Leadership Collective 2016- Part 2.

The 2016 Leadership Collective trip to India is over. Just over an hour ago the students landed in Chicago with extra memories and literally extra baggage with purchases in India. Both need to be processed and shared with family and friends and internalized by the students themselves.

 

Since my last blog the group finished the Madurai part of their journey and  headed to Kerala to spend some time in and around the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady.

An early morning start, a fairly uneventful bus ride mostly spent sleeping except for a stop for Chai and coconut water saw us reach Thekkady in time for lunch.

After a post lunch visit to a Spice Farm where we were introduced to the niceties of peeper. Cardamom, Cinnamon and Cloves with an Emu and turkeys thrown in, and one of our group – Juan – bravely ūüėĀ ate a habanero we proceeded to the local theater for a performance of Kalaripayattu – Kalari for short- the martial art ¬†form from Kerala.

The show itself was an energetic mix of acrobatics and martial art and all the students had the opportunity to enter the arena and pose with the exponents.Then off we went to dinner at the place of 100 dosas -South Indian pancakes-  where for the purist like me it was disconcerting to see Pizza Dosa on the menu along with at least 90 other irreverent versions of the classic Sada/Paper Masala/Mysore/Rava/Oothappam staple.

The next day  saw us start early for a walk in the Periyar tiger reserve. Even though between the two groups we only saw monkeys, birds, Samba deer, one wild hog and a bison some distance away, the walk through the jungle was a special treat.

The afternoon created some sort of dilemma. Everyone in the group had zero tolerance for any form of abuse of animals. But our visit was to an Elephant Farm/Sanctuary where previously domesticated elephants were being treated much better but still had to perform or provide rides to essentially provide for their own welfare as well as livelihoods for their keepers. As Raven, one of our students, has pointed out in his own blog it was sad to see these magnificent beasts, which should be roaming free, to respond to human commands to allow our students to bathe and be bathed by them.

The group did have a follow-up discussion on this topic addressing issues of animal welfare and captivity and the need to preserve their habitats but was also made aware of the need to balance the rights of Farmers and others, mainly from marginalized communities who share the same land and whose livelihoods are impacted.

Thursday was travel day with a four hour drive from Thekkady to Kochi to take our Indigo Airlines flight via Mumbai to Ahmedabad. Checking in to the Ellisbridge Gymkhana we waited for the interactions to follow in and around that city.

Next day we began our interaction with students from the Mahatma Gandhi International School. We had a great engagement with the school and it’s students last year and were looking forward to working on the project for the current trip.

This year we had agreed with them that we would focus on the themes of non-violence and civic action espoused by Mahatma Gandhi who also inspired and influenced Dr. Martin Luther King’s own future actions. With the MGIS students acting as guides our students visited the Sabarmati Ashram where Gandhi lived and worked. At the attached museum they heard about Gandhi’s philosophy and some of the major events in his life leading up to India’s independence.

Following that visit the students returned to the school for a very interesting and inspiring Skype/audio talk and Q&A with Tushar Gandhi the great grandson of the Mahatma. He shared anecdotes of King’s visit to the Ashram and India and the profound impact Gandhi and his philosophy had on King’s future actions. In response to a question from a student about the anger she felt at the injustices committed against her community in the US, Tushar Gandhi stated that anger at an injustice ¬†was a prerequisite to action but could never drive the nature of that action. All in all a great interaction.

Both sets of students then were briefed on their project – a series of short comics on the lessons to be learned from Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Breaking into groups and after some instructions on making comics the students went into production mode. They had to come up with a storyline, decide on the appropriate images and number of them and then subdivide the work among themselves to come up with comic strips which would, in three days, be exhibited at the school and be printed into a coffee table book.

The students from our group and MGIS worked diligently to produce their comics on the theme of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The launch of the book containing the comics was accompanied by performances by our students (singing a customised version of a Sam Smith song) and MGIS students.

The book РConnecting Frames Рis a terrific compilation of comics and is a testament to the hard work of all the students РUS and MGIS- and the great  teachers and staff of MGIS who worked so diligently to publish a bound coffee table book in three days. Hats off to all of them.

In between producing the book our students also did another day of service. This time after a brief visit to the Sikh Gurudwara and learning some highlights about the Sikh Religion they spent the next few hours cleaning dishes, serving food etc at Langar (community kitchen) attached to the a Gurdwara. It was a real joy to watch our students enjoy this act of volunteerism and dive into it with gusto.

