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The Center for the Advanced Study of India provides funding and support to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct independent research and volunteer internships in India. Funds for the CASI internships are made possible through the support of Penn’s Office of the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives in conjunction with Penn Abroad and Penn’s Global Internship Program (IIP) and through the generous support of CASI donors.
Updated: 13 hours 23 min ago

The Ethics of Bargaining

Wed, 06/20/2018 - 11:41

As an Australian born Chinese with parents who exposed me to the negotiation strategies of Beijing’s Silk Street Market in early adolescence, I am no stranger to bargaining. And I had been informed extensively by almost everyone that as an obvious foreigner in India, I would constantly be ripped off. And they were right – auto rickshaws regularly tried to charge me triple the local price, and I paid almost double for a kurta at Dilli Haat, compared to an identical one purchased by our boss Chitra at the same place.

But even though I (and my fellow co-interns) have no trouble bargaining, and I am budgeting and tracking my expenses very closely for this trip, every time I close a bargaining transaction, agree on the price, and the person on the other end expresses extreme reluctance, I do feel some guilt.

When you are in a country where so many people live in poverty, what are the ethics of bargaining?

Since I’m a debater at heart, I’m going to divide this into two threads: the principle and the practical.

The Principle (deontological): 

  • Do Bargain: The principle of fairness demands that I should bargain, because why should I be paying a different price than locals for the exact same good?
  • Don’t Bargain: Rawl’s principle of distributive justice would condemn this kind of bargaining because it makes the worse off, even worse off. Is it hypocritical for me to bargain when I’m meant to be doing a social justice esque internship?

The Practical (utilitarian): 

  • Do Bargain: I don’t want to get ripped off – I worked hard for my money. Also, even though I am bargaining down the price, I am not coercing the other party into a transaction. They are free to refuse my offer and walk away. Therefore, (to make my high school economics teacher proud), any transaction that occurs should be Pareto efficient (make both parties no worse off), meaning that utility would still be gained by the seller, even if I force down the price (otherwise they wouldn’t sell to me).
  • Don’t bargain: 1 INR (Indian rupee) to me means so much less than 1 INR does for a tuk tuk driver, because of a) diminishing marginal returns and b) the fact that 1 INR goes much further in India, than it does in the States. They would probably gain much more utility from 1 rupee than I would.

At the end of the day, I will still probably continue to bargain. But I will consider the arguments against it, and calibrate my expectations to expect a reasonable price, even if it is not exactly what a local would pay. And I’ll keep mulling over this question, so perhaps by the end of my time here I’ll have a better answer.

And like everything, it’s all about balance. I’ll still probably haggle when it comes to autos and shawls, but when it comes down to it, I won’t spend 20 minutes arguing over 10 rupees, and accept that maybe, just maybe, we’ll be led totally astray to some random tourist trap by our auto driver (who totally didn’t get a commission from the sale) and buy some insanely overpriced essential oils and incense… (but that’s a story for another time).

Aforementioned insanely overpriced incense

Just a taste

Wed, 06/13/2018 - 11:06

The pace of our work in Araku Valley is fast and slow. Our 6-day weeks are long and tiring, and we visit a new and different village every day. But each day begins and ends with a long and stunningly beautiful 30 minute to 3 hour long drive and is punctuated with vibrant people and adorable children. When we arrive, we gather a few farmer families in a circle and begin to talk. We start off with everyone’s names and an introduction, before delving into asking them what changes they’ve seen in their lives over the past decade. Specifically, we break down these changes into economic, ecological, and social differences from before Naandi’s presence in the area to now. We’re starting to see a thread in everyone’s responses, and we’ve fallen into a routine here, with how each conversation goes. There are some parts of this routine that I particularly love and hope to never forget or leave out when I recount this in the future.

No village visit is complete unless we go home with at least some mangoes in our hands. Most village visits also include a cup of the famous Araku Valley coffee, which everyone here takes bracingly sweet. The first village we visited, I received three cups in a row, because the first one had milk mixed in (I’m allergic), and then I dropped the second one (it was extremely hot and burned my finger). In addition to the third cup, they brought me a piece of wet chapathi dough to put on the burn, which they said would cool it down.

A cup of coffee in one hand and some chapathi dough on the other hand

In that same village, I mentioned that I had never seen a cashew tree before, so a couple of women plucked some off the tree and roasted them for us right then. Yesterday, we tried jackfruit for the first time.

Mine and Judy’s first taste of Jackfruit!

Food is central to Indian culture, and our experiences with it here have been tied to the people we interact with. One of our concerns coming into the the project was whether or not the people we talked to would genuinely want to talk to us or not. When we chat over a cup of piping hot coffee or a plate of unripe mango smothered in salt and chili powder, I can feel this doubt subside, at least for a moment.

Beyond the villages, Judy and I have become mega-fans of a small, roadside chapathi place that one of our supervisors took us to in our first week here on our way back to the office. Huddled under a leaky awning in the middle of the monsoon rains, we get to talk to Santosh, our driver, and practice our Telugu on the other patrons of the shop. We’re already eager for our next taste of bamboo chicken, a specialty dish of the region that entails chicken stuffed into a bamboo shoot and cooked over an open flame, and thankful for the taste of the culture here that we’ve gotten so far. We’re looking forward to what else there is to come in the next couple of weeks here before we head back to Hyderabad for the remainder of our internship.

