Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Off Again

I apologize for the recent lack of posts. Work has gotten the best of me for the last few days. That, and a game of frisbee in monsoon rain, a birthday bash for a one-month old baby girl and a morning spent watching "ear cleaner" entrepreneurs on the street in Old Delhi. Yes, there are men who make a living cleaning out other people's ears on the street.

I am headed off to villages in Uttar Pradesh tomorrow. I will be away for a few days but there will be plenty of posts when I return. As I am immersing myself in my summer project, I will write about education in rural India. Here are a few photos to get you thinking on the topic.

(Class size? Desks? Resources?)

(Slightly more labor intensive than a water fountain)

(It is the middle of the morning and none of these guys are in school...)

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Would You Like Some?

When was the last time that you offered some of your food to the person sitting next to you on the airplane? Or invited a complete stranger in for tea or coffee?

Since coming to India, I have yet to sit next to someone on a bus, train or plane who has not offered me some of their food. While I did decline the strange cheese sandwich soaked in ketchup, I appreciated the gesture. At the office, the women I eat with share all their home-cooked food with each other and me. And in shops, villages and homes across India, I have sipped free chai, simply in exchange for conversation.

The greatest irony is that we super-size everything in America but we rarely share with strangers. In fact, I do not even know how I would respond to such food offerings if I were in the States. Just remembering all the Halloween horror stories of razor blades in apples makes me never want to accept “unwrapped” food! But what a loss that would be here.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Thanks for Leaving Me with 14 Kids

Forget about Clark Gable or Amitabh Bachchan (the most famoust Bollywood star). The original romantic was Shah Jahan, the Mughal ruler who built the Taj Mahal. He was madly in love with his second wife, Mumtaz. Not only beautiful, she was a busy woman. She bore him 14 children. Wow.

Tragically, however, she died while giving birth to number 15. Shah was so distraught that he constructed the Taj in her honor. It is the most gorgeous grave I have ever seen. Though a hulking piece of marble, it has an elegant, almost ethereal presence in person. The detail is also exquisite, from the tiny gemstone flowers inlaid in marble to the detailed calligraphy on the walls. And, with its perfect symmetry, the Taj is simply breathtaking. My photos fail to do it justice.

With a group of other Stanford students, I watched the sun set over the mighty Taj this weekend. But the best part was inside. You cannot wear shoes so you walk in on this soft, warmed marble. You enter this dark octagonal chamber where wisps of light lie gently on the two graves of Mumtaz and Shah. So perfectly serene, it feels holy.

Of course, then you remember that they had 14 kids. So their lives were never serene. They say that Shah’s hair went gray because of Mumtaz’s death. Or maybe he was just freaked out about raising all those kids!

(Shah Jahan, before his hair went gray. Unfortunately, Mumtaz's death was only the start of his troubles. His own son would later imprison him for life. Just your typical dysfunctional ruling family.)

Monday, 23 July 2007

Young at Heart

You are never too old to make a difference. This is what I learned from Mamaji and Dr. Hamilton.

These two men are wise in their years, but young at heart. While their peers have long since retired, they are still working actively to help rural villagers in India.

Mamaji (Hindi name for mother’s brother) is the uncle of Drishtee’s founder, Satyan Mishra. So he is Mamaji to everyone. He was our host for the week in Bihar. In addition to keeping me fed and sheltered, he entertained me with his stories. And his deep, full body laugh is infectious.

One day, Mamaji and I took a walk through his village. It was raining slightly so we strolled along under umbrellas. We talked about the challenges faced by villagers, especially the lack of opportunities for education and employment. We discussed the lasting impact of the caste system and gender inequalities. Even though he was raised in a very different culture, Mamaji never treated me differently.

(Local High School)

Mamaji has the ability to speak volumes with just a few words. When I asked for his opinions on government, he pointed to the gaping potholes in the roads, showed me a dilapidated building that was supposed to be a high school and asked, “Is this government working?”

Dr. Hamilton is Mamaji’s foil. He is the primary doctor on the Drishtee healthcare project. Though he has a home in Delhi, he has decamped to Bihar to get this project off the ground. He has spent his entire career in the rural health sector, helping villagers who did not have access to appropriate care.

