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Hi Friends and Family!

Hold your breath - they're almost home!

Students are running around town attending to last minute errands and we'll be getting in our taxis to the airport in a just few hours. The excitement on this side is definitely peaking.

The flight looks on-time so far, and you can check its status, at any time, by googling "Air India 101." I've checked in and all students report having their connection travel information.

Enjoy their return! Remember to be patient and gentle.

As we've also advised them. :)

Track status of Air India flight 101

30 May 2011 - Delhi (DEL) to New York (JFK) - On schedule
Departure: 12:20 AM, Arrival: 6:00 AM
30 May 2011 - Mumbai (BOM) to Delhi (DEL) - On schedule
Departure: 8:00 PM, Arrival: 10:15 PM
www.flightstats.com

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Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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And we're (almost) off!

Christina Rivera-Cogswell,Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

Description

Hi Friends and Family! Hold your breath – they’re almost home! Students are running around town attending to last minute errands and we’ll be getting in our taxis to the airport in a just few hours. The excitement on this side is definitely peaking. The flight looks on-time so far, and you can check its […]

Posted On

05/30/11

Author

Christina Rivera-Cogswell

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Right now, my group is in Ladakh, running a two-week summer camp for seventh graders from a school in the nearby town of Shey. At the camp, I am teaching a drama class, preparing the students for a final performance at each week's end. I wrote this short play for the students to perform, hoping to help them creatively express the environmental theme of the two-week camp. It's title is A Fine Balance, and I was influenced by Shell Silverstein's short story The Giving Tree for some of the contained themes. Enjoy!

Scene 1:

(Sun rises from slumber bringing about a new day. Father Glacier passes down bowl of water to mountain stream, which remains in place on stage. Berry bush remains silently in place, while snow leopard and cubs begin to play.)

Sun: (Yawning) “Oh what a beautiful day to shine my rays upon the mountain streams and their father the glacier. How happy I am to warm the den of the snow leopard as her cubs play in the mountain snow. Hello, good eagle! How is the wind today?”

(Snow leopard and cubs exit stage as eagle flies across stage and off. Stenzin enters stage, looking happy and carefree. Sun remains onstage permanently, observing everything.)

Stenzin: (Happily) “Today is truly a gift. I think I’ll walk down the valley and enjoy the company of the nature around me.” (After some walking to and fro, walks over to mountain stream) “Mountain stream, I walk up and down this valley every day. You have carved it from the hardest rocks with your cool water, the same cool water that quenches my thirst. May I drink?”

Mountain Stream: (Offering bowl of water) “Please, take. You’re welcome whenever you are in need. You’ve drunk from my banks many times before and I know you love to enjoy the coolness of my water on hot days. If you would use me to water your barley or the bushes that beget nuts and sweet berries, then please take. I have only this much to give, but I give it freely.”

(Stenzin takes bowl from Mountain Stream and drinks a small amount, just enough to satisfy his thirst. Smiling, he walks off, nodding to the Mountain Stream as it nods back to him and becomes silent once again. Stenzin walks over to the Berry Bush, which smiles and offers plate of nuts forward.)

Berry Bush: “I know you. Your forefathers have always cultivated here in this valley, making the powerful oxen to plow the ground for the planting of the barley. Please, take what you need; I can give time and time again to many hungry travelers.”

Stenzin: (Taking a small handful of berries, but only enough to satisfy his hunger.) “Thank you for caring for me in my hunger. When I climb the steep cliffs of this valley, I grow very hungry and your berries are always the best!”

(Stenzin departs from Berry Bush and is taken aback as Snow Leopard and her cubs come bounding across stage, displaying their beautiful coats. Before exiting stage, snow leopard stops and speaks towards Stenzin.)

Snow Leopard: “I’ve seen you before in this valley. Although you may not always see me, I watch you from the shadows of the mountains. You see, my beauty is too much to reveal to all. I only show my secret to a very lucky few. You, however, are a friend to all in this valley and I gift my beauty to you.”

(Snow Leopard exits stage)

Stenzin: (In Awe) “Amazing! I’ve never found such beauty, even in the village in the work of the weavers and the artists. I hope I do see her beautiful coat once again.”

(Eagle flies across stage.)

Eagle: “Watch me sooooaaarrrr! I can fly with such speed and grace, never having to touch down onto the earth. I spread my wings and soar effortlessly on the winds. I see that you adore my majesty!”

(Eagle drops feather and then flies off stage Stenzin picks up feather and examines it, in awe. He then keeps it with him.)

Stenzin: “I wish I could fly and swoop and soar like the Eagle. His wings are truly gifts that let him see the world from a different view. If I could fly as he does, I would visit the whole world and make new friends in the other mountain valleys as well.”

(Turns to look at Sun, who has begun speaking to him.)

Sun: “You are a good friend to all in the valley. I have seen it time and time again. Please come back. We enjoy your company and every day I hear all the others talk of how they long to see the boy who comes to the valley. I am old and it is growing late, so today I wish you farewell, but tomorrow we shall meet again.”

(As Sun drifts off to sleep, Stenzin exits stage.)

Scene 2:

(As Sun awakens from sleep, Mountain Stream and Berry Bush are in place. Father Glacier hands bowl of water to Mountain Stream. Shahid enters stage, seems to be care freely exploring here and there. Stenzin enters stage to find Shahid in the valley.)

Shahid: “Hello and peace be upon you. Do you know where I can find some rest? Maybe by the banks of a river where I can quench my thirst. I am Shahid and I came from a different valley to explore the other valleys and make friends among them. I’m very hungry and thirsty, friend.”

Stenzin: “Friend, you are most welcome in this valley. You will meet many in this valley, including I, Stenzin, and you may most certainly join me here. Every day, I walk this valley, meeting my many friends: gazing in awe at the soaring of the Eagle, finding inspiration in the beauty of the Snow Leopard, drinking cool water from the Mountain Stream, picking the freshest berries with juice that runs dow-

Shahid: “Did you say berries? I love the mountain berries and the bushes that give them freely. On any tiring day, they help me to climb the steep valleys. I know these bushes very well.”

Stenzin: “Well, then, come! I’ll show you right where they grow.”

(Stenzin grabs Shahid by the arm and pulls him over to the Berry Bush, who smiles and offers berries to them both.)

Berry Bush: “Hello friend. You are most welcome to my fruit. I can give time and time again to many hungry travelers.”

(Shahid and then Stenzin each take a small handful of nuts, but only enough to satisfy. They then proceed to the Mountain Stream, who smiles and offers the bowl of water to them. As they each take a small handful of water, the Mountain Stream welcomes Shahid.)

Mountain Stream: “Welcome friend! Come and drink.”

(As the two boys finish their water, the Snow Leopard enters stage unnoticed, until Stenzin spots her and points her out to Shahid, who is overwhelmed by her beauty. Snow Leopard then stops at edge of stage and speaks.)

Snow Leopard: “Welcome friend!”

(Snow Leopard exits stage.)

Shahid: “What beauty. I can…”

(Eagle flies onto stage and Stenzin interrupts Shahid by pointing out the soaring bird. Eagle drops two feathers on the stage right before speaking.)

Eagle: “Come and see, friend!”

(Eagle exits stage. Stenzin and Shahid both run to pick up feathers, both looking at each other and laughing in excitement and awe. Both keep feathers and walk off stage, arms over each other’s backs.)

