(IAP ’16) Cindy Noe, G
Cindy Noe (G, Management)
Entry 5: Discovering Myanmar
Welcome to Myanmar!
I landed in Yangon on Friday night after a long delay from beloved Air India. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say that we didn’t leave the tarmac until three hours after our scheduled departure, and it was only because several women (one with a baby) went to the front of the plane and straight up yelled at the flight attendants. Apparently an uprising is how to get things done! The flight was filled with monks because it stopped over in Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. There were several different colors of robes distinguishing the different groups of monks, who were probably coming from Kolkata after visiting other sacred Buddhist sites in India (those less familiar with Buddhism: though India is no longer primarily Buddhist, the prince who became Buddha through reaching enlightenment was from present-day India). Since Myanmar, on the other hand, is primarily Buddhist, when we stopped we picked up not only more Burmese monks, but also lay people headed back to Myanmar after visiting Gaya.
The Yangon airport international arrival terminal immediately impressed me. Immigration was speedy to confirm my visa (which, I will mention, I applied for and purchased online!) and when my bag didn’t come out on the belt, a kind woman who spoke perfect English showed me to the “lost and found,” where they had stored my bag since its arrival on an earlier flight from Kolkata (no idea how that happened, but I wasn’t going to ask questions…). The first thing I noticed, besides the fact that the monks had a TON of luggage, was that most of the Burmese men working at the airport wore a white collared shirt on top with a long dark fabric sarong on the bottom, which I later learned is called a longyi (pronounced “long-gee”) for both men and women.
I think they could tell I was from out of town because I could not stop staring and thinking to myself “how do they keep those from falling down all day?” I’ve since confirmed that most men wear them, no matter their job, and hike them up when needed. While the women’s are usually a rectangular piece of cloth that they wrap around them and tuck in, tie, or clip, the men’s are actually sewn together in one piece, allowing them to step into them and then tie them at the waist, which seems to be more secure and provide extra fabric for moving their legs.
Once I got over the longyis, I easily got a cab to meet Marisa and her friends at the “Sailing Club” along Inya Lake (basically a yacht club, which opens its bar and restaurant to non-members on Friday nights). The cab driver spoke great English and kindly helped me call Marisa using his phone, assuring me I would like Myanmar and be safe here. When I asked, he also happily taught me my first two Burmese words (hello and thank you, of course), which are extremely fun to say since both of them include a long emphasis on the sound “baaah.” On the cab ride I noticed a few things: the driver confidently stayed in his lane; he did not use his horn ONCE; he literally waved out the window to an oncoming car to gesture he was turning left (and the oncoming car slowed!!!); and strangely, the driver’s seat was still on the right, even though he was also driving on the right.
I later learned more about this oddity, the details of which are discussed in this blog. Under British occupation cars were obviously right-oriented to drive on the left, and many cars here are imported from Japan are still right-oriented to match this. Apparently, General Ne Win was responsible for the rash decision to change the road direction in the 1970s (post-independence), and regulation of a uniform orientation of the cars to the road direction has still not been fully implemented. Marisa says she seldom sees drivers with right-oriented cars take longer trips without a passenger to check the left side for them, since this obviously exacerbates blind spots. What continued to surprise while there was that despite this handicap, traffic was surprisingly orderly and drivers seem to take an appropriate level of caution (except for maybe some cab drivers, but I think that’s universal). Another thing about cars: apparently until 2010, when Myanmar’s economy was gradually re-opened to the outside world, import taxes on cars were extremely high, and as a result there were very few in the country overall. Since 2010, the number of cars has skyrocketed, contributing to mobility and also Yangon’s congestion.
After seeing Marisa in Cambridge last month, it was surreal and exciting to give her another hug outside the Sailing Club. I joined her group of a fellow Hoya living in Yangon who works for UNICEF, as well as three close friends from her hometown who are doing their first trip to Asia via Thailand and Myanmar. Right away I cleared up one thing that was already confusing me: the country’s name! Though the country’s official name is Myanmar, this was only recently bestowed by the government in 2011. I’m going to pull a tourist move here and quote Lonely Planet because I liked their explanation: “ was the year in which the military junta decided to consign Burma, the name commonly used since the 19th century, to the rubbish bin… The UN recognizes Myanmar as the nation’s official name; Myanmar is more inclusive than Burma, given that it’s population isn’t by any means 100% Burman [also known as Bamar, which made up 69% of the population in the 1983 census]. However, nearly all opposition groups (including the National League for Democracy (NLD), many ethnic groups, and several key nations including the US continue to refer to the country as Burma. As Aung San Suu Kyi told us in 2010, ‘I prefer Burma because the name was changed without any reference to the will of the people.'” (For those looking for a crash course in recent Myanmar politics, this NYT page is a good archive of their recent coverage).
Marisa’s friend gave me a less detailed but similar explanation of the naming and advised that I use Myanmar, so that’s what I’ll do, though I’ll also follow the typical usage of “Burmese” as an adjective and to refer to the dominant language. A quick shout-out to Lonely Planet’s Myanmar guide: if you want a crash course in Burmese history, politics, and culture, the summaries at the back of the book are extensive and extremely helpful – they also give advice on how to be a responsible tourist in Myanmar and help ensure that you support independently-run businesses (rather than just those owned by the state), engage respectfully with locals, and contribute to the development of sustainable tourism. This last topic is a growing conversation in the country, given that until 2010 the NLD actually boycotted tourism in Myanmar. Currently, the NLD “welcomes visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country.”
