Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Conversations with Killers

One thing this fellowship does really well is to allow the recipient to say yes to pretty much everything (within reason, people). During college I barely had time to think, but now that the value of my time has plummeted like a share of Bear Stearns stock, I don’t say no too often. Sharing chai with strangers while drenched in sweat after a run, games of “Lock and Key” with slum children, and hearing out the sales pitch of a street merchant trying to sell fake Coach purses are all fair game. Or in this case, it’s taking up Rashmi (pictured), the Health Outreach Director (who you might remember had malaria), on her offer to visit a nearby social organization.

The organization is called the Jawaharlal Nehru Child Welfare Center. The name is deceptive, because it’s basically a juvenile jail. It does have other activities, like its housing and rehabilitation for the blind and lame, but the detention center seems to be its primary focus. Walking up, I thought it looked a little drab for a place meant for children rehabilitation. Then I was asked if I wanted to see the kids. When the director went up to the door and undid the padlock, it felt a little like we were dealing with animals at the zoo. Inside, some 20 young men were seated on the floor eating lunch out of huge vats of rice, daal, and some sort of vegetable creation. Half the kids rose immediately to greet us.

What followed was a somewhat alarming conversation. Rashmi nudged me, “Do you want to ask them any questions?” Through Rashmi’s translation, I asked one of the boys named Arjun, a well-dressed 17-year-old with neatly slicked hair, clean jeans and a plain white shirt, what he was here for. “Murder”, he said proudly. As if to make sure his reputation was clear to me, he added with his head high and a big smile, “Three murders.” His friends chimed in: “And three half murders”. They talked about his record like it was football stats and this guy was making his case for the Hall of Fame (whether he had assisted in three murders or only mortally wounded three people, I couldn’t figure out).

“How did you kill them?” I asked. “Knife! Knife!” he and his friends shouted. He made a decapitating motion along his neck with an invisible knife. Rashmi and the director kind of chuckled along with Arjun, because of Arjun’s explanation or my complete astonishment of the situation, I wasn’t sure. I wanted to know why he would kill all these people, to which he explained was for money. Most of these young men, I guessed from our conversation, probably came from poorer backgrounds. “How long, total, will you be here?” I asked. Three months. He had already tried to escape once, the director said, laughing. By now the whole lightness of the conversation was getting to be a bit unnerving. I heard similar stories from other “inmates”, told with comparable levity. When we left, I double-checked with the director that I had heard right. Three months, he confirmed. Rashmi added that “he is only a boy.”

The way they talked about these murders – the director and Rashmi included – gave me a creeping feeling that maybe the value of human life in this 1.1 billion person country isn’t what it is in the developed world. The other day I read in the newspaper how an old Indian man had been injured and was dying in the street, and was passed over by countless people before one man finally rushed him to the hospital. In the slums, a common echo among residents is that India’s population is one of the primary obstacles in the way of improving their situation. However, as we walked out I asked Rashmi if Arjun really was that shameless. She said that on the outside, he appeared happy because of the visitors, but inside there was turmoil over what he had done. Turmoil or not, at least I can take solace in the fact that I won’t be in Pune when his time is up.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sweets for Diwali

Though you wouldn't know it because of the fireworks still blasting outside your window at 2:00 in the morning, India's biggest holiday, Diwali, just finished up. To get an idea just how big "The Festival of Lights" is, I asked the AIC director, who said "it's basically like Christmas." She forgot to mention the elaborate sand art people put outside their doors, the painting of candles holders, or the unrelenting fireworks.

I was walking down M.G. Road, one of the main roads in Pune, with an Indian friend one night after an excellent curry and paratha dinner. It was insane. People were literally lighting off firecrackers and all kinds of enormous fireworks in the middle of this major road, causing traffic to stop or swerve, and people to take cover in stores. The funniest thing is that no one seems to care - it's a time for celebration and it's one big nation-wide party.

Not everyone is celebrating, unfortunately. I've been conducting interviews with busti (slum) dwellers in my spare time. One construction worker I interviewed (pictured), a worn old man with calloused hands caked with dirt, giving the appearance that they were made from stones, lamented that this Diwali he wasn't able to purchase anything new to celebrate. His wife has had tuberculosis for 17 years, and everything he earns, he invests in her. Like Christmas in the US, it seems the holidays can be a time of enormous happiness for some people, and crushing depression for others.

