This Time Three Years Past...

Hard to believe it's been three years. But it was January 2008 when I headed abroad for the first time ever to Pune, India on a study abroad trip. It was a small Women's Studies trip that would last three weeks and include 11 female students. It was one of the best experiences of my life, hard to put into words three years later. But I did not have a blog last January or the one before that, so I felt like now was as good a time as ever to relish the memories and share my trip.


First of all, this was one trip that I could never hope to recreate. Ever. We didn't have the home stay situation and we weren't housed on the campus of a foreign university like most study abroad students are likely to do. Rather we had a duplex of sorts to ourselves, complete with housekeepers, kitchen staff, and the like. It was strange and I almost felt guilty to be treated so well - we were just young Americans, nothing worth getting excited over, but we were shown the royal treatment. 

Anyway it was this great place called Varsha Park, which they called a bungalow but was actually a two-storey duplex with rooftop access where we did yoga in the mornings. I shared a beautiful first floor room with one of my best friends, Lindsay (though we didn't know one another prior to the trip), and woke to sunshine streaming through the wrought-iron detail on the windows and cheerful singing from the next bed over. Needless to say, we had a lot of fun together.

The trip, as I said, was sponsored by the Women's Studies program, and it was basically a 
study on women and feminism in India. The set up was basically that lecturers came to us, or we went to them, and taught us on subjects as varied as film and photography to the dangers inherent for village women who cook indoors and women's scholarship in India. Having such a unique course set-up made for an unrepeatable trip - there is no way the average American traveling to India could possibly have met some of the renowned and talented women we met, nor could they hope to see all that we saw, from the poorest of the slums to the most disgustingly wealthy of the rich. One of my favorite speakers was actually a friend of one of our guides and more of an entertaining guy than someone we were expected to learn a lot from. Anil Awachat showed us how to do origami, spoke on Thoreau, and shared with us a wealth of artwork he'd created over the years. His vivacity and zest for life were infectious and remain with me to this day.

Anil Awachat, the entertaining and eccentric man who welcomed us into his home with jokes, art, and games, shows us a few of his tricks with the Cat's Cradle string

But the other great thing about our trip - it was all about new media. Our assignments were not written but rather in video format. We were to select topics and creating short podcasts about them. So we took videos of everything we saw everywhere we went. The whole trip is on tape. And I was lucky enough to get paid to archive, and thus revisit, it all, which was a huge perk.

I also could never again hope to come across such wonderful people in my travels as the ones who hosted us during our time. We were welcomed with open arms into a warm family, the Wagles, whose members served as both tour guides and sources of insight to those aspects of India culture we couldn't quite access from our vantage point. There was Prasanna Wagle, a middle aged man who worked for the non-governmental organization that sort of sponsored us during our stay. Along with Prasanna, we had Vandanna, our mama, who took care of us and served as Prasanna's counterpart, though her role was more at home while Prasanna took over when we were out and about. 

And then we had peer guides, women in their teens and early 20s who helped us out with lectures at home and on site, but also proved to be great sources of information about what life is like for the young Indian woman. Anujna was the product of a love marriage, studied architecture, and was from a fairly liberal-minded Indian family. Her best friend Amruta had a vastly different life - her parents were set on an arranged marriage and, though a gorgeous girl who could easily have been a model or a dancer, was going to school to become an engineer. Paroma was a member of the Wagle family and such a cheery person to encounter - she was the one with whom I became closest and most connected. Plenty of other people played huge roles in our stay, from Sumnath who ran the household staff and would hold conversations with us in partial English, after which we wouldn't know what was really said, and Sheetal who was another young guide that we saw more occasionally than the other three. Under the watchful eye of these wonderful people, we were able to see many of the sides of India that most outsiders would completely miss.

The whole group, students, guides and all.

Cliche as it sounds, I hope that we were able to teach these wonderful people something as well. Though I worry that sometimes as a group we weren't successful in doing so, I hope that I was able to portray myself as the courteous and curious American I am, to dispel negative stereotypes as much as possible and be as respectful of this new and foreign culture as humanly possible.

As I think I've made patently obvious, there was so much more to this trip than I could ever hope to recount in a single blog post, let alone a series of 20. And though I look back on my month in India with nostalgia and joy, we definitely had our share of worries, troubles, and conflicts. From the fact that we were working so hard we could hardly enjoy being in a foreign country, to the way we were cloistered in our house at nights, to the drama that is likely to erupt when you get a group of 11 different personalities together in a duplex for 3 weeks, we found plenty to complain about at the time. But I'm glad that I can look back and recall the memories that are foremost in my mind with fondness, that I can consider my time and money well worth it, despite whatever struggles I may have had to endure. 

I intended for this post to be primarily about the photos but, once I got to writing, it was hard to stop going on about India and all that I did, all the people I met, and the things I learned while there. But since there's no way I can cover it all, I guess it's about time I got to my original intent with this post. Here are some of my favorite photos from India. There are so many more that I've accumulated, from my own camera and those of the other girls on the trip, but these best encapsulate the trip for me, or at least showcase the highlights. I've tried to explain each of them as much as possible, without being too loquacious (something I obviously still need to work on quite a bit). Enjoy! Hopefully these images will give you a new perspective on India and third-world nations, or at least open your eyes to how drastically different the lives of some people on this earth are from our own.

Pranayama Yoga on the rooftop. Surely doing yoga outside is better for you than indoors... unless the air is so smog-racked that every time you blow your nose, you get a black tissue.

My roommate Lindsay with the girls at an orphanage we visited.