A bit about the Burmese economy and financial sector
That call to action stuck with me as we left Yangon on Saturday morning and headed to our weekend destination: Hpa-an in Kayin State. Marisa worked with a local tour company, Khiri Travel, to book us a van, one-day guide, and hotel for what amounted to a magical trip. It took us about 6 hours to reach Hpa-an from Yangon, but the scenery on the way was breathtaking and of course there was great people watching on the roads. On the way, I learned more about the interesting work Marisa is doing with the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Specifically, her team invests in the Myanmar financial sector and advises them on how to develop their staff, operations, and product offerings as they contribute to the growing economy.
One of the most interesting finance facts I learned from her was about the popularity of clean, crisp $100 US bills, which are the preferred form of US currency for money exchanging here. Because Myanmar currently has no formal relationship with the US central reserve bank, it seems that local banks are trying to collect $100 US bills to change with the Myanmar central bank and gradually build up a foreign reserve of USD (This report, while a few years old, gives a good overview of the Myanmar Central Bank’s relationship with foreign banks. Official representative offices of foreign banks in Myanmar are listed on the Central Bank’s website here). Apparently, there is a misunderstanding regarding the condition the bills need to be in though, because under no circumstances will the banks accept bills that are folded or stained. Good to know for next time! The fluctuation of the kyat (pronounced “chat”) also results in an interesting incorporation of USD into other sectors, especially tourism. Recently, the government canceled foreign exchange licenses that many hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets used to legally do transactions in USD. These WSJ and BBC articles give a good overview of the recent change. In my opinion their assessment that the transition will take some time is accurate, since I observed quite a few businesses still charging and accepting USD even though the change was announced in November.
As we entered the countryside, we drove past an area marked by mountains and mountains of watermelon and a town that seemed to peddle exclusively turnips (literally, it looked like the only thing for sale!). Marisa told me more about how the financial sector’s approach to serving rural Myanmar has taken an encouraging turn that the IFC actively supports: rather than place undue importance on brick and mortar banks in Yangon or other cities, more and more financial institutions are focusing on meeting clients where they are located by layering financial services on top of existing rural distribution networks. Given that 70% of Myanmar still works in agriculture, reaching this population will be crucial to improve livelihoods, economic mobility, and agricultural development for the country. On the way Marisa also pointed out the advertisements of Awba, a prominent agricultural supplies provider to most of rural Myanmar. Take a minute to read about their founder, U Thadoe Hein, who last year won ASEAN’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and frequently speaks to international audiences about investment in Myanmar – he is definitely a man to watch as Myanmar continues to emerge.
Our drive was also a great crash course in Burmese customs, as I observed many drivers and riders wore thanaka, a light paint on their cheeks and sometimes other parts of their face. I learned that this paint/paste is made from the bark of a particular tree, and applied by rubbing a piece of the bark on a flat, wet stone and spreading it by hand. It functions as both a natural sunscreen as well as a fashion statement (both women and men can be seen applying it in designs and patterns). I’ve already noticed the sun can get strong here, so I think it’s awesome that a natural guard against skin cancer is also en vogue!
Learning about Buddhism in Myanmar
On the way we stopped at Kyauk Kalap monastery, which has a beautiful gold stupa balanced on top of a tall, thin rock formation. The stupas in the countryside were so fun to see because in many cases you see them perched on a tiny rock ledge and can’t help asking yourself “who on earth thought ‘hmmm… I think I’ll put this one… THERE!'” Apparently construction of stupas or pagodas in these tough spots is not magically free from effort: when we stopped at the base of Mount Zwegabin, another famous monastery, Marisa described how when she last visited there was a construction project on the mountain that resulted in many visitors and monks carrying one or several bricks each on their way to the top (Marisa did not offer to carry any, and I don’t blame her).
Buddhism is a strong presence in Myanmar, as about 89% of the population practices It. Many also incorporate animist belief in natural spirits (or “nats”) into their practice, so it is also common to see statues of the nats, who are often depicted as common people, close to Buddhas at monasteries. Along the road we saw many groups of lay people requesting donations for monasteries, which often consists of clanging coins in a decorative metal crock and playing music. Marisa also shared some of what she’s observed of how the monks are so incorporated into the fabric of everyday life in Myanmar. The male monks go around with their collection crocks during the day requesting alms, and Buddhists willingly give them food because it is believed that supporting the monks (along with other good deeds) contributes to their “merit,” which in turn influences the quality of their reincarnation in the next life.
While male monks collect food and never collect money (considered unclean), female nuns are permitted to collect money as well (in general, women are considered less pure in Buddhism, thus permitting the connection between nuns and money collection). This also explains why lay people collect monetary donations for a monastery. Marisa has also learned through her friend’s family that Buddhists will frequently invite monks to pray with their families for a difficult or significant life event, or even have them over to dinner, which also contributes to their merit. Compared to the Tibetan Buddhism practices I’m more familiar with from China, in which monks seem to be present primarily in key cities where monasteries are located, it was really interesting for me to hear how monks are so woven into the fabric of everyday life here.
In Hpa-an we stayed in a cool hotel along the river with small guest houses. It had “paradise” in the name, and that’s what it felt like after about 6 hours in the car! When we arrived the hotel was hosting an awards ceremony for the Muslim community at Hpa-an University, and it was then that I learned about the cons of a pre-dominantly Buddhist population. Anti-Muslim sentiments in Myanmar are strong, and there is even an extremist group led by a Buddhist monk (696) that actively promotes burning mosques and Muslim communities. There is also a particular minority Muslim group in Rakhine State called the Rohinga that struggles with citizenship status and misunderstanding within Myanmar, partially due to the fact that they are Muslim. Learning this made it even more significant, and frankly quite poignant, to observe the university award ceremony – students arrived dressed to the nines and were visibly excited to celebrate with their friends. Given the discrimination these young people might face, it made complete sense that the university would host a celebration specifically for this community.
