Sports Day

The school that I work at most often had their sports day today. It was fun to see the children channel their unbelievable energy into activity. The sports day was slightly different than the event I remember from childhood – mainly due to a lack of space and equipment here – but the general excitement was identical.

I enjoyed the day. I spent a good majority of the first few hours sitting on the ground covered with children. Literally. I usually had 1 kid on both sides of me, 2 kids in my lap, and another hugging my neck and leaning on my back. They are cuties!

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Merry Christmas from Matoshri!

Merry Christmas from Matoshri!

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Of Work and Joy

I don’t know how to say this without subscribing to a cliche, but here goes: there is a delightful sense of joy and lightness within the Akanksha team. There is such dedication. It is amazing how many of my coworkers tell me how they switched from jobs in the private sector to Akanksha and how now they cannot see leaving. There’s something about this mission that entices people to give this NGO their all.

Not to say that everything is unicorns and rainbows and pixy dust. There are varying ideas regarding what is best for our students. People have different methods of approaching logistical problems. I notice the same barriers that box in other development NGOs (both domestic and international) at play in Akanksha – lack of funding, staff turnover in schools, the overwhelming struggle to combat a lifetime’s worth of problems. Education can carry students further than they might imagine, but the daunting mountain of obstacles they must overcome in the process remains a massive hurdle that Akanksha does its best to recognize and address. Yet one organization cannot solve the ills of a city or a society.

We are actors trying to make a difference in a limited sphere of influence.

However, there really is something about this mission that fuels people here. So many have experience in the classroom; there is an honest and earnest belief in education. And there is such excitement about learning. The passion is real.

As a young professional, it is encouraging to see an organization so dedicated and hardworking also embrace joy and playfulness at its core:

Staff meetings: learning and practicing resilience with spaghetti and marshmallows

Staff meetings = learning and practicing resilience with spaghetti and marshmallows

Trying to get the tower just a little bit higher

Trying to get the tower just a little bit higher. Things got intense for a few moments.

The final product

The final product

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.

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.