CASI Student Blog
Four and a half weeks down, three and a half to go. I can’t believe my time in India is already more than halfway over. I don’t think I have ever been exposed to so many new experiences in such a condensed period of time. Reflecting on my time here so far, I feel so lucky that I have this opportunity to work, travel, and live in a place so rich in culture and history. There is definitely a huge difference between the weekdays and weekends here. The weekdays are filled with routine and structure, while the weekends are filled with travel, confusion, excitement, and usually sweating.
Thus far, I have really enjoyed the project I am involved in at PHFI. One of the main projects underway is the iPROMISe campaign. iPROMISe stands for Promoting Health Literacy in School and is focused on diabetes prevention in private schools. PHFI has created a manual for teachers to conduct lessons and activities with their students, teaching them about obesity and diabetes risk factors and prevention methods. A large portion of my work is researching the prevalence of diabetes and obesity prevention programs in the context of India as well as globally. It is really interesting to learn about the changing infrastructure of Delhi and other Indian cities, and how it affects the health status of children and families. Before beginning this research, I would have never thought of India having problems with obesity or diabetes, since the attention has historically been focused on undernutrition. I have also been working on a powerpoint for PHFI to present to the World Health Organization (WHO), to implement the iPROMISe program into schools throughout Delhi and Gurgaon. It is exciting to know that I am a part of implementing a brand new school program that will influence the lives of children and families throughout the city.iPROMISe Teacher’s Manual
It is a conflicting feeling doing work on programs/policies for children of affluent families in Delhi, while also being exposed to so much poverty and struggling. Each day at 5:00 pm, I leave work and head to the nearby gym. On the way there, I pass by mothers and their children walking or playing on the side of the road, barefoot and dirty, while their mothers sell fruit and other food items from their stand. I think about the difference between the children who get up everyday and head to school and the children who get up everyday and help their parents sell at the market so they can have food on the table.
This past weekend, Sylvia and I traveled to Jaipur. As we wandered around shopping and sightseeing, we stumbled upon a beautiful Hindu temple. Outside the temple was a young girl (probably around ten years old) asking people for food. As we got closer to her, she was motioning to her mouth and repeating the word roti. I asked her name and she responded, Monika. She was pointing to a place, but I couldn’t tell where she wanted to go. I pointed ahead and said “chalo”, or “let’s go”. She finally stops and points to a small market. We walk in and she points to a huge bag of flour, a bottle of oil, and a bag of rice. I soon realize that this meal is not just for her, but for her family. Sylvia and I take all the items to the counter, and ask the store clerk if they know the girl or where her parents are. They don’t speak much English, but they quickly say, “no parents, grandmother”. Sylvia and I pay the clerk and push the bag towards her. I ask the clerk to translate to her asking if she needs us to help her carry it. She quickly puts her hands together and bows in gratitude, picks up the heavy bag of flour and the remaining items, and walks out of the store. In that moment, I wanted to know more about her and where she would bring that food, feeling sad that I was unable to help her beyond that point. After this brief encounter with Monika, I couldn’t help but think about the difference between her and the children who will soon participate in the school programs I am working on.
My project at work highlights the importance of physical activity, recommending 60 minutes of exercise per day. The manual recommends activities, such as going to the park and playing cricket after school and going for a jog before school. I think about my own life and how much time I spent in school with my friends, playing sports, complaining about homework, stressing about grades and which college to attend. It is eye opening to see families in the community unable to send their kids to school and children like Monika who have to go out each day and find a way to feed her family. I often feel a combination of satisfaction inside the office and a sense of helplessness on the outside.
I guess it’s safe to say my mind has been racing with different thoughts, feelings, and emotions ever since I arrived in India. The time spent at work, in my community, and traveling to different cities have exposed me to different aspects of the country and its people that I would have never known without this experience! On to the next half of this journey…
Trip to Jaipur!
5 weeks completed at work! I consider myself very privileged to be interning here at LEAP Skills. LEAP (Learning, Employability and Progress) is a start-up that aims to bridge the skill gap in India and arm the Indian youth with the skills they need to have access to aspirational opportunities and to build successful careers.
I sincerely believe that everyone at the company has a reason to be here – other than the need to work and earn a salary. They are very committed and dedicated to make a change. Ria and I have also had the wonderful opportunity to hear the journey of the company and why LEAP came into existence from one of the cofounders.
There is so much to do, so everyone is very busy, but they definitely make out time for us whenever we have a question or need clarity about something. I am grateful to our supervisors who have been kind enough to guide us throughout and hold 1 hour meetings with us despite their busy schedules. I also appreciate the fact that they value our input on the different projects that we worked on with them.
What strikes me the most at LEAP is the sense of family that is nurtured here. There are not so many people, so everyone knows everyone. I was surprised to see that they even celebrate the work anniversary of the staff. Bi monthly meetings are held to keep everyone on the same page. Just the other day, I attended one and it was amazing. The meeting started by welcoming 2 people who just joined LEAP. There was also an activity where everyone was given a blank sheet of paper and asked to write an anonymous compliment to a colleague. This pushed me to reflect about the kind of workplace I want to be in once I am looking for a job. I always used to think – I want to work in X sector or Y company as Z role, but I never thought, or I probably just assumed that I will be in a place where people value what I do and respect my opinion.
I remember being warned about Indian timing and was even told to bring a book because meetings scheduled at 12 can start at 3. I was very pleasantly surprised here since practically all the meetings are on time. Also, as a startup they are always thinking of what differentiates them from others in the market. It was interesting to also see the how they experiment with things and come back to the drawing board to see the what works, what doesn’t and what needs to be changed. This has also prompted me to think creatively whenever I am making a presentation or research.
As to what am I actually doing:
The company has recently started catering for young job seekers India by acting as bridge between them and employers. In the first 2 weeks, I did a lot of research on competitors in the market. Ria and I also helped to come up with the framework and features for the new platform called Skillr Jobs. Now, I am working on a project to devise strategies to engage with job seekers on social media and to drive brand recall and brand presence.
In brief, it is very inspiring to see the kind of work that the team here is doing. There is lots of scope to learn, grow and take responsibility. I look forward to the remaining 3-4 weeks at LEAP with amazing supervisors and co-workers.A picture of me working diligently on my project!
Now that I’ve reached the midway point of my internship, I’ve had the opportunity to see, experience, and taste some amazing things. From being captivated by the violets, pinks, and blues waltzing across the sky to savoring the delicious dosas, pooris, and vadas, my time in India makes it difficult to choose the best part or my favorite experience. Of course the skies and food are aspects of the country I have experienced before, so the most fascinating experiences for me largely arise from my time at Aravind.
One can describe Aravind as a sophisticated hospital system dedicated to compassionate service for sight. Others can rave about the hyper-efficient processes of care that reach out to thousands of patients a day or the fact that Aravind provides free consultations and surgeries to individuals in rural regions as part of their mission to eradicate needless blindness. Interning at the Lions Aravind Institute of Community Ophthalmology (LAICO) — the consulting branch of the healthcare system — I have had the opportunity to experience the operations necessary from the business perspective to carry out and enhance the effects of medical care at Aravind.
My project entails developing quality assurance metrics and a dashboard for the glaucoma clinic at Aravind. In layman’s terms, glaucoma is a disease where damage to the optic nerve results in irreversible vision loss. Unfortunately, it is a progressive disease which also makes it difficult to measure whether the quality of care provided by the clinic at Aravind is correlated to the rate at which the disease is worsening in a patient. However, it is crucial for the clinic to track patient outcomes along with process outcomes such as medical compliance and patient followup, so that they can iterate over their clinical operations and ultimately work towards providing the best care possible. My work thus far has involved shadowing the mid level ophthalmic personnel (MLOPs) through different patient streams, presenting potential quality indicators to doctors in the clinic, spending time in patient counseling, pouring over research articles, and extracting and analyzing data from the hospital electronic medical records (EMRs).