Exploring rural Kayin State
The next day we explored another Buddhist cave and the surrounding rice paddies, via kayak! One thing that surprised me right away was the groups of ducks among the paddies – given all the other unique animals in Southeast Asia, I didn’t expect Myanmar to have ducks that looked like they could have just flown in from Boston. I later read that ducks are natural contributors to the nitrogen that the rice needs to grow, which can mean less fertilizer, a plus! Keep the ducks coming. As we kayaked one of the men who rented them to us sang some phrases from traditional Kayin love songs – the Kayin state is primarily made up of members of the Kayin ethnicity, and they also have their own language. They’re known for being very strong and hardworking, and Marisa has met many working in Yangon.
There are 135 documented ethnic minorities in Myanmar, which are grouped into 8 main ethnic groups whose communities generally correspond to the state borders within the country. Myanmar is gradually moving from years of armed conflict between ethnic groups to a national ceasefire, and we learned more about this from our guide while traveling in Kayin state (this skeptical Economist article gives some good detail as well). We also had the chance to spend time with a small and unique group within the Kayin minority – think of them as one of the 135 within the broader grouping of Kayin. Part of a sustainable tourism initiative with Khiri Travel, our guide has worked with this community to bring foreign visitors to learn about their unique customs and religion, which is not practiced by the broader Kayin ethnicity. Until a few years ago this community had never met foreigners, and after our visit their running total of foreign friends increased to 45. They hosted us in a large and magnificently constructed gazeebo made of bamboo and cane where they hang out and hold community events.
A quick sidebar on Burmese architecture: this gazebo displayed some typical traits of rural Myanmar architecture in that it had a grass or leaf roof with a woven cane or bamboo layer underneath (much cooler than corrugated tin, and less noisy during the months-long rainy season), as well as an elevated floor. In single-family homes, the elevated floor often allows animals to live underneath, and the family might have hanging benches or other wooden frames that serve as a kind of living room below the second-story bedrooms. Though this village’s gazebo was bamboo, the single family homes were constructed of teak wood, which I loved seeing on our drive around the area. In general the woodwork is extremely impressive, and you can tell Burmese are proud of their homes because they often display the date of construction under the front gable. It was very cool to observe families as we drove through the countryside, as a lot of daily Burmese life occurs outside the walls of the house, either directly underneath it or in practical shaded structures in the yard that seem like the perfect places to hang out.
Typical of rural agricultural communities that I grew to know in China, in this village we met the kids and the grandparents because everyone else was out working either in the ride paddies or the city. They are completely vegan and do not even raise animals, so we brought them vegan snacks to share. One of the best parts of our visits was learning that in addition to the grandmothers, some of the younger girls also knew how to hand weave their traditional clothing. The village’s head honcho kindly invited us to his home and his 12 year-old daughter showed us her impressive weaving skills.
The entire group proudly wore these handwoven clothes, but it was sad to learn that they are also a factor in the community’s limited education. While in the nearby primary school, the teacher permits the children to wear their traditional dress, the teachers at the secondary school farther from the village do not permit it. The community feels such a strong desire to maintain their traditional dress, rightfully so, that many of the students have no desire to continue secondary school and complete their education. Unfortunately, this situation sounds all too familiar. The current quality of education in Myanmar shows the government’s lack of priority for this human right, and ethnic minority rights have obviously taken a back seat to the resolution of ethnic armed conflicts. Ethnic minority inclusion is a priority for IFC projects as well as other development agencies operating in Myanmar, which will hopefully contribute to an increased focus on its importance.
This community is sustained primarily by subsistence agriculture (they do not produce much surplus rice, and what they do sell yields low margins due to its low quality), remittances from those working in the city (and from a member of their community living in North Carolina, coincidentally), and now, sustainable tourism. However, our guide shared that in contrast, Kayin state and Hpa-an have strong border economies fueled by trade with nearby Thailand. Apparently up until last year, the nearby land border crossing into Thailand could be reached only by one road. This road was so crowded that the authorities had to enforce a one-way direction each day, so on a Monday, for example, it was “Thailand entry” day, and on a Tuesday “Thailand exit” day. Now, they have a bigger road that runs two ways, all the time. I could not help thinking, WOW, what a big day it must have been when that road opened!
Last stop: downtown Yangon
Thanks to Marisa, Khiri Travel, and our guide “Mr. Myu,” we had an incredible introduction to Burmese life outside of Yangon, and I feel so fortunate to have been introduced to Myanmar this way. With a few days left to explore Yangon, I didn’t have many expectations besides traffic, but little did I know how much I would love the city. The next day we visited Shwe Dagon, the giant golden stupa and pagoda site in the middle of the city. It was every bit as magical as I had read and heard, and despite many visitors it was an extremely holy and calm place. For the most part everyone carried themselves similarly: ecstatic to be there, observing such a beautiful construction, and yet almost paralyzed by its beauty and spirituality. My favorite part of the experience was taking in the sounds: the bells attached to the top of the stupas that blow in the breeze, the rustling of leaves of the Bodhi trees planted on site (significant because Buddha reached enlightenment under a Bodhi tree), the water trickling down statues as devotees poured it as an offering at specific sites, and the hum of the monks’ and visitors’ prayers. It was the best sensory overload of my trip.
Downtown Yangon was also a highlight, mainly because the city boasts the most colonial architecture in all of Southeast Asia. Another shout-out to Lonely Planet here: the walking tour of downtown Yangon was a perfect way to explore, learn some interesting history, and enjoy a few recommended snacks along the way. Though all of the buildings I visited are fully functioning and house businesses or galleries, many are in dire need of restoration. The issue is one of incentives: the government owns most of the buildings and private organizations only lease them, thus they don’t want to invest in preservation. Along the way I noticed a few blue plaques that attempt to recognize the historical significance of some of the buildings.
