Beaches upon beaches

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.

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Carvings in Elephanta Caves, dating from approximately 5th–8th century.
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Gateway to India, a monument erected to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911.
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Fulbright ETAs watching the sunset along the waterfront in Mumbai.

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).

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Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica in Fort Kochi.
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Evening walks along the beach in Kochi.
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Such a treat…coconut milk latte sweetened with honey. Coffee in India is usually instant coffee, and Kerala is one of the few states that is known for having its own unique, distinct flavors of coffee grown locally. It was divine!
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Spiced masala chai at a tea shop in Jew Town. Good to know that no matter where you go in India, you can always count on some deliciously spicy chai tea.

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!

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View from the front of our canoe.
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Kerala backwaters.
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Julia and I in our canoe.
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The whole group! Fulbright ETAs plus Ryan.

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.

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The God Hanuman.

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.

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Lighthouse beach in Kovalam.
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Did we die and go to Heaven? Possibly.
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Attempting morning yoga on the beach.

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.

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Gelato on the beach. Who could ask for anything more?

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:

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Me, as captured by my 6th graders. Perfect likeness.

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.

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Poster making competition! Love seeing their beautiful artwork.

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.

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Mina and I before our presentation.

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!

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Update: it’s still hot

Well, it’s been a while. I typed up this blog forever ago and put off posting it, so please forgive any weird timeline lapses.

Tuesday, September 5th was Teacher’s Day in India. The 10th and 11th grade girls at Vimukti dressed up like their teachers, and the school put on a special program to show appreciation. Afterward, I went to lunch with the other teachers at Pizza World, a truly bizarre experience, since Italian food in India doesn’t taste the least bit like Italian food back home. My sweet 6th graders brought me a ring and a pair of earrings, and I received some lovely cards from the girls.

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Selfies abound on Teacher’s Day…me with some of my 6th graders and one 11th grader.
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Cards from the best students, featuring some truly spectacular poetry.
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10th and 11th graders presenting the teachers with gifts.
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One of my students dressed as me. The resemblance is striking, don’t you think?
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Celebrating with other Vimukti teachers ❤

The second week of September was a difficult one for the Muslim community in Jaipur. On Friday evening, an altercation between a police officer and a Muslim couple resulted in the officer hitting a woman. As the community Muslims gathered outside the police office to protest, police threw tear gas, violence escalated, several cars were set on fire, and the police shot and killed a young man present at the protest. In response to riots in the Old City, the Rajasthani government suspended Internet service for 48 hours—cell phone data, wifi, everything—to prevent protesters from contacting one another. In our neighborhood, Internet was down for almost four days. Police implemented a curfew in the Old City, preventing residents from leaving their houses. When Mina and I woke up on Saturday morning, we headed to our local airtel (phone/Internet service provider) store to ask why our phones weren’t working, where we heard the news of the riots. For me, it was somewhat surreal to realize that the Indian government has the ability to simply suspend all Internet communications. Although the curfew has been lifted now, police violence has definitely impacted the minority Muslim community here, and our thoughts are with them in the coming weeks.

A couple Fridays ago, Mina and I went on an odyssey of sorts to find a birthday present for our friend Alex. We wanted a painting for his wall, so we went to MI Road, an artsy shopping area in Jaipur. On MI Road, we met a rickshaw driver who claimed he knew an amazing store for paintings. Having had little luck on MI Road, we agreed to go with him to one of the bazaars in the Old City, a 15-minute drive away. We started driving, and 25 minutes later, Mina’s phone showed that we were well past the Old City, heading up the road that leads out of Jaipur toward the old forts in the hills. Crowded thoroughfares gave way to dark, narrow alleyways. I pulled up the number for the Jaipur police on my phone. The driver insisted it was just a little farther, but Mina and I were half convinced we were about to get murdered.