10 for 10

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 13:07

Every time I tell someone I’m going to be spending 10 weeks in India over the summer, it is usually followed by “what are you going to be doing for 10 weeks?!” and “what are you most excited for?” After giving these questions much thought,  I’ve decided to be like every other basic traveller and make a bucket list of 10 things I want to do before leaving India.

  1. Visit the Taj Mahal–Yes, this is extremely cliché, but it seems like a must for every tourist. I mean, how can you face all your friends and family back home when they ask to see pictures of you in front of this famous world heritage site and you say you never went?

    Since writing the draft of this post I’ve already gone to the Taj Mahal, and it was every bit as breathtaking as I had imagined it to be!

  2. Try a sizzling brownie–Ever since my Indian friend in french class talked about this mouth watering dessert, I’ve been dying to try it, but apparently it’s only found in cafes and restaurants in Mumbai. It’s a brownie with ice cream and chocolate sauce drizzled on top, but it’s served on a sizzling hot plate so the brownie is warm and melts in your mouth. Sounds like heaven to me. My only question is, why haven’t they brought it to America yet??
  3. Bargain prices at a bazaar/market–Having lived in China for seven years, haggling and bargaining is like second nature to me. I live for marketplaces and bazaars filled with colorful fabrics, street food, and cultural trinkets. While my bargaining skills probably won’t come in handy due to the language barriers, I’m just as excited to explore the unique goods in India and hopefully not get too ripped-off.
  4. See a Bollywood movie–Before this trip, I decided I had to watch a few Bollywood movies to get a taste of Bollywood culture. My friend recommended Three Idiots and I loved it so much I had to watch more. It was the perfect blend of hardship, cheesy romance, friendship, family expectations, and of course, Bollywood singing and dancing. 10/10 would recommend and it’s definitely on my list of favorite movies. I also watched Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which translates roughly into YOLO. It’s not classic Bollywood because it’s set in Spain, but still incorporates all of the Bollywood classics. So, I’ve decided that I must see a Bollywood movie in a theater in India to get the full movie-going experience (apparently movies are so long there’s an intermission???)
  5. Try a Bollywood dance class–Along with watching a Bollywood movie, I figure I might as well attempt at Bollywood dancing if I can find a local dance studio and just try a class. I’m thinking this will be a good way to explore Indian culture while keeping fit because I’ll definitely need some exercise after stuffing myself full of all the delicious street food.
  6. Ride in a rickshaw–This one probably doesn’t even need to be on the list because rickshaws are so commonplace in India that it’s BOUND to happen, right?

    Riding a tuk tuk in Agra

  7. Interview a local–Over the summer I plan to write a feature article for Penn Political Review about India’s tax system and its loophole, so I want to meet locals and listen to their stories.
  8. Learn how to make an Indian dish–This one my friend from home suggested as we were attempting to make dumplings from scratch together (and somewhat succeeded?). What better way to get to a know a place than through its food? Since I’m living off campus next year I promised myself I would learn to cook over the summer, so why not start with some Indian dishes and impress all of my housemates!
  9. Learn some Kannada phrases and use them–and maybe some Hindi too? So far all I know is Kannada Gotilla, which means I don’t understand Kannada, and baida, which our boss Chitra told us means “don’t need it” and is especially useful if you say “sugar baida” to mean less sugar.
  10. And of course, travel–Last year’s Shahi group was able to travel every weekend for 10 weeks, so I’m going to be just as ambitious and try to hit as many destinations as possible. Cities/states on the list so far (that I haven’t managed to narrow down): New Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Bangalore, Kerala, Hampi, Goa, Mumbai, Rajasthan, Hyderabad, Pondicherry, and Chennai.

    Day 1: Delhi–Qutub Minar

Mysore Palace with Naandi interns

I’m sure many of these will be checked off over the course of the next few weeks, and some will probably change too and new ones will be added. I’m excited to see where these ten weeks take me and the adventures I’ll be going on.


Aravind: An Eye-Opener

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 11:08

A few days ago, I walked into Aravind Eye Hospital’s Outpatient Clinic at 8:30 AM, half an hour before work generally begins to meet a nurse in the pediatric department. She made time out of her day serving hundreds of children to speak with me, an intern, about ideas for my project. Even at this early hour, I saw a multitude of diverse faces, all looking for the right clinic or the canteen or even their loved ones. I have learned during my first two weeks how to navigate this (sometimes overwhelming) sea of people from different walks of life. When I decided to come to Aravind, I was told about the uniqueness of the system and the huge array of people it serves. But it wasn’t until I stepped into the hospital alone on the first day of work that I truly understood what this entailed.

That very first day, I entered the hospital looking for a specific staff member. I asked a lady at the front desk about where to find her. I have now grown accustomed to speaking in one or two words when trying to find my way around to minimize confusion or miscommunication, but that first time, I was utterly embarrassed at my inability to communicate effectively. Although I got instructions that were completely clear, I ended up on the wrong floor talking with the wrong person, who just coincidentally had the same name as the person I was supposed to meet. While this is now a comical memory, anxious me on the first day of work worried that all my interactions this summer would end up that way.

