A Nomadic Narrative

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In my adult life, the concept of ‘roots’ has always been an alien one. During the last 7 years, I’ve lived and worked in 8 different countries, and vacationed in 8 more. But recently, my roaming tendencies have reached a new peak: in the last 10 weeks alone, I’ve flown on 17 planes and slept on 23 beds. My suitcase is my only constant companion. And change has become my routine.

This nomadic chapter has been amazing, in many ways. But the strongest impression I’m left with isn’t one particular experience from my travels, but rather, the only thing that unites all people and places: their impermanence. I’ve been forced to accept, on a daily basis, that the life I’m comfortable with will one day change. Possessions wear down, landscapes transform, people grow and move away. This may seem like a very basic truth, but I think that most people fail to embrace this concept in their daily lives. I know I did.

In September, I went home to New York for the first time in over year. I was expecting everything to be just as it always had been. It’s my home, after all, which is supposed to be the greatest place of comfort and consistency. A place where I just ‘fit’ – no questions asked.

But it wasn’t quite like that anymore. The house I grew up in – my home – was sold a month before I returned. Everywhere I stayed, I felt like a guest, not a resident coming home from a long trip. My brother, the love of my life, could only fit in one day to see me after my absence for an entire year. My friends had changed their jobs, priorities, and partners. The city was still as vivacious as ever, but I had to navigate “the scene” through tourist magazines rather than inviting emails from the groups to which I belonged.

The unexpected change tore through to my core. In my travels, I’ve always looked forward to strangers asking where I’m from, so that I can proudly tout “New York! The greatest city in the world,” – with a beaming smile strewn across my face. But the Big Apple, as I had come to define it, had altered our relationship and tangled my roots. I felt unsettled and confused. It was the only part of my identity that had remained constant through my 25 years of existence.

My second week in NY, I went to a small, off-Broadway play called “We’re Going to Die.” This quirky show is the producer’s attempt to relate some lessons she has learned from her personal experiences with grief.  The moral is that, as humans, we all have those gut-churning, lonely, unhappy moments in our lives. The best remedy for coping with these feelings, she prescribes, is to continually remind ourselves that we will, one day, die.

Although the maxim may come off cryptic or depressing, its implications strongly resounded with me. When I’m feeling sad or unsettled, the last thing I want to hear from someone is that “it’s all going to be ok,” or “everything happens for a reason.” You can’t expect a restless heart to internalize that knowledge and be suddenly soothed. My angst about NY was something I needed to embrace, deconstruct, and wrestle with. The active awareness that I would one day die gave me the abrupt comfort that my sorrow will die too. And more importantly, the threat of nonexistence gave me immediate insight into the triviality of my troubles. Accepting that both my life and my feelings are impermanent liberated me from my disappointment.

I also realized that, as much as New York had changed, so too had I. The Indian culture had laid its handprint on my heart, remolding many of my feelings, perceptions, beliefs, and passions. The permanent notion I had of myself a year before in New York was a fallacy in my head. Since I had grown so much in one year, how could I have ever expected New York to stay that same? My parents are advancing into the post-parenting stage of their lives, when their decisions are once again their own. My friends are shaping their itineraries and communities to accommodate the professions and dreams that they had chiseled out for their lives. And New York City? Well she is stubbornly maintaining her reputation as an untamable beast – no matter how many times I have ridden her saddle. Between us all, the only thing that unites us is the surety that we will continue to transform, adjust, and mature. That we are all impermanent in ourselves and how we relate to our surroundings.

After several more stops in my nomadic expedition, I have finally put my feet in the sand in Mumbai. I plan to make this city my home – laboring to learn Hindi, study local politics, and embed myself in the social ecosystem. The fourth biggest city in the world, Mumbai is the commercial and entertainment capital of India. This metropolis is known for its eccentric energies embodied in graffiti murals, thief bazaars, floating mosques, spicy street food and bombastic, bright-light festivals. As a city of unbridled opportunity and limitless diversity, Mumbai holds the promise of a lot growth and success for both me and my company. But as I make my nest, I proceed with caution, not to become too shackled to the outcomes that I hope to achieve by living here. For every physical attachment I make, for every solid conclusion I draw – I try to balance it with the knowledge that the people, things, and ideas around me are dynamic, and will continue to change. If I accept their impermanence and resist the comforts of attaching myself to the static reality of the moment, then I believe that I will never be disappointed. Rather, every change that occurs will simply add another color to the canvas of my life. In this way, the mindset of impermanence has truly released me from my mental cages. I’m free to experiment, to fail, and to fight in my new home. My time in Mumbai, just like my entire existence, is after all, impermanent.

This is Ladakh, a small Buddhist town on the border of the Himalayas. One of my stops on the nomadic journey of the last few months, and by far my favorite. And if you’re asking, the answer is no – the world simply does not get any more beautiful than this.

 

 

The Buddha himself, meditating in the sky.

 

Standing at the nexus of the Silk route – established around 114 BC to enable trade among Asia and Europe. Deserts of jeweled sand surrounded by the towering Himalayas. Not a bad choice of scenery for their trade routes.

 

The white towers sprinkling the mountainside are known as Stupas. They commemorate and symbolize different aspects of Buddhism – and embody the immense spiritual energy of Ladakh.

 

 

My Bombay buddy in NYC – and two worlds colliding as one =)

Dear India: I hate you. – With love, Caitlin

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In romance, you only know you love someone when you have hated them first.

Relationships often come to an end when we discover our partner’s most frustrating flaw, or learn of choices they’ve made that we fundamentally disagree with, or become a victim to their past baggage, or don’t have our needs understood or respected. These experiences, in their ugliest form, can hurt us so much, or make us so angry, that we run away as fast as we can, dismiss that person from our memories, and scorn the time and energy we’ve wasted on them.

