Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

Farewell(s) week-end

Flashback. Rewind. Let’s get back for a moment to the last week-end. And sorry for not respecting the consecutio temporum but the last weeks have been so dense that it is difficult to keep our Blog behind all the past events.

Last week-end has been our ‘farewell week-end’: on Saturday the dinner at Massi and Muna’s - which I already described in one of my previous posts; and on Sunday eve our ‘joint’ farewell. On the terrace of Yvonne (the perfect place for parties - too bad to have discovered it only now), Riccardo, Valeria, Mathilde and I said good-bye to our friends and to India.

As in all farewells, a mix of feelings overlapped in my heart and in my mind, and will certainly have more time to reflect on them more in depth in the next weeks.

Certainly the fact that also Riccardo (to Beirut), Valeria (to Rome), Roberta and Bernal (to Vietnam), Marco and Olga (to Sri Lanka), Toshi and Saki (to Wien), and Luigi and Cecilia (to Namibia) (friends with whom we shared our experience in India) will be leaving soon make our leave a little bit less sad...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Varanasi (2)

Undoubtedly Varanasi has its charm. The image of the city that emerges from the night's mist at dawn seen from a rowing boat in the middle of the Ganges is somehow surreal. The image of the lights of the fires that are lightened along the banks of the Ganges at night to cremate the corpses of the devotees is somehow ancestral. And the image of the Ghats corroded by generations and generations of Hindus that have repeated over centuries and centuries the same rituals is indeed mystical.

But as for India (with the exception of Ladakh perhaps), as much as I found Varanasi interesting, stimulating, ‘different’, I could not fall in love with it.

It was definitively worth visiting Varanasi, and we are happy to have chosen it as the destination of our last week-end in India. But if not even Varanasi has been able to light our heart, perhaps time has really come for us to leave...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Our last trip in India

Apparently Goethe, after a trip to Naples, said ‘vedi Napoli e poi muori’, meaning that you cannot die without having first seen Naples.

Similarly, it seems you cannot leave India without having first visited Varanasi, the Hindu holy city where thousands of worshippers plunge every day in the Ganges River to wash away their sins and throw the ashes of their beloved ones in its waters.

Several friends of us went there. Some loved it, others hated it. But they all agree that you must go before leaving India.

And so we decided to spend our last week end in India there, wondering whether we will belong to those that love Varanasi or to those that hate it.

Do wait for our return on Saturday evening, and we will share our impressions...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

(Half) Marathon man (2)

The first and last half-marathon I run was the Stramilano in Milan, about 23/24 years ago. I can thus rightly consider the Delhi Half Marathon I run on Sunday as my baptism to a long-distance race in all respects.

And the immediate feedback could not be more enthusiastic. I enjoyed running. I enjoyed exploring my limits. I enjoyed this disciplines that merges muscles and brain, lungs and will, endurance and focus. And I like to think this will be the first of many others…

In completing my first 21.097 Km, I would like to send a special thanks to Riccardo and Toshi, friends and training mates in this adventure.

Riccardo was the one who, with his enthusiasm and his passion for this discipline, motivated me to enroll to this race. He was the one who taught me how to train, and the one who pulled me for the first 10 km on Sunday, setting the pace and lavishing advices during the race (when to drink, when to suck a candy, how to deal with the slopes, when to accelerate and when to hold myself, etc.) - allowing me to achieve my objective.

Toshi is a mystery of the nature, a case-study for the anti-doping commission: he is the one who trained the least among the three of us and nonetheless the fastest among us. The only explanation we could find is in the Japanese delicacies that his wife Saki prepares him every day for lunch. Not sure what the algae in his lunch box contain and whether they would be allowed by the IAAF… The Sunday run at 4.30 pm in Lodi Garden with Toshi had become a nice ritual. And it is indeed a pity that we could not meet at the departure on Sunday - too many people - but it was nice to meet and hug each other, exhausted but happy, at the arrival…

A special thanks to Massi and Muna as well. Their dinner on Saturday night was not exactly what the ‘marathon runner manuals’ prescribe (and in fact I finished digesting it at the eighteenth kilometer the following morning), but it will be hard to find such a good friends wherever we’ll go. We will miss you.

But completed a challenge, we started immediately thinking to the next. Perhaps the Romaratona in March 2011?...

(Ah, I almost forgot, the timing: 1.39.18 J)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reconciliation with Delhi

When, just after the eighth kilometre of the Delhi Half Marathon I turned left from Mansingh Road into Rajpath (the boulevard that runs from the India Gate, the All India War Memorial, to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the President of India) and I suddenly saw that imposing palace in front of me, enlightened by the early morning light that dissolved the Delhi’s November morning mist, my heart leapt - and that image is one of the images of India that will be stuck in my memory and that I will bring with me forever.

