08. Unbreakable

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By Rachel & Rabin, Cornell students.

This blog post is coming to you train traveling from Trivandrum to Madurai where the six Cornell students continue their spring break. While our break has nothing to do with the course we have just completed at Keystone Foundation, and although we are apart from our friends and colleagues back in the Nilgiris, the past few days spent apart from them has allowed us to reflect on the past seven weeks, coming to terms with our discontents and rejoicing in our victories.

We want to summarize and reflect on the adventures of the last few weeks. Two weeks ago, the Cornell and Keystone students spent the weekend in Mysore, where we stayed with an organization called the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM). This field trip occurred in response to a strong desire from the Cornell students to explore a new place outside the Nilgiris. The Keystone students were a bit reluctant to go to Mysore, as this is a city that they know well because of its close proximity.

Ultimately, we all boarded the bus with the familiar excitement of a field trip. After all, we have learned to love the connections made across cultures during such bus rides and this one lasted seven long hours, filled with squeals, laughter, and blaring Tamil music. The camaraderie cherished during the past bus rides carried over throughout the entire weekend. What was old to the Keystone students now became an opportunity for leadership.

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Jackie checks out the marketplace in Mysore.

At SVYM, we spent the first morning learning about the work that they do with tribal communities in the Mysore area– it was interesting to compare this with Keystone’s work in the Nilgiris. Afterwards, we visited the grand Mysore Palace and the old Devaraja Market, gaining a new perspective on a different side of India marked by the sights, smells, and sounds of a historic and culturally-rich city.

On our last day, we went to the historic town of Seringapatnam, where the 18th century ruins and monuments of the Muslim king Tipu Sultan still stand. A highlight for all of us was our visit to the Keshava Temple in Somnathpur, just outside Mysore. We almost skipped it altogether due to the heat and dwindling time. Maybe it was the brief stop at McDonald’s or the unwillingness to give up, but somehow we managed to force ourselves to continue on, to visit the temple we had travelled miles to see. We are perpetually happy that we did just that.

Everything about the temple overwhelmed us. Arriving just before dusk, soft light illuminated the intricate details of the ancient temple’s carvings. The details of every square inch told a story and history of people, culture, and religion. And beyond this, the atmosphere breathed peace.

Both Cornell and Keystone students scampered around the temple studying the walls and posing obsessively for photographs. This temple was new to all of the students, apart from Rabin. But even Rabin appreciated the temple’s unique beauty after several visits. As the sun began to set, we said goodbye to the temple and headed back to the bus. This long day was a success.

Skipping ahead to our return – Monday, we had to hit the ground running in order fit in the curriculum’s finale in five short days. Still, we were determined. This week may have been the most intense yet, covering two units in this short time. Somehow we managed, absorbing the content of lectures, making the most of our usual Wednesday field trip, preparing our livelihood projects, finding time to pack and tie up loose ends. This week demanded every minute be active, relenting only at the last moment possible.

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A quiet temple moment.

In many ways, it was a microcosm of our entire NFLC experience up to this point. There were moments of frustration as well as relaxation and happiness. There were times when we had to think hard about complex issues as we stood in the hot sun staring into a water spring box. Then, we had to wrap our heads around the concepts of livelihoods that were being carried on from several weeks back. The long hours of class became tiring, but something changed towards the end of the week. All the students began making connections across themes, and we engaged in activities that helped us think forward to our upcoming research. In a broader sense, we all began to fully understand what we are here to do.

It was Friday night, and all of the students were still processing the fact that we had just finished our seventh and final week of classes. Our final debrief left us remembering the successes and challenges of the past weeks, and immensely thankful for the investment that each member of Keystone had poured into us. Sitting around the classroom, in a circle so that everyone could look each other in the eyes, we cherished the bonds that pervaded across language, nationality, age, and culture. The debrief also gave us a chance to contribute our opinions on what we thought did not work so well throughout the course to this point, such as the volunteering activities. We felt glad, though, that our thoughts would go towards improving the course next year and the year after.

Even after this conclusion to the class period, our work was not yet finished. The rest of Friday night was spent in the classroom, Cornell students and Keystone students busily working together in order to complete the last assignment. By midnight, no group had finished, and as much as we dreaded the assignments before us, we valued these last moments spent as a class. Looking ahead, we knew that we would continue to work in parallel to one another, but from here on out, research would take each group in a different direction and the community that we had built would no longer be accessible in the way that had become familiar to us.

