Saturday, 30 June 2007

It's Bollywood, Baby!

All I gotta say is sway baby, sway. Or jhoom barabar, jhoom. In a stark contrast to my experience in rural India, I spent Friday night immersed in the glamour and glitz of Bollywood! A very patient co-worker took me to my first Bollywood flick at the five-floor cineplex, located, of course, in a mall. Although there were no subtitles, I was able to understand what was going on. Because you do not go to Bollywood movies for the dialogue.

You go for the music, the dancing and the show, baby. Just to give you a sample, click here to watch the dance-off grand finale. Now imagine this on a fullscreen and a million decibels louder. That is Bollywood. Don't be surprised if you find yourself bopping about in your seat. I did. My co-worker couldn't stop laughing at me.

Though the costumes are skimpy and the bodies are gyrating, this is actually a G-rated affair. Nothing more than a kiss occurs onscreen. This is typical. Bollywood may be glitzy and risque but it never strays too far for its generally conservative Indian audience.

From mega-malls to rocking ringtones, I have been amazed how important entertainment is here. I am unsure whether this has always been a part of Indian culture or it is a result of the dramatic growth of the consumer class. Apparently, the media and entertainment market is huge and growing fast, especially as the industry targets the lower income segment. Although these folks may not have a lot of cash, there are so many people in this segment that the rupees add up quickly.

Still, it was strange to walk out of the mall and back into the other India. In Bollywood, there was no trash on the streets, no one sleeping on the side of the road, no extreme poverty. When shown in an air-conditioned theater, a Bollywood movie really is the perfect escape.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Lunchbox Love

Remember your favorite lunchbox from grade school? Well, here in India, lunchbox love does not stop at grade 5. Everyone brings their hot lunch or "tiffin" in a plastic lunchbox. See below.
At my office, we have tiffins delivered each day. A local family cooks the food, packs the steel tins and sends all the plastic containers over via bicycle. It usually includes two hot vegetable dishes, rice, roti and cucumbers. Although I never know exactly what I am eating, it is quite tasty. Once you finish, you pack the tins in the box and send it back. No paper or plastic waste, save a few napkins.

For a great story about delivering tiffins in Mumbai, check out this story, Grandma Cooks, They Deliver, from the New York Times. Imagine if grandma's home cookin' was delivered hot and fresh to you everyday. Sure beats Subway.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Visiting Kiosks in Panipat

"Connecting India Village by Village" is the Drishtee slogan and I got to see it for myself yesterday. Along with staff and other interns, I visited two computer kiosks near Panipat in Haryana. After hours of beeps and bumps, we arrived at the first kiosk. Like in rural Africa, these villages are extremely difficult to get to! And, for the first time since arriving in India, it was actually quiet. Weird.

Krishan, the Drishtee entrepreneur, showed us his shop. In a small concrete building, he has two computers, a printer and a small photo studio, complete with fancy lights. He offers the typical Drishtee services but computer classes and digital photography are his specialty. Thanks to renovations, his storefront looks very professional but has cut into his profits. To survive, he and his brothers also earn income through agriculture. Along with a beaming smile, Krishan impressed us with his entrepreneurial spirit and desire to learn (and earn) more.
Here is a snapshot from Davender's kiosk, the second visit. Davender is sitting in the back in the middle. He is a 22 year old Drishtee entrepreneur who teaches computer classes. The three boys in the front are current students who ably demonstrated how to use Microsoft Office. They were also very excited about Microsoft Paint - they drew a Indian flag for us.

In addition to teaching 10 students about computers, Davender sells auto batteries, battery-powered lights and mobile phone recharges. He especially enjoys teaching and wishes he could learn more about computers so he could offer higher-level classes. Davender also keeps it in the family - his dad helped him start the business and the kiosk itself is located in the basement. Because he does not have to pay rent, Davender does earn enough to sustain himself...and a potential family. He is single and looking...
Throughout the day I was impressed with how welcoming the communities were. Like this boy (who was clearly amused with us!), many of people we encountered were friendly and helpful. They also made me realize that family and community are very important components of this business.

By visiting the kiosks, I received a unique glimpse of how people live. Though these two villages felt remote to me, things are getting better all the time. There is concrete everywhere - which means that permanent houses are being built. There were electricity and cell phone towers. And there was even a bit of traffic, though most was caused by large herds of water buffalo. The irony is that these things - concrete, cell phone towers, congestion - are all things that we detest in the West. Maybe we should not always take them for granted.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Bikes, Baggage and Black Eyes

Has it only been a few days? I feel I have aged significantly as a result of driving on Delhi and Noida's crazy roadways. At the same time, it is totally thrilling to cruise around on the back of a scooter. Even though it is 100+ degrees, I have never felt so cool. To get a better sense of driving in India, check out the pictures in this blog, India Ink.