As much as I have learned about data analysis and measurement from my project, the most unforgettable learning experience comes from being in the Aravind environment itself. During our orientation week, my co-interns and I immediately noticed how knowledgeable everyone from the LAICO faculty to the MLOPs at the hospital were about Aravind as an institution and the work they were doing. Down to the minuscule details such as having prayer rooms for patients before they undergo surgery to placing the contact lens shop on the floor with younger patients, it is evident how much thinking went behind designing the hospital. Our tour guide enjoyed making us reason why foot traffic was directed in a certain manner or why a clinic was designed a specific way. I also had the opportunity to attend the memorial day event for Dr. G. Venkataswamy, the founder of the Aravind system and it was absolutely breathtaking how much respect everyone at the institution had for him and how his values such as compassionate care are embedded into the employees.CASI interns visiting Aurolab – Aravind’s manufacturing division that supplies high quality ophthalmic consumables at affordable prices to developing regions. Aurolab products are are exported to 160 countries and their intraocular lenses account for 9% of the global market!
The wondrous company culture at Aravind continues to inspire me to explore my interests in innovative health care systems while weaving compassionate care and authentic work throughout the entire process and I can only hope by the end of the internship I will be able to carry these values with me.
We are waiting
for monsoon, a Dilli
eclipsed by water.
The cool silence
after rain washes
Can it be compared:
The pain of holding on
in flood, to those held
by the nursing mothers
who cannot read, cannot move
from under shackled rooves?
The motion of their mouths
swift and blurred
like a red eye slapped across
the face, and spitting.
Strands of tobacco falling like saffron.
Dear Thunder moon,
Have you heard
the chuckle of Earthly shadows
skipping in puddles of mud?
Have you heard of peace in flossed dust?
Spell-bind us in storm, spin us
with your light.
The temple of Deva
And your children are waiting.
The pursuit of justice seems to mark my every moment at Penn. I study PPE with a concentration in distributive justice, and take courses that examine the political history, current tensions, and philosophy of global and national liberation movements. I am on the board of the Penn Association for Gender Equity, volunteer for the American Civil Liberties Union, and this semester joined the burgeoning Student Labor Action Project – all three of which aim to provide justice to marginalized groups.
Thus, when I read about Shahi Exports through CASI’s internship program, I was excited to get to work. Shahi Exports is India’s largest garment manufacturing company, and employs over 100,000 people, with women comprising 80% of their workforce. I work under the Organizational Development (OD) team, which works with brand partners and NGOs to create programs for the development and improvement of their workers.
At Shahi, I work on projects to improve labor conditions and worker wellbeing. Julia and I are working on a menstrual hygiene project aimed at finding healthier and more sustainable menstruating habits for Shahi. Shreyoshi and I are working on a project to encourage more female supervisors in the factory, continuing with the project of Stephanie Wu, who was a Shahi intern last year. We are specifically looking at the motivation element by finding reasons women do not pursue the position and ways to encourage women to seek these jobs.
I am also interested in developing a human rights policy for Shahi, and updating their worker handbook with human rights language. By incorporating human rights language into Shahi’s existing commitments and programs, I hope to create and demonstrate a stronger commitment to the wellbeing of Shahi’s workforce.
Last year, one of Shahi’s units went on strike. Most of them felt disempowered in a system that did not take their feedback or concerns seriously. Having a strike makes workers feel like they have a say, and I hope that having a rights policy can empower workers with the language to stand up for themselves. Through this project I aim to facilitate their political consciousness and rights consciousness.
While I am incredibly excited to work on these projects, interning is not without its challenges. Shahi is first and foremost a business, and like most businesses, production interests are viewed as most important. Other interests, like the programs OD try to implement, are sometimes thought as too costly. Worker wellbeing is often framed as something important for productivity instead of being important for its own sake, and it can often be frustrating to see the value of a human life demeaned in such a way.
It’s very easy to get swept up in the bureaucracy of a company as large as Shahi. We spend most of our time disconnected from the workers as we sit in the cool breeze of the OD’s office in Unit 7. Even our lunch canteens are segregated, so we usually only see staff as opposed to factory workers. Often times this can make it harder to focus on what workers actually need, as opposed to the ideas I think they should want. At these moments, I’ve often had to check myself and listen instead of assuming that I know better.
But even listening poses another challenge – there is a language barrier. Every movement is meant to be about the people, and they are the ones who should be at the forefront, directing what actions should be taken. However, because I don’t speak Kannada, I am unable to directly communicate them, and can only do so with a Shahi OD employee, which may be frightening for them and thus lead to understandably less truthful answers.
Even though there will always be more work to be done, I am encouraged by the universality of human interaction I find here at Shahi. There are many times workers, or the cleaning staff will stare at us foreign Americans, but most of them always return my smiles, my waves, and my inquiries of their day. I’m just a random intern from a random school in a random country, but these are the people who will have the most to gain and the most to lose from Shahi’s programs. In between sipping chai made by the housekeeping staff and enjoying flowers watered by gardeners, it’s hard to feel like I’m truly doing anything to improve anyone’s life. But during those mutual smiles, a infinitely small gesture, I try to convey big things: the value of their presence and a recognition of their importance. Perhaps this is enough – for now.
“How has Naandi changed your family’s life?”
A broad, and largely obscure question that both Emma and myself have asked almost 20 different coffee farmers and their families. Although we have asked many other questions during our interviews, this one best represents the true meaning of our work here in the Araku Valley. How has this farmer’s life been altered by the presence of a foundation who has cut out the middleman? How has the higher yield of quality coffee cherries which increases the income for a farmer and his family actually affected their lives?Mango tasting is a very important part of the job!
For some, an increased income means more gold jewelry for their wives, or maybe even a television if the yields have been especially high, but for the majority of the farmers their increased income means so much more. With prices at 45 rupees per kg of quality coffee cherries, farmers who have partnered with Naandi have been given a new outlook on life. The children of these farmers now have the opportunity to seek higher education. In fact, Emma and I have met several sons and daughters of farmers who have bachelors in education, masters in engineering, or even have the qualifications to practice medicine. We have been told many stories of success from the mothers and fathers of these children, who are understandably overjoyed to tell us what the coffee money has done for their family. Do you want to know the even greater thing about these stories? The children always come back. While waiting for the next big thing in their academic careers, we have encountered many sons and daughters who have come back to their home village to help their parents on the farm. Remembering the people who gave them their careers in the first place, many of the farmers’ children come home to work alongside their mother and father in the coffee plantation, grateful for the life the coffee money has given them and their families.A view captured while walking to a coffee farm on an island (due to the light monsoon the lake was low enough for us to walk).
Outside of education, the income received from their coffee farms has given some farmers the opportunity to build new homes or renovate their existing ones. Many use the money to purchase new seeds for planting, new tools for cultivating, or even new shoes for trekking to and from their farms everyday. Whatever the money buys, the coffee farmers have consistently been able to show us how their lives have changed financially since Naandi’s inception. However, an increased income is not the only thing that has changed for these farmers. Before Naandi, farmers and their families were forced to travel long distances in search of labor work in order to have enough money to make ends meet. During this time, coffee was not a popular crop and many farmers did not want to cultivate the coffee cherries only to receive a few rupees for all of their hard work. By providing the farmers with a fair price and training them in organic methods for quality production, Naandi has given many farmers and their families a new way of life; one that allows them to stay at home and build a community with their fellow villagers.Casually discussing how much we love freshly picked limes!
As I have said before in my previous blog post, simply being here in the Araku Valley and playing even a small role in the mission of this organization has given me a fresh sense of hope for this world. Our planet is filled with people who are actively making a difference in the lives of others without seeking any sort of compensation for their efforts and they serve as great role models for people of all generations. Of course we all are not meant to specifically carry out the mission Naandi has set for themselves here in India but instead we all have our own personal callings towards change, no matter how big or small. Finding your own mission in this world might be made easier if you were to ask yourself this question:
“How have others changed me?”
It’s now just over the midpoint of my time here in India, and so much has happened that there’s no way I would be able to fit it all in this blogpost! I’ve experienced so many different things in Madurai (both in and out of the office), but I have to admit my favorite moments have been traveling outside of Madurai.
