Perspectives on Communities

This past week, I was fortunate to accompany the program director at FPAI-Hyderabad to his bi-weekly trips to local slums and villages where outreach clinics have been set up. During both of my trips to Jinnaram and Rasoolpura, I began to gain a better understanding of the difference and similarities of an urban versus rural setting.
FPAI-Hyderabad's Jinnaram Training Center

FPAI-Hyderabad's Jinnaram Training Center

My first trip was to Jinnaram, a village area located on the outskirts of Hyderabad. The car ride to Jinnaram, passing through acres of rice fields and countless poultry farms, took nearly 1.5 hours to reach our destination from the FPAI office. Upon arrival to the FPAI family planning clinic center, I was surprised to see the overflow of patients lined up in the waiting room to see the doctor. I initially expected the demand for services to be low since it took only 5 minutes to drive through the main road in Jinnaram. Patients ranged from grandmothers and grandfathers in line for routine check-ups to young mothers cradling their newborn babies. The resources of the center were well stocked, with patients receiving free medication at the end of the visit as well. The biggest challenge of all was being able to be creative when simple tools like table stirrups were not available. The doctors at FPAI courteously allowed me to sit-in on screenings and observe a couple of procedures. Patients underwent a visual inspection screening for cancer using acetic acid. Being in a rural region, the accessibility to certain tools could be unreliable. When the examination lamp broke and a flashlight was nowhere to be found, the doctor improvised by using her phone’s flashlight to finish conducting the cervical cancer screenings. To observe a different poverty environment, FPAI led me to their outreach clinic in an urban slum called Rasoolpura.
Rasoolpura Outreach Clinic Center

Rasoolpura Outreach Clinic Center

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Central water tank located in Rasoolpura, filtered water donated by local company as a corporate social responsibility initiative.

                    On the drive over to the Rasoolpura slum, I  discovered that I was working in the second largest slum in Hyderabad. With a length of  just over 1.37 kilometres, the narrow alleyways and stacked houses push the boundaries for occupancy capacity. Rows of blue barrels lined the sides of homes as families stock up on filtered water, sourcing the water from an NGO donated water tank that is often refilled unpredictably. The conditions of the population living in the urban slum seemed to face more challenges to achieve a high quality of life as I learned about their lack of a filtered water source, cramped living spaces, and low wage amounts that had to cover all food and living expenses. However, people in the rural regions are able to produce their own food, so their living expense are cut down. Many of the patient that visited the Rasoolpura clinic found out about the services through word of mouth and community-based advocacy. Each day, the doctors and nurses walk around the slum to share information with people about sexual and reproductive health after completing their shift at the center. The main operating challenge for the rural slum was having patients become aware of the services, so FPAI tackles this challenge by going door-to-door and distributing contraceptives in this manner as well.
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Embroidery student at the Jinnaram training center.

Not only was I able to learn about the clinical side of healthcare in these regions, I learned about non-medical factors that directly impacted community members’ quality of life as well. As the living conditions and resources differ in each urban area compared to a rural region, I found that in both communities young women were motivated by similar reasons to sign up for skill training classes. From computer training to embroidery to beautician training, the centers provided a wide variety to satisfy each person’s own interest. Some people did not plan to continue higher education due to restrictions from their father. They wanted to build embroidery work skills to have a source of income to support their siblings and save money by making their clothes themselves. Others have plans to get their Bachelors or Masters degrees and simply took embroidery classes to fill their free time as they transitioned between school years. The wide variety of future aspirations showed evidence of the rapid progression towards further education of young women in India and the resilience of girls to pursue an opportunity of higher education. However, the most distinct progress I observed amongst the young women was the willingness to pass along the information they gained through the sexual and reproductive health seminars. In a partnership with FPAI - Hyderabad, these girls had gotten information about a wide span of sexual and reproductive health topics. When I asked if they passed along the information to anyone else, many said they utilize the knowledge gained through the workshops to help their younger siblings learn about sexual and reproductive health topics (SRH topics). A young mother, with a 5-year-old daughter, said she was willing to discuss SRH topics with her daughter in the future. This confirmation shows a bright future for the next generation of elders to become more comfortable addressing SRH topics with their children. The evolution in SRH topics is rapidly changing within the younger generation and allowing for greater freedom of discussion. Regardless of their positioning as a youth from the rural villages or urban slum, I noticed a positive reception in wanting to pass along SRH information to future generations and reducing the taboo stigma around SRH. The generational shift towards open mindsets about historically unspoken topics is prevalent in both rural and urban settings.