Over the holidays, I took some freshly made Indian sweets (amazing) to the children living in the Sikligar busti and the Waghri busti. The Sikligars were extremely thankful, and I was impressed by the 13-year-old girl who took charge and broke all the sweets in half to make sure there was enough. I was even more blown away by all the kids who patiently waited in line and then offered me some.

The Waghris were a bit different, probably because there were so many more. Like sharks smelling blood, the moment my friend Bridgete and I arrived, they started coming out of the woodwork. Soon there was a semi-circle of over 30 hungry kids around me, chanting in unison "Da-da! Da-da! Da-da!" I knew, and they knew, that we didn't bring enough treats. With the help of an older Waghri, I started breaking up the sweets. Then I gave the signal to form a line behind the guy who was giving them out, and it was all over from there. Immediately I was pinned up against the wall, and after trying to restore order, someone motioned for me to get out and take cover. As soon as I was out, the kids dog-piled the sweets. One child was knocked over and was crying. The others were duking it out with mushed sweets on the bottom of the pile. It cleared in less than 10 seconds, and there was nothing left, as one kid proudly holding the barren box proved. While not everyone got some, they were happy that we had unexpectedly come with gifts, and they got a good laugh out of the crazed spectacle of their children.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ashraya Initiative for Children

For my time in India, I've chosen for my base of operations Pune, India, where I've been volunteering with Ashraya Initiative for Children (AIC). The representativeness of India's transformation in Pune is striking. Here, street magicians try to make a couple rupees off an up-and-coming wealthy upper-middle class in the trendy Koregaon Park neighborhood. Some of the 130,000+ vehicles added to the roads annually weave around cows who have decided to take a rest in the middle of a 4-lane highway. Pune has recently passed Mumbai in exports of software and IT professionals, and IT parks are quickly sprouting up between the shacks of slum dwellers. It's estimated that up to 40% of the city's population lives in slums.

Two such groups among these slum dwellers are the Waghri and the Sikligar Sikhs. The Waghri originate from Gujarat and southern Rajasthan, and have historically found roles as merchants, especially in garments. The other day in the Waghri slum I happened to talk with one woman who encouraged me to come visit her at her garment stand on Sundays. The Sikligar, whose name means “one who burnishes metal”, trace their lineage to Rajasthan and Punjab. The onset of industrialization hit these blacksmiths hard, as did events such as the collapse of the Mughal empire and British land resettlement operations. Dislocation of tribes led to an increase in crime, and the British colonial rulers, confusing caste with occupation, passed the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, which labeled these castes as such.

Itinerant tribes like the Waghri and Sikligar are now starting to settle, but because in some states they are not listed as Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, they are unable to receive many government benefits. In Marharastra, the Waghri and Sikligar have received status as Other Backward Classes, which has helped their situation in some respects. However, many of them lack the necessary documents like birth certificates. Additionally, both groups suffer from high rates of illiteracy, prevalence of anemia, and widespread alcoholism. While the ‘criminal tribe’ denotation has since been removed, a negative reputation still accompanies the Waghri and Sikligar. I asked an Indian friend I met recently if caste played a big role in poverty, and he said, “In the villages, yes, but in the cities not anymore.” “Instead,” he said, “the problem is attitude.” The poor, lower castes have been marginalized for so long that they have developed a negative and angry perspective toward society and improving their situation.

Enter Ashraya Initiative for Children. Started by a couple of Princeton and Emory grads while still in high school here in Pune, the organization basically started out as an orphanage for street children. Since then it has grown to include to an Education Outreach Center that tutors over 150 kids whose parents are unable to help them with schoolwork. More recently, AIC found that parents who became sick sent their children to work or beg, rather than going to school. Like adding a critical support beam to the main structure, AIC added the Health Outreach Center (combined with Education) for Waghri and Sikligar families. Eleven kids live full time at the Residential House, which is separate from the Outreach Center.