My first favorite moment has to do with family. On July 3rd, my cousin got married in Kerala, so I headed over to join in the festivities for a few days. I took the Amritha Express from Madurai to Thrissur (7 hours—thank God for AC!). This was my first time traveling alone on a train in India, much to my excitement and my mother’s worry. Luckily, the trip was pretty smooth, except for a last minute 2-hour delay warning that happily turned out to be false!
Anyway, when I finally made it to my relatives’ home, I was surrounded by all of my extended family—cousins, second cousins, great-aunts, uncles, grandparents, and my parents and sister! We spent all our time together, playing many intense games of UNO and carroms, dressing up for wedding events, going on evening boat rides and midnight milkshake runs, and teasing the newlyweds.The Bride and Groom! (My cousin is the groom) Some of the first and second cousins! I’m the second from the right in pink. And all of the first and second cousins!
I have to admit that I really didn’t want to leave and go back to work in Madurai, but happily I didn’t have to wait long until my second favorite moment so far!
The Sunday after the wedding, Anjali, Catherine, and I went on a day trip to Munnar (a town near the border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala). Since Munnar is a twisting and turning 4-hour car ride away from Madurai, we left at 5 AM. I fell asleep in the car (I can fall asleep pretty much anywhere), but when I woke up 2 hours in, my jaw dropped and I was utterly speechless.
Munnar is one of the most breathtaking places on Earth and maybe the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Waking up to soft rolling hills covered in rows and rows of tea plants, the bottoms of clouds skirting the peaks of the hills, and every shade of green imaginable, I was so struck that I felt like crying. It was amazing to me that I had never been to Munnar before, even though it is a mere few hours from my grandparents’ home.Me at Eravikulam Park in Munnar
We spent our day taking in the brilliant views at Eravikulam National Park, riding an elephant(!!), learning about (and eating the leaves of) special Indian herbs, and eating some amazing vegetarian food!Elephants! Lunch at Saravana Bhavan
Honestly, reading over what I’ve written, I (or any photo) can’t do Munnar’s beauty any justice, so all I can say is that you should definitely go! 100% worth it, I promise you!
Funnily enough, both of these two favorite moments that I’ve described were in Kerala, a state known as “God’s Own Country” by its residents. Kerala really does have so much heart and beauty, and I’m glad I’ve gotten to know this even better this summer.
And finally, because I promised Cherry I would, here’s a picture of me from when we visited Aurolab!
Arriving in Madurai, I was determined to create a stable schedule in order to find familiarity in the new environment. To my surprise, Madurai was very similar to Guntur – the town I grew up in as a kid. The people, the food, the scents, and the environment all seemed familiar with language being the largest distinguishing factor. Walking into Inspiration, the hostel we would be staying at for the next nine weeks, I immediately noticed something that would shape my time in Madurai. From the hostel’s peaceful aura to the clean food, rooms, and amenities, we had everything we needed – nothing more and nothing less. I noticed the same pattern during our orientation at Aravind the following day. The hospital was the cleanest I had ever visited in India which is incredible when you account for the pure number of patients Aravind serves, yet once again everything was very simple from the waiting areas to treatment facilities. There were no luxurious VIP suites or extravagant food bars and for someone like me who craves simplicity, I felt very comfortable and wanted to adopt this concept of simplicity into my routine.
Working at Aravind Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 6 pm left little for me to plan on the weekdays. Within a week my schedule became wake up, call my friends and family, eat breakfast, go to work, go to the gym, hand wash clothes (the current vain of my existence), and sleep. On the weekends, we are not traveling, I visit the breathtakingly beautiful Meenkashi Amman Temple and indulge in dosas, pooris, and paneer. However, it didn’t take me very long to realize that even though I had a routine, every day brought something completely unexpected. The rest of this post is dedicated to three of those unexpected situations.
The first two days in Madurai, my co-interns and I made it a priority to explore the city. We were forced to explore the city when the files on my SD card corrupted, rendering my pictures from Delhi useless. In accordance with standard Cherry practices, I read reviews and found raving reviews describing what I believed was the best data recovery services in Madurai and quickly Whatsapped the store’s number. I received a text back saying, “Hi, this is an American number. We are a service from Madurai”. Rookie mistake. I knew I was going to be ripped off, but I went anyway because I like pictures and of course, the stellar reviews.
Co-interns Anjali and Nadha accompanied me on this pursuit. Expecting a well established store, we arrived at the address but could not find it. We spent approximately 15 minutes going back and forth on the street before the auto-rickshaw drivers who were giggling at us took matters into their own hands and led us to the building. Everything seemed normal until we were led upstairs into a dimly lit hallway at which point I wanted to turn around and leave. However, at the end of the hall we could make out a small poster only half stuck to the door sporting the “Extreme Solutions” title. We walked in to find a room with perhaps the highest ratio of hardware devices to square feet I’ve ever seen. There were SD cards, DVD players, chip readers, dismantled laptops, and hundreds of manuals in every shelf, desk, and region of floor. It didn’t take us very long to put together that Extreme Solutions’s capital was one (very intelligent) man, a single computer, and large quantities of hardware.
Regardless, the one man show was able to recover my pictures for what seemed like a reasonable price and I made sure to leave him a nice review :)! Extreme solutions was an extreme store that solved extreme problems.
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Lodhi Gardens and Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi
Mid Level Ophthalmic Personnel (MLOPs at Aravind):
Aravind’s hyper-efficient system of care would not be possible without their mid level ophthalmic personnel who are mostly young women from surrounding villages (some start at 16) rigorously trained to perform specific tasks in the chain of care whether it’s counseling, dilating eyes, or ushering patients. I knew these women were amazing as it is because growing up in a village environment, I could imagine some of the socioeconomic challenges they faced, but it wasn’t until I spent a few hours conversing with the MLOPs in the glaucoma clinic that I truly understood how incredible they are.
My task that day was to understand how patient counseling in the glaucoma clinic operated, so the MLOPs began explaining to me in English how the system worked. It took me an hour to realize they also spoke Telugu, my native language. Once I began speaking in Telugu, our conversation picked up and one explained to me how she was currently 18 years old and began working two years ago. I complimented her on her Telugu and asked how she learned to speak it so well within two years. She then proceeded to give me a list of languages she learned to speak from her time at Aravind which included: English, Telugu, Malayalam, and Hindi. I was absolutely blown away because she was able to learn four new languages within the span of two years without any type of formal education.
Aravind’s amazing workforce from our project supervisors to the doctors to the MLOPs continues to surprise me everyday with their utmost dedication, incredible skills, and tireless attitudes. It goes to show the incredible culture of the organization and how their mission to eradicate needless blindness is embedded into every part of their system.
Co-intern Anjali and I along with another intern from Berkeley decided to join a gym close by as a way to maintain our routines from home. The closest gym (great reviews in case you were wondering) turned out to be a boxing gym led by a man who used to coach the Indian army. We awkwardly walked in on our first day and paid our dues to learn both boxing and work out in the gym. Within 15 minutes of running on the treadmill, the coach ordered us off and began giving us a list of weight training exercises to do. We then realized that for 1500 rupees a month we also paid for a personal trainer.A quick picture from when I first got my boxing gloves and was essentially initiated into the gym through a quick prayer.
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A few pictures from our quick trip right outside Madurai to Samanar Hills – a hill rock complex which houses caves where the Tamil Jain monks lived along with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions and Jain sculptures.
Living in India has been an experience nothing short of transformative – it has changed how I see people, cultures, work and religion. However, one of the most meaningful changes I have experienced here has been in my relationship with food.
Coming from Brazil, I was not introduced to Indian food until 2 years ago when I first got to Penn. Ever since then I have considered myself an appreciator of Indian cuisine, joining the rounds of Penn students who swarm Ekta or New Delhi to feast on butter chicken and naan. Trader Joe’s frozen channa masala became a staple in my fridge and a favorite late-night snack. I always thought of myself as a person who’s very open to new experiences, especially new foods. I was never a picky eater and although I had never tasted Indian food before – or Thai, or Israeli, or Korean, for that matter – I readily embraced it and made it an occasional part of my diet at Penn.
