Monday, December 9, 2013

On the Road: Agra, Delhi, and Dehradun

Sorry for the long delay! We have been travelling pretty hardcore these last few days but are happy to now be settled for a couple days in Rajpur in the foothills of the Himalyas.

From Varanasi we went onto Agra to see Agra Fort and of course the Taj Mahal!!! What an unreal experience! We all had a wonderful time taking pictures.

Batch 5 at the Taj Mahal!
Next morning early we headed to Delhi for the day. First we went on a tour of the streets with an organization that rescues and restores street children. The best part was that the tour was given by a man who used to live on the streets so we got a first-hand perspective! For lunch we ate at the world famous Karims restaurant which used to serve food to kings until they made it available to the common man. The group split up in order to cover more ground so some people saw the street kids dance while others went to see Suffi singing. Both ended up to be very good experiences!

That night we boarded the train for Rajpur which is a hillstation in the foothills of the Himalyas. While it is much colder, the beauty around us is astounding! These hills are stunning and it is wonderful to be in the peace and quiet after the busyness of the other cities we have visited. We are taking time to rest and refresh as well as debrief our semester in India. We also took time to go white water rafting on the Ganges river! The Ganges flows out of the Himalyas so it is cold and clear (quite different from how it looks when it reaches Varanasi). Everyone enjoyed their experience and  some even cliff jumped into the mighty Ganges!

Ready to raft!
We have 2 more days here in India before returning back to our homes. While we are excited to see our family, friends, and pets and to eat our favourite foods and see familiar sites, for many leaving will be bitter sweet. Deep friendships have been formed and lives have been changed from this experience in India. We will arrive in the airport with suitcases full of dirty clothes and presents; hearts full of numerous stories to share about our experiences; and probably a bit of Indian soil still clinging to our shoes! See you soon!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

On the Road: Varanasi

Hello from Varanasi- the City of Lights!

These past few days have been so full as we explore the back alleyways and the river front of this famous city. How to possibly describe it? An overwhelming experience for all the senses: blare of horns of motorbikes trying to maneuver through, cries of deals from the vendors, pungent scent of fresh cow manure mixed with aromatic spices, crowded chaotic streets where one must avoid cows, dogs, cow patties, trash, children, bikes and an endless stream of people! 

On our first day we walked through the narrow winding streets on a tour led by an American man who has lived in Varanasi for 12 years. He pointed out various holy sites, led us into abandoned palaces, and showed us a burning ghat where cremations are done. We visited the famous Blue Lassi which is totally a foreigner's joint but they serve EXCELLENT lassi's! (A lassi is like flavoured fresh yoghurt but so much better!) The next night we took a boat ride on the Ganges in order to view the surroundings from a different perspective. We also watched the nightly aarti which is a worship ceremony to the Ganges river. The day ended on a high with a visit to an authentic Italian pizzeria followed by apple pie and icecream... Happy Thanksgiving to us!

On our last day in Varanasi some students got up to watch the sun rise over the Ganges and watch the morning aarti and Hindus doing their ritual bathing. Students also had the opportunity to explore on their own and get in some shopping.

Tonight we board the train for Agra...which means we are headed to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort! 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

On the Road: Kolkata

These past 3 days we have been exploring the chaotic streets of Kolkata! We visited Mother Theresa's Home for the Dying as well as the Motherhouse where she is buried. We were moved to see the ministry that she started and hear about all she did for those that were hurting- over 87,000 people have passed away peacefully in the Home for the Dying since it was first opened!

Other visits include the Victoria Memorial- a beautiful museum that is a fine example of British raj. We also saw a Kali temple and Tagor's house (a famous Indian poet, playwright, and artist). We have enjoyed getting in some good shopping along the streets in our free day. Lots of presents to take home!

We also visited an amazing organization called Sari Bari which rehabilitates women who were trafficked. The organization trains them and enables them to sew beautiful bags, blankets, wallets etc out of old saris. The metaphor is very beautiful and powerful. These saris have been cast off and thrown away. They are torn, used, and broken. The women then use the saris to create something beautiful and valuable. Of course we are all very excited to be able to support this organization and purchase beautiful items with such a rich story.