As a Health Outreach volunteer, I’m making sense out of the mountains of health data we already have and then going to the slums to get what we don’t have. It’s an enormous task, and was only made more difficult when the health director came down with malaria a few days after I arrived. The fact that the health director got malaria isn’t a great sign, but the fact that the locals were talking about it like it was just a cold was slightly alarming. They’d just remark almost nonchalantly, “She’s got malaria. She’ll be back in a day or so.” Eventually, she did recover and I got my start. Just by sifting through the data you see and learn so much about how health and poverty interact: an entire family of 16, save a couple people who probably just haven’t been tested, have mild or severe anemia; tuberculosis tests routinely come back positive; mothers who are adding children faster than income are clamoring for birth control. When I walk into the slums, I see these numbers come to life: the old woman with a swollen leg complaining of bone problems, and another man who begs me to pay for treatment of his failing kidney. I’m sure as I continue my work and people come to recognize the Ashraya stamp on my head, this trend will only become more pronounced.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Railway Shuffle

Finished with yak cheese and ready for a second helping of curry and naan (already ate my fair share in Bangladesh), I'm now in Pune, India. How did I get here? The cheapest way possible, of course. I first flew into Kolkata (Calcutta) and, arriving in the middle of the night, decided to spend the night in the airport (pic clearly staged, although that was my sleeping set-up). Along the flight I met a couple cool guys who worked in, what else, the IT industry. This was a precursor of things to come in Pune, where every other person seems to work for Microsoft, HP, Infosys, or some outsourcing service center.

Let me describe the train situation in India, at least through the eyes of a first-timer who can't speak the language. Sheer madness. After waking up in the airport and getting ripped off by a cabbie, I arrived at the train station before the ticket windows opened at 8am. The line was amazing - it stretched down halls and up staircases. The ticket window opened 10 minutes early. Without a moment's notice 150 men (only a handful of women) took off in a dead sprint. I had been told to go to window 14, and when I arrived I found a very short line and a sign that read "Ladies, senior citizens, and VIPs". I ended up getting only a wait-list ticket, but figured this was just formality, and certainly I'd get a seat. What I didn't know was that it was Gandhi's birthday tomorrow, and everyone and their mother was traveling.

I arrived back at the station that night
just after 8:00 for the 9:00 departure. Stepping around, over, and through hoards of people (and luggage, animals, etc.) sprawled out on every inch of the station, I made my way to this old board with lists of passenger names. I scanned the sheets, which were printed out with faded ink on that old perforated computer paper, to see if I made the cut. It might as well have been Braille, because I had no idea what I was looking at. I started asking around for help. Time was ticking and after trying a way (and failing) to check via text message, I went to an inquiry window. I was referred to another window, and then another one after that. Sweat was pouring down my back, and I was down to only 15 minutes. Now I was running with my 40 pound pack, shoving through innocent passengers and pleading with officials to tell me if I had a ticket. I finally found the window, and the ticket officer said I was still 291 on the wait list - hadn't even gotten close. Tickets were all sold out for a week. Through a couple sketchy references, I met some guy who told me I could get a ticket. Another clean-shaven, well-dressed, and honest-looking man overheard and wanted to help me out. I should have known better.

He helped me get my refund, and then gave me clear directions for the next morning. I arrived early the next morning at the Foreign Ticket Office, where foreigners and "VIPs" like myself could get tickets no matter what - forget about lines. Again (with Bangladesh) I was seeing how locals are commonly treated like 2nd or 3rd class citizens in their own countries. Coincidentally, the helpful guy from last night was there - he had to get a ticket to Mumbai he said. To keep a long story short, he stole 541 rupees ($11) from me without even touching my wallet. Stupidly, I had trusted him to book my ticket for me, and even kept my eyes on him, but in the confusion he got away. It was a good reminder lesson for only $11.

I did finally get my ticket. I had a fantastic 40+ hour joyride in matchbox compartments with Indians who watched me with judging eyes as I justifiably locked up my bags. Random vendors would jump on the train and peddle all types of snacks and drinks, and street children would climb aboard and crawl around on the floor, cleaning up the garbage in our compartment for a spare change. The trip wasn't as bad as I thought it would be (although the dining selection was garbage - across the board fried food). And, I eventually won over the Indians by the end of the ride. Arriving in Pune, it was good to finally be in one place.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What's Up with Social Enterprise in China?

