About Jamie Lutz

Jamie Lutz is a junior majoring in Architecture in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Jamie plans to pursue a graduate degree in urban planning with a focus on developing countries. Jamie will be volunteering with Human Wave, an NGO based in Kolkata. Human Wave serves the local community in a variety of capacities, including community development projects and English medium schools for children who reside in slums. Her volunteer work will include teaching English in one of the schools and participating in ongoing community development projects. Jamie’s research project will focus on the distribution of public and private schools in Kolkata in comparison to population density and demographic data. She hopes to discover where there are gaps in public education and how these relate to the locations of slum communities. Jamie will utilize Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software to do this research.

Reflections on My Time in Mankundu

When I first returned to Michigan, I found myself in awe of the pristine cleanliness and order of everything around me. Neatly mowed lawns, shiny new bicycles, and smoothly paved streets felt extremely sterile and foreign. I kept having urges to do things like throw my banana peels out the window and was a bit shocked by the amount of skin I saw in all of the summer clothes surrounding me. It took about two weeks before I felt comfortable wearing shorts again. It was such a strange feeling, to be back in my hometown but to know that something had changed in the way that I viewed it.

The Ann Arbor Art Fair took place the week after I returned. As I walked through the streets, I realized something- the hippies in kurti-like tunics and harem pants and the amalgamation of open-air shops and food vendors reminded me so much more strongly of Mankundu than anything else I had seen since being home. I was suddenly seeing this event, which I have been attending every year for as long as I can remember, through an entirely different lens than ever before. Of course there are distinctions between the Art Fair and India, but for the first time I felt more comfortable at this somewhat chaotic street fair than I did walking around my neighborhood.

I have been back in the States for a little over a month now, and I still think about my time in India every single day. My friend will mention something that will remind me of a person I met or a place I visited, and I am mentally transported around the world. It takes very little to trigger these associations, since my time in India had such an impact on the way I view the things around me.

I know that this experience will stay with me for a very long time. Going to a place so different from what I knew has opened my eyes to a whole new way of approaching the world. I think this is true of any interaction with other cultures, especially when one is immersed into the local people and customs as we were. You cannot help but gain a new appreciation for the diversity of both the human race and the natural world.

I already miss my host family, students, and fellow volunteers. The people I met had a huge impact on me and the trip would not have been the same without them. I already find myself planning my next trip to visit them. Just yesterday I was looking up flights to Kolkata for next summer to see how much it would cost (the answer was “too much”). That made me all the more grateful for having been given the opportunity to go on this fellowship.

While I may not have the chance to visit again in the next few years, I know that I will go back. India has such a captivating quality that it is practically impossible not to love it. I cannot wait to visit my host family again and see the progress of the students and the community development projects, and to have the chance to explore the rest of the country. The two weeks of travel that I did at the end of my trip were not nearly enough to see the entire subcontinent.

The biggest impact that this trip has had on me was to solidify my future aspirations. While I still do not know exactly what I want my career to look like, I am sure that I want to continue working in developing areas. The work of Human Wave inspires me. I am passionate about helping to further causes such as women’s empowerment, food security, and education. This is the path that I see my life taking, dedicated to improving the lives of people around the world.

An End and a New Beginning

I will start by apologizing for the delay in writing this post! It has been a very busy couple weeks, and I was trying to do as much as possible before leaving Mankundu.

While we were in Darjeeling, the pavement was finished at the Lalkuthi tutorial. It was just in time, because the next week the rains started and the area in front of the school would have been a complete mud pit. They are still in the process of building a roof to cover the yard. The original plan for how to connect the roof with the existing building was vetoed by the mason, so they will redesign it and start in the next few days. Unfortunately the workers removed part of the roof before finding out about the delay, so the tutorial will be closed until it is finished. I’m glad I was able to see the progress of the pavement and the finished product, but am disappointed that I couldn’t see the roof finished. I told the other volunteers to send me pictures when it is done.

