I wrote a piece on the experience of culture shock that has been published on the online literary mag. Papertape Magazine. Go take a look!
So, after much uncertainty, the plans have been laid and the gears once again collude to drive us forward. Some changes of itinerary on the American side of things had left the journey to Nepal under a shadow of doubt, but it appears that all is now set. On the 15th, I will depart Pune, my home of two months, for Delhi, where I will stay for a short time before boarding the truck and heading off to the second leg of my journey, Nepal. Wait. The 15th? Wait, just a minute. That’s 5 DAYS from now. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around this one. Looking at my planner this morning, the hand-written “8 Weeks” at the bottom of the page lets me know how much time remains in total and once again I am stuck thinking about how time and how it passes so slowly in the interim but, looking back, it has pulled the world’s greatest magic trick and simply disappeared. So now, sitting in Goa and catching my breath for a moment between appointments and meeting up with my hosts’ old compatriots and seeing the local scenic offerings, I try to absorb some of the experiences of my time in Pune. It’s difficult to bullet point a thing like that, I may not even necessarily see the effects until I have been home in the States for quite some time. C.S. Lewis is credited with having once said, “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different?” That guy had great wisdom. I wish I could sit down for a cup of tea with him.
When it comes to Goa, where do I start? I have tried to take some pictures, not my strong point, but I’ve done alright. Our first evening, after driving for ten hours, we went straight to the Benhali Beach and sat at Jonc’s, an ocean-front food shack typical of Goan coast. Pina coladas and garlic naan circulated, prawn curry for the seafood enthusiasts. As if the weather was feeling sorry for us, aware of our ten hours packed in a four-door sedan in ninety degree heat and humidity, a cool breeze picked up and registered in the uneven flicker of our table-top candle. After dinner, I spent a wonderful evening getting to know the general manager of the Indian branch of the company that is behind this entire journey for me. Needless to say, I was lucky to be a part of his and his family’s life for the next couple of days, going out to eat and attending the church service of a congregation with inspiring dedication to their communities.
This brings us up to Sunday evening, when we attended the wedding of Sunny and Lilly. It was “a typical Goan wedding”, I was told a few thousand times that evening. There were 800 invited guests, although not all who were at the wedding came to the reception- still, the crowd was sizeable. In this beautiful little spot beside a tiger prawn farm, down a winding lane flanked by islets of palms, I imagined crocodiles watching the bridal dance with a satisfaction akin to the human onlookers. The evening was full of beautiful moments, as most weddings are. Traditional Hindi music, some old classics, no matter the fare the Big City Band played on with gusto, but nowhere was their energy more noted than around 11:45 PM, when the modern pop music began to seep into the set list and young people made their enthusiastic way out to the dance floor, including bride and groom. Goa is more progressive than most of India, largely due to the duration of European influence, their Portuguese colonizers did not formally depart until 1961. So while you may never stray out of the territory of classical Indian music and Hindi crooning at a wedding in another Indian state, Opnam Gangnam Style did not feel nearly as out of place as one would imagine when it began to play. The bride wore a traditional white Western wedding dress and her wrists sang with bangles to the elbow. Konkani (the state language), Hindi, and English found their common ground and held it late into the night.
The next day I paid a visit to the Indian plant of Turbocam, Int’l, the company of my most recent employment. I was glad to see that the positive attitude so present in my home company was as clear in the staff in India, who were welcoming and excited about the work that they are doing. I will never be able to repay Turbocam for the good that they have brought into my life, the opportunities that they have provided me, but I think that really illustrates a founding point of their philosophy. There are few joys quite as complete as giving something to a person who may never be able to repay you for it. Turbocam did that for me, I hope I have done that in part for my students and new friends, in the brief time that I have had. After Turbocam, it was another stretch of time at the beach. I miss the ocean so much when I have been away. I stood and watched the sunset, warm water dragging rolled denim toward my ankles. I could have stood there for hours. For me, there is never anything boring about the cycling of the sea.
