20 Things I’ve Learnt in India


1. How to tie a sari.
To begin with it took me half an hour and was tricky ordeal involving 8 metres of fabric and far too many safety pins. Once I finally managed to do it, I’d go outside only for the first person I’d meet to disapprove and redo it for me. Now it takes me 5 minutes and I’m good to go. ‘Western’ clothes aren’t appropriate here so I have gradually purchased a new colourful wardrobe of saris and Punjabi dresses. I own 14 saris, varying in colour and design. I have a mixture of simple and lightweight saris for daily wear and fancy saris for the special occasions.

2. How it feels to be a minority.
I might be the only foreigner in the city of Ongole, or at least I haven’t come across any others in the last 7 months. Wherever I go I am stared at, people point and whisper to their friends and sometimes ask for selfies. Being under constant observation can be uncomfortable and can often make me feel alienated. I will go back to the UK and blend in again, but there are people who will feel different and isolated their entire lives. Having an identity and feeling like you belong is such a significant part of our happiness, something I only realised when I temporarily lost that sense of belonging.

3. How to teach.
This is and always will be a work in progress. Teaching can make me feel on top of the world whilst other times it can make me want to take the next flight home. I teach six 45 minute lessons every day, six days a week but with a half day on Saturdays. My timetable is intense and I have 26 different classes each class has around 40 students in it (one of my kindergarten classes has 48) with ages varying from 3-14. I’ve taught both English and Art in my time so far. We haven’t been given any workbooks or a curriculum to follow so I have to plan each lesson and accommodate for each class’s age and ability. A lot of creativity is required especially as the available teaching resources are restricted to chalk and a blackboard. It’s demanding but it’s very worthwhile!


4. How to eat with my hands.
For our first breakfast at the project we were served a large portion of rice and ate it under the scrutiny of 13 hostel girls who live at the school. They disapproved and laughed at our attempts to eat; there’s a technique to eating with your hands which we hadn’t gotten the hang of. Now eating with my hands feels very natural whilst eating with metal sticks seems odd.

5. How to communicate despite having a language barrier.
Although most people here have a basic level of English and I know a few phrases in Telugu, communicating can be difficult even at the best of times. Once we were travelling to a neighbouring project and we asked the bus driver if he was going to Tangatur and he said yes. It was only after we had set off that we saw on the ticket it was heading to Kankatur, a different place entirely. Even having conversations with friends can be confusing, for example I accidentally told one of the nursery teachers that I intended to become a housewife after returning from India. Despite all this you can actually communicate well even if you don’t speak the same language, it’s just a little more like charades.

6. How to share a living space.
I share a room with Amy, a mouse and a few ant colonies. We live in the school building in what used to be a computer room. Above us are two floors of classrooms and if my alarm doesn’t go off I’ll be awoken by the scraping of tables and benches. We have neighbours too; in the room next to ours live the hostel girls, who stay at school during term times. There is never a moments quiet and as soon as I step out the door I’m greeted with a chorus of “Hi miss!” and often a compliment on my sari, earrings, dress or hair (although sometimes they disprove of what I’m wearing and tell me to go change).


7. How to manage the chaos of Indian roads.
In the UK I used to walk and cycle everywhere but here the roads are so crazy that walking is a mission and cycling is just lethal. There is a chaos of motorbikes with whole families on them, cows roaming freely, autos, the occasional car and tractor all speeding and overtaking each other. Lanes don’t exist and vehicles often drive down roads the wrong way. Crossing a road is quite thrilling because traffic won’t stop so you have to stop it and weave your way through. They also indicate with their horns instead of lights, so there is a constant background noise of beeping. If we visit our friend Kalyani we often get driven home by her husband on his motorbike, it is one of my favourite things zooming (safely of course) through the streets of Ongole.

8. How to act and speak like an Indian.
 I’ve adopted a few Indian mannerisms and I behave somewhat differently. I very quickly started doing the famous Indian head wobble, which means yes but can also be a greeting and a way of showing you understand. If something doesn’t go my way I click my tongue in disapproval. I’ve also recently started shaking my head and doing a kind of jazz hand to mean no. I often speak in broken English too. If someone asks if we have water coming from the taps in the bathroom I might reply “no water have, not coming”, or if someone asks where Amy is I could respond with “Amy miss nursery campus go”.

9. How to do yoga.
We joined a yoga class that takes place on a rooftop in the centre of town. The past volunteers had recommended it and so we set off in search of this mystical rooftop. We were walking along several streets looking up at the top of the houses, but we couldn’t see anything. Thankfully we were being followed by two random boys and so we asked them “yoga?” and their faces lit up in understanding and they showed us where to go. It is a very special experience doing yoga outside, with a rooftop view and a cool breeze, with the sound of the call to prayer and sometimes underneath the light of the stars. At the end of the session we would do meditation and breathing exercises and finish with chanting a beautiful prayer in Sanskrit.


10. How to wait.
Everyone and everything is in constant motion here, but things don’t always move with speed and efficiency. In January we took a 17 hour sleeper train from one coastline to the other, but our train was delayed by 5 hours and we ended up sitting on the train platform until 04:00 in the morning. Being in a rush in India doesn’t help and you have to take everything as it comes.

11. How to improvise.
We are never told anything advance and we are often asked to do things very last minute with no warning. Amy and I were sitting in assembly when the headmaster approached us and told us to go on stage and do a speech about India’s Republic Day. At the time I didn’t know know there was a difference between Independence Day and Republic Day and so I can’t say my speech was a very good one. I don’t have anything against this spontaneity, mainly because I don’t have time to worry about the outcome. But my absolute favourite thing to hear is “tomorrow is a holiday”.