In my final installment on China, Marie So, my internship supervisor and co-founder of Ventures in Development (ViD) agreed to field some questions I had about social entrepreneurship and poverty. Marie and her business partner Carol Chyau met at Harvard's Kennedy School before founding ViD and incubating Mei Xiang Yak Cheese and Shokay, two organizations aimed at helping impoverished Tibetan yak herders. Besides winning business plan competitions (and boatloads of startup cash), Marie speaks fluent Mandarin, Cantonese, and French. She's an inspiring person, knows what's up, and had some cool things to say. Here's our conversation:

Me: Other than what I've already explained and that you're basically a rock star, what else can you tell people that might identify you on a more personal level?

Marie: Just like anyone else, no different. I am as a friend to my friends, like we were friends since kindergarten. I have always been known as someone who takes the off-beaten track…If people go right I go left. So my friends know I like to run off doing "weird" things.

Me: The first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a door. The second thing was a garbage collector (so I could ride on the back of the truck, obviously). I had high aspirations. Not everyone grows up wanting to be social entrepreneur. When did you decide this was for you?

Marie: I do not define myself as a social entrepreneur. The way I see it – regardless of what it is called – is trying to make changes, positive changes to people’s life, be it our target group, be it our staff, as a do-good company. Internally (staff, target group) and externally (suppliers, clients, etc.), it is very hard to be a good integrity company.

Me: Do you think ViD is reaching this goal?

Marie: I’ll give you a quick example. We have a woman who was hired to count inventory in our warehouse, and she didn’t join Shokay because of social entrepreneurship. But from her I see changes, I see her learn new skills from just counting inventory to now managing logistics…from no interest in social work, social entrepreneurship, to see her talking about our company mission/vision to her community and her daughter’s school. And now she joins our company weekly activity to help migrant workers in a bathhouse near our office. I see we have made more impact than just with our herders. It translates across everyone.

Me: I know how you have two different models for Shokay and Mei Xiang Yak Cheese. Shokay is the “in-house” model run by the leadership of ViD, and Mei Xiang Yak Cheese is the “incubation” model run by the poor, but supported by ViD. Can you comment the outcomes of either of these models?

Marie: For us, it [incubation of Mei Xiang] does not work. Maybe for people who are very experienced and set up with lots of cash, it might work differently. In China, once people see money, forget social. It's the nature of Chinese people. I know of a business incubation that was initially successful, but the entrepreneur ran away (dropped the social bit and made plenty of money). Others are just pretending to start a social enterprise and using the money for their own good.

Me: What brought you to the conclusion that for-profit companies were the way to go for development, as opposed to traditional non-profit organizations?

Marie: Through our work, I have thought through this many times, whether social enterprise is the most efficient way of delivering impact and results. And the answer could be “no”, for-profit isn’t the best way: let the for-profit make the money and donate, letting the non-profit deliver the services. HOWEVER, not all things can be talked about in just economic terms, I think. With financial capability, one can do more. I just hate to say this, but "money talks, bulls%!t walks". With financial capability, one can influence policy, influence decisions, which, if done with the right integrity, can help a lot more people and have a much bigger impact. It’s just that most of the corporate world does not think like this, as their foundation is built on shareholders who only care about returns. But I think in long run, in the next 50 years, times will change.

Me: When I was scheduling my travel for the year I was looking for innovative organizations. I found nearly nothing in China, other than you guys. India has GDP per capita less than half of China's, yet you can't go anywhere without tripping over a non-profit organization. Why do you think social entrepreneurship is so miniscule in China?

Marie: I think the terminology is new, the concept is new. The NGO concept has just started.

Me: Has creativity been stunted in China (the country is famous for rote memorization, for example), and might this have an effect on social enterprise?

Marie: No, I think people are so entrepreneurial and creative and smart (imagine making fake eggs!). But the incentives, mission and vision still needs time.

Me: Fake eggs?

Marie: I saw it on news in Guangzhou. An egg is already cheap enough, but someone wants cheaper and can make it cheaper using random materials. The egg shell is a mould from chemicals, and it has yolk and all.

Me: How do you define poverty?

