Friday, January 19

Can I take a selfie with you?

“…You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise…”
-Maya Angelou*

Smile for the camera one, two, three, cheese! Can I have a selfie? A question that divided the group.

For two weeks that one scenario has changed the way I think about global racism. Many places we traveled, people asked for a selfie or just walked up without asking to take a photo and then left.

What’s the diffence between me and you? Well it’s my skin tone. Even if you are black, my melanin may be darker or lighter. Skin is a very noticeable characteristic and often the first step of judgement. The second step is realizing I am a female. In many cultures we encountered, woman are often mistreated; and I knew I had to overcome that same obstacle.

Thirteen days I spent walking on the land in India. Thirteen days I spent walking a fine line between acceptance and rejection. Like any other country, culturally india recognizes lighter skin with a higher status in society. Just my luck that my skin color matched the people I meet in the lower caste. Now I am a foreigner in a country that rarely encounters people of African disphoria and sometimes treat woman like trash.

After thirteen days I can count on one hand how many black people I saw in India and all were male. I got weird looks, people always staring, the question of what country I came from…and my favorite is when I hear people shout “African” or “Nigerian.” What bothered me the most was being treated like a rare animal in the zoo that you just point at and take selfies with from a distance.

The way I was perceived changed the way people interacted with me, if anyone interacted at all. It seemed that many in the group I came with also failed to see when others are treated differently among the white people, so why would I have faith that they would notice me? There are many people in the group who are always approached—they look like the typical white person… Not only do I struggle with my own fear of the way people think about me, I am also met with thoughts of who would stand up for me within my own group.

I always thought kids were the best when it comes to race and acceptance of all people. Until I encountered three young boys at United Theological College. They constantly went around to the white people talking, asking them to dance, laughing and having a great time. However, they were never close enough to me that I could get a simple hello. Instead, I watched as they would point and laugh. Even when the boys were told to say hello to the group, they never made it far enough to shake my hand.

There were times when I felt confident enough to voice my struggles and most people seemed astonished and immediately felt guilty. Only a few notice when I am treated differently. Only a few are willing to ask questions about my experiences. And so many more seem to let guilt predict their next movement or don’t seem to care at all. This has challenged me to exist in a society that has forgotten how similar I am to the people I meet. That has made me feel belittled, rejected, outcast and lowered my self esteem at times. It’s like I never left the United States.

So how do I respond and how do I stand up for my self? It’s starts with confidence and forgiveness. I am reminded of the words of Jesus: “father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The two circumstances are not the same but they words have the same meaning to me.

So what does it mean to be black in India? It means to walk with a swagger of confidence and to be okay with the perception that is placed on me. It means to be aware of my surroundings and to guard yourself from your own feelings. It’s easy to fall down and not want to come out, but it takes more to open the window and let the world see your face. I am black, I am a woman, and I am proud.

My experience was different than the other African Americans because Dahl is a male, who is given respect, and Richelle has lighter skin, with a few characteristics similar to Indian women. Lastly, I refused to let negative perceptions dictate my experience. I still entered the same spaces, enjoyed the same meals and laughed at the same jokes. My experience was great and difficult, revealing a lot about my personal resilience.

Now I reflect to learn and to thank God that I was not given a spirit of fear.

Khayla Johnson

*We read Angelou’s “Still I Rise” as part of our discussion of the “Dolls Speak” exhibit a few days earlier in the trip

Thursday, January 18

6A9873B2-BF80-4CE4-9A77-6347DF8AAC5A.jpegOur last full day in India began with a devotional led by Khayla about encouragement. We each had a piece of paper with our names on it, and we all went around in a circle writing encouraging things about each person. Then we were told to fold them up and not look at them until we got back home.

Our second activity of the day was a talk by Dr. Joseph Prabhakar Dayam about Dalit Christianity. The word ‘Dalit’ means oppressed in Sanskrit, and it is used to refer to the untouchable caste, separate from the four-fold varna system in Hinduism. Listening to Dr. Joseph’s talk was one of my personal highlights from the trip.