Well, we didn’t get murdered, and after ~35 minutes of driving, our rickshaw-wala pulled over by a lovely art store where we brought Alex’s gift. We ended up far outside Jaipur’s Old City, certainly much farther than the bazaar the driver had told us about, but all was well, and he took us back to MI Road for a very fair price (the Indian price, I’d say, which is rare to receive as a foreigner). Not only did we not get murdered, but we ended up having a nice chat with our rickshaw-wala, who gave us his number in case we ever need a ride.

On September 10th we celebrated Alex-ji’s birthday! We had a delicious dinner at Café Bae, where the waiters surprised us with free cake. After dinner, we headed to our favorite soft serve stand. I must interject here to pen my ode to our magical soft serve stand. Here you can purchase a cone of soft serve (vanilla, the day’s special flavor (chocolate, strawberry, or butterscotch), or a mix of vanilla and the special flavor) for 30 rupees, or less than 50 cents. It’s delicious, simple, and tastes just like American soft serve, which is a rarity in India. The stand is run by a middle-aged man who greets us with a huge smile every time we come. Mina and I get soft serve at least several times a week, and our soft serve friend always takes the time to speak to us in Hindi and ask how we’re doing. Sometimes his wife (who he introduced as his “missus”) is also there. Last week, he asked if we would return the next night for soft serve, and when we said yes, he let us choose the special flavor for the following day (butterscotch, Mina’s favorite). Last night, knowing it was Alex’s birthday, our soft serve friend gave us all free chocolate shakes. He also gave Alex a rose. For me, our soft serve stand is special because I have so few truly positive interactions with strange men in India. Although I’m used to the stares, comments, and constant low-level harassment, it puts me on edge after a while. Our soft serve friend brightens my day with his warmth and kindness, and he makes me feel that I actually have a place in this community.

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Alex-ji being presented with free cake at Cafe Bae.
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Carrot cake!
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Alex-ji with our favorite soft serve friend.

After soft serve, we returned to our apartment for cake and presents. Happy birthday Alex-ji!

Speaking of birthdays, September 17th was Mina’s birthday, exactly a week after Alex’s. We celebrated with a day of ghuming (wandering) through Amer, where we climbed a precarious set of stairs up to the wall that overlooks Amer fort. There we had a picnic of aloo parathas. After some of Statue Circle’s famous cold coffee, Mina and I delivered cake to all our friends in the neighborhood, such as the security guard at our apartment building and the man who works in the local stationary shop. That’s what you do in India on your birthday…give other people sweets! We had a joint birthday dinner at Barbeque Nation with Beverly, another Fulbright research scholar who I’ve known since our CLS summer in 2014. She and Mina share a birthday. We rounded out the night with soft serve, where our soft serve friend presented us with two free cones each, a rose for Mina, and a bar of chocolate. I can’t imagine the past three months without my incredible roommate. Happy Birthday, Mina! I love you!

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On the wall overlooking Amer.
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Birthday balloons!
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Dostes ❤

Otherwise, teaching is going well, although some classes are easier than others. My students are mostly delightful and occasionally frustrating…I’m constantly facing new challenges, such as explaining the light brown freckles on my arms (which I get asked about at least three times a week), figuring out how to respond when a girl points to her friend and says “Ma’am, this girl is fat,” and just generally trying to understand what is going on around me. With festival season fast approaching, I’m looking forward to celebrating with my students and eating lots of mithai (sweets). Also praying fall finally brings some respite from Jaipur’s heat.

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6th grade playing Hangman, just because they’re so adorable.
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That one time when our street turned into a river #thanksmonsoon

So here we are, chugging along. I can’t believe how quickly the year is flying by! Sending love from Jaipur!

I got sunburned and my students think it’s hilarious

It’s week three of teaching, folks, and I haven’t imploded yet! I think we can call that a success. We’ve been in India for almost two months now, and it’s crazy how time is flying. I don’t know how I would’ve survived without Mina. She gets 2,341,677 shoutouts for preventing me from going crazy.

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Mina and I in the Old City

I spent my first few weeks at Vimukti Girls School without a permanent schedule. I showed up each day prepared to teach any class from 6 to 11. Now that I have a set schedule, I’m finding it much easier to plan lessons and get to know my students. Each class has its own personality and challenges, from my 30+ giggly 6th graders to my four 11th graders. Many of the girls are complete beginners when it comes to conversational English, so we’re starting out with simple sentences and phrases.

