Of Parties, Pizza, and Bollywood

For a weekend with few plans, the past few days were marked with distinctly Indian experiences. I may not be traveling much (something I hope to correct sooner rather than later!), but as my best friend reminded me today while messaging on the oh-so-useful-yet-increasingly-annoying medium of Facebook: “You know that experience is the most important! If that experience comes at the local store and not mumbai that’s okay!” So I’m going to see this weekend as time full of Pune experiences. This place will be home – it already is, to some degree.

One of my favorite memories of Pune thus far is last Friday’s Diwali party with my coworkers at Akanksha. Diwali is Hindi festival of lights. In very simplified terms, it is a celebration of good over evil, of light over dark. This year the holiday actually starts on Thursday, so our party was a warm up to the real event. The dress code mandated at traditional dress, and almost everyone (especially the women) brought out some beautiful examples of Indian fashion. I was lucky enough to borrow a sari from a coworker. (While I fully intend to buy a sari of my own at some point this year, I want time to explore all of the saris. All of them. Then I can pick my favorite(s).) I was also lucky enough to have wonderful coworkers who could put said sari on me and lend me jewelry to complete the ensemble. (It was kind of amusing to see my coworker fold the front of my sari from behind me – the top of her head maybe reaches the nape of my neck. She couldn’t see a thing. Most of the time I don’t feel particularly tall here, but this certainly was an exception!)

A lovely sari paired with my t-shirt, rolled up and tied in the back!

A lovely sari paired with my t-shirt, rolled up and tied in the back!

The HR team really pulled off a nice party. It was a lot of fun to sit and chat with coworkers who I see come in and out of the office but never really speak to. It was also funny to see the shape of the party – it was fantastically reminiscent of a classroom. Everything at Akanksha speaks to people’s past lives as teachers. Every meeting and group gathering – it runs like a lesson, and everyone always comments on how much easier it is to work with kids. How this played out at our party: we spent about an hour making paper lanterns, then competed in teams to make an Indian sweet (basically a dumpling filled with toasted coconut and sugar), and then we ate. It was a lot of fun, and I was vividly reminded of school holiday parties.

Cutting out shapes for paper lanterns

Cutting out shapes for paper lanterns

Everyone hard at work

Everyone at work

Everyone at work

And perhaps not so hard at work! (This gentleman provides support for school leaders and is one of the happiest people I have met. Always smiling and laughing. I am working on getting him hooked to GoT.)

And perhaps not so hard at work! (This gentleman provides support for school leaders and is one of the happiest people I have met. Always smiling and laughing. I am working on getting him hooked on GoT.)

The wonderful Moushi, who helps at the office

The wonderful Moushi, who helps at the office, demonstrates how to roll the dough.

Our contribution to the dumpling contest

Our contribution to the dumpling contest

Chaaaaaaaaaat!

Chaaaaaaaaaat!

After the Diwali party wrapped up, I went out with a coworker and her friends to a fantastic restaurant near my apartment. It was a stunning venue – lights under glass tables, lit ponds, and simple modern tables. To get into the restaurant, you descend a staircase that highlights the space and atmosphere. It was breathtaking. I will certainly be going back – even though it is only open Friday – Sunday and reservations are non-negotiable. It had pretty good thin crust pizza, to boot.

Fancy appetizers

Fancy appetizers

Saturday was an experience, unfortunately not in a positive sense. I had agreed to help run a booth selling Akanksha art products as part of an ongoing fundraiser. The sale was close to my house (5 kilometers), and it didn’t seem like a big deal. The sale itself was fine, but transportation to and from was horrendous. The rickshaw drivers were just beyond awful. I was overcharged both rides, and the second ride was disastrous. Despite agreeing to the meter when I got into the cab, he kept insisting on 100 rupees (an absurdly high number for that distance) and then wouldn’t let me get out of the vehicle. Then he wouldn’t take me all the way to my place – I ended up walking another 15 minutes to my house. The walking didn’t bother me, but overpaying for a ride that didn’t even get me close to my house was infuriating. I actually screamed at the driver, saying that he shouldn’t have taken my business if he was going to cheat me and lie to me. Not sure if he understood, but hopefully he won’t agree to one set of terms and then change his mind halfway through.