Dr. Joseph said that because Dalits were not allowed to keep a written history, the story of the Israelites became their own. Dr. Joseph shared memories of carrying his Bible to churches as a political statement, to show that he was familiar with ancient history, and just to show people that he could read. For Dalits, Christianity was emancipatory.

Dr. Joseph also shared comparisons between Dalit Liberation Theology and other types of Liberation Theology. Specifically, he said that Marxist analysis is not particularly helpful for Dalits, because with untouchability there is more than just income inequality that is causing them to have problems. Culture is the larger barrier to Dalit societal advancement. This means that instead of looking to South American Liberation Theology for inspiration, most Dalits look to Black Theology as a template for liberation. He claims that “brokenness is a precondition for a liberative consciousness.

After Dr. Joseph’s presentation, we went to a mosque called Charminar, which was built in 1591. We had a really fun tour guide who had a lot of energy but either pointed out obvious things or made things up as he went. We walked around the grounds for a while, and some of us were able to climb up some really narrow stairs to a lookout area, where we had a nice view of the surrounding market. One thing I found to be interesting was that the mosque was made with a concrete compound that contained a lot of egg.

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In the afternoon, we went to a market to practice our bartering skills and purchase gifts to take home with us. The market contained mostly handmade artistic things, and it was clear that a lot of work went into each thing being sold.

In the evening, we met up again for a devotional to talk about what we would be bringing back with us to the United States. It was a really nice conclusion, and I enjoyed hearing how each person was processing their time in the country.

Thomas Hampton

Wednesday, January 17

We spent the first part of today visiting different sites in Hyderabad run by the local non-profit CHORD. This organization is doing great community development work focusing on the education and empowerment of women and children, including skills training. The acronym CHORD stands for Child welfare, Holistic Organization, Rural Development. We learned about the organization from the Founder and President, Mr. Suman Malladi. As he explained the organization, however, he expressed that he prefers to be called the “Chief Functionary” and that he doesn’t want the NGO to have a hierarchical structure.  Instead, he seeks to de-legitimize the hierarchies that keep people in poverty at the bottom.

We began our visit with a trip to the High-School which educates children from 6-16 years old in Telugu, english, math, science, and other important subjects. When we visited the classrooms we learned some Telugu words, sang songs, and learned about what the kids’ hobbies were. We then visited the girls school project, which focuses especially on the education of young girls. We got to play with these girls, learning a new game similar to frisbee. The kids at each school were smart, kind, joyful, talented, and beautiful, and it was such an honor to learn from them and play with them.

Mr. Malladi explained to us that 30 million children in India are working or otherwise out of school and that the root cause of child labor is family poverty. That is why CHORD not only educates children, but also works to empower women by providing skills-based training and jobs in different “slums” in Hyderabad. After a delicious meal from our hosts at CHORD, we visited the largest of these “slums,” Yellammabanda, which is on the outskirts of the city. Dr. Nadella and Mr. Malladi explained to us that a “slum” is a government-built neighborhood that the government uses to push those in poverty (and primarily immigrants) to the very edge of the city where they are out of sight and out of mind. Yellammabanda actually means “Rock of the mother of boundaries” and is named after a goddess of the boundaries, meant to protect the city. The irony of this positive naming was not lost on me, as the government used this place of “protection” to ostracize people in need.

In Yellammabanda we visited another CHORD project, the Growth Gene Project. Here CHORD works to “rehabilitate and educate children, provide employable skill training to women and create measurable community awareness” in order to “set up an education-employment cycle that will enable future generations to step out of child labor.” We had an opportunity to meet some of the women who are a part of the program and watch them work on the sewing machines. One woman I met who had worked there for three years said that she wanted to work there for the rest of her life. The women were very kind to us and a couple of them even offered to do Mahendi (henna art form) on the hands of the women! Their creativity, artistry, and skill were impressive and very much appreciated by all of us.

