Why Swimming Pools Are a Human Right

IMG_6667

Holiness everywhere: A Hindu temple just outside of South Mumbai

The Ganges River is seeped in holiness, tradition and pollution. Each year, millions of Hindu pilgrims travel to its riverbanks to bathe in its holy water and cremate their dead. I have a memory from last summer of floating in a rowboat along the river in Varanasi, watching the Ganga Aarti ceremony with one eye and burning funeral pyres with the other. You can view photos of the Ganges or read about its rituals, but being there is something else entirely because you feel it. This is a sacred place.

However, the Ganges is devastated by the effects of man-made pollution and climate change.

It is no surprise that Prime Minister Modi is leading a national effort to clean up the river. India, as a nation of 827 million Hindus, cares deeply about this river’s longevity.

Despite the political challenges that will invariably occur in the process of the Ganges river transformation, the national will for it to be repaired is there.

Mumbai’s Mithi River, however, is a bit of a different story. On Tuesday, we visited an office of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in Mumbai to learn about the organization’s work to clean up the Mithi River.

The Mithi River runs through the center of Mumbai, beginning from the Powai Lake and

IMG_6687

My new friend Nimish took us to a park on the Arabian Sea

ending in the Arabian Sea. A good portion of Mumbai natives did not even know the Mithi existed until it lead to the 2005 floods, which took over 1,000 lives. This river, although not one of religious significance, is still filled with so much life that its cleanup is also of vital importance.

Mangroves grow on the banks of the river and it used to be an important source of stormwater drainage. The river runs alongside the slums of Mumbai, like Dharavi, and is now used as a sewer and a trash can.

Sitting in the presentation room, next to future economists, engineers and scientists, I noticed that all of my peers were engaged. The problems surrounding the Mithi River showcase how climate change requires all types of expertise to solve. The Mithi River cleanup needs diversity in expertise: from urban planning to political corruption to ecosystems.

Gautam, our presenter at ORF, ended the presentation with a photo of children swimming in the murky water of the Mithi. Smiling and laughing. Just before, he showed us a photo of brown and black waters converging, brown from sewage, black from petroleum.

IMG_6662

Professor Ganguly. Fun fact: while taking this photo, I broke a glass.

“Mumbai only has three public swimming pools and that in itself is a crime,” he told us. “In this weather, everyone should have access to a swimming pool.”

Everyone deserves access to a swimming pool.

I listened and internalized. Although the thought had never before occurred to me, I realized he was right.

Environmentalism keeps proving to me that global warming is as much about human nature as it is about ecosystems.

On this trip, I have jumped at the chance to find air conditioning and familiar looking toilets and bottles of reliable drinking water. These are the realities of extreme heat and poor sanitation and they seem like obvious inequities.

When I grew up in Southern Arizona, May was a brutal month but I had goggles to save me. I spent a lot of my summers underwater, watching the feet of other swimmers as I only stuck my head above for breaths of air.

There is a list of human rights I think everyone should have. It includes electricity, the right to vote and a good education.

To that list, I add one more: a swimming pool in the summer.

 

Posted in 2016 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

People are Flowers and Master’s Degrees are Stars

IMG_6621.jpg

Professor Milind Sohoni of CTARA at IIT-Bombay

Two summers ago, while sitting in a hot, unair-conditioned room in IIT-Bombay I finally got it . There, I learned about the CTARA institute, an advanced degree program for developing rural alternative technologies. I captured a lesson that I carry with me everywhere: caring about climate means caring about people.

To give some context, IIT-Bombay is one of the most competitive colleges in the world. Hundreds of thousands of students take an exam for a handful of spots every year. Once these students are admitted, they could be set for life, using engineering degrees to earn an ample living. Instead, I learned from brilliant people who use their genius to create a better planet and better lives for the rural poor.

As a whole, the experience of being in India in May cements how interlinked human rights and climate issues are. Extreme weather and global warming here is impossible to ignore. It’s the sweat on our skin. It’s the solemn realization that a 12-year-old girl died from the heat waves last month while fetching water.

