The Send-Off

Thanks to all who contributed to Yuwa’s campaign Invest in Girls Who Are Changing the World. These next few posts about the Yuwa girls’ trip to Spain are a couple months belated, but I still want to share some of the stories and memories I have from the experience. I’ve put off writing these entries because it’s extremely difficult to put into words how much this trip meant. Thanks for reading! 

In the early evening of June 25th, I stood in the Yuwa house in Hutup village, surrounded by bags of football boots, jerseys, and essential travel supplies like deworming pills and ibuprofen. I obsessively re-checked a list to make sure nothing had been forgotten. In less than an hour, the 19 girls selected for the Supergoats team were scheduled to arrive. We would all pile into auto rickshaws, which would chariot us to the train station 40 minutes away.  From there, we’d hop the overnight train to Kolkata, where Franz would meet us with the girls’ visas (which had literally just been issued by the Embassy in Delhi). And the next day, we’d all board a plane to Spain: the culmination of a project that had been set in motion more than a year ago.

Unfortunately, all I could think about were the things that could still go wrong.

An auto rickshaw horn brought me out of my fretting. Which was strange; it was thirty minutes early. In rural India, nothing starts when it’s supposed to start. And weirder, there were two rickshaws pulling up to the house—each of them jam-packed with people. Scrappy kids, sari-clad mothers holding infants, and fathers spilled out the vehicles and into the yard. It was the families of the five Supergoat players who lived in more distant villages. Nobody had instructed them to come to the Yuwa house. They just wanted to be there for the moment of their daughters’ send-off.

This may not sound like an extraordinary parental gesture—but I can’t understate how meaningful it was. These were the same mothers and fathers who, for the past four months, had not always been supportive or helpful in the process of obtaining their daughters’ birth certificates, passports, and visas. For most of them, it was the first time they had been asked to go out of their way to do something for their daughters.

Photo taken at dawn: our first stop on a parental scavenger-hunt to collect necessary signatures for the visas.

Photo taken at dawn: our first stop on a parental scavenger-hunt to collect necessary signatures for the visas.

The family brought out this plastic table as a makeshift desk.

The family brought out this plastic table as a makeshift desk.

Although Urmila's mother (pictured above) is an exception, the majority of the Supergoats' mothers are illiterate and cannot sign their names. We collected their signature in the form of and ink pad and thumbprints.

Although Urmila’s mother (pictured above) is an exception, the majority of the Supergoats’ mothers are illiterate and cannot sign their names. We collected their signature in the form of and ink pad and thumbprints.

Supergoat families stand by as we collect signatures for visa forms. Despite multiple meetings with families, it was challenging to make them understand the significance of their daughter's opportunity to travel to Spain.

Supergoat families stand by as we collect signatures for visa forms. Despite multiple meetings with families, it was challenging to make them understand the significance of their daughter’s opportunity to travel to Spain.

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Interrupting rice-beer-brewing to collect thumbprint signatures.

A father reluctantly waits his turn to sign papers.

A father reluctantly waits his turn to sign papers.

Supriya prepares to go into Ranchi with Franz to track down her passport, which got lost in the mail. For unknown reason, Supriya's passport ended up at the Medical College.

Supriya prepares to go into Ranchi with Franz to track down her passport, which got lost in the mail. For unknown reason, Supriya’s passport ended up at the Medical College.


In the next fifteen minutes, the other Supergoats began to arrive with their travel bags—and their families.  The sun set over the crowd of people slowly flooding into the Yuwa house yard. The girls clutched their bags and milled around the porch: yelling to each other, carrying younger siblings on their hips, grinning like mad. In the anxiety of packing and prepping for the big departure, I had not expected a scene like this.

In a moment, it all became real: the Supergoats were going to Spain. And their families were proud of them for it. After all the ridiculous hurdles and challenges thrown at us, everything was falling into place. 

After the girls had refused to stop going to the abusive officials at the local government office to get their birth certificates, and the media storm that followed.

After the years of being taunted for wearing boys’ shorts and playing a useless game, a boys’ game.

After keeping their school attendance up, despite the voices around them telling them a girl’s education is worthless.

After the hundreds of kilometers Franz spent on the motorcycle, going to and from government offices to meet with officials, track down lost passports, obtain signatures.

After the hours spent poring over parents’ documents, identifying and explaining inconsistencies that could cost the girls’ their Spanish visas.

After carrying a printer on the back of a motorcycle in the middle of the night to find somewhere with electricity to print visa forms for the next morning.

After the tireless, persistent efforts of the student organization in Spain to raise an astonishing amount of money to fund a trip like this.

Passports: APPROVED.

Passports: APPROVED.

After everything, the Supergoats stood on the porch stairs of the Yuwa House, ready to embark on the journey that would take them to places wildly different from everything they’d ever known. These 19 girls stood, assembled, before the crowd of their friends and family—parents and siblings whose faces shown with a new and fierce pride in the last of the day’s light. The girls sang a parting song, a prayer for safe travels and blessings of good luck in their competition. They sang beautifully. I had to choke back tears.

Finally, we crammed into the waiting rickshaws and lurched down the dirt road: girls, luggage, bulging bags of football gear, the young woman (Neha) who had been leading the girls’ preparatory workshops, plus a couple of tag-a-long teenage coaches to send us off at the Ranchi railroad station.

I watched Hutup and the waving farewell party until they faded into the night, my heart in knots. I turned back around and settled into my seat. The girls next to me were already falling asleep on top one another.

We were off.

Neha, Yuwa's newest employee and mentor to the girls, says goodbye to the team at the Ranchi train station.

Neha, Yuwa’s newest employee and mentor to the girls, says goodbye to the team at the Ranchi train station.

Aboard the train to Kolkata, the girls crowd around the window.

Aboard the train to Kolkata.

The next installment will be up within a couple days… If you’d like to continue supporting Yuwa’s efforts to put girls in charge of their own futures, please visit our Crowdrise site here. Every contribution helps!

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Fair and Unfair

When I feel like I need a real cleansing, I walk into the fitness center of Ranchi’s only five-star hotel and use the deluxe shower in the women’s locker room. The water pressure and heat are pure bliss, and I leave the place feeling cleaner than I’ve felt in weeks.

