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Nilgiris Field Learning Center

A Project of the Keystone Foundation & Cornell University

NFLC Student’s Blog #5: Networks Connecting Urban Areas

By Lela Robinson

சிலநகரங்களில்நிலத்திற்குமேல்குழாய்கள்உள்ளன.

Silanagaramkalilnillatrumelkulaygul,

சிலநகரங்களில்கீழேகுழாய்கள்உள்ளன

Cilanagaramkalilkillaykulagulullana.

எல்லாநகரங்களுக்கும்செயல்முறைகள்உள்ளன

Ellānakaraṅkaḷukkumceyalmuṟaikaḷuḷḷaṉa.

Some cities have pipes above ground,

some cities have pipes below.

All cities have processes.

 

Water and waste systems in Ithaca NY

Networks embedded within the landscapes we live in provide insight into urban areas. Thirteen drawings of water and waste systems (eight in Indian villages and five in American cities and suburbs) illustrated not only the similarities and differences found in these networks, but also the physical processes which shape our lived environments. Together, the NFLC participants discussed each and every drawing, first in Tamil and then in English. The student drawn systems displayed a number of differences in both how water was collected and how it was distributed. Though not as evident in the drawings, our discussions revealed the most notable difference between the flows of water in India and the States. The network of pipes and drains running through our colleagues’ villages in India are above ground, a visible infrastructure which contributes to their image and knowledge base of their environment. The US has an extended network for water and waste below the surface of the earth, creating a concealed city of utilities. We faced our own ignorance in this exercise, realizing the extent to which we have become accustomed to a network of unobserved utilities. These basic utilities that we so often take for granted are an integral aspect of our everyday lives.

As a class we analyzed the similarities and differences in each drawing not only to cross the boundaries that separate us but also to better understand the processes which shape our lived environments. We learned how spatial collectives of concrete things and the processes, both human and physical, create each other and what we try and define as a city.

Desakota: landuse settlement across southern India

We touched upon the concept of desakota to understand urban clustering and settlements located between major cities. We looked at maps with urban settlements sprawled across, as southern India experiences significant small-city urbanization, both east to west from Chennai to Kozhikode, and along the Kerala coast. The pattern here is one among many across the globe illustrating the interactions between people, their m,ovement and urban economies developing under the influence of global and local forces.

After two days of class at Manda’arae we began to realize the paradox of administering cities as contained places despite the fact that they thrive and grow at a variety of scales. As an Urban Studies Major at Cornell, I have come to realize the irony of defining an urban area when trying to plan a city, an effort which expects established boundaries and processes. Sitting in a classroom in the small town of Kotagiri, Ihave begun to understand and internalize this dichotomy.

 

 

 

NFLC Student’s Blog #4: Month in the Nilgiris

By Nnenna Ezera

 

This week our classes focused on sustainable livelihoods. We spent a lot of time discussing what makes a sustainable livelihood in the Nilgiris and how incomes may come from different sources like non-timber forest products.

One of the research methods we learned about was focus groups. Now, before I came to the Nilgiris, my mental image of a focus group was very different. I had always imagined it as a group of people sitting around a table in a brightly lit room behind a one-way mirror. Researchers would be on the other side of the mirror watching the people as they discussed whether or not they were excited about some newfangled product. Focus groups in the Nilgiris are definitely not anything like that.

On both Tuesday and Wednesday, we did focus group exercises, and each day we spent the most time discussing exactly what to discuss and how to ask questions. “What are we trying to learn? Is that question too specific or not specific enough? Does that sound biased? How many questions can we even fit in the time frame? “

Keystone students and staff look out at the view from the focus group farmers’ village 

All of the students were broken into three groups. One group stayed to talk with the women at the production center in Banglapadigai village, while the other two groups headed off to talk with landed or landless farmers enrolled in a development program. The group I participated in was assigned to the landed farmers. A while down the road from the production center, we came to a line of houses perched on the hillside. The view was beautiful. I could see all around, down the valley, and to the forested mountain across. Waiting for us there were two of the farmers we had come to meet. A third arrived about halfway through the meeting, but the others couldn’t make it. I learned a lot from the farmers even though we didn’t have the numbers that were originally intended. We sat on the porch of one of the houses and talked about the program requirements, wildlife conflicts, and how the program has affected their livelihood. Here in the Nilgiris, things seem to rarely go to plan but they’re always interesting.

