Brooke Goes Global: Thank you

January 30, 2019

“Women hold up half the sky.” — Chinese Proverb 

I sat, hot and sweaty, in a large concrete room in the country of India. Across from me were 62 middle schoolers wide-eyed and smiling. Skin a golden brown and hair as dark as the night sky, but as shiny as the stars that graze it. I watched as a lanky girl in a red skirt and white polo stood up and introduced herself as the peer-elected 6th grade president of her class. She and 5 other elected middle school peers act as this community’s cornerstones of sex trafficking education.

During my International Honors Program Semester Abroad, I had the opportunity to visit a rural village in India, where this 6th grade girl lived and empowered her entire community. There, families are so impoverished, starved, and desperate they sell their daughters to sex traffickers. Gangs and thugs creep about looking for innocent and naive girls to kidnap. Girls, young and illiterate, are forced victims to the interconnected, corrupted scheme of sex trafficking. More than 2 million young girls disappear off the face of the earth each year. They are kidnapped, sold, objectified and forced into sex trafficking. Hour after hour, day after day, they are raped, beaten, scolded, dehumanized. Their bodies and minds broken by the vicious world around them.

A lot of things contribute to the vicious and hideous crime of sex trafficking across the world. Police corruption, poverty, oppression. But as someone with a passion for public health, my concentration is on the upstream solutions because a temporary Band-Aid fix is not the appropriate treatment for a gashing, oozing, bloody problem. This solution : education. When the entire community is educated, the force against sex trafficking grows. It becomes unacceptable. It emerges as the terrible monster it is. But this only begins with education. Educate your children, your daughters, the community. With education comes empowerment. Empowerment breeds success. It lifts people out of poverty, and its long term payoff is priceless. 

The public health issue I feel especially passionate about is an intertwined complication of all of the above. It centers around the misconception that women only have their vaginas to offer the world. That is why millions of girls are kidnapped, sold, and trafficked for the delight of perverted, satanic people — because they believe women are just their vaginas. That is why countries like Syria, Iraq, and India encourage, promote, and sometimes put into law the covering of women’s bodies — because they believe women are first and foremost sexual beings. That is why, in the United States, women still make 70 cents to every one dollar a man makes — because a woman’s body is to be sexualized, forget the respectability and dignity of her mind. But I am here to tell you that women are the backbone of this country, of foreign countries, of this world. God help this world if women were to disappear. I have spent the last 21 years of my life being raised by a strong, single, independent mother. I have spent the last 15 years of my life being sculpted into an intelligent, courageous, and passionate woman by the American education system. And I have spent countless years, learning from, listening to, and being mentored by groundbreaking and influential women. 

Gender inequality is a public health issue. It leads to oppression, poor health outcomes, and structural violence. I have seen how gender inequality leads to obstetric violence in South Africa. Young girls, often rape victims, are taunted by nurses and doctors. In worse case scenarios, episiotomies are performed without medication, consent, or explanation. Gender inequality perpetuates an unbelievably high rate of Caesarian sections, 80%, in Brazil when the World Health Organization suggests a 10% rate. Gender inequality is why female infanticide still occurs in India, despite laws deeming sex selected abortions illegal. Gender inequality is why 23% of the world’s females are illiterate compared to only 13% of the world’s males. 

The solution to this ominous and fatal public health priority is a complicated assemblage of various social factors, determinants of health, institutions, and autonomy. But it starts with education. 

For example, an essential part of India’s healthcare system are the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs). Each ASHA is a woman and contributes greatly to a healthier, happier population. After basic health education training, she becomes the neighborhood health educator. An ASHA holds after school programs to teach neighborhood children the importance of education and healthy habits. She visits homes to distribute iodine tablets so the household has clean drinking water. She educates families about the importance of a balanced diet on a tight budget. She walks pregnant women to the hospital. Holds their hand while they give birth and, after, provides unconditional support for the infant and new mother. These examples only scrape the tip of the iceberg in regards to her health reform in the community. For her hard work, she is paid modestly so she is able to support a family of her own. Now, many Indian women are using their education to positively contribute to the nation’s health, economy, and safety. 