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Home Again

I thought everything would feel strange and different in the US when I returned after three months in India. Yet it all felt the same. My initial impression on entering the airport in Chicago: “I didn’t miss the TSA and it smells like saturated fat.” Nothing about the US feels strange being back, rather it just occurs to me how things are different here. Restaurant menus are filled with beef. I can now wear shorts. The traffic is well ordered and every home in my suburban neighborhood sits surrounded by a large green yard. I realize that I’ll need time to process my experience and my time in India. I don’t know that I understood everything while I was there but now I have a chance to mull over it. I know the trip changed me for the better but it will take me time to figure out how exactly.
I learned how to cook some Indian food and so I made some for my friends and family.

I learned how to cook some Indian food and so I made some for my friends and family.

Everyone asks me about my trip and I don’t really know what to say about it. I reply that it was good and leave it at that. When people ask me what the coolest part was I usually say my time in Dharamshala, where I ate cake at the Dalai Lama’s birthday party, hike to waterfalls and converse with Tibetan refugees. I can say my proudest moment in India was when I was able to trick a waiter into thinking I knew Hindi with the help of my friend. On a long layover in Delhi before my flight, a friend I made in Bangalore and I met up to pal around the city. After a few hours, we grew hungry and headed for dinner. My friend ordered for us in Hindi and the waiter replied by asking if I could handle spicy food, although my friend said yes, the waiter still mentioned that they didn’t recommend it for westerners. Of course, he did ask me. Later in the meal when we needed more butter naan I turned around and said “bhaiyaa” to get his attention. (Which means brother, people of similar age to you are referred to as brother or sister while those who are older than you are auntie or uncle.) Startled, the waiter came over and asked how the food was. “Theek hai” I relied. He looked at my friend and asked if I spoke Hindi. “I told you he has been here a long time,” they replied. I was pleased by how the waiter’s respect for me had risen immensely.
The tanka I got in Dharamshala.

The tanka I got in Dharamshala.

I learned a great deal about urban planning in my three months conducting research in India. I’ve avoided discussing it here for fear of boring everyone. For my efforts, I produced a 39 double spaced page paper, although 3 of those pages are citations. If you are interested in reading it, let me know. I found that even when I was still there, everyone asked me when I would be coming back. I didn’t have an answer. I said that I had to finish college and then I might be able to, but I said that I would return. My grandparents asked me the same when I returned. Whenever I do return, I know I have some friends there and I look forward to seeing them again.
My dog was happy to see me.

My dog was happy to see me.

(When I started this blog, I said I was biased and you might have figured out what that bias is. All I really have to say now is see if for yourself, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.)

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Reflections on SISA, growth, and traveling solo

Life is back to normal now in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and as I’m going through the motions of completing mundane tasks like moving into my new house and going back to school shopping, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on my time in India.

I talked a lot in my last blog post about my memories from India, and how I think of my time in India as just a collection of memories, rather than a story I can easily tell.

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Memories are a funny thing— I have memories that are seemingly so insignificant from my childhood that have stuck with me for 15 years. I wonder, as I’m writing this on my 21st birthday, what memories from India I’ll still have 21 years from now. Even more importantly, I’ve found myself wondering how those memories will shape the person I am 21 years from now.

I’ve already noticed small changes in the person I am since I’ve returned. I appreciate small things about my home in the US now— the feeling of AC, a cold shower, and the organized nature of traffic. But Im also more aware of the things I miss about India, and how different my life might have been if I was born somewhere else. I think I’m more aware of the privileges I was afforded being dealt a lucky hand in where I was born and the family I was born into, and I don’t think I take those privileges as much for granted anymore.

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Besides the small changes, I’m curious to see how this experience impacts me in deeper ways, in the the way I live my life, and the way I travel and see the world in the future.