Sun: “In my many years perched atop the sky, my favorite sights have been those of harmony. Each of us has something to give and each of us needs to take from others, but friends living amongst one another in balance is a beautiful thing.”

(Sun departs for slumber, ending the day.)

Scene 3:

(Sun rises from slumber, beginning a new day. Father Glacier hands Mountain Stream the bowl of water. Stenzin and Shahid both walk onto stage and sit to take rest.)

Stenzin: “Beautiful mornings like these make life worth living. I can’t imagine the world without so much beauty.”

Shahid: “It has so much to give to us and asks nothing in return. I feel lucky and humbled to be a part of it.”

(Jonathan walks in, taking pictures with his camera, until he stumbles upon the seated friends.)

Jonathan: “Hello, who are you?”

Stenzin: “We are friends who walk in this valley and share in its many treasures and its beauty. I am Stenzin and this is my good friend Shahid.”

Jonathan: “Oh Good! I like beauty too.” (Holds up camera) “The name’s Jonathan. Do you know if there’s any food here? I’m starving!”

Shahid: “The bushes give us berries and fruit when we are hungry.”

Jonathan: “Sure. Let’s go there.”

Stenzin: “You’ll surely enjoy the juice that runs down your face when you eat them.”

(Stenzin and Shahid lead Jonathan to the Berry Bush, who smiles and offers the plate of berries.)

Berry Bush: “Welcome friend, please enjoy. I give my fruit freely to hungry travelers and kind strangers. I give all that I can and ask nothing in return. I have not seen you before with my friends, but I wish you a warm welcome. Please take and eat.”

Stenzin: “You are a true friend. Thank you for giving us food.”

(Stenzin takes a small handful of the berries, followed by Shahid. As they eat their share, Jonathan takes a small handful and tries it. Discovering that he likes it, he proceeds to put all of the remaining berries into his pockets, completely emptying the plate. The Berry Bush looks up at Jonathan stunned, then sinks into sadness. Stenzin and Shahid look at Jonathan with concern, who smiles at them.)

Jonathan: (With a very full mouth) “These are great!”

(Stenzin and Shahid move towards Mountain Stream as Jonathan follows behind, continuously eating the berries he stored in his pockets. Upon arriving, Mountain Stream smiles and offers up the bowl of water.)

Mountain Stream: “Welcome friend! If you are thirsty then please drink from my banks. I give freely of my water to quench the thirst of many of my friends in this valley. My father, the Glacier, makes my waters cool and comforting. Come and drink!”

Stenzin: (To Jonathan, yet Jonathan does not hear or pay attention, instead simply rushing forward to take water.) “He/She is a very good friend of ours. Whenever I am in need, I can refuge in his/her waters and my father uses his/her gift to help the barley grow.”

(As Jonathan steps back form taking a small handful of water, Stenzin and Shahid come forth to take water. However, once they are finished, Jonathan steps forward once again and takes out laundry soap.)

Jonathan: “Ugh, it’s all dirty.”

(Jonathan then proceeds to use up all of the remaining water in the bowl with the laundry soap to wash his pants, socks, and shoes. The entire time, Mountain Stream looks fearful and then winces in pain as Jonathan continues to use the soap Stenzin and Shahid look concerned over Jonathan’s behavior. He finishes and stands back up to face Stenzin and Shahid. Just then, the Snow Leopard comes onto stage and does her dance, stopping before exiting. Jonathan misses her, as he tries to clean his camera. Stenzin and Shahid are amazed at the beauty of the Snow Leopard, but when they try to get Jonathan’s attention by touching his shoulder, he doesn’t respond. Snow Leopard exits.)

Stenzin: “Can you believe we are blesses to see such incomparable beauty? We are truly lucky to have our friends in this valley.”

Jonathan: (Mumbling while still messing with camera) “Yeah, definitely.”

(Eagle soars onto stage and does dance, dropping three feathers. Stenzin and Shahid run over, picking up the feathers and looking at each other in awe and excitement. They then look smiling at Jonathan, who sees the feathers but has no reaction. Jonathan shakes his head slightly and then simply walks off stage. Stenzin and Shahid keep the feathers, look at each other in a concerned manner, but then put arms over each other’s backs and walk off stage. The sun, shaking its head in disappointment, retires, ending the day.)

Scene 4:

(Sun rises to start the new day, revealing a Father Glacier who is curled up on the ground and sick. Mountain Stream also looks to be in pain and Berry Bush appears to be noticeably sad. Father Glacier weakly hands Mountain Stream a bowl of water with much less than the previous days. Stenzin is walking along the valley, when Shahid enters stage, wearing clothing and a camera around his neck just like Jonathan did. Stenzin looks at him surprised and slightly confused.)

Stenzin: “Shahid, something is different about you. You act as if…”

(Shahid gives Stenzin a confused look as Stenzin is interrupted by the arrival of Dolma on stage. Dolma appears to simply stumble onto stage, but cheers up immediately upon seeing Stenzin and Shahid, who both turn to look at the new arrival.)

Dolma: “Hello, I noticed this valley because of its beauty. Do you know this place well?”

Stenzin: “Yes, we know this valley as if it were our family. I am Stenzin and this is Shahid. Each day, we walk this valley and see the generosity and beauty of our dearest friends. Would you like to come along?”

Dolma: “Yes, I would love to. I’ve also come from another valley, where I made many friends and walked many days along the clear stream.”

(All three smiling, they walk over the Berry Bush, who without looking up at them offers up the plate, which has many less berries than before.)

Berry Bush: (Sadly) “Come and take.”

(Stenzin and Dolma take small handfuls, not noticing the sunken state of the Berry Bush. Shahid then proceeds to stuff the remaining berries into his pockets, leaving nothing left on the plate. Dolma looks over and notices Shahid’s action, causing her to look very concerned. However, Stenzin taps them both on the shoulder and leads them over to Mountain Stream. Upon arriving, Mountain Stream appears to be crying and in pain.)

Stenzin: “You don’t look so well.” (To Mountain Stream) “Are you fine?”

Mountain Stream: “The glacier isn’t giving as much water anymore, so I don’t have as much water to offer. I also feel sick. I just don’t feel as clean as I used to be and the fish and animals are beginning to feel sick too.”

Stenzin: “Will we still be able to drink? We’re very thirsty.”

Mountain Stream: (Wincing in pain) “Yes, of course. I don’t have much to give today, but please take what you need.”

(Stenzin and Dolma both approach and take tiny handfuls of water, followed by Shahid, who takes the bowl from Mountain Stream’s hands and empties it all out into his own. Mountain Stream winces in pain once again and becomes silent. Dolma notices Shahid’s action and looks extremely concerned. The Snow Leopard dances out on stage, but much more slowly and restrained.)

Dolma: (With melancholy, because Dolma recognizes the changed dance of the Snow Leopard.) “It’s the Snow Leopard.”

(Dolma turns to tell this to Stenzin, who is also concerned at the dance of the Snow Leopard, and then to Shahid, but notices that Shahid is concentrated on his camera to the point that he doesn’t even look up to notice the Snow Leopard. She shakes her head in confusion. Snow Leopard exits stage, followed by Eagle swooping onto the stage, dropping three feathers, and then exiting without much swooping or twirling. Dolma and Stenzin run over to the feathers, pick them up and look at each other in amazement, then look at Shahid, who looks uninterested in the feathers. Shahid then exits while shaking his head. A concerned Stenzin runs off stage after him, leaving Dolma to pick up the feather that Shahid left. As she stares at the two feathers, she begins to weep. The Sun notices.)

