Grow

I am constantly growing. 

It's a thought that seems pretty logical on the surface, but one that is packed with meaning.

 © Saniya More

 © Saniya More

In a world where natural disasters seem to strike every day, where innocent people lose their lives, where terror is the new sick fad-- I lose myself in what I see and experience, and this fundamental fact gets swept under the rug, present but forgotten.  

We are constantly growing. 

It's about so much more than biology. Our thoughts, our outlook, our actions, our response, our emotions-- these things are never stable, it seems. On one day, I could be on cloud nine. I had an intriguing conversation. I gave a loved one a hug. I listened to a song that just got me. I finished the last chapter of a really good book. I laughed until I cried. 

But on another day, it could be completely gray outside. I fought yet another silent battle. I failed at something. I lost someone. 

As I sit in my room writing this, it's sunny outside, but nobody would've guessed how dreary it was just a few minutes ago. Even Mother Nature changes. The brilliant yellow sunflower shoots through its once meager seed.  The sycamore rises defiantly against the storm. The clouds float on, determined to grace more of the world with their billowy shadows. 

I continue to grow. 

Journalists: Voice Givers, Yet Voiceless

This summer is slowly coming to an end, and in a couple of days, I'll be back in Syracuse, ready to start my junior year (what?!) at college. It's crazy how time flies. What's even crazier, though, is that I haven't written a personal post in so long. I guess that's a side effect of studying journalism-- you lose yourself in the constant tirade of news, whether it be in politics (ha), war, environmental deterioration, human crises, attacks of terror. 

As journalism students, we are taught to not publically lean left or right, to not let emotions get in the way of telling a story, to not impulse-write, to hide our real views from the world. It's been one of the hardest things for me since I started going to university.

I've always been an outspoken person unafraid to share her thoughts on what was going on around her. I'd offer my opinion willingly and without worry. When I first started blogging on Wordpress years ago, I always wrote about my views on current events. Although I was still living in the bubble that surrounded me, my family, home, and school, I was unapologetically determined to get my perspective out there.

I've changed. 

Image: Annette Lillethun

Image: Annette Lillethun

I think twice, maybe three times before I tweet or share something on Facebook. I only express my views with people I trust, and very rarely do I align myself with a side when it comes to the news (and when I do share my views, I try to be as diplomatic as possible). It's a safer, less disaster-prone route. 

Being limited in what you can say is a harsh reality that comes with being a student journalist. Because I am still in school, there is still much I have to learn, and I understand why I've been taught to keep my views private. At the same time, I miss being able to write without constantly evaluating myself. 

This has been especially hard considering recent events that have taken place. As a woman of color and the daughter of first-generation immigrants, I have experienced moments of frustration, sadness and irritation at the fact that I can't simply give my thoughts shape (without suffering consequences). 

It's ironic. As journalists, we give a voice to those who can't share their story, but we lose our own in the process. 

News 101: What Went Down in Charlottesville

On Saturday, August 12, a "Unite the Right" rally was held to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, an American Confederate general. The rally, which has been deemed one of the largest white supremacy events in American history, took place in Charlottesville, an independent city in Virginia. According to authorities, during the gathering, a 20-year-old man named James Alex Fields Jr. crashed his car into a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, who later died in the hospital. 35 people were injured at the rally. Two officers monitoring the situation from above were also killed in a helicopter crash. All in all, it was a tragic weekend for Charlottesville.

AP Photo/Steve Helber

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Who was behind the rally?

The gathering was organized by far-right groups in the area, which included white supremacists, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, and militias, as well as many Antifa (anti-fascist) groups. However, there were also many individuals who gathered at the rally to counter-protest these groups. Heather Heyer was one of them. 

Who is Robert E Lee, and what is Confederacy? 

Robert E Lee was an American general who commanded the Confederate army during the American Civil War (1861-65). Confederacy can be described as the movement to maintain slavery and white supremacy in the United States, a movement which many say should not be commemorated or celebrated in any way. 

Why is Lee's statue such a big deal, and how did it spark protest?  

Since the Civil War, many monuments and statues have been erected in his memory. However, these have gained much controversy over the years because many people view Lee as a symbol of racism and the country's history of slave-ownership. 