Victoria Memorial
We are staying in the oldest YMCA in India and in Asia....and you can tell! The place has got character- from breakfast on an old bed to a beautiful wooden staircase to the market right outside the front door!

Victoria Memorial

Ferry ride
Tonight we board the train for Varanasi. Situated along the Ganges river, Varanasi is a holy city for Hindus.

Monday, November 25, 2013

On the Road: Bapatla

And....we're off!!

Sunday morning the whole batch participated in the Mega Pink (race for the cure against breast cancer) 3-K run around Coimbatore. First we all warmed up by doing a crowd of about 200 India! Quite a hilarious experience. The course went around our area of town which gave us a chance to say goodbye to various sites as we passed them. Goodbye to restaurants like Myx, Coffee Day, AFC, and Marry Brown's. Goodbye to sites such as All Souls, Gugu's, and the crocodile median. And goodbye to entertainment of Racecourse exercisers! We were quite proud that our Alex Wilson ended up coming in first place- way to represent Pennsylvania from India!

Batch 5 after the Mega Pink run
The rest of the day was spent packing, cleaning the apartments, and saying goodbye to friends before boarding the train in the evening. I think we would all agree that we could have used another couple of hours of sleep on that train when we reached the station before 7! 

Director Kirk has been visiting Uncle Babu and his wife for many years in the rural town of Bapatla. Uncle runs a school for children who have lost their parents. For the next 2 days we get to visit the children in their classrooms and play with them. Our students even designed a program to put on to entertain the children tonight! We will also be learning from Uncle about the humanitarian projects he runs. We may even have a chance for some site-seeing to the Bay of Bengal.

Bapatla, Andhra Pradesh
Next stop... Kolkata!!

(photo credit: Faith Boyle)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Packing Up and Heading Out!

We can’t believe we only have 5 DAYS left in Coimbatore! The time has really flown! Was it really 3 months ago that students flew into the city and began their experience? Was there ever a time that they didn’t know how to barter for an auto, or dodge across the streets, or eat with only their right hand, or find their way on the bus route by themselves?

Tina in her costume for dance presentation
Tayler's beautiful painting of a traditional Toda woman
Stevie's handmade cookbook, Emma's mobile and the clay pot they made together
 This week is crazy with trying to finish everything up. Students have final papers and projects to complete-art projects to create, a clothing design to finish, and a cuisine final to cook, and an exam to take. Meanwhile, they have to get in last minute shopping, eat out at favorite restaurants and say goodbye to all their friends and the life they have made here.

Faith is exhausted after all her hard work
We leave for our north trip on Sunday evening. It is going to be a wild and exciting ride: 18 days, 76 hours on trains, 7 cities, rafting on the Ganges river, visiting Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying, seeing the foothills of the Himalayas, and of course- taking pictures in front of the Taj Mahal! 

Follow us on our journey across India!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Happy Diwali

Diwali is the five day Festival of Lights which celebrates the triumph of good over evil. It is a very exciting holiday in India celebrated through lighting clay lamps filled with oil, sharing sweets with one’s neighbors, and of course- bursting firecrackers!

So how did ISP-ers celebrate? We returned home from Kerala in the wee hours of the morning and went straight to bed. By 5 in the morning the bursting of crackers going off all around made it difficult to sleep! We found it interesting how many fireworks were being shot off during the day when you couldn’t see the lights. A kind auntie from across the hall brought us some homemade sweets to share and several apartments had lamps lit outside their doors in beautiful designs.

We were invited to a BACAS student’s home in the evening. Before we left, all the girls lined up to get their saris wrapped. Auntie was kind enough to help out and moved through the line with tremendous speed. Alex even bought a traditional outfit for the occasion. We felt very Indian in our beautiful outfits-until we got to our host’s house and found them in jeans and T-shirts or salwar kameez. Perhaps we were a tad overdressed, but definitely looking sharp! We were welcomed very warmly to the student’s home and were greeted with homemade sweets. We went on to another family’s house that kindly let us set off many crackers and taste more sweets!

