A Look at Infrastructure and Waste Management in Varanasi

As someone going into the field of environmental engineering, it’s impossible to overlook the lack of infrastructure here in Varanasi, India. Nita, one of the founders of NIRMAN schools, where we are staying, generalized the issue as being a result of engineers not trained in designing and building for the uncertainties of India. An example was workers right outside the Southpoint school rebuilding the sidewalk for the ‘umpteenth time,’ still with an uneven slope, bound to fail again in the near future. If they were to take the extra time today to level out the land, the sidewalk would last much longer, as it should. Walking the streets of this city, it appears that many things are done in this patchwork manner. Perhaps Nita is exactly right, that when engineers are educated abroad, their coursework is assuming that they are starting with a cleaner foundation, but the reality here in India is that the city’s surroundings are chaotic and disorganized. Gutters that should carry drainage downstream hold still water, accumulating the dust and garbage from the street above until what lines the road is a swampy, foul smelling moat. Men urinate publicly, against the wall or into these gutters. There is a lack of baseline sanitation standards. Furthermore, trash is littered everywhere. The photo I’ve attached shows the bank of a river that has the potential of being a serene haven from the chaos of the bustling city streets, but instead parallels a landfill. Even I, having been here a week, have a plastic bag in my luggage that I collect trash in, for it is often hard to find garbage cans about. The dumpsters that I have seen are either already overflowing, or ignored and the trash rather scattered next to them as they remain empty. Therefore various wrappers and cans line the streets, gradually becoming covered in dust until they blend into the road itself. I keep thinking that if items were wrapped in compostable materials, these really would disintegrate over time and add to the natural organic matter, but they aren’t and so the plastic and metal will remain. Being Americans, we are unused to this level of litter and at first, it is quite shocking. The worst part that I’ve seen, is citizens piling up the plastic, taking a burning candle, and lighting the pile on fire. This inevitably releases harsh chemicals into the air that not only negatively affect the lungs of others walking the street but also contribute to the larger problem of polluting the air and emitting greenhouse gases. To these people, burning the trash puts it out of sight and out of mind, leaving their homes garbage free, but education must be provided to teach the horrible effects that doing this routinely can impose on both the environment and human health. Those gutters that I mentioned, drain directly into the Ganges river, as does wastewater from homes, including raw sewage. There are two wastewater treatment plants near the river, but these do not process nearly all of the waste and problems arise when monsoons cause the streets to flood and the plants to cease their treatment. I know that this problem in infrastructure stems from something deeper than just a lack of personal respect for the environment. Political corruption leading to shortage in funds for projects, and a 30% illiteracy rate both contribute. Still, management of all of this waste should be prioritized in cities like Varanasi that are vibrant in the arts and culture, so that they are no longer dulled and de-romanticized by the ill sight of piles of garbage, crumbling streets, and improper facilities for processing waste.

Written by Victoria Mount

Comparison of My Old and New Self

This trip has open my eyes and made me re-experienced my days in Nepal. Two days flight without sleep was not part of my “to experience” list for India trip. I was exhausted when we reach the Varanasi airport. My thoughts were why did I even come and I was better at home, sleeping in my big bed. As I stepped out of the airport to the indie atmosphere, I couldn’t breathe.  Although it was raining the air was super hot and the climate was burning hot.  I didn’t think of anything besides I want to go back to Washington. We got in the van that was reserved for us. On our way to Central University of Tibetan Studies, I was looking outside from window. What I saw was not so different from what I have memories of Nepal. The house was similar, land area was similar, small and big shops were similar and even the way they display products on the shops was similar. When we got to the city area the traffic and the way vehicles were running the wait vehicles in Nepal. When I saw those it reminded me of my childhood. I felt like me I am in Nepal walking on the street and seeing this all. It made me feel like I am on my younger age feet. As I saw those kids walking and running near road fearlessly. I was terrified to see kids near vehicles. My hearts were racing see all that. Then I realized that I was like them in Nepali. But I had one question that I just can’t answer: In Nepal, was I fearless like those kids or fearful like I am right now? It’s been 8 days and I still fear walking on the street. In fact, can’t walk with just one friend, I have to have more than one friend walking with me. Rowaida my colleagues ask me if I wanted to go for walk. I told her to bring one more friend to go for walk.She has been to Egypt by herself, so she somehow convinces me to walk with her but eventually, I end up adding Emma. I have been here for a week and I still fear when vehicles go near me, I still get scared when people horn and I still can’t walk on my own on the street. I left half of my life in Nepal and half of my life in the US. Here I am still figuring out who am I?

