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Hello from Taiwan!

I had told myself that I would be diligent in keeping up my blog. I guess I sort of lost track of these last two weeks, not even writing in my own journal very much. But I would love to share some highlights from the last two weeks, mainly for my own sake.

First and foremost, Natasha finally arrived at Shanti Bhavan. I’ve been waiting for her to show up since day one, and I knew the kids could not wait to see her either. Although I had made many new friends at SB, it definitely was a breath of fresh air to see a familiar face.

 Throughout that week, I had picked up more classes: 10th grade creative writing, persuasive writing, grammar, and 11th grade Commerce (which I know next to nothing about). For my tenth graders, I asked them to write fractured fairytales for creative writing, and they seemed to be pretty excited about the assignment. In persuasive writing, I asked them to choose between two prompts: a) How/why would you change a law in the Constitution of India and b) Discuss a moment that relates to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” and why it is important/significant to take the road less travelled. I was particularly excited to read their persuasive essays to gain some more insight into their thoughts and lives.

For the Commerce class, I eagerly agreed to teach even with limited knowledge of the subject because I wanted to work with the older students. I spent a lot of time reading through the textbook, doing more in-depth research when questions arose, and trying to “fake it ‘til you make it.” With volunteers (all with different strengths and experience) coming in and out, this seems to be the norm: just stay at least one step ahead of the children. Not exactly ideal, but you do what you have to do.

That week was Becky’s last week as a volunteer. Dr. George invited Becky and me for a special lunch in his office. With paneer, chapathi, fish, and biryani, I’m not sure if I can ever eat Indian food in the states anymore. It just won’t be as good. Over lunch, we discussed various topics ranging from our future plans to what we thought SB needed the most improvement on.

 On the night before Becky left, a couple of us volunteers climbed the rocks by the basketball courts. Just as we made our way up, the clouds parted right on cue to reveal the sky lit with an infinite amount of stars. What an amazing sight. All of a sudden, I felt small, insignificant. A feeling of serenity and simplicity washed over me as we shared laughs, memories, and silence.

The next day Becky and I spent all afternoon preparing our special snack. Armed with twenty jars of Nutella and countless loaves of bread, we made chocolaty sandwiches for all to enjoy. I guess I’m not surprised with how ecstatic the students were; I, of all people, should know that food=happiness. A reminder of home really hit the spot for many of the volunteers as well.

 That night, a group of us set off for Bangalore, said goodbye to Becky, and Natasha and I went to her aunt’s house. After a quick meal of Indian Pizza Hut, we went straight to bed. The next day, Natasha and I went on a (very successful, I might add) shopping spree. I got to experience sari and Indian dress shopping for the first time. Watching Natasha choose outfits was such a sensory overload that I couldn’t even tell what I thought looked good or bad anymore. During lunch, I got a banana milkshake. Note to self: when in India, get a banana milk shake. Afterwards, Natasha took me to go kurta shopping. However, we began to realize that male kurtas are rather expensive and much harder to find. While women wear kurtas as daily outfits, men tend to wear kurtas only for special occasions. Apply the law of supply and demand, and the price of male kurtas rises. After about 2 hours of searching, we found two kurtas, relatively within my price range. I’m rather happy with the end result, but I want to get one more when I come back to India…

After our shopping spree, we met up with other volunteers for another round of Sree Sagar and Masala Dosas. This time around, though, Natasha took care of the ordering so it was much easier and less confusing. After a full meal of dosas, puri, and tea, we went off to Asha Sweets for some Almond Milk and Indian desserts. Seven of us volunteers got a variety box to share. Although Sohan Papdi is still my favorite, I discovered a close second: dharwad pedha, a round little dough ball that tastes milky and covered with cinnamon. Content with our sweets, we walked around the area for a bit and headed home. For some reason no auto driver was willing to take Natasha and me back to her aunt’s place, so we slowly navigated our way back by asking kind looking strangers and policemen.

For lunch the next day, I got to experience a true Indian family get together. I put on my dark green kurta and went to a fancy hotel for the luncheon. I got to meet some of Natasha’s extended family and feast on a whole lot of chaat and other Indian dishes. Stuffed, we got picked up along with the other volunteers and headed back to SB. When we arrived, all the students loved to see Natasha’s bright red dress. I got a few courtesy “Nice kurta, Mr. Jason” or “Looking good, Mr. Jason!”