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We spent the evening at Mennonite Bible College, and very much appreciated their hospitality. The seminary principal, Dr. Ashirvadam, is the father of CTS student Hannah Grace “Shiny” Injamuri, so we were especially excited to meet him! Leaning into their Mennonite tradition and heritage, the seminary focuses a great deal on peace and even has a Peace Center. We joined some current students for a walk around campus, which is being remodeled as the 98 year old school progresses and grows. All of their BD (MDIV) students are residential for all four years and they come from many different states in India as well as a few other countries, including Myanmar. Though the seminary is Mennonite, the students and faculty come from a variety of denominations. There are only a few female students at the seminary, but this was explained by Dr. Ashirvadam as a representative of the larger Christian community – it is much more difficult to get ordained as a woman, especially in more rural areas. However, their mix of male and female faculty and staff was pretty balanced, which was encouraging. We were treated to a wonderful dinner with the famed delicacy of Hyderabad: Biriyani, along with a few other delicious dishes. We enjoyed talking with faculty and students over dinner until we sadly had to return to our hotel and rest up.

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Throughout the day, many complicated thoughts were running through my mind. This entire trip has helped me think critically, ask thoughtful questions, and attain a broader awareness of the ways in which our lives in the US affect the global political and social climate. Themes of colonialism, tourism, hospitality, world missions, boundaries, borders, cultural variety, justice, poverty, appreciation, and appropriation have been intermingling in my mind. I have found many more questions than answers here and have also significantly added to the list of things I want/need to learn more about. As we come closer and closer to the end of our trip, I become both more grateful and more conflicted. I see a lot of hope and beauty here, but I can also see the marks and scars of poverty, pain, and discrimination. So what is my role as a global citizen? A Christian? An American? How will I faithfully engage issues of justice on both a local and a global scale? These questions (and more) will remain with me as we return to our lives back home. What I know for sure is that I will continue to learn, grow, and discern my calling at Columbia and beyond.

Shalom, Salaam, and Namaste,
Shelby Andrews

Tuesday, January 16

After 13 days of India beneath our feet, we arrived at our final city last night. We will be spending these final days in the city of Hyderabad. Today we had two learning opportunities that allowed us to gain deeper understandings of different aspects of life in India.

Our first stop was to the Office of Dr. J.P Narayan. Narayan has a fascinating career journey. He began his professional life as a medical doctor, and eventually landed a significant political career in India. When asked, he said that some of his most notable political contributions included his work on the 97th amendment as well as work decreasing corruption. During our dialogue with Narayan, we learned a lot about the way that political entities operate around India. It was fascinating to gain an inside perspective. Narayan said that some of the biggest issues facing India today are poverty, education, and lack of access to health care. During our time with Narayan it was clear that although not everyone in the group agreed with all of his stances, he is very committed to the growth and well being of India.

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After a break for lunch the group headed to the Islamic Information Center, where we were privileged to meet with representatives who spoke about the Islamic faith in the context of India. We learned that there are 200 million Muslims in India. The representatives shared that the Islamic Information Center exists to help educate and inform people about the tenets and practice of the Islamic faith. They mentioned that they offer a toll free phone number in which people can call to ask their questions about the Islamic faith. Our time at the Center was a fruitful time of discussion in which our questions were welcomed. In our discussion we were reminded that as people of faith we are to behave responsibly. The example was given that if someone has a knife they can either use it for violence or to cut an apple to share. This is what I will hold with me from my time at the Islamic Information Center.

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Our group has traveled many miles over the past two weeks.  We have much to hold in our hearts. As our trip comes to a close in just a few short days, we will be prayfully considering how to take the things we have learned today with us as we leave a country that has welcomed us and return home.

Bethany Apelquist

Monday, January 15

On the morning of January 15, we finally got the opportunity to explore the grounds of United Theological College, where we had been staying for the previous three nights. We began with chapel at 8:30, led by senior student L.S. Lalhmingmuana. His theme, present in his sermon, the song choices, and the liturgy, was “Resist Exploitation Embrace Dignity.” He discussed the challenges and systemic exploitation of indigenous communities in India through an reexamination of the famous Jacob and Esau story — I had never considered this interpretation but I was moved by his brilliant sermon.

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We then moved into a time of lecture and conversation with two UTC professors, Dr. Alan Palannae and Dr. Rini Ralte. Dr. Alan spoke on Theology in India, and asked us to consider editing the old theological formula of “faith seeking understanding” — better, he suggested, is “suffering seeking faith and understanding.” I know that I will take this perspective with me into Theology II at Columbia!