Our booth looked lovely at least!

Our booth looked lovely at least!

It’s not really about the money, although I am being careful to stay within my stipend. It’s the lying and cheating and general lack of work ethic that I see in most drivers. In Bangladesh everyone tried to make an extra buck, and while difficult to handle sometimes, I understood the need. Rickshaw drivers here do whatever they want and then expect extra pay for… I really don’t know what. It’s a minor inconvenience, but it’s super frustrating given that I rely on rickshaws for travel.

With the horrible rides on Saturday, I didn’t really want to deal with rickshaws on Sunday. Some distance was needed from those things. So I ended up watching a Bollywood movie at the cinema near my house. Hindi is a beautiful language, and it’s fun to sit and just listen to language. The movie itself was pretty bad. It reminded me of the time I went to see Mission Impossible 4 in Korea with a bunch of friends. It was an awful movie, but the dark theater provided a quiet space to escape for a bit. I enjoyed being in the theater. I think it might be a monthly treat – one afternoon in the theater seeing whatever big movie has come out.

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The Daily Commute

When people ask me what I think of Pune, I can honestly say that it’s a lovely city and that it is very easy to live in. Especially after a summer in Dhaka, I am very comfortable here.

The only thing that Pune truly lacks is a decent public transportation system. There are buses, but thus far no one seems to know the routes and there is no real timetable. It’s supposedly a very unreliable method of transport.

So I am left with one option: rickshaws.

The view from the back of a rickshaw

The view from the back of a rickshaw

Riding rickshaws everyday is… an experience. City sights buzz by. You can hear the sounds of Pune waking up in the morning and spiral into rush hour madness in the evening. The strangled quack of a rickshaw horn never fails to make me grin. Occasionally I’ll get a nice driver; once I was treated to a Marathi lesson. These are the things that I focus on when the less than favorable aspects of using rickshaws start to grate on me.

It's hidden, but the small buildings (on the right hand side of the photo) is a community where some Akanksha students live.

It’s hidden, but the small buildings (on the right hand side of the photo) are the houses of a community where some Akanksha students live.

For one, using the rickshaws as I do is a rather costly endeavor. And to be frank, it’s probably the most physically uncomfortable method of traveling. Bouncing up and down on barely cushioned seats bruises my thighs and bum. One ride was particularly notable in its two near misses with other vehicles – within 5 minutes. I won’t even get into the hassle of getting the drivers to go by meter and go a normal route.

Still, my rickshaw rides are part of my Indian existence, and it’s a distinct feature of my life here. As such, I thought I’d share a few moments of my morning commute. In the videos you can see the Pune-Mumbai highway, the rivers that wind through the city, the tall skyscrapers and the lowly tin-roofed slums. It is a mere introduction to Pune and the video quality is low (it was taken on my Bangladeshi-turned-Indian phone), but it’s an introduction nonetheless.

 

Fear

One of the wonderful things about taking a year off from grad school to complete my fellowship is the sudden inundation of time. And I’m saying this at the end of a 6-day week. As in, it is Saturday night, I got back from work at 6pm, and I still feel as though I am ample free time. It is utterly glorious. It is also an indication of how intense life at Fletcher can be – classes, homework, job(s), internship search, funding search, hanging out at the Blakeley kitchen, going to friends’ houses, running, tennis, clubs… If I ever had a free moment, I filled it with something.

That’s not to say that I’m slacking here, either. I’ve gathered my share of projects to supplement my work with Akanksha:

  • A 4-week online course in technology in M&E
  • Working on a committee to establish a Fletcher M&E consulting group
  • Blogging
  • Keeping in touch with people from home
  • Reading
  • Feeding myself (the corner stores near my place will now give me produce on credit – more on that another day)
  • Writing a case study on BRAC’s mobile money pilots (you know, the thing that’s supposed to hopefully be my capstone project for my master’s? Yeah, that thing…)

It’s delightful to have the time to tackle these projects. I’m loving it. Even if it makes me feel slightly brain dead to continue working after leaving the office, it only scratches the surface of how drained a day at Fletcher made me feel.

I miss that place like crazy.