With only five days, it still had not hit me quite yet that I was leaving on Friday. With lessons plans to prepare for and papers to grade, the end seemed far away still. My nights at SB got later and later as I frantically tried to finish signing autograph books (similar to signing yearbooks). Sticker after sticker, page after page, I tried my best to make each signature a personal one. I slowly began to realize that with such a short time at SB I still had yet to get to know some of the students… oh well, all the more reason to come back soon. In contrast, I began to notice the extremely close relationships I had built over such a short period of time. Playing basketball, having philosophical discussions, piano lessons, or just simply hanging out and joking around, these kids have made such a deep impression on me. Throughout the last five days, I dreamt of postponing my final year at Northwestern so that I could stay here for a longer time. But my flight on Friday wasn’t going to change and I had to cherish my last few moments at SB.

 On Tuesday, Dr. George invited me to another lunch, this one just as delicious as the last. More noteworthy, Dr. George decided to share some of Shilpa’s (a graduate of SB the same age as me) book with Meg and me. As I listened to him share Shilpa’s heart wrenching, yet inspiring, story, I couldn’t help but think that this is what SB is all about. Shilpa overcame so much adversity, family problems, philosophical questions she needed to answer herself, dealing with loss. And to think, she’s my age. When this book comes out, everyone needs to buy it immediately and read it from cover to cover. You will cry, laugh, think, pray. I truly believe that her story will bring about social change in India. 

On Wednesday, I got to proudly watch all of my piano students put on a piano recital in front of the whole school. With only five weeks, I chose slightly easier music, and challenged them to actually read music instead of simply playing by year and memorizing. I couldn’t have been happier with how they performed. I hope that my short time with these students has inspired them to continue to find passion in music and the arts. At the end of the performance, I put on a short little demonstration of beatboxing because so many of the students keep asking me. And for the finale, a bunch of us volunteers learned a Bhangra routine to perform for the students (hopefully video to come soon). This will surely be a night I will never forget.

 On Thursday night, we all went out to the rocks again, but this time our luck ran out and the clouds covered all the stars… but the company was more important. I finally conquered my fear and jumped from the “easy” rock to the “intermediate” rock. And as the prayer music blasted from the village nearby, we shared stories, laughs, and good times we’ve all had at SB. I headed back to the dorm to finish signing the autograph books. As the volunteers began to file out of the school, I stayed back, trying to hold back my emotions as I wrote to the students that I’ve grown so fond of. At 3:30 am, I headed back to my room for a “nap” before getting up for the next day.

In the morning, I put on my royal purple kurta (Go ‘cats!) and headed out for breakfast. As if SB knew, they served my favorite breakfast: dosas and chutney! I gorged myself (although to the students, 5 dosas was child’s play apparently). I slowly began to pack things up and organize my materials for my departure.

During the assembly, I knew what was coming… a rush of emotions began to take over. The staff recited the school prayer, the students recited the virtues, and finally sang the school song. Maybe it’s because I have such a strong connection with music, but as the children started to sing, I couldn’t handle it anymore. As I watched the children sing the song, my eyes began to water. Typically, I never cry at sentimental goodbyes, but these children got me. I tried to hide my tears as I bet a volunteer a drink that I wouldn’t cry. After hearing the news and announcements, the second graders gave a rallying performance of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” with motions and all. I had taught them the song because they had been reading a story about baseball in their textbooks. Watching them sing will certainly melt anyone’s heart, especially since they tried so hard to “surprise” me. Afterwards, I received 22 handwritten cards from the young ones, which are filled with silly pictures and hilarious quotes that I will be saving to share with them when they are older. The students also presented a big card with a picture of Russell from Up drawn on the front. I guess even in India, I am associated with a chubby wilderness scout showing some resemblance of Asian-ness. I shared my final words, and the students all went back to class.

In the afternoon, both Preetha and Thanuja decorated my hands with beautiful henna designs. I began to realize that this decision was such a double-edged sword. On one hand (pun intended), the henna designs are amazing, and I loved seeing some of my favorite students demonstrate their incredible artistic ability. On the other hand, every time I looked down at my hands, I couldn’t help but think of SB and the emotions all rush back. 