The next day, we visited the incredible school and complex created by the El Shaddai trust, serving orphans from all over India (as well as a myriad of other projects). I encourage you to visit their website and, if you are the giving sort, make a donation. I have seen with my own eyes that the funds are being put to great use. If you don’t donate, at least take the chance to read about some of what they’re up to. It might restore your faith in humanity for the day. It’s incredible to visit a place where lives are being salvaged and see what love and personal attention can do to prosper a disadvantaged population. It was truly a great honor to meet some of the teachers involved and spend some time with Pastor Matthew, the head of the project. I will not soon forget my visit. Later, we met with some more old friends of my hosts and passed a wonderful evening with them. I ate too much, but if you had been confronted with that garlic-butter naan, you would have succumbed as well, I assure you.
Now, taking some time away from reviewing phonograms to write this, I can only reflect on the idea that I am living a very good life and it is one that I should be thankful for and proud of. I will post some pictures when I return to Pune.
Now that a date has more or less been set on Nepal, I have had a sudden up-surge of energy. Phonograms! Give me phonograms! Off to Goa tomorrow, I am looking forward to memorizing spelling rules on the beach and talking to myself in public as I go over the pronunciation of such-and-such a multi-letter phonogram for the hundredth time. No really, that wasn’t sarcasm. I am looking forward to those things. Due to the illness that I fought through for the last three weeks, I am a bit behind where I had hoped to be on the mastery of the curriculum that I am helping to forward the use of in Nepal, but this is my chance to play catch-up and delve a little more deeply into something that I find interesting. Goa is also a chance to redeem myself on the whole “taking pictures” thing. I’ve never been very good at it. I lived in Spain for quite some time and took maybe 100 pictures, most of which were taken of the four year old that I nannied and, well, all of those were of her.
Exams are over, the official school year is over. The kids did extremely well for the most part and where they did not, everyone is now the better off because we know exactly what to really get up to our elbows in to meet expectations. Still, because I get so much enjoyment out of the kids and their creative ways of answering questions, I thought I would share a few.
Teacher: “The young one of a pig is called a…”
Four-year-old student: “Piglet!”
Teacher: “Good. The young one of a horse is called a…”
Four-year-old student (thinks on it for a bit): “Horselet!”
Teacher: “The young one of a duck is called a…”
Teacher: “Okay. The young one of a horse is called a…”
Teacher: “Hmmm. The young of a cat is called a…”
Student (with great confidence): “CHICKEN!”
Write numbers one through twenty
12, 22, 32, 42, 52, etc.
Write the vocabulary word for each picture.
(picture of a cat) bag
(picture of a log) bag
(picture of a can) bag
and so on…
“Suhan, seven comes after six.”
Sass levels set at infinite, “No.”
Student goes on to write the alphabet after seven, although he wrote the numbers 1-6.
Give the spelling of each number.
The mistakes are sweet, but most importantly, they’re all easily amended. I have never been anything but amazed by how bright kids are at this age. Though this particular group struggles with some of the more creative thinking, due to the educational structures that they have already been moved through, that current of inherent problem-solving skill and color is still so evident in their work, never more clear than in their mistakes. Education, if conducted correctly, in my personal opinion, can only serve to stimulate creativity. Though it is a growing trend in many systems, teaching to tests and punishing students for opposing viewpoints, it is not the way that it should be. This is the exam for my generation, just coming into the role of teacher, and those before us, currently filling it: If these children never grow to know that it is those things unique to them that will change the world, if they grow to believe that it is sameness of thought that will save us all, if this happens, then we have failed. There is no re-take. Luckily, what am I coming to believe may be one of the greatest challenges of our time, the reform of education, is a test we can take together and it is open book.