Marie: I see poverty in people's eyes. Some communities are very poor by whatever World Bank standard, but you can see hope in their eyes. There are communities in countries where you feel no hope in people's eyes – it's very dead. That I see as poor. When people do not have hope or access to make choices, then it’s very difficult.

Me: What is the worst poverty you've ever seen, by your definition?

Marie: Actually in India [where the interviewer is currently located]. Off any streets when I stare at street kids, they look really, really deprived. Their eyes look very hopeless.

More about Marie...

3 Must-Read Books:

  1. “How to be a Rainmaker” by Jeffrey Fox (I buy for all my staff)
  2. “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu
  3. Random magazines like Monocle, Wallpaper, National Geographic, and random gossip magazines like Hello, to find out who are the popular actresses so in case Shokay can one day afford to hire one

3 Things on Your To-Do List

  1. Stay healthy
  2. Take vacation
  3. Get more sleep

Who’s your role model?

Mmm, no role model. I like to observe different characters, but I don’t idolize any of them – more so respect.

What's playing on your iPod now?

Ben Harper, Jack Johnson

Well ladies and gents, that's about it for this interview. If you want to learn more about Ventures in Development or even donate, you can check out their website here. Also, if you want to buy some amazing yak down (I can vouch!...I'm kind of into seriously) for knitting or even finished products, head to

Friday, October 9, 2009

An Unfortunate Email

While I was behind the Chinese firewall, I received a disappointing email. Anis and I have unfortunately failed. The investment in the rickshaws did not work out as planned. I shot an email to my friend Omi in Bangladesh who was collecting the payments to see how it was going, and got this response (Omi speaks really good English and likes to write in slang):

"well... i meant 2 tel u dis sooner, but he hasnt been payin. he just paid da 1st week n den he went poof!! so i just hav u'r 1st week's 350 n nothin after dat. i'm thinkin even if he lost my cel no, he knows were i live, so he could stil gimme da money. on top of dat he sed on da 1st week wen he paid he didnt find a rider yet. n i'll send dat pic asap... til den bye man."

I've been in communication with Omi since this email and have sent him a letter to translate and give to Anis. I'm interested to find out where the tripping point was, and I want to express my disappointment in our partnership to him. What does all this mean? I'll hold final judgement until I hear back from Anis, but here's my initial thoughts:

Other than the initial thought of "That sucks", it basically comes down to incentives (i.e. money). Sure I should have made certain that he first had a rider secured for the second rickshaw (although I really didn't have time because I was leaving the country, and he said he had it under control). But in the end, it comes down to incentives, with money being the biggest one.

In Anis' mind, he had two options: pay the rickshaws back which would cost him money now but MAYBE benefit him in the future if everything worked out, or take the rickshaws and forget the payment, which would DEFINITELY increase his income right now, and by a lot - 28% to be exact (if he found a rider). For someone who has been living hand-to-mouth his entire life, this probably wasn't a hard decision. When I sat down with him to discuss a savings plan, I quickly realized that it was a foreign concept to him. No one in the slums saves. And the horizon for thinking into the future certainly doesn't extend as far for Anis as it does for middle class individuals like myself.

When he bought the rickshaws he told me that he wanted me to stay in Bangladesh and be his business partner and support him. Call me naive, but I think he actually felt that way. I've spent time with a good number of poor people, and I think he was sincere. I think what it boils down to is that once he no longer had my presence to egg him on in following through, and with the additional temptation to take the rickshaws/money and run, the scales were just too lopsided.

My aunt Diane told me when I was 16 years old that if you can't figure out why something is the way it is, look for the money. This applies almost every day abroad when random people bend over backward to help me, only to demand money in the end. And I think it applies here with Anis.

Monday, October 5, 2009

After 4 Years, the End of China for Me

I have already had many meaningful and insightful conversations in just three short months of travel. None up to this point, however, would I consider to be life changing. That was until I walked over for dinner on my second day at the Mei Xiang factory. To my surprise, I found Qiju and Wang Ai Yi (WAY for short), who are the parents of the shop manager Zhuo Ma (with the hats in the picture). They were just as surprised to see me, and immediately they asked why I was there and not back in Shangri-La or Kunming. I said that I had come to see the factory, and tomorrow I was going to Langdu to do some interviews. What interviews, they asked. I told them that I was researching poverty as part of a fellowship.