But occasionally, we don’t run. Because the anger and hurt that we feel pales in comparison to the overwhelming sense of joy, appreciation, and admiration that fills our heart in the presence of that person. So we put our pride aside, have those difficult conversations, and find new ways to compromise. Over time, we come to adore our partner not just in spite of their weaknesses, but because of them. We recognize that without their past, or their flaws, their strengths would not shine in the same way. So we embrace that person as a package, and promise to dedicate our lives to growing, learning, and overcoming our faults together.  That, in my opinion, is love.

This same emotional journey defines my relationship with India. I haven’t written a post in three months, mostly because I was angry at this country, and didn’t want to use my blog as a forum of frustration. But the truth is, India is really difficult sometimes.

Chennai, for example, is littered with trash, lining the streets across the entire city. I happened to live next to the main garbage dump, where they burn everything from plastics to unclaimed bodies. Especially in this 110 degree summer heat, the smoke, smell, and the dioxins would travel all the way to my bedroom. And the 2 to 3 hours of power cuts every day means air conditioning couldn’t always be used to drown out the smell.

But the hardest part about the garbage isn’t the garbage itself – it’s people’s attitude surrounding the issue. I’ll often ask my Indian friends why there is so much trash on the ground everywhere. Their answers are always interesting: “We’re a country with so many problems and such poor education systems – how is the average man supposed to know to throw out his trash?”; or “Gandhi gave us freedom, but he forgot to teach us responsibility”;  or “How am I supposed to walk 3 kilometers to the nearest trash can in this heat?;” or “We used to have a caste that picked up the trash for us – and although that is less prevalent now, the legacy lives on.”

While all of these are valid points, none of them take personal ownership of the waste problem, and nobody includes a solution in their explanation. Most, it seems, are waiting for the government to fix the issue, although they admit that the probability of this happening is slim. So while the garbage continues to pile high, the levels of complacency mount even higher.

True to India’s reputation, corruption runs rampant here, and everyone I know (myself included) has had a first-hand experience with a corrupt official. Besides the personal frustration this brings, it also creates an unhealthy climate for investment and an increase in the cost of government-subsidized services. In one instance, my company had created an application for a government welfare scheme in which beneficiaries used voice biometrics to authenticate their identity and approve that they received their benefits. Despite the increases in efficiency and enhanced outcomes of the welfare project, the government eliminated the use of our application, as it exposed all the fraud and corruption that was happening in the system.

Trash, complacency, and corruption are but microcosm of India’s issues. Other things on the list are terrorist attacks, 40% of people living under the poverty line, gender imbalances, growing levels of income inequality, dependence on a shortening supply of fossil fuels, water shortages, an outdated and low quality education system. The list goes on.

Most recently, India’s GDP has slowed to its lowest level in 9 years. The government points to Greece and other global trends, adapting a similar attitude that the people have about the waste issue – its everyone’s fault but our own. But with the government unable to pass meaningful legislation in months, and an economic dashboard showing fading manufacturing output, consumer demand, and corporate investments, as well as high inflation and enormous trade deficits – it’s hard to see India’s wounds as anything but self-inflicted.

After identifying all these challenges, one might think that I can’t wait to return home to New York in September. But, in fact, the opposite is true. I’ve decided to extend my stay in India.  I’m staying because the rewards outweigh the difficulties by a long shot, and because I’m determined to learn and grow with India, through good times and bad.

India’s faults elicit amazing talents and strengths from its people. Because the country has little legacy infrastructure, those who work here must develop solutions that simply bypass this constraint. For example, India has a large unbanked population, mostly because of the challenge of reach and affordability. But with almost 900 million mobile subscribers, the country is moving quickly to develop mobile banking solutions, completely leapfrogging the brick-and-mortar model altogether. My company works with voice technology (like Siri on the iPhone), so we get to be an active player in developing appropriate mobile banking applications for the Indian masses, many of whom are illiterate and can’t interact with any text-based applications. Imagine that in rural India, a person can now do a funds transfer or merchant payment with nothing but their most basic phone and in their local language. And while it helps the poor here, the same technology would be a convenient solution to people all over the world. Because necessity is the mother of all innovation, India is churning out world-changing products like this every day, in a way no other context would facilitate.

Part of the reason that India has so many remarkable challenges today is because it has had such a remarkable past. The Indians invented the number system, launched the first school of medicine, conceptualized the green revolution, and established the world’s largest democracy. This knowledge and value system spread throughout the world, even though India never invaded any country in her last 1000 years of history. Indeed, Mark Twain once said that “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great grandmother of tradition.” My impression today is that every single citizen, from the pauper to the palace, has the amazing history of this country embedded in their soul, and it empowers each one to dream of a future just as impressive. But power in today’s world comes from military might and institutional dollars – so contrary to the pacifism and intellectualism that brought India its glory in the past. So this nation has today has the marvelous challenge of staying true to its ways, while thriving on a globe that often plays by different rules. If it can be done, and I believe it can, it will be a victory not just for the country, but for humanity.

And so I turn the last pages of chapter one of my life in India, and forge ahead through chapter two. . I’m not here to change the people by transferring my values onto them, and I know that as a single person, I can only do so much help develop this nation. (Humility is perhaps the biggest lesson one can learn in a country of 1.2 billion people and copious amounts of problems.) Rather, I will grow and learn with India, and I hope to fall more deeply in love with the land of little – a land that ironically has so much to teach me.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Bombay. Kind of puts Grand Central Station to shame, don’t it?

