The Taj Majal
Leader of the day Sydney Rodriguez
Stepping out of the taxi van after about 16 hours of calling it home, I could only pray that seeing the great Taj Mahal would justify the journey. We were encroaching on Delhi heat and it jarred me a bit after having cool AC blasting for hours. Yet through it all I maintained high spirits and I knew it all had been worth it when I finally caught a glimpse of the historic marble. It absolutely took my breathe away, I mean I was seeing one of the 7 Wonders of the World! The detail of the carvings and inlayed precious and semi- precious stones were mesmerizing. I had no idea that the tomb available for public viewing was a replica, but despite that, seeing the extravagant workmanship was still awe-inspiring. After taking a ton of pictures, some shared on the GLA India Instagram, we departed for lunch and then hopped in the vans for another 7 hours. Even including the long hours spent in van confinement and the simmering heat, in my heart I knew it had been worth it. By the time I had come to this realization, I was showered and lying in a lush bed, but that’s irrelevant. This program is amazing and we even learned some facts about the Taj Mahal and about the extent of our endurance.
A Day for Celebration
Leader of the day: Christina Smith
Exhausted from talking all night with friends, we were re-energized this morning by birthday chanting that ran through the lodging area. Maddie and Madelyn, two spirited and enthusiastic friends, led a parade of girls into their room to wake up their roommate, Isabella, for her sixteenth birthday. Isabella, a beloved friend to all, was overcome with tears of joy as she was showered by balloons and birthday cards. The signs and posters for Isabella do not only evidence our collective desire to participate in all activities but also the close bonds that we have all created in India. I feel so fortunate to call these extraordinary people my friends.
When we eventually calmed down, we returned to our rooms to prepare for the day ahead. As we walked to breakfast, we allowed ourselves to sink into the peacefulness of India. Entering the dining area that peace and calm was broken by cries to pass the pancakes and mango juice. Nobody was embarrassed asking for thirds or fourths, because we knew we have to fuel up for the day ahead.
Within an hour, I was walking to my placement with Sachin, my friend and placement translator, and Cassidy, my roommate and placement partner. I am extremely grateful to work with such great friends, but more importantly such amazing people. Sachin is very gifted at making everyone feel comfortable and important at the same time. And Cassidy exudes kindness and always maintains a positive upbeat attitude. She is not just a role model to the children at the day care, but an inspiration to me in her ability to go with the flow.
Our placement is located on the roof of a woman’s house and has a view of the Himalayas. There are two teachers, who are both caring and hard-working. As foreigners entering the day care, the teachers always offer both an atmosphere of safety to the children as well as warmly welcoming our company.
At placement, we began by playing blocks with Simran, our only student for the day. Through her body motions, Simran expressed interest to go outside and play with the chalk and paint. When we were outside we finger-painted with Simran. During painting, the owner of the house opened up to us about her life and practiced her English. She was a very sweet woman and smiled from ear to ear when she knew that we could understand her English. When we finished painting, all of our hands were dyed a variety of colors. Cassidy, Sachin, and I then went to say see you later to the teachers. This was when the teachers realized they were closed tomorrow and this would be our final day. Goodbyes are always sad, but this time felt a little harder. The teachers gave us some sugar and the owner of the house quickly ran outside. She shortly returned with two glasses of coke. She told us that when we returned we were welcome to stay in her home. Their pure gratitude and generosity was overwhelming. Through their kind appreciation they made me feel as if we helped and that in some small way we did make a difference. And to know that in some way we may have made a small change in the world is not only a motivating but also moving experience for me.
Back at the home base, I was extremely happy to be greeted by grilled cheese and tomato soup. It’s so nice to have a little familiarity in our ever-changing days. Some students remained at their service site for lunch because it was closer to the bazaar that we were going to in the afternoon. I sat next to Emelia for lunch and we talked about our days. She exposes her kind and caring heart with each funny story about the children she works with. After enjoying our meal, we all left for shopping at the bazaar. We spent a couple of hours picking out and trying on traditional clothing. I asked Azura, Katie, and Sarah for help picking out jewelry. Bless their kind hearts and constant positivity, they just kept telling me everything looked good. We all bought fun traditional jewelry, outfits, and bindis, preparing for the Bollywood night ahead of us.