Luckily, there are several local groups advocating for historical preservation, and they are starting with education about the historical value of these buildings (such as the blue plaques). I would think it might be difficult to advocate for preservation of colonial-era buildings in modern Myanmar, where there must be a healthy tension between national pride for independence and acknowledgement of a harsh colonial past. My hope is that the preservation of the colonial buildings is coupled with an appreciation for local Myanmar architecture, but sometimes this can be difficult given the materials used in much Asian architecture (think pagodas and palaces of wood, lacquer, and silk vs. European stone structures). One of my favorite books that discusses this preservation challenge is The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer, which focuses specifically on the demolition and preservation of Beijing’s hutong courtyard homes.
Given the length of this entry, I think it’s self-evident that I loved visiting Marisa and learning more about the fascinating country that she currently calls home. I’m so grateful to her, her roommates and friends, and the locals I met along the way who helped introduce me to such a dynamic place. I’m excited to continue following the country’s political and economic development, especially given the upcoming transition in April, and I’m already trying to figure out when I can go back. I hope that my writing has peaked your interest in this place, and even if you aren’t able to visit, I hope that maybe you will pause to read or watch a bit more about the country and its people. Right now is a very exciting time in the history of Myanmar not just for its people, but also for all of us as the country continues to increase its engagement in the global economy. I’ll leave you with this article (though it’s a little old) to contemplate that. Thank you for reading!
Entry 4: Snippets of the Drinkwell Sessions and Kolkata
You haven’t heard much from me the past week for two reasons. First, for a couple days I was busy with a classic Indian souvenir, Delhi belly! I’m on the mend now, but I was sorry to miss out on more delicious Bengali food. The cute old man at the pharmacy and I got to know each other pretty well, though, so that was a bonus. I will never again come to this part of the world without Pepto Bismol. Second, we were hard at work with Drinkwell! After our interviews with the India-based staff, visiting the offices where they manufacture their resin, and seeing some Drinkwell sites in the field, we had enough on-the-ground detail to complement all we learned about the company the past four months and get cracking on some challenges they’re facing.
Unfortunately I can’t go into too much detail, but over the course of six jam-packed days we worked intensively with Drinkwell’s CEO Minhaj Chowdhury on everything from funding and valuation strategy, performance indicators for their systems and for resin production, staffing appropriately for their future growth, performance planning and people management basics, staff roles and responsibilities, and staff time management. How did we do this, you ask? A lot of post-its, and Vera.
People who know what I did at Deloitte are probably laughing out loud at the post-its comment, but in preparation for our trip I brought supplies that the MIT Public Service Center funded me to purchase that turned out to be really helpful. Minhaj is a new CEO and Drinkwell has a small executive team, so he has been contemplating the issues I listed above for months on his own, weighing them in his head. I knew from my time facilitating strategy sessions at the Deloitte Greenhouse that one of the most helpful things for executives is to lay out all the options in front of them so they can get the confusion out of their heads and visualize the “right” solution. So that’s just what we did with butcher paper, markers, post-its, and it was impressive how much ground we were able to cover.
Another magic tool we had was Vera Solutions (www.verasolutions.org), a company that helps non-profits use their data more effectively and which our teammate Karti happened to co-found several years earlier. Karti came across Drinkwell when he was still at Vera but the fact that he was assigned to this MIT SEID project with Drinkwell was a complete coincidence. Vera is already in the process of helping Drinkwell organize its existing well data into management dashboards, so as we discussed performance indicators with Minhaj this week Karti was able to work with the Vera team to incorporate these new metrics. This connection was such a great coincidence because it allowed us to operationalize some of what we discussed with Minhaj much more quickly than if we had needed to start from scratch. Thanks, Vera and Karti!
For most of our time in Kolkata we worked with Drinkwell’s India-based team, but on our last day there, Mizan Rahman, Drinkwell’s Country Director for Bangladesh, was finally able to come (he had trouble getting a visa because of the recent attacks in Bangladesh and heightened security). Meeting Mizan after a semester of working with him via Skype was wonderful, and we spent a productive half day with him focusing specifically on issues related to the new Bangladesh-based team.
To round out our project, we will be providing a set of observations and recommendations to the Drinkwell board. I am excited to watch Drinkwell continue to expand their systems across West Bengal and Bangladesh, especially after visiting some of their longest operating sites. The Drinkwell team is extremely creative in how they are serving populations in need of contaminant-free drinking water, and they’re also partnering with Sanitation Health Rights India (SHRI) (www.sanrights.org) in Bihar, India for a very cool sanitation and community water treatment project: open defecation is an issue throughout rural India and especially Bihar, so the Drinkwell station is right next to a public toilet built by SHRI. Revenues from water sales fund both the station’s and the toilet’s upkeep, and residents benefit from both clean toilets and clean water, solving two problems at once! I can’t wait to see what the Drinkwell team will come up with next, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to make even a small contribution to their work.
As I leave India and head to Myanmar, I have a few short reflections on things I observed and experienced while in Kolkata that I will take with me. I know I will be back to India to see the rest of what I found to be a lively, colorful country even though I only experienced a small part of it. It’s fitting that I wrote these snippets in a taxi cab barreling down the EM Bypass service road on the way to the airport on Friday.