Classes ended early this week, and on Friday the Cornell students got a chance to go down to Coimbatore for the Save the Western Ghats Conference. Descending down the winding mountain roads toward the plains, I was thinking about how strange it is that it’s been almost exactly a month since I got off the plane in Coimbatore and made the opposite journey up into the mountains, marveling at the views, wincing at the narrow lanes and sharp turns, and feeling my ears pop as I adjusted to the elevation. Now I was headed back to Coimbatore with others from the Keystone foundation to go to a conference filled with people working in the Western Ghats, ready to discuss and learn about topics I knew little about only a month ago.

 

NFLC Student’s Blog #3: Familiarity and Frustration

By Nikki Blumenfeld

 

There was something about this week that felt different than the others here. It was during our field trip that I noticed it the most, as I was sitting in the grass while the hot sun beat down on me, wishing I had bought a scarf to cover my head.

The sacred Toda temple, there are only two of its kind

We spent most of our day in Bikkapathymund, one of the Toda communities not too far of a drive from the Keystone campus. Fortunate enough to be invited to go on a hike to look at one of their most important temples, we started off earlier in the day, with plans to be done by lunch.

After many miles trekking through the forest, we entered a grassland and were told to take our shoes off. That meant we were close, only a short walk now to the temple. Right as I started to finally see it, a gorgeous, conical temple shaded by an alcove of trees with a buffalo pen next to it, our host turned around and told us that the men would be able to go further, but that the women would have to stay back.

Resignedly, I sat down. Of course, I thought to myself, I should’ve known this was going to happen. It wasn’t the first time I had experienced this type of restriction since I’ve been here. The girls in our batch had been warned beforehand too- we were going to be treated differently because of our gender, and though we might want to protest, we should remember that as visitors it is not our place to say what we feel is right or wrong and change what is not our community.

The NFLC students sit and eat lunch after their hike

As I sat there on the grassy slope, watching the men walk closer to the temple, I did notice that this was starting to irritate me more than it had in the past. During the first few weeks here everything felt so new and unusual and exciting, but now I was getting used to this place, finding familiarity in my day to day life. Yet with this familiarity came the frustration that this kind of occurrence will be something I will encounter often here.

Walking back, we were told that the women of Bikkapathymund could not walk any further than where we had left our shoes, too far away to even see the temple from the distance I could. This complicated my feelings even more than they already were- just as I did not want to be seen as inferior to the men in our group, I did not want to be given special treatment over a huge portion of the people we were visiting. It made me wonder too, why could I be afforded the opportunity the Toda women would never have? What did our hosts view me as? Though it was made clear that we weren’t men, it also seemed as if we weren’t really women either- we were something in between, but what exactly that means, I am not quite sure.

 

 

 

NFLC Student’s Blog #1: Ways of Knowing Landscape

By Read Barbee

 

We explore the rolling hills of the 9th Mile Toda settlement with the Keystone students.

This first week at Keystone has been a whirlwind of sensations—new sights, new smells, new language, new landscape, new birdsongs. The colors, the sounds, and the aromas all seem saturated, dripping with vibrancy and life. Bright orange soils blend to verdant green vegetation reaching up to a crystal clear and cloudless cerulean sky. The January air is crisp, cool and clean, each breath like a sip of fresh, cold water, and soaking up the ever-present sunshine I can’t help but feel its warmth rising within me in waves of profound joy. I am a stranger in this place, no more native than the fragrant eucalyptus, lantana, or silver oaks symbolic of British colonial rule, and yet already I feel at home. Already I have begun to send tentative roots into the soil, exploring its complex composition and grounding myself in the surreal beauty of the Nilgiris. But all of us from Cornell are faced with a challenge: will we be parasites like the vines slowly strangling the Amla tree, or will we integrate ourselves as valuable members of a cross-cultural symbiosis? Like the giant rock bees, can we use the nectar of our experiences here to produce something sweet for ourselves and for and our local partners?

My partners Agalya, Sangeetha and I working on our Keystone campus map outside our main classroom in Manda’arae
(Photo: Neema Kudva)

In this first week, we have discussed different ways of knowing place and relating to the world. The Keystone students relate to land very differently than we do in the US, and I’m particularly interested in how these differing relationships to land shape the treatment of it. For our first collaboration with our Keystone partners, we created a map of the campus using only our bodies for measurement. I have always thought of maps simply as tools for understanding spatial relationships, but now I am beginning to appreciate their potential as bridge-builders. When you create a map together, even if you don’t speak the same language, you reach an agreement about the way the world is. You create knowledge of a landscape over which you have collective ownership. It is quite a powerful thing.