Gender inequality is why I was abandoned by my birth parents in China. But because of education (and other extraneous factors) I am who I am today — someone who will shake the world, who will make a difference. Education breeds empowered, smart, opinionated, and strong women. Women that come together as one unstoppable and uncompromising force.  Thank you International Honors Program and the University of Richmond for granting me the opportunity to study around the world, as an empowered, intelligent, confident woman.  

Featured are some of my favorite pictures from the semester:

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India was filled with beautiful stands of colorful trinkets.  It was hard not to stop and browse for some souvenirs

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We made a quick stop to Jaipur where we visited the Pink City.

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I have never seen a more beautiful coast than the South African coast.  It might have also helped that I was hundreds of feet in the air hanging from a parachute.

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A better view of the coast line where you can see the infamous Lion’s Head mountain on the left and the start of the 7 Apostles mountains on the right.

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Causally jumping from rock to rock as I climb Lion’s Head.

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Our rural stay in Zweletemba, a formally blacks only township, was a life-changing experience.  To be able to live with a woman, an activist, a hero who truly changed the world for the better was surreal.  If you see me around campus, ask me about Zweletemba.  I love talking about it!

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The city of São Paulo was filled with beautiful street art like the one pictured above.

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We took a weekend trip to Rio de Janeiro and saw the World Wonder Christ the Redeemer Statue.

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I am beyond blessed to have experienced this life changing abroad semester.  Thank you to everyone who supported me along the way.

 


Brooke Goes Global: Jaipur Travel Weekend

September 21, 2018

I have been on my abroad trip for 5 weeks and in India for 3 weeks.  I have told you ample about my classes and experiential learning.  However, I have dropped the ball on providing information about my touristy, free-time experiences.  Last weekend, IHP, our abroad program, gave us the opportunity to have a travel weekend.  A large group of students decided to go to Jaipur, a popular city in Northern India.  

From New Delhi, we headed on a 5 hour train ride to the city.  After many hours of staring at the “touristy Americans” throughout our transportation experience, we finally arrived in the city.  That evening we arrived at our hotel, the Anuraag Villa.  Consider this post to be a Yelp review for the Villa.  Every employee was kind and helpful, allowing their guests to make the most of their visit.  When we stepped inside the hotel, you were transported to a time when India was under British rule.  British colonialism seemed to be the decor theme of the hotel with their light blue bedroom walls, with adorned doors and large sliding locks.  Also, helpful tip: hotels are deemed some of the best places to eat authentic Indian food.  Professional chefs are hired by hotels, and because hotels cater to tourists, the food’s cleaning and cooking process is safe for a foreigner to enjoy.  Anyways, back to my Yelp review.  I certainly got the most bang for my buck at this hotel.  I shared a room with another girl in the program, and for two nights we paid $1,300 rupees.  This in terms of USD comes to about $13 per person for both nights.  It was not the most extravagant hotel I have ever been to, but it certainly contributed to my exciting time in Jaipur.  

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Me eating breakfast at the Anuraag Villa, enjoying the feeling of eating like a queen in India

Unfortunately, our time in Jaipur was too short to see everything the city had to offer, but I certainly saw a lot over the two days.  Our first stop on Saturday, was to an elephant farm in the outskirts of the city.  Our group was very concerned about the well-being of the elephants, but we were assured by the staff and reviews of the farm that the animals were treated humanely.  We had the opportunity to meet six different Asian elephants, each with their own individual handler.  Elephants are some of the smartest creatures in the world.  In the four hours we were with the elephants, we are able to make such a strong impression on them that if we came back three years later, they would remember us.  It was such a fascinating and invigorating moment to spend time with such large, yet gentle animals.  

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Playing with the elephants has been a highlight of my time abroad so far

 

After, we took off to the historical and iconic city of the Pink City.  The rumors are true.  Every structure within the boundaries of the city is pink.  Shops and vendors align the streets with colorful food and clothing.  The rainy weather caused a thin layer of mud to form on every inch of every sidewalk.  The bumper to bumper traffic caused a symphony of car horns.  And on occasion, a camel or an elephant made an appearance as a form of transportation.  We stopped for lunch at a rooftop restaurant.  We were able to eat some amazing food while enjoying some amazing views of the city.  The juxtaposition of the rolling hills against the building structures of the city created a sight that took my breath away.  Is there a better location to build a city than in the valley of a hill? 

