Margaret and Dick   


September 2015: India again

Ah, India again! We last chronicled in 2007. This trip was part Mundito business, mostly vacation, and have some stories to share from each.

The M word  
My name is Mohamed Ali  
The Kerala backwaters  
Another planet  
The cow cycle  


The M word

This is embarrassing. Dr. Gregg and CDC malaria-man David read these stories.  I screwed up.

When traveling to malaria areas, I take Mefloquin as prophylaxis. Side effects tend to be along the lines of anxiety and hallucinations, but I've never had any problems. Actually I kind of hope for the hallucinations, but no luck so far. Some great dreams, though.

Mefloquin is taken weekly, beginning two weeks before a trip and continuing two weeks after the trip. Dr. Gregg carefully calculated the correct number of pills for ample coverage, and we discussed the start date. The pharmacist made sure I understood the regimen and the start date. Yes, of course, I do this every year, I understand.

But then I forgot.

I found my Mefloquin, untouched, the day before our departure for Mumbai. The internet provided clear instructions: If you forget to start Mefloquin before your trip, contact your physician immediately. I was too embarrassed to call Dr Gregg on a Sunday with this news. I instead decided to take my first three pills at five-day intervals, then continue as prescribed, and to avoid mosquitoes.

My first mosquito bite occurred on our second day in Mumbai. Several more were to follow in wet, wet Kerala. The incubation period for the parasite ranges from five days to three months. I descended down the rabbit hole of online health forums for help and reassurance.

"What is the probability of malaria from a mosquito bite in India?" The answers were roughly as follows.
  • Your question is a stupid question. Take your malaria meds or you're a fool.
  • The American medical community is a bunch of pill-pushing fearmongers. UK doctors don't even recommend malaria meds for India, and you're stupid if you take them.
  • Just wash your hands and you'll be fine. (Now that's scary.)
  • The World Health Organization considers India a low risk country for malaria.
I liked that last answer the best but will be more comfortable when I can declare myself malaria-free on New Year's Day.
Let the public shaming begin. It won't happen again.

Akanksha Hazari might be the savviest person we’ve ever met. If she has her way, social impact will become part of the DNA of all corporations. We’re pleased to introduce you to the powerhouse behind m.Paani. (“m” stands for the mobile phone that is central to the lives of Indians at almost all income levels; Paani is the Hindi word for water. The result is like water to the masses.)
Friends of Mundito may recognize Akanksha’s name from our fall 2014 campaign, through which we supported this young social entrepreneur as an Ashoka Fellow during the pilot phase of her company, m.Paani. We can report that the m.Paani concept is a proven success, has a large staff of brilliant idealists, and is on its way to improving the lives of thousands in the low-income areas of Mumbai. Next steps:  venture capital and national – global? – expansion.
Here is the ingenious m.Paani model that is improving lives at the bottom of the economic pyramid. The average family in the slums of India makes daily cash purchases in neighborhood convenience stores, with purchases recorded by hand in notebooks, if at all. The buyer receives no benefit for the purchase; the seller builds no database for business planning. What if their purchases were recorded through cell phone text messages to a central database? A personal cell phone number becomes the basis for building financial records. The purchases are rewarded by building points credits (at 2% of spending), redeemable for social benefits like water filters or English textbooks. (English mastery provides a step up the economic pyramid in India, where low-income people normally only speak the local language.) The buyer builds a purchase history and therefore credit record.  The vendor can analyze purchasing patterns and improve their business model. Transaction histories make it possible for the vendor to recognize their best customers and offer credit where appropriate, and the data provide support for the vendors’ applications for microcredit from financial institutions. The system builds allegiance between buyer and seller, giving the vendor some protection against the larger-scale supermarkets that are beginning to encroach. The buyers can obtain nice-to-haves that would otherwise be unthinkable. Rewards build up fast enough that a client can receive the water filter reward in just a few weeks.

We visited Hazari and team m.Paani at their office, located outside one of Mumbai’s busiest train stations (left). The glass walls between offices are covered with notes and design elements for the m.Paani client dashboard.  After an hour of listening to Hazari and her eight-member team talk about the potential of m.Paani, our brains exploded. It’s a virtuous circle that benefits everyone. It is working, it is impressive, and it’s growing fast. The pilot phase, which was limited to 1,000 members in one slum neighborhood, ended in July; at the time of our September meeting, they were upwards of 5,000.

