Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Frustrating Farewell to Lucknow

Ahh, How I am going to miss my interesting Lucknowi neighborhood; a microcosm of modern India. I lived in the richest part of Lucknow with some of the most splendid new houses I have seen in the country. Famous Bollywood Heroin Ashwarya Rai has a mansion just down the street, with every luxury imaginable. But in the vacant lots surrounding the bungles of Lucknow's wealthiest are amongst Lucknow's poorest. Recent village transplants squat in these lots until they are kicked out and bring with them the country: compounds with tied up water buffaloes next several rows of growing vegetables and sari clad women cooking on wood fire chulas.

A little further down my street is another displaced village family that had built a little stand to wash and iron neighbors clothes. Initially, I had brought my clothes to the washerman, but soon discovered how alcohol was a higher priority to him than washing clothes. I had given him my bedsheets, but didn't get them back for a week. I visited the stand to find his wife frantically ironing a giant stack of clothes, she told me that he had drank too much (ANJALI AND HER SIBLINGS) and had gotten sick, which was a common occurrence. She could not have been older than 24 (her husband was in his early thirties), but her eyes were worn and sad. As she tended to the clothes and household chores, and as her husband slept off his hangover, her children played on the streets. The kids were a fixture in the neighborhood: the younger siblings were perpetually naked, playing or drawing in the dirt plot in front of their house or by the nearby market. I often saw the oldest child, Anjali, who is about five, running errands in the market for her family and taking care of her siblings. With a overworked, stressed mother and an absent father, these children essentially raise themselves.

Although I still hate their father; it is inexcusable to spend a large chunk of the family income on alcohol when your children are emaciated and live in squalor; it would be difficult to not find compassion for the family. Seeing that I had accrued quite a bit of items in the six months, I ended up giving the wife all of my kitchen supplies and some extra notebooks I had to Anjali, whose eyes lit up. Her mother told me that she loved to draw and told me that she wanted to be an artist when she grew up.

A couple hours ago, just as I was to get in my taxi bound for the airport, I realized that I had many extra pens and that I should give them to Anjali. I ran over to her shanty and gave her the pens and my final farewell. As I was running back to the taxi, I heard a frantic, 'Sir, Sir, Sir!' I returned to the gate of the plot she lived at, she had run into their families room to grab something. With a tremendous grin on her face, she presented me with one of the notebooks that I had given her. On her own, she had spent the day practicing writing her name in English and writing numbers up to a hundred.

As I sat in the taxi taking one last pass through Lucknow, I couldn't help but welling up a bit. I have no idea what is in store for Anjali's future, just from our interactions and seeing her work and dedication as a five year old, it is clear that she is bright. But she has all of the cards stacked against her in terms of caste, gender, class, and family support.

In the past six months, I have been so fortunate to meet many more Anjalis through my work with rural government schools. Although these children are amongst the most marginalized in India, they are brimming with love and curiosity. In the last month, I have been going out to student's villages allowing the opportunity to talk to them out of the school's purview and meet with their parents. As I have gotten to know these lovelies, I have found that most young children worldwide, they are untethered with ambition. These children want to be doctors, teachers, engineers, lofty ambitions for children of mainly illiterate farmers. They see the role that education will play in shaping their future and study with impressive diligence. But will they aspire to the goals they have set and escape the grinding poverty that they were born into? From what I have seen in my time in Lucknow, I am not hopeful.

Why? Easy.

Teachers don't care. I spent many days in government schools where I haven't seen a single teacher actually teach. I've been in a school where the teacher spent the day teaching English to her three year old son from the same textbook of the third grade class she was concurrently neglecting. At another school, one that we considered to be one of the best in our study, I saw teacher tell students to go out to the fields and pick vegetables for them. When they returned, the three teachers spent the rest of the day chopping their families' evening meal and ignoring their students. As much as I enjoy three middle aged, upper class women talking about what they like to cook and complaining about their jobs, I soon grew restless and decided to teach the kids myself. The kids were AMAZING, they hung on my every word while I taught them how to read time in English as well as a Hindi film song. When I had to leave, a group of children grabbed me and pleaded that I stay for the rest of the day to teach them. Sadly, I had to leave, but these children thirsty to learn, blocked the path on my way out. Another day, I arrived to the school to find very few children, the teacher told me that the children were always tardy and didn't care for their studies. I went house to house in the village gathering the children that I could and ending up walking back to school with Pooja, a bright third grade student that I remembered from a class that I had taught. As we walked through wheat fields on the way to school I asked why she was an hour late for school. She quickly responded, 'What is the value? My teacher never teaches.' A third grader. I had nothing to say. She was right. The children are not the problem.