My introduction to these new types of food changed the basic palate I grew up with and was used to. Brazil has an extensive culinary tradition, but our food relies primarily on salt, garlic, herbs and black pepper as seasonings – the word spicy is almost exclusively restricted to the coastal cuisine of the tropical Northeast. My taste buds were used to food that is extremely tasty but non-invasive, whose flavors highlight the main ingredient and not the spices in the dish. Our culinary is influenced by Portuguese, Italian and French flavors, so for most Brazilians the most exotic thing we eat is the soy sauce and wasabi that accompany sushi.
Coming to the US the story was of course very different. Most people at Penn were very used to and greatly appreciated dozens of cuisines I had never come close to tasting, from Ethiopian to Malay. I was faced with a culture that complained about the lack of spice in dining hall food and labeled any dish that did not contain at least 8 different spices “bland”. For most people, good food necessarily meant spicy – or at least heavily seasoned – food, and anything that did not fall under this description was looked down upon. I was surprised to see that saying you like something as simple and tasty as pasta with tomato sauce would get you the terribly negative label of “basic”.
Over these last two years my relationship with food has adapted as my spice tolerance has increased. And although I’ll never understand my friends who drown their food in Sriracha or Cholula I’ve come to enjoy curries from Tyson Bee’s or spicy Pelicana fried chicken as much as any other Penn student. So I thought that I would be ready to face any food that India could throw at me for the two months I am here. Of course I was terribly wrong.
For the first few weeks here I was delighted to eat my favorite Indian delicacies in their place of origin and also discover new dishes that I loved. I ate more dosa than I could count and delighted on paneer, parota, dal and roti, excitedly sending my family back home pictures and descriptions of this strange food they knew nothing about. Even the repetitive cafeteria food at work tasted great to me.
But as time passed and the excitement of the first few weeks waned the flavors of Indian food started to weight down on me. I became increasingly aware of the fact that although I occasionally ate Indian food at Penn the food here was definitely not what I was used to eating regularly. The strangeness of the food was added to the strangeness of the language, the city, and the work in the list of things that made me miss home. I started to get tired of the spicy food and crave anything that tasted like home. It would be short of impossible to find a Brazilian restaurant in Bangalore, so I started making do with Italian take-outs and some home-cooked meals.
I have come to realize that as much as I appreciate and like Indian food, it will never be my comfort food. It’s not what I grew up eating and will always taste “different” to me – it might fill my stomach and satiate my hunger, but it won’t fill me up entirely and make me feel all cozy inside. Even though I eat rice every day here, I crave rice and beans with Brazilian flavor, with simple and rich seasoning that doesn’t make your mouth tingle.
In some ways, my relationship with food has become even closer in my time here. I’ve come from eating as much Indian food as possible to trying to have it at least as possible, all the while understanding more and more how important food is not just for nutrition but for overall happiness and satisfaction. I’ve been thinking a lot more about how much the food I grew up with impacted my preferences now, reflecting on how intrinsic food is to our human experience, and watching a whole lot of Chef’s Table and Masterchef Brazil (highly recommend both).
Yesterday I decided to order biryani for dinner. I have loved this rice-and-chicken meal ever since I first tried it, but last night I couldn’t finish it because it was too spicy for me. My roommate and co-intern, who is Indian-American, tried it and said it was very tasty and not that spicy at all. After that we had a long conversation about our relationships to food which led me to the only conclusion that our opinions on food are nothing but a product of our backgrounds.
My biggest takeaway from this whole experience is: spicy is not necessarily a synonym of good or even well-seasoned, just like non-spicy does not mean bland or bad. There is no cuisine, food or flavor that is inherently better than another – independent of the level of spice.
This time next week, Sophie and I will be on our way back to Visakhapatnam where we will stay one night before flying to Jaipur to spend the weekend exploring, eating, and relaxing. After Jaipur, we will be stationed in Hyderabad for the remainder of our time in India, working in the Naandi office to edit and produce the footage we have collected from interviewing over twenty farmers throughout the past three weeks.
I am immensely thankful for my stay in Araku for a diverse array of reasons. Primarily and most obviously, I had the unique opportunity to experience life in rural India. As I have come to realize through my travels in the short period of time that has been my life thus far, each place one visits and spends time in leaves an indelible mark on one’s being. I feel as though I am quilting a blanket, sometimes fervorously, intentionally focusing on each stitch and sometimes passively working away; each patch representing an experience I have had and the entire blanket as my life and self. Every once and awhile, I step back and glance at the accumulation of each section. Sometimes in awe, sometimes with hands clasped halfway over my eyes afraid to fully see, most of the time somewhere in between these two feelings. As Araku is stitched into my quilt, I’m looking at it all and checking out the latest additions; the taste of the mango we picked from the field stitched right next to the adrenaline I felt riding on the back of that motorcycle through town, positioned near the view of the mountains from my rooftop, etcetera. As I look, I’m feeling my most favorite feeling: contentedness with the past, stability in the present, and excitement for the future.Interviews don’t wait for the monsoon to pass!
Secondly, I am thankful for the work I have done in Araku, which has not only been fulfilling on a personal level but also unexpectedly turned out to be highly applicable to my future career goals. As I realize more and more each day, I don’t want to anchor down, so to speak, anytime soon. There is quite literally an entire world out there to see and explore and the image of myself sitting in an office building watching it all pass by makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise up as a shudder of repulsion washes down my spine. I wish this was little more than hyperbole, but it’s the truth. Accordingly, I dream of being a journalist, a foreign correspondent, traveling to unfamiliar and exciting, sometimes dirty and scary, preferably fascinating and thought–provoking, new places, writing and discovering. With this in mind, the most invaluable new ability I have found and begun to develop this summer has been non–verbal communication.
This “skill” was born, excruciatingly, out of my biggest obstacle. As a tall and blonde white woman, there is no possible way to go incognito in rural India, much less casually slip into a remote farming village and conduct a conversation with the people living there. As soon as I step out of the car, everybody turns to look. Their stares range from cold, to welcoming, to confused, to scared. I feel like a monster when I smile at a child and they go running behind their mother, nearly crying from fright. This happens pretty frequently. My initial reaction to this predicament was frustration. I would think to myself, “I’m normal and friendly, I’m here to talk to you, I want to talk to you, and learn about you!” Frustration, yes, and also embarrassment. “Should I dye my hair? Wear a hat all the time…even inside?” And most important and pressing of all I would wonder, can I effectively do my job?
After a few lackluster interviews, I began to realize that the more I let doubt and frustration grow inside of me, the more they manifested themselves in my physical appearance. My sourness caused me to glance downwards, frown, and tense up, which ultimately impeded the quality of my interviews even more than my blonde hair and pale skin ever did. In addition to poor body language, my inability to communicate via words resulted in my attention wandering and my mind growing fuzzy, often times mid–interview. I wasn’t connecting and I wasn’t reaching anybody. I wasn’t prompting them, as a good interviewer must, to express themselves genuinely and demonstrate some of their true character.
The solution to my dilemma turned out to be simpler than expected: maintain eye contact. Look them in the eyes. Telugu may be spilling out of their mouth, flowing in one of my ears and out the other, but I can understand what they’re telling me despite my inability to comprehend the sounds they are making. In their eyes, I can see the pride they feel when they talk about their son, the first in their entire family to graduate from college (with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, no less). I can see the endearment they express when their wife cuts them off, mid–demonstration, “No, no, it’s more effective to prune it like this, not like that”. The love and care the farmers have for their numerous crops, mangos, peppers, turmeric, coffee, bananas; it’s all there, in their eyes, and it’s an invaluable glimpse into a world I have never been apart of before.
