Prague – My dream come true

I knew since middle school I wanted to study abroad someday. On June 8th that little kid dream of mine became a reality. Stepping off of the plane, I knew I had to adjust fast to my new environment.

I had decided in the fall of 2010 that I would study abroad this summer in Prague, Czech Republic. I chose it from the stories I heard of other travelers, its cosmopolitan way of life and its history with a temporary rule by the Soviet Union. I wanted something different and unique, and that is exactly what I received.

Prague is a city for everyone. From the first night hanging out with my university-assigned Czech “buddy,” I knew that the Czech culture was something I could really get used to. After kindly picking me up from the airport, he took me to his favorite Czech pub were we enjoyed goulash while arguing over Eastern European economics.

One of my favorite parts about my study abroad in Prague was the diversity of students enrolled in the program. There were kids from France, Austria, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Canada, and Brazil. And of course because of the proximity, each one had a couple friends visit them over the course of the program. At the very least it was quite a cultural experience for me. I gained lifelong friends that I am planning to visit already.

With these great new friends I was able to explore a city like never before. Being near the heart of the city and on the main tram line, we could travel all over the city every day. Of course we saw the famous Prague Castle and Charles Bridge, the Jewish quarter and Old Town Square. But those weren’t the best places. The places that I will never forget will be our dorm, where we meet to start an adventure or play a game or two of soccer; the pubs where we shared stories about our varying cultures; the bowling alley in South Moravia, Czech Republic where we all enjoyed a night together celebrating the 4th of July; or the hidden diners that our “buddies” would show us, helping us discover the real Prague.

Finally, one of the great things that I will never stop telling people is how much I learned not only from the classes but from first-hand experiences and stories shared by my fellow students. Taking classes on Post-Soviet Economics are much easier to comprehend and fully grasp when you have students and professors who were there and lived it day in and day out. I am confident that I learned more about international business in that one month in Prague than I would have if I had taken 4 years of classes in the States.

I fell in love with Prague and will be back there many more times to keep exploring the countless undiscovered parts. If you ever have the opportunity, please do yourself a favor and just do it.

Looking Back

Well, it’s the night of August 13,2011, and I’m sitting in Heathrow airport wondering where all of that time went.  It feels like just yesterday that I had landed on the tarmac at this same airport, eagerly anticipating the events that would unfold over the next two months.  I can truly and sincerely say that London did not disappoint.  As many of you read in my first post, I spent a few of my first days here, travelling Paris.  The buildings, the architecture, the history, and the shear majesty of being in Paris was amazing.  London was no different. In fact…London may have even TOPPED Paris.  Between my first few days in Europe, and the first few days once classes started, I had many an opportunity to travel the wonders of the London area. 

The first stop on this epic journey was…perhaps head-scratchingly for some, Southall.  Many of you have probably never heard of this small West London suburb.  To understand why I went to Southall, it is first important to know a little bit about myself.  Well really…just the fact that I’m an Indian American.  As many (probably all) people around me will tell you, I’m very proud of my heritage and culture, and embrace the fact that I live in the best of both worlds – by being an American, and also being able to attach myself to the rich history and culture of India.  Southall is known as Little India.  It is the largest concentration of emigrants form the Indian subcontinent, in the world.  I travelled to Southall, to be able to witness this subculture with my own eyes..and EXPERIENCE it! That’s what studying abroad is all about! It’s important to experience EVERYTHING around you.  It was truly awe-inspiring.  To walk into a place, really a town, within London, England, and completely feel like I stepped foot back into India was an entirely different experience.  It’s something that I, as an Indian American from little old Louisville, KY, doesn’t usually witness.  That was certainly not the LAST time I visited Southall during my two months in London..far from it in fact.  In fact, I was even able to go there for a Punjabi music concert, meeting a couple of the biggest Indian music artists in the world.  To keep going with the Indian experiences, I even got to see the national cricket team play England’s national team, live at Lord’s Cricket stadium.  These were experiences that I never could have dreamed of back in The US – but a study abroad program made them reality for me.  I encourage all of you thinking about studying abroad, to not only experience the touristy stuff in your locations, but dig deeper for experiences off the beaten path, that wouldn’t normally jump out at another person.  Really tailor your experience to YOU.  Especially those of you who may be second or third generation Americans, only recently removed from your ethnic country, take advantage of the sub culture that may be right under your nose.  Experience your heritage from a whole different perspective. 

At the end of the day, there was still of course the plethora of things that I “had to do” while in London.  Windsor Palace was one of many castles that I toured during this trip; one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the history and grandeur of such a landmark.