Most parents don't care. Most parents in lower classes see the short run gains of having their children work in the fields or shops and thus bypass the future economic opportunities. I've talked to them, they know that that government schools are bad, but they don't have the capital to send their children to private schools. This is obviously a larger socioeconomic problem; as much as I know that every child deserves a high quality education, who am I to tell a family of eight living on less than two dollars a day to send their kid to school? Food, shelter, and clothing obviously need to be in place for a child to make use of an education. The degree of poverty in some of the villages I have seen in UP is overwhelming. I could tell you about the families of six sharing a fly infested 80 square foot room or the distended bellies of children living on a daily diet of two chapatis and achaar. I could go on and on, but I've heard this before much like how terrible the schools are in India. I tisk-tisk and shake my head, as we all do, but when you see this poverty in person and how it cripples the childhoods of millions, it slaps the sleep out of your nights. These children are born into this life, just as we are, nobody has choice in the matter. But for these children, those from lower castes and classes, they are born unwanted by the society that receives them, they have no choice to be born into poverty. It is not their fault. The children are not the problem.

The government does not care. The Chief Minister of this state was born unwanted, untouchable, and after a career as a government elementary teacher was elected to take the helm of the most populated and one of the most destitute states in India. Every indication of hope that things might change right? I live next to a sprawling park, a sprawling 200 million dollar (DOLLAR) park. The park commemorates, much the many of its ilk that stain this city, the ascendancy of megalomaniacal Mayawati. But in the 14 year wake of victory, nothing has changed in the schools, nothing. If a Dalit, former teacher cannot empathize with her kin and make strides to ensure that all children have a chance to learn, I honestly don't know who will. Children have absolutely no power in this society and obviously no political voice. The children are not the problem.

Children are not the problem, the main problem is the adults surrounding them that continue to fail them.

I guess the more nuanced answer is the apathetic haze that sludges across the minds, practices, and institutions of this country. From the teacher that will take a month of medical leave to prepare her son for board examinations, thus bypassing her duties to her students. To the parents that don't organize and confront the terrible tax-draining teachers that do not care about their children. To the politician running on a ticket of education, then crumpling it promptly after elections and hope returns to haze. To the richer classes and castes that are constantly making sure that their children maintain their family's status and reap the benefits of modernizing India, but never looking below their balconies at the festering injustice. To the developed 'us', living in cultures that breed escapism and materialism that is not readily compassionate to the problems in the lower hemisphere let alone down the street. If there is a child anywhere in this world who is not receiving a quality education, that is not reaching their potential, that is being exploited, this is not their problem, it is an adult problem, it is all our problem and we all need to take ownership over it in some way.

I am heartened by the many whose paths I've crossed that have dedicated their lives to caring, but collectively we haven't reached a critical mass. In my adult life, I have seen or been part of dozens of innovative projects in India, well intended to make change towards a more equitable world. And sadly, I've seen very few that have been met with success. We can put computers in classrooms, we can give teachers trainings, we can set up micro-credit lending centers, we can do a lot of things. But if people only think of themselves and do not fundamentally believe in social equality, obviously these programs will have a minimal impact. Programs need to focus on changing attitudes before addressing the topical issues, but obviously this is a much tougher nut to crack.

