Monday, May 6, 2013

Rozalia Project Intern Blog: "Throw it in the street and stay inside."

This intern blog is from Glynnis Eldridge, from New York City, whose time teaching in India taught her about people, human rights, the environment and that change is not easy, but can happen.

In a room on a rooftop in land locked Nana, Rajasthan, I spent the spare time of my 19th summer. I taught when I wasn’t there; I tutored English to the women I lived with, and taught Social Science, Environmental Science, and English classes to children enrolled in the elementary school that met downstairs. In my spare time, I tried to teach myself: I wrote and read a little, but more than anything, I spent my time peering from the rooftop, and researching human rights. I learned through observations about Nana’s waste management, sewage systems, and the caste system; how people depended on each other there (some more than others. Some had unbelievable responsibilities instilled in them by way of the unfair social hierarchy that is the caste system). I learned through PDFs made available through spotty internet connections that, like freedom (from slavery and torture), access to clean drinking water and sanitation, and access to education, are international human rights, and are equally important. These were not all available to everyone I was living with. From one person to their neighbor, there were imbalances. 

Right: The view from my room on the roof. Open sewers are visible on the far side of the street. 

There was the boy who worked without breaks. He lived in a stable lined with rice bags and grasses, and was paid in food scraps. He would peer through openings in the walls of my classrooms. I encouraged him to participate in after school activities when he had time. There seemed to be some breakdown of the caste system between him and the school kids. Sometimes I would see him being punished; caught ‘spying’ on my classes, pulled by his ear, kicked in the back, pushed forward. Once he showed me a long cut on the back of his head, which he had gotten, he told me through a kind of gesturing that crossed our language barrier, by trying to cut his own hair. I had brought a box of antibiotic infused bandaids with me from the US, but they were all bright colors. I put a purple one on the back of his head. When I later walked over to the other side of the house, I found the bandaid discarded on the floor. I was scolded through a language barrier crossing gesturing that everyone seemed to understand; a lot of head shaking, finger wagging, harsh tones in voices, like a dog given commands. When I knew him, he was 14. My coworkers told me he had been working for the family who lived in the school building for at least seven years. 
Right: My family in Nana, helping each other up the side of a hill surrounding a small, spilling reservoir, after a storm. 

There were the women I lived with who pulled their headscarves over their faces when they saw their in-laws, or when they left the house. Where I lived, women were not given the liberty to make decisions for themselves about when or where to run errands, to visit with friends or family, to travel, to leave their [husband’s family’s] homes. While I was living there, I was more or less given that same lack of liberty; the headmaster of the school instructed me in our first meeting to, “stay home… for your own safety.” 
It was monsoon season while I was there. The summers in India are known to be “rough”; while experiencing the effects of long standing drought, I see storm clouds passing not so far away. I wonder how they miss us, if storm clouds might be long and narrow in shape. There will be power outages for three hours every day because of the drought. The fans that keep malaria baring mosquitos out of my room will turn off with the electricity, and I will be covered in bites when the power turns on, after the sun sets, in the middle of the night. When the storms do come through, the power shuts off again. Bats fly into my room. There is lightening and our neighbors light candles and nearly burn their house down when they jump, startled by thunder claps.
In Nana, when the storms hit, the rain comes down in sheets and lasts for what feels like hours. There are floods. The open sewers lining every street overflow and wash into the rivers with the rain. Upon visiting the reservoir for much of the state of Rajasthan, it is easy to see the runoff from all of the floods I’ve thus far experienced. At it’s mouth, the water is thick and brown: it’s surface is speckled with garbage and pieces of clothing. 

Right (both photos): The mouth of the reservoir for much of Rajasthan. 

One of my coworkers tells me that her family is sick from the water. I offer her some of the purifying tablets I brought with me from the states, but know this would only be a short term solution. 
The headmaster of the school tells me not to drink the tap water. The doctor I met with before leaving the States told me the same thing, and not to eat unpeelable fruits or vegetables, smoothies made with ice, or anything from a vendor. Already, I feel a moral discrepancy. The headmaster of the school cannot pay me for my volunteer work, and instead offers me a place to stay, and enough shipments of bottled water to last me through my stay at the school. She tells me not to share these 1liter bottles of Dasani. I am a stranger here, and I don’t know what to do. I want to live not as an outsider. Everyone else is getting sick by drinking water from the tap, from wading through their own pollution and the bacteria that grew in their open sewers. I drink the bottled water. I share. I am not careful about keeping the tap water out of my nose or mouth or ears when I shower or wash my face. The family I stay with tells me to use the bottled water when I brush my teeth. I don’t, sometimes. How can I know what it feels like for water to hurt me from the inside out, when I’m abiding by rules of ignorance? 

I stepped out of the frame of the curriculum I had been given for my courses, and decided to incorporate what I could into my lessons about ways to combat the real life problems that I saw; things bigger than language. It started out as a small field trip. I took the fifth graders out to the street one day. I brought with us our classroom’s garbage can and enough pairs of gloves for every student. My assignment to them was simple: let’s look around us, and figure out what doesn’t belong. Let’s pick up the garbage, together. 

Right: A polluted stream that ran through the heart of Nana. 

Within five minutes, the garbage can was filled. It was then that we were met with our next problem: what now? There was no waste disposal system in place there, then. We compiled the waste in garbage bags I had brought with me. I asked my students to decide what to do next; where to take the garbage? Should we get rid of it? If so, how? I told the students that the garbage could not be thrown back into the road, or anywhere where it would could get washed into the river. It cannot end up in the reservoir. 

Right: A sculptural map of the region served by the reservoir. 

When I first arrived in Nana, I had some things with me I had meant to throw away when I was on the train up. I asked the elderly man who lived in the house where I stayed, where I should put my garbage, and he laughed at me, and then said, “throw it in the street.”  

Right: One way New Yorkers take out their trash, by comparison.

The students I worked with did not come up with a final decision during my time with them, about what to do with the garbage they collected. They asked to do this activity when we met every day, and told me that they did it on their own time outside of class. They told me that they talked about the project with their friends and families outside of the school, and that everyone they had spoken with was receptive to the project. By the time I left the school, I felt that the students truly believed that they were personally responsible for the beautification, upkeep, and health of their neighborhoods. 
It is my hope that by participating as a summer Intern with the Rozalia Project, I can learn and reflect on the ways young people view their responsibilities for the health of this planet. I am curious about the solutions that so many of these people might already have. I am hopeful that the students the Rozalia Project meets this summer will (come to) view oceans, rivers, shore lines, neighborhoods, and general cleans up as an interesting, feasible, and exciting undertakings. 

In cities that are nestled against oceans, like New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, it seems to be easier to realize just how close we are to affecting the seas and the rest of the world. In landlocked places like Nana, perhaps it is less easy to make such a connection. Location should be irrelevant. What should be at the forefront of our minds, no matter where we live, is the health of our home. There is water everywhere, and it always leads back to the oceans. What we put in is shared, dispersed. We can also put in effort, and explicit concern for our global, individual, and interpersonal health now and moving forward. We can share that with our neighbors, and they can share, and they can share. 

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