Thursday, December 24, 2009

Deck The Halls

I've been back in the US for a week and I am not really sure how to put my amazing journey into writing. I've come to the conclusion that it might not be possible to express in words what this experience truly meant to me; and in this day and age of over-sharing, some things should just be privately treasured rather than openly published.

So, instead of writing some cliched verbiage on my blog about how Shanti Bhavan changed my life, I thought showing, rather than telling, would be apropos. With the help of some of my talented Shanti Bhavan students and under the tutelage of my roommates, Allie and Ashley, who are dance majors; I thought a performance was in order to express at least a small fraction of how I feel and what I learned.

Thank you Shanti Bhavan (and to all of those involved - you know who you are) for all the fun, the smiles and the laughs!!! It means more to me than you will ever know.

Namaste and Merry Christmas!!!


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hot Sumathi Soup

I depart Shanti Bhavan in three days and I have such mixed feelings about leaving. I’m excited to see my friends and family over the holidays, but I feel very sad to leave the kids and the volunteers I've become close to. Mary, one of my BFFs, asked me in an email if this experience was life changing, below was my answer. I think it sums it up for now…


Hi M,

It’s kinda hard to see how this experience is affecting me. It probably won’t really hit me until I leave and when I can reflect on it a bit more and let it steep a little longer. There are definitely moments in the day where I feel so touched by the openness and the kindness of a child’s innocence. We could all learn a little from their ability to love unconditionally, to forgive without a grudge, and to forget things that are really meaningless. Somehow their little souls have this process to filter out all the bad and keep in the good. I wish I could be a more like them.


M, I have fallen completely in love with this little 3rd grader, Sumathi. I don’t spend a lot of time with the third graders, usually just art class. But one afternoon, I was so freaking exhausted and frustrated, I sat down at a table with the girls to help them color. In the art room, there aren’t enough chairs for the entire class so I’m usually standing for the whole afternoon screaming over the kids to clean up, to share their art supplies, and to stop picking on each other. That afternoon, I randomly parked my tired butt on Sumathi’s chair taking up ¾ of the chair, she only ¼ (she’s a peanut). With my yellow crayon, I started coloring the sun on Sumathi’s picture. Her big brown eyes completely lit up, and she gave out this giggle that was the cutest, most infectious giggle I’ve ever heard. It was kismet – as if I was suppose to be so spent that I would finally notice her and get to know her. As we colored together, I’m not sure what came over me – might have been one of those times that you feel like giving up and God throws you a bone to keep you going. At the end of the art class, she gave me the picture we worked on together and asked me to keep it forever. I turned to mush… I HEART Sumathi!!!


So since then, Sumathi and I have this special bond and my love for her grows everyday. When she comes into the art room, she always looks for the chair next to me and gets supplies for the both of us to work on our art. I know we’re not supposed to have favorites as teachers, but I can’t help it…I’m so drawn to her! In assembly, I always check to see if she’s in line and closing her eyes during the prayer. At dinner, I make sure that she’s present. In her grammar class, Eva, another volunteer, told me that she signed a worksheet “Sumathi Vivian” as if we’ve become one person. I substituted for a 3rd grade science class for my roommate who wasn’t feeling well and read them a book on the planets and the solar system. I asked them to gather around me so they can see the pictures. Sumathi takes my hand and holds it in her lap – I almost melted and teared up right there. Afterwards, she asked, “Miss Vivian, what’s your favorite planet?” I told her Venus because it starts with a “V” and my first name starts with V and she responded, “Then that’s my favorite planet too!” Ashley, my roommate told her that if she lived on Venus that she’d be “Hot Sumathi Soup” because of the extreme temperatures on the planet. So that’s my temporary nickname for her...Hot Sumathi Soup.