If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you have an idea of the sprawling Dahravi slum of Mumbai. This city-within-the-city has been the center of m.Paani’s pilot program. Slum-dwellers in Mumbai are not sitting around living off welfare, because there isn’t any. Everyone scrambles to keep food on the table, and the slums are full of tiny cottage industries including carpentry, metal work, textiles, tanning, laundry, tea and food vendors… One client saved points for two water filters, one for his family and one for his tea stall. Customers now pay a slight premium for tea from safe filtered water. More income for the tea stall, better health for his customers and family. The owner of a food stall, who buys ingredients from the m.Paani store around the corner, realized he could produce more items per day if he had a good mixer. A mixer was soon added to the m.Paani rewards list, which now includes a dozen pages of items.
This is social entrepreneurship, a new hybrid that combines the features of commercial business and NGO charity. Low-income people improve their lives by their own achievements, rather than by a handout, and the business earns enough profit to grow and benefit other communities. A social entrepreneur has “a business head and a social-impact heart.” On behalf of the entire Mundito family, we are pleased to have participated in the launch of m.Paani in its nascent stage. You’re sure to hear about m.Paani in the future. 

(We’ll remind you that you read it here first.)



My name is Mohamed Ali
“My name is Mohamed Ali,” said the tuk-tuk driver with a friendly smile. Fans of Limoux stories may recall we have a soft spot for tuk-tuks (three-wheeled auto rickshaws) and their drivers, and we had intended to hook up with one during our three days in colonial Fort Kochi.
“There is a famous boxer with that name in the USA.” Mr Ali was politely interested in this coincidence. He needed a customer.
“None for the past two days,” he said. Maybe, maybe not, unlikely. We continued walking. Sometime later, he wheeled up again, pleasant but persistent.
“How many children do you have?” I asked.
“Three, two boys and a three-year old girl. She loves chocolate.”
We asked for his phone number and said we might call. We decided we would probably do no better than the charming Mohamed, so the next morning we called him to arrange a three-hour tour of Fort Kochi.

It was Friday, and Mohamed arrived dressed up for the mosque. The price was certainly reasonable – 50 rupees ($0.75) per hour. We determined that there was no conflict between our touring time and his prayer time, and we were off.

We bumped along the narrow streets of the colonial city that is Fort Kochi, and Mohamed’s driving was as prudent as we could have hoped. The region owes its diversity to centuries of cultural interchange driven by the spice trade, which for centuries was one of the main drivers of the world economy. The Portuguese arrived around 1500 and convinced the regional ruler to let them build a spice export factory and a fort (Fort Kochi) to protect it.
  After a century of Portuguese dominance, the spice trade shifted to the Dutch, and then the English took over. Now the dominant foreign influence in Fort Kochi is the tourist industry, which coexists with locals and their traditional ways. We visited a hand laundry that employs thirty couples, women washing and men ironing, serving local families. A nonprofit collects donations from the photographers to support this cottage industry and its traditional space.

It’s generally understood that tuk-tuk drivers collect commissions from the shops their passengers visit. Mohamed explained how the system worked. “I will take you to the clothing store where my wife and I shop. The prices are fixed, so you can’t haggle, but I will not receive any commission. If you buy at the government stores, I get a 2% commission, but you can haggle. I will also get a coupon to help me pay for gas.” Refreshingly frank! We dutifully told him how much we spent at each shop so he could return later to claim his due. Our outing had one misadventure: Mohamed was ticketed for wearing his Friday-go-to-mosque shirt instead of his uniform, and we lent him 100 rupees ($1.50) to pay the bribe, er, fine. By the end of our tour, we had accomplished some significant shopping. We doubled his asking rate and paid 300 rupees ($4.50), and he was grateful. He passed 100 rupees back to us to repay our loan.
As would become our tradition in hot Kochi, our afternoons would end drinking Kingfisher beer in a bar where Margaret was invariably the only woman. (There weren’t many men either, and not many bars, for that matter.) Darkness falls early in Kerala, and we were reluctant to wander home in the dark. As we approached a tuk-tuk driver, Mohamed pulled up and interrupted the conversation. How did he know where we were? We accepted his ride, and he graciously refused any payment.

He reminded us that there were still many sights to see in Fort Kochi, and we made a date for the following day. He took us to Jew Town, where the Jewish community has a fascinating history of over 1,000 years in Kerala. (The history may in fact go back of the time of King Solomon.) This being Saturday, the Synagogue was closed to foreigners. Old dwellings in the Jewish quarter are now mostly tourist shops, including an exceptional art & antique shop that is worth a visit.