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The beautiful view from our rooftop restaurant

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The Hawa Mahal in the Pink City

We spent the evening at the Amber Fort light and sound show.  The hour long performance gave a detailed history of the royal fort through narration, lights, and song.  The Amber Fort sits at the top of a hill, with a view of the city below.  With the mountain breeze sending a chill down your spine, it was a refreshing night to a long, tiresome, and hot week in New Delhi.  

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Amber Fort lit up at night

And to end the weekend, we spent Sunday morning at two historical sites including Jantar Mantar and the City Palace.  Jantar Mantar is a culmination of thousand year old sun dials that are able to tell the accurate calendar day and time of day based on the light from the “universe’s goddesses” — better known as the sun and the moon.  The City Palace constituted incredibly detailed buildings that showcased textiles, a royal and political meeting space, and chandeliers triple my size.  I appreciated the time we were given to experience a different part of India.  

PICTURE 7, 8, 9: The above three pictures depict the City Palace, a structure with exquisite detailing and architecture.


Brooke Goes Global: Globalization

September 13, 2018

Disclaimer: This post is not my attempt to make a blanket, political statement about capitalism.  Instead, this post is an attempt to illustrate the institutional systems role in perpetuating poverty, which is stimulated by globalization.  As a result, there are structures put in place that advance the middle and upper classes while inevitably hindering the lower class. 

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This picture depicts the common life of a child in the rural area of India.  Despite his isolation from the city, globalization contributes heavily to his life.

Starbucks — a franchise recognized across the world.  It’s a caffeine boost.  It’s a free wifi hotspot.  It’s a familiar logo of home.  Because Starbucks is such a recognizable part of many people’s lives across the world, it is an ideal artifact to study in relation to globalization.  The local is the global and the global is the local, and the Starbucks franchise fits into both the interdependent categories perfectly.  

According to a news report by CNN, the first Starbucks cafe in India opened in 2012.  This change to the environment and culture of India has its foundation in globalization, utilizing the ever connectedness of countries, corporations, and markets.  India’s new economic plan in the 1990s — encompassing liberalization, privatization, and globalization — paved the way for the multi-billion dollar company to open its doors within India’s borders.  Studying the key fundamentals of the larger corporation and its individual cafes will help understand the structural oppression that is shaped to advance the health of only a portion of India. 

In order to analyze the effect of this artifact further, Starbucks industry’s source must be identified.  The headquarters are located in the United States, in the state of Washington.  There are over 27,000 Starbucks locations across the globe; more than half of these locations are in the United States.  Comparatively, there are around 100 Starbucks cafe locations in India.  The chain store began in the western hemisphere and migrated to India 41 years later.  Nonetheless, this flow of business, capital, and frankly, Starbucks coffee is relatively new to the area — considering its first store opened only 6 years ago.  The chain, however, quickly spread.  For each year since the opening of the first Starbucks in India, another 17 stores were opened annually.  

Additionally, the business’ motivation for spreading is a key element to its global flow.  This motivation is fundamental to understanding its health effect on the overall population of India.  For example, the first Indian Starbucks was opened in Mumbai, a location specifically and strategically chosen by the corporation.  Mumbai was discussed in class as a relatively wealthy area.  It is a movie producing hotspot.  It is a tourist destination.  These aspects of the city point to a particular lifestyle — a lifestyle of luxury and expense.  The citizens of Mumbai have a disposable income that can be spent on breakfast sandwiches and overpriced coffee.  Starbucks chose Mumbai as a location that would bring in revenue.  Mumbai chose Starbucks as a business that would benefit the city.  The global is interacting with the local and vice versa, each contributing to the worldwide spread of people, goods, and services.

In addition, the meticulous placement of Starbucks is emphasized by my personal experience in India.  Our homestay is in the wealthy neighborhood of Greater Kailash; and down the street is a Starbucks.  People come to reap the benefits of clean water, free wifi, a sewage system, and nutritious food at the cafe.  These are basic elements of the Starbucks franchise.  Therefore, wherever a Starbucks is built, these factors of wellbeing are built into the neighborhood as well.  

