Celebrity Status

“Stay safe!” or “Be careful!” were common mantras of friends and family before we left for India. I think when traveling abroad to new and different places, it’s only natural to have fears about what your life might be like in this alien world. Is the food going to be delicious or disgusting? Will I be sleeping under a tarp or tile? Will I get constant bouts of diarrhea from the drinking water? Are people going to treat me terribly just because I look different?

Well it turns out that a few of these fears had a bit of validity in regard to our trip. Some of the food dishes here have been amazing and finger-licking good, while others have brought us to the verge of regurgitation. We have also had diarrhea… a lot… which I know you totally want to read about. However, there is one fear that turned out completely differently than we expected: will we be treated poorly by the local community?

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If someone moves to America from a primarily non-white country (India, Pakistan, Mexico, South Africa etc.), I am under the impression that they are treated with suspicion and feelings of unwelcome by their new community. That could be a biased perspective (since I grew up in rural America), but I’m 100% sure they aren’t treated the way Wende and I have been in Gujarat, India.

Within a few days of arriving here, we noticed that many people were inviting us to their homes. Our contact in Mumbai, hospital workers, and random patients would just walk up and ask us to visit them in a nearby village. When you have dinner at a friend’s house in America, you may say things like “Thank you for having us,” or “I’m sorry to cause extra work for you!” When we visited our first home in India, we expressed these same attitudes of gratitude only to have them shooed away. Our host said, “You are the first international person to visit my home – it is an honor to have you here.”

Wow… there are not many people to which I would say “it is an honor to have you in my home”, and all of those people possess a bit of “Celebrity Status.”President Obama, Brad Pitt, Paul Farmer – just a few of the people who would garner this sort of response from me. But by traveling to rural India, Wende and I had inadvertently passed through some “anti-racism” wormhole, in which the color of our skin resulted in instantaneous celebrity treatment.

Think this is a bit of an exaggeration? Well, let me tell you about a typical trip to dinner with a friend. We start our walk from the hospital, and instantly the spotlight is turned on us. Children are calling out to get our attention or following us along the road, doing silly stunts to make us laugh. The closer we get to the main highway, more and more people are starting to stare at us. Our friend says, “Woah, people are even staring at me because I’m with you!”

The restaurant is next to the highway, so we start walking up the exit ramp. It’s amazing that every car passing us doesn’t swerve off and crash on the side of the road because all of their attention seems to be focused on us. Often the passengers are waving, and the car will slow down to a crawl just to give the occupants more time to stare. As we make our way onto to the shoulder of the highway, the ruckus continues as car after car honks its horn while passing just to say, “Hello!”

We reach the restaurant, which is split into two sections: the Non-AC Hall and AC Hall, in which they charge more for food. We opt for the Non-AC side because what is one more hour without AC in a non-AC world? From the moment we step into the restaurant, there is a disturbance in the flow of their usual operations. Servers go out of their way to treat us, and it is clear that we are receiving different treatment from the other customers. A number of people come up to us in the restaurant and ask, “What city are you from?” They ask the question as if they expect the answer to always be something like New York or Hollywood, and are thoroughly disappointed/confused when we say Beckley, West Virginia.

Once we are completely stuffed with paneer, and some of our food has been packed up to-go in containers we brought with us, we set off for the comfort of the hospital’s apartments. On our way back, an unsolicited car pulls over, full of beaming faces who seem excited just to get the chance to talk to us. They ask, “Would you like a ride anywhere?” We politely decline while simultaneously wishing hitchhiking were this easy in the US. Then we finish our journey back, finally reaching the peace and quiet of our surprisingly firm bed.