I leave with a burdened heart, sagging on the thought that these amazing children will not fill my life with joy and inspiration every day. I leave shattered that I don't have the answers and didn't do more to fix the unjust society that they inherited. I know that they will alway play a role in my life and that I will continue to fight for them in any way I can. But obviously it is difficult to bear the thought that I won't be able play a larger role in their education and lives in the coming years. Uck, I miss them already.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Our Research

Sorry Folks,

I had the best of intentions to maintain my blog while working and living here in Lucknow, but, alas, time flies by, and memories of such intentions fade. BUT, I have tacked on this blog to my NY resolutions. Although I have had a mixed bag with my other two resolutions (or
ange fight in the Himalayas, like a snowball fight with oranges, total success, watching Tron dubbed in Hindi, total fail, I waited too long and it is no longer in theaters), I am feeling good about this one.

Alright first blog, about my research work. This won't be laden with chuckles, but I feel important, so lets hope I can hold your attention:

So I am working with Digital Study Hall, a project that uses advances in video technology to improve teaching quality in semi rural government schools. So why does teaching need to be improved? India government schools are pretty uniformly horrible, to the degree that if any parent that can afford to send their student to a private school will do so. This leaves the children most marginalized by society, in terms of caste, class, gender, locality, are stuck in the worst schools.

Oh my gosh where to start with the problems of public education here? As you can probably tell already, one of the most fundamental problems are the overarching societal discrimination in terms of caste, gender, and class that permeates through all of India's public system

There is the bureaucracy: languid, corrupt, ineffective, and completely frustrating.

There is also the institution of teaching, which is plagued with inept training, a lack of rigorous teacher selection, and a union that makes America's look like a perfect system. Teachers are fairly well respected and get paid pretty well here, but there is absolutely no oversight. I have actually heard here, 'What is the point of trying to teach well, when my paycheck comes in whether my students learn or not?' Teachers have a ridiculous amount of leave time, which, believe me they utilize. At all of our schools there is at least one, typically two or three that simply do not come to school. They are on medical leave, family leave, personal leave, which can accumulate to an entire year off. Additionally, the government views teachers as field workers for other programs, so much of the time, teachers are working on polio vaccination campaigns, voter registration, census duty, etc.

In light of all of these issues, we are working with teachers to improve teaching and student learning. Obviously there are good schools in India too, mostly in the private
sector. One must not forget India's prominent educated class that has be dispersed in highly technical fields across the world. Our aim is to share those (Above photo from www.dsh.cs.washington.edu/)

best practices in the private schools with government teachers through our in-service training program. We partner with really great teachers in private schools, record their lessons covering state standard curriculum for all subjects, then burn them onto DVDs. We then give the DVDs to teachers in government schools, along with training and staff support (i.e. my great research peer, Esha, and me going out to schools once a week to monitor the progress of each teacher and offer feedback). The intention is not for the teacher to merely play the film while the student passively watches: the teacher mediates the content for their students, pausing to check for comprehension and infuse their own examples and styles into the lesson. Ideally through this process, government school teachers will start to adopt some of the aspects of good pedagogy from their private school counterparts. Check out our website for more info.

Overall, I think that the program has been a success, especially with para-educators who are appointed by the government to teach the lower primary grades and are given very limited training. We have found that the majority of the para-educators really have a desire to improve their practice and are very receptive to constructive feedback. And with this effort, we have seen dramatic improvements in teachers interactions with students, offering more examples, asking more questions , etc.

We also have seen how students are really receptive to our content. Recently we have been showing the films to students without teacher mediation and have been surprise how students have maintained focus throughout the lesson, self-managed behavioral issues, and worked through sticky aspects of the lesson through discussion, referencing available material, and actively engaging in activities shown through the DVD. In a couple interesting cases, we have seen students ask their teachers to use more techniques that they have seen in our DVDs.

Working with mainstream teachers has proven to be a bit more difficult though. I do believe that we have seen some basic change in teaching patterns in this demographic but it isn't as stark as with the para-educators. I think we hit a wall with the perception that they have already received training. Unfortunately, I have also seen the education that a government teacher has to go through, and it is just as bad if not worse than what is being provided in the primary school buildings. There are varying levels of investment in our participating teachers for sure, but troubles me is this perception that once a student teacher leaves their preparation program, the process of becoming an educator is over. It is of my belief that a quality educator is always evaluating their craft to provide the best possible education to their students. And what is more troubling for me is when I see teachers say that their students just cannot learn. I hear this time and again, but never hear how they might have to modify their teaching strategies to meet the needs of the students. It's more like, 'I taught them, it is there fault if they don't get it.'

