The past three weeks

India, August 2, 2009

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This post to Mercy Corps’ blog is three weeks overdue but, in my defense, it’s been a pretty incredible three weeks.

I serve as an economic development intern for Mercy Corps in Darjeeling, India. My assignment over these ten weeks is to provide a range of support to Mercy Corps’ economic development activities in the region — the most significant of which is a small-scale handmade paper factory established with support from the Phoenix Fund. I am assessing the past and current operations of the factory, helping identify new market opportunities and leading the development of a three-year business plan for this social enterprise.

After six weeks, I can honestly say that this experience is one of the most rewarding of my career to date. But let’s get back to the last three weeks.

On July 12, I joined the Mercy Corps soccer team to play a match in a nearby village. Mercy Corps has organized a soccer tournament as part of its Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI), designed to create positive, healthy recreation opportunities for unemployed, high-risk youths. The tournament is the culmination of a six-month sports coaching program and has generated quite a lot of buzz in the area.

While playing in the game, I injured my knee, pulling it out of joint and tearing two ligaments. It took the doctors in the local hospital two very painful attempts to get the knee back in place. I am undergoing physical therapy, walking with crutches and will most likely need surgery once I return to the U.S. in late August.

But that’s not all.

On July 13, a general strike was called in Darjeeling by a local political party called Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha, which is calling for the establishment of an independent Indian state for the ethnic Nepalis who reside in Darjeeling and other mountain towns in the region. During the strike all businesses, offices and organizations had to close their doors. All roads were closed and the transport of all people and goods by vehicle was prohibited. Hospitals, clinics and pharmacies were exempt from the strike, but it was difficult or impossible to access other necessities such as food.

I was released from the hospital with the strike in full swing. With no foreknowledge of the events that would take place, I had not stockpiled any food ahead of time. Luckily, I had an office full of people to look after me. All of the Mercy Corps staff came to check on me at my house, and my downstairs neighbor immediately rushed into action by arranging for someone to help me with cleaning, as well as sending food and tea upstairs to me at all hours.

The strike — and my injury — showed me a new side of Darjeeling. I made fast friends with the few other foreigners in Darjeeling who were coping with the same difficult conditions. A local Nepali woman started allowing some of us to enter her café from the back door and cooked us meals. It became a speakeasy of sorts.

On my crutches, I became a noticeable presence in the city. Tibetan grandmothers would look at me as if about to shed tears for my injury. Strangers would come up to me and ask what happened and beg me to take care of myself.

After two full weeks of closures, the strike ended on Tuesday, July 27, but the local political party says that it could resume as early as August 17. We wasted no time and immediately resumed work on CHAI and other projects. The Mercy Corps staff are working six- or seven-day work weeks to make up for lost time. I too am in overdrive, trying to make progress on my work before I leave at the end of August.

The soccer tournament resumes this Sunday as well but — still hobbled — I have opted to just take photos this time.