They didn’t like that - and before I go any further, I should mention that WAY is a retired government official. Qiju immediately went off on me with an aggressive tone I hadn’t heard from this generally reserved man, saying that there was no point and that this was a wrong thing to do. WAY chimed in, and going off of how I said I wanted to learn about the livelihoods of the poor, she said "Our lives are good, much better than years before." Qiju continued on his attack, saying, "The government wouldn’t accept of this. We don’t want you writing any articles." I told them that just because I was interviewing people didn’t mean I was going to write any articles, and who said they were going to be bad anyway. I said, "She [WAY] just said that your lives had improved so much. That’s great – I want to know how they have improved, and what the reasons are. This way, I can know how to help other people. How can you say this is bad?" WAY explained that our countries are different, so it won’t do any good to ask questions about China. We argued back and forth, with WAY maintaining that a foreign view of poverty would never be accepted and useful in China, and the same for a Chinese view in China. I said that if it was a good idea, it would be accepted. And how did she know? She said she knows how the US is – she had read about it on the internet and in books. I refrained from asking her if she had ever BEEN to the US.

Soon Qiju muttered, "You’re too young, you don’t understand." To which I replied, "You’re right, I am really young and I don’t understand. And that’s why I want to know." He said that if I wanted to know I should talk to a government official. I agreed that I should get many different viewpoints, and could he introduce me to an official? He said no, there’s no point. This entire time he wasn’t looking me in the eyes, and would only look away. I wondered, "How do you expect me to listen to your advice when you can’t even look at me when you’re telling it?"
After that Qiju, frustrated with the whole situation, lit up another cigarette and walked away. WAY continued to explain to me how the Chinese social welfare and development system worked, with the government giving each farmer the same amount of land and assets (livestock, housing) and leaving it up to the individuals to how much they would prosper. We both agreed this was fair, and she continued to explain it in more detail until dinner. I don’t think Qiju looked at me again until the next day.

I first started studying Chinese four years ago at my father's suggestion that I "give it a try" after he saw how I loved economics and business while noting the potential in China (not enjoying Spanish in high school didn't hurt either). I started studying for the business prospects and then fell in love with the culture. As my interests changed from profit-making business to poverty-alleviating enterprise, I convinced myself that China was still the place for me, even despite the rapid development in the country. I have a tendency to do everything for a purpose - every goal helps me prepare for the next. My experience in China certainly has an enormously influential place in this process, but maybe ending up in the country isn't a no-brainer like I once thought.

Indeed, there are still major problems for large minorities of individuals, Tibetans to name one. However, when considering how I can be of some help to this world, I inevitably come back to the idea of maximizing social benefit - helping the most people who need it most. From everything I've seen, these people are not in China. Bangladesh and India have been proof of this, and I am not talking strictly in terms of income. This argument was a wake up call. While WAY and Qiju certainly didn't convince me that everyone's lives in China were just dandy (I have seen poverty in rural China, and their viewpoint is that of a gov. official, which I won't go into), they did confirm what I already knew but didn't want to admit. China already has its legs on the development ladder and is making he ascent. There are other countries yet to grasp the first rung, and this is where the help is needed most. Does this mean I won't be attending Johns Hopkins in China next year? I never say never, but yes, it probably does. What will I do after this travel then? For the first time in memory I don't have a plan, and during the rest of this trip I will figuring it out. I am sure this comes as a surprise to many of you who thought a lifetime of China was in my future. It's a surprise to me too, and we'll see where this journey takes me from here. I look forward to hearing your thoughts (and suggestions!).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Trip to the Mei Xiang Yak Cheese Factory