Charlottesville has been in the process of removing two Confederate statues, one of Lee and the other of Stonewall Jackson, who was also a Confederate general. The city has already renamed the two parks where the statues were erected. However, many feel that tearing down the statues is not justified because of all that they represent.

So what happened with President Trump?

Here's where things get even more controversial. In his initial statement on the rally, President Trump did not directly denounce white supremacists and other groups in attendance. Instead, he said "hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides" were to blame. His statement was widely criticized because of his failure to call out the groups involved, and for making it seem like the Neo-Nazis and white nationalists were at just as much fault as those protesting against them. Republicans and Democrats, as well as several world leaders, criticized the President's response to the event.

To top it all off, the President instead chose to mock the head of Merck pharmaceuticals, Ken Frazier. Frazier, the only African-American CEO of a major pharmaceuticals company, resigned from the president's American Manufacturing Council over the president's response to Charlottesville. 

Since then, the President has delivered a statement that has specifically denounced the groups involved. 

What's going to happen now?  

After President Trump's initial response to the rally, thousands of demonstrators protested in front of Trump Tower, hours before his arrival in New York City. A memorial service was held for Heather Heyer on August 16. The removal of Robert E Lee's statue is currently on hold, but many other Confederate statues have come down since then, with more cities beginning the process to removing their own memorials to Confederacy

I Forgot My Camera Charger When I Needed it the Most and Here's What it Taught Me

A few days ago, I got back from a weeklong trip to India, where I spent a few days at a government school in Maharashtra for my non-profit, Aboli Foundation. I was also on assignment for my internship with the Bangkok Post to write an article and visually profile the Adivasi community in the region. Needless to say, my camera would be my new best friend during the trip (not that it isn't already). 

I prepared for my first day. Notepad? Check. A bottle of water? Check. Napkin for the heat? Check. Macro lens? Check. Camera? 

I brought my camera out, thinking that I'd have to charge it overnight. Luckily, its battery was at a 100%. But unfortunately for me, that was all the juice my camera would have for the trip: I'd forgotten my charger in a drawer at home. 

There are no words to describe my frustration and anger at myself for forgetting one of the most essential things I would need in order to complete my internship stories and take photographs of the students at the school. How on earth would I stretch out a single charge over an entire week packed with activities, travel, interaction and more? 

I knew I had to bounce back from this and come up with a plan fast (other than collapse onto the floor and cry). I had a limited amount of photographs I would be able to take, that was for sure. Realizing this, I decided that this week, I was going to try something new: selective capturing. 

Throughout the week, I assessed every situation I encountered a couple of times before whipping out my camera and photographing the scene.

While interviewing people from the community, I kept the camera aside, waiting until the very last moment to ask them if I could take a photo of them. Because of this, I didn't impose myself onto them, and they didn't feel like a deer caught in the headlights: to them, it was simply a conversation that ended with the flash of a camera. 

Students at an all-boys boarding school we visited on our trip to an Adivasi community in Tamkhind, Palghar district.

Students at an all-boys boarding school we visited on our trip to an Adivasi community in Tamkhind, Palghar district.

Because I wasn't able to constantly photograph the children at the school, I didn't hide behind my camera as much as I had done the last time I visited. I connected with them at a much deeper level. Originally, I had planned to do a video series on the students. Instead, I decided to do photo profiles instead, sitting down with every student to ask him/her about their life, family, and dreams. 

I learned that a small second-grader in my class had lost his father due to a kidney disease just a year ago, and that a shy fourth-grader wanted to become a teacher. I learned that almost all the female students in the school helped their mothers out with cooking and household tasks, while this didn't seem to be the case with the male students. I learned that a first-grader had a lot of difficulties getting registered into the school because his mother had gotten remarried, meaning his last name would have to legally be changed.

Sainath, a third-grader at the Temki Paada school.

Sainath, a third-grader at the Temki Paada school.

That week, I learned a valuable lesson which I am going to try to stick by from now on. As a photographer and journalist, it's easy to get overwhelmed by all the people, events and information we need to report on. Because we get easily distracted by this surplus of data, we try to cover everything and thus, decrease the value of what we have covered.

