Last year I was awarded a Fulbright Grant to Varanasi, India to conduct research pertaining to water pollution in the Ganges River and Cultural Language Enhancement Award to study Hindi.
Living in Varanasi, said to be the oldest continually inhabited city on Earth, is somewhat indescribable. It is like having all your senses stimulated at once. Your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and touch will come across wonders and horrors, often simultaneously. It is believed that if you die here you end the cycle of rebirth and achieve moksha (nirvana/liberation), so thousands of religious pilgrims pour in and out of the city daily. The streets are full to the brim with people, cows, monkeys, dogs, goats, cars, rickshaws, street vendors, motorbikes, and every smell you never knew existed. Temples dot every street corner and come in all shapes and sizes. The river Ganga runs along one side of the city and if you walk its length you will come across chai vendors, an assortment of animals and people, and the famous cremations grounds where fires burn endlessly. Festivals occur almost daily and fill the city with millions of pilgrims who come to take holy bath in the river and pay their respects to one of the many Hindu gods that reside within the city. The best-kept secret about Varanasi however is its people, who are some of the kindest and most generous I have ever come across.
I arrived in Varanasi to find the state of the Ganges River as bad as its notorious reputation. Everyday in Varanasi 300-400 million liters of raw sewage pour into the river, causing high incidence of water borne diseases ranging from typhoid to cholera. Further, I discovered that information on this subject is not shared amongst government, researchers, and the public, making it difficult or impossible to access data on water quality in Ganga. For the past 9 months I have planned, scheduled, tracked, and reported my own research project, including conducting interviews with government officials, professors, NGOs, and community members; reviewing countless research articles and government documents; compiling and analyzing datasets; creating maps using ArcGIS; conducting site visits to sewage treatment infrastructure; and running environmental education workshops for students. The goals of my research are 2 fold: by examining pre-existing data and city infrastructure I hope to determine where gaps exist in our knowledge on water contamination in Ganga and where future clean up efforts in Varanasi should focus; and through education and publication of maps I hope to share the data I have complied publicly to help increase information accessibility.
In addition to my research, my daily experiences are rich and have included navigating work and personal challenges; learning and communicating in Hindi; volunteering with NGOs teaching English to underprivileged students; assessing water quality of drinking water in slums; traveling; yoga and jewelry making; interacting with a diversity of new people and cultures; and above all learning. In India I have lived with many of the pollution problems we faced in America 50 years ago. This has provided me with a new perspective on issues of environmental contamination and a renewed passion to do what I can to revitalize our global ecosystem.