Due to the recovery period for this nasty cold/cough mess, I was not able to play colors on the morning of Holi, the Hindu festival of colors. The powder dyes used on this holiday have a tendency to cause the body’s vents to get a bit clogged up and if there is anything that I can’t take any more of, it’s coughing- even if I’m coughing purple powder. Still, because my hosts are extremely thoughtful, they made it up to me that evening. Our housekeeper Naseem, a wonder in the kitchen and speedy destroyer with a straw broom, has a sister named Hani, who is a henna artist. She came over with an array of dye tubes that contain a planted-based formula used for hundreds of years, tucked in a plastic grocery bag and gave me a one-arm special. She liberally applied the curly-cues and blossoming flowers of the traditional artform from my elbow to my fingertips. I write this post Sunday evening, I had this gift given on Wednesday, and just now it is beginning to show sides of fading on the most abused parts of my hand (fingertips and heel). So, yes, Hani and Hannah did henna and it was a wonderful time. I could barely keep from bouncing, I was just so excited over it- it appeared that my enthusiasm infected every-one else in the living room. I spent the hour or so shuttling between bouts of giddiness and mesmerized attention, watching the meticulous motions of the artist at work. Young women and old women in India sometimes host henna parties just for the fun of it, but it is most common to see the reddish-brown designs gracing the arms of someone just come from attending one of the extravagant weddings that Indians are so famous for. The bride will have the most complete of the treatments, elbow to wrist coated in elegant designs (not to mention bangles). On my pale skin, it seems out of place, I know I am just borrowing something that does not belong to me, but the greatest gifts I have been given in traveling have often been of this nature. Being welcomed into a corner of a person’s culture, given the right to take part in something that is as present in the history of their suffering as it is in their joy, is an act of value that cannot be overestimated. Though I aim to make a positive impact on the school through my work, walking through a person’s culture is a delicate matter, sometimes best described by the sign at a trailhead – Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
As some of you may know, I am a big-time fairy tale and folklore enthusiast. This may be a blood matter, my Irish ancestors were strong on the story-weaving front, but what started as a fascination with simple storytelling when I was a child has gained texture and weight as I get older. Stories are the pit at the center of fruit for a culture, they may seem useless but, from them, the new tree grows. Even now, I dare you to find a world culture that is entirely isolated from the impact of its oldest and most lasting tales. There is a reason that some folklore survives and some is lost. So when my replacement Kindle arrived at the end of last week (thank goodness!) and I found a copy of Indian Fairy Tales for free on Amazon Kindle by none other than the esteemed Joseph Jacobs himself, I was excited to read it.
In traditional fairy tale style, there was much to learn from the simple parables of the past. These are some of the key things that I gleaned from India’s oral legend treasures:
1. Be kind to strangers, lest they be your long-lost son in disguise.
2. If you’re a prince, Dad is going to throw you out. Enjoy the grapes and lavish perfumed chambers while you have them, because there is a clear pattern that suggests you will soon be running from jaguars and demons in the local enchanted forest.
3.Don’t mess with the fakir (religious beggar). You will surely get eaten by something with big teeth.
4. All of the other wives hate you.
5. If you’re an attractive man, this story will probably end well for you. If you’re an attractive woman, don’t count on it.
6. A humble life has nothing to do with socioeconomic status and everything to do with what you put store in. Kings can live with as much humility as gardeners. Farmers can be as perverted by greed as the most well-off of rajas.
7. Do not assume that the talents of an ant are of any less value than those of a lion.
and, of course,
8. Every culture, everywhere, wants a happily ever after.
The entire text of the book that I read is online in the public domain. I recommend taking a few minutes just to read a couple of the stories. I hope that they enrich your day- I believe that they will! A few of my personal favorites are “Why the Fish Laughed”, “The Tiger, the Brahman, and the Jackal”, and “Punchkin”.
Coming up the back streets on the motorbike yesterday, the sun-struck lane smelled powerfully of crushed petals. I am astounded by the flowers here, how they wind down the walls, explosively bright and as rebellious and varied as graffiti against backdrops of dusty stone and fading advertisements painted on concrete. The earth reclaims the earth. Somewhere beneath the domestic and the metropolitan, there are old world seeds splitting stone and defacing the marble of abandoned British bungalows. The trees lean heavy with colors that could only ever find such harmony in their discordant shades through natural arrangement. Summer is truly coming to Maharashtra, India.
