First Impressions of India

Jannely Almonte Ortiz is one of three faculty chaperones traveling with 14 students through South India over spring break. After describing the first days events, she reflects on the positives and negatives of stereotypes, and on the tangible value of service.
Spices in the city market, "a feast of colors and fragrance!"

Our first full day was spent seeing some of the more popular tourist sites in Bangalore. We visited a Hindu temple, leaving our shoes outside before entering the temple of the Sacred Bull. After receiving a blessing and walking around the huge stone bull we walked through a typical park which to me felt like a botanical garden: tropical flowers and birds, trees with barks that twisted and turned in all directions, and fruit bats high above resting. After exiting the park, next door we could hear the sounds of a wedding celebration. I was surprised to see a wedding happening at 10:30 on a Monday morning! Apparently, this day was an auspicious day to get married, which explained all of the wedding halls we passed by with the names of the bride and groom on the front of the entryway awning. Afterwards, we got to visit the city market where locals purchase produce, spices, and household items. I was surprised by how orderly it seemed to me compared to other open air markets I’ve seen in other countries. The students really enjoyed going through the maze-like passages lined with small vending spaces for flowers, and spices which opened up to a large room full of flowers and floral arrangements, a feast of colors and fragrance!

 During the afternoon, we took some time to have a group reflection and process some of our impressions. As students compared and contrasted some of what they saw and experienced we got a little more specific and delved into some of the context of their impressions through stereotypes. For many, this concept has negative connotations, which rightly it should when used as the sole basis to understand a group of people. What I hoped students got from the conversation was that our own stereotypes can be used in a positive sense to question our own set of values and beliefs. Also, my hope was that they become a little more self-aware through the stereotypes that others may have of us as an American group. I asked if they agreed with these stereotypes; where did they think these ideas came from.  As a Latina raised in an inner-city, I have been stereotyped often. Nonetheless, I have learned quite a bit about myself and others through those experiences and I hope that with this context of understanding, our students can do the same while in India.

What has been the highlight of the trip so far for me is the visit to a non-profit, Parikrma, that educates children under the poverty level with a mission of supporting the whole child from Kindergarten through job placement after college. After unloading from the bus and walking to our destination we passed by some cows on the side of the road sifting through garbage – a common sight. When we arrived at Parikrma immediately I noticed the two-story high tree relief surrounding the entrance, a stark contrast to the dirt roads and chaos outside. Before even walking in I felt like I was stepping into a place of opportunity and love. Once inside, one of the directors had a few of us light a candle that were then put to float in a bowl of water and flowers. We first watched an informational video of the organization, after which the director led a short discussion on ways our students can make a difference in the world. The director explained that although the government does a lot of “outreach” it does not have a lot of “impact” on the educational needs of Indian students. As someone who believes herself to be fairly service oriented, and who runs a service trip abroad, this comparison really stuck with me. It made me reflect on the kind of help I have been giving to those in my community and abroad. Do I just reach out to many people in a superficial manner, or do I significantly affect those who need my assistance the most? Also, what’s the price of having such an effect? Though I’m still pondering these questions, I was surprised at the impact such a short visit to one organization had on me.