Sunday, April 27, 2008

So many people in my life are struggling with either potentially compromising health issues or career problems - or both, sometimes compounded with tricky personal stuff to boot. It really seems to be a rough kind of life out there.

These days I wake up and try again and again each day to remind myself that, in fact, this seems to be the way life actually is. Life is suffering. In one way or another this is the truth - a Noble Truth in fact. Without reminding ourselves of this simple concept we can easily fall into an awful trap - believing that life can be any other way. Or, more damagingly, that life should be some other way. This is not to exclude joy or wellbeing - we can have that too, on many levels. As we change and the world around us changes however, even these things are transient - in themselves therefore potential sources of pain, discomfort, disappointment and suffering. Accepting this scenario as the likely reality is in many ways not only the path of least resistance but also a beginning of wisdom and a path to a fuller joy. Right now, to me this seems to be our reason here.

One way and another I have ended up back in Mysore again! After Dad and R left I stayed and am still here. I am of course practicing yoga - but am not with any of the teachers here, preferring instead to practice at home in my little apartment. It's very simple and Indian - complete with neighbours next door running a dairy operation. Cue calves being born in the night, 530am milking sessions and a lone sheep which will not shut up! Will be here until the end of May. Then it will be up to the North - to meet an old flatmate who is coming in for a bit of a travel around - starting and finishing in Mumbai. When she has gone home I will have a bit of solo trip into southern Gujarat.

In July and August I have arranged to do another internship in Jaipur, Rajasthan, with a similar Microfinance NGO to the one I spent time with in Hyderabad. Apparently it will have cooled off a little up there by that time. At the moment it is in the high 40sC. I will be very interested to gain a little insight into the different state of development that the Self Help Group model of MF has reached in Rajasthan. Andhra is the flagship state as far as this goes - elsewhere in the country it is relatively early days and Rajasthan is well known as one of the more culturally conservative states. So, a different context altogether. I will be working with the Centre for Microfinance in Jaipur. Anyone who fancies a visit while I am there will be more than welcome - though at the moment I am not sure of the accommodation situation. Obviously I am aiming to be comfortable...

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Decisions decisions

Well, at the moment I am in the process of making a few decisions about the future...which means that as well as the next few weeks I am also thinking a bit longer term. This is a departure from the practice, assiduously cultivated over the last 2 years, of not thinking any further ahead than the next cup of tea.

I may be able to spend a bit more time working in the field of microfinance here in India, as I did late last year, but at the moment the arrangement is not set in stone. Should find out this weekend. Either way, the India trip is going to be over mid June since the Indian consulate in Colombo only gave me a 3 month visa...for reasons known only to themselves they had initially printed out and stuck into my passport a 6 month multi-entry, then thought better of it and amended the document by hand. Yawn. So, whatever happens I think this is going to be it for the travels, wanderings and full time loafing. As I said to my father, who was visiting here last week with my younger brother, I can feel a wave of expediency coming on. In the past this has been a good guide to my choices and motivation regarding work, living arrangements and so on.

Before leaving India I will make sure to knock off a couple of the big sights - otherwise what will I tell people I was doing? - and pack in some more yoga. At the moment back into rising at 530am for a couple of hours practice with a different teacher here - more chanting and meditation mixed in than I am used to, feels pretty good though I have to confess that, in true Western style, I am more interested in the physical side of yoga and will revert to previous practice style once I move on after June.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Coming into land from Colombo to Bangalore was a little disconcerting. The new Airbus that Air Sri Lanka are flying has the usual inflight map displaying where you are and when you'll arrive, but it also has a camera mounted on the nose cone, just above the front landing flood lights. So, you literally get to watch the plane come into land. This includes the drop through the clouds, the appearance in the distance of the minute, illuminated runway far ahead in the distance and also the tiny, constant adjustments to course that the pilot is making to keep this thing in a straight line. The fact that the aircon had played up on the plane, not really working and causing a delay in takeoff of an hour or so meant that, despite 2 months acclimatisation in Sri Lanka to high humidity and steamy temperatures, I was already sweating before my eyes strayed to the screen and noticed how the white lines shooting underneath the plane were doing a bit of weaving as well as shooting. And of course it's all happening pretty fast. Reality check. Getting those things onto the ground safely is a bit of a struggle. The reminder of impending arrival in India had begun some minutes earlier though, above the imperfect cloud cover. Whole blocks of the city seemed at one point to be flashing on and off in the darkness - power cuts rippling across this hub of hi-tech commerce. Where the power was on the shimmer of streetlights combined with the passing invisible clouds to resemble the skin of a cuttlefish, pulsing dots of light, fading and growing patches of colour, light and dark, some kind of magical bio-luminescent trick to distract and confuse.