When I embarked on this fellowship, I wanted to go in with as few plans as I could and figure everything out as I went along. The only goal I set for myself was to do as much of it alone as possible, and try to do this fellowship essentially completely solo. I’ve found that for me, being pushed out of my comfort zone has led me to experience periods of intense personal growth in my life, and I set out to try to make India another personal growth experience.

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Traveling alone certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone, and was exceptionally difficult at times— like when a bus driver lied to me, telling me I was in central Delhi and dropped me off on the side of the highway at 1am, 50 miles from where he said I was. Or when I got scammed out of $100 at a train station, and didn’t have anyone there with me to figure out my next move with. But those setbacks were all part of the adventure, and I wouldn't be the same person or had the same experience if I didn’t have those setbacks.

Traveling solo for 10 weeks was one of the most empowering experiences of my life, and I hope that in 20 years, I’m continuing to seek out experiences that challenge and empower me. My fellowship renewed my sense of adventure and curiosity, reaffirmed my interest in devoting my life to protecting the environment, and taught me that challenge and being uncomfortable can lead to the best things in life.

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As I return to campus and start to imagine what my post-grad life might look like, I hope that India will have taught me to be unafraid of the unknown and being thrust into unfamiliar situations alone. I hope that I return to my classes with a renewed excitement for learning, now that I have a more focused career path ahead of me. And I hope that wherever life takes me throughout this next year and after graduation, I always remember my time in India as one of the greatest adventures of my life.

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Reverse Culture Shock

Many of my friends warned me that reverse culture shock (confusion resulting from going back to your own culture) would be worse than culture shock itself. One friend said "when you go to a new culture, you have an open mind, ready to take in the new culture. You don't expect it to make sense to you." However, when you go home, you expect to feel a certain way, to fit in. You expect it to make sense. So, if home culture doesn't make sense, either due to a change in one's self or one's perceptions, that can be disconcerting. At least, that was my theory. IMG_1127 I'm still processing my departure from India and my re-introduction to the western world. Three months is not that long to be away, but its by far the longest i've ever spent away from the culture I have grown up with. From reading other fellows blogs, I had some things I was expecting- to be confused by the supermarkets, the spacious and uncrowded streets, the level of comfort. And while I did spend a bit of time marveling at the emptiness of London streets and my first real hot shower in three months was one of the most beautiful experiences in the world, I would say I transitioned back to the western conceptions of space and comfort quickly and with ease. I concluded that my reverse culture shock was minimal, and I almost felt disappointed in myself at how easy it was to readjust. Had I learned nothing from India? Did I really let it in the way I thought I did? Am I completely unchanged?
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A circus tent come to life

I woke up my fourth day post-India feeling strange and sad. I began to feel grumpy and lonely, even though I was with my best friend in my favorite city. I felt far away from what I was doing, unable to access the emotions that were natural to me a week ago. I blamed it on jet lag initially, then on my cell phone next (I always blame the technology. But I think now its a different sort of culture shock than I was expecting, one that is harder to spot because it masquerades as the usual feelings of being down and tired. I've spent some time trying to pinpoint exactly what about coming home has made me feel farther away from my own emotions. I think the biggest thing is a sort of existential loneliness. In india it felt like people were always talking to each other and me. Even when neither of us spoke a lick of the others language, people would come up and communicate with their hands or through touch. People were comfortable and interested in my life, and each others. While I know that this experience is influenced by my identity as a white foreigner, I did see many examples of people communicating with each other- asking for help or fighting or just saying hi. In London, the only times I would talk to strangers was during a capitalistic exchange of money for goods. People don't even really speak to each other when one person is in the way, a sort of politeness. I felt strange and sad that now that I was surrounded with people who could speak my language, people were no longer interested in talking. IMG_1175 The effects of this are more drastic than many westerners believe, is my guess. Theres a feeling of togetherness that either arises from or allows the amount of conversation that occurs between strangers in India that does not involve money. You feel a part of something larger, a mass of humans on the bus is a collective energy instead of a collection of individual energies, if that makes any sense. The focus is less on the individual and more on the group- it seems easier to get lost in the crowd. In London, on the tube, it felt like each person was in their own world, minding their own business. I didn't feel a part of something bigger, I didn't feel connected with these people who were sharing the same space as I, who were breathing my air. That's something I didn't expect to hurt, but it did. I felt (and still feel) a sort of loneliness that has nothing to do with how many friends I'm with. Public space is just something I move through, rather than a group of people that I can fold myself into (to some degree). Its a loneliness that arises from our individualistic society, I think, from conceiving of ourselves as our own selves first and foremost, then part of groups or family units second. At its worst, its an overindulgence in ego that cuts us off from everyone, even the people we love.
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I found some french