I really wish you could meet her because I know that you’d love her too – she’s the kindest, sweetest, smartest, funniest, and cutest little girl and I just can’t get enough of her! She kinda looks like the little Indian version of my mom (maybe that’s why I’m so attached to her?) I want to pack her up in my suitcase and bring back to Casa Bklyn. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve her devotion and her love, but I treasure it and I feel so lucky to know her. I worry about her so much though. She has the tremendous burden of getting her entire family out of poverty and being born into a world that’s going to be unfair to her because she’s an untouchable. She’ll be judged on her dark skin, her last name, where she is from, what her parents do, and her gender. I wish I could be there to hold her hand when she goes through these tough times, just like she did mine. I am so curious to see how life will unfold for her. Whatever happens, Sumathi has a special place in my heart and when I think back on my time in India and Shanti Bhavan I know my fondest memories will be of her.


Ok, I will stop rambling about Hot Sumathi Soup now….obviously I could go on…


Namaste.







Friday, December 4, 2009

Pondicherry

Over the weekend, I traveled with three other volunteers for a quick weekend in Pondicherry, a French colony until 1954. On our way there, we stopped the ashram of Guru Ramana Maharishi and the Arunachala Temple, one of the largest temples in South India. Both located in Tiruvannamalai. At the temple, we all got blessed by an elephant! However, we also got a flat tire about 10 minutes later…hmmm! What was suppose to be a 5-6 hour drive became an 8-9 hour journey :(


On Saturday, we went to Auroville, a spiritual town just several kilometers north of Pondicherry. The town was designed to run on Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of divine consciousness, unending education, and constant progress. 2,000 people from all over the world come to live here and at the center of the city is the Matrimadir, a 30m high globe that claims to have the largest meditation room in the world with crystals that reflects the sun’s rays creating a concentrated light for enhanced meditation. Unfortunately, you have to have reservations well in advance or be an Aurovillian to get in. The concept of Auroville is one of an ideal utopia and it attracts ethereal hippie folks looking for inner peace.


Pondicherry itself is quite charming and you can see only a few remnants of the French – some of the architecture, the street names, and a few restaurants. There isn’t much to do, but I think that’s the point.


Some pics of our trip:






Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving


Happy Thanksgiving!!!! I hope the day brings everyone at home good food and fun times! The picture above is of a girl carrying wood on a farm close to Shanti Bhavan. I just thought it was a cool picture of everyday life in rural India.

The volunteers are going into Whitefield (a suburb of Bangalore) this evening for a restaurant Thanksgiving, complete with turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie! We’ve talking about this dinner for weeks as I think we’re all a little bummed that we can’t be with our family and friends having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and watching football. We’ve even dragged the Euros to join us in our American gluttony.

Being in India this Thanksgiving reminds me how thankful I am for what I have. Of course, I am most grateful for my family and friends who I love dearly. My absence from them makes me appreciate them more than I already do. Knowing that I’m amongst many children whose parents cannot take care of them or do not want them makes me indebted to my parents for their doting affection, devotion, and hard work in raising me and my siblings. Thanks Mom and Dad – I love you more than words can express!!

There are so many small things I have taken for granted like consistent electricity on demand, widely available access to the internet, toilet paper, washer/dryer, well-made coffee, cold milk, microwave, reliable public transportation, convenience, choice, and freedom. I am thankful for my time in India and at Shanti Bhavan for giving me a new appreciation for what I have and for reminding me how good I have it.

Namaste.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Children's Day

We celebrated Children’s Day on the 14th to commemorate Nehru’s birthday. It’s customary on this day for teachers and volunteers at the school to put together skits, dances and songs. True to tradition, we decorated the school, performed a modified version of Peter Pan (I played Wendy) and did a group dance to Jai Ho. In addition, the female volunteers did a dance to a popular Tamil song called Allegra. It was 2 weeks of agonizing rehearsals but we pulled off a great show! The kids were clapping and singing along which made us feel much better about making complete fools of ourselves. As a treat to the kids and ourselves, the volunteers pitched in and bought the kids ice cream for afternoon snack. Yum!


SB Children watching our performances

Me as Wendy - I'm trying to find Peter's shadow under Arun Kumar.

