Let my back be a bridge

March 28th, 2008

I did a training today for an incredible group of people. I was in a room filled with visionaries- people who get things done because it would never occur to them not to be vigilantly working to find solutions to every problem they see.

The issue in the non-profit community of high achieving visionaries, however, is that often they are working in systems or organizations that are so dysfunctional, mis-managed, under-resourced or inadequately staffed. There are an elite group of people in this world who just know how to get things done. And these people are often drawn to these failing systems because they know they can make an incredible difference and work towards a mission they believe in.

But I am recently beginning to question, what is the cost of working in this way. When we decide that we must stay in a job because we are afraid of what will happen to the organization or the kids in the programs or the people who have come to depend on us - what happens to the passion and vision that burns in us? My experience is that when you operate in crisis mode for too long the creative parts of us start to die, and when that happens we begin to lose the life force that fuels us forward. This is when people start to use words like burn-out.

I think that we should never become martyrs to a cause. Those creative, impassioned people in the world who know what they are doing and are forced to manage their boss and manage the programs and manage themselves would most definitely be able to achieve their life work in a more functional scenario. It may be time to start your own organization. It may be time to expand your horizons. It may be time to stop holding something up that doesn’t have the healthy structure to deserve holding up.

I think we need to have the courage and the passion to love ourselves enough, to never become a martyr in this way. To never do for someone or something else. To know that we do our best work, connected to source, when we are doing what feels right for us, not out of a sense of obligation or responsibility, but out of a sense of love, and longing to create and manifest- to see our visions come true.

My commitment issues

January 17th, 2008

I recently watched a Sex and the City Episode where Carrie and the girls talk about how each one of them have a dating pattern- a kind of guy they are attracted to or a sabotage pattern they follow as each relationship falls apart. And I realize I’m kind of the same way.

Luckily not with relationships- I was lucky enough to fall in love and get engaged all in the span of 6 weeks and never looked back - a fast decision made from my gut with full certainty, not the least bit of doubt.

But with my career I am much more fickle. I think I’m the opposite of many people- who settle into one steady job but have a hard time finding the right person to commit to forever and ever. I’m the person who had no trouble finding the right partner but can’t seem to commit to a career or a job or even a field.

Since I intend to crack this pattern right now, I will describe my behavior up to this point as past-tense. Essentially I have been attracted to fast-paced, high stress, creative and independent jobs. I always look for some form of intensity- with Americorps it was the challenge of living in poverty (who chooses that?), with CNYD it was the excitement of traveling all over and doing something brand new, with KSA it was the physical challenge of the crazy hours and the low-income families and the ground-breaking approach to education, with moving to India it was the personal challenge that I was going to successfully integrate into a new family and a new culture and language and make it all work out. In each case I put myself in a sink-or-swim situation- a set of circumstances so physically draining and constraining I could barely keep my head above water. And during every single moment I never shut off my mind, putting myself through a rigorous learning and self-reflection process when I probably could have better used the energy to just hold still and breathe.

A few years ago my brother and I went white-water rafting in Costa Rica and just when I was feeling comfortable a huge wave knocked me out of the raft (There was an 8 year old in the raft who managed to stay in just fine but that’s another story). I was knocked under the water and smashed into rocks over and over again. Every time I felt like I was about to get control of myself and hold my head above the water long enough to take a deep breath another wave came crashing over my head knocking me off balance and swallowing water. If you’ve ever been in this situation you would know that the best thing to do is to lean back, hold onto the straps of your safety vest and float. Once I stopped panicking and thrashing around I remembered this handy piece of advice from our safety video, and relaxed onto my back. The second I stopped resisting the water I felt myself floating - sure amidst huge rapids and bouncing off of rocks, but a calm fell over me as I watched the sky, took deep breaths and waited for the guy in the safety kayak to come get me. (He did come, just as a large wave took me under and ended up paddling right over my head, smacking me with his paddle, then back-tracking to pull me into the kayak, but that, again, is another story.)

I have thought about that incident a lot while I have been here in India these 6 months, and I feel like it applies to my whole approach to life. I think that I am drawn to stress and tension, and that I actually thrive on that energy- where I feel like it is up to my sharp wits to figure out survival. (This may sound extreme, but you try battling simultaneous vomiting, diarhea and sneezing fits- a literal full body evacuation of some sort of parasite - while trying to squat and maintain balance over the little hole in the ground that you are trying to aim all of this into while also trying not to gag from the sheer disgustingness of the odors you are emitting because your face is so uncomfortably close to all of whatever is coming out of your body, and we’ll see if you don’t think that takes survival instinct). And so in these many situations where I’m battling anxiety and stress and discomfort my tendency is to move faster- to think of 5 possible solutions, to analyze where the problem is coming from, to start talking really fast and moving around or frantically running 5 google searches on my laptop, or freaking out that Akbar isn’t moving as fast as me… and of course what I really need to do is lay back, look at the sky and breathe.