After dinner, I read bedtime stories to the second graders one last time, and reluctantly let them go to bed. I received a round of hugs from the munchkins. If you haven’t been hugged by a second grader, go find one you know well and get one because it will melt your heart. I made my rounds to each classroom telling them a quick goodbye for they still had night prep. I tried to prolong my last few minutes for as long as I could, but at last my time was up. I hopped on the car and made my way to the airport, saying my goodbye (or more like “see you soon”) to Shanti Bhavan.

 The last two weeks had been a rush to the finish, an emotional rollercoaster. Even as I gorge on all this food in a country (Taiwan) that I always yearn to come to, all I can think about is my new family back at Shanti Bhavan. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I feel this way: the staff, volunteers, and, most significantly, the students welcome you with such open arms and send you off with such tearful goodbyes, and all the in-between is filled with love, kindness, and compassion. To steal from Meg’s (our on-site administrator) analogy, Shanti Bhavan is truly a lotus flower. Even in the swamp of poverty, violence, and corruption that seems to still pollute parts of India, a beautiful white flower of hope defiantly blossoms and firmly shouts to the world, “I am here. And I will make a difference.” Thank you Dr. George, staff, and students of Shanti Bhavan. Until we meet again…


Adventures in Bangalore!

This weekend I made my way out of Shanti Bhavan to Bangalore with a few of the volunteers. I had a blast seeing the sights of the city, riding in the rickshaws, and experiencing life as a tourist in a place that, frankly, was not used to seeing an Asian man walking around.

On Saturday, we left SB at 9:00 AM to head for Bangalore. I particularly enjoyed the drive because I got to see what all the villages looked like during the daytime. What seemed like ghost towns when I first came in (at 2:00 AM) became bustling villages, filled with cows roaming the streets, women carrying baskets, rickshaw drivers waiting for customers, and children playing together in dirt patches. I found the life of these villagers so different from the children at Shanti Bhavan. It made me that much happier to know that these children have been moved from this lifestyle into one where they never have to worry about their next meal, a hot shower, or their safety.

After about an hour and a half we arrived at the outskirts of Bangalore. Immediately, the sheer density of the population began to show itself through the heavy traffic we encountered. Slightly confused as to why there was traffic on a Saturday, we found out that there was a protest going on at the police station. Apparently, last week, a man had raped a six-year-old girl at a local school in Bangalore. However, the man has not been reprimanded, and the people demanded justice. For about 10 kilometers, we slowly rolled past thousands of people (college students, adults, children, elderly) walking alongside the street towards the police station. Many of the carried signs stating their demands: “No more rape,” “Save the children,” and even ones as severe as “Hang the culprits,” or “Bring back public executions!” Unfortunately, I failed to catch a photo of the sign that struck me the most:
The sign truly captured the injustice of the situation, focusing on the stark difference between the traumatizing experience for the little girl and the ability of the man to walk freely.

It was pretty incredible to see so many people out on the street supporting the cause (even if they were calling for some pretty violent action). Because the news and media thrive on stories of conflict, it can be easy to forget the moments of beauty that exist in this world. Despite the darkness and the primeval actions that still pollute India, we witnessed far more compassion in the people of India embodied by the throngs of protesters demanding justice and safety for the new generation.

After we passed the swarms of protesters, we quickly made our way to the Sri Lakshmi Comforts. For less than $20, I secured a single, while the two other volunteers, Brooke and Sophy, shared a room. Although the room was small, it was clean, comfortable, and had a television with many channels to watch movies, so I had nothing to complain about. We dropped our stuff off and promptly made our way to Brigade Road where we bee-lined for Nando’s, a Portuguese-style chain restaurant that serves mainly grilled marinated chicken dishes. Although rather costly for a meal in India, the food was a welcome change for our taste buds from the Indian spices, curries, and chutneys.

To finish off our meal, we crossed the street to get some coffee at Starbucks (probably the most touristy thing we could have done). Inside, it felt like we were in America all of a sudden: the clean-cut modern décor, the social atmosphere, the shelves full of merchandise. Behind the counter, there were 15+ baristas shuffling around. Honestly, I had no idea why there were so many workers, but it was a fascinating sight. Also, note to self: go to Starbucks if you want to find out where the other tourists are. Literally, the only customers were Asian, western European, or American. Feeling far too touristy, we left Starbucks, checked out some handmade crafts and toys, dodged/avoided a bunch of street vendors, and made our way back to the Sri Lakshmi.