Upon returning to our homestay, we again paid double, gladly. This time he made a date to drive us to our evening bar and then to dinner. No charge.
“How many beers will he drink?” he asked Margaret.
“Only one.” She didn’t tell, and he didn’t ask, about her own consumption.

We learned a lot from Mohamed about the life of a tuk-tuk driver. He pointed out the private school that his children attend, his mosque, and the house where they rent a flat. Educating three children and building for the future requires some serious financial planning, and Mohamed is a planner. He’s currently saving up for a deluxe tuk-tuk. It hardly seems possible to put it all together, even for this go-getter.

After dinner, Mohamed was waiting outside the restaurant to drive us back to our homestay. No charge. I pressed a bill into his hand. “This is not for you, it is for your children.” He accepted it with warm thanks and gave us his business card, complete with email address. We looked at his card when we got back to our room. His name was not listed Mohamed Ali, just Ali. We may never know if this smooth talker is actually named Mohamed Ali.

We were delighted by the win-win arrangement, and our tuk-tuk forays were a big part of the fun. When you go to Fort Kochi in Kerala, do ask us for Ali’s contact information. You won’t regret it – and you will probably be riding in a spiffy deluxe tuk-tuk, too.

The Kerala backwaters

Our two-hour car ride from Kochi to the award-winning GK Homestay in the Kerala backwaters ended with a half-hour crawl along rocky muddy dirt roads. We were shown to the guest quarters, which looked an old summer camp: four rooms in a former family agricultural building. The windowless bathroom, whose shower curtain did not quite reach the floor, had an aroma of old moisture. Margaret was tight-lipped as she unpacked her suitcase onto the floor, as the only shelving was on my side of the bed. What had we gotten ourselves into? Twenty tense minutes passed.


But then we sat down on the front porch and began drinking in the view of the gorgeous green rice field before us. George came over to deliver lunch and brainstorm activities for our three-day visit, and we started to understand why people rave about this modest homestay in the middle of nowhere. By the last day, we were sorry we had to leave so soon. Our room was quite adequate, the Keralan food was excellent, and thanks to George’s advice we intersected with hundreds of locals who make their home in the rural backwaters of Kerala. Over a period of three days, we saw no other tourists.
Like many Keralans, George and his wife Dai spent many years working in the Gulf States and then returned home to the family property. Well-educated landowners, they are from the prosperous Syrian Christian class that traces its roots to the arrival in Kerala of St. Thomas in AD 60 or so. George explained that when St. Thomas arrived in Kerala, he converted a dozen Brahmin families to Christianity, knowing that as the Brahmins were the Hindu priestly class, they would be well accepted as Indian Christian priests.

The Kerala backwaters are similar to the American bayous, but with lots more water and lots more people. Houses line the bank of every canal or rice field. Every house has stone steps that descend to the canal for access to their canoe, for washing clothes or dishes, for bathing, and (oh my!) brushing teeth. (We suspect that the people here have robust intestinal flora.) The narrow dirt roads are navigable by foot, by motorcycle or tuk-tuk, with an occasional car or truck.

We took George’s suggestions to experience the backwaters culture. We hiked along the narrow roads. We hired a canoe for a two-hour tour in the canals (fantastic!), which provided a fine perspective of well-built houses, coconut palms, and rice fields. We waved at folks stepping into the water to wash up or do laundry. They, especially the children, waved back.

We followed George’s advice to skip the private houseboat tour ($750) and instead take the public ferry ($0.60), which travels the same canals as the houseboats  and is far more interesting. Walking to the ferry dock and waiting with other passengers for the ferry, we were greeted with friendly words from local folks and their children. No matter that the conversation never went much beyond “Hi! What is your name? Where do you come from?”, there were smiles all around, great photos of the kids, and a tea break with the boat crew at the end of the line.