I know what you’re thinking, “This all sounds a bit dramatic Austin. I mean, white people can’t be THAT hard to find in the area you’re in.” Well, I’ve been here for over two months, and I have seen one other white person since I left the airport in Mumbai. This girl was leaving the hospital, walking out of the main gates, when I spotted her from behind. I was struck with the sudden urge to run up and yell, “Hey! I’m white too! :D” However, my senses got the better of me, plus I had the very legitimate fear that I would arrive only to have her start speaking to me in German…

In America, since I have always been surrounded by people who are also white, I have not been conscience of my own preference for the company of people who may look or sound similar to myself. Before visiting India, I had never instantly felt a sense of camaraderie upon seeing another white person, and I’ve definitely never had the desire to run up to them shouting about their skin color. However, my time here has shown me the comfort that can come from spending time around those that look or sound like you (mostly Wende in my case). I can better understand the emotions that would result in sub-communities popping up in America comprised primarily of citizens that originated in a different country (e.g. Italians in The Hill or Mexicans on Cherokee Street in St. Louis).

My experience here has also given me a glimpse into what it might be like to immigrate to America. Traveling to a strange country, leaving most of your friends and family behind, where you are unaware of local customs and can’t even speak the language. Coming to India, I had the fortune of currency exchange in my favor, but I can only imagine how difficult it would be to arrive in America if the opposite were true. Taking your first trip to a “Superstore” (an already overwhelming concept after the vegetable stands you are used to), only to find out that everything you need to live off of costs ten times more than you expected – on top of that, every product looks different than it did in your country, from the giant onions to the jugs of milk. You must buy a new outfit to fit in better at work, but you only afford one or two outfits that you must wash every night. You want to make friends, but everyone has a hard time understanding your English (even though you spent months, even years trying to learn it).

It’s incredibly difficult to leave all of your family and friends behind for some unknown life, and I think we give immigrants in America a hard time. After glimpsing the disparity of wealth between America and rural India, I believe that any person who can muster up the finances (and courage) to get themselves to the USA deserves a chance to make a life there.

There is a smiley woman here named Ansuben. She works in the community health office and puts in tireless effort for her projects. She seems like a happy person, but every week she approaches us and asks, “Will you please take me back to America with you?” When I hear the yearning in her voice, the hope to make a new life for herself, all I want is to help her come to America. We had Ellis Island at one point, where all that stood between the status of illegal immigrant and American citizen was a health screening.

If it’s people like Ansuben on the other side, I say open the island back up. When she makes it past immigration, I’ll be the first one there to welcome her. I will never make fun of her difficulty in learning English. I will be the neighbor that welcomes her to our community, and I will have the pleasure of inviting her to my home. Then I can be the one to tell her, “It is an honor to have you here.”

 

Me at a local fair - this gives you an idea of how we stand out in our surroundings.

Me at a local fair – this gives you an idea of how we stand out in our surroundings.

People love to take pictures with us! (and all of their family)

People love to take pictures with us! (and all of their family)

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People especially love to take pictures with Wende!

People especially love to take pictures with Wende!

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Take 1

Take 1

Take 2 - smile!

Take 2 – smile!

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Can you spot the American?

Can you spot the American?

 

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Waste Not Want Not

 

Almost everything about the way people live their life seems different in India: people wash their clothes by hand, carpooling is taken to an extreme, and almost everything is reused before being discarded.

There’s a lot that can be learned about how to live sustainably from how people live in India (or how people in my grandparents’ generation lived in America).


When starting to write this post, I was reminded of something my dad shared on my Facebook wall earlier this year. He shared a story about an older woman being chastised at a store for not using reusable bags. The young cashier criticized the older women’s generation for not taking care of the Earth. This prompted the older woman to describe practices that she does and Americans used to do before the “green movement” that are more environmentally conscious than what most people do today. Some of the habits she mentioned are listed below:

  • Walking places rather than driving
  • Washing cloth diapers rather than using disposable ones
  • Returning milk and soda bottles to be sterilized and reused rather than just thrown away
  • Drying clothes on the line rather than using energy and a machine to do it
  • Wearing hand-me-downs rather than new clothes
  • Exercising by working, not using treadmills that require energy

This post reminded me that many of the practices that I observe in India used to be commonplace in America as well.