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Class six. I love them to pieces.

In working with the girls at Vimukti, I’ve encountered some difficulties designing lessons that are useful and accessible. Many online ESL activities include topics such as traveling/vacations. How do you approach this subject with girls who may have almost no experience traveling outside of their neighborhood in Jaipur? My students are fascinated by the fact that I came to India on an airplane. More than once, a wide-eyed student has asked me, “Mam, did you come here on an airplane? A real airplane? How long did it take? What is it like?” For many of my students, travel by air is almost an abstract idea, like something out of a story. Language is best learned in context. For me, it will be essential to get to know my students on a personal level so that I can contextualize our language lessons in ways that are applicable to their lives. I am already starting to get glimpses—when they show me their dancing and singing, when they talk about evening trips to the Gurudwara, when they point out their mothers standing in doorways as the school bus pulls away from Jawahar Nagar. Some love to draw, others stitch their own clothing, and still others delight in showing me the mehendi they’ve styled on their sisters’ hands. They want to be dancers, army officers, doctors, engineers, singers, police officers, teachers. My students lead rich, full lives that are still mostly a mystery to me. I can’t wait to learn more about them, and in turn to introduce new knowledge and ideas about life in America.

There are many challenges in learning English…until I started teaching, I didn’t fully appreciate how quirky English can be. “So” has become the bane of my existence. We use “so” for so many things…variably it can mean “for this reason,” “for the purpose of,” “more than,” or it’s simply used as a filler word. There’s no equivalent in Hindi, which has made explaining it all the more difficult. “Or” is a close second on the list of English-words-that-drive-me-crazy. In Hindi, the word for “and” is pronounced the same way we pronounce “or.” So when I ask my students to make a choice (candy or ice cream?), they simply respond, “Yes, Mam,” because they think I’m saying “candy and ice cream.” I love how teaching has made me more aware of my own language and cadence of speech.

On August 15th, we celebrated India’s 70th year of independence. I wore a sari to Vimukti’s celebration, to the delight of my students, and I got to watch them dance, sing, and perform skits in honor of India’s liberation from British rule. The program began with a skit about women’s rights, with an emphasis on ending child marriage and sati (a traditional practice in which a widowed woman throws herself upon her husband’s burning funeral pyre, sacrificing her life to be with him…in theory, this is an act of self-sacrifice, but the reality is more often death at the hands of relatives forcing sati).

Several girls came out dressed as prominent women in Indian society—politicians, astronauts, sports players, and beauty pageant contestants. When Principal-mam addressed the assembly, she said, “All girls must become what we have seen today.” On a day meant to celebrate freedom, I loved my school’s focus on women’s freedom and girls’ access to opportunities. My students face more barriers than most, but Vimukti aims to provide them with the educational foundation necessary to reach these goals and more.

That evening, Mina and I went out with our new friend Alex to see the lights at the Birla Mandir (a local Hindu temple) and the Albert Hall Museum. True to India, the electricity went out in the museum while we were in the basement Egyptian tomb/mummy exhibit, thus fulfilling my worst childhood nightmare. August 15th also happened to be Krishna Janmashtami, the birth day of the god Krishna. As with many Hindu holidays, this day is observed according to the Hindu lunar calendar, so it doesn’t usually fall on the same day as Independence Day. Needless to say, seeing the Birla Mandir lit up in honor of the holiday was a sight to behold.

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Jesus Christ on the side of the Birla Mandir, a Hindu temple. Holy figures from a variety of spiritual traditions adorn the temple walls.

