Friday, December 25, 2009

Bada-ss Beach

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of retroactive blog posts I plan to write on my final month or so in India. First one is here, second here.

The Vipassana center that I sat a course at, in Bada, Kutch, is right on the Indian coast. On a recommendation from Meghna, after the course I walked (with a few fellow students) to the coast to visit a nearby beach. The walk up to it was very dramatic; we ventured through some farms and the coast was nowhere to be seen. Then we approached a small dune:

We walked up the dune and the Indian Ocean opened up in all its vastness. I was speechless and excited. The beach was totally secluded. You could look for miles in both directions and there wasn't a soul.

This was the most beautiful beach I have ever been to. The combination of isolation, pristine warm water, immaculate, soft sand, mild breeze, smell of the ocean air, the small shells scattered on the shore... I just sat there for an hour looking out and watching the waves. Such a wonderful atmosphere. It was a tremendous cap to a solid 10 days of meditation. I found the course very challenging; faced some deep-rooted impurities and came to discover key aspects to work on in my practice. Next stop: serving a course back in North Fork. Can't wait.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Teak is Weak

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of retroactive blog posts I plan to write on my final month or so in India. First one is here.

A group of 12 of us got together to visit the Dangs, a forested tribal area near Surat. The goal was to get away, be in a place of natural beauty, learn about tribal people and their culture, and bond with some friends and family. Samir, Jay, and my Dad were with me, and a bunch of friends from Ahmedabad, Baroda, and Bombay. Many activist types, which made for lively discussions and bonding.

Below is a photo diary of the trip. As always, be sure to pause and flip through manually so you can read the captions. Anjoy!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Madhya Pradesh: Life is Like a Box of Crayons

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of retroactive blog posts I plan to write on my final month or so in India. I've back dated to when I should have written the posts for you to enjoy. Yes, I blew it.

Over the weekend I went to Madhya Pradesh on an invitation by PRADAN. I was to end up at their office in a village called Dindori, but getting to it was really tough. I took a flight from Ahmedabad to Bhopal, where a car picked me up and we drove for 12 hours to Dindori. The good news was that the ride was very comfortable and gave me a chance to relax after an extremely busy couple months in Ahmedabad. Felt like a mini-vacation. But also I was treated to the absolutely breath-taking scenery of rural Madhya Pradesh. It is a sparsely populated country with a lot of open land. I felt it had a qualitatively different feel from rural Gujarat. The air was crisper and the colors were sharper. Above all else I felt there were such vibrant colors.

When I got to PRADAN's Dindori site I was taken to visit some of the villages where they have programs. I was taken aback by their beauty. I was especially struck by the look of the homes, their gardens, and the surrounding nature.

Look at the plants, and the field of yellow flowers. Just gorgeous. Only God can color with these crayons:

My favorite thing about the village homes were the huge squashes that grew from the roofs:

The reason for my trip to MP was to meet with PRADAN and discuss my work with DSC and to brainstorm how the same voice technology we have developed for farmers in Gujarat could apply and integrate into the programs PRADAN has going on in MP. In particular they are working with Digital Green and my friend Rikin on disseminating agricultural practices through locally produced DVDs. I think there is a natural synergy between the voice technologies and the DG approach, so it was exciting to discuss ideas with the PRADAN staff. One thing I loved about them was their level of energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to their work. PRADAN makes a point to send young talent to their field offices, so it isn't uncommon to see a 24 year-old managing programs for hundreds of villages. These youngsters, especially the females, are absolutely inspiring. Their level of commitment, and their ability to empathize and relate to rural people was very impressive to see. PRADAN works their field staff hard for a few years, then those staffers may move on to do other things in their career, a la TFA or the peace corps. Then PRADAN brings in the next batch of youngsters fresh out of college or MBA school to train and send out to the field. I find it to be an effective system, especially in contrast to a place like DSC where the older, long-term staff can sometimes act unmotivated, lethargic, and disconnected from the field.

At the end of the meetings and brainstorming sessions, we concluded that there were some gaps in their operations in terms of efficient information gathering and sharing, and that the gaps could readily be addressed through a voice-based information system. So next year I will work with PRADAN to launch a system in MP! It's exciting because it's an opportunity to extend my research project to a new context, and to work with an NGO that in my estimation is a top NGO in all of India in terms of genuine work that has a real impact.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Remember the Troops Day

Dear Soldier,

I am glad you found your way to this blog post, because I wrote it just for you. Recently I have been listening to a lot of personal stories from the War in Iraq and it has inspired me to declare today, December 1, to be Remember the Troops Day.