Truly, the Delhi Half Marathon somehow made me make peace with Delhi.

I have never hidden that I have never been too fond of Delhi. Too big, too chaotic. Too dusty, too polluted. Too overwhelming. Too hot for nine months and too cold for two. I have never been as sick as in Delhi: terrible colds, flues that knock you out, stomach and intestine infections. I was only lucky not to get dengue or other vector-borne diseases... In short, not my city. And not too sad by the idea of having to leave soon...

But this run in the crisp air of a November morning, among the tree-lined roads of southern Delhi - for once closed to the traffic - with the sun that first shyly and then more overbearingly warmed up the city, made me observe Delhi from a completely different, perhaps deceiving, angle. And it's like if I have re-discovered it.

I know this is a very rare, probably misleading image of the city. But I am somehow happy that this is the last image of the city I have, and that this will be how I will remember Delhi.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A (small as it is) moral dilemma

I would like to ask for your opinion and advice on the situation below.

With our departure approaching, we entered in that phase in which we started taking stock of our stay here in India and wondering ourselves what we gained and what we are leaving out of this experience.

And whether we like it or not, we could not avoid reflecting on what we leave to Pansigh and his family, and what it will happen to them after we are left.

Pansigh, our factotum: our cleaning-man, our cook, the one who does our grocery, pays our bills, irons our clothes, calls (and talks to) the plumber, the electrician or whoever is needed. Trusty, humble, always merry. And great chatterer (even if he hardly speaks a word of English - our conversations sometime look like dialogues of the comedy of the absurd…)

Pansigh, an invisible character of this Blog: discreet and apparently invisible, but always somehow present: I am sure most of you had already known him (and sympathized with him) much before this post.

What we gain and what we leave. During our experiences abroad we get to know and interact with a lot of people, and, overall, we give and gain in equal measure. But the relationship with the ‘household staff’ is completely different, distorted. It’s not an even ‘give and take’. We overbearingly enter in their lives, often taking over a previous ‘boss’ - as Pansigh uses to say - and with time they establish a relationship that is something between the dependency and the symbiosis. They work for you but they are a bit more than simply employees. They somehow become part of your family, and you, whether you like it or not, become somehow responsible for them…

Because so dependent from you, because so vulnerable, a recurrent question in these days is what it will happen to them after we leave. Or, to put it a bit more broadly, what are we leaving to them: does (and if yes, how) our short transit in their lives make their lives a bit better off?

When in Ethiopia, I used to offer English classes to my guard and my maid, Abush and Tigist, hoping that a better knowledge of English would have opened up more opportunities to them after my departure. With Pansigh, for a number of reasons, a similar thing has not been possible.

We discovered however a few months ago that Pansigh and his family (his wife and two kids) have never visited the Taj Mahal, and we thought that our ‘legacy’ to them could be to allow them discovering this Indian wonder.

And now our request for your opinion and advice.

When we first mentioned our idea to Pansigh, he replied with a non-enthusiastic ‘yes-yes’. We were a bit surprised by his lukewarm reaction, but in the end we simply thought it was his different way of expressing feelings. Cultural differences.

When we mentioned it for the second time, asking Pansigh whether he was free to go this coming Sunday, he vaguely replied that it would be better for him to go sometime in December. We started becoming a bit suspicious on why was he keeping on humming and hawing at this proposal.

When, on the third time we discussed this issue, he discovered that we were not going with him, he mumbled something, eventually concluding that he would go ‘95% yes’ - which, for those that know a bit India and the Indians, is a polite way to say ‘no’.

And here it comes our request for your opinion: how would you interpret Pansigh’s reaction, and what would you advise us to do?

As far as we are concerned, we figured out two possible explanations. First: we have a completely different set of values. We think that a visit to the Taj Mahal could be a lifelong experience for an Indian that would otherwise never have this opportunity - something that will last in his memories forever. But perhaps we are simply applying our mindset and set of values to Pansigh’s, without thinking that perhaps he could not care less - and that he would rather prefer a watch (as he has been asking me for months) than a cultural excursion with his wife and kids to Agra.

Second possibility: he is afraid. He is afraid of doing something that he has never done. He is afraid of going out of the world that he knows and that he has known forever: the 'house-market-house' way. He is afraid of doing it alone. He may not even have the instruments to do it alone.

And thus our question: does it make sense (and is it right) for us to insist, to push Pansigh to do something 'we' believe will enrich him, or are we doing him a violence, are we putting him in a difficult situation, i.e. choosing between saying ‘no’ to his ‘boss’ and doing something he doesn’t want to do or he is afraid to do?

We thought that a trip to Agra could enrich a bit (certainly not change) Pansigh’s life, but perhaps he would be really happier simply with a watch…

Sunday, November 14, 2010

É arrivata Mathilde

Directly from the bush!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Gram Sabha (2)

(Continues from previous post)

“Mr. Matthew. Have you ever attended a Gram Sabha*?” asked me the District Collector** at the end of our meeting at 6 pm.

