Thoughts from Pune – By Katherine Zheng

Greetings all,

Over this summer, I had the chance to go Pune, Maharastra to research tourism in the developing world, using Pune as an example. It wasn’t exactly easy, but in all my studies and adventures, I bring the following notable observations and lessons: Billboards and advertisements promising shiny new lives stand next to piles of trash and improvised housing; the Gokhale Institute for Politics and Economics, which is where we studied, there have been power outages despite it being rather clean; there have been minimal restorations to colonial residences and everything is a bit dingy. It’s hard to tell if a structure or building is decaying or being developed sometimes, making an interesting juxtaposition. Most notably, on a visit to the Pune Okayama Friendship Garden, a public park with manicured lawns complete with a lake and a pavilion, there was a slum neighborhood in clear view in the distance overlooking the garden. The slum itself is called Parvati, and consists of bright pastel­painted buildings about the size of Tokyo low­rise apartments (although in Tokyo they would cost vastly more). If you had to have a picture about the aesthetics of development, this would be it. There is poverty, but people still manage to live and thrive despite it, and with support. We went to a village two hours away from Pune, called Velhe. The purpose of this two­day excursion was to give us a look into how “real Indians” lived. The first day, this involved meeting with the local microfinance NGO and a visit to someone’s house in the village. The NGO worked with the local women, loaning them money to start new businesses, or teaching them new skills such as sewing or drawing mehendi so that they could leave the village to start a life in the city if they so wished. Their work in gender empowerment was not without challenges; one of the women had hitmen sent after her by some of the men in the village, and even the head of the NGO had men try to drive her out with machetes. Some of the women, although they received education from the NGO, still had to stay on the farm to work because familial obligations were too strong to pull away from. However, their successes seemed to outweigh all the conflicts, as the organization has held its foothold since its establishment in 2006, and classes have around a 70% graduation rate. Furthermore, as India is largely an agrarian society, most places have access to fresh produce. Some farms don’t use pesticides because it’s expensive. Our idea of the farmer’s market is just regular markets in Pune, which greatly outnumber supermarkets in the city. My host mother would walk to one five minutes down the road daily to buy vegetables. I asked the lecturer for our Contemporary India course, why are there no lawnmowers in India, in reference to the fact that the grass on campus was cut by workers using sickles and no power tools. He replied that it’s because labor is cheap enough in India so that employers can hire a large human staff, and automated devices are expensive by comparison. Maybe that’s partly why familial and communal relations are so strong there, because a lot more people are involved in a workplace? Anyways, the lack of automation was prevalent throughout the trip: back at Velhe, we also visited a carpenter who made tabla drums, almost completely by hand (he had a gas­powered lathe), and our host mother took us to see a glass artist, who shapes small glass sculptures by holding two glass rods over an acetylene flame wearing only sunglasses for protection.

There are street dogs everywhere! More so than street cats. Apparently, they’re protected by Indian law and it is illegal to poison or cause physical harm in any way to them. Also they’re a species of scavenger dogs that have been around for centuries. Not that they seem to live easy lives, though: many have missing limbs or ears, patchy fur, look infected generally emaciated. There was one who slept at the front of our house everyday, that we named Sam. The thing is though, there are owners of actual pet dogs, but the only way you can tell they were pets was that they had a collar and leash. Also, it seemed kind of amazing the way the dogs could just fall asleep serenely on a busy sidewalk, with light­speed traffic whizzing just mere inches from them.

Overall, I would say these observations feed into the larger lesson about travel in the developing world: it’s not so much that things are better or worse than things back home in the States, it’s just that they are different. For India, or at least Pune, I would say that although some infrastructure is missing, life is just simpler.

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