The staff doesn’t ask me if I’m a guest. Nobody stops me. It doesn’t matter if my clothes are sloppy and I look disheveled. I can waltz in like I belong, be greeted like someone important, and leave without any incident.

I can do this because I’m white.

There is a hierarchy here that determines the way people treat each other. I know plenty would argue that this social order is complex—that it’s developed from colonial history, the caste system, tribal traditions, gender roles, and modern politics. But on the surface, it seems pretty straightforward. If you’re small and dark, you’re used, abused, and walked over. If you’re tall and fair, you’re treated with deference.

This isn’t a hard-fast rule. But that said, I know what I see. People who do manual labor and menial jobs, cycle rickshaws, farm—essentially, the poorest of Jharkhand’s population—have darker skin and tend to be short and slight. Those in positions of authority (politicians, police officers, businessmen, government officials) are significantly bigger and whiter. This isn’t just an imagined phenomenon or a coincidence: those in the army and police are specifically chosen for their height.

To prove that I’m not exaggerating, check out this ad for the wildly popular skin-whitening cream, Fair and Lovely. The dad’s line that sends the girl into tears is “I wish I had a son.”

There aren’t 1950s-America-era signs around Ranchi designating “Whites Only”… but I’d like to see someone with dark skin try to walk into that five-star fitness center looking as disheveled as I usually do. It just wouldn’t happen. And I admit, I take advantage of the ridiculous privileges that my appearance grants me. It’s an uncomfortable reality in Jharkhand, and my time with the Yuwa girls has allowed me to witness what it means to be at the bottom of this hierarchy.

Fair and Lovely and Sick of It

While there are definitely more advantages to being a white, blonde female here than drawbacks, I’ve got to take a minute to illustrate how I’m treated daily. Mostly, I’m stared at like I’ve come from a different planet. These are not subtle glances. I’m talking about open-mouthed, unabashed gaping. People doing double takes in the street, stopping in the middle of traffic, halting conversation to point me out. It’s impossible for me to be anonymous, although I do my best by wearing a scarf over my face and hair and donning sunglasses when I’m in a crowd.

The number of foreigners that go through this place is minuscule, and most of them are businessmen who stay inside their hotels. So although I can understand why I’m such a spectacle, it’s exhausting to be gawked at whenever I step outside. I didn’t realize how freeing anonymity could be until I couldn’t have it anymore.

I’m usually treated with the utmost deference, often bordering on celebrity treatment. My appearance has gotten me into utterly absurd situations. I’m often asked if people can take photos with me—in restaurants, stores, zoos, concerts, malls, bathrooms, offices. Sometimes people don’t have the audacity to ask permission and attempt to take sly photos in which I’m carefully framed in the background. It’s expected that I’ll skip through long queues instead of waiting like everyone else. I’m exempt from most public rules, and am often waved through security with a smile and a head bobble.

During one especially bizarre afternoon, I ended up as one of three chief guests at a school award ceremony[1]. I shook hundreds of hands, gave an impromptu speech about the importance of education (I’m pretty sure nobody understood what I was saying, so I wasn’t nervous), and handed out a bunch of certificates with cameras flashing throughout the entire event. Again, this happened because I’m white.

It’s gotten to the point that incidents like this no longer surprise me. I’m worried about what this is going to do to my ego in the long run.

The Other Side

Spending the majority of my time with the Yuwa girls, I get to see glimpses of the way they’re treated, and what’s it’s like for girls who don’t look like I do. While my white-blonde-foreigner status keeps me right near the top of the social ladder, the Yuwa girls rank near absolute bottom. As poor, dark-skinned, tribal, unmarried girls, they are rarely given basic respect when they’re out in public. I’ve seen them ignored, glared at, scolded for the pettiest of things, and disregarded. I’ve seen a feverish, exhausted girl be shooed out of a doctor’s office because the sandals on her feet were “too dirty”.  Several girls told me that they’re made to pay a cleaning fee at their government-run school—and then they’re forced to clean the school.

On an impersonal level, the hierarchy of Jharkhand is uncomfortable. When it gets personal—when you see kids you care about being treated like shit—it becomes indescribably infuriating.

A few weeks ago, I found out that many of our girls had been slapped, verbally abused, made to pay bribes, and forced to sweep the floor by officials at a local government office. They had been going to this office repeatedly for weeks, attempting to obtain their birth certificates. They need these certificates to get passports to compete in the Spain tournament, and hadn’t told Franz about the ongoing incidents of abuse.

I felt sick to my stomach when I heard this. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to hurt someone more than I wanted to hurt the cowardly worm who would lay a hand on these kids. What disturbed me more than the fact that a grown man in a government position was hitting 12-year-old girls: the girls didn’t consider this behavior out-of-the-ordinary. They’ve experienced the same treatment from teachers, principals, postal workers, uncles, fathers and brothers. They were used to it.

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The girls confront the government official who’s been abusing them. After the media storm, all of them eventually received their birth certificates.

Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 11.23.53 AMWhile the girls seemed ready to disregard this whole episode as normal, Franz wasn’t. Within two days, the girls’ story was on the front page of the 2nd largest English newspaper in India. The story went semi-viral on Facebook. People were angry—Indians and non-Indians alike. Supporters Yuwa in positions of power in Jharkhand put pressure on the local office responsible for abusing the girls. Eventually the man who had caused the most trouble was removed from his position—although not before sending cronies to one of the girl’s houses in an attempt to ‘discourage’ her family from pressing charges.

The optimist in me wants to believe that this incident and the outcry against it will help the girls realize they’re worthy of respect and demand it as they get older. I want them to be angry about the injustices they encounter daily. I want to believe that these tough kids can start to change the system in which skin color, status, and gender determine the way people are treated.

Neha, a young local woman working for Yuwa, agreed that the girls now seem more likely to unite against injustice. “But,” she added, “They need to know someone will stand beside them.”DSC_3157


[1] The other Chief Guests included Mr. ‘Frang Gostler (from the United States of American, U.S.A.)’ and a high ranking local police officer

Exceeding Expectations Always

Apparently, this is Jharkhand's new tourism slogan.

Apparently, this is Jharkhand’s new tourism slogan.

Last month, I came back to Jharkhand to continue interning with Yuwa.