I guess my fear is that no safety kayak will come for me. But certainly my anxious reaction to a non-ideal situation is not helping either.

So for the first time ever I am turning down a really cool and interesting job purely because I think it’s going to demand too much of my time to maintain the logistics of it. I feel I am worth more money. I feel my time is worth a lot and I can’t spend hours and hours in a commute. I am confident that I can attract another job that will push me to learn but in a balanced way, that doesn’t place huge demands on my personal life and family. And I am freakin proud of myself. I don’t know what the future holds, and while I am not crazy about this kind of indecision, I think it’s going to be okay.

Maybe I’m my own safety kayak, and I’ve been waiting for me to show up all this time. So I ran over myself a few times- big deal. I’ll be able to get myself to a nice dry place soon.

India is a Hair Salon

January 17th, 2008

Yesterday as I was choosing how to get my hairs cut- there are only two styles here- feather cut and step cut- I came to the realization that all of Indian conversation functions like conversations in a stereotypical beauty parlor in the US.

I’m talking about a parlor in a neighborhood, not one of those ritzy spas (that I long for…) where everyone wears black and talks in a falsely soothing voice. You know the scene- people come in and out of the beauty parlor, some are regulars, some are walk-ins, and some are friends of friends. They all know the same people cause they’re from the same neighborhood. So they talk about eachother, it’s loud and busy and gossippy and full of that energy where work combines with chit chat and bits of information about other peoples’ lives are traded like valuable jewels. Whoever has the most juicy information is suddenly the most popular and the same stories get told over and over again.

This is a lot like the conversations that happen in households here. People from the neighborhood may just drop in at any time and trade secrets and stories, updates about who just had a love marriage, who failed out of college, who is trying to go abroad and who burned their chapatis. The best story-tellers are loud, talk with their hands and eyes, and make the subject of the story as dramatic as possible. There is no penalty for exaggeration or harsh treatment of someone else’s delicate tale. Bring it on sister is the motto.

Ever since I got here I’ve been fascinated by the way people talk here- not physically how they talk but what they’re talking about. It all seems so inconsequential- who often the people next door eat meat? - but that’s how they talk. And the same stories get repeated over and over and over again.

So for those of you who can’t experience this first hand, hang out at a neighborhood parlor and see if you can get a feel for that, then add in bright clothing and the smells of a curry simmering away in the background, and what you’ve got is pretty darn close to the real thing.

10 Reasons It’s Time to Come Home From India

January 16th, 2008
  1. The heels of your feet are so dry and cracked that you are afraid that no amount of pedicures will ever heal them
  2. Your thighs are like muscular beams from squatting over the Indian toilet with bout after bout of explosive diarrhea
  3. You have learned to successfully haggle down prices from street venders in Hindi
  4. When people say something is spicy you wonder which item they are talking about, because everything tastes pretty bland to you
  5. After 5 months of taking a bucket bath with a plastic stool you realize there is a working shower in the bathroom that Akbar has known about all along
  6. You dream of crackers, cheese and your blue sweat pants
  7. You have shopped so much that you feel you already have something very similar to every piece of jewelry you come across
  8. You are fed up with your job and boss
  9. You have struggled to adjust to the heat, and then realize that summer is just starting, and what you have experienced so far cannot compare to what will happen over the next 5 months
  10. You have a ticket to return in 14 days!!!

January Hyderabad Update

January 16th, 2008

So another month has gone by bringing me to my sixth month in this culture swap living in Hyderabad, India. I wish I could say time has flown, but I think the combination of my need for constant reflection and evaluation of my time here has made me painfully aware of every single day.

December in the US is usually an exciting time for me- I love (I am realizing now) the holiday “cheer”, music, decorations, the crazed shopping, and the chocolates everywhere you look. December in India has no feel at all. We did have a holiday – bakrid – where we brought home two goats, slaughtered them in the driveway, cooked Biryani until 4, stuffed our faces and then slept the sleep of deep food coma… but that’s just not the same as Christmas and New Years at home, ya know?