Mina and I were also lucky to have several other Fulbright ETAs visit us in Jaipur this past weekend—Payal and Tamar from Kolkata, Maddie from Santiniketan, and Kofi from Delhi. We had a great time visiting Chokhi Dhani, an artisan village near Jaipur where we stuffed ourselves with traditional Rajasthani thalis, watched fire dancers, and saw a Rajasthani puppet show. The next morning, we took an incredible hike up into the hills beyond Jaipur, where the Temple of Galtaji nestles in a lush green valley. A pre-historic site for Hindu pilgrims, Galtaji is colloquially known as the monkey temple due to the abundance of monkeys that gather in its courtyards and pools.

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No license required
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Every rickshaw ride where nobody dies is a good rickshaw ride, especially when you’re squished into the back.

We rounded out the weekend with what are apparently the best cold coffee and chocolate milkshakes in all of Jaipur, courtesy of our friend Simran.

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Despite starting our teaching jobs, Mina and I continue to take Hindi classes twice a week at AIIS. Last night we attended the CLS cultural program for the summer students at AIIS, who will be returning to America this week. As a former CLS participant, I found myself feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the teachers at AIIS and all they’ve done for me over the past four years. I just adore every one of them.

The first month of adjusting to life in India was difficult, to say the least. Between illness, the stress of integrating into a new culture and work environment, and the language barrier, I often felt overwhelmed by the task set in front of me. In many ways, India is an assault on the senses—we are constantly bombarded with new smells, tastes, and sounds. We eat heavy, oily, delicious Indian food seasoned with unfamiliar spices; when visiting people’s houses, they stuff us with enough food to feed four people. During my first few weeks teaching, I felt like all the other teachers and students were operating based on telepathic signals with one another, and I was out of the loop. They seemed to know where to go and when to go without being told. I struggled with how to become part of a new school as an outsider, especially as the first foreigner to work at Vimukti.

I’m still mostly out of the loop—sometimes a class period will inexplicably end 10 minutes late, and when I ask about it, the other teachers will give me an explanation along the lines of, “Of course we ended late. That’s just the way it is today,” leaving me totally baffled. But rather than overwhelming me, I now find these occurrences humorous. This is my life in India—a little chaotic, a little stressful, a lot challenging, and always rich with new experiences. As I’ve come to accept that India is very different from the U.S., I’m able to refocus my energy on appreciating all the unique and fascinating opportunities this country has to offer. Already I’m growing to love my students. In eight months, it’s going to be hard to leave.

I’ve got my work cut out for me, and I’m here for the long haul. Here’s to successful English sentences, cold iced tea on hot days, and not getting run over while crossing the street.

“Good afternoon, Mam!”

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of traveling, training, and preparing to begin our work as English Teaching Assistants. Three weekends ago, Mina and I took a trip to Udaipur, catching an 8-hour overnight train to spend a couple of rainy days in the city of lakes (filming location for the acclaimed movie Octopussy, of which the residents are very proud). We explored Udaipur’s gorgeous 16th century City Palace, took a boat ride around one of the lakes, wandered through lush green gardens built for courtesans, waded in calf-deep water after the monsoon flooded the streets, discovered an old haveli, saw “probably the largest turban in the world,” and dined overlooking the city. It was a lovely weekend, although it ended in a pretty intense bout of stomach sickness for me (life tip—if you’re going to be violently ill, avoid doing so on an 8-hour overnight train).

Two weekends ago, Fulbright brought us to Delhi with the other north India ETAs (Dehradun, Delhi, and Jaipur) for additional training and teaching practice. It was wonderful to see our friends again. One of the Delhi ETAs cooked us dinner on Friday night, and then we went out dancing at a local club, where we were treated to a variety of music that seemed to consist mostly of songs in Spanish and American pop circa ~2008. We returned to Jaipur happy but exhausted.

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Delhi-area Fulbrighters at USIEF, take two.

And in my case, still sick. That’s one of the not-so-fun parts of India…all the unfamiliar bacteria are rough on the stomach, especially when you’ve got a somewhat sensitive system (like me). Thus we found ourselves at the hospital a few days ago (which is less alarming than it sounds…many clinics operate out of hospitals, and it’s common in India to visit a hospital for minor ailments). As an aspiring healthcare professional, this gave me an opportunity to experience the Indian medical system firsthand. It’s fascinating to observe the differences in how they approach physical exams and medication prescription…whenever I’m sick in India, I always receive prescriptions for 4-5 different pills (including several vitamins), which is not at all the case in the U.S. Fortunately for me, the medication seems to be working, and I’m feeling a lot better than I was last week.

