Round Square Service Trip 2017: Athenian Delegation Reports from India

by Mark Friedman, Director of Round Square and Community Service

Greetings from Pathways World School, located in a rural area south of Delhi.  It was a long journey here. Our three hours in the Amsterdam airport were an unexpected pleasure, though—we wandered through shops full of wooden shoes and tulips and ate our last fresh vegetables for two weeks. Landing at 3:00 AM, the Delhi airport was thronged with people. Thousands stood in long queues to enter the country. Every shop was open. Usually, I do one big currency exchange for everyone in the group because you get a better rate exchanging more money, but not in India.  Because of India’s demonetization policy, you can only exchange US$85 per passport.

I love the first taste of the air in a new place. Leaving the airport, we drank in the pungent and smoky air of Delhi. Arvinash, a stylishly-dressed history teacher from Pathways was waiting for us. Despite the fact that our flight from Amsterdam had been delayed, our group was unified in wanting to stick to the day’s schedule, which meant getting to breakfast by 9:00 AM after only a couple hours of sleep.  We are all staying on the Pathways campus, the girls in a dorm and me in the guest house.  The dorms here have a guard on duty 24/7, a woman in front of each girl’s dorm and a man in front of the boy’s.  As I said good night to the three Athenian students and the security guard at their dorm, the sounds of singing and chanting from a nearby temple filled the early morning air.

A few hours later, we arrived at the cafeteria.  The school’s 500+ boarders had finished long before. We surveyed the food, looking to see what we could eat to follow the rules of only eating foods that were “cooked, bottled or peeled.” Toast and cereal were our main breakfast fare.

We met three girls—Yukti, Maansi and Anya—who would be our hosts for the next four days.  They made a presentation about the school’s ongoing work supporting government schools in local villages and then we were off to a school 20 minutes away. The drive itself was fascinating. Women wearing bright colors with huge bundles of wood branches balanced on their heads.  Thin cows wandering and sitting alongside the road.  Hundreds of cow pies drying in the sun, to be burned later as fuel. The village school is located less than a mile from the city of Gurgaon in a village called Parla.  It seemed incongruous to be in rural India and have dozens of 20+ story apartment towers looming nearby. The school we were working at was founded in 1931 by the grandfather of the current service director at Pathways, Sunil.  What a treat to be there working with him! As we drove to the school, Sunil pointed out a plot of land that he said belonged to his family for “thousands of years.”

Our first day at the village school, we started painted murals.  It was Friday, but a school holiday. There were dozens of boys from the village there to play cricket and watch—or occasionally help—us. Not a single girl. One of the school’s art teachers was there, Druvswamini, and she helped sketch the original designs for the murals. The village only has electricity in the evening, so Pathways is putting in a solar system at the school as that is the only way to have electricity during the daytime—and without electricity there can be no computers at the school. Some of the equipment for the solar system arrived that day.

The full moon was that night. The village’s temple is across the street from the school. As the morning wore on, more local women arrived at the temple to drum, sing, and chant. Sunil and I went to visit and then brought the six girls over. The first time the girls sat with the women, but the second time our girls danced with the local women. Lord Shiva is the local god and the song that the women sang was about him.

Part of the temple structure was the old well for the village where the women all used to come for their water. Most of the local water is from the ground. The water table used to be 30 feet down but is now 200 feet, and dropping 10 feet each year.

We headed back to school for a late lunch. The students have physical education and sports every day and the Athenian girls chose to go horseback riding. Before dinner was a cultural event about slam poetry and spoken word. There were also a number of songs performed, all accompanied by guitar. Interestingly, it seemed like something that could have happened at Athenian. Indeed, Isabella performed a song with one of the Indian girls serving as our host. The three Pathways’ girls joined us for our post-dinner debrief.  We had an interesting conversation about how women are treated in Indian society.

The next day was Saturday and we headed back to the school at Parla. In addition to finishing the murals, we also helped install some new wash stations for the students. Good hygiene and washing before each meal is part of our strategy for staying healthy in India, but it’s also important and challenging for the locals.  Pathways supports many local schools with new wash stations. Pathways not only installs the hand washing stations at 17 local schools—in partnership with Rotary International who donated US$60,000 to the Pathways for this work—but the Pathways maintenance staff visits the local schools to do ongoing maintenance on the donated items.

After lunch, our group of six students and a few Pathways teachers headed off to go camping.  A short ten-minute ride from school, we came to an outdoor adventure facility.  We had fun going down the zip line and were challenged by things like a climbing wall and cargo net. While warm during the day, it does get cold at night. We ate dinner around a big fire. At 10:00 PM, the Athenian students retired to our tents, though the cold meant that most of us slept poorly.

We were up at 6:00 AM for trekking, or hiking.  A red sun rose over foggy fields.  Cow pies dried alongside the path. We scampered up two rocky outcroppings for views of the surrounding countryside. Then we headed off to the Surajkund International Crafts Mela. This featured over 1,000 booths with crafts from all over India and many other parts of the world. We were joined by several faculty families on this outing, which made it extra special. The crafts were amazing, if overwhelming in their profusion. Olivia attracted a lot of attention and many people wanted to have their picture taken with her.

On our last day at Pathways, we began with a visit to Prakashpuri Temple, which is set in a peaceful valley. We visited a meditation case in the nearby cliffs and were served chai. Then it was off to visit two government schools that Pathways supports. We wandered amongst classes high-fiving students and admiring their school work. Finally, we arrived back at the Parla School and finished the murals we had been painting.

Sunil, Pathways’ community service director, is the one teacher from the area.  He invited us to his home in the late afternoon.  We got to meet his wife, daughter and parents, tour his home, explore his village, and go on a 90-minute hike in the countryside. What a treat! Then his wife made homemade curry and poori.  The wheat is grown in the family’s fields and ground at his house. We were so well fed that we skipped dinner in the cafeteria.

The three Athenian girls and the three girls from Pathways have grown very close. It’s astounding to think that they didn’t know each other four days ago. When they’re together, it’s a riot of animated talking and laughter. We depart Pathways tomorrow for Old Delhi and the farewells will be sad. All three of the Pathways girls are interested in coming on exchange to Athenian, so one way or another I expect these relationships to continue.

That’s all for now! I’ll check back in with more in a couple of days.