The highlight of December was definitely the visit of Sarah and Lisa, two teachers from the school I worked at last year and have spent the greater part of this year recovering from. They were a breath of fresh American air. I forgot how American I am, and how much I really do fit in best with Americans. I never would have thought so, but in a recent conversation my friend Lynn commented that America has a way of making people feel less welcome and less like they fit in than they actually do. I think that is definitely the case for me.

So with these gals Akbar and I went on another holiday. We’ve been averaging one cool trip per month, and this month’s was a doozy. We showed them around Hyderabad, where all these raunchy guys asked to have their picture taken with them. Even though we said no we could see them taking cell phone snaps as we walked away. The girls got a lot of attention like that- because Indians LOVE white skin. It’s odd the way they worship it. The drugstores here are filled with aisles and aisles of products like Fair & Lovely and Lightening Tonic- creams, soaps and bleaches to lighten skin.

We were worried about how Akbar’s family would react to the Americans, but they were curious and delighted and excited to have them. His mother cooked up a feast – unable to speak English it’s how she communicates – with fresh shrimp and deep fried vegetables. We had to fight both food coma and jet lag to leave the house again to continue our adventures. We went on from Hyderabad to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I would go into detail about those places here, but Akbar has been working for hours writing detailed blog posts about each day of our trip, so I’m going to let you guys read the details there: http://akbarpasha.wordpress.com/. But I will say that for me the highlight of the whole journey was seeing Gandhi’s memorial in Delhi. A solitary black tomb stone marks the spot where he was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist, and an eternal flame commemorates the light Gandhi’s life and teachings continue to shine on this country today. Gandhi will always be one of the few people I respect and revere – so I felt it fitting to steel a great big rock to bring home with me.

There are many hilarious stories that came up on our trip, but I think the hero of this 10 day tour was definitely Akbar. A quiet guy who prefers browsing on his laptop to interaction with people, Akbar spent 10 solid days with 3 girls who never ran out of things to say. I’m not quite sure how he handled it. Around day 8 he looked at me in the morning and said- I think I’m going to get my period soon. Because India is still working on gender equality, it is a country that naturally separates men and women on many fronts. This means that when we got into an auto (a cab that’s actually an economical lawn mower with a bright yellow roof, no doors, and a greasy man driving in the front, equipped with seats to fit 3 people but typically seen with about 25 people jammed in) Akbar had to snuggle with the driver in the front. And because they’re not so weird about men touching here as in the US, the auto drivers had no problem snuggling back. In this way Akbar was molested and felt up by many men on our world tour – ask him about it, he loves to re-live it.

Perhaps the best story that came out of our segregation was our day-long Vipassana meditation in Rajasthan. Sarah really wanted to do some meditation or yoga in India. I understand the draw- when I was planning my trip here I too imagined doing those things, and then quickly abandoned them when I saw the third-world-style in which these classes are conducted. I had my doubts, but it was free and in a beautiful ashram on the hills, so we decided to go. When I called in the morning to confirm the directions and the time, the non-English speaking gentleman who answered shouted “Call back. 1 years.” I think he meant 1 hour. We were welcomed in typical Indian fashion – no information, no overview, no one to explain to us the expectations of the day… we were directed to sit in the meditation hall, so that’s where we went. After about an hour of sitting in a cold, dark room, a man came in to get things started. And by get things started, I mean he switched on a recording of a very old man who would be leading us via cassette for the next 8 hours of this day. Uh-oh. He (the tape-man) switched between an undecipherable Hindi and an even more unrecognizable English. After an hour I got fed up and went to sit outside in the sun- where peacocks, parrots and humming birds were having a field day. The rest of the group emerged hours later for the lunch break. I don’t know how much meditation everyone was doing. I know I napped and watched peacocks. We talked for a moment about leaving, but because the girls and guys are not allowed to interact (and we’re technically not supposed to talk either) we were strictly told to split up and shut up. So the comedy begins after lunch, and must be prefaced with the fact that Sarah was obsessed with taking pictures during our trip. So the scene is that I am napping by the peacocks by this time joined by Lisa. Sarah and Akbar are at it hard core in the cold dark room with the tape-man, and Sarah comes out in a few minutes with the message that she is ready to leave. She says she’ll try to get Akbar, but I tell them that Akbar is really hard core about meditation- I bet he’s in the sixth level of samadhi by now. She goes in, can’t get his attention and comes back out.

