Hello again! Welcome back to the most inconsistent and underwhelming blog of all time. Just remember my apology at the beginning of my South Africa blog post and apply them to every post from here on out. There is an unfortunate pattern forming and, although I am able to recognize it, I find myself unable to remedy the problem. It is difficult to know where to begin considering the fact that the last time I typed up a blog post was at a French café in South Africa and I now find myself laying in bed in Palampur, India. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that I am still listening to Adele. I’m just going to do a run through of almost everything that has happened in the past month of my life with all of you patient, lovely people. This is where the longest half hour of your day begins.
The week of our departure Patty and I arrived home to champagne flutes, lace table clothes, balloons, and our entire extended family at dinner. Sally cried when making a toast and presented Patty and I with the most perfect gift of all time (read on to find out what it was). Our last night in South Africa was spent with our families at Ingwe for our media project presentations. Patty and I wore our brand new “You had me at aloha” t-shirts, which do include a photo of our ZA family on the back. We rode back home one last time in the back of the buggy, said our goodbyes to Amor, Jenni and Jonnie then went off to our room and attempted to remember how we had stuffed all of our clothing in our 50-liter bags in the first place. We presented the family with our gifts for them—which seemed so silly in light of all they had done for us, and then went off to bed. We woke up early so that Sally could pray for us one last time before she had to go to work and then we were on our way. It is also important to note that I had been puking all night and was about to embark on a five-hour bus ride, so it was an emotional departure for many reasons.
Addo, South Africa
I survived the bus ride with the help of my ginger ale and the handful of crackers, which I clung onto as I stared straight out the window. We arrived at Chrislin, moved into our rooms, went to a delicious dinner that I couldn’t eat and promptly collapsed into bed. Our first full day in Addo also happened to be Halloween and the day of our safari, which meant that I broke out the gargantuan, farmer Costco hat Jill had forced me to pack, put on all of my hiking clothes and preceded to look almost exactly like Steve Irwin. We saw elephants, zebras, rhinos, mere cats, turtles and whatever Pumba is. I questioned whether I was living in a dream constantly and compared every animal I saw to characters in The Lion King. The rest of our week at Addo included a double rainbow, ice-skating in a “Fun Center,” watching Frozen and visiting a zoo seemingly run by 12 year-olds.
I was in South Africa. I am currently in India. We can all guess what “52 Hours” means. Our journey from Addo began at 6 am and consisted of a two-hour car ride to Port Elizabeth. Our airborne journey looked like this: Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, Johannesburg to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), then Addis Ababa to New Delhi. I wouldn’t highly recommend stepping onto the streets of Delhi after over 24 hours of travel with all of your worldly possessions on your back, but that is what we ended up doing so and—in typical TBB fashion—followed someone who seemed qualified without any idea of where we were going. In this case that meant following Vinod, our new guide and IDEX staff member, to our hotel. We had less than twelve hours in the city, but it was enough to hold me over for at least the rest of eternity. Delhi is not a city for beginners, or 19 year-old American girls who haven’t slept in a few days and speak absolutely no Hindi. We met up with the Asia gap semester program, ate dinner and then headed to the train station to embark on another 12-hour journey. From my top bunk I had a magnificent view of the prisoner chained to the bed a section over along with the three armed guards that accompanied him. Melatonin made any fears obsolete and I woke up 12 hours later ready for a five-hour venture through the winding, cow-filled streets of northern India. Our 52 hours ended with us staring at the Himalayas with warm cups of chai in our hands at the IDEX house in Palampur.
I don’t know how I managed to hit the host family jackpot twice in a row, but I did. My new family consists of Mama, Papa, Dadi (our grandma), Sunny (18), Avi (15) and my fellow TBB-participant, Alea. Our mother is the best cook in India, can milk the cow in under five minutes and yells at me every time I try to bite my nails. Avi loves to watch Hindi dramas and Bollywood music videos at all times and is the best sister/translator in the whole wide world. Dadi cannot speak English, but does know how to remind Alea and I to put on our socks on a nightly basis. Papa just smiles. Sunny is at university, but when he returned for Diwali he spent most of his time listening to his music and not talking to Alea and I, which I have found to be similar to the rest of my interactions with all males his age. I am convinced that Alea was not born, but rather composed of unicorns, rainbows and sunshine. On any given night you can find Avi attempting to quiet our family as she watches various MTV shows. The power may or may not stay on and we may never find out if Prince won Splittsvilla. Our homestay is an oasis and I could not have dreamt of anything better.