Written by Dibbya Biswa

My Teaching Experience

I could feel the sweat drip down my temple as we drove down the bumpy dirt road. I was thinking about how easily the dust entering the van through the windows would stick to my skin. We were heading to the village for our second day of teaching the 4th and 5th graders at Nirman, our partner school. The first day didn’t go as well as we had hoped but we had a more solid plan going into day two. Luckily, it did end up going much better than the day before, and for the most part this trend continued for the rest of the week.

A large part of our study abroad was about designing and then integrating a lesson plan for some Indian students. Kaylah, Dibbya, and I were assigned to teach 4th and 5th graders about keyhole gardens that can be used for composting. We were surprised to discover that most if not all the students didn’t know what composting was. As someone who is interested in environmental issues, it was a privilege to be able to work with the students on this project.
Although we began with a lesson plan for each day of the week, we ended up having to do a lot of revising and improvising at the end of every day. We found that often times, we didn’t get to doing some of the things we had planned for the day because we had to spend more time than anticipated on classroom management. For example, after Monday we always split the class in half, having some students working outside and some working inside, which worked really well since there were three of us. Another key thing we discovered was that educational games as a learning tool worked really well for the age group we had. After doing a “what is compost and what’s not” game with much success on Tuesday, we decided to incorporate more activities like this into our lesson plan for the rest of the week.

Creating the garden was really fun for both us and the students. Our plan for this stayed the same for the most part, although we had to move some things back due to lack of time. Fortunately we were able to complete the garden with seedlings planted. There is work to be done with the garden still, but for going in with so many unknown factors I’m happy with how it turned out.

Being able to introduce kids in India to one sustainable practice was meaningful in the fact that kids learning about these kinds of things can make all the difference in the future of the health of our planet. I’m so grateful I had this opportunity. In the end, I think the kids may have taught us more than we taught them.

 

Written by Emma Hattori

My Homestay Experience

After dropping off two of our classmates at their homestay, Niko and I made way to ours. As our driver’s car weaved through the narrow alleys of Varanasi, dodging people and cows alike, I was filled with excitement and anxious to see what our living situation would be like. I remember Niko and I dreaming that we’ve lucked out, anticipating that we’d be staying in a place with AC, hot showers and room to roam. Those predictions quickly vanished as we were dropped off by side of the road and lead through a series of dark ally ways that eventually lead to the doorsteps of the home of our host family. Upon entering a narrow hallway, we were invited to set our bags down in a small living room with two arm chairs and a couch. We were greeted by the family’s son, who’s nickname is Golu, which means circle. He was around the same age as Niko and I and spoke very enthusiastically, especially when it came to the Tabla, a famous Indian instrument that consist of two drums. Golu’s father, Mr. Mishras is a renowned Tabla player in Varanasi, teaching at a local university called BHU. Golu was a also an aspiring Tabla player and a student at Banaras Hindu University, working towards a masters in Tabla. After our introductions, Golu asked if we would like to hear him play the Tabla, which Niko and I excitedly said yes to. The sound was nothing like I’ve ever heard before and it was evident that years of practice has gone into the level and skill that Golu was playing at.

