"Have you met Bruno Mars?" - Second report from India

Hitching a ride to Chaukori

The Dublin contingent has headed north: two queasy stomachs notwithstanding, we caught a 6 a.m. train from Delhi to Kathgodam, passing from agricultural villages on the floodplain of the Ganges to the first line of the Himalayan foothills make their northern wall. Noses were pressed to train windows to watch monkeys climbing over the station telephone wires, but other images were tougher to take: makeshift shelters atop Delhi landfills; women collecting cow dung for fuel and fertilizer; dogs, pigs, and cattle struggling to eke out a living: the hardship of life in these rural places was all too clear.

From the train, we loaded ourselves into three cars for the sometimes hair-raising eight-hour ride to Chaukori. "This road's about as wide…as Mr. Groves," Camille Pollak observed, as we snaked around yet another mountainside. Henry Luettgen spent the better half of the trip with a six-year-old on his lap—a boy we picked up along the way, headed back to school four hours from home. Bruised and battered, ten of us pulled in to the Himalayan Inter College long past dark. (Mr. Nemitz's crew, in the third car, were delayed by a flat tire less than ten kilometers from their destination.) Fifty boarding students plus adults were waiting to greet us in the school's courtyard, coming up to each of us in turn with rhododendrons cut from trees around the campus. Such faces! Such affection! As we settled into our new digs in the "hostel," or dormitory, not one of us wasn't touched by the warmth of our reception. 

Our first chance to really get acquainted with the students and teachers of the school came the next day, when we hiked over to a rocky outcrop for a Sunday afternoon picnic. "Affable. Dignity. Discipline," are the three mismatched words underneath the school coat-of-arms, but we immediately found all three qualities were easy to spot. At once friendly, unfailingly polite, and overflowing with curiosity, the Indian students crowded round us with all manner of questions: How old are you? What is your favorite thing about India? Have you met Bruno Mars? We hiked up to a further peak, for a stunning view out toward Nanda Devi, India's highest mountain at over 25,000 feet. Looking out at the jagged horizon, and perched on a spire of rock ourselves, more than a couple inner ears started to wobble. "This is called acrophobia," we were told by one smiling eighth-grader. 

That evening, Zoe Hewitt, Ali Weis, and others helped in the making of the evening roti, or round flatbread, which were far from round, but successfully flat and certainly bread. The Dublin contingent is eager to roll their sleeves up in the kitchen, especially to learn the secrets of brewing the local chai, a delicious, sweet, milky tea served to us four or five times daily in paper Coca-Cola cups. We're doing our best to get our hands dirty: against all protestations of our hosts, we're finally earning the privilege of washing our own dishes. 

Monday morning, our first school-day, brought another rhythm. After a blood-red sunrise over invisible Nepali peaks, we gathered for a yoga session with Mumpta, head of the women's center here in Chaukori. We spread out our mats in a field and stretched muscles we didn't know we had, as Jo-Jo, the school dog, stood guard over us. Mr. Walters and Mr. Hungerford had impressive difficulties trying to sit on their own feet. 

After a breakfast of green beans, yogurt, fruit, and tea, we gathered for the morning assembly. Over 900 students lined up according to their grade-level, single file, some in their red jackets, others in blue tracksuits, to sing hymns and the Indian national anthem. International and national news headlines were read in Hindi and English, including mention of President Trump's upcoming talks with North Korea, and Tiger Woods' first strong finish in years. A speech of welcome was given to us, and Mr. Nemitz took the podium to introduce us and encourage both Indian and American students to ask questions of one another during our stay here. Dubliners are spending the day going to classes with their hosts: so far this morning, English and Chemistry have been manageable; Sanskrit, not so much. 

Everywhere, we are the subject of speculation and some bemusement. It's hard to predict what's remarkable about us, seen through Indian eyes: Alex Antonellis may have unwittingly set off a fashion craze with his ponytail and orange-rimmed sunglasses worn on top of his head, while Mr. Walters, after failing his first Hindi test, was apologetically informed, "Sir, I think your head is very soft, sir." James Speaks, in shirt and tie, was delighted to be told by his Indian classmate, "You are wearing pants out of the 19th Century." As new as our surroundings are, we're seeing ourselves anew, too.