The Trimurti of Elephanta island – showing the three faces of Shiva, akin to the Trinity of Brahma, Vishna, and Maheswar. From the 9th century.

The monkeys of Elephanta Island. I’m pretty sure I have a picture exactly like this with my mom, dad, and sister.

The creativity of entrepreneurs in India. Selling outside for easy customer access, but found a natural shade to avoid Indian heat. And then somehow managed to install electricity. Amazing.

Meet Lakshmi. No, this isn’t photoshopped. Yes, it was as amazing as it looks.

Mobile Me

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I never really wanted a cell phone, but at 17, Christmas came with a cell phone from my Dad. My friends rejoiced, welcoming my long-overdue entrance to the 21st century. I was only grateful because I knew that no one could snoop on my phone calls anymore, as they did when I used the landline in the kitchen.  The truth was, as a teen in the throes of adolescent angst, I wasn’t particularly excited about the idea of further enabling people to reach me whenever I crossed their mind.

My lack of enthusiasm for cell phones never really evolved over the years. My friends all know that I’m not the type to call or text “just to chat.” I’ve also lost more cell phones than I care to count, because I don’t value them. The only job from which I’ve ever been fired was the one where my boss bought me a Blackberry so that she could reach out to me 24/7 – and I just couldn’t adjust to the lack of quiet time, leisure time and time to just “be.”  I actually resisted getting a Smartphone until just last year, not because I could continuously access my email, but rather so I could read the news on the Subway (ok, and also play Angry Birds).

I’ve often had the thought that, ironically, cell phones support more antisocial behavior than what is more natural to humanity – a genuine desire to connect to others on a meaningful level. It’s rare that I’m in a meeting, or out to dinner, or in a theater, when time spent with friends isn’t interrupted by an incoming call or message that ensures we will never be completely present to each other. The quality of our relationship is compromised, as is the quality of communication that lacks eye contact, giving way to high-tech, low level dialogue that seems to thwart maturity and interpersonal growth.

Its easy, then, to find humor in the fact that I’m working for a company that develops mobile technology. Even more ironic: one of my primary roles in the company is marketing. Essentially, my job is to convince businesses, governments and nonprofits alike that they should reach out to their customers in the bottom of the pyramid in a way I would never like to be contacted – through the mobile phone.

My work is part of a movement known as Mobile for Development (M4D), embodied in an annual conference that I attended this year, both as a participant and presenter. Practitioners from over 30 countries gathered to share their insights on the role of mobile phones in health, education, agriculture, financial services, governance and livelihoods. There were over 50 presentations about the various ways that mobile phones are changing the face of development. Text to Change, for example, demonstrated how text campaigns can improve the delivery of male circumcision for HIV Prevention Services. Eko, an Indian financial service company, discussed how they enable financial inclusion through mobile-based transactions. My presentation was especially exciting because I showed how voice technology enables mobile applications to reach the last-mile, promoting the most inclusive development.

The human voice is a universal asset that allows those without literacy to be included in the possibility of economic advancement through mobile applications. They simply have interactive dialogues through speech recognition (the same technology used by Siri on the iPhone). Multilingual speech recognition permits everyone to use these tools in their local languages. Using voice technology is also important in areas that lack connectivity, as people can still interact without a wifi connection. Voice biometric technology enables organizations to offer even more valuable services through the mobile phone, allowing them to not only access information, but also conduct transactions, whether it be a loan payment, ordering an agricultural input, or purchasing medicine. My company is the only provider of multilingual speech recognition and voice biometrics in India, so it’s important to participate in these conferences to get the word out and partner with all kinds of players trying to include the poor in their business models.

The businesswoman in me recognizes that using mobile phones is the most efficient way to leapfrog poor infrastructure, as well as literacy, language and connectivity issues. Since mobile penetration has reached such high levels in the developing world, it makes sense to tap into this pre-existing supply chain and deliver products and services to people directly through their phones. Many of us are familiar with the challenges faced by many pregnant women in the developing world, who in so many cases, have to walk miles and miles, sometimes while they are in labor, for assistance in a delivery that could end in the death of both mother and child. Mobile phones can aid a life-threatening situation through telemedicine, allowing the expectant mother to communicate in her native language with a medical information portal that can deliver relevant information specific to her health profile. Opportunities such as these are vast.

But the social worker in me is much more hesitant to embrace mobile phones for development. In my training at Columbia University School of Social Work, I learned so much more about the status of my clients through their expressions and body language than I did their words.  In fact, a UCLA study showed that 93% of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. When I started studying different facial expressions, eye contact, posture, hand and feet movements, body placement, and walking styles, I became much more effective in my work. My clients would often tell me things that were incongruous with their body language. The more I attended to nonverbal cues, the more effectively I was able to assist my client.

And so I worry that the use of cell phones enables people to mask their feelings and reactions through more calculated verbal or written communications. In spaces like mobile health and mobile education, I fear that without the human connection to a doctor or a teacher who can holistically communicate through verbal and nonverbal modes, genuine care and learning won’t take place. The nuances of emotion and relationships can be lost in mobile communication. From a wider perspective, I also have trepidations that a one-dimensional push for greater use of mobile development programs may increase the dependency on these methods in poorer countries, further de-motivating governments from building roads and developing remote areas with proper public services. This would translate to poor people continuously receiving services through mobile technology, while others receive services in centers where compassionate professionals can offer help.  In the long run, could this augment the divide between urban and rural areas, and between the rich and the poor?