“Ehm... no...” I shyly answered.

“Would you like to attend one?”

And before I could even think to an answer I was in the Collector’s car running in the dusk towards an unknown village in the Pali District, Rajasthan...


Several of you asked me more than once what exactly my job consists of, and - I admit it - I have always been rather sparing of details.

Let me however take this opportunity - my recent trip to Rajasthan to discuss with some local authorities and village representatives about a project I am currently working on - to give you an example of the kind of things I do...

In order to reduce poverty and unemployment in rural areas, the Indian Government has issued a few years ago an act which guarantees rural households the right to be employed for at least 100 days a year. A kind of unemployment subsidy - but slightly different. Basically, if a rural poor ends up being, for any reason, unemployed in the course of the year (for instance because of a drought or because the labour market is stagnant), he or she has the right to go to the local authorities and be hired for (up to) 100 days.

To do what? Usually these people are engaged in labour intensive public works, such as the construction of water conservation and water harvesting structures, flood control or small-scale irrigation facilities, feeder roads, afforestation activities, etc.

This employment guarantee program was so successful during the first years of implementation that the Government decided to extend it to the whole country. Today the program covers all 615 rural districts in the country and employs more than 52 million people per year. About 0.5% of the GDP (mica bruscolini) is invested for the implementation of this program every year. Indeed, it’s a massive program, probably the biggest social protection and rural employment program in the world.

Now, two observations can be made looking at this program through ‘climate lenses’, the lenses that I am supposed to wear. First, several of the activities supported by the program, such as the construction of water conservation and harvesting structures, tree planting, etc. do actually contribute to reduce the vulnerability of rural people to the effects of climate change (i.e. uncertain or low rainfalls, floods, etc.) - even though the program was not deliberately designed for this purpose. For instance, the construction of water conservation structures may allow farmers to bear longer dry seasons. The construction or the reinforcement of river banks may prevent or reduce the risks of floods, and so on. At the moment these public works are undertaken simply to provide an employment opportunity to rural people, without really taking in consideration the possible effects of climate change. However, if properly planned, these activities could actually contribute to reduce the vulnerability of villages and communities to climate change.

The second observation that can be made is that the durability of the assets built through this program is often limited by the fact that their technical design does not take into consideration the potential effects of climate change. Imagine for instance the cases of a rural road that is severely damaged by heavy rains or of a bridge that is washed away by a flood because their design did not factor in the fact that there would have been more frequent or more intense rainfalls as a consequence of climate change.

What we are trying to do is - to use a technical jargon - to make this program more ‘climate resilient’, that is to say trying to find a way to avoid that the effects of climate change undermine the benefits produced by this program. And, at the same time, try to maximize the unexploited potential of this program to reduce the vulnerability of rural people to the impacts of climate change.

It may sounds a bit cryptic, but let me explain. With our work we basically try to do two things. First, to increase the awareness of local communities on the future impacts of climate change and their capacity to select and plan interventions that reduce their vulnerability to the effects of climate change - for instance, more water harvesting structures if the length of the dry seasons is expected to increase, or more river embankments and flood control structures if more floods are expected, or more efficient drainage systems if more precipitations are expected, and so on.

Second, to support the review and revision of the infrastructures’ technical standards to ensure that the new constructions take into consideration the likely effects of climate change: higher banks if more floods are expected, more resistant roads if heavier rains are expected, and so on.

This is an example of one of the projects I am working on. Interesting, isn’t it?


After a few hours driving in the dark on the bumpy roads of the Pali District, Rajasthan, we finally reached this remote village, whose name and location will remain unknown to me, where hundreds of people were waiting the Collector to start the Gram Sabha. And to start discussing which activities should have been included in the work-plan of the village for next year…

(*) Village assembly

(**) A District Collector is an officer of the Indian Administration placed at the district level in charge of handling law, taxation and revenue collection, planning permission and natural emergencies.

Friday, November 12, 2010

London-Delhi, via DC

The story of Lauren and I is certainly curious. It seems in fact we have spent our past years running after each other. We met in London seven years ago during our Masters. After graduation we both temporarily moved to Northern Europe: Lauren to Brussels, and I to Paris. Not more than one year after we met again in DC, where we both found a job. We spent a few years there, meeting each other from time to time for a drink or so, until when Lauren left to Manila. Not later than one year after, I was on my way to Delhi.

We had completely lost track of each other until yesterday, when we met - absolutely by chance - at a workshop.

Who is following who? And, above all, where will we meet next time?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Indian mourning

Today our landlady has died. Or ‘is gone’ or ‘is not anymore’, as the Indians say, because it is too sad to pronounce the word death.