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Sign in hospital lobby. With my interest in women’s health, I was glad to learn that abortion is legal in India; access to reproductive care is so essential in the fight to give women autonomy, self-determination, and control over their lives. However, the 2011 Indian census shows a persistent imbalance in India’s child sex ratio (919 girls for every 1,000 boys ages 0-6). A 1994 law thus outlaws the disclosure of a fetus’s sex to parents, attempting to curb sex-selective abortions of girls. Sometimes, even a trip to the hospital for a simple stomach bug can lead to new insights…I am constantly learning more about India’s unique public health issues, knowledge that I hope will aid me in my future work as a physician.

This past week was my first week teaching at Vimukti Girls School. It’s been a crazy and incredible experience. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the phrase “Good afternoon, Mam!” about a thousand times. Contrary to my last blog post, I will be teaching classes 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11, some of which are comprised of over 40 students. On Tuesday, I taught classes 7, 10, and 11. On Wednesday, I taught classes 6, 7, 8, and 11. On Thursday, several guests came to visit Vimukti, so I was asked to teach class 11. I went in expecting to teach for a half hour, which is the usual length of my school’s classes, but due to guests touring the school, our timetable was altered. I ended up spending the entire day with class 11—four hours! While I was not prepared to teach a four-hour English class, I had so much fun getting to know my 11th graders (there are only four girls in class 11). We spent a good long lesson learning to describe pictures using simple prepositions, which is not as easy as it sounds, because in Hindi, postpositions are used instead of prepositions. This makes sentence construction in English more difficult for students whose native language is Hindi. At the end of the class, the girls showed me their dancing. My students are bright and inquisitive…they asked me all sorts of questions about America (including, “Can a girl marry a girl in America? Mam, why aren’t you married?”). I was proud of their focus and dedication…having a four-hour continuous class in your second (or third!) language isn’t easy.

Working with a foreign teacher is an adjustment for my students as much as it is for me. I like to move around the classroom, which is not the norm in India; oftentimes, students will say, “Mam, please sit down,” or “Mam, there’s a chair for you right there!” When I call on a student to speak in class, she will stand up, and then she will wait to sit back down until I explicitly tell her she can sit. Sometimes I forget about this after calling on a student, and I move on to the next raised hand, only to have the previous student say, “Mam, mam! Can I please sit?” As I learn classroom etiquette, my students are having to adapt to a teaching style that’s different from their other classes. I’ve appreciated their flexibility this first week. With a few (often humorous) hiccups along the way, I’m hoping we will build a classroom environment that’s conducive to learning conversational English.

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Blurry selfie with the cutest 8th graders you’ll ever meet.

I love that Vimukti is a school run by women, for women. All of the other teachers I’ve met are women, as is Principal-mam. The teachers are such a wonderful group of intelligent ladies, and they clearly care about these girls a great deal. I’m so excited to get to know the rest of my students (although right now I’m pretty overwhelmed learning names…sometimes it seems like there are at least four girls named Kajal or Pooja in every class). When school is finished, we all pile into school buses and head back to Jaipur.

On Friday, Mina and I celebrated completing our first week of teaching with our new friend Alex. I still don’t have a set schedule at my school yet, as they are currently determining the final timetable, but that’s part of living in India (especially when you’re not quite fluent in Hindi, making miscommunications common)—being flexible and prepared to meet any situation with a positive attitude. I’m learning as I go along. Wish me luck!

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Celebrating Friendship Day in India with a trip to the Old City to purchase art supplies…my old friend Aarti is an art teacher, and she’s going to give Mina and I lessons.

It is H O T

Are we dying of heat? Possibly. Can we afford our A.C. bill this month? Remains to be seen.

