We have been travelling in Northern India for just under two weeks now visiting numerous villages from Haryana to the Himalayan region exploring themes such as gender inequality and women political empowerment, wildlife conservation, human/animal conflict, micro-enterprise development and hillside agriculture.  We have learnt so much (and have had so much fun) and we still have so much more to come!

We began the field school at the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) headquarters in New Delhi, where we spent the first 3 days in orientation – a perfect place to land and prepare for our journey ahead!  The first morning we all gathered and had a welcome ceremony to bless the trip, a Tilak placed on everyone’s forehead – a sign of auspiciousness as I learnt.  We all felt so welcome and as I looked around the room I knew this was the beginning of an unforgettable journey that lay ahead.  Our orientation was packed for the next 2 days with presentations and workshops from the friendly and very knowledagble staff giving us an overview of PRIA’s various programs across the country on community governance, women empowerment and female foeticide.  A particular highlight for our group was meeting Dr. Rajesh Tandon, founder and president of PRIA, who gave us a warm and personal introduction to the history and theory of participatory research and development – as well as some important travel tips from his grandmother:)  We also had some excellent presentations on conservation and biodiversity from Phil, a gender workshop from Nandita and an overview of Project Tiger from Mr. S.P. Yadav from the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

We left Delhi for Haryana where we spent 4 days visiting rural villages and learning about female foeticide (a growing problem in the area), women governance and empowerment. Priyanka and Nandita, our amazing PRIA facilitators organized a social mapping exercise with the men and women of the villages to learn about the socio-economic structure, and some of the challenges and livelihood assets of the community.   This was a real eye-opening experience to hear from the women and men about some of the gender differences present in their daily lives.  Of all the challenges faced by the women, the two most common identified were alcoholism and female foeticide. When asked if they would change roles, both the men and women replied amused with a big NO!  We then had a chance to respond to some of their questions about gender and women’s equality in Canada, and the students shared a ‘day in the life’ of a student.  It was quite entertaining to share these stories and laughter as we expressed that no one in our group was married or owned a cow.  This was the beginning of what has turned into consistent marriage proposals along our travels – always by the adoring mothers!!!

We were then joined by Niharika, a PRIA facilitator and lovely addition to our crew, for our travels north spending 4 incredible days in the Rajaji National Park just on the outskirts of Haridwar, along the Ganga River.  There we met with various park and wildlife officials and had a great presentation from the Wildlife Institute of India.  We had the awe inspiring experience of seeing an elephant in the wild on one of our walks in the park, simply amazing to see!  Elephants, as we have learned, have extremely sensitive feet, feeling vibrations from miles away.  They are also highly vulnerable to the noise, sound and water pollution that the rapidly encroaching population are causing.  Unfortunately, Rajaji Park is highly vulnerable with 2 major roads, a railway, and a dam running right through it and fractured habitat corridors reaching the neighbouring Corbett Park to the East.  Consequently, elephants in this area are extremely agitated and have reacted, rightfully so, with increasing conflict with the surrounding communities.  This experience  has really demonstrated the challenges of conservation in a crowded world – and it seems to only be getting worse!!

We also visited 3 villages located around the Rajaji Park, in the buffer support zones, and learnt about some of the challenges associated with village relocation, animal/human conflict and wildlife conservation.  There had been some crop damage (mainly rice) by elephants at one site the night before we arrived, which we later learnt occurs every 2-3 days and results in up to 10% of their yearly crop loss.  Due to this challenge and persistent flooding, this particular village was willing to relocate.  The problem is however, finding good agricultural land in this region is nearly impossible!

The bus was filled with a thousand camera clicks and ‘awes’ as we moved up through the Himalayas towards the Himalayan Action Research Centre (HARC), located in Naugaon.  An unforgettable experience!  The rice paddies, steep slopes, waterfalls and deep Yamuna River valley were a special treat for any geographer!  We had the pleasure of meeting with some of the villages to hear about the challenges of hillside agriculture, monsoon floods, landslides, and market flow.  We also met with a local women’s group that have created a small micro-enterprise creating beautiful local artisans and value added agricultural products, such as tomato purees (their most bountiful crop) and jellies.  On India’s independence day, August 15th, HARC and the local forest warden organized a planting day for our group with one of the local villages.  We celebrated by planting bamboo on a slope to the sound of drums and of course a warm cup of chai with the village!  We experienced the monsoon rains and landslides first hand, and could not leave for a few extra days while the roads were repaired for safe travel.  Spirits were high despite the constant rain, loss of electricity and no hot water!!!  Naturally, as good hardy Canadian’s we threw on our rain gear and explored the area on foot, checking out some of the flood damage and supporting the local village economy by buying out their chocolate supply.  We also had an opportunity to have some downtime with group yoga sessions and games – there was even some guitar led line dancing by the girls and Phil on one of the village roof tops.  After a VERY long journey (17 hours drive to get just over 100 km) from Naugaon to Dehradun, we witnessed a massive boulder that needed dynamite (3 hours), a bus load of pilgrims teetering on the side of a cliff (4 hours) and an exhaustingly long traffic jam (2 hours), we made it to a hotel for a good nights rest.  A big thanks to our drivers Ashok, Hari Om, and Babalu, for getting us back safe:)

Now we are heading South to Sariska National Park in Rajasthan.  Tomorrow is Lise’s birthday and we will celebrate!!  Happy Birthday Lise:)

Here are some of the top photos from the students so far!