Only a few days after getting back from the gorge, another trip was promted. With the help of Zhuo Ma and Mrs. Yang, we had been organizing wine (local Shangri-La wines) and yak cheese tastings. Three Israelis who attended and enjoyed the cheese were interested in joining me on my trip up to the factory. I don't think they were quite ready for the journey, despite my warnings that it wasn't the quickest ride. We were told to arrive at 9:00am for the 10:00 bus because it filled up. Arriving at 8:48, we found only four seats left, and were packed in in a fashion reminiscent of Bangladesh, with people sitting in the the aisle and seats they created themselves. Grueling roads made the drive slow, and 2 1/2 hours in we came to a stop. The ruts were so deep that the underside of the car had gotten beached. Seeing the problem, no one really didn anything at first - just looked at each other. Did we have any wooden boards or materials for traction for the wheels? Of course not. Eventually, Umi, one of the Israeilis, and I started gathering large pieces of stone with the other Chinese passengers to create a track for the bus. Half an hour and much pushing on the bus later, we were back on the road again...only for about 60 seconds. Then we got stuck again. The same routine and 45 more minutes of tinkering got us going for good. When it was all said and done and we arrived at the factory, it had taken 6 hours to travel less than 50 miles. Now it might be a bit easier to see why the Tibetans' dairy hadn't made it to big markets until Mei Xiang got involved.

The factory itself is small, but is surrounded by a campus of guest houses, a restaurant, dormatories for the workers, and a nearby power plant. The guest house we stayed in was complete with scalding hot showers and heated blankets - at nearly 11,000 feet we needed them. Through a factory tour and conversations around the fire, we learned that the entire cheese factory is run by three people - none of whom have more than an elementary education, the factory manager included (but of course they have been trained extensively how to make cheese!). The nearest high school is in Shangri-La, and because of attendence costs and distance, most of them never make it. This precludes the chance of going to college, and starts the whole cycle over again. The teacher I interviewed in a nearby village could actually name the handful of people who had attended college over the past several years. I asked workers what most people (children) do instead of school: "Work with yaks or farm" came the answer. All the workers at the factory, all the workers at the Shangri-La shop where I spend most my time, and all the nomdic herder families who source the milk are Tibetan minorities.

I had the opportunity to accompany Liu Jin, one of the workers, up to the plateau where the yaks graze and their owners live for half the year. The land was amazingly pristine and people were surprisingly sparse, a word that doesn't get thrown around often when describing the population of the most inhabited country on earth. Liu Jin's mother and father happened to be one of the four families that currently supply Mei Xiang yak milk. Too cold to grow much of anything most of the year, yaks really are the only choice for livelihoods. Before Mei Xiang, one of the herders said, they would sell nai zha (a type of yak cheese) and su you (a type of yak butter) in Shangri-La for about 5 yuan (7 USD) per kiliogram of milk. However, they had to produce the products and take them to Shangri-La, where "it is hard to sell". She said before Mei Xiang "it was such a hassle". Now she gets at least the same price, but Mei Xiang comes to them and purchases the raw milk. This saves them time and money.
One of the most interesting things I saw was the herders signing off on the amount of milk for the day. Instead of pins and their names, they used ink and their thumbprint. Illiteracy is high for older Tibetans. I don't think Mei Xiang pretends to be able to make a dream come true for this generation of Tibetan minorities, but by helping to raise their incomes enough for their children to continue schooling, have health care, and other vital necessities, the next generation just might be able to escape the cycle of poverty.

Jumping the Great Firewall of China

It's been longer than a Kolkata traffic jam since I've posted, and for good reason. Three years ago when I visited China, the firewall was a mere formality. All you had to do was enter a proxy (basically entering the address of the intermediary server in another country before the address of the blocked site) and you could get around it. Now you have to download software, and even that, I found out two weeks ago, the government catches on to. You often hear people, myself included, say that when you go abroad (to poor countries) you realize how well you have it. When you go to China, you realize how valuable your freedom of speech is. The tightening of the internet is just another example of how China's government is one that controls the people, rather than being controlled by the people. Those in power have the the information, and they are restricting it to others in order to keep their positions. I've heard people rebut, "But they have so many people, and so many minorities, so they need to control everyone." However, India has a population on the order of the same magnitude, with different castes, tribes and minorities. Here you can criticize the government and not worry about being arrested. Here you can actually vote between multiple parties. Here creativity and social freedom isn't squelched but promoted. Anyway, before going any deeper into these India issues or any other of my Indian exploits, I've got a few things I'd like to share with you that track back to China. So bear with me and travel back in time two weeks ago.