My goal in coming to India was to participate directly in social enterprise and learn, from a practitioner’s perspective, what works and what doesn’t on the ground. I was hoping to gain some clarity from insights on the front-line that I could eventually use to inform better policy-making. And while I’ve learned a lot, my work has perhaps brought more ambiguity than certainty. Should we be using mobile for development? To what extent? In what industries? And what will the long term consequences be?

On a personal level, at least, I’ve come to embrace cell phones a little more. In a city like Chennai that uses what I’ve termed the ‘anything-but-a-grid’ method of city planning, I’d love to have a phone with a map. And because the infrastructure is not in place to get anything done quickly – like going grocery shopping, visiting the doctor, etc. – it would be nice if I could accelerate those processes with my mobile phone. Yet, even here in India, I still find people who are reliant on text messaging for relationship building and suffer chronic distraction from true intimacy because they can’t turn off the technology for even ten minutes.

Professionally, I’ve had a front row seat to the progress made possible through mobile phones: a man opening his first bank account, a woman getting previously inaccessible medical advice, and a farmer having access to information about weather conditions for the first time. I also know that a 1% increase in telecommunications penetration in India leads to a 0.03% increase in its GDP. Mobiles do contribute to growth, but growth is not always indicative of development, which is a much more difficult end to achieve. We cannot simply throw these high-tech solutions at villages and expect development. The success of mobile phones will be determined by the human skills implementing them. We must work intimately with the end user to train them on using these new tools and provide relevant content in accessible and useful forms, that is responsive to their needs and communications styles. I’m proud to be here using my social work skills to work towards this end, helping to create technologies with which the poor can be most comfortable, and that genuinely enhance their standard of living. But I tread carefully, wary of the fact that the mobile phone is a tool, but not a panacea, for genuine poverty alleviation in India.

My one week vacation included a stop in Munnar, Kerala - otherwise known as heaven on Earth

The monkey threw us a welcoming party in Munnar. And then they stole our chips

East meets West. This is what I'll look like when I leave Chennai.

Perhaps the best part of Chennai is the Ramakrishna Mutt Temple, which shines bright pink, is surrounded by pristine land, and has a bookstore filled with books you could never find anywhere else

Roller Coaster

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The last time I wrote a post, I was singing the joys of having finally settled in to my home in Chennai. I had made some sound relationships, hit my groove on the job, and become comfortable with a healthy, fulfilling day-to-day routine. Everything was finally falling into place, and the roller coaster ride of starting a life somewhere new was finally coming to an end. I thought I had reached that moment when the roller coaster abruptly slows down, as I saw nothing but a straight line ahead of me, and my stomach was finally settling. At that moment, I was on a high from the amazing adventure I had just experienced (moving to India), but simultaneously appreciative that I could breathe easy again.

The higher powers must have been laughing at my words. It turns out that I had only reached the end of the first steep drop – not the entire roller coaster experience. About two days after that blog post went up, I woke up with intense back pain. I waited it out, then tried holistic health, then tried waiting it out some more. No progress. Eventually, I limped to a doctor, who diagnosed a slipped disc and gave me painkillers and a prescription for physical therapy. But the pain just got worse. Two weeks later, I couldn’t walk without tears coming to my eyes.  I checked into the hospital for a full examination. After the first x-ray, they said it was probably an inflammation in the joint due to tuberculosis. A few days later, the tests showed it wasn’t tuberculosis at all, but the degeneration of the joint, most likely due to a tumor. But another week later the final biopsy showed that it was, in fact, just a severe stress fracture and degenerative bones.

It’s not pleasant, but it’s by far the best-case scenario. With medication and rest, I should be walking again without pain in a few weeks.

The diagnostic process took an entire month, lots of time in the hospital, and even more time fighting with insurance. But that wasn’t the most challenging part, nor was the physical pain itself.  The disruption to the routine I had carefully carved out over the past few months brought with it long hours of quiet time to reflect on what had brought me to this point.

In a land where karma is the dominant philosophy, I questioned what I had done to bring on these challenges in the first place? And why my body is so weak that it breaks upon facing conditions that billions of others bare easily every day? Beyond that, how was it that my fluency with the Tamil language had not progressed to the point of allowing me to communicate with the hospital staff? And how did I ever call myself culturally competent – when I couldn’t summon any patience to engage in the long process of  Indian ayurvedic healing?  I felt disappointment in myself, but the more powerful emotion accompanied a hyperawareness of all of the other people limping through Chennai. Not a day has gone by where I haven’t seen someone struggling to walk. How did I never notice a single person struggling with simple steps before I was hurt? And how many other things escaped the blindness brought on by my biases?

I felt like jumping off this roller coaster ride and opting for something less whimsical, less unsettling. Maybe a merry-go-round kind of life: predictable, with no surprises, no sudden jolts or twists. Maybe I just don’t have the stomach for the rollercoaster life. Or maybe it’s the courage I lack.

Ultimately I knew that surrendering to misfortune, illness or bad karma wasn’t an option. So I pushed forward. And just as dawn follows even the darkest night, I can see amazing things beginning to rise above the horizon of despair.  Here are 3 things I’ve learned since I’ve been hurt:

1 – When you’re feeling helpless, help someone. These are the words of Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroic woman who spent most of the last 20 years in some form of detention because of her efforts to bring democracy to military-ruled Burma. When I was feeling trapped and vulnerable inside the hospital, I turned to her story as a source of strength. Ms. Suu Kyi has often said that detention has made her even more sure that she should dedicate her life to representing the average Burmese citizen. While a few days in the hospital isn’t remotely comparable to 20 years of detention, I immediately identified with the sentiment. The vulnerability and uncertainty that I felt in the hospital those days was at best a mere glimpse of the troubles and insecurity faced by the poor and marginalized that make up a huge proportion of the population in India. I came here to play some small role in alleviating those troubles, but perhaps I lost my focus somewhere between the day-to-day havoc of the office and trying to find my identity in a culture so different from my own.  But no more excuses. My situation again allowed me to turn my attention to those less fortunate than myself, and dedicate my time to understanding their needs.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s cure for the feeling of helplessness is so simple, so obvious: help someone else. I’ve started to engage with a grassroots NGO working directly with the poor children from rural areas, supporting them with quality education and soft skill development. Working with this group humbles me and reminds me that I am extremely fortunate to have the capacity to make an impact on the world around me, to do something that quickly and concretely affects others in a positive way.

