Friday, June 29, 2007

My 21st Birthday in India!

Thanks to all who wished me a Happy Birthday! I was suprised early, around 12:30am on my birthday while in the middle of watching a Bollywood movie with Christina and Julie.

Sony, Yamilee, Musheer, and Dharani burst into my room with a lovely tier of napkin hats spelling out "Happy Birthday Jessica!". On the tray was also two cups of delicious vanilla icecream (my favorite treat here in India) with wooden spoons with the numbers 2 and 1 on them. I had the same amount of candles on each respective icecream as well. :)

In India there is a tradition of birthday bumps in which the lucky girl/boy is physically hit/kicked as many years as he is old. I was luckily spared this tradition.

We visited the Deepalaya during the day and worked on entering our collected data and defining our study objective but by nightful we were all ready for a break.

My team was awesome and found a nice restaurant/club where I could celebrate called "Pebble Street" ( We ventured there safely and I had an absolutely great time. The food, drinks, and music where fantastic as was the company. I felt right at home in India!

Me, Julie, Christina, and Catherine dressed nicely :)

Yamilee, Catherine, and Dharani being goofy

Sony, Julie, Me and Christina

Monday, June 25, 2007


After our trip to Agra, we buckled down for the rest of the weeked to write a report on our findings and observations from our work in the Education sector of Deepalaya. Our MIT team has teamed with RF students to split into the two sectors of Education and Health. The idea is that after two weeks we finish with a sector and then switch with the other team to learn about the other sector. We don't communicate about our respective projects and at the end of 4 weeks we meet and discuss our results and how the differ and compare.
So, we began today formulating a survey for assessing the key factors in child general health: sanitation, water supply, breastfeeding, and vaccinations. We're trying to gain access to visiting medical schools, teaching hospitals, local clinics, and professional social workers to learn about the health problem more broadly.

A vaccination card for children

The highlight of the day was meeting some of the Indian students that Catherine (Cat) had previously befriended in the canteen. These girls are studying airline ticketing (and airline hostessing) and are eager to practice their English with us. I've never heard of this kind of "major" in a college in the U.S. but it seems quite a popular option for girls on this campus.

The Rai Foundation has provided 70 girls complete scholarships and these group of girls were some of the lucky underpriviledged few to get them. Though some are from Bombay, a lot of the girls look very tan and asian (of tibetan descent) and are from the area called Ladakh in the most northern part of India. I was told I look Ladakhian. It's amazing that the blend between so many looks can occur under those that inhabit a single country. All of the Ladakhian girls come from farming families and they help with fieldwork when they go home for break (only 1 month in a year). Many are intensely religious and have brothers and sisters who are monks or nuns in the monasteries. Many highly respect and celebrate the Dalai Lama. After learning more about them and teaching one another helpful phrases from our respective languages we headed out into the night air (dinner takes place 8:30-9:00 pm here!).

The orange region is the area in which Ladakh is in, and the green dot represents Delhi.

The girls invited us to participate in their way of having fun at night. Groups of girls sit in circles on the campus lawn singing their favorite songs and making each other dance, kind of a throwback to middle school recess. Catherine surprised them with a classic American love song and I can't sing so I did some bhangra moves for the girls. We all had fun joking with our bits of common language and enjoying each others' cultures. They taught us their version of "Duck Duck Goose" in which a girl drops a hankerchief behind you to "tag" you. If you end up in the middle you have to perform for the entire group! All the girls were incredibly amused with Catherine and I and laughed and cheered us on! Girls here are very affectionate and we parted ways with many of the girls lingering to hold our hands and enthusiastically wish us good night.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Agra: Beautiful forts and Taj Mahal

Trip to Agra
Saturday 6/24/2007

On Saturday, we ventured to the land of Rahjastan (desert-hot) and specifically Agra. We set an ambitious internary of seeing 3 of Agra’s most famous sites: Fatehpur Sikri, Agra Fort, and the Taj Mahal. Agra is approximately 4 hours away from New Delhi and we woke at 5 am to meet our driver. 7 of us squeezed into the ("9-passenger")vehicle and got ready for a long ride. Delhi at dawn is still a bustling place with pick up trucks packed with traveling workers in the back, rickshaws loaded ridiculously with goods to be delivered to opening shops, and auto rickshaws starting up their motors for their first customers. We passed by miles and miles of fields with small shacks made entirely of hay dotting the landscape. Apparently these are temporary homes for the farmers during the harvest season, and each is so well crafted and bound together. Their hand/ox plowed fields are a stark contrast to America's industrialized and mechanized mass farming approach.