There are obviously other factors at play. I often times hear, 'They are poor, they cannot learn.' Or, 'They are simple, village children, they cannot learn.' All of the teachers we work with come from high castes, they live in Lucknow, they would be considered middle to upper middle class. When I started to go through the class registers in our focus classes, I started to see only scheduled caste or tribal names, essentially the lowest strata of Indian society and a majority of female students. Additionally, all of the students live in the village in impoverish household. In other words, the backgrounds of teachers and students couldn't be more diametrically opposed. And if a teachers believes that a student cannot learn because of attributes beyond their control, e.g. locality, class, gender, etc., what incentive do they have teach in a rigorous manner or make use of a program like this?

The teachers that we work with are not bad people; I really enjoy their company and truly believe that some of them really do care about their students and respect their profession. They have an incredibly difficult job to educate India's most marginalized students through all of the obstacles that the central, state, and local government place on them. But what I cannot accept is teachers giving up or taking advantage of their position at the expense of their students' education, which I unfortunately see more often than not.

But to give you just a picture of how frustrating the job of research can be working in Indian schools, take a look at these fun facts:

- Indian government schools recognize holidays from all faiths, meaning a continual string of breaks. Many a time, I have arrived to a locked up school to realize it was a Shia or Parsi holiday that I have never heard of… Many students and teachers take the liberty to extend holidays for more popular celebrations (Dusshera, Holi, Deewali) for up to a week.

- Teachers acquire personal leave that they lose if they don't take by the end of the calendar year. This means many teachers take up two to three weeks leave before the Christmas vacation. They also do this fully aware that:

- Every year, the district or state closes all schools due to the cold. This year it was pretty bad, it got down to freezing temperatures, so classes were suspended for three weeks. Added to the personal leave and Christmas holiday and the week after the closure where students still did not come to school, there have been some schools where they children hadn't seen their teacher for over a month and a half!!!

- During harvesting seasons, it's not even worth it to go to the schools. Parent pull their kids to have extra hands in the field and attendance can dwindle to about ten students in a school of 200.

- There is considerable road work going on out in these villages, and some of the schools are linked only by one road. Since the road work is ill planned, far too often the road is completely choked of for the week or so it takes to finish the road.

- The most fun bit I actually learned TODAY, is that the majority of our focus teachers have been assigned to Census duty meaning that they will not be in the school for the NEXT MONTH. Added to this, this week they have been mandated to take test, therefore no instruction will take place, thus we cannot work with the teachers. SO, in the past three month, some student will have received maybe three weeks of instruction.

- I have also been informed that students will not come to school during the month of March, due to the potato harvest and the Holi festival. Parents pull their kids to have extra hands in the field and attendance can dwindle to about ten students in a school of 200.

Kind of hard to do research when their are no students are teachers in the actual building. It has been a mental exercise indeed thinking through how to navigate these issues. But more so, it is infuriating how all of these factors, from parent's perceptions of education, bureaucratic ineptitude, and teacher apathy, all set up the children that need the most support, most classtime, best instruction, to fail. That is something hard to swallow, but with the status of education as it is right now, I know that an NGO cannot be the only agent of change: there has to be a societal shift of consciousness in the entire society that values these children and wants to see them succeed. For now I am not seeing that shift and it breaks my heart…

So yeah, frustrating.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Getting Even More Mileage from My India Blog...

Well, well, here I am, back once again in the blogosphere to bother you with my random mutterings from abroad. If you haven't talked to me for awhile, you might be thinking, 'Is he in America? He must be back in America, right?' BOOM. I'm in Lucknow, smack dab in the middle of the subcontinent that I hold so dear to my heart.