Music: my wish to hear more Indian music was granted the first night I arrived in Kolkata. I could hear that not far from our apartment building there was a band practicing. It sounded like they were practicing for a procession or a parade of sorts, because it was loud, festive, and had a great drum line. I really enjoyed some of the higher pitched instruments and the keys they played in, and from 9pm until around 11pm the band serenaded me every 20 minutes with one or two songs. I got ready for bed at around midnight… And the band was still playing. In fact, they were still playing at 1, and at 2, and every 20 minutes until 4 in the morning! I had heard India was noisy but man, I had no idea. Good thing I had my earplugs and a white noise app for this warm welcome. I swear, I really did like the music.
Eating: I learned on my first day that traditionally Indians eat with their right hands, and they eat on plates, not in bowls. Both of these details I personally found very challenging. First of all, it was really tough to not only mix the main dish and the rice, but also tear bread and meat with just one of my hands (using the left hand is unclean, as it is the bathroom hand like in many other cultures). Without a bowl, there was a lot of rice chasing going on on my plate, to say the least. Then after I had mixed or torn the food, getting into my mouth was a whole other adventure. I was instructed to use my thumb to shuttle the food, but I’ll have to keep working on it. For most of my time I used a fork or spoon, but I’ll try o advance my thumb skills for next time!
Puns: one thing I’ve really enjoyed is the English signs here, many of which I think have really clever puns. The cement company “cementing relationships,” a restaurant named “Hoppi” claims to bring you “Hoppi-ness,” and a shampoo company boasts “love is in the hair.” Granted, some ads are a little dramatic, like one for what we hope is a plastic surgery clinic, advertising “we cut everything but your throat,” but in general, the fact that English is pretty widely spoken here allows me to understand and enjoy more than I would in other new countries where I don’t know the language. After hearing my comments, my teammates advised that I not go into marketing, or maybe only do so in India…
Population density: I now realize that I did not fully understand the definition of this word until I came to India. I thought China had prepared me, but I was wrong even about that. India has almost the same population as China (approximately 1.3 billion) but one third the land mass, which means there are people literally everywhere. My favorite example of how this plays out was in the aisles of the grocery store next to our apartment building. For each aisle, there were at least two attendants waiting to help you find the product you were seeking, to the point where it was actually difficult to make it through the store to see the products! Shopping adventure to say the least, but I did always find what I was looking for.
Traffic and driving: the population density really plays out when it comes to traffic. My observations are: 1. If you aren’t honking your horn, you aren’t driving and 2. If you choose a lane, you are the loser. The honking is incessant and also takes some funny forms: some auto rickshaws have duck quacks as they go by, or funny little songs. And the taxi cabs (which are old British-style cars) are missing a key part: side-view mirrors! But I learned that it doesn’t really matter much because if a driver sees a space, it is theirs, no questions asked or apologies. The Kolkata traffic police are the first in the world I have known to advertise (things like “please wear a helmet!” or “drive safe this holiday season!”), and large trucks and buses have colorful painted lettering reminding people to “obey the traffic rules,” which I also found very ironic. Getting from one place to the next was certainly not boring!
Street vendors: what I loved the most about Kolkata was the thriving informal economy, shown best by the myriad street vendors. On my first cab ride from the airport to our apartment, I remember thinking how much it reminded me of Beijing before the government built walls around markets and street stalls to “prepare” the city for foreign guests before the Olympics. I thought this was a real loss to the warm fabric of Beijing that made it unique, and I was so happy to see Kolkata boasts tons of great stalls. I loved watching people buy snacks from the stalls and taking in the endless market stalls that swallowed the sidewalks. To me, it was a great example of how lively and personable Kolkata is despite the fact that it is one of the largest cities in India.
West Bengal food: I wrote about this briefly at the beginning, but apparently the region’s food is considered some of the best in India. The “Oh! Calcutta” restaurant gave us a nice introduction of how it is quite a mix of flavors and cooking styles from around the world (due partially to the fact that it was the capital during the British occupation). This chain is apparently around the country and I would recommend it to anyone visiting India. We also really enjoyed the simpler dishes that were prepared for us by Bijoli, a local woman who cooked for us (what a deal!). Fish was particularly good.
Clothing: I think Indian women are SO stylish and thought Kolkata was a constant fashion show. The women’s traditional outfits are always well matched with great embroidery. I think the fact that there are several distinct cuts of outfits (kurtas with leggings, saris, and sometimes a one-piece dress with more of an A-line hem and a matching scarf) leads to more outfits and discourages mixing and matching individual pieces, but the result is stunning. Locally woven fabric (popularized during the resistance to the British occupation) seems to be more commonly worn by men and has a beautiful texture that looks rougher and somewhat like natural linen because it is high quality cotton. The cuts are also very stylish.
Cricket: I didn’t learn enough about cricket when I was there, but I did learn that it is a national obsession! Also, cricket stadiums are tourist destinations in themselves, with unique histories and stories due to the fact that matches are usually played as part of a series of games as a team tours different stadiums around the country. This can lead to collective memories of certain tours with particularly exciting games, and apparently also results in a lot of writing about cricket. I owe a lot of what I learned about it to my teammate Karti and I will definitely try to see a match when I go back.
The famous “wobble”: I was very confused my first 48 hours in Kolkata because every time I started talking to a local he or she would seemingly shake his/her head side to side, not like I do, but as if with a string attached to the chin being pulled left and right every few seconds, more like a slight back and forth tilt. I forgot I needed to expect this different type of nod or affirmation, and I’ll admit it was visually confusing for me to receive signals of misunderstanding (based on American cultural conditioning) and yet to have to tell myself “no, this means agreement/understanding). By the end of my trip I had a grasp on it and even tried to replicate it myself (which I’m sure looked hilarious).
Rabindranath Tagore: an extremely famous and wise poet I had never heard of. He was the first Nobel Laureate in West Bengal (won the prize for literature) and he is not only a hero to the founders of Drinkwell, but also to most of the locals in West Bengal, who have portraits or quotes of his in their homes. Look him up! He was buddies with not only Einstein but also Gandhi.