It's only a 1 hour flight and such a short trajectory allows easy appreciation of the contrasts between these two countries. Sri Lanka with, for the tourist at any rate, its veneer of normality, beauty and ease provided by lush tropical countryside, cute colourful beach side fishing villages, golden sand and shyly smiling, somewhat moribund locals and India with the squalor, energy, purpose, drabness and crush of hundreds of millions of souls tripping over each others' airport trolleys, talking on their mobile phones to get the price of BSE Sensex shares or the price of milk that the local dairy co-op is paying and trying to push in front of you. Both democracies, badly flawed at that as most seem to be, these two countries present to the world two very different versions of themselves. India really is an open book - even if someone wanted to try and control what comes out of this country, whatever committees and boards, authorities and panels, institutions and departments, rules, laws and regulations might be put in place wouldn't stand a hope of containing, shaping, controlling or stopping anything that originates from within these borders. With Sri Lanka on the other hand the tourist veneer mostly conceals the detail of a tragic and viciously conflicted island nation. Sinhala nationalism (ie racism) has reduced essentially the whole country to a state of desperate poverty of hope. Except for the few at the top of course. While the Gini co-efficient for the two countries might show that India has (somewhat) greater income distribution inequality (0.4 vs 0.45 - 1 is perfect income distribution), what Sri Lanka loses in unequal distribution it more than makes up for in the proportion of people stuck forever in the lower, though not extreme, reaches of income poverty. This is partially mitigated by the fact that almost everyone in Sri Lanka can read and write, something that only about 50% of Indians can do after the education system is finished with them (if it ever gets started). But it is the war, the elephant in the corner on holiday with you in Sri Lanka, which most clearly illustrates both the callousness of the Sri Lankan ruling elite and the indifference of the international community to this country where no material resources are on offer. An expatriot in the country of some 10 years or so recently told me a story of happenings just 2 hours north of the capital, events witnessed by the inhabitants of a muslim fishing village. These locals have begun to mount their own patrols in the jungle around their village because Sri Lankan Army soldiers from the base nearby have repeatedly come to the village at night while on patrol and abducted young women and girls. In the nearby jungle they are raped and then left to wander in the night. The villagers patrol with machetes. When they catch a soldier he is hacked to death.

Towards the end of one of their night patrols, meeting my dinner companion on the beach, these villagers told a story which explained why all schools on the island had been unexpectedly closed down a few days earlier. Being Muslim, and therefore Tamil, these people have connections to communities within the territory controlled by the LTTE. Last week the villagers were disturbed during their morning routines by Sri Lankan Air Force jets and gunships flying in low overhead from the sea. In pairs, over a period of about 4 hours these aircraft on bombing and strafing runs were apparently responding to information that the leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Pirapaharan, was hiding underneath a school somewhere. These jets were dropping bombs on schools and the helicopters were coming in to clean up after them. Obviously no advance warning was given. The next day, perhaps wisely as a precaution, the government ordered all schools on the island to close in case an angry LTTE cadre decided to strap on one of those special vests and go to work.

All this is neither to portray the government in a bad light versus the LTTE - who are equally poisonous, to put it bluntly - nor to suggest that this conflict is any worse than others in many places around the world. Indeed the whole story could be apocryphal. However the bottom line is that even if it is wrong or simply a rumour something identical could happen there and no-one would ever hear about it. That is how tight the vacuum of control is in Sri Lanka over information and access, freedom of speech and international scrutiny. The same thing would be reported and examined from every quarter in India - even if it could happen in the first place.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Back in the mix

So, Mysore has again been good. Was pretty washed out after the Hyderabad thing and the aborted travels in north Andhra - took a while to get sorted but the yoga has been good and have really enjoyed meeting new folk here as usual - some great Aussies and Canadians this time.