Sun: “Child, why are you crying? The Sun is still in the sky and your friends are all doing fine.”

Dolma: “I’m just scared. I thought I would never have to see this again, but it’s all happening just like it did to me.”

(Sun thinks for a few seconds and realizes he recognizes Dolma.)

Sun: “Ahhhhhhh. I know you. You used to spend your days walking in a different valley, Dolma. You too used to eat berries from the bushes, swim in the cool waters of the mountain stream, stand in awe of the beauty of the Snow Leopard’s dance, and carefully watch the flight of the eagle.”

Dolma: “It was just like this. And then it fell apart. The people couldn’t live in balance and all of my friends were taken away. I had no choice but to leave. I can see it happening here, too. What can I do? I’ll have to leave this place again, right when I’m beginning to feel like I belong here.”

(Sobbing, Dolma gets up and exits stage.)

Sun: “I’ve seen this happen so many times. Every time: greed, ignorance, waste, carelessness, they all destroy lives and these friendships we create. What can we do?”

(Sun returns to slumber, ending the day.)

Scene 5:

(Sun rises to a new day, with both Mountain Stream and Berry Bush looking sad. Stenzin is sitting alone, deep in thought.)

Stenzin: (To Sun) “Sun, you see all that you shine down upon. Do you know where Dolma is? I’m worried about her.”

Sun: “Stenzin, I know why you’re worried. Yesterday, you saw how different Shahid has become. It’s like he has forgotten who he is and how he should treat his friends in the valley. Dolma also saw the same thing and she is worried too. But, you must understand, her story is sad. In my younger days, I remember shining down on a different valley, where Dolma would live amongst nature as freely as you do. She was such a happy girl back then. Everything was in balance. But then, her people began to lose their respect. They became selfish, wasteful, disrespectful, and too caught up in their lives to appreciate the truth and beauty that surrounded them and sustained them. Over time, their valley lost its beauty. The water lost its fresh flavor. The berries became scarce. Life became hard and eventually, Dolma had to leave her valley. It was nothing like the valley she had come to know before. Now, she sees the same thing happening here. She knows what will happen if the people of this valley go down the same path as her people did. She knows this and she is afraid for the wonderful life and friends she has found here. She thought that finally, she would be able to find that life again, the life she knew before the nightmare. She will leave unless you do something.”

(Stenzin sit, deep in thought, when Jonathan comes up, without his camera and wearing different clothing.)

Jonathan: “Stenzin! Stenzin! I haven’t been back in a while, but I came to apologize to you.”

(Stenzin looks up, surprised.)

Jonathan: “I recently met a group of people who were promoting eco-friendly tourism. They told me about the many problems facing the environment today, such as chronic water shortage, melting glaciers, soil erosion, and species endangerment. I realized that my wasteful use of food and water and my lack of attention to valuable animal life were contributing to these problems, not helping them. So I asked the group for some things that I could do personally. Firstly, they let me know my behavior was the first thing that needed to change. I’m trying to use only as much water and food as I really need. I also heard about planting programs to fight soil erosion. The roots of some plants, like our friend the Berry Bush, hold soil together and prevent heavy erosion and flood damage. I also realized I needed a change in my perspective. Now, I try to recognize the relationship I have with every animal. I try to recognize that there is beauty in every part of life and that when I’m caught up in myself, I miss it. So, I’m sorry for the way I treated you and all of our friends here in the valley. I want to be a part of this beautiful relationship.”

(Stenzin grows immediately happy to hear Jonathan’s apology.)

Stenzin: “Jonathan, I know you mean well with your whole heart, but what shall we do? Shahid is acting like you used to nowadays and Dolma is upset because she fears our valley will eventually wither and die because of our irresponsible actions.”

Jonathan: “At the least, we should go talk to them. If Shahid isn’t aware of the changes he needs to make in his behavior and if Dolma still thinks all hope is lost, then we’ll lose two of our greatest friends. Now that I’ve realized my wrongs, I want to do something right and share that with others. Oh Sun! If you could please, call out to both Shahid and Dolma. We need them to come. The fates our both our friendship and the valley depend on it.”

Sun: “Jonathan, my son, I am so pleased to hear these words you speak. You truly have changed for the better. I will call to them now.”

(Sun leaves stage, returning after a few seconds. Suddenly Shahid arrives on stage, camera and foreign clothing intact.)

Jonathan: “Shahid my friend. I need to tell you some very important things. I was once wrong and foolish. You saw me in my old state: disconnected from the beauty of life and unaware of what I was doing to the environment. Please, don’t emulate who I was. I’m now a different person and I want to share this valley with all. With you, with me, with all the animals, with the Mountain Stream, with the bushes that bear delicious fruit. Please, follow me now.”

(After a few seconds of silent contemplation, Shahid slowly removes the camera from his neck, gaining speed until he has returned to his original costume. He now appears much happier than he looked and turns to both Stenzin and Jonathan, greeting them with a huge smile. Just then, Dolma enters the stage, initially taken aback and then slowly growing happier to see that both Jonathan and Shahid have undergone a transformation. She runs forward and hugs Shahid, after which all the characters join together for a group hug. After a few seconds, they separate. Just then, they stare in amazement at the dance of the Snow Leopard. The Eagle flies across the stage, dropping five feathers. Each of the group of four pick up a feather and put it in their pockets, looking at each other in joy. After, they all leave the stage arms over each other’s backs. Sun steps forward, picking up the fifth feather and begins to narrate to the audience.)

Sun: “That was a beautiful day for our valley. The four friends-Stenzin, Shahid, Jonathan, and Dolma- went about to all of their friends in the valley. They planted fruit-bearing plants to give Berry Bush more company. They once again kept the Mountain Stream clean and healthy, using only as much water as they needed. They watched the beautiful dance of the Snow Leopard and admired the soaring flight of the Eagle. They walked the valley passes and welcomed all who wished to do the same. All travelers were welcomed like family members and shown how to live amongst all the nature of the valley. Since that day, I have awoken each day to shine my rays upon this beautiful home of ours. I am an old man, but in all my days I have never felt so much joy. A family living in balance is a beauty that can never be surpassed. [post_title] => A Fine Balance [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => a-fine-balance [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2011-05-14 00:00:00 [post_modified_gmt] => 2011-05-14 06:00:00 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://yakyak.chandigarhsoftware.com/?p=44826 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [categories] => Array ( [0] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 354 [name] => Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011 [slug] => bridge-year-india-fall-2010 [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 354 [taxonomy] => category [description] => [parent] => 263 [count] => 18 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 3.10015 [cat_ID] => 354 [category_count] => 18 [category_description] => [cat_name] => Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011 [category_nicename] => bridge-year-india-fall-2010 [category_parent] => 263 [link] => https://my.wheretherebedragons.com/category/princeton-bridge-year/bridge-year-india-fall-2010/ ) ) [category_links] => Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011 )

Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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A Fine Balance