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Me with the teachers and students of Lalkuthi, on the completed pavement

The microcredit program had their biannual function to reward the members who have saved the most over the past two years. The one who saved the most won the grand prize (an electric kettle), and each woman who deposited money at least 8 times per year received a plate. It was amazing to see how many people participate in this program. It’s one thing to see the numbers on a computer screen and know that there are over 1100 accounts (and new ones every day), but to actually see them all together in one place gives gives a whole new perspective on the number.

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Some women from the microcredit program

I learned a lot about the history of the NGO and projects from Tapas, the director. He took me to the slum where he started his work and introduced me to some of the people who supported him early on. The NGO struggled a lot with the local government in the beginning, because while they wanted to stay politically neutral, they needed the support of the municipality in order to do things like adding electricity and sewage lines.

The story which I found the most outrageous was about the beginning of this first slum project. As is typical in India, the government expected bribes and that Tapas give government employees positions of power within the NGO. He refused, which caused them to try to turn the community against him. They told the people in the slums that Tapas would turn them Christian and sell their daughters. The fact that many of them believed these stories and that they did not seem unrealistic is testament to how many dangers these people face. Eventually, after he did only good things for the community for years, they came around.

My favorite part of going to the slums with Tapas was when he introduced me to a man who was probably in his mid-20s and had been one of their first sponsored students at the tutorial, which was started 17 years ago. He came from a very poor slum family, and his parents worked as day laborers to put food on the table. They had no education and without the help of Human Wave, this boy would have had no prospects for the future either. He was chosen to be sponsored because of his dedication and interest in learning. Now he works at a pharmacy in Kolkata, and hopes that one day his children can become doctors. While these stories are not the norm, it is amazing to see the potential of education to break the cycle of poverty, which is so hard to escape otherwise.

I also had the chance to see two of the other tutorials last week, which I had not visited yet. Comparing the four that I went to, there is a clear progression based on how many years Human Wave has been working there. The earliest project has a paved pathway, electricity, sewage lines, and water taps every few houses, and the houses are almost all brick and cement. The newest is simple bamboo huts with tarps for roofs, dirt floors, and no infrastructure. Human Wave is just beginning construction of a school building there. By visiting multiple slums at different stages of development, I was able to get a better understanding of the work that Human Wave has done.

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Adarshanagore, Human Wave's first project

My final week in Mankundu, Human Wave’s English medium school reopened after their summer holidays. I spent a few days teaching there in order to learn more about the school system. Even though this is a private school, it is not so different from the government schools. There is a lower teacher-to-student ratio than at the public schools, and it is taught almost entirely in English. It reminded me much more of my idea of what schools in the US were like 100 years ago than it did of my experience in the American school system. The teachers rely much more heavily on punishment than reward, hitting desks with rulers, shouting, and making kids sit in the front corner and hold their ears if they misbehave. Most of the teaching is done by rote and repetition. I think this is out of necessity, because there are not enough teachers to explain everything to each child or to give them the individual attention that they need. I can definitely see why students need outside tutoring in order to keep up. The kids are adorable, but I was mostly working in the nursery and kindergarten classes so they were too young to know very much English, which made it difficult for me to talk with them.

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Nursery students eating lunch at the English medium school


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Students lining up at the end of the day

The theory behind the NGO starting this school was that the tuition gained from it could support the other projects in the slums, but so far it is taking more money than it makes. It was only opened 6 years ago, beginning with a preschool class, so currently it goes up to 4th grade. They plan to expand to 8th grade, but finding the capital to fund expansion without the maximum number of enrollees is proving difficult. The school is in the process of building a new floor because currently multiple grades share some of the classrooms. Hopefully once they find the funds to finish the new floor and expand their enrollment, it can fulfill its initial purpose.

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The incomplete top floor of the school

The rains finally started in West Bengal last week! The temperature dropped to where it was comfortable enough to be outside during the day, which was a fantastic change. The rain brought with it more mosquitos, but that was a small price to pay for the relief from the heat. I had expected the humidity to drop too, but the opposite was true if anything. Rather than a sauna, it now feels like being inside a greenhouse. A little too warm, and much too damp. Definitely a welcome change from the heat of the previous weeks, though!