So, as you can see from above, I spent about 5 months back at our school in the Himalayas, Ashram Paryavaran Vidyalaya. The last week of my stint in the hills, I found out about this incredible opportunity to do research for Digital Study Hall, a project which utilizes video technology to improve teaching quality in semi-rural schools. Due to India's new ridiculous visa regulations, I had to come State-side for two months until I could start the position. This yielded the most emotional months of my life, having to tearful goodbyes in the ashram, then tearful goodbyes in the States. Let me tell you, it's not easy have two feet firmly planted in different countries across the globe. For my own mental health, and for that of my family and friends, I need to pick a continent and stick with it.

But after a 50 plus hour journey to get to the Lucknow from America, landing down right in the middle of Uttar Pradesh, the sewage belt of India (a name I coined on a bus trip across the state where, I kid you not, the twelve hour bus trip, there was no reprieve from the stench of human feces). Lucknow is the capital of UP, one of the densely populated areas in the world; UP's population is half of America in a third of the landmass). In this seething mass of humanity you can find such things as… child marriage, high illiteracy rate, alarmingly skewed gender ratios, honor killings, dengue, caste-ism; name any social ill associated with India and you will find it here…amplified. (As a side, I also much mention Lucknow has historically been held as the bastion for the highest levels of sophistication in india during the Nawabi era, a distinction that is still present although rapidly eroding with onslaught of modernity. A blog to come).

But within this mess, there is a lot of beauty, namely those inspiring individual who have oriented their lives to changing the status quo. And I am surrounded by dozens of such people working on a project that could have a dramatic impact on not only education, but all of the collateral benefits that come with a quality, critical education, taking steps towards gender and caste equality, women empowerment, health, improved livelihoods and the like. It is hard to be in India, yet estranged from my loved ones in the Himalayas and the beautiful community we have created, but I am doing necessary work, and for now that feels right.

In the blogs to come, I will unfold our work and hope to introduce you to the amazing people that have become part of my life.

For now, I am trying to adjust to the Indian city life and living on my own for the first time (strange I've made it so long). The area I live in is called Gomti nagar, gathering it's namesake from the river that flows just down the road from my place. I have take up a little marble cave, the floor below our office at DSH. While I envisioned my own flat with a little balcony overlooking a park, my cave ain't too shabby. And starting to settling down now beats the prescribed methods of DSH in finding me an apartment to my liking (which was hours and hours of riding around the surrounding neighborhoods on the back of our nice, but reckless driving tech dude, Pratyush's motorcycle asking random people if they knew of any rooms for rent. Not one lead). Despite the downsides (the room is probably 80 sf and I share a bathroom with Ram Dev, who I have to let in the building at 6am everyday), there are bountiful pluses: free wireless internet, a bed, furniture, a nice kitchen, a short commute. PLUS I have a FRIDGE, sweet lawrd, I thought that I would without a cool storage for my time here, so I make sure to do my daily fridge pooja to venerate the machine that we so often take for granted.

The location is great too. We have two huge public parks down the road (one of which is one of the most ridiculous monstrosities that I have ever seen. Blog to come #4). Across the street is a mini mall, where I have already made friends with the grocery and underwear shopkeeps. Down the street is the Prerna school, where I will be volunteering at (Blog to come #5).

Our spot is also located in a really interesting area in that is the epicenter of bourgeoisie, but those bourgies need elaborate homes and the cheap labor that comes with them. Add that to the major public park project down the street, there are shanties in every conceivable unoccupied space around here. I love the contrast and spend my mornings sipping chai in the workers chai stalls. At night farmers come in with their produce, some of the freshest most beautiful vegetables I have seen. I am getting excited for my gas cylinder to come so I can start experimenting with my Indian kitchen.

Uck, this is getting mundane. I'll rap at you when I have something a little more substantial or hilarious to say.

Hope you all are well.

Friday, June 11, 2010

It's been too long...

I have been terrible about blogging lately, although I have been busy. To prove this to you, oh faithful reader, I present to you this catchup. Here's what you've missed, it's been a lot, so I will try to be brief. Stay with me…

- SAW TWO LEOPARDS: (well this happened within the first two days of my arrival, but I forgot to tell you). I doubled my leopard sighting quota set during my fellowship tenure AND gave me bragging rights over current fellow Charlie whose main goal this year has been to fight a leopard and has yet to see one. To make matters worse for Charlie, the day he left for good, there was a leopard sighting by our room. Poor Charlie.