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Dr. Rini taught about Christianity in North East India, a topic new to most everyone in the room. Dr. Rini introduced us to “Crab Theology”: she explained that in the Mizo community from which she comes, women are often compared to crabs, walking sideways and in need of guidance. Crab Theology, then, explains that paradise can (and perhaps must) be reached through walking sideways, through walking with the marginalized of the community.

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Next we had tea and coffee with some UTC students on the steps of their beautiful library. We had fun comparing classes and interests, trading emails and looking one another up on Facebook. Some students are planning to come study abroad at Columbia!

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We entered the library and were treated to a tour by the librarian, Ms. Daniel. Good students that we are, we were excited to see Hebrew Dictionaries and familiar theology texts, along with many books we’ve never encountered but certainly added to our “to read” lists.

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The librarians had specially pulled Dr. Raj’s MDiv Thesis and a journal to which he and Dr. Martha had contributed. Although we begged for a dramatic reading, we could only convince Dr. Raj to read his concluding paragraph. Far older than Dr. Raj’s Thesis were the palm leaf texts — Scripture and poetry written in local languages on palm leaves, 800 years old. We were transfixed.

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We ended our day in Bangalore with a trip to the Lal Bagh Gardens, where we had devotions under a canopy of trees. Unfortunately we couldn’t really take pictures there, but rest assured we were excited to be in a green space.

We’re now on a flight from Bangalore to Hyderabad, where we’ll finish up our trip. I’ve been so blessed to be here in this place, with these people.

Peace,

Jenny Snyder

Sunday, January 14

​Today, our adventure found us heading on a small bus to St. Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Bengaluru. We arrived at the church, and found ourselves in multi-level building, with a large sanctuary space a short flight of stairs about the bustle of the street level. After removing our shoes, we were ushered inside the sanctuary, which is divided in half by a red carpet down a center aisle with women on the right side and men on the left. (We were later informed that this center aisle is not only a dividing line for gender, but a space left empty to signify the departed saints who also play a crucial role in the liturgy and worship.)
​While the Syrian Orthodox service is primarily focused around the words of the liturgy, it is a variegated display for the other senses with the sweet smell and sight of the censer swinging, elaborate vestments and curtains, and the stillness of worshipers standing stoic for extended periods of time. Throughout the liturgy, dominated by the Malayalam language but also including Syriac and English, we did our best to follow along with a translation.
​The gospel reading came from John 1 where Jesus calls Nathaniel and Phillip as disciples. Father Jerry Kurian preached from this text, and encouraged us to follow Christ’s call in welcoming the stranger and to be hospitable to those seeking refuge. He pointed out to his congregation that in America, despite political failures, there are churches, seminaries and individuals working to welcome refugees; especially Syrian brothers and sisters. Thus, he encouraged his congregation to welcome us as America strangers to them.

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​This sermon made me keenly aware of the context that goes before us. Attested to by the Caucasian Jesus featured in the stained-glass windows of a church of all brown-skinned worshipers – our colonialism, our failed politics, and our current governments rhetoric precedes us to this space. And yet, these people welcomed us despite our deserving it.
​Father Jerry taught me today that our welcome to the stranger is NOT a response to the failures of political leaders, but a response to the success of the Savior. He based his welcome of us on the “shared Jesus Christ that we all worship,” not on the words of our president or the policies of our border police. May we do the same – don’t welcome because Trump can’t. Welcome because Jesus does.
​We were escorted from there to a room downstairs where we were fed a substantial Indian meal. Amidst conversation about the service, people from the congregation came into the room and greeted us with warm smiles and handshakes. Father Jerry spent time with us after the service to show us the tools used in worship to display “mysteries” (and they ARE mysteries) of the liturgy and sacraments. He followed up his sermon with his actions – by taking on the risk in welcoming us into these mysteries, and by being vulnerable to our questions about gender, caste, theology and politics of the Syrian Orthodox Church.