Rangoli is a sort of sand art that lots of Indians use outside their doors to welcome guests. 

On the road to Agha Khan Palace, where Gandhi and his wife were interned in 1942.

All the girls and guides dancing in our saris.

Beautiful paper-like flowers along the road to Varsha Park.

Henna. This is shortly after the artists finished applying the henna. The dark crust falls away leaving behind an auburn stain of the design.

Sumnath, our trusty housekeeper, creating an indoor rangoli design for our last dinner in India.

The girls at the orphanage playing what soon become our favorite game - Coco.

Fun with the girls at the orphanage.

Some stray dogs we saw on our travels to a temple. This was such a typical sight - stray puppies so skinny you could see their ribs. And since they are all likely ridden with disease, you have to fight the urge to pet them.

An abandoned temple we visited.

The Gateway to India in Bombay/Mumbai. We sailed off to the Elephanta Caves from this port.

Known as the Queen's Necklace, the harbor at Mumbai is lit up like a strand of pearls at night.

I can't remember the name of this temple but a boat ride was required to reach it which made for a pretty interesting experience.

A typical Indian meal complete with chapati (my favorite whole wheat Indian flatbread), daal and rice, and galub jamun, a doughnut-like dessert soaked in sugar syrup.

We met with a bunch of teachers to interview them about whatever we pleased. They returned the favor by putting on a dance performance to us and teaching us some traditional Indian moves.

A colorful roadside produce market.

One of our first trips was to a school for girls. We were received like celebrities because of the lightness of our skin. These girls were swarming to greet us and learn where we came from.

Pottery and sculpture for sale on the side of the road.

The doors leading from one of our houses to the next.

We visited a farm where we learned how to make this sweetener used in many traditional Indian dishes.

One of our more unusual excursions was to a train museum. It reminded me more of a Christmas train display than a full-on museum but the place was charming and quirky. It even had a soundtrack and dialogue to tell out a story about the village, with flashing lights and train activity to go along.

Women at work in a papad factory. Papad is similar to a hard corn tortilla but a little less salty and flavorful. We saw the whole process from start to finish and Lindsay actually saw these very papad on a shelf in an international food store in the states.

Some of the women from the papad factory were kind enough to allow us to tape interviews with them after our tour.

More of the beautiful rangoli designs we were greeted with nearly everywhere we went.

Some of the borders at the school for girls, curious about us light-skinned visitors.

Dancing and singing along with the children at the orphanage.

The streets of Mumbai. Not a place I would ever want to drive in.

We visited an after-school program for children living in the slums. As grew fairly typical, they put on a music and dance show for us and were delighted to have interested visitors.

The lovely Amruta demonstrating how to properly wear a sari.

Decision-making in the sari shop.

This store was three-levels and nearly ever storey's walls looked like this - completely packed with sari fabrics. Needless to say, it was nearly impossible to decide upon just one.

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  1. What an amazing life changing experience. I really admire your adventure. :)

    It is interesting when you start a blog and think about all things you wish you would have documented.

  2. I really enjoyed seeing photos from the trip I've heard so much about! You know I can be kind of skeptical about study abroad programs, but yours seems like it was a really unique and educational experience. It almost sounds, in some ways, more like my Birthright trip than a study abroad. And that henna is beautiful!

  3. What a beautiful, beautiful experience! I would love to visit india.

  4. What an amazing experience. Thanks for sharing the photos and memories with us. One day I hope to see Indian, too.

  5. What a great post! I loved looking at all your pictures and the rangoli is absolutely beautiful!

  6. wow, your trip looked absolutely amazing!

  7. I'm so jealous of this trip you have no idea. Love the Yoga on the roof. Looks like an experience you'll never forget.

    Thanks for visiting my blog miss ;)

  8. This is such a once in a lifetime experience, and I'm glad you learned so much and took so much away from it! I have yet to visit a place like this... but I hope to one day.

  9. ahhhh i almost died when i saw you were posting about this! you have an AMAZING memory. i don't remember nearly all the names of things but i'm glad you do and have it documented! brings back so many wonderful memories!!!! (remember when we pigged out on pizza :-)). we should go back sometime!

  10. amazing pictures and experience! thanks for sharing :)

  11. These photos are just beautiful; what a wonderful trip!

    My great, great grandma immigrated from India to Utah, so I have always wanted to go there.

  12. Your trip to India looks and sounds so incredible and enriching. I'd love to have the opportunity to go one day. I have two friends from India and a third friend with family in India. They all say the same thing: when you go to India, it changes you. You don't expect it at first, but it happens. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and all these wonderful photographs.

  13. omg!!! what an amazing experience. i took an art hist of india class my last semester of college and ever since then i have wanted desperately to go to india. specifically to see all of the beautiful temples and mosques. i love the culture and all of the vibrant colors and the beautiful people. the food looks amazing! i'm sure nothing the states has to offer can compare. and the girls, i'm sure they were so sweet and a delight to meet w/. gosh, i hope you blog more about india. i'd love to read more about your trip.

  14. Glad to see so many bloggers excited about India! It truly is life changing to travel to this country and I would encourage anyone to do so if they get an opportunity! It was a great trip and I have plenty more photos in the backlog of my computer to share... I'll definitely do so at a later date! Thanks everyone for stopping by and sharing your kind thoughts!

  15. Wow, thanks so much for leading me to this post of yours! Your photos are making me so excited to travel. All the beautiful people, colours and food! It looks like you had a great time. I'm teaching english to school kids in Udaipur (Rajasthan) for 3 months, then traveling all over the country for 1 month. If you have any advice please let me know!

    Carla xx.


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