Disclaimer: The first part of this post consists mainly of beach photos and me talking about food (beaches and food being two of my favorite things in life). Consider yourself warned.
Prior to my Fulbright grant, I’d been to India twice. Both times, I mostly traveled within Rajasthan and the Delhi region, a hot, arid part of the country with a lot of rich history. However, the end of September marked an important holiday for my school (Dussehra), so I took the opportunity to venture outside North India for the first time, meeting a group of other Fulbright scholars in the state of Kerala. Additionally, Mina and I met up with some friends in Mumbai the weekend prior, another first for me. While I missed my girls at school, it was so fun to explore new parts of India, where the climate, language, and cuisine are so very different from Rajasthan.
I wasn’t sure how much I would like Mumbai…I’d heard mixed reviews, and I’m not overly fond of Delhi, the only other Indian metropolis I’ve visited. Maybe it’s the fact that Mumbai is situated by the ocean, but I found it much less overwhelming than Delhi. We spent a wonderful weekend exploring the ancient caves on Elephanta Island, admiring Mumbai’s eclectic mixture of architecture (a combination of traditional Indian structures and buildings from the colonial period), watching the sunset along the waterfront, and eating Western food (Starbucks!!!). We also had the chance to visit a floating masjid (mosque) reached by a narrow walkway over the ocean and a Hindu mandir (temple) for weekend pooja.
The following weekend, I flew down to Kochi, Kerala, to spend a glorious five days in South India. The weather was lovely, and I once again found myself basking in my proximity to the ocean (I’m a California girl at heart, let’s face it). Kerala has a significant Christian minority, so it was interesting to explore some of the churches and cathedrals that abound in Kochi, including the oldest European church in India, the St. Francis Church (built in 1503). We also took some time to visit Jew Town, which houses the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth).
On our second day in Kochi, we took a tour of Kerala’s gorgeous backwaters, a network of streams and tributaries that winds through tiny islands thick with lush jungle foliage. The backwaters are home to many small, traditional villages, where locals grow crops such as spices (nutmeg, pepper, etc.) and fruits (passion fruits, bananas, coconuts). The backwaters are also a major fishing area. Our canoe ride was tranquil, apart from a brief 10-minute downpour, and we had the chance to get out and tour a spice farm. Lunch included a number of Keralan dishes served on a traditional banana leaf plate. It’s amazing how different the food is from Rajasthani food…Keralan food uses a distinct combination of spices, and, like other South Indian cuisines, coconut is a staple ingredient in many dishes (once again, very different from Rajasthan). It was delicious!
That evening, we watched a kathakali performance, a form of classic Indian dance native to Kerala that relies upon elaborate costumes, makeup, and subtle movements of the hands, body, and eyes to convey a story. These stories often draw from Hindu epics and mythology. It was incredible to learn about the years of training and dedication required to become proficient at kathakali, and I wished we had time to see a longer performance.
The following morning, we took a train to Kovalam, a town several hours away from Kochi on the shore of the Arabian Sea. There we spent a relaxing two days lying on the beach, swimming (!!!) in the ocean, and getting sunburned, to the great amusement of my students. I took my first hot shower in more than three months. Kerala is famous for its seafood, and although I’m usually not a fan of fish, I decided to give it a try on our last night, sharing several fish curries with the other ETAs. It was simply superb! Rajasthan is the most vegetarian state in all of India, so I don’t often get a chance to eat meat dishes. Every meal we had in Kerala was delicious, and this trip has made me eager to try different Indian cuisines from across the country during my future travels.
After dinner on our last evening, we discovered a gelato place that served the most delicious fresh coconut gelato I’ve ever tasted. Although I had to leave Kovalam around 7:45 the next morning, I decided to grab gelato for breakfast, because why not? Nothing like coconut gelato to start off your day.
Kerala is known as God’s country, and now I know why. I had such a fantastic time exploring a new part of India, trying different foods, learning about its unique history, and generally reinvigorating myself simply by existing near an ocean. There’s nothing like warm waves washing over your feet. I hope to go back someday!
Since returning to Jaipur, I’ve enjoyed catching up with my students post-holiday and hearing about their excitement for the upcoming Diwali break (October is festival season in India, y’all). The other day, 6th grade asked why I looked so tired. This line of questioning culminated in them attempting to draw my expression on the blackboard, with some…interesting results:
At first the faces were frowning, but when I started laughing at their drawings, they insisted upon changing them to smiles before I could take a photo.
The girls at my school recently competed in a government-sponsored poster drawing competition. They had an hour to draw a poster relating to Swachh Bharat, a recent government campaign attempting to move toward a cleaner, more sanitary India. I’m always so impressed with my girls’ artistic skills and creativity. The winners of the contest received monetary prizes. One of my students, upon finding out the theme of the competition, approached me in the hallway five minutes before the competition started and asked if I could Google the official Swachh Bharat poster. I told her I wouldn’t Google it for her, since surely she could come up with something more creative than a poster on the Internet. The student looked dubious, but she ended up creating her own unique take on Swachh Bharat, winning one of the cash prizes. For me, it felt like validation of a concept I’ve struggled to get across to my students—the importance of expressing your own ideas rather than simply copying them from another source. The Indian education system is very focused on copying, and a great deal of English education at many schools consists of students copying English sentences from the blackboard without having to create sentences themselves. Getting my girls to come up with their own sentences, rather than directly copying mine, has been a huge challenge, since they are afraid to write or speak anything that might contain mistakes. If I can accomplish one thing this year, I hope it will be convincing my girls that their thoughts and ideas are worth expressing, and that it’s okay to make mistakes when learning to express yourself in a new language. I would rather a student say one sentence that she constructed herself, in her own words, with several mistakes, than have my students parrot back grammatically perfect sentences without having any idea how to make a sentence of their own. Going forward, shifting the focus from copying to creating is going to be one of my biggest challenges.
This past Saturday, Mina and I were invited to give a presentation at a local private IB high school, where we talked about writing admissions essays for American colleges. We met some truly dedicated students with ambitious future goals. For me, it was truly eye-opening to walk into an Indian private school and witness the extensive resources available to these students, such as laptop computers. Not unlike America, educational inequality is a huge issue in India, and this experience made me all the more grateful to be working in my current school. Vimukti has done so much to equalize the educational experience of girls from poorer families. The teachers at Vimukti truly care about these girls’ wellbeing, and I am excited to continue being a part of this organization.
Well, that’s all for now. Mina and I are off to Delhi on Wednesday for our mid-year conference. Can’t wait to see our fellow ETAs!