However, this strategic and revenue maximizing business plan further stretches the gap of social capital between the rich and the poor.  The rich live in areas like Greater Kailesh and Mumbai which have stores like Starbucks.  The poor live in areas where Starbucks and similar businesses would refuse to open a location.  To demonstrate the contrast, two illustrations must be drawn. 

Example one: A local of Greater Kailesh decides to go to a nearby Starbucks cafe for a cup of coffee.  There, they have the opportunity for free wifi, aiding them in their studies.  They have the opportunity to get a cashier job, benefiting their finances.  They have the opportunity for a hygienic social environment, benefiting their mental health.  Therefore, it is fair to say Starbucks indirectly provides resources that advance life for only a portion of the Indian population, its customer base.  

Example two: This information is gathered from our class’ recent visit to a New Delhi “slum”.  Within the group of small and connected houses, I noticed two places the families of the particular neighborhood could purchase food.  Both places were small snack stands.  The vendors provided bagged food — processed and high caloric.  No kitchen for fresh meals.  No bathroom with running water.  No wifi to help complete homework.  No hiring opportunities.  The food “cafe” of this neighborhood is merely a provider of unhealthy junk food.  It provides no additional advancements to the community.  

With this stark contrast in mind, Starbucks in India — a product of globalization — provides resources that advance life for only middle to upper class individuals.  Therefore, the artifact of Starbucks demonstrates a motif of the larger problem of systemic oppression.  For those living in low-income neighborhoods are not able to reap the benefits of a Starbucks cafe because they don’t have access to one.  Outsiders seem to be ignorant of the institutional oppression that creates this perpetuation of poverty.  It’s a cycle with outside influences, influences that flow from the home country and the entire world. 


Rhiannon in India: From Home

January 3, 2014

I have been back home for about a few weeks now, and I have to say it is a little strange to be back. I feel like after landing at the Raleigh airport, I haven’t had the chance to look back, swept away instantly by the happenings of everyday life back home. However, I’m excited to see how my experience abroad impacts my life going forward.

Back when I said I was going to India for 5 months, many people asked, ‘Why don’t you just study in Europe? India is the kind of place you want to spend two weeks, not five months.’ If I had visited for two weeks, I think I would have come home totally overwhelmed, having seen many things but understood very little. Even now, after spending five months in the wonderful country, I still find myself questioning what I truly understand from my experience, but I’m glad I spent a semester there so that I could integrate and meet many people.

When we first arrived in Hyderabad, our advisors asked us to write down five goals that we hoped to achieve during the semester. Some of mine were practical, like learning a few phrases in Hindi, and learning a few Indian recipes, but others were more theoretical. One of them was to live like a typical Indian in India by the end of the semester. I think that I really achieved that, and by the end of my stay, was able to blend in relatively well – despite the blonde hair. Living with Nivedita and Prerna, surrounded by friendly neighbors who took us in like family, was the best choice I could have made to begin living a more ‘normal’ lifestyle in Hyderabad. Spending time with them will remain some of my favorite memories for a lifetime

I want to thank my host family, my neighbors, and my friends in India who helped me acclimate to life in India. I also want to thank everyone who followed my blog, read about my experiences, and gave me tips or comments. I am so glad I decided to keep a blog about my trip, because sitting down to write it gave me some of the best time to reflect on my experiences abroad

Thanks for reading!

Namaskar.

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The sun setting over Hyderabad from our apartment


Rhiannon in India: A South Indian Adventure

December 12, 2013

As I wrote in my last post, I have been traveling around South India for the past two weeks on a lightening-speed tour of Kerala and Karnataka. Kerala, one of the southern-most states in India, is often considered a country apart from the rest of India, and better yet, “God’s Own Country.” In Kerala, my friend and I visited Kochi, the seaside state capital; Munnar, a chilly hill station among the Western Ghats; and Alleppey, the go-to town for boat rides on the backwaters. After two overnight bus rides north to Karnataka, we visited Udupi, home to many Hindu temples and the birth place of the dosa; Hampi, a tourist haven surrounded by beautiful landscapes and ancient ruins; Bangalore, the bustling business hub of the south; and Mysore, a smaller city known for its palace and yoga ashrams. The whole experience has been a whirlwind of historical sites, markets, beaches, and mountains, and I am already having trouble keeping everything straight in my memory. However, there are a few exceptional experiences that I am confident will stand out in my mind for years to come, and those are the ones I would like to share here.