Leaving my charger at home was certainly a stupid mistake, but if there's one thing I can take away from it, it is this: if I had taken photographs of each and every single scene in the community, I wouldn't have focused on capturing the rawest, most honest moment. Instead, I would have simply tried to capture everything I could see. And what would be the point of that? 

Pretty Little Liars Ends With a Predictable Twist

Note: Spoilers ahead, proceed with caution!

Variety

Variety

I've been watching the Pretty Little Liars for the past seven years. My Wednesdays would be spent watching the 45-minute episode with bated breath and certainty that some of the mystery that surrounds Rosewood and the Liars would be cleared. 

Too bad it only took 160 episodes to figure everything out!

I said goodbye to the series on June 27, watching the catchy title and pining over the Liars' attire one last time. 

The whole 'Spencer has an evil twin' was honestly super predictable, given that she had made an appearance a couple of weeks before the finale. However, I would never have guessed that Evil Spencer, or Alex, had been in other episodes before then. But overall, the ending felt a little lazy and I didn't feel completely satisfied after watching the sappy closing sequence.

Regardless of the slightly disappointing twist, it was nice to see that every Liar got some closure. Hanna and Caleb were meant to be, we all knew that. Ezra and Aria's fertility stunt was quite emotional and introduced a whole new type of conflict into a show that is mainly plagued by death threats and creepy stalkers. Emily and Alison's family (of course Alison had twins) was bittersweet, and Spencer and Toby obviously ended up together (Did Yvonne even exist?). 

It's a little weird that next Wednesday, PLL won't air. But the fact that it's over, as the girls so succinctly put it, signals the end of an era. 

13 lessons I learned from my semester abroad

Now that my semester abroad has finally come to an end, here are some of the most valuable life lessons I discovered during my time in Europe. 

Lesson #1: Learn how to budget like a pro.

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Studying abroad is a super-expensive experience, especially if you are planning to live in an expensive city like London. One of the biggest mistakes I made was not financially planning my semester. It's easy to spend lots of money in one go, and it can come as a particularly nasty shock to discover how little money you have left in your account. Creating a basic budget in advance will help you control what you spend on, and limit reckless spending.

Lesson #2: Save money to spend money

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It can be very tempting to arrive in a new city and immediately head for the shopping malls and expensive (pointless) souvenir shops. Hold on to your cash and save it to travel, to gain new culinary experiences, and do everything that the city you're visiting is known for!

Lesson #3: Plan, but don't over-plan.

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It can be a little overwhelming to discover how much there is that you want to do and then realize you have limited time to do it all because of classes. Do not panic! Take a day or two to decide what activities and places are most important to you, and create a tentative calendar. Consider including friends in your plans-- it's always fun to go as a group!

Lesson #4: Understand your visa (and other legal matters).

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I have an Indian passport, which means I have to apply for a visa in the majority of the countries I visit. However, visa rules differ for passports based on citizenship, so make sure you understand which travel documents you need. As I was doing an internship this semester, I had to apply for a U.K. General 4 Tier visa, which allowed me to work legally. However, there were many restrictions which made it hard for me to apply for a Schengen visa (to travel around Europe). Planning in advance may have made my visa application process a lot easier. So don't wait until last minute!

Lesson #5: Do not pick the first apartment you tour!

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If you are studying abroad by yourself, you may not have a group of friends with whom you want to stay. Don't panic-- there will be many others like you who will also be on the lookout. One mistake I made this semester was rushing into signing a housing lease with my flatmates. We picked the first place we toured, and although our apartment was nice, there were also many problems with lighting and water supply which we ran into throughout our time in London. It's always better to explore your options before finalizing housing.

Lesson #6: Keep your parents/guardians in the loop.

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Don't forget to call your family once in a while to share updates with them. If they are supporting you financially, keep track of your expenses so they know where their money is going (this will allow you to keep monitor how much you're spending too!). Be thankful that they have given you this incredible opportunity!

Lesson #7: Don't waste a single day in bed, unless you physically can't move.

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This is pretty self-explanatory.

Lesson #8: Don't forget that you are here to study. 

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It's easy to abandon all academic responsibility and focus only on traveling and cultural immersion. However, keep in mind that you are still paying for your classes, so the best thing you can do is continue learning in the classroom. It's possible to have fun while maintaining your grades!