We dropped off our things, freshened up a bit, and planned out the rest of the day. Here is where I got to experience my first auto rickshaw ride in the heavy traffic of Bangalore. I quickly learn that every auto driver wants to pick up the foreigners because they think they can trick you into paying far more money than you should. The first lesson: after stating where you would like to go, demand that the driver runs the meter. In India, the autos start at 25 rupees and move about 5-10 rupees for every kilometer you travel. The rate moves rather slowly so you can go pretty far for less than 100 rupees (which is about $1.66). Also, the rickshaw rates only calculate distance, not time. So one of our rides that lasted an hour (due to rush hour) ended up costing the same as our twenty-minute ride.

Sophy, Brooke, and I hopped on a rickshaw and made our way to Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens. For ten rupees, we entered the park to see trees and plants from all over the world. The whole park was covered with greenery. I imagine that in the spring and summer, bursts of colors from the blooming flowers would decorate the green patches. We roamed the park, which was rather large, and people-watched whenever we stopped to rest. As the sun set and it got dark, we made our way out of the park to find another auto driver to take us to our next stop.

At first, we wanted to go to a mall to kill some time before dinner, but we didn’t really have an address or name of a mall. The auto driver, more eager to get a customer, dropped us off at some random store a block away from the botanical gardens. We were kind of annoyed and regrouped to think of another plan. We realized that because of traffic, it would take an hour to get to the restaurant we had planned on eating at for dinner. So we called another rickshaw driver, demanded the meter, and slowly made our way to Sree Sagar (formerly known as CTR).

This is when I got to truly experience driving in India. Cars packed the streets as thousands of people tried to make their way through the city. Even though lanes were drawn on the main road, it was more of a free-for-all: if you see enough space, squeeze your vehicle in. Need to make your way to the other side? No problem, just weave in an out, honk the horn, and aggressively cut people off. We were so close to other cars that I didn’t even need to fully reach out of the door to touch the vehicle next to us. Luckily, drivers in India have some of the best reflexes I’ve ever seen, and I have yet to witness a single accident despite the lack of rules and regulations.  We crossed town to Malleshwaram and found the restaurant after asking some locals.

We enter the restaurant, and it is filled with people (no tourists, I might add… only locals, so we knew it was going to be good). We’re shown upstairs and promptly seated, as others stare and wonder how three Americans had found this restaurant. I asked for a menu, but the waiter replied, “No menu! We serve three dish: bajji, dosa, and tea.” Slightly confused, I noticed other people had ordered the bajji and it looked delicious. Bajji is essentially fried balls of dough. The consistency is slightly reminiscent of a mix between hush puppies and bread. With it, they provided a chutney that was quite delicious. Then we ordered the masala dosa, which was what we travelled all the way out there for. Dosa’s are essentially savory pancakes made out of rice batter. Then they cook them in ghee (clarified butter) until it’s nice and crispy on the outside. Masala refers to the potato, onion, spice mixture that is put in the dosa. The dosa was fluffy on the inside but crunchy on the outside. The masala was not too spicy but with plenty of flavor. The dish was also accompanied by a mint chutney to cut the spice a little bit. Sophy and I opted for a second dosa because why not… and we finished off the meal with some chai tea. For 5 dosas, one bajji, two bottles of water, and three cups of tea, the meal came out to be about 300 rupees (less than $5).

Full to our stomach, we left Shree Sagar to explore Malleshwaram. Across the street, we saw three young children sitting in an abandoned house. I was instantly reminded of the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in such close proximity. On one side of the street, fancy jewelry stores catered to wealthy shoppers, as children and beggars sit idly hoping for some small amount of help. Despite their condition, the three children smiled brightly and played with one another. I hope they will eventually find their way out of poverty much like the children at Shanti Bhavan.

As we walked, we stopped at Sri Krishna Sweets to buy some Indian desserts. The store owners were kind enough to let us try all the unfamiliar looking sweets. I opted for mysore pak, which is made of ghee, sugar, and and gram flour. I also bought another sweet, but I forgot the name of it. In a square shape, it consists of many thin layers stacked on top of each other, and when you bite into it, it is chewy and flakey at the same time.