At the end of the day, however, the main purpose of this trip was really to study and learn at such an institution as The London School of Economics.  Surrounding myself with such capable professors, TAs, and professors was an amazing experience.  While I gained a lot through classes, I can honestly say I gained just as much through the diversity of the people around me.  There were people from pretty much every nook and cranny of the world – including the staff and professors working at the university.  It truly was a gathering place for intellects from around the globe.  That, I came to realize, is what makes LSE such a great place to learn.  My professors were able to use examples from their home countries to better explain the concepts being taught in class. Out of my four “teachers,” I had a TA from New Zealand, a TA from Greece, a professor from Italy, and a professor from Germany.  In addition, in class, the level and depth of analysis that teachers delved into, was astonishing. 

At the end of the day, I would CERTAINLY recommend the LSE summer program for ANY student who is interested in a diverse, challenging, well-respected, and well-organized experience.  The only qualm that I have, is the price, which one must consider before travelling abroad in general.  London does tend to be an expensive city, but provides students with experiences that are well worth the cost. 

Bangalore, India – June 20, 2011

Well, my time with Session I of USAC here in India is about to come to a close. After five long weeks here in Bangalore, my time is just about over. Thursday marks the last day of classes for me, and after that we will each be going our different ways. Some will be returning home immediately after classes end, some are going to journey a little more throughout India and then go home, and some of us are going to travel for a little bit and then come back and start the second session of the program. I’m planning on going to Mumbai, Jaipur, Agra, and New Delhi before coming back to Bangalore. By then, I’ll be very tired and very willing to meet the new set of students, teaching staff, and opportunities that await during the second session.

With this in mind, I fear that this last journal may be a little more nostalgic than it should be. I just got back from a delightful and very relaxing weekend with eleven of my new best friends in the amazingly beautiful Goa. We spent the weekend on the beach, in the pool, laying in the sand, getting tan (and getting a little bit burnt), and just enjoying the little time we had left together. I am very sad that our time as a group is so close to ending. We truly bonded like a family, and I can only hope that the second session will become as close as our small group did so quickly. Before we all head back to our different directions, we still have plans to tour the slums, to attend a henna party, and eat a final farewell dinner with our Resident Director and his family.

After the presentations of the last Service Learning class, I realize now that some of the things I have seen so far in India do not adequately describe the Indian scenario. The village, school, orphanage, and many of the parts of India we were shown may not be representative of the whole country. International aid, government intervention, and a whole lot of help from Christ University’s Centre for Social Action have heavily influenced these locations. Therefore, they might not show what the majority of India’s rural villages, schools, and orphanages are. However, I believe these will be a guiding light for what others across the country can grow to become.

The many actions of so many different help groups have combined to start a movement for the betterment and empowerment of the people of India, and have helped tens of millions of Indians out of poverty, neglect, malnutrition, and abuse of human rights. But there is much that still needs to be done. After my time here in India and with this Service Learning class, I will be able to investigate with my friends and family the many ways that we back in the United States will be able to use our time, talent, and treasure better the lives of people in this beautiful country, 10,000 miles away.

Last Group Picture
Our study abroad group at the Resident Director’s house. We enjoyed authentic Indian food and shared our favorite memories before all going our different directions.

Taj Mahal
Between Session I and II, we journeyed to northern India to see the world-famous Taj Mahal. In this picture, a small group of students smile below one of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed.

Bangalore, India – June 11, 2011

Wow. Just when I start to think I am getting used to India, I am proven wrong once again. I had been looking forward to this weekend for a while, but I don’t really think I could have prepared myself for what I was about to experience. With my Service Learning class, we had been told we were going to be visiting a school and orphanage for HIV+ children, but that didn’t even begin to explain what we saw. When I imagine an orphanage, I usually think of the classic Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist!, a book and musical set in a dirty, rainy, muddy, and cold orphanage in England. On Friday, we drove to the outskirts of Bangalore and turned off the main highway to a little side street, and continued until we came to an enclosed campus of lush vegetation and respectable buildings. We walked a little further to a school for children with HIV/AIDS. I could not have expected how nice and well-kept the facilities were. Our guide was very welcoming and informative, and then showed us downstairs, outside, and to where the children were playing before dinner.