Alan Hatfield,Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

Description

Right now, my group is in Ladakh, running a two-week summer camp for seventh graders from a school in the nearby town of Shey. At the camp, I am teaching a drama class, preparing the students for a final performance at each week’s end. I wrote this short play for the students to perform, hoping […]

Posted On

05/14/11

Author

Alan Hatfield

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Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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And some photos from the camp…

Christina Rivera-Cogswell,Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

Description

Posted On

05/9/11

Author

Christina Rivera-Cogswell

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    [post_date] => 2011-04-24 00:00:00
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Dear family and friends,

On at least several occasions I remember telling the students that their time in Banaras will pass by really fast and that it would come to an end before they even know it. Usually they would give me a blank stare or give me a retort such as, "Stop saying that Daniel!" whenever I would make these comments. I admit there was a part of me, which I am sure the students would readily agree with, that enjoyed the prospect of lightly taunting them, like a child getting away with a prank. At the same time, I usually speak from experience and the fact is, every program that I had run before came to an abrupt end as I would be left with the feeling of, “Oh, it’s already over?” Although there is still 6 weeks left to the program as we will be spending the remaining time up in Ladakh, my actual time with the students is rapidly coming to an end. As all of you may or may not have been informed by your loved ones already, I am about to become a father and as my wife is entering her final month of her pregnancy in May, I have decided to return early from the mountains in order to be with her. In my absence, Christina Rivera, the Program Director of the Bridge Year program, and another highly experienced Instructor of Where There Be Dragons, Kristin Brudevold, will be taking over the remaining portion in the mountains.

I am often praised by the locals as to what a “wonderful job” I am doing in running the program in Banaras. Needless to say, it is tempting to bask in the accolades as most of us would like to and take credit for it, but fortunately, I think I know better. I, or more strictly speaking we, since I can never imagine running this program without the help of others, was merely there to provide what the students needed but the rest was up to them. I saw them transform from individuals who seemed a little unsure to take a step in the streets of Banaras to those who can confidently navigate not only throughout the city but all over India, in Hindi. I saw them build ties with their host families, friends, coworkers at their worksite, and with the community. I saw them understand the importance of “showing respect” in a city that puts the highest premium on such value. I saw them understand the meaning of “seva,” the philosophy of selfless service without expecting anything in return. Finally, I saw them understand what it means to be a global citizen. One thousand thank yous would not do justice to sum up the feelings I have for the students, but I will say it any way. Thank you for making it such a wonderful year, you deserve all the credit. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to get to know you and work with you.

Here are some photos from the final banquet that took place the other night.

Finally, below I am providing the overall itinerary for the next month:

4/25: Leave Banaras on an overnight train to Delhi.

4/26: Delhi

4/27: Depart to Leh, the capital of Ladakh.

4/27-4/29: Acclimatization, light activities.

4/30-5/5: Trek (around Leh).

5/5-5/8: Preparation for the Education Camp (outside of Leh).

5/8-5/20: Education Camp (outside of Leh).

5/20-5/27: Final transference, debrief, evaluations.

5/27-5/30: Return to Delhi.

5/31: Depart for the US.

Daniel

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Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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Leaving Banaras

Daniel Seymour,Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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Dear family and friends, On at least several occasions I remember telling the students that their time in Banaras will pass by really fast and that it would come to an end before they even know it. Usually they would give me a blank stare or give me a retort such as, "Stop saying that […]