- Saw Many Whities: APV has been flooded with foreigners as of late, fellows Charlie and Samir invited four other AIF fellows to the ashram, the non-native population ballooning to 7, an all time record. What do you do with so many foreigners? Take em on a difficult hike to an abandoned 100 year old temple to eat watermelons on the roof and look at massive dams.

- Forest Fires: It has been quite dry, a quality monsoon hasn't reached our foothills for two years. For this reason, forest fires have become a fixture, stringing the hills at night like fiery light on a Christmas tree. And with a lack of fire fighting infrastructure, the onus is on the villagers to tame the flames. So that is what we did with the help of a dozen village pals and some large branches to bat out the flames. We would lunge at the flames, hit them as violently as we could, then try to dig a trench around the flames. The most fun I've had in years, seriously.

- Midnight Log Chopping: Oh, should I divulge my culpability? Why not. I did something illegal with Charlie, Samir, Mohan, and Dheeraj bhai. So in the hills, it is illegal to both cut down trees and possess saws. We used the latter to do the former under the darkness and stillness of night, the perfect crime. Mind you, the tree was completely dead and of little use to our Mother Earth. It has come to great use in helping us cook chapati and heat chilly water.

- New Favorite Kiddus - I am so over Babitu. Now it is all about Sageera, who won all of hearts over after visiting her village. She was so excited to see us while also shy, she hit this sort of paralysis where she could keep her mouth closed or look anybody in the eye.

Close second goes to Sanya, who also won us over while visiting her village. Take as evidence this photograph: Charlie was holding her when she swung her right arm around my shoulder and chriped, 'Dosti, dosti,' or 'friendship, friendship.' Break my heart.

Have to give a shout out to Neha as well. The youngest of one of our cutest lineage, I have recently discovered her charms, which include a slight chubbiness and inability to keep her pants from falling down (two traits she's inherited from her brother Golu), and adorable and impressively coherent Hindi, mind you she is 2 and a half. Her gaffs are even more adorable: she can't pronounce her teacher's name (Jyoti), instead calling her moti, which means essentially fat girl.

Enough with the shameless cute kiddie pictures, back to radder things:

- International Rural Couple and Darling Offspring: So we are looking to start a new school in the Anand ji's ancestral village, Prabekh. I recently visited Prabekh to stay with Anand ji's brother, Poorna and his Dutch wife, Nina, who have produced what quite possibly could be the most adorable, precious child in the whole world, Deena (what a suitably cute name!). Deena speaks mostly Dutch with her mother, Hindi with her father, English when both of her parents are together, and Garhwali with her grandmother and other villagers. She is fluent in all, meaning she can melt the hearts in four languages, on five different continents, and a large majority of the worlds population. What power she wields!

Nina is a sweetheart, who made delicious breads daily and introduced me to all sorts of different Dutch spreads and delicacies. Their home is quaint and quite interesting: a sort of fusion of traditional Garhwali and Dutch aesthetics. I also got to spend time with Poorna, who like his older brother, is one of the most interesting charismatic people that I've meet in my journeys. We had a great time carrying water up and down to the house chatting. Oh! And I got to meet Anand ji's mother! She is in her nineties, I gave her the traditional hand-folded 'pranaam' and foot touch of reverence. I had to scream into her ear (she is almost deaf) how thankful I was of her inspiring sons. She said thank you, then something along the lines of, 'And tell my gawddam son to come and see me more often, I am going to die soon.' Eeee. Upon relaying the message to Anand ji, he confirmed to me that she had been saying this for the past 25 years and counting.