If you read my description of Jharkhand from back in September, you know it isn’t the happiest place on earth. If you’re not included in the miniscule elite that controls the state’s natural resources, it’s just not an easy place to be. Most people live in poverty and are incapable of either finding or affording quality education. Those who do acquire some wealth, power, or education cling to their fortune and flaunt it in the form of extravagant luxuries and utter disregard for anyone with less prestige than themselves. Jharkhand is a mess, and I haven’t encountered anyone optimistic about improving the state’s levels of corruption or poverty anytime soon.

This is one of Jharkhand's biggest politicians and a member of Parliament, Here is simultaneously promoting himself and endorsing Poto Instant Potato Flakes.

This is one of Jharkhand’s biggest politicians and a member of Parliament, Here he is simultaneously promoting himself and endorsing Poto Instant Potato Flakes.

These men cycle down the highway every single day, utterly loaded down with black-market coal. Coal is one of Jharkhand's biggest industries.

These men cycle down the highway every single day, utterly loaded down with black-market coal. Coal is one of Jharkhand’s biggest industries.

Typical group of Hutup village rug rats. The girls are collecting cow dung to use as fuel.

Typical group of Hutup village rug rats. The girls are collecting cow dung to use as fuel.

But I wanted to come back to Jharkhand.

When faced with the prospect of extending my project, I had the option of going practically anywhere in the world. And I realized that what I wanted most was to return to Hutup village and the true-grit girls I met through Yuwa. Cambodia and Vietnam and Nepal were all places that were stunningly beautiful, (slightly) more functional, and definitely easier for a foreigner to navigate and enjoy. But I wanted to come back to the dysfunctional wreck that is Jharkhand, India.

As Charles Dickens said, “One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it’s left behind.”

Jharkhand’s dismal reality, however, makes Yuwa’s programs all the more important and exciting. With so little effective developmental work being done here—and absolutely no other programs exclusively for girls in this area—Yuwa’s impact is easy to see. The program is still small, but the effect it’s had on these girls’ lives is enormous.  13-year-old Rinki said it best when she explained the importance of her team to a visitor: “Before I joined Yuwa, people didn’t look at me or know my name. Now when I walk through the village, everyone knows my name.”

I was psyched to jump back into Yuwa action, and I unintentionally picked an especially exciting time to return. A team of Yuwa girls had been invited to compete in Spain’s largest international football tournament, the Donosti Cup[1], held in July 2013. The girls will be the first Indian women’s team in history to compete in Spain, which is renowned for having the highest level of football in the world.

The Supergoats

It might seem extravagant to spend so much money on plane tickets and travel expenses to send an entire team of rural Indian girls to Spain. I know how far a handful of rupees can go in Hutup village[2], and the money could easily support Yuwa’s regular programs for a long period of time. So why spend so much on a week-long tournament trip when most of the girls and their families don’t even get enough to eat daily? Why invest so much for a short-term experience?

Because these girls deserve the chance to show what they’re worth. They have grown up in a place where women are expected to give without receiving, girls’ self-sacrificing contributions are overlooked, and where hard work rarely results in… results. This will be the first time in their lives that their tireless efforts will result in something so meaningful.Image

LakshmiYuwa’s Donosti team (recently dubbed the Supergoats[3]) represents the most dedicated and outstanding girls in Yuwa.  The 18 girls selected come from seven neighboring villages, include two sets of sisters, and represent five different religions. They spend hours each day collecting fuel for fire, fetching water balanced on their heads, cutting grass for livestock, and cooking meals for their family. Despite the heavy weight of household responsibilities, they make time for the sport they love and consistently dedicate themselves to their team. These 18 girls were chosen after a careful process that took into consideration their commitment to improving themselves through Yuwa, school and practice attendance, football skill, and—importantly—their character. Every girl was ranked by her teammates based on five values: positivity, honesty, caring, selflessness and inspiring unity. The girls on this team were chosen as much by each other as they were by their coaches.Sildiri

ShivaniThe Supergoats practice six days a week on a dirt ground, save their own money to purchase football equipment, and take pride in their improved school attendance. The girls on Yuwa’s Donosti team are role models for thousands of girls in their region. They are proof that girls can play football. More importantly, they are proof that a girl’s place does not have to be in the house.

This is not just a scrappy team of underdogs. They are small, undernourished, unaccustomed to playing on grass, and reliant on generous donors to pay for their tournament and travel cost: but these girls are not to be underestimated. They are fierce football players, and they have already beaten some serious odds that life has stacked against them.Rinki

KusumPusapa2Participating in the Donosti Cup will allow the Yuwa girls to interact and share their stories with other young people from all over the world. It will also be the first time for them to compete against other teams that take the game as seriously as they do (I’m talking about girls who wake up at 4:00 in the morning to do their chores because they want to have practice at 5). For some of them, it will be the first time their families regard their daughters’ unconventional self-initiative as admirable and worthy of respect.DSC_2434

Franz (founder and director of Yuwa) applying duct tape to girls'  falling-apart football shoes before the Supergoats selection camp.

Franz (founder and director of Yuwa) applying duct tape to girls’ falling-apart football shoes during the Supergoats selection camp.

MeenaSupergoatsAfter spending four months over the past year in Jharkhand with the Yuwa group, I can’t help but feel a fervent sort of pride for the Supergoats. I really, really want this for them.

A group of people from Spain (TZBZ) are responsible for inviting Yuwa to Donosti, and they have taken the lead in fundraising for the trip. It’s still uncertain whether or not the money will be raised in time, but it’s been truly heartening to see such consistent and persistent efforts on behalf of the Yuwa girls coming from people half-way round the world who have never met them. TZBZ has been going above and beyond to gain publicity for Yuwa  in Spain–they’ve already been featured on television shows and supported by professional women’s football teams.

Out of the 400 teams competing in the Donosti Cup this year, Yuwa is being featured on the tournament's homepage.

Out of the 400 teams competing in the Donosti Cup this year, Yuwa is being featured on the tournament’s homepage.

In the meantime, the Supergoats have hit the ground running to prepare for this tournament. They know they’ll be facing some real opponents in Spain, and they’re determined to play their best when the time comes. This morning I got up at 5:00 am to run 10 kilometers with four of them: they chose the time and the distance.

Where Jharkhand leaves a heck of a lot desired, the Yuwa girls are–without a doubt–exceeding expectations always.

The Yuwa gang, celebrating Holi (Hindu festival of colors) on the Hutup ground.

