Student Perspective: Beyond Tourism

I’m Back.

As soon as we walked into the Bangalore airport, my senses filled with India: the familiar sound of unfamiliar languages; a mixture of smells that I can only describe as “India”; and the liberating feeling of displacement from my everyday experience in New Jersey.

Suddenly, “India” became “here.”  I hadn’t gone anywhere.

I felt like I was back.

Over the next two weeks, I would be more than just back.  Last summer, my family and I traveled to India because my sister had an internship with an NGO in New Delhi developing technology for a rural hospital in Chhattisgarh, India. Part of our visit included watching the organization launch their ideas, but I was only able to watch from a distance. Seeing her team’s meaningful work inspired me to return to India as more than a tourist, so when I came across Atlas Workshops’ South India trip, I quickly seized the opportunity. I knew that traveling with Atlas Workshops on an educational trip was going to be different from my family trip last summer, but I didn’t know exactly how, or how much.

The Raxa JSS EMR developing group, with members from both India and America, at the India International Centre in New Delhi. There, the group did their first public demo of their application for storing and recording patient information at Raxa’s event on Cancer and Health Information Technology. (New Delhi, August 2012)

The Raxa JSS EMR developing group, with members from both India and America, at the India International Centre in New Delhi. There, the group did their first public demo of their application for storing and recording patient information at Raxa’s event on Cancer and Health Information Technology. (New Delhi, August 2012)

Let’s Go Shopping

When I go window shopping, I skim display windows while passing and stop when something catches my eye.  I can get a grasp of what kind of stores I’m looking at, since storefronts are meant to capture a store’s highlights and styles, but I miss out on anything that isn’t put up front for everyone to see.  Maybe I’ll admire an outfit in a window, or find an interesting boutique shop, but I probably never planned on buying anything or doing more than just catching that glimpse.

When it comes to traveling, tourism is like this glimpse.  Last summer, my family had a travel agency plan our trip, and they filled our itinerary with sights, monuments, and excursions through a full two weeks. Sometimes I didn’t know where I was or where I was going next, but I still enjoyed my surroundings anyway. I did get a look at Indian culture and Indian history, but that’s what it was—a look.  Like the glass in a display window, there was a separation between me and my surroundings as I experienced India as a tourist.

On the other hand, traveling with a purpose is much like shopping with a purpose—it changes the experience entirely. For example, if I’m gift shopping for a friend, I already have criteria in mind to define my outing so that I can be a proactive shopper and browse selectively and make deliberate choices.  I would see more than the storefront, even though I’m looking at smaller number or variety of stores, and, unlike window shopping, in the end I make a purchase, taking something home with me for the purpose it was intended for.

My family in front of Agra Fort (Agra, August 2012)

My family in front of Agra Fort (Agra, August 2012)

Our focus on education in India similarly changed the way I experienced India, because I got a chance to actually step into and more thoroughly explore the country that I had just skimmed last summer.  Instead of driving past schools and students like my family did last summer, our team stopped and entered schools, visited education organizations, and talked to students.  We were exploring something specific and relatable (school systems and education) in unrelatable settings (cities and villages in South India).  Having that purpose gave us a reason to ask questions, have conversations, and not only notice more, but also understand.

The most meaningful difference for me on this trip was the personal interactions that we had with local students, educators, and residents in each location, because it meant that I wasn’t just a visitor.  Last summer, most of the people I spent time with in India were visitors, just like me: my family, and my sister’s friends and coworkers, who weren’t there to stay.  So when I left India, I was just leaving India, the place.  This time, we had a team that would return to the states together, but we had also bridged over language barriers and over differences to create friendships and to find people who were just like us.  My conversation with students atCarmelagiri school wasn’t too different from a conversation at my school: we talked about how economics class is boring, and joked about a classmate that wants to be the Pope.  At Vidiyal, an organization that promotes child rights and provides for children and teens from disadvantaged communities, we spent less than 8 hours altogether with a group of peers, collaborating with them and communicating over a language barrier. With just simple interactions like learning songs by repeating sounds, teaching games using few words, giving nicknames, laughing, and simply smiling, we were able to bond with peers in a way that I have never been capable of with peers in my school.

With every conversation and interaction I had with students at the schools or at Vidiyal, another dimension was added to my experience.  The surroundings that I enjoyed in India last summer were the reason I was happy to be back at the beginning of the trip, but the personal connections that I made this time gave me a reason to want to stay.

Knot of Knowledge

At Vidiyal, we taught our peers the game the “human knot” – each person grabs two hands, and neither can be of the two people at their sides.  Then the group, now in a knot, tries to untangle into a circle without letting go.  In a way, the knot we formed in this game is much like my experience traveling with a purpose in India this summer.  Everything I encountered could stand alone; each participant could stand separately just as various aspects of India could be studied on their own, for instance government, caste, culture, religion, or economy, but the knot showed how they intertwine in the realm of education.  And more importantly, I did not only learn about education, but I was part of the knot, connected to and engaged in my surroundings.

– by Grace Ming.

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Grace is a senior at Livingston High School in Livingston, NJ. She was a student on the summer 2013 Education for All: South India workshop. Grace and the other students who participated in this workshop have created a fantastic multimedia storytelling website, Writings on the Wall