- Chad and Erin's Excellent Adventures: Ms. Erin Willig came for a month long stint in India. Although she spent most of her time in the ashram, we got out a bit right before she left. In this time, we received blessings at the mouths of two of the (arguably) most religious rivers in the world, Yamuna and Ganga, spent approximately seven thousand hours too long on mountain buses and shared taxis where Erin was vomited on three times (I was spared, suffering only collateral damage), stayed in the beautiful village of Sangeeta and Sanjay, two former APV teachers and gawked at the abundance of breathtaking completely wooden houses with intricate carvings, surveyed remote Himalayan valleys in the greenest place that I've seen in India (it actually looked quite like Scotland), shared a taxi filled with Gujjars(!), a caste of migratory Muslims that the Indian government has unsuccessfully tried to domestic over the past 60 years, discovered that the holy town of Haridwar (literally the doorway of the gods), was more like a doorway to roaches, 8 billion people, the garbage of 8 billion people, open sewers of 8 billion people, dysentery, and one dirty, dirty holy river (interesting to see how the Ganga get so dirty once it hits where it's worshippers live!), and covered 300 years of interesting Muslim history in 5 hours. Good, good times.

- The Hills are Alive: Ever since I returned from dropping Erin off at the airport, there has been a steady flow music, from the moment I wake up until I fall asleep. Take for example right now: Ram Lila, a performance of the Ramayana is going on in the village below, while the Imam screeches his call to prayer out on speakers turned up full blast. The speakers on full blast seems to be a common theme here, the two weddings that are going on both in the village above and below us are pumping the hottest Garhwali dance jams. The two vyas wallas also got the message as they chant out the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit and sing their prayers in the evening in different villages below the ashram. Essentially, these vyas wallas are Sanskrit pandits that have mastered the Gita and recite it verbatim to families that want to commemorate dead relatives in a procession known as Saptaah.

Alright getting a bit more banal. I shall retire and shower you with much praise for making it through this mammoth post. I will try to keep you posted more regularly for my final two months, perhaps I might even throw in a couple of intellectually stimulating, at least more so than cute kids and getting vomited on. I apologize.

Oh yes! One more thing. Looks like I am going to be a teacher. I have been accepted into WWU and Marylhurst University, so depending on who is willing to offer me a better scholarship package, I will spend the next two years studying education in either Bellingham or Portland, really excited. So, just think, one of these days, I just might be teaching your kids world history or helping them improve their English skills for all of the migrants that follow my blog. I caught the teaching bug in the ashram two years ago, so how fitting that I received the news here. These days, I also have the space in the ashram to get some time in the classroom and ponder over what it is that makes a great teacher, how to design effective, child centered curriculum, and how to engage kids to become self learners. I have a long way to go, but I hope that my experiences here coupled with a more formal education will yield good results. Will keep you posted.

Congratulations to our APV graduates!

... on their outstanding performance on the 10th Standard Board Exams! Out of our 9 students, 7 placed in the top most division in their school, Arun scoring second highest out of the males, Depali scoring second highest for the females. The remaining two scored in the second highest division. I am so proud of all of our graduates and how they are spreading the light of APV!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Generalizations of Indian Ridiculous Buses.

Ha, just when you thought that my true intentions of blogdom was to shamelessly post pictures of me with cute kids, BAM, I give you something of substance.

Well, not really, but at least this blog is devoid of any picture that would make you coo.

Now, I must concede that my realm of expertise is minimal, mainly lying within Pac-Ten football, the Portland Trailblazers, and certain types of hip music. I unfortunately cannot even add India to the mix given that what I mainly know is geographically situated in the North, a culture that is surprisingly different than the south of the country.

That being said, I occasionally catch a few cringe worthy generalization about India, about religion, poverty, snake charming, and the dabbling of orientalist exoticism. While there maybe some truth is some statements that I have heard, but it is almost impossible to make such generalizations, given that there are thousands of different sides of India.

That being said, yesterday, I had an experience the other day that definitely fit nicely into a stereotype; the shitshow bus ride. While I had been countering with my experiences in Uttarakhand, where, sure, the drivers are reckless, amped up on amphetamines, and hurriedly whip around dangerous roads at reckless speeds, but inside the buses tend to be pretty mild; no rooftop sitting, etc. This particular experience gave me pause about my refutation of such stereotype.

In the mountain, the bus provides a vital lifeline to anywhere outside the village. Meager incomes are preventative for most to purchase motorcycles or cars and rented taxis are quite expensive. Shared taxis are a bit more expensive and only travel short distances. Therefore, the majority are reliant on very infrequent buses and very limited in space. If one were to miss a bus, plans could be shifted for an entire day. This produces a certain kind of desperation in many a bus rider.