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Those many photo opps …

As the early morning stretched on, projects came to completion, and students headed to bed in their dorms for one last night before leaving for spring break. Just a few hours later, in the dark of dawn, the Cornell students lugged our backpacks to the car. We loaded up the car and began our journey across the South Indian landscape. But we could not depart without first bidding our fellow students and friends farewell. Although it was six in the morning after a late night of hard work, the Keystone students made the effort to get out of bed and meet us at the car to say one last goodbye. This gesture by the Keystone students touched each of us Cornell students.  Hugging each other goodbye imprinted an intangible, inexpressible sense of fondness and attachment for one another– one that captures the power of humanity and cannot be limited by language, country, or culture.

Spring break offered the respite we all needed to reset before beginning the research phase of this course. This break consisted of some of the most exhausting moments and some of the most relaxing moments we have experienced yet, but all the while we grew closer as a batch. By the end of our travels we felt ready to return to Keystone. After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder. As the last days of break come to an end, we all look forward to waking up in our Keystone beds and being reunited with our friends. Now, we are feeling ready to dive into our research with the support of our NFLC community and the excitement that will come through learning in the field. Let the games begin!

Photo credits: Cornell students [via Facebook].

07. No place like home

 IMG_2988A lively scene from the annual Badaga festival.

By Jackie, Cornell student.

I cannot believe it is Week Six already…but actually I really can believe it, and with the team that we are, it is no surprise to me that we have come this far. I think we have finally grown accustomed to our environment, the peace and beauty of this campus complemented by the bustle and sounds of the town. We have overcome our fear of vehicles whizzing too close to our bodies as we brave an invisible sidewalk that hugs the dusty road, and the wide-eyed and curious stares of the people are not as perceptible, mainly, I suppose, because we are not wide-eyed and curiously staring back at them.

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The student guest house on Keystone’s campus, nestled amidst the hill tea fields.

Although waking up in a dorm nestled in the mountains or walking to the center of town may evoke less of a sense of adventure and awe than it did when we first arrived, there is another feeling that is settling in its spot and one that is strangely comforting: a feeling that this place is our home.

For me, I am fighting this numbing feeling of familiarity with all I can, for with any familiar place, you begin to overlook the now common things that were once bizarre and alluring. Even so, I could never grow completely accustomed to any environment, especially this one. It is constantly in flux, and each day brings a new wonder.

Take the Badaga festival we attended Saturday night, for example. Traditional music, food, and dancing pervaded the scene with twinkling lights and one majestic tree to inspire a mood of good spirit and true devotion. The way of the Badagas is to “dance as one,” mimicking each other’s rhythm and moving in harmony. When the music plays, each member of the circle is both the teacher and the student, learning the dance from the one standing beside you and performing it for the next, until there is no clear distinction who is leading and who is following.

It reminds me of the way we live here at Keystone and the reason why I have so quickly adopted this place as a home-away-from-home. I am constantly learning—not just in the classroom, but in the field and on the road and waking to town and as I wait for a meal in the canteen and even as I sit here on the balcony overlooking Kotagiri.

So far, I am enjoying the information and stories and experiences Keystone and Cornell colleagues alike so openly share with me. And when I think I have little to give in return, I am reassured by those around me that I have contributed my thoughts and feelings and knowledge in ways in which I am still unaware. In my eyes, the NFLC is a team like the Badaga dancers: always ready to learn and teach when the music plays and never ceasing to share when the music stops.

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Students take in the scenery on a hike.

Photographs: Jaqueline Sepulveda & Ahana Chatterjee.

06. Together in a new world

IMG_2408Students gather on the balcony of the Guest House on Keystone campus.

I think we are in a new world, knowing and gaining knowledge.

This week we had an excellent topic: “Governance.”  At first, I was wondering about what we would study. I had no idea about what to expect.

As usual, we started our classes with a CBE (Crossing-Boundaries Exercise). The weather was good this week and warmer in general. We had K.C. Malhotra’s lecture and within an hour we learnt so many things.

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Subin, Asja, Rachel, and Thulasi sit and observe the world around them during the Bus Stop Exercise.