Back at the home base Priya, our approachable and outgoing mentor, showed us how to put on our Saris, traditional Indian dresses. Lili entered the changing area after Ashely had applied her makeup and she looked absolutely stunning. Soon after, you could hear everyone begging Ashely to do their makeup as well. A long line of girls formed near Ashely. Her generosity and kindness was clear as she completed every single girl in that lines makeup. During this time, there was also a long line for henna, which was being done by women from the local community. Aubrey, Meera, and I anxiously awaited our turn. We all received very unique and beautiful designs. After the girls were all ready, the boys joined us in the common area. They calmly and confidently marched in sporting their casual tees and turbans. Some boys, like Zach, went full-out in the experience and got dressed up in all traditional clothing. Others were just rocking the jeans and turbans look. The chef cooked us a traditional fried Indian snack, samosas, that was very good. For a while, we just enjoyed each other’s company and listened to Bollywood music. A dance charge was led by Rachel, who always makes every situation as fun as possible. Even when there is a language barrier, she can make everyone smile. She is a truly outstanding person. As the night continued, we enjoyed our family-style traditional dinner. Looking at dinner, I realized that it was not just family-style because the dishes were shared with all but because in some way we had become a little bit like a family. We depended on each other. We were there for each other. We teased each other. We loved each other. After dinner, we danced until we were too tired to move. Once we hit that point we all gathered around to watch a Bollywood comedy. Cuddling around the movie, I was overcome by the fact that soon I would have to say goodbye to these people. But then I realized that hopefully our mentors are right and it’s not a goodbye. It’s just a see you later.
An Educational Day
Leader of the day: Nathan
Today we got up after a night of absolutely fantastic sleep and had some pretty good eggs and porridge for breakfast. We went to the nearby village and learned more about the culture and lifestyle of rural India. I found out that kids who go to school have to walk 20 kilometers every day traveling to and from the school-house. This was an astounding fact considering the extent of our griping and moaning with only an 8 k hike. I also learned that locals in need of supplies have to travel all the way to Dharamshala on foot, a journey we made mostly by car. The stuff we learned today further revealed the rigorous work ethic required of the locals and enlightened me as to how out of shape I am. After we got back from the village, some of us went swimming in the nearby river while the rest of us just chilled. The swimming hole was a fun combination of beautiful scenery and freezing cold mountain water, refreshing after walking around all day. Overall it was a pretty relaxed, educational day that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Leaders of the day: Meera and Miguel
Our first day of trekking was quite the experience. It started out with a reasonable downhill hike that, though it may or may not have been made less bearable by Ben’s sarcasm, was generally manageable for all of us.
The Kangra Fort
Leader of the day: Olivia
After breakfast, we got ready to go to the Kangra Fort, where we went to the private museum about the fort and learned about the history. After climbing the many stairs to get to the centre of the fort, we learned about the significance of the temple and fort itself. Then, many of us learned about the proper way to enter a temple and were given a Tika, which is a form of a blessing, and is given by a red dot of dye on the forehead. We then continued to walk through the fort, and got to see mountains and houses from different parts of the fort.
Then we drove to the Masroor Temples, where we were surprised when the fish which had been described to us as “scary” were even more so than we had expected. Then those who hadn’t already gotten a Tika were given one by one of the mentors in the temple. Afterwards, we decided to go through a tunnel and up a very steep set of stairs which were scary. When we got to the end of the staircase, we ended up on top of the temple, which was a bit nerve-racking, as it would have been a fairly long drop, had someone fell off.
The walls were decorated with intricate images which was beautiful, though most of us were paying more attention to the lizard on the side of the wall than the wall itself. When we were ready to come down from the top, we discovered that going down the stairs was significantly more scary than going down, as we couldn’t see what we were about to step on. After a group picture, we left to go to lunch at a Dhaba, where some of us got to try Pakoras, which were vegetables deep fried in batter, and delicious. While the food was good, we were just excited for cold water after spending so much time in the sun.