People on the street were in full celebratory mood-cheerfully greeting each other with “Happy Diwali” and bursting crackers on the street. You see, in India there are no safety rules regarding fireworks! We decided that Diwali is like Christmas and Fourth of July… COMBINED!! Lots of decorations, new clothes, giving of sweets to one’s neighbors, and lots and lots of fireworks!

Friday, November 8, 2013

God's Own Country

This past week we were in ‘God’s Own Country’- the neighboring state of Kerala for classes and site visits. We took an overnight train (first of many) and awoke to see the beautiful sunrise over the coconut trees and rice fields of Kerala!

We spent our mornings in class sessions learning about the Indian economy and globalization from a group of academics called Vichara. We learned how globalization has grown and shaped India over the years and were left with the question if globalization has been beneficial for India?

In the afternoons we had the opportunity to visit some famous sites including where St. Thomas stepped off the boat and some of the churches that he planted.
Sitting where St. Thomas stepped off the boat
 One of our favorite outings was visiting the beach! For most of us this was our first time stepping foot in the Arabian Sea and students happily plunged in…fully dressed in their salwar kameez! You see, in India, a salwar kameez is their bathing suit! Nevertheless, we still had a great time riding the waves and just relaxing in the ocean. We definitely attracted quite a large crowd of curious onlookers!
Swimming in salwars
Kerala is known as the ‘Venice of the East’ because of its abundant waterways. After our beach trip, we were able to take a sunset cruise on the backwaters. We watched as numerous houseboats and fishing boats drifted by and watched the sun set behind the palm trees. India truly holds so many stark contrasts-from the peace and tranquility of floating on the backwaters, to the overwhelming hustle and bustle of city life.

Boat cruise on the backwaters
Another interesting site visit was to Amma’s Ashram. Amma means ‘mother’ and she is known as the ‘Hugging Saint’ who literally goes around the world hugging people. She is behind many humanitarian and disaster relief efforts. This ashram is her central location and people come from all corners of the earth to live here under her. Our students were surprised to see so many other foreigners and our tour group consisted of a young Spanish guy, a middle-aged Chinese woman, and a 30-something German woman, and was guided by Sam from Minnesota! We were able to look around the ashram and learn why they consider Amma to be a goddess, what she stands for, and what these people are doing living there. Still, we left with more questions than answers: What compels a person to come all the way from home to this remote village in India? Why do they not want to leave the ashram? How do we respond to this movement? It was a very eye-opening experience that our students will never forget and hopefully continue to process.
Faith celebrated her birthday in Kerala!
On our last day in Kerala, we were free to do the tourist thing and explore Cochin. Cochin has a fascinating mixture of cultural influences- Chinese fishing nets, Portuguese buildings, burial site of Vasco da Gama, Dutch palace, Jain temple, Brahmin temple, Orthodox churches, and Jewtown! Students enjoyed visiting these various sites and getting in some good souvenir shopping. In the evening we all met back together to see a traditional dance style from Kerala called Kathakali! We were treated to a wonderful mixture of dances and martial arts which was unlike anything we have ever seen. These talented dancers are definitely in a category of their own!
Batch 5 with the Kathakali dancers
Check out more pictures from our trip on Facebook!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Snapshot of our Classes

You may be wondering what it is like to take a class in India. Some things are very similar- the prof will give a lecture, and the students studiously take notes. But some things are very different. In India, great respect is given to one’s elders and so students are expected stand up when their professor enters the room. Our students are not actually taking classes with other Indian students. They do however have Indian professors who offer a different perspective on issues than we from our western perspective can see.
Since we are in India, the class opportunities are very exciting! Here is a quick run-down on what our students have been up to lately:
Hard at work cooking
Indian Cuisine- How awesome is it to learn how to cook Indian food IN India! And not only that, but after they finish making a dish, they get to eat it! Somehow or another the ISP director and program assistants seem to find their way to the kitchen around lunch time in order to have a taste! 
Today's creation!
Indian Literature- Students are getting the chance to read many pieces of literature not studied in the west. These authors provide a unique perspective that students are really enjoying.

