Confidence

After a train ride and two flights back to Minneapolis, I finally arrived in the USA on January 29.  I’ll admit that I’ve had trouble writing anything since my return.  My trip had a bittersweet ending, like most, and my arrival in the United States presented me with one of the hardest things I’ve had to face yet: saying goodbye to a loved one.  I feel blessed to have been able to spend time with my grandmother in the days following my arrival in the US. Her passing has been incredibly difficult to handle all while starting my new adventure as a student teacher at Brandon Valley High School.  I learned to have confidence in myself when traveling alone in India, the kind of confidence my Grandma Rachel had.  Sometimes that confidence gets me into trouble, like when everyone thought I was missing in India when I decided to carry all my bags off the train platform at the central station in Delhi and climb the stairs to the entrance to meet my driver.  I didn’t know I was supposed to stay on the platform…oops. I was fine the whole time, a little nervous, but I knew if I got scared like everyone else it wouldn’t do any good.  I made it back, right?

Saying goodbye to my family in India was incredibly difficult, and coming back to fit myself back into the puzzle of my life here has been even more difficult.  My roommate, Claire, who embarked on an equally ambitious and life changing journey to the Philippines in January, described this feeling so well.  When you leave a place and travel to a world filled with people seemingly so different than you, you are a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit.  You have to learn how to fit into the puzzle while you’re away, and the same happens when you return.  My Grandma Rachel had a gift of getting to know people. She had confidence and grace when facing the challenge of making friends in new places.  I realize that I’ve been channeling that confidence for quite some time, and have needed it even more as I begin student teaching.  I don’t think I’ve quite got the whole grace thing down yet, but I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t a little awkward.

Travel changes you, and I find myself not even sure how to describe my trip.  It was wonderful, it was amazing, it was beautiful, I loved the people.  Those words can never really do justice to my experience.  I had a unique experience that I’m not sure anyone else can ever fully understand, and that’s okay. That’s what makes travel so great. Part of you changes and part of your heart will forever be part of that place you had to gain the confidence to fit into and understand.

My Grandma Rachel did so much in her lifetime. She battled Carcinoid Cancer for over 21 years, kidney failure, and high blood pressure.  Those ailments, however, were not who she was.  She worked on an airline, something I never knew, worked at Northwestern Bell telephone company and was a pioneer for women as she worked where only men worked.  She was a mother, a wife, a grandmother, a friends, and loved travel.  As I said goodbye to my grandmother, I wasn’t altogether sure what I was reading as I stood in front of our family and friends.  I was just reading.  The words that stuck with me are found in Proverbs 31:25.  “She is clothed with strength and dignity and laughs without fear of the future.”  I know the coming months won’t be an easy adjustment and are full of change.  It will take a lifetime for me to live with the strength my grandma did, but I know she is watching over me.  It’s time to be confident.

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The Things You Can Learn From a Lizard in India…

Living in India has taught me many things. I’ve picked up a few of the mannerisms, but most importantly I’ve learned about myself and how to really get out of my comfort zone. I’m not sure why I’m about to tell you about this, but here goes…

I’ve had an ongoing battle with a lizard that really likes to come in my room. Do I sound crazy yet? Today was our first encounter in a week. Each time this happens I can’t help but to laugh. We met on my first night here and he was scared by a broom. I promise he was never hit. He’s very persistent…four weeks later and he still attempts to come inside.

I’ve learned to carefully open my screen door, check for the lizard, quickly unlock my door, then run out. This is completely irrational, I know, but every time I open my door the lizard tries to get in. Sometimes he’s hiding on the corner of the doorframe ready to come in, other times I’ll see his shadow as he runs past the door right before I open it. I avoid doing my laundry because it means I have do to deal with him out on the balcony, also because it takes clothing approximately five days to dry if it is not sunny. Don’t judge me.

As silly as this all sounds, my battle with this little lizard today reminded me about the importance of going out of my comfort zone and being persistent. I also really like metaphors so bear with me here. Whether it’s a balcony with a persistent lizard or a different country full of new people and friends, I’ve been dragged out of my comfort zone and I’m glad. It takes a lot for me to come out of my shell and to feel at ease. I’ve become so comfortable here, even with my little lizard, and going home in four days is a bittersweet thought.