(Dr. Hamilton at work with a patient, John in the background)

With Dr. Hamilton, I was most impressed with his resilience. I wondered how he could spend his entire life fighting such an uphill battle. Wouldn’t it have been easier to stay in Delhi and open a private practice? But he chooses to do this work because it is what inspires him and he can have an impact.

Together, Mamaji and Dr. Hamilton are a dynamic duo. They can talk, laugh or argue until the wee hours of the morning. I could barely keep up!

Thank you to Mamaji and Dr. Hamilton for reminding me that you can make the most out of every stage in your life.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Mad for Mangos

This fellow was one of my favorite patients. He is an elderly individual seeking treatment for a variety of conditions, including diabetes (which is a growing problem in India). While he wants to take care of himself, he also admitted that he eats mangos every once a while. When the doctor reminded him that this was a no-no, he explained that he already knows the date he will die and he wants to enjoy the rest of his time. Which means eating mangos.

I see his point. Though I do not mean to trivialize his diabetes, the mangos here taste extraordinary. Not worth dying for, but pretty darn close.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Mobile Healthcare

It is not a fast moving ambulance. But it gets the job done.

In Bihar, Drishtee is piloting a project to bring proper healthcare to villages through a for-profit model. Using the ambulance as the roving office, we set up camps in different villages every day of the week. Under a plastic canopy, the doctor sees patients, completes basic tests (e.g. blood pressure) and writes prescriptions. The villagers pay about a dollar for immediate care.

Although Drishtee costs more than free government health care, villagers are wiling to pay to avoid traveling far and losing a day of work. There are also quality concerns at the government facilities; villagers may also have to wait or may not actually see a doctor. In fact, many folks end up using the local chemist (pharmacy) as their primary care physician. This often results in inaccurate diagnoses and inappropriate prescriptions.

There are challenges to this model. First, we have to continue to educate the customers about the importance of health care and encourage them to be proactive. Often, people wait until their condition becomes so insufferable that they need extreme (and expensive) treatment.

Second, there are financial constraints. A patient may be able to afford the consultation but the prescription drugs are too expensive. We are trying to collaborate with local chemists but there are real trade-offs involved. Finally, there is an urgent need for health insurance. Ultimately, health is unpredictable and communities are better off if we can pool risk to protect individuals. But this requires convincing people who have very little money to spend it on an intangible product that does not feed or shelter them. Drishtee is also working on this but it is an uphill battle.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Outsourcing, Village-Style

Most of the outsourcing in India takes place in and around cities. It is a huge industry, bringing in lots of revenue and aiding in the development of a class of higher-skilled workers. At the same time, it also increases the divide between wealthy urban and impoverished rural India.

But Drishtee is doing something about it. This week, I went on an unusual business trip to Bihar, the poorest state in India. After a grueling 26-hour overnight train ride and 2-hour bumpy car ride, we arrived at our Drishtee outpost in the middle of nowhere. Amidst mud roads and reed huts was a one-story concrete building with 20 intact computer workstations. Through a unique bio-generator and VSAT satellite technology, there is power and wireless Internet (most of the time!). Take a look.

The program is remarkable. Drishtee provides a vocational BPO school. Students in their late teens or early twenties enroll in a three-year program. They receive intensive computer training at the outset and then learn by working. While working, they are also paid for their efforts.

At the moment, the group was working on data-editing. A company in Australia had scanned millions of books onto CDs. They sent the CDs to Drishtee to be checked for minor formatting errors. The BPO staff will go through every page of every book, make changes as necessary and send the CDs back to Australia. They will be paid based on completion and accuracy.

This model is amazing because it creates real economic opportunity in the heart of the rural village. There are limitations – the start-up costs are high (so tuition is higher than most can afford), it is difficult to get resources around here and there are no experienced managers available locally – but it is a great start.

I do not intend to start a debate on outsourcing on this blog. I will say, however, that this outsourcing project has the potential to truly change lives in this village. Young people can work, develop skills and bring in outside capital – all of which is likely to raise the standards of living for the community.

Here is a picture of Pankaj, one of my co-workers who is overseeing the project. Recognizing the limited experience of the BPO students, he came in from Delhi to ensure that they are properly trained and prepared to do the work. While aware of the operational challenges, he also recognizes that these students are absolutely committed to doing the best job they can do. Pretty inspirational stuff.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Monsoon Schooling

I took a great class on design at Stanford last year. I learned that you actually have to observe people to understand why they do what they do. Sounds simple but we do not apply it enough.