I woke up another morning, now in my new house in Ann Arbor, and the first words in my head were " I feel empty like a snail shell." Heavy handed and odd metaphor aside, this was a feeling I was dreading to a certain extent, though I have friends who have had similar experiences. I felt like there was nothing here for me in America, that my real life was back in India and that this world of cell phones and avocado toast is the dream. I catch myself making plans as I fall asleep, what state i'm going to visit next, who I'm going to meet up with. Its a scary feeling, that the life i'm returning to, the one I've committed myself to for at least the next 9 months, doesn't feel real. That feeling faded as the day went on, but I still wonder whether it is lying under all the day to day problems I have to face, like moving and writing this blog and buying school books. I worry that if I sit down and give myself the time, I'll find that feeling undercutting everything i'm experiencing right now.
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Ganapathiagraharam temple outside Kumbokonam

This is a pretty depressing blog, and I don't want to suggest that everything is all bad. I've reconnected with some amazing people, i'm excited to be a student again, and I love my new bed. I know from my travelling that I am strong enough to manage and move through these emotions in productive and interesting ways. I worry that I need a fair amount of time  and physical and mental space to process this reverse culture shock, but I have committed to putting my mental health first. These feelings are a gift in some way, allowing me to explore the culture I have always taken for granted and struggled to see because I grew up within its confines, both an interesting intellectual exercise and an opportunity to explore what I want out of culture. What I accept and what I do not accept as truths. India was an incredible journey, and I can't wait to incorporate the joy and confidence I found there into my "regular" life.    

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On Memories and Joy

Today is my last full day in India. I finished my volunteering in Mumbai and have spent the last week and a half traveling with two of my sisters. It was so special to share a piece of my time here with them. Now, I’m sitting in a little café in Rishikesh, solo again, overlooking the Ganges and Himalayan foothills searching for words to summarize my experience fully.
My view right now in Rishikesh... I can't imagine a more breathtaking place for writing.

My view right now in Rishikesh... I can't imagine a more breathtaking place for writing.

At the Taj Mahal with two of my sisters, Lauren and Abby. It was so special to share a piece of my time in India with them!

At the Taj Mahal with two of my sisters, Lauren and Abby.

I’ve tried a few different beginnings to this post and they've ranged from existential crisis to disconnected and rambling mixes of thoughts. At the beginning of this experience, writing felt easy. I just described my surroundings as an observer. Now, I understand the “what” around me much better, but the “why,” “how,” and “now what” have become more and more confusing, complicating, and haunting. My first impression of India was that I wouldn’t be able to fully describe the experience to anyone, but I didn’t realize that I myself would be included in that group while I try to process the ups and downs of the past 2 months. I don’t know that I’ll be able to fully wrap my head around the ways this experience has and will continue to shape me until long after I’m back in the US.
Celebrating Indian Independence Day in Udaipur-- so colorful.

Celebrating Indian Independence Day in Udaipur-- so colorful.

For now, I don’t want to forget. When I don’t have an umbrella and get rained on, I want to remember the little boys who proudly and excitedly took me under their own as they led me to clinic when I was lost in a slum during monsoon. When I buy groceries, I want to remember the familiar toothy grin of the man at the fruit stand I visited every morning. When I get overwhelmed, I want to remember the Buddhist monk who taught me that the gap between discomfort and letting go is understanding. When communication is challenging, I want to remember the kindness of the community manager in clinic who taught me Hindi phrases so that we could talk. When school is stressful, I want to remember the sheer elation I felt when my coworker tapped me on the shoulder to exclaim that she’d passed her final MBA exam. When I see my parents, I want to remember how special it felt when my mom texted me that she wished we could get brunch or when my dad sent me a funny meme—things so casual and natural which felt so juxtaposed. When I have children of my own and watch their Little League games on manicured baseball fields or see their dance recitals in air-conditioned theatres, I want to remember the joyful little boys I saw playing cricket in the slums. India, for me, has redefined joy. The people I’ve met and experiences I've had have filled me with more love and life and passion than I've ever felt. While a part of me is excited to fly home tomorrow, it also feels a bit like turning the page on one of the most invigorating, moving, inspiring, and influential chapters of a book. But, for now, I still have today, and I’m spending it immersed in the joy I have found here.

