Saturday, June 23, 2012

Final Thoughts...

I can't believe we are leaving today. I am so excited to head home, and so sad to be leaving the country that has taught me so much and that I have come to love. We've spent our last days finishing up our research, giving our presentations, doing last minute shopping, and saying difficult goodbyes. I can't imagine life back in the U.S. Going back to my normal life with the same routines seems impossible, but I also can't wait to see my family and friends. It is a difficult feeling, but something I will embrace just as I have learned to do with everything that India forces me to come to terms with. I would like to say a few 'thank you's' really fast before ending with my final thoughts. Society for Development Studies is the most amazing organization I have ever come in contact with and I am honored to have had a chance to learn from them. Dr. Lall is an incredible teacher, and I know that I am a better professional, member of my community, and person for having had the chance to know and learn from him. Bachan Prasad you are awesome and you know it. Thanks for being our protector, coordinator, and comedian when we needed you most. Ritika, thank you for the endless advice, shopping trips, and happy work days that would never have been the same without you. Hari and Mukesh, thanks for the tea and the laughs. Lastly, I would like to thank the University of Southern Indiana, Provost Rochon, Dr. Mujumdar, and Heidi Gregori-Gahan for this incredible opportunity that has been life changing and the most beneficial learning I've experienced. I hope this program continues to grow with our amazing University, and that more students can learn and benefit from SDS and all India has to offer.

And with that it is time to go. Thank you all for reading, commenting, and sharing my journey with me. Your presence was a great comfort to me throughout, and I loved being able to pass on my experience. Feel free to contact me further with questions or comments as time goes on. I do hope to be able to continue my experience with SDS and the school I visited by creating some sort of partnership either through the University or a local school, to get them the supplies and support they need, and to continue to learn from them and their students. Now as time is short, I will leave you with my final thoughts:

...In the end it is not without some amazement that I realize I have come to a place that showed me poverty as I have never seen before, yet am leaving with a more joyous heart in connection with the world. This was my first opportunity to be welcomed into and participate in the activities of resource- strapped communities where I could experience a small portion of their life and how they make their way through their days to survive. With these activities my heart has ached, my soul has soared, and I have found myself crying, laughing, smiling with joy, and turning my eyes away in pain. Why is it then that I come away from this experience more centered, grounded, joyful, and connected to the world? I had to take a moment to search inside my heart for these answers, and there it sits quietly. When you see poverty on the news or on a moving documentary there is always the sense of ‘other’. That these are those ‘poor people’, and ‘it’s so tragic and where can we donate’. I cannot say that it becomes easy to see the desperately deprived, and I hope that it never does, but those you meet and get a chance to talk to are very quickly replaced from ‘the others…the poor’ to ‘my friends’ or that ‘amazing person’, or that ‘funny little child’ as you do with all people you meet at home. It made me laugh the other day when my roommate Leah looked up from her report and asked, “Is the Renni village (where we visited) considered poor?” For a moment I had to pause and realize, yes of course it is. It is a resource-strapped community that needs further interventions and support on their road out of economic depravity, but the feeling as we drove away was of sadness for leaving our new friends…almost as though they were family. They had been replaced from research work, economic parameters, and ‘the poor’ the moment we walked into their homes…from the first smile, the first giggle. The first moment our eyes locked we were what we are and will always be, brothers and sisters making our way…finally meeting and rejoicing in finding one another in this small space in place and time.

And so I leave India, Society for Development Studies, and my new friends with so much more than I came with. My suit case is full of gifts for friends and family, but my body is coursing with new knowledge that will sustain my growth as I take my training back home to work within my own community and classrooms…and my new found global home.

Thanks again everyone. Namaste.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Alwar Day Two

The day started bright and early on the winding road through the mountainous desert of Rajasthan. We saw shepherds, sheep, camels, peacocks, dogs, and boar as we made our way through the dry rocky mountains. We arrived in Reni village with only a few children on the outskirts who hesitantly waved and then took off running. We got out of the car and walked up to what looked like a concrete compound which was very neatly swept with a clothes line drying colorful clothes and a corner with harvested onions lying in a large pile. As we got closer I could hear the chatter of people beyond a doorway, but we were told to wait. I don’t remember the last time I was so nervous and excited all at once… I thought I would faint!! Finally we were waved in and we stepped through the threshold to find a roofless common area packed full of the local villagers all smiling and waiting for us.