We struck up a conversation on the ferry with a couple from the Kerala hill country, fifty miles away, who were showing their kids the canals and rice fields of the backwaters for the first time. We asked them about education and Kerala’s achieving 100% literacy for the current generation of children. They credited this feat to the missionaries, who had placed huge emphasis on schooling. Keralans had to be very hard working, we learned, as people in this relatively neglected zone of India had to learn to survive and thrive on their own. They often work abroad and send remittances home to improve their houses and prepare for a comfortable retirement. You can recognize the expat homes: larger and very sturdy, with good long-life metal roofs: “A freshly baked cake with colorful frosting,” as described by the famous Keralan author Arundhati Roy.
One day we saw scores of women walking along the banks decked out in canary-yellow saris. It was a holy day honoring guru-philosopher Sri Narayana who, a century ago, preached that all people are created equal, the caste system is obsolete, and you don’t have to be a Brahmin to build a temple. He gave hope to lower-caste families who have since become a political force in the backwaters. A large crowd of canary-clad worshipers gathered at a temple, the females on one side, the males on the other, chanting the praises of their saintly leader on his birthday. And the children, as always, smiled and waved. “Hi! What is your name? Where do you come from?”

It’s no wonder people rave about this modest backwater homestay. Big thanks, George and Dai, for giving us this window on your world.


Another planet

What were we looking for when we booked a trip to Kerala?  I don't think we really knew.  It had been on our list for a long time.  We like India, we had seen the big tourist sights up north, and we wanted an entirely different experience.  I once asked an Indian friend if in the rural south we would still see lots of people. He laughed, "You don't go anywhere in India without seeing lots of people."
The backwaters are among the main attractions, so we booked three nights in GK Homestay, which is midway between two towns you never heard of. I wondered what on earth we would do. Walking, sitting in boats, eating, shopping – routine stuff but an entirely different vibe and vacation experience than we've ever had.

Travel in the shoulder season, which we prefer, has an obvious inconvenience: the weather is hotter and rainier. The monsoon was ending, however, so roads were navigable.  I'll gladly trade this steamy stuff for the tourist pressure of high season.
I'll spare you most of my reflections, but they are dominated by a statement by our host George: "Here we have many poor people, but we have no poverty."  Nowhere was there evidence of the food insecurity that you might see in a large city, e.g. Mumbai or Atlanta.  The standard of living may be modest for some, but the basics of food and shelter are covered.

Kerala is distinctive in another way: the coexistence of Hindus, Christians, and Muslims in great harmony. Many people quoted to us the teachings of guru Sri Narayana: accept the people around you. Religious diversity seemed to be a constant topic of conversation. Why is religion a divider elsewhere but not here?  Different people proposed different theories.

George, our (Syrian Christian) host, credits it to the village: when you live in close proximity with neighbors, you learn to accept them and get along. (Frequent readers will recall that the concept of village is my theory of peaceful coexistence as well.) A Hindu cabdriver credited the high level of education and literacy in Kerala, and the relatively low levels of education in countries that are exporting terrorism support his point. Our Muslim tuk-tuk driver was entirely comfortable with the Hindu majority and his Christian passengers (and our high-priority 5pm beer) while making it clear that our touring would need to accommodate his prayer schedule. Most people seemed to appreciate having triple the usual amount of holidays: Hindu, Muslim, Christian.

Another planet or a workable model on this planet? Hmm.

The cow cycle
A defining characteristic of India is the ability of systems to develop organically, bottom-up, and provide self-employment opportunities to anyone who wishes to eat. Consider the cows in Mumbai, a crowded city of some 21 million people who are hungry for all of life’s blessings. You wouldn’t guess that the woman-cow-grass combination in the picture at right, which we observed on many busy streets in central Mumbai, would be an economic model of staggering ingenuity.
  • A dairy farmer ties rents out a cow to an enterprising woman for a day.
  • The woman picks grass, and she stations herself with cow and grass in an area with high foot traffic, possibly with tourist traffic as well.
  • Urban Hindus, their souls deprived of the blessings that shower down when you perform the virtuous act of feeding a cow, buy the woman’s grass and feed it to the cow.
  • Tourists pay tips for the privilege of taking pictures of devout Hindus feeding the cow.
  • The woman returns the well-fed cow to its owner at the end of the day.
  • The farmer milks the cow.
  • Somebody in Mumbai gets to buy fresh milk.

It’s a complete win-win-win-win-win economic cycle worthy of a PhD thesis, but it grew organically from the diverse needs of various individuals. Indian solutions to Indian problems.

-RJH (sketch), RJH/MMG (text) 

The amazing photographer Ameet Pai graciously allowed us to use his photo for this story. His email included a charming note:
“There is always an apparent chaos that is first noticed in this country, but when you observe closely you see that there is a natural order in which individuals are maximizing whatever available resources are existing – this is true from the traffic on the streets to the love in their hearts – there is a coexistence, like bees in a honeycomb.”

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