I’ve learned where I fit in here and how I learn best. I can navigate my way through an Aarti ceremony, understand a tiny bit of Hindi, make people laugh, cheer up an upset child, and bust out some Bollywood dance moves. I taught baby Aadi how to say “uh oh” and he gives me puppies (kisses), so mission accomplished. I’m really going to miss my sisters and brothers here at SRA and I am so grateful for everything they have taught me. I am thankful that I’ve persevered even if I’m a little scared of the little lizard outside my door.

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In the midst of preparing for Bachendra Bhai’s wedding reception, we did a promo video for Crossfit.

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Congratulations Bachendra and Deepti!

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This was two full days of decorating…it was the most beautiful and heartfelt wedding reception ever 🙂

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This is probably one of my favorite pictures ever…study hall time and someone was not studying…

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Beautiful Ganga Aarti in Haridwar

Observations On A Foggy Day

Life here has been filled with lots of piggy back rides, races, hairstyles, homework, art, tears, smiles, shrieks, and laughs. I fall into bed each night exhausted, so I apologize for my late update. Not only am I an older sister, but a caregiver, a teacher, and a playmate. That’s a whole heck of a lot of hats to wear in a day. I keep telling myself that this is the best practice I will ever have to prepare me for being a teacher. I don’t have the endless energy these kiddos seem to have – and they aren’t even allowed to drink the chai.

The weather here has been a bit odd. We live for the days we can spend outside soaking up the sun because that’s the only form of heat we have here. I came with the idea that I could handle the “Indian Winter.” I mean it’s not below zero, but there is no way for you to ever be warm. Half the time it’s warmer outside than it is inside. I keep telling myself that at least I don’t have to pay a $160 electric and heating bill.

The great thing about my “plan” when I came here was that I knew it would change as I went. I feel a bit silly for not thinking about it before, but education is a huge component of how children are cared for and nurtured. The things I have observed and the conversations I have had with Rashmi have really opened my eyes to the state of education in India and the complications within the system.

I have been learning more and more about life here in India, and gaining in depth knowledge about the education system. I came here with the intent of learning about how the Indian government cares for their orphaned children because I know most government orphanages are understaffed and unable to nurture their children in the way the children at SRA are. Rashmi has informed me that now, the police can no longer legally give SRA any children that are found abandoned. After a change in statehood, SRA is not recognized by the government as an official orphanage. Rashmi has no idea where these children go or who is caring for them.

At least 600 students from Haridwar and Shyampur village in addition to the SRA children attend the Sri Ram (SRVA) school. Their schooling revolves primarily around rote memorization and is quite strict. Teachers are not in their classrooms for undetermined amounts of time, and Rashmi informed me that the way here is that the parents teach their children. The teachers only provide the information. Sadly this burden is too great for many parents to handle, and even the caregivers at SRA struggle to ensure each and every child is understanding their schoolwork.

We talk about the state of education in America and that we are failing our children. Yes, we need to make sure we are reaching our students and instilling a value and love for education, but our problem is not isolated. There are 320 million (plus) children in India. Of that 320 million, 4% will never receive an education. 42% will stay in school until class 5. If they are lucky, they will attend a private school because the government schools are considered a low standard of education. 90% of Indian children will graduate from high school and never attend college. Only 10% of this 320 million will attend college. The state of education in India is something that needs to be addressed, and even if students are attending school, there is a good chance they are being left behind.

I have spent the last week intensely tutoring one of the children at SRA. Her confidence is low, and she struggles with her schoolwork because of being constantly told she is weak at school. To see a child go from not being able to spell the word “March” and timidly answering questions to jumping up and down asking to spell more words is incredible. She just needed someone to take the time to understand how she best learns and show her what her strengths are. She needed someone to empower her. The children at SRA are fortunate because their trustees and donors ensure that they have tutors after school each day. Many students who live in India do not have this type of support. Paying for private schooling is hard enough for so many families that paying for a tutor is out of the question. So how are children, whether orphaned or living with their parents, cared for by their country? That is the question I hope to begin to understand for the rest of my stay here and to research once I return.