The Yuwa gang, celebrating Holi (Hindu festival of colors) on the Hutup ground.


[1] This year, there will be 400 teams attending and 8000 players. It’s taking place in San Sebastian.

[2] Last time I went to the market, I bought 1.5 kilograms of tomatoes for 15 rupees. That’s approximately 30 cents in the US.

[3] Domestic goats are very common in and around the Hutup area. They routinely wander through the girls’ football practices and matches and are notorious for their early-morning bleating. Goats, however, have some seriously redeeming qualities: they are fast, wily, agile, smart (when compared to, say, sheep), and persistent to the point of being annoying. Yuwa’s Donosti team share many of these traits… hence the name Supergoats.

Wedding Crashing

Despite spending over five months in India in the past year, I haven’t checked off many of the standard traveler’s “To Do in India” items. I haven’t visited the Taj Mahal, the most iconic building in the country. I haven’t done a camel tour in the deserts of Rajastan. I’ve yet to explore the streets of Delhi, cruise the backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat, or watch the sunrise over the Ganges in Varanasi. I haven’t ridden an elephant, bought a silk scarf, or had a suit tailor-made. And up until now, I had not attended a fabulously extravagant Indian wedding.

The weddings of middle and upper class Indians have gained an international reputation for being big, loud, and expensive. Think hundreds of guests, multiple days of feasting, flowers adorning everything, bejeweled saris, dozens of elaborate religious rituals, gold bangles: the works. Because the bride’s side still pays for and organizes the event, wedding-savings-funds are often created as soon as a baby girl is born. For many families, weddings are an occasion to demonstrate their wealth and status to the public. Sometimes there may be a degree of competitiveness to outspend other families—even if the bottom line price of the extravaganza is way beyond the bride’s family’s financial means.

It would be easy for me to characterize these events—which would be especially wrong in a country as big and diverse as India. Obviously the generalizations I make above don’t apply to vast portions of the population. But for many foreigners (myself included), the stereotypical Indian wedding has a uniquely exotic appeal. The clothes! The food! The Bollywood music! It’s fascinating to see how different cultures celebrate major life events… especially if it involves a giant multi-day party. So while I wasn’t going to desperately crash the nearest wedding tent blasting Desi music, I quietly hoped that an opportunity to attend a wedding would come up once I returned to the country.

Through an unlikely coincidence, my friend Sanal from Mumbai was attending a wedding in Gangtok, Sikkim three days after I had booked a flight back to India from Cambodia. I was flying into the same North Eastern region, so Sanal invited me to come along for the four-day event. The timing could not have been better: not only would I get to hang out with my good friend in a beautiful part of the country, but I was going to be a guest at what promised to be a Big, Fat Indian Wedding. Sanal even offered to bring a small wardrobe of borrowed party clothes along for me. The stars had aligned.

Gangtok Wedding: Day ThreeDSC01432

The procession of sari-clad women and kurta-clad men moved slowly toward down the adorned pass way of the mountain resort. The bride and groom led the group, although all I could see at that point were the traditional red turbans worn by the men on the side of the groom’s family. Stepping carefully, I casually re-adjusted my own sari. Although three women had secured the pins on the dress for me, it must take practice to feel confident in a sari. Yeah, it’s beautiful get up—but if you’re not accustomed to it, it’s difficult to shed the fear that the whole thing is going to slide off. This fear is amplified when you’re the sole blonde foreigner and don’t have a chance of blending into the crowd.

While waiting for the people in front of me to shuffle forward, someone standing next me took the opportunity to introduce me to a relative. “This is Rose,” he said, as I shook their hand, “The bride’s brother’s friend’s friend.”

Everyone seemed to accept this desperately distant connection as a normal.

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Off to the left of the procession, uniformed staff stood at attention preparing table after table of glorified street food. This was High Tea, which allowed guests to get by between the enormous spreads of gourmet buffet food that made up Lunch and Dinner. Breakfast was just as impressive. If you checked the event schedule (delivered to the door of guests’ resort rooms), there wasn’t actually any time between one meal and the next. Most of the food was heavy—the type of rich and oily food typically served at Indian restaurants in the US, plus other regional specialties I had never seen or tried before. Of course when you’re wearing an outfit that exposes your midriff, there’s not much incentive to binge on saag paneer, butter garlic naan, or gulab jamun three times a day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It would be difficult to understate how extravagant this wedding really was. The main stage was constructed only a day before the event, complete with elaborate lighting and giant portraits of the bride and groom. Photographers took multiple videos of every event, with the cameras rigged on mechanical arms. A professional MC took over the entertainment one night. Her job was to introduce various groups of relatives and friends who had choreographed Bollywood dance sequences in honor of the newlyweds. Gangnam Style was (obviously) included in these numbers.

For the record, this tradition of more or less forcing relatives to participate in dance numbers was hands-down my favorite Indian wedding idea. Even older, less-fit relatives took to the stage to present carefully practiced, synchronized dance numbers. It was proof that the best gifts (like sacrificing your own pride) don’t cost money.

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DSC01428DSC01446OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe parade of events, ceremonies, and meals had to be exhausting for the bride and groom. Add to that stress all the nerves that must accompany an arranged marriage and the knowledge that you’re about to commit the rest of your life to a person you’ve met a handful of times. Not to mention the fact that most of the bride’s glittering outfits looked like they weighed about fifty pounds each.DSC01450

DSC01455When I asked the other guests about this, everyone agreed that weddings are rarely enjoyable for the newlyweds. According to Sanal’s friend Pawan (the brother of the bride, and the main coordinator of the event) many of the traditions are followed for the sake the grandparents. And were it up to him, the wedding would not have been nearly as flashy. When it comes time for his own young daughter to marry… Pawan and his wife shrugged. The times could be a changing.

Sugar and Spice and Everything SALT

To those who have been asking: thank you for your concern, and I’m sorry for the long delay in blog entries! My only real excuse is that so much has happened since my last post that this entry loomed before me like a Research Methods literature review, and I kept putting it off. So without further ado, here’s what’s been going on in Southeast Asia (besides Gangnam Style).

