Archive for September, 2010

Hey folks – here is a video I made of the Rishi Valley on a hike yesterday. I’m still getting the hang of “movie making”…no special effects just yet but give me a few months and I’ll work on it. Enjoy!


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Where the Banyan Trees Grow

Welcome to the Rishi Valley!

Sunset over the hills of the Rishi Valley

I thought I’d take some time to introduce you to my new home and surroundings. As I’ve only been here a little over one week, I’ve still got lots of discovering and adventuring to do! Every day I’m learning something new…where to take my laundry, how to use the locking kickstand on my bicycle, who to talk to in the kitchen to get tea leaves and “the good bread”, how to live in harmony with the colony of ants that have taken over the 2nd shelf above my sink…

The oldest Banyan tree on campus

But, never fear, I’m settling in quite nicely and am constantly (and I mean constantly) surrounded by all sorts of fascinating and wonderfully kind people. The Rishi Valley School seems to draw in teachers, staff, students, and volunteers from all Center of campusover the country and, supposedly, world (the word is that there is a group of Germans coming in October). It truly is a beautiful campus encircled by rocky hills and mountains with a canopy of green trees that give way to crops of rice paddy, millets, and vegetables. There are three, immense banyan trees on campus surrounded by stone benches for outdoor lectures – the most picturesque of settings that one could only find in India. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning all 300+ students gather together on the floor of a wall-less assembly hall before classes to sing in rhythm to the mridangam, played flawlessly by the school music teacher. Like the rest of India, the school/work week is Monday through mid-day on Saturday. Sundays are spent hiking, playing games, resting, and studying. There is an energy at this school that is difficult to describe in words. Students seem to speak beyond their years on politics, social issues, and philosophy…but then act like normal teenagers giggling at the boys and playing American pop music until someone tells them to turn it off. In just my short time here, I already understand how special a place this is for students – it’s their sanctuary…their es

I live up the steps on the top level

cape. It is a place that is totally untouched by the outside world – safe and innocent.

My own bit of the Rishi Valley is on top of the 11th-year girl’s dormitory and consists of four, concrete walls and a tin roof. I’ve hung up a few photos from home and colorful fabric to cover up some of the stark whiteness, purchased an electric tea kettle, and have stocked up on pomegranates and bananas… slowly, it’s beginning to feel more and more like my little home. My front windows overlook the center of campus, playground, and Dining Hall. Every morning around 6:30am the younger kids start to congregate in the playground, swinging, laughing (yelling), and talking (screaming), waiting for the “junior breakfast”. I’m still getting used to it. Monkeys screeching are nothing compared to hungry 4th graders before 7am.

The best part of my new home is my neighbors. I live “across the roof” from a wonderful family with a super cute, two year old girl that calls me “akah”, older sister. Below me are the house parents for the dormitory and, aside from making me the most delicious coffee (real coffee…not NesCafe, for those of you who have experience drinking coffee in India), graciously entertain late-night conversations with me on politics, spirituality, philosophy, and the general connectedness of the greater universe. For my birthday, they had me downstairs for tea, burned some incense, and opened a sweet for me.  Kind is an understatement. 🙂

My home

While my mornings and evenings are spent at the Rishi Valley School, my days have been spent ~1 kilometer up the road, worlds away from the campus bubble, at the Rishi Valley Rural Health Clinic (RHC) with my talented and wonderful mentor. The patients that come to the clinic are from the surrounding villages and typically pack the place before 10am. This past week I sat with Dr. K and observed the patients that came into see him and the other staff. He’d translate for me what I didn’t understand and stop to talk me through many of the cases. It has been absolutely fascinating. While a good percent of the patients come in with upset stomachs because of too many chili peppers or just for something to do, there have been many more serious issues as well. In the few days I sat in with the doctor, I saw patients come in with complications from diabetes, thyroid infections, tuberculosis, serious fungus from working in rice paddy, a case of Dengue, early on-set of menopause from a botched hysterectomy, infections from poor hygiene, and lots more. It was total bananas. Lots more about the RHC to come…

Hiking with some of the students from schoolSo, in summary: life in the Rishi Valley is pretty fantastic. My body is learning to slow down to the pace of life here while my mind feels like it’s absorbing everything I’m seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling at warp speed. Every day is better than the last – I know that I’ll find my Indian groove in no time at all.

P.S. Visitors welcome!

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In the Rishi Valley!

Greetings all!

I arrived in the beautiful Rishi Valley yesterday afternoon safely…and just in time for lunch! It took roughly 2 1/2 hours by car from Bangalore, winding along country roads into the hills surrounded by towering boulders. I am really, really far out. It’s awesome.

I feel like I’m at summer camp. To get into the campus of the Rishi Valley School you take a winding road an hour past the bustling town of Madanpalle until you think you’re surely in the middle of  the jungle…lost forever. Emerging from the lush green is a small village and just beyond: the Rishi Valley School. It’s a community of very kind, warm people – thinkers from all over India who take great pride in the school they have created.