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​In the afternoon, we took a trip to Shivajinagar market next to St. Mary’s Catholic Basilica. This market is exactly what one would expect of everything imaginable for sale in a few blocks, packed with people and vehicles. See the pictures to get a feel. After buying some produce and ice cream, we loaded back on the bus to yet another church – St. Mark’s Church of South India. Here we worshiped with Christians singing familiar songs in English. The pastor preached a sermon on unity and oneness – a fitting theme for a denomination made of four different protestant traditions: Episcopal, Congregational, Presbyterian, and Methodist.

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​We left this church for dinner at a Chinese/Indian fusion restaurant called Rice Bowl. We ended our day of cultural diffusion and diversity watching cricket at a Chinese restaurant in India. As we enjoyed our chicken and noodles (spicy and mild), reflections were made about the themes of the day: hospitality and risk, danger and welcome, diversity and similarity, individualism and cooperation. We certainly have much to be grateful for as move to the last chapter of our adventure in Hyderabad.

CJ Dates

Saturday, January 13

The eighth day in India began with devotion and a breakfast in the common area at Union Theological College. The dining hall was filled with multiple families that participated in a wedding that had taken place on the previous day. As usual, we ate breakfast and enjoyed the scenery while we shared stories from the previous day’s visit at Visthar.

After breakfast we began our journey to the Visthar community. This visit would provide a second day of learning about the culture, issues, and hopes for the people of India. As we were driving to Visthar, I was amazed at all the traffic on the crowded streets. A fellow student and I began looking at the behaviors of the drivers in cars, mopeds, tuk-tuks, and motorcycles and we realized that we had not seen any accidents. In this very moment, we saw a young driver going the wrong way and he almost caused an accident. What we witnessed next shocked the both of us! Because the young driver was probably inexperienced, the more experienced driver took the time to coach the young driver in the middle of the highway and both parties moved on safely in the morning traffic.

We arrived to Visthar safely and were met with a warm welcome by David Selvaraj, a co-founder of the community and some of his staff. After hearing about the plans for the day, we were introduced to a unique experience in which we were invited to observe dolls that were created by one of the members of the community. The dolls are a depiction of some of the major issues in India today. Constructed by Francoise Bosteels, the dolls highlight issues of child labor abuse, dowry marriage, and the devadasi system, (abolished in 1982, and 2006).

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While these particular issues were raised in today’s discussion, the dolls also depict hopeful images for the present and future of India.

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After hearing the stories from the dolls and taking time to reflect on that which we learned, we were treated to another delicious Indian meal. After the meal, we had the opportunity to participate in a game similar to monopoly that is based on the issues associated with industry and farming in India. This game was a great segue as we prepared to end the day with a play based on the disaster at Bhopal in 1984.

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We were invited to read parts from the play, “We All Live in Bhopal: Sketches from a Disaster,” written by M. Sudhir Selvaraj. The scenes were directed by David Selveraj, and as we read, we too became affected by a disaster that happened before most of the students in our excursion were born. The power of dramatization helped everyone reflect on the issues of injustice towards humanity. This experience at Visthar drew each member of our group closer to the realities the people of Bhopal, India, experienced on Dec. 4, 1984, when the lives of more than 20,000 people were affected by chemical gases that caused harm to many residents in that community with continued effects to this day.

While we reside in a different part of the world, each person in our group left thinking about the possible harm that industries can cause in communities and we began discussions around how we can begin actively participating with groups that work to counter the establishments of corporations that endanger humanity and the earth tremendously.

After a ride back to Union Theological College, we were given an even closer look at how the locals commute daily. Dr. Raj gathered at least 6 tuk-tuks for our group to ride in for dinner. Our ride was safe, and close to the people of India. In this moment, I began to reflect on the first part of the day and how important it is to be delicate with others on the highway. Although the streets were crowded with travelers going in many different directions, the idea is to work together and arrive to one’s destination safely. It is my hope that we the students of CTS can join with organizations like Visthar and work along with them as they provide guidance and wisdom to us as we all strive to stand for justice throughout the world.