Indian Social Work- In this class students learn a lot in the classroom on topics of poverty, caste, and social justice etc. It is very important to learn how Indians are helping themselves and working to build up their nation, rather than just the western perspective of us coming to rescue India. One of the benefits of this class is how much learning takes place outside of the classroom! Just on their walk to college or a typical day, students may come across beggars or street children and have to process what they see and decide how to respond.

Indian Design- Where else do you get to design and create your own sari, salwar kameez, or kurta? Students are hard at work creating their own design masterpieces- can’t wait for the fashion show! Meanwhile, they are learning and practicing different forms of design such as tie-dye and batik.
The Master and the Student
Indian Art- This past week students had the chance to try their hand at pottery. The pottery master went over some instructions and then let them try for themselves. Here are some of their incredible pieces!

Final product!
Contemporary India- Students are learning so much in this class, that it is hard to narrow it down. Put simply, this class teaches the history of India up to the present-focusing on important aspects. 

Religious Landscape- This is a very engaging class! Students have the opportunity to not only learn about other religions in the classroom, they also have the chance to visit many of these places of worship to see for themselves what it is all about. Students go on a visit to several Hindu temples, Sikh gurudwara, different denominations of churches, a Buddhist temple, and a Jain temple. Students also interact with neighbors and friends who may be a different religion and have a different mindset then theirs which just expands their opportunity to learn.
A little puja across the hall from the apartment
Next week we are headed to the neighboring state of Kerala (God's Own Country) for classes and various site visits. This will also be the first train trip for the students! There are sure to be some interesting stories!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"It's so beautiful!"

If I had a rupee for every time I heard that phrase or said it myself this weekend, I could buy a delicious meal of naan and chicken tikka masala from Myx. We really enjoyed a very full weekend up in Ooty- a hill station a couple hours away.
At 5:45am on Thursday morning the batch was ready to load up the jeeps and head out. The mountain road is full of switchbacks, but at every turn you are rewarded by a view more beautiful than the last. Trees and sheer rock faces give way to the florescent green of carrot and potato fields and rows upon rows of tea.
The magnificent view!
  In the morning we visited an NGO called Freedom Firm which rescues and works with girls who are forced into prostitution in India. Check out: It was great to hear their stories, meet some of the girls, and even purchase some of their beautiful hand-made jewelry. Next we drove down the mountain on the other side to go to Mudumalai Tiger Reserve for our tiger safari! Driving into the reserve we spotted several wild elephants in the bush which was a complete surprise! Then we boarded the "invisible" camouflaged bus for the real safari… managed to see some rasam deer but not much else; maybe the bus wasn’t actually invisible after all! Afterward we saw the mahout’s or keepers feed their tame elephants which was pretty cool.
Elephant camp
Friday morning we headed out to our next destination: Avalanche camp! On the way the view became even more spectacular when we rounded a curve and saw a lake stretched out on the valley floor! We stopped to take some snaps, and then noticed that one of the jeeps had a flat tyre…which was fine because it meant we could explore the tea field right across the fence!
Wandering through a tea field
When the roads became too rough to pass, we were dropped off to hike the rest of the way to the camp- another 6 kilometers (almost 4 miles) up and down steep rocky and muddy and slippery terrain which was quite fun! Arrived in the beautiful campsite and spent the rest of the afternoon kayaking in the lake, sunning ourselves on the rocks, hiking to a waterfall and just enjoying the beautiful wilderness. That night after a wonderful time of singing around the campfire, we headed out on a night hike which was a little unnerving but incredible to see the brilliant night sky! We tried to get some sleep in our tents that night despite the cold mountain air.
Avalanche camp site
Saturday was another early morning- we said goodbye to the friends we had made at the campsite and the beautiful view and hiked the 6km back to our waiting jeeps. Back in Ooty we visited a tea factory where they showed and described the long process of sorting, drying, and grinding the tea- you can bet we all have more appreciation for each cup of chai we drink now! In the afternoon we had the privilege of visiting a Toda tribal village where they warmly welcomed us in. We learned more about their community, played with the kids, and admired their beautiful embroidery work.

