Stares to Smiles

As we cross the halfway mark of this journey, it beguiles me to think of the countless experiences that I have had in such a short amount of time here in India.

Throughout these first five weeks, many personal and professional discoveries have been made. Prior to this internship, peers often referred to me as a driven individual, sometimes to a fault. Once I am given a task, I will work as diligently as possible until said task is complete. Since starting with Naandi, I am now more flexible in the work place. A changing assignment fair amount of stress—are now seen as opportunities for me to shift my focus to something new and equally exciting, without causing me much headache at all.

This newfound ability for increased adaptation to the environment is most evident in how I respond to one word: bugs. Here in the Araku Valley, I dare to say that I have encountered a larger variety of creepy-crawlies and flying friends both inside and outside of our house than I have in my first twenty years on this earth. Prior to my internship, I mentally prepared for the heat and the hot days ahead; but, mosquitoes aside, I neglected to prepare for the vast number of insects that I would soon encounter. From moths the size of my hand to an indigenous breed of flying ant larvae, I initially did not respond with much grace to the bugs that I have seen.

Over time, however, adjustments have been made. While still somewhat jumpy every time I see a red ant (to which I have a mild allergy) on me or inside my clothing, I handle the encounter much more calmly than I did at the start.

I have learned that the “Indian stare,” which often lasts a few seconds too long, can often be broken with a wide smile and the utterings of the phrase “Namaste” or “Namashkara.” In every village entered thus far, curious Adivasi’s peered outside of their homes to see the foreigners who had just appeared in a large Mahindra Jeep. Their harsh


an interviewed village family

looks reflected a sense of confusion as to why these strangers had come. Questions of “Why are they here?” and “How did they get here?” likely rang through the brains of the inquisitive lot as they gazed at us from both near and afar. Children stop their games of tire rolling and tag to catch a glimpse of people unlike any they had encountered before. Whether they giggled and started following us when we looked in their direction or ran away, returning to their games, we provided them with brief moments of interest and sparked some form of a questioning as to what exists beyond their village.

These same behaviors extended beyond villages, to the town in which we reside. Due to scheduling and shifting monsoon rains, Gabriela and I decided to workout outside of the guest house in which we reside rather than being driven to the nearby Coffee Processing Unit (CPU). Located at the top of a hill, we ran sprints. Prior to our start, I anticipated people would look at the tall foreign girl running up and down the street, but the reaction received far exceeded said anticipations. From young children to their elderly grandmothers, people from all the nearby houses came outside to watch us run. Every


some of our neighbors

time we got to the bottom of the hill, kids would wave and say hi with bright smiles on their faces all vying for our attention, one even giving me a yummy mango as he figured I’d be hungry from all of my running!

Following the hill sprints, one female in her early twenties came up to me, and we started talking. What I first noticed about her was that she was wearing basketball shorts, a very unconventional look for females in the area. Next, she further surprised me by asking, in perfect English, “What is your goal?” I explained to her that I am on the volleyball team at university and am preparing for our upcoming season. Then, I returned the question to her.

The young women shared how she is training to be on the police force here in the Araku Valley, which is why she is allowed to wear basketball shorts. Then she said that her hope is to run like me, and asked if could she join me next time I ran. I happily agreed.

Two days later, at 7am in the morning, she was outside of the guesthouse ready to start our sprints. I taught her a warm up to follow and shared how to most effectively run the sprints for a good workout. We ran and ran and afterwards chatted for a few more minutes before getting ready for our respective days. In those few minutes, I told her that she can always do that sprint workout and overtime she can increase the number of sprints and the distance she runs. The joy that I brought her in those moments was truly touching and reminded me of how much we in America often take for granted. It is not common for women to run down the street to exercise here in India, making it difficult for young adults like the one who lives down the street to have an idea of ways she can prepare for her police force physical examinations.


some village children and an elder

As I head into my remaining four weeks of my internship, I cannot wait to see what I can both teach and learn from the members of the Araku Valley community. No matter what lessons I learn, however, I will always make sure to start with a smile to see if I can turn a stare into an opportunity for mutual growth.

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About taycoop08

Class of 2019 in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Majoring in Health and Societies with a concentration in Public Health. Pre-med. During the summer of 2017, I am interning at Naandi Foundation in the Araku Valley, Andhra Pradesh, India.