I could go on listing things I learned because the fact is, I observed, tasted, and heard so many new things each day in Kolkata that if I did that this post would go on forever. The Drinkwell staff told us they were grateful we came and helped them, but I was really the one who was helped because in going to Kolkata I feel I am one small step closer to understanding and being able to relate to another part of the world. I’ll be back, India! Now, on to Myanmar to see Marisa!
Entry 3: Drinkwell Site Visits
Earlier this week we visited Drinkwell system sites in two villages several hours north of Kolkata in the municipality of Ashoknagar. The main purpose of the visits was to contribute to the due diligence of potential Drinkwell investors. Still, we were able to tag along and knew seeing the actual locations of Drinkwell’s work would make our understanding of the organization more concrete – despite 4 months of conference calls, there’s nothing like seeing the work in person!
The first system was in a village called Binimaypara. This site is one of the earliest sites built by Dr. Sengupta and his team, and the capital investment of the system was largely funded by a grant from the US-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund to the Tagore-Sengupta Foundation, which pre-dated Drinkwell. This system is a key part of the Drinkwell narrative because it has been operating continually since 2004 and was one of the first places in West Bengal where the gradual effects of arsenicosis started emerging.
Unlike iron contamination, arsenic is a silent killer: it is colorless and odorless, and when present in otherwise clean groundwater, it goes undetected. In Binimaypara, the deep tube well providing groundwater to villagers was the best source of clean drinking water because surface water was too contaminated. When dark spots appeared on villagers’ hands and feet, at first village doctors mistakenly thought they were signs of leprosy. It was not until a researcher dedicated time and energy to studying the illness that it was confirmed to be arsenicosis.
Arsenicosis was detected so early in this village because its concentration in the water was particularly high: over 100 μg/L, compared to the safe standard of 50 μg/L. After the tube well was operational, 28 people in this village died from arenic-related health complications such as liver cancer or arsenicosis. They are commemorated on a plaque that hangs inside the structure housing the Drinkwell treatment system. Dr. Sengupta took a particular interest in this community because of the high concentration of arsenic. At this site, Drinkwell’s polymer-based hybrid arsenic selective adsorbent (HAIX), originally developed by Dr. Sengupta at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, provides water that consistently contains less than 10 μg/L. You can learn more about the technical aspects of this system and the adsorbent at the Tagore-Sengupta Foundation’s blog and in an Intel Environment award video.
The system benefits approximately three hundred (300) families in Binimaypara. Usually villagers either pick up their water directly in 10L jugs, or they hire a delivery service. For several villagers, the delivery service they run is a key source of additional income that often complements other small businesses they run (in the case of the delivery man pictured below, he and his family also run a medicine shop). In order to maintain the system, villagers contribute a nominal fee to the village committee, which pays for the system resin to be regenerated every 5 years. When there is an opportunity, the village committee will also sell the treated water for large village or area functions such as weddings. A Drinkwell system operator, Partho, is regularly paid by the village committee to test the water quality and coordinate resin regeneration, which is a model replicated at other Drinkwell sites.
While visiting the system, we were also accompanied by local reporters. Apparently, several weeks prior they published an inflammatory article about the arsenic crisis, claiming that the level of arsenic in the surrounding community was a problem that was only getting worse. Luckily, Sudip, a member of the Drinkwell team, saw the article, contacted the reporter, and convinced him to come check out Drinkwell’s work. The reporters interviewed several women who lost their husbands to arsenic-related illnesses. They also found it compelling that foreign investors and students are interested in the system, so I think that’s why we made the paper via this article (you’ll notice in the picture that I’m wearing a kurta I bought at the mall to blend in with the more conservative rural dress code).
Shakti Sadhana Community Club and Treatment Plant
In the afternoon, we visited another station that is markedly larger than the one in Binimaypara. It opens twice a day for a few hours in the morning and afternoon, and was bustling at 3pm opening time. In this town, the system was funded by a community club that coordinates social events, sports, etc. The system operator, who is a member of the community club and lives across the street from the system, charges 40 rupees per month for each user to collect 20L per day. Users come to the club with cards that the operator signs once they collect their water. Some users prefer to pay extra for a delivery service, stimulating entrepreneurship like in Binimaypara.
This town not only has a higher economic condition than Binimaypara, but is also affected by different arsenic contamination levels. These details are important to note because they influence the way the Drinkwell-treated water is marketed and sold in each community. Here, the arsenic contamination in the water is lower than in Binimaypara, but still presents a risk. Also, iron contamination, which affects water’s color, odor, and taste, is a key motivator for residents to buy treated water.
I heard this firsthand when speaking (through a translator) to a resident picking up water. He said that he had an active tube well at his house, but his family purchased water each week for cooking and drinking because it tasted better and didn’t have the red iron color. When I asked about the threat of arsenic, he said that his community did not have as high of an arsenic threat, but that the iron removal was a huge improvement for them, and enough to justify purchasing water from the Drinkwell system.
This example might be confusing, because if there is, in fact, arsenic above the permissible level in the town’s ground water (which there is), shouldn’t the residents be concerned? That’s the tricky part about arsenic: it has such a gradual effect on health that it’s difficult to communicate the immediacy of the problem. But that doesn’t mean that it should be ignored and left to erode the health of a community; if another aesthetic aspect of the water attracts consumers to drink safe water, so be it!