Another encounter from that same day reminded me why I came to Aravind and how thankful I am for this experience. As I waited in the waiting room of the pediatric clinic to talk to a doctor, a 6 or 7-year-old girl in a bright pink, fluffy dress came and sat next to me. Her mother was with her and was talking and joking with her as parents often do to make the time pass more quickly. The girl peeked over at me with curiosity (despite the fact that I am Indian by origin and wear Indian clothing, patients in the clinics somehow always seem to know I’m not from here and stare with curiosity). Since we were waiting and she seemed bored, I decided to try my luck in talking to her. “What is your name?” I asked. In response, she smiled brightly and timidly hid behind her mother, who then continued the conversation in broken English. The little girl’s reaction and her mother’s amazing effort in talking to me captures many of the interactions I have had since I arrived at Aravind. Everyone seems curious about who I am, and they are all extremely appreciative and supportive of my work. This curiosity is mutual, and as a result, I am constantly learning new things from my many interactions with patients and staff at Aravind. Also, the patients and staff all try their best to speak with me in English despite the initial disappointment that despite my Indian origin, I know no Tamil.

Suffice it to say, my time at Aravind so far has made me even more grateful for this experience than I already was. In two weeks, I have gotten lost in the hospital and managed to find my way out. I have met so many incredible patients and staff. I climbed a mountain and hiked with LAICO (Lions Aravind Institute of Community Ophthalmology) staff, which was definitely out of my comfort zone (going to a park is generally the most nature I can handle). I have seen a completely different side of medicine as I waited with an apprehensive mother as her premature baby screamed while getting tested for Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) right in front of her. I have seen so much in such little time, and I can only imagine how much more I have yet to see.


Hike with LAICO

What would you do to see the Taj Mahal?

Wed, 06/06/2018 - 15:50

What lengths would you go to to see the Taj Mahal? If you were like most (sane) tourists, you’d probably do a 3 hour tour bus ride from Delhi to Agra, a half hour auto-rickshaw ride, and cough up the 1000 rupee foreigner’s entrance fee. But Angela and I, we’re not totally sane people. Oh no, we much prefer to do things the hard way…

I’m Stephanie, I’m 20 and from Sydney, Australia. I’m a rising junior in Wharton, concentrating in Business Economics and Public Policy and Statistics. I’m also minoring in international development, which is where my passions lie and why I’m in India. I will be interning at Shahi Exports, the largest garment exporter in India, where I will be researching and designing an initiative to improve the welfare of garment workers.

But let me go back to our adventure. I arrived in Delhi at midnight, and had 36 hours to get a taste of this vibrant city before flying south. Being your typical go-getter Penn types, Angela and I spontaneously decided to visit the Taj Mahal the next morning. Also being your typical go-getter Penn types, we totally overbooked it on the tourist sites. A visit to the Qutb Minar, a trip to Dilli Haat (the first of many times where we tried to haggle, felt proud of ourselves for halving the price, and later realized we were ripped off anyway), and lunch with the PHFI interns Hareena and Varshini later – and we were cutting it very fine for our bus to Agra. When our Uber driver stopped for gas at a station mid-ride and we didn’t know the Hindi to tell him that we were in a desperate hurry, the bus was well and truly missed.

But with a combination of the desire for adventure and a lot of sunk cost fallacy ringing in our ears, we decided to go to Agra anyway – and ran across 4-lane-beeping-horn traffic to climb on a public bus.

This might be a good point to mention that the temperature in Delhi is over 40C (or 100F for you Americans). And this public bus, well – let’s just say that when you pay US$3 for a 3.5 hour ride, it’s probably too good to be true – and in this case, “too good to be true” means there will not be A/C, you will be drowning in your own sweat, and conservatively rationing gulps of the water you are sharing. But hey, at least there’s a Sanjay Dutt Bollywood film playing in the background.

Hour 1 of 3.5 (pre-any dreaded realizations)

Halfway through the ride which is meant to take us to Agra by 6pm, Angela gasps: “The Taj Mahal stops ticketing at 5pm.” 5pm!! So we’d flown all the way to Delhi, driven 2.5 hours in sweat – only to miss the very Taj Mahal we’d come all the way for? Now keep in mind that we were probably pretty dehydrated, slightly delirious (to the point where laughing at our own situation was the only way to deal) and definitely falling victim to sunk costs – so when we decided to book a room for the night with the intention of waking up at sunrise to visit the Taj Mahal – we weren’t too ridiculous, right?

We hopped off at Agra, and took an auto-rickshaw to Agra Fort. Riding through the dusty streets of Agra was honestly such a sensory overload. The constant honking horns, the cows and monkeys roaming the streets , the stalls lining every inch of the sidewalk selling lemon water and fruits, the families of 8 crammed into one tiny auto-rickshaw – it was such an energetic, buzzing place. If you think Locust Walk is busy at 10.20am, you haven’t seen Agra.

Agra Fort

After visiting the magnificently vibrant Agra Fort, past home of the Mughal emperors and present home of adorable baby monkeys, we stayed the night with no toiletries, no luggage, and nothing but the sweat-soaked clothing on our backs #lowmaintenance. The next morning at sunrise, it was time to go.

Call us crazy and extremely basic for eschewing all plans to pursue this one monument. But whatever you call us, we don’t regret it at all. So many famous tourist landmarks are over-hyped and disappoint in real life. But when I walked through that red sandstone main archway (drawaza) and first spotted that majestic marble mausoleum (sun rising in the background) – I think it was all worth it.