So, these are the feelings and skills I will leave Araku with. As I move into the second half of the summer, I look forward to adding more patches to my quilt. And, this summer and beyond, I will never forget to listen to what the eyes are telling me.In the paddies
It has been a little over three weeks since arriving in Delhi. Each week has been a new adventure with new experiences. Sylvia and I have really come to enjoy spending time with our host family and exploring different places in Gurgaon. It’s definitely starting to feel like a home. One aspect of living in a close-knit community is that we stand out so much from everyone else. On our walks back from the nearby gym to our house, we find ourselves being stared at from almost everyone on the street. As someone who is half-Indian and born and raised in the U.S., I have for the first time felt conflicted about my identity.
Though I am much more immersed in American culture than Indian culture at home, I still have so much pride in my Indian heritage. I enjoy listening to my grandparents stories of their time in India and their religious practices, as well as eating traditional food made by my nana (mild of course). Upon hearing about the opportunity to work in India, I felt really compelled to apply and have the chance to spend an extended amount of time experiencing first hand the culture I had been hearing about all these years.
I feel very connected to India through familial ties, while also feeling very detached as a visitor. Since my arrival, I have seen family members for what seemed like the first time and friends of my grandparents who welcomed me into their family right away. In these moments, I am comfortable and India suddenly becomes familiar to me. When I go into Delhi to shop and sightsee, though, I feel as if any tourist would; overwhelmed by the crowds and struggling to communicate. It is strange to have a place that is so imbedded in my family’s life be so foreign to me.
As I have settled in, I feel less conflicted and have embraced the dichotomy of my identity. The other day, I was waiting in line, and an older woman came up to me and spoke fluent hindi asking me for help with something (still not sure what she needed). I was kind of shocked by her mistaking me for a local, but I then realized it was probably because I was wearing a kurta instead of western clothes. I smiled to myself thinking, finally I look Indian! Now, as I reflect back on my transition into India, I look forward to more new experiences to come. I look forward to the new projects at work and going to the local schools. I look forward to traveling to my father’s hometown. I look forward to spending more time with family and friends. Most of all, I look forward to each day feeling more immersed in my culture than the day before!
Trip to Agra
I didn’t truly appreciate how different working overseas would be until I began my internship at Shahi. I had arrived in India naively thinking that any differences between how business were run in the United States versus in India would be relatively minor. After all, how many different ways could there be to make profit? After spending a month in India immersed in the Indian workplace, I have realized just how significant the differences between Indian and American workplaces are and how that impacts the way businesses are run. For example, one of the first things I noticed at Shahi was that many of the staff members juggle multiple responsibilities, regardless of their formal job description. In contrast, employees in professional sectors in the US typically seem to work on a limited number of projects at a time, contributing very specific skill sets. For a business like Shahi however, staff is limited, so everyone on the team has to be ready to step up and do the work that needs to be done. I admire the staff at Shahi a lot for their ability to adapt to a constantly changing work environment. Shahi’s workplace has certainly pushed me to learn new ways to accomplish my projects.
At Shahi, I am currently working on two projects. The first project focuses on implementing a “women in leadership” program that empowers more women to become supervisors on the factory floor. With this project, my co-intern Amanpreet and I aim to:
- Identify ways to dispel negative perceptions about the supervisor position to encourage more women on the factory floor to seek promotion
- Develop programs to foster more interaction between current female supervisors and factory workers interested in becoming supervisors or showing potential
- Outline clear accountability mechanisms for leadership to ensure implementation is enacted
My second project focuses on reducing worker attrition and promoting worker retention through the use of non-monetary incentives. I designed this project on my own after hearing from multiple managers at Shahi that one of the biggest problems the company faces is high levels of worker attrition on the factory floor. Through this project, my goals are to:
- Illustrate how a multitude of factors cause worker attrition
- Design non-monetary incentives that encourage workers to stay at Shahi
- Use research based on behavioral insights to prove why the non-monetary incentives I have chosen would be effective at reducing worker attrition
- Implement accountability mechanisms to ensure these incentives are actually implemented if management approves them
Some of the challenges I’ve encountered in my projects so far include navigating the language barrier and making my solutions palatable to production heads and management. In terms of the language barrier, I find myself struggling because although I understand Hindi, I cannot speak it very well. I also can’t understand Kannada, which is the primary language spoken in Bangalore. This makes speaking with factory workers at Shahi difficult because I don’t want to make them uncomfortable by not understanding them when they communicate their stories to me. I am also working to figure out ways to receive honest answers from workers about their issues because many workers are hesitant to tell us about the negative aspects of Shahi. Despite the language barrier, I have been pleasantly surprised to see how excited some of the workers have been to speak to us. Even though I didn’t understand what they were saying most of the time, the smiles on their faces and their body language made it possible for me to still connect with the workers in small ways.
Making my projects’ solutions palatable to production heads and management has also been a point of focus for me. At the end of the day, Shahi is a business and faces enormous production pressure from Western brands to manufacture garments under increasingly tight deadlines. The company’s funds are tight, so in my projects I focus on how to prove the cost effectiveness of recommendations to make my presentations as effective as possible. This also opened my eyes to how we, as consumers in America, have been causing a significant amount of this production pressure indirectly through our demand for fast fashion. We have a responsibility to choose brands who source responsibly, and I wish more consumers could see how difficult the garment making process is to appreciate the effort that goes into manufacturing and delivering clothes to brands so quickly.
I am excited to see how all of our projects at Shahi progress over the next few weeks. We hope everyone else is too!
I wake up and start my day with our service apartments complimentary breakfast which includes 3 slices of white toast and omelette that contains eggs and onions. I have learned to love this breakfast. It is easy to obtain and reliable, things that are hard to come by in India. I had never been a big egg person, but I appreciate the daily protein in the generally vegetarian carb heavy south Indian diet. The bread which is referred to as “toast” but is reliably soft is extremely white and processed but is also quite tasty especially on the days that it is served with an incredibly sweet jam whose flavor I have yet to decipher. After breakfast it is off to the office. The factory is a 10 minute walk away. A luxury. This comes at the cost of having to live in a relatively industrial area that is not the most inviting. My mourning will normally consists of meetings or independent work time. Work is challenging because I often have to ask others for help to move forward in my projects, and although I want to be productive, I don’t want to burden people who are already busy. On an exciting day we may even go visit another factory. Things here also don’t follow a strict schedule. This can be frustrating from an outsider perspective. A meeting scheduled at 10 may not happen until 3 or may not happen at all.
The day is broken up nicely by a canteen lunch. Although most staff are not a fan of the canteen lunch, I am. The food is predictable and relatively unoily. I’ve grown to really enjoy the Roti and the select curries and dals of the day. After lunch is normally similar to the mournings a meeting, a factory visit, independent work time. One highlight of the day is the two chai breaks one in the morning and one in the afternoon where staff are supplied with free very sweet chai or coffee that tastes like melted ice cream. It is a nice break in the day especially since it is served on the terrace roof, and the temperature is almost always pleasant. From there it is back to the apartment. To finish the day I normally do a bit of light exercise with a yoga mat on the floor and then have dinner. Dinner is normally a local restaurant, cooking, or on a special night a nice dinner from a trendy restaurant downtown. Food prices a particularly good in India, so we have been enjoying the opportunity to explore nice restaurants without breaking the bank. Although, it is extremely difficult to call ubers from the apartment which makes going downtown a bit of an ordeal and not an everyday venture. I then go to sleep and do the whole thing over again. This predictable scheduled that I have cultivated is nice and helps fight the homesickness.A photo from the denim factory (I dont know if I was alowed to take this)
As week four comes to an end the excitements of India has faded. This has its pros and cons. I am less overwhelmed and exhausted by each day, but things like eating dosa have become less exciting. I crave the comforts and my favorite parts of home and miss my family. I will see how these feelings progress through the remaining weeks.
This is the third week in India. The heat is getting more and more intense, especially during the day. I cannot believe how much we are getting used to this temperature so much so that when a day hits 95 degrees, that feels like a day to get a chair, sit outside, drink chai while catching up with one more episode of ‘The Office’’ which by the way, there is a Bollywood version in addition to the British. So, that means that I have endless episodes to watch.
