Excuse the cheesy title, but I had to.
Due to a week without sufficient internet connection, I unfortunately had to take a short break from blogging. Hope you didn’t miss us too much, but I’ll be sure to keep this post entertaining.
The past seven days have been another whirlwind of adventure and traveling throughout Jaipur and Pondicherry, completed today with our return to Chennai and Madras Christian College’s International Guest House for the last 10 days of the program.
We arrived at the Theme, our hotel in Jaipur, on July 24th. Let’s just say we weren’t exactly roughing it for the next four days. On our first full day in the Rajasthan city, we visited the Center for Community Economics and Development Consultants Society, or CECOEDECON for short. This NGO focuses its efforts on livelihood security, economic justice and basic human rights of people in rural areas of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and surrounding areas. People who are marginalized by society are the target audience, with a lot of concentration on women and children. As students of Indian culture and society, we have continuously discussed women empowerment and the issue of the status of women in this country. It is obviously a plus that NGO’s that work in development are addressing the issue and working toward a better future for women, but the awareness also needs to be increased in all levels of society – including the government and the private sector. The CECOEDECON administration demonstrated the work they do in watershed and natural resource management and climate change, but what I found to be the most important aspect of the NGO was something that we also saw the next day in the CECOEDECON villages. One of the major projects of CECOEDECON is the self-help groups that are established in the villages.
Through these SHGs, women are given an opportunity to make something of themselves in order to contribute income to their family, somewhat improve their status in their marital partnership, learn or harp on a skill such as making scarves or jewelry, and give their children a better future. We asked them how the self-help group has impacted their lives and the leader of the group said that they are working hard so that their children can go to school. The passion that we saw in their eyes was powerful, and the more women that we met, the more inspired we became. Another group that we got the chance to interact with dealt with micro-loans in the community. Through the training of CECOEDECON, these women learned the skills of finance and management of loans, benefiting not only themselves but their community as well, allowing more financial stability and an improved life. We also met with trainees of an Anganwadi program, which included women who will work in their communities to provide better access to prenatal health to women as well as care and education for young children before they reach primary school. This is a group who also hopes to improve services and knowledge of health issues in India.
The next day was one of my favorite days because of our once in a lifetime opportunity to ride …wait for it…. AN ELEPHANT. Oh yeah, and A CAMEL….IN THE SAME DAY! I’ve never seen so many elephants or camels in one place, and I’ve also never been more afraid for my life (OK, that’s not completely true, Mom and Dad. Don’t worry — we were completely safe).
Needless to say, it was an experience and we were all pretty giddy all day because of it. The elephants are a tourist attraction, of course, that take you up a mountain to Amber Fort overlooking a beautiful man-made lake with a decorative garden and a view that is similar to what we imagine seeing the Great Wall of China would be like. It’s pretty crazy to think that years and years ago people spent time building this fort for the Maharaja in the time of kings and queens. The camels were in another area at the bottom of the mountain, and in order to stand up, they had to stoop forward and stick their rear-end in the air. It was definitely difficult to stay on, but, no humans were hurt in the process. The next day was a free day that I ended up staying in for due to some illness, but luckily I felt better later in the day, and didn’t miss out on the experience of Choki Dhani, a culture and folk art kind of carnival full of magicians, tight-rope walkers, dancers to no end, and a delicious Rajasthani-style meal.
We left Jaipur on a plane the next day was a flight for Chennai, along with a stop at Dr. K’s friends’ Dr. SKS and Auntie Indira’s apartment to swap some luggage, and a three-hour bus ride (delayed by a few hundred goats on the side of the road along the way) to Pondicherry University Guest House. Our first full day in Pondicherry, a few more of us got sick and visited the university health center. The rest of us went on a tour of the beautiful campus, seeing all of the departments and hostels (or dorms), and the UNESCO center where we met some UNESCO fellowship students. That was pretty cool because we have talked about the international NGO in many of our class sessions with Dr. K. The next part of the tour was also an adventure – interacting with the students and faculty of the Department of Tourism. After being acquainted with Indian culture and tourism from a few of the deans and students, we got up in front of the audience on the stage of the auditorium and gave our two cents of our impression of Indian culture and tourism so far. I was pretty nervous without having an actual speech prepared, but we all did a great job and the department was pleased with our general consensus that we have loved our experience so far and definitely hope to return to India in the future. A few of us were also interviewed by the local media, so that was a nerve-wrecking but awesome new interaction as well. Later that day, our whole group was reunited for a short tour of Pondicherry, including a visit to a Hindu Ashram, being blessed by the elephant named Lakshmi, and a walk on the beach. We also stopped at Dr. K’s brother’s home to visit with his family, and have cake to surprise Tara for her birthday! Throughout all of this we were also joined by four students from the tourism department who made our stay in Pondicherry as guests of the university that much more pleasant. The next morning they even woke up before 7:00 a.m. to take us to the beach behind our guest house. We “waddled in the waves” as Dr. K would say and enjoyed swimming in the rough Indian Ocean. The students also took us on our NGO field visit as our last stop in Pondicherry. About a half an hour away from the university is a peaceful area called Auroville which is also home to the Matrimandir, a spiritual dome in a place influenced by a man named Aurobindo and his collaborative known as “The Mother.” Anyone is welcome in the community and people go there from all over the world seeking to become essentially divine. It was a very interesting and peaceful place and I wish we could’ve spent more time there. While we were in Auroville we also visited an NGO called UnLtd Tamil Nadu that invests in social enterprises to become a real business, or helps already established projects scale-up. Some of the businesses they have helped include a Spirulina farm called Aurospiral, and Eco Femme, which is known for implementing a project to help with and inform on women’s needs in a country where menstruation isn’t talked about very often. After the NGO visit, we had to say bye to our new friends from Pondicherry. It was really sad because it made me realize how close to the end of the trip we are. However, we were happy to be returning to MCC Guest House in Chennai, and although we do miss our families, it really is going to be difficult to have to eventually leave India.