Off to Sri Lanka in a week, looking forward to some surf and beach.

Back on Facebook for those interested in such inanities.........

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

This blogging thing has dropped off a bit hasn't it.

I am back in Mysore for a few days now simply because up in northern Andhra things were so booked and busy I spent one afternoon 'touring' over a dozen hotels just to find a roof for the night - which I managed - and then spent 3 hours the next day to secure a berth on an overnight train. No need to force it so I hopped back here for a bit of peace and quiet. And it is quiet which is a blessing.

Such things reveal to me that though I may have more patience than ever previously (believe it or not), the stock is still very much exhaustible and even pulled into deficit sometimes which is, to be honest, a very unattractive place for patience to dwell.

Cue extremely moody dealings with all encoutered in the public space - rickshaw drivers trying to squeeze a few rupees more out of me because they think the backpack looks heavy, hotel owners who try charging a tenner for a room worth about GBP1.50 and won't deign to make eye contact, fruit juice sellers who just want to sell you (tap) water with fruit fragrance included. Yes, even cinema staff who want to remove your carefully chosen snack and drink and force you to buy their revolting over-sweet drinks and whatnot. It was I, the very annoyed individual, who made a fool of myself in front of probably a hundred people plus in a cinema lobby in Hyderabad just the other day when confronted, tired, emotional and hungry, with just such a scenario I did not hold back, even though I should. Not very dignified. Indeed, not very dignified for two reasons - because unfortunately shouting actually gets you somewhere here a lot of the time which is not a good thing to have worked out and also because Indians by and large are acutely embarrassed by being harangued whether or not they have well and truly earned it. The fact that one can thus coerce and embarrass people with relative impunity is of course due to many different factors in Indian culture. After the fact it is easy to feel uncomfortable about these outbursts. However I console myself with a couple of rebuttals in mind. First, that for the most part I am more than respectful to people here even when they are taking the piss and second that when one does come across an instance of courtesy, kindness, respect or 'good service' (in inverted commas simply to distinguish it as being part of the management-speak which should be clearly recognised as a special compartment of English for describing things within the artifically constructed world of business English as opposed to actual English - where meaning can be traced back centuries and actually stands for something while pretending otherwise as opposed to seeming ethically neutral whilst being totally amoral) it is such a pleasant experience, makes everyone's day better and proves that some people are just bloody-minded, ignorant or simply desperate and you can't always work out which one in time to prevent yourself being a total dick.

So, in amongst it all I did manage a few days up near the Araku valley, at around 3000ft a little cooler and a lot greener than the plains of AP. Did some strolling around quiet valley roads, riding on local buses with weathered, dark, partially clothed tribal women with 3 or 4 large gold rings in each nostril, often with a child in a sling on their front and a couple of live chickens in hand and seemingly oblivious to the sideways glances of disgust/shame given them by good self-respectin' 16 year old Salwaar clad hindu girls going home from school, their perfectly black, oiled and plaited hair decked with the customary little strand of flowers on the hair clip at the back and contrasting with the greying frizz and disarray of the hill-women's fashion statements. Oh, and visited somehuge caves tucked away in the hills and 'discovered' by some Britisher in 1807, although of course humans had been living there for about 50,000 years before he came along.

So, Mysore for a few days. Spent another couple of hours in the rail booking office yesterday to secure a ticket to Tirupathi early January. There I will visit a friend from Hyderabad who is recovering from major surgery to fractures of the skull and jaws and also do a little pilgrimmage to Tirumala and see the temple of Lord Venkatesh - the richest in India. You can make a donation/do puja online. It is apparently the largest place of pilgrimmage in the world with over 100,000 people per day visiting and some 20,000 staff to 'coordinate' it all. After that it'll be time for a quick couple of weeks looking round Tamil Nadu before meeting Helen in Sri Lanka at the end of January. I've gotta get there first and sort the deluxe pad as a base for our surf mission. Seems that overall Mum and Helen are enjoying their Aussie hols again - getting to meet the locals style I thnk this time, although they do of course have their own house!

