DukeEngage in Visakhapatnam

A Duke student spends a summer learning about public health work in rural India.

Sign off

So after being at home for a few days now, I’ve had some time to reflect on what an incredible trip I had. To conclude this blog made a list of the top five favorite things about my DukeEngage experience. There were plenty more things I liked, of course, but let’s leave it at this:

5. Transport: I’m putting this on the list because how I got around played such a big part in how I experienced India this time around. In past visits with family, we’d just go around in a relative’s car, and sitting on the inside of a car, you don’t really get to see the country the same way. This time, in share autos or city busses, or on the backs of friends’ motorbikes, I saw a different India. I got the chance to see the country as it was meant to be seen, and the ability to get around on my own at my own speed made all the difference.

4. The Locale: Rural India was new to me. As someone who had only seen Indian cities (and grew up in the suburbs), the pace, the attitudes, and the conditions initially took some adjustment. After the first couple of weeks, though, I felt like I was at home. Visakhapatnam District is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

3. The Food: Indian food is different in India. I’m not sure if I can say it’s better than my mother’s cooking, but it was certainly fantastic! I grew up eating Indian food that had twinges of Western influence, but it was a very interesting cultural experience to be able to have “true” Indian food.

2. The Work: This was another first for me. I’d never done fieldwork like this, and the experience of going out to an unfamiliar place, planning a project, executing it, and ensuring sustainability was incredible. I think that the skills that I developed doing the work that I did are going to be indispensable in future endeavors that I undertake, whether they involve social work or not. DukeEngage’s training (and support) was invaluable to me, here. They helped me work out what to do when the project isn’t going perfectly, and for better or for worse, I think I’m better than I used to be at dealing with problems that come up during project work.

1. The People: Finally, my favorite part of the trip. I was worried going in that I would not be able to connect with anyone in Visakhapatnam District, and loneliness was a huge concern. Two and a half months without friends and with limited Internet connection was looked pretty grim. I was lucky, though. The people I met really opened up and let me into their lives. I was really able to not only get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a rural Indian, but also to make many friends. I’m never going to forget guys like Dharmaraju, Krishna, and Chiranjeevi, because learning from them forever changed my perspective. They made my stay unforgettable, and I am very thankful for that.

I have uploaded the pictures from my trip to Google PicasaWeb. Take a look if you get a chance.

Maintaining this blog was not only a great way to connect with friends and family while abroad, but also a medium for me to get my own thoughts out onto the page. I’m not sure if I’ll ever take a trip like that again, but I know that my struggles in this trip have prepared me for the future. Finally, many thanks to all of you for reading, understanding, and following my adventures this summer. Sincerely,



And that’s a wrap.

My flight back is soon.  I really can’t believe it’s over.  I mean, I’m happy to be able to see my family and friends back home again, but I have this lingering feeling in the back of my head of incompleteness.  Now, I know I could work my whole life and not get even close to solving certain problems, but that bothers me.

I said my goodbyes.  Some Dharmaraju said stuck with me, because it’s something a lot of people have told me as my trip has come to an end.  It’s that of all the foreign visitors that came here, I got the closest to them.  That really meant a lot to me, because that was one of the only things I had in mind when I came here (something they drilled into our heads at DukeEngage Academy!).  I didn’t know how much of a difference I could make, but I wanted to get to know people, because that’s where everything starts – with people.  Somayajulu Garu said the same thing: that I was indistinguishable from a local after the first couple of weeks.

And so that’s where I am now.  About to go home, happy about it, but still with a sense of unease.  I know I accomplished something, and I’m happy about it.  I pushed the right people to do the right thing, and I honestly believe that the people that I have come to know and love will be better off because of it.

I suppose my next post will be from my living room back home.  And for that, I can’t wait.

Four days left. Let’s do this.

So I’m into the last four days of my trip.  Honestly, I can’t believe I’m almost done here, and this ending is kind of bittersweet.  On one side, I am very excited to see my family after two and a half months, but at the same time, I feel I’m leaving just as I start to figure out what’s going on.  I mean both in terms of learning how to manage fieldwork in this environment and just navigating rural India in general.  I’ve learned the right way to bargain with auto rickshaw drivers, how to calm down farm animals, and even enough local politics to make decent small talk with local community members.

Last week was intense.  I was running around handing over the project to the folks in the villages and at BCT, but this week is going to be much more low key.  I’ll be attending the first sanitation meetings to make sure things are running smooth, talking to teachers to impress on them how important it is that they take a little bit of time in their busy days to ensure the school is sanitary, and finish shooting footage for a second video we’re making about BCT’s disability center.  It’ll be a week filled with goodbyes and writing about those goodbyes.

My flight’s on Friday.  Four days left.  Let’s do this.

In the tribal lands

Tribal village

The villages that we visited were more remote, and as we got deeper into the forest, very different from the ones I’ve been working in

Long post – but a great day.  Yesterday (7/31/2012), the folks at BCT took me and another American here to see their tribal education initiatives.  It was a long day, but one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had here.