I’m currently staying at the “New Guest House” while a leak is being fixed in my room. I will be shifting over this afternoon….I think. I’ll be staying above the 11th grade girl’s hostel in a roof-top flat. It’s quite spacious and simple, but very nice…and literally a stumble away from the cafeteria 🙂

I’ve been meeting all sorts of people and students…unfortunately only a few of which I remember their names. I ate dinner last night at the 12th grade girls table, who are eager to help me with my Telegu and show me the “ropes” of Rishi School extra-curriculars. After dinner, they led me to a dance performance that was held for all of the school last night. It was a group that did traditional folk dancing from Orissa, the state just north of Andhra Pradesh. Totally amazing.

Today I’m at the health clinic visiting with Dr. K and observing the daily patient-load until afternoon when I’ll head to town to register with the government so I don’t get thrown in jail…yay. Lots of settling in to do and orienting – more to come soon…

Thinking of you all.

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Whew. What a week it’s been. 6 days have blazed by in a whirlwind of orienting, adjusting, and connecting. I’m inspired, I’m motivated, I’m empowered…I’m ready to go!

What I’ve learned so far? India is full of ROCKSTARS. The kind that stir the pot and shake things up – that will work until it’s done and shout from the rooftops until their voice is heard. This week I’ve been listening to speakers from all over the country doing work in everything from youth development to gender equality, LGBT activism to seed-sharing…and making real, sustainable, tangible change.

A bit (beyond) groggy from the time change and with a stomach not super-stoked to be back on masala and curd for breakfast, I started the week with a full-day of 1-on-1 time with my mentor and soon-to-be-supervisor in Rishi Valley, Dr. K. In 2 words: very cool. We began hashing out my project with side conversations about our passions, dreams, and experiences. The general focus of my project will be on linking agricultural practices to incidences of chronic illness in the village communities…but I’ll also dabble a bit in health education, ecology, and collaboration building. It’s going to be an amazing year.

Later in the week, we got to visit an AIF-sponsored school that trains kids from the surrounding slum areas in marketable job skills. I was shown the ropes by my new friend, Afridi, a 12-year old rockstar on the computer who showed me a thing or two about fractions, geology, and photosynthesis. I taught him how “click photos” and how to use Paint to make funny looking people. Ta-da.

We had to break from our chit-chat in my (very) broken Hindi and his stellar English to welcome the U.S. Ambassador…which was really the purpose of the visit. He fly fishes in Bend, OR.

Equally as inspirational as our jam-packed schedule of social change-makers of the India development scene has been the absolute rockstar fellows that surround me every day. Hearing their experiences, passions, and aspirations is the best kind of fuel for my fire. Everyday I get into a new and amazing conversation with someone and everyday come away thinking how lucky it is to know them and get to learn from their experiences. What a network of friends.

To close, I thought I’d share my personal rockstar story…via video. (I’ve never done this before, so let me know if it’s not working.) Many of you may remember me writing about the attention I get from sticking out so much here…alas, not much has changed 🙂


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Namaste friends!

I arrived safely in India yesterday evening along with the 25 other folks in my fellowship cohort. After a particularly long 15 hour flight, I walked into the new and improved Delhi international airport – much different since last year (attributed to the 2010 Commonwealth Games that were held in Delhi in June 2010). I went through customs, got my bags, re-grouped with the rest of the fellows, and walked out into India, once again.

Before I get into India I want to step back a minute and talk about my 2 days in New York City. I took the train from Washington, D.C. up to NYC to meet the fellows, several AIF staff & board members, and fly to Delhi. I got dropped off by kind, Nepalese taxi driver in the center of downtown NY – skyscrapers and high fashion all around – at the Wellington Hotel. (The taxi driver informed me that this was the very same hotel the movie “Borat” was filmed where he ran naked through the hallways…ah, American history.) I changed into the proper NYC “business formal” wear I was instructed to bring and met up with the fellows for the first time. We then headed to the 36th floor of a Lexington Avenue sky rise for cocktails and reception with AIF staff, Board Members, and Fellowship alum…plus the most fantastic view of the city streets and Hudson…totally amazing. During the reception, we heard stories from past fellows and were greeted by a member of the Clinton Foundation…but much to all of our disappointment, sadly not the Prez. Bummer.

After the reception we all went to Indian food at a fantastic restaurant somewhere around the corner and ate, laughed, and told stories until our stomachs hurt and our heads too full of new names and faces to learn anymore about one another for the night. The next morning all 26 of us hauled our bags down Park Ave. to a 21st floor of some other sky rise (pretty hilarious experience – I think someone has a video clip of it somewhere), had a short orientation, said good-bye to our wonderful AIF –US Program Director, and were whisked off to the airport. Off to India…

So, we get to India, pile on a bus, and drive through the streets of Delhi to the hostel where we will camp out for the next 10 days for orientation. As we were driving through the streets I couldn’t help but feel…home. All of a sudden, it’s like I couldn’t stop talking about Delhi…”If you just take that road there, that’s where I worked!” and “The weather? Not so bad right now…you should feel the heat in July!” I breathed in the musty smell of rain, incense, and manure all mixed together…and felt totally alive, excited, and relieved. I am here – finally….and it feels good.