 

This Friday, we took a bus tour throughout the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. The trip was fantastic because it strengthened our relationships with the Nilgiris and with the Keystone students. We saw high-elevation shola forests and blooming rhododendron around the Badaga settlement of Thumbatty. From Doddabetta, the highest peak in Tamil Nadu,we saw hilltop islands surrounded by oceans of clouds. We visited the Toda settlement at 9th Mile, scaled the rocks at Frog Hill, and experienced the majestic low-elevation dry forest and elephant camp at Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. We blasted Tamil music and danced in the bus all the way from 9th Mile to Frog Hill, which I think is the first time we really started to come out of our shells with the Keystone students. Dancing, like map-making, transcends language. We had so much fun that, after dinner in Ooty, we danced in the bus all the way back to Kotagiri.

Overall, I feel very proud of the progress we have made creating bonds with the Keystone students thus far. We have learned and done so much this week that my head is still spinning, but by far the most meaningful thing we have achieved is the beginning of deep friendships with our Keystone partners. I look forward to cultivating those relationships and watching them bloom through all of the wonderful and challenging experiences that lie ahead.

 

NFLC Student’s Blog #2: The Entangled Planet

By Wyatt Westerkamp

 

This week at the NFLC was full of twists, turns, long bus rides, and piles upon piles of food. It was also one of the most thought-provoking and stimulating weeks of my life. I witnessed and took part in rituals, dances, festivities, and dramas, trekked through mountains, and was the guest of many kind and wonderful people. In the process another world unfolded before my eyes.

My first glimpse into this world occurred at a Kota festival at their temple in the richly foliated Nehru Park at the center of Kotagiri. The festival celebrated Kambatrayan, a word that we were told, meant both“unity” and “god”. The festival is important on a spiritual level, but it also served to unify the community, solidifying and pronouncing their Kotahood. What immediately struck me was the dance: all acted as one, slowly circling as if in orbit around a massive tree in a sea of twirling white shawls.

We attended a Badaga water festival the next day. The function of this event was to worship the holy spring around which the village was centered. This involved giving offerings to the spring water, but it also included prayers to the gods along with dance, food, and festivities. Both the Badaga and Kota festivals seemed to develop a connected and entangled trinity of the divine, the natural, and the human, each of which interacted and blurred into each other.

Nearly every village I went to reflected this trinity. Often built directly into the forest or grasslands, the villages were full of life, including roaming cows, goats, dogs and birds. They were mostly small, relatively self-contained, and had very tightly knit communities. Each village also had its own temple or temples for use exclusively by the community. All of this was a far cry from the neatly compartmentalized world I grew up in in Cincinnati, Ohio—there were no empty green lawns, no manicured parks designated as “nature,” no megachurches to churn out spirituality like a product for mass consumption.

Niligiri, an Irula healer, divines the severity of an illness by placing burning camphor into a glass of water

Although these traditions and lifestyles in many ways exemplified an idealized community model, there were many contentious issues. Unity is a great concept to strive toward, but its actualization takes care and upkeep. Festivals and ritual provide important arenas for this, but sometimes they are simply not enough. As more and more people leave their villages for well-paying jobs—and why shouldn’t they?—inequity grows, jealousy festers, traditions get left behind, and the foundation of unity begins to crack. Irula and Kurumba healers we met and spoke withboth claimed that some community members practiced seivinai, roughly translated to sorcery, on more well-off members. They also lamented people’s quickly fading interest in tradition, expressing a very real fear that their knowledge would be lost to the world upon death. I hope that some middle ground can be established between the benefits of development and the rich perspectives and traditions I witnessed, for their loss would be tragic— not only for these communities, but for a humanity that desperately needs to open its eyes to the interconnectedness of the world around it.

