Tokobai: a mother, a woman, an old friend

She kissed us warmly goodbye, the smack of her lips ringing in our ears even as we trailed away. We’d turned around — her figure had turned to a speck, but we would still be able to spot a waving hand and a crescent of pearly whites stretched across her face.

When she hugged me, I was caught off guard — had I earned this hug?

Or did she hug others as generously too?

*       *       *

During my time with Drishtee Immersion, we stayed in a village nestled amongst the Western Ghat mountains in Maharashtra, India. Beautiful views of land meeting sky – clouds enveloping green mountaintops, greeted us each day. On our fifth day there, we were given the unique opportunity to learn about rural life. That day was affectionately dubbed, “Family Time.” I was excited to experience the daily routine first hand, to the live the life of the people I was staying with – yet, my day didn’t quite turn out like that. Instead, I met Tokobai. I found warmth and connection in a foreign country, in a village far removed from my daily life. I found the feeling that I was meeting an old friend.

She had married young; womanhood had barely welcomed her. At the raw age of fourteen, Tokobai was sent off to another village—ricocheted into new grass, new fields, new mountains. A new life. She was a beautiful new bride, rocking on the back of a cart, crossing a road for the first and final time.

Tokobai squinted her eyes, swatting away flies. Her gaze fell on the mountains. Our conversation had trailed into marriage, dipping into her daughter, Geeta’s marriage at the ripe age of twenty-one.

“Twenty-five onwards is better,” Tokobai uttered. “You will appreciate marriage better.”

What stories had led to that conclusion?

The unspoken question bulged with answers, with stories of its own.

“If you’re too young, you’re too inexperienced,” she continued. Her gaze remained on the mountains. But whatever hills she’d had to cross, whatever fields, whatever roads — she must have done well.

Her eldest son, now twenty-five, would stay behind on the farm to look after his ageing parents. With a high school education well under his belt, his future was ripe with possibilities. And he chose to return those fruits to his parents.

When asked if they were proud of him, of all he had achieved, he said, “They don’t tell me they are proud. But I can feel it. I know they are.”

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Accompanying Ankush to feed his cows

*       *       *

“Are you happy to be back at home, Geeta?”

A new mother, she flashes her inherited smile and nods. “Yes, I am.”

Her baby was only a month and a half old and adorable. It was tradition for new mothers to return home for the first few months because it was believed that they didn’t possess enough experience to look after their newborns well. And it was little wonder that she was happy to be back home.

Tokobai giggled with the baby, tickling his chin and teased, “Stinky, sticky, time to wash. Make baby smell lovely, lovely.” And he was swept into her arms and transported to the bathroom — a humble corner of the shed, separated by brick walls and a damp floor. She sat on the floor and rolled up her garb. There she gently removed his clothes, revealing a black string tied around his waist. “To keep him safe from the evil eye,” answered the translator. “The black dots on his forehead, and sole of his foot are for the same reasons.”

He was safe in Tokobai’s hands though, as she nestled him between her shins, a makeshift baby bathtub. She poured water over him and began rubbing him with soap. The bubble frothed but was instantly washed away with water. Amidst the bathing, Tokobai sang, “Clean enough for Gunga. Clean enough for Gunga. Clean enough for Gunga” Her hands wrapped him like a blanket, as she turned him around to wash his belly and face. And his eyes, inherited black wells, were protected by Tokobai’s hands.

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Sorting onions with Geeta

*       *       *

In my broken Marathi, I accidentally called her very pretty and her face broke into a smile. Sun-dried creases were transformed into laughter. I corrected my mistake (I’d meant to compliment her dress) and her smile faded from her eyes. Frustration simmered inside of me – I’d hurt her feelings because of some silly language barriers. Later though, I would spot her from the corner of my eye checking her reflection in a small, hand held mirror.

When electricity was working, the inside of her house would light up with fairy lights, tastefully hung along the top of the mud walls. Folded mats were placed neatly beside the front door, alongside sacks of flour. Water collected from the well were stored in aluminium jugs, orderly stacked in a corner of the front room next to the door way to the kitchen. And the kitchen was a small section of their bedroom floor. Bits of this morning’s breakfast preparation were still on plates beside a small stack of dishes waiting to be washed. The chopping board sat ready, near the middle of this quaint kitchen.