I am against war. That isn't to say that I think wars should never be fought, but more that I think it should be a last resort after all other options have been thoroughly pursued. So when we went into Iraq, at first my total attention was towards the Iraqi people. I cared about innocents dying, the destruction of their society, the raping of their resources. I remember my drives to school in 2006 when I would listen to the news report about the latest suicide bomb or car bomb or IED and another 10, 15, 20, innocent Iraqis would be reported killed. I would slam my fist against the wheel in anger and disgust. I would swear to myself, "What the f*** are we doing?"

But in recent times my attention on the war has shifted to you, our troops. And I'm not talking about Petraeus or Sanchez or the other masterminds at the top. I came to know about stories of ordinary soldiers. The first thing I kept noticing is that during interviews with platoon sergeants or marines, almost without exception the interview would have to stop when it came to discussing comrades that had been wonded or killed. Like Donovan Campbell talking about a fire fight in front of a school where he lost a marine because he had decided to go against better judgement and linger to treat some children who had been wounded by mortar fire. He talks about meeting the soldier's mother later and not being about to do anything but cry and say he's sorry, it was his responsibility, and he lost her son. Everyone just kept breaking down and crying.

Leave no one behind. When a soldier dies, you pick him up gently, even if in the middle of a fire fight. When you are sitting in a VA hospital waiting room, vets from other wars know you're there for PTSD and come sit in silence and support and solidarity next to you. I realized that when you are out there, there is a deep level of bonding and camaraderie. Esprit de Corps. It seemed from how you talked about it that when you're out there, you aren't so much fighting for the country or for the mission as much as you are fighting for each other. That idea was confirmed in this program.

I was also impressed by how thoughtful and articulate you are. You aren't brutes or drop outs. You are high achievers, some with degrees from Ivy League schools. You are America's best. It's why I have changed my outlook on things like Abu Grahib. You are not bad apples, but rather good apples that got thrown into a rotten barrel. War is rotten, not you. I see that clearly now.

From these observations I started developing respect for you, but since then it has grown to admiration and love. I've come to realize a few things. Number one, you went to Iraq to serve our country. While some of you admit that you also wanted the adventure and the feel of combat, most see this as your country is calling, so you respond. And what a sacrifice, risking your life! When I respond to our country's call, it's to pick up trash or serve the homeless. You literally are putting it all on the line for our country. I can't say enough about how brave and generous that is.

The second thing I've realized is the depth of this sacrifice. First off, many of you are serving in your mid-20s, which I consider to be prime years of a person's life. For you to make the decision to dedicate those years in service of your country in the ultimate way, I can't express how commendable that is. The other dimension is that this becomes a lifelong burden you carry on your shoulders. It's not like when you come back the war is over in your mind and heart. You come back a different person entirely. War is inhuman, it's "where bullets meet bodies." I've heard the noises of war, and heard many of you talk about it. What you've done and seen there, how you've lived, one second at a time, trusting no one, always on alert for threats, hostile environment, it changes, no, mutates, a person. A lot of you come back and suffer from PTSD and depression and other challenges. Your divorce and alcholoism rates are 4x the national average. Some have said coming back is worse than war. I can't imagine the turmoil going on in a mind like that.

And I know we normal civilians make it worse. I understand you are annoyed and pissed at us. Sitting in restaurants and movie theaters laughing it up while you're on patrol in some god forsaken place trying to stay alive. Oblivious. I get it, if I were you, I'd be frustrated about that too. So this is my attempt to start making things right.

I declare December 1 to be Remember the Troops Day. Sure we have Memorial Day and all that, but there isn't a special day were we remember our troops who are at this moment in harms way somewhere around the world. The day works as long as we are fighting a war at the time, so in some sense I hope I don't have to celebrate it every year. But given that we are in Orwellian times, it's a distinct possibility.

Dec. 1 seems like a good day; people are in a giving and thankful spirit after Thanksgiving, but it's over and Christmas is still a ways off. On this day, Americans across the country (starting with me) will think and act in memory of American soldiers fighting in conflicts at that moment. I pledge to you to observe this day every year for the rest of my life. My act this year was to invent the holiday, write this post, and to encourage my readers to observe by checking out the following materials about troops that have really touched me:
Out of so many memorable things I've heard you say was a response to a civilian's question, "What can normal people do, right now, to help soldiers?" One of you replied simply, "Get to know one".

You got it.