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The tea plantations in Munnar

One of our first stops in Kerala was Munnar, a bumpy, nauseous five-hour bus ride from Kochi, tucked within the Western Ghats. As we approached Munnar on the summit of a hill, the air quickly got cooler, the scenery got greener, and I was immediately happier. Tata, a multibillion-dollar Indian corporation, owns most of the land surrounding Munnar and has turned it into profit by covering the land with tea plantations. From the road, the tea fields look like a rolling, rippling, sea of perfectly manicured green hills, occasionally peaked by a rocky summit. We spent two days touring the beautiful tea plantations and other areas around Munnar, including waterfalls and a wildlife sanctuary where we saw the rare grizzled giant squirrel, but sadly missed out on the rumored mountain goats and wild elephants. The whole time we were in the mountains, I was in awe at how many different foods are grown there – tea, coffee, bananas, sugar cane, black pepper, papaya, coconuts, and many more.

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A village near Munnar

We left Munnar in the hopes of catching a once-daily direct bus to Alleppey, but when we got to the bus station, we were informed that the bus had been cancelled that day. Instead, we took three separate buses, zigzagging our way in the general direction of our destination, finally giving up in a small town and sharing a taxi with a nice Canadian couple for the last hour. When we finally got to our hotel late in the evening, the hotel owner told us that the cheaper room that we had reserved was actually taken, but graciously gave us a more expensive room for the same price. Little did we know at the time that it was an off-site cabin in the middle of a rice field that took 30 minutes in an auto and a boat ride to get to! Despite our confusion getting to our “room” after a long day of bus riding, staying in the cabin was an awesome experience. We were right on the edge of a backwater canal in a long row of village houses, right across the water from a man named Babu who had a canoe and would take us on canoe rides for 200 rupees an hour. We spent a lazy morning canoeing through the village with Babu, who knew everyone and had to stop every 15 minutes to talk to his friends along the water. That afternoon, we rented kayaks and toured some of the most beautiful areas of the Alleppey backwaters.

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Canoeing in the backwaters near Alleppey

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Sunset over the Arabian Sea at Alleppey Beach

Traveling through South India these past two weeks has been one of the most exciting and interesting times of my life, and I am amazed at how much I have learned in such a short time. As my return home quickly approaches, I hope that I will be able to make the most of my experiences here – especially what I have learned about how different cultures can be, but at the same time how similar we are as people. It continually surprises me that, although the details of daily life may be different from country to country or even region to region in India, we have much more in common than what may be seen on the surface. Now that these two weeks are over, I can’t wait to see my friends and family once more in Hyderabad, then head back to Raleigh, North Carolina!


Rhiannon in India: Missing Life in Hyderabad

November 22, 2013

Right now, I am on a plane on my way to Kochi, Kerala. As I wrote in my last post, I am spending the next two weeks travelling through the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka, known for their coastlines, mountains, and coconuts. As soon as my Hindi exam ended today, I rushed home to pack my things and headed to the airport, eager to finally escape school life and being an amazing adventure. But this excitement came at a price. I have been so engulfed by exams and planning for this trip, I had not realized that I would be seeing many of my friends for the last time today. When we left the exam room this afternoon, many of my friends and I realized that our end-of-semester travels would be separating us until it was time to go home in December. We said our goodbyes, but it seemed so rushed and unexpected that it left me feeling strange about leaving for my trip. I know I’ll see many of my American friends again, whether it be in India before we leave or once we are back home, but these goodbyes made me realize something even worse. Even though I’ll be in India for a few more weeks, I will never be in the daily routine that I developed earlier this semester. I may never get to experience the little things that became so normal and part of my everyday life, like being greeted by the familiar auto-wallahs in our neighborhood, riding my bike to class with two flat tires, or eating a pound of rice at my favorite canteen on campus. So although I am thrilled to start my two-week trip, it is a bittersweet excitement.

I know I’ll miss every experience, every interaction, and every person at some point when I get home, because it is often the little things that come to mind first when I am reflecting on my stay in India. Nevertheless, there are a few people that I will really miss having as a part of my everyday life once I am home.