 

NFLC Student’s Blog :The Land of Legs

The Land of Legs

By Paige Wagar

*Beep beep beep*
I’m not sure why I even set an alarm. With only three days stateside under my belt, my sleep schedule is far from aptly adjusted. I am up at 4am and ready for bed at 6pm. Nonetheless, my 7:30am alarm means that it is time to get on with the day. I jump out of bed and peek out my windows, assessing the weather before deciding on an outfit for the day. Rays of sunlight practically blind my not-yet-adjusted eyes. Another beautifully sunny summer day in Southern California. And here prompts adjustment number one to life after India… legs.

From the moment I stepped off the plane in Los Angeles, there were legs everywhere! My sister greeted me in the shortest shorts I had seen in four months and the skirt my mom was wearing at the airport showed knees. Knees! I wanted to rush them out of public as soon as possible! People were probably staring. What were they thinking? After a thirty second mental explosion of disbelief I was able to reign in my thoughts and bring myself back to reality, back to California, back to the Land of Legs.

Southern California summer style is casual and simple, easy, breezy, and leggy. Short shorts and even shorter rompers, dresses that depending on the length of one’s torso are more appropriately known as shirts. And being that I live in a laid-back town of beach bums and surfers, when meandering the lanes closest to the sandy shores of the Pacific, more often than not shirts are the only requirement. Here, our definition of socially acceptable coverage is rather liberal especially when compared to the dress code of Kotagiri.

I turn to my drawer and pick up a pair of shorts. High-waisted, acid wash denim that ends just above mid-thigh. These shorts have seen many a beach day and were my go-to weekend attire for most of high school. But today, now, something feels off about them. They seem so… short. Despite knowing that my plans for the day don’t even necessitate leaving the house, these shorts feel risqué. Such a stark contrast to the comfort and modesty of Kotagiri’s kurtas. I place the shorts back in the drawer among their other leggy companions, and pull out a pair of worn denim jeans that ends just above my ankles.

I struggled with the dress code of the Nilgiris. A moral dilemma that, even after three months, never went resolved. At the onset of the semester, I worked hard to keep my frustrations with the dress code to myself. I wouldn’t say that I am the most fashion-savvy, but I suppose that my upbringing in Southern California – a region where fashion is a particularly unique form of self-expression – my reaction to the limitations of dress was nonetheless understandable. I recognize that my response to the clothing of Kotagiri is directly due to the stark difference between the culture of clothing in Southern California and Southern India; my upbringing in a culture of bikinis, denim cut-offs, and strapless dresses informs my opinion on acceptable exposure.

I wore a sleeveless shirt into town one day. I wasn’t bare-shouldered, I draped my shawl in a way that hid my upper arms from the streets of Kotagiri. Retrospectively, it was a rather foolish decision; I let the temperature make my decision on how to dress that day. And though I was substantially cooler than I would have been in a kurta with its ¾ sleeves, I was substantially more self-conscious. As I walked into town, it was as if the wandering eyes of passerby’s could see through my shawl. They knew. To add to the experience, when crossing an intersection a stray gust of afternoon wind caught the edge of my shawl just right and lifted it up, exposing my bare shoulder. In that moment, I swear everyone in Kotagiri was staring upon me. I was self-conscious, embarrassed; I felt violated. And above all, I was frustrated by my shame. All because of a bare arm.

As my time in India progressed, I was able to identify that it wasn’t simply the new restrictions on acceptable clothing that I was frustrated with, it was my inability to override my response to these newly imposed limitations with my desire to recognize and respect the culture of Kotagiri that frustrated me. I was frustrated at my frustration.

And so, I was torn. I wanted so badly to assimilate into the day-to-day life at Keystone to the best of my ability, but I also felt that I was committing a disrespect to my personal beliefs as a passionate feminist. How dare The Man tell me to cover myself! Internal dialogues along these lines played through my head for the duration of my time in Kotagiri. The dynamic it reflects characterized my relationship with the clothing I wore while in India: the devoted and angry feminist who is frustrated with the restrictive dress codes imposed on women of the world by tradition.

What fascinates me most about my post-India aversion to legs, and skin in general, is my belief that people should be free to dress as they please free of judgement and ridicule. And here I am, astounded and shocked by those who choose to wear Daisy Dukes. After only four short months, I had begun to internalize the expectations and social norms of Kotagiri despite never consciously abandoning my fervent belief that decisions on how one chooses to present themselves to the world should not be regulated by societal pressures. I suppose it provides a curious commentary on the strength of social norms and the impact of culture on individual thought. Dynamics that I would have previously agreed are quite powerful, but I had never experienced such a salient moment that highlights their influence.