So as a starting point – I am incredibly grateful and happy that I’m here in India with all of the opportunities AIF has given me. I thoroughly believe that this is a crucial time to practice the analytical and practical skills that I learned during my first year at Fletcher while gaining initial field experience. As far as my future job search is concerned, this is just as important as the degree that I’ll hold in my hands in about a year and a half. I’m proving that I can do this.

There’s another reason that I was attracted to this fellowship, and it wasn’t until I read another blogger’s post about something entirely different that I realized it myself.

I remember back to conversations with family in November and December. My grandmother could only laugh that I’d prefer to go to India than Israel. (This came with my insistence that my AIF application needed time and energy, so I wasn’t really interested in applying for a birthright trip, regardless of my eligibility.) I remember my father just shaking his head, a little bemused. A decent summarization of a question he asked me would be: “Why do you keep picking these places?”

Part of it is instinct. I go with my gut for programs like this. I’ll hear about something, and then I’ll let it settle in the back of my mind. If it sticks, if it still niggles at my curiosity after weeks have passed, then I start writing the application. It’s in the gut – it’s right, or it’s not. Whether or not the application itself is successful, that’s another matter. But the decision to apply – that I leave to my gut.

At the risk of making myself sound like a masochist, I think fear plays a major part of this gut feeling. It’s in the challenge. In the blog I read tonight, the author said:

I’d love to say I’m fearless and do new things because I feel I can. I’m actually quite fearful so I do new things because I can’t stand my fearfulness. It annoys me, it insults my intelligence.

I freaking love this. YES YES YES. This is it. This is the little extra that pushes me forward through the days when living in a foreign country loses its shiny newness and the weariness of daily struggles threaten to overwhelm. Why I keep putting myself on planes bound for the other side of the world where I am the proverbial stranger in a strange land. I’d love to say that I pack my things into two suitcases and uproot my life because I feel I can. The truth is that these journeys are terrifying. There’s a reason that every airport goodbye begins with teary eyes. The unknown looms before me, and fear makes me question my sanity. And yet… I can’t stand my fearfulness. There’s something that drives me to look at that fear, tremble in it, and then instruct myself to make it happen. I can’t stand my fearfulness, so I face it headlong. A challenge that is beyond anything I’ve done before and that will probably knock me off my feet time and time again? Bring it on. Let’s do this.

A perk of letting this personality quirk take me to another country? I’m consciously recognizing the impact of this attitude on myself for the first time. I can see the dots being connected to form a cohesive image. This is the first time I moved across the world without a place to live. But if I could figure my way around Dhaka, I knew I’d figure Pune out. Bangladesh was the first time I encountered the dizzying extremes of those who have and those who don’t. I navigated the system of inequality and felt the sticky shame of having more than some people can even dream of. I left with more compassion and desperation than when I arrived. Korea was the first time I went to a country without a solid grasp of the language. I learned Korean, and I became fluent in body language. Japan was the first time I went abroad alone. It was awesome, plain and simple – it cemented my desire to experience the world. Fletcher was the first time I found myself in a cohort of insanely talented, intelligent, and awe-inspiring people and accepted that I too belonged. I held my ground pretty well, and I continue to learn daily from my classmates, even though they’re thousands of miles away. I ran 13.1 miles at once. I never knew my body was so powerful.

I could go on.

By persistently doing things that make me face my fearfulness, I have slowly and surely built up my confidence in myself. It goes a little like this: If I could do that, surely I can do this. It opens me up for the possibility of failure, but I’d rather suffer the metaphorical (and occasionally literal) pain of falling flat on my face than the mental suffering of knowing that I chickened out.

You learn more falling on your face than you do on your two feet.

Wonder

Clearly I’m not great at writing constantly. For better or worse, this blog will reflect my thoughts and ponderings of life rather than chronicle my experiences in India. Of course there will be overlap, but I find myself writing more personal posts for myself than recording my daily life here. I’m more than happy with this direction, and so that’s how I plan to proceed.