Had a lovely yoga practice this morn - has been months since I did ashtanga in a room with a few others and it was very pleasant. At the same time it made me appreciate the value of a period of practice on my own. Even though it gets a bit lonely sometimes!

No plans for the day - want to have a swim, maybe later. Have just been invited to lunch by random Aussies here so will take them up on that one.

Happy Christmas.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Rarely spotted - me!

Rarely spotted - me!
Originally uploaded by jakebarne
Am in the office today (gasp - dont think I've ever said that on a Sunday). This is a shot of me yesterday - went with a colleague to Golkonda Fort on the outskirts of Hyderabad. See Flickr (on my links) for few other images from last few weeks.

Still slaving here at - trying to get the work finished but people keep asking me to do more and revise this and help with that. Staff here are so busy. Overstretched really.

Hyderabad is good, not sure where next.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Microfinance in action

Microfinance in action
Originally uploaded by jakebarne
is this woman:

A) Wondering about the best way to offset her flight emissions after the weekend in NY
B) Considering the merits of organic Kohlrabi or a 'Howie's' eco-friendly skateboarding hoody at GBP195
C) Fed up with being stereotyped by people who don't have a clue about trying to live on $1 per day
D) Contributing to a Self-Help Group micro-credit plan meeting

answers by email only please.

No prizes.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The lack of posting reflects a lack of time as opposed to lack of things to say. The internship is in full flow and the workload is easily enough to work 7 days a week, which I am doing.

Today I went for breakfast to the same hotel where, as I sat by a lobby pond of Koi Carp the other week I suddenly had my first nosebleed in a good few years. This time, although the food was good, the staff attentive and I got a much needed haircut the same edge of the unexpected and the unsettling crept in. It sounds weird but the toilet bowl swirled menacingly when I flushed it. I mean really! The other surprise was the amount of dust ingrained into my neck, scalp and hair from the 6 day field trip last week. When I got a haircut the guy sprayed water mist and rubbed my head down with a towel after the cut and I swear the towel was covered in grime. I had been washing of course, but this stuff is fine grained and had just got everywhere. It was very embarrassing. I don't normally burble excuses to strangers, but there I was...

What else? The work has been good if demanding. I am about to go to the villages in the south of the state again to conduct the research which I piloted last week. Should be doable in 6 days, if a little tight. I also did a short report for the NGO on the pilot of a small loan scheme dedicated to education funding loans. The idea is to use the SHG framework to supply credit for this specific purpose to rural communities. Everyone wants it to happen. Parents know desperately that education is the key to economic autonomy and are quite prepared to sacrifice almost everything to make sure their children get good schooling and more. However the route to a sustainable and affordable solution, necessarily involving the local banks, is not clear. The pilot was too small and rudimentary to draw many conclusions. I have to recommend a way forward.

Before leaving for the field trip on Wednesday night I need to finish a redraft of the NGO's strategic plan, and also complete the accompanying Action Plan. This is all very well, and I am of course receiving contributions from all departments, but the original document isn't very well written and time is tight. We need to give it to a senior manager from a large UK consultancy firm who is coming to do an organisational review (free) for 3 weeks from Nov 27. She will need to make sense of it and then assess if the NGO is up to the task or not. My feeling is that, yes it is, but the structure of the organisation needs to change and become more process driven rather than being so conventionally department oriented. But what do I know....I'm short of at least 1, possibly 2, degrees and about 5 years professional experience with regards such decisions.

But that is what happens when you leave the first career, which was unhealthy, to pursue a second on the other side of the world which itself ends up being unsuitable for a host of other reasons. I see that I am very much living a pattern of geographical and metier migration the crystallisation of which is unforeseeable and perhaps uncertain. Its hard for some people to reconcile such an outcome with an apparent bias from the start towards some kind of relatively conventional path, even if the route looked poorly marked at points. And in some ways it is conventional - dully so.