12. How to be in a long-distance relationship.
Even though my boyfriend Finn and I are 5000 miles apart, maintaining our relationship has been one of the easiest things I’ve had to in my time in India. He came to visit me in our January holidays and we spent one week exploring Goa (which is on the exact opposite coastline to Ongole, but couldn’t be more different), but aside from that we haven’t seen each other since September. As with all the people in my life at home, moving to India has tested all my relationships and proven which the strong and lasting ones are. Real friends will still be there when I come back.


13. How to eat spicy food.
Andhra Pradesh is supposedly one of the spiciest states in India and I now have taste buds of steel to prove it. My calculations estimate that by the end of the year I will have eaten approximately 640 portions of rice. You would think I would be desperate for some variation, but even when I have a choice I always gravitate back to the rice. I have eaten all kinds of wonderful curries too, including: tomato, banana, carrot, cauliflower, potato, egg and lady’s fingers (my worst nightmare). I am a vegetarian, to the dismay of poor Madame who feeds us. In Ongole people eat meat on Sundays as a special treat. They also kill the animals early on the Sunday mornings, which I didn’t know until I recently stepped outside and a headless goat was getting skinned outside the school (the head was lying a few metres away). I think I will be sticking to a vegetarian diet from now on.

14. How to cope with anxiety.
I’m not massively extroverted and public speaking for 5 hours a day and managing classes of over 40 rowdy and often misbehaving children made my nervous system buzz with such energy I sometimes felt too anxious to leave the room. I teach 6 days a week, I share a room and I am unable to go outside without getting stared at or spoken to, this can make me feel trapped at times. On top of the pressures of being a good volunteer and making a positive difference it can be a lot to deal with. I have learnt to not be harsh and put extra pressure on myself, instead to be the reassuring friend that I need in that moment. Everyone copes with situations differently and it has been a learning curve getting to know how my brain works and what my limits are. For me I have learnt when to wind down and how to channel all the anxious energy into something creative, such as music, art or writing.

15. How to live in the heat.
I have not experienced rain so far this year (2019) and it’s unlikely I will until the monsoon season starts. Despite being a Swede I’ve managed to adapt to the heat without too much complaint. I’m writing this in 38˚C and sitting under the cool breeze from the fan in our room. I was surprised to learn that people here aren’t too fond of the heat, which is unfortunate considering we live in a tropical climate that builds in temperature across the year. Living in a more conservative part of the world the only parts of skin we (women) can expose are our hand and arms, neck and face and our feet. Wearing full covering clothes in extreme heat might seem arduous but on the other hand very little sun cream is required.


16. How to dance shamelessly.
People here love to dance and they do it with such energy and without any embarrassment. It doesn’t matter what you look like when you’re doing what you love- and they all love it! At every opportunity the students dance on stage in assembly. I really can’t imagine anyone at my old school who would excitedly volunteer to do this. We started a dance club on Sundays with the hostel girls and boys at the school simply because they enjoy it so much. We too have been given a few dance lessons but we have a lot to learn.

17. How to kill mosquitos.
At the start of the year my arms, legs and back were covered in mosquito bites, despite my best efforts to fend them away with mosquito repellent and sleeping under a net. I still have scars from some of the worse bites (a couple got so infected my leg swelled up and I had struggle walking). I may have developed somewhat of a resistance to them, but I think the main reason my skin is no longer as speckled is because I get them before they get me. They are actually surprisingly slow.

18. How to party.
India is known for its bright colours and festivals and it has certainly lived up to its expectations. Diwali (the festival of light) was a beautiful chaos of explosives, sparklers and candles. We spent Holi (the festival of colour) with the hostel girls and smudged powdered paints onto each other’s faces. We were fortunate enough to be invited to a Hindu wedding, which was in a beautiful function hall with a whole buffet of amazing food and boxes full of melon and ice cream (I took advantage of this). We have also celebrated Gandhi’s birthday, Children’s Day, Balloon Day and Snack day. We do not drink here and I have realised the extent to which drinking is embedded into western culture. India has showed me you don’t need it to party.


19. How to stand my ground.
Being polite and English about things doesn’t always work out well here. Firstly, you probably won’t be understood between all the sophisticated waffling and secondly you will end up agreeing to do something you really don’t want to. If you aren’t direct you will be overfed, overcharged and overstepped and saying no is something I have learnt to do well.

20. How to adapt to change.
My life changed dramatically in a very short period of time and it took time to embrace a whole new culture and way of living. Whilst staying true to my beliefs I have learnt to accept the differences in this part of the world, and so much is different! For example nobody wears socks, lighter skin is seen as more beautiful so people bleach their skin, if you are married you wear toe-rings, many have inter-family relations, cows are worshipped and chocolate is made differently so it doesn’t melt. In many parts of India children are hit both at home and in schools, as a form of discipline. My school uses corporal punishment and it is something I witness every day. In the last 7 months I have seen so much and it has widened my scope of thinking, challenged my perspective and made me grow in understanding of what it means to be human.



With love,

From Elsa.

3 thoughts on “20 Things I’ve Learnt in India

  1. Elsa, what a delight to read your blog again. I love your insights, and your personal and intimate reflections.
    Thank you for sharing your 20 Indian life lessons.
    Alice xxxx

    Liked by 1 person

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