2 – The guy in the corner at the party is the most interesting person there. Ok, so this one is admittedly a lot less profound than the last one, but it’s no less true. When I got out of the hospital, I was desperate to try to return to a normal life as soon as possible, so I went to a party that weekend. I couldn’t dance or mingle merrily through the room, so I sat on the sidelines and met the only other person in the room who preferred the periphery of the party that evening. Turns out, I spent the evening listening to stories about his annual motorcycle escapades all the way from Chennai to the northeast part of India, where he spends a few months mediating in the Himalayas, then doing advocacy on behalf of the most underserved population in India. His day job is a photographer, so he goes to these parties to watch cross-cultural human connections, hoping to derive a story for his next shoot. I was inspired and fascinated in a way no dance party can normally make me feel.

So, next time you’re at a party with me, look for me in the corner somewhere.

3 – All you need is love. My experiences of the past month breathed new life into an old expression. When I first felt pain, and with that, vulnerability, I didn’t reach out to anyone for help. I didn’t want to burden anyone with my problems. Nevertheless, friends and family sensed that I was in trouble.  My colleagues called me every day to check in and offer support. My yoga teacher came to visit me twice, although we can barely communicate over the language gap. Even the guy who makes the sandwiches in the cafeteria at work noticed my absence, and treated me to a free lunch the day I got back. The physical pain has been almost completely eclipsed by the amount of love that has come into my life in the last month.

In the end, I can’t say I’m happy I got this stress fracture. I miss yoga, the gym, and dancing around my apartment. I miss getting a pain free, full night of sleep. And I miss the freedom with which I made decisions before physical limitation was a factor. But, on the other hand, my relationships have deepened and my senses have been heightened. And I take nothing for granted. In many ways, I have never been more alive. Not a bad tradeoff.

I think the roller coaster life is for me, after all.

 

Kolam competition! (Kolams are geometrical line drawings, drawn around a grid pattern of dots, designed on the spot, and done with nothing more than rice powder.) Too cool.

 

A clipping from the newspaper. Corruption on the left, Gandhi on the right. This could only come from an Indian newspaper.

 

A local store owner using Uniphore's technology to enable mobile voice banking for his customer. No literacy needed, and done in local languages. This is the first bank account this 38 year old customer has ever had. It's this kind of work that makes the roller coaster ride totally worth it.

 

Right next to my house is an enormous garbage dump. To the south, a swamp. To the north, a small slum under the train station. But to the east, a gorgeous beach with perfect palm trees. India is absolutely the country of extremes.

The Luxury of Less

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 I’ve always considered myself an enemy of routine. For the last 6 years, I haven’t lived in the same place for more than 18 months at one time. Even when I do ‘settle down’ for a little while, my city of choice has always been New York, where there is so much to do and so many decisions to make on a daily basis that the word ‘boredom’ is virtually eliminated from a Manhattanite’s vocabulary.

 Naturally, then, after several months in Chennai, I was elated to find out that I’d have the opportunity to attend a conference in India’s capital, Delhi, known as a city of medieval mayhem. I couldn’t wait to explore yet another opulent metropolis, where the women go out at night, the cultural life is thriving, and the stimulation is tsunamic.

Sure enough, Delhi lived up to all my expectations. I spent 5 days bustling in bazaars, visiting cultural landmarks, and meeting fascinating people from all walks of life.  I even took a day trip to the Taj Mahal, and stood hypnotized by the utter serenity of this marble masterpiece.

As if they knew about my insatiable appetite for new things, the people I met in Delhi asked me the same question over and over,  “How do you live in Chennai?”   I typically laughed it off with the response “Hey, I can do anything for a year.” But after several days and many questions, I suddenly blurted out a response that surprised me even more than it did my company:

“Hey, I like Chennai. I miss Chennai. I can’t wait to go home.”

I took a minute to think about what I had just said.  In many ways, Chennai doesn’t have much to offer young women. The heat and imposed dress code leave me feeling less than beautiful, and many of the Chennai natives don’t understand my New York accent. The food, although tasty, is always the same, so different from the melting pot of menus that I found throughout Manhattan. And the social scene is limited to a few bars that are very expensive and far from where I stay. So what was it that I was missing?

In the past, when I have found a place or situation to be difficult or challenging, I would cope by finding 27 different things to do to distract myself. In many ways, it was a lot of fun, and I’ve come away with some great stories. But I was always such an anxious person, terrified of missing out on something or being judged if I didn’t do enough. At times I tossed and turned the nights away, but here in Chennai, sleep has become sounder and my waking hours are filled with a peace that eluded my Manhattan mornings.  I realize that it is the particularities of Chennai that have helped that happen – and that have, against all odds, made me quite endeared to this city.

In Chennai, when I am anxious or unnerved, the distraction strategy is not really an option, as there is very little to do. I find comfort in routine, in yoga and meditation. I immerse myself in reading up on marketing and speech technologies so that I am fruitful and wise at work. I visit with the friends I have made, welcoming their thoughts and the simple pleasures of shared time.