My only complaint was that we could not stay longer. Although we were not allowed to take pictures of any of the children (to protect their identity), their faces stay in my memory better than pictures could have. I am still amazed as to how happy and smart the students were. One of the students took me to the classroom and read the names of all of his fellow students, and explained the pictures on the walls, and another showed me the animals back behind the building. I was taken to the garden, shown the flowers and vegetables, was asked to play on the playground, and spent a lot of time drawing pictures with many of the students. They were very appreciative of our time and attention, and their smiles were more than enough to make your heart melt.

With that being said, though, I realize that there were still things in the orphanage that could be made better and that most orphanages in India are probably not up to par with the one we toured outside of Bangalore. Despite their huge smiles, many of the children had poor dental care, and their skin was riddled with lesions and scars. Our tour guide of the orphanage explained to us that the center was established to remain sustainable after the first couple of years of overseas support, but I still think more can be done. I don’t know how much can be done with the meager funds available to college students, but I hope to see how funds from the United States would be able to go to the healthcare of these children, guaranteeing them the healthiest and most productive lives possible. As I put online when I was talking to some of my friends back home, the time I spent at the orphanage is sure to be one of the most rewarding and longest-lasting experiences of this trip.

After a very emotional day yesterday, today we went outside of Bangalore again, this time to visit with a rural village. Like yesterday, I was once again surprised with the smiles, laughter, and happiness of the children we came into contact with. After a long drive outside of the city, we stopped at a colorful little rural schoolhouse. After singing and dancing with the children, we left the schoolhouse and went to the village where we could talk to some of the local women. More than anything, I was amazed by the content attitude of the villagers we talked to. Despite not having some of the amenities we have back in America, they were perfectly happy. When asked if they wanted to move to the city, we were told that they were much happier in their village; life was simpler, and they had their family, which mattered most of all. It was very humbling to hear from someone who had so much less material wealth that they were perfectly content, something that makes me question the almost ingrained American materialism.

After some time at a local house, we went to the Self-Help Group (SHG) of one of the villages, where we heard how Christ University’s Centre for Social Action had aided some of the local women to band together and raise money. Through this, the women act collectively to better their community and empower themselves in the home environment.

Orphanage and School for HIV Children
View from just outside of the orphanage. I am sad I couldn’t take pictures with any of the children, but I hope I will be able to see them one more time before I return back to the States. This time gave me much hope for the future of these children.

Self-Help Group
The women of this local Self-Help Group were kind enough to invite us to their meeting place and introduce us to how they come together as a community for a collective goal of empowerment and community strengthening.

Bangalore, India – June 5, 2011

It has been another long week! After a full week of classes, we left for the jungle city of Coorg. We drove through the night on a bus and arrived early the next morning. After a quick refreshing nap at the Sri Venkateshwara Hotel, we made out for our first trek through the Indian jungle! It proved to be much more dangerous than I had expected–no one had warned me about the prevalence and tenacity of leeches. Despite much blood being lost, we climbed to the top of the mountain with the rest of the USAC hikers, and we enjoyed the beautiful sight from the top of the mountain. Standing at the very top, overlooking the entire valley, I felt on top of the world. Away from the pollution and sounds of Bangalore, I could have sworn I was back at my home in Kentucky, somewhere on the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Neither the rain, nor the wind, nor the leeches could ruin the moment. In that moment I realized exactly how thankful I was to be in India.

Later that night we went out again to see the local waterfall, and enjoyed some Gobi Manchurian (and were delightfully surprised to find out it was made out of cauliflower and not chicken!). The next day we woke up early once again, but this time to see elephants! Our Resident Director informed us that only in the early morning would we get to experience the elephants being bathed. After a fun time with the elephants (but unfortunately no riding of them), we continued on to a Buddhist colony. I found it very interesting that in a community known for its chastity, charity, and selflessness, many of the Buddhist students carried cell phones! Looking back now, I guess it’s not as impractical as I first thought. Although it is different than one would originally have thought back in the States, I suppose the Buddhist students are youth themselves, and they are youth living in the present. It proved to be an interesting juxtaposition to what I would have expected back in the States.

We ended a relaxing weekend in Coorg by visiting a milk co-op. There we saw how rural villagers brought milk from their cows, providing a little extra money for the poor villagers and milk for thirsty city dwellers–an interesting business model for developing countries.

Coorg Mountaintop
After a challenging trek up the mountain, the USAC group stood victorious overlooking the breathtaking view of the valley below. The French exchange students joined us, a surprise that proved to give a different perspective in contrast to our American viewpoint.

