Monthly Archives: April 2012

Deep Breathing on the Backwaters – Kerala pt. 1

My last travel update ended with my awe at the view of the Himalayas from the air as I flew back to New Delhi from the Northeast. I touched down in Delhi and spent a little less than 24 hours repacking my bags for warm weather before my roommate Lesly and I hopped on a plane bound for Bangalore. We spent a couple days in Bangalore before we met up with my dear friend and fellow Bennie, Nakita, and the three of us headed south to Kerala. If God were to build the “model home” version of heaven on Earth, Kerala would be on the short list for its location. It is a paradise.

Kerala is best known for the network of meandering lakes and waterways, the backwaters, that run parallel to the Arabian Sea along the Malabar coast. Our first stop was Allepey, a small town and great place to access the backwaters. Our hotel was not far from the beach so the three of us rented bicycles and had a great time navigating the traffic on our way to the beach.

With Lesly…

…and Nakita

We enjoyed fresh coconut water, straw-in-the-coconut style of course, and watched the sun set over the Arabian Sea. The next day we woke up for a 7am canoe ride on the backwaters. As someone who grew up around lakes, rivers, and streams, I always feel more centered and in touch with what is right with the world when I am close to the water. Setting out in a large canoe that morning as mist rose off the smooth-as-glass water, not yet disturbed by the traffic of the day, I reminisced upon many similarly tranquil canoe rides with my family and friends. Though the scenery was a bit different, the bliss factor was one in the same.

As our boatman steered us through ever more breathtaking canals we saw families waking up and starting another day on the backwaters. Men and women dredged small black clam like creatures from the river bottom into long canoes. We learned that the shells are burned and used as fertilizer, a natural source of lime. Mothers and daughters rinsed dishes along the banks and washed laundry, slapping and scrubbing soapy cloth against flat smooth stones. Kids and grandparents still with the haze of sleep in their eyes brushed their teeth, standing outside the one story houses that spring up along the watery avenues.

The state of Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India at more than 90 percent and, due to sweeping and strategic economic planning by the state government, a broader than usual distribution of wealth than other Indian states. Keralans will tell you that the caste system, whose lasting legacy creates harsh disparities in other Indian states to this day, has all but disappeared from this southern paradise.

Kerala’s is heavily reliant upon tourism and local cultivation of rice and other products. Coir – the fibrous husk of the ever abundant coconut – is another important industry and I learned that all of the brown scratchy Welcome mats I’ve ever brushed my feet on probably originated in Kerala. So the next time you are brushing snow off your boots on a coconut coir mat, you can think of sunny Kerala.

After Allepey Nakita and I spent time at a homestay on the backwaters and then the three of us spent a couple days in Forth Cochin. I will dedicate a separate post to the second half of the trip. For now, I’ll leave you with this picture, one of my favorites of the trip. I brought along two of my Bennies shirts so Nakita and I could snap some pictures worthy of the alumnae magazine. Here we are in our canoe on the backwaters.

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Inspiration and Social Entrepreneurship

Meet one of my heroes. Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder of Acumen Fund, a New York based philanthropic venture capital fund with a mission to “create a world beyond poverty by investing in social enterprises, emerging leaders, and breakthrough ideas.” She has been on my list of people to meet before I die since I read The Blue Sweater, her account of her life as an MBA student and young consultant working on micro credit projects in Africa before founding the Acumen Fund. Her TED talk titled “Inspiring a Life of Immersion” was part of my inspiration to select a place like India for my year as an Ambassadorial Scholar, a place where I could immerse myself in a culture and society so different from the one I grew up in with the hope of learning more about myself, others, and the way we interact in the world.

Forbes magazine recently published their first ever List of the Top 30 Social Entrepreneurs featuring Novogratz in the cover story. A social entrepreneur is someone who uses business to solve social issues. I have been fascinated by the idea of social entrepreneurship since I first heard of it a few years ago. One major cause of the extreme poverty we see in the world today is the fact that many poor people don’t have access to conventional markets of finance, goods, and services. One solution to this problem is to fill that need by providing free food, clothing, shelter, or services to the world’s poor. Another is to work with the individual or community to build the skills, resources, or rights necessary to achieve a better outcome for themselves. It’s like the classic proverb: If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime. Well say the man already knows how to fish but doesn’t have enough money to purchase fishing equipment, or he has fishing equipment and catches more fish than he and his family can eat but doesn’t have a way to take them to the market 20 km away before they spoil. This is where social entrepreneurship steps in. A social entrepreneur would set up a for-profit venture that supplies low cost fishing equipment and probably throw a training on sustainable harvesting in with the reel. In another place with the same problem a social entrepreneur might supply low-cost smokehouses to fisherman so they can transport smoked fish to market without the fear of their stock going bad.

I think social entrepreneurship is an exciting and hopeful development in the effort to make the world a better place for all of us. A lot of damage has been done around the world in the name of aid and international development, not to mention for-profit business, and there are too many disheartening examples of people or organizations with good intentions that actually end up harming the communities they are trying to serve.

We are all waking up to the fact that businesses, governments, and even humanitarian organizations cannot keep doing “business as usual.” The needs of the world are too great, the challenges too steep, and change is so rapid that it requires our constant adaptation and best thinking. Ecologist David Orr writes this provocative assertion in his book Ecological Literacy:

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”

Social entrepreneurs are redefining what it means to be successful in business by focusing on a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.