During the field school, the students have been writing daily journals.  Here are some of the entries since we arrived:

When I first stepped out of the airport onto the streets of New Delhi, a heavy blanket of heat engulfed me.  The air was thick and its smell was unfamiliar.  It seemed like the air had been stagnate for years and needed some airing out.  Bright, colorful saris draped fragile female figures.  It was absolutely beautiful. The streets were hustling and bustling with street vendors setting up their market.  The strangest thing about our walk was the fact only men were walking the streets.  Our group stuck out like a sour thumb, and I felt constantly watched.  What surprised me the most was how the people, men in particular, made eye contact with me and held it. Their stares were unwavering, certain, and curious.  I would smile and many times I would get a blank stare, while other times a smile would stretched across their face and their white teeth would shine through their dark skin.   Where I grew up in Vancouver, people rarely make eye contact with you or take the time to throw you a smile.  Everyone is in their own busy little world either texting, talking on the cell phones, and running to work or school.  But here, the smiles are warm and welcoming and for some reason, it made me feel like I was at home. India welcomed me with open arms and I entered India with an open mind.  I am pleasantly exhausted from my travels, but too excited to sleep.  I am unsure of what the rest of my travels in India will bring, but what I do know is that it will be an experience unlike any other!

Lauren

I really enjoyed the session with Rajesh Tandon, the founder of PRIA. What a charismatic individual! I really appreciated the advice he gave us, passing on his own grandmother’s advice to him. It was a needed little reality check for me and his words will be in my head for the rest of the trip – eat good food in moderation, wash your hands before and after meals, and dry your hair if you get wet in the monsoon season. He also provided some really great details on PRIA’s work and gave us a really solid overview on some of the major issues that PRIA is involved with, including the caste system, female foeticide, urbanization etc. I found it very interesting that a contradiction was always at the root of every issue – it seems that India is a nation built on a foundation of contradictions; it really goes to show how complex some of these issues are.

Laura Leigh

My favorite part of the day was when we first arrived and were greeted eagerly with necklaces of flowers and hugs.  They were so excited to have us there when it was really us who were the ones privileged enough to have them there.  I was struck the most by the question asked by one lady “what were you expecting? Smelly? Dirty? Garbage? And I began to think how that was kind of true.  Among all the things people told me those seemed to be the things that prevailed.  It’s interesting the things people take away from a place.  People failed to mention the kindness of local people, the beautiful colors, and the absolute chaos that somehow manages to work.”

Hannah

The afternoon exercise at the village was eye opening and so interesting.  The women and men wrote down their typical day and then read it out.  I wasn’t too surprised to hear that the women do everything.  I was surprised to hear that the boys think their fathers work harder then their mothers, that if the mother’s get sick the girls in the family or the father’s sister comes to help out and they laughed when they were asked if they would switch with the women/girls.”

“One of the reasons why female foeticide increased is because the price of dowry has increased. Because of the foeticide, there are less women/brides, which causes the men to sometimes have to pay for a bride.  There is also a black market type issue or middlemen who makes a commission.”

Lise

 I found it interesting to hear how Rajesh came to recognize the importance of participatory approaches and different knowledge systems.  Rajesh spoke about breaking down our dualistic perception of knowledge that sees science as fact and local knowledge as irrelevant.  PRIA emphasizes new ways of thinking and new ways of knowing the world and this is something that I would like to focus on in this field school – to approach people, places and issues from many perspectives not just an academic perspective.  I recognize that the people we will be meeting have skills and knowledge that far exceeds the knowledge contained in my textbooks.”

“It seems that the government and local people have different conservation paradigms.  The government views humans as destroying nature – humans are a threat to conservation and therefore they should not be in parks.  On the other hand, many local and indigenous people see themselves as embedded in nature, as part of nature.  There is no human/nature separation.  They likely believe that conservation is part of life, because they depend directly on natural resources.”

Julia

Today was a day of many firsts. Our first day in India, the first real Indian food I’ve had, the first bucket shower I have ever taken, and the first time using a squat toilet! (which by the way, it was hard enough with pants on using one of those, but how do women do that in their saris with all that fabric! – Indian women are continuously amazing me). What a way to be introduced into a new culture.

Amanda

“I have difficulties in the idea of resettling communities that have occupied an area since time immemorial – compensation in money cannot address those connections to place. I am hoping to find literature that will help me explore these topics further.”

“Today was the first day in the field, we visited the people living in the Sonepat district.  The story about the women visiting the district official’s office and only leaving until they had a bus was incredible.  One woman there had a fairly heated discussion with an older man about women’s freedom and control under their husbands.  Priyanka said the occasion was rare, and although the discussion was tense the crowd relaxed and provided comic relief.

Hillary

“There were a few things I saw along the way that really got to me…the conditions that some of these people live in…building your home on a landfill – I can’t help but wonder if it was me in this situation with the dreams and ambitions I have today – Where would I start?  How would I even begin to break free or believe I could achieve my dreams – or would I even try?  With the caste system that India has do this poorer people even think about reaching for better things?  Do they allow themselves to have dreams?”

Jackie

More to come:)