This is especially true when it comes to matters that we are less familiar with. Like rural India for me. I had learned that there is lower participation in services during monsoon seasons. People do not go to school or the hospital or the shops as much. Having seen the pictures of the flooded roads, I understood why.

Or so I thought. After spending last week in flooded India, I realize that the problem is not the roads. People are not going anywhere because they are all in the fields. Children, adults, the elderly. Whether wading through rice paddies, plowing with oxen or riding tip-top on a water buffalo, everyone is out there working hard from dawn to dusk. There is no time for school or medical treatment.

Putting aside extreme examples like sweatshops, child labor is no simple problem. In rural India, children are needed in the fields and rice paddies. They hoe, seed, plant and pick. And they manage the water buffalo, riding on their backs, usually carrying umbrellas that shield both sun and rain.

To their credit, many schools have tried to bring children in by offering free lunches. This has been somewhat successful though children often “have” to leave right after lunch. Until education proves to be a sure means through which families can improve their situations, the flooded fields will be flocked with kids.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Friendship 4 Sale

I spent the weekend in Udaipur, the Venice of India. The small city is in the heart of Rajastan, the land of traditions and…moustaches. Yes, the men wear the kind that point up at the end. Means they are strong.

I traveled alone and everyone was incredibly friendly so I met lots of people. One of the more interesting charactrers I met was Mukesh, who was a tour guide at the City Palace, the famous palace of the Mewar rulers. For a few bucks, I received a fabulous personal tour of the palace. Plus, Mukesh and I connected - we chatted about politics, culture and families.

At the end of the tour, Mukesh invited me to meet his wife and daughter. A few hours later, he picked me up on his scooter and we visited his home on the outskirts of town. Sitting like majarajas on their bed, Mukesh, his wife and I chatted, had chai and watched a Bollywood movie. And his five year daughter showed me her schoolbooks and favorite dolls. All was going well until Mukesh mentioned that his wife made jewelry. She pulled out boxes, spread her wares across the bedspread and the hard sell began.

Ultimately, I ended up buying a necklace. But I felt so uncomfortable. And disappointed. Maybe I was being naive, but I thought that I was slightly more than a customer. Perhaps this is unfair of me, especially considering the differences between our situations.

But I refused to let the incident ruin the evening. When Mukesh dropped me off, I told him that I neeeded to talk with him. While recognizing that we are from different cultures, I said that I would have appreciated it if he had let me know that his wife sold jewelry. He listened carefully and responded that he did not mean for me to feel pressured. We talked through the incident and the differences between our cultures. He noted that his wife was a stay-at-home mom who did not sell in the markets, only in their home to her family and friends. And I told him that I was more used to buying things in stores where the transaction was a little less personal.

In the end, I do not know whether Mukesh understood where I was coming from. But I felt so much better after our conversation. When it comes to complications of culture, some things are not better left unsaid.

By the way, if you are ever in Udaipur, please look for Mukesh. He is a local treasure. Also, for all you James Bond fans, check out the photo below. You may recognize this from Octopussy...

(In case you were wondering, I did not stay at this hotel. Very expensive. But I did stay at the Mewar Haveli which I recommend highly!)

Saturday, 14 July 2007

POV of Poverty

All in all, my visits to the villages this week were amazing. I believe that the village-by-village approach to reaching the underserved through local entrepreneurship has tremendous potential. It works in microfinance, it works with cell phones and it works with Drishtee. However, it is unbelievably hard work.

It is not easy to travel to these villages. They are far away from stores, services and information. Access to electricity, water and indoor plumbing is limited, if at all. The schools are simple concrete blocks with kids hanging out the windows. For primary schools, there are no teachers, just babysitters hired by the government. Secondary schools, along with hospitals and other critical services, are kilometers away.

The villages are full of young children, mothers and elderly people. All of the able single men and women have fled to cities for better jobs. Any men who remain are unemployed except for agriculture or spare work. Everyone is at the mercy of the climate and environment.

Everyone lives on less than 2 dollars a day. While it is true that 2 dollars goes a lot further here, that is still only $730 a year. The average summer MBA intern at Stanford makes that much money in 2 days. 2 dollars a day or a year’s income in 2 days. What a contrast.