On the first day we did a “bus stop” exercise. It was really good. We observed each and every moment of the public and a particular area of Kotagiri. My group was at Ramchand. There I observed a very caring brother. Two young school boys were crossing the road. The older boy was carrying the younger brother’s bag, holding his hands and carefully crossing the road. I liked the session in which we were all asked to share our bus stop experiences.

Then there was another guest lecturer named Kavitha. She spoke about legislature. We also discussed how government works — from the counselor to the state executive.

We started our journey to Coimbatore at 8:30 AM on Wednesday. There we met some of the Keystone staff who work on urbanization and sanitation. We met them at the Coimbatore Keystone office. Then we met some government officers who were working on urban governance. They told us about how they were planning to make Coimbatore a “smart city.” It was interesting to know their plans.

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The group assembles for a photo on the NFLC’s visit to nearby Coimbatore.

Then we went to the shopping mall. We watched a movie called “Visaranai” which was different from the movies I have seen before. That movie was about governance, politicians and police. I enjoyed watching the movie.

The next day K.C. Malhotra held his class from 10:30 AM to 1:00 PM; it was a long class but I liked it. I knew many abbreviations such as BMC (biodiversity management committee), IPR, CBD etc. We also acted out a drama. I enjoyed acting it out. It was based on governance in a city. We created an imaginary story.

On Friday, we did a survey on how the public thinks they can bring better governance in their area. From 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM we did the survey. We were divided into three groups, my group went to Ramchand, the market, the bus stand and Johnstone square. We interviewed 25 people. At the beginning, it was difficult to ask people about governance. We didn’t get the answers that we expected. Gradually we understood what and how to ask the questions.

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Mani, Jackie, Indurani, Banti, & Rabin make a presentation in Manda Arae.

The governance week ended with each group doing a presentation on what they surveyed. In our survey, people complained about pollution. Each individual should think and start cleaning from their house level. I felt very happy this week to know that people are working in very big and hard positions in our government.

I enjoyed this week.

 

Photos: Ahana Chatterjee.

05. Game on

12643002_10201266146531810_4935112817427644002_nPadam, the son of Keystone staff members, joins in a game of football.

By Sinan, Cornell student.

Last week, after a long day of classes, we saw some of the employees of Keystone setting up for a game of cricket. Some of us students, including Rabin, Subin, Mani, and myself, asked if we could join in and were welcomed. However, with our lack of knowledge on how the game of cricket worked and the lack of players we decided to play football instead.

The day before, I had gone to Ramchand (the nearby general store) and picked up a ball that we could play with. Within a few minutes local friends were called up and teams were decided. Two bricks were placed on each end of the red dirt in front of Manda Arae. This was now our football field.

Soon enough we were playing. I myself had not played football in a very long time and was never very good. Instantly, I was regretting my decision of not joining a league when I was young like my parents had suggested. Everyone was pretty solid and had good chemistry. After a while I started picking it up, though I was still the weak link on my team: missing passes, loosing the ball, and kicking it out of bounds.

12646709_10201266147411832_7122447132842101820_oYet as much fun as playing football was, it was not the game that this blog post is about.

During our game something incredible occurred. Beyond one of the brick goals there was construction underway, where the new bathrooms for the Keystone campus are being built. In this construction area was a well about a four meters deep, empty but dark.

One of the shots on goal missed and rolled right into the well. We all watched in horror.

To me, this was a lost cause. The game was over. But as I was thinking that, a discussion broke out in Tamil. Quickly, a decision was made by the group. A sketchy ladder was fetched and placed in the well. Two people held the ladder so that one brave soul would not be lost in the darkness of the well, then we held the hands of those holding the ladder and wrapped our hands around a pole so not to slide in. Soon enough the brave soul stepped on the ladder and made his way down.

We watched in anticipation. Within seconds he was at the bottom of the well holding the ball, and then he climbed back up with the jewel we all had thought we lost. As he emerged from the darkness of the well, we all roared with excitement. Without any thought we were back playing football.

This whole event, from the moment of discussion to the emergence of our hero, only took about five minutes. I was so impressed by the teamwork.

The culture here in India promotes teamwork so well; I feel as though if my friends and I were playing back in Ithaca and we lost a ball in a well, the game would be over – and we would buy a new ball. But here there were no such thoughts. The ball was not a lost cause, it just needed us to work together and retrieve it.