Aside from the general excitement of being part of a season that I have never experienced in this part of the world, the perfume was even more wonderful to pass through because I actually smelled it. For nearly two weeks now, I have been suffering from one of the worst cold/cough hybrids that I have ever experienced. After spending most of the weekend sleeping, yesterday felt like the first glimpse into recovery since all of this started. So for those who have been concerned, don’t worry! I’m fairly certain that I am well on my way to feeling my best- I only regret that I missed five of ten school days in the last two weeks. I now re-dedicate myself to gerunds and irregular verbs with penitent vigor, scout’s honor.
Exams started today and the formal school year ends for our uniformed students on the 3rd of April, which is just over a week away. I find myself looking over the material of the last two months and blinking in shock- at the risk of sounding cliché, where did the time go? I have ten weeks remaining on the Spectacular South-Asian Adventure. In two weeks, half of my time will have passed me by and I will be counting down instead of up. I look forward to Nepal, to my remaining three weeks in Pune, but I also look forward to my return, drastically uncharacteristic of my history of travel sentiments. I must be a pretty lucky kid- having all of those things to look forward to. Traveling for the majority of the past two years has been an usual path for anyone my age, but I’ve done my share of soul-searching in relative solitude. The crossroads is so close, but I cannot tell if the train that I am on is slowing down or picking up speed. I’ve spent a lot of time being terrified of these pivotal moments of decision (many that I will have to make while thousands of miles from their sources) but, as I draw closer, I find that they are as exciting as anything else I have done up to this point. My father raised me to believe that attitude is 90% of the equation and, I don’t know about your parents, but mine seem to be right about most things. After two years of scuttling under rocks, hopping oceans to get away from myself and stumbling into myself with greater force day after far-flung day, it dawns on me that how I view the next step really is everything. I tell my students that learning is a game and that it is also life- the two cannot be isolated from one another, no matter how hard we try to make an education something that belongs in four walls. They believe me, because they are little and still have the unapologetic wisdom of a simple perspective on life. This work, though I would not wish to pursue it as a career, has been instrumental to the formation of my character since the knock-kneed personality costume party that was high school. Being admitted so completely into the lives of individuals who have not yet lost sight of the foundations of life, still so thoroughly enmeshed in the support systems and routines that make us, is nothing if not a constant challenge to your soul. Wake up, sigh over the enormity of life, go to work, and if you come home still sighing, then you might be doing it wrong.
I don’t know how this post headed in this direction. Suffice to say, I am looking forward to the remainder of the exams, sitting over the data and seeing where we can all improve (I know, it’s bizarre, but that’s totally thrilling for me), and also for Holi (the Hindu festival of colors!) on Wednesday, Good Friday, and Easter on Sunday. The greatest challenge will be keeping my headspace in the appropriate place at the appropriate time. Four AM often finds me standing on three legs between Pune, Nepal, and the future that waits in such a haze at home. Expect more posts than usual in the next few weeks, short ones with anecdotes. I have some pretty strong feelings to share with the unsuspecting internet about mosquitoes, let me tell you.
I hope this finds you well and excited for tomorrow. Anxiety and anticipation have a tendency to step on each other’s toes, but if you have to be headed forward anyway, then at least approach it with the knowledge that even if you can’t decide where they will necessarily take you, you can at least own your decisions.
While I absolutely love my work and find every day very fulfilling, it is sometimes good to take a step back from the heaviness of reality and do something that is purely for the sake of fun. That being said, I was up at five o’clock on Saturday morning, packing a bag, putting on makeup (something I haven’t done since I arrived- goodness, I felt more like myself), and pre-hydrating. By eight AM, Ben (my host brother), a few of his friends, and I were on the way to Bombay.