Several times, I would meet with the entire village after my interview with the Drishtee entrepreneur. Someone would drag out a plastic chair and fifty people would sit around me. With the help of Drishtee staff, I would share that I was a “student from America who studies MBA” and “works with Drishtee in villages across India”. I would also thank everyone for their hospitality and tell them how beautiful India was. I felt like a politician but people seemed genuinely appreciative.

In one instance, an elderly lady raised her hand and respectfully asked me what I could do to help her village. Taken aback, I responded as best I could. I told her that I would share the stories of the struggles they faced with Drishtee and with people I knew in America. She seemed okay with my response but I felt useless and helpless.

Regardless of how many villages or slums I have visited, I find the extreme poverty to be overwhelming each time. At this point in the blog, I should propose an innovative idea that would solve these issues. A breakthrough social business that stimulates economic development. Or a revolutionary model to effectively use aid monies. Or a mechanism to improve governement efficiency and transparency. Instead, I just feel exhausted and out of ideas. All I know is that I was born lucky and I wish that all kids had the same opportunities that I had.

Friday, 13 July 2007

You Go Girl

Drishtee is testing different models to determine the best way to reach rural villages. The original model is a computer kiosk franchise. Drishtee works with the panchayat, the local self-government, to set up an introductory meeting in the village. They educate everyone about Drishtee. They then identify a self-starter who takes out a loan to purchase a Drishtee license, along with a computer, digital camera and printer. He or she then sets up a kiosk and offers a range of services, ranging from computer education to photography to retail servies (e.g., car batteries, hand-crank lanterns, mobile phone recharge coupons). Drishtee is responsible for distribution and delivers the product to the doorstep of the kiosk.

More recently, Drishtee has piloted a new model that is more like Amway or Avon. Working with the panchayat, they identify a woman in the village who is interested in supplementing her family’s income through sales of products and services out of her home. This is somewhat revolutionary as most of these women have never officially sold anything. With very low barriers to entry, this Drishtee model offers women a unique opportunity to empower themselves and learn valuable skills. Plus, Drishtee believes that these women may end up being more credible, and therefore, more profitable salespeople. Although new, this program has demonstrated success.

Who are these women? Some are married while others are single. Most have had some high school education and many are in their early 20s. Some are older and have children, including young sons and daughters who are eager to help Mom out. Almost none have previous work experience beyond household responsibilities so Drishtee offers training and ongoing support. In addition, Drishtee recognizes the role of the “operating partner” or a leading male in the family such as a husband, father or brother. By officially including the operating partner, Drishtee ensures that women are permitted to participate and encourages collective learning that leverages the partner’s previous experience. At the same time, Drishtee pushes the operating partner to let the entrepreneur take the lead.

One of the more inspirational women I met was the Drishtee entrepreneur pictured above. She was a mother who possesses natural charisma. With her wide smile and support from the District office, she has established a thriving business within a few months.

Meeting her made me realize that the definition of entrepreneur is broader than I initially understood. You do not necessarily need a business plan, powerpoint presentation and millions of dollars in seed capital. Instead, you need a real opportunity, personal initiative, external support and equal parts energy and hope.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Villages, then Venice

Sorry for not posting more this week. I have been visiting Drishtee entreprenuers in rural villages. I have lots of stories to tell but I am heading off to Udaipur, the Venice of India for the weekend. So you will have to make do with a few pictures...just a snapshot of what is to come...

The District staff, also known as my tour guides and interpretors.

A business meeting, complete with calcuations and chai.

A new Drishtee entrepreneur explaining what services are needed in her village.

Me with a Drishtee entrepreneur and her family.

A young computer student.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Take A Ride

One of my co-workers feels that this blog has been a bit down on India. So he told me to take a ride…on the Delhi Metro.

It was amazing. In case you haven’t heard, the Delhi Metro is a screaming success story. There is limited service now but there will be more than 270 kilometers of rail connecting the city by the time the project is finished. Not only is the construction on-time and under-budget, but I actually enjoyed my ride on the Yellow Line. The station was clean, the maps were clear and the cars were air-conditioned.

More importantly, the Delhi Metro is being cited as an example of business and government working together to make things happen. And it is inspiring action across the country. The genius behind the metro is a 74-year-old yoga-loving engineer and railways expert, Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, who has demonstrated that he can get it done by ably managing his cash, staff and process. The construction has been environmentally friendly and they are ensuring handicap accessibility. But what is most impressive is that he is doing all this construction under a bustling city! Click here for an interesting article on Elattuvalapil.