Posted On

04/24/11

Author

Daniel Seymour

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Author's Note: This is an expansion of an earlier yak entitled Tollhouse Lovin'
Act One- Operation: Tollhouse
Imagine a plate of freshly made chocolate chip cookies. As you approach the plate, the first thing you notice is the unmistakable aroma that fills the air around you and sets your mouth a-salivating at the first whiff. Then, as you stop to peruse the selection, you can tell just by looking that the cookies have been flawlessly baked and have the perfect combination of a crunchy circumference that rings a slightly under-baked center. When you pick one up, you discover, to your delight, that they are still warm and the chocolate chips are melted but not quite hot enough to burn your tongue. Finally, as you take a bite, your mouth cries out in joy, endorphins rapidly release into your brain, and your taste buds and nerves marvel at the array of flavors, textures, temperature, and general scrumptiousness of the sustenance youve just consumed. Perhaps you conveniently find a glass of cold milk next to the plate and the refreshing creaminess of the drink completes the snack. Before you know it, youve finished your first cookie and are grabbing for one more, just one more, of those delicious treats.
Now imagine living without that experience for nine months. If I sound a little melodramatic its because sometime in October, it occurred to the group and me that we could very well be left in that predicament. However, Im proud to say that Bridge Year India is not a bunch to give up on goals and desires easily and so, one night, Katie, Daniela, and I hatched a plan to make chocolate chip cookies. If we could master biking in Banaras, using squat toilets, taking bucket showers, and dealing with all sorts of inhuman bodily functions, for sure we could handle making simple cookiesright?
We were wrong.
The first of many complications arose when we realized we didnt have an oven. After some slight debating though, it was decided cookie dough would suffice and we consulted a fairly simple recipe that called only for granulated sugar, brown sugar, flour, eggs, butter, salt, baking soda, and vanilla extract. On the night the plan was to be executed, the girls set off after Hindi class to a local general store that Daniel, our group leader, said was our best bet for supplies.
Long story short, we got lost. In rush hour traffic on a Saturday night. Still, after several slightly frenzied calls to Daniel, we made it to the store and commenced our shopping.
Success at the store was a mixed bag. We managed to find most of the ingredients without hassle but had a slight hiccup when we were informed the store didnt have eggs, brown sugar, or baking soda. After a short huddle in the corner, we decided the plan would move ahead anyway: we would get eggs at a different store, substitute white sugar for brown, and since we werent actually baking the cookies, baking soda was irrelevant. Probably.
We hit another slight obstacle when we were informed our options for flour were 5 kg or 10 kg bags. For those who grew up without the metric system, five kilograms is slightly more flour than the two cups the recipe called for, in fact, about eleven pounds more give or take. However, we werent about to give up over an excess of one ingredient and decided to just go for it and buy the bag for the program house.
After paying for our purchases and somehow balancing the huge bag of flour in Katies basket, we went off in search of eggs. We haltingly made our way up the street asking for directions from nearly everyone we saw and were just about to give up when we turned a corner and saw the harsh light of yet another general store, albeit one with eggs on display in the front.
Buying eggs proved to be a whole new ordeal. When I went into the shop and asked for a dozen, I was a little skeptical when the man handed me a flimsy plastic bag and motioned for me to take as many as I wanted. As I was leaving the store, Daniela confirmed my suspicions by taking one look at the bag and stating simply, Those arent gonna make it. Never fear though, we were not deterred and devised a strategy that consisted of wrapping the eggs in extra clothes, wedging them into my backpack, and most importantly, riding home very, very carefully. On the way back, there was no lack of strange glances at the three girls who let up a grunt, yelp, squeal, or occaisonal “Protect the eggs!” every time one went over a bump or, in other words, every 10 seconds.
When we finally returned to the program house (eggs intact), we discovered yet one more problem. The only sugar we had was unprocessed and so if we didnt want our dough to be grainy we were going to have to grind the two and half cups by hand. Forty-five minutes later, with sweaty but beaming faces, we triumphantly regarded our bowl of ground sugar.
At last we had a concoction that looked and tasted pretty much like cookie dough. Sure, it may have been a little crunchy and paired with chunks of chocolate bars instead of chips but as we snacked on the dough that night, the company and atmosphere more than made up for any shortcomings in the snacks. Alans face alone when we brought out the bowl made the entire endeavor worth every rupee and probably even the couple minutes I imagine were shaved off my life from the stress of it all.
However, perhaps the best part of the whole ordeal was the precedent it set. We had spent and still do spend a lot of time talking about food, and the cookie dough inspired us to demand more than mouth-watering descriptions and wistf ul conversations. A ball had been set in motion and while we couldnt have known how big it would steamroll or for how long, at the time, all I remember thinking was, “Whats next?”
Act Two- Ten Points for Gryffindor
Okay Damaris. Here we go. You can do it. Stop talking to yourself and GO.
Sizzle.
Alright, not too bad, off to a nice start…at least you got the dough into the oil properly this time. Now, gently turn, gently, gently, and puff! …puff!….come one, give me a puff!…please…
The bhature spins slowly, sullen and dense. Zero puffage.
Sigh. Fine, flip and move on.
Katies next. Shes lies the thin, rolled-out circle of dough in the wok-like karahi and patiently nudges the sphere into a spin as the rest of us watch absently from our place in line. Suddenly, a whoop of excitement goes up when a small pocket of air surfaces in the dough and we begin to shower her with compliments while she lightly pushes on the air ball to enlarge the puff. Were still oohing and ahhing like expectant mothers over a newborn when she flips the orb and then places the creation on a tray of finished bhatures.
10 points for Gryffindor!” Josh calls out from the line and we all giggle (only a little enviously).
Dolly, our friend and quasi-mother in Banaras, comes into the kitchen to see how things are going. Its our second cooking class and shes teaching us how to make chole bhature, one of our favorite dishes. At the moment, the chole, a thin, stew-like sauce of chickpeas and spices, is resting under the sink while we prepare the bhature. Dolly glances at the plate of our finished concoctions which, instead of being heaped with pancake-sized discs of puffed, lightly fried dough, is scattered with some overcooked and greasy blobs that resemble various countries and continents. Pushing aside a China-shaped lump, she admires Katies success and encourages us all to keep trying; well all get it eventually. She hopes.
______________________
Lets do this. Lie the dough in the oil, start spinning gently- this is awfully familiar- and puff…puff…wait, can it be? PUFF! Yayohmygodlookatthat I got a puff!
Puffageee!” I call out and flip the dough to brown the other side before plopping the treat onto a plate.
Nice!” Josh says as he carefully sifts powdered sugar onto the dough and places the final product into a container.
Its Christmas morning and were making beignets.
Christmas is not widely celebrated in Banaras but like many expatriates, we want to make the day special. By now, we have fully adopted the mindset that no comfort food is unreachable and, given a strong will, creative mind, the Internet, and parents who send care packages, we have yet to be proven wrong. After a legitimate planning session (over apple pie at the local pizzeria), we have decided the snacks for our celebration will include, but are not limited to, Rice Krispie treats, fudge, turtle bars, Christmas cookies, and, of course, beignets.
You know,” I say to Josh while spinning the next beignet, “these really arent that different from bhature. I mean, I probably wouldnt have even known how to fry them if we hadnt had that cooking class.”
I know,” he replies as he hands me a piece to snack on, “it seems like the French and the Indians had the same idea going.” He takes a bite of his portion, grins, and adds,
Make sense though, what a seriously delicious idea it was.”
Act Three- The Midterm
Damarisss!” Dolly calls, “Did you add ajwain or jeera to the paste?”
Cumin, just like the recipe says!” I scramble around to find the spice packet and hand it to her as she enters the kitchen.
Aré! This is ajwain! Jeera is cumin! That one is cumin!”
Oops.”
Dolly laughs it off with a “koi baat nahi” and leaves to continue making the paste. I turn back to cooking samosa filling with an embarrassed pit in my stomach, cursing my absentmindedness, and having a hard time believing “it isnt anything.” Joshs dad is visiting and as a little treat for him, as well as to welcome Daniel back from vacation, were having a party. The menu consists of a combination of our favorite dishes from cooking class: samosas, Indian fried rice, raita yogurt sauce, chole bhature, palak paneer, and khir, or rice pudding- only this time, were on our own. Dolly has vowed to intervene as little as possible and as a joke, weve dubbed the whole undertaking our “midterm.” However, at the moment, were about two hours in to the test and I dont seem to be performing very well.
Dolly returns with the blended paste and explains that although ajwain was supposed to only go in the chole paste, well just use it for both chole and samosas. The afternoon moves on and we crack rice and heat milk for khir, whisk dahi, or yogurt, with cucumber for raita, blend spinach and cut cheese for palak paneer, soak and boil chickpeas for chole, knead dough for bhature, and mash potatoes with vegetables for samosas. By evening, most of the dishes are done and after a brief samosa-rolling fest, we begin frying the snacks for our arriving guests. The cooking that day was done with a lot of instinct-following, consulting, strainin g to read Dollys face and body language, and sometimes pure guessing, but the tactics seem to pay off as everyone starts eating. The atmosphere is soon blurred with conversation, comfort, and good will, and takes on a buttery hue as food comas descend and satiated smiles relax into place.
The samosas turned out great (ajwain included), the bhature light and fluffy, the palak paneer rich and creamy, the rice paired perfectly with the raita, and the khir rounded off the meal with a soothing and delicately sweet taste. Its obvious we couldnt have pulled such a feat off without Dolly or each other and thats the best part, of course- everyone gets an A.
Conclusion
The thing about cooking is that it really does bring people together. Whether its a group of five kids around a bowl of makeshift cookie dough, some travelers craving the taste of a home cooked holiday season, or a small community enjoying the fruits of everyones labor and support, the best part about all these three stories were the gatherings that occurred in the end. However, what I didnt fully realize before coming to India were the other benefits of cooking, and specifically cooking in a foreign country. How many people really remember the last time they went into the cupboard for cookie ingredients or opened the fridge to grab a tub of dough? Probably less than the number who will remember my recount of the night we flailed our way into producing the treat. The actual taste of the cookie dough was entirely subpar and yet the memory of that experience will last infinitely longer than the afternoon I came home from school, ate a couple cookies, drank some milk, and then went to swim practice or started my homework or signed onto Facebook. There are many reasons making cookies in Varanasi, India is much harder than anywhere in the US, and yet it was that very struggle that made the end result so much more gratifying and meaningful.
Likewise, before I made bhature, I had never fried anything in my life. I knew generally how it worked and had seen it done before, but when I took my place behind the karahi of burning oil, I was not only learning how to make one of my first Indian dishes, but also a basic cooking skill. The beauty of this fact is that making bhature not only taught me a technique I would use in many other cooking classes, but a technique I would use to alleviate my culinary homesicknesses. I never thought to make beignets at home, perhaps due to wealth of alternatives or because they seemed too complicated, and in fact it was being in India and learning Indian cooking that inspired the attempt. We wanted a taste of home, but it was only by exploring a food culture thousands of miles away that made that wish come true.
Finally, when I first started reflecting on “the midterm,” I saw the feast as a culmination of our culinary assimilation in India. We went from transplanting a recipe from home to blending foreign methods and native tastes to creating an authentic Indian meal virtually on our own. However, what I realize now is that this linear interpretation misses the point. This morning, I made pancakes. After breakfast, Josh made lassi and we talked about how our next experiment should be veggie burgers, inspired by the similar Indian snack paw bhaji. At work recently, Ive been helping a vocational unit expand the line of products by teaching them how to make “American” treats like apple pie and pizza. Before going home one day, one of the women I had been working with stopped to thank me profusely for my help and was startled when I pointed out she was the one who had kneaded the pizza dough to proper elasticity and perfectly judged how big to cut the apples. Assimilation isnt a loss of any one culture, its an enhancement of both.
Good thing too, because what a delicious enhancement it is.
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Best Notes From The Field, Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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Khanna Bannane: A Series of Three Acts