This morning, Professor Ganguly told us on the bus that CTARA sounds like the Sanskrit word for star. In a way, CTARA is my north star. If you asked me, “When was the moment you really started to care? When did your perception change?” I will always point to CTARA.

IMG_6635

My notes are all webs of connection

Naturally, the lecture from CTARA’s head, Professor
Milind Sohoni, was one of the parts of this year’s itinerary I most looked forward to. His talk was another testament to the idea that everything is connected.

According to Professor Sohoni, climate risk, inequality and a monolithic global culture are all increasing together. His vision of CTARA is a new path forward, one that embraces diverse roles for women, uses science and social science and economics to solve problems and asks engineers work at the micro-level of the community.

Professor Sohoni inspired me for two reasons. First, he was unabashedly optimistic that his vision could happen. Second, he started off his lecture with a story of self. I know a bit about the master’s degree program at CTARA but I also know the words of a lullaby from his childhood.

“What if I hide in the caretaker’s garden? How will you find me?”

“I will become another flower and Baba will string us together in a garland.”

IMG_6636

The flower garland I received immediately after stepping out of the airport in Mumbai

After the talk, we walked to the labs and workshops CTARA runs where they develop the actual technology. On the way, I stopped to speak with a graduate student, Parth, who had been there for a year and a half. His whole demeanor was striking, a permanent smile of contentedness resting behind every word.

One experience typical of CTARA students is a 9-week stay in a rural village, where students implement engineering solutions for the community. Parth was sent to a Marathi village, even though he doesn’t speak the language. He wasn’t phased by not knowing how to speak Marathi and instead emphasized how appreciative the people in the village were.

Before coming to CTARA, Parth decided not to work for a company that sold tractors. He moved out of the agriculture sector and the master’s program changed his life. “A year and a half ago my personality was completely different,” he told me. “I’m not worried about the future. I have everything I need: food and a roof.” Post-graduation, Parth will work for the Ministry of Rural Development.

IMG_6629

Parth and I take a selfie

Hearing Parth talk about being happy with what you have challenged me. I related to the idea of the silliness in worrying about personal success when the real things we need belong to us already. However, he also said, “Every Indian can’t have a car. Every Indian can’t have air conditioning. There just aren’t enough resources. We have to be satisfied with what is.”

I was frustrated. Why? And then I realized he wasn’t necessarily wrong, either. I do not know whether or not to understand the world as it is or to always be fueled by a sense of discontent.

Questions surrounding climate change always involve questions without easy answers, which is why I think that some of the people I admire most work on this issue. They’re the kinds of people that are not afraid of being stumped sometimes.

I left IIT’s campus today inspired and motivated as ever, but this time, with a sincere lack of resolution. The problems feel bigger and bigger and bigger the more I know.

 

Posted in 2016 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Good Luck Charms

Lucky Charms cereal bowl

Twenty four hours before flight 0421 leaves Boston for Mumbai, I raced around my house searching for a good luck charm. My bedroom floor, already a tornado of sunscreen bottles and flowy pants, became even more hazardous as I searched through its very last uncharted territories. I can’t help myself. For better or worse, I am a superstitious person. During all of my co-op interviews, I wore the same dress because I was afraid I would stop getting job offers if I decided on a different outfit. In my journal, I write with the same blue pen. Nicknacks and trinkets give me comfort and continuity.

This is my third time back in India, and you know what they say about three.

Eventually, I settled on the item that would bring me goodwill for this trip: the Star of David necklace my grandma bought for me. Necklaces, in particular, have meaning. For a while now, I have been flirting with the idea of wearing a Star of David necklace every day. What would openly wearing my Jewishness feel like? How would it change my life, if at all? The more I considered it, the idea of luck and this next stage of my life, the more right the choice of necklace shape felt. Wearing the Star of David was something I needed to do.

On last year’s trip, I wore one of my hamsas. To explain: the hamsa is shaped like an open palm and is popular across the Middle East among both Arabs and Jews. It’s supposed to protect against the evil eye and bring power and strength to its wearer. I never knew much about why I wore a hand around my neck; I just did.