Not that there hasn’t been controversy. Some neighborhoods are concerned about having elevated tracks and current ridership numbers are lower than expected. People are still riding those crazy buses! But, overall, the process has been a smooth ride (bad pun intended).

Unlike the harried experiences of scooters, rickshaws and buses, I arrived cool, calm and collected at my destination after my Metro ride. And all for less than 20 cents. Maybe we could convince Elattuvalapil to come to New York to help with the Second Avenue line.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Exploring Old Delhi

John and I spent a day exploring Old Delhi this weekend. What a contrast from what we have seen so far. We first made our way through the maze of markets, sneaking through spindling rows of stalls, selling everything from light fixtures to spices to prescription drugs. You could spend hours in this labyrinth, trying to absorb the sights and sounds. My favorite players in this symphony of chaos were the chai boys, scurrying about delivering cups of tea.

We then explored Delhi’s Red Fort, a palace and fortress built by Shah Jahan, another Mughal emperor (see photo above). It was a fantastic monument and I realized again how complicated Indian history is. So many people from such different backgrounds, religions and cultures call this place home. A museum within the fort had an exhibit on the struggle for independence; it revealed the story of Nehru, Gandhi and the others who fought courageously to call their country their own.

We headed next to Jama Masjid, Delhi’s famous mosque which can hold more than 25,000 people in its courtyard (see photo above). On the walk, we cut through a “park” which has been transformed into informal housing. It was basically a shanty-town. It was one of the most difficult things I have seen so far in India. I did not take pictures – it was so dirty, poor and depressing that doing so felt exploitative. Everyone was living in absolute filth, including small children forced to entertain themselves by begging, searching for food or throwing rocks at stray puppies. The most shocking thing, though, was an infant sleeping in a bag. Hanging off a railing in a piece of cloth that looked like a plastic bag, a tiny infant was crunched into a ball. When I first looked, I thought the baby was dead and was being thrown away.

As I climbed the steps of the mosque, I wondered how we, as human society, have failed these communities. At the top, I looked out over the city and felt angry at our institutions - governments, businesses, NGOs, churches, schools, hospitals and more - because we have not figured out a way to meet the basic needs of every child born: all deserve food, water, shelter, medical care, safety and love.

Friday, 6 July 2007

A Purple Cow at Drishtee

Drishtee is a remarkable organization. While the first priority is the village communities that we work with, our founders have also established relationships with powerful business and social leaders across the globe. And these friendships have benefits.

This week, marketing maven Seth Godin visited Drishtee. He is a Stanford Business School grad who has published several business bestsellers including Purple Cow, Permission Marketing and All Marketers are Liars. His most recent book is The Dip. He normally commands thousands of dollars in speaking fees but he is such an avid supporter of Acumen and Drishtee that he came to us.

Seth spent several hours at the head office before heading out to the village kiosks. He recognized Drishtee for its vision, innovation and courage in taking on the challenges of working in rural India. At the same time, he asked tough questions and challenged Drishtee to be extraordinary. To make a difference, we have to be great.

Having Seth here made me realize that people are almost always an organization’s most critical assets. As we develop models that use markets to create social value, we have to enrich the human capital within these organizations, especially if we want them to grow rapidly. It sounds strange but we need to focus more on middle management; as these social businesses grow, lots of less-prominent leaders need to be trained and supported to ensure ultimate success.

For another great article on Drishtee and the Acumen Fund, click here.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Shotguns and Staches

There is nothing like a double-barreled shotgun to spice up the morning commute. On my walk to work, the man next to me was carrying a rifle. I assume that he is a security guard as they are everywhere in India. At offices, ATMs, restaurants, malls, stores and government offices. The only place I have not seen guards is bathrooms. Funny, as I have found toilet paper to be a rather valuable commodity here.

Like South Africa and other countries I have visited, private security services is big business. Click here to find out more. However, unlike the other countries, guards seem to carry double-barreled shotguns as often as semi-automatic weapons. I can't decide whether this makes me feel more or less safe. However, I am more disconcerted by the protocol of toting the gun around while off-duty. I keep imagining some guy bustling through Times Square on his way to work with a shotgun on his back while all the tourists are freaking out. What a scene.