Dahl Moss

Friday, January 12

We awoke this morning in the guest house of the United Theological College in Bengaluru, India. Weary from our most recent train ride, we were met with great relief at the realization that the latter half of our trip would be much less strenuous than the first. Whereas previously we had been packing our bags and traveling to a new city nearly every night, now our remaining time in India will be split between two cities: Bengaluru and Hyderabad. For us weary travelers, this is welcome news! We are excited to be able to spend more time getting to know specific people and places here.

For today, that meant beginning a two-day period of immersion at Visthar: a secular Civil Society organization devoted to social justice and peace. Founded in 1989, this organization takes the approach of community-based advocacy to fight against various social, economic, gender-based, and environmental injustices. We were honored to have David Selvaraj, a co-founder of Visthar, as our guide for the events of the day. It was clear that much effort had gone into our welcome. When we arrived, we were welcomed in the traditional Indian way: with dashes of tumeric on our foreheads and garlands of flowers around our necks!

We were treated to delicious food and tea through the day as well, such as this samosa and lemongrass tea pictured below.

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The morning was spent learning about the values and priorities of Visthar. In the afternoon, we had the privilege of touring an incredibly beautiful garden. This garden, along with the other environmental initiatives at Visthar, has earned its official status as “eco-sanctuary.” Indeed, it is clear from the time and effort that Visthar puts into its garden that it values environmental sustainability and takes seriously the responsibility to steward the resources of the earth. Their commitment to organic farming, paper recycling, and animal husbandry make it clear that Visthar considers environmental issues to be on par with (and indeed, connected to) human rights issues.

Though the entire day was rich with meaning, one moment in particular stood out to me. While David was sharing with us about the organization’s vision, he made an offhand comment that stuck with me. He said that on his tombstone, he would like to have written that he “reduced the level of his hypocrisy.” Though it seems like a meager claim, in a world where injustice dominates such that it is impossible to live outside of corrupt systems, I respected the honesty and the humility of this statement. My hope is that we will be inspired to take Visthar’s slow-but-steady commitment to justice with us back to Columbia.

Caitlin Montgomery

Thursday, January 11

 

Today we had the privilege of traveling from Vellore to a community called Pravaham. This is a community dedicated to educating young Dalit women. These women are considered the lowest of the low in India society. This community offers Dalit women the opportunity to learn three different skills towards employment (computer, education, and nursing), though 100% so far have chosen to get a certification in nursing assistance. The organization also help with job placement-100% of the girls that have come through the program have been placed in jobs.

To get to this community we had about a 45 minute drive up a hill. When we arrived the first thing we did was worship together with the girls and their faculty. It was obvious that they had spent a lot of time to welcome us. There was sand art at each of the entrances to the different buildings all over the campus. This worship was a mix of English and the local language. The girls were so excited for us to be there.

After worship we had the chance to walk around the grounds to where we had tea time. During tea I got to sit with the husband of the woman who is in charge. I was curious about the Christian worship and how many girls that attended are Christian. He told me only 30% are Christian, while the rest are Hindu. Conversion is not something they practice.

 

After tea we headed to a space to be able to interact and hear directly from the girls. The girls had made garlands of flowers as part of their welcome to us. Their stories are heartbreaking, but there is also so much hope now. The girls learned many types of dancing for a Christmas program that they put together. The showed us three of these dances before invited us to join them. When we were dancing together, joy filled the room. Dancing transcends languages. Our groups connected seamlessly and shared joy as we danced together.

After our visit we left Vellore by train. Our train stopped at out station for less than two minutes meaning we had to get 17 people and all of our luggage on the train in the short amount of time. The train ride itself was smooth and relaxing. We got off in Bangalore, which was the second to last stop, in less than two minute as well. The train station is right across from United Theological College.

That night a small group of us went to dinner. We took the local mode of transportation, the tuk tuk. For those that have written about Indian traffic being in a tuk tuk is 10 times worse. It is small and stops inches on all sides from other traffic.

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For dinner, a few of us split a few dishes. The one that stands out was goat brain. This was my first time trying brain. Let’s just say I am not a fan. I am, however, excited to have a few days in the same place without traveling. It will be a nice change of pace from being in a different city every night.

Abby Post

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