Finally, after much uncomfortable sleep in the heat (AC in some cars just means Air Control) and various parts of my body falling asleep, we arrived at Fatehpur Sikri, the political capital of India’s Mughal Empire under Emperor Akbar’s reign (1571-1585). This elaborate contructed capital included courts, harems, and a treasury but was abandoned quite suddently due to lack of water. It’s situated on a hill top with spectacular views of the surrouding land. Because it’s on a platform you just see sky and clouds when looking past the buildings. There are two main components to the capital- one being the palace complex and the other being the gate and mosque. The magnitude and extravagant detail of the entire capital is breathtaking and it melds together islamic, hindu, and judaism in many of its carvings; I believe this architectural achievement dwarfs any western/American building I’ve seen as yet.

Me in front of the private court where the emperor would discuss matters with his ministers.

The entrance to the mosque and welcom gate, the red sandstone is beautiful.

Next, we traveled to Agra Fort, the most important fort of India and a place where only 25% is open to tourists while the other 75% is still used for military training. The same Emperor Akbar helped finish this fort with red sandstone. About 4000 builders worked for eight years to complete this fort in 1573. There lies two sets of fortress walls, one that had a moat of crocodiles surrounding the outermost wall and another that had a moat lions and tigers surrounding the inner wall. Talk about really trying to keep the enemies out! This fortress shared a lot of the redstone architecture as the other one, with a later emperor Shah Jahan (commisioned the Taj Mahal close by) putting his signature white marble touch on a small mosque in the middle.

Our MIT-RF team (missing Sony) in front of one of Agra Fort's inner walls.

We also got to see a special bathing house of mirror inlays covering floor to ceiling of a huge chamber. The idea is that a single candle light will be magnified thousands of times in the small mirrors making it look as if one was bathing beneath the stars.

Inside the bathhouse full of mirrors. Holding candles to create the starry night look :)

Last but not least we visited the Taj Mahal and were able to see it around sunset when it is said to resemble the many moods of a woman as it changes hues with the color of the setting sun. For those who don’t the story, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan commisioned the Taj as a mausoleum for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. It’s white marble is striking aginst the landscape and the size is breath-taking. Because it is a religious/sacred place/mosque, all visitors are required to remove their shoes before stepping onto the Taj’s platform. As westerners we paid almost 10X the fee to see the Taj Mahal but we got complimentary booties to wear over our shoes so we wouldn’t be burning our feet on the white marble.

B-Block and McVeggie Burgers

Friday, June 21-2007

For the past two weeks we’ve surveyed over 91 households, trying to gain insight into the social and economic motives behind sending a child to school, failing to send a child to school, and why a child would drop out of school. Our education team (Yamilee and I, and our RF counter parts Meenu and Priya) spent our last day surveying in the slum called B-block. We had to walk about 20 minutes in the sweltering noon day heat and humidity to make it to the settlement. By the time we reached the main alleyway we were all drenched with sweat and half way through our water (this basically describes how I react daily to New Delhi weather)!

We were able to gain quite a crowd amidst the narrow alley way full of shops and vendors. However, the swarms of flies were a bit nauseating as were some of the sewer smells. I had a great time meeting a group of extremely talkative girls around the age of 15 who were smart and funny. Since our team is all women, our RF counterparts have a better connection and feel more comfortable interacting with mostly women for our survey. In a bright blue alley (almost all walls are a bright color) their eyes lit up whenever we asked them questions and they even gave us a bit of attitude and joking. It’s refreshing to see such friendly faces when many women lose the luster to their eyes and end up hiding behind their saris and veils. Lots of the children like asking me my name and are delighted when I can ask them a question back in Hindi. Apparently “Jessica” isn’t a hard name for them and they loved yelling it. I on the other hand could hardly repeat back many of their names – but having them spell them out is key!

Our Education team surveying a shopkeeper's family in their small store.

This past week our weekdays were filled mainly with entering our survey data and analyzing it to compile a nice quantitative and qualitative report on education in Delhi and our work with Deepalaya. It’s been truly interesting trying to first formulate an accurate and comprehensive survey to address our objectives and also trying to make sense of the dozen or so graphs we were able to make with our data. We were able to address our hypotheses about gender inequity, parental level of education, educational awareness etc.

To break up our days, we often go to local eateries, eat at the canteen, or grocery shop at the local market.