Bangalore, India – May 28, 2011

It was less than a week ago when I left my comfortable home in Alexandria, Kentucky to travel to India–a land that I couldn’t have even imagined a week ago. After 23 hours of flying and 10,000 miles, I can’t imagine anything else. I didn’t know if I would be in the middle of a desert or a jungle, but I’m starting to learn that the climate and topography were the least of my worries. Becoming acclimated to that which is India is much more difficult than simply wearing different clothing and applying sunscreen; instead, it is the process of trying to understand the people, the music, the clothing, the religions, and the way of life. Each of these things, and many, many others, are all rolled into an incredibly complicated, beautiful, and wonderfully diverse enigma that is the culture of India. More than International Marketing, Yoga, or even Service Learning, I am constantly assured that the culture of this country will be the most important thing I learn about during my time here. Time that I am so very thankful for.

Wednesday marked our first real taste of our new home–the southern Indian city of Bangalore. We left the confines of both the National Games Village (our housing complex) and Christ University (where we were taking courses), and journeyed into the great unknown: downtown India. It was much different than anything else I have ever seen. All we were doing was acquiring our Residency Permits from the Indian government, but it was a rude awakening to the Indian system and the way things are done in much of the rest of the world. This was the first time I realized that much of the world doesn’t use lines (or ques, for that matter), but it’s a competition to be first in line.

Today, Jacob (our Resident Director) took us on a tour of downtown Bangalore, and exposed us to some of the things we have never seen in America. Our day started out at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, one of the remnants of the British occupation of India. Jacob told us that the line of people outside of the church was for food; in celebration or despair, parishioners would bring food to the church to share with some of those that were hungry. I was shocked by the number of Indians waiting in line to receive the small sums of food given out, and by the extent of the poverty of the hungry. The line was filled with not only men, women, and children, but also the handicapped, the old, and the very young. It was heartbreaking.

After a very somber start to the morning, we drove to Russell Market, and experienced a whole new set of smells, tastes, and sights. We continued on to a Sikh temple, a spot that personally touched me a lot. The guru told us that just as the sun pours its life-giving light on the entire world, so does the Creator love all that has been created. Despite color, nationality, religion, creed, sexual orientation, wealth, or imperfections, the Creator loves all. Although I am not a Sikh, this was still a message that resonated with me, and one that I am sure I will take back to the States after I leave India. Later in the day we went to a Hindu temple and a restaurant where we ate authentic Indian food off of a banana leaf. All in all, the day was very much a success. I’m beginning to really love the group of students I’m here with, and I’m looking forward to the next four weeks here!

Three USAC study abroad students going to get our Residency Permits. This was the first time any of us had ridden in an auto-rickshaw in India, and it was quite the nerve-wracking experience. We eventually made it, despite nearly colliding with numerous other vehicles. It was the first of many fun and unpredictable rickshaw rides.

Sikh Temple
The USAC group posing in front of the Sikh temple with our guru. The temple was exceptionally welcoming and invited our questions. I look forward to telling friends at home about this experience.

Senegal, West Africa

This past June I visited Senegal with the A&S study abroad group. Upon landing in Senegal I could tell that, though there are similarities, there would be some differences that I would have to adjust to. First, their native language is Wolof (African language) and their national language is French. Lucky for me, I spoke neither. Fortunately though, the students, professors and guides that assisted the UofL group were very beneficial.

 Because I was there for school, I focused very much on the differences in their teachers and students. As far as their students are concerned, it was great seeing students who were so dedicated to learning and succeeding. And the teachers; they also proved to be very dedicated to helping the students. The teachers were helpful to my group, but also every student who attended the university only had good reports about their teachers.

On to the next important topic; Food! The customs in Senegal are quite different right down to their eating habits. For breakfast we usually ate bread and tea, milk, or water. Lunch consisted of fish/chicken and rice. And dinner meals often varried. They would pretty punctual about eating times, which worked just fine for me. It was especially awesome being able to eat and experience such fresh foods.

If you are wondering where all of the nice people in the world are, I found them. Not that they were lost, but I experienced a country with people were so kind it made me wonder why anyone could ever be angry; now that’s nice! One of the customs is for everyone in the house to eat off the same plate. This helps to understand the importance of sharing. Another custom is to give gifts, so we were given gifts and gave gifts in return. The custom of giving had such a great influence on me that it caried over when I returned home and I found myself handing things away as often as I got the chance.

Though I knew I had to return after my program was over, my experience was so exilerating that I wished I could have stayed longer. The great thing though is that I made such great friends during my stay that I now have people who can help me when I decide to make the trip again on my own.