Since my last post’s events I coasted through yet another country. India was wild. I had my predispositions and they quickly became confirmed or falsified as I experienced the culture firsthand. I’d say anyone who has any minuscule idea about India would say that it’s crowded. Well that’s not wrong, at least where I stayed. My introduction to India was like a slap in the face. Driving out of the New Delhi airport with the tuk tuk drivers was straight out of Fast and Furious and it really accentuated my frequent carsickness. Something else I learned about India was that it has really got to get its priorities in line and straighten its roads, not even Dramamine will save a sorry soul.
Ok so about India and my experiences. First off, the hectic driving and honking is something that took getting used to, but that wasn’t impossible. In fact by the time I left the country, it felt weird not to hear cars honking every other second. Still, Delhi was fascinating, a mixture of old buildings, small side of the road businesses, and lots of greenery that made up the crowded atmosphere. I was only there initially for one day but it left quite the impression, still I’ll get more into Delhi when I talk about my return to the city.
We caught a flight to Dharamsala where we would be spending the next month. As we flew into view of the city, I looked to the distance and thought I saw dark clouds looming about just in view but it became clear they were mountains as we flew closer and descended. I’ve noticed that culture shock comes in different forms, in South Africa I noticed poverty but in India it’s the new tradition/lifestyle. In India, the culture was so strict that everyone I talked to felt as if they were reserving part of their personality. I couldn’t tell the difference between when someone was being genuinely nice and when someone was only being polite because they had to. This was a trend with the older folk, but the younger people I met were more exciting to talk to.
The next few days consisted of the group getting situated in India and learning about our work with the new NGO Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS). CCS is an organization based in India with a focus on childhood and early teen education with hopes to empower them with a valuable education and inspire them to further pursue their education in other ways. Our unit in India is education, which as you would assume integrated work with CCS among other things into our discussions during seminars. The education unit was the one I believed I was most excited about before the trip due to my prior work with young kids at my job during my senior year of high school/summer after. I believed I would have some experience and might be able to carry that into the seminar space and at my work placement. A lot of the readings we did during this unit interested me far more than the Public Health unit’s readings back in South Africa. I definitely feel that’s because they were much more relatable for one, and they tied into our work a bit more than the previous unit’s reading did.
In Dharamsala I roomed with Ben and we stayed with a family living right in the center of town (the market circle) in a quirky house. The family, mom, dad, son, and daughter, was incredibly welcoming and made the stay an interesting experience during our time together. The mother (Rita) and son (Aanch) spoke English well, but the father (Suneil) and sister (Anschel) did not. Much our time spent together was during dinner, watching Bollywood music videos on TV or talking about the differences in our cultures. The mom had been involved with CCS ever since their first year because her daughter was one of the first students to go through the program. The house was tall and funky all connected by small thin corridors. Three levels with the first two being living areas and the third a roof with an amazing view of the surrounding town and mountains. I have to say that it made for a prime sunset viewing area.
The fieldwork we did in Dharamsala was with young children (2-5) teaching them things like the alphabet, nursery rhymes, colors, shapes, numbers, etc. all in English. The catch being they spoke little to no English. I found it interesting how with the handful of Hindi phrases my partner Lexi and I spoke, how much control we had over the classroom. Kids will be kids, and I quickly realized that many of the techniques I picked up at my previous job in the States carried beyond language barriers. The kids were cute, wild, and most definitely eager to have fun while learning. While our work wasn’t necessarily life altering for these kids, we exposed them to our culture at a young age and we learned a little about theirs as well. Still, a common thread of discussion during seminars was how valuable our fieldwork in India (and South Africa) really was. We had to read a speech called “To Hell With Good Intentions” spoken by Ivan Illich, which really put a lot of things into place for me. His view on foreign volunteering such as the fieldwork we are doing was negative, yet didn’t bother me really. Essentially, he says it is useless, futile, whatever word you like, and from my experience that’s not 100% true, yet a lot of the effort we put in does seem fruitless. We discussed with our Program Leaders and came to the conclusion that TBB is not about the work we do, but how we learn about our world and grow as people. It has brought me in touch with who I am and I’m slowly discovering what my passions are and what they aren’t… Fieldwork gave me an inside perspective to the functions of South African clinics and Indian day schools, and what have I learned from that? I know where my interests lie which I believe to be extremely valuable.
In addition to the discussions on our fieldwork, seminars consisted of topics making me review my high school education and work out the dynamics that existed. Who held the power in my various classes, was education equal for everyone and how does that compare to those living in developing nations were some of the many fascinating topics we went over. They related sometimes to my personal education, and sometimes took aim at more worldly issues dealing and moral beliefs. What I’m getting at is that the seminars in India were an improvement on the already complex and interesting discussions in South Africa. Personally, they pushed me further to formulate new opinions on things I had never previously thought about.
With all the time spent at fieldwork and in seminars it’s amazing we had time to do anything else. Still, India was too fascinating to let slip through our fingers so many of the group members often planned to explore the town and local area. Close to us (literally up the mountain 10 minutes from my house) was McLeodGanj, the Tibetan settlement in India and residence of the Dalai Lama after he and his followers fled Tibet in 1959. It was quite touristy but was still beautiful nevertheless. The bustling streets and shops were brightly colored and gave the whole area a magical feel. Adding to the magical feel were the Buddhist temples scattered around the area, one of which was the Dalai Lama’s temple itself. One night, our host family brought us to a traditional Indian wedding. There was great food and lots of dancing. Ben and I actually got in the dance circle with all of the family/friends and had some one on one dance offs while learning the local dance moves (a popular one is holding only your index finger up on both hands and pushing your arms forward one at a time). For our independent student travel weekend, my group and I hiked up a mountain in the Himalayas. The journey up took 5-6 hours and was hard work with a giant 40 lbs bag on my back. Still, the way up was beautiful and full of necessary stops at the checkpoints for food and rest. The whole way up, dogs followed us and let us pet/feed them (seems like a good life to me). At the top we set up camp and explored the summit, which we quickly realised was absolutely beautiful. The sunset on top of the mountain created an effect with the light, casting a bright red coat of light over the mountains beyond us. All in all, the bustling streets, exciting new culture, and beautiful nature left a good impression of Dharamsala.