She used to live at the ground floor in our building. Her building. A refined, well-mannered old lady, extremely kind and polite, with whom it was always pleasent to have a chat whenever we crossed each other on the stairs.

She died today. The sad news was brought to us by Pansigh, our factotum, in tears. Because he, together with his wife who used to accompany her every day to the park for a walk, were part of her ‘enlarged family’. A family suddenly without head.

Likewise, when I went downstairs to offer my condolences to the daughter, I could not restrain myself to shed a few tears, probably because - perhaps unconsciously - we had also become part of her family.

Mal d'Africa

Photo credit: Mathilde (Botswana 2010)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Where is Mathilde?

In Africa.

While Matteo overloads the Blog with pictures from South and South-East Asia, Mathilde resurfaces from a week in the bush (no telephone, no Skype, no internet) in Botswana with these beautiful pictures - which remind us why you can suffer from ‘mal d’Africa’ (mal d’Afrique, Africa’s homesick).

Mathilde will arrive in Delhi on Sunday.

Looking forward to it J

Monday, November 8, 2010

Same same (but different) (2)

It actually resembles a bit Goa...

Same same (but different)

Back from Sri Lanka. Too short our stay to actually be able to form any firm opinion on this - had we had more time - certainly interesting country to discover. To those that would ask me how Sri Lanka is, I would reply in the exact same way I was answered when I asked the same: “It’s like India, but better”. Cleaner roads, no honking, neater traffic...

In sum: same same, but different...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Seven years ago in Hampstead Heat

Everything began seven years ago on an autumnal afternoon in Hampstead Heat.

Tanti auguri a noi (best wishes to us, félicitations à nous),

Matteo and Mathilde

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Guess which the only country where there are still the monsoons in November is...

Average monthly precipitations, Colombo

To be precise, there are two monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka: one from October to January in the North and the East, and one from May to August in the Southwest (plus an inter-monsoonal season in October and November).

However you look at it, in whichever part of the island you are in November, it rains...

Mesiano and the Singhalese - Jamming session at the Bentota Beach Hotel, Sri Lanka

After ‘Voices from the Thar Desert’, another great performance of Mesiano: Mesiano and the Singhalese - Jamming session at the Bentota Beach Hotel, Sri Lanka (click here to watch the video).

Friday, November 5, 2010

I tre dell’Ave Maria

Un po’ Tognazzi-Moschin-Noiret in ‘Amici miei’. Un po’ Calà-Boldi-De Sica nei cinepanettoni di Vanzina. Un po’ Aldo, Giovanni e Giacomo.

Tre* italiani in Sri Lanka…

(*) You already know Riccardo and me. Let me now introduce the third of the trio: Beppe from Bergamo, JPO in Colombo.

Bambino e Trinità

At the airport, towards Sri Lanka J

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Off to Sri Lanka

With the sudden perspective of leaving India soon, I started noting down the things that I would have liked to do and that I have not done yet.

While I just managed to do some of them* (and getting organized to do some other), I sadly realized that I will not be able to do most of them. Too many things to do and to see. One life would probably not be enough - let alone a few weeks.

Anyway, within this context Sri Lanka has in the past months increasingly tickled my fantasy. Vivid colours, ruins of ancient cities, Buddhist temples, lush rainforests, white sand beaches... A trip to Sri Lanka was however one of things that, however attractive, I knew I had to postpone to another time - if not to another life.

But never say never. Taking advantage of the Diwali long-week-end and of a few last-minute tickets, Riccardo and I are just about to board - destination: the ‘former Cylon’.

It will be just a tasting - but surely better than nothing. We’ll be back on Sunday eve, hopefully with a few nice pictures and some good stories to tell.

(*) I took the Delhi metro for the first time over the week-end for instance: an experience (a post on it soon).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bienvenido Alejandrito, bienvenue Emily!

Les M&M’s welcome Alejandro and Emily among their Blog’s ‘official followers’. Welcome!

Alejandro, an old friend from our times in Washington, a Mexican who has now moved to Argentina (no, it’s not an oxymoron). A dark hero: gloomy outside, warm-hearted inside, he believes in true friendships and good cervesas. Lawyer, he tried to redeem himself by putting his skills at the service of development cooperation. But nobody truly believes his conversion: he works for the World Bank!

Emily, Chino-French, charming and seductive, an old schoolmate of Mathilde who has now happily moved to Singapore. Soon-to-be mum, we take this opportunity to wish her all the best!

(Btw, do add a picture on your ‘follower’ profile J)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Guess what les M&M's have decided...

Les M&M's have made their mind. Participate to our quiz:

(1) guess what - in your opinion - they have decided,

(2) post your best guess under "comments",

(3) check in a couple of days the correct answer and see how well you know them.

The choice will be revealed soon...