The Kingdom of Cambodia

Between Thailand and Vietnam, there’s a little land full of friendly people and fermented fish paste. I arrived in Cambodia mid-November, and quickly had to shed the basic Hindi vocabulary I had acquired and start picking up Khmer. I learned to convert and use the odd double currency system of U.S. dollars and Cambodian riel. I forced myself to stop doing the Indian head bobble during every social interaction, and (hardest of all) I had to quit eating rice with my hands and attempt the ever-unwieldy chopsticks. The turning point came when an elderly man walked over to my table and interrupted the meal I had been eating with my hands to show me the utensils right in front of me. In short, some acclimation was necessary.DSC00807 DSC00815But Cambodia is charming and easy to love. The scenery is standard Southeast Asia: miles upon miles of bright green rice fields, rivers bearing small fishing vessels, dusty roads full of motorcycles, roving water buffalo, street-side coconut stands, brightly floral patterned clothing, people-powered carts of fruit and vegetables. But it’s the people who make Cambodia memorable. They’re quick to smile, quick to laugh, and always eager to start a conversation (even if it consists mostly of charades). It hasn’t been difficult to feel right at home in this country that was completely foreign to me.

Mighty Fine Football

I chose to come to Cambodia because of the Mighty Girls: a program sponsored by an organization called SALT (Sport and Leadership Training) Academy that supports the education and football training of exceptionally talented and motivated young women. There are currently 24 girls on the team, between the ages of 13 and 19. These girls can play some mean football. Although there isn’t much women’s football infrastructure in Cambodia (and hence not much local competition), the Mighty Girls have proven that their daily training sessions have given them the skills necessary to compete internationally.

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Like Yuwa, however, the most compelling thing about the Mighty Girls program isn’t the sweet football skills or the massive trophy shelf—it’s the leadership and confidence that’s being fostered in each player. Most of the girls come from backgrounds with varying degrees of adversity: poverty, risk of being trafficked into Thailand for work, lack of family support, etc. Once accepted into the Mighty Girls, players receive a full scholarship to an excellent high school, daily tutoring in English and computer skills, at least one meal a day, and (if circumstances apply) the opportunity to live in the program’s dormitory house. In return, each player is expected to keep up with their studies, attend every football practice, participate in weekly life skills workshops, coach or assistant coach a younger SALT team, and help lead various outreach activities (which often means football skills workshops in nearby communities). The big idea is to give already-exceptional girls the resources they need to reach their own goals in life and become confident role models for Cambodian youth—especially girls. It’s a young program, having just started in 2009; but SALT has secured funding to make it possible, and the girls truly embody the program’s objectives.DSC00917DSC00932 Early last month, 15 of the Mighty Girls traveled to Singapore to play a series of friendly matches with international teams. Their crowning moment was a decisive victory over Singapore’s under-17 national team—all the more impressive because the Mighty Girls were all under age 15. After they returned, I spoke with one of the star players about what it was like to play such an intense match in front of hundreds of spectators. At first she didn’t understand the question.

“Were you nervous?” I goaded, trying to imagine how I myself would have felt in such a situation.

She made a face and shrugged. “It was like normal.”

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The Mighty Girls facing off with a local boys' team. The final score was tied, 3-3.

The Mighty Girls facing off with a local boys’ team. The final score was tied, 3-3.

DSC01276So they’re cool under pressure. The times I’ve really seen the girls shine, though, have been when they lead clinics, practices, or workshops for younger kids. In an instant, the girl who had previously seemed introverted and quiet becomes dynamic and assertive. You can see the respect in the eyes of the younger kids: they listen attentively, perched in a crouch on the toes of their feet. Of course, the Mighty Girls seem like heroes. They’re talented, happy, intelligent, constantly winning matches and tournaments, attending the best school in the area, and tough enough to compete against boys’ teams. In a culture where docility seems to be the feminine ideal, it’s kick-awesome to see such a fierce group of young women reaching out to their community.
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DSC00959DSC00967This year has turned out to be very football-centric—which is ironic for me, having never played football myself. Frankly, my foot-eye coordination is terrible. When I explain my fellowship to people, I am constantly asked if I’m a football player and/or coach. I’m often met with confused responses when I explain that I’m not. That said, I’ve taken to practicing with the Mighty Girls daily. They train for two hours every Monday – Friday, during the hottest part of the day. It’s bearable with frequent water breaks, but it’s a practice in patience for me to keep a positive attitude with my obvious lack of football finesse. The girls swear that I’ve improved and cheer unnecessarily loudly when I do anything notable on the field. Regardless of the truth in their affirmations, I appreciate the support. My best moment came during a scrimmage when I (unintentionally) used my face to simultaneously keep a ball in bounds and pass to player on my team for a goal. It was glorious.

Battambang Living

SALT and the Mighty Girls are based in Battambang, Cambodia. Despite its status as the second-largest city in the country, Battambang has the feel of a small town. After one week, I could navigate the city effortlessly on my bicycle—which is no small feat for me, since I struggle with navigation. The street names that I know exist are 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3. But the names aren’t really necessary. It’s simpler to remember them as the street with the Noodle Man restaurant, the street with my favorite bicycle repair shop, the street with the store that sells cold coconuts, or the main street with the central market.

Battambang wakes up early. The markets bustle to life, the street-side breakfast noodle places with the red plastic chairs fill up quickly, and kids walk or bicycle to school. When I first arrived in Battambang, the thing that delighted me most was the traffic (probably because of its stark contrast with the madness of India). Vehicles on the road are 75% scooters, motorcycles, or bicycles. It’s a fluid system with flexible rules. The golden rule, however, is this: don’t try to get anywhere is a hurry.  Intersections are a prime example. Everyone, regardless of your mode of transport, is expected to slow down enough to nonverbally communicate who yields to who. The beauty of this is that you rarely need to come to complete stop. I’ve seen one minor accident and no displays of road rage. When there are near misses or even fender-benders, Cambodians seem to laugh it off with a mutual “Ha ha, that was close!” To be fair, I have heard that it’s common for Khmer people to smile or laugh when they’re upset, scared, or even angry—so it’s entirely likely that I’ve been misreading disguised emotion.