An introduction to where I get my food daily:

McDonald’s (don’t cringe!)- located a mere 2 minutes from our lodgings, this Indian version is absolutely awesome. I would say >50% of their menu is vegetarian (heaven) and pretty light on the stomach. I particularly enjoy the McAloo Tikki Burger ( spiced potato),the McVeggie Burger, or the Paneer Salsa Wrap. And don’t forget the $0.25 Soft serve cone! Prices $0.50-$1.00.

Introducing the McVeggie, the McChicken, Filet O'Fish, and Chicken Maharaja Burger.

Nirulla’s – also close by it serves Indian “fast food” combined with American icecream and drinks. I like getting Aloo Parantha here, a bread filled with potatoes and fruit shakes. Prices $0.50-$1.00.

Canteen - this is the cafeteria for the campus and we buy meal tickets at a little counter and then get to enjoy a 3 dish meal for bout $1. You get these metal trays with several compartments and you often have rice and chipatis along with a few curries to choose from.

Sector 37 market- located about a 15 minute walk away there’s a market in a pretty nice neighborhood. Here, I’ll pick up yogurt, granola, bread, mango juice, Indian ramen and more for not more than $4, a big difference from food shopping in the U.S. where prices quickly add up. We also rent Bollywood films from the local dvd rental shop and enjoy these in our spare time. So far my favorite so far has been 'Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham'.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Going to the Market and India Gate

Saturday is usually a day of work for India, but we decided to take our weekend off to explore India. We waited out the heavy morning rains before heading off to Lajpat Nagar, a huge market with booth indoor and outdoor vendors that sell everything from toiletries to wedding saris.
We ventured out on our own as a group of foreigners and made it to the market unscathed. There, we were delighted with the amazing variety of clothing for women-

A brief, and hopefully accurate introduction (thank you wiki!):

1. The salwar kameez consists of loose trousers (the salwar) topped by a long loose shirt (the kameez). It is commonly worn with a narrow scarf or veil called a dupatta which can be used to cover the head, or just draped over the shoulders. The salwar kameez is most common in the northwestern part of India.

2. A sari is a very long strip of unstitched cloth, ranging from four to nine metres in length, which can be draped in various styles (many specific to different regions of India). A choli, is the short camisole that is worn beneath it. This outfit often bares a portion of the midriff.

3. More modern, a lot of women I've seen have been wearing a "chorti (?)" top with jeans. This top is almost like a tunic and is long, reaching the thigh or even the knee. I bought a coral colored embroidered one and had it fitted all for under $6! Fabric here is so colorful and generally very light and thin.

We went into a fabric store to check out saris for Julie. Look at that variety and quantity! The sellers throw out sari after sari for you too look at, feel, and choose from.

After shopping at Lajpat Nagar we spent our sunset at New Delhi's famous landmark, India Gate. India Gate is a memorial and was built in the memory of 90,00 soldiers who laid down their lives during World War I. Located at Rajpath, India Gate is 42 m high and is popular relaxation area during the summer evenings. (thank you wiki!)

Christina and I in front of India Gate, just as the sun is setting :).

Another big landmark. Children playing in the pool and cooling off.

Fun food of the day:

Dessert! Left: Gulab Jamun, a fried sweet dough ball/ Right: Kulfi, Indian icecream.

L-R: Christina, me, Catherine, Sony, Yamilee, and Julie all enjoying our first "fancy" meal at Chicken Inn

Friday, June 15, 2007

Premonsoon showers!

Last night two of my friends, Christina Kang and Daniel Mokrauer-Madden arrived to stay at the University Residency! It's great to see them: Christina is working on a photo documentary on our team's work and will be traveling around the world documenting other PSC fellowship work. Daniel was a part of my IDEAS team project that created a Tuberculosis curriculum to educate Indian children and create early awareness. He is on brief stop over in New Delhi before starting the implementation of our project in Lucknow, India.

They arrived late in the night and we awoke to some heavy "premonsoon" rains. When it rains, it pours here and huge lakelike puddles form quickly. However, workers quickly brush away all the water and by noon the scorching sun comes out and dries out any remaining wet ground. Rain definitely cools the temperature for the day and everyone seems to be in better spirits now that the heat wave has passed!

A drenched Julie running from our auto rickshaw. Note its size compared to the snazzy Deepalaya bus.

Daily, I have been working with Yamilee and two Rai Foundation students, Meenu and Priya, to go out with the education community mobilizer and visit one of the surrounding communities. We have crafted an education survey to help us better understand the family dynamics and reasoning behind sending a child to school. Specifically, we are investigating whether there is any prejudice against sending girls to schools, the percentage of slum children that even attend school, the percentage of children that drop out of school, as well as the reasons behind all these trends.