However, on the day we visited Mother Teresa’s Tomb, two mystical things happened: the stone in the middle of my necklace fell out. That felt significant. I’d never been in a place quite like Mother Teresa’s Tomb, subdued, otherworldly, hushed. I couldn’t take pictures. In that space, my ward of protection broke down, just slightly. Then, just after we left the tomb and my stone disappeared, our bus driver got into an accident with another bus. In order to stop the other bus driver from leaving and getting away with the accident, our driver laid down on the street in front of the driver, offering the threat of being ran over to prevent the other man’s getaway. Life hung in the balance outside my window. I clasped my deformed necklace. I didn’t know what to think.

At home, in 2016, I put on the gold Star of David necklace. If my religion is providing meaning to small objects, hers is worrying. She was so proud that I’d be wearing my grandmothers necklace until…until..”What about anti-Semitism?” she asked. The question stood between us. I didn’t want to take the necklace off. I still don’t know: is there anti-Semitism in India? The complex thoughts I have about anti-Semitism in the United States did not prepare for me her question or my answer. I took the necklace off.

Instead, I put on another piece of my grandma’s, a mezuzah, which is deeply religious but not as immediately identifiable. Mezuzahs, traditionally, have a scroll of prayer inside of them that declare faith to G-d. Jews are commanded to put mezuzahs on the entrances of their homes.

Here is a list of the things I am not:

  • A Doorpost
  • A Flag
  • A Representation
  • A Master at iPhone Photography

I plan on updating this blog more later with information on the independent research supporting my travel to India (thank you, Northeastern) and our itinerary, but for now, one last thought:

Most times, I don’t know what I believe. If there’s one thing I do believe, though, it’s that I’m bringing something with me to India tomorrow — meaning, a story, a heritage, lots of questions. Five weeks from now, when I fly from Delhi to Boston to Tucson I will carry something, or lots of things, back.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in 2016, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Buildings and Books

Marita selfie-ing by the Taj

Marita selfie-ing by the Taj

At 5:30 am today, the air was cool and damp. The sky was cloudy. We didn’t see the sunrise. Rather, the sky gradually lightened, becoming less eerie and more normal by the minute. The Taj before tourists arrive is magnificent; there’s no other way to put it.

It can be my new fun fact, Kara said. I’ve been to the Taj Mahal twice.

This second time, like a lot of the other second times, I was more in tune. I heard the stories our tour guide, Punam, told us more clearly. I understood the background better. The words were sharper.

IMG_4508

One story stood out, though, at the Agra Fort, just a short drive from the Taj Mahal.

The Agra Fort was built by Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Emperor Akbar. Shah Jahan died in the Agra Fort, imprisoned there by his own son. Although the Agra Fort, sometimes referred to as the Red Fort, is less iconic than the Taj, it remains a striking monument in its own right.

IMG_4552Although Emperor Akbar was a natural at building and imparted some of his architectural genius to his grandson, he was unable to read and write. Instead, he learned the lessons of warfare. Akbar’s father, Hauman, died falling down the steps of the library. Although Hauman’s death probably has more to do with an opium affliction rather than a reading one and Akbar’s illiteracy was probably more about empire-building than suspicion, I like to pretend that Akbar purposely didn’t learn to read. Maybe he was trying to avoid the grim fate of his father.

Unlike Emperor Akbar, the members of this dialogue can’t get enough of reading. The

Shah Jahan's prison view of his mausoleum.

Shah Jahan’s prison view of his mausoleum.

space in our brains we could have used for war-mongering is left open for books.

Personally, I completed five books on this trip. My personal voraciousness was not unmatched. Books accompanied us everywhere, from our bus rides to our hotel rooms. We traded some dog-eared pages for others, knowing what was old to us was new to someone else. When we finished one lent copy, we shared something different than just being in the same place.

It’s an element of this experience that I’ll miss: our collective library. By us and for us.

So, if you wanted to live like the Northeastern 2015 Climate Dialoguer-s, here’s a list of 5 books someone was reading sometime:

This Changes Everything – Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein came to campus in April. Many of the members of the Dialogue were able to see her speak. Pedro read the entire 430 pages during spring break. I gave my finished copy to Kara. Joanna brought hers along as well. Whether or not you agree with Ms. Klein’s politics (I do, I think), there’s a powerful message here: climate change touches everything we do, everything we are. We have to address it.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

Alina brought this book, a gift from her mom. At least two other people here have finished it. When Alina finished “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” she cried. The tears moved everyone around her.