Trying a cup of chai at the tea plantation
By the time we got back to our guest house in Ooty, we were all fried! That night we enjoyed a delicious dinner of pizza and donuts and then crashed by 9:00pm! Sunday was a free day with many options of things to do. Some students visited the Botanical garden, attended a church service of mostly ex-pats who live and work in India, or shopped along the streets of Ooty. Most everyone found their way to the chocolate shop that sells homemade chocolates in order to load up for the next few weeks before heading back down the mountain.

We arrived home tired and dirty but happy from our fun and full time in beautiful Ooty! Check out more photos on our Facebook page!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What We've Been Up To Recently

Last week we had Wednesday off for Gandhi Jayanti day so we decided to go to a nearby waterfall to hike and relax in the water.We had to cross a rickety free swinging wooden bridge with lots of broken boards and the sides missing in many places! Another adventure in India! The water was so refreshing and since we went early we had the area to ourselves for awhile. We had fun slipping and sliding in the water and trying to maneuver in current!
Enjoying the waterfall

For a field visit this past week we went to KCT- a nearby school- to interact with the students. It turned out that our students were seated in the front as a panel and were asked questions about culture and college in America!
Our group at KCT 
We have also had a gathering with our peer mentors where we ate good food and introduced them to the game of Mafia, gone shopping at a nearby  market, and seen beautiful sunsets from our apartment roof! On Sunday some of us attended a festival at church where we got to try many new foods including momo's, whole fish, byriyani, custard, and jello cups!
Jello cups at church???
Sunday afternoon we went to a Sikh Gurdwara to observe their service and learn about their customs and beliefs. We enjoyed a delicious meal with them afterward and experienced their generous hospitality.

The group at a Sikh gurdwara
This weekend we are headed up to Ooty- a beautiful hill station surrounded by tea plantations. We will be visiting various NGOs, touring a tea plantation, and GOING ON A TIGER SAFARI! Catch our update next week when we return!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


We returned Saturday night from our first weekend trip to Madurai. We boarded the ‘Barbie Bus’ (white with purple trim) at 6:00am Friday morning to travel to the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary (TTS) in Madurai. We toured their beautiful campus and got to explore their archives including seeing Scripture written on old banana leaves! In the evening we set out along the very busy and chaotic streets of Madurai to visit try Jigarthanda- famous Madurai drink that was fantastic! Next we went to the Thirumalai Nayak Palace to enjoy their sound and light show which explained the history of the palace. 

Enjoying jigarthanda drink!
 The next morning we set out early for Sri Meenakshi temple which is a HUGE Hindu temple that at least 15,000 people visit a day! We were happily surprised to see an elephant standing in the courtyard of the temple and many of the students got ‘blessed’ by the elephant where it put it's trunk on your head! What a cool experience!
Sri Meenakshi temple

A student being 'blessed' by the temple elephant!

We also visited the Gandhiji museum and read more about his life and how he influenced India.

On our drive back to Coimbatore, we stopped at an orphanage for children with HIV. At first they had a little program for us where they sang and danced and even taught us a dance! Then we all ran to play outside on their playground. These children were adorable- running around showing us their tricks and including us in their games. Shouts of ‘Akka’ (older sister), ‘Ana’ (older brother) rang out across the playground and I think we were all equally blessed by this interaction with these dear sweet children!

Our whole group enjoying the children at the orphanage.