12642448_10201266146451808_8714351681102686470_nThis experience made me realize how individualistic the society I come from is, though I do not think of this as a negative, just as a different culture. In India, the society is much more team-oriented. What I witnessed blew me away, and still today as I write the teamwork and efficiency in which the ball was retrieved from a seemingly hopeless place amazes me.

This simple game of pick-up football gave me a lens through which to see Indian culture. What the NFLC facilitates is an environment in which you live, learn, and experience a culture in a very intimate way, such as an impromptu game of football. I look forward to my remaining time here, in India and at the NFLC: learning and being amazed.

04. Romanticizing India

  IMG_5034 Shanti & Banti help Wynne put on her sari for Valentine’s Day celebration.

By Asja, Cornell student.

We have been in India for a little over a month now and are finally starting to settle in.

I do find myself missing the United States every once and while, mostly friends and family. However, at this time of year, what I am really sad about missing is Valentine’s Day – I feel like it gets a lot of bad press for being a Hallmark holiday and can be completely underrated. To me, Valentine’s Day is a time of year to share love with the people in your life who you care about. It’s my absolute favorite holiday, and I know that if I were back home, at this point in the month, I would be covered in pink and red glitter and brimming with enthusiasm.

Of course, for this Valentine’s Day that I am away, I will be sure to tell all the people who are important to me how much I love them – but what I really want to do is share with everyone my new-found love for this beautiful country that I’m so lucky to live in for the next couple of months.

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Indurani, Banti, Shanti, & Thulasi ready for the Valentine’s Day celebration.

First off, to clarify, it’s not all rainbows and there are challenging days. Like laundry days (we don’t have washing machines here, so handwashing is a thing – see Meg’s post from First Batch). Or days after laundry when you collect your drying clothes from outside and realize there’s a spider in your underwear (that was yesterday). Or the days where you feel like you’re literally going to turn into a grain of rice if you see any more of it on your plate (mostly every day). Or the days you get stuck in the middle seat for the three-hour car ride all the way down the mountain to the sweltering plains of Coimbatore (earlier this week). Sometimes the little struggles that come with living in a new place and dealing with a cross-cultural experience can add up, but ultimately what’s tougher than the most difficult day in India is failing to acknowledge the astounding beauty and magic in the life we live at the NFLC.

What really strikes me when I consider the contrasts between the NFLC and Cornell is the change I’ve experienced in the pace of life. With more easygoing days, I have found myself taking the time to savor the enjoyment in so many little things.

Happiness is steaming mugs full of freshly steeped, perfectly sweetened ginger tea at our nearly-sacred daily teatimes. It can be found in the brightly colored saris and scarves wrapped elegantly around the women in the markets of Kotagiri. Happiness is the card games and warm laughter combining with the heat and steam from the frying vadai that fills the canteen we eat in each day, and that competes with the contrasting chill of the dropping night temperature out

side. It is found in my classmates’ smiles as we share jokes in the broken English-Tamil language we use to communicate. It is found in every twist and turn on the winding scenic route we take on our weekly bus trips, and in knowing that each new turn can bring something even more exciting than the last – like this foraging wild elephant in the jungle right alongside the dusty road.

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“Happiness is found in every twist and turn on the winding scenic route we take on our weekly bus trips … “

Happiness can be discovered in our classroom, Manda Arae, where each day we circle around and hear our many teachers speak with reverence about the intricacies of governance or ecology or indigenous culture in the Nilgiris. Even on the long nights when I am overcome with old anxiety and sleep is out of reach, the enchanting beauty of the scarlet sunrise peeking through the mountaintops pulls me out of bed with a smile on my face. There is so much beauty to hold on to in this landscape and with these remarkable people.

To celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, Pratim and Sneh, two of the Keystone founders as well as our teachers, graciously opened up their home to us for a festive and fancy dinner party. Beforehand Rachel, Jackie, Wynne, and I all gathered in the Keystone girls’ room where they proceeded to work magic and wrap us up in magnificent saris. I felt like Cinderella as the girls dashed around and made a simple piece of fabric into something so regal, bringing out elaborate jewelry and bindis to perfectly match. Of course, after we got all dressed up the proceedings were a bit prom-like, as we took a zillion pictures and struggled to walk down the road to the house in our layers of sari. Once there, all the students gathered to exchange gifts in “Secret Cupid,” an idea Wynne thought up to share the love on this special day.