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Reminiscing Till the End

It took me many tries to write this final blog post. Every time I had started writing, it just dawned on me how it would mark the end to this wonderful experience here. I kept pushing it back, trying to squeeze in as much time as I could. I guess there is a limit to how far back I can push this, as here I am, sitting at the airport, writing my last blog post in India. I have also thought long and hard about what I would talk about or include in this final post. In the end, I felt the best way to mark this ending here would be to go through the many highlights I have experienced this summer (and hopefully even include pictures this time). Before I officially started my internship at NCBS in Bangalore, I took time to visit family on the other side of the country, in the state of Andhra Pradesh. This not only gave me the opportunity to spend time with people I haven’t seen in years, but also the much-needed time to adapt to India’s environment, getting used to the humidity and the heat and the time difference. One of my favorite memories was going to the beach with the family and experiencing the tides of the full moon.
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Full Moon Tides & Vibes

While I was with my grandparents, I stayed in an area that was on the outskirts of the city. A lot of construction was happening but it definitely changed quite a lot since I last came. One thing, however, that is still the same is my grandparent's house.
Grandparent's House

Grandparent's House

View from Above

View of the Colony from a nearby Rooftop

Once I arrived at NCBS, I was in awe of the beauty. It shares its campus with an agricultural school, meaning its house to a plethora of unique flora. Here are a couple of shots of my lab's building and views from the rooftop of the campus.
Stairs to heading to my Lab

Stairs up to my Lab

Vew from the Top

View from the Rooftop of the Campus

My Lab

The Lab

A couple of weeks into my time in Bangalore, I attended a University of Michigan Alumni Meet, where I dined and mingled with a few Wolverines who settled down in the Bangalore area and others who are interning here for the summer.
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Left to Right: Me, Neel, Chris (the other 2 SiSA Fellows in Bangalore at the time)

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Wolverines in Bangalore! Go Blue!

I also explored other main attractions in the city with other interns in my lab. These incursions into the city included Indiranagar, the ISCON Temple, MG Road, and Commercial Street.
ISCON Temple

ISCON Temple

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A Mosque on MG Road decorated for Eid.

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Commercial Street.

On the whole, though, the time spend at Nandi Hills was beyond extraordinary and will always be one of my most memorable experiences in India. Unlike others, I haven't had the chance to see many monkeys during my time here in India, so I was very happy to find so many up their in the hills. We also spent a good bit of time just sitting on the cliffy areas to take in the breathtaking views.

Seek Adventure: Enjoying some snacks on the cliffs Chillin on the Cliffs Flower & Mountain Mother with her Child Perspective

While these outings happened on the weekends, during the weekdays I was in the lab. One of the newest and most unique aspect of this project was working with bees. This was my first time working with animals in research, and I had to catch and then dissect them as part of my project. Unfortunately, I am unable to post a video of me in action, but I do have a picture where I had caught two bees in one vial (a truly tedious feat)! All we had to do was drop some sugar water and pollen at the entrance, and a few bees would pop out. We then single (or double, in this case) them out using Falcon Tubes.

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I hope you enjoyed this little sneak peak into my time here. This marks an end to a truly unforgettable time in my life. Can't wait for my next adventure!

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Moments in time

When I think back on my time in India, I don’t see it as a chronological story I can easily tell to my friends. I see it as a tapestry of moments, all woven together that created a truly indescribable experience. There are certain moments, both good and bad, that I know will stick with me forever, and I reflect back on my time in India more as a list of these moments, rather than a story I could articulately write down.