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Our neighbor playing in the streets after the first big rainfall

One of my friends from the architecture school at U of M was studying in Mumbai for spring term, and when they finished there he came to meet me in Mankundu. Because of the break in temperature, we decided to go into Kolkata for a day to sightsee. I had been in the city a couple times before, but we had only done any real sightseeing at night after things cooled off a bit. It was great to have the chance to properly see the famous Victoria Memorial, Howrah Bridge, and other sites. On Saturday he and I left to start our travels. I am currently writing this from Varanasi, where we are staying with Talia, another SiSA fellow!

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Me in front of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata

Friday was my last day at the tutorial, and the teachers organized a celebration. They had me sit in front and presented me with flowers, then the kids took turns singing, dancing, and reciting poetry. Tapas came and gave a speech about how great it was to have me there and how much they will miss me. It was all very sweet, and made me even more sad to leave. (Photos to come!)

Saying goodbye to my NGO was definitely the hardest thing that I have done this trip. In only six weeks, I formed very strong bonds with my host family and fellow volunteers, as well as many of the children and local people. Leaving a place that you have grown attached to without knowing whether you will ever return is a strange feeling. It is something I had never experienced before, since I have lived in Ann Arbor my whole life. My family moved once when I was six, but only to a different house within the same neighborhood. I sincerely hope that I will someday return to India, both to visit Mankundu and to explore more of India, but there is no guarantee that it will be possible. Leaving made me more grateful than ever for having been given this amazing opportunity.

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With some of the office employees

Before I go getting any more sentimental, I must remember that while my volunteer work is done, my trip is not complete! I have two more weeks ahead of me, in which which I will see Varanasi, Agra, Amritsar, Dharamshala, Chandigarh, and Delhi. It will be a fast and busy time, but hopefully I still have more great experiences to come!

Trip to Darjeeling

Made it back safely from Darjeeling! The temperature difference between there and here is startling. Being up in the mountains (which they call hills) makes the temperature drop by about 20°F most days, compared to at the base of the mountains. The only bad part about escaping the heat was coming back and readjusting to it!

On the way to Darjeeling we took an AC sleeper bus because there were no trains available, and it definitely was not worth the price we paid. A 2-person sleeper berth was smaller than a twin bed, and the AC was so cold that we were shivering all night! Coming from 100° weather, we were definitely not prepared for that. We covered up with anything we could find in our bags, from scarves to towels to the bags themselves. To make matters worse, we stopped for food and gas every 5 hours, which means we had a dinner break at midnight and breakfast at 5am.

Luckily we were able to get a train for the way home. The main reasons I now prefer the train (having learned from the experience) are the speed and the smoothness. The bus took close to double the time of the train (16 hours vs 9, although it was only scheduled to take 12), and the roads were so uneven that we were constantly being jostled and hitting our heads. I was seriously afraid of falling off the bunk!

I am happy to say that the trip only improved from there. The trains and buses do not go all the way up the mountain to Darjeeling, so from Siliguri where we were dropped off, we had the option to take a shared jeep or a local bus. The bus is slower but cheaper, so we chose that. Although the way was long and windy, causing me to feel a little seasick, it was amazingly scenic. In the 5 hours it took to reach the top, we passed numerous villages, temples, and tea estates, all set amongst beautiful rolling hills.

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View on the way up the mountain

By the time we finally arrived in Darjeeling, we had been traveling for over 24 hours. We were exhausted, but still had to climb up through the city to the top ridge, where the backpackers’ accommodations are. We found a nice place that was fairly cheap, then set out to taste some of the famous Darjeeling tea! Luckily it was easy to find, since it’s served almost everywhere. When we finally turned in for the night, I slept better than I had in weeks.

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Our first cup of Darjeeling tea

The next day we set out to explore the town. The center of town is very touristy, which has its upsides and downsides. It was easy to find familiar food and to shop, and almost everyone spoke English. On the other hand, all the shops were overpriced and the Western food was usually subpar. One night I tried the “pasta primavera,” which turned out to be buttered noodles with carrots and black olives. Odd, to say the least. After that we mostly stuck with Bengali food.