I was starting to feel at ease in my new home when something started to catch my attention. It was very subtle at first, but eventually became something that I could no longer overlook. During our conversations with Golu, I noticed that he was making very little eye contact with me and much more eye contact with my classmate Niko, who was a white male. I thought to myself that maybe I was being too shy and needed to exert myself a little bit more. Occasionally, I would make a comment or ask a question and Golu would look at me but quickly returned his attention back to Niko. As the night went on I started to noticed that Golu seemed to only ask Niko questions, which lead me to wonder if he simply forgot my name. When it came time for us to go to bed, Golu got up from behind his Tabla and said “Niko, let me show you to your room”. He lead Niko to a room across the hall as I stayed a little further behind wondering if my room was to be somewhere else in the house. I peeked my head into the room, which consisted of a computer desk, a cabinet and a twin sized matt on the floor. Niko and I exchanged glances, waiting for Golu to show me to my room, but that moment never came. We both set our belongings down reluctantly as Golu asked if the room was ok. Not wanting to come off ungrateful, we both said the room was fine and asked for another mat for us to sleep on. Golu and his mother returned shortly later with a thin matt and laid it next to the one that was already there. As Golu was about to head upstairs to bed, he poked his head through the door and said “Niko, if you need anything at all, anything, let me know”. That night, as I was laying 4 inches away from Niko sideways on a twin sized mat, I was so perplexed at what I had just experienced. My mind was ruminating, trying to find some logical explanation of this foreign feeling I was experiencing. Was it some cultural formality to address someone first? Did I come off rude and unwelcoming? Did he simply not know my name? I was trying to find a reason, any reason that would make sense of what I had just experienced. As I started to rule out each explanation one by one, I had to ask myself the question I was reluctant to ask, was I experiencing racism?

The next morning, I had a talk with Kara and she suggested that I have a talk with Irfana ma’am, the director at the school we were working with. The conversation was unproductive as I danced around the issue, as inquiring if my host were racist is well…a very awkward conversation. The only issue fixed by that conversation was that by the time Niko and I returned home that night, there was a much more comfortable mat next to the old one. It wasn’t until my homestay experience was over that we all had a conversation about the issue, as another non-white student experienced something similar during her home stay. Although I wouldn’t want anyone to go through such an uncomfortable experience, a part of me was glad that someone else had the same experience. Her confession validated my feelings, I wasn’t crazy. Nita ma’am and Irfana ma’am as well as the rest of the group had a really good discussion about the issue. Nita ma’am explained that the concept of racism doesn’t even exist in India, that the possible reason that our host family treated our white classmates differently is because they viewed us, people of color, very similar to themselves. She reassured us that what we experienced is in fact not racism and not a common occurrence. We also discussed casts in India and how wealth fits into that system, and the associations of Caucasians with wealth. Although the explanations did make sense, a part of me still feels like I haven’t found a satisfactory answer. This experience has definitely given me plenty to think about and has made me more aware of how my identity plays different roles in different cultures. This experience made me realize how “racism” is subjective and can mean different things to different people. This experience also makes me wonder that if someone doesn’t view something as racist in their culture, does that invalidate the feelings of the individual who experiences it as such?

Written By Tam Hoang

September 5- September 9, 2017

Just a little rain

We had a rain and thunderstorm on the 5th. It was our first and only rain that we had, but boy; it rained hard when it did. We had started mist netting that morning, but had to close the mist nets and run back to the station when it started down pouring. The soil is so bad that the station flooded within the first few hours of rain (and it continued to rain intensely until late afternoon). It was fun to experience the rain, but I am glad that was not happening for most of our trip.

We finished up our bird research in the next few days, and then it was already time to leave CC. It went by really fast and I had gotten so comfortable with the atmosphere. It was really nothing like I was expecting. I was expecting every other plant and insect to be poisonous and most things could kill you, but it really wasn’t like that at all. I felt very at ease on my last days at CC.

 

sunrise on Manu River

We went on a night walk to the beach one of the last nights, and it was fun! It surprisingly wasn’t scary to wander around in the dark in the amazon. I felt curious and excited even though we had to get up early the next morning. I will most likely not go to CC again in my life, so I wanted to make the most of it. We saw lots of frogs, and moths, and insects like spiders and cicadas. Fun fact: Spiders eyes reflect light. So when you have your headlamp on at night, and you’re just walking through the woods, you can see a lot more eyes than you would expect. But again, it wasn’t frightening; it was just fun and exciting to see what was out there. Will definitely miss my time at CC!

We left CC and made our way to Villa Carmen Bio station. We got to sleep in beds for the first time in a while. I slept very well after a long day of traveling by boat and bus. It was still warm because we were in the amazon basin still, and I should have enjoyed it, because after Villa Carmen heat was not going to be an issue anymore!

August 31- September 4, 2017

Giant River Otter saying Hello!