Another day was spent ¬†attending India’s Independence Day at a school in ¬†Sherisa Village.¬†Students from the school had participated in April in 360Plus’s R2Urban program, giving rural kids in India an urban experience over a 4/5 day visit. During this visit the R2Urban kids met the Leadership Collective students thereby connecting the two programs. 360Plus also announced our support for providing Internet connectivity to the school. During the Sherisa village visit the students also visited ¬†a Jain temple,enjoyed ¬†a camel ride, ¬†had an interaction with leaders from ¬†the Village Panchayat (council) and lunch at a dairy farm belonging to Kantabehn, a woman entrepreneur and ex member of the Panchayat.

The Ahmedabad visit also included celebrating my birthday, a very interesting interaction on recent local history and a visit to a cultural center including a 10+ course traditional Gujarati vegetarian meal served on a plate made of dried leaves.

After 5 very full days the group departed for Delhi. The US Ambassador who had expressed great keenness to meet the group after his interaction with last year’s cohort, unfortunately was called away at the last moment for ¬†some meetings with the Indian Government. We were however very fortunate to visit the Embassy and have a very good interaction with two senior officials: George Sibley, Minister Counselor for Economic Affairs and John McCaslin, Minister Counselor for Commercial Affairs. The two shared many insights about working for the State Department and commended it to those of our students who like travel, living amongst and learning about different cultures etc.

Day 2 in Delhi was taken up by travel to Agra and back. The Taj Mahal ¬†has an enduring association with India and the visit to one of the world’s seven wonders was a special treat for the group.
Then all too soon it was the last day of the trip. An early morning walk by half the group navigating between the many troops of monkeys saw us spend a little time in Lutyen’s Delhi with the magnificent Rashtrapathi Bhavan (President’s Mansion) and the Houses of Parliament. This was followed by a short visit to Jama Masjid, the mosque in Old Delhi and then on to do some haggling for products at Delhi Hat. Many of the students showed a clear talent for bargaining with the shop keepers and came away with many gifts for family and friends.

After a final dinner and Peace Circle it was time to go. Every student acknowledged the unique nature of the experience they had just completed with some promising to return. India will still be here and will once again welcome them with open arms.

Wild jungle, domesticated elephants..


We only got to spend one full day in Thekkady, but it was quite the day. We woke up early to visit the Periyar Tiger Reserve a jungle reserve that holds around 50 wild tigers and about 150 wild elephants, as well as many other flora and fauna. We didn’t run into any tigers, nor any elephants, but the walk was absolutely beautiful, and we did get to see giant squirrels, deer, and monkeys all over the place. Because where I live is mostly desert, being surrounded by that much life was really wonderful. 

In the afternoon, after eating lunch and hanging out at our hotel for awhile, we went to visit an elephant sanctuary. They had several elephants there that had previously been domesticated, which is a very brutal and abusive process, but as I understand it, these elephants had been rescued from slavery situations, such as being used for illegal logging operations. Elephant domestication and slavery is a very complicated and deep rooted issue, and our visit left me in a weird place, but I think it was an important and singular experience, and there are several reasons why: Hearing about animal abuse is one thing, but seeing the effects of it is another. Witnessing an elephant follow orders tranquilly, even lifelessly, when I’ve been near a wild elephant that nearly charged me because I got a bit too close, had some type of effect on me. Elephants are massive, intelligent, and naturally territorial animals, and to see one that had lost all of those traits (though it could follow orders impressively well) seemed very unnatural. Seeing that in person made me naturally react and seriously think about the situation, in a way that hearing about it simply can’t do. On another note, and I’ve decided I’ll never do it again, but having the opportunity to bathe, be bathed by, and feed an elephant was a once in a lifetime experience, and I do not regret taking it. I wish with all my heart that no elephants in the future be taken out of the wild, beaten, used, or commercialized, and I’ll help to prevent that in any way possible if able. I’m not sure I felt so strongly before.

MGIS

My first impression on MGIS was how welcoming everyone was. when I first stepped foot in their school I was greeted kindly by a security guard then afterwards was welcomed by students. something that stood out to me was the clothing they wore and the diversity there was at the school . I was pleased to know that all the students were bilingual as well as trilingual and quadringual.  To me that was very impressive and I hope that they continue with these customs because later on in the future these children will be more prepared than anyone I know in the US. knowing more than one language is so helpful & valuable and I hope that all the children @MGIS know that. Also accepting and being part of a diverse community is outstanding because children will never learn the difference between dark and light skin, straight hair or wavy hair, brown eyes or blue. They’ll look at their fellow peers as what they are, human beings.  And that gives me lots of hope and faith in humanity for generations to come.