So this ride started casually enough, I caught an isle seat next to a dapper young man traveling from the plains. After a couple stops, an older man, presumably an old teacher, boarded the bus, the the young man in a flash, vacated his seat out of veneration for his elder. The very next stop, the older man got off the bus, but instead of the young man retrieving his old seat, a fat sannyasi pushed him out of the way, crawled over me and took the window spot. Sannyasis are pretty rad, they leave all worldly possessions, adopt an wardrobe of saffron robes, and take oaths to live a spiritual, typically ascetic lifestyle. When they are good, they are good, but my close proximity to Rishikesh, international pseudo-spiritual capital (e.g. the Beatle's lived in an ashram there for a time), I have met far too many fake Sannyasis out to earn a quick buck off spiritually incline, but Indian naive tourists. This Sannyasi was suspect; his numerous fat rolls could barely be contained by his robe, long tufts of body hair wafted through the taught saffron, wicked with profuse amounts of sweat,, intense eyes perched below his curly receding hairline. After a while, he tried to speak to me, 'Conetree?' 'Mein Amerika se aaya hun.' 'Name?' 'Chad.' 'Yew come India?' 'Han ji, Mein aajkal Bhaarat mein rahta hun.' Done. I was probably showing visible distain for the sweat marks he was leaving on my teeshirt, so he left the conversation. He instead pick out his cellphone from his purse and partook in a very loud and seemingly angry conversation.

During the Sannyasi era, the bus aisles were getting more and more crowded. I was getting worried that we wouldn't be able to pick up any more passengers, but we hit a sort of critical mass when all emptied the aisle for the roof. While some opted to use the ladder in the back, many more, vying for the coveted front or foot dangling side seats, used open window, pushing away the elbows of those lucky to obtain an indoor spot, jumping to the top. By the next stop, the aisle was again full.

As we approached the town, the Sannyasi saw an opportunity to be the first off the bus, he literally slided over me, luckily my body was covered with his sweat which made for an easy glide, and squeezed through the crowded aisle. I grabbed the window seat and a nice early-twenties lady with her adorable baby sat next to me. Oh, sweet reprieve.

At that moment, a very elderly man made his way to the back of the bus near my seat. It took me a while to notice a baby goat baaahing at his knees, the poor thing looked so confused and apparently hungry. The lady next to me had fallen asleep, and the goat utilized the opportunity to start eating her pants. I tried my best to shoo him away, but he kept coming back for more of that tasty saalwar. Eventually, the old man gave the goat a whack with his stick, which seemed to curb his appetite.

Gaining the window seat revealed the part of the journey that I love most, the breathtaking views of the Himalayas and Ganges. But it also revealed the unsavory bits of the window seat. "Raindrops on my arm? But it's sunny out. Wait, I didn't know rain could have orange chunks in it. Why does that Auntie three seats ahead of me have half of her body out the window? Oh yeah, she is retching out her morning paranthas…onto my arm. lovely"

There it is, it does exist, crazy shitshow busrides. I'll let that one generalization slide for the moment, while I clean off the auntie vomit and sannyasi sweat. (Sidenote: When I return home, I am starting a drum&bass techno dance band called Sannyasi Sweat)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Move Over Ritu...

All the hits are still here in the Ashram, talking bout Aju, Pintu, Swati, Sudha, Sandhiya, and of course, Ritu. But it just is not the same: all the kids are accustom to my love and attention, which has created high expectations and demands (that I show them tons of attention, that I put them on my shoulders, that I chase them around). Of course, I willingly abide, but it gets a bit irritating at times, even when it is Ritu.

Therefore it is with great pride why I am proud to present my very new favorite kid, Babita. Oh, my Babu, the sweetest child in the world. She is so shy, it takes me about 5 minutes to get her to even say her name. In any case, she appreciates my attention, but isn't persistent. Everyday, she waits right in front of where I typically sit in assembly, waiting for a hug. And that smile, baap re! Babu's the best.

Babu and Chad with Hair
Babu and Chad with No Hair