The people in Darjeeling look quite different from most Indians. There is a large community of Tibetans, but the natives also look much more Nepalese or even Southeast Asian than they do Indian. Everything about the place seems somewhat removed from the rest of India.

We visited the Tibetan Regufee Center, where a community of Tibetans live and work, producing very high quality shawls, rugs, and other crafts. You can wander through the workshops and see the craftspeople working, then end at the show room (where you could conveniently purchase all the goods you’ve just seen. Naturally I bought some.). They also had a small museum explaining the history of Tibet and of the Refugee Center, which I found fascinating. We learn a lot about American history in school, but it’s easy to forget that every nation has an equally rich history of their own, most of which we know nothing about.

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Rug-making at the Tibetan Regufee Center

As we were wandering around trying to find a taxi back to town, we stumbled upon a tea farm. We were at the top of the hill taking pictures down when we noticed that some of the workers were waving at us. At first we thought they were just saying hi, but quickly realized that they were motioning for us to come down. When we made it to where they were in the fields, we discovered that it was a group of elderly women on what appeared to be their lunch break. They didn’t speak much English, but they knew enough words to tell us that they were picking what would become black tea and show us the difference between some of the leaves. We took a few photos with them, then they pointed us in the direction of the taxis.

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Workers waving from a tea field.

We arrived at the taxi stand a few minutes later, only to discover that they were all reserved for the day. Disappointed and unsure what to do next, we did the only logical thing one can do in Darjeeling- drink tea. There were about a dozen little tea shops (all selling the exact same tea, something which I still do not understand), and one lady motioned us in and poured cups. When we explained to her our predicament, that it would be a steep hour’s walk back to town, she said she would help us find a driver. After the third or fourth cup of tea, she ran out to the street and then came back in and told us to follow her. To my surprise, the car she had flagged down was an ambulance and he had agreed to drive us back for free! I don’t know whether he was on his way already or just bored, but whatever the reason, we were very grateful.

One morning we woke up at 5 to join Buddhist monks at a nearby monastery in their morning puja, in which they sit and chant mantras and prayers for hours. We decided to go to one of the smaller, more remote monasteries, and were definitely rewarded by our choice. We were the only visitors there, and the monks made us tea and breakfast. It was butter tea, which was very strange and basically tasted like I was drinking melted butter, watered down and with some spices. Later one of the monks asked if we liked the tea, and I told him it was interesting and I’d never had anything like it before. He just laughed, because he could see from our faces that we hadn’t enjoyed it. The food was good though! After puja, an older monk gave us a tour of the monastery and told us the story of Siddhartha’s life through a series of murals. From there we visited two other monasteries, then returned to town.

Usually I am not a fan of zoos because the animals all look so sad and the habitats depress me. The Darjeeling Zoo, however, impressed me. All of their animals are native to the Himalayas, which means they are suited to the climate and terrain. The enclosures are spacious and natural-looking. At least a quarter of the animals currently have babies, which I have heard is a good indicator of captive animals’ happiness and health (not to mention that they’re adorable). I wish more zoos would follow their lead and try to keep animals in much more natural environments.

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Red panda at the Darjeeling Zoo

Inside of the zoo is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which gives courses in mountaineering and jungle survival. Unfortunately we did not have time for those, but we did visit the museum, which houses information and artifacts about all of the Everest exhibitions as well as other Himalayan mountains. Besides the eagle carcass that was carried down from one of the exhibitions (as if they didn’t have enough to carry!), the thing that struck me the most was the language used in the descriptions. There was a plaque commemorating the first people to make it to the top, but it only spoke of how those of “British breed and blood” had “conquered Everest,” not mentioning anything about the local guides without whom they could not have done it. The language reeked of colonialism, even though it was years after the British left India.

On our final day, we went to an early morning yoga class. There were ribbon windows on three sides of the studio overlooking the mountains and valley beyond, and even though it was too misty to see very far, the setting was serene.