One of the greatest assignments I’m working on now at Akanksha is creating a multi-unit curriculum for 8th standard English. I’m working with R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, a delightful novel that delves into the meaning of kindness, humanity, fear, and remorse. Set in an elite New York private school, the book explores the idea of being different in a direct and yet gentle manner. I love the book – I stayed up reading till 1 am and finished it in one sitting. It’s one of those books. It’s an easily accessible text – not a difficult read in the least – but its sensitivity and well-rounded lessons are meaningful at any age.

wonder-by-r.j.-palacio

Side note – I’m reading books, analyzing them, and figuring out how to share the awesomeness. How great is that? It’s like I’m a kid in a candy store. My coworker, who was watching Aladdin yesterday as part of her curriculum design, laughingly said this is the best part of the job. We’re getting paid to have fun. (It’s also slightly difficult to construct meaningful activities that convey abstract ideas and navigate difficult subject areas, but it’s a welcome challenge. I’m not spending my entire day goofing around!)

This week I’ve been rereading Wonder in small chunks as I pull apart different themes and lessons that should be highlighted in weekly modules. A section of text resonated with me deeply this time through, perhaps because I have spent some time reflecting over the past week. Being the sole Fellow in Pune and still in the process of building up a social network here gives me plenty of time to think. And think and think and think.

It’s been a … strange year, both in regards to 2014 and to the age of 25. There have been some downright awful things, and there have been some amazing opportunities. Occasionally, my emotional side pouts and says: I want this year to end. I want to start over. I’m just … doneeeeeeeeee. Trying to out run your own mistakes is exhausting and, I’ve learned, nigh impossible. The processing and dealing with the consequences of said mistakes is equally exhausting and painstakingly grueling. (Or I’m just ridiculously stubborn, which is also true. Basically, this applies to myself. Can’t speak for others and all that.)

But the rational side of my brain points out that a) I’ve gotten to travel to 3 countries in the past 7 months, with some pretty rad people, b) I’ve received 2 fellowships to pursue internships related to my interests in development, and c) I have the support of some crazy awesome people (and the technology to keep in touch with them). Really, I can’t complain. These are opportunities that not many people have, and I absolutely cannot downplay how fantastic that is – I’ve learned so much in Bangladesh and India, and I am so, so fortunate.

So in my as of late contemplative state, the following passages from Wonder were very comforting. And given the universality of the message, I wanted to share. And perhaps convince someone else at home to read this book so that we can nerd out over it together. Just saying. (But really now… anyone?)

Before I digress more and without further ado, some wisdom from Wonder:

“The things you did, you know they were not right. But that does not mean you are not capable of doing right. It only means that you chose to do wrong. This is what I mean when I say you made a mistake… But the good thing about life … is that we can fix our mistakes sometimes. We learn from them. We get better… One mistake does not define you. You must simply act better next time.”

Good to know.

“In the end, mon cher, all that matters is that you forgive yourself. You are learning from your mistake.”

Learning – certainly. Forgiveness – working on it.

“Life is ahead of us. If we spend too much time looking backward, we can’t see where we are going!”

This is the clincher – I’m clumsy enough as is; I don’t need extra obstacles to trip over. 😉

As an ending note, I know this is slightly vague, but I hope it conveys some of my feelings. I can’t recommend Wonder highly enough – I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Honoring Gandhi

With the insanity of moving to a new city/state/country calming down, I finally got to visit the Aga Khan Palace. It is a beautiful place, full of gardens and quiet corners to lie down in. I enjoyed spending a quiet afternoon relaxing and lounging on the grass. Lying in the grass and staring at the clouds pass by is reminiscent of childhood, and it was a wonderful start to my Pune adventures.

Built in 1892, Aga Khan Palace is notable as the internment site of Mahatma Gandhi, his wife, and his secretary from the period of August 9, 1942 – May 6, 1944. Both Gandhi’s wife and secretary died during this internment period, and their samadhis (sites to honor people regarded as saints or gurus) are located at the palace.

I’m glad that I started my explorations of Pune with this historical site, and I look forward to continuing to explore my new city in the weekends to come.

Without further ado, pictures:

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From inside the palace

From inside the palace

Statue of Gandhi and his wife

Statue of Gandhi and his wife

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On the left: aloo (potato) paratha On the right: paneer (cheese) paratha Yogurt and pickle in the small containers. YUM.

