Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is This Development? Part 2

Answer: an apartment complex in Bangalore, India

All my life, going to India has meant roughing it: bucket baths, dust and dirt, foul smells, and Asian (squat) toilets. I’ve learned to deal with it, reassured by the fact that it’s only for a couple of weeks every couple of years. That was before Peace Corps.

This trip to India, I stepped in the shower in the Puttaparthi ashram and was pleasantly surprised. It was a cold shower, as expected, but it was a shower with water pressure. On previous trips, I avoided showering. That first spasm as the frigid water hit my back always made me reluctant to take more than a quick cowboy shower once a day. This time, I was so happy to have a nice shower in the sweat-inducing humidity of Indian summers that I gladly hopped into the bath, two, three times a day.

The next thing to watch out for in India is diarrhea. Every time I visit, I face several grueling bouts with the D-monster. This time, nothing. You can bet that I sure as hell bragged about it the stomach of steel that Paraguay has given me. Besides, “After two years of diarrhea, I’ve suffered enough!”

Then there are the mosquitoes. Normally they can’t get enough of me and my sweet foreign blood. But this time, they took hardly a bite; a few nibbles yes, but nothing major. I think the Paraguayan mosquitoes have already sucked me dry.

The last source of discomfort is the roads. I’ve always hated Indian roads. Road markings are a recent innovation of the past 5 years in India. When I was a kid, cars would interweave in and out across the width of the road, while herders crossed with their goats and cows. Add to that poor road conditions, and it made for one bumpy ride! This time, I couldn’t help but admire the expansion of the road from Bangalore to Puttaparthi. Now it’s paved with asphalt. Not only that, but unlike in the U.S., it’s being laid by hand. In Paraguay, they set cobblestone roads without machines, but they do it badly. The roads in Bangalore were smooth. In fact, they were the nicest I’ve ever seen in India. I exclaimed to my mother, “Mom, that was the smoothest ride I’ve gone on in the past two years!” Never in my life did I think that India would be a step up from anything. But after Paraguay, it sure was!

Back to development though, it’s not just that I’ve changed over the past two years, it’s that India has changed. I stopped by a new grocery store outside of the ashram and was overwhelmed by the variety of foods. There were crackers and juice boxes, olives and pasta, organic rice and whole-wheat bread. I kept on hearing that you can now get everything in India, that it is no longer the place of limited international fare that it was while I was growing up, but I didn’t believe it until I saw it. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where are they getting all this food from? I know they don’t produce Barrilla pasta locally.”

I didn’t know whether to be delighted or frightened. An increase in packaged, processed foods is a boon to the customer providing more variety in consumption and more convenience for the ever-growing members of the working middle-class. However, it also carries the risk of undermining a food culture based on hot, home-cooked food and local ingredients. A quarter of the world’s farmers are Indian. However, as India has begun the shift to mechanized farming, fewer and fewer Indians farm in lieu of earning higher incomes from blue-collar jobs. The sad fact is that many former farmers continue to work for the food industry, but in the service of country-wide food distribution. They spend the majority of the year, away from their families, away from the villages where they grew up, working long hours driving trucks. Because they spend so much of their time away from their wives, they frequent prostitutes. Hence, the “development” of the food industry has not only dramatically increased energy costs, it has also increased the incidence of STDs, including HIV/AIDS.

In the documentary Food Inc., Indian seed-activist Vandana Shiva discusses her struggle with the American corporation Monsanto. Monsanto sued Indian farmers for copyright infringement. If Monsanto won, they would essentially be forbidding farmers from saving their seeds (to replant the following year) as they had done for generations, because the farmers would have no choice but to buy their terminator seeds (cannot reproduce and hence the farmer has to buy new ones each year) instead. Shiva organized the farmers and won the court case in favor of the farmers.

After Puttaparthi, we visited my cousin in Bangalore. He and his wife both work as computer specialists in Whitefield, one of the many emerging Silicon Valleys in India. When we arrived at his place, I was astounded. Looking out his window, I forgot that we were in India. The apartment complex looked like any found in Northern Virginia (another Silicon Valley filled with Indian computer programmers), complete with Indian women wearing salwar kameez going for an evening stroll with their husbands. As my cousin showed us the community pool, the club house with ping pong and pool tables, the gym, the playground, and the central plaza, my amazement grew. “Are we really in India?” The apartment complex represented luxuries before unheard of in India.

The apartment itself was spacious, more spacious than the typical, one-floor, two to three-bedroom apartment found in India, the kind where my mom and her entire twenty-plus-person extended family was raised. There could not have been contrast between that and this two-floor, three-bedroom apartment for four-and-a-half people (my 5-year-old cousin included). The décor was a vast improvement over the flats of my mom’s generation and my childhood. “How can people in India live like people in the U.S.?” I wondered. It made sense though, as Bangalore is filled with young, educated Indian men and women joining the ranks of the middle-class by workings at American IT companies located in Whitefield.

Again, however, I had misgivings. My first thought looking at the beautiful wooden cabinets and dressers was “Oh God, where are they getting all the wood to furnish these apartments?” Logging, especially illegal logging, has all but demolished the Amazon and the Bosque Atlántico de Alto Paraná to furnish houses in Brazil, Argentina, and the U.S. And we’re talking 500-700 million people, total. Imagine supplying wooden furniture to the 1 billion residents of India. That’s a lot of wood.