We were given a traditional welcome with a wreath of flowers and a bit of red powder on our forehead called Tilak, or Tika. We were then ushered under a beautiful tapestry for shade where they performed beautiful song and dance to welcome us.

 After that were introductions before Dr. Lall talked about Mrs. Lall, who has passed last year, and how her work in the village has inspired him to set up a foundation to continue her work there. This is hopefully going to include scholarships for girl’s higher education, exposure to global markets for the artisans in the village and their pots, and possibly a storage facility for the pottery being produced that the area relies on. This news was received happily with applause and smiles, and they all sat down to work out more details as the rest of us sat back and ate some of the delicious traditional snacks they had so generously made for us. It was hard to keep back tears through all of this as Dr. Lall talked about such an amazing woman, the future work he planned on doing in the village, and just soaking in the absolute love and generosity these people gave us. Every time I smiled or made a silly face at a child a ripple of giggles would float through their group, every woman and man smiled and nodded back eagerly when eye contact or a wave was made… It was a feeling I can’t describe completely. To be such a stranger but such an appreciated member of the community so quickly…it’s not something I’m ever liable to forget…something I hope I can show others, and something that I hoped I showed them as well.
I spent the rest of the morning making silly faces with the children, interviewing the principal of the local school, and talking to the teachers about the positives and negatives of the village school system. I was very taken back about the passion and innovativeness for teaching these men were so freely showing me. One of the specialty teachers even spoke of his desire to create a  ‘sensory garden’ of learning for his special needs students. I was blown away. “Yes!” , I nodded. “I totally know what you’re saying and that’s fantastic!” We did not need translators here. J   
The principal made Dr. Lall aware of a summer school program for local deaf students and we were invited to visit which we did right away. The school visit was possibly indescribable. For those of you that know me and my love of children and passion for teaching, maybe you can understand? For those who don’t I can say this: Take something that you are passionate about, that is good beyond question in your mind, and exciting in its ability to teach you and allow you to teach others, and then imagine the pinnacle of this situation happening quite suddenly without warning. This was that moment for me. From the moment I walked into the classroom I was bursting with happiness and joy to be there. I didn’t see the faults, or the needs, I only saw the children. Children who weren’t in school before, who weren’t prioritized in care because of their disability, but now they were all here sitting in a room being taught due to the school’s outreach program. They had only been there for 15 days and they already all knew the English alphabet written and in sign.

 They had a teacher, a blackboard, a rug to sit on, a window with light slanting through, a fan overhead (off then due to a power outage), and an eagerness to show us what they learned. I don"t know if maybe I thought teaching would be awkward with a different culture and in a different setting, but I was overjoyed to meet every student and was comfortable immediately.   I never once thought anything different of them, but it was so pronounced that we were meeting from so far away and the opportunity was not lost on any of us. I took out the puppets I had brought and showed the students how to put them on (which they loved), and then presented the principal with the books, flashcards, and other learning items I had brought for the school.

 The little boy that tried on the pig puppet followed me around for the rest of my school visit and we became fast friends pretending the puppet and my hand were playing (ok…fighting J).   I was given a tour of the physical therapy room for special needs students and I was so impressed that it was even there! They had an exercise bike and walking support bar for gross motor skills, a zipper and tie board for fine skills, a map lined with felt for the blind, and much more. The room was lacking in much, but its existence and ingenuity were such a joy to explore. These people are so committed to helping the children of the area and I was proud and honored to tour their school. I told the principal it is my hope to continue to work with this school from home and we have exchanged information to make this possible. I can’t wait to get started in helping improve such a wonderful school and give them the resources they are so eager to utilize.   I left the school with waves and handshakes as I signed thank you to the group of boys in class. I left with joy, but also a heavy heart that I wouldn’t be coming back soon. Someday I hope. Someday J

We came back to the village for a delicious lunch the villagers had made us, and I wandered around to meet the buffalos I had seen peeking through the tapestries earlier.

  We left for meetings with some government officials and a local doctor  before heading back to the villages for interviews at some local homes. 
After our last interview we were leaving and the local president of a woman’s self help group said that I must come have tea with her sometime. I said ‘absolutely’ and she took that as an agreement so we all got back out of the car and walked down to her house for tea.  She flapped out a fresh blanket for the cots, pumped water from the well, sent a young girl out to milk the buffalo, and got ready to boil the tea in a clay pot over an open fire in the roofless common area of her home.