This system’s customer base in Shakti Sadhana is also much larger than Binimaypara village (600-700 families), partially due to an incredible marketing story. A wedding was being hosted in the town and a group of cousins were preparing a dance for the ceremony. They noticed that one cousin in particular had incredibly smooth and beautiful hair, and of course had to know “how does she does it?” She revealed her new treated water source, and the news spread fast. That story did more to market the system in the town than any other previous marketing campaign, and similar user testimonials promote business in other locations.
The fact that the system is linked to a community club is also helpful – the club’s soccer field is right next to the Drinkwell system, and as we left the system we watched a team of youngsters run by with jerseys emblazoned with the club name, partially funded by proceeds from the water treatment system. Great timing for a visit by a potential donor!
What I loved most about the visit was the chance to witness the community interacting with the systems and the new jobs that are created when it’s up and running. Job creation automatically increases a community’s investment in a new technology or infrastructure, and it’s great to see that sustained through the Drinkwell model. Also, the water itself tasted great! Now that we’ve seen operational sites and had the chance to interview a few staff, we’re looking forward to digging into some of the management areas Minhaj and the Drinkwell team have requested our help with as they expand.
Entry 2: The Plunge
Before my Air India flight to Delhi, I had no idea an airline could be such an immersive cultural experience. I’ll remind you, this is coming from someone with limited exposure to India, so my only frames of reference are China and Latin America. But my first clue that this flight would be educational was before I had even gotten on the plane, when I was standing in the Air India check-in line.
After about 10 minutes in line, I noticed a family ahead of me trying to take a pre-departure photo, so I offered to take one of the three of them. Just at that moment, they were called to the check-in desk. I moved with my suitcase to follow them as we quickly tried to take the shot. I knew I had made a mistake. As I turned back to the line, an entire family of five that had arrived a few minutes earlier (and saw me ahead of them in line) replaced my former position. Of course I didn’t question the family, as I figured this might be something I would need to get used to. First hint, noted.
Boarding the plane was pretty typical, as I am used to being stared at if I’m one of a small number of white females on the flight (this was indeed the case). But I did make a few quick observations about the passengers. Apparently, the parade of wheelchairs I saw at the Air India check-in were all headed for our flight, because probably a quarter of the passengers looked older than 65. The other quarter of passengers were exactly the opposite: babies ranging from several weeks old to extremely active toddlers.
Together, these passenger groups made for a beautiful and adorable display: the older men and women wore a range of more traditional shirts, vests, and saris, many of which were brightly colored and different styles, which I later learned was probably based on their region of the country (this flight was headed to Delhi and many would connect on to other locations). The babies were incredibly cute. I saw at least a half dozen new families juggling their little ones in just my small section of the plane.
Many of them had small bindis on their foreheads, and I later learned why quite a few also carried slightly larger black spots on their foreheads or their cheeks. Apparently, some believe that if a baby is too cute, it might attract the “evil eye” of someone who is jealous or who will try to harm him/her. The black spot is one method to prevent the evil eye because it is said to distract from the baby’s cuteness (my source on this is the woman next to me on the plane and the countless Indian new mom blogs I found via Google). I, meanwhile, continued to stare at the babies and chuckled as I took my seat, resigned to the fact that our smallest passengers would make this one a noisy and eventful flight.
Sure enough, as we took off one baby started crying, and then another, and then one by one, the others in our section joined the chorus. I checked out the in-flight entertainment model to see what my movie or music of choice would be to drown them out. The radio channels spanned romance music to Bollywood hits to some specific artists’ repertoires, including Shah Rukh Khan, who I later learned is the famed “King of Bollywood.” The channel “timeless melodies” took me through the rest of the flight (I assumed it was basically the “classics”). I don’t know much about the different kinds of Indian music, but I enjoyed most of what I heard and it made me hopeful that I might hear some more while in West Bengal.
I also watched a 2015 Bengali movie, Herogiri to start to get an ear for the language of West Bengal (for the record, I chose it because the main character was riding a motorcycle in the movie poster, obviously). In contrast to some Bollywood films I’ve seen, this movie had a very over-the-top slapstick style, but was still somewhat entertaining (apparently critics thought the same and gave it 2.5 stars). The movie started with an old man arrested by the police because he was flirting with younger girls. When his son bails him out, we learn that the father was only doing so to find his son a wife. The son was only in his early 30s, but I’ve heard from Indian friends that marriage can be quite a big topic, so this is probably a pretty typical plot component.
Cue parallel plot line: the son’s friend tries to kill himself by eating the nail polish he bought a beautiful woman he was pursuing (I warned you it was over-the-top). Apparently, he met this woman in a café while she was with her uncle – she singled him out to be her boyfriend despite her uncle’s protests that he was “too dark” to be his nephew-in-law (in response, the suitor cries out “but dark is OK! Even America has elected Obama as president!” Apparently skin color is also a topic in India). She gives her number despite her uncle’s protest, and from there, the suitor texts her incessantly. But instead of the woman responding, her uncle responds, requesting the suitor buy the woman all sorts of expensive gifts to win her love, all of which instead go to her uncle (a large refrigerator and a home theatre were two of my favorites). The suitor later discovers that they pull this routine with many other innocent men and that he is not her true love, hence the nail polish incident. Right about there I started to lose interest, but it was neat to get a little taste of the Bengali language and also the wide range of movie styles. Next time, I might stick with Bollywood, or at least check the reviews before watching just based on the cool motorcycle.
Now about the food. I don’t know how Air India plane food tastes to a seasoned Indian palette, but I thought it was awesome! Definitely a highlight of the flight that got me excited for West Bengal (a bonus I’ve learned since arriving – Bengali food is famous and well-liked around India – what luck!). Another highlight was the woman sitting next to me, who was part of the over 65 crew. She had a clever cane that folded into several pieces and fit into the seatback pocket in front of her, which was adorable. I also spent the whole flight helping her turn on the light above her to read, adjusting her seat, and moving her tray table. She also needed help filling out her immigration forms because the questions were in English, so it was neat to see what an Indian passport looks like. I have no idea why she was traveling by herself because we weren’t able to communicate except with gestures and smiles, but hopefully there was another wheelchair envoy waiting for her in India.