From there we visited Happy Valley Tea Estate, where they give tours and explain the tea making process. It was really interesting, and I was surprised to learn that white, green, and black teas all come from the same plant! The differences come in the processing, and the time of year that they are plucked.

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Happy Valley Tea Estate

As I said before, we took the train home, which got us there much more enjoyably. It was my first experience on an overnight train in India, and I have very few complaints. I felt a little uncomfortable at first with all the people around me staring incessantly, but I (sort of) got used to it after a while. Staring is considered rude in the US, but here almost everyone does it. I have to keep reminding myself that they are just curious because we look so different, and that they don’t mean anything by it.

All in all I had a really great week, but I am definitely ready to start working again! It hardly seems possible that I have already been here for over a month, or that I only have two weeks left at Human Wave. Have to make these weeks count!

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Monkeys on the streets of Darjeeling

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View of Darjeeling

“Smoking causes cancer.”

I finally made it into Kolkata proper the other day! All I had seen of it until then was the airport and the drive from the airport to our village. It is both very similar and very different from Mankundu. Similar in that Indian cities seems to have much more in common with each other than with American cities, at least in my current opinion. Very different in the huge number of people, and in the extreme gap between wealth and poverty. There is a definite gap in Mankundu also, but no one here could afford many of the luxuries that Kolkata has to offer. We went to a pristinely clean, air conditioned mall in which almost every store had designer goods. This was my first experience with the wealth that exists in some Indian cities, and the stark contrast between this and the expanses of slums that we saw along the railroad tracks on our way in is startling. Even just outside the mall, there were beggars on every corner with missing limbs and little clothing.

Despite the shock of the wealth gap, I had a really great time in the city. It took us about 40 minutes on the train plus a 30 minute taxi ride to get to where we were going. I’m still amazed by how cheap everything is here. The taxi was only about 40 rupees each (1 dollar equals about 60 rupees).

We went to a movie theater with AC in the afternoon, when it was too hot to be outside, and watched Mad Max, which I would definitely recommend! The strangest thing happened though- halfway through the movie, it stopped for a commercial break! I asked the people around me if this was normal, and they said it always happens during Indian movies. It is meant for you to buy more snacks and go to the bathroom without missing anything, which I guess is a pretty good idea, but I think they could’ve timed it better! It happened mid-sentence during a very climactic scene. I also saw my first Bengali movie this week, and the same thing happened during that, except rather than commercials, a black screen came up and then a voice reading as white text appeared on screen: “Smoking causes cancer.” Nothing else. Not a “sponsored by” or other statistics or explanation, nothing. I couldn’t help but start laughing, which got me some funny looks.

After the movie we got Subway, which was strangely different. I had a paneer sub, which tastes sort of like a cross between cheese and tofu, and is cooked or fried in spices. It was delicious, and I think I should write to Subway and tell them to bring it to America!  Even the potato chips, which I would expect to be similar anywhere, are strange. The Lay’s flavors include Magic Masala, American Delight (which I think is similar to sour cream and onion, but I haven’t tried it yet), and Spanish Tomato Fiesta. It’s funny how they worry so much less about stereotyping here than in the US.

Another place we visited was the New Market, which is a huge outdoor market where you can buy anything and everything. As soon as the vendors saw that we were white, they swooped. They quickly realized that we were not typical tourists, however, as the other volunteers showed me how to bargain and told me to never offer more than a third of the original price. I felt uncomfortable doing this at first, because I felt like I was cheating these people out of their living. But when I saw how quickly the prices dropped after you started bargaining, I realized that they had been trying to cheat us. A typical conversation went something like this:

“How much for this scarf?”
“500 rupees.”
“That is way too expensive! How about 100?”
“Ok special price, 200, just for you.”
“150?”
“Ok!”

Seeing them cut the price by half or more with me hardly trying proved to me that they were still making a good profit on our transactions. They would also offer us “discounts” (aka taking off some of the huge markup) when we told them we were students, NGO workers, living with locals, and pretty much anything else we said.

