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Since leaving Khammam I have visited Rajahmundry and Amalapuram (cities in the Andhra Pradesh state of India). In each of these places I met with women's groups about their experiences with micro-lending. All of my wonderful experiences in both places culminated in the bus ride of a lifetime to Vijayawada...

In Rajahmundry I met with a local micro-finance institution that helps SHGs in the area by providing funding and encouraging saving. SHGs or self help groups are a concept that is growing very rapidly among the poor women of India. Nine or ten women come together to form a group (some all do the same activity and some diversify activities throughout the group). The women serve as a support base for one another and are able to borrow larger amounts of money as a group than they would as individuals. The organization I met with has more demand for funds than they are receiving at this time so I asked to meet with a group that WEI may be able to support with funds in the future. Not ten minutes from an office building where the owner of the organization lived upstairs in a small apartment with his family was the marketplace. Up to this point I had not walked through a marketplace before...all of the widows I had met at their houses or at the Diocese building. When shopping in Kerala we were in a city where there were stores located in buildings. This marketplace was carts or stores located in niches in cement buildings. As we walked into the market you could smell the fresh cut meat (mutton, chicken, and beef) then the dried fish then the vegetables then the was like an archaic version of grocery store sections. Finally on one end of the market was the women's group I was supposed to meet with. There were ten women who operated out of store fronts made from wood planks. There were raised platforms that they stood on covered by an overhanging flat roof, piled on top of the platform were sarees of all different colors and fabrics. I soon came to find out that these women trade metal pots for used sarees…they barter for used clothing to sell. Instead of gauging the price per saree as some are in different shape than others they use pots in exchange for a certain number of sarees. They stood around me excitedly and each one shuffled me along to their section of the platform. We talked back and forth as if we understood each other without the translator. These women lit up as they showed me the pots they traded for a certain number of sarees. They told me how they worked in pairs on the platform that they had sectioned off. Even though they work in pairs, all of the women in the group come together every morning to act as a support base for each other. They talk about work, their families, their children, etc. I believe it is this support base that makes these women successful in selling these sarees. Soon after we began discussing their daily activities they escorted me to sit in one of their store fronts. Being new to wearing a saree I am not well versed in climbing over things. Four of them helped me to keep my balance and hold my skirt as I climbed up onto the platform and over the mounds of sarees. After what seemed like a climb up Everest (with the exact opposite climate of course) I finally rested on a mound of used sarees just as the women do when they are working. As we talked, a crowd gathered to see what all the excitement was about. Each woman shouted with excitement about how they wanted a microloan for their group to expand. With more sarees they would have more of a variety of merchandise for women customers to choose from. If I have not mentioned before I never tell the women that I am looking to help them…I tell them I am a student researching micro-lending. This was suggested to me by my contacts here because we do not want to give any of these women false hope. Just as one of the women was climbing on the platform to show me that she also sold bangles and bracelets to accompany a customer’s purchase, a rat ran out from under the platform. Now I won’t lie I am a big wimp when it comes to child sized bugs but rats, are you kidding me! It was all I could do not to wet my saree right there! I think one of the women saw my fear of “death by rat” and she brought me over a cold 7 UP to distract me. I never drink soda in the states but something about a glass bottle of soda and a hot day makes it irresistible. The women continued to tell me about their families…many had agriculture laborers for husbands and one or two children. In the recent years India has become big on family planning because with fewer members in the family people are better able to afford hygienic objects (western toilets and water purifiers), children’s education, and proper nutrition. Many programs are in place currently (run by NGOs) that encourage hygienic methods for living and eating. A lot of sweating and an hour and a half later I had learned all about the women and their families. They stressed to me what importance these small loans hold in their lives and how even if they had to go without eating they would, just to make the payment. I believe them because of the accountability a group dynamic has had on them. They all meet every morning to discuss their lives and if one is having trouble the others come to help. Even if people do not feel comfortable sharing something in front of the whole group they have their work partner to talk to. By giving money to a group like this the women will help those who have trouble making a payment (i.e. their kid gets sick or their stove breaks) but also each individual feels a responsibility to contribute their part to the group. After climbing back down from the platform and almost falling flat on my face on the cement, the woman whose storefront I was sitting in stopped me to give me a pack of bindis. She held my hands with hers and began to talk in Telugu (the language of the Andhra Pradesh state)…though I did not understand what she was saying I did not need to. I could see in her eyes that regardless of why I came or what I could do for her she wanted to let me know she appreciated that I had come to see them and shared a part of their lives with them now. My next meeting would be in a very different environment but the women would share the same story of their quest for economic independence and security.