Diwali is a Christmas-Halloween-4th of July-esque dream of a festival celebrated in India, and it also happened to occur two days after we moved into our homestays. This meant two things: no work and sugar; emphasis on the sugar part of that statement because we could not enter a house without being presented with chai and a table full of sweets. We set off fireworks, made rangoli, and got to know our family better. It was slightly overwhelming at times, but both Alea and I were beyond grateful for how willing they all were to include us in their traditions and force-feed us sugar.
Our Diwali holiday could not last forever and soon the reality of class and work projects began to settle in once more. The first week of work was slightly jarring. Despite having met with a teacher at IDEX and being promised the opportunity to observe our first day at school, my work partner, Ellie, and I were thrown into four different classrooms within the span of three hours on our first day at Gyaan-Deep Public School. The next few days consisted of us lesson planning and starting to find our footing with our 3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th and 9th graders. We then had the rug pulled out from under us when teachers at the school decided that walking into a classroom, scribbling out our schedule, and writing in a different class mid-period somehow made it our fault that we were not in the “correct” classroom. There were also many occasions when teachers were insisting that Ellie and I must split into classrooms (which we are not allowed to do) because a teacher was not available. After about three minutes of explaining our situation, the teacher walked into the, apparently vacant, classroom. Many of our problems were sorted out when an IDEX staff member accompanied us the following week. My problems continued when, the very day after having all of our problems sorted out, Ellie feel ill and it became my duty to stand alone in the classrooms for the day attempting to teach anyone anything. To give you a visual representation of my emotional state at the time, just close your eyes and imagine me, Hot Rod pencil case and pink lesson book in hand, on the phone with my program leader with a shaking voice and tears in my eyes walking up a dirt road in India towards what I was sure would be the source of my ruination. My leader gave me the option to come into IDEX early, but the van had already left I was too brave. Other than those few issues, teaching has been super challenging and I never want to do it again. But I do have the utmost respect to those who devote their lives to it and do it well.
There are two things you must do to understand fully why this post’s title includes the phrase “existential crisis”: read Ivan Illich’s “To Hell With Good Intentions” and then walk into a classroom full of eager, Indian children—as a completely unqualified ‘teacher’. This is the unique challenge that TBB has decided to present us with this past month. Just to give you an idea of Illich’s views on international volunteer work (a term used in his speech, but avoided all together within TBB), here is a quote from the previously mentioned work:
The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn’t have been volunteers in the first place…. I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intended to do.
Illich gave this speech in 1968 to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects in Cuernavaca, Mexico, but I believe that it is still relevant. There is not much more I can say that could accurately describe my day-to-day mental strain surrounding this concept of international aid. It a concept I once welcomed with open arms, but now approach with skepticism and a heightened awareness of the pretentions that allow me to believe my voice could hold more weight, and my awareness be more acute, than that of people actually living in the communities I enter.
I wish I could tell you that the best part of our trip to Amritsar for our Thanksgiving getaway was the Golden Temple. I really wish I could, but to tell you that would be a lie. The Golden Temple was beautiful, but there is another moment I wish to share with you instead. The moment came in the form of a car ride and, yes, Harry Potter was involved. Ellie, my beloved work partner, and I were strewn about the back seat/trunk bench thing with bags fit into every nook and cranny and Sophie, Lily, Alea and Jenni up front. Our five-hour car ride consisted of us listening to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on audiobook the whole time. It was delightful and we did scream every time Harry flirted with Ginny. At one point in the ride, Ellie just looked at me and stated that she couldn’t think of a time where she had felt so content. I cannot think of one either. It is remarkable what moments you find the most meaning and comfort in. That is the best part of traveling, rather than simply being a tourist. You leave time and space for those Harry Potter back of a van driving through India moments. Upon our actual arrival, the rest of our weekend included a visit to the Golden Temple & the local market place, tok tok tag, James Bond and a Thanksgiving dinner spent at a pub/club/Amritsar’s first microbrewery. It was perfectly unconventional, which I have come to realize as an inevitable, and wonderful, aspect of TBB.
This past weekend, our sister and host cousin took Alea and I to go visit Dharamshala, which you may know as the home of Dalai Lama. We went to the marketplace, toured churches & monasteries and got to meet our extended host family. Next weekend Alea and I, along with almost all of our TBB student family, will head back to Dharamshala before embarking on a mini camping trip and trek through the Himalayas for our Independent Student Travel. After that comes our last week in our schools, finishing (& starting) our media projects, and our departure from Palampur altogether. As of today we have only 11 days left in Palampur and 18 in India. I would tell you where the time went if I knew myself.
As always, I appreciate your patience, both with waiting for and reading my blog. And, as always, I will try to do better next time. (No guarantees.)