Visiting a 1000 year old monastery in the village of Tabo

Visiting a 1000 year old monastery in the village of Tabo

Friends ask me excitedly “How was India?! Your Instagrams looked amazing!” and I honestly have no idea what to say. How do I sum up 10 weeks into a cliche statement about how it changed my life? I can’t, unless my friend has five hours to listen to me process my feelings about my two and a half months in India.

India was beautiful

Do I tell my friends about the once in a lifetime beautiful views of the Himalayas I saw backpacking through Spiti Valley, or viewing the Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) in Amer Fort? Or do I tell them about the beauty I saw every day— in the smile of the sweet old man I bought chai from every day, or in the carefree happiness of children playing cricket at sunset in Jaipur’s central park?

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Sheesh Mahal, Amer Fort

Sheesh Mahal, Amer Fort

India was lonely

Do I tell my friends about that time my train was delayed six hours and I was stranded until 3am at the dark Agra train station alone, and how it was genuinely one of the loneliest and most frightening moments of my life? Or do I instead tell them about how a group of women then pulled me aside and let me sit with them all night, braiding my hair and giving me the only food they brought for themselves? No matter which version I tell, nobody will understand how that experience moved me.

India was magical

Do I tell my friends about how in my loneliest moment of my trip, I bought a necklace with the Hindu goddess Kali engraved on it, in the hopes that this powerful warrior woman would protect me on my solo trip— only to meet my actual new best friend, coincidentally named Callie, the very next week? Both Callie and I agree it was destiny-- we were supposed to meet each other at that very moment.

Callie and I backpacking through Spiti Valley

Callie and I backpacking through Spiti Valley

Or do I tell them about the guru I met in Rishikesh, who approached me in a crowded marketplace to give me unsolicited life advice, only to disappear into the crowd— and then stumble across me again days later. I never knew how accurate or necessary that advice was until two weeks later, when I felt his words fall into a place in my life that was eerily accurate. It was magic, destiny, fate, whatever you call it— but I know for certain India is the most spiritual and magical place I’ve ever been.

Rishikesh

Rishikesh

India was eye opening

Do I tell my friends about the cafe I ate lunch at that was run entirely by acid attack survivors, their flesh burnt off their face at the hands of hateful people? Or when I was backpacking in Spiti Valley and met Nadia, a girl my age who opened up to me about how her best friend was murdered by her own family over religious differences? How do I talk about these experiences that I feel like I need to discuss and process, but discuss them in a way that is true to what I believe is the incredible culture of India, without being offensive or ethnocentric?

India was inspiring

Do I tell my friends about Frontier Markets, the incredible NGO I interned for that is changing millions of lives by providing clean energy access to the poorest people in Rajasthan? Movies like An Inconvenient Sequel portrayed India as a country completely unwilling to adapt to solar energy, but I was inspired daily by the companies and people I got to interact with that were committed to protecting the environment and climate for all.

India was complicated

Or maybe I just need to accept that my experience in India is not one that needs to be told to that person I run into on the street, or the whole class when my professors inevitably ask how we spent our summers. Maybe my experience in India is something that is just mine, something that I should accept is maybe reserved for my journals and my closest friends and family members that have hours to listen.

The love between mother and child, Pushkar.

The love between mother and child, Pushkar.

For now, I’m committed to the “It was amazing but really hard to describe quickly! How was your summer?” response, but I know that my time there was so much more meaningful and complicated than that. India was beautiful, lonely, magical, eye opening, inspiring, and complicated— all at once, but I wouldn’t take back anything about my experience if I could. I will forever carry with me these snapshots in time, these memories that are mine and only mine, from my 2 1/2 months solo, and I couldn’t be more grateful to live my life with these memories that have changed me and my outlook on life.

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Travels: The Detroit of India (Chennai)

As a quick weekend trip, I decided to visit Chennai since so many of my friends recommended the area. Without any ideas on what to do, I booked last minute and hopped on a flight with the hopes of wandering my way around Mylapore to find unexpected surprises. When I learned that Chennai was considered the Detroit of India, I was prepared to see a big industrialization influence on the local culture, but instead in the area I stayed in I found myself near many religious sites. Being surrounded by many temples, mosques, and churches, I decided to do a guided tour on local religious sites to learn about the roots of each religion. Most of my time was spent on learning about Hinduism and the many deities of the religion including Ganesh, known in the modern-day as the Lord of Computers since he has a mouse. 😉 Just kidding about that fact of course.
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Kapaleeshwara Temple Entrance Gate