 

Energy

One of the most obvious causes for the lower per capita energy usage in India comes from a lack of appliances that are common in America:

  • Refrigerators
  • Washers
  • Dryers
  • Dishwashers
  • Ovens
  • Microwaves
  • Air conditioners
  • Hot water heaters

I know I’m personally used to having all of these and have complained about doing dishes by hand or taking my clothes to a laundry mat in the past. But living here without most of them (we do have a point of use, tank-less water heater in our shower) has made me realize how much more energy I use in America because of these appliances even when trying to efficiently use appliances: only running full loads of laundry or dishes, using cold water for laundry, turning off the heated dry on the dishwasher, having our thermostat set to temperatures close to those outside, etc.

Farming is very common in rural India – Austin and I have seen lots of sugar cane, rice, and mango tree farms. Unlike in America where the processes is very industrialized – using lots of machinery and few humans – people do everything by hand here. This is beneficial in that their approach provides jobs to more people and doesn’t require expensive equipment that must be maintained.

The electrical outlets all have switches to turn them off to protect appliances from surges but have the added benefit of preventing phantom loads from unused electronics. I’d love to see this building practice brought to America!

In addition to not using energy for appliances, people here are very good about turning off electronics when not in use or lights and fans when they leave a room. There were a few times we forgot to turn our fan off – we’re not used to having one so it’s a new habit to make – and when we did other people in our building were sure bring it to our attention.

After a couple months here, we received our first electrical bill. Back in America, I think my friends would vouch that I’m a pretty “green” or sustainable person. Here in India, I knew that Austin and I had been even more conscious than usual of our energy consumption, so I expected a fairly low bill. I got it a bill for 764 rupees… which meant nothing to me since I had never received a bill here. I went across the hall and casually asked Paresh, “What was your electric bill?” He said, “270 rupees. Why?”…

His bill was a third of ours! He spent the next 5 minutes trying to come up with polite excuses for why our bill may be so large. During the discussion he mentioned that him and his wife don’t even use their hot water heater! The only conclusion I could reach from our discussion was – Austin and I are overconsumptive Americans who can’t even be truely sustainable when we want to be.

 

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No ovens means no cakes. This makeshift tomato Birthday cake was made for me by my friends at the restaurant we went to.

 

Our clothes hang dry (and get washed by hand) since we don’t have a washer or dryer.

Goods, Consumption, and Waste

Trash in America is kept out of site – it’s picked up and hauled away never to be seen again. This is not the case in India (at least rural India). In Kharel there is no trash service so people just dump their trash somewhere near their home. When Austin and I have filled our bathroom-sized trashcan, we walk behind the hospital, through a field, and dump it into a hole. We are made acutely aware of how much trash our hospital community has made. While staring at the hole of trash that’s in some ways not very big given the number of people that dump into it, I wonder if American’s would generate as much waste (on average over 4 pounds a day) if they had to watch it slowly accumulate week after week, year after year.

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The hole where the hospital and three apartment buildings dump their trash.

When thinking about why there might be less trash generated in India than in America a few thoughts and observations come to mind:

  • Food is made from scratch – minimizing the packaging and chemicals used in processed foods
  • Grains and beans are bought in bulk – again less packaging
  • Families use small trashcans – maybe this provides some psychological priming?
  • People use reusable bags and stores in cities often charge customers for disposable bags
  • People reuse things before throwing them away:
    • Printing paper packaging is used as book protectors
    • Beverage bottles are reused
    • Newspaper is used as paper towels to put snacks on or as shelf liners
    • Old boxes are pressed into plates for to-go ware at restaurants
    • Bags that stored grains are sewed together and used as tarps
  • There aren’t trashcans in every room – one day I had to wait to get to the cafeteria to throw away a gum wrapper because I couldn’t find a trashcan.
  • In general, people buy less stuff here. This is especially apparent with office supplies in the hospital: each desk only has one pen and almost no scrap paper.
  • No one uses toilet paper – obviously this isn’t related to waste that usually goes in a trashcan
  • Everyone carries around handkerchiefs because disposables like tissues and paper towels aren’t common here – this is also true for diapers; kids just wear underwear here and get wiped down after going to the bathroom. The one year old that lives next to us has both pooped and peed on our floor (but we still adore her fun, sassy personality).
  • Homes are smaller here and less filled with stuff that will likely one day be thrown away.