I have no intention of making this post appear hopeless or accusatory. In fact my hope is that it will motivate people to start thinking about education as an important component of caring for children. Today I attended a presentation from a member of the Teach for India team, and the situation I just described was delineated in this man’s presentation. He offered hope for bridging the education gap in India to ensure all students, rich and poor, have an excellent education. The exciting part of this day was to see the interest in the students, grades 8 and up. These students were given hope and inspiration to help their country and to build a better future.

I have learned how to make a difference with limited resources during my time in India, and it has made me a much more resourceful and creative thinker. I may not have been able to do the art projects I imagined before I arrived, but I think that is the way things were supposed to happen. I believe, and a goal of the Teach for India program, is to help people understand that leaders are more than just good students playing the game of school. The children at SRA really are learning to become leaders. They host guests, plan events, teach their younger siblings, and make sure day to day life goes on at the Ashram. A family of 65 leaders who strive to excel inside and outside the classroom. That is a hopeful image.

Living in India for the past three weeks has taught me the importance of observation, reflection, and just going with it. Because let’s face it, I’m on one of the least predictable and most incredible trips of my life. I’ve been homesick, I’ve been overwhelmed, I’ve been incredibly happy, and I’ve been loved. Each day is a new experience with new things to see, new tricks the kids like to play on me, new lessons – whether they are about India’s independence or how to make someone laugh. Here’s to the next eight days I get to spend with this incredible family. I know it will be filled with laughter, dancing, good food, and good conversation.

We took a trip to Rishikesh with the kids. It is tradition at SRA for children to send their first paycheck back to the Ashram. Prabha, who works as a nurse in the US, gave her brothers and sisters this fun trip to Rishikesh.

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Visit to Rishikesh and Hanuman’s Rock

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Walking the streets of Riskikesh

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Crossing the bridge

Taking a Walk (Or Run) in Someone Else’s Shoes

I find it hard to believe that my trip is halfway done. Only 18 more days, and it seems like I arrived yesterday. I would be lying if I said that I’m completely settled in and know how everything works, but I’ve decided that is perfectly fine. I think it would take a lifetime to understand everything here, the children teach me something new each day. It has taken a lot for me to just go with the flow and let the children lead me. They’ve dragged me away from my Western mindset of schedules and plans and shown me how to really have fun.

I’ve started to do art with the children and it’s mostly letting them create whatever they like. A few of us worked on the painted elephant project I made to teach them how to use crayons and watercolors together. From a teacher’s perspective, I now fully appreciate the fact that I will be teaching classes of children who are the same age and around the same skill level. It’s very difficult to explain watercolors to a four year old while their older brothers and sisters can handle the medium much better. Although, I have to say, Steve Thomas is right: let children play with age appropriate materials, but also let them experiment and challenge themselves. The younger children who experiment with materials that are a bit outside of their skill level are never frustrated, and always having fun, so why stop them? Their creations are always more interesting than anything I could come up with.

Originally I had anticipated the kids would want to keep some of their creations. Could I have been more wrong? Almost every single piece of paper (so far) in the 20 pound box I brought has been given right back to me covered with beautiful creations. If we are to learn about generosity from anyone, it should be from these kiddos.

This experience has forced me to transplant myself into the shoes of these children. I’m learning about the world from their perspectives. We’ve talked about world issues like the recent violence in France and Pakistan. These children understand the world on a completely different level than you or I. They understand the need for peace, to take time to listen to others’ stories and share their experiences. I knew my time in Norway this past summer would influence my experience here in India, but I didn’t know it would be so direct. So many of the things I learned I am utilizing here, and the kids already know it without having spent a summer in Norway.

Today I stood in someone else’s shoes when the group of 28 or so Augustana students came to visit the Ashram. I did not realize just how much I changed in my short time here. My first experience at the Ashram was two years ago for just a few hours. Those few hours inspired me to return. This outsider perspective is so very different from what life is actually like. I feel like part of the family here, no longer an outsider who needs to be presented with pretty chai tea glasses or the “Western toilet” (the kids get a kick out of that).