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Preparing lunch with Tokobai

Tokobai, like many of the wives and mothers in the village, had a lot of chores to do that day – not only was she preparing meals for guests and her family but she had laundry to wash, onions to sort and water to collect. Yet, while I was completing tasks with her, I’d forget each time that she had a list of to-dos.

I stumbled my way to their well (a pricey investment, but one wisely-chosen). Tokobai nonchalantly strolled ahead, her bare feet accustomed to the muddy paths between their rice-patties. She carried three large aluminium jugs – while I carried one of the smallest ones. Their well was a concrete wall that circled the fifteen-feet deep hole. Metal rods protruded along the top of the waist-high barricade, with ropes wound around each rod. Attached to the rope and floating haphazardly on the water down below, were the same aluminium jugs we had been holding. I watched Tokobai draw the water—her arms pulled swiftly on the rope, her actions so fluid that I hadn’t noticed that the buckets had holes. Only when it was my turn, in my slow, clumsy actions did I notice water pouring out from a slit. I scrambled to salvage what water was left. I splashed even more onto the floor. Yet, Tokobai never batted an eye.

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Laura, Shruti, Tokobai & I collecting water from the well next to Tokobai’s house

She never seemed to be bothered by our antics that we disguised as “help”.

Eager to please her and prove my worth, when I noticed she was hanging laundry, I leapt at the opportunity. I scurried to her side, to a pair of trees bonded by a string tied taut between them. Tokobai noticed my approach; she heard the rhythm-less crunching of gravel and squelching mud. I said to her, “Help! Let me help you!” and signalled my enthusiasm by immediately bending down and lifting a wet shirt from the bucket. I haphazardly stepped my way closer to the laundry line and attempted to fling half of the shirt over the line. She smiled, creases crinkling. The sun and the moon laughed joyfully on her face; her eyes shone with warmth and gentleness; her mouth stretched to reveal a crescent.

tokobai house
Tokobai’s house & farming land set amongst the mountains

*       *       *

So, had I earned her generous hug? Or was it that she always hugged generously?

I just know that what I’d found during my ‘Family Time’ was an unexpected connection that made me want to ask, “Have we met before?”

By Belinda Tang

A tale from rural India by a participant of the Drishtee Immersion program

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Shruti & Tokobai



Can’t believe that two weeks have passed since i completed my Build abroad program at ECE Paris. Thinking about it, i realise that there are many things that i have to reflect upon. Within the month of July, i have made many new friends from many different other countries as well as million of memories. From just casual group picnics around the Champ De Mars drinking under the Eiffel tower, to climbing the tower itself as well as the Arc de Triomphe, trying many types of local food (*wink at the croissants), visiting the Louvre and many other museums, all the churches that i could manage to visit, and a few trips outside of the city to Disneyland and Versailles. One step at a time, let start at the beginning.

My first day started in a way that i would called well, as considering i have put a lot of research before coming to Paris. My program, Energy and Environmental Seminar, has the most applicants as compared to the other programs. Everyone was friendly and we got along really well, not to mention that  we were also fortunate enough to have a professor that was both funny and very passionate about what he was teaching. At the end of the day, we all went to have a picnic at Champ de Mars, where I got to meet more friends from the other programs.


Our program focused on the contents early on both current and emerging environmental issues that the world currently faces. Classes were usually entertaining because not only that we got to learn about issues other different countries are facing and what are the best current options to solve them, we got to interact with the issues based on many different types of board games or group works. Classes usually started at 8:30 and finished at 5 pm, afterwards were a free time which we usually used to hang out under Champ de Mars or local attractions such as museums, etc.20429918_1202368266533737_8528343876377180830_n.jpg

Friends that I met along the trip 🙂 Tisa, Emmanuel, Amy, Kamran, me and Tiberu, and Joseph (photographer 😉 )

For the second week of the program, we started moving on to a different area of study which was the corporate social responsibility as we participated in more assessable tasks such as a performing a presentation based on a company you picked, and a group game where we got ourselves into group, after picking a topic, we as a company had to come up with some solutions and the solutions that sound the best would end up win a box of macaron from the professor (the game ended in a 5 team tie, how odd!!!!). Not only that these activities taught me how to be creative and allowed me to think individually, it also improved my abilities on how to work better in a team, be a team player etc. Outside of class, I continue to met more friends, we visited Disneyland on the weekend, Arc De Triomphe on Bastille day, and Palace of Versailles, Notre Dame, Museum de Louvre, etc.

