Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Great Week in India, and an Unsettling Week Back Home

I meet clients for the first time! This group of women in Chennai, Tamil Nadu (on India's SE coast) meet to make a repayment on their loan and find out about the benefits of co-operation.

I’ve gotten quite a few messages asking if I’m safely back from India. Thanks for that. I am in Sydney, and quite safe. From here the attacks on Mumbai seem almost surreal, but they will have a very real impact over there. This is a tragedy for India as a nation. I feel this will change things a lot, and in ways we can't yet predict. I worry that India could become a new focus for terrorism.

India can be proud to be the largest democracy in the world, and proud that, generally, religious tolerance is extremely high. There are over 150m Muslims in India. But ironically democratic freedoms will make it all the harder to contain terrorism.

For myself, and Opportunity, this development is upsetting and could - potentially - have real implications for what we do and how we work in India, though I wouldn’t want to make swift judgements. We don’t tend to travel to Mumbai much – I’ve only been once – whereas we travel a lot to the other big cities.

On my day off I went back to my favourite tourist site in Delhi, the Qutb Minar. It's sad to think that I will have a niggling doubt in my mind the next time I visit a tourist site in India.

It’s been a strange week indeed. As I finally feel completely settled and happy at work, the organisation suddenly (post credit-crunch) seems set for upheaval and ‘paradigm change’. I won’t say any more about that now. Though it’s no more than coincidence, I have to mention that, on the brink of summer, the weather in Sydney has gone wintry. Everything has suddenly gone a bit odd… I think it’s time for a break. I’m looking forward to my trip back to the UK.

I promised a review of the Bond film.

It’s great.

There we go.

I have to mention a couple of things that tickled me about the screening though. Not that it was in Hindi – thankfully I managed to book the English version – but that there was an interval in the middle, as Indian tradition dictates.
Asking women clients some questions (through an interpreter).

This threw me! Bond films are the ultimate in movie escapism. But switching the movie off half way through, turning on thumping Bollywood music and sending out a bloke selling chai in paper cups from a large canteen did a good job of destroying that sense of escapism! And all this coming after a tense chase scene across Italian rooftops. I had to laugh – it was the ultimate in surrealism.

Sorry, this picture is very blurry. The woman on the left is a member of a tribal community in rural Andhra Pradesh. These people have a very traditional way of life and it would be very unusual for her to come to even the smallest of towns. It would be even more unusual for her to meet a foreigner. I felt a little embarrassed about taking her photo. Not a typical tourist event.

I’ve now seen the last two bond movies at the cinema in Belize and India. Does this qualify me in the same jet-set league as bond himself…?


I can do the accent…

These photos are from the second week of the India trip. After 9 days in Delhi, I had a pretty hairy travel plan for the rest of the second week. With the help of our Indian team, I somehow managed to stick to the plan and covered another 4 cities in the last 4 days. Exhausting doesn’t begin to describe it. But it was a great experience. I met clients for the first time – a group of women who have borrowed money from one of Opportunity’s partners in Chennai, and another group of women who have taken health insurance from an amazing NGO working near Hyderabad.

Meeting another group of clients. These women are members of a health insurance scheme for the poor, which allows them access to health care. When I talked to the women it was clear that their priority is their family. They want insurance to protect their children.

It was great to be truly ‘out in the field’. And it was a real privilege to have the opportunity to ask these women questions – through a translator – about how their lives have been changed by the loans and insurance that they have received, to be able to ask them about their hopes and plans for what they might do in the next weeks, months, years to improve their lives and more importantly (for them at least) improve the lives of their children.

I also saw some people in far less optimistic circumstances. In fact I saw people living in some of the worst conditions I’ve ever seen, even worse than on my last trip. I saw the utter destitution of slums in Delhi where the poor are forced into prostitution because there is no alternative but starvation.

I found this extremely hard to take.

I didn’t feel as frustrated as I have in the past. And I don’t feel any need to point fingers now. There’s no point in people beating each other up over this. But it is very sad. And there’s something wrong with a global society in which these things are allowed to persist. But some people are trying to do things about this. I hope Opportunity can support these people.

This lovely couple run a 35-bed hospital in a small town south of Hyderabad. Poor clients can access quality healthcare there.

There was so much packed into that week. I could write a lot more. I might save that for some day in the future, and some other forum, when there’s been more time, much more time, for all these things to sink in.

I was exhausted by the Friday night when I got on the plane at Cochin for the long flight home. But it was a ‘good’ exhausted. I’ve got plenty of work to do yet to make the most of the trip. If I can get this done in the next two weeks before I leave for the UK it would be the best end to the year possible, whatever might be coming up in 2009…

This little guy is just a few days old. This light treatment will protect him from jaundice.

Amid all the turmoil, it's possible to forget that amazing work is going on in India, work that we need to support, even as things get 'tough' at home.

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