I have a bit of a history with electronic music. My last year of high school, I got really into dubstep and jumped through plenty of hoops to get to raves that summer before I left for Spain. I am not entirely certain that my uncle will ever forgive me for the six hour drive to New York City only to find that I left my tickets in Connecticut. Still, we saw Flux Pavilion (clicking on that link should elicit a few “those darn kids and their music” responses) and that was one of the best nights in my brief history. Thanks, Uncle Colie. I owe you one- for the rest of my life. Electronic music gets divvied up into several different sub-genres and the scene for each is pretty different. While it may all sound the same to someone who isn’t an enthusiast, trance, house, dubstep, drum & bass, all of those have their own identity and their own following (although sometimes the lines blur). I’ve never been much of a person for trance, but my host brother most definitely is. The only thing he follows more avidly than the newest trance tracks is Spanish club soccer, and both with equally admirable fervor. His enthusiasm is absolutely contagious. My first five minutes in India, I was introduced to Armin Van Buuren’s A State of Trance podcast/radiocast on the expressway out of Mumbai. Little did I know that just over a month later, I would be attending one of those unbelievable raves.
A group of about thirty of us donned customized t-shirts and headed into Bombay for the 600th performance of State of Trance. This particular party was hosted on the grounds of a race-track, what I would imagine the only place large enough to host an event of such phenomenal size. In 95 degree heat, we danced from 2:00 in the afternoon to 10:00 at night, no breaks, just the happiness and release of indulging in the genre. I was lucky to meet a wonderful group of people and to get to take part in something that they have been counting down to for five months. I doubt any of them were disappointed. Around 8 PM, as Van Buuren raised his arms from the platform and said, “MUMBAI!” a renewed fever swept through the slightly wilting summer crowd. It was without a doubt, one of the most intense music experiences that I have ever had- drowning in the raised dust, screaming out lyrics that I didn’t even know, and taking part in all of the positive feeling that the entire event radiated. Through the day, there was an estimated over 12,000 heads in the crowd and as anyone who is into any electronic scene knows, that is what it is all about- having nothing on your mind but nothing for just a few hours and feeling some bass. Your pulse races to match. 12,000 heartbeats thundering somewhere under all of that sound. That’s what really drives the whole thing forward.
There are a few moments in life where an elusive moment of transcendence finds you and lends a breath of fresh air when things are getting overwhelming. In the past two years, I have had more than my share of these- from my balcony in Spain, gathered with friends on the island at home, coming home. This was truly one for the books. Surrounded by new friends, DJs who love their job, and a sea of young people running headfirst into the world they want to create, I had a moment to look out over the water at the towering structures of Bombay. Night just settling in, the shadow of the sun fading out as the crescent moon slit open the sky over the rising haze of violet light pollution, it was as if all of the city, all of India, could take a breath as we, simply by having fun, told them that life was very, very good.
The honey sun
Irreverent of haze
Makes two PM a border-walker of sunset
At least, so it seems to my pale eyes
With their knowledge of pale skies.
But I am coming to recognize
The tea-stain of late afternoon
How the heat simmers low to the earth
And brings forth a grateful sweat
Or a costly one, for the unwise traveler in drought
Apartment complex shadows
And the seething gloaming of crowded bodies over the ground
Confuse the ignorant sun-dial
I sometimes do not realize
That night has come
Until the dogs begin to bark.
One of the most difficult things about teaching is accepting that not every not every meticulously organized lesson plan is going to work out quite as perfectly as you’d hoped. As a raving perfectionist (raving really is the correct adjective), this has been one of the most difficult lessons to learn. An application that you spend hours on may just not hit the board right that day, writing in the second person may make you sound pretentious if you don’t tweak a few things, and sometimes the kids may just be too jittery for a Sports Day. To my students, I call these sort of things “Eraser Days”, but more on that another time.
While Sports Day was fun and it was good to get out of the building for three hours on a Friday morning, it is a bit of a task to find events that effectively blanket over ages three to ten. We have now learned that the only game three-year-olds really understand is running in a not-so-straight line. They are also champion trippers… and sobbers. Beyond the limitations of organizing for multiple ages, there is another dimension to the trial of designing a day for this group. As an American, I am used to kids who have wide open spaces to play in as they grow up- we develop games like tag, hide-and-seek, and foot races, whether someone shows us how to play them or not. In the slum, where people live stacked on top of one another and the lanes through which you pass are not even an arms breadth across, children don’t have the physical space to run around very much and so they find other ways to amuse themselves, such as building towers of rocks or playing rudimentary cricket with stones and sticks. They’re happy enough to do this, they do not know anything else. Human beings are incredible, so able to adjust to their environment and resources.