We left around 5 am and arrived (slept about half of the way there) around 7:30 am at the first village we were going to see.  It was very rainy in the mountains, and the dirt roads were all filled with mud.  The first village we went to confused me, though, because everyone was speaking Telugu, and it looked a lot like a regular village, except that there were no government schools.  This village wasn’t even that remote, so that couldn’t have been why.  It turns out the reason for this was the usual one when it comes to politics: tribal community members have little education and little voice in the political process, so they get little from the government.

tribal school

The tribal children were absolutely lovely, and their desire to learn was inspiring.

We saw several villages, met many tribal children, and got a chance to speak with some of the inspiring men and women dedicating their lives to this effort, but in an attempt to stay as brief as possible, I’d like to share a brief story about the last village we visited.

The final village was the most incredible experience I’ve had on this.  Before I continue, I want to say how amazing the scenery in this area was – the mountains look like the Alleghenies but have the sense of being more ancient.  The monsoon clouds shroud the tops of the peaks in a thin mist that shifts around with the changing winds.  As we set off for the sixth village we were going to see, we rolled up our pants to trudge through the mud.  It was a solid 40 minute walk through the valley from the edge of a dirt road an hour and a half drive from the nearest asphalt road, which itself was about 20 km from a highway exit three hours from Visakhapatnam, the nearest major city.  It was remote, possibly the most remote place I’ve ever been.

Tribal region mountains

The tribal villages were located in one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

It was 15:30 when we got there, and the one girl stood out to me in that school, because I think her family’s struggle embodies a lot of the challenges tribal communities face.  This girl was deaf and dumb (and couldn’t sign).  It took 30 minutes of slight smiles, eye contact, and a little attempt at signing to get her to lose her fear of me.  When her mother came, the BCT administrator asked her why she hadn’t sent her daughter to the school for the deaf in Narsipatnam or to the BCT center, where they would teach her better communication skills.  She said she was sorry, but she didn’t want her daughter to be so far away that she would never be able to visit.  Maybe it was best for her daughter, but it was very hard for her.  When we were outside, I asked her about her family.  They have been in that village as long as anyone can remember and “the whole village is [her] family.”  I smiled and mentioned that I thought their village was beautiful.  She sighed and gave me a response that left me speechless, “Beauty?  What’s to love about this place?  It makes everything difficult.  But our lives are tied to this land, so what can we do?”

Walking back from the villages

Myself and another American volunteer walking back from the villages with some of the folks who helped establish the schools in these remote areas.

I’ve met so many different people on my trip, and it’s experiences like these that make me confident, that if I take anything from this summer, it will be a heavy dose of perspective.

Final week of full productivity

Wow. I have only about ten days until I head back to the states, and now, as I head into my last full week here in Haripuram, I can’t believe that my time here is almost over.  Like I’ve posted before, in wrapping up now, my goal is to ensure sustainability, and so this next week is packed with meetings with folks involved in the process.

On Wednesday, I’m presenting the status of the work so far to the BCT community education organizers (CEOs).  After that, Thursday and Friday are going to be spent talking to the youth committees and village elders with the BCT CEOs.

Tomorrow, though, BCT organized a day trip to the tribal regions for me and another American student here to learn about learn about the challenges faced by tribal communities.  It’s a three hour drive from here, so we’re leaving at 5 in the morning.  I’ll have an update on this tomorrow night.

So far, though, I have a busy week ahead of me.  I’m looking forward to the challenges, but I’ll be sad so say goodbye to all the folks I’ve gotten to know.

Picking up speed

The past few days, as I’m starting to wrap up my project (only two weeks left!), I’m focusing on sustainability.  I feel like I’ve done a decent job of getting people in Haripuram and Bhogapuram to start thinking about hygiene issues (especially handwashing), but it has to stick.  I’ve been working with the youth groups in both villages (Haripuram’s youth group stopped meeting, so I’ve gotten them to start meeting again) to get them to push the kids in the village.

dog and puppies

This is completely unrelated but one of the dogs here at the headquarters gave birth to four puppies. I just added the pic because they’re really cute!

The drawing activities worked well (did it again today in Haripuram).  I relearned a valuable lesson today about doing any kind of fieldwork.  If it’s hard to get going, just start doing it, and things will fall into place.  Today was a great example.  It was really hard in the beginning to get the kids to start coming to draw posters about handwashing, but once we got started at the village temple, everyone started to notice how fun it looked, and more and more kids came, to the point where I didn’t have enough paper (we ended up with 35+ drawings)!  Just like we did in Bhogapuram, we’ll be putting them up in front of the school.