The first is my host family – Nivedita, my host mom, and Prerna, my host sister. Looking back on the semester, I feel so lucky to have been placed with this host family. Nivedita and Prerna were always so kind and patient with us when we would ask endless questions about Indian culture. Nivedita would always let us crowd around her in the small kitchen while she was cooking dinner to watch and write down recipes. She would also spend hours after dinner telling us the religious stories about different gods behind all of the holidays we were celebrating, and was the primary source behind many of my blog posts this semester. Prerna was also a very good source of information when it came to understanding the ins and outs of Indian culture. We really got to bond with Prerna when she came with us on a long weekend trip to Mumbai. She had never been to Mumbai before, so we all went together to explore the big city, see some sites, and go shopping for “western” clothes. My favorite part about hanging out with Nivedita and Prerna was when we go on trips with them. Last weekend, Nivedita’s sister and her two kids, Sanskar (12) and Isha (5), were visiting us from Pune to pick up Nivedita’s mom, who we called Aji (grandma in Marathi). While they were all staying with us, we went for a day trip to a town to the north of Hyderabad called Warangal, known for its farmland and historic temples. We spent the whole day hopping from site to site in the taxi while we had the best time hanging out with the family, especially the two kids, Sanskar and Isha. Everyone welcomed us into the family and treated us like we were one of them, especially Isha, who attached herself to Jennie and me the whole day.

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Our host family at a temple in Warangal

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Jennie, Sanskar, Isha, and I jumping in a rice field near Warangal

I am also fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet the neighbors in our apartment building. One of the first people we met when we moved into the apartment was Moulali, the watchman. A middle-aged Telugu man, he knew very little English (and I knew even less Telugu), but somehow we always managed to communicate about where our host family was, what he was having for dinner that night, where we were going, and when we’d be back. Every time we came into the carport, where he and his family lived in a small room, he would yell, “Namaste!” and fold his hands dramatically. He was always extremely energetic, and my best memory of Moulali was when Jennie and I gave him a flower for him to give it to his wife, Narasimha. He took the flower, then sang and skipped all the way across the carport to his wife to give it to her.

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Moulali and Narasimha, the watchman and maid for our apartment building

Throughout the semester, we formed a close relationship with the other family on our hall, spending many afternoons or weekends hanging out in their apartment watching TV, or eating lots of snacks, and playing with their two kids Binnu (9) and Quiny (5). Madhu and Sandiya, the parents, were so kind and welcoming to us, and now seem like an integral part of our host family. We also became really close with the family living in the “penthouse” apartment on the roof. They also had two kids, Lalith (14) and Spandana (9), who we also spent a lot of time with. Lalith, a super smart rubix cube master, would always hang out in our apartment and tell us about the things he was learning in school. Spandana loved to come over to color or learn English songs from YouTube on our laptops. As the semester went on, our three families spent more and more time together, sharing meals, going to the park, and even doing sunrise yoga on the roof.

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Binnu and Quiny in their Diwali outfits

There are many other people I will miss as well. I will miss spending evenings with Jennie doing homework, making cookies, and watching old episodes of Disney channel shows. I will miss traveling to new, exciting places with my friends from CIEE. I will miss meeting with my peer tutor Rajini twice a week to attempt at speaking Hindi. I will miss going to dinner and concerts with my friends from Hyderabad. And the list goes on.

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My peer tutor Rajini and me at our normal meeting spot in front of the library

Of course, I could list just as many, or more, things that I miss from home right now too, and I’m excited to go back to my family and friends in America. But now that my time in India is coming to a close, I wish that I could stay here for a little longer and prolong the end to these wonderful experiences I have had this semester.


Rhiannon in India: Ending the semester on a great note

November 19, 2013

I starting to dawn on me that I only have few weeks left in India, and what’s worse, only a few more days left in Hyderabad! All of a sudden, I am scrambling to spend as much time as possible with my friends in Hyderabad, the other students in my program, and my home stay family and neighbors. To add to this busy schedule, I am hurrying to find gifts for my family and friends at home, plus attempting to study for finals and plan for my end-of-semester travelling. Because of all this craziness, it has been hard to find time to blog about my recent experiences, not to mention stopping to reflect on my semester and going back home. Nevertheless, I am happy that, in the past few weeks, I have been able to spend time doing the things that I will miss most once I am back home.

