on a 7am flight, which we had obviously missed. Apparently our travel agent [1] had booked us on the 6pm flight, then changed the ticket without telling us! Would we be able to get to Mumbai in time to catch our flight home? How much would it cost us? How long would it take to find out? We could see things were going to be difficult for us and the kids, so it was clearly game time!  We started working out the rules for points: -5 for asking when we would arrive, -10 for whining, +500 if we could get the bags checked through, and 55 for doing something you wouldn’t normally do. We decided on 1000 for getting on the plane (since we now needed new tickets) and -50 for quarreling, -20 for yelling at someone.

My son started us out on the right foot by earning 5 points when he allowed my daughter to be the calculator even though he had been planning on doing it, in a very polite voice.

Mom worked magic on the ticket desk, by pointing out that we had confirmed the flight and not been told we had the time wrong (and it was obvious it was the travel agent’s fault [1] and not ours) and they agreed to try to resolve the fees for a new ticket. After an about 1.5 hours wait (during which the kids behaved perfectly, even though some of their food fell on the ground and they were starving), we were given tickets on the 6pm flight for only 1500 Rs each (the change fee, no ticketing fee).

The next challenge was getting all the luggage on and checked through. We were told that the bags were too heavy, but after rearranging we managed to get by with a wink and only 1 bag that was too heavy. Point hit though — the extra 5 kg in that bag cost us $200. Also we lost 20 when one person got to the yelling point (happily, this happened only twice in our entire trip).

All bags checked, all fees paid, we headed through security, and went to buy food, only to discover that we were down to 605 Rs, only enough for one Pizza. Daddy worked magic and got two squeezed out of it by a nice teller (20 pts), and sent Kavi looking for supplementary coins for water. Lo and behold, we discovered 300 Rs more. We settled in and ate, and now are on the airplane.

Our last feat was getting the picture stowed, Mommy did it without a problem. We’re on the airplane now, with a total of 2815 points (and our entire remaining Indian bank account spent!). Even so, excellent score for level 1 :). We will level up to two when we land in Mumbai.

[2 hours later]

Mumbai was crazy mainly for the reasons that Mumbai is always crazy for international passengers – 5 security checks, a long bus ride, and so on. To make things extra fun, we added in an upset stomach (long bathroom visit required) and a request by Continental that we pay a missing fee for an extra bag (eventually they waived it after we said we’d carry the bag on and they couldn’t find it). In the end we got to our plane as they were loading passengers, i.e. with no time to spare, but not late either. Score!

The trip from Mumbai to home was 17 hours long, but uneventful. However, our day wasn’t done when we landed. Customs was complicated by the immigration officer only citing 3 passengers on our forms (we were 4), and then we had to track down our ride (the grandparents). We gave each child 500 points for making it through this last level without a melt down, and 1000 for making it through with no whining. They were, after all, exhausted. Score again!

Once we had all found each other, the kids went home, but we still had to submit paperwork for our swiss visas! On to NY city to the consulate, which opened at 8:30am. We quickly learned that we were missing important information (photos of the kids, photocopies of our passports, filled applications). After visiting 4 separate shops we managed to collect all the needed information, and get the applications submitted. If all goes smoothly, we will pick up the visas next week.

Points mean absolutely nothing after the trip, but the kids still love collecting them. And they allow us to adjust and set expectations. For example, at one point when my daughter (only 6) was clearly losing it from exhaustion, I told her that she could no longer lose points (by bad behavior), only earn them (by good behavior). With the pressure off, she rose to the occasion. Not only that, but I think it got the adults on better behavior, both by making it more fun (and thus more bearable) and by making concrete the example that needed to be set. It also helped relieve tension: For example, when an adult did begin to lose it, a ready response was “Ok, 20 points off” without escalating things. I expect this is a game we will use and re-use as long as possible :).

I’m beginning to feel home, even if for a short while. It was interesting to observe the conversations among store keepers and customers outside the visa office and think about how different things would have been back in Hyderabad (and how the same). Breakfast at a diner vs a roadside stall. Cold weather. Hopefully soon, a bathtub full of hot water (both luxuries I couldn’t have in India). For now, I’m sitting in the car minutes from home at 12pm EST. It’s 10:30pm in India, on Friday, over 32 hours after I left India.

[1] http://www.vijaywarty.com/ — NEVER USE HIM!