When we got back to home base after lunch, we discussed our plans for our placements for the next day. My partner and I discussed how we planned on separating the children who were more advanced from the kids who needed more help with some of the basics, as our kids range in ages between two and five. We decided that some of the younger kids would work on more nursery rhymes, specifically The Itsy Bitsy Spider, because it’s easier for kids to learn when there’s a motion to go along with the song, and to eventually know their ABC’s and master counting beyond ten. We also decided that we wanted some of our more advanced kids to start learning words, because many of them already knew their ABC’s and were able to count beyond 15. We also set a long-term goal for them to start forming simple conversational sentences, such as “My name is….”, “I am…. years old” or “Good morning, how are you?”. After planning, we finished the day with dinner, and then had quiet hour between nine and ten, then lights out.
A Long Day
Leader of the day: Adzra Kamandanu
On our tenth day here we all got to be exposed to all sorts of art. From colorful Tibetan temples and gardens, to ancient Indian miniature paintings that started hundreds of years ago.
In the morning, everyone left for placements as always. My group had a great time at school, the kids went crazy today as we took them outside to play soccer after lunchtime. We had a wonderful time, the kids were learning and catching up to things really fast and they were making so much progress. It was so nice to see how their English improved after being with us for only ten days. After spending time with the kids for two and a half hours we hiked back to our villa.
After having lunch at the villa, we were supposed to leave to Norbulingka. Unfortunately, we got hit by monsoon so we were stuck in the villa until the rain stopped at around 4:30 pm. We eventually did go, but much later than we had planned. The place we visited, Norbulingka, is a Tibetan arts center that consists of a colorful temple that keeps old Tibetan scripts, and also other exhibition centers such as doll houses and Tibetan gardens and ponds. The place itself is like a giant Japanese garden that has a temple-like building sitting in the middle, and small buildings surrounding it. The place was beautiful as it was nicely decorated with colorful Tibetan flags and mini sculptures, but at the same time the design of it is simple enough to bring out its zen elements.
At night, two skilled artists visited our place to give us an insight into a type of art called Kangra Miniature Painting. The Kangra Miniature Painting almost got lost after the Mongols invaded. Luckily, some people tried to preserve this type of art even though the number of skilled Kangra Miniature painters right now is very little. There are only 10-15 artists that still perform this type of art professionally and they all reside around the Dharamsala area. The showed us their artwork, and we were all amazed by the small little details that added to the aesthetic beauty of the painting. Every detail is very sharp and quaint and real gold is used in some of the paintings. Overall it was a very artistic experience because they showed us how to draw a face using a paintbrush and we also got to bring out the artistic side of us by trying to copy the drawing.
It was a long tiring day and the weather was not cooperating with us, but on the other hand we did things that opened our eyes. The different types of art form definitely gave me an idea of how diverse and vibrant the Indian culture is and I’m so glad I got to experience these kinds of things.
Leader of the Day: Robert Bertagne
Like most mornings here, my day began with my long hike to school.
There, with the help of two other GLA volunteers, I taught 7 Indian children of ages ranging from 5 to 9 about math, basketball, and painting. I played tic-tac-toe math with them first. Through this game, the student learned how to write numbers from 1 to 100. The students were so excited to learn. Next, they had lunch. Then, I taught them how to dribble during recess. Meanwhile, some children played with bubbles. They would stare in awe as their bubbles floated away. Finally, the children painted while we taught them about the color wheel. The students loved testing this new media of art.
In the afternoon, we visited two temples. First, we saw the Akhanjar Mahadev temple. Here we participated in a Hindu religious ceremony. Then, we moved to the Dalai Llama’s temple. This seemingly mundane building was filled with beautiful art and carried great historical significance. Here, we learned about Tibetan hardship and Buddhism. A few Tibetan guides told us the story of how they escaped into India. These stories were equal part fascinating and terrifying. Unfortunately, the Dalai Lama himself was not in town. Finally, we went home, ate dinner, and went to bed.