Damaris Miller,Best Notes From The Field, Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

Description

Author’s Note: This is an expansion of an earlier yak entitled Tollhouse Lovin’ Act One- Operation: Tollhouse Imagine a plate of freshly made chocolate chip cookies. As you approach the plate, the first thing you notice is the unmistakable aroma that fills the air around you and sets your mouth a-salivating at the first whiff. […]

Posted On

04/16/11

Author

Damaris Miller

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I’ve had many auspicious things happen in my life, but never like what I’ve experienced here in India. Who would have believed that the best thing that happened to me in India was getting sick?

It was the beginning of February, and I woke up one morning to find myself needing at least a couple more hours of rest. Choosing to give into fatigue (I wasn’t really that sick) seemed like the weaker move to make, but my bed was extremely inviting. I gave into what I thought was an unnecessary, but all too enticing couple hours of sleep. Little did I know that that would be the best decision of my time here in India.

Waking up a couple hours later, I ventured out of my room and found myself in front of a complete stranger. It’s not unusual for me to meet family relatives who come through Banaras and visit my host family’s house, but I had a sneaking suspicion that the girl with white skin, a backpack, and green streaks in her hair wasn’t a blood relation. After conversing with her, my suspicion was confirmed. Her name was Magnolia Morris and she was a student from Global College. While the focus of her time in India was part of a year studying comparative religions, she was doing a project that currently had her gathering information about the new sewer system being laid in Banaras. She had met with my host brother Saurabh to ask the people working on laying the pipe some questions.

Interesting as this all was, I was trying to figure out what I was going to do that day. My normal routine of wrestling, eating breakfast, and then heading off to work across the river to do work at Bal Ashram’s ECO Park was in pieces due to my not-too-incapacitating sickness. Today, after my late start and making of a new acquaintance, I was going to see what kind of work I could do at the Ashram since I was still feeling weak. Little did I know that the invisible hand of sickness was guiding me towards a new purpose.

When I decided to head out to the Ashram, Maggie joined me because she had some time to spare while waiting for Saurabh. When we got there, we first went to see Baba-ji, the spiritual leader and director of the Ashram. Naturally after meeting Maggie, he asked her who she was, and where she was from. When he asked her what she was interested in, she mentioned wastewater treatment. “Good,” said Baba-ji with a twinkle in his eye. “You’re just the person I was looking for.” Baba-ji then sent Tejbol-ji, a disciple of Baba-ji to show us what he meant.

This is what we saw: A giant pipe coming from the ashram and going down the steep slope right next to the river bank. Coming out of the pipe was grey, foaming water. It landed in a small dug out pit before it trickled down into the Ganga. I didn’t know much about wastewater, but that seemed like a problem to me. When we got back to Baba-ji, he asked Maggie, “Do you think you can help?” She replied, “I can try.”

In those three words, my work and time here transformed completely. Maggie had only just over ten days before she moved on to other parts of India, but luckily this task fit into the structure of the same independent study project that she intended to do on the sewer lines. In a spur of the moment, her project changed. At the same time, so did my schedule: I was to try and assist in any way I could, because of my knowledge of the Ashram, of Banaras, and of Hindi. We had only a week and a half, and we needed to come up with a comprehensive plan to fix this problem.

Even now the randomness of how I got started on this project strikes me: Two people, with two different reasons for being at the same place at the same time. Was it coincidence? Fate? I don’t think that it really matters. For whatever reason, I had within the my hands the chance to try and make an impact that could continue even after I return to the US.

Excited and empowered, Maggie and I began to figure out the first things we needed to do.

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Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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Part One: Inception

Josh Ellis,Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

Description

I’ve had many auspicious things happen in my life, but never like what I’ve experienced here in India. Who would have believed that the best thing that happened to me in India was getting sick? It was the beginning of February, and I woke up one morning to find myself needing at least a couple […]

Posted On

03/24/11

Author

Josh Ellis

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Oh, the noble profession that they call teaching.
No one ever said that teaching was going to be easy (if anyone even thought of saying such blasphemy, I’m sure that several hundred harried teachers and professors, half-graded papers and coffee in hand, would bang down the door of said person’s house). It’s not a job; it’s a lifestyle.
Lesson plans need to be written and research for future assignments needs to be done during the time you aren’t in school. “Your children’s minds are like dough,” a peculiar inquisitive stranger told me after I had explained my service project here in Varanasi, “and you need to use all of your power to make them into chapattis [an Indian bread].”
All cooking and baking references aside though, that train of thought, that idea of educating others in order to enhance their lives was my main reason in wanting to teach and interact with children for my service project. I understood that it was going to be very difficult; in this business, if you even think about entering a classroom full of rowdy children without a course of action or some preparation, beware the consequences. It’s a war zone; chaos will reign in the class because the students are not occupied or interested and you’ll be wondering how teachers ever got their classrooms quiet for more than five seconds. You can even have the best of intentions walking into a classroom, all prepared with a lesson plan and some activities for the kids, and then something invariably happens and the whole lesson plan is meaningless. An activity about capital letters meant for a five minute period turns into a half hour discussion on the differences between proper nouns, pronouns, and nouns.
Being amenable to deviations from plan and being able to improvise under any circumstances in order to capture the attention of the kids is crucial. But even after realizing all of these things, the most important realization that I’ve learned is not something that other teachers have told me. That coveted spot belongs to my rowdy but lovable Class 5 English students, after the turbulent distresses and delights of preparing for Nirman’s Annual Performance.

