Better late than never, right? A year ago at this time I was frantically reading everything I could about girl’s education in India in preparation for a two-week trip to northern India as part of my capstone project in grad school. My team was working with an NGO, the Study Hall Educational Foundation, based in Lucknow, India, doing an evaluation of their girl’s empowerment curriculum that is being used in nearly 100 government run all-girls boarding schools known as KGBVs. The KGBVs are grades 6-8 and target students from lower socioeconomic classes. The curriculum teaches girls about their rights and bodies — the legal age of marriage, what abuse is, the changes they experience during puberty, hygiene — something that is desperately needed in many parts of the world.
Before we headed into the field, we spent two days exploring New Delhi and Agra. I’d heard a lot about India from fellow travelers especially while I lived in Asia and to be honest reviews ranged from “it was the most amazing trip of my life” to “eh, it was hot, dirty, people are very poor.” The whole time I was in India I was comparing it to my time in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia and well, maybe I have a major bias, but I enjoyed traveling Indonesia a lot more than India. India was interesting and I would love to visit the southern parts some day but it’s not that high on my list.
Our fieldwork took us all over the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest regions in India. Many of the schools we visited were over a two-hour drive from any bigger town. Below is a photo of a ghat in Mirzapur, one of the larger cities on our journey. It was magical watching the fog roll in over the Ganges River and spotting freshwater dolphins swimming along.
Delhi was a bustling, busy and messy place. I also didn’t expect it to be so cold and foggy in January. When we opened the curtains in our hotel room we couldn’t see anything down below — that’s how thick the fog was.
The Jama Masjib in Delhi where you must don long robes to walk around. It’s one of India’s largest mosques.
Humayun’s tomb in Delhi is like a precursor to the Taj Mahal. It’s much smaller but was interesting to explore.
I was completely turned off by our tour guide for the day in Delhi who asked what our religion was to find out whether or not we practiced Islam so he could then bash Muslims while we looked at ancient Islamic architecture. The guide was also a big fan of Putin and didn’t seem down with the whole equal rights for women…so there’s that which doesn’t help in forming a super positive impression of a place. Intricate work at the Qutab Minar tower structure:
Thanks to a tip from a Jakarta friend we checked out Delhi’s Hauz Khas village, a hip shopping and dining area with lots of interesting craft stores next to modern restaurants along with old tombs and pavilions.
The next day I took the three hour drive to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It was really impressive and much bigger than I thought it would be. Also checked out the Red Fort and saw how artists insert precious stones into marble.
Dirty river you see from the other side of the Taj Mahal:
After two days of exploring we left for Lucknow. The staff at Study Hall were phenomenal and showed us all around Lucknow and made sure we were comfortable traveling all over Uttar Pradesh which we did by car and train including an overnight sleeper train. Most of the schools we visited were in very rural areas. We interviewed teachers and students about their work with the materials Study Hall provided them with. Reactions ranged from some schools and teachers being very engaged and others not so much. We asked the students if we were the first foreigners they had met and for the majority we were. We let them ask us questions and almost always the first was if we were married or not. The students want to grow up to be teachers, doctors and policewomen, but the sad reality is that after grade 8, many of the parents cannot afford to pay for high school for their daughters so when they return home they are often married off for protection. To be very honest, I was really saddened by how women and girls are treated and really applaud NGOs like Study Hall for continuously pressing the issue of girl’s education.
A night time stop in the city of Varanasi where many westerners come to find themselves:
A lot of the schools were in very poor condition without a lot of restroom facilities for students and many experience electricity problems:
I would love to have vegetables delivered to me in this manner:
The Lucknow train station where we spent many hours due to train delays:
Lucknow’s winding alleys and markets with miles of jewelry.
I ate vegetarian for most of the trip with a few fish and meat curries as well. I miraculously did not get sick at all. An Indian friend back in New York told me I was the first western person he has met who didn’t get food poisoning while in India, must be that Jakarta stomach of steel I developed. I really enjoyed all of the lentil and cauliflower dishes and love how flavorful vegetable dishes are in India. The second to last night I had butter chicken and some other street food meat dishes that were very tasty.
Wishing everyone a happy 2016! Hoping I get to hit the road again soon and not blog about it a year later 🙂