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In the third week, the program started to move on to energy and more physics based contents. Although the contents were challenging, we did find it interesting learning about the different type of energy to generate electricity and water and easy to relate to how I could I apply this knowledge to better use in the future or in different countries. The assessment for this week was a three way debate between 3 different type of energies: Fossil Fuels, Nuclear, and Renewable Energy in which the professor thought that out of the 5 years that they had been running this program, our debate was the best one yet, as everyone was so involved in it and we had such a good time. With most of the local attractions have been visited, we now turned into the food. Throughout the week, we have tried Snails (fun fact: they taste like liquid garlic bread”, we tried the special rum steaks at the Latin Quarter (the one hour wait was worth it), but out of all we had a blast at this famous Korean restaurant at Korean town, where I had found a new addiction in rice wine and for some reason I kept trying to put on a Nashville accent as I pronounced it as “Rhas Whine”.


Moving on to the last week, where mostly all the cultural activities happened. there were no new contents learnt this week as we had to revise and sit final exams the day before I left Paris. We went for a rowing trip at Bois De Bologue, we had a picnic as a whole school under the Champ de Mars, as well as a school excursion to the Science Museum. These cultural activities not only allowed me to bond more with my newly made friends, but they also shaped up a new perspective I have on Paris.


To sum it up, it would be fair to say that this trip has been a phenomenal one. Paris has been an absolute blast for me. From the early busy morning train commute to those late night picnic under the Champ de Mars, I just still can’t get enough of it.  This trip not only had given me many new friends, but it also improved all my personal skills as well as helped me gain a whole different perspective on things which I would be able to adapt and utilise throughout my life.



When thinking about the BUiLD abroad programme I just completed, I now realise that there are a lot of things I have to reflect upon. A few key memories come to mind at first, from visiting Hangzhou a city nicknamed the city of heaven to sitting around the largest lazy Susan I’ve ever seen with so many new faces. This programme has definitely been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever taken part in. I will never forget my time at Shanghai University’s SILC Summer School.

The first day started out a little rocky; I remember feeling anxious to meet the people I will be spending the next three weeks with and I wasn’t disappointed! Everyone on the trip was kind and interesting, but most importantly, eager to make new friends and explore new experiences, just as I was. We all quickly became acquainted and by the end of the first day, we felt as though we had been friends for a while. We celebrated the end of our first day of class by going to Japanese BBQ where we quickly warmed up to each other over a few (many) bottles of sake!

The classes were interesting and engaging and covered a wide range of topics like Chinese economic policy to Chinese logistics and entrepreneurship. Alongside these practical classes, we had Mandarin language classes which enabled us to meaningfully interact with the cultural setting. I found myself amazed that after only a few lessons I was confidently navigating my way around Shanghai and ordering food and drinks without hesitation.

At the university, we were grouped with local students who acted as our buddies throughout the programme, some of whom we became quite close to by the end of it, forming meaningful friendships that we still maintain even today now that we’re back in Sydney. They joined us on planned events and outings and came with us when we wanted to explore the city. They proved invaluable as guides and as friends.

The academic staff at the university were kind and welcoming to all of us, and over the course of the trip, their official roles became more like the roles of mentors and more maternal. Emma and Fei Fei were the two mentors we had the most contact and interaction with, and I will admit it was hard to say goodbye to them after everything that they had done for us.

The activities we participated in helped to shape my new and informed view of China as a whole. Before this trip, I can now confidently say that my view of China was very superficial. I had been to Hong Kong before with family but that in no way prepared me for an authentic experience of Chinese culture and Chinese people. There was an element of culture shock which I’m sure many of us experienced upon arriving in China. To put it simply, in China… anything goes!

The people we interacted with live a very carefree life, there are many times we would come across whole masses of people dancing in public all seamlessly in time to each other. On street corners, people sat and engaged in many leisure activities. Life looks simple but it looks good, with an emphasis on the small things and not at all caught up in the fast-paced constantly on the go cultural phenomena we’re used to in Sydney.