Over the next few days we continued to learn more basics about our surroundings. We learned the dominant plant and insect families because they are both very important, and very abundant, in the amazon rainforest. They are equally as important for the ecosystems because they are the primary producers and primary consumers for the rest of the ecosystem. We also continued to explore the environment we were living in through nature walks or through canoeing in the mornings. The giant river otters came to investigate our canoes one morning!

Releasing my first bird

Later in the week we started discussing research techniques for ecology. One that was very important to me was mist netting because we were in the bird research group. We learned how to set up mist nets to capture birds and I was pleasantly surprised how much I liked doing it and I liked seeing the birds up close to take measurements and pictures. I would not have considered myself a bird person before this trip because I had no background with it, but they were starting to grow on me. We got further into our research project and our group got to start handling the birds a bit more and that was fun, but bird research is an early task! Birds are most active in the mornings, so we went to open mist nets at dawn every morning.

I was starting to get used to CC life, and I was really enjoying my time there. I was surprised my back wasn’t hurting from sleeping on my sleeping pad for so long, but it continued to be fine the rest of the trip as well. I was also getting used to the heat, and sweating in full length cloths all day. It wasn’t bad because everyone could relate to what you were experiencing. Once you started to relax about the atmosphere you were able to enjoy it much more. You could appreciate all the life around you and listen to all the sounds of the jungle. My favorite part was waking up in the dark mornings and listening to all the sounds. You would hear howler monkeys, birds, and a lot of bugs, but they all played together into this indescribable symphony. That is what I will miss the most now that I am home. The sounds were unlike anything I have ever heard before, it was incredible.

Band Tailed Manakin

August 26-August 30, 2017

Back from Peru and I would not trade that experience for anything. It was an amazing month full of once in a lifetime experiences that I got to share with many wonderful people along the way. I will be blogging about my time in five or so day chucks to try and go over some of my best memories and lessons I learned. A month is a long time to try to catch up on, so I will do my best (luckily we were required to journal for the program!). I am a very visual person, so my blog will be full of pictures! Enjoy!

 

August 26-August 30:

We made it to Cusco, Peru a couple days ago and had some time to acclimate to the elevation. Brianna and I slept a lot and drank lots of Coca tea to ease our aliments.  We met our group on the 26th at noon and got to know everyone a little more and get our schedule figured out. Then the next morning we were off to start our adventure!

The next three days consisted of our group busing and boating to reach Cocha Cashu Biological Station.  The first day was a 14 hour bus ride from Cusco to Atalaya where we spent the night. This is a picture of the view when we reached the highest point of the Andes we were crossing. Also here is a map to help track where we were!

View into the amazon basin from the highest point we would hit in the Andes

Then the next two days were 8 hour beautiful boat rides along the Madre de Dios and Manu rivers. The boat rides were full of bird and other animal’s sightings along the way. We also had a chance to talk about river dynamics which was fun to learn about while we were in it and navigating the shallow waterways.  We spent one night at a ranger station called Limonal where we camped, and then we were up early for another day of boat riding on the Manu River! Here are a few pictures I captured along my way to Cocha Cashu, there were a lot more, but these are my favorite!

Sunrise on the Manu River

Capybaras!

Oropendola nests

We finally reached Cocha Cashu (CC) late on the 29th and we quickly set up our tents and had dinner and we were off to bed. The first few night in the amazon were the hardest. It was hot and humid, and we were advised to wear long pants, long sleeves, and boots at all times of the day. Sweating was pretty constant at most times of the day. Our saving grace was the cold showers. That was my favorite time of the day because I got a break to be normal temperature for a few minutes!

Our first real day at CC was great. I saw spider monkeys in the wild! I was also stung by a bee for the first time in my life because I was trying to balance myself while taking off my rubber boots (Look were you put your hands!! They will tell you this over and over!). The amount of life here is unlike anything I have ever seen and we are so immersed in it because we are camping and limiting our needs for excess. Waking up and going to sleep to the forest sounds was unlike anything you could experience in the United States. The biting bugs I could do without, but they come with the territory, and really they aren’t bad except near water. I am excited to see what the rest of my time here will bring!

Spider Monkey investigating us