We were able to visit one of the most disadvantaged communities today, called Neheru Camp. Christina and Daniel came with us too. It was a bit of a walk but we finally reached the settlement, a rich maze of small buildings and open sewers. Old ladies were trying to sell mangoes, bananas and vegetables but all their produce was covered in flies. There are a lot of unemployed men just sitting around and almost all the women are housewives. Our day at Neherua Camp was very productive as we just situated ourselves in a tiny schoolhouse and women from the community came to speak to us rather than us visiting each one of them. It has been so refreshing to see that despite their poverty these people are animated, excited, and generally very joyful about life. They all believe in the power of education and want the best for their children; it is just disheartening to see that so many of their children are unmotivated to continue schooling past a certain age.

Conducting surveys in a small school house. My partner Meenu is in the white shirt.

Afterwards we were invited to participate as "honorary guests" in a school-wide poster presentation contest given by vocational students. It was odd being given honorary first row seats and being treated with drinks simply because we are from the U.S. Our Rai Foundation counterparts were invited to be the judges, which was quiet amusing and a bit like American Idol.

A poster presentation given by vocational students. They coordinate group outfits and their posters are so colorful.

Fun food for the day:

Enjoying sweet lassi, a yogurt drink, in a clay cup! yummm

Thursday, June 14, 2007

getting to know the "other India"

As we learned in our India Orientation, India is a country often depicted as being split between the super rich and super poor. To me the divide has been pretty obvious as though nice cars speed on the highway one can not help but notice the struggling rickshaw pullers hauling insanely large loads on the side of the road. Working with Deepalaya, we also get a chance to visit the several colonies and settlements that house this "other India".

I am working on an educational survey with my teammate Yamilee and two Rai Foundation students- Meenu and Priya who are fluent in Hindi and English. We met the Deepalaya community education mobilizer, Nemrata (she motivates people to educate their children and raises awareness about schools and scholarships), who led us into the Transit Camp. There we were able to survey 10 households and try to gain an understanding the hurdles a family has to go through to educate their children and the reasoning behind why they may not educate their children or why their children may drop out of school. Transit Camp is one of the nicer settlements with concrete, sound homes and relatively clean conditions.

Some families we surveyed in a settlement courtyard. (photo by Cat)

The next day, Thursday, we visited a J.J. colony (J.J. stands for "thatched roof" in Hindi) which supposedly is much worse off. Through there was a greater amount of garbage and mosquitos and perhaps more cramped conditions I was still wowed by the sense of community and cheerful color that pervaded the settlement. I was able to step into a family's living space, a small cramped room about 8'X8' with two small beds, tiny stove top, a fan, shrine, and TV. I couldn't believe that a family of 5 lived in this and that they were still in good spirits. A TV also seems to be a necessity in these places.

Some families in J.J. colony. Many of the women look much older than they are and have on average 3 children before the age of 26.

After our data collection and community interaction which is often from about 11-2pm, we eat lunch at a local place called Nuta's Sweets. It has absolutely fabulous dishes and I've been exploring and even larger variety of foods then I have been eating at our guest house. On Wednesday we were lucky to stop by one of India's architectural wonders, the Ba'hai Lotus Temple on our way home.

The Lotus Temple is composed of 4 layers of 9 petals covered in marble. All visitors must remove their shoes a distance before entering. In the noonday heat it's a very painful experience walking on the burning tile and we were all hopping on our toes into the temple! It's one of the most beautiful religious places and most admiral feats of architecture I have ever been in and definitely worth a visit.

Starting Work!

Every morning I've taken the time to read Delhi's major newspapers (Delhi Times, The Hindustan) and have discovered that the INTENSE heat we encountered upon arriving in Delhi is part of a heat wave. The weekend heat reached up to 44C and killed many who weren't prepared or could not protect themselves against the heat. I, myself, felt extremely faint and weak during the heat wave peak. A few liters of water a day and plenty of nourishment are so important in this weather!

Our daily 5 liters as Cat likes to call them

However, we braved the heat to start our first day of work- getting an introduction to NGO's (Deepalaya and UDAAN) we would be working the next 4 weeks with. To my delight, we take autorickshaws to work everyday, for it is the cheapest and most convenient form of transportation here. It's nice and breezy, though a bit slow, and the fare is about $2 for a 30 minute ride!

Piling into the auto-rickshaw: often 4 girls squeeze in the back. There are no doors or windows.