By the way, the guy in the picture was NOT the security guard I saw this morning. I just liked the photo. This is Kewal Krishnan, another security guard who was famous for his 15.7 inch moustache. His stache may be more intimidating than his shotgun.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Dynamic David and Awesome Acumen

I am bummed to report that my colleague / boss, David Lehr (pictured above), will be returning to the U.S. soon. David has spent the last 8 months with Drishtee as part of the Acumen Fund Fellows Program, which places individuals with social enterprises all over the globe.

What is Acumen Fund? Acumen is a unique organization in NYC that was founded by Jacqueline Novogratz (also a Stanford Business School grad!). Acumen is a “
non-profit venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of global poverty.” Simply put, they want to use business to end poverty. Acumen provides direct investment as well as business support (people like David) to budding social enterprises from Nairobi to Noida. For more on Acumen’s investment in Drishtee, click here.

This business doing good stuff is exciting, especially as I watch it happening here in India. Though I am a bit wary of big business, markets are being used to get good and services to communities that would not otherwise have access. Even the potential for profits makes everyone pay more attention. Like successful businesses, these approaches should be sustainable over time, thereby encouraging long-term economic development within communities. Of course, there are complications, especially because businesses tend to have a lot more power than the poor. Social entrepreneurs are trying to strike the right balance between making a profit and having a positive impact.

In addition to its noble pursuit, Acumen has attracted great people. Consider David’s story. After a few successful years in Silicon Valley, David made a dramatic career switch. Realizing that technology could be used in innovative ways to encourage development, he stepped off the fast track to work in social enterprise and international development. Like the other Acumen Fellows, he has spent the last year helping Drishtee develop its business and increase its impact. For more on David, check out this video interview. As for life after Drishtee, David is still figuring out what he will do next. Whatever happens, he is confident he will remain in this field because he, like me, believes that it has tremendous potential.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Monsoon Season

Monsoon season is here. After hours of endless sun, the sky has broken and the rains have come. Luckily, we are spared from constant downpour here in Delhi. Instead, there are occasional bursts that drench everyone for fifteen minutes and then subside. Everyone seeks shelter under some form of plastic but, generally, everything gets wet. The positive side is that it all feels a bit cleaner and cooler afterwards.

We have it better than the rest of India. There is extreme flooding in Mumbai, Kolkata and other areas in the South. This picture was taken yesterday in Kolkata. There have been hundreds of deaths and extensive damage. And, for the most part, those who are most affected are least prepared to recover. More on the monsoon to come...

Sunday, 1 July 2007

The Ladies Compartment

No, I was not on this train. But you gotta love this photo. And you may notice that you do not see a lot of women. They are probably sitting in the "Ladies Compartment." Let me explain further.

On Saturday, my new roommate, John and I ventured into Delhi for the day. John is a fellow Drishtee intern and business school student who is equally clueless about India (I mean this in the best way John!). We make a great pair. Anyway, we decide to take one of the buses, which generally barrel through town at ungodly speeds, blasting their horns while people hang precariously out of the sides. No signage indicates where a bus stop is or where a bus is going but we found a crowd waiting on the street. Sure enough, several buses arrived and we found a ride to Delhi. However, the driver started arguing with a group on the street so we promptly piled off the bus and onto another bus. Then someone yelled at us to take another bus. We unloaded and loaded again.

As John and I squished in the back, I began settling in for a warm, cozy ride. Then someone motioned to me to come forward. Climbing over tangled limbs, I made my way to the "Ladies Compartment," a sectioned-off area in the front of the bus. It was quite remarkable. I mean, it was still hot and dirty but there were decorations and, more importantly, seats for all. And the women all smiled at me. It felt much friendlier than the back of the bus.

Apparently, this is not unusual in India. On many buses and trains, there are separate seats or compartments for women. While I enjoyed the ride, I also struggled with the fairness of the situation. Why should John have to stand but I get to sit? Or, more compellingly, why should an older Indian man have to stand while I sit?

As a feminist, I am unsure how I feel about this separation of areas, especially in a society where women are not always considered equal to men. It was too hot and I felt too uncomfortable to protest so I sat in the Ladies Compartment. I also understand that there are safety reasons in certain situations but I felt completely safe in the back of the bus. Ultimately, I was left wondering about this custom - is it chivalry or chauvinism? Or a combination of both?