Slumdog Millionaire Inspired

Wed, 06/06/2018 - 12:38

My parents keep asking me why I had to choose India. “Why not somewhere closer to home? Somewhere safer? Somewhere more western or more developed? Why not go with your second choice instead to Shanghai, a place you’re already familiar with?” I chose India because, probably like most other CASI interns, I wanted to challenge myself by doing the unconventional, becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable. Although I’ve lived in two different states in America, lived abroad in China for seven years, travelled a fair amount, and spent weeks by myself in foreign places, I’ve never been somewhere where I was the minority, was completely unfamiliar with the culture, didn’t speak the local language, and stayed for 10 weeks. And especially not for an internship. To be honest I’m equal parts terrified and excited, which is what makes this internship so appealing.


Plus, when I searched for programs through GIP, India was one of the few that included International Relations, my major, in its description. As a rising sophomore who has absolutely no idea of future career paths or where my major will take me, Shahi Exports seemed like a good starting block. At Shahi, I will be working with the Organizational Development (OD) department, which is a branch of HR focused on the wellbeing of workers. Each of us will be choosing a project related to improving the lives of the garment factory workers. Our projects, either individual or group, will aim to increase the comfort of the workers while also increasing their productivity and providing benefits to the company. After researching for 10 weeks, we will  be suggesting improvements the company can make and presenting our ideas to company directors. With my passion for women’s rights, I’m interested in projects particularly focused on lives of female workers, such as having female supervisors in factories, menstrual health, or sexual harassment.


I’ve also wanted to go to India for a long time. Truth be told my interest and curiosity started after watching Slumdog Millionaire (yes I know it’s not the most accurate portrayal of India). My familiarity with India and its culture actually really isn’t much. It consists of the two Bollywood movies I watched before coming here, getting Indian food from Sitaar and Ekta at Penn (which is arguably worse than the airplane dinner I ate on Air India), getting my eyebrows threaded, and my mom’s brief description of her business trip to New Delhi last summer, “It’s really hot and there’s a lot of poverty.” However, I also know that India has a deep and rich history filled with conflict and beauty that dates back thousands of years. Its immense diversity among different regions and difference from the West is what makes India so fascinating for me. I’m excited to travel every weekend and explore all these different parts of Indian culture.


So, armed with 80 tablets of malaria pills, too many protein bars, extensive warnings to not drink the tap water, and an empty journal, I’m ready to start my adventure here.


Two modes of local transportation

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 06:33

Depending on the field work for the day, I can take two different modes of transportation (the metro or the suburban train). The Kolkata Suburban Railway is a suburban rail system that serves the suburbs surrounding Kolkata. In India, railways are heavily used infrastructures and used by a majority of the population. Based on the number of stations and track length, the Kolkata Suburban Railway is the largest suburban railway network in India.The first metro railway in India, the Kolkata Metro is the second busiest metro system in India. The metro offers 300 services daily and carries over 650,000 passengers. From my observation, unlike the Kolkata Suburban Railway (suburban rail system ), the Metro has air conditioning. The Metro is clean and filled with blue-collar and white-collar workers and students. Their clothing is mostly modern. I get uncomfortable stares that makes me feel like an alien. I try to work on my Bengali and try to engage in small talk, but the language barrier is hard to overcome. I was asked once if I am a soccer player or date an African soccer player. I told them that I am a student and conducting a community-based research focused on water, sanitation and hygiene. The train ride is usually short and doesn’t give us enough time to have a full lengthy conversation.


The suburban rail system doesn’t have  air conditioning since people large number of people can’t afford it for long distance. Hundreds of local people use the suburban rail system to travel. The trains are very dirty and ruin down and have not been replaced by the government. The train travels a long distance. My commute to the South 24 Parganas takes about 1-1.5 hours depending on the stop. The train is stuffy, jammed packed, not and hot. Sometimes the train is charged with high energy  of people laughing and vendors selling fruits, vegetables, toys, knick-knacks, snacks and other miscellaneous items. I like to purchase the hard candy, popcorn and key chains. Although I am only 68 inches, I feel like the former wrestler, Andre the Giant. I shadow over the other women and sometimes the men on the train. Their clothes are often traditional. On good days, I get to ride on the  women only carts. I feel more comfortable sitting in the women only cart and have meet a few transgender women. I wonder If they have ever been harassed by other people on the train. The mixed cart is mostly filled with men, sometimes makes me feel tense and uncomfortable. The high volume of people and lack of cleanliness makes the train very dirty. Compared to the suburban rail system, the metro carries less people for a shorter distance. The trains are more comfort and upgraded. The suburban rail system transports more people and travels are longer distance.


Unlike the Metro, the rail system is jammed packed especially during high peak time. It is even packed on the weekends. I never have room to move and normally stand for the entire train ride. My conversations with the local travelers are usually through eye contact. A few conversations are facilitated through my Indian colleague who travels to the field with me. I have been asked questions that range from “Who am I”, “Where am I from”, “Why am I here” and “Do I speak Bengali”. Even if I cannot answer a majority of their questions on my own, I usually meet their interests and curiosity with a smile.

Depending on the final destination, the fares are less than $2 each way. I’m fortunately to be able to afford a personal taxi and have the privilege to choose the suburban rails system and Metro as my primary mode of transportation. Some of the reasons for this decision are: (1) I am frugal, (2) I live in a major U.S. city and like taking public transportation, (3) public transportation gives me a better sense of the community and public policy and (4) I feel more like a neighbor ads less like a tourist and foreigner. This always me to be fully immerse in the everyday life of local residents and understand the Indian caste system. I noticed that although we purchase roundtrips tickets every day, the conductor never comes around to check our tickets. I always wonder what will happen if we do not purchase our tickets on our way to the field. Every morning, I  look forward to taking the Metro, the rail system and the tok-tok. It is my gateway to a community that I admire and respect.