Observations of the Jungle and Human Behavior

Ananthagiri Hills Trek
Ananthagiri Hills Trek, (c) GHAC

I spent most of yesterday trekking through the jungle at Ananthagiri Hills with about ten people from the GHACand my two children. In between climbing old-creek beds off-trail, hiking through fields of torturous thorny grasses, telling stories to keep the kids happy and uncomplaining, and looking for and at stones, bees nests, peacock feathers, and even one scorpion, I found myself ruminating about the many relationships I and those around me have to the jungle here.

My friends and neighbors view even the small patches of jungle (Hindi for “forest”) near my quarters as dangerous and not to be entered. When the children play there, a neighbor calls me warning of snakes. The children and adults do not enter the forest. When I invite them to learn more about snakes (through the GHAC’s collaboration with the “Snake Sense” organization), the children jump at a chance to join me, but the adults will not accompany them. I must request permission to bring 5 children along with me, with no other supervisors. The event, associated with India’s wonderful “Children’s Day” holiday turns out to include a hike. We trek up and down a local hill, slide down a crack between boulders, challenge ourselves to pass along the edge of a large, highly angled stone, climb a tree. The children with me alternate between fear and enchantment, feelings of prowess and worries of inadequacy. At the end, each child receives a first aid kit and a reminder that they gain much from pushing their limits. Will they keep their adventurous nature?

GHAC group (c) GHAC
GHAC group (c) GHAC

Clearly, the GHAC views the jungle as a place for fun, adventure, exercise, and comradeship. On our hike yesterday, we launched ourselves from the edge of a hill up a mountainside through brush, thorns, and rocks. In contrast to my neighbors, concerns about snakes were not prominent. Indeed, from what I learned at snake sense, a dangerous encounter is unlikely (and likely to be precipitated in part by a lack of sense). The excitement of discovery, and the challenge of hiking these non-trails sustains my children through the beginning of the hike. As they begin to tire, I begin to notice that many trails snake through the woods and fields and across or along our path. Soon we are passed by herders walking their cattle down the trails. White birds fly among the cattle clearly benefiting from their presence. To these herders, the jungle and fields are not adventure but home and land. We continue on our way, unremarkable to those who share the space with us. Eventually, as we return, we pass the only “wildlife” we’ve seen besides a single scorpion: A lost goat bleating for its pack, unaccompanied.

At home, just down the road from our quarters, the workers who are helping with the campus expansion enter the forest frequently, it is their bathroom, washroom, and perhaps more. Behind the residence, the local organic farm is engaged in transforming parts of the forest into food. The forest sounds, smells and sights reflect these activities. It is clearly lived in, not just because of the trails that run through it and the plants that grow in it, but also because of the pervasive presence of garbage. In contrast, during our hike, garbage was rarely sighted: Those living on the land preserved its cleanliness. Why, I wonder? Fewer people? Different lifestyles? Perhaps a sense of environmentality that grows from using and being responsible for the land, benefiting from its preservation [1]?

At the end of our hike, we traveled to a local lake to relax, cool off and play. We share the surrounding coastline with those who simply live there and other visitors, but we have managed to find a corner of the lake that only one other person, a man chopping wood. The adults in our troupe of adventurers spend hours sharing food and playing in the water. We have brought no toys, boats, or other equipment. A half-full water bottle doubles as a ball for a while, then the play turns to tag. Meanwhile my son repeatedly splashes at those he knows will react by chasing him, throwing him into the water. I am struck by the sense of playfulness and community among this group of strangers who have just met and spent the day together. I think an american crowd might have more quickly run out of things to do, perhaps splashing, then splitting off into small groups swimming. I can’t remember the last time I saw adults playing tag.

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At the end I am left with a question: What creates these different relationships to the jungle, and how might they change? Agarwal’s paper describes a particular transformation in one community’s relationship to the Jungle. From viewing the forest as something that must, by necessity, be pillaged (and that is big enough to take it), one informant says “We protect our forests better than government can… For us, it is life… Just think of all the things we get from forests. If we don’t safeguard the forest, who else will?” [1, p. 2]. After presenting this initial transformation, Agarwal spends much of the rest of his article deconstructing its genesis in the varied regulatory structures and enforcement mechanisms put into place in the decade over which the transformation takes place. He argues for the role of “intimate governance”, rather than “government at a distance”, in creating environmentality. What is promising about the specific success he observed is the way in which it “led to a cascade of changes in institutional, political, and social domains connected to the idea of community” [1, p. 21].