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Rather bad lighting, but proof that I was indeed there :)

Rather bad lighting, but proof that I was indeed there 🙂

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Highlights

As of today, I have been in Pune for a full week. I am moving into my own apartment tomorrow. My foreign registration saga is slowly but surely coming to an end. (I’m being optimistic here!) I have been invited to spend Monday at a school event. I have gone for 2 runs, 2 walks, and a yoga class.

There have been challenges as I transition to a new city, but given how nervous I was leaving Delhi and my fellow Fellows, my move to Pune has been wonderful. As such, I thought that it would be good to remember the highlights of my first week here. As I am constantly reminded, it is best to approach life with a sense of humor and patience in India.

1) Getting to know my amazing mentor and colleagues.

Everyone at Akanksha has been so welcoming. My mentor has been SO helpful with my foreign registration process. I seriously could not have done it without his help.

I’ve also been housed by another coworker and her roommates. They have taken me on apartment viewings, fed me, and made sure that I am 100% comfortable here. I’m sad to leave their place tomorrow, but it will be nice to unpack my suitcases after 20 days!

Even going to the Akanksha office is comfortable. Everyone greets me warmly, and it’s been fun to start talking with people. Everyone is incredibly friendly and dedicated. I have been offered more projects than I can realistically take on in 10 months, and I’ve also been extended the opportunity to create my own project(s) as ideas come to me. I have been offered a great deal of freedom in addition to the opportunity to do useful work. I couldn’t have asked for a better placement.

2) Visiting two of the Akanksha schools.

The kids are so cute. And smart. And energetic. Seriously, they have more energy in one classroom than I ever saw in my entire school in Korea! The antics they get into… I am going to have so many stories once I start going regularly. The last school I visited I had to promise that I would come back. And even then I had to give 5+ minutes of hugs before I could escape.

My favorite student comment of the week: “Didi, your hair is like maggi noodles. I like maggi noodles.” And then I had about 6 girls playing with my hair. (Maggi noodles are a specific type of Indian ramen.)

3) Eating lots of delicious Indian food.

Masalas. Dosas. Chapati. Paneer. Enough said.

On that note – palak paneer is so much better here than in the States. Seriously.

4) Finding an apartment.

I am so happy that I found a furnished place that’s within my budget and in the area that was recommended to me. Plus, my new roommates have a cat. So by default I get a pet for my Fellowship year! And apparently there’s a jogging trail nearby…

5) Running.

It’s so nice to run outside again. I’m taking it slow and making sure that I work up to my normal milage again, but the ability to wake up and go for a run has truly been a great normalizer in my transition. I feel like me when I can run.

6) Trees.

Pune is a green city. It’s unlike any other South Asian city I’ve seen yet. And I love it. Can’t wait to sit outside my new balcony, stare out into the greenery, and read. (I’m pretending as though I’ll have time.)

7) Riding on motorcycles.

Motorcycles, or as they are called here, two-wheelers, are the way to travel in Pune. The public transportation system is more or less nonexistent, traffic is busy enough that cars are inefficient, and auto-rickshaws are expensive. So what’s a Pune-ite to do? Jump on a two-wheeler with one or two friends, and off they go!

I never imagined that I would be a regular backseat motorcyclist, but it’s a blast. I still grip the back of the bike with both hands and won’t let go unless we’re at a dead stop, and my heart still pounds like crazy when we hit a clear swath of road and the speed increases, but it is a blast. Although how women sit sidesaddle on the bike WHILE HOLDING THEIR INFANT CHILDREN is besides me. I cringe every time I see that. Just… just no. That can’t be safe…

It’s been a fun week here in Pune. I can’t wait to get my new place looking like home so that I can go explore Pune’s sights! My place is 2 kilometers from a palace – YES.

A Weekend at Ashram Paryavaran Vidyalaya (APV)

This post travels back in time to 9/5 – 9/8. I had written a post in my notebook, and I am finally getting around to transcribing my reflections now. Better late than never!

A morning view of the Himalayas

A morning view of the Himalayas

APV. What an introduction to the Fellowship.