Later we hear from Akbar that somewhere around lunch he too was fed up and frustrated with the tape-man, and decided he wanted to leave. He noticed Sarah outside with her camera, and mouthed my name to her- so she could come get me. Sarah obliviously took his picture, waved, and went on to her next shot. Immediately after she disappears, a stern-looking Indian man, clearly a Vipassana expert, snaps his fingers and summons Akbar. Then he basically cusses him out for trying to hit on a white chick, and yells at him for talking. Akbar tells him that he wants to leave, and the man tells him he cannot, because this is a full day meditation session. Akbar tells him that he is with a group and he needs to talk with them, and again the man refuses to help him out. So poor Akbar, scolded and insulted returns to the cold dark tape-man room. Poor guy. We cheered hip up with Pizza Hut at the end of the day- how else would you end a day of meditation in Rajasthan?

My RAS

January 16th, 2008

About 5 months ago when I was struggling to find some sanity here in India I came across an amazing article in a book about the Reticular Activating System, or RAS.

Our RAS is the part of our brain that acts as a filtering system for what attracts our attention- the example that sticks out for me is that when we are walking down a crowded street we are bombarded by thousands of stimuli- from the traffic passing, people walking past us, store windows, bill boards and signs… but if someone calls our name (or even says a word that sounds like our name) we are more likely than not to turn our heads. Our RAS acts as a filter that lets some stimuli in so that we can respond to it, and filters other stimuli out, deeming it unimportant.

But what’s interesting is how does the RAS know what stimuli is important and what isn’t? Well, it’s kind of working on what we feed it. We can consciously feed it messages through meditation or visualization, and if we aren’t engaging in this type of activity the RAS will work with whatever dominant thoughts are bouncing around our heads.

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience where once you start thinking about one thing you seem to notice it everywhere. Like if we are planning a wedding we may see bridal magazines and invitations and wedding dresses wherever we look. And if we are worried about gaining weight we will notice fat people and skinny people on the streets, books about diets or weight loss plans wherever we look.

The RAS is controlling this- our brain will attract whatever we program our RAS to notice. The book that I was reading talked about how we can consciously program our RAS through detailed visualizations. The clearer the images we feed in, the harder the RAS works to find those exact stimuli in the real world.

I’ve had 2 amazing experiences with this exercise. When I first came here I was coming off of my fourth major career change in about 4 years. I’ve definitely been flip flopping all over the place for a while, which I don’t mind- I think it’s been a healthy part of my life-exploration and curiosity to see what’s out there. But I was without any clue of what direction to head in now. And so through a series of visualizations I imagined my dream job- what it would look like, what I would wear to work, who I would work with, how I would get there… I imagined how it would feel during different parts of my day, how I would look, conversations I might have. .. I imagined it all in an Indian context, willing myself to see this ideal work environment here in India. I imagined all the time- in the morning when I first woke up, while we drove to the coffee shop, while I had my coffee, before I went to bed- anytime my mind was unengaged.

And it totally came true. Out of the blue I got a call from the one person I had spoken to about a job when I first got here, who had an opening in his own company. I pretty much walked into the exact job description I was imagining. (Of course the company wasn’t quite as amazing as I imagined in my dreams, but most elements were pretty spot on.)

Boosted by the success of this incident I went to work on my comfort levels staying in my in-laws’ house. I was determined that we could make this situation work and keep everyone happy. I imagined every possible detail I could think of, in bright techni-color clarity, and finally it was done. Suddenly I woke up one morning and found I had acquired enough of a grasp on Urdu to communicate with my mother in law in small sentences. I stopped feeling like a fumbling foreign idiot and moved with confidence. And the people around me changed too. Everything went according to the script I had written and reviewed in my head.

So now I’m moving to the next project. I’m imagining another dream job, correcting for the flaws in this one and incorporating my living environment. I can’t decide if I want to live in India or the US for the next year, so I’m imagining two scenarios (but I think I’m working harder on the India one), and they are both manifesting right in front of my face. It is so unbelievable it is shocking. I’m actually feeling a little scared by it. If we have so much power within us to control the reality around us, imagine what we can do if we really believe in ourselves.

After the first job offer I got a little nervous about this process and stopped using. Then I felt foolish and started it up again, and once again felt nervous about the speed of results. If this next job manifests I think I will be a true convert- three time’s a charm!

Baa Baa Black Sheep Have You Any Sacrificial Flesh

December 24th, 2007

My brother in law just came to visit us from London, and his gift to me was a book on Al Qaeda- because he thought I should know everything about “their” culture. While I don’t think that’s exactly the kind of literature that will help me feel like one of the gang here, I must say that I think I’m getting there.

I say this because we just celebrated Bakr Id in full form here. With the Qurbani (sacrifice) of two goats right below our balcony. I must be getting used to India because it didn’t phase me quite as much as I thought it would. Or maybe I’m actually becoming Muslim.