– Robert Bertagne
Two Thoughts on Tuesday
Leaders of the Day: Maddy and Emelia
Everyone had been looking forward to Tuesday, because Tuesday was shopping day. It began like any other day for us. We were awoken at 7:30 by a harsh banging on the door, followed by a quick breakfast before placements. I got very lucky, as my placement is the closest to the home base where we are staying. My group is the last to leave, and the first to return. Our children love to play soccer, and American football, and they especially love blowing bubbles. They are so easily entertained compared to children living in the USA. After placements we got a quick lesson on cooking traditional Indian dishes. We learned how to make our own potatoes, roti, dal, and chai. Rushing through lunch we got to the most exciting part of the day, shopping in McLeodganj. We were split into groups of 4 or 5 and given two hours to shop. Though two hours wasn’t nearly enough time to see every store or to find everything you needed to buy, everyone had a successful shopping day and came home with a lot of gifts and goodies. After dinner we engaged in a discussion with Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan activist. He talked a lot about his feelings on how the Tibetan crisis can be solved and what we can do to help the cause.
Tuesday was definitely one of my favourite days at my placement. Every day my kids get more and more comfortable with me. It was so great to be greeted with excited smiles rather than worried glances. Usually Miguel and I have three kids at our placement. Shanu and Vashu are around two or three and Nitika who is Vashu’s older sister is twelve. Their favourite thing to do is play with bubbles. It is adorable how excited all of them get about something as simple as popping bubbles. Shanu is very independent and likes to blow them herself. Shanu also likes to take pictures on my phone. There are so many ‘selfies’ on my phone that she takes, most of them are blurry and are of her eyes and mouth. Abhishek says that he thinks she will be a photographer when she grows up. I agree. Vashu is the talkative one. It is amazing hearing a person as young as he is, recite the alphabet in multiple languages and count to ten. He is really smart. Nitika is so sweet and helpful. I brought drawing materials for her this day and she drew me a picture of her house. Each of our kids is so uniquely special. I love that I get to see them every day. It will be so hard to say goodbye to them in a week. But I try not to think about that too much now, and just enjoy every day as they come.
Dharamshala – Home Away from Home
Leaders of the Day: Jonah and Katie
On Saturday, our first week in India concluded. Many of us experienced a kind of culture shock upon arriving, but by the end of the week we’d started to settle in and get used to our new home of Dharamshala. Because students still go to school on Saturdays here, we all continued our community service. But we soon learned that Saturdays at school aren’t just another day. After teaching for about an hour before lunch, we returned to class, expecting more of the same. So when the kids started running around the classroom like madmen, tackling each other to retrieve a squishy yellow effectively lost control of our classroom, we decided to play along. The students in my class decided to write my name in Hindi, which was very cool. But that wasn’t enough for them. They took turns coming up to the blackboard and drawing a portrait of me. I’ll say I looked less than flattering.
During the second half of the day, Vaila took the group for a tour at the Dolls for Tibet workshop. Dolls for Tibet is a workshop that is organized by Valia’s good friend Mona. Mona was inspired to create handmade dolls for her daughter, instead of purchasing the classic plastic Barbie dolls, which only reflected unnatural body image of a girl. The handmade dolls reflected the Tibetan culture alongside with Indian culture, which made it more genuine since the doll makers were local Tibetans and Indians. The work environment of Mona’s workshop is unique because she employs her workers of different background, which creates a diverse social atmosphere and allows immersion of different cultures, since that is rare in the work force environment in India. Since Mona’s husband is a Tibetan activist, Mona also wanted to create an awareness for Tibetan culture in a peaceful way, hence creating a genuine reflection of Tibetan culture through the handmade dolls. Her work has allowed to her to spread her message worldwide. It’s inspiring to see how one simple idea can turn into a worldwide movement for the spread of Tibetan culture.
