DukeEngage in Visakhapatnam

A Duke student spends a summer learning about public health work in rural India.

Month: August, 2012

Sign off

So after being at home for a few days now, I’ve had some time to reflect on what an incredible trip I had. To conclude this blog made a list of the top five favorite things about my DukeEngage experience. There were plenty more things I liked, of course, but let’s leave it at this:

5. Transport: I’m putting this on the list because how I got around played such a big part in how I experienced India this time around. In past visits with family, we’d just go around in a relative’s car, and sitting on the inside of a car, you don’t really get to see the country the same way. This time, in share autos or city busses, or on the backs of friends’ motorbikes, I saw a different India. I got the chance to see the country as it was meant to be seen, and the ability to get around on my own at my own speed made all the difference.

4. The Locale: Rural India was new to me. As someone who had only seen Indian cities (and grew up in the suburbs), the pace, the attitudes, and the conditions initially took some adjustment. After the first couple of weeks, though, I felt like I was at home. Visakhapatnam District is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

3. The Food: Indian food is different in India. I’m not sure if I can say it’s better than my mother’s cooking, but it was certainly fantastic! I grew up eating Indian food that had twinges of Western influence, but it was a very interesting cultural experience to be able to have “true” Indian food.

2. The Work: This was another first for me. I’d never done fieldwork like this, and the experience of going out to an unfamiliar place, planning a project, executing it, and ensuring sustainability was incredible. I think that the skills that I developed doing the work that I did are going to be indispensable in future endeavors that I undertake, whether they involve social work or not. DukeEngage’s training (and support) was invaluable to me, here. They helped me work out what to do when the project isn’t going perfectly, and for better or for worse, I think I’m better than I used to be at dealing with problems that come up during project work.

1. The People: Finally, my favorite part of the trip. I was worried going in that I would not be able to connect with anyone in Visakhapatnam District, and loneliness was a huge concern. Two and a half months without friends and with limited Internet connection was looked pretty grim. I was lucky, though. The people I met really opened up and let me into their lives. I was really able to not only get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a rural Indian, but also to make many friends. I’m never going to forget guys like Dharmaraju, Krishna, and Chiranjeevi, because learning from them forever changed my perspective. They made my stay unforgettable, and I am very thankful for that.

I have uploaded the pictures from my trip to Google PicasaWeb. Take a look if you get a chance.

Maintaining this blog was not only a great way to connect with friends and family while abroad, but also a medium for me to get my own thoughts out onto the page. I’m not sure if I’ll ever take a trip like that again, but I know that my struggles in this trip have prepared me for the future. Finally, many thanks to all of you for reading, understanding, and following my adventures this summer. Sincerely,



And that’s a wrap.

My flight back is soon.  I really can’t believe it’s over.  I mean, I’m happy to be able to see my family and friends back home again, but I have this lingering feeling in the back of my head of incompleteness.  Now, I know I could work my whole life and not get even close to solving certain problems, but that bothers me.

I said my goodbyes.  Some Dharmaraju said stuck with me, because it’s something a lot of people have told me as my trip has come to an end.  It’s that of all the foreign visitors that came here, I got the closest to them.  That really meant a lot to me, because that was one of the only things I had in mind when I came here (something they drilled into our heads at DukeEngage Academy!).  I didn’t know how much of a difference I could make, but I wanted to get to know people, because that’s where everything starts – with people.  Somayajulu Garu said the same thing: that I was indistinguishable from a local after the first couple of weeks.

And so that’s where I am now.  About to go home, happy about it, but still with a sense of unease.  I know I accomplished something, and I’m happy about it.  I pushed the right people to do the right thing, and I honestly believe that the people that I have come to know and love will be better off because of it.

I suppose my next post will be from my living room back home.  And for that, I can’t wait.

Four days left. Let’s do this.

So I’m into the last four days of my trip.  Honestly, I can’t believe I’m almost done here, and this ending is kind of bittersweet.  On one side, I am very excited to see my family after two and a half months, but at the same time, I feel I’m leaving just as I start to figure out what’s going on.  I mean both in terms of learning how to manage fieldwork in this environment and just navigating rural India in general.  I’ve learned the right way to bargain with auto rickshaw drivers, how to calm down farm animals, and even enough local politics to make decent small talk with local community members.

Last week was intense.  I was running around handing over the project to the folks in the villages and at BCT, but this week is going to be much more low key.  I’ll be attending the first sanitation meetings to make sure things are running smooth, talking to teachers to impress on them how important it is that they take a little bit of time in their busy days to ensure the school is sanitary, and finish shooting footage for a second video we’re making about BCT’s disability center.  It’ll be a week filled with goodbyes and writing about those goodbyes.

My flight’s on Friday.  Four days left.  Let’s do this.

In the tribal lands

Tribal village

The villages that we visited were more remote, and as we got deeper into the forest, very different from the ones I’ve been working in

Long post – but a great day.  Yesterday (7/31/2012), the folks at BCT took me and another American here to see their tribal education initiatives.  It was a long day, but one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had here.

We left around 5 am and arrived (slept about half of the way there) around 7:30 am at the first village we were going to see.  It was very rainy in the mountains, and the dirt roads were all filled with mud.  The first village we went to confused me, though, because everyone was speaking Telugu, and it looked a lot like a regular village, except that there were no government schools.  This village wasn’t even that remote, so that couldn’t have been why.  It turns out the reason for this was the usual one when it comes to politics: tribal community members have little education and little voice in the political process, so they get little from the government.

tribal school

The tribal children were absolutely lovely, and their desire to learn was inspiring.

We saw several villages, met many tribal children, and got a chance to speak with some of the inspiring men and women dedicating their lives to this effort, but in an attempt to stay as brief as possible, I’d like to share a brief story about the last village we visited.

The final village was the most incredible experience I’ve had on this.  Before I continue, I want to say how amazing the scenery in this area was – the mountains look like the Alleghenies but have the sense of being more ancient.  The monsoon clouds shroud the tops of the peaks in a thin mist that shifts around with the changing winds.  As we set off for the sixth village we were going to see, we rolled up our pants to trudge through the mud.  It was a solid 40 minute walk through the valley from the edge of a dirt road an hour and a half drive from the nearest asphalt road, which itself was about 20 km from a highway exit three hours from Visakhapatnam, the nearest major city.  It was remote, possibly the most remote place I’ve ever been.

Tribal region mountains

The tribal villages were located in one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

It was 15:30 when we got there, and the one girl stood out to me in that school, because I think her family’s struggle embodies a lot of the challenges tribal communities face.  This girl was deaf and dumb (and couldn’t sign).  It took 30 minutes of slight smiles, eye contact, and a little attempt at signing to get her to lose her fear of me.  When her mother came, the BCT administrator asked her why she hadn’t sent her daughter to the school for the deaf in Narsipatnam or to the BCT center, where they would teach her better communication skills.  She said she was sorry, but she didn’t want her daughter to be so far away that she would never be able to visit.  Maybe it was best for her daughter, but it was very hard for her.  When we were outside, I asked her about her family.  They have been in that village as long as anyone can remember and “the whole village is [her] family.”  I smiled and mentioned that I thought their village was beautiful.  She sighed and gave me a response that left me speechless, “Beauty?  What’s to love about this place?  It makes everything difficult.  But our lives are tied to this land, so what can we do?”

Walking back from the villages

Myself and another American volunteer walking back from the villages with some of the folks who helped establish the schools in these remote areas.

I’ve met so many different people on my trip, and it’s experiences like these that make me confident, that if I take anything from this summer, it will be a heavy dose of perspective.