My next meeting with an SHG was in a bank in Amalapuram. The bank manager asked about thirty women to come to the bank from SHGs that he had funded so that I could ask them questions. They piled into the small bank office located on a side street off a main drag. We stood in the front lobby greeting one another (putting your hands together like you are praying and bowing your head while you say Namaste) until the bank manager came out of his office to act as translator. He began by introducing me and telling them about my research, this was to make sure that all the women knew why they were there and consented to being a part of my research. Once again I was honored and astounded that women would take time off work to come and meet with a stranger who was doing nothing for them at this time. They had even brought their loan books and samples of what they did with the money the bank loaned them. All of the women were excited to talk about their groups and what each of them did. In the bank books there was a page dedicated to each woman where her photo was displayed and her contact information. Behind those pages there were meeting pages where the women would make notes of what they agreed upon in meetings (such as taking more money from the bank or start producing new items), each person had to sign or give a fingerprint (if they are illiterate) in agreement on the meeting content. Two groups standing in front embroidered and painted sarees…their work was beautiful. They would take a plain saree and hand sew flowers and designs on them. It takes them about two weeks of hand work to finish an item. I could not believe the talent and the items they could bring to the market just because they had borrowed a small amount of money for supplies. It appears that these micro-loans not only benefit these women by allowing them to earn money but that they also benefit the community by bringing talent to the marketplace. One woman was so excited she shouted over the others and wrapped me in her sarees. I loved her enthusiasm for her work! When she talked to me she looked directly at me and spoke in a proud way that many Indian women do not. Another group pickled items and jarred them to sell in their village. They had borrowed the money to buy the vegetables and jars. Another group did tailoring of saree blouses and churridars. It was success story after success story, all groups paid on time and the members worked to hold each other accountable. This group dynamic really appears to strengthen and empower these women. The meeting continued for two hours as I asked them about payment history, group relations, etc. It was amazing! They did not want to leave…they just kept telling me more and more about their children, businesses, and future plans. As I walked out one brought her child over to shake my hand and she said something in Telugu and bowed her head. Though I did not know what she said, I felt that she was saying thank you for showing interest in their lives and expressing my support and excitement about their work. It was really hard to leave this group… just before I got into the car I turned back and asked the manager of the bank to ask them to make a saree for me with the WEI logo. I had thought about having this done before and even just having them done in the U.S. to wear at functions but the sentimental value of having these women make one was something I could not leave without. I rushed to a local store to buy a plain saree and then delivered it to the bank manager who took it to the ladies’ village. When I went the next day to have lunch with the manager and discuss the previous day’s meeting he said that the women were so honored to sew the emblem that they had it back to him within an hour. I could not believe that these women had put aside other work just to sew a logo on a saree for some American they had never met and may never see again. The hospitality of this country never ceases to amaze me.