My favorite story on the tour was the history of the Kapaleeshwara temple tank. The temple tank was built on land given to the temple by a Muslim King. Although the temple priest offered to pay rent to the Muslim king for the land, the king decided to gift it to the Kapaleeshwara temple  on the condition that every 10th day of Muharram the gates to the tank would be opened for Muslims to perform their ritual. Since the establishment of the temple tank has many origin stories about its’ construction, the one I was told is difficult to verify.  However, the Madras High Court has decreed that if Muharram and the temple festival fall on the same day, the first preference should be given to Muslims to use the tank. This rule is still upheld and practice to this day. I loved this story because it depicts an imagery of two religions living in harmony and interchangeably. The progressive ideology of open-mindedness that the Kapaleeshwara temple tank represents can be lost in today’s society but it is stories like these that serve as a reminder to strive towards acceptance and respect of all cultures. Leaving Chennai, I made seven new friends, one new pun, and a reminder to continue questioning the roots of everything I encounter in these final few weeks.
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Local travelers I met on a tour

Wandering around a local market

Wandering around a local market

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Goodbyes, living for the future, and Photo-taking

As I prepare to leave this country that has been my home for the past three months, I feel my memories have a stronger holder on me than they usually do. All through my travels in India, I’ve been haunted by the question: Do we live for the moment or live for the future? Does our sense of self reside in the unpinnable moment, or in our act of remembering times past? There are some things that are amazing to feel or see in the moment, but fail to inspire once the moment has passed, while there are some experiences that can be returned to and considered many times after the moment has passed. Which of those two experiences is more worth having? Which allow me to develop and grow my sense of self? Is an experience more worthwhile as it is being lived or as it is being remembered?
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View from a trek in Manali, Himachal Pradesh

I’ve always been proud of my ability to appreciate and be moved by beauty in the multitude of forms it can take. I like that I can experience deep connection to nature and its ability to inspire wonder within me. But in India I encountered beauty that surpassed the boundaries I had set up within myself, exceeding my standards of what natural beauty can look like. I found myself feeling lost instead of joy, because I had nowhere to place this sight in my understanding of beauty. Usually I can place a view in my continuum of beautiful things- more beautiful than the sunset I saw in Martha’s Vineyard, less beautiful than the field of dandelions outside my house. But in the valleys of the foothills of the Himalayas, and some of the temples in Tamil Nadu, were more beautiful than anything I had ever seen, more beautiful than I thought a place could be. My reaction to that newness, to that lack of connection, was a scrambling to remember the sight for later. I took hundreds of pictures, as if to capture the moment so I could process it later, like I didn’t have enough brain space to fully feel the moment while it was happening, like I was living for my future self. I also knew that my future self would be nostalgic for the moment that my current self was living, and I didn’t know what to do with that knowledge besides attempt to capture that moment as best as I could, through drawing and journaling partially, but mostly through photo-taking.
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The shore temple at sunrise, Mahaballipuram

I have been wondering what the act of taking a photo, the knowledge that one has successfully “captured” a moment, does to our ability to remember a moment, to capture it internally with all its complexities. Because while a photo can “accurately” capture the external moment, only our brains can capture both the internal and external experience. And does taking a photo decrease our ability to connect with a certain moment? I suspect it does. So I was stuck in these beautiful places, worried that it was too beautiful/ magical/ intense to be felt in the moment, that it needed to be saved for later processing, but my attempts of saving that moment were decreasing my ability to feel and connect in the first place. Not to mention the stress of knowing that my future self will be jealous of my current self. It was a vicious cycle of increased lack of connection and increased attempts to document.
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A literal screensaver from a trek in Dharamsala