I’m living in a house that’s rented by SALT, with four roommates: two young German volunteers, the Khmer woman who acts as program coordinator and tutor for the Mighty Girls, and one of the Mighty Girls who recently graduated from high school. We also live with two geckos, who creep around the kitchen, the ceilings, and inside our loaves of bread. Meals consist of rice, fish, soup, rice porridge, or noodles. Everything is improved with the addition of a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk. I’ve received valuable fashion advice from my Mighty Girl roommate: wear ponytails high on your head to attract attention to your face and apply glitter liberally. I sleep under a purple mosquito net that looks like it belonged to a Disney Princess. Sunsets are best watched on our small balcony, and Gangnam Style is the soundtrack to life.

Gecko-roommate in my loaf of bread.

Gecko-roommate in my loaf of bread.

 Show Me That Horizon

In contrast to my time Jharkhand, I’ve had the freedom of mobility in Cambodia. The land is flat and the roads are bicycle friendly: which is my ticket to ride just about anywhere. The Cambodian kids make me feel like a celebrity when I ride by; I can’t cycle a kilometer without a kid or group of kids yelling HELLO! at me. The frequent roadside coconut stands, sugarcane juice carts, and hammock lunch places make even the hottest day a great day for cycling.DSC01037 Early in December, I took a long weekend to cycle to the nearby city of Siem Reap. My aim was to join a 100 k charity bike race being held in Siem Reap’s famous ancient temples, Angkor Wat. Along the way I had the great fortune of meeting a fellow cyclist: Lisa, a young woman from Ireland who’s solo-touring Southeast Asia on bicycle for a few months. She’s traveling around the world for a year, and, like me, had just arrived in Cambodia after spending time in India. We hit it off immediately. After a weekend of doing the cycle race and exploring the Angkor Wat temples, Lisa and I decided that we might as well meet up again for Christmas. We heard a rumor that Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) had some serious holiday spirit, so we made tentative plans to see each other at the end of the month.DSC01025DSC01029DSC01020DSC01017

Temples of Angkor Wat

Temples of Angkor Wat

Fish massage, during which tiny fish eat the dead skin off your feet and you drink a comlimentary beer. 15 minutes for $1.

Fish massage, during which tiny fish eat the dead skin off your feet and you drink a comlimentary beer. 15 minutes for $1.

Vietnamazin’

 In high school, I took an excellent course on Vietnam and U.S. relations. It delved into the murky history in a way that both fascinated and horrified me. Although my memory of the details of the course have become fuzzy around the edges, I was eager to visit the country that had been the site of such bitter controversy, resistance, and conflict. I didn’t know how I would be received as an American tourist. After a quick two weeks in Vietnam, I can say that not once did I encounter any animosity or even coolness based upon my nationality. Although my visit was brief, Vietnam won me over with its open-air café culture, its friendly people, and of course—its food.

When you cross the street in Ho Cho Minh City, you take one step at a time at a steady pace. Motorcycles and scooters zip by on either side of you. If you hesitate or listen to the survival instinct that’s telling you to pause or run, you will likely be plowed over by the wave of 2-wheeled traffic. For foreigners, this takes some real effort and practice. Mumbai traffic hadn’t even prepared me for the unspoken pedestrian rules of Vietnam’s moto-flow.IMG_6170IMG_6946

One of the many red-plastic-stool cafes, serving the best coffee in the world.

One of the many red-plastic-stool cafes, serving the best coffee in the world.

The best coffee in the world

The best coffee in the world

Pho: Vietnamese noodle wonder-soup, good enough to break this vegetarian down.

Pho: Vietnamese noodle wonder-soup, good enough to break this vegetarian down.

I met up with Lisa, who had accumulated an additional travel buddy—an Australian guy named Ben, who was also cycling through Southeast Asia. Our trio was a serendipitous convergence of solo-travelers, and I couldn’t have asked for better company for the holidays.

Lisa, Me, hostel mama, Ben (who no longer suffers from GI problems)

Lisa, Me, hostel mama, Ben (who no longer suffers from GI problems)

We had been told the truth about Ho Chi Minh City’s love of Christmas. On the Eve, December 24th, the people of Saigon gather in front of the city cathedral donning an array of gaudy, festive hats. As midnight approaches, the revelers acquire cans of fake snow and the courtyard in front of the cathedral turns into a foamy free-for-all. Lisa, Ben, and I wound up in the middle of this fray. The chaos was fun, but we didn’t stand a chance. Being foreigners, we might as well have had giant targets on our foreheads. Hopelessly outnumbered, it was only a matter of minutes before we were covered in fake snow and glitter. The fake snow acted as a sort of adhesive to keep the glitter on our skin and hair, marking us as Cathedral Snow Fight Losers for the rest of the evening.
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Saigon, gearing up for Christmas.

Saigon, gearing up for Christmas.

Losing the battle.

Losing the battle.

Even the rat-dogs were dressed for the holiday.

Even the rat-dogs were dressed for the holiday.

After spending a week in Saigon, our happy trio hit a couple of beaches on the coast of Southern Vietnam. Oddly, this area is dominated by Russian tourists. I felt like the oddball not because I was a foreigner, but because I wasn’t Russian. Little Moscow was so prevalent that I encountered restaurants with menus exclusively in Russian and Vietnamese locals who spoke Russian. Imported vodka took up most of the shelves in local liquor stores. There was even a shop selling high performance, cold-weather mountaineering gear. In Southern Vietnam.Beach in Little Moscow

Easily amused.

Easily amused.

I was a bit sad to leave Vietnam, not only because it meant breaking up our happy trio, but because I was intrigued by the country and wanted to spend more time exploring the mountainous north. Coming back to Battambang, however, felt good and familiar. The Noodle Man still makes the best noodles I’ve ever tasted, the geckos still creep around our kitchen, and the Mighty Girls welcomed me back to football practice like I had never been away.

In conclusion, I need to make one more note about The Song of 2012. The influence of Gangnam Style can’t be understated. I feel privileged to be in Asia during the time of Gangnam. Despite Cambodia being pretty far from Korea (both physically and culturally), Gangnam Style has brought about a tangible pan-Asian pride. Oppas can be heard on any given street at any time of the day. PSY t-shirts can be bought anywhere that sells t-shirts. Kids skip around singing Korean words they don’t understand. Spontaneous invisible-horse dancing breaks out in the markets. The underlying Gangnam beat is the pulse of Asia.

The Land of Stairs and Tea

At the beginning of this month, I switched my sandals for wool socks and sneakers, packed up my backpack, and left Jharkhand for the foothills of the Himalayas. My Indian visa was about to expire—meaning I had a little over a week before I legally had to leave the country. Before leaving, I wanted to see the city of stairs and tea: Darjeeling.