As the death toll reaches 1100 people from this heat wave, I am extremely grateful for the fresh water we’re provided and the one room in the house with AC! We spend most afternoons huddled in the cold, trying to escape the scorching afternoon sun. The only problem with having some AC, though, is that leaving it feels like hitting a solid wall of heat and humidity.

In order to escape the heat for a bit, we have planned a trip to Darjeeling. Since it is in the mountains, it is a lot cooler up there. We will be leaving tomorrow instead of this past weekend, as originally intended. I mentioned this trip in my last post, but we decided to postpone it for a few days for the following reasons.

First, our holiday was moved to next week instead of this week. I was surprised at how spontaneously these things are planned. There was a lot of confusion about which week we were taking off, with each person saying something different,  and I asked someone how the students would know which days to come. They replied that since the kids don’t have clocks or calendars, it really doesn’t matter to them. They will simply show up when they see the teachers walking to school. This struck me as odd, coming from an American school system where taking one day off that wasn’t scheduled at least a year ahead of time is huge news (especially for U of M!). In a way it is refreshing, though, to have a culture that is so spontaneous and carefree about things like schedules. I suppose these families have enough other things to worry about.

The second reason that we postponed our trip is that the tutorial where two of the other volunteers and I work is having its yard paved. This means that they will have to shut it down for a few days because of the wet cement. The workers began bringing materials yesterday, laid the brick foundation today, and will begin paving tomorrow. The funds for this project came from a previous short term volunteer from America, who used a crowd sourcing website to raise money. It will really be a huge improvement, and could not come at a better time, with the rainy season less than a month away. The schoolyard was previously just dirt, which became an unusable mud pit during the monsoons. Once the pavement is complete, the next step will be to add a metal roof and gutters over the yard so that it can be used for playing and having community activities during the rainy season. Even though I came after the project was planned, I am really glad that I am able to be here to see it both before and after. Sometimes it is hard to understand the impact that small donations can have without seeing the changes in person. Hopefully I can find a similar cause to take up remotely after I leave Human Wave!

Another week has come and gone…

I am constantly amazed at the resourcefulness of the people here. At first I thought that things like old cars and bikes, broken faucets, patched quilts, etc., were signs of poverty. I’ve realized, however, that these are really examples of people using things as long as they can and fixing what needs to be fixed rather than constantly replacing everything. This is something that American culture could benefit from going back to, from a sustainability standpoint.

This is especially true in the slums. Most of the villages where we work are informal settlements, meaning that the occupants do not own the land. Many of the people are refugees from East Bengal (now Bangladesh), who came when India and Pakistan became independent. West Bengal became an Indian State and East Bengal became a Pakistani province, and many people left East Bengal for West Bengal. Simply the fact that they have taken over this unused land to make their homes shows a type of resourcefulness, in not letting anything go to waste. They are great at using every bit of whatever they can find. Their houses are in various stages of development, from basic bamboo huts to concrete and brick buildings with metal roofs. It is my understanding that they develop gradually, since it is difficult to find all of the capitol required to construct an entire house at once. In the places we are working, not everyone has electricity (which Tapas, the director of Human Wave, is currently working to change). However, they make do in the heat by constructing fans out of reeds and scraps of plastic, hanging tarps for shade, and lots of other inventive solutions.

In addition to the tutorials and English medium school, Human Wave has many other ways of helping in the communities. They run women’s empowerment programs, build community centers, petition local governments to provide resources such as water and electricity to the informal villages, and many other things. Since we only teach in the mornings and have selected evening programs, I have started helping in the office in the afternoons with the microcredit program. Human Wave has over 1000 accounts for women in the area, allowing them to both save money and take out loans. I was amazed at how many accounts they have, and there are new ones almost every day. It is really fulfilling to me to take part in these types of programs, which there is clearly such a need for in these communities. Women generally do not have much financial independence in India, but such programs give them the opportunity to take control of their finances and make money independently of their husbands.

The heat makes it extremely difficult for the kids to focus on school work, so rather than coming in every morning and being unproductive, the teachers have decided to give a holiday next week. This means we get the week off, so the other volunteers and I might go on vacation somewhere (hopefully some place where it is a bit cooler, like Darjeeling). More information and photos to come!

