Nunavut student finds exchange a life-changing experience

A Northwest passage to India


Not long ago, Annie Aningmiuq, 22, never imagined she would wake up, eat curdled buffalo milk for breakfast, and declare it tasty.

But three months in India changes your views on a lot of things, and breakfast is just the beginning.

Aningmiuq spent from November to February in Hathin, a village of about 15,000 that's just a two-hour auto-rickshaw drive from the nation's capital, New Delhi. Hathin is a big place compared to Aningmiuq's home town, Pangnirtung, but a very small one in a country with a population of 1.1 billion.

She travelled with nine other Canadians and 10 young Indians, as part of a Canada World Youth delegation. The trip was part cultural exchange, part an effort to make other people's lives a bit better through volunteer work.

"After being in India, I see we're very lucky," she says.

Aningmiuq spent much of her time in schools. You think Nunavut's schools are a mess? Our schools have tables, and chairs. Some of Hathin's schools don't. Students sat on potato sacks.

As for teaching materials, in one otherwise bare classroom, three posters hung on the wall: an English alphabet, a Hindi alphabet, and a chart with numbers. That's it. No textbooks, no computers, no television.

As in in Nunavut, it's not always easy to persuade kids to attend class in Hathin. Or, to be more exact, it's not easy persuading their parents.

"Little girls were told not to go to school, so they could learn how to cook and clean to prepare for marriage," says Aningmiuq.

Aningmiuq tried persuading their parents anyway. Sometimes, she succeeded. She's sure that a few lives were made better by the trip.

Of course, some children went to classes inside big, well-maintained buildings, where students wore uniforms. Their parents had money.

That education is free for young Canadians is something Aningmiuq hadn't thought about much before the trip. She thinks about it now.

During the day Aningmiuq would stay cool beneath the Indian sun by keeping a scarf wrapped over her head. But evenings were cold – the house Aningmiuq stayed in had no furnace, and an open roof, with rafters but no thatch.

Aningmiuq lived with a family who owned a buffalo. A month after her arrival, the buffalo had a calf. Afterwards, they had buffalo milk for breakfast.

A cow and stray dogs would sometimes wander into their home. So would mice and rats, after scraps in the kitchen.

Her family followed a strict vegetarian diet. Aningmiuq learned to enjoy curry, but after eating nothing but the stuff, day-in, day-out, she sometimes would indulge, during a trip to the city with friends, in a visit to Pizza Hut or Subway.

When Aningmiuq arrived in Hathin, she could not speak Hindi. Few people in Hathin spoke English. None spoke Inuktitut. She was completely dependent on her host family, for tasks as simple as buying a bottle of water. India's not a place where you want to drink water from the tap.

In two weeks, Aningmiuq knew enough Hindi to get by. After about a month, she could engage in small talk.

Aningmiuq arrived in India as a feminist opposed to the idea of arranged marriage, which is commonplace in the country. After meeting happily married couples in arranged marriages, she's less sure now.

"They enjoyed it. They were happy," she says.

"Now, I'm more for everybody."

During special occasions, Aningmiuq wore a bright sari, with bangles and earrings and a bindi – the red dot traditionally worn by Hindu women in the centre of one's forehead.

Since returning to Nunavut, she's worn the outfit in Pangnirtung. Young kids were excited when she gave them bindis to wear, too.

Aningmiuq, who graduated from Nunavut Sivuniksavut last year, plans to start classes at University of Guelph this autumn. And, after her trip to India, she knows what she wants to do when she graduates.

"I want to teach," she says.

Aningmiuq loved India, but by the trip's end, there was one thing she truly missed, other than family and friends. It was a bowl of cereal.

So much so, her father shipped her a care package from Pangnirtung to Hathin. It included granola bars, Skittles, and a box of cereal: sugar-coated Lucky Charms.

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