Gandhi’s Ashram

I thought I knew a lot about the famous Ghandhi, but I guess I was wrong. When I went to visit his home where it all started kinda I learnt a lot from the place. I read a lot of his quotes and was very intrigued on how he thinks. I found inspiration in his words. He stood up for what he believed in and didn’t stop until he had achieved his goal. I think its a great achievement to fight for something without actually figgting. I don’t agree with violence and he didn’t either. I have learned that it is OK to be angry and show it some times. I also believe that its better to show anger in a way to where the conflict or the problem won’t get worse but actually improve the situation a little bit. Gandhi’s people did not have a voice but he became their voice and their voice has been heard. Ghandhi really made a difference in the world. His ways has influenced a lot of people around the world like M.L.K Ghandhi was his inspiration. I want to make a difference in the world at first I didn’t think it was possible to be the voice of the people without one, but now I know that if I really try hard enough those unspoken words will finally be heard.

Thekkady

Thekkady is a very beautiful place. This is my first time on a mountain and it’s awesome besides all the bugs but its pretty cool. Also it has amazing weather and stuff. I really like it here.

Madurai 

For the past 8 days, my group and I have been living and experiencing everything there is here in Madurai. From the beautiful luxurious JC hotel to the saddening and eye opening poverty. To seeing  the biggest/smallest boniest dogs in my life, to visiting Beautiful and unbelievable temples. Along with having sweat and tears rolling down my face everytime I ate the food because of how spicy everything was, to staying with my host family and shopping for Kurta’s/Sari’s has been such an unforgettable experience I’ll cherish forever. I’ve learned the values of having an Education as well as the importance of gratitude and self determination. 

One day at our home stay, my roommate & I each wanted to take a shower late in the afternoon.  to our surprise the water had stopped working. we were unable to shower, unable to use the bathroom and unable to wash our hands or face.  it was over 102¬į that night and we were really bummed. Yet what we realized was that we were only there for 4 days, but our host family have been living there their whole lives . “How do they live like this ?” we thought.

so many times in the US we take things for granted like simple essentials like water and electricity.  we assume that it’s a right to be able to have those things but to be quite honest, it’s a privilege we do not deserve. Too many people do not realize that because your power stops for a few minutes it is not the end of the world. people from all over live like this daily, and have learned to deal with it. They aren’t sad or suffering, they are thriving with the resources that are there for them and the hope that better things will come. Truly, it has been an inspiration to be able to be a part of this impressive culture, where the people not only are thriving but are together in unity because they know that they’re all in this together. 

 


Leadership Collective 2016

Last year I posted a single¬†blog at the end of what I described as ¬†one of¬†the¬†most amazing trips of my life. This year I have decided to post¬†¬†bite size pieces of my observations as I travel through India with 15 US teenagers who are part of the Leadership Collective 2016. The selection¬†¬†of this year’s¬†group -12 girls and 3 boys-¬†was¬†consistent with 360Plus’s philosophy of providing opportunities for Learning through Travel to specific¬†demographics in the US.

So after a three day Orientation at the University of Chicago the 15, including one returning from last year, made their way to Bangalore India to begin their exposure to and experience of a country which they knew little about and definitely did not expect to visit this early in their life. While I had interacted with the group over WhatsApp since they were selected and had met with two of them in the Bay Area, seeing them together for the first time at Bangalore Airport  was special. I knew in some way they will change my life for ever and I was equally determined that  this trip should change them.

Orientation in Bangalore began with the group discussing and deciding the values they wished to imbibe and agreeing the rules of engagement from blogs to lights out.

Over the next few days the group bonded a bit more, played Kabbadi (an Indian tag game), tried and retried Indian food, went shopping for clothes and generally prepared themselves for the assignments in Madurai.

 

In Madurai the group was hosted by SITA (South India Term Abroad) a group currently headed by Ted Samuels himself a 360Plus member. SITA working with 360Plus put together the 10 day program including the trip to the jungle resort of Thekkady tomorrow. We used the SITA facilities for our sessions and the ladies in the kitchen whipped up some great food for us each day. Our special thanks to SITA for all their help.

Unfortunately I had to leave them for a few days to attend to something and caught up with them on their second day in Madurai. On the first day they had visited the famous Meenakshi Amman temple after being given a brief presentation on Hinduism and its structure and tenets. The visit unfortunately was marred by the refusal of the gate authorities to allow a Muslim member of the group to enter the temple  because she was dressed in her traditional hijab. That incident was still being discussed the next morning when I rejoined the group.