2 days prior to Id our family started to arrive. Akbar’s grandparents, his aunt and uncle and cousin. It’s interesting when family comes. On one hand, the amount of work that has to happen is quadrupled. With just a few extra mouths to feed there is suddenly an extraordinary amount of effort that goes into preparing lavish meals from scratch. So everyone (especially and mainly the women) are exhausted the whole time. When Akbar and I first got here our mail focus was to lessen the work load. We made simple suggestions like toast and herbal tea for breakfast instead of idlis or dosas made from scratch- for which my mother in law spends an entire day washing grains and grinding them into batter to use for 3 days. But these suggestions went unheeded. Quality of life here is directly measured by the food you eat. And that means nothing less than lavish full course meals that cause back pain and fevers for 3 days afterwards. On the other hand though, without any work the women in my household have nothing to do. Their dedication to full time motherhood and wife-dom leaves no time for dabbling in personal interests or hobbies. Low levels of formal education means reading or writing are out. And not having much disposable income leaves them pretty much tied to the house. So when there is no work they alternate between watching tv and just sitting around, mostly re-telling the same stories.

So anyway, we were prepared to be exhausted by this holiday. The celebration of Bakri Id starts from the tenth to the twelfth day in the Islamic month of Dhu’l Hijja, and marks the anniversary of the day when the Quran was declared complete. On the Id day, all the men in our household go to the mosque. Akbar’s grandmother makes her prayers in the house, starting at 6 am.

After the Namaz, Qurbani (sacrifice) is performed. The animal sacrifices made during Bakri Id are mainly to provide food to the poor and to commemorate the noble act of Ibrahim.

During the week of Barkr Id the streets of Hyderabad become lined with sheep and goats for this sacrifice. Only the wealthiest of households can afford to participate in this ritual. The animals are painted yellow or green and their horns are decorated. They range in all sizes. Obviously the bigger the animal to sacrifice, the greater the blessing. Akbar’s uncle in Bombay performs this Qurbani with 4 goats that cost 40,000 ruppees ($1000) each. That is about what a middle-class family could live on for 4 months. These goats are brought up from birth specially to be sacrificed. They are fed milk and yogurt every night and sleep on a bed with silk sheets. They are fattened and groomed for years to be worth the prestigious status of Qurbani. The ones Akbar brought home for us weren’t as fancy, but they were BIG. Two large goats were tied to the post in front of the downstairs apartment, where we normally park the car. A large tent was put up to give them some shelter and grass laid down on the ground for them to munch on.

We went down to look at them that evening. I think they knew they were going to die the next day. They were both very still. They made no sounds, showed no fear, and would not look at us, no matter who approached. They gave no signs of a nervous animal in a new place. It was like they were resigned to their fate.

It is said that every true Muslim who possesses wealth equal to or more than 400 grams of gold or is capable of affording two square meals a day, is expected to sacrifice an animal. A goat or a camel or a sheep is slaughtered during one of the three days of the festival and the meat is then distributed. One third portion of sacrificial animal meat is given to poor, another third to relatives and remaining for self and family. The story behind this ritual is that apparently God asked Abraham to sacrifice his child to prove his love for the lord. Not willing to back down, Abraham lifts his knife to sever his child’s head, and just as he is swinging his arm God replaces the child with a goat. And so now the ritual is to sacrifice goats. We can argue if it’s right or wrong or barbaric, but it sure is better than sacrificing your own kids.

No Offense, but You’re Offensive

December 14th, 2007

“No offense” and “none taken” are a common exchange in the US.  People say things all the time that might be taken the wrong way, and usually are able to sense their mistake pretty quickly and say “no offense”.  And more often than not, the response is “none taken.”  And the whole thing ends there.

            This is certainly not the case in India.  In my experience here, people fall into three categories.

1.      The Offender: this is the guy who has no self-awareness and offends everyone constantly with no remorse. The Offender is a difficult personality type to recognize in oneself, but almost everybody knows an offender.    

2.      The Offended:  This is the person who is always, constantly and unendingly offended.  Over what?  Anything and everything.  It takes very little to send this personality type into a fit. 

3.      The Afraid-of-Offending: This is the person who is perpetually afraid that they will say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time and get caught up in a whirlwind of drama. 