All in all, the flight to Delhi made me even more excited to work in West Bengal for the next two weeks. I don’t know what the national anthem sounds like yet, but as we landed I pretended I heard the chorus of babies cry “welcome to India!”
Entry 1: Off to India!
Why I’m going
Last Friday morning, I left the comfort of my friend’s couch and started a 30-hour trip to India. There are two things you are probably thinking right now… First: do I really still sleep on couches? The answer is yes, I am a student after all, and it was actually really very comfortable (thanks, Virginia!). Second, why am I going to India? If I’m heading abroad, there’s usually more than a 50% chance that I’m headed either to China or a Spanish-speaking country. What’s bringing me to India is not necessarily the country or the language, but rather the topic of the work.
Water became a front-and-center issue for me as soon as I started noticing it was an issue rising to the top of the list everywhere I looked: from the community in El Salvador where I volunteer with Little Friends for Peace, to the rural Chinese villages where I taught in college, to my drought-stricken home last year, San Francisco. Whether the conversation is about its allocation, scarcity, or quality, people everywhere (including the World Economic Forum) are recognizing that water is a resource we cannot continue to depend on without giving it more attention. Many communities in the US are fortunate enough to not think twice about their water because it is usually cheap, clean, and consistent, delivered through one of the world’s most comprehensive piped water infrastructure systems. However, even in the US, water contamination and allocation issues are becoming increasingly common alongside drought and flood risks.
My interest in water has continued to grow as I’ve joined the MIT Water Innovation Prize team and the MIT Water Club. I became eager to learn more about the technical aspects of water purification as well as the challenges of bringing water infrastructure to developing communities. I signed up to work with Sloan Entrepreneurs for Development (SEID) because I noticed several proposed partner organizations specialized in water, and I was lucky enough to be accepted to work with Drinkwell.
More about Drinkwell and our project
Drinkwell was established in May 2013 to capitalize on the need for purified drinking water and entrepreneurial opportunity in West Bengal, India and Bangladesh. Here’s how it works: both West Bengal and Bangladesh have a high volume of tubewells contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic (more than 50 ug/L), leading to over 48 million people affected by arsenic poisoning. One of Drinkwell’s founders, Dr. Arup K. SenGupta, developed a patented resin that, together with an easy-to-operate filtration system, can be installed in these wells to remove arsenic and other contaminants such as iron, flouride, and calcium. Drinkwell technology is superior because the resin-based adsorbent lasts longer and can be regenerated through a process that refreshes the media and safely disposes of the arsenic waste. In addition, whereas current solutions use Reverse Osmosis (RO) technology that wastes 40-60% of input water, Drinkwell wastes only 1% of water.
Drinkwell systems have been installed in over 200 tubewells in India and Bangladesh through private funding, government grants, and franchises, and the results are beneficial on multiple fronts. First, the communities experience improved health outcomes due to access to clean water (households no longer at risk for cholera, diarrhea, arsenicosis, and other water-borne diseases). Moreover, there are economic gains through both the selling and/or delivering water from a Drinkwell system and the time savings for family members (primarily women) who gather water on a daily basis and hence forgo school or other economic activity. After the system is operational, Drinkwell engineers continue to monitor the systems and provide regeneration services when needed.
Drinkwell and its team has been growing rapidly since 2013. Together with my SEID team of three other Sloanies, we will be working with Drinkwell cofounder Minhaj Chowdhury, to help establish some key processes around performance management and metrics collection and reporting. We will be working with Drinkwell’s India-based team, and more specifically the team that manufactures the resins for their filters, as well as the leader of the newer and smaller Bangladesh team. Although we have been learning about Drinkwell and working with Minhaj since September, the final scope of the project was only finalized recently because, frankly, Drinkwell is expanding rapidly and there is so much to work on! We expect some of our planned deliverables to take shape and shift while we are here. Above all, we want to be as helpful as we can to the team.
Excited… and also nervous
I have been really excited to meet and work with the Drinkwell team in person. But as our departure date approached, I also felt something else: nervous. As I struggled to pack appropriate clothes (thanks for your help, Nila!) and buy the right plug adapter, I realized how prepared I was for my most recent trips to China and El Salvador. In both cases, I knew what clothes I could wear, how to act, what ATMs I could use to get local cash, etc. And if I didn’t know, I knew I could confidently ask using Mandarin or Spanish.
India, on the other hand, is completely new for me. Sure, I’ve seen some Bollywood movies, danced in Indian cultural shows, enjoyed the food, and learned about different regions and customs through classmates and coworkers, but what’s absent is the foundation of language skills that I rely on when visiting those other countries. It’s not just that I will sound like a child with a 10-word vocabulary. I literally have nothing to go off of (upon realizing this, I immediately googled “thank you” in Bengali, since that’s my go-to word in any language).
As the nervousness started to sink in, I realized just how long it has been since I’ve had a completely new experience like this. Not only am I going to a new country and region of the world, but I’m also operating under some ambiguity regarding the schedule and products related to our project. You would think all of this would make me even more nervous, but luckily it did the opposite. Even though the experience may be somewhat of a scary “stretch zone” most of the time, I know it will truly help me learn about both India and myself. And because I’m a total nerd, the thought of this makes me even more excited. So, I’m going to embrace this opportunity with open arms, let myself be a little apprehensive and nervous, and mostly, just go with the flow.