Earlier in my life I found routine dull and motononous. But now I see it as an opportunity.  Before I came to India, my goals fell into a neat little checklist: coordinate a conference, get a 4.0, score that job promotion. But now I long for something more, a true understanding of who I am and what my role is in co-creating a more just world.  True self-awareness in not one of those goals that can play hide-and seek in my life, or that I will be able to cross off the list once I pass a test. Rather, genuine understanding of self and others grows slowly from seed to fruit when it’s given the proper time and attention. A lifestyle of constantly chasing after the expedient never really met those conditions. I was too exhausted from outside diversion to dedicate the time and effort to really looking inward.  But here in Chennai, where life is devoid of distractions, I have ample time to devote to self-discovery.

This week, I finished reading a book on Nationalism by Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian musician and author who became the first non-European Nobel laureate when he was awarded the prize for literature in 1913. When speaking about the different conceptions of progress in the East and West, he said:  “For if the office cannot wait, or the buying and selling, or the craving for excitement; love waits, and beauty, and the wisdom of suffering and the fruits of patient devotion and reverent meekness of simple faith.”

Though Tagore was talking about the identity of a nation, so too is this applicable to the identity of individuals. It’s difficult to develop a stable sense of who we are when we’re multitasking to the point of mayhem, when interruptions become the norm and our sense of self is swept away by constant change around us. Maybe my peers and I have always needed fewer short-term thrills and less emphasis on overscheduling our youth with some productive, resume-building task. Perhaps, instead, we’ve needed more ‘patient devotion’ to self-realization, thoughtfulness, and autonomy.

Living in a city with fewer choices and distractions has helped me to take some long steps on the inward journey of self-discovery and move more deeply into the mystery of our humanity. So too, working in a small startup business with fewer resources has forced me to be more creative. We need to be innovative in designing new ways to affordably enable businesses to work with the poor using our technologies if we are to stay afloat. With a limited marketing budget, but a huge need for outreach, I’m constantly brainstorming about how we can do more with less. Indeed, this experience is a common one in India. The word Jugaad in Hindi loosely translates as “the gutsy art of overcoming harsh constraints by improvising an effective solution using limited resources.” The social enterprise startup is challenging, and sometimes scary, but it brings an amazing sense of adventure and imagination to my life.

Overall, both in my lifestyle and work in this city, the gift of Chennai is learning that less can be a luxury.

So I’m home now, in Chennai, and just in time for the holidays. Of course, I miss the magic of Manhattan’s Christmas season, but I find a quiet joy in embracing the simple and satisfying routine that I have carved out for myself here in southern India. I suspect that this is a joy that will endure long after the few Christmas lights here have dimmed.

Looks photoshopped, doesn't it? Saying it's a 'wonder of the world' is simply an understatement.

One of those moments where you do a double take, and think: "Which one of these things doesn't belong?"

Chawni Chowk bazaar in Delhi.

My marketing and design skills on display at the Delhi conference. Apparently, when you're really proud of something, you can make it look pretty good =)

Losing My Religion

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If I told you that I was raised Catholic, it would be a huge understatement. My Dad was the chairman of the Theology  Department at my Catholic high school, hosted a Catholic TV show, and authored books about the gospels. My Mom, who like Dad, held a Master’s Degree in Theology, wrote a bi-monthly column for the Catholic Press, and for thirty years,  held leadership roles in catechesis and parish ministry on Long Island.  My siblings and I attended Catholic schools, weekly Mass, said grace before meals and prayers before bed.

But by the time I was in the 8th grade, I refused to get confirmed.  It’s not that the words of Jesus weren’t beautiful, but just that human implementation seemed really poor. The lessons preached at Sunday Mass didn’t appear to penetrate the consciousness of most Catholics during the other six days of the week. The crusades, the alienation of gays, the sex scandals of priests, and the refusal to embrace birth control were all signs to me that this religion, which was established to help people love each other, was more often accomplishing the opposite. And, worst of all, Catholics (like people of many other faiths) often embrace the idea that they are the “chosen ones.” They hold the truth about God and the world – and they have the moral obligation to spread their faith and teach others the limitations and fallacies of their own beliefs.

Ultimately I saw the Catholic faith as more limiting than liberating. As I grew up and discovered my own life’s path, I was determined never to embrace any religion. I didn’t want to be part of something that could inhibit my ability to embrace change, or provide a rigid framework for understanding such a dynamic and diverse world.

Right before I came to India, I reconnected with an old friend, Isabella. When we lived together in Spain during our college days, we were both idealistically excited about saving the world through human rights work. That was five years ago. Now, when Isa and I spoke, she told me that she was working at HR at Hewlett Packard.

“What happened?, I asked, We were going to save the world!”

Isa told me how disenchanted she’s been about her ability to make a difference. She feels that money runs the world, politicians are corrupt, and policy change is a glacial process.

“Isa, don’t worry, I’ve got the answer,” I assured her.  “It’s called social enterprise.”

I went on to explain how my field blurs the lines of the traditional public, private and non-profit sectors, harnessing the benefits of all three to create massive social impact. For-profit businesses that cater to the specific needs of the poor provide sustainable, grassroots solutions, I argued. Creating jobs and economic options for the poor will open up their opportunity structure, facilitate their ability to climb the social ladder, and eventually give them a voice in the way their communities and countries operate.  “This is the answer,” I promised.