While my observations lack the scale or depth of Agarwals, it seems likely that the different relationships, ownership, and upbringings I observed also have a direct impact on the preservation and use of the forest. Given the interdependency of these factors, as well as the impact of relationships among stakeholders, community attitudes and identity (e.g., [2]), lasting behavior change seems unlikely without multi-faceted, multi-level solutions1.

1I have argued elsewhere that there are multiple reasons to consider multi-level, scalable projects that engage with governments, organizations and individuals in sustainability research (and, as an aside, that much of the research we do now on sustainable HCI may be lack valid motivations). The analysis here seems to provide additional evidence for the need to think more broadly about the work we do.

[1] Agarwal, A. (2005). Environmentality: Community, intimate governance, and the making of environmental subjects in Kumaon, India. Current Anthropology, 46(2).

[2] T.Dillahunt, J. Mankoff, E. Paulos.  Understanding Conflict Between Landlords and Tenants: Implications for Energy Sensing and Feedback.  In Proceedings of Ubicomp 2010.

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.

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.

Impressions of home

We have been living in Hyderabad for a week now, and are pretty well settled in. The children seem to have gotten over their initial homesickness for the most part, our flat has furniture and dishes (and has been cleaned), we’ve met with all of the people who so kindly helped to arrange our trip, and have the settled the kids into a school.

Our apartment has a spacious porch. When we open the doors to it, a cool breeze fills the whole apartment
Our apartment has a spacious porch. When we open the doors to it, a cool breeze fills the whole apartment

Our second floor flat is spacious and breezy (luckily, our area of Hyderabad seems to have an almost constant breeze), with fans in every room and a set of double doors leading to a nice porch. It lacks any softness for now but the cold stone walls and tile floor help to make it cool and comfortable. Although this is monsoon season, the rains have been weak so far, so the temperature on some days has been quite high.

The flat is part of faculty housing at IIIT Hyderabad, and our neighbors have been kind, friendly and helpful. The children already have a new friend who lives just below us. IIIT has also provided us with a staff: someone to sweep and clean, someone to do laundry (an extra perk we very much appreciate as the alternative is scrubbing our own clothing by hand), and an electrician and carpenter on call. The differences in status among people we meet are highly visible. For example, many of the staff do not wear shoes, and I have seen Dhoti worn only by working men while more affluent men tend to wear western clothing. Women tend to wear traditional clothing such as a Salwar kameez or a Sari, and some wear a tunic and pants, while working women wear the Sari almost exclusively. Personally, I find the Salwar Kameez to be the most comfortable option in the heat here although I imagine a Sari would also be comfortable (I don’t yet own any).

My son and daughter playing on the rocks outside our flat
My son and daughter playing on the rocks outside our flat

Outside, the land looks arid compared to what I am used to, with brown earth, short thin trees, and wispy underbrush. However Hyderabad is actually in quite a lush region of India. In fact, although we must take care not to drink unfiltered water, it is used abundantly in daily life. Food is grown everywhere: Huge palm trees full of coconuts line many roads, farms are mixed among buildings and food plants can even be found growing in the dirt along the side of buildings. This neighborhood of Hyderabad (Gachibowli) was apparently mainly a farming community just 10 years ago. On campus, the road we live on continues past our building to a farm with cows and about an acre of growing space.

The area we are staying in is booming, with construction around every corner. Rickety bamboo and stick scaffolding surrounds new construction, filled with workers doing everything from bricklaying to work that might be handled by a crane in the States, while women walk by underneath carrying stones and debris in baskets on their heads.

Hyderabad is a study in contrasts. Below the new buildings and construction, many streets are lined with small shacks built of sticks and tarp. Our dishes, appliances, furniture are built to last (stainless steel is commonly used here for plates and cups, for example). At the same time, everything from oil to milk is purchased in throw-away plastic bags. We have shopped for supplies at small roadside stands, but a few kilometers away is a mall that is only obviously Indian in the style of clothing displayed in some of the store windows.

Amazingly, despite the novelty of our surroundings, we already feel at home. New friends, new spaces, new foods, so many things to see, all keep us busy so the days fly by. But at the end of the day our familiar routine takes over — dinner, stories, bedtime — and the comfort of being a family brings us home again.