Cheetarvas & listening.

December 30th, 2016

Today we visited Cheetarvas village, in the hills of the Aravallis.

As we drove further away from the city, the hills changed from green and covered in vegetation to dry and barren. The Aravallis are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. In ancient times, they rose into the sky, much like the Himalayas. Now, after millions of years, they have been reduced and eroded to whispers of their old glory. I watched the changing landscape out of the window, and listened to the faculty members practice their Mewari (a dialect of Rajasthani language spoken in some surrounding villages) in preparation for our visit.

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I was first introduced to the villages of Rajasthan my freshman year in the faculty’s course, “People and the Environment” through pictures in PowerPoint slides. Approaching the village, my stomach was unsettled; I wasn’t sure how years of daydreaming would compare to the reality of life in the village.

The landscape was as I had imagined, as it appeared in the PowerPoints. Dry hills enveloping scattered houses, wandering livestock, a lone road running through the center of the village.

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However, the PowerPoint slides could not capture the feeling in the village. I am not sure what I had imagined it would be, with no previous in a rural village to align my expectations. Perhaps I thought there would a fixation on problems in the village, a hyper awareness of ways in which they are marginalized. This was not the case. Villagers went about their days, with relative highs and lows. It was so familiar, so normal.

We visited a handful of homes in the village, watching women rhythmically prepare rotis on their chulas. We asked questions about adoption of an insert, developed by Uday, to reduce smoke and increase combustion efficiency in existing chulas.

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In homes that had not adopted the insert, women claimed the insert crowded the chula, which crammed the wood in improperly. In addition, they said that when they had used it, there were little to no observable benefits.

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In homes that had adopted the insert, women were happy to report that it reduced smoke (also reducing eye and lung irritation) and reduced the amount of wood they must gather each day.

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Women also shared that going to gather wood not a task they enjoyed: often they left the village at 8 AM, and did not return to 1 or 2 PM. After cutting down the wood, women placed the bundle (often weighing 40-50 lbs) on their heads, all the way back to the village.

I was inspired by the strength of these women. They gathered wood everyday, burning it slowly to make roti for the family (three times a day). They kept the house and clothes of the family clean, cared for the children and the livestock. The women are the thread that brings the village together, and keep it woven tight. Their work is hard, constant and under valued.

I was struck by the bravery of these women, letting strangers crowd into their home and ask invasive questions about their cooking, and their lifestyle, opening themselves to speculation from and judgement by foreigners.

I was amazed by their hospitality, greeting us at the door with kind smiles, inviting us to their kitchen (one of the few spaces that is uniquely their own), walking us back to the path after our visit. When I needed to use the restroom, I asked to duck behind a bush in the forest. One woman refused to let me do so: she led me into her home, silently turned away as I used the restroom, and helped me clean the floor after.

Today was the cumulation of years of interest in this project, of my observations and reflections over the past two weeks (both on my carbon footprint and on my place in a global society). I have never felt like I know less.

Truly, I know next to nothing.

In the United States, we sweep many environmental problems under the rug. We subsidize gas to create the illusion it is plentiful. We ship our waste overseas to remain blissfully ignorant of our own carbon footprint. In India, it is not so easy to distance myself from reality. In the city, the garbage and sewage I generate everyday ends up on the street. In the village, items are taken from the land and waste is repurposed as much as possible. With such a constant visual reminder of my impact, I cannot pretend that I leave the world unharmed.

College is not much different. In college, it is easy to get comfortable. My world is small: classes, research, work. I live in a familiar town with familiar people, many sharing the same beliefs I do. In this way, my lifestyle and my priorities are rarely challenged. Dangerously, I begin to think I have it all figured out.

Abroad, in a new place, I cannot pretend that I am an expert in anything. Here, it is obvious that my GPA is not a reflection of my worth or my knowledge. I can successfully bubble in answers on a Scantron sheet, but I can barely cross a street in Delhi. I have taken many biology courses, but I can’t fully explain the natural world around me. I can speak English, but know next to nothing of the other languages used everyday around the world. I will graduate having learned concepts and facts, but without the real world knowledge and practical skills I have seen in people and villagers in India.

Even now, learning about Rajasthan, I cannot speak to India. I have only been to a handful of cities, in one state in the North, for a couple of weeks. Similarly, I cannot rightly speak to many places in the United States outside of Iowa. The world is large, and even with the traveling I have been fortunate to experience, I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of understanding.

This Fulbright- Hays experience has been incredibly humbling. I have so much more to learn from others than I have to give in return; my role here is nothing more than being a listener and a learner.

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