For the most part of the day (9- 5), we are at the office with perfect air conditioning. We spend most of our times doing literature reviews on the causes of overweight and obesity among children and adolescents in India. Just to drop some facts from reading hundreds of research papers…did you know that in urban India, 22.4% of children are obese? The main cause of the rise in obesity rates is the westernization of the culture and lifestyle which has caused unhealthy eating and reduced physical activity among children. Obesity is a slow rising killer in the Indian population.THE OFFICE. Beautiful. Isnt it?
Talking about the need for physical activity, after work at 5, we have established a routine of going to a gym that is about 6 mins from our office and another 6 mins to home. That sounds like walking distance, right? Wrong. At 5 pm, the temperature is above 100 degrees. Just three minutes of walking outside is enough to make you feel like you’ll sweat off all the liquid inside the bone marrow. Luckily, rickshaws are pretty convenient and cheap.
Weekends are what we look for- time to explore India and interact with people of all backgrounds. Indian culture is very accepting of foreigners. So people will offer you help in all ways possible and that is a blessing in disguise. We have to mind our surroundings all the time. Getting to New Delhi from our house is pretty easy, thanks to the ultramodern subway system that runs across the city from one end of the suburb to another. It cost 50 rupees (about 80 cents) for a distance of 25 miles. Talk about saving your coins, time and the convince! The train system here is worth an award. It’s clean, safe and they have a bench for women ONLY in all the couches.
New Delhi is so huge and highly populated. There are a lot of cool things to see and so many markets to buy kurtas (I have come to love them, they work so well with this heat) and jewelry (ok, a moment of silence for the jewelry). We have been to a couple of markets and bought very cool things for prices that you can only dream of in the US. So many beautiful things and ornate items in all forms at affordable prices. If you love shopping. This is heaven. You only have to endure the summer heat.
I cannot wait to explore different areas of the city, especially temples and historical sites. Schools also open for a new semester in July and so I am looking forward to seeing how policies that are created by the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) in collaboration with the Ministry of health concerning children’s health are implemented in schools.LET ANOTHER WEEK BEGIN!
I’ve now been working in Madurai for approximately 3 weeks, and suffice to say, I’ve learned a lot. Aravind Eye Hospital is one of the largest (and in my opinion, one of the most impressive) eye care systems in the world, and it runs on a completely self-sustaining model of hyper-efficiency. Over half of the patients Aravind treats receive completely free care, and the other 45% pay barely a fraction of what would be required in the United States. The way the hospital is run is incredible; every doctor, every MLOP (mid-level ophthalmologic personnel, who, as a side note, are all young women hired from surrounding villages), and every administrator are working around the clock to provide for the 2500+ people who come in each day.
As for me, I’ve established at least a little bit of a routine. My work schedule is Monday through Saturday, 9 am to 6 pm (yes, we work Saturday, too), but that’s nothing compared to what the actual employees of Aravind are doing as they work toward the hospital’s mission of preventing needless blindness. My project here is to create a standardized system to assess and measure quality in the diagnosis and treatment of diabetic retinopathy (DR). Diabetes is India’s fastest growing disease (already over 78.5 million people have it), and the number of people losing their vision as a result of diabetes and DR is increasing at alarming rates. Aravind has already made extraordinary strides in increasing access to DR treatment, from working with Google to create an AI that can remotely diagnose DR to screening for diabetes in bi-weekly camps in villages hours outside of Madurai. My role, in essence, is to help the staff of the retina sub-speciality clinic choose relevant parameters for ensuring high quality and high efficiency care.
These past few weeks, I’ve researched in the Aravind library, surrounded by thousands of scientific articles, journals, and publications. I’ve spent hours in the retina clinic and operating theater, where I’ve seen my fair share of eyeballs, which are more than a little unnerving to see being operated on. I’ve met with doctors, residents, fellows, MLOPs, and administrators, and I’ve made a lot of new friends in the process.
I found a gym near the hostel where one of my co-interns and I are taking kick-boxing classes after work every day, so among all of the laughing and learning we’ve been doing here, exercise (which is necessary given how much we’re eating) is another part of my routine. The one thing I haven’t managed to integrate successfully into my day-to-day life is doing my laundry. Yesterday, I spent the better part of three hours hand-washing all of the clothes I’ve worn over the past few weeks because until yesterday, I had managed to get away with buying new Kurtis and palazzo pants instead of washing the ones I had. Unfortunately, my clothing budget is effectively gone, and I had to resort to the less costly option: doing laundry.
However, trying to make every day the same is a fruitless endeavor here at Aravind. My working hours might not change, but every time I go into the hospital, start work at the office, or just go exploring the city, I’m talking to someone interesting, discovering something new, and trying something different. Therefore, there is no reason why my laundry needs to be done every day. And yes, the two are definitely related.
Life at Aravind has been a true whirlwind so far, from exploring Meenakshi Temple while acting as a tour guide to my co-interns after reading about it on Wikipedia, to taking two overnight buses in 24 hours to go to Pondicherry on our day off, to having my first successful auto-rickshaw price negotiation. I’ve gotten used to the heat, learned a few words in Tamil, and finally figured out my way around the block where we live. I even found an espresso machine in the office.This is one of the five towers of the temple, which is 1600 years old. I’m telling you, I know lots of facts about this place.
In summary, I love my job.Here are some pictures from our trip to Pondicherry. It’s a beautiful city, with great food!
P.S. Netflix doesn’t work for me in the hostel where we are, so please, please, comment with book recommendations.This is one of the auto-rickshaws which did not accept my bargain.
*deep breath in* Smells of fresh dirt, impending rain, and farm animals
With my eyes closed and my feet firmly planted on the ground, my mind travels 12,640 km to the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York where my family has been vacationing since I was born. As a person prone to homesickness, my inner longing for the States surprisingly took a different form than my usual. With a normal case of homesickness I often find myself missing the city of Philadelphia and my home filled with my family members and dog. I usually miss the Septa bus or eating ice cream every night with my siblings. Now, two weeks into my trip in India, whenever I close my eyes and take in the smells and sounds around me, I can’t help but feel like I am standing on top of a mountain in the Adirondacks, covered in sweat from hiking all the way up but feeling a strong sense of accomplishment. The ground beneath my feet is solid but alive. The plants emit the scent of life from every pore in anticipation of the coming rain and a strong breeze cools my skin with every gust. A nearby farmer tills his land, turning the dirt over to release that glorious smell only dirt can. With my eyes closed, I am back in the States with my family.A day in the life of a farmer and his family in the Araku Valley.
Now, I open my eyes. The scene is quite different. I am in India, standing in the center of a rural village in the Araku Valley surrounded by people who stare in intrigue at the strange foreigner who is closing her eyes in the middle of the unoccupied road. The comfort brought on from my quick trip home immediately transforms into a ball of panic at the bottom of my stomach as if I have swallowed a rock. I have travelled back to reality. My undying wish to make the most out of every moment while in India mixed with my relentless homesickness has made these first two weeks rough. I knew this would happen, as it always does, but when one is in the middle of a battle it is hard to imagine life after the battle is won. Luckily, Emma has been at my side this whole time, allowing me to rant continuously about my changing feelings. Our work with Naandi has been very rewarding and has served as a great way to forget about my homesickness. Interviewing farmers and their families and listening to how Naandi has impacted their lives has made me feel incredibly blessed to be working with an organization that actively works to benefit the lives of many farmers and their families without seeking any profit for themselves. Every person I have met that works with the Araku Valley coffee project is overwhelmingly happy to be a part of the project’s mission and their genuine interest in the well being of the farmers and their families is clearly reflected through their work every day.Me smiling after our very first interview and being given two bundles of bananas that the farmer chopped down just for us!