I’m looking forward to the things I will learn in the coming weeks. The staff here is incredible and really know how to love these children with all of their hearts. The kids all joked around when we said goodbye to the Augustana group by saying goodbye to me and that they never wanted me to leave. I am already tearing up at the thought of leaving these sweet children on the 28th (and already planning a future trip). It’s slightly frightening to think of how much I will have changed when I return, but I know it is all for the best. I know the shoes I wear home will not be the same as the ones I came in, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

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Ansula took my shoes for a spin…

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Simi…what a cutie pie!

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Paresh and his elephant creation 🙂

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Simi was so focused while creating this, and I love it!

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Play time!

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Sita and I make lots of funny faces…

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The kids are so much better at taking photos than I am.

Brothers and Sisters

The past couple days have been a bit of a blur. Preema Didi and Milan Bhai had their engagement party. Who knew that wedding-like parties were thrown for engagements in India? The children are now on their winter break so there is a lot of free time. Rashmi Didi, the woman who runs Sri Ram, wants me to do art with the kids after study hall and perhaps teach some dance classes. What did I get myself into when I said I took dance lessons for fifteen years, but haven’t seriously danced in four?

It has been exciting to learn a bit more about each child here, and I still have much more to learn. Ansula Didi has claimed me as her best friend and never leaves my side. She explains what is going on when all of her sisters are talking in Hindi that way I can keep up. Baby Aaradyah Bhai also loves to hang out with me. For a while yesterday he wouldn’t let anyone else hold him except for me. He is adorable! He just points to things he wants or would like to see. Aaradyah Bhai really loves cars so we spent some time looking at the cars yesterday. Something I’ve find very interesting is that the children know what they need to do and actually care about their religion. They practice daily without prompting from the staff. That doesn’t mean the older brothers and sisters don’t move things along and get the younger ones going!

I see a lot of myself and my sister in the children here. Older brothers and sisters take on the roles of authority figures and the younger ones do their best to push their buttons. It makes me laugh because I know I’ve made Sara listen to me and follow my orders, a lot, because I’m older and I know more…

I had a lot of fun getting ready for the engagement party with the girls. I think the girls spent the entire day practicing their dances (which had to be perfect), doing their hair, and choosing their outfits. It reminded me of dance recital time with glitter and make up everywhere. Little did I know when I came here that I would be asked to do practically everyone’s hair and make up. All I heard yesterday was, “Aimée Didi, please do my make up like hers,” and “Aimée Didi, can you fix my hair?” I loved every minute of it, but it was definitely past my 8:00 bedtime when the party started. I think the girls had more fun getting ready for the party than at the party, especially because it poured rain for a good portion of the night and the tent was not waterproof, oops! We all rolled into bed around midnight, and now everyone is looking forward to another wedding on the 21st. I didn’t realize that I came during wedding season!

Something I haven’t felt until now was the awkward, you’re a foreigner, you have light skin and dark features, I want to talk to you thing. No one Sri Ram is phased by that, but the guests at the party were a different story. I wanted to fit in so I wore a traditional Indian frock suit, but that doesn’t hide the fact that I’m still white as can be with short brown hair. It honestly made me a little sad when the girls were talking about how my skin would look good with any color dress and that they wished they had lighter skin. I’m never really sure how to take these comments or compliments for that matter so I just smiled and said thank you, but told them all the reasons they were beautiful too. Although I had fun, I’m glad it’s over and things can go back to normal. I think everyone should experience being the center of attention purely because of their skin color. It’s not a nice feeling, but you might understand what many individuals in our world feel like on a daily basis.

It’s time for breakfast soon, and I’m sure all the kids are getting antsy. Ansula Didi kept commenting that the food made by the caterers on fancy white plates last night was not nearly as good as the food we eat on our thalis while sitting on the floor. I couldn’t help but to smile at her comments. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is simple living and how challenging yet wonderful it is. I still miss long hot showers and being able to do my laundry whenever I please, but beyond that, the simple things are so much better. Everything here at Sri Ram is done out of love for their brothers and sisters. I think we’ve all become such individuals back home that we forget the importance of actually being with the people around us. Each day every child here knows they are loved and included.

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A New Place. A New Day. A New Year.