I’m sure exposed legs will work their way back into my comfort zone as time passes, but I don’t know if I will ever forget the feeling of the eyes of onlookers on my shoulder at that intersection in Kotagiri. Judgment, curiosity, mortification, shame. All because of a few inches of bare skin.

NFLC Student’s Blog: Kieran’s Reflection

Kieran’s reflection

By Kieran Micka-Maloy

“Vannakam! Yen peyar Kieran. Naan America yerinduh varen. Naan urban planning padikkiren.”

 

Kieran presenting research to community members with Shanmitha translating

And thus began my final presentation to the Tamil speaking community members gathered at Keystone. My partner, Prasath, was in Bangalore taking an entrance exam, so I was giving my presentation with the help of Shanmitha. The day before had been the English-language presentation. Despite all of the nerves associated with giving the presentation for the first time the day before, for some reason I was more nervous for this one. Maybe it was the fact that I was the only Cornell student speaking today, or more likely it was the fact that the people in the audience today were the ones for whom my research actually mattered. Not only that, but they were also the ones who lived with gaur on an every-day basis, and who would know if I said something wrong. And it didn’t help that a few sentences into my presentation I saw Neema stand up and furiously gesture for me to take my hands out of my pockets (which I promised I wouldn’t do half an hour before the presentation started. I was nervous!!).
So I went through my presentation, stopping every few sentences to allow Shanmitha to translate. I looked out at the crowd to see if they were taking it well, but couldn’t read a clear response. When I was just getting into the meat of my presentation, I heard a voice from the side cut me off.

“OK wrap it up.”
“Huh? I thought I was supposed to go through the whole thing?”
“I gave you a few extra minutes for translation, but we’ve gotta keep moving.”
“Oh… OK. Well that was a good place to wrap it up I guess. Thanks everyone.”

And that was the end of my Tamil presentation.

 

At first I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to get everything across that I had wanted to. But then the audience feedback started. While the previous day’s feedback had come from people entirely removed from the problem I was researching, and mostly focused on methodology, this was different. One man told me that I needed to rethink why gaur are moving from forests into cities. Another woman asked about the Forest Department’s role in the problem. From these initial comments, other people brought up points, building off of each other. For a few minutes, community members engaged in a conversation, including me but mostly amongst themselves, that sprung out of the research I spent my semester doing. Many people listening were far more knowledgeable about gaur than I was, having lived with the animals for their whole lives. My presentation, even though I had not been able to finish it, had organized and presented knowledge about gaur in a new way, even if most people knew a lot of what I was saying already. In doing this, it sparked a fruitful discussion amongst the community members. My disappointment melted away, and I realized that my presentation had done about all it could be expected to do, given that the real experts were sitting in the audience.

NFLC Student’s Blog: El título de este blog post es

El título de este blog post es

By Emma Eaton

This is the first time I’ve attempted to learn a new language in fifteen years. My second language, Spanish, didn’t even feel like learning. I remember sitting down on my first day of kinder and going through the lists of shapes and colors on the wall. Since everything was in Spanish, I never considered the fact that I was doing anything unusual. I was learning to write like every other kid – except I shared the first letter of my name con un elefante, not an elephant. Thirteen years of bilingual education later, I still wasn’t comfortable speaking the language with strangers. I’d speak Spanish in class, with my friends, but send me to a Mexican market with my dad and I’d still order the pico de gallo with an: “I’ll have a quart of the salsa in the middle, no, the other one, yeah, that’s it.” If I was going to surprise people as the white girl who spoke Spanish, I had to do it perfectly.

I envy those who can engage across language barriers with zero fear of humiliation. I envy those who are terrified, but do it anyways, even more. My method is to look for excuses: The patti said “thank you,” so it’s okay if I say that too, instead of “nandri.” Or: “you know more English than I know Tamil, so let’s communicate using words that we both already know well.” Every smile that I give the Canteen staff comes with an apology — an “I’m sorry I didn’t say sappadu nalla irrukudhu even though I really wanted to tell you how good I think your food is.”