Indeed, social enterprise is doing some unbelievable things in India right now. Take Uniphore, for example. This week, I designed an impact study for one of our clients, Sub-K. The company works in the financial inclusion space, and they use our Voice Biometrics and Speech Recognition technology to provide mobile voice banking services (like loans, remittances, and savings) to people in remote parts of India. I also collaborated with NextDrop, a company that provides households with reliable information about local water delivery. I worked with them to develop a solution in which Uniphore’s technologies will allow NextDrop to send voice alerts to people on their cellphones when the water is turned on, so they can spend the rest of their day engaging in productive activities. Finally, I spent time developing marketing materials for the upcoming India Telecom Conference, hosted by the Prime Minister of India. Uniphore will be at the conference to engage in a discussion on how voice mobile technologies facilitate socioeconomic development, and to open up the eyes of telecom companies to the major business opportunity of working with us to reach out to millions of rural customers.

That was just my work, at just one social enterprise, in just one week. It’s a microcosm of what social enterprise is doing on the larger scale.

But here’s the kicker: Uniphore doesn’t consider itself a social enterprise. The CEO always presses me with the question “What does it mean to be social?” When I tell him that our business model is derived from our social mission, he responds that he’s simply a businessman wisely tapping a market with a lot of potential. He finds no value in creating a new sector or a new language to discuss what good businessmen have always done. For him, we can try to influence the practices of normal businesses and we can create value for as many customers as possible, but its not a ‘social enterprise.’

Another shock to my system happened this week, when I found out that the Telecom Conference interferes with my week of ‘social enterprise’ training run by Villgro, a social enterprise incubator.  When I made the decision to go to the Telecom Conference, Villgro didn’t support me. In fact, they questioned my commitment, slyly asking, “Why don’t you just quit the social enterprise fellowship and take a marketing position with Uniphore?”

After these two revelations, I thought someone had punched me in the stomach. Three months ago, I moved to the other side of the planet to try and help the poor. I take a low salary. I go home and read development and poverty blogs for 2 hours every night. How could Uniphore not be a social company? And how could Villgro question my dedication to the social purpose of our field?

But then I realized why I was so hurt. I didn’t recognize it when I was lecturing Isabella, but I had embraced social enterprise as my religion. It was the framework I used to understand the world and to claim that I was part of some magic bullet movement. It was the template I used to judge others and to decide what was right and what was wrong. I was even preaching the word, trying to convince Isa, and the CEO of Uniphore, and many others that social enterprise is the ultimate ideology. Unbelievably, I was judging Uniphore for not subscribing to my belief system, and Villgro was judging me for my level of commitment to our institution. Suddenly, I was overtaken with the same uncomfortable feeling that I used to get when I sat in a Catholic mass.

I think that one of our most basic human traits is to crave neat, concrete answers to a complex world filled with very complex creatures.  We develop cognitive frameworks that make us comfortable – that validate our way of living, soothe our anxieties and help us to identify with likeminded others who also subscribe to our ideology. Truth is, we’re social animals who have created religion because we’re hardwired to bond with others through a belief system that soothes us. But sometimes we become so comfortable that we forget to put our ideologies to the test, and we just dismiss information that doesn’t fit into our way of perceiving the world. I was guilty of doing this. So at this moment, I wash my hands clean and start fresh on my agnostic slate.

Catholicism can be a great religion because it’s based on a gospel of compassion and justice Social enterprise is an amazing movement, guided by human rights and sustainability.  In remarkable ways, they both impact the lives of millions of people around the world. But both religion and business have serious limitations because both are made up of human beings, a flawed and limited group.  For social enterprise, the movement may isolate those who will look bad to their investors if their business is focused too much on people and not numbers. Or it may isolate those who don’t believe that economic opportunity is the answer to world’s problems.  Either way, I never want to become so committed to any one ‘religion’ that I can’t see the beauty and effectiveness in other approaches.

At the end of the day, my goal is to help create systems that that limit poverty and foster both development and human dignity.  Social enterprise will be a tool in my toolbelt for helping me to achieve that end. So will my faith. And so will the perspectives of those who disagree with me. But the only religion I can subscribe to is one of constant questioning and reflection. No judgment. Just working hard, learning, and loving.

The Uniphore Team. I fit in perfectly, don't I?

My first purchase in India. I wake up to this every morning. So Inspiring!!

You know you've officially embraced India when you find yourself kissing the Holy Cow

Practicing meditation on the beach, in front of temples that are 1500 years old. Z.E.N.

Poor and Lazy

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The last three weeks in India have taught me a lot about poverty, but not in the way I’m used to learning about it.

I’ve been travelling around the world for the past 5 years. Typically, when I go to the developing world, I go for anywhere between 8 days and 8 months. In the past, I’ve always gone on an American salary, and with dollars to spend.  I went as a student, an analyst, or a fundraiser – an outsider determined to get the inside scoop through empathic listening and copious research.

On these international trips, I listen to the stories of poor people. Sometimes I even stay at their houses for a week or so. I ask questions about their challenges, and I admire their strengths. Then I visit a local cultural center, and make sure to eat the traditional foods. Finally, I head back to the States, and I try to draft a policy or write a grant while the voices of the people are still fresh in my head.

But India is a different story. Three weeks ago, the training portion of my fellowship came to a close, so I’ve started settling in to Chennai. This time, though, I’m not here as a fundraiser or analyst, but as a resident. Any remnants of voluntourism are gone. I will be living here for the next year; one of a billion people participating in the daily bump and grind of the Indian lifestyle. I get paid in rupees, I cook with Indian spices, and I listen to Tamil music.

I make about 500 dollars per month, or $16 a day. Luckily, I also have some savings stored up, and I have a safety net in the US, should anything go terribly wrong.  Plus, I’m white – which means I’m kind of an honorary member of the Brahman, or upper class. So when I evaluate myself against the rest of the world, or even the rest of India, I know that I’m not poor, not by any stretch of the imagination. Compared to my $16 a day, almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.