As part of orientation, the AIF Team took all 40 fellows to an alternative school in the remote Himalayan region of Uttarkhand. The school’s educational strategies deviate from India’s memorize-or-die pressure cooker system. The children are taught meditation as part of their daily routine, and music is incorporated into lessons. Subjects such as math and history are explained with unique techniques. For example, I sat in on a class that taught algebraic factoring through volume and cubes. It was fascinating!

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One of the most stunning moments of my brief time at APV was sitting in the classroom for the first time. After a brief moment of meditation, the children started singing. it was absolutely breathtaking. Forty fellows, the AIF staff, the children, and their teachers were all crammed into a single room without chairs. We sat, body to body, the music utterly enchanting. Knee to knee with other fellows, a young girl pressed against my legs, I saw a glimpse of life in this rural Indian school. It made me ache with excitement to head to my own schools and my own students. (Present moment note: the students at Akanksha schools are ADORABLE and I love them to pieces. It is so much fun transitioning from “Jessica Teacher” to “Jessica Didi,” and I will certainly be writing about my first experiences at the schools this week. Soon. I hope.)

Bells at the Goddess Temple

Bells at the Goddess Temple

I think the best summary that I can give of this retreat must be stolen from one of my peers here: I haven’t been this relaxed in a long time. Between the early morning and evening meditation sessions, hiking the Himalayas, viewing a Goddess Temple, playing soccer with the APV kids, yoga-ing, and talking with the other fellows for hours while staring at the most beautiful valley imaginable, I feel more free than I have in ages. Keeping this calm in Delhi and then Pune will be the real challenge. (Present moment note: Hmmm, will have to keep this thought in mind more… Certain bureaucratic processes are testing any zen moments I had previously!)

Rainbow!

Rainbow!

This excursion is by far the best way to start this fellowship year. So far everything has been amazing beyond all expectation. I cannot begin to imagine what this year holds for me. (Still can’t!)

Discarding Pride

I don’t like asking for help.

It is not that I believe my own knowledge to be greater than those around me. Quite contrary: at Fletcher, most of my colleagues have a great deal to teach me and I love learning from them.

Rather, I dislike asking for help in situations when I feel helpless. I dislike the feeling of losing control. I dislike being a burden on those around me and those I trust. Even when I know that if the situation were reversed, I would be happy to help – even then, it grates me to rely on others for help in simple tasks that I am used to doing independently.

I am relearning humility here in Pune.

By no means, please do not misunderstand my words for harsh feelings against my new home. Although I have only been here for four days, I already love Pune. If any Indian city were to be crafted with me in mind, it is Pune. The city is green. Trees offer shade along sidewalks that are mostly well kept. Early mornings are cool enough for a nice run and the sight of a foreigner jogging has attracted almost no attention yet. Twice now I have taken off, running along the paths and enjoying a taste of normalcy.

I cannot wait to truly take off and explore my new city in earnest.

My frustrations lie in official registration business and apartment hunting. I am continuously relying on the help of friends and coworkers as I fruitlessly search for accommodation and a way to formalize my stay in the city. With each helper comes another opinion, another voice, another set of ideas. Normally the more the merrier. But right now, confused as I am with so much, each new thought brings more confusion into the mix. All of this makes it hard for me to keep accepting help. But yet I must.

I am staying with a lovely coworker and her two wonderful roommates. I struggle to remain as quiet and inconspicuous as possible while being friendly. I rely on coworkers for rides. I rely on friends for hours of apartment searching. And through it all I still don’t know if my actions are useful or just a waste of energy.

But it takes a lot of my pride to keep asking questions. How do I make coffee? May I make some tea? Where is the washing machine? Can I please help with the dishes?

I am incredibly lucky to be with such wonderful people here in Pune. I have been fed, housed, and befriended in such a short time. If I were able to help, perhaps that would alleviate some of the hesitations I feel at the moment. In a normal context – that is to say, in my normal American life – I try to do so much on my own. Because in my mind, that is what grown ups do. They take care of themselves. Here I cannot do that yet. I fight against the feeling of regression, of becoming younger and reliant. And so I must surrender my pride. I must relearn humility. And I must learn to differentiate between the situations in which I should ask for help and the situations where I need to act for myself.