While in Amalapuram I stayed in a women’s hospital named Ambajipeta. This hospital was amazing; it serves all women of any religion and caste (meaning some can’t pay because they are so poor while others can afford private rooms). Its services range from regular check ups to baby deliveries. A German woman started it about seventy years back before an Indian couple took it over and still run it today. I was given a tour of the facilities (even the Operating Room) and could not believe how clean they were. Even though they let people walk through the NICU and the OR (which is probably not too hygienic by American standards), I was really impressed and would be very comfortable receiving treatment there. My room was up above the main office in the house of the couple who ran the hospital. They were wonderful and took extremely good care of me. I was so spoiled I even had an A/C room that they had put in for their children and grandchildren who visit from the States. Every morning Auntie brought me cornflakes or French toast and coffee…it was a little piece of Heaven. Not having American food like that in so long, I savored every bite. She knows how to make American food because they have many traveling nurses come through as well as her children. I relished every minute of the American amenities just because it was a little taste of home. I know I can do without them just fine but it was a temporary visit to the U.S. for me. The day after my lunch meeting with the bank manager I awoke at 5:00am for the most interesting bus ride I have had yet (and mind you I have been on some interesting buses in Panama). I boarded the bus where no one spoke English and my bag would not fit inside so they had to mount it on the roof (remember this it comes in later). So to be safe I took a seat next to a man about my grandfather’s age. The bus had a row of two seats on one side and three on another and you never know who may get on or off and sit next to you, so it is safest to find someone who looks like they will be traveling for awhile (i.e. duffle bag). In foreign countries personal space on these types of buses is non existent…expect to be coughed on, smell others, tripped over, etc. As we rode along it began to rain…it was beautiful. With as warm as it had been in comparison to Kerala the rain comforted me, well until it began coming inside the bus. My duffle bag on the floor began to get soaked and the seat became very wet so I figured it was time for a nap. To this point you can chalk everything up to something that could be incurred on any trip…then just as I began to doze off while tuning out the incessant honking of the bus with the help of my iPod…a truck hit us. Trucks here look like big dump trucks but the back doesn’t dump the load the same way. They are full to the brim or above and most cargo is loosely secured with a canvas cloth that is tied to the truck. So just as I am beginning to zone out the bus shakes, then swerves, and I hear honking and screaming. The truck had tried to merge right to pass a slower car (they merge on the right side because they drive on the right side of the car) and did not see the bus. So instead of pulling over to see if any damage was done from the minor incident, we drove alongside the truck while the driver and passengers yelled at the truck driver. We never stopped to check for damage and kept driving the rest of the way to Vijayawada. I guess this having been only my second accident since arriving in India (with the way people drive here) I should count my blessings. After a five hour journey by bus I arrived in Benz Circle where the next organization I would visit was located. As I got off the bus it almost pulled away without getting my bag down. Finally the ticket officer that collects fares on the bus (when people get on at the various stops he walks through the bus to collect fares and distribute tickets) went over and got a rickshaw driver to climb up and get my bag down…which I then found out was not water proof. After having the rickshaw driver talk to a contact where I was staying he took me the half a block to where the organization was located. I then went to my room and opened my bag to find not only that everything was soaking wet but also that the dye in Indian clothes bleeds into everything…all of my clothes were tie-dyed/ destroyed, however you want to look at it.

I have received some questions about Andhra Pradesh that I will answer to the best of my knowledge…Andhra is a very large state in India and it’s capital is Hyderabad. My next stop in the state is in Vijayawada and that is known as the second Mumbai because of its size. Andhra is a much warmer climate than Kerala and seems to be very humid in comparison. There are many more mosquitoes here as evidenced by my pictures and it rains a lot less. The buildings, cars, etc. look the same as well as the countryside because it is a big rice exporter like Kerala. The food is very similar to Kerala except I found more American food here because it has bigger cities than the villages I stayed in while in Kerala. India is unlike many other countries because they do not have a large presence of American chain restaurants…or at least from my experience. People in Andhra are starting to get annoyed with me because whenever it gets really hot or I get another bug bite I always talk about the beauty of the climate in Kerala. Auto rickshaws (or autos) are all over and zip in and out of motorcycles and cars. They are more present in the cities on Andhra and riding in them feels like you are dragging along every pothole in the road. Many people use them to get to places that are too far to walk…in India they serve the same purpose as taxis in New York. So far during my time in Andhra I have learned a lot from interviewing SHGs that I think will impact how I approach helping the women of India in the future.

India tip of the day: Bring a washcloth with you everywhere to sop up the sweat when you are in Andhra Pradesh and do not even bother with deodorant…