We spent the next hour perusing the small shops and street vendors. Saris, fruit, bindis, flowers, and trinkets filled the sidewalks, each store owner vying for your attention. I was particularly intrigued by the way they serve mangos. They slice them up and sprinkle chili powder, making the vibrant red and yellow fruit look like a tropical bird. If I was not so distrustful of the street food, I would have definitely bought some mango to eat considering how delicious they are in India. Another stand caught my eye because of the huge mounds of powder. At first I thought they were spices, but upon further examination, they were actually dye powder. The bright colors can be mixed with water to make paint. I particularly loved this part of the trip because we were able to experience a shopping district that the locals browsed. It was a nice break from the touristy area of MG Road and Brigade Road.

Later into the night, we make our way back to Sri Lakshmi via auto rickshaw. We drop off our sweets and desserts and head back out to the Church Street Social House, essentially a club. EDM booms through the speakers as we make our way to the bar. In India, Kingfisher is the locally brewed beer and insanely cheap (the PBR of India… tasting just as bad). However, any imported beer was three times the price. So instead of beer, I opted for a Mangorita (tequila, mango juice, and mint). Basically tasted like any college mixed drink… but oh well. From what we deduced, the club was relatively “scandalous” in traditionally conservative India standards, but still relatively tame from an American perspective. We had enough of the “club” scene, went back to Sri Lakshmi, and went to bed.

The next morning, we asked the front desk for recommendations for breakfast. He directed us to MTR which was also famous for its dosas. There, however, we tried four different dosas: masala dosa, rava dosa (more crepe-like and crispy), set dosa (tasted a little bit like sourdough), and onion dosa. I think the four of us had enough dosa to sustain us for a few weeks. All those carbs really add up, but each one was delicious and totally worth it. Again, our meal came out to be about 350 rupees… what a steal for a restaurant that was considered “more costly.”

Filled up on way too much dosa, we made our way to Blossom Book Store. The three story shop had thousands and thousands of books. Unfortunately, there wasn’t really any organization system besides general genres, so finding books was a little bit like finding a needle in a haystack. However, I was able to find several of my favorite books that I wanted to donate to the students because they had never heard of them before:
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Night by Elie Wiesel
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I also bought On the Road by Jack Kerouac for myself, since I figured i really should be doing more reading…

And there ended our successful trip to Bangalore. At moments, I felt odd being a tourist on vacation because I had become so accustomed to the life at Shanti Bhavan already. The more of India I see, the happier I am for these children, who will undoubtedly become extremely successful, to have a place like SB to help them flourish. Not only will they make far more money, but they will also become great citizens that will surely make Bangalore an even more beautiful city than it already is.


Almost Halfway Already?!

It’s officially been two weeks here at Shanti Bhavan, and it has been flying by! I can’t believe I’m only here for 3 ½ more weeks…

This last week has been simultaneously the best and worst days I’ve had at Shanti Bhavan. The only reason it had been rough was because I got a viral fever that lasted about 3 days. At first, I thought little of it, and tried my best to continue throughout the days. However, the fever hit full force on Friday, and I had to give in. They took me on a quick trip to the doctor’s office and got me some medicine. I was able to sleep it off and rest up during the weekend (a little sad because I had planned on going to Mysore for the weekend with the other volunteers).

On the flipside, the week has been the best week here at Shanti Bhavan. Although I was rather sick, the amount of caring and compassion from the teachers, students, staff, and volunteers was extremely heartwarming. Every way I turned, someone was checking in on me to make sure I was feeling better. Aunties took me to the hospital and provided me with food to make sure I was at least eating. People really care and watch out for one another here at Shanti Bhavan.

More importantly, this week was particularly special because of the incredible food we had. On Wednesday, Dr. George invited all the volunteers for a special dinner in the guest house. We had this special chapati that reminded me of Chinese onion pancakes; fresh potatoes, carrots, string beans, and green bell peppers from the school’s farm; an amazing duck curry that certainly goes down as the best Indian food I’ve ever had; a pumpkin lentil dish that comes a close second; and to finish it off, the sweetest jack fruit we’ve had so far.

The next day, Ajit (Dr. George’s son), Emily (one of the volunteers), and her father Jim provided the special treat in preparation for their departure from SB (volunteers always give a special treat before they leave. I’m thinking banana Nutella sandwiches for my departure?). Together, they’re collective special treat was a magnificent feast for the whole school that included butter chicken, freshly rolled naan (which I got to roll and cook with the older boys in the afternoon), paneer, and fried cauliflower (if I had cauliflower like this as a child, I might actually like the vegetable…). To top it off, we had butterscotch and vanilla ice cream topped with fresh mangos. Although my body was not particularly happy after the meal, it was totally worth it!
*Sorry no photos of any of the food. I was too busy devouring it until I realized I should have documented it…

It’s funny to see how happy and joyful food makes people… but if anybody, I would certainly understand!