I will never exist in this exact time, place, or moment ever again. This realization, although a very simple one, is what made that ball of homesickness at the bottom of my stomach shrink. As a person that constantly finds herself looking into the future to prepare for the next step in life, I have decided I need to slow down and enjoy the moment I am currently living in. Whether it be staring off into the mountain range that can be seen from the porch of the guesthouse or riding in the back of one of Naandi’s cars on the way to a new village, I am determined to live in the here and now. I know my family back home will always be there for me, no matter how far I travel.A mountain scene that reminds me of the Adirondacks and my family.
Open your eyes *deep breath out*
My first stop in India before heading down South and getting into the frenzy of work was Jaipur, Rajasthan’s famous Pink City. But soon after arriving in the old capital of the Maharajas I discovered that the color which dominated the Indian environment wasn’t the pink I was made to expect, but rather yellow. The Rajasthani mountains that surround the city have a deep sandy hue which is accentuated by the brownish tones of the desert flora that covers them. The walls of houses, palaces, and monuments are painted different shades of warm colors that seen from a speedy auto rickshaw blend into a single yellow blur. The mangoes, bananas, papayas, and pineapples that dot market floors and restaurant tables all glowed like gold. And, above all, the constant 45ºC sun that shines down at all times of the day lends to every landscape the striking colors of heat.
As it befits the capital of an empire, Jaipur is a city of palaces and forts. From the Hawa Mahal to the Jal Mahal – where I learned that mahal is the Hindi word for palace – to the Jaigarh Fort and the aptly-named Amber Fort, all of the buildings in the city shone with Summer colors. This last one is where I spent the most time, losing myself in the wonders of 16th-century Mughal architecture which included a reception room whose walls and ceilings were covered in mirror mosaics, a high wall that stretched far along the mountains in a visual very similar to China’s Great one, and secret underground tunnels for the royalty that now house an amount of bats that made my heart drop. In the middle of the sprawling palatial complex, in a corner of a courtyard, there was an – in comparison – modest row of carved stone arches that didn’t attract more than a few glances from most tourists. But as I walked along the small columns and green-lined arches I was struck by how perfectly aligned they were, with one arch behind the other behind the other behind the other creating an illusion of an infinite repetition. The only differing factor in that multitude of arches was their size, getting ever smaller the further they were, and the amount of shadow they had – all of them, though, were painted in the mild yellow which marked all of Jaipur.
As a tourist with little time to spare, I couldn’t afford the luxury of staying indoors and enjoying an air-conditioned room if I wanted to experience Jaipur, so each morning I braved myself for the sensory overload of temperature, sounds, and sights that the city offered. As much as I loved visiting the attractions and marveling in their beauty, I soon found that one of my favorite things to do was just walk around through the streets aimlessly. At first thought that sounds like a pretty questionable decision, for a foreigner who just arrived in India to walk around a strange city by himself with no idea where he was going. But I trusted my own instincts and the Maps app on my phone enough to allow myself these moments of solitary exploration. Walking alone with no worries in my mind allowed me to devote my full attention to my surroundings, concentrating on the patterns of the fabrics displayed on the walls, the sounds of sugarcane being ground and samosas being fried by street vendors, the completely insane maneuvers of the cars and scooters in the streets, and the faces of thousands of people going around their business. It was in one of these wanderings, with no specific destination in mind that I found one of the biggest bazaars I’ve ever seen. They sold everything you could ever think of amid a chaos of shopping and haggling and eating and screaming that dazzled me. As I walked away from the center of the confusion I still saw streets lined with progressively fewer vendors, where people nevertheless made their transactions with the same intensity. Just when I thought I was about to leave the bazaar behind me and hit the main road again, I came across an alley where sellers had hung green and yellow canopies between the buildings to provide a comfortable shade. As the sun pierced through the huge pieces of colored fabric it brought their colors to the whole setting, painting the people, the produce, and the ground in the familiar colors of the Brazilian flag. This quaint scene where few people roamed around buying and selling fruit was to me a reminder that the vibrancy of Jaipur, which to me was represented by its yellow tonality, was present even in its most forgotten corners. And it was also proof that aimless walking always leads to something remarkable.
After the Pink City I took a train back to Delhi, where I met with the other CASI interns who had just arrived from their many connections around the world. As most of them adjusted to the greatly increased timezone and temperature, I took an opportunity to use this quiet time to again go exploring. In Delhi, though, I quickly found that my tactic of happening upon amazing places by walking anywhere would not work – after seeing two places of interest that seemed pretty close on a map I decided to walk from one to the other only to realize that they were in fact 8km and 40-minute-long a car ride apart. This city had dimensions I wasn’t used to, so I had to adapt my exploring technique, from aimless walks to planned rickshaw rides. So that Friday I carefully coordinated my time to make sure I would be able to go to the Qutb Minar and back in time, and off I was to see the complex of towers, mosques, and palaces from the beginning of the Mughal Empire. Like in Jaipur, I was fascinated by the intricate sandstone carving in the walls of most buildings, marveling at this country’s use of warm colors in its architecture. The setting sun shone directly on a range of pillars that supported a carved ceiling over a praying ground, giving the whole scene a deep golden tone whose beauty my old phone’s camera couldn’t dream of accurately capturing. This scene was one of perfect architectural symmetry and beauty, something that didn’t go unnoticed by the thousand of tourists that crowded the Qutb and posed for pictures with their loved ones along the pillars. In a complex made almost entirely of deep red stone, the rough type that even a millennium later maintains its original color, it was again the yellow of a side building that captured mine – and several others’ – attention.
People had told me that South India was a different country from the faraway North, but it wasn’t until I arrived in Bangalore that I truly grasped what this difference meant. I knew that because of its altitude the city was supposed to be way colder than Delhi or Jaipur, but in order to prevent any disappointments I convinced myself that nowhere in India would have an actually enjoyable weather. I was proven wrong as soon as I left the airport and was struck with a cool breeze and felt temperature below 30ºC for the first time in weeks. The mild weather highlighted the striking landscape differences between Bangalore and the North, as the northern grey skies and yellow cities were replaced by a constant blue with specks of green everywhere. As we settled into our work routine, we realized that Bangalore had also given us a new disturbing factor: the loud noises from the construction work of three buildings around our apartment, which always wakes me up before my alarm. The workers are always there as we go about our daily affairs – they are the first people we hear and see every morning, and we pass by them on our way to and from work, when most of them stare at us with as much curiosity about our foreign looks and lives as we have about theirs. I was lounging in my bedroom after work last week when I glanced out of the window at the construction directly across the street from me and was surprised to see it almost empty; work had finished early that day and only a handful of people were scattered across the open, wall-less floors of the building. As I looked on I realized that the sun was setting behind the building, darkening the blue of the sky and bringing the yellow, orange, and pink of the North to the previously white southern clouds which now contrasted starkly with the darkness on the building. I quickly went to the window to take a picture and observed the lone worker on the top floor go about his final business of the day, completely unaware that he was the subject of my new favorite picture in Bangalore.
“That smells so weird….”
“Eww, why are the paper towels yellow?!”
“Ria’s eating Oprah!!”
“What is that smell??!?”
In fourth grade, my mom packed me one of my favorite dishes for lunch: bhindi (a.k.a. okra, hence the Oprah joke) roti rolls. I never realized that my lunch could draw so much unwanted attention, or that to a lot of people, apparently, bhindi roti rolls smell really bad. The scrunched up noses, the pointing, and the laughs were enough to convince me that I could not eat bhindi roti rolls at lunch again. Or any Indian food for that matter–anything else is probably also “smelly” and yellow-ish. When I got home that day, I made it clear to my parents: for school, Indian food was completely off limits. And until my last day of senior year, actually, it was.
So sitting in the LEAP office eating rajma chawal (kidney beans and rice) during our first week was a big deal for me. I couldn’t help but smile that I didn’t have to hide it. Instead, I offered some of my food back to the generous LEAP employees who always offer their own to Tashweena and me. And since then, I’ve been on a Zomato (a popular food delivery app in India) spree–binging on both familiar and new Indian dishes right from my office seat. It might not be the same as going to the restaurants/stalls themselves, but it’s definitely an effective way to make the most out of my 63 lunches here. Who knew ordering in could be so exciting?