After an auto-rickshaw out of Hutup followed by 15-hour train followed by a bumpy jeep ride into the hills, I arrived past dark, too road-weary to care that the ceiling of my $2 hostel room was crawling with mold. So it wasn’t until the light of morning that I was able to walk outside and see this:

Darjeeling! The old British hill station, world-famous for its tea, sprawls across steep hills. It’s a wonder that the city has grown so extensively on such intense slopes.  Tiny, colorful houses perch one on top of the other, some precariously teetering on stilts. Narrow streets wind here and there, and crumbling stone staircases lead endlessly upwards. Prayer flags hangs over alleyways and marigold flowers adorn window ledges. Climb high enough on a clear day, and the snow-capped Himalayas rise above the clouds. She’s a beautiful city.

Coming from the dusty and flat landscape in which I was the oddball foreigner, Darjeeling and the people in it were a radical change of pace. The city attracts tourists—both Indian and foreign—hence the crowds on the main streets are an eclectic mix of trendy Nepali kids, tall, athletic Westerners dressed to climb mountains, families of middle-class Indians, and honeymooners. Exploring the city was an adventure that left my calves aching after a single day. Local people must have legs of steel. I kept marveling at how clean and functional Darjeeling was in comparison to Jharkhand. Then, of course, I would find scenes like this one that would remind me to stop idealizing the place:

Border Hopping

Franz arrived a couple days after me, and we arranged for a three-day trek on the Singalila Ridge: a route that would take us high into the land of red pandas and guaranteed views of the Himalayas. Everyone who enters the national park is required to have a guide. We were assigned to a young man named Jamyang, who wore black corduroys and never once looked winded or tired during the time we were together.

Our guide, Jamyang

As the three of us prepared to leave for our first day of trekking, Franz and I were surprised to see a sign welcoming us to Nepal. The sign overlooked a small town market, and there was no discernable line marking where India stopped and Nepal began. We asked, and Jamyang pointed to trash-filled gutter. This, apparently, is the official border.

Official India/Nepal Border

As it turns out, Nepal and India “share” the Singalila National Park. This isn’t an advertised feature of the park, and India controls all the tourist traffic. I still don’t understand how it’s divided, but every now and then over the three-day trek, I would ask Jamyang which country we were in. Without realizing it, we were continually hopping back and forth over the border. One swell of hill could be India, while the small farm nestled in its valley claimed to be Nepal. It seemed appropriate that in this place of remote and immense beauty, borders didn’t tangibly exist or seem to matter.

We spent most of our days walking uphill—with the notable exception of some intense downhill on the third day. When clouds drifted over the land, our world would become an eerie, cold fog. When the clouds left, the sun would bring colors and the distant mountains to life. We took breaks in tea-houses—family homes that host trekkers—and explored monasteries, shrines, and sacred ponds that (apparently) never freeze.

Note the steam coming off of Franz’s back.

Nights were cold. Very, very cold. The tea-houses provide beds with blankets that are more like thin mattresses. The real saving grace once the sun went down was Honeybee Brandy, which mixed very well with hot tea. It was a strange pleasure to hunker down with a steaming cup of Honeybee, wearing triple layers of clothes, and share stories with other trekkers. One memorable English couple—named Seb and Lizzy—were taking an extended detour during their move to Australia. Ironically, it had only been two days earlier that Franz and I had had dinner with an American couple named Zeb and Lindsay.

Seb and Lizzy, not to be confused with Zeb and Lindsay

Lays at Xtreme altitude

One the final night, we stayed in the village of Sandakphu (which has an elevation of 3636 m; 11929 ft). From here, the peaks of Kangchenjunga and Everest were visible in the distance. We were above the clouds and higher than I’ve ever climbed, but we were still dwarfed by these majestic mountains. The moment was very deserving of our celebratory chocolate binge.

Leaving India

It was bittersweet and difficult to leave India. As I sat alone in the Darjeeling airport café, I couldn’t help replaying all the best moments from the past few months and wishing I had more time to stay in this wild country. I ordered some vegetable soup and roti, and allowed myself to be melancholy.

“I sit here?”

I looked up to see a middle-aged Indian man wearing glasses and a sweater vest. I didn’t feel like chatting. But all the other tables were occupied by families and old British tourists, so I nodded my agreement. Surely we could sit together in silence.

“What country you from?”

“America.”

“Obama!”

“Yes, Obama.”

I couldn’t have been giving off more standoffish vibes. Surely he would get the message and stop talking. Five minutes passed.

“You married?”

“No.”

“When you get married? You marry my son.” He proceeded to describe his son’s dashing good looks, enticing annual salary, and job in Delhi. I told him I would be a terrible wife because I never listen and can’t cook. He told me that as my father-in-law, he would teach me all these things. I said no, and ate my soup as quickly and mannerless-ly as I could.

As I waited for my bill, the man continued to ask questions about my life. I retaliated by giving the most outrageous answers possible, which he earnestly accepted. I have eight sisters. My father is a truck driver. My family and I all live in a tent and constantly move around the country. We steal food when we’re hungry.

And despite my best efforts, he continued to return to the offer of teaching me wife-skills as a father-in-law. Finally I just left money on the table and told him I never wanted to talk to him again. All in all, I was left feeling decidedly less melancholy about leaving India. 

Girls Got Confidence

The Field as a Stage

The girls who play for Yuwa make eye contact when they speak. Talk to other girls in the village, and they demurely drop their gaze and tend to mumble. Participating on a team gives girls a very noticeable boost of confidence that is made all the more apparent because it’s such a contrast from their peers. I didn’t realize the extent of Yuwa players’ confidence until I watched them play in a match in another district of Jharkhand. This event took place in mid-September, but even if this post is belated, it’s a story worth relating.

At 6:00 on the morning of the match, about 25 girls arrived at the Yuwa House, ready to go. Coach Anand informed me that the mini-bus would arrive any minute, and that the match was about “two or maybe two and half hours away.” Not bad. Regardless of the cramped conditions of the bus, it would be a chance for me to see more of Jharkhand countryside. The girls charged around the house, eager to get on the road. Based on their energy, you never would have guessed it was so early in the morning.

