Travels in Northern India: Updates from Avani

Namaste and greetings from India!
We’ve done a lot of travelling since our last update. I’m writing this e-mail from the office in Avani, approximately 1400 km from Ahmedabad. Our last e-mail was sent a couple of days before we left ICP. Sorry for the slow response time in between updates! The weather here has supposedly been interfering with the wifi. Either the clouds are blocking the satellite signal or it’s been so cold that the wifi is “frozen”. The second one may be a joke, but it’s hard to tell. I’m going to start this where we left off. Be warned that it’s a long e-mail. We meant to send it when we first got to Avani, several days ago, and I’ve just been adding pieces every day with hopes that the wireless will pull through.
January 12, 2012
We finished up our field visits on Thursday with a trip to the AMPC (Ahmedabad Municipal Produce Corporation) vegetable market. Our purpose was to observe how the vegetable carts were used – what made one person’s cart better than another’s and how could we incorporate that into a manufactured cart? When we returned to ICP, we had a brainstorming session. The cart that they have been designing can angle its display to attract customers. After that brainstorming session, we had another one focusing on improving the work conditions of the head-loaders that some of our group visited earlier in the week.
For lunch, we went to a trendy café with ICP. Afterward, we took a break and went to the kite festival that was being held along the river bank. We saw the International Kite Festival, which had been running for the past few days. The local festival wasn’t until the weekend, which was too bad because it is supposed to be much more exciting. People were very excited to see foreigners and took lots of pictures of us on their phones. It was daunting for me - I stick out bad and have trouble saying no to cute kids. I also may accidentally have landed myself in an ad for a soda stand. Woops.
After the kite festival, we returned to ICP headquarters and had a brainstorming session with Roger. Roger is a college student from England and is doing a year-long internship with Engineers Without Borders. We looked at ways to improve the co-op fish market run by SEWA members, specifically focusing on three categories for improvement: hygiene, cooling, and efficiency. Roger wanted to use us to make sure he wasn’t missing any angles when dealing with this fish market and we were happy to help. Soon we were all tired, including Roger, so we left to get some food and start packing for our departure.
January 13, 2012
After a slow start with packing, we left our bags at the hotel and went to ICP for our final meeting. This time there was no brainstorming session, but we reflected on the trip and if there would be future trips to Ahmedabad. The consensus was that we were there for too short of a time to do significant work; we were on an exposure trip, not a project trip. For us though, it was a learning experience and we hope that we can use this experience to help future trips. If there are any more trips, both ICP and us as a team think they could be improved with better research done before hand (at least on some of ICP’s partner organizations such as SEWA or on Ahmedabad itself) and a longer trip duration so that we could spend even more time in the field and complete some prototypes. On a positive note, we are taking some of the problems that we saw back to MIT for the D-lab design class to work on and hopefully we’ll have someone come back to continue the work, either as an intern like Roger or as a full time employee like Adam, a former D-lab student. I don’t know if it was stressed in the other e-mails, but ICP was very good to us during our time in Ahmedabad. They kept us busy with lots of very cool field visits and had even more planned that we missed out on because we were sick. They also fed us very well and took great care of us when we were sick. It was a little sad to leave good company but we were excited for the next leg of our journey.
We left around 11 and went back to our hotel to get a taxi to the airport. There, we ate lunch that Viral’s aunt packed for us – roti and some pickled vegetables – and ice cream. Our flight was fairly short and soon we were in Delhi, on a cab to our hotel. Delhi was a very different experience than Ahmedabad. It was much more Western. The streets were paved and had painted lanes (no, the lanes weren’t used), shops were open late, and there were enough tourists so that we didn’t stick out too much and no one wanted to take pictures of us. We ate a late dinner at a vegetarian place and then headed back to the hotel to get some writing done before heading off to bed.
January 14, 2012
We started off the day normally, with some chai from the closest street vendor. After Nathan got his phone set up, we headed off to Chandni Chowk to visit the street markets. We wandered through some alleyways that were filled with electronics shops, talked to some waste collectors and vegetable vendors (we were still thinking about our projects from our stay with ICP), and saw the Red Fort. Our next plan was to go to Dilli Haat for lunch, which we thought was called Delhi Haat. We ended up going completely out of our way to a textile wholesaler before catching another Rickshaw back to almost exactly where we had started. To quote Bus, “There exists a large difference between Delhi Haat and Dilli Haat. This difference can be quantified by 2 hours, 3 rickshaws, 200 rupees, and 7 limbs that have fallen asleep.” It was worth it though. Dilli Haat is a venue with space available for booths and this week the booths were filled with hand-made crafts ranging from textiles to stoneware pottery to paintings. We actually ran into a group from Avani, selling their very nice, hand-woven clothes. For lunch, we had momos which are basically dumplings. Afterward, we caught the metro back to our hotel. The subway is definitely the way to go in Delhi. It is a much better system than what I’ve seen in either London, New York, or Boston, but you have to go through security each time you enter. 