Last weekend, Mina and I went out exploring in Jaipur. We visited the Hawa Mahal (wind palace), a major tourist destination in Jaipur’s Old City. Situated in the middle of a lively bazaar, this palace was built in 1799 to allow royal women to watch street processions without being seen. It’s a stunning example of Mughal architecture. We ghumed (wandered) for several hours, until I got too dehydrated and grumpy to continue. Yayyy Jaipur heat.

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Outside the Hawa Mahal/street view
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Me, sweating
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Inside the Hawa Mahal looking out at the street like a courtesan

Earlier this week I ordered some stuff from Amazon Prime India. Yesterday, the postman called my cell phone to ask for directions to our street (speaking only in Hindi, of course). I had to try to describe how to find Mangal Marg in Hindi without knowing the postman’s current location. Somehow, I feel like this experience aptly describes my entire life in India…nothing is ever quite as simple as you expect it to be, even something as uniform as ordering from Amazon.

Mina and I currently live in a temporary apartment. We will move into our permanent apartment (same building) sometime next week. Anytime we leave a window open, the pigeons attack. It’s insanity.

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Shifty pigeon, waiting for the perfect moment to strike

On the plus side, having a gas stove allowed us to cook this wholly American delicacy for dinner the other night: scrambled eggs, toast, and Sprite. Dining like queens.

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#TopChefstatus

Anyways, time for me to go roast alive in my room for the evening. Here’s to monsoons and cooler (hopefully) weather ahead.

Oh hey, I’m in India!

After three flights, two layovers, and zero sleep, I’m in India!

The Fulbright English Teaching Assistants arrived in Delhi on June 28th. The moment I stepped outside, I could smell India in the muggy air—a mixture of food frying in greased pans, trash, foliage wet with rain, and the cloying sweetness of flowers used for puja. Shrill horns sounded from the traffic clogging Delhi’s roads. I’d forgotten what it’s like to live in a constant press of bodies, of people rushing through the streets with an entirely different concept of personal space. I’ll have to get accustomed to the stray dogs and cats roaming the streets, their stomachs distended, and the hot water sluicing into my shoes during monsoon season.

Our Delhi-area group has been whittled down to nine from the original 24 India Fulbright ETAs: three in Dehradun, two in Jaipur, and four in Delhi proper. Getting to know the Delhi cohort has been the highlight of my first week here. What a kind, thoughtful, and intelligent group of people! I’m lucky to have their support as we move into our host cities. We spent the first few days attending orientation at the United States India Education Foundation headquarters, a gorgeous building situated in the heart of Delhi:

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The USIEF building in Delhi

Orientation was a whirlwind of presentations and panels, similar to our pre-departure orientation in D.C. We had the opportunity to work with an English Language Training specialist, who will help us plan our lessons and cirriculum. I learned so much about the Indian education system during orientation. The introduction of English under the British Raj helped standardize education across India. While English is seen by many as a language of opportunity, at the same time, it’s brought enormous privilege to certain groups and helped entrench inequalities. Under the Right to Education Act of 2009, children in India are guaranteed free and age-appropriate education up until the age of 14; schools cannot hold students back if they do not pass their current grade level. We learned more about the different school systems and the logistics of implementing this act across India. I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue my preparations under USIEF’s guidance, as I feel our teacher has provided me with essential context for my teaching endeavors. Vimukti Girls School is a Hindi medium school, with most lessons conducted in Hindi; however, they are transitioning toward an English medium model, with some lessons conducted in English. I hope I will be able to assist with this transition.

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Delhi Fulbright cohort!

On our first night in Delhi, we went out to Nizamuddin Dargah, a religious site where one of the Sufi saints is buried. We gathered on a Thursday evening to listen to Qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music. Worshippers purchased pink flowers glazed in rose water to bring up as an offering. We took our shoes off before entering, and the uneven stone floors warmed my feet as we wandered through narrow alleyways laden with market goods before coming out into the open air near the mausoleum, where people thronged to hear the music. It was a headlong dive back into everything I associate with India…a country rich in religious traditions, crowds, heat, and worship.