Is this development or are countries simply inheriting our sins? In no way am I negating the economic progress India has made over the past decade or advocating that it deny its citizens luxuries and commodities enjoyed by the rest of the development world, i.e. rich countries, including the U.S. I just that hope India takes care to ensure that their new development is green and embraces their culture. I believe that the reason India is thriving while the U.S. is flailing is because it is using its cultural advantages, its well-educated citizens, its world-class technical and engineering institutes, and its peoples’ work ethic to shape its development. I hope that India succeeds where the U.S., Europe, and so many other countries have failed, finite development that relies on limited fossil fuels and scarce natural resources and is driven my homogeneity. India is anything but homogenous, being a country characterized, above all, by its incredible amount of diversity. In the battle between newer technologies and culturally-appropriate ones, between American corporations and Indian farmers, between McDonalds and MTR, I hope that India succeeds in carving a path of sustainable development for itself that makes use of its rich, cultural heritage, while at the same time elevating it.

Pictures of my cousin's apartment complex:

My uncle's farm:

Small-scale Indian farms:

I took practically the same picture in Paraguay!

The picture from Paraguay:

Narmada Ghats:

More photos from India

Is This Development?

Question: Where was this picture taken?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Watching the Mundial from Paraguay

I used to think the Superbowl was a big deal. That was until I moved to Latin America. The buildup, the commercials, the halftime show, they’re nothing compared to the World Cup, or the Mundial as we call it in Paraguay. During the first game of the World Cup, I was in Ciudad del Este, shopping with a friend. My friend wanted to shop; all I wanted to do was watch the game. No worries. Every shop we visited had a TV showing the game. The stalls on the sides of the streets didn’t have TVs, but they had radios. Everywhere we went, my friend stopped to haggle and I stood still, my eyes affixed to the television screen. I had been infected by Mundial fever.

Mundial fever has only grown since then. The lyrics of the Shakira and K’naan songs are on everyone’s lips. During my weekly visits to friends around town, the conversation inevitably turns to the Mundial. “Did you see the Paraguay game? Did you see the Brazil game yesterday? Increíble. Who’s playing today?” When it’s game time, everyone has their TVs on. If they don’t, they are more than willing to oblige. And oh, the Albirroja (the red and white, Paraguay’s jersey colors). A few weeks ago, my friend made the comment, “I don’t suppose all the Paraguayan flags that are on sale are to commemorate the anniversary of the Chaco War.” “Of course not,” I replied. “Who cares about the anniversary of some long-ago war when it’s football season?” We’re going nuts over Paraguay’s victories. I find myself constantly wearing my Paraguayan jersey. When Paraguay is playing, even school is cancelled.

In a way, my entire two years in Paraguay have been shaped by the Mundial. A few months after I became a volunteer, I attended the Paraguay vs. Peru qualifying match. I went in the red and white. A group of volunteers and I bought up the entire stock of Paraguayan jerseys off of a street stall. I don’t remember much of the actual game other than the screaming, the jumping up and down, and the obscene cheers we yelled at the opposing team. I remember how afterwards the rich and the poor alike, we Americans, absolutely everyone celebrated outside of the Panteón de los Heroes, in front of the famous Lido Bar. We danced for hours to the crazy beat of samba drums because even though the score was only 1-0, Paraguay had won!

A year later, I had gotten hold of the most precious commodity on the market, tickets to the Paraguay vs. Argentina match (Paraguay and Argentina are fierce rivals. I’m also a huge fan of the Argentina football team). I had gone to the ticket office on two separate occasions and had no luck in buying tickets. After calling friends constantly to see who was going to Asunción, I finally got a hold of tickets. Sure, they were probably scalped, but who cares? The day before the match, I was all ready to leave for Asunción, when it started pouring. That meant, of course, that the bus didn’t leave my site. I decided to postpone my trip by a day. The next morning, the day of the match, I tried again. I woke up early to catch the one bus out of site at 6 AM, but it was still raining. That meant that again the bus didn’t run. I decided to wait out the rain. An hour went by, but the wind continued to blow and the rain continued to fall. Another hour passed by, and it was still going. Meanwhile, I was getting more antsy by the moment. I texted my friend angrily, “I have tickets to the biggest game of the season and I’m stuck in my house!” She replied, “Just walk it.”

By 9 AM, the rain had calmed down and I was finally able to leave my house. Barely 10 minutes into my walk, it started pouring. Turning my face upwards, I shook my fist at the overcast sky and screamed “Are you kidding me God?” I made it to the lake, but then I had to await the barge. The boat drivers were scared to leave because of the high winds. Indeed, the trip across was terrifying. The winds swayed the giant metal barge back and forth and soaked us to the bone. I cowered under the shelter of the motorized tug boat running alongside the barge. I arrived at the bus terminal, a ten-kilometer walk from my house (not including the journey across the lake), completely drenched. Thinking that I was only gone to be gone for a quick two-day trip, I had forgotten an extra pair of socks. When I stopped at the nearby supermarket to buy a few pairs of dry socks, they took pity on me and let me use the restroom to change into my only other pair of clean clothes.

After a six-hour-long bus journey, I finally arrived in Asunción. It was already past 5 PM. I barely had enough time to drop off my stuff in my friend’s house and head to the stadium, reaching only 15 minutes before the start of the game. I had traveled on foot and bus, over water and land, through mud and rain, just to see the football game. Mundial fever, once you’re in its grip, there’s no telling what you’ll do for a football game!