The Annual Performance is a time in which all of the classes present something that they are learning in their subjects to their teachers, parents, and fellow students. Because most of the students’ grasp of English was weak compared to their counterparts in the city school, I perused the bookshelves in the library for stories with a simple plot and repetitive vocabulary that I would be able to convert into a screenplay for the show. Wedged betweenVogue Indiaand a copy ofThe RamayanawasThe Giving Treeby Shel Silverstein. It was always one of my favorite childhood stories, even though it is one of those books that you don’t fully appreciate until you reread it when you are older (in my case, at the ripe, seasoned age of eighteen, of course). A tree and a boy are best friends when the boy is young, but then the boy evolves into the familiar stages of the moody and temperamental teenager (still speaking from my mature age of eighteen), the self-absorbed young man, and the depressed older gentleman suffering through a midlife crisis. Throughout the story, the tree is content just to make the boy happy, even though he leaves her without giving thanks or playing with her, much to her lament.
The whole story is an allegory for the selfless love of a parent, and so, true to my idealistic ways, I thought that I would be able to teach them English while also emphasizing the importance of familial love. It’s surprising how quickly one can forget about the challenges of putting on a performance. There were some students that were already getting stage fright just thinking about being onstage. Props and costumes need to be made creatively, especially since NGO schools have limited amounts of money. For a while, I was struggling to figure out how to make a boat and a house for the old man, the tree’s costume, and apples. I was getting worn out from all of the students fussing and complaining about performing when one day, they surprised me.
“Bella ma’am,” they said, using my Indian nickname, “we don’t know when you’re going to make the props and we don’t want to wait anymore so we made them for you,” they told me matter-of-factly. Yes they did. They made a beautiful crown of leaves for the tree using a thin metal rod and the leaves in the nearby field. Our apples were cut out and colored from the leftover paper from art class. The branches were made out of the gatekeeper’s ball of string. An old dollhouse in the preschool stood in as the man’s house and an old basket with a branch and leaf for a sail became our boat. The kids were so excited to have made their own props that they were now more invested in the performance than ever. They struggled to learn their lines and developed a new passion for creating things outside the box. During the performance itself, we had a couple of scrapes along the way, but a couple of forgotten lines and missteps later, the 5thgrade finished their performance in front of all of the parents, teachers, and students in the audience. Grinning ear to ear, they took their bows. It didn’t matter to them that I had to whisper some words from backstage or that the tree’s crown of leaves kept sliding off his head. They exercised their creativity and were proud of their work.
It’s funny how I’ve only come to realize halfway through my service project where I am supposed to be teaching students that I am also learning so much from them in every way. They surprise me with their intelligence, maturity (on good days), and creativity. Even though this is a demanding line of work, I love it because every day is a learning experience for me as well, whether it’s observing how they view the world or how they express their creativity. This might be the most noble profession in the world because it’s one of the most arduous, but it’s definitely also one of the most rewarding.
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Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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Annual Performance!

Daniela Bartalini,Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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Oh, the noble profession that they call teaching. No one ever said that teaching was going to be easy (if anyone even thought of saying such blasphemy, I’m sure that several hundred harried teachers and professors, half-graded papers and coffee in hand, would bang down the door of said person’s house). It’s not a job; […]

Posted On

03/1/11

Author

Daniela Bartalini

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I was never one of those kids who ate butter. But I could have been.
I came to this realization as I continually scooped clarified butter (ghee) out of a small bowl with my hand and brought it into my mouth. To be honest, it wasn’t just butter: it had some brown sugar in it. But still, the fact that I was eating butter-sugar out of a bowl with my hands brought me to a question: "What was I doing?"
This in turn brought an even more relevant question: "What was I doing?"
Looking up from my sugar-butter, I didn't recognize any of the faces around me. In fact, the place around me was foreign as well. I was in a complete stranger's home, eating ghee that another stranger had offered me. Four and a half months ago, I couldn't have imagined that I would put myself in such a situation deliberately.
When I first arrived in India, and really until quite recently, I was pretty intimidated to engage in conversations with strangers in a strange land. Although hand-gesturing is a really effective means of bridging the language barrier, it still left me uncomfortable. Growing up in America, I have become attuned to how Americans speak English. Having spoken English all my life, I realize that a conversation is hardly just the meaning conveyed by words. More often, subtleties in the manner of speaking and in the facial expressions conveyed during conversation reveal far more important meaning.

Intuiting and understanding these conversational cues is only the tip of an iceberg I like to call cultural grokking. The word “to grok” was first used in Heinlen’s 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land.In the original sense it meant intuiting how to move and interact with the world around you given the fact that you are intimately familiar with it. For example, we know how to move effectively on Earth, but it would take a while for us to realize how to effectively move on the moon. (It's skipping, for those who are curious.) For me, India might as well been the moon, its culture ungrokable. Many of the rules I knew were absent or different, like the fact that the same head shake can mean yes, no, or maybe.

Thrown outside my familiar culture, I couldn't grok things about the people around me that normally give me confidence along with comprehension. Would I inadvertently offend someone out of ignorance? More importantly, would I be able to tell when I was doing so?
Only time and experience would amend this lack of understanding and reveal what was appropriate. Now that time has come. Having come to the halfway point in my time in India, I feel confident in my ability to culturally grok the culture around me to interact effectively.
Which brings me to why I was eating butter in a stranger’s home.
In order to find a particular wrestling ground across the city, I had to meet up with a senior wrestler who would give me directions to the grounds. Unfortunately, all I knew was that he lived near a certain temple. If I had just arrived in India, I would have had no idea where to even start. But, four and a half months later, I could grok enough to know what to do. Asking many shopkeepers, I eventually made my way to successfully find the house of the senior wrestler. Though he had no idea who I was or why I was at his house, I introduced myself and explained why I had come. Then not only did I get directions, but also some homemade butter and brown sugar.
While I was a stranger in their home, their home was no longer strange to me.
Though I have much to learn and still even more to experience, now with my ability to culturally grok, I look forward in the next months to getting a deeper, richer, (and perhaps more delicious) understanding of world that surrounds me.
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Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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Strange feels Familiar

Josh Ellis,Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

Description

I was never one of those kids who ate butter. But I could have been. I came to this realization as I continually scooped clarified butter (ghee) out of a small bowl with my hand and brought it into my mouth. To be honest, it wasn’t just butter: it had some brown sugar in it. […]

Posted On

02/28/11

Author

Josh Ellis

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    [post_date] => 2011-02-22 00:00:00
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Dear family and friends,

We are off to Kolkata (Kolkata) for a little sightseeing from tomorrow, Thursday, 2/24 to Monday, 2/28.

The trip will provide another glimplse into the diverse culture of India, and Kolkata, known for its cultural heritage, arts, sweets, and for the humourous Bengalis will more than satisfy the insatiable curiosity that this group is known for.

This trip is entirely student led, which means that they are in complete charge from the planning to the execution of it. As they all have been battle hardened from their kaleidoscopic experiences from their previous excursions in India, they are more than ready to put their theories into practice. Although, unfortunately, we will be missing out on one of the World Cup cricket matches, India vs. England, that has been shifted to Bangalore.

More to follow from the City of Joy.

Daniel

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Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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The City of Joy

Daniel Seymour,Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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Dear family and friends, We are off to Kolkata (Kolkata) for a little sightseeing from tomorrow, Thursday, 2/24 to Monday, 2/28. The trip will provide another glimplse into the diverse culture of India, and Kolkata, known for its cultural heritage, arts, sweets, and for the humourous Bengalis will more than satisfy the insatiable curiosity that […]

Posted On

02/22/11

Author

Daniel Seymour

WP_Post Object
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    [post_author] => 39
    [post_date] => 2011-02-21 00:00:00
    [post_date_gmt] => 2011-02-21 07:00:00
    [post_content] => Only one thing stood in my way as I descended the steep stone steps of Tulsi Ghat. Akash’s arm around my shoulder led me towards the direction of the river, though with each step the unseen barrier gathered strength. Then I was suddenly before Her, resplendent and glorious in the morning sun. Mother Ganga seemed extremely inviting, especially considering that I was completely caked in dirt and surrounded by people who intended to bathe in Her. But while the other pehlwan (wrestlers) moved past me to enter the river, I was frozen, unable to take the final steps. What stood in my way? Nineteen years of behavioral conditioning: advice that had become habit and which has kept me healthy my entire life. 

