Two weeks in India with a flashlight

By | March 16th, 2011 | No Comments

Women of the Ranai village scope out their new solar-powered flashlights.

In this post, Ximena Prugue recaps her two-week trip with fellow MDC student Stephany Torres to India to introduce solar-powered lighting to India’s rural poor. Check out our Feb. 16 post for more background on the Giving The Green Light project.

After months of planning, vaccinations, visa applications, and a series of stresses, it finally hit me: We’re in India. Staring out the window of our taxi in the early morning, I fought the urge to scream and stomp my feet like an excited child. In the streets, there was chaos: reckless drivers, loud horns, suicidal pedestrians, women in bright saris, hand-painted buses, motorcycles, bicyclists, abandoned cows, water buffalos, auto rickshaws, tiny sedans, and beautifully painted trucks, all set against the dusty streets of India.

Stephany and I spent a lot of time riding in the car through Delhi. We saw slums that looked like small villages crammed into the vacant spaces of the city. Even the smallest nooks were occupied by a vendor stand, and laundry hung from the most unlikely places.

On the first day, we bought our oh-so-cheap wardrobe so we would fit in a little better. We spent the next three days visiting the Lotus temple, Humayan’s tomb, Lodhi Gardens, Qutb Minar, and numerous other landmarks. On Sunday, we drove three bumpy hours to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, which were both breathtaking. The Taj Mahal was built as an act of love, an incomprehensible notion in a world where chivalry is pretty much dead.

After an exhausting four days of extreme tourism, we boarded a train to Khandwa. I had read all about Indian trains, but it wasn’t so bad. They were clean for the most part, and there was even an outlet to charge laptops and cell phones. Sixteen hours went faster than expected, and I got plenty of reading done.

Stephany, in her new garb, on a train to Khandwa

It was late when we arrived in Khandwa, and we had trouble finding a vacant hotel. The beds were stiff, and there was no AC, so I had to sleep in my underwear to stay cool. As for the bathroom, let’s just say I chose not to shower (baby wipes saved the day).

The next morning, we met up with Caitlin McQuilling, from the Real Medicine Foundation, and headed to the Ranai village, about an hour drive from Khandwa, to visit the Korku tribe. When we arrived, the whole village slowly started coming out of their houses to inspect their mysterious visitors. Before Caitlin’s visit to Ranai a month prior, none of the villagers had ever seen a white person before. They loved us. Despite my haggard appearance, I felt like a celebrity.

We had planned to sleep in the village that night, but I fainted after lunch from a suddenly upset stomach and Caitlin thought it was best to hang out in Khandwa while I recovered. We were able to find a different hotel, Hotel Grand Barrack, a beautiful building, more than 160 years old, that used to be a British military transit camp before India was colonized. The beds weren’t any better than at our first hotel, but the Hotel Grand Barrack was clean (we finally showered!) and had AC, so we couldn’t complain.

The next day we headed to Ranai again and talked to the tribe about their biggest concerns and what changes they want to see. We presented the flashlights and explained that we would sell them for 100 rupees (about two U.S. dollars), which would go back into a village account to fund projects they voted on. It was a relief and extremely exciting to see their enthusiasm and interest in the lights. It was a stamp of approval from the villagers themselves for Giving the Green Light and I couldn’t have been any happier. They liked it! They really liked it!

Villagers in Ranai showing off their new solar torches

After the meeting, we got a tour of the toilets in the village and there was a grand total of three, two of them belonging to prominent village leaders which meant they were for private use only. It was a definite culture shock learning that a village of 5,000 people had a single 4×4 concrete box that they called their “toilet”. I never realized how thankful I should be to be able to shower and use the bathroom in the privacy of my own home, and do so in a comfortable, clean, and tiled atmosphere. Having to use this concrete box myself when I fainted in the village was not fun, or easy, to say the least. The villagers must have thighs of steel from all the squatting they do on a regular basis.

We also visited the village school and had a mini-meeting with the women about using kerosene lamps. It was surprising to learn that on top of the fact that kerosene is their only option in terms of lighting, the government only supplies enough kerosene for two weeks each month. So what do they do at night for the other two weeks? Absolutely nothing. Can you imagine not being able to accomplish any of your tasks once the sun goes down? The women also told us about a villager whose entire left side was burned from a kerosene lamp.

That night we slept in the village to distribute the lights. We organized the distribution on the terrace of our host’s house. The night sky was never so bright and full of stars. After buying the lights, the women performed songs for us, and we stayed up late with them, looking at photos of back home on my iPhone. We talked about marriage, family customs, and differences in fashion. We also got some sweet hennas done! Initially, it was awkward and difficult communicating with the villagers since Caitlin wasn’t able to stay the night, but we didn’t need words to feel the hospitality, and smiles are easy to translate. Steph and I both agree this was the best night of our trip.

Henna hand

The next morning, more villagers visited the house to buy the “solar torches”. They kinda went viral in the village and even became a status symbol. “Everyone’s buying a solar torch — I need to get one!” We sold more than 80 in total.

It was heartbreaking when we had to leave and everyone kept asking when we were coming back. We accomplished more in the Ranai village that I ever could have hoped for, and I can’t wait for the next visit. After the village, we went back to Khandwa to pick up Caitlin and we were off to Jhabua, making a pit stop in Badwani to sleep. Steph and I finally had our first day to do absolutely nothing, which was nice after a week and a half of India insanity. This was also when I learned the hard way that Indian mosquitoes can bite through clothes. I counted 98 bites all over my body.

Leaving Caitlin in Badwani, Steph and I got to Jhabua and landed into the even more welcoming arms of two women, Nyamat and Naiara, also from the Real Medicine Foundation. As much as these women were complete strangers, we bonded by putting out small fires with oatmeal and killing rats in the kitchen.

The next day, we distributed flashlights to students at the Bhil Academy, a boarding school funded by the Real Medicine Foundation. The Academy has approximately 300 students, boys and girls who sleep in separate hostels without electricity after 10 p.m. Even the electric lighting they do have is weak and not conducive to studying. I spoke to the students about solar-energy and how the flashlights work. They were all really excited about it, as were the teachers. One teacher began to cry when she told me how happy she was because the school would have never been able to afford such a thing and she’s never seen the kids so happy.

Later, Steph and I played our first game of cricket with the students. In India, cricket is a religion, even more so than baseball or football in America. It also happened to be the Cricket World Cup while we were there, so the commercials and ads were ubiquitous. I decided I was not leaving India without learning how to play.

Ximena on strike

In conclusion, we did it! It’s still hitting me that all the work Stephany and I put into this trip and Giving the Green Light finally paid off and we accomplished more than we ever could have imagined. When I first decided to travel to India, everyone thought I was out of my mind, or simply didn’t believe me. My family made every effort to convince me not to go. My father said school was more important and I was too young to pursue Giving the Green Light by myself, that I should wait until I graduated. But my heart was set on India.

Now that we’re back, I am proud to say that I’m the first Prugue in my (huge) family to ever travel to India. Steph and I took the road less traveled to create opportunities for those who can’t do so themselves, and took a small step to bridging a gap between cultures. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it, and I hope that it inspires other young people to be unafraid to take risks and go out on a whim when it comes to an idea they believe in.

Celebration at the Bhil Academy

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