Just Getting Started

Sun, 06/03/2018 - 07:51

Hi! I’m Madeleine Grunde-McLaughlin, one of the interns at Aravind Eye Care Systems this summer. I am a rising junior, a Cognitive Science major in the College of Arts and Sciences, and I’m very interested in the application of technology and behavioral science to public health. By interning abroad, I want to put myself out of my comfort zone and embrace the unknown. I am trying to have few expectations and let the experience take me where it will. India will be a wonderful place to learn, with its growing economy and population, cultural and geographical distance from the West, and many public health opportunities.

I am writing this post on the plane from Delhi to Madurai (this post is published a few days late since I just got Wifi!). Although most of my time so far has been spent recovering from jet lag, I got a brief introduction to Delhi yesterday at the Indian Habitat Center. To think I used to call Philly driving hectic! I cannot wait to get settled at Inspiration House, explore Madurai, and meet our supervisors at Aravind. I have immense respect for the work the people at Aravind do, their compassion, and their commitment to eliminating needless blindness no matter a person’s ability to pay. I’m so excited to learn more about how they organize such a massive endeavor to deliver quality care for all people.

Above all this summer, I want to push myself to realize where I am ignorant. Professionally, I have not previously worked within a large organization, and I want to internalize Aravind’s spirit of doing work for the sake of compassion and helping those in need. Personally, I have never been abroad for this long and do not know how it will affect me. Culturally, I have spent my whole life in the Philly area, so I don’t know what parts of my experience I consider normal but are actually unique, and vice versa. In the week I spent in Amman before flying to India, I noticed the difference with which people approached and talked about topics such as culture, colonialism, and Eurocentrism. Even if the ideas were the same, the delivery was different than what I had experienced in the U.S. I am most looking forward to meeting people at the hospital, local people in Madurai, and other international students staying at the Inspiration House, having fun together and listening to their perspectives. At this point in my life I feel as though I have some to give, but much more to learn, and I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity.


Our first views of Madurai!

Stopping by the mall to get kurtas

An Adventure Begins

Wed, 05/30/2018 - 13:44

Despite the frequent warnings that India operates in a constant state of controlled chaos, I was not prepared for my first few days in India—and I’m not sure if anyone can ever be.

For the last several days I have been exploring Northern India with fellow CASI intern Piotr. Our journey began in Bombay, where the differences between India the West could be felt as soon as I stepped out the airport terminal. Upon exiting past armed airport security, my senses were immediately assaulted by sweltering heat, an array of new smells, and sounds from a sea of chauffeurs, families, and taxi drivers. From there forward, I have not ceased to be amazed by this country in its people, food, culture, history, belief, and landscape.

Dhobi Ghat at dusk

In Bombay, Piotr and I spent our first full day wandering the streets, enjoying the bustling markets, exotic temples and quiet(er) beaches. We learned to plan our days around meals and clothing changes, for the heat and humidity left us drenched in sweat after just a couple hours of walking. We visited the obligatory tourist sites, such as the Shree Mahalakshmi Temple and Haji Ali Dargah, walked by some of the houses of famous Bollywood stars on Juhu beach, and were blown away by the immense outdoor laundry operation at Dhobi Ghat, however my most memorable moments came from simply wondering.

“Indian Time” is undoubtedly different from home, but is far from uniform. The speed and intensity of each area seem to vary in both time and location, making rigid planning pleasantly impossible. By instead spending our precious time in the city following crowds and excitement, we found ourselves privy to alleyway cricket matches and Victoria Terminus during rush hour, leaving us with a more organic perspective. (Because describing each of these places in detail would take many more pages, I’ll let some of my photographs speak for themselves)

Evening rush at Victoria Terminus


Although our time in Delhi was short, its composition served as a sharp contrast to Varanasi. While Delhi is an expansive capital full of consulates and remnants of colonialism, Varanasi is a city of narrow cobblestone passageways, religious holiness, and touts. There is no other word I can think of to describe the place other than raw. By this I mean that no matter which way you turn in old city, you will be confronted with visceral sights, whether that be the austere holy men that come to the ghats to happily die, clusters of mangey cows and dogs grazing on trash, or most famously, public cremation on the burning ghat. That is not to mention the unimaginable poverty in each city that is constantly present and quite jarring.

Morning aarti on the Varanasi Ghats

The potency of every experience in Varanasi, and really in India overall, has created a sort of emotional rollercoaster for me each day. Every morning I have awoken enthusiastically at the crack of dawn (quite unusual for me) to make use of the cooler weather, before subsequently bouncing through feelings of amazement of my surroundings, lethargy and stickiness from the heat, overwhelm from constant stimuli, to calm within the chaos, to hunger, uncomfortable digestive unrest, and finally, exhaustion.


Although each city has its own unique qualities, they all share a vibrancy and mystery that has sparked in me a deep excitement for my internship in Madurai.