I absolutely loathe getting sick, and bathing in the Ganga would violate every rule, every formed habit that my parents’ medical expertise had instilled in me since I was young. I drew a deep breath and felt the full force of my mom’s infectious disease horror stories, like a palpable draft among the cool morning breeze. What could possibly overcome such a strong resistance to bathing in water that has such egregious levels of pollution? Surely not peer pressure. And definitely not “the experience.” What was I thinking?

If someone told me six months ago that I would stand before the Ganga, deciding whether to bathe in Her or not, my response would have been something like this: “Really? You mean in a future lifetime, because I wouldn’t go near that river with a three-foot stick.”

Clearly, I know what’s best for me. I take pride in knowing what I stand for and what I hold most important in life. It gives me purpose, direction, and, most importantly, a way of interpreting the world. Because of my values, I know who I am and can confidently act in the world around me.

But, coming to India, I knew I was going to have some issues.

Individuality. Efficiency. Social Relationships. These are a few of dyanmics I’ve grown to know and cherish in an American sense, but, from the limited knowledge I had of India before I arrived, it seemed they meant something quite different in Indian culture. The car ride from the airport in Delhi confirmed that at least some of my assumptions were true. In my eyes traffic was chaos. How did anyone get anywhere? Did cycle-rickshaws really think they had the right to the road? More importantly, how did we not get into an accident with what seemed like a complete absence of traffic laws? Yes, that even includes respecting the separation of lanes.

“Well, I guess that’s just how it is,” I remember thinking. I observed the culture around me, took it in, and then tried hard not to form critical opinions about what I saw. Who was I to judge the way a fifth of humanity functions? I was just here to do service, not to try and impose my values. But I have learned that you can’t help but display your beliefs, even if you are not directly criticizing or proclaiming your views. My beliefs dictate the way I interact with the people around me, and that’s something I can’t hide. Just like I learned that I can’t hide who I am, I have learned that certain values seem to drive society here; in fact, they are often necessary to navigate Indian culture.But could I embrace ideals I might disagree with and make them part of my daily routine?

Flash to two months ago. I need exercise to function, and back then, I really needed it. It had been about a month since I’d really worked out and my body was craving physical activity. But to fit exercise into my schedule, I was going to have to try something new. Kushti. The Hindi word for wrestling sounds just as foreign as Indian-style wrestling was to me. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but nothing was going to stop me from exercising. Can I wear the Indian-loincloth, the langota? Yup. Ready to slather your body in mustard oil? Sounds like fun. Dirt wrestling ring? No problem. Do you know how to wrestle? I can learn. What about participating in a pre-wrestling devotional prayer to the monkey-god Hanuman-ji? Erm… Ok. And once you’re done wrestling, will you bathe in the Ganga not just to wash off dirt, but also for spiritual purification? …I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

While I didn’t know exactly where I stood on the religious aspect of kushti, I nevertheless began a daily workout routine. During pooja, or devotional prayer, I prayed to God, just one I don’t associate with with the name Hanuman-ji. As for bathing in the Mother Ganga? I’ll use the faucet in the corner, thanks.

Maybe it’s because exercise releases endorphins, but soon daily kushti became my favorite thing about India. The more I practiced, the more I began to realize that kushti was something more than just a workout. In America, “wrestling” might evoke thoughts of WWE, college wrestling, or perhaps a personal high school experience. However, to try and understand kushti through the lens of American wrestling culture would hardly get at the true nature of traditional Indian wrestling. On the surface, it is easy to find shared ground between the two: techniques and objectives are very similar, matches take place in a designated area, and many of the strength building exercises are identical. Initially, these commonalities allowed me to participate just like any of the other wrestlers. However, compared to sports I’ve played in America, I’ve found that Kushti is different on the most fundamental level.

On my first day of practice, one of the pehlwan told me, “by merely being a wrestler, you are a devotee of Hanuman-ji.” Whether I agreed or not, this was my first clue that kushti is grounded in religious traditions. Indeed, just looking around the akhara (place where kushti is practiced), would reveal this: the ring is surrounded by pillars inscribed with the name of Lord Ram, the protagonist of the Hindu text, the Ramayan; all structures are painted in the relgious color red; and, on one side of the ring there is a even a temple. Indeed, the religious atmosphere draws priests who come to use the akhara’s workout equipment.

And then there was bathing in the Ganga. Banaras is holiest city in the world for Hindus, who consider the Ganga to be the holiest river in India. A Hindu bathing on the ghats in Benaras is something akin to a Muslim praying in Mecca. And for all the pehlwan except me, this was an integral part of kushti.

Clearly, these traditions had great significance for Hindus, but what did it mean to me? Like my other interactions with India, I was trying to keep a healthy distance. If I really gave my heart to Kushti, I would be participating in a religion that was not my own, and potentially adopting “new” values that conflicted with the ones that defined me. And I definitely didn’t want to change in a direction I might not like. But as I continued to participate, questions surfaced.

Where did my values come from? Would they be the same if I had grown up here?

It is basic human instinct to fear the unknown, and that often manifests itself in fear and suspicion of anything that is different. Being human, I’m no exception.

But then the different became the familiar.

While the religious nature of kushti was something uncomfortable to deal with at first, I began to realize just how much it affected the way wrestling is conducted. While competition is valued in both kushti and American wrestling, in the former it is rooted in meaning. In kushti, while competition is cherished, it is only because it is a celebration to God. Winning isn’t all that matters. Self-improvement is attained through practice and hard work, and it is celebrated by all as an offering to God. This depth produces an atmosphere conducive not only to personal growth, but also to bonding with other pehlwan. Thinking back to my experiences with American sport culture, kushti provided a different, dare I say it, more appealling environment.

I had tried hard to keep my values safe from being altered, but all along they were never under threat. India had only presented me with a different way of doing things, not because She didn’t share my values, but because She valued others just as worthy. As kushti showed me, different values did the opposite of what I had feared. Instead of changing me in a way I didn’t want, they allowed me to see what I stood for in a broader perspective. Keeping in mind how different values gave me a deeper understanding of the one’s I cherished, I was ready to delve deeper into the unfamiliar. And one morning I realized I needed to understand what the Ganga meant.

I was frozen with fear before the Ganga, but now that could not stop me. The chance to hear the heartbeat of the Banaras was before me. From the perspectives I’d already gained on life from kushti, bathing in the Ganga was no longer something optional. It had become a necessary step in my personal development. Just like sports fans make a game something more than just a competition, the sheer number of people who come to bathe in the Ganga make it something more than just a river. As the cool temperature of Her water engulfed my body, I felt her power. A power that gives a pehlwan true strength. The power of humanity’s devotion. Power capable of giving a visitor new perspective on the world. As I continued to wash myself clean, I did not feel out of place. Despite the fact that I was white and Catholic, my heart was one with the Hindus bathing around me, intertwined like the current of the river we shared.

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Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

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Wrestling & Revelations

Josh Ellis,Bridge Year India 2010 - 2011

Description

Only one thing stood in my way as I descended the steep stone steps of Tulsi Ghat. Akash’s arm around my shoulder led me towards the direction of the river, though with each step the unseen barrier gathered strength. Then I was suddenly before Her, resplendent and glorious in the morning sun. Mother Ganga seemed […]

Posted On

02/21/11

Author

Josh Ellis

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