Not much has changed on other fronts. I am still battling with British Airways over my baggage. Even after two more hours at the airport and six hours on the phone and online, I am trying to remain respectful but my conflict resolution skills are being tested. However, I have not yet resorted to chaining myself to the luggage counter at the Delhi airport and screaming obscenities while scarfing down duty-free chocolate and booze.

As for my first weekend, it was great. Being spared "Delhi Belly" so far, I have devoured a wide range of North and South Indian food. I am getting used to the spiciness and eating vegetarian. And the mangoes are amazing!

My sister would also be proud that I have visited the local malls. Not my first choice but I really needed underwear! It was amazing; 5 floors of consumer goods, complete with movie theaters, beef-less McDonalds (Home of the McVeggie Burger and Chicken Masala Big Mac) and distorted Celine Dion blasting in the background.

Last but not least, I have two black eyes. Through my work colleague, I have connected with the ex-pat scene in Delhi. Along with young "representatives" from the Russian, Canadian, Dutch, U.S. and Australian embassies, I played Ultimate Frisbee on Saturday afternoon in a gorgeous park in Delhi. Thanks to a head-on collision (literally), I smashed up my nose and now look quite thuggish. But at least I have clean clothing!

Friday, 22 June 2007

What is Drishtee?

I have never had to wear a uniform. I did not go to private school and I have not worked at McDonalds or Best Buy. However, after four days in the same clothing, I feel like I have an unofficial Indian uniform. I did purchase a new shirt so I look more local (and smell less pungent) but still waiting on British Airways for my luggage…

On a more positive note, I have learned a lot about Drishtee, the organization I am working for. For your reading pleasure, I have added a few links with stories about what we are doing as well as a link to the main page. Although the initial focus was on technology, Drishtee now uses a wide range of models and products to make a positive impact on rural villagers in India. Using a network of 1500+ local entrepreneurs, we provide everything from cell phones and reading glasses to loans and computer classes. The photo above is of a Drishtee computer kiosk.

For my summer assignment, I will work on our English and computer education. For less than 20 U.S. dollars, we provide two months of beginning or intermediate English education, including classroom teaching, computer learning and interactive exercises. For less than 100 U.S. dollars, we provide an array of computer education classes to help villagers become more familiar with computers or to prepare more experienced students for careers in programming or web design.

I will primarily work at Drishtee’s headquarters in Noida, right outside of Delhi. I will also visit many of our rural kiosks to better understand the reality of these operations. I hope to sit in on a class or two…maybe I will learn more about Excel than I did in Modeling Class last year. Just kidding.

As for right now, I am asking lots and lots of questions. Luckily, everyone at Drishtee is more than willing to put up with my endless queries. Let’s hope they do not get tired of me.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

In a Cow's Eye

I have finally arrived in India. I got in at midnight last night, only to find out that my bag did not make it. British Airways says that it could be two days, maybe three. Who needs clean clothes anyway - especially when you are hot, sweaty and dirty!

The apartment is fine, complete with a few more roommates than I initially expected, including the 6-inch cockroaches that habitat the bathroom. After a more restful night (beds are much more comfortable than airport benches!), I headed off for the first day of work. It was the craziest commute I have ever had. Cars, buses, scooters, motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians, dogs, goats and cows going every which way, all honking, barking or mooing at once. I rode a motorized rickshaw - packed with people - and very rickety. I thought I was going to die. But the best part - I saw a three-eyed cow. The poor guy was sitting up in the back of a gaudishly-decorated cart, mooing away as everyone came up to admire him. I could not tell who was more freaked out - the cow or the observers. You cannot make this stuff up.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

First Night

Ah, the adventure of modern travel. I will spend the first night of my journey to the London Heathrow Airport. Thanks to inexplicable delays on behalf of British Airways, I missed my connection to Delhi and cannot fly out until tomorrow morning. Of course, they claim that all the hotels in the area are booked (something about Ascot?) so I must take comfort in fake leather, lipstick-red lounge chairs, under a canopy of odd flourescent lighting. It should be restful.

But I am not alone. There is a crew of us...refugees of delayed flights, fully outfitted with contraband airplane blankets and those silly masks they give you. Plus, British Airways has generously provided us with multiple vouchers for food (or booze) so a group of us have congregated at the "cafe". One Italian, one Scot and one other American (who is headed to South Africa to volunteer with HIV/AIDS survivors). Many glasses of wine. Great conversation, great times. We will see how much sleep I get tonight.