Arrived in Patna

We arrived safely in Patna a little after 9pm, after enjoying a very tasty airplane meal on a flight that was just 90 minutes long. Every airline should serve Indian food. They also handed out these chewy, tangy tamarind candies. I’m not usually one for sweets, but I tried one at Cheryl’s insistence. They were tart and delicious. I’m going to have to see if I can buy a bag.    (MWQ)

We stepped off the plane into cool, misty air. Patna is in the state of Bihar, which is north of Delhi, and the weather is noticeably cooler. There were a number of mosquitoes milling about, making me glad that I’m taking my malaria pills.    (MWR)

Narendra Gupta explained that Bihar has some of the richest agricultural lands and natural resources in the country, and yet historically, it has been one of the poorest states, with a history of violent tribalism. Many of the fellows who are participating at tomorrow’s meeting work in rural areas of Bihar and have given up their weekend and travelled far to attend.    (MWS)

Jor Bagh

I spent the afternoon working in IIE’s Delhi office, located in Jor Bagh, a charming residential district that contrasted sharply with the Delhi I had seen the night before. On the ride over, Sanjay explained India‘s political situation regarding health care, education, and other infrastructural challenges.    (MWF)

India is a study in contrasts. There is tremendous economic disparity. Over a million people in Delhi (about eight percent of the total population) live beneath the poverty line. The infrastructure is poor, to say the least. The roads are bad, the power unreliable, the water scarce and undrinkable. And yet, India has a burgeoning population of skilled and intelligent Knowledge Workers, especially in technology.    (MWG)

To its credit, the current government is trying to do something about its infrastructural woes. It has committed to tripling its expenditures (percentage of GDP spent) in health and education over the next five years, and similarly increasing its expenditures in other areas, such as potable water.    (MWH)

After enjoying a delicious lunch of samosas, dhokla (which I tried for the first time), and gulabjamun, Cheryl Francisconi rejoined us and introduced me to Ajit Motwani, the new head of IIE India, who regaled us with stories of his eclectic past and who introduced me to lime water, water with lime juice, sugar, and salt, sort of an all-natural Gatorade.    (MWI)    (MWJ)    (MWK)

In the afternoon, Cheryl and I took a taxi to the airport, where we experienced an incredibly surreal traffic moment. At one point, we crossed a six lane bridge, with rickshaws and buses pulled over on the sides and middle of the road. No one was paying any attention to the lanes, and no one was slowing down either. It felt like I was playing one of those racing video games, except with quadruple the traffic. And yet, it didn’t feel disorderly either. Somehow, everything just worked.    (MWL)

As we watched similar madness in the terminal later, I observed to Cheryl that Open Space must feel comfortable to folks in India, because they’re so used to ordered chaos. That sparked a long conversation about process and culture that continued well into our flight to Patna.    (MWM)

At the airport, we met up with Sanjay Pandey and Narendra Gupta, who will be a guest participant at the meeting over the next few days. Narendra is from Chittorgarh, a small town in the state of Rajasthan, and his background is fascinating. I’m looking forward to chatting more with him and watching him work tomorrow.    (MWN)

India First Impressions

My plane arrived in Delhi last night at about 9pm, local time. Other than lucking into some additional leg room, the flight was uneventful. I had carefully planned my 20 hours of travel so that by the time I arrived, I would be somewhat acclimated to the timezone. That meant eating and sleeping at designated times. I wasn’t quite able to stick to the sleeping plan, but I felt adequately tired when I arrived.    (MW3)

The India experience began as soon as I stepped off the plane and got a whiff of the air. The pollution here is extraordinary. The haze is palpable, even at night. I’m from L.A., which makes me a hardened smog veteran, but the smog here is ten times worse.    (MW4)

After picking up my bags and going through customs, I found my taxi driver from the hotel, and kicked things off with my first cultural faux pas. He stuck out his hand, and I shook it. He looked at me in surprise, then chuckled. He wasn’t introducing himself; he was asking for my bags.    (MW5)

Even though it was late, I got a good taste of the city on the ride to the hotel. It’s crowded here. Over 20 million people live in Delhi, almost double the population of L.A. in a slightly larger physical area. What I saw initially was generally run-down, with broken, dusty sidewalks dotted with stores, slums, and shacks. It reminded me of the slums of Tijuana.    (MW6)

You need to have a death wish to drive here. Lanes and stop signs are not instructions. They’re more like guidelines, and most people choose to ignore them. We almost took out several auto rickshaws, three-wheelers with trademark green and yellow sidings, and we were almost taken out ourselves by a large truck. About fifteen minutes into our drive, I spotted my first cow literally walking on the sidewalk. I knew to expect this, and I’ve seen pictures of this, but somehow, it amused me to see it for myself.    (MW7)

I arrived safely at the hotel, marveling that I was still alive. I’m staying at the Qutab Hotel, which is clean, comfortable, and modern. I went to bed at about 1:30am, exhausted, but pleased that I had tricked my body into thinking it was night. Or so I thought. Three hours later, I was wide awake. It’s about 2:30pm now. I’ve been running most of the day on adrenaline, and I’m starting to fade a bit, but I’m sure I can make it until evening. Maybe then, my body will finally be convinced that it’s night, and I can start feeling normal again.    (MW8)

The Biggest Adventure of my Life

Blog silence here tends to mean that I’m busy, busy, busy. Long trips help me break that silence; there’s nothing better than a long plane ride to write blog posts. Well, I recently completed a very long plane ride to kick off the dooziest trip of my life. I’m sitting in a hotel in Delhi, getting ready to embark on a two week adventure across India and Ethiopia.    (MV3)

How the heck did I end up here? For the past few months, I’ve been working with the International Institute of Education (IIE) and their leadership development initiative for mobilizing reproductive health in developing countries (LDM). LDM is one of four Packard Foundation-funded initiatives to train emerging leaders in reproductive health.    (MV4)

The project is simple. Since the Packard Foundation began these programs in 1999, there have been almost 1,000 graduates spread across five countries: Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Philippines. There is massive potential for learning and collaboration to emerge from this diverse, growing network. IIE has been charged to figure out how to kick-start this process. That’s where I come in.    (MV5)

I like projects that are big, challenging, and important. This one fulfills all three requirements and then some. One challenge is that you literally can’t just throw technology at the problem. The infrastructure just doesn’t exist. I’ve long maintained that the Digital Divide is a red herring when it comes to large-scale problems, and this is an opportunity for me to put my money where my mouth is.    (MV6)

The biggest challenge is cultural. We’re dealing with five very different countries. Each country consists of many different microcultures, so simply focusing on intra-country collaboration presents a huge challenge. Finally, you have the microcultures of skills and background among the leaders themselves. And to top it off, I know practically nothing about any of these cultures.    (MV7)

That’s the main reason I’m here. I know a lot about facilitating large-scale collaboration, enough to know that the path towards fulfilling this objective must come from the participants themselves. I know about patterns and creating space and process and tools. I don’t know how much of my knowledge in this space is dependent on the cultural norms with which I’m familiar. I’m looking forward to finding out.    (MV8)

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be exploring Delhi, Patna, and Ranchi in India and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. I expect Internet access to be shoddy, but I’ll post my learnings and experiences when I can on this blog, on Flickr, and on Twitter. And if you have experiences in these countries and cultures or other thoughts you’d like to share, please drop me a line.    (MV9)