Meena and Emma discussing their research project

Language is hard. Add a touch of anxiety to that, and it’s even harder. But that’s not the point. My point is that the more I struggle to communicate with language, the more other forms of communication stand out. Take the other week in the field as an example. My partner and I were both frustrated, we were inventorying without a translator, and the more we failed at getting our points across, the more we shut down. It was a rough week, but once those tensions subsided, I couldn’t help but think about a game we used to play. The rules were simple. She would talk at someone in Irula, I would talk at that same person in Spanish, and we would build off of each other to have a fake conversation about someone in languages that none of us could understand. It drove everyone else crazy, but was the best we’d ever communicated. Neither of us were worried about making mistakes. We were able to let expression and intonation guide the conversation.

My anxiety over language still exists. It’s not like a new approach to communication is magically going to fix that. It just helps to remember that words aren’t the sole determinant of my ability to express myself. If I mess up, I can laugh off my mistake with the person I’m talking to — give them an “I tried” smile instead of an “I-want-to-try smile.” The context behind the latter smile is limiting. It considers language as purely auditory. The former recognizes that the more comfortable and familiar language of the body can serve as a scaffold. Communication extends beyond the limits of vocabulary

NFLC Student’s Blog: Guided by the Light

Guided by the Light

By  J. Henry Pero

In many ways the role of the researcher is like that of an ancient astronomer.  Both look up at millions of points in an infinite expanse hoping to find a way to rationalize them.  We stich lines between ones that stick out to us, creating familiar images to share with the world.  Praying that everyone can use them to guide their course, we draw links that do just that for us.  But who are we to say which stars ought to shine brightest, or which figures resonate most?  Dare we not present our constellations as the only ones out there.  That said, we still seek to kindle a little universality in our world.

Flies reflecting the sunrise over a path in the core of Sathyamangalm Tiger Reserve

As we enter this final phase of the NFLC, we must ask ourselves how one even begins to present his or herself as an authority on a subject.  Just because I spent three weeks in a tiger reserve doesn’t mean I could tell you how best to defend yourself when cornered by the majestic beast.  Heck, I didn’t even see one.  And yet, I am posed with the task of having to explain life in Sathyamangalam – a life I could never know with completion even if I spent a decade there.  I can only say what I saw, and why one must thirst to see more.

But coming out of the field, some of us do not even feel equipped to say what we witnessed.  So for the past few days, each of us has stared at hundreds of pages of field notes, spreadsheets, questionnaires, maps, and reference articles trying to make sense of our observations in the Nilgiris.  We have tirelessly organized what presented itself to us in hopes for even the smallest light bulb to illuminate our path to understanding.  Only the possibility that we may forge a beacon of light for the communities with which we have engaged keeps us going.

But this noble charge could potentially hurt more than it helps.  Certainly our research partners have an inherent bias favoring their origins in tribal communities of the Nilgiris.  And in recognizing the awesome privilege of interacting with villages in Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve as well as the historic injustices cast upon them, I cannot help wanting to paint them as protagonists in my narrative.  But in organizing our data, my partner and I must resist this urge.  We must include in our analysis observations from the field that present truth as opposed to opinion.  And though the mere act of choosing what is relevant to report entails personal preference, we must do our best to minimize such an end.  An argument formed without keeping this inherent bias in mind would not be weaved, but fabricated.

We have the data, now we must put it together.  Any way we choose to shape it cannot be presented as fact, but only as a representation of how we see the pieces coming together.  The only thing valid about how we organize our data is the data itself.  So as researchers in search of the truth, we have a duty to devise a pattern that encompasses as many facts as possible.  We cannot discount things because they don’t make sense to us, don’t appeal, or because they find no place in the framework we foresee in our final report.  For if we wish to shed light on anything, we cannot afford to leave anything, or anyone, in the dark.

NFLC Student’s Blog: 93 & Race in America, as explained to a Patti in Pazhathottam

93 & Race in America, as explained to a Patti in Pazhathottam

By Vanessa Rodriguez 

As I set out to complete my blog post assignment for the week, I found that I wished to write about two topics. Together they capture the nature of my life at the NFLC – where we are forging ties across boundaries as we learn more about ourselves, the US, our classmates, and communities in the Nilgiris every day. I decided therefore, to ask for both to be uploaded.

93

Ninty-three. The number of days since we first landed in India. We took a bus up the mountain, taking in everything and pointing out each animal we saw as though we had never seen them before. An hour and a little more passed and we reached Keystone. We were excited, nervous, and a bit unsure of what to expect; all we knew was that this place was now home.