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Fulbright scholars gathering at Nizamuddin Dargah on Thursday night

The following evening, we had dinner at the U.S. Public Affairs Officer’s house in a gorgeous Delhi neighborhood (home to many embassy officials), which stands in stark contrast with the poverty and malnourishment that is so visually apparent in nearby parts of the city. The Public Affairs Officer was kind, gracious, and so welcoming to all the Fulbright scholars. We got to hear about his time with the Foreign Service in different countries across the globe. He told us that the world is much smaller now than it was before…when he first lived abroad, he was mostly cut off from friends and family. I am grateful that the Internet allows us to so easily share our experiences abroad, fostering discussion about the diversity we encounter in countries far from our own.

Our time in Delhi culminated in a night out dancing with several current Fulbright research scholars. The next afternoon, Mina and I departed for Jaipur with Pavitra, one of our Fulbright program coordinators. Jaipur has a different feel than Delhi. When we arrived, Mina exclaimed that it was beautiful…it’s strange, because I hadn’t really thought of Jaipur as beautiful for a long time, maybe because I’m used to its architecture and famous pink buildings (they don’t call it the Pink City for nothing). It’s a reminder, I suppose, to try to see this city through fresh eyes. This is not Delhi, that’s for sure.

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View of Jaipur from our hotel room
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Outside Mina’s NGO

On Monday we visited our schools. Mina’s school is situated in a mosque in the Old City, reached by a narrow staircase that opens directly into the main bazaar. The students seemed bright and eager to meet their new teacher. Nobody in her school speaks English…the language barrier will be a challenge for her, as it will be for many of us. Next, we took a trip out to Sanganer to see Vimukti Girls School. I found out only recently that my school has moved to Sanganer, which is a more rural area outside of Jaipur; previously, the school was housed in Tilak Nagar, a neighborhood near the center of the city. Because Vimukti is an NGO school, they must rent out facilities for classes. They are currently housed in a broad, spacious school building surrounded by sprawling fields (very different from Mina’s school), and girls from Jaipur’s slums are bussed out daily to take classes. This means I will have a fairly long commute compared to Mina. Although I was supposed to teach middle school, I’m actually going to be teaching third and fourth standard. I will be expected to teach English grammar as well as conversational English—another surprise. This is typical of my past experiences in India…nothing is ever quite as expected, so flexibility is key. My coordinator and principal both seem like wonderful women. Although we only visited for a half hour or so, I got to peak into the classes where I will teach, and seeing the girls got me excited to meet them and start our work together.

Mina and I began Hindi lessons this week at the American Institute for Indian Studies (A.I.I.S.), the same institute where I studied Hindi through the Critical Language Scholarship. For the next month, we will be taking Hindi classes and observing in our respective schools; we won’t start teaching until August. I was so excited to see my A.I.I.S. teachers again—Sunita-ji, Pramila-ji, Babulal-ji, Anjani-ji, and others. They’re the best! They wasted no time in noting that my Hindi is very kharab (bad) right now. I’ve lost so much. It’s frustrating knowing that I used to be able to express myself so easily on so many topics, but now the words just won’t come, although I understand well enough when others speak. But slowly words have begun to float back, as if they’ve been swimming in my subconscious, just below the surface.

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Aarti! Aarti was my peer language partner in Jaipur four years ago, and we are still friends today

I can’t write a blog post without a shoutout to my fellow Jaipur ETA, Mina, who is the best adventuring partner/roommate I could’ve asked for. We’ve already encountered setbacks since arriving in Jaipur, and I’m so glad to have someone who will share this crazy journey with me. We also owe so much to Pavitra, who fed us, guided us, and put up with our teasing as we apartment-hunted and settled in Jaipur. She’s been an invaluable resource and a great friend.