An ‘enlightened’ monkey

Now that you’ve read this far, I think a proper introduction is in order. My name is Oliver Priebe, though many of my friends call me Ollie. I am a rising sophomore in the Vagelos Life Science and Management dual degree program and will be working as an intern at the Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai this summer. Although I have no definitive plans for my future, I am broadly interested in helping other—especially those typically underserved—with technology. I’m also always in the constant pursuit of to becoming a better human. This always comes off as overly idealistic, but I approach the challenge by trying to frequently update my worldview by always asking questions, pursuing novel experiences (like going to India for three months) and seeking people with different perspectives. Some of these musings are actualized on campus in my involvement as a molecular biology research assistant in the Goulian lab, as an undergraduate venture fellow in the McNulty Leadership Ventures program, and by taking advantage of the inspiring speakers that Penn has on campus as much as my schedule will allow. In terms of formal academics, I’m currently seeking a bachelors in biophysics from the college with a Wharton concentration in statistics, for the requirements for these programs best overlap with my current interests. For pleasure, I enjoy playing soccer, listening to podcasts, keeping up with the new season of Westworld (which may be tricky given Indian broadband) and finding a quiet place to curl up with a good book.

Looking forward to documenting my experiences here over the weeks to come.

Note: Although I had all but completed this post 3 days ago in Varanasi, a mix of spotty internet connection and poor health has kept me from publishing until now. Also, since I already rambled on for too long in this post I think I’ll save my initial Aravind expectations and project details for my next post.


more photos:

Click to view slideshow.

Last Minute American Indulgences and Arriving in Delhi

Wed, 05/30/2018 - 07:58

Hello everyone!

My name is Makeda Barr-Brown and I’m a rising Senior at Penn from Hartford, CT. I’m majoring in International Relations and completing a minor in History. Over the summer I will be an intern at LEAP Skills in New Delhi.

My last couple of days in the States were jam-packed with last minute American indulgences, mostly lots of fudge, peanut butter, The Food Network, and Rupaul’s Drag Race. I figured that it was my last chance to enjoy some of my favorite things before I went off to Delhi for 10 weeks.

Before I left, I didn’t know what to expect from New Delhi. I had read horror stories about extreme poverty, corruption and crime, disrespect towards women, and heat that would scorch me alive. To be honest, the closer I got to boarding my flight the less excited I was becoming. I was worried that I was going to be alone in a dangerous city with nothing to do. I was already looking forward to coming home. My internship was beginning to seem like more of a requirement and less of an adventure.

While there is some truth in all of the warnings I’ve heard about Delhi (I can confirm that I drown in my own sweat daily), there is also something magical about this city. I didn’t realize this until yesterday night when I was in an Uber on my way back from work. I was coming back after the sun had gone down and there was a completely different energy to the city. People were in less of a rush and the streets were quieter. I could feel a certain sense of mystery in the air (potentially because I couldn’t see very far in the darkness with all the haze). There were bright, colorful lights everywhere. I could hear the mooing of cows in the street, the laughter of children, and music playing from people’s cars. It was refreshing to hear something besides the usual car horns and people trying to sell me things. For the first time in my 4 days here the city had slowed down enough for me to see its beauty.

As I continue to get to know the city that I’ll be calling home for the next 10 weeks, I hope to be able to gain a better understanding of the culture. I hope to be able to find tranquility in all the chaos, quiet in all the noise, and light in a place that is often depicted as being very dark. I am starting to feel much more comfortable in my surroundings, so hopefully I’ll be able to find the adventure that I was yearning for before I arrived.

Return to the City of Joy

Tue, 05/29/2018 - 20:17

Kolkata always welcome me with a roar. From the moment I step off the plane, I can smell and taste the city lights before I see it. Monsoon season arrived early, and the weather is hot and humid. Kolkata is a hard place to navigate due to the language barrier,  cultural difference, gender bias and skin tone discrimination. Despite all of this, I love Kolkata and the country of India. What I appreciate most about India is the food, diversity, and wonders.



The street food reminds me of home. You have to be safe when eating street food from anywhere including the United States. I try to go to the places that draw large crowds and make sure that I visit the same vendors to establish good rapport. My favorite is the chickpeas kathi roll. I also love getting fresh sugar cane juice from an my favorite street vendor and her husband. They sometimes ask me very personal questions about my love life and even offered to help me find a husband.  Food is where the heart is. Kolkata definitely has my heart…and my wallet.



I love the robust street life in the in Kolkata. I’m very cautious and alert when crossing the street during rush hour. I love riding the tok-tok and get to share a ride with different people. Many folks would either stare at me, ignored me, or try to spark a conversation. I have been able to pick up words like Dhan’yabāda (“Thank you”).



Women are often vulnerable to harassment or violence when they have to travel long distances to fetch water, use shared toilets, or practice open defecation. Women and girls often wait until nightfall to defecate, which increases the risk of assault. Convenient access to  sanitation facilities increase privacy and reduce risk to women and girls of harassment. Water and sanitation play a crucial role in the transmission of diarrheal disease. My research is focused on specific WASH waterborne diseases that are more susceptible to global climate change and change.

Growing Comfortable with Letting Go

Sun, 05/27/2018 - 10:36

Why India? The more I am asked this question (specifically by my worried parents) the more I understand my decision. There were key moments in my life that brought me to where I am now, so allow me to offer some background information. My name is Lizette Grajales and I am a rising Senior at the University of Pennsylvania. As a student in the College of Arts and Sciences, I am studying Biological Basis of Behavior with a minor in Chemistry and an ambition to pursue a career in the medical field.

I began my educational career as a first generation Latina at Penn eager to maximize my learning in every way possible. The social and academic challenges I faced taught me to proudly value my cultural identity and to appreciate experiences that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I quickly realized my growth was tethered to moments of adversity, frustration and (of course) awkwardness, thus, I grew eager to be challenged in my learning experiences.