In the third week of the programme, we had a change of scenery as we ended our classes and headed to Beijing for a week of Chinese cultural immersion. We visited historic sites such as Tiananmen Square, the forbidden city, the great wall, as well as local Hutong communities. Our trip to Beijing is one that I will never forget as it provided us with an insight into a different aspect of life in China. Shanghai and Beijing are polar opposites in terms of international cultural influence, with Shanghai being a global city with many cultures being represented and Beijing being a more traditional Chinese city. The differences between the two are immeasurable but both provided a unique experience for us as cultural observers.

Reflecting upon this experience I can say that I have come out of it a changed person. Interacting with people on the programme from Australia and the UK and USA helped develop my interpersonal skills while engaging with the foreign landscape and culture helped me refine and develop my cross-cultural communication skills and helped me broaden my sense of global citizenship. Skills that I believe I will be able to utilise and demonstrate throughout my life.

Ola: Tecnun University San Sebastian

So a bit about myself; My name is Carolyn I am of Burmese background and migrated to Australia when I was 2 years old. So basically raised in Australia and English was my first language. I am bilingual and speak Burmese however not fluently as I wish I could. I am an engineering student in my final year, hoping to pursue a career in construction engineering and management. I have a loving family and I am the eldest of 3 children. Family is a big aspect of my life and without their continual love and support I would not have be here today. After doing my HSC, exam stress caused me to have epileptic seizures and damage to my frontal lobe impaired my speech and thinking. However I recovered and started my engineering degree in 2011.

Six years later (slowly making my way) I am at the end of my degree. My main drive in the past six years was to prove to myself that I could do it. Now that I’m close to finishing my degree I wondered what my purpose after the degree was. I had been to graduate interviews where I was stumped by the question “What is your passion?” On the surface it is easy to say money is my motivation however I don’t think that has ever been the truth. It may sound naïve but I’ve always wanted to make a difference and help others. I started the BUiLD program hoping I gain leadership skills and confidence in myself as a leader in the field of engineering. By going to Spain I hoped to put myself out of my comfort zone and maybe regain my purpose and passion for engineering.

On the first days of travelling by myself the language barrier and having to communicate to others who did not speak the same language was the most challenging. I wished I was multilingual and knew basic phrases of Chinese and Spanish. Another challenging aspect was being by myself. I was lonely and homesick and wished I had someone I knew with me. Also having no choice but to stay in a hostel with bed bugs was probably the most depressing part of the first few days. However Spain was beautiful. History and architecture have always interested me and Spain was full of both. The gothic architecture and the way the city was planned out were amazing. I loved walking down the streets imagining the stories and the lives that were lived in those streets. I felt overwhelmed with how creative human beings were and the man made beauty we are capable of. This brought me to my religious roots and reminded me of how we were created to be creative.

At the University Program in San Sebastian I met students from UTS and students from Universities in the USA. Our timetable was filled with Tapas tours, hikes up mountains and learning about the Basque culture. Our course was on Engineering Across Cultures and the lecturer was Greg from the University of Michigan. I learnt the importance of understanding a culture before implementing designs for the country or area. For example, I have always looked back at Burma and wondered why the transport system was so terrible and why they couldn’t just simply just implement systems used in Singapore or even in Australia. I realised each culture and country have different ways of life, beliefs and history and what may work for one country may not work for another. I felt a certain duty as an engineer to realise this and integrate this thinking towards the way I design and work.

For our main assignment we were to come up with a cultural case study for San Sebastian and an engineering idea that might benefit the San Sebastian community. Our group came up with an App that would connect tourists with local tour guides. We came up with this idea due to our interviews with locals that were concerned that the younger generations might miss out on international globalisation due to the fact that they don’t speak fluent English. Also due to the violent history due to racism we saw that it was important for the San Sebastian community to connect with others and have peaceful relations with international communities. I believe our idea was what the culture needed. At first we came up with beach lockers and night transports however we realised these were more of a tourists problems rather than a locals problems therefore we listened to our interviewees and what was important to them.

After the two weeks in Spain I have more of an appreciation for engineering and the opportunities that I have. I have always wanted to make a difference or build something that has value. During the daily grind of university and trying to get that competitive graduate position I may have forgotten why I have chosen this career. I realised I want to be a part of creating buildings that have significance to others where it may be a house for a family or offices where people start their businesses. I would like to thank BUiLD UTS for this opportunity. It will be one of the most memorable experiences in my life.