Accordingly, I’ve listed my top 3 Zomato orders from the past 2 weeks. And if it wasn’t clear by the title, I can confirm that they all smell amazing.
1-Kali Mirch Chicken Roll, 34 Chowringhee Lane (Amar Colony, New Delhi), Rs. 104
Soft, juicy chicken, caramelized onions, smooth mayo-like sauce, and kali mirch, or black pepper (a #PepperBae moment, perhaps), stuffed in a thick, crispy roll of dough. I’ll be honest, it took a lot of water for me to handle the mirch–but it was totally worth it.
2-Chicken Kheema Naan, Indian Smith (Sector 15, Noida), Rs. 144
I have always been a huge fan of naan (it’s truly second to naan!), but before I came to Delhi, I had no idea just how many types of naan are out there. One of them–my new favorite–is this chicken kheema naan, or naan stuffed with minced chicken. The tiny, flavorful bites of chicken inside made this naan a meal by itself. #Get #THIS #Bread; you won’t regret it. Although you might struggle to eat this neatly.
3-Hyderabadi Chicken Biryani-Single Portion, Biryani By Kilo (New Friends Colony, New Delhi), Rs. 197
I saved the best for last. This Chicken Biryani was off the charts. Cooked in and served in a miniature handi (clay pot) sealed with atta (dough), the piping hot combination of basmati rice, hot, succulent, tender chicken, a variety of aromatic spices, and fried onions was a bite I can not forget (no exaggerations here). Though I did spend several minutes struggling to open the handi and ended up having to search Google for the proper technique, the struggle was worth it. Finally opening the handi with a metal spoon and feeling the steam from the pot on my face was almost as exciting as eating it. A LEAP employee confirmed that this was the “best biryani in Delhi,” and the Rs. 30 crore funding the Biryani start-up recently received says the rest. Like all biryani, however, be sure to beware of the laung (clove)!
Oh, and the comments I get on my lunches now?
“Oh, that smells so good!”
“How long did that take to come?”
“What did you order?”
Everyday here I’m not only learning more about my roots, but am also learning to feel comfortable with them, to love them, and to openly embrace them.
P.S.: I promise I eat more than just chicken!!!!
If you had asked me six months ago where I would be this summer, I would have smiled and told you that only God knows, but that I was thinking New York or D.C. I would have told you that I was submitting applications on the West Coast too, and a couple in the Midwest, and a bunch in Canada because of my deep appreciation for Canadians’ accents and their manners.
Instead of any of those things, I am halfway across the world in India. I am spending two months working at Aravind Eye Care System, a hospital chain based in South India that works to prevent needless blindness. They are able to provide care at little or no cost to thousands of patients a day through their “McDonalds-like” efficiency, maximizing every minute of productivity through their meticulously organized routines. They have treated over thirty million patients in the past 43 years since the inception of the organization.
Before I left home, everyone I told about my summer adventure had advice for me – don’t walk anywhere alone, be careful about the water you drink, ask for your food to be less spicy, always wear sunscreen and a hat, and make sure your bug spray is at least 40% DEET (except for the no-pesticides crowd, who recommended natural alternatives for obvious reasons).
The hardest adjustment for me has not been the 100+ degree weather every day, or the intensity of the food, or New Music Friday being at 9:30am on Friday mornings instead of at midnight. I’ve gotten quicker at calculating the time difference between here and home, and I haven’t forgotten to take any of my malaria pills yet.
But one thing I have been, still am, and will continue to be struggling with is communicating with people. I have a long history of ear issues. My file folder (or, more accurately, my personal shelf of file folders) at my doctor’s office has been growing steadily since I was four years old. I’ve had hearing aids since I was six, and they are helpful in amplifying sounds so I can hear the birds chirping in the morning and the dull roar of patients in the waiting room, but my hearing still isn’t perfect. I can’t tell with any consistent accuracy where sounds are coming from, which is particularly challenging when I need to cross the street and cars are driving on the left side of the road (or, more accurately, wherever they feel like driving at the moment).
My heart leapt for joy when the English movie we were seeing in theaters this weekend had English subtitles. Unfortunately, closed captioning isn’t readily available for communication with coworkers and other Indians. I listen closely and try my best to read their lips, and sometimes that’s enough. When it’s not, I’ll ask them to repeat themselves. Sometimes that’s enough, but sometimes it’s not. I can’t help but get emotional about my inability to complete what should be a simple task – at home, it is. I’d be lying if I said this frustration hasn’t brought me to tears.
My co-interns (fellow Penn students Anjali, Cherry, and Nadha) have been incredibly helpful in navigating these communication barriers. Their shared knowledge of Hindi, Telugu, and Malayalam is helpful with negotiating rickshaw rates, reading signs, and the occasional merchant, but their support extends beyond translation. They have been so gracious and patient with me, repeating what someone says in English if I couldn’t understand their accent. They understand when I need some time to rest after a long day that has been particularly mentally exhausting for me to hear people, and they always speak clearly and with a smile so I can understand them perfectly.
It has taken a few weeks to realize, but there is grace abounding in this struggle of communication. It has not been easy to adjust to, and I will continue to pray every day for an increase in patience with others and with myself. I can already feel that prayer being answered.
“Malayalam?” I asked the clothing store employee across the counter. She shook her head no. Disappointed and slightly frustrated, I switched back over to English to continue our conversation.
From the moment we landed at Madurai International Airport, I heard the familiar sounds of mothers scolding their children for trying to run around and tired travelers chatting as they waited for their luggage to emerge at baggage claim. Even though all these conversations were happening in Tamil, and I do not know any Tamil, the inflections, pace, and sounds of the language felt so recognizable to me. I wanted to join in on these conversations and take part in the joy of finally almost reaching my destination, but I couldn’t because the language that I know, Malayalam, is not the same as Tamil.
Tamil is unsurprisingly the main language spoken in Tamil Nadu (the state that Madurai is located in), and Malayalam is the primary language of Kerala, a neighboring state. My parents were born and raised in Kerala, so I know how to speak enough Malayalam to get by (although my family never fails to tease me for my accent).Here’s a map of South India!
Although these two languages are different with different vocabularies and alphabets, they are, as the employee at the clothing store put it, “sister languages.” Many words and sounds overlap, and sometimes it almost feels like they are the same but they aren’t.
This closeness but distinctness has been one of my biggest challenges here in Madurai. I feel like I should be able to communicate with those around me easily, but I can’t. Locals here often assume I’m from the area and will speak Tamil to me, so I’ll try to keep up the façade and respond using Malayalam, but eventually at some point, one of us uses a word that isn’t shared across languages and the conversation breaks down. At that point, we switch over to English, but it always feels like a small failure, this inability to communicate when I myself feel like I should.
This kind of interaction happens with nearly everyone: autorickshaw drivers, store workers, the head of the patient feedback team at Aravind. But, I’ve realized that as frustrating as it may be, I’ve learned a few lessons.
One: I shouldn’t feel bad about not being able to communicate because the language I know is Malayalam, not Tamil.
Two: It’s an opportunity for me to learn a new language! Since I already know the basics of Malayalam, hopefully I can pick up on Tamil pretty quickly! (If anyone knows any good ways to learn Tamil, hit me up please)
Three: There’s something so unique about this experience of knowing and not quite knowing a language. I can pick up on slightly more than some of my fellow interns, but I still go through the special experience of being abroad in a new place.
I think this last point can be pretty well-captured in my interaction with the clothing store employee. After I told her I only knew English and Malayalam, she turned to fellow employees and started speaking in Tamil. Although they didn’t realize I could understand, they talked about how impressed they were that I managed to get around without knowing Tamil. They talked about how I got an auto to the mall, found a store, and shopped for what I wanted, all without knowing the language. They seemed pretty proud.
Maybe I should be proud of myself then.
P.S. Here are some random pictures from my time in Madurai so far!
- Outside the school where I went for the eye camp
- Meenakshi Temple!
- Temple in between stores on Masi Street