India is simultaneously forcing me to my knees and lifting me to my feet. I am both a child and an adult. I came to serve and yet all I do now is rely on others for help. India teaches me, in every moment, to relax the white knuckled grasp I have on life and let it flow as it will.

I must discard my pride and remember humility.

India is Osmosis

Recently time has slipped away from me. It feels like a moment ago I was staring down two and a half months in Dhaka. A second ago I was landing in the United States for a short reprieve at home. But somehow now I am not only in India, but I have been here for three days and the time is spiraling away faster and faster yet.

It has been a whirlwind of meeting other fellows, talking with my contact at the Akanksha Foundation, meandering down the quiet streets of south Delhi, ignoring the pesky annoyance also known as jetlag, and eating as much paneer as my stomach can handle per meal. For now, all forty AIF Fellows are housed at the Vishwa Yuvak Kendra International Youth Hostel where we are trying to frantically remember everyone’s names and power our way through the foreign registration process. (Lesson one in India: bureaucracy is a force to be reckoned with. Lesson two: never expect the internet to work when it needs to. It will start working precisely when you want to go to bed.)

Everything still feels like a dream, to be honest. We are in a bubble – surrounded by English, guided by AIF staff, and housed by VYK. The streets are quiet, given that we are currently neighbors to embassies. The rains have cooled Delhi, and while it is still extremely humid, everything has been tamer than Dhaka thus far. I am realistic enough to realize that this grace period of calm will end soon, but I am enjoying it while it lasts.

Despite nagging flutters of nerves at the thought of moving to a foreign city alone while some of my peers will depart together, I am eagerly anticipating my “real” entrance to India. I am beyond excited to join the Akanksha Foundation, my placement organization for the year. Akanksha is based in Pune and Mumbai, where they run after-school centers and schools for underprivileged children. At the moment, it looks as though my projects will focus on monitoring and evaluation of school projects that are scaling up this year. One project will focus on literacy and language acquisition and retention. Another project will test methods for encouraging independent learning in young children (preschool and kindergarten ages). Another option is assisting with a scale up model for an Akanksha school(s) in possibly two new locations. And these are just the ideas selected by the organization – they are leaving things open until I arrive, thus enabling me to explore the schools and organization myself before finalizing my projects for the 10 months. There are so many options, and all possibilities seem infinitely exciting at the moment.

During one of our sessions we were told that India is osmosis, that you learn from this country without realizing it. I’d like to think that I have already started to internalize the tiniest portion of this country.

Reflections on a Summer in Dhaka

Please note – this is reposted from the Blakeley Fellowship website. The Blakeley Fellowship sponsored my internship at BRAC, thus enabling me to accept an unpaid internship for the summer. I am extremely grateful for the support! This is the blog post I wrote as a final reflection on the time I spent in Dhaka. The original posting can be viewed here.

As I begin the last week of work at my summer internship at BRAC, a development agency headquartered in Dhaka, Bangladesh, it is hard not to be overwhelmed with amazement that my time here is coming to a close. Summer in Dhaka has been everything one might imagine of life in this South Asian city – incessant noise, daredevil streets, the beautiful call to prayer, the pounding heat and hair curling humidity. It has also been a summer of invitations, iftars, a newfound gratitude for cloudy days, an addiction to sweet milky tea and a growing willingness to throw myself into a street filled with oncoming traffic. It has been a summer of mobile money and planning, of working and waiting. I have learned to strive to achieve my goals but to slow down and recognize the need for patience. It was a summer learning to live in a developing country. The fierce competition of the streets belies the disregard for time. A half hour? Forty-five minutes? A day? Two weeks? Time has a different meaning here. Even the lethargic opening of stores baffled me at first, before I slowed down my mornings and learned to savor the morning hours before rushing into the bustle of the day.