On to another temple, this time the Pandi Kovil built on the location where a statue had been buried for years and apparently found through the dreams of a local inhabitant. A visit to the Temple is thought to grant the visitor the gift/wish of wellness. On the day we went there were the usual devotees who were very taken by the appearance of a predominantly non Indian group among their midst.

The next few days have seen the Group (in smaller groups of 3/4) deep into researching, visiting location, planning and executing on their assignment to produce a short video of their subject matter ranging from the sorry state of the Vagai River, the Farmers Market, Pudo Mandapam the bazaar in the historic building across from the Temple and the richness of Carnatic music and dance. Through translators they spoke to and filmed multiple stakeholders  involved with each one of these topics, picked out those which best represented the points they wished to emphasize, wrote a script to go with their video, helped edit it and are currently preparing to present it to the whole group for discussion and debate. The final videos will be shared with a wider audience in our website www.360plus.org.

The highlight of this part of the trip is however the opportunity given to the students to experience Homestays with host families in Madurai. It was really interesting to see the first meetings between the students and their respective host families. For me as they left it was like being an empty nester all over again. From all accounts this has been of great value to the students. One host family even dressed up their charges each day in different Indian clothes.

Today was “Serve” day under the Study-Serve-Share theme of the 360Plus Leadership Collective. The group spent half a day interacting with a rural school of 3 to 7 year olds from marginalized tribal /orphan backgrounds or single parent families. Coincidentally the school was housed in premises built with support from the Methodist Churches in Wisconsin.¬†Activities initiated by the students to keep the children engaged and entertained included making paper masks, drawing/Painting, playing games, learning English phrases etc. All in all a very fulfilling day for all.

So this first week in India has been both eventful and engaging. We the leaders watch each day as the students under our care learn and absorb new information, get more comfortable with people and an environment totally alien to them just the week before and start appreciating the alternate narratives which co-exist with their own perceptions of the world.

Next week will I am sure bring more learnings for all of us.

 

A week in Madurai

The past week has been a whirlwind of adventures and lessons. We’ve been hosted here for our daytime activities by the SITA center, where other international (college) students come to learn, and I’m very interested in studying here in the future. I’ve had some good chances to talk to people around the city, and learn a bit of Tamil, the language in the state we’re currently in (Tamil Nadu). We’ve taken Bollywood and yoga classes, and had several hugely beneficial lectures and discussions.One of the things I enjoyed most about our stay in Madurai was the chance to stay with a host family. Our family let us into their homes without hesitation, and treated us wonderfully. We experienced a bit of what daily family life is like in an Indian home, eating delicious home cooked Indian food, watching Indian movies (as well as American ones) and also having interesting conversations with all three of the family members there (the father is the only one not pictured above). Although we weren’t the first American guests the family had had, I think we all learned from the chance to spend time with one another, and honestly 4 days was much too short. 

Blog #3

The moments I spent in Madurai this week, I will be taking home with me. My host family meant a lot to me. Their little girl Aaradhna was amazing. When I was at some of my low points on this trip, I was just so glad to go home to see Aaradhna. It felt really nice to have a family, who you have never met in your life take care of you so well. I’m going to miss them so much. I know there are going to be times on this trip that I’m just going to wish that I was spending time with them instead. Most importantly I would love to go home to my own family, to my person. 

Meeting Henri Tiphagne (People’s Watch)

A couple days ago, we were given the opportunity to speak with a man named Henri Tiphagne, who is the executive director of a large human rights organization called People’s Watch. I’m extremely honored to have taken part in the lecture/conversation, and I’ll certainly remember his words for a long time. But in all honesty, it was a bit frustrating. Henri told us much about the difficulties of the state of Tamil Nadu that we’re in, as well as the whole of India, and he gave us several specific stories that were very heavy, although most had good endings. Everything he said was full of passion, and I felt a huge amount of respect for him just seeing him talk, but the realities he spoke about left me feeling rather helpless. I felt helpless not just about what has happened and what is happening here, but about my inability to have a significant effect on any of the overwhelming number of problems in my community, let alone the world. Regardless, he nailed several important points into my brain: even if I don’t feel like I can cause a noticeable or significant change in the world, that doesn’t mean I should stop trying, and it’s okay to be angry, because that’s the first step towards truly wanting to make a change.