Meanwhile the local children gave me a device you place on your head for balancing pots and demanded I try it, so I spent a few nervous minutes trying to balance what they so easily do every day. One little girl even danced with hers on her head! Amazing… and sooo adorable.

The tea was finally served and it was THE BEST TEA EVER. I don’t know how she did it! I guess you have to have a well in rural Rajasthan, cow, open fire, clay pot, and awesome tea skills because I’m pretty sure that experience is never going to be topped. This woman is one of the coolest and most inspiring people I have ever met. She received training to do early childhood and pre/post natal care in the village, runs a self-help group (inspired and coordinated by Mrs. Lall once again!) of women who take care of each other’s needs and discourage local youngsters from getting married as children, and tries to further her education on the side. Such strength and beauty…she is an inspiration and I’ll never forget her.

   Our coordinators were now hurrying us to get back to town so we made our farewells. They asked us to stay for dinner, they asked us to stay the night, they laughed and shook our hands. I will never forget them waving goodbye as we pulled away for the last time.  Here’s an idea of my view: I saved the last look for my mind alone.  My heart brims. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Alwar Day One

After checking into our hotel we quickly made our way to Om Prakash’s pottery shop about 20 minutes away. He learned pottery from his father and was trained in one of the SDS programs started by Mrs. Lall on increasing skill for decoration and marketing.  He now operates a business that has won awards and is attracting global demand:
Me, Giant award winning clay hookah, Leah (award winning roomie) and Bachan Prasad our  awesome coordinator.

His story is incredible and he was very welcoming, patient, and kind in our visit. We went to the location of his home/business and toured the different areas for clay, wheels, and the massive kiln while meeting some of his family, employees and their families.

Om and his kiln!

Note:Just in case you are unaware: These kids aren't sad. I'm
assuming it's a cultural thing for them to not smile because
they were all cracking up and playing with me like 30 seconds
before this shot. I've noticed a lot of the woman try to keep
a straight face when I'm taking pics too..some more successful
than others to my delight :)


Sharing Greetings :)

Front left: Sanjay (area specialist), Om Prakash, Dr. Lall, Leah, Me
Back right to left: Kireeti Ghanta, Kidan Asgedom, Family and Workers at the site.

I even got a try at the wheel!!

I failed miserably twice even with his kind and patient direction, but it was rather overwhelming since there was a large crowd of workers, journalists, and friends gathered around me!! I would almost have it and then my finger would slip and it would collapse. I laughed and said, “Oh well! I tried” and the crowd laughed and began chattering as they prepared for someone else to try. Still crouched on the dirt floor with clay covered hands I looked over to Om and said “Danyabad” (thankyou) and he looked at me with an intense seriousness and quietly said, “It doesn’t only take skill, it takes confidence.” I nodded to which he smiled, and I made my way up through the commotion of the crowd to let Leah have her turn. She made a beautiful pot with his incredible tutelage and we all laughed some more as I stood reflecting on his words. Why is it that India and its people always have lessons for you? It seems sometimes that the people here can see my spirit and reflect it though it is their responsibility to strengthen my spirit for life. And so I stood absorbing this while standing in a sweltering room on the dirt floor of a rural Indian family business, as children ducked, hid, giggled and ran around me.  Truthfully I don't know that I'd trust this kind of training from anywhere else :)

Saturday, June 16, 2012


So Monday we traveled to Jaipur which is the capital of the desert state, Rajasthan and I wish we had been able to spend more time there!
Traveling! Leah, Ritika (our colleague,translator, coordinator, expert shopper, etc.), and me!
The pollution seemed a little worse than even Delhi’s, but the city seemed well planned,cleaner, and very colorful. We spent the early afternoon touring a handmade paper factory which was fascinating. They took us from the beginning steps of sorting the cotton fabric scraps from the synthetic ones all the way to the flower petal picker and pressers.