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Mina and I with Pavitra from USIEF

So what’s it like, living in Jaipur? This blog post is already too long, but I’ve included here some observations I jotted down last night before bed. Jaipur is greener than I remember, even if it lacks Delhi’s rain. Palm fronds and pink flowers shade narrow alleyways. Within a one-kilometer radius you can find pits of trash stewing in the mud and gorgeously carved buildings in shades of pink and yellow. Cows wander the streets freely, and autowalas chug through the morning haze. Carts bearing fresh fruits and vegetables line the streets. Traffic is typical of India—chaotic, noisy, and filled with cars that seem to defy physics by slipping through the narrowest of gaps at speeds that are (frankly) terrifying. There are no seat belts; driving in India is an experience unto itself. When we push through the markets of Raja Park or the Old City, stares follow us, and sometimes men call out. I am never more self-conscious of my body than I am here, of being female. The heat is at times oppressive, pasting sweat across our skin like a sticky, ever-present blanket, but the rains came early this year, so it hasn’t been too unbearably hot. Unlike Delhi, the smells in the air don’t seem to coat the insides of our lungs, clinging to our hair and clothes long after we pass by…that’s a function of Delhi’s humidity. Instead, smells come in waves, receding as quickly as they arrive: mithai sweets flavored with saffron, exhaust fumes, curries swimming in oil, raw sewage, and swollen monsoon season mangoes. At lunch we scoop up dahl with floury roti flatbread (the A.I.I.S. cooks are fantastic, whipping up a mix of thalis for our afternoon meal). Our plates overflow with spicy chana (chick peas) and fried aloo parathas stuffed with potatoes and poha rice. We drink chai three times a day at least—milk boiled with masala tea, ginger, and cardamom. Tea and biscuits are a staple of every house visit, no matter how short. After signing our apartment lease, we stopped off in a narrow roadside store, where a dukanwala pressed fresh pineapples and pomegranates into juice before our eyes. When we missed America, we ordered pizza for dinner, only to realize that Indian pizza doesn’t much resemble pizza from back home. I searched the nearby bazaar for peanut butter and pasta sauce, looking forward to the day when I can move into my apartment and cook something bland and wholly American, sans masala. I relish having cold coffee with my breakfast—milkshakes can be found almost everywhere we go. It’s a rich, bustling, beautiful, dirty, fascinating city, and I know I’m gearing up for a year that will both enrich and offend my senses.

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Random camel, just because

I am overwhelmed. I am excited. I am living an adventure in Jaipur.

 

I make impractical life decisions, aka we went camping!

One of my best friends, Jennifer, lives in Portland, and we’ve been camping buddies for several years now. Our ultimate goal is to visit every single National Park in the United States. The camping trips we take always seem to frame important life events—graduations, getting sick, receiving life-altering news, getting well, and, finally, my trip to India. When Jen told me she planned to visit Utah before I left, I thought it would be too hectic to arrange a camping trip so close to my departure date (she planned to visit June 24th-26th, and I left the U.S. on June 27th). But I make not-so-great life decisions sometimes. Especially when camping is involved. So on a whim, we decided to pack my car and head down to southern Utah on the eve of my year in Jaipur.

And what a trip! We got in a good 15 miles of hiking, and I managed not to drive us to our deaths off the edge of a rather scary cliffside road in Escalante National Monument. We also checked off one more National Park from our list—Capitol Reef. From scrambling up slot canyons to wading in gorgeous waterfalls, it was a trip to be remembered. Jen is one of my few close friends with medical school aspirations, and I love how we can talk for hours about what medicine means to us and how realizing this dream of being doctors will fulfill us in essential ways.

Here are some photos of us exploring, feat. the My Little Pony bandaid they gave me at the Department of Health when I got the aforementioned typhoid fever shot (refer to previous post).

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Camping is probably my favorite escape from the stress and pressures of everyday life. When you’re exploring the red rocks or stargazing in Joshua Tree or taking inappropriately long hikes through the Tetons, the outside world seems so far away. I don’t know what to expect in India—there are so many unknowns. But I’m glad I’ll still have camping with good friends to return to once I’m back in the states.

So now I’m off! I’ll check back in soon, assuming I haven’t melted in Delhi’s summer heat.

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Me, trekking off to India