Check out more pictures from our trip on our Facebook page- India Studies Program (ISP)!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Birthday, A Feast, and A Visit from the king

This weekend several of our students were off on another home stay. The rest still had a fun full weekend in Coimbatore with a big Onam celebration at our apartment complex. Yes, you may have already read our blog about Onam- but it is a 10 day festival and our Malayalee neighbors wanted to be home in Kerala for the actual holiday and then celebrate back in Tamil Nadu afterward.
The morning was a flurry of preparations to get our sari’s wrapped properly and get all dressed up. We went outside and found a beautiful huge rangoli (flower design) that had apparently taken 4+ hours to create!
Beautiful rangoli
Soon we heard drumming and a horn being blown so we wandered over to the entrance and spotted… the king! We joined in the parade of people bringing him into the complex. Since everyone else was getting a snap next to the king, we decided to follow suit. Now I must admit that I was a bit disappointed to see that his eyebrows, mustache, and sideburns were filled in with a marker and that he was not a real king! But he did a good job of looking stately and important! 
The King
 There were several traditional dances performed by little elementary girls that were so impressive performing multiple dances with several costume changes. There were also several awards given out, including ‘Best Dressed Couple’ which our director Kirk Ji and his wife ended up winning!
Director and his wife winning the award
One of the little dancers
   After the performances were over, we were treated to a feast of traditional food from Kerala served on a banana leaf! There were so many different side dishes and it was very interesting to taste all these unique flavors. 
Just the start of all the dishes they served us
 This weekend was also one of our student’s birthday. It was definitely a birthday she will never forget-eating a feast on a banana leaf and meeting the king! When all the students had returned from home stay, we had a surprise party with cake. All in all, another good weekend in India!

Birthday surprise!
This coming Friday we are heading out on our first weekend trip to the city of Madurai to visit the famous Meenakshi temple and tour the Mahatma Gandhi museum!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Student Post:Weekend Home stays (Part 2)

Last weekend the students had the chance to go on a home stay with a friend from college. This is simply an extension of the last post- giving the students the chance to tell of their adventures in their own words.
Gretchen and Faith:
Outside their house
When we first came to India, we were “warned” about the hospitality—as in, be careful what you ask for, because they might actually give it to you.  This weekend, we discovered how true that really is.  Our guidebook related the phrase “the guest is like God,” which completely described our experience in Karuna’s home.  We experienced eating on banana leaves (only done for special occasions), receiving flowers for our hair every day, having multiple dishes prepared for us at every meal, being accepted as an “akka” (sister) by Karuna’s younger cousin, meeting Karuna’s extended family, having Karuna’s father come home from Chennai (at least a 7-hour journey) just to meet us, always being asked if we were comfortable, being fed all the time—and ultimately, having Karuna’s father buy saris for both of us at the end of our stay there!  Their hospitality was incredibly humbling, and although we saw some amazing things there (like a banana plantation) and got to bond with her family (playing card games with the girls), it was the hospitality that really made the weekend memorable for us.  

Our very hospitable home stay family!

Tayler and Tina: 
At the top of the hill we climbed
So, imagine you’ve just traveled on an Indian bus for five long hours. You step out of the crowded bus into the cool mountain air and you are in Kerala, “God’s own country”! We took an auto (a small three-wheeled “car” with no doors) to Pratiksha’s (our new friend) house where we were welcomed with open arms. While there, we never were hungry, tired or hot. We had a blast in Kerala. The first day we took an adventure up the mountain. Our journey started at the bottom of the hill and we made it all the way to the white cross at the very tippy top. Below we could see a Catholic church and hear music echo throughout the area. The long bus ride was worth it because once we made it to Kerala our eyes were able to take in so many beautiful sights that we know will stick with us forever. The second day we went to “church” which really means we went to a tea museum 2 hours away. We drank Kerala’s cardamom tea and were able to see how it was made (hands with dried tea in them). The best part was we also got to see a wild elephant while at Pratiksha’s uncle’s house (note the river picture)!!! We loved every moment spent there with Pratiksha and her family in our new favorite place: Kerala, India.

Dried tea leaves

Near where we saw the wild elephant