Getting teachers in on the push is another part of the effort we started (the youth groups and myself).  Today, I got the schoolteacher in Bhogapuram to agree to teach the kids about washing hands everyday.  She in fact even wrote a quick message on the corner of the board about it, saying that she’d get soap tomorrow so that all the kids could wash their hands with soap before the mid-day meal.  I don’t know if she’ll really do this, but the guys in the youth group will follow up.

I’m sad to see the project coming to a close, but it is really exhilarating to see what I’ve done starting to pick up momentum.

Back in action!

Whew, I’m finally back – sorry about the absence!  I took what I thought was going to be a weekend trip to Hyderabad a couple of weeks ago and got sick.  After five days of an on and off fever and nausea, I booked a last-minute flight ticket back to Visakhapatnam, making my way back to Haripuram by bus this morning.

It suddenly hit me that I have only a little more than two weeks left here, and I’d better start to hurry up to establish the sustainability of the project.  I’m going to be reaching out to the friends I’ve made in the villages and the colleagues I have at BCT to keep the youth interest in improving sanitation conditions.

More updates as the week goes on.

Little artists drawing for change

In our lesson in Bhogapuram yesterday, the kids all drew posters for the town talking about washing hands, and how important that is.  I was really proud of them, because they all put a lot of effort into the drawings.  In all, it took about an hour (longer than our discussions usually are).  The idea is that now, after scanning them, I’ll Xerox the posters and next week, we’ll all go around town hanging them up.

Poster drawn by one of the kids I work with

A poster drawn by one of the kids I work with. The caption explains how washing your hands can prevent the spread of germs.

I was very impressed with how quickly the village has started changing.  According to the local school’s headmaster, a lot of the kids bring soap with them to school (there is no soap in the building) to wash their hands before lunch.  A lot of the parents have been telling me that their children are asking them to wash their hands too.  It’s exactly what I wanted to do, and I’m glad that after a few weeks of talking about these issues, we’re starting to see something.

An English

A poster from a child who attends an English-medium school.

Dharma and Krishna are happy about the progress, too.  They say they’ll keep up the initiatives in their weekly Sunday sramadanam events, but for me, it’s great feeling for the first time in my trip, that I really have directly made a change.

Temple Run? Nah, let’s do Temple *Climb*

When I went to Bhogapuram today, one of my similarly-aged friends, Krishna asked me if I wanted to go for a climb.  I’m usually game for most things they do around here, and so I agreed.

The inner part of the temple.

The inner part of the temple.

Just behind Bhogapuram is a very famous, 12th century temple devoted to the Lord Shiva.  It’s a very unique site because the temple was built over a stream, and very pure water (especially for this part of the country) comes from five ancient fountain jets that are built around the temple.

The symbols on the mountain.

The symbols on the mountain.

The site is called Panchadarla (Sanskrit for the “five streams”).  I’d seen the temple before, but Krishna said we were climbing the small mountain behind it.  Now, one of my favorite iPhone games is Temple Run, but I never figured I’d be doing a temple climb.

bird's eye view

A nice view of the area. You can see Haripuram in the distance, and Bhogapuram is obscured by trees.

The climb was very fun and Krishna kept telling the ridiculous stories behind every little piece of graffiti we found on the way up.  The view from the top was amazing.  I’ve been travelling around this little patch of Visakhapatnam District for over a month now, but seeing it all from that bird’s view was amazing!

symbols up close

The symbols up close

Potentially-fatal transportation level: expert

Today, I spent all day working on a side project BCT gave me.  We’re making a 5 minute video about their educational initiatives, and so today I went ahead and shot all the video for it.  Next week is going to be fun – I’ll be squeezing video editing time in between working on my main project.

Share auto

It was like this, except I was wearing a backpack…

I had a couple of interesting adventures today, too.  As I’ve gotten even more comfortable with living here, I’ve ventured into realms of transportation that make a rush-hour DC Metro ride feel spacious.  I was lucky enough to be able to get into a share auto.  For those of you who don’t know what an auto (a.k.a. a tuk tuk in Southeast Asia) is, picture a tiny, yellow, three-wheeled, 175 cc engine-powered steel cage whose designer apparently didn’t believe in suspension.  To add the “share” part of the concept, stick nine people in this miniscule vehicle designed for three, and when you can’t fit anymore in, let them hang out the side.  This clown car-like concept terrified me the first time, but after I realized it only cost ₹5 (9¢) to get home instead of ₹30 (54 ¢), I was sold.  It’s actually kind of fun once you get over the fear of hurtling at 40 mph hanging out the side of the window, holding on by a couple of fingers.

family bike

These folks make us look like amateurs.

Three-person motorcycle rides are also pretty common, but I was too timid to give them a shot until today.  Unfortunately, I had not thought about the extra difficulties that might add, and the severe lack of asphalt roads here made for a bumpy ride incompatible with male biology.  Plus, with three guys on it, the poor motorcycle struggled the whole way.

People here definitely get very creative when it comes to transportation – I’m sure not if I can handle their level of expertise.  Next time, I think I’ll take the bus!