DukeEngage in Visakhapatnam

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

Month: May, 2012

Sick at a bad time!

Today is not my day. I am boarding my flight at Dulles Airport in four days, and this morning, I came down with the flu. It is frustrating because I made sure to get the flu shot a few months, but I guess that doesn’t always take. I have to admit, getting sick at this time is sort of putting everything into perspective for me, because I’m having a tough time being sick in Virginia, in my own home with A/C and all the comforts I need. I can’t imagine how it must be to be sick in a non-A/C guesthouse in rural India without certain medications and food. I’m definitely going to go and pick up some Tylenol and other over-the-counter medicines from the pharmacy tomorrow.

While I’ve been sick, though, I’ve had the chance to read a little more than usual. I found an extremely interesting and relevant book in the basement by Indo-Anglian writer R. K. Narayan called “Gods, Demons and Others,” publishing in 1964. The book is an excellent collection of short stories that expound on and explain the meaning of several key concepts in Hindu mythology and philosophy. What really got me about the book was the introductory chapter, where Narayan really sets the scene of village life:

The nearest railway station is sixty miles away, to be reached by an occasional bus passing down the highway, which again may be an hour’s marching distance from the village by a shortcut across the canal. […] All day the en and women are active in the fields, digging, ploughing, transplanting, or harvesting. At seven o’clock (or in the afternoon, if a man-eater [tiger] is reported to be about), everyone is home.

He continues, telling us about the life and importance of the village storyteller. Educated on the Hindu Vedas and Puranas from the age of seven, these men can recite by heart the hundreds of thousands of lines of these epics. I am very much looking forward to meeting these men, and being able to get a glimpse into the life of rural Indians. It is, in a way, a look back in time. Speaking to my father today, I learned about his childhood, and how storytelling played an important role in his family life. His mother, my grandmother, did not know how to read, but told many stories, passed down by word of mouth. Going to villages around Vizag and seeing their lives is going to be of great personal significance to me, and I cannot wait for this chance.

Pre-trip setbacks

I’ve got to say, I’m starting to get a little nervous about my trip. It’s in six days, and a couple of setbacks have already appeared.

First, it might be difficult to even get there! I am scheduled to fly Air India for the second leg of my trip from Dubai to Vizag, but the airline’s pilots have organized a massive strike. I tried to contact the travel agency that Duke got to arrange the flights, but they’re off until after the Memorial Day weekend. This could be an issue… I’d rather not be stranded in Dubai (though not a bad place to be stranded). I’ll keep updating about it.

Also, the head of the NGO with which I am working is going to be away on a business trip and isn’t going to be back until June 5, two days after I arrive. The plan is to be working mostly with him, so looks like I’m going to be spending the first couple of days on the ground just getting acquainted with the area and meeting all the folks at the farm complex.

Less than a week left! Next time I update I might be in Dubai. Stay tuned.

Getting ready…

In two weeks I’ll be leaving Virginia to go on a service trip to rural Vizag, in Andhra Pradesh, India. As a college student at Duke University just finishing my second year, I’m not really sure what to expect. I’m going through a program at Duke called “DukeEngage,” which funds undergraduate projects both domestic and international. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it’s a great way to get young student engaged with the world of service early on. While they have several Duke-sponsored and even Duke-managed programs for students to apply to, I chose to apply for an independent project grant.

I am an Indian-American, and since I am fluent in Telugu, one of the eighteen official languages of India, I thought I could do the best work in Andhra Pradesh, the home state of my parents. I got in touch with a local non-profit, the Bhagavatula Charitable Trust (BCT), which undertakes a variety of service projects in the region, tackling the issues of education, agricultural reform, healthcare, women’s rights, etc. They communicated to me that their newest initiative is a foray into sanitation and hygiene, and so over the ten weeks that I’ll be in India, I’ll be working with BCT to survey and begin interventions regarding the sanitation and hygiene in the villages around Visakhapatnam, or Vizag.

Map of Vizag and BCT.

Map of Vizag with BCT shown at the marker. Click to go see it on Google Maps.

Vizag is a coastal city of 1.4 million. I’ll be working and staying at the BCT Farm Complex, about 30 km outside the city, in a village called Haripuram (see the map). Most of the villages I’ll be visiting are located in the Alluri Sitaramaraju Forest Area, a protected area of jungle about the size of Massachusetts. These villages are fairly remote, and consequently have only recently been electrified.  Most of them do not have proper waste-disposal systems in place, and so many residents simply defecate outdoors. This is a practice that brings deadly diseases such as cholera and dysentery to the table, just to name a few, and needs to end. I am very excited to be able to learn about the fieldwork involved with public health.

The hardest part about having an independent project like this is that I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to be doing. There is a plan drawn up for my week-to-week work, but I’m sure that it will change as the situation on the ground does. I’m definitely going to have to be able to think on my feet and be ready for anything. I’m already most of the way through preparing; I’ve gotten all (seven) of my shots and boosters, picked up my malaria pills, mosquito repellent, and bed net, bought tons of toilet paper (hard to get in rural India), and UV water-irradiating flask in case I run out of water while I’m visiting folks (don’t want to get sick!). Precautions I’ve got to take…

Until then, though, I can bum around at home. Countdown to DukeEngage: two weeks. Takeoff on June 1 – can’t wait!