Josh T. Ellis grew up in Austin, Texas where he attended St. Stephen's Episcopal School. He spent his Bridge Year in Varanasi, India, where he worked at Bal Ashram, an organization providing a supportive home for children from extremely dysfunctional living situations. Josh spent most of his time at the ashram’s eco-village where, among other things, he took care of cows. At Princeton, Josh studied aerospace engineering and was on the varsity wrestling team.
The Bridge Year India cohort had quite a diplomacy-filled day on Wednesday: Richard Verma, the US Ambassador to India, was visiting Varanasi and decided to include us in some of his programming. The day began with a buffet breakfast with the ambassador’s North India coordinator, continued with a press conference at Banaras Hindu University, and concluded with a nighttime boat ride on the Ganga (see the Bridge Year Instagram for evidence, and the included photo).
I think many times people tend to overthink culture. We assume it all comes from religious festivals, social structures, and tradition. But in reality culture can stem from the smallest tasks: removing our shoes, sitting cross legged, touching elders’ feet. Sometimes these seemingly minuscule tasks are where we learn the most about foreign cultures and it is in these small tasks, these details where I find myself connecting to my new home the most.
Although we are all in the same city, each person experiences Benares very differently. One member of the Bridge Year community once explained to us a technique for travel writing: writing “glimmers,” or descriptions and reflections on a specific event or thought. In order to accurately portray our time here for what it is—an array of diverse experiences— we want to share some of our glimmers.
Guria is less of an organization and more of a family. Ajeet Ji describes Guria’s approach to fighting human trafficking like raising a child. You don’t look at a child and try to leverage something. You also don’t throw money and projects at a child and yell at it to grow up well so it will impress the donors. You support it from all sides, you listen carefully, you adjust, and you care—a lot.
So what do I find sacred?
I see God in people, in the interactions that connect human beings to each other. My God resides in the comfort of a scared child, in the banter between friends, in the kindness of strangers. I believe in the God in small things, and I believe that sanctity can be found every—
We chose Bridge Year India for the challenges it would provide to us, and they are all ones that we accept gladly (most days). What the particular challenge that the dichotomy at the heart of Banaras has taught us is the need to create spaces for sanctuary even in the midst of the most chaotic environments. We’ve each learned how to carve out niches here, little recesses that are literal and figurative, internal and external. It’s in these interstices that our own ideas of sanctity can resid
So often the word “traveling” is considered the act of being in another place, but over the past few weeks, our group has started to realize that the real action occurs during the actual moving from place to place, be it a physical transition or a mental one. Thus, to reflect the changes we’ve undergone, each of our pieces focuses on a different transition during our first month travelling throughout Uttarakhand, “God’s Country.”
Bridge Year India 5.0 has rendered an original map, our intimate portrayal of Banaras, a place which has revealed itself only layer by layer. Here on this map you will see Banaras from our perspective, how we want to remember it, and how we are trying to say goodbye. Our final update is a depiction of this city, our home for the last seven month, and its dizzying personality.
Though India in theory has free primary education, fees for uniforms and school supplies often keep the poorest children from being able to attend, and patchy teacher attendance and class sizes that can reach over 100 students make learning impossible for these children. Families who struggle to buy food often force their children to beg to bring in a handful of extra rupees per day at the expense of opportunities to improve later in life.
NIRMAN is truly a place that unveils itself to the willing participant. My first time stepping onto the colorful campus as a new intern, I felt apprehensive towards the rather overwhelming amount of opportunities available at my service site. My supervisor asked directly, "What do you want to teach here?" Frankly, I did not know where to start, so I just started.
Our winter trip to Rajasthan, a state located on the Indo-Pakistani border, was a winding journey through historic cities, open landscapes, and rural villages. It was a trip that proved both beautiful and affecting. For our second group update, we thought nothing would better capture our thoughts than a video documenting the stories and experiences we collected throughout our two weeks there.
We are far from proficient in Hindi. There is surely a multitude of awkward and triumphant moments left to come. However, these first six weeks have taught us that a willingness to risk our pride and laugh about these moments will continue to attest to our investment in language immersion, not just language study. Our challenges and successes in Hindi class will continue to develop in line with the challenges and successes of engaging with and joining in life in our new communities.