I honestly don’t know how some of these guys work over the hot water and pulp in such heat, but the conditions weren’t crowded and the facilities were clean which was nice to see. Later we of course went to check out the markets before a late night dinner and sleep.
The next morning we woke up early to make it to an elephant ride up the mountain to Amber Fort which is the most picturesque and breathtaking place we’ve been to yet. SDS was so amazing to have arranged this once-in- a lifetime experience for us and everyone had an amazing time. That said, I feel the need to address my feelings on my personal experience.
I regret taking the ride immensely.I had reservations once we entered the city and I saw one of the elephants walking by. It didn’t seem that happy and he looked tired. Nonetheless I went about our busy day without time to think about it more. The next morning as we prepared to go I came to the conclusion that it was a once in a lifetime experience, that it was a ‘when in Rome’ situation, and that this was probably a good place that cared for the elephants and provided them with a good life. Upon arrival the next morning I was still a bit hesitant, but the arrangements had been made and so I decided to enjoy myself, feel the amazing experience, and watch to make sure the elephants were actually happy. I saw one smiling and it brought me immense comfort.

By half way up the mountain I realized I had made a huge mistake and wanted nothing more than to get down or cry. As we passed another elephant ‘driver’ I witnessed a small iron spike in his hand which he jabbed underneath the cloth covering the elephant where I’m assuming none of us were supposed to see. But I did see it and my spirit collapsed. I watched my ‘driver’ with an eagle eye after this. He was an elderly man and seemed kind. He only had a small bamboo rod and he never once touched the elephant with it. I guess it goes to show that you’ll always have some bad eggs in a crowd, but the fact that the other driver was somewhat blatant led me to believe that these practices are at least somewhat tolerated and accepted. I loved my elephant though, and I got to stroke his ear when I got down before an armed guard yelled at me to leave the platform. Our elephant was a graceful young thing and while I wouldn’t do it again I’ll never forget him carrying us up that Indian mountain in his swift lumbering gait.

After we left the elephant I lost myself in the beauty of the fort and the picturesque views of the misty mountains and ancient walls.
About 30 minutes later I stumbled upon snake charmers and was so surprised and entranced at such an oddity I found myself sitting down with them and helping them play. Once again I suddenly looked at the snakes and realized, “what in the world am I doing? This cannot possibly be a good life?” and quickly took my exit with a confused and shaky conscience. We all laughed at my strange adventure and walked on to enjoy more of such a beautiful destination, but the feeling of wrong never left me and became more solidified as the day went on.

So! Sorry for the downer but I just hope that some reader will learn from my mistakes. I was thrust into situations where I didn’t have the opportunity to Google “elephant rides – good?” “Charmed cobras in a basket –happy?” and was forced to make quick decisions on my own with only my moral code to guide me. I failed and in that I have learned and grown. This is obviously a part of my soul that needs strengthening and I at least thank the experiences for teaching me that. From now on if it is suspect of harming another, then it’s not worth the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience…at least for me. I’ll obviously let you decide for yourself. Kind of a tumultuous day for my heart and moral compass, but I’m better for it in the end, and the overall experience at Amber Fort was one of awe inspiring beauty.


Taking it back a week (where did the time go??!!):  Dr. Lall arranged a tour of all the sites we hadn’t seen yet for last Saturday. It was really awesome. We checked out Red Fort (palace like grounds with elephant gates, marble rooms, and beautiful gardens dating back to 1638), the ruins of Qutb Minar (dating to Islamic rule in India), Bahai Temple (Lotus Temple), Jama Masjid (enormous mosque dating to 1571), and Gandhi Smirti (the residence where Gandhi spent his final days and where he was killed) which was the most peaceful and beautiful place we had been. Everyone was quiet and helpful, the grounds were simple and beautiful, and there was a pervading sense of calm and meditation throughout. A perfect tribute for ‘the father of India’.    All of our other destinations were quite awe inspiring as well and the whole day was one of the best we’ve spent in Delhi since we arrived.  J
Gandhi's footsteps to his place of martyrdom

Where Gandhi slept

Red Fort
Qtub Minar

Being silly at the ruins


Qtub Minar ruins

Beautiful tomb within the ruins

The stone work is incredible!!

Bahai Temple

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Posts soon!

Hey all, sorry for the delay but our days have been packed with work and traveling.My heart has been pushed to the brink with love, wisdom, and generosity over the last two days. I will post as soon as I'm rested and have a free moment (hopefully tomorrow!!). Until then I'll just leave this:
Life. Changed. Forever.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


You should be able to click on the pics to get a bigger picture and scroll through!