My first few days here at Sri Ram Ashram have been wonderful, overwhelming, and exhausting. I’ve spent a great deal of time observing, talking to the children, and learning about the ways of the Ashram. These kiddos have taught me so much in the past few days. I cannot imagine what I will learn in the coming weeks. It has taken a lot for me to come out of my shell in this new place. Gautam Bhai reminded me yesterday that it is important to ask questions and start conversations. He said I was paying too much attention to the “rules” set forth for guests, and to just be myself. This was excellent advice, and I really started to connect with the children after our conversation. Like a big brother, he has been looking out for me since day one. I’m now Aimée Didi, which means sister Aimée. Bhai means brother. I’m becoming part of the family.

A typical day at the Ashram involves morning workout and prayer at 6:00 am followed by breakfast and tea. Lots and lots of chai – which I’m not complaining about. The children get ready for the day and I’ve started to walk them to school now too. Lunch is around noon, and the children get done with school at 3 – more chai. I’ve been helping Narayan Bhai with his social science homework and Veena Didi with her Biology during study hall. At 6:00 pm we have Arati, which are evening prayers to put the Ganga River to sleep. Dinner is at 7:00 pm and then it’s time for bed. This routine continues day after day, but there is never a dull moment.

I don’t think it is possible for me to connect to each and every child here, but I have already begun to form a few close friendships. Veena Didi, has taken me under her wing, and shown me how things go here. All of us girls are going to get ready for the New Years dance party together and then we will all stay up late and sleep in the TV room. Sita Didi has latched on to me and also taught me some of the Arati prayers. She’s quite persistent, and gives me “the eye” when I don’t sing the words. These children are going to teach me more than I can ever offer them.

The New Year celebration began early this morning as I helped Julie Didi get ready for school. Her birthday is tomorrow so today she got to dress up in her favorite clothes, wear makeup, and she even let me do her hair. Fancy, with lots and lots of clips, per her orders. Sita Didi reminds me how children test you. She definitely has a mind of her own, but she is also compassionate and cares for her brothers and sisters.

When thinking about the New Year, I believe mine has already begun. I’ve taken a lot of big steps in my life recently in terms of relationships, family, and travel. Although I am homesick and realizing just how difficult it is to be completely on my own in a foreign country, I am also realizing how important it is to let the children guide me and to be completely open, honest, and ask questions. I’m looking forward to what the rest of the day brings and what the New Year has in store for me.

Happy New Year!

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Determination

Well, after two long flights, a couple car rides, and a train ride later, I am at Sri Ram Ashram! It’s hard to believe I’m here, I’ve only spent the last two years planning this trip. I’m a bit jet lagged seeing as I have only slept maybe 6 hours hours in the past two days. Everyone here keeps telling me that it’s really cold. I just chuckle because there is no snow on the ground and I can walk around without a coat, gloves, and mittens on.

I’m very excited to start learning about daily life at the Ashram and the children’s’ daily routine. Tomorrow morning will start at 6am with tea and prayer. I didn’t know this trip would prepare me for teaching so well, maybe I’ll finally be a morning person.

My first day in India felt oddly familiar. It was surprising that I could recognize much of New Delhi and Haridwar from my visit two years ago. I didn’t miss the crazy driving, it’s about as loud as New York City with all of the honking, but it could honestly matter less which side of the road you drive on. It only matters if you can pass the person in front of you.

I am still a bit in a bit of a haze. I can’t believe I’m actually here and that I decided to take this crazy journey on my own. Sometimes I think I tell myself I’m braver than I actually am. This is both good and bad. I believe it is good in this case because if I didn’t have the determination to take this leap of faith, I don’t think I would learn half as much as I know I will learn in my month-long stay here. I have no definite plans, and as Dr. Looney always says, it’s India. Unlike my usual hyper-organized self, India is different, and I’m going to experience it one step at a time. I’m so excited to create art with the children and get to know each and every one of them. My mom always says children are the best teachers, and I think the children here, who have already welcomed me with open arms, will teach me much more than I can imagine. Thank you for all the well-wishes and support, it truly means the world to me, I don’t think I would be able to take this journey without it.

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"Work honestly, meditate everyday, meet people without fear, and play." – Baba Hari Dass