Given the right context I think it is possible to portray all of these behaviors at different times.  Surely all of us have been in each of these positions.  But I also believe that most people fall into one category most of the time and default to this dominant style in new or unfamiliar situations.  For example, suppose you are predisposed to take offense.  If you are invited to someone’s house for the first time you are likely to feel offended by something.  Maybe the host is not dressed well enough to receive you, or the food is not up to your standard, or you were not greeted with enough respect.  If you are looking to be offended, surely you can find something to set you off.

Where does this come from?  One idea is that is comes from the externalization of personal value.  If we expect our sense of self, dignity and personal satisfaction to come from another person, there will be many instances where we are left unfulfilled, and hence the predisposition towards taking offense.  On the flip side, if we understand that people around us need to pampered and made to feel special and important based on our efforts, we will naturally work hard to please and worry that we will be unable to do so- because it is next to impossible to fulfill someone who doesn’t feel whole intrinsically.  And what about the offender?  This is the guy whose sense of self-importance comes from superficial positions or possessions, and so can choose to ignore the feelings of others.  In fact, by flaunting his/her ability to be callous towards others they are able to further strengthen their sense of personal worth.    

Jiddu Krishnamurti the renowned philosopher said “What is important is … to observe what is actually taking place in our daily life, inwardly and outwardly”. To move from the common externalized sense of self to an inner understanding is quite difficult, but results in a much more stable personality – confident and inwardly peaceful.  If we look outwardly for personal recognition we lose all control of our own happiness, and surrender to someone else the ability to make us angry, sad or happy.  Anger directed toward the faults of others, is truly a waste of time, yet it is an easy way to avoid our own.  It doesn’t hurt for each of us to regularly take a hard look at our own actions and think about what makes us truly happy.  Where do we get our sense of personal value?  Wayne Dyer, the self-help guru and best-selling author advises us to live independently of the good will of others.  If no one were around to comment on where you go, what you wear or what you do, will you feel fulfilled?  Would you know what you liked without the approval of others or looking at the price tag?

How Nanni Got he Groove Back

December 14th, 2007

How Nanni got her Groove Back

Akbar’s grandmother is a freaking rockstar. She is my favorite character in his whole family scene. One reason is that she really likes me. She doesn’t care if I can understand her Urdu or not (I have a 25% success rate in conversations with her), she just loves to have me sit next to her and have a chat. She is a very pious woman. She has made the journey to Mecca called Hajj, a considerable feat for a woman of her age. Mecca is considered the holiest place for Muslims. It is mentioned in the Koran as “Al Balad Al Amin”, the Holy Land, The Sacred Land. Centered around the House of Allah (the cuboid structure called Kaaba), it was built by Abraham and his son, and subsequently repaired by Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him- you have to say that) and others. The Muslims pray 5 times a day in the direction of the Kaaba. And they perform the small pilgrimage or Umrah (7 times around Kaaba and 7 rounds between Mounts Safa & Marwah). It is forbidden to do any evil in makkah, since it is a holy land and every good deed (or prayer) is worth 100,000 rewards in Makkah. I’ve attached a few pics.

So Nanni is STACKED with good karma, as the Hindus would say. Nanni made so many Umrah that she broke her ankle and came home in a wheelchair, which would have bummed out a delicate traveler like myself, but only made the experience more holy and worthwhile in her eyes. She is a Rockstar. Not to mention that all this elevates her position in her society. She is living proof that even in a small village someone with no gold, no property and no formal education can find power and status. She is consulted on all levels of problems. The most recent case she is fighting for is the alliance (or arranged marriage) between her niece and a guy who is only 2 inches taller than her. The family fears the height difference is not enough, but Nanni feels his good job and property make him stand tall enough. She argues that had he been taller he would not be willing to marry this girl at a bargain dowry rate. In fact, this weekend she is going to view the boys’ property to give her final say.

So Nanni is the heroine of this month’s story. All of us (Akbar, his mother, my two sister-in-laws, their kids, Akbar’s aunt from Bombay her two kids, and our driver – who as you may recall from last months’ episode is named Malla Reddy) piled into a jeep and drove 10 hours to Ponnur. No AC, no shocks, no seatbelts. No problem. Normally when we go there we stay with Akbar’s aunt, who is my choti saas (little mother in law). I love her but can never understand her village dialect. Nanni and Nanna (Akbar’s grandfather) live across the street and complained last time that their grandkids don’t stay with them because their house is small and they have been abandoned by the family. So this time this whole load of cranky travelers descended on my nanni’s 1-room flat. There were 11 of us in total, plus Motti Nanni (which literally translates to fat grandmother), who actually lives downstairs but doesn’t sleep there because she sees ghosts in her apartment. In fact everyone in Ponnur believes that this particular building is haunted with saithans (ghosts) and many people have seen floating figures in the windows and trees. Nanni says it’s all bullshit. See why she’s hardcore? More to come on that later.

