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Nilgiris Field Learning Center

A Project of the Keystone Foundation & Cornell University

NFLC Student’s Blog #1: Tea Time!

By Hailey Shapiro


Vanukkum from Kotagiri!  We have been here for about two weeks now and are settling in.  The Keystone campus has already started to feel like home; after two days of field work, it was comforting to return back to our now-familiar beds, balcony, and gigantic spider roommate.  It is exciting to constantly explore new things, and equally exciting to start to feel at home in all the newness.

One of the biggest changes for me here is the new rhythm of life.  The Keystone campus works according to a different clock than my life back home, and not just due to the 10.5-hour time change.  My minute-by-minute daily activities, and stress levels, are completely different here than they were in New York.  Everything is structured around a consistent meal- and tea-time schedule.  Breakfast at 8 AM, first tea time at 11, lunch at 1:30 PM, second tea time at 4, and dinner around 7:30.  Then classes and work everywhere in between.  When the chefs ring the bell signaling a meal or tea time, everyone in the campus stops working, leaves their papers and computers in their office, then meets at the canteen to relax and converse.  After about half an hour, we finish our conversations, wash out our cups and plates, and then return to our offices, satisfied, relaxed, and sometimes slightly caffeinated.

Cornell and Keystone students ready for class!

We take time for tea and meals even when we leave campus for field work or have a lot of work to finish.  Last week, out class took a nice break partway through our day-hike to sit down together and enjoy a shared bowl of rice and vegetables.  Another day, our work took longer than we anticipated and threatened to run into tea time, but we still took a break from lecture to focus on tea, biscuits, and casual conversation.

The extreme difference between the Keystone and Cornell schedules hit me during one of the first days of class here, when we performed skits about our daily life in our respective countries.  At the end of our Ithaca skit, one of our classmates asked, “But when do you eat?” and we realized that we had completely forgotten to mention mealtimes between our enactments of course lectures and gym exercises.  When I thought about it more, I realized that, even if we had considered meals sufficiently important to include in our skit, the addition would have been barely noticeable.  In Ithaca, I never left room for three half-hour meal breaks, much less tea time.  I slurped cereal while paging through course readings, chewed my lunch inconspicuously at the back of the lecture hall, and often ate dinner in front of my computer with one hand forking salad into my mouth and the other hand typing a research essay.“Tea time,” for me, was drinking coffee between homework problems.

My first few weeks at Keystone have taught me the value of quality tea time.  We work hard during classes here, and are always learning, always asking difficult questions, always working hard to understand new concepts or Tamil words.  But, at 11 and 4 each day, we step out of the intensity of the classroom for a moment.  During tea time, my brain digests what we learned in the past few hours.  Tea time reminds me to notice and appreciate not only the complex concepts we discuss in class, but also the things that are immediately around me—the chirping birds, the warm taste of tea on my tongue, the wonderful people around me. I have interesting conversations with the interns and staffat the canteen and often learn about another perspective on the topics we’re learning about.  When I walk back to the classroom, my brain is recharged and ready to learn more.

As a workaholic American college student, I often considered time devoted to meals or tea to be time wasted.  I thought that I needed a packed schedule to get anything done, and that if I wasn’t constantly working and running around I was too “unproductive.”  But Keystone has shown me that constant work is not synonymous with good work.  The Keystone staff, some of the most dedicated and hard-working people I have ever met, manage countless programs across hundreds of miles.  We have been studying the organization for weeks now and have not come close to learning about all its positive impacts.  In class here, we have already learned an incredible amount about ecology, anthropological concepts, practical fieldwork skills, and numerous other subjects.  With time to reflect, I more deeply understand concepts,and my brain is always charged and ready to learn more.  And there is always time for tea.

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