It may sound strange, but one thing I will miss most about this semester is sitar practice. Twice a week, five of my friends and I spent at least an hour in the evenings learning sitar from our wonderful teacher Vinoj, who only knew a few words in English. We learned mostly by watching and repeating what he played, but he would always say, “very good, very good” accompanied by a pat on the head, if we played something correctly, or “WRONG” if we messed up. Although we couldn’t communicate much through language, our teacher was always enthusiastic and supportive of us, and it provided a lot of hilarious moments during practice. Last week, we finally performed in the SIP Cultural Show, playing two songs on sitar that we have been practicing for three or four months now. It was really nerve-wracking to perform in front of a large auditorium full of UoH students and professors, but we were all proud of ourselves for performing only a few months after starting to learn sitar from scratch. As soon as we started playing our second piece, a popular Bollywood song, the whole crowd erupted in applause, and afterward, some of my Indian friends said we stole the show!

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Sitar class with our teacher and tabla player

Here’s a video of our performance:

Another thing I will miss a lot is hanging out with the little kids in my apartment building. A few weekends ago, Jennie and I were missing home, so we threw a Halloween party and invited all the families in our building. We decorated the rooftop patio with orange balloons, paper pumpkins and bats, and tissue paper ghosts. We bought tons of candy, a pumpkin, and some art supplies and planned some activities so that all the kids could participate. When the kids showed up that night, they were all decked out in full costumes, masks, capes, and face paint! We wore costumes, turned on some music, and played Halloween-themed bingo, pin the spider on the web, and musical chairs. The biggest hit among the kids was the “brain bowl,” a pumpkin full of noodles with prizes in the bottom that kids had to find by reaching their hands in the “brains.” Usually, we are constantly asking questions about Indian traditions, so it was nice to share a little bit about our culture in return, while getting to spend time with our neighbors too.

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The kids in their costumes for the Halloween party

Halloween weekend also happened to be Prerna’s birthday and Diwali, so the whole weekend was full of celebration. On Saturday, Prerna decided to celebrate her 15th birthday at an orphanage in Hyderabad that she had visited before with her school. We loaded up the car with toys and headed to the orphanage with our host family and some of our “extended host family” as well. Going to the orphanage was one of the many eye-opening experiences I have had while being in India. When we arrived, I thought it was a girl’s orphanage because almost all of the children I saw were girls, ranging from infants to pre-teens. However, I realized that it is only because many families in India can’t afford having daughters that the orphanage was so overwhelmingly female. It is illegal in India to determine the sex of a child before birth, so many baby girls are abandoned after they are born. To add to this problem, the social stigma around having children out of wedlock and the discrimination of children with divorced parents causes many mothers to abandon children regardless of their gender. This was a sad reality to witness firsthand at the orphanage, but while we were there we met a few of the children that had been adopted, including one girl who would be leaving the orphanage with her new family to live in London in just a few weeks.

The next day, we celebrated Diwali, one of the biggest and most widely celebrated holidays in India,with our host family and neighbors. We feasted all day on white rice, lemon rice, curries, daal, roti, vada, peanut chutney, and tons of sweets like laddus, gulab jamin, and kheer. Then we spent the evening setting off fireworks and playing with sparklers. There aren’t many regulations on fireworks here, so it was actually quite frightening how many explosions were going off in the small alleyways and streets between the apartments in our neighborhood. Apparently Diwali is one of the most dangerous days of the year in India, and we even saw an apartment building on fire in the distance. We went up on the roof to watch the 360-degree view firework show going on for miles around us, but as the night went on, we all got headaches from the booming noises and smoke inhalation. Overall, my first Diwali experience seemed like a mixture of Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Blitzkrieg.

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Our Diwali feast

In just a few days, after I finish exams, I’ll be heading to South India with my friends to explore the backwaters of Kerala, tea plantations in the Western Ghats, and the luxurious palaces of old kings in Karnataka. I’m anxious to start these adventures, but the excitement is bittersweet. When I leave for this trip, I’ll be saying goodbye to Hyderabad, the wonderful city that I’ve called home for the last five months.

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Diwali decorations – rangoli and diyas


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