With classes starting tomorrow and New Student Orientation finishing up, everything around me seems just like it was last year before the start of classes. I am a senior, but since I transferred as a junior, this is my second fall, and I find myself doing all of the same things- meeting with my advisor, fixing my schedule, and being really excited for the semester to star. But of course, the thing that is different is that a whole year has passed, with all of the changes and learning experiences that has brought, which at the forefront of my mind is the time that I just spent as an intern for Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development in Sidhbari, Himachal Pradesh.
I am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity to work with this organization and with so many inspiring people, and to have gotten to learn many new skills, mostly in terms of the interview and case study process, that I hope to use again in a future working with non-profit organizations. Working with the Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (Woman Farmers’ Empowerment Program), I don’t think there could have been a project that matched up more with my interests, since I am both passionate about the environment and women’s empowerment.
During one of my first blog posts, I remember writing about the different ways in which I was connecting with my new environment and the people around me. Now that I have been mostly by myself for a few weeks before school starts, I have also found it interesting think about all of the internal processes that were integral to my time in northern India, and also about how some of my favorite memories came as a result of doing something by myself, which usually was not what I originally thought I would do, such as the train ride which is the topic of this blog.
After our internship ended, I was able to travel for a little over a week with co-intern Ravi (thanks to his solid planning skills!), and also to visit two friends who were in Delhi at the time. Early in our travels, I decided to take a train from Amritsar to Delhi by myself (which takes around 7 hours), to visit a friend. It goes without saying that you are more likely to talk to strangers when traveling alone than with people you know, but having not traveled alone for that long, and having just recently started to feel comfortable in Hindi, I had no idea just how much I would get to talk to other people, for the entirety of the train ride, and how much of a fun and amazing experience it would be.
I had actually never been on a train before, so I couldn’t find my seat at first, and when I did find it there were already people sitting in it, so, feeling shy, I sat in an empty bench nearby. The lady who sat next to me was going part of the way to Delhi, and I enjoyed hearing about the place where she grew up, and where she was living now. Naturally, when we both asked each other why we were on that train, that lead to different pieces of our life stories being shared. At one point, I decided to go up to my bunk to take a nap. When I woke up, someone had sat in the seat I was sitting in before, so I moved to my assigned bench. No one really said anything at first, and then a little later, someone asked where I was from. When I said New York, after a little while, someone in the group who knew English started to ask me more questions, such as what I was up to in India and why I was by myself and things like that. We talked for a little bit, and it ended up so that I would talk to him in Hindi to practice my Hindi, and he would talk to me in English to practice his English. It turned out that they were actually a group of 13 people (3 different families), who are from West Bengal, and are lifelong friends, and who had been traveling for over 2 weeks all across northern India, on a pilgrimage and also to sight see throughout different states. I was thinking how amazing it would be to take a trip that long with all of the people closest to you, and admired how energetic and cheerful they were despite having been on trains all day and having over 30 hours to go before reaching their home.
After swapping stories, by then which the other people on the bench found out that I spoke enough Hindi to get by, they asked if they could ask me some questions. I didn’t realize how these questions would have me thinking for days after! Some were really hard to answer ("Between the people here and the people in the US, what is the one main difference?" and "How is a rural town in the US similar and different to one in India?") and others quite funny ("Can you tell us exactly when and what you eat for your three meals both in Himachal, and when you’re in New York?" and when I told them I eat rice with dinner, they were like, "How many grams of rice?") I didn’t expect some of the things that they found surprising (that I buy all of my clothes from thrift shops, that thrift shops are fairly common in the U.S., and that, being vegetarian, if I hypothetically married a non-vegetarian, I wouldn’t cook meat- they joked that they felt bad for my future husband!) They also found it funny that I had managed to learn Hindi but not the metric system! They asked me me about my project, and about the differences between agriculture in the US and in Northern India, which I realized was something really important for me to think about. Over all, I was so happy for the opportunity to talk with these people for hours upon hours, and also to hear about their perspectives of India and the US and also of their travels.
I never expected how much this conversation would mean to me, but looking back on it, it was a perfect way to wrap up my internship, as the things that we talked about I find thought-provoking whenever the memory returns. Being accustomed to living in India for 10 weeks, I had stopped thinking in terms of comparisons to the US, like I had in the first week. However, I realized that after my time in India, it is important to still make comparisons and contrasts, for example, between ngo’s I’ve worked with here and there, or agriculture here and there, in order to frame the experience in a way that is integrated with things I’ve done in the past and hope to do in the future. Thinking about how my experience relates to my classes and jobs and career goals is a long and interesting process that I think will lead me to look at my internship in different ways and discover things that were meaning for and helpful for years to come. I am so thankful to have had the great memory of the hours-long train ride and all of the people that I met, and am really happy of the mindset of reflection in which it put me. I wanted to share this memory, as a part of countless other amazing memories of learning, working, talking, having fun and being inspired, all of which have made their impact on me, so that even though so much is familiar with this first week back to Penn, I know that much has changed.
Here, I am with three of the woman farmers who I got to interviewed about their experiences with the program. Santosh Kumari, sitting on the left, in addition to participating in the MKSP program, is also the person who is implementing it in a neighboring Panchayat, since she works as CORD field staff. After going to women’s group meetings in the Panchayat to talk about the program and build interest, she facilitated the creation of about 5 Woman Farmer Groups, does trainings in the new organic farming practices, and overall checks on the farmers to make sure the program is going well. Since the program is adding 10 new Panchayats in its second year (there were 10 the first year), she is now doing this process in another Panchayat as well. Many of the people who work at CORD, in addition to their 9 to 5 job, also are farmers, which is full-time work in itself.