As we depart Banaras, this city, community, family – whatever you want to call it – where we have spent the past seven months, we reflect on what has been most valuable to us, what has challenged us the most, how we have grown, and how we will manage to keep our minds in the present as we hop on the train to Delhi, and then escape the sweltering heat to the awe-inspiring Himalayas in Ladakh. The meat of our year is indisputably here in Banaras...
Three mornings a week, I venture to the Muslim quarter for Urdu class. To get to my guru, Salman-ji's home, at around 7:15 in the morning, I bike past the local mall, IP Vijya, which houses the theatre that I frequent to get my fill of Bollywood; past the svaadisht -- delicious -- Kerala Cafe...
When people from home ask us what exactly we're doing in India, oftentimes it's difficult to explain. Of course, there's plenty of exploring, chai drinking, and Bollywood movie watching, but the bulk of our time is spent at our service sites. Five to six days a week, eight hours a day, each of us venture into our private Banarasi worlds: our work sites -
I am now Nikhil. Or Nickoo. Or Nickelodeon. Choose whichever you want. Just know that Nick is not an option. These are the three monikers my eight-year old host sister, Anandi, has decided to rotate between when referring to me. And know that it’s Nikhil Pandey, Nickoo Pandey, or Nickelodeon Pandey. So long as I’m here in Benares, I’m embracing my Hindustani identity, and for now, I am a Pandey, along with my rambunctious six year old host brother,
Domkhar was 100 degrees colder and 180 degrees opposite our lives in Banares-- it was calm, we breathed crisp and clean air, and we were relieved to have enough time to relax and acclimatize to the altitude. We learned to make momos (traditional Ladakhi dumplings), to take freezing cold stream showers and to plan a class in under five minutes. Domkhar was a welcome retreat to introspect and respect the stunning majesty of the Himalayas, and readied us as we prepared to trek and return home.
That's why this goodbye is especially hard. Because this goodbye is entwined with a thank you I won't be able to put into words. How do I say goodbye to the family that has opened their home to me and welcomed me as one of the "Agrawaal" for the past seven months? How do I say goodbye to Dolly-ji and Lara-ji, when it will feel like I'll soon see them speeding around on their scooters, yet stopping to give me a huge hug on a dusty street? How do I say goodbye to Ajeet and Manju, and try to thank
It's halfway over. The "2011" in Bridge Year 2011-2012 is already over, and it's hard to grasp that time is slipping through our fingers. As part of our program, we are each allotted a monthly stipend for an ISP, or "individual study project." We chose from different, equally Indian topics ranging from sari-weaving to Buddhism to Avurvedic studies and are delving as deeply as we can into our chosen topics. Mine's Sanskrit.
I thought coming to In
I'm working for World Literacy Canada -- which right off the bat is a name that inspires a lot of confusion here. In explanation, the organization is based here in Varanasi, India, but it receives much of its funding (and management) from the Canadian government's outreach programs. WLC is an NGO (non-governmental organization) that works to promote basic Hindi literacy...
Before we went to Kolkata, I was happy here in Benares. Sure, I have my ups and downs but I didn't at all think I needed a break from this city. Then we went to Kolkata and I felt myself relaxing back into a quasi-Western routine again: in the morning I drank coffee instead of chai, took taxis instead of rickshaws, and at the YWCA where we stayed, I indulged in hot showers. We saw presentations at the planetarium and Victoria Memorial in English and ate international cuisines.
Over the course of my Bridge Year Program I have the honor of working at the organization World Literacy of Canada (WLC). WLC has the goal of empowering women, families, and children to lead healthy happy lives through the promotion of reading abilities, skill training, and health care. I am currently working on two facets of this mission. The first is the gumti library project. Gumtis are little wooden shacks that are usually used to sell tobacco, chai, or snacks. In this case they are filled w
The hardest part of India, so far, is describing it. It's like trying to explain the concept of a rainbow to people who've yet only seen black and white-- a new, overwhelming, but really beautiful sensory experience necessitating all five senses and all our attention. Before heading to Benares, we spent one month orienting to India itself: travelling around while getting to know each other and this country we'll call home for the next nine months.