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Jackie & Rachel pose in their saris.

Afterwards, we ate a delicious meal of tandoori chicken, chutney, stew, and poori, and were then urged by our teachers onto the makeshift dance floor in the living room. When I got a break from struggling to dance to Micheal Jackson’s Thriller in a sari, I took a step back and looked around the room at these incredible, vivacious people that make up the NFLC family. I was struck by how much love and gratitude I already hold for all of them in my heart.  Although I may not have gotten my glitter, Ghirardelli chocolates, or roses this year, I certainly had a Valentine’s Day to remember.

All photos: Anastasja Moynihan.

03. Crossing boundaries

IMG_2651Second Batch hard at work.

By Mani, Keystone Student.

The second week of the NFLC started at 9:30am with a Crossing Boundary Exercise (CBE). CBE’s are very useful for sharing our thoughts with each other. Livelihoods was the theme of week two. The CBE helped us very much to learn about the different livelihoods of the Keystone students as well as the Cornell students.

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Second Batch makes a visit to Keystone’s partner company, Last Forest Enterprises, to learn about their selection of value-added, non-timber forest products, a source of livelihood for the region’s communities. Here, they get a taste of the exquisite Nilgiris honey.

The presentation on livelihoods was effective. The frame work that was presented based on livelihoods brought new ideas into the classroom and made me think about my own livelihood.

The session after lunch was that of critical geography. It was a complicated session for me. The exercise was interesting, though: it was about identity.

The class about eco-tourism was interesting. I gathered that tourism was also useful for the development of livelihoods for some community people in other regions.

The presentation on tea cultivation enabled me to understand the change in landscape in the Nilgiris from the British period to the present. I also came to know about how communities changed their livelihoods from agriculture to tea plantations and also about the loss of Shola forests in the Nilgiri district.

Business and Marketing were the other topics that we learnt this week. In these classes, I understood how community people are benefited by organic farming.

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Take the classroom outdoors: in typical NFLC fashion, Second Batch takes the day’s lecture to the lawn outside MandaArae.

The second week of the NFLC had two field trips. It was very useful for us to see the different landscapes. We also got a better chance to communicate with each other.

We visited a few villages in a place called Aracode. It was a wonderful place, the climate of that place was totally different than that of Kotagiri. We saw tribal settlements and even got to ask them about their daily activities. I was surprised by the government tribal residential school having a total strength of only tribal community people.

The field trip helped me to think about my research project on fallow lands as I was also in a place that had human-elephant conflict.
The last CBE was conducted as a game. In my opinion, it was a different way of learning. It made us think a lot. I was very happy to hear the Cornell students speak in Tamil.

In the evenings we usually have student debrief sessions. It’s not only a time to share our thoughts and ideas but I think it is another way of learning. We’ve had a few group discussions this week which helped me share my ideas frankly even if it was right or wrong.

For me the group discussions never get boring!

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A village visit.

All photos: Ahana Chatterjee

02. “Lessons explode across the landscape”

By Wynne, Cornell Student.

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Sinan, Wynne, & Asja take in the glorious view of Bhavanisagar Reservoir.

While enjoying the last months at home, I was often surrounded by friends and family curious about my trip to India. Their inquiries tended to include a variation of “aren’t you excited/scared/nervous?” Such reactions seemed appropriate, but none of the familiar emotions managed to capture what I was feeling.

Weeks later, a few thousand miles away, and a few thousand meters higher, a simple summation or understanding of my feelings regarding this experience seems even more illusive. I have been captivated, intimidated, curious, anxious and tired. Still I can’t help but notice that these words unsuccessfully represent much of anything. Waking up in these fog-wrapped mountains doesn’t lend itself to much else but the current moment. The most accurate description I feel I can give is that everything is different.

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Morning breaks over the fog-wrapped hills.

Every day the Nilgiris unfolds another piece of itself and adventures I could never predict.

This place is unlike anything else because it allows you to really be here. Not unlike most nights at Cornell I go to bed exhausted, but it is no longer from a workload that rarely gives you the satisfaction of completion. Instead, it comes from the fullness of a day that captures you wholly.