The week was also filled with piano lessons and general music classes. The students I have been teaching piano are such a pleasure to work with. Most of these students rarely have piano lessons (if any), yet they have eagerly taken on the challenge to learn Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin (others have also elected to work on the timeless Yiruma and Frozen soundtrack). It’s incredibly refreshing to see these students work so hard at piano on top of all the school work they already have. On August 6, we plan on putting on a small piano recital for these students, who will surely do an amazing job!

In music classes, I have struggled a little bit more, considering I’ve never actually taught general music classes. So far I’ve taught 3 children’s songs and games to 2nd graders and 4th graders. While I’m teaching, I’m not entirely sure that they enjoy the songs, but throughout the school day, many of them will run up to me singing bits of the song, reassuring me they are at least having somewhat fun! I must admit, second graders singing “Doggie, doggie, where’s your bone?” with choreography and all is pretty much the most adorable thing ever. Also, one second grader told me I sound like Simba. Pretty much the greatest compliment ever.

This coming weekend, a few volunteers and I plan on going to Bangalore. However, apparently the other volunteers have family or friends to meet up with, so I’ll be getting lost in the city on my own! I’m looking forward to exploring and getting to know a new city, known as the Garden City.


If there ever was a video that embodied the spirit of Shanti Bhavan, this would be it.

My first few days at Shanti Bhavan have been an absolute whirlwind. On my first official day as a teacher, I attempted to teach music to second graders for forty minutes. Honestly, that was probably one of the most challenging things I’ve done as a music educator. But the naiveté and innocence of young children somehow kept them entertained and excited for the lesson. Later in the day, I got to play basketball with the older boys. I had a blast playing with the guys especially since I don’t really teach many of them during the school day.

On Friday, Shanti Bhavan celebrated School Day, a commemoration of the founding of the school. The students got a half day of school, so that the 11th graders and other performers had time to practice for the program at night. The program was filled with Bhangra dances, skits, choir songs, and the volunteers singing patriotically to celebrate the 4th of July. And in true Indian fashion, the program ended with a dance party. It was amazing to see the pure happiness and bliss of these young students. For a brief moment, no one had any worries or troubles.

Over the weekend, many of the volunteers travelled to Bangalore. Having only been here for a few days, I decided to stay at SB for the weekend to spend time with the children. Slowly, I’m starting to learn more and more names. On Saturday nights, the children get to watch a movie. This past weekend they watched the Amazing Spiderman 2, and apparently they plan on watching the Godfather next week. On Sunday, the students had extra free time during the day. So I took full advantage and took some Bhangra lessons from a few of the students. I have to admit… it was much more tiring and harder than I expected it to be. If I can somehow pull it together (and convince other volunteers to do it with me), I’ll post a video!

These last two days, I’ve been teaching full force. Piano lessons at 6:30 in the morning, history during the day, more piano lessons in the afternoon. It’s pretty amazing to see what some of these students can do on the piano, considering that they rarely have someone here teaching them. I’ve quickly learned that my patience is constantly tested during these lessons, but the students are so eager to learn and improve that it makes the whole process rewarding. I finish each of these days rather exhausted, reminded of how hard teachers work. But at the end of the day, it’s all worth it.

Lastly, here are some reminders to myself of some of the delicious food:

  • Masala Dosa (these pancake-like things filled with potatoes, spices, and vegetables)
  • Tang (a mango-flavored powder mixed with water)
  • Jack fruit (weird at first… but after the initial shock, it’s rather tasty. they also just look incredibly odd)



After over 24 hours of travel, I’m finally here at Shanti Bhavan! The flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong was smooth and relaxing with extra leg room in the emergency exit rows and nonstop movies. After a quick stop and bite at the HK airport, another 5.5 hours brought me to Bangalore. Getting through customs and baggage claim was quick and easy, and I promptly found my driver. The driver was extremely kind as we started our 2.5 hour journey through rural India. About ten minutes into the ride, the driver switched the radio station that played American pop Top 40 tunes (but more like Top 40 from five years ago). I’m not sure if he actually wanted to listen to that music or if he thought that I might feel more comfortable with familiar tunes playing in the background. Regardless, the radio station was a nice gesture and definitely helped pass the time as I reminisced with some good ol’ fashioned Coldplay, Beyonce, and Adele.