I always knew I wanted to travel abroad as a student but I was never sure where I would go. As I began applying to programs, I sought opportunities that matched my busy pre-med schedule with my personal goals and ambitions. Fortunately, I found that exact thing in the CASI summer internship program. This summer, I was given the great opportunity to intern at Aravind Eye Care Systems in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. This allows me to live abroad during the summer break and leave my pre-med course schedule uninterrupted while also gaining invaluable clinical and research experience in a hospital. However, what I am most excited about is having the opportunity to be in a new and unfamiliar environment. India, with its welcoming and vibrant culture, offer me the chance to have a unique lifestyle that will certainly push me out of my comfort zone.

Besides learning about the country’s culture and the operations of the Aravind hospital, I aim to learn to let go. I anticipate having difficulties adjusting but I know that each moment of frustration or confusion will bring a new a lesson. As I leave behind my overwhelmingly busy schedule, my typical responsibilities, and my usual habits, I will focus on living each new experience with an open mind and serenity. Being so far away (in miles and hours) from the people and places I love will surely be difficult, but with each new day, I will push myself to be more comfortable with letting go.


Hello, India

Sun, 05/27/2018 - 09:58

Hi all!

My name is Roshni Kailar, and I will be interning at Aravind Eye Care Systems in Madurai, India this summer with three other Penn students. I am a rising junior from Atlanta, GA, and I am majoring in Biology and planning to minor in Statistics and Chemistry. While I know I want to be a doctor, I am completely undecided about which field within medicine I want to pursue. I have worked in labs that study gastroenterology, cardiology, as well as immunology; now, I am expanding my knowledge of biological systems by working in an eye hospital!

I am excited to step outside my comfort zone in a number of different ways this summer. The first step in this mission to go beyond what is comfortable is becoming more independent. As an only child, I have always been extremely close to my parents and have been pretty sheltered. Deciding to go to Philadelphia for college was one step towards becoming more independent. However, going alone to India, a country I have only ever traveled to with my parents, is a good next step in my quest for independence.

Another way I am going outside my comfort zone is by working in a more clinical setting. Since I was a rising junior in high school, I have been conducting research work in a lab. I have grown accustomed to associating medicine with cells and genes. Seeing that medicine is about people and their specific needs rather than simply about lab work was an important factor for me when deciding to go to Aravind this summer. Despite this realization, embracing the social aspect of medicine will be a new thing for a girl who is used to pipetting and running PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to understand medical problems.

At Aravind, I will be working on patient education. Specifically, I hope to help inform patients about eye conditions and how they can determine when they need help. Additionally, I want to help patients understand what sorts of behaviors they can adopt in order to live more healthy lives when it comes to eye care. One of the things I am most excited for at Aravind is volunteering in eye camps because I would be in direct contact with the patients who need the care the most. I am sure that I will learn a great deal, and I am excited to see what I can do this summer at Aravind!

First impressions

Thu, 05/24/2018 - 06:30

I never thought I could feel so strongly about a certain place until I arrived in India for the very first time. Since stepping outside of Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport in Mumbai, I’ve relearned how to cross the road, tried some of the best street food of my life, totally reevaluated my concept of personal space, observed more religious traditions than I could count, experienced Delhi belly in Delhi, and picked up just enough Hindi to amuse the chaiwallah when trying to ease my insatiable chai craving. I can see why people either love or hate India — and I can’t possibly imagine going back home to Chicago in August.

Although I don’t start my internship at Shahi Exports in Bangalore until June, I wanted to come to India early so that I could travel around some of the North before heading down South for 10 weeks. As an Urban Studies major (C’20), I’m thrilled to be able to experience life in some of the most dynamic cities in the world and also to work with a highly dedicated team of people to learn about the role garment manufacturing and corporate social responsibility play in the world’s largest democracy.

Life in India somehow seems both astonishingly fast- and slow-paced at the same time. Everywhere I turn, there’s so much movement, energy, and people, and yet going somewhere or accomplishing any task typically takes much longer than usual… But in a weird way, I like how everything seems more flexible than in the States. For every nonexistent location on Google Maps or excruciatingly slow cab ride through noisy traffic, there’s a charmingly friendly resident excited to practice his English through conversation or unexpectedly beautiful home temple just waiting to pleasantly surprise me and my travel buddy Oliver around every corner.

One of my goals for this summer is definitely to work on being able to let go and embrace unexpected situations wherever and whenever they may pop up. I’ve already been incredibly humbled and blown away by the things I’ve seen, people I’ve talked to, and (of course) the food I’ve tasted, so I’m beyond excited to see what this summer has in store!

Here’s me stepping out of the hustle and bustle of Crawford Market in Bombay (notice the sweat!)

An introduction

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 01:06

Hello world! My name’s Varshini Gali and I’m an incoming junior at Penn from Sarasota, Florida. At Penn, I’m studying Health and Societies in the College of Arts and Sciences. This summer, I’m interning at the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) in Gurgaon, a city near New Delhi. I’m here with my co-intern Hareena, and we’ll be aiding in public health program development.

Although my family is from India, I’ve never visited north India, so I’m very curious to explore the Delhi region and live in this new setting. I’ve stayed briefly in southern cities such as Hyderabad, so it’ll be interesting to discover the parallels between the north and the south. I’ve been taking Hindi classes at Penn for two years, and I’m eager to test my speaking abilities.