The Argumentative Indian – Amartya Sen

Anything Amartya Sen writes is something I’m usually on board with. Professor Ganguly bought his copy in the Delhi airport.

I Am Malala – Malala Yousafazi

Rache was reading “I Am Malala” on the train to Delhi. Kiera told me, over lunch, “everyone should read this book.” Although we’re not in Pakistan, I think after being here, we can all understand the challenges Malala faces a little better.

Siddhartha – Herman Hesse

Life-changing book on spirituality. We were able to see the Great Stupa and attend Hindu rituals, but these 115 pages give Eastern religions even more context. I gave my copy to Nick Ireland. This book impacted me in a way not many can.

Here’s a list of others, too:

White Teeth

The Second Sex

Flood of Fire

Half A Yellow Sun

Angels and Demons

Born to Run

Love in the Time of Cholera

Norwegian Wood

1984

Middlesex

Slaughterhouse Five

The Red Sari

The Kite Runner

Aloft

Posted in 2015 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Train (of) Thoughts

On the train from Deradhun to Delhi, there’s ample leg room, airplane-style food and time. No wi-fi here, but hours to write, which is something.

After Bangalore, we flew to Kerala and went to the last places I was familiar with: a tea plantation in Munnar, the Arabian Sea. We even had the same tour guide, Glenroy, who inquired about my family and once again falsely promised our group that mediocre food was “lip-smacking.”

And then, I began a completely new trip: Northern India. Home to the Mother Ganga.

Alyssa fans herself during a Rishikesh Hindu ceremony.

Alyssa fans herself during a Rishikesh Hindu ceremony.

(Read that last sentence in your head with a dramatic voice.) In the airport from Cochin to Kolkata, I felt a weird sort of nervous excitement, a little bit of energy. As a mentor, I wouldn’t be able to say “been there, done that,” until Delhi. Gone were the days of lazily wandering through sites without my camera. Along with everyone else, including Nikin, but not including Professor Ganguly, these cities would be new ones, blank slates.

I loved Kolkata more than I thought I would. There, I gorged myself on the glorious street food invention that is a Kathi Roll. Short description: take dough, fry it, crack an egg on top, flip it over, take the egg-fried-bread and fill it with paneer or chicken. Amy, Kara, Rose, Thurston and I decided we’d just risk it. We forgot the days we spent sitting out in our hotel rooms; we ignored the flies hovering around the onions. It was worth it.

Kolkata was also the city where I was able to meet Professor Joyashree Roy, a co-author of the Ecomodernist Manifesto and an inspiration for my academic research.

Another day, we bused to Professor Ganguly’s alma matter IIT-Kharagpur. At the university, after a post-dinner Baskin Robbins run, we met similarly aged college students. They took us all to the river, called us pretty and added us on Facebook.

~

The North was filled with holy cities, which I have some experience with.

During my Alternative Spring Break trip, I pilgrimaged to Civil Rights landmarks across the American South. In the Indian North, I sat through Hindu ceremonies instead, feeling the holiness in another way entirely.

Varanasi was crowded and colorful. Even when the sun barely started its ascent from the horizon, when half of the dogs on the street were still sleeping, we needed to make our bodies smaller to squeeze past the honking rickshaws.

Varanasi Ghat.

Varanasi Ghat.

Hindus come from across the country to Varanasi, to handle their dead and celebrate the Mother Goddess of the River Ganges. Twice, we floated on a boat above buried bodies, not good enough to be cremated in a funeral pyre because of their evil spirits. Across the river, we watched the ritual, dedicated to the river.

The Beatles, Angelina Jolie and my friend Rebecca, who went on a two month yoga learning retreat, have all come to Rishikesh before me. Rishikesh’s claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of yoga. The timing was almost just right. International Yoga Day was July 21, summer solstice.