Lesson #9: Traveling and culinary experiences > Shopping for materialistic things!

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Stuff doesn't last forever, but memories stay in your mind forever! Invest in new experiences, you will not regret it.

Lesson #10: If you're doing an internship (and I highly recommend it!), use the opportunity to build your network.

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Besides this, don't just do your assigned tasks. Observe the people and movement around you. This doesn't just apply to the workplace. One of my professors at the Syracuse University London center once told us, "Don't listen to music on public transportation. Instead, listen to people's conversations."

Lesson #11: Keep track of your experiences.

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Document everything, whether it be through a travel blog, a diary, photographs and more -- you might even get an unexpected 'Leadership' award like I did!

Lesson #12: Appreciate the staff at your study-abroad center.

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These people work extremely hard to plan trips and experiences for you. Make sure you let them know you appreciate them and don't be afraid to step into the office and have a conversation or two! Some of my best experiences this semester only happened thanks to the SU London staff, so shoutout to them all!

Lesson #13: Make the most out of your experience, you will most likely never get this opportunity again.

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Now go forth and conquer!

Bonjour Paris! My weekend on French soil

This weekend, I went on a 3-day weekend trip to Paris with Syracuse University London. It was a trip packed with sightseeing, aesthetic photographs, delicious food, and some interesting encounters.

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The trip began in less than favorable circumstances-- I had to wake up super early to get to the station to make the Eurostar. I (obviously) fell asleep on the train and was rudely woken up when the train began crossing the English channel and the pressure in my ears took a dramatic turn. Things got better when we came out on the other side and I caught my first glimpse of the beautiful French countryside.

Our train came into Gare du Nord, Europe's busiest train station. The facade of the building has been preserved so well, it is truly remarkable.

The first thing I saw when I came out of the station (and popped on my sunglasses because the weather was simply phenomenal) was the French flag. I'm not talking just one lone flag waving in the wind-- the red-blue-white striped symbol was everywhere I turned, on the top of important looking buildings, busy public spaces, small local shops, you name it.

In many of these locations, the French flag was joined by the European Union flag, which honestly just felt like a slap in the face after coming from post-Brexit-referendum London (though I did see a poster that read 'Flexit', and I have yet to understand what that was about).

The rest of the day passed by in a blur. We grabbed food (roasted chicken with delicious mashed potatoes), checked into our hotel (I got my own room), and then took a 3-hour long walking tour around Paris (without the 's'). It was an admittedly tiring and long tour, but it personally gave me a sense of the city which made things less overwhelming. Things got a lot better after we had the chance to grab some ice cream (caramel nougatine for me)! During the tour, we walked around the Cathedral of Notre Dame and gazed at the towers where Quasimodo once fictionally lived. We had the chance to go to a souvenir store where I splurged on three photo prints of the city (for just 2 euros!!). It should be mentioned that I collect prints in every city I visit-- it's a new travel habit I've picked up during my time in Europe!

After that, we hauled our tired feet to a meeting spot, where we were told we had an hour to grab some food and rest. We then did the most touristy thing ever-- went on a hop-on, hop-off bus. It was another amazing way to see the city, the people and the Tour Eiffel (!). We passed key locations like Moulin Rouge, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre pyramid and more. We finished at around 9:30, and I went straight to bed.

We spent the next day at Versailles, where we visited Marie Antoinette's estate, the Château de Versailles, and more. This was where I had my first strange encounter with a fellow French man.

In the morning, before we visited the estate, we had the chance to walk around a market and get some food for a picnic we'd all be having later in the day. I (obviously) picked up some croissants with my friends and some other delicious food. I also wanted a crepe, so we went to a perfectly normal-looking crepe seller in the middle of the square. He spoke to us in English, and I bought a nutella and banana crepe. When the seller handed the crepe to me, I asked him if he could pack it up for me. He immediately said, 'You're Indian aren't you?' A little surprised, I said yes. He then proceeded to rant about how Indians can never make up their minds about anything, always changing what they wanted at the last minute. He generalized a population of 1.2 billion people in less than a minute. The strangeness of the entire thing was that he was saying all of these offensive things in a very happy and polite way. I considered not paying for my crepe but decided I wouldn't do that because I didn't want to cost him business, no matter how offensive he had been.