 

morning view from the canteen

The term, home, felt surreal at first. It was a just a word I could use to comprehend that I would be here for a while. Eventually, I started using home to reflect the comfort I felt with the place and the people. Weeks passed and I would forget where we were, not realizing the eight-thousand plus miles that separated us from our homes in the States. The only reminder was the ten and a half hour (or more for Emma and Paige) time difference that needed to be considered when we wanted to contact family and friends in the States.

For seven weeks, we followed a set schedule of classes and field trips broken up by meal times. By the time Spring Break arrived, we were all ready to escape Kotagiri, explore different cities, and mentally relax before field work. The nine day break brought about its own unexpected adventures: a downpour that prevented a hike, a train station that turned out to be a two hour drive from where we were, a random cow-ram, stumbling upon street festivities, shaky sleeper buses, and lots of delicious food ended with half of the Cornell group spending some time having the Pondicherry-Belly experience in the second part of break.

Before break had even ended, most of us (in the Cornell group at least) shared the desire to return to Keystone; and we could not contain our excitement as we drove back up the mountain to Kotagiri. The steep hill up to Keystone that normally terrifies us because of how vehicles struggle to make their way up, brought joy to us all. We could not stop smiling – so happy were we to finally be back home.

We spent four days at home before we separated into our project groups and left Keystone to pursue our research in the field. The night before we left, we pushed all the dinner tables together in the canteen to share the meal. And as we talked about random events, I came to notice how much of a family we had become.

We have celebrated birthdays and shared our misery over illnesses. We keep each other laughing during times of tension, and play ridiculous game of ‘Odds Are’ where we dare each other to do the most random silly things. Just as in other families we disagree with one another and get on each other’s nerves; but we always support one another.

Kotagiri has become my home, and my peers are my family. There are times when we call our loved ones in the States and dream of being back in our own space. There are moments when we list out all the foods we cannot wait to eat again like enchiladas, home-made salads, and pasta dishes that won’t make us sick. But those moments are often overshadowed by all the memories we make here every day.

 

Race in America, as explained to a Patti in Pazhathottam

I was sitting on a porch, eating lunch with my research partner and our translator after a morning in the field when a Patti (grandmother) came up to us and started conversing in Tamil. My understanding of Tamil, though it is improving, was too inadequate to keep up with the conversation; but then the Patti pointed at me and I heard the word, “America.” I looked at my translator, and she told me the Patti was wondering “Are all people in America white?”

Abinaya and Vanessa discussing their research project

I do not think I ever expected to hear that question, let alone be the one asked to respond. I replied in the most uncomplicated way I knew: no, there are people of all skin colors and ancestry in the United States. The conversation then shifted to another topic in Tamil, but my mind stayed on the question:

“Are all people in America white?”

The Patti thought that I was white. She was not the only one to assume this. In India, as I walk around with my peers, everyone sees me as white; in the States, the same thing happens. But everyone, like the Patti, are wrong. I am Latinx. And while my skin color is light, I do not identify with any of the limited racial groups listed on information gathering sheets, preferring to only mark down my ethnic origin.

We created this notion of race to classify humans based upon different factors; nowadays it is popularly associated with one’s physical traits, like skin color. It has become a social tool to determine how we think about others and how we treat others.

For the most part, I have escaped receiving direct racial slurs about my culture. My skin color protects me from racial attacks on individuals many ethnic minorities experience; and I am guilty of having used my skin tone in the past to avoid much of the negativity and bullying two of my sisters faced while in school. But, never have I declined my origins nor will I in the future.

Recently, I was asked by a Cornell peer, if it was not my responsibility to correct people when they assumed I am white. My response: yes and no. I am not going to carry a sign saying “I am not white” to correct everyone’s opinion. Nor will I stop saying I am Latinx, a gender-neutral identity describing my Latin American1 origins. But the circumstances by which I will share my background, and change the assumptions made about me, will depend on the environment and my ability to communicate my sense of self without translation. This is difficult while in Kotagiri though I have explained the idea of Latinx in class with help from our translators.

So, ask me if all people in America are white. And I will say, America is not just the United States. It is Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America; and there are people of every skin color living in all the countries of America including people like me, who are not connected by the color of our skin, but rather by our ancestry. We are Latinx.

 

 

 

1Latin America refers to countries of North and South America that lie south of the United States where a Romance language is spoken.

 

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