In Rishikesh, I got lost for a few minutes, when I noticed a sign written in Hebrew. I stayed behind and banged on the dusty locked doors, waiting too long to realize the place wasn’t open. I wouldn’t be celebrating Shabbat in India this time.

My Friday night prayers looked a little different: I sat on the ground in a colorful sea of people, watching the sun set over the river, hearing chanting for an hour, mediating while being alone and not alone.

It was still meaningful. I felt more connected on the ground than I did floating on water. It was better to feel everyone clapping next to me than squint at the funeral pyres.

~

Last night, I had dinner with Kara, Dr. Iacono and Professor Ganguly in Mussorie.

Himalayas there somewhere.

Himalayas there somewhere.

Afterwards, Kara left her key in the game room. Since the room was locked and someone from the hotel had to retrieve the key, the four of us sat outside talking, staring at the stars, sitting on cool marble steps.

Sometimes, the constellations make me feel sad. Professor Ganguly said he’s too busy to feel morose. These pieces of information came to me at different times.

We talked about who would make good mentors for next year, analyzing the ways that people grew. Unsaid was the quiet knowledge that this was one of those last times. I guess last year I felt the same finality, wrongly, of course. But this was different.

For one of the first times in college, I felt old.

~

Count them: one, two, three weeks until co-op starts.

Posted in 2015 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Impossible Equation

IMG_3989

Dr. Rao explaining trenches to us.

In the dark, well-air conditioned room on Dr. Sheshagiri Rao’s farm, the setting is perfect for falling asleep. The other members of our Dialogue and I have seen better days, physically speaking. We smell like sunscreen, bug spray and jars of prescription medication. We just survived a bumpy 3 hour bus ride from Bangalore to the state of Tamil Nadu. Nevertheless, we’re all awake and alert, ready to learn about sustainable agricultural profits during times of uncertainty.

I remember being here, in this very same room last year and being unable to engage. My brain and body were substantially weaker, the connections between agricultural process and the poor’s livelihoods less rigid in my mind.

So, when I look around at my classmates this – the healthy ones, the ones who were ready to come to this farm today – I feel renewed.

A few things to understand about Dr. Rao: he lives and raises his family in a village, trains students from IISc-Bangalore, loves interdisciplinary work, does academic research and owns an agricultural consulting company. Before we even stepped on the grounds of the farm, he tells us about the importance of rainwater.

“When there’s less rain, farmers get poor.”

The farm in Tamil Nadu does not look like it has seen the effects of a bad rain season. It looks like an oasis.

Adrian and Rachi

Adrian and Rachi

Back in the room where Dr. Rao gives us his presentation, he displays two photographs. One is the farm seven years ago. Trees are dead, the ground and air look brown. The second is the farm today: lush and unimaginably green. (Growing up in southern Arizona, I always get excited when I see green landscapes.)

Rain-based farming is inherently risky. India’s monsoons drive agricultural output, yet the climate variability involved means there are no profit guarantees. Dr. Rao, as a consultant, utilizes anticipatory design in order to account for this variability and tries to create other solutions for the farming poor.

He keeps repeating an impossible equation to us: 2+2=22.

Feet on the ground.

Feet on the ground.

What?

Again: 2+2=22.

Dr. Rao’s farm is, in a lot of ways, at the forefront of profit-maximization and innovation. We learn about his use of microbes instead of chemicals, which extract nitrogen from the air and create phosphorous and potassium through an acidic reaction process. He also explains the trenches that are on the farm, too. These trenches, adopted from a USDA technique, get filled up with biomass and later turn into extra-fertile planting ground after it rains.

In addition, Dr. Rao explains Common Sense Net, which he terms “Facebook for farmers.” Common Sense Net provides mobile advice for farmers and their problems, in any language they need. “The reason farmers don’t listen to scientists,” Dr. Rao says, “is that scientists give stupid advice. Scientists give stupid advice because customization is difficult.”

2+2=22 is, if anything, what this man lives for. The farm is a living example of how the sum is greater than its parts.

Out in the field, all of this means even more. As the group of us walks over the soil, our feet sink in to the ground. It’s that rich with nutrients. There are things that Dr. Rao says that I don’t completely fall in love with, especially when he focuses on profit-making. But the pride he has for his land is something seriously special.