In Banaras, my service was never about accomplishment or completion, it was always about the people whose lives I became a part of just as equally as they a part of mine. There were times of discouragement and doubt, but I left on the Shiv-Ganga Express satisfied that I had seen what my time, passion, energy, and most of all love could do in the lives of others. That, for me, is what services really means.
Standing there in Agam’s shop, thinking of Ajeet and the Guria children and that little silver flower, I realized what Ajeet had been trying to tell me. Sometimes it’s not possible to fully realize ideals, but that is no reason to do nothing and stop trying.
Before going home one day, one of the women I had been working with stopped to thank me profusely for my help and was startled when I pointed out she was the one who had kneaded the pizza dough to proper elasticity and perfectly judged how big to cut the apples. Assimilation isn’t a loss of any one culture, it’s an enhancement of both.
Time is a strange thing; sometimes it seems as though I said goodbye to my family and friends only yesterday, while other times it feels as though it happened in another lifetime. Nine months is a long period of time, and I find it difficult to wrap my mind around the concept. We’ve passed the halfway mark, but I think that for any experience as formative as this one, it’s hard to feel the full impact while still in the midst of living it.
Clearly, these traditions had great significance for Hindus, but what did it mean to me? Like my other interactions with India, I was trying to keep a healthy distance. If I really gave my heart to kushti, I would be participating in a religion that was not my own, and potentially adopting “new” values that conflicted with the ones that defined me.
In the past two-and-a-half months, what fears and anxieties I once held have been permanently transformed. The cultural warmth revealed by each ceaseless smile and concealed in the slightest embraces or joining of hands introduced me to gracious people who welcomed me with open arms to this new place.
The differences between India and America unapologetically encompass the senses once one leaves the Delhi Airport. Upon our arrival, the quiet, manicured walkways of the Princeton campus were quickly replaced with the noisy, crowded streets of Karol Bagh, Delhi, where colorful saris and kurtas in vivid blues, oranges, and reds appeared everywhere around every corner. Throngs of people crowded and clogged the streets while motorcycles...
One of the first things John Luria said to us when we got to Princeton was that he was happy to meet us then, but he was most excited to meet us when we got back. You’re going to change, my friends told me. You’re going to change, said all the lecturers at orientation. Now Boarding, Flight 183 for New Delhi, India. Please have your boarding pass ready....
Everyone who has ever spent more than six months in Banaras
Comes back, Said our Hindi teacher, Virendra ji,his flickering diya eyes wrinkling at the edges as he smiled. And I believed him, since he gives off an aura of having been here from the beginning. We came here to make a difference,to enable better lives with the force of our hope and determination, but we could not have known....
They say in America that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, but after reflecting on this month in Banaras, I have to conclude that on the other side of the globe, the opposite is true. March began with pleasant breezes, birthday parties, and English class on mats in a sunny field at Kiran, and it ended with what I can only describe as a lion of a journey to Agra and Delhi.
The Guria Center is an organization working in the red light district to combat sex trafficking that, among other things, provides non-formal education and a safe space for the children of sex workers. Every day, just after our complicated clapping patterns and right before "FOLD YAR HANNS! KALOZ YAR AYES! MEDITATION ESSTART,"
This last month we have been able to share our home in Varanasi with John Luria, Andrew's parents, and my grandparents. As we showed our guests around, they commented often on how comfortable we seemed navigating the city. While we know there's a lot more of Varanasi we still have to explore.
Mr. Desert ducked down to stick his head into the Jeep, where, under precariously piled sleeping bags and backpacks, we were crammed.
"Everyone ready?" he asked, his bright blue eyes gleaming. "Adventure starts now."
"Those are the best words in the English language," said Joe.
As we entered the second month in our new hometown, we began to perfect the ability to absorb and adapt to the constantly hectic pace of life in Varanasi, just as our mouths have perfected the ability to recover from chai burns. While at first one premature sip of hot chai would rob our mouths of the capacity to taste for days.
After our month long stay in the Himalayas we said farewell to the soaring mountains and began our journey toward sea level. The car trip was rather jerky and the condition of the road lay somewhere between uneven and nauseating.
Like Marco Polo and Vasco de Gama before them, four intrepid explorers - Andrew Finkelstein, Joe Barrett, Shaina Watrous, and Lizzie Martin - set out for India on August 30, 2009, carrying with them little more than their backpacks and their hopes for an enlightening, rewarding journey.