Nevertheless, I’m living on a more limited income than I’ve ever experienced in my life. I take crowded busses and trains everywhere I go. I can’t really afford nice dinners or a bottle of wine at leisure. When my shampoo runs out, I wait until the next pay cycle to get another one, so that I stay within my budget. I take the cheaper yoga class in a non air-conditioned studio. I bought wireless Internet at home that lasts for about two weeks of every month, because the unlimited option was out of my price range. The adjustment is tricky, but I know that in the big picture, these are small sacrifices, and I’m lucky to afford shampoo, yoga, and Internet at all.

However, with my more limited income, I’ve had this horrible, nagging sensation for the last three weeks. I feel inefficient, lazy, and unproductive. I go to the gym in the early morning, then I go to work. But after that, I’m totally beat. Back in New York, in just one day, I went to work, did 200 pages of readings for class, met a friend for coffee, went grocery shopping, and made time for a quick bike ride on Riverside Drive. Here, by the end of my work day, I feel completely and utterly exhausted.

Why is it that in India, I work twice as hard, but only get half as much done? I think Herman Cain (Republican Presidential Candidate in the US) would tell me something like “blame yourself,” as he did to all the people protesting on Wall Street these days. Indeed, the narrative is a common one all around the world: people who are down on their luck – the poor, the unemployed – are lazy, or not trying hard enough. I understand the perspective to an extent. It’s nice to subscribe to the ideology that being optimistic, entrepreneurial and hard-working guarantees success. That belief has made me the driven woman that I am today. But in the last few weeks I’ve learned that there’s something much bigger behind the rhetorical connections of poverty and laziness.

Most people know about the traditional barriers to wealth. The lack of a good education system, proper health care, clean water, financial services, and accountable government institutions are huge impediments to moving out of poverty. All of these things are important issues that need to be addressed systematically by countries in order to truly change the opportunity structure of marginalized people.

But the way I see it, those barriers are not what keeps people from trying to get ahead. The other part of the poverty equation is not in the systems, but in the day-to-day struggles that people face. Although I will never truly get a first-hand perspective on the challenges of the poor, my change in purchasing power has given me a cursory glimpse of what it is like.

For me, the heat and humidity of Chennai, plus the unpredictable monsoon rains, make me want to be inside as often as possible. I don’t go out and take a class or learn a new skill, because my shoes and clothes will get wet. Yes, I can wash those clothes when I get home, but I can’t dry them in this humidity. I don’t feel like meeting my friends in the other party of the city, because to get to them, I’ll be on a crowded bus in 100-degree heat for 1 hour. I don’t like to buy nice clothes, because the wear and tear of walking on dirt roads and in a highly polluted city means that they will get ruined a lot quicker. Even browsing the web for my favorite blogs is a challenge, because the Internet is slow and unreliable.

All together, this means that in India, I stay in more often than I ever did before. And I get a lot less done. Maybe I am being lazy, and I don’t thrive in adversity quite as much as I thought I did. But my behavior for the past 24 years of my life would suggest that lazy isn’t a characteristic built into my DNA. More likely, I think that the challenges I face on a day-to-day basis culminate in two very real connections between poverty and laziness. Again, these challenges are only a hint of what really poor people face. But it’s nice to be able to talk about my own experiences, and relate them to others, rather than trying to speak for the poor directly, like I did in the past.

The first connection between poverty and laziness is self-confidence. Self-confidence comes from our ability to impact the world around us, and to be in control of our own destinies. But the less money you have, the less choices you can ultimately make. For me, I can’t choose how I get to work. The air-conditioned taxi is not an option, only the public train. For people who are really poor, this lack of choices is a message sent to them 1,000 times per day. They can’t choose where they live, the food they eat, or if they will get soaked by the monsoon. They can’t choose their occupation. In India, many times, they can’t even choose their significant other. These limited options deteriorate one’s self-confidence, and can lead to complacency or inefficiency. Why would someone try so hard every day if they are constantly told that they can’t make a difference?

The second link between poverty and laziness is time. I spend more time doing everything in India. It takes more time to get to work, because the public transport is not efficient. It takes more time to get healthy food, because there’s no such thing as a salad bar. It takes more time to write an email, because the Internet is in and out. It takes more time to clean my apartment, because the bugs and the dirt are particularly pervasive. All the time I spend on those things takes away from the time I can spend harnessing new skills, or building relationships. Every day I spend so much time just keeping up, that I don’t see a lot of time to get ahead. Again, my personal experience is magnified by 100 when speaking about people who live below the poverty line.  All their time is dedicated to making ends meet, and getting the basics in place. When can they possibly start a business or dedicate the hours it takes to learn a new skill?

With less confidence to change their lives, less time to develop skills, and major gaps in social systems – no wonder the poor are sometimes a little less productive than those who are lucky enough to have these things intact. In the end, the “poor and lazy” concept isn’t an accurate one at all; in fact, it is quite the opposite. I find myself in awe of people who, despite extreme challenges every day, and the blunt awareness that things may never change, they keep on keeping on – even if they don’t get ahead. The energy it takes to endure the everyday challenges that poor people do is absolutely astounding to me.

As for me, I’m simply adjusting to new ways of measuring my success and productivity, and I’m figuring out what’s at my core, when all my comforts are peeled away.  Here goes…

Trains in Chennai. Hold on tight!!

After an outdoor festival, my sweat could have doubled the size of the Bay of Bengal

Chennai streets: Cars, autos, and cows…oh my!

Happy Diwali (Hindu New Year)! Does India have any laws against people buying and setting off fireworks wherever they want? Absolutely not =)