My First Week in Mankundu

I have been in India for one amazing (and crazy) week now! It is a complete sensory overload. India loves bright colors, loud noises, strong flavors, and intricate patterns. It’s a beautiful place, but a bit overwhelming coming from a comparatively quiet culture. It is extremely hot and humid here, and when I first walked out of the airport it felt like hitting a wall. Before I came here I was dreading the beginning of the monsoon season, but now I understand that it brings much needed relief from the heat. I wish that it would come sooner! It has stormed a couple nights, and the following days are always noticeably cooler. My host family has been most welcoming, and they are so sweet. All of the foreign volunteers live in the same house with the family, which I really like because it helps me to learn about the culture much more quickly than if I were living by myself. There are four German volunteers, and they have been a big help to me as I adjust to the customs, language, and climate. Human Wave runs an English medium school, but it is on summer holiday this month. The tutorials remain open, though, so I have been going with the German volunteers to help teach there. Since the public school system in India is very inefficient, it is nearly impossible for the students to keep up without having outside tutoring. For students from poor families, this can be a huge financial burden. This is where Human Wave comes in. They have set up tutorials in some of the poorest areas around Kolkata and the Sunderbands which students can attend at a very low cost (about 0.50 USD per month). They also sponsor the students who go to school regularly and put effort into their studies, helping them to pay for school uniforms, supplies, and other things. I have gone to two different tutorials now, teaching English to students in classes 1-5. The kids are so cute, and some of them are very quick to learn. They love cameras, and crowd around and pose every time I take mine out. My first day here was the birthday of a famous Indian poet, so the village had a big function to celebrate. The children recited poems and songs, and there were also dancers and musicians. The two German girls have been taking Indian dance lessons, and they performed with some of the locals. On Wednesday we were all invited to a wedding, so I got to experience that and wear a sari for the first time. It was a lot of fun, and a great introduction to Indian culture. Last night we were invited to attend a football game between two local villages. We were the guests of honor, and when I asked why, the other volunteers said that it is officially because of the NGO work that we do, but mostly because we are foreigners (aka white). This seems to me a silly reason to be honored, but I suppose it is the first time many of these people have seen a white person, and for some might be the last. They had us sit on a stage and gave us flowers, cakes, and chai, and we went down to the field to shake hands with all of the players before the match started. It was quite an event! If the internet is working well enough, I will upload photos from my first week soon!

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Off to India!

This summer I will spend six weeks working at an NGO called Human Wave, which is in a suburb of Kolkata, about 30km north of the city proper. Kolkata was the capitol of British India, and is now the capitol of the state of West Bengal. Human Wave does community development projects in the poorest areas around Kolkata. I will be teaching English in one of their tutorials while I am there, while studying school distribution in the area and how it might relate to socioeconomic status and other factors. My research goal is to find a correlation between federal and private school locations and demographics, in order to try to identify why the NGO is needed to fill the education gap in this neighborhood.

I was drawn to this particular NGO and project because I am interested in urban planning in developing countries. There are so many new problems faced by megacities and informal settlements, and I hope to have a hand in solving them. Education is an important topic to me because when students fall behind early in their education, they are denied the opportunity to better their futures and their communities. It is a great loss of intellectual resources, as well as all but guaranteeing that they remain in poverty. Human Wave is dedicated to abating this cycle of poverty by providing these children with opportunities to which they would otherwise not have access.

I am writing this in Chicago, where I will catch a flight to Frankfurt this afternoon, and from there to Mumbai and then Kolkata. I cannot believe how quickly this day has come! It feels like I was just accepted to the fellowship, and I’m already leaving the state, country, and continent. During the past couple weeks, I was so busy with finals and moving home that it really didn’t hit me until yesterday that I am actually leaving. The thing that I am most excited for is meeting the other volunteers at Human Wave and the students whom I will be teaching. I am also excited to see all of the cultural differences in India, some of which I have read about and some of which will inevitably come as a surprise.

One thing is certain- this is going to be an adventure like I have never experienced before!