The rest of the night was spent relaxing, getting some last-minute supplies, and eating dinner. Then with our bags packed, we went to the train station. We took a sleeper train and managed to end up in the same compartment with enough room to actually get some rest.
January 15, 2012
After getting our luggage off the train, we were met with two taxi drivers. We piled our stuff and ourselves into two cars and headed off toward Avani. The drive was incredible. We were on windy roads through that carved up steep mountain sides, very high up. Along the way were sparsely clustered groups of buildings called hill-stations. We passed many large cement trucks and tan jeeps, which are supposedly the taxis in this area. One quick meal and 7 hours later and we arrived in Avani!
After arriving, we got set up in our rooms and took a small tour of the facilities. Avani is a small community looking for ways to make living in this region more sustainable. Their buildings are covered with solar panels and solar water heaters and they have many interesting technologies, like their pine needle gasifier, which incinerates pine needles to generate electricity. Crops are grown on plots that are cut into the hillside like steps and some are grown in Avani in greenhouses made from tarps. The view from here is gorgeous; we can see the peaks of a few of the Himalayas to the north-east.
On a side-note, one interesting thing that I learned about this day was the pine trees. They look like palm trees, with long, skinny trunks and only a small cluster of branches and pine needles toward the top. Apparently this is because the pines are an invasive species and grow faster than the native oaks. Because it is illegal to chop down the trees, locals cut off the branches. Some of the trees I’ve seen so far have bare trunks stretching 40 feet, which means people are either climbing the trees or finding other ways to chop off new branches.   
Back to the trip: we had daal, rice, and palak (spinach) for dinner, a fairly standard meal here in Avani. A lot of the food here is grown on-site and it is all hand-made. After dinner, we had a short meeting and then got settled to sleep.

January 16, 2012
It was our first normal day in Avani. It rained overnight so it was fairly cold but we got warmed up with chai and breakfast. Then we met with Raju, who oversees all of the projects, to talk about what work we wanted to do during this visit. We split up after and started talking to people to find out more about what we would be doing.
During this first morning, many of us found out that the projects that we’re working on are slightly different than what we expected in one way or another. We’re adapting and coming together as a group though, helping each other out with ideas to ensure that everyone is still making progress.
The rest of the day was spent working on projects. We’ve had enough meals here that I honestly don’t remember what we had for dinner, but it’s always good.
January 17, 2012
We began day 2 of Avani with what will become our routine schedule: wake up and have chai, cut vegetables, eat breakfast, have a quick team meeting, and then split up to our respective projects. Lunch is served in the afternoon, chai is served again shortly after lunch, we work until the sun goes down (not that long really, since work slows at around 4 and most of Avani’s workers are done by 5), we have a second team meeting, eat dinner, and then relax for a little until it’s time to go to bed.
We had an interesting discussion in the evening, looking back at the D-lab class we took in the fall and the preparation leading up to this trip. We talked about how the trips could be changed or improved, what expectations we had before coming and how those compare to the realities that we’re faced with. Our meetings always run long – we have lots to say about everything, get sidetracked easily, and are plagued with fits of laughter.
January 18, 2012
Finally, I’m writing this e-mail on the day it is being sent out! It’s 4PM right now and the weather today was much better – it was sunny again and we got warm water to take showers! This morning half of our team went to the closest hospital to do research for a medical project that Avani wants done. The other half went to Berinag, the closest major town to Avani. If you’re wondering where we are on a map, search for Berinag, Uttaranchal (Uttarakhand). We’re about 10 minutes away by taxi.
Those of us that went to Berinag bought materials for our projects – starch to make charcoal, greenhouse tarps for driers, and talcum powder to make crayons. We stocked up on some sweets since our diet consists entirely of vegetables, roti, rice, and chai. It’s delicious but we still wanted to make a visit to a bakery.
After coming back, we had lunch and worked on our projects. The day is wrapping up and soon we’re going to take some time to formally document our trip with ICP.
Well, that’s it for this update! Hopefully another e-mail will be sent out soon but our pace is also slowing down as the group has begun individual work on their projects. We have less than two weeks left in Avani so soon we will be on a train to Delhi and then on a flight back to Boston. The group is having a great time here and we’re doing a good job taking care of ourselves and each other.
Love and hugs from myself and the team!