Leaders of the day Isabella & Madeline
Often times we underestimate the power of education. It is something that we, as privileged children, take for granted. Half way across the globe, in an unfamiliar place, twenty-seven teenagers take on the challenge of understanding the world we live in. After our routine visit to our placements, spending time with the adorable kiddos to whom we’ve grown accustomed and with whom we’ve created great bonds, and eating a nice Indian meal for lunch, we set off on a beautiful hike through the mountains. Our destination was one of breathtaking magnificence both in its appearance and its purpose. Hot, sweaty, tired, but most of all excited, we arrived to Wind Whistlers school, where we had the opportunity to talk with Mrs. Manisha Gautam. Her work was truly inspiring, Last years ago, she took it upon herself to build a school. At the site, we had a tour and participated in an activity in which we dissected the good, the bad, and the potential of teaching and learning. Manisha further opened our eyes to the importance of education and the blessing we, as fortunate Americans, have. In her country, India, the education systems lack almost all of what we posses, and though some try to make a difference, others simply allow it to remain unaltered. She, as one of the few who strive to make a change, is undoubtedly a hero. Spending the afternoon in her school was incredibly enlightening. After thanking Mrs Manisha for the wonderful visit, we trekked a bit more until we reached our dinner destination. High up in the mountains, all of us were welcomed into the small home of a precious Indian family, where they cooked us a delicious meal. The experience was like none other, and the feeling of being submerged within their culture was amazing. Once we finished our lovely dinner and enjoyed the peaceful sunset, we headed home with a new light shed upon us. The events of the day were full of fun, learning, and memories we will never forget.
Leader of the Day: Jacob Malloy
The morning of the young in the new.
Wake with a loud call and response humming of the native birds, through the rustle of the soft green trees. Sit up in the bed and stare down, half awake, at the roommate’s bright blue pack, bought with expectation of adventure. Think of what life is, what of the ebb and flow to the madness of the soul wrenching surreality of life’s motion.
Then stand up. Walk slowly to the shower, but first tackle the irritated intestines’ morning call. Turn on the shower to fill the peach bucket with semi-sweet essence poured from the faceted spring. Pour warm water down the back, it feels as a partial blanket, wishing itself to be whole. Clean the self. Put on the dripped upon clothes of the day before, blue with paint that now covers the wall of one Indian child’s world.
Feel a bit stronger than the day before, troubles feel further from the paramount they live their lives so confidently in. I open my door to the hot white light of the Indian summer day. The rustle and bird song stay alive in sound, but disappear in sight. Turn right. Know now it is off to argue, to be scared, to learn, appreciate, grow, and hurt. Taking that path, love it as it is, but question.
As a Family
Leaders of the Day: Lili Whitelaw and Cassidy Boylan
In these day camps, we colored, played games, and taught each other English – and Hindi! Though at first it seems uncomfortable to get used to, soon after we found things in common with each other, played many games, and laughed about all the random, unexpected moments.
The children welcomed us as well, and helped us find a different outlook in our own lives.
After that, it came time to part with our kids for the day, and we headed back to our home base to meet the rest of the GLA team for a tasty lunch, followed by a Hindi lesson. After learning simple words and conversations in Hindi, everyone partnered up and went on a scavenger hunt around town. This hunt consisted of speaking and recording conversations in Hindi with locals, as well as translating and finding different objects. After all the fun and games finished, we all came together to bond for a few hours before dinner. We are realizing how much of an impact our time here in India is making, and the team is really coming together as a family.
First Day of School
Leader of the Day: Sarah Crum
Today was Tuesday June 17th and it was our first day of visiting our schools! We started the day off with breakfast at eight and then split off into our groups of kids who were working with younger students and kids who were working with students up to the fifth grade level. With our mentors we went to the different schools we were placed into and stayed for about an hour trying to get a feel for what the teachers needed from us and how we could help them. We returned back to our beautiful base camp for lunch atone o’clock which consisted of Roti, hummus, and vegetable salad wraps which were very tasty!