Felt another way I remind myself that each life is lived entirely differently to all others, when experienced personally, and our ability to really empathise and understand others is severely hampered by our conditioning and the power of the forces acting invisibly and unperceived on our lives. Forces on a grand scale, like climate change, and on a minutely personal level, like hormonal fluctuations, which we take so for granted, are in fact the things which in one way unite us and would seem to pull us together while at the same time they inexorably divide and insulate us from one another.

A lot of the dissonance in perspective between people, family members, friends, colleagues, is there because of a fundamental distinction in understanding; between those who at root feel that we can know what we do and why, and those who perceive a reality where such certainty of knowledge seems illusory and deceptive. This distinction draws people apart in another way too because it goes to the very heart of answering questions about personal identity. If you strip away work, friends and relatives individuals are immediately faced with a huge gap in self-understanding, even self acceptance. For most people this would seem to be a crisis of sorts. Even removing one of these elements can provoke extreme anxiety. Witness the number of us who in reality shudder at the thought of more than a couple of weeks off work, although it is never admitted (I hasten to add that I am not in this camp!).

Whichever way we see the world we are forced to live with an incipient knowledge of uncertainty and illusion, or put another way, boundless possibility and the tantalising chance of clarity. Each optic can be held close to the heart, either with love or a tight, tight grasp.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Settled in here now - and the weather has cooled off nicely. Working on editing the (overdue) annual report and also on a couple of proposals for small Impact Assessment studies while I am here.

I heard from several people that Hyderabad has the highest quality of life of any major Indian metropolitan area. True, it doesn't stink really and there is not too much begging and destitution visible. It doesn't have any pavements though, so walking around can get you regular clips round the elbow or ear from passing rickshaws.

I am installed in some style in fact on the very top of a 5 storey apartment block with a lovely room and ensuite which is part of, but separate from, where my boss and his family live. This is good because Banjara Hills rents are exhorbitant. As I am only really renting a room I get a reasonable rate - plus Mrs R makes breakfast for me every day which I get to enjoy with the Boss and his two cute kids.

I heard there is a staff meeting this week. I thought 'couple of hours on Wednesday'. Think again. We are all going to the residential training centre, 2 hours drive away, for 3 entire days from Thursday! One of my fellow spectators at the 4th Military World Games on Saturday remarked, as we watched the 84kg division semi-final between North Korea and the USA, that Indians don't necessarily excel at sport. This is mainly because in a country where so many still struggle to feed themselves priorities dont tend to lie in the 'making yourself a better person' column. Rather they sit firmly in the 'making and keeping yourself a person' category. So entertainment more usually focuses on food and, of course, talking.

All of which makes me look forward with (shall we say) interest to the next few days.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Micro Finance, Mega Bucks

Nearby the plush houses...
Originally uploaded by jakebarne
As I sit here at APMAS (Andhra Pradesh Womens' Self Help Society) editing their annual report whilst trying to keep up with the inevitable deluge of acronyms for which the NGO sector is famous, but also keeping an eye as ever on world events, I noticed this article in the FT about the Microfinance sector. It brought to mind a discussion I had with one of my colleagues here yesterday. My question was could the current credit squeeze, or something like it in the future, impact borrowers within Self Help Groups (SHGs) here in India? The answer seems to be no. For the moment. This is because, while private sector funding is undoubtedly sizable as a portion of total capital inflows to the sector, much of the seed capital available for institution building and outright lending within the sector comes from NGOs or state owned lenders. The hope for the future, and in a few cases the reality now, is that these institutions, which bridge the gap between major lenders and the small SHGs, are self sustaining both managerially and financially. The FT article gets to the very heart of the issue by asking if a project which began as poverty alleviation - in other words a Social Capital building/aid exercise - can really remain true to its original aims if corporations (and even financial 'institutions' like hedge funds) begin to become a part of the sector infrastructure. In a future where it is hoped by some, and perhaps feared by others, that lenders like Venture Capitalists and other speculators are the primary source of capital to such a sector I think the likelihood of the vicissitudes of global capital markets directly, and harshly, impacting these extremely poor sectors of the population is high. Just because they can make a profit doesn't entitle these organisations to take over. That would be like confusing development with growth all over again.