Now that I am moving into the “future self” that I was so concerned about in those places, I am much calmer. I recognize that I will never be able to fall back through time and watch the sunset in Kheerganga again, or travelling through fields of rice paddies in the bus, or watching the clouds move behind the temple in Thanjavur. But I know that I lived in those moments, that they gave me joy, and that a moment is never going to be perfect, we are never going to be able to feel it as fully as we want to, never going to be able to capture it in our memory to our satisfaction, but we can put down our phones, and open our eyes and hearts to the sight and the feelings and the people we are with. And while I spent more time worrying than I should have, I know that I did let India in, let its beauty and its people and its confusingness inside me, to some degree. That I leave more kind, more assured, and more open than I arrived. The world has grown so much larger in my mind, and I know I will miss this place, that my future self will be jealous of my almost past self, but I am proud of her for doing her best, for doing her best to live for herself and for the Addi that is to come.
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One of the many ruins in Hampi, Karnataka

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Risky Business

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The sense of security gained from familiar sights dissipated as I climbed the stairs of my hostel.  My NGO’s branch manager showed me my living accommodations, and it hit me that this would be my home for the rest of summer. My amazing manager, Dr. Kapoor, had arranged my room accommodations. I went into my housing completely blind I did not know who my roommates were, if anyone in the area spoke English well, nor my landlord. . The only knowledge I had before arriving were the three lines that made up the address and a phone number to call if I needed to contact the paying guest manager. One of the reflection prompts given to the Summer in South Asia recipients asks how this experience has changed us personally. After being here for a week, I can now confidently say that the most challenging part of this trip has been to take and accept risk in life. Whether the decisions are big or small, the uncertainty about the outcome is always a dubious aspect. I will admit that I am not the biggest risk-taker in life. I have always been a rule follower and choose the safer route to reach the end goal. So when I applied to this fellowship, it was uncharacteristic because I could not speak the local language, did not know people in the area, and was moving to nearly 8,000 miles away from my home country. My entire path to Hyderabad was about learning to trust others and gradually becoming comfortable with life’s unpredictability. After living in a paying guest hostel with 20 girls, each person coming from different parts of India, I have begun to realize parallels between their stories and mine. Each young woman has embraced the risk of uncertainty and unpredictability due to migrating to the city in search of a higher education opportunity or good name job. In between my working hours at FPAI, I have gotten to get to know 6 of these girls really well and they became my support system while I adjusted to living in Hyderabad. The uncanny resemblance of their desire to travel and work abroad was rooted in their drive for success. For instance, my friend Janvi shared her dreams of getting an MBA in the U.S. and moving to New York City for work. In a society where aspirations like doctors and engineers are revered as the pinnacle of all jobs, 2 of the girls had taken the risk of pursuing an education in interior design because it was their personal passion rather than following societal pressures. The biggest risk of all for these girls was moving away from their family. In a culture where living with family is still highly cherished, this was the first time many of the girls were  living by themselves in a new city.
Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health Seminar at a local government primary school, lead by Mrs. Raddika (FPAI – Hyderabad educational programme manager) and JNTU students

Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health Seminar at a local government primary school, lead by Mrs. Raddika (FPAI – Hyderabad educational programme manager) and JNTU students

Although progressive ideas like moving away from family do occur, something I noticed and appreciated about India is the strong preservation of traditional practices. This ideology is unique because it allows for the longevity of Indian culture, such as maintaining traditional signs of respect and celebration rituals, which are left unmodified by modernity and Westernization. However, working with Family Planning Association of India, the hold to traditional thinking methods have slowed the progression of open dialogue about smart and safe sexual reproductive health. The concept of “preservation of character” shapes the mindset of young individuals’ willingness to discuss topics like relationships, smart contraceptive options, and transparency about STIs. In one session I held to conduct a Q&A with college students, the presence of their faculty professor made a large difference. In the session, with the professor sitting in the back of the room, no one ever raised their hands. In the classroom without a professor, students were jumping out of their seats to answer my questions and even asked me about the commonality of sexual activity discussion as portrayed in Western movies. The constant term “character” has appeared in my conversations with everyone and is one of the largest factors that eliminates the possibility of discussion about sexual and reproductive health between children and their parents. Having grown up in an Asian-American household, my environment followed a similar path. The sensitivity of the subject, and being able to accurately share information on the topic, is the part that gives me joy in being a part of FPAI and the organization’s cause. To actively mention a topic that can be considered taboo is a risk itself, but I learned here that sometime prioritizing personal curiosities is much more valuable than following the safe path to match peoples’ expected perception.

Post-session Group Selfie!

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