Still shocked from what had just gone down, my friends and I returned to the meeting point and explored the beautiful Palace. The entire estate is the definition of grand and luxurious and made for aesthetic photographs too (I obviously have up-ed my Instagram feed game).

In the evening, we had more free time to explore, so a few of my friends and I decided to spend the evening at the Eiffel tower. We took a train to the station. While waiting for the train, I went through my second (extremely) strange encounter.

I had a large bottle of water with me because I constantly need to hydrate myself. My friends and I were just talking, hanging out at this station when a perfectly normal looking man in a black coat came to us. He said something in French, but I told him we didn't understand. He then turned to me and asked if he could have a sip of my water. This was obviously a little weird and suspicious, so I refused. He said 'alright' and walked away. Seconds later, he came back, and asked if he could give us some advice. Intrigued, I asked him to please tell. He said (and I quote), 'Next time someone comes up to and asks for a sip of water, you should give them the entire bottle because you never know what they're going to have in their pocket.' !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Being the stupid person that I was, I thought he was talking about money, so I boldly asked him how he could be so sure I didn't have anything in my pocket. He was extremely surprised by this and walked away. It was easily the most absurd conversation I've had on this continent.

After that, we went to the Eiffel Tower, where we had a delicious dinner (more roast chicken!!) and watched the tower lights show. It was beautiful and so relaxing to sit on the grass and just enjoy the lovely weather. I got home quite late that night and was so tired I collapsed into bed.

The next day, we had the chance to go around the city some more. We visited the Grand Palais, I took a boat tour (best 14 euros I have ever spent), and went to Les Invalides, where we visited the Musée de l'Armée and Napoleon's tomb. (A little note on the tomb: so, so, SO magnificent but a tad bit extra when you realize it was all just for one small coffin in the center of the structure. Still, it's a remarkable piece of architecture.) We then boarded the buses, collected our bags at the hotel, and went back to the Gare du Nord. I was exhausted!

My verdict? Paris was a beautiful city that should definitely be visited at some point in your lifetime. However, I don't know if I could live there. This is a gross overgeneralization, but it was hard for me to connect with the people there. There was also a huge language barrier because the French love their language and don't like using English as much. Regardless, the Eiffel Tower is amazing, and French gastronomy lives up to its name.

Thank you to Syracuse London for this fantastic weekend!

See my Instagram and my soon to be updated photography page for more pictures!

 

Here's to all the Women

Happy International Women's Day!

Although the world is not even slightly close to hosting a completely gender-equal society, I like to think we are getting there, one day at a time. It sucks that women still have to fight for a say, to get that promotion, to get paid just as much as their male counterparts. It's a pity that women have to work hard twice as hard as men to be respected, despite their glorious credentials and experiences. Above all, domestic violence against women, negative portrayals of feminists, and objectification of all sorts are still very real issues that we are dealing with today.

But women have never given up. In the last century, we have grown stronger, tilted the balance scale in our favour, made our voices heard. So this International Women's Day, here's my message to all the beautiful ladies out there.

Here's to all the mothers, who brought us into the world and gently told us society would place us into boxes, objectify us, abuse us because of our gender, but that we had to keep our head high and continue living brilliantly.

Here's to all the career women, who fight everyday to gain respect in the workplace, who accomplish amazing things to enhance our society, who cross new boundaries to break gender roles, stereotypes, and bias.

Here's to all the family women, who manage families, look after their partners and children, make a house a home, pass on important values to the next generation about what it means to be a good human being and live a healthy, productive life.

Here's to all the women in school, who continue on their quest of knowledge even when it feels like the whole world is crashing down, who strive to educate themselves despite knowing they will certainly face obstacles down the road because of their gender.

Here's to all the women struggling for equality and respect, who are recovering from horrible treatment and relationships, who challenge the norm and aren't afraid to be themselves.

Here's to all the women. 

Stereotypes and my trip to Bristol & Birmingham

The human mind has always been very good at placing things into boxes and categorizing the world as it sees it. One of the repercussions of this tendency has been the formation of stereotypes which generalize various cultural groups of people around the world. Brits are certainly no stranger to preconceived notions about their behavior and lifestyle.