Again I am struck by how little I know about happiness- what makes a person happy, what are the basic needs for happiness to survive (even thrive), how little could I personally have and still smile. While there is much to be said about standards of living in other countries adjusting the requirements for quality of life and the suggestions of advertisement forcing us to compare lifestyles and so on and so forth, I do believe that there really are very basic things that all people have in common when it comes to something as standard as what keeps us going. I recently read King Rat by James Clavell, which is a work of fiction that draws extensively on the author’s personal experience as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp during World War II. One of the things that hit me so powerfully about the book’s commentary was that so many of these men had gone from everything to nothing and, while they recognized the desperation of their position, there was still room for goodness. But, I digress.
So, my experience with privileged American and Spanish students did not prepare me so well for organizing games for the Indian poor. Still! We prevailed! The foot races were wonderful and everyone enjoyed them and we quickly worked out to sub in group songs for the space of time left by a failed Red Light, Green Light. The Hokey Pokey, as usual, was a roaring success and I will fall back on the image of 70 children, no shoes, putting their “whole self” in and then shaking it all about, on sad and rainy days for years to come. So, while not everything worked, some things did and what we have learned from this first annual Sports Day will be of great use to the school in the future, which is really the best we could have hoped for. All that there is, is to grow.
Summer approaches and Friday morning let us know- by the end, we (the teachers) were dusty and sore and happy and cashew cookies and filtered water were the perfect companions to a noon respite. Patching skinned knees, and kissing tear-stained cheeks, and mopping up water spills, we went about our work knowing that it was good work and that all we can give is just the very least of what these children deserve. It is so good to see them run, just as good as it is to see them write their name for the first time or glow over a particularly exuberant red check-mark on their homework. They understand that learning is an ever-present game. I hope that we can all say the same.
Now that it’s the weekend and because Saturday would be more aptly named the Day of Rest in this particular home, I have the opportunity to give you a quick look into the average workday schedule.
7:10 – Wake up (or try to wake up), get ready for the day- this includes the last minute looking over of key vocabulary for the day and any/all lesson plans that are drawn up
8:00 – Breakfast with the host parents
8:15 – Check my e-mail and then run out the door (the only acceptable way of going out doors is as if you are being pursued by hairy beasts). Nahmdev is waiting below with the motorbike.
8:30 – Arrive at the school, classes begin
8:30-10:30 – Teach two phonics sessions, one to ages 4/5 (20-30 minutes) and one to age 3 (15 minutes if I can get them to stop tumbling all over each other long enough to tell me what the letter A says)
10:30-11:00 – Short break, regroup and moderate the kids going in and out as the classes switch over
11:00 – 1:00 – Teach two phonics sessions, one to age 4 (20 minutes) and one to age 2/3 (15 minutes of NOT raising my voice)
1:00-1:30 – Lunch
1:30 – 2:30 – Grammar sessions with teachers, my most formal class giving period of the day
2:30 – 3:45 – Tutoring older children in conversational and written English (production skills)
3:45 – Nahmdev comes to bring me home
In the evening, I split my time between a free French 101 class on livemocha (J’adore livemocha), studying the Wanda Sanseri phonogram curriculum, reading and writing, and drowning in the vortex that is my tumblr. All in all, I keep quite busy and save all of my worrying about the future for the period of time between one and three AM. For those that know me, you are aware that I am happiest when I am occupied and I am glad that my illness is past and I’m finally in a place where I can really focus on the work that is ahead of me and the wonder of what is being done in the schools. I have learned from traveling solo that loneliness has much to do with isolation- you can feel lonely in a group of people, just as easily as locked in a tower room with only a friendly animated lizard for company. While some situations are, by their very nature, isolating- there is often a choice involved. I love the work that I do and when I remind myself of why it is important, it makes it difficult to feel that bone-tired uselessness that comes along with being stuck in the prison of a negative head-space.