At PHFI, my work is primarily focused in development of programs for school-aged children combating non-communicable diseases (NCDs). My first task is to conduct a literature review about current school health programs in India, so we can understand the present situation and identify areas to improve. Navigating government websites to find this information is turning out to be a harder endeavor than I expected, but I’m confident I’ll have a breakthrough at some point. I’m excited to see how this summer will turn out!

Speaking the language

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 04:38

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Hyderabad, and I guess that says it all about my relationship with India. My parents both grew up in this city, but I’m a born and bred New Jersey-an. Picking up on my accented Telugu, the Uber driver who drove us from Hussain Sagar, the manmade lake in the middle of the city, back to where we were staying this evening, asked where I had come from. When I told him that I was from the US, he asked why I spoke Telugu. When I told him my parents were from Hyderabad and spoke Telugu with me, he asked how come I wasn’t better at it.

The Buddha statue on Hussain Sagar

At Penn, I’m a biology major on the pre-med track, and a rising senior. I wanted to do something this summer that would let me work with people, and this opportunity drew me to India. I’m interning this summer at the Naandi Foundation, which is based in Hyderabad but works with many different locations across the country. As the work we’ll be doing at this internship is fieldwork-based, language is a huge factor. My hesitant Telugu, which I find myself more often than not embarrassed of, can provide me a great advantage in this part of India, if only I go through the exercise of practicing it.

Naandi’s work spans several ventures across India, including a few that we will get the opportunity to work with: the Araku coffee project, and the Nanhi Kali and N Star projects for the education and development of the girl child. The foundation began almost 20 years ago with a focus on maternal and infant health, and has expanded to serve many other needs of communities across the country and to otherwise help improve the livelihoods of members of tribal communities.

Samples in our office of the Araku coffee sold in their first store in Paris

Tomorrow, Judy and I are leaving for the Araku Valley to get a hands-on understanding on Naandi’s work here that has connected the Adivasi community to Kyoto, Seoul, and Paris, where Araku coffee has opened its first store. We’ll learn about sustainable farming and biodynamic agriculture. We’ll meet members of the community and explore their relationship with the foundation. We’ll be eating mangoes and hiking hills and valleys. We’ll talk to the coffee farmers in Araku to learn how things have changed over the past decade, and where they see their work going in the future. We’ll be learning the language of the earth in Araku Valley. And we’ll share its stories with you.

What does coffee have to do with being pre-dental?

Thu, 05/17/2018 - 03:37

Hello! I am Judy Choi, a rising junior majoring in Biology. After graduation, I hope to attend dental school. This summer, I’ll be working at the Naandi Foundation of India, where the headquarter is based in Hyderabad, Telangana. Naandi is a social sector organization focused on advancing the socio-economic standings of underprivileged populations. The foundation launches projects to promote better health needs, children’s education, and sustainable livelihoods.

One of the projects that I’m working on is its coffee project. Naandi’s coffee project helps farmers in Araku Valley, Andhra Pradesh, enhance their qualities of life by educating them with knowledge on Biodynamic coffee crop growing and harvesting. The project directly increases their income, makes use of the arable land in the Eastern Ghats, and stabilize the coffee industry’s self-sustainability. Naandi does all of this by educating the farmers about the best farming and harvesting methods, management techniques, and the global coffee industry.

As an intern at Naandi, I will be working on increasing awareness of the coffee farmer project to the general public and to coffee consumers. I’ll be creating journalistic content accompanied with photographs and video clips in order to develop stories of the coffee farmers from various fields and sites.

What this means: I’ll be spending about four to five weeks in rural India observing coffee farmers and their families!

What you’re wondering: What does coffee have to do with being pre-dental? (Other than keeping you awake and caffeinated through school)

Although my project might not seem to align completely with my professional aspirations, it does relate to my Biology major: agriculture is an application of biological research and earth sciences. Moreover, the aspect of my internship that requires me to communicate with people who speak Telugu, Oriya, and no English, and create a presentable and compelling story about them will shape me into a more culturally aware individual. I believe that interacting with the locals — interviewing and capturing their daily lives — would allow me to break the linguistic and cultural barriers between us. Ultimately, I hope it will mold me into someone who recognizes that culture is a multifaceted variable including economic, religious, psychological, and biological conditions and who can work around those variables by communicating effectively with people with different cultures.

About me

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 05:37

Hi everyone! My name is Hareena, I’m from Troy, Michigan, and I’m a rising junior at Penn. I’m in the College of Arts and Sciences, majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Health Care Management. This summer, I’m interning at the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) in Gurgaon, India.

I am writing this post after finishing my first day at PHFI, and I’m nervous but excited to see what the next 10 weeks has in store. Going abroad in an academic or professional capacity has been on my college bucket list, so I’m thrilled about being in India this summer. My family is from India, so I’m looking forward to exploring new places and aspects of Indian culture, hopefully doing some weekend traveling with my co-intern, Varshini, and getting to interact with everyone at PHFI to learn more about public health in India, and diabetes in particular. My project this summer is to help further develop a diabetes awareness program in schools. Part of this goal includes working on a social media campaign platform to promote diabetes awareness in students, and I’m curious to see what the end product will look like.

As my first day at PHFI is wrapped up, I have both a clearer picture of what my work will be like and also a deeper curiosity about how this internship experience will unfold. From navigating possible differences in the workplace environment to navigating the streets of India, I hope it’ll all be an amazing adventure.