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We all know the basics: the classic British accent, the constant questions about where they’ve had a “cuppa tea” with the Queen or their rudeness and inflated pride. I can’t deny not being a stranger to all of these generalizations — before coming to the country, the stereotypes I am so familiar with shaped my expectations in many ways.

Stereotypes aren’t as bad as people make them out to be, because I think they’re a great way to track how well one is immersing themselves in the local culture. Throughout my time in the United Kingdom, I’ve disapproved many stereotypes in my head through experiences and interactions I have had with the people here. Obviously, some stereotypes have remained very much intact (hint: it starts with t and ends with a, and is great with scones).

The overlying problem with stereotypes is that some of them, despite being true, just can’t be held valid for such a large population of people. Like many other countries, the U.K. has many dialects and ways of speaking. However, unlike what I have experienced in other parts of the world, every group of people in the country is starkly different from the next one in ways that go deeper than mere way of speaking.

This weekend, I visited Bristol (an SU London day trip) and Birmingham (with friends), where I spent two days filled with sight-seeing, talking to locals, visiting markets, and further exploring the British culture. What amazed me the most was how different the two cities are from each other, not just in structure and layout but also in the way people interact with each other and carry out their everyday lives.

As our tour guide in Bristol said with a laugh, many Bristolians care deeply about how beautiful their city is. Aesthetics are so important that in the few ugly parts of the city, artists have painted over dull, gray buildings (we even saw a Banksy!) and cleared dirt on old structures to etch pretty patterns on the walls. This is probably why it’s no surprise Bristol has been named the best city in Britain to live in several times. Besides this, Bristol comprises a creative and cultural people that prides itself on its classical architecture, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and its world-famous cider.

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On the other hand, during my time in Birmingham, I observed how most Brummies are super friendly, helpful people who are genuinely interested in what you have to say. At one point, some friends and I found ourselves lost in a rather quiet part of the city, but made friends with two waitresses in a tavern (who also admitted there was nothing to be found where we were). Many of the Brummies I interacted with struck me as very honest and blunt about the way they felt. They were not scared to speak their mind.

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A weekend outside London pushed me to challenge the many of the cultural assumptions I’ve always imagined the Brits having. There is no such thing as a British accent- this country is home to numerous dialects and ways of speaking. Every city hosts a different kind of population, and at every corner you will encounter a new face. I’d like to say I’m en route to understanding this country a lot more than I did a month ago.

My Time at Temki Paada

Barriers only exist if we let them. This is the first thing I learned during a two-week volunteering experience this month at Temki Paada, a government-funded village school in Maharashtra, India. Spending a few days teaching English, yoga, and playing board games with school children were part of our first project as a non-governmental organization.

Temki Paada is a small ZP government-funded school located in Mahim, Palghar district (in the Maharashtra state). 22 students from grades 1-4 make up its small classes. Most of the children’s parents are fishermen, laborers, or farmers.

Initially, Saloni and I were both worried about the language barrier. I was raised in Bangkok, away from my native country throughout my entire life. I was also concerned I wouldn’t be able to connect with the children because I was from different social and economic circumstances.

I couldn’t have been more mistaken. The barriers I anticipated were there only because I mentally created them. After two days at the school, the children were already calling me Tai (older sister in Marathi) and shyly high-fiving me as I left. They would listen to me tell them stories about Amreeka (America), crowding around me as I showed them the photographs I had taken of them on my camera. We connected on a level past mere physicality — our minds were in sync.

Prior to visiting the school in December ‘16, Saloni organized a donation drive at her high school, where she collected books and board games. She then transported all the donations from Bangkok to Temki Paada.

On our first day at Temki Paada, we arrived in time for their morning prayers. After this, we taught them how to play the boardgames and let them flip through some of the picture books. We were aiming to break the glass and become more familiar with each other.

After the second day, we fell into a routine. We would have a thirty-minute session of Yoga followed by a different activity every day. The activities varied from reading, English learning, group discussions and watching videos.

For too long, societal norms and the media have prioritized certain issues and abandoned others. The state of government-funded schools in India for less privileged children isn’t in the news too often because politics, the economy, businesses, and entertainment are often deemed more important. However, that doesn’t mean the lives of these people are any less valuable.

You can see more photographs from my experience in my 'Photography' section or on my Instagram