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Day 25

July 25, 2013

Today, I had tea in Bhopal, breakfast in Mumbai, lunch in the air and coffee 20 km from Pondicherry (whose name is now Puducherry! Who knew? “Not you.” You say. Your’e getting pretty funny, hypothetical reader. “Compared to you, that’s no real hard task.” You say.)

I woke up three minutes BEFORE my two alarms (watch and phone) were supposed to wake me up (Yes, Mom, I am being serious). Yes, that means 4:57 a.m. I packed, had tea with Anu and waited for Pradeep to come and pick me up.

We arrived at the airport to find that I had 5 kg of excess baggage. I came to Bhopal exactly at capacity. “What the heck are you bringing back with you?” you say. “Five kilograms of things,” I remind you.

We boarded the plane and both tried to go to sleep, which went pretty well until landing, which was turbulent and seemed to take forever.

The flight from Mumbai to Chennai was much more pleasant. We were served food and I struck up a (halting) conversation with Kamal from Nigeria, my seatmate. He was heading to Chennai to do a Master’s in Chemistry. Then, he was going back to Nigeria to find a job.

A butter-smooth landing and we were in Chennai. With a population of 10 million, it is one of India’s metropolises (Metropoli? Metros?). We hopped into a car and started on the three hour trek to Pondi (What the cool people call Pondicherry).

I was still fighting nausea and it was almost winning, but Pradeep kept me occupied. The day before he had given me another challenge. A common problem in Indian restaurants is that supposedly “bottled” water is not. Bottles, when empty, are filled with tap water and then sealed shut. “How would you, as a diner at a restaurant, prevent them from doing this?”

My first thought was to tear off the label. That wouldn’t be too much of a deterrent, though. Then, I thought, what about puncturing the bottle? “Are you really going to be carrying a knife around with you?” Pradeep asked. “And even so, small punctures can be mended.”

I finally managed to figure out what I could do (it probably isn’t the only way). Can you figure it out? I’ll tell you tomorrow.

In the car, we talked about (well I told him) how difficult it was for me to look beyond gradual solutions (adding wheels onto the swing base without really changing anything). “It comes with practice.” He told me. “But you have to keep practicing.”

We also practiced negative brainstorming, but this time with me in the ‘negative’ seat. Pradeep had come up with a solution for my Christmas gift problem. What if each person in the family gives ‘the best thing they’ve learned all year’? That could mean baking a certain kind of cookie, giving pens made out of newspaper (Something Pradeep taught me how to do on the car ride. Seriously, it was a pretty magical car ride), a drawing or a joke. With all the money and time you would save on choosing and buying gifts for all the different members of the family, you could structure a weekend away or something like that where all the gifts would be given. People would get to learn about themselves and others would too.

I tried taking different roles and bringing up what I saw were gaps, but Pradeep kept evolving the idea to address these questions. He told me later that he was doing a more advanced version of negative brainstorming, where he was changing his solution on the spot.

Anyways, we tried it again at different points during the day and I still have to be a little more critical. I’m a pretty accepting person and while that works in most cases (especially travel!), the only way a solution gets better is if someone ruthlessly looks for holes.

During a pit stop in the middle of our car ride, Pradeep told me that honestly, he wouldn’t probably have come if he was me. “Four Skype calls and you decided I was trustworthy?”

I told him that reading his biography on the Ashoka Fellows page about his love of physics sealed the deal for me. Well, and it was the whole vetted by an international organization thing. Anyways, I’m glad I took the risk.

But then we were in Pondi. We arrived at our place of residence for the next few days, “The Retreat.,” which is the hotel part of the ashram (the ashram is kind of like a commune. People work for free and get certain services free, and they are all devotees of two people who I’ll probably discuss in a different post because this one is getting long. There’s a neat story I want to tell and an interesting and probably self-indulgent parallel I want to draw, but that’s for next time. Sorry!).

We settled in and walked out to the seashore. It took two minutes. Pradeep can see the ocean from his room – that’s how close we are.

We had dinner with three international educational development people. One evaluated different projects, working with a large company (HP.) Another worked at OECD (Organization for Equitable and Cooperative Development?? I looked this up but I forget!) and the third was someone who wore many hats. It was hard to pin him down. He had launched an education project of his own in an Indian village. He also grew up in an Indian village, the child of English social workers. He married a nun from the Mother Teresa order. He was also a funder? Or something like that. He might be able to get the rural school project some funding.

I ate a whole fish for dinner, fresh from the Bay of Bengal (so right outside my door). Wow. “This is a bonus on top of a bonus on top of a bonus.” I told Pradeep.

It turned out that two of the people were also trained in/interested in systemic approaches to development. They told me about some different degrees and paths.

And we walked back to the Retreat, which is where I’ll leave you. Pradeep and I are going for a sunrise walk tomorrow so I need to get some sleep.

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