BRAC Centre

BRAC Centre

Dhaka teaches those who live in this crowded, vibrant city to appreciate the duality of life. Everything comes with a price. The rain cools the city. The downpours also create rivulets of mud on the bumpy sidewalks that inevitably cover my salwar kameez with droplets of street dirt. The hot, scorching sun creates the type of heat that will make you sweat while lying in bed naked with the fan on full blast. The same sun dries the streets and makes the walk to work dusty but clean. When in Dhaka, it is an art to appreciate the good in every situation and release the frustration of the bad. (And in general, Bangladesh is an excellent way to hone one’s sense of humor. There’s nothing like tackling a cockroach-infested room after a day in the field to help you see the absurdities of life. Or so it seemed at the time – in hindsight, it may have been the exhaustion showing itself…)

Traveling from Gulshan 2 to Banani

Traveling from Gulshan 2 to Banani

This is a hard city to live in. It pushes at you, mentally and physically, with car horns and the press of bodies upon bodies. There is so much need here, need that is sharply highlighted by the oases of luxury apartment buildings with swimming pools shimmering on rooftops. The contrast makes my head spin each time I come face to face with the stark differences between worlds here. Poverty in Bangladesh is a systematic need that cannot be solved by one person. Mentally I know this, but it is hard to shake the sneaky feeling of shame that starts to stick to you after walking past beggar after beggar, the same people stationed everyday on their specific tile of sidewalk by handlers in the early morning hours.

Old Dhaka

Old Dhaka

Perhaps I came with the expectation that working at BRAC would provide some sort of mental peace, an image coming from the idea that I would be doing my miniscule part to improve life in Bangladesh. More likely I didn’t comprehend the reality of life in Dhaka until I was immersed in this strange, scary, beautiful, and complex culture. It’s amazing how fuzzy the start of my summer seems now that I exist in the peculiar twilight zone of those who are about to leave a country.

The famous rivers and boats of Bangladesh

The famous rivers and boats of Bangladesh

I did have certain expectations for my work at BRAC. I came to assist BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab (SIL) with its Innovation Fund for Mobile Money. Which indeed I have – but of course not in the manner I expected. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting SIL’s Innovation Fund to encourage the transition from cash to mobile money within BRAC. SIL is facilitating the process change to mobile money within BRAC; it is not implementing the mobile money pilots. Rather, other BRAC programs are implementing pilot projects. To be selected for an internal “grant” from the Innovation Fund, programs needed to submit an idea regarding how to incorporate mobile money into a project to an Innovation Challenge run by SIL. BRAC employees voted on the projects in the challenge, and then the list was narrowed to semi-finalists in May. Final projects were selected on June 1, right on time. Idealistically, I expected to head straight to the field and see bKash, the first and most commonly used mobile money platform in Bangladesh, being incorporated into projects. Instead, I have come to see the tremendous complexity that accompanies changing a system. The transition from cash to mobile money requires coordination and cooperation between many departments, and at an NGO of BRAC’s magnitude, that is no small hurdle. Steadily, SIL has progressed with the final seven mobile money pilots that were selected, but the programs are just starting implementation of the pilots now.

A BRAC office in Mymensingh

A BRAC office in Mymensingh

I have assisted by applying some hard gained skills from Fletcher’s DM&E series: formulating indicators, definitions, baseline plans, and evaluation plans. I have also put these skills to use by designing and piloting an internal knowledge management database for BRAC pilot projects. SIL is a dynamic team, and I have been fortunate to work with several team members on multiple projects simultaneously. Mobile money has been a huge focus of my summer, but my attention has also been dedicated to knowledge management systems and research. I have gone to the field, but not as often as I had originally hoped. Yet I gained knowledge and experience that I could not have imagined when accepting my internship in March. The task of incorporating mobile money into an organization is much more intricate a challenge than I could have anticipated from Medford.

My lovely co-interns and I in wedding garb

My lovely co-interns and I in wedding garb

I am grateful to have spent my summer at BRAC in Dhaka. My time here has been both enlightening and difficult; at the risk of sounding trite, this internship has been a learning experience. Fortunately, it is immediately applicable to my next challenge: working with the Akanksha Foundation, an educational NGO, in India. While in Bangladesh, I received word that I will be an America India Foundation William J. Clinton Fellow in Pune, India from September 2014 through June 2015. My return to Fletcher has been postponed for a year. And while a (large) part of me yearns to reunite with my friends and professors in Medford this fall, all of me is ready to see India.

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After my summer in Dhaka, I’m ready.