The Forbes list is a timely piece, recognizing the work of 30 men and women from different parts of the globe who can be inspirations to us all. Some produce low-cost solar lights, others make high-nutrient fertilizer from worm castings; the simplest ideas and innovations are often the most powerful. The author, Helen Coster, closes the article with this thought: “My hope is that years from now, our list members will be out of work, their organizations so successful that the problem they set out to solve no longer exists.” I too hope that social entrepreneurs work themselves out of a job in the years to come, but not before I can get in on the action.

In the Clouds – Sikkim and Darjeeling

This post is the first in a series of long overdue updates documenting my travels between early December and now. At the end of my first semester in Delhi I crisscrossed the subcontinent, spent Christmas in Minnesota, and traveled with my dad for two weeks. Since January I had a visit from some colleagues/friends from MN which included three days spent in Nepal, went back to Ahmedabad and visited Udaipur, and most recently spent about a week in Istanbul, Turkey. This is an account of my first trip in the bunch.

After my first semester exams I traveled to Sikkim and Darjeeling with fellow Ambassadorial Scholar Emrys McMahon. Emrys met a Rotarian from Sikkim at a conference in Delhi and she invited us to visit and speak at their club, Rotary Club of Gangtok South. So we scheduled that and another visit to the Rotary Club of Darjeeling along with some sightseeing into a week long trip.

Sikkim is a state in the northeastern part of India. It did not become part of India until 1975, before which it was a sovereign kingdom. Wikipedia tells me it is India’s least populous state and the second-smallest next to Goa. It is bordered by Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. It’s culture is distinctly influenced by its neighbors and one notes the Nepalese and Tibetan flavor especially in the food, architecture, and style of dress. Things move a lot slower and the people are known for their hospitality. At times in the capitol city of Gangtok I felt like I had meandered into a Christmas village.

From Delhi we flew into a  small town called Bagdogra and from there took a local bus to Kalimpong, a town in West Bengal just south of the border into Sikkim. The next morning I woke up feeling like I was in a cloud. The valley below and hillsides on either side of my hotel were shrouded in a thick mist. I sat out on the balcony for an hour or so writing in my journal and talking on the phone with my brother Jon.

Kalimpong is in the foothills and feels like a small town so I was shocked when I consulted Lonely Planet and found out the city’s population is more than 40,000. I kept thinking, where do they put everyone? Before heading into Sikkim we visited a Buddhist monastery. I snapped a picture of these monks outside the monastery. When I saw them I wondered what they were talking about: their studies? history? a recent argument between two monks? a surprise birthday party? the weather?

We hired a taxi from Kalimpong and crossed the border into Sikkim that afternoon. Because of unique political circumstances, Sikkim and the seven states in India’s northeast have specific visit restrictions. Visitors to Sikkim must acquire a 15 day permit to enter the state. This transaction can be done easily at the border with a copy of your passport, Indian visa, and a couple passport photos.

We spent the next few days in the charming city of Gangtok. The Rotary Club of Gangtok South is quite a young club with a large age range. The Rotarians were incredibly warm and welcoming. Some of the younger club members took us out for dinner and drinks afterwards and we had fun sharing stories and even singing a few karaoke songs.

We rented a car one day to see the sights around the city. At a hilltop temple we caught a view of Kachenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. We stopped by the Gangtok Zoo and got a special tour from the zookeeper thanks to a Rotary connection. We arrived just in time to see the adorable red pandas (unique to the region) get their lunch. Emrys was incredibly excited to see the zoo’s snow leopard and tried unsuccessfully to convince the guard to let him into the enclosure so he could get a better picture.

After that we ventured to another Tibetan Buddhist monastery. It was a beautiful and peaceful place with prayer wheels everywhere. Buddhists use prayer wheels (below) and prayer flags (pictured above) to send up constant prayers for peace and an end to suffering in the world. Anyone is invited to spin the prayer wheels – in a clockwise direction – and offer up a prayer as they pass. It is believed that the colorful prayer flags, which were hung all over Sikkim, send prayers to the Universe as they blow in the breeze.

From Gangtok we made our way to Darjeeling by jeep. It was a lovely early morning drive down the foothills made even better by the Frank Sinatra album playing on my iPod. In Darjeeling we met another Rotary Club and exchanged flags, a tradition between Rotary Clubs around the world. We spent a lot of time drinking Darjeeling tea – it truly is “the champagne of teas” – at Glenary’s, a well known English style bakery on Darjeeling’s main street.

We saw more red pandas at the Darjeeling Zoo and made a second failed attempt to snap a closeup with Emrys and a snow leopard. We visited a fascinating mountaineering museum which documents the history of climbers on Mount Everest and the other highest peaks. It was remarkable to see old climbing equipment and read the inspiring and harrowing stories of the men and women from around the world who have risked or lost their lives to stand on top of the world.

It was a whirlwind trip, a brief but nonetheless eye opening visit to a part of India, Sikkim, that few tourists visit. I would recommend the area as a must-see for anyone visiting India for an extended period of time. On the flight back to Delhi I sat next to an Austrian guy who has done a lot of hiking in the area. We were on the right side of the plane, the right side to catch this stunning view of the Himalayas from the air.