When Akbar and I first moved to Berkeley we lived in a studio apartment, and we often felt suffocated, like there wasn’t enough room for the two of us. But here, with 11 people and about 635 mosquitos in Ponnur’s mid-day heat, we were all comfortable, cool and relaxed. We never once felt cramped. The main reason is that in villages homes are build with the central idea of letting the outside in, rather than keeping the outside out. This means that there is always a cross draft, there are two doors and 4 windows in this one room, which are always open. The outside space on this rooftop apartment is just as spacious as the inside space and is used just as much. And their modular furniture could give Ikea a run for it’s money. It is so versatile- the table becomes the bed becomes the deck furniture, becomes the fort for the kids becomes the place to entertain the 35 guests who constantly drop by to say hello to us and stare at me, the American Hindu wife of the Hyderabadi software engineer. Yes, 2 years later they’re not done staring.

The sleeping situation is that straw mats are rolled onto the floor and everyone just lays down and sleeps. The first night I was pretty uncomfortable, and the second night I got the best sleep of my life. So go figure. In the middle of that night amidst the orchestra of snoring we hear loud thumping on the door. Everyone woke up and the room filled with fear in 30 seconds. Why? Because everyone had brought all of their gold in bags to Ponnur. Why would all of us from big cities and foreign countries travel 10 hours in a broken down car with thousands of dollars worth of gold? Because if you can’t show off your material wealth in the form of gold to these villagers then what’s the point of your life, that’s why. As word travels fast in the village, someone had obviously heard of our visit and come to rob the house. It was either a thief or a saithan, either of which would have much practical use for the gold. So here’s the scene- there are 11 of us plus Motti Nanni and NanaNanni laid out in a row on the floor, gripped with fear. No one moved. People were whispering saithan… chore (thief).. and the pounding just keeps on going. And finally Nanni has had enough. She jumps up and screams “KHONU!” “KHONU”! BHOL! BHOL!(who’s there! Who’s there, tell, tell) but unfortunately she was screamed in a stretch without giving the saithan/chore space to answer, and we heard nothing but the continued pounding. Finally she throws the door open to find… a little shrunken nanni (grandmother) from downstairs . She was there because they had just received news that a relative was getting married in a distant village, and in order to make it on time they would have to take a 4 am bus, and she wanted Motti Nanni to go with her. She screamed all of this, out of breath and excited by the pounding. Why didn’t she answer Nanni? Because she’s totally deaf and didn’t hear the questions. Why didn’t she call? Because no one in India uses the phone when you can just walk up some uneven narrow steps in the dark in the middle of the night and pound on the door, regardless of how many people sleeping in a row on the floor you would wake up with the pounding. For the next hour the whole household made fun of each other for believing in ghosts or thieves. Interestingly no one mentioned that as the only strapping young man in the house it should have been Akbar that went to the door and not the 70 year old grandmother. So I feel it is only proper that I mention it here, to all of you.Nanni and Nana

Adventures in Microfinance

October 27th, 2007

As I type this I see that MS Word doesn’t recognize the word microfinance – something which will change very shortly the way things are going.  I’m sure it won’t be long before everyone is at least familiar with the concept of Microfinance and the complexities of micro-lending. 

I just spent three days in Microfinance immersion – 2 solid days visiting rural towns to see the impact that small scale lending to the traditionally “credit un-worthy” has had on the livelihoods and quality of living of thousands of people to date.

Microfinancing is the process of lending money to people with no collateral.  I was first introduced to this fascinating concept from Nobel Prize winner Mohammad Yunnus’ book – Banker to the Poor.  He started the Grameen banking movement in Bangladesh as a solution to poverty.  Of course it is not in itself a full solution, but it is pretty damn impressive.  I’ve been obsessed with this business model ever since I read the book, and I finally got to see a small sliver of the work with my own eyes.  I’m know I have barely seen anything yet, but I am so impressed with what I did see.

Over the past few decades several organizations have been puzzling with the issues of poverty eradication.  There are over 250 million working poor in India.  Because they have no collateral- a home, a vehicle, jewelry, etc. that they can use as collateral, they are unable to access any of the benefits that those of us in middle class sectors completely take for granted.  Forget about swiping a credit card and paying for something in installments.  Daily wage earners face a problem of being unable to amass a large sum of money at once to purchase their daily household goods.  This means that rice, oil, dhals – the daily commodities, need to be purchased frequently in small commodities.  Anyone who has ever shopped at Costco or has bought a 10kg bag of rice  knows that as you buy more, the overall cost per unit goes down.  Because daily consumption goods and livelihood maintenance drains most of their capital, the working poor rarely have savings to draw on in case of sickness or holiday needs or a wedding.  The problem of poverty in India seems so huge and overwhelming it seems impossible to tackle.