What quickly distinguished itself about the NFLC was the seamless connection between the classroom and the surroundings. In the morning we may discuss human wild-life conflict, the tea industry, or the changing natural landscape, while on an afternoon walk we see these lessons explode across the landscape: invasives tangle themselves in thick patches, wild gaur stand in our path and tea plantations flow across the hills, a rolling wave of green.

Such experiences point to the true character of studying at Keystone. These connections are no accident; behind every class is an expert on the subject laying out for you their intimate knowledge ad experiences with the Nilgiris. Our engagement with the material beyond the lecture and discussion is not by chance but the motivation and goal of the program.

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Another change that cannot go without noting is the transformation that occurs at the hours of 11 AM and 4 PM daily. No longer do they stand as simple markers in time, but instead they are moments of congregation for Keystone. My ears perk up as the canteen bell rings and around campus all activities pause as we join for teatime. More than the sweet taste of milky chai or the biscuits that melt on your tongue after a seconds dip in the steaming cup, teatime exposes the entire Keystone community, a group that extends far beyond those I encounter in the classroom.

IMG_5670In addition to every individual moment, I appreciate the differences themselves. With each encounter, I am encouraged to slow down and question not only how others interact but how I do as well.

In class, around campus, or out in town I simultaneously gain a deeper understanding of this new culture and my own. Walking to the market, I realize how grocery stores have falsely provided me with the belief that all things are always available; here, you get what fruit is in season; right now guava and pomegranate fill the roadside stands (though I eagerly await the mango and grapefruit).

The possibilities that exist every morning when you wake up fill you with a curious energy.  I find myself wondering what trees will be in bloom, if the leopard was spotted last night, or what stories I may hear.

01: “No subject was boring.”

By Subin, Keystone Student.

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Students Rabin, Jackie, Manikandan, & Thulasi stop for a moment of rest on their busy bus tour of the NBR.

It has been a week and a half since the NFLC 2016 started and it is going pretty good in all means. We have very comfortable hostels, a canteen and a classroom, all within a radius of fifty meters.

The first day of the NFLC began at 9:30 am on a cold Wednesday. I knew a few things about my Cornell friends before I met them, for instance their names, the subjects they were interested in and also a little about the activities they do during their leisure. My Keystone friends are all talkative except Banti who is a little shy. Nonetheless, she always laughs at Manikandan’s name for her— Vandi meaning vehicle in Tamil.

Day 1 was mostly about introducing each other and getting to know more about the others. Asking questions to individuals about themselves, their family and the place in which they lived gave the students the opportunity to have interactions between one another. I don’t know what kind of expectation the other students had about this course but I expected it to be a typical Indian style of class for the first seven weeks after which we could do what I was more interested in, our research projects. But I was forced to change my mind on the second day itself because of the different method of learning I experienced in the classroom. Even though it was new to me I was able to understand the subject better. I also discovered that no subject was boring, the way in which I listened or understood the subject made a difference.

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Second Batch shares the results of their interactive mapping activity.

A group activity to map the Keystone campus brought new ideas from the students to measure the campus using body parts and representing them in a 3D-figure. Each group did it in a different way and each had a unique way of thinking. The students also had a mutual understanding which was seen in the group activities. In addition to mapping the campus, the activities at ‘Happy valley’ and few more inside the campus proved that the students were a team.

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Everyone gathers around the little tour bus before departing Keystone Campus for their inaugural tour of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (NBR).

Everyone feels safe and cozy with the campus rules and have adopted to the Kotagiri climate. The NBR bus tour gave the students a good exposure of the different landscapes of the Nilgiris. The trip added a kind of happiness that encouraged the students to learn in an effective way with a broader view of understanding and remembering it for future discussions. The other things that were part of the NBR bus tour were music, fun, enjoyment, chocolates, cookies and some other snacks.

Each day’s time table starts with a Cross Boundary Exercise (CBE), followed by letters on various subjects and later we have language classes. The afternoon sessions include having activities related to the fore-noon sessions. Every evening is winded up with a debrief of 30 minutes. Everyone is encouraged and free to throw out their thoughts and feelings about the class and the topics discussed during the sessions.

The students have more or less understood the pattern of the course and will be able to manage the coming weeks in a better way is what my current understanding is.

Photos: Ahana Chatterjee