At a major Deepalaya school, we were able to learn about how the NGO Deepalaya schools are run and how they cater to the needs of the people. Deepalaya has many schools, some better than others, located within or near many slums in the New Delhi area. They provide schooling up to grade 12 which can be subsidized depending on need and also vocational training for a small sum. Vocational training seems the key to a better life for the sewing, AC/electrical engineering and the computer software/hardware technical classes can almost vault a person's salary to something 5-10X what they would earn if trying to work out of the slums without training.

Men learning electrical circuits and theory in a small vocational class at Deepalaya.

We then visited UDAAN, a center for disabled and mentally handicapped children. The story behind the center is amazing, started almost entirely from the goodwill of two parents of ABLED children who were willing to donate their resources and medical expertise to the job. They now see hundreds of patients and are currently trying to make a clinical study of their treatments on their patients so that a standard of care can be made for this segment of the population.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Arriving in India

Hi Everyone!

This summer I've embarked on a 10 week trip to India to work with several NGOs in New Delhi. This is courtesy of a Public Service Center (PSC) Team Fellowship through MIT. I'll be sending out weekly email updates to you about my activities and experiences. Hope you enjoy it!

On Friday, June 8 we were greeted with a balmy 110F when we stepped off our plane (after about 25 hours of travel) onto Delhi ground. It is like an oven, Las Vegas without the sidewalk misters, and this was just at midnight! We were greeted by a very kind Prof. Mathur who personally came to greet us and pick us up. Our lodging in "Meadows" Residency is on the Rai Foundation campus on the Faradibad border. We are spoiled with a beautiful guest house, our own dining area, lounge areas, and rooms complete with AC, internet, and private bathrooms. My team of 5 definitely bonded over the long flight and I have the pleasure of rooming with Julie Bharucha, a sophomore in Biology.

My teammates: Julie, Sony, Catherine, Yamilee

On our first day we awoke to eat breakfast in our guest house. I've been delighted with the variety there is at every meal and the amazing quality of the spicy food, all of which I've only seen to be vegetarian :). I've been slowly learning the names for everything- for breakfast: Alu Roti (Potatoe Filled Bread), Pakoras (deep-fried potato fritters), and sweet Indian porridge with papayas- for lunch and dinner: basmati rice, chipatis (flat bread either carrot, pea or lentil based), Okra Curry, Chana (spicy chickpeas), Dal Fry (Lentil Soup), egg curry with tomatoes, Matar Paneer (Green peas and cheese curry), and cauliflower curry…etc. Basically a lot of curries! We've definitely got our culinary cultural immersion already!

Eating Thali- a dish with a bread (naan/roti) and several small side dishes of curry etc.

Since we've arrived, we've gotten driven everyday to complete our "orientation" program at the central Rai Foundation campus in New Delhi. Traffic lanes here are just for show and no one uses turn signals. Rickshaws, motor bikes, bicycles, automatic rickshaws, cars, and trucks all share the road in a fast paced chaos that make pedestrians a rare breed. The Rai Foundation is a private university in India and has many campuses. Our lessons so far have included learning about the "Two Indias" (the India of the super-rich and the India of the slum dwellers), Indian Religion & Beliefs, Do's and Don'ts of India, and a brief on our project work.

Going to "Orientation" in a stifling van in 120F weather. Whew! L-R: Sony, Catherine, Julie, and sitting in the front are a few of our Rai Foundation Indian counterparts.

We are working closely with Professor Dr. Miraj and Dr. Sunana who have been teaching us this whole time and showing us India, which to me is an incredible commitment from two such great mentors. They are very enthusiastic and truly want to make this an experience of a lifetime for us. Also we are working with 6 Rai Foundation students or alumni which has been a great social experience so far.

Our timeline:

We will spend the first 2 weeks learning from and interacting with the staff and patients of UDAAN ( , a foundation for Spastic and Mentally Disabled Persons. Next we'll spend 2 weeks with the NGO Deepalaya ( ) which has broad specialties including education, disability, health awareness, and working with street children. We will then go on a 1 week trip and break to explore India. When we return we will spend our remaining 4 weeks working with the Handicapped Children's Rehabilitation Association (HCRA, ) and creating programs and solutions to meet their needs using our learning from UDAAN and Deepalaya.

On weekends we hope to explore more of Delhi, though the heat has been a bit unbearable. They tell us monsoon season is coming which make things much more pleasant. Tomorrow I start working with the NGOs which is very exciting!