This morning we had a bit of time before lunch so another fellow and I escaped in search of internet. I taught her how to catch an auto-rickshaw and showed her where the best air-conditioning was in Khan Market. I remembered my “kitnas” and “tikays” and bobbled my head like a local. I’m loving every minute of this.

So, I’m in orientation for the next week and then head south to Bangalore and then Rishi Valley. Tonight I get to meet my supervisor and spend the day with him tomorrow discussing my project in more depth. More to come…

Thinking of you all and wishing you well.

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Back to India

I’m headed back…
Back to the land of bangles, head bobbles, and golden nose rings. To beautiful fabrics, elephants in city traffic, and finger nails stained from turmeric and curry. To ancient stone temples and tombs made of marble, intricately engraved with colorful stones. To miles of crowded market streets alive with vendors aggressively calling at you, motioning you into their stands. To wedging yourself into trains so packed with people you’re sure that if it fell over, nobody would budge and inch. To the pungent smell of sewage in the streets masked by burning incense, fried samosas, sweat, and car exhaust. To men, women and children living, working, sleeping, dying in the streets, under bridges, in the fields. To the sounds of the tabla, the sitar, and the slide guitar. To the woman in the sari, humming as she works on her knees, cleaning the floor. To the men doing construction on the roadside with hard hats on their heads, but no shoes on their feet. To the ruthless haggling with the auto-wallahs and the unbearable summer heat where you lay too miserable to swat at the fly buzzing around your head. To the multiple, daily power outages and the monsoon rains that flood the streets, leaving you instantly ankle-deep in dirty water and soaked. To the city smog that clogs your nostrils and chokes your lungs, but creates sunsets too magnificent to explain in words. To the holidays for every god and lavish celebrations of birth, marriage, family. To the calls from the Mosque that echo through the city, the saffron garlands hanging on metal gates, and prayer flags swaying amongst the trees.
Back to India.

Greetings all (and thanks for reading)!

The scoop: I was awarded the Clinton Fellowship with the American India Foundation to do work with an Indian NGO (non-governmental organization) for nearly a year. I am 1 of 28 fellows from around the country for the 2010-2011 cohort coming from all different backgrounds and specializations – but all with the common passion to make positive change in India. They all seem like such amazing individuals…I can’t wait to learn from them.

My placement is with the Rishi Valley Rural Health Clinic affiliated with the Rishi Valley Education Center in the southern part of the state of Andhra Pradesh. The site is located about an hour from the “small” town of Madanapalle (pop. 100,000+) in south India. It is almost directly center (~150 km each way) between Bangalore and coastal city of Chennai.

My project will be more developed once I actually get there, but the general summary is that I will be doing an initial assessment on how pesticide use impacts the health of farmers in the surrounding rural villages. I will also be developing some educational materials on hygiene practices for girls beginning their menstrual cycles and women giving birth.

I will be living at the Rishi Valley Education Center, a progressive boarding school for children, founded by J. Krishnamurti. So, in addition to my above projects, I’m hoping to spend time with the students hiking, playing music, and dancing (so I’m told). I also packed a frisbee….just in case 🙂 They are giving me a bicycle to ride around the valley, to and from work, which makes me happier than you can imagine.

While I was packing up my things, I was going through old papers and found a stack of print-outs of my old blog posts (thanks, Grandma!) from my last trip to India. It’s still surreal that I’m returning so soon – but I can’t wait. I’ve got this chance to go back and try it all over again…but this time a bit more prepared and in a rural area, instead of a city of 20 million. Three months was way too short. I had just enough time to hit my own “giant wall of American-ness” but then I was on a plane home before I could work my way over it. As excited as I am to go back, I’m even more excited about having another chance to learn how to do effective community development as a complete, foreign outsider. Does it work? Is it possible? I believe true and sustained change comes from the ground…so how can I be a part of it when, essentially, I’m not?

So, I’m saying my final good-byes back east, heading to New York on the 8th for the big meet & greet with the other fellows, then off to India on the 9th. We spend a week in Delhi in a jam-packed orientation and then I head south to the incredible Rishi Valley – my new home.

I love notes, updates, emails, and general thoughts of all kinds. (Those of you that have lived abroad know how exciting even weather updates from home can be.) I will email out an address and phone number when I have one and, of course, update my blog when I can. On my blog I’ll also include any exciting links you all can click through as well as photos and interesting things I’m reading. Additionally, you can check out and keep tabs on the rest of  the fellows on the AIF Clinton Fellow blog. The month of September will be a bit bananas for me but by October I should be settling into more of a routine. I also eagerly await my promised Skype dates with all you wonderful people.

So much love and good wishes to you all. Let the adventure begin…

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