I had been warned by multiple people that the drive might be kind of scary, especially at night. I can see what people were talking about as you wind through one-lane roads and dirt paths heading into what seems like the middle of nowhere. However, for me the ride was oddly calming. I found myself watching the silhouettes of trees whiz by, smelling the spices as they change from farm to farm, and enjoying the peacefulness of the dark night sky unadulterated by any light pollution. The only moment of anxiety came when the driver almost hit a child walking barefoot alone in the street. Combined with the poor villages we passed through, the drive was quite a humbling experience and a good reminder of how lucky I am to have grown up with a loving family in Saratoga. At about 3:30 AM, I finally reach Shanti Bhavan, am shown to my room, and attempt to sleep. The combination of jet lag and nervous excitement kept me up for a bit, but I eventually dozed off.

In the morning, I meet my roommate Chad, a fellow Music Ed-er from Jersey. He’s a really down-to-earth guy, and I’m glad I’ll have a co-teacher for choir. Then, I met up with Meg, one of the On-Site Administrators, for breakfast, where I was introduced to many of the other volunteers. Most of them were either in college or recent graduates, and it was pretty cool to see people with so many different interests brought together at Shanti Bhavan. After breakfast, I took a tour of the campus with Meg. Immediately, I see that Shanti Bhavan truly is a special place. Anytime you walk by another person, you’re met with a bright smile and warm greeting. The children are especially enthusiastic when a new volunteer comes in and eagerly wave at me throughout the school day. Before lunch, I observed a few classes, formerly introduced myself to the school, and attempted to get squirmy sixth graders to study during their prep period.

The meals at Shanti Bhavan are pretty consistent. There’s always rice, a vegetable dish, and some kind of vegetable curry. It’s not QUITE like the Indian food we typically see in America, so it does take some getting used to. I can also see why Westerners might get tired of it after a while. Some of the volunteers that has been here for a month explain that when they travel on the weekends, they tend to try to eat American food instead. Throughout the day we also get this Chai tea that is AMAZING… I have to control myself from taking too much of it…

For the rest of the day, I started to plan for my lessons and joined in on choir rehearsal. The group consists of about twenty girls and five boys, eighth grade and above. Chad had been working with them on “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime and “The Impossible Dream” from Don Quixote. It’s pretty refreshing to see the students voluntarily come to choir and be excited to sing. I’m particularly excited to work on “Siyahamba” and “Inscription of Hope with them next week!

The rest of my day consisted of battling jet lag and finishing planning for my lesson. I ate dinner with a group of girls that constantly stumped me with riddles. I watched a spelling bee between the eighth and ninth graders and chuckled at the extreme competitive nature that I remember having not so long ago. And by nine o’clock, I caved and went to my room to pass out on the bed. It was a rather overwhelming and intimidating first day… but the kindness, so prevalent here, helps you push through. It’s only been a day, but I can already tell that Shanti Bhavan is a truly a special place.

jswanlake: the revival

It’s been just over a year now since I’ve even looked at my Tumblr. Now seems like a fitting time to bring it back. Tomorrow, I’ll be traveling 8,700 miles to the small town of Baliganapalli in India to volunteer teach at the Shanti Bhavan School for five and a half weeks. Then I’ll get to spend about a week in Taiwan just for fun! I’ll be updating as much as possible throughout the summer. Although with my track record with these kind of things, we’ll see how often I actually write… Wish me luck!


this is why we do it.


I completely forgot how funny this show is…


don’t you dare miss it


This trip still feels so surreal. What an unbelievable experience. Miss everyone so much.


pleasantly surprised
Wish I Stayed (Acoustic) - Ellie Goulding


I wasn’t going to repost this… but he said
"… and I loooveee space jam"


What an unforgettable experience.
I feel so lucky to be a part of such an amazing organization
Super proud of all the hard work and dedication shown by the staff and students


Summer is Over - Jon McLaughlin (Live at SPACE Evanston)

it’s starting to get chilly here… sure miss the summer in California.


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