 

The diet in India is primarily vegetarian and omnivores are more similar to what hunter gathers used to be in that they only eat meat once or twice a week. This is much better for the environment than the typical American diet that has meat as a primary component. Meat production requires more energy (think of all the grain animals have to eat before we can eat them), requires more water than plants, cows especially release high levels of greenhouse gases like methane, and many animals are given antibiotics before they are sick which leads to antibiotic resistant strands of bacteria that we can then be infected with. (Even just cutting back on one’s meat consumption can have a big impact so consider giving Meatless Mondays a try).

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This bike protector is a an example of the packaging turned into tarps.

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Austin used newspaper and other old packaging to wrap my birthday gift 🙂

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In India, people who choose to buy cars have to pay for a mirror on the passenger side. Not sure if this one is a positive because it discourages unnecessary consumption or is a negative for safety reasons…

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Space is definitely a commodity in India – this shop where we bought some kitchen supplies was filled to the brim with products, had things hanging all over the ceiling, and had an attack that stored even more.

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Talk about efficiency – this truck was carrying as many empty bottles as it could to be recycled

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I spent a week working in this tiny pharmacy with this group of people – both standing and sitting space were scarce here.

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This is our tiny trashcan – we keep a plate on it and chemical chalk around it to keep the thriving insect population out of it.

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India is very good about labeling items as vegetarian and restaurants as vegetarian friendly. Even this box of cereal has a symbol on it marking it as “100% Veg.”

 

Transportation

As we’ve mentioned before, roads are dramatically different in India – the experience of riding in a taxi in Mumbai should be turned into a video game. There are something I would like to see become more common; things like wearing seat belts or helmets, using blinkers, and staying within lanes. Nevertheless, there are a few practices America could definitely benefit from adopting.

  • Single Occupancy Vehicles (SOVs) are rare – Even people with cars often use a scooter or motorcycle for trips when it’s only one or two people going.
  • Bikes, motorcycles, trains and buses are super common.
  • Car pooling is taken to an extreme.
  • There are lots of vehicles that run on compressed natural gas which they’re able to refill at most gas stations.
  • Roads are shared by cars, trucks, bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians (and animals: cows, donkeys, dogs, goats).
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Even Domino’s uses motorcycles for delivery!

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At the end of a festival celebrating Ganpati – the most popular Hindu deity in India- statues are taken to a river, dunked 7 times (with a wish made the seventh time), and released into the river. We all piled into this truck for the adventure after throwing colored powder at each other. This truck is very full (Austin is actually in there too)!

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On one of our nightly walks we got passed by this rowdy car filled with 3 adults and at least 6 kids from the hospital apartments we live in.

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This motorcycle is carrying two guys and a brand new bicycle.

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This is our friend, Paresh’s, car that has compressed natural gas (CNG).

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When Paresh stopped to get gas with us, we were interested to see what the pump for natural gas looked like. As a safety precaution, we all had to get out of the vehicle while pumping.

A cow that decided to take a nice nap in the middle of the road

Cars, animals, scooters and rickshaws coexisting in peace.

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Austin and I got to ride a Rickshaw to a nearby town (Chikhli). Our Rickshaw fit an impressive 13 people – the middle row that we were in had a small bench at our knees for children to sit on.

 

 

 

Much of my commentary has focused on the actions of individuals and hasn’t accounted for general air and water quality or the difference in population of size between America and India (300 million versus 1.2 billion). Because of India’s size but lack of infrastructure, there are definitely areas they need to work on as a country. Nevertheless, given America’s relatively small population, it’s actually quite impressive how large of a portion of the world’s resources we consume – for example American’s consumer a quarter of the world’s energy and operate a third of the automobiles.

While in college, I spent much of my time outside of class working to reduce the environmental impact of my university and myself. The initiatives I worked on encouraged people to make small changes to reduce their impact – recycle more, use fewer items that are only used once, turn off the lights when you leave a room. Living here makes me frustrated that we couldn’t get more people to take these small actions to reduce their impact while also making me want to push my fellow Americans do alter their behaviors even more.

That’s all for now – here’s a cute picture of the baby I mentioned 🙂

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This is the expressive Aneri – the one year old that lives next to us 🙂