After lunch we sat with our placements (group members) and came up with what we thought good teachers were, goals we had for ourselves (in terms of what we would need to teach the kids), and the classroom environment we would like to create. We then had some free time until seven which was when dinner was. A couple kids, including myself, napped while others played basketball or simply reflected on the day! Dinner was delicious with more roti, chicken, potatoes, and a vegetable dish of cauliflower, carrots, and green peppers. Overall it was a very exciting day that allowed us to see what the future holds in store!
Close and Far at the Clouds End Villa
Leader of the Day: Ashley Dyer
Serenity surrounded us as we awoke to our beautiful home in Dharamashala. With extra time to relax the night before, many of us went to sleep early and woke up early, quite naturally, feeling refreshed and ready to begin the day. Breakfast began at 8 in the morning but many of us gathered in common room beforehand in search of the great and powerful wifi. After a breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit and tea we headed off to the placements of which we were assigned with our groups.
Sarah and I headed down through the city and descended the steep slopes with our group, all of us assigned to the same placement. Our group consisted of 10 gla students, our mentor Ben and our local guide Vinay who told us how he attended the school we were going to be placed at to work with the children.
Once we arrived at the school, we were in for a little shock. We had planned to simply observe and ask the teachers questions on our first day, but once we got there the teachers wanted us to begin working with the kids right away.
Natalie and I were given the second graders to work with and we were put in a small class of only 9 students. It was quite challenging to teach the children the difference between past and present, singular and plural. The teacher had us help them with their workbooks. What we noticed was that the kids were struggling with comprehension of the words. It appeared to us that they could read the words in the workbook but their understanding of the words and sentences were lacking.
Some of the other GLA students worked with students up to 5th grade. The teachers asked us to work with them on English, grammar, math and science. Natalie and I were teaching English.
After about an hour, we left and began the hike back to our home in Dharamashala, the Clouds End Villa. We thought that the hike down was difficult, but we soon realized that the hike back up the mountain was much more tiring. We were all drenched in sweat once we got back and we sat in the common room to wait for everyone else to arrive from their placements. Everyone was interested in hearing about the different things we all experienced. Soon we were given a lunch of hummus, roti, a vegetable mix and rice.
After lunch we all sat together in the common room and enjoyed some chai tea as we started to discuss topics to get our minds thinking about how we can be our best to provide service to the students of the local school. Elise asked questions like, “Who was your favorite teacher and why?” and “What type of environment do you best learn in?” Elise asked us these questions so that we could share our thoughts as a group and keep our responses in mind while we created our visions and develop goals. In our teams we finished the sentences “We are teachers who…” And “Our classroom will be a place that…” Natalie and I decided that we will be teacher who are caring for each student, created a non-intimidating and approachable aura, and bring happiness and inspiration into the classroom. We talked about how we want our classroom to be a place that is organized, full of purpose, color, and enthusiasm.
After sharing what all of us had brainstormed, we got into groups and created posters which are to act as reminders of our intentions throughout our stay here in Dharamashala. The discussions we had as a group created a huge spark of excitement and inspiration in all of us about the things we can accomplish through our service. Some of us have ideas to clean up the school, create murals in the classrooms, and to hang the students artwork on the walls. We have all been developing our lesson plans and strategizing how we can best teach the students despite the language barrier.
The rest of the day was spent resting, reflecting and thinking of how we can best use the rest of our time here. At 7 we ate dinner family style. I feel like we are all starting to become a family and I am shocked by how quickly all of these people have grown on me and how quickly we have all connected as a group. Through our service, our activities and deep conversations about life and our aspirations I feel like we are creating experiences we will never forget.
Leader of the Day: Zachary Schwindt
My first couple of days in India have been incredible! Now i see why this land is referred to as “Incredible India.” With such limited resources, people are used to sharing with the rest of the community as they work as a team. When you see these things, you realize that less is more.
There is so much compassion & understanding, more than any place I’ve been. Everyone you make eye contact with is so happy to see you in their country. You see their deep brown eyes light up with excitement as they greet you with a welcoming smile.