            Basix is an organization based in Hyderabad that has certainly made remarkable strides in addressing some of these issues.  They have found that extending credit to the poor at a higher interest rate than regular banks (24% is the going rate) they are able to provide capital at a lower rate than village moneylenders- who are often extortionists that trap people into life-long debt at rates as high as 430% or 360%.  Mobilizing a fleet of field workers placed in rural areas throughout the country they provide banking services at peoples’ doorsteps – from educating people about what they can do with credit and the automatic life and health insurance benefits, informing them about reasonably priced insurance policies to protect their livestock and against crop failure, agricultural business development services to improve their crop production or learn new skills and developments in their trade, these people form the pillar of the Basix outreach programs.        

            In my field visit I saw many people utilizing small scale loans to drastically change their lives. Basix customers are able to start a business selling flowers, fruits, or slippers.  Some open small stores close to their homes or learn skills to embroider saris and use their loans to buy beads and raw materials.  Some take loans to buy buffaloes, whose milk they sell for about rs. 75-80 per day.  These are the people who we hear about surviving on less than $2.00 per day.  Life is definitely hard for them, but Basix is working to alleviate some of the strain and uncertainty of their daily livelihoods. 

            One of the strategies is to encourage people to create a savings account.  Even depositing a small amount each day – 10 to 20 ruppees (25-50 cents) can make a huge impact over time.  Once these customers have maintained 100 consecutive days of deposits they are eligible to take out a loan of 1.3 times their savings.  As many of us know, it is hard to get into the habit of saving regularly, especially when the daily needs are always so high.  So to encourage people to get into this habit street bankers go from door to door, vendor to vendor every single day to collect a small deposit amount from their customers.  Using a hand-held input device they access each customers’ account and note the deposit amount, and issue a receipt.  Each customer also maintains a meticulous passbook- another motivational tool to help them see how their savings grow.  We met people with 6000-8000 ruppess in their accounts, the product of months and months of 20 ruppee deposits.  Yet another innovative service is the mobile bank- a van that roams about deeper rural areas where walking to a local bank would be impossible for those interested in banking.  The mobile bank makes 14 stops across several villages and is promoting the ability of rural villagers to empower their own lives.

            I’m used to seeing dysfunction and chaos amidst the workings of NGOs providing a service to the poor.  In sharp contrast, Basix workers balance a social consciousness about the difficulty for the poor to access finances with a strong business sense about the importance of turning a profit.  Every one of the Basix business sectors aims to operate on a profit basis, enabling their organization to function largely independently, giving them the opportunity to strive for innovative financial products, services, and delivery mechanisms.

            I was shocked at the power of cooperation in some of the projects I saw.  Basix also works to create market linkages- enabling their customers to secure a fair price for their goods without being extorted by those in power.  One such example we saw was in the village of Atmakoor.  Buffalo owners typically make rs.7 per liter of milk they pour, which they must take to market and find buyers for.  An average farmer with 4 buffalos might get 10 liters of milk per day, meaning they would make 70 ruppees.  Basix created a link with Reliance milk factories – a Reliance worker now goes to the Buffalo owner’s house and collects their milk.  A device is used to measure the quantity and fat quality of the milk.  They are paid about 20 rupees per liter of milk.  The milk is then taken to a Reliance chilling center in the main town, and collected late each night by truck, to be taken to a factory for processing and packaging.  In this way these dairy farmers almost tripled their income.  Using new learnings from the Basix Ag-BDS services they are further enabled to improve the feed and fertility of their cattle, further securing them.  Basix makes a small amount of money from each transaction, but not much.  But as the value of the buffalos grow and customers find themselves with more cash on hand, they can borrow more money to purchase more buffaloes,  or diversify their income generating activities, or even make capital improvements on their homes.

            In one village we asked what the social indicators of the groups’ financial success was. 

“Well,” they said, “everyone in this village has a color tv, a two wheeler, all of our children have been moved from government schools to private schools… we have health insurance and life insurance.  We no longer have to pray each day that we will have enough food.”

I am sure they have their own internal struggles and growing pains.  But the work of this organization is truly remarkable and touching.  This will be a trip I won’t forget for a long time to come.