While we all stand underneath the trees and look out into rows of farmland, the pride lifts itself from Dr. Rao’s work-calloused hands and onto our shoulders.

The pride travels over to our lunchtime meal, as the village chefs watch everyone enjoy their dal fry and chapatti and miniature bananas. Before we leave, we fold our hands in gratitude and clap for them – a thank you without words.

Selfie with Devashish, our TA! Can you tell I'm happy?

Selfie with Devashish, our TA! Can you tell I’m happy?

The pride follows us out of the kitchen and back onto the bus, where we continue to ask Dr. Rao questions. Questions like: “How many kinds of trees are there here?” “Can there be things that simply aren’t for profit?” “Why do you think it is more difficult to work with wealthy clients?”

Like Dr. Rao, I too am proud. Proud of beautiful land that is not my own, proud of thoughtful responses to challenging presentations, proud of the people who fight climate change from every angle.

I gather the remaining pride left over on our bus, hold it close to my heart, and say goodbye to Bangalore the next morning.

Posted in 2015 | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Engineering Good

First stop: Mumbai. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a week since our Dialogue began. Everything is still new for us, but we’re beginning to get adjusted. We endure a heat that is exactly the opposite of Boston’s most recent winter. By now, drinking two water bottles before lunchtime feels normal. The girls in our group don flowy pants and colorful tunics. Our stomachs are filled with naan, mango lassis and breakfast dosas. We adjust our internal clocks to “India time” knowing that three minutes really means 30.

Nick, Joyce, Rachel, Thurston and Udit getting Noodle Dosas in Powai

Nick, Joyce, Rachel, Thurston and Udit getting Noodle Dosas in Powai

The group had the opportunity to visit IIT-Bombay, one of the world’s premier institutions of higher learning. Although the United States college admission’s process is stressful, it pales in comparison to the entrance exam for the Indian Institutes of Technology. Every year, 1.3 million students compete for only 10,000 spots. At IIT-Bombay, we learned from engineers across the university, all working to address specific challenges created by climate change in India.

IMG_3866Our class toured the nanotechnology lab, food engineering lab and C-USE, the Centre for Urban Science and Engineering. My favorite part of the day, however, was the first lecture by the director of C-TARA. C-TARA stands for the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas. Last summer, my visit there was one of the first times that I clearly saw how civil engineering, climate change and improving the lives of the poor all connect. This year, that view was only reinforced.

The head of the department, Om Damani, offered us a “warm, but not too warm a welcome” and described the basics of their Masters in Technology in Development. The university emphasizes fieldwork, so Masters students spend 9 weeks living in a rural community between their first and second years. According to the director, rural India has not a money or attention deficiency when it comes to development, but a knowledge one. Large urban areas like Mumbai have expensive consulting firms sponsored by places like the World Bank and Ernst and Young that help solve their infrastructure problems. C-TARA seeks to remedy the rural knowledge gap and develop real-life solutions.

Damani also spoke with us about the concept of “appropriate technology.” Climate change is going to require a lot of action, on the part of all of us. Whether in urban Chicago or a village in Punjab, people will eventually need to address warming. But Professor Banarjee let us in on a secret: “People don’t want to change.” Appropriate technology is the idea that adaptation and mitigation innovations should require as a little deviation as possible from people’s normal lifestyles. We learned about an iron twist, that when added to a stove, improves efficiency by 10%-40%.

After our talk with Professor Damani, we headed over to the C-TARA lab and saw some of

The C-TARA Lab

The C-TARA Lab

the machines and tools that are being developed. One exciting innovation was the bricks made out of cow dung as alternative fuel. These bricks are helpful in many ways: from lowering wood logging, to improving efficiency and reducing pollution. Overall, knowing that India’s brightest minds choose to use their intelligence for rural development is extremely inspiring. All day at IIT-Bombay, I was surrounded by some of the most dedicated students and academics not only in India but in the world. Knowing that they utilize their super talents to make the world greener and more humane is something I’ll always take with me.

Posted in 2015 | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment