Board Member, Aileen, recounts her adventures (and misadventures) in India and Nepal this past summer with Broadleaf co-founders Michael, Denna and fellow board member, Ashley.

After a successful trip through a hot and dusty Kathmandu, Denna, Ashley, and I were ready to join Mike in the cool hills of Darjeeling. Our day’s journey from Nepal to the Queen of the Hills could be a blog post itself, with a bunker-like airport, the joys of Indian paperwork and an obsession with stamping documents, and a Sam Smith sing-along with our young driver and his friend.

Darjeeling, by nature, is a sleepy little town that feels like a second home to anyone who visits. It’s no wonder so many foreigners choose to relocate in this quaint, naturally air conditioned place. Ashley and I were lucky to be traveling with two former Darjeeling residents and consider being welcomed into Mike and Denna’s Darjeeling community as a major highlight from the trip.

During our time in Darjeeling, we spent three days visiting CHHIP schools. The long and bumpy jeep rides were worth seeing the School Health Activists (SHAs) in action. The level of passion and dedication these individuals have is astounding. We left each day in the field with our jaws dropped in awe: Mariyam, utilizing her teacher training to perfection, Nima connecting with the littlest students with such ease, and Satyam delivering the most difficult lesson with such grace and creativity. I was reminded that this is why we empower community members to teach the CHHIP curriculum; this is why SHAs are the key to the Broadleaf’s success. These three SHAs could give veteran teachers a run for their money and they do it with such an open mind and desire to impact their communities. Watching the SHAs not only reminded me why I’m involved with Broadleaf, but reminded me why I’m involved in education. Spending time with these individuals left a huge smile on my face and a feeling of rejuvenation and excitement about our work.

Our field visits were one highlight among many on this trip. We spent our evenings with new friends, plenty of food, and laughter. We took turns playing with the sweetest children in India, and we learned the history of Darjeeling and Gorkhaland from our Nepali hosts. These evenings are happy memories and encouraged me to start thinking about my next journey to Darjeeling.

As with any community, there is a darker side to Darjeeling fueled by politics and cultural animosity. This is hard to fully comprehend unless you
understand the tension that lies between the government of West Bengal and the Nepalis that make up Darjeeling. Trying to understand a cultural battle that is not my own was difficult yet eye-opening and helped me to better understand the children and communities Broadleaf is trying to serve. In Darjeeling, these strikes mean the schools are closed and meant our work had to be suspended indefinitely. As tensions rose and the first few deaths were reported, we knew it was time to skedaddle. This proved easier said than done as we realized we would not be able to find someone brave enough to drive on a closed road and the busses taking tourists out began to seem like a myth the government made up. There comes a point when you know you’re safe yet the feeling of being trapped with no way out begins to overtake your thoughts. It was comforting to see my thoughts mirrored on Ashley’s face and knowing that someone else is starting to feel uneasy (especially as we continued to discuss the option of WALKING to the plains. 75 km? With luggage? No thank you).

Finally, we found someone we trusted who was willing to drive us out of Darjeeling. By this time, our group of four had turned into a group of six (ps. Australians and Argentinians are pretty great) and we piled into a jeep and left Darjeeling at 3am in the cover of darkness. I don’t think any of us took a breath until we passed Kurseong, about halfway down the mountain. As we took turns napping in a hotel room in Bagdogra, I had an overwhelming feeling of safety and gratitude for my travel companions. There are few things that create a stronger bond than traveling together and this experience cemented our connection.

By that evening we were in Delhi, which is where we spent our final days in India. As with our trip to Kathmandu, Delhi is a special place that deserves its own blog post. If you would like to know the highlight of my time in Delhi, I will provide you with one word: jalebi. See below for a
picture of me eating one, tongue first.

Like always, India was incredible. I will be back and I will continue my work with Broadleaf more passionately than ever.


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