The mini-bus didn’t show up until 9:30. Yes, that’s three-and-a-half hours late. This didn’t seem to faze anyone, least of all the girls, who took the extra time to do each other’s hair in elaborate braids and show off their dances moves. About 40 of us (including the players who wanted to come along to cheer for the competing team) piled into the mini-bus that was meant for 18 passengers. Several of the older boys rode on the roof when no more could fit inside. We heroically defied designated vehicle capacity, and set off on our journey. One girl sat on my lap, and the two girls on either side of me promptly borrowed my arms as pillows and fell asleep.

Including a handful of stops to pick up more passengers and buy bananas, we drove for six hours. It got a bit stuffy and I lost feeling in my legs, but the girls were admirably free of complaints and still buzzed with the same anticipation they had had at 6 am. I kept thinking about Anand’s original estimate of this trip lasting “two or maybe two and a half hours.” It was at this point that I made a mental note never again to trust Anand’s judgment of time or distance.

Just when I thought we must be arriving at the field, we stopped at a roadside dhaba (a diner for truck drivers and travelers) for lunch. Apparently the political sponsors of the match were paying for the players’ meal. Although it seemed like a bad idea to eat a lot of food immediately before running around, the girls all ate their weight in rice and vegetables. I still marvel that girls so small can eat so much rice.

Bellies filled, the girls and I piled back into the mini-bus and set off once more. I had imagined that this match would take place in a stadium, but our vehicle turned onto an unpaved road and began a long and bumpy trip past villages and rice fields. And suddenly, when we were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, our bus came upon a clearing with a massive gathering of people. My jaw dropped. The crowd was improbably huge and packed around the designated football field. Without any proper bleachers, people had improvised by stacking themselves in rows to watch the match, climbing onto surrounding roofs, and even taking to the trees to get a view. At one end of the field sat a stage with premium seats for politicians and other big egos. Police officers wearing red berets and wielding sticks patrolled the area to keep order. All of this, to watch the Yuwa girls play some football.

 I was reminded of something Franz had told me about Indians. Their most impressive displays of organization came from two things: religious festivals and sports events.

The Yuwa girls and I were ushered out of the bus and guided through the crowd by the police officers. Everyone had been waiting for our arrival. I felt like we were extremely important. I was also very conscious of being the only foreigner in a crowd that must have numbered in the thousands. I wasn’t the one about to play a match in front of this crowd, but I couldn’t help but feel jittery and nervous at the prospect of so many spectators. The girls, on the other hand, seemed utterly cool and composed. They held their heads up and focused on their warm-ups. Their body language was all confidence: of course there should be a crowd this big to watch their match.

After the Big-Shot politicians had their chance to flamboyantly and gratuitously introduce the match and its participants, the game began. The opposing team of girls was noticeably older and bigger than the Yuwa team. I prowled around the edge of the crowd taking photos and marveling at the intensity with which the girls were playing. They were awesome. Despite the obvious disadvantage of their size, the Yuwa girls were out-playing the other team in every one-on-one situation. And the crowd, like most crowds, loves a tough underdog: the cheers were almost entirely biased for Yuwa.

The final outcome of the match was 0-1, with Yuwa scoring the winning goal in the last five minutes of the game. The crowd, which had otherwise been impressively orderly, collapsed onto the field in celebration. The teams were quickly surrounded by the police and chaperoned over to the politicians’ stage for the presentation of awards. I thought this award ceremony would be a quick ordeal, considering the fact that we had over six hours of driving in the mini-bus to get back to Hutup. I didn’t realize that the ulterior motive of this entire event was the local politicians’ self-inflated need to speak in front of large groups of people. Thus, we all sat quietly for the next hour and a half while each of the Big Shots blathered on about things that could not possibly have been important.

We didn’t get back to Hutup village until almost three in the morning. Our ride home involved Hindi sing-a-longs, a wrong turn that cost us about an hour, many failed attempts to sleep on the cramped floor of the mini-bus, and a 1:30 am stop at a dhaba for dinner. The team filed into the Yuwa house and promptly crashed on the floor to sleep. Not once in this entire day did I hear one of the girls complain about being uncomfortable, hungry, intimidated, or tired. It was tough imagining how a group of American 12-year-olds might have dealt with a similar situation.

 Bedazzled

The girls’ confidence I witnessed in the match isn’t confined to the football field. After noticing the near universal enthusiasm for Hindi music videos and dancing, I thought it’d be pretty easy to organize a Yuwa talent show. This was definitely an accurate observation. The kids were so eager for a venue to show off their moves, I didn’t need to explain the concept of a talent show more than once to get a startlingly enthusiastic response. My efforts to arrange the event quickly took on a life of its own.

Pictures can speak louder than words, so I’ll just share some of the photos I took during the talent show. The performances were 90% dances, plus a couple of comedy skits and speeches in English (two about Ghandi and one about football). I led a group of girls in a clumsy rendition of the “Cha-Cha Slide”, which went over well with the audience despite being repetitive and not nearly as exciting as the girls’ Bollywood dance sequences.

 Fake Snakes: The Ultimate Confidence Killer

To conclude this post—which is meant to be a salute to the confidence of Yuwa players—I want to share with you how to obliterate confidence in rural India. Buy a realistic rubber snake. When Franz came back from the U.S., he brought an exceptionally convincing fake cobra. The kids’ reactions to finding this thing in various places around the house were priceless. They would scream and sprint out the door, sometimes running all the way down the street. Once convinced to come back, however, they were eager to pull the prank on their friends and elicit similar over-the-top responses.

By far the best fake snake reaction came when a group of about fifteen Yuwa players were waiting for their auto-rickshaw in the house. Out of pure coincidence, the kids were all gathered around a National Geographic picture book about snakes. Franz quietly approached the group holding a basket covered with a shawl. Once in the middle of the circle, he lifted the shawl to reveal the snake. It was like a bomb went off. Everyone screamed, some fell backwards, and those who kept their balance were outside within seconds.Unfortunately, I don’t have a video of this moment.

Bottom line? Given the absence of fake snakes, Yuwa girls got confidence on stage, on the field, and off the field.

A note on the backlogged-ness of the blog: I am currently OUT of India and in Battambang, Cambodia. I’ve got another post in the works about Darjeeling, but I’ll catch up to the present moment eventually.