Min Ho, Erin, and Peter before the show

Mrs. Law (the principal) as Hook and Miss Beena (the vice principal) as Smee




Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chennai: A taste of the good life

Over the weekend, my roommates (Allie and Ashley) and I went to Chennai (aka Madras) for a long weekend to visit with one of my family friends, Prabhakar, and his family. The drive took about 5 hours and even though it poured the entire weekend we managed to have a brilliant time. The route to Chennai was dotted with temples, smaller towns, farms, and rocky mountains. The roads were nicely paved, but unlike the US, there aren’t rest areas and conveniences along the highways. With that, you see a lot of men just using the bathroom along the side of the highway. I’m not sure what women do – I suppose they just hold it. One thing that is pretty striking about India is that the culture definitely favors men. I find it surprising given that they have had female leaders in the past and also how progressive India is. In speaking with some of the girls that I teach, some parents are quite vocal to their own daughters about their disappointment and resentment in having a girl. It breaks my heart to think that some of my students start their lives feeling unwanted and unlucky. I think it’s a hard cultural idea for me to grasp since without girls, there wouldn’t be boys!


Prabhakar was the most gracious host. First and foremost, he shared his LIFE with us. That is, the cereal Life which he brought back from a recent trip to Malaysia. It was such a wonderful treat to have cold milk and cereal for breakfast! He also took us to the British East India factory and fort, a crocodile farm, some really cool handicraft shops, a traditional south Indian dinner at the Taj, sari shopping (yes, I bought one so my Indian friends need to have some Indian events I can wear it to when I get home), and to the movies to see the latest Tamil film, Aadhavan.


The movie was a fun experience. The process of going to the movies is quite different. You call for tickets and then someone delivers them to your door. When you get to the cinema, you sit in your assignment seats in a massive theatre. Because Indian movies are so long they have an intermission, but like US theatres, they have buckets of popcorn, soft drinks, and ice cream. Though I don’t understand Tamil, the movie seemed to follow the traditional Indian formula – a couple of fight scenes, dances, and handsome boy falls in love with beautiful girl and tries to win her over plot. The tunes were quite catchy, and the audience was singing along. I have to admit I fell asleep because it was so long.


A huge thanks to Prabhakar for hosting us over the weekend and showing us such warm Indian hospitality! You can check out his blog here.


Some pics:


Chennai after the heavy rain

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Trick or Treat

Indians don’t really celebrate Halloween, nor do I. I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of Halloween. Really, what’s the point of getting dressed up if you can’t trick-or-treat? But this Halloween might have been the best one in years! As US ambassadors to Shanti Bhavan, we took the responsibility of Halloween very seriously providing the kids with relay races, bean bag tosses, face painting, scavenger hunts, ghost stories, coloring, and of course, candy. Allie and Ashley, my roommates and our resident dance volunteers, taught the lower grades routines to Monster Mash and Thriller. The kids rocked it!

I was in charge of the scavenger hunt and, because I dressed up as a fortuneteller, all the kids lined up for my impromptu palm reading. I literally had a line of 20 kids deep asking me if they would pass their board exams, if they would be rich, if they would be married, and how many children would they have. I had no idea how to read palms but I managed to pull out some astrological lingo out of my back pocket about their lifespan, careers, wealth, fame, marital status, and potential offspring. The children took my clairvoyant skills seriously and remembered every word I said, repeating their fortunes to their classmates and teachers the next day. Here is an Allie's interview with Devraj, a fourth grader:

video

Hopefully, they won’t ask me for a second consult, because it is highly unlikely that I’ll give the same reading. I should have somehow worked in a lesson on “how to divide decimals” into their fortunes since my 6th graders are struggling with this lesson at the moment…a missed educational opportunity…

In addition to Halloween, the children celebrated Ms. Beena, the vice-principal’s birthday by honoring her with cards and with a dance performed by the 12th graders. At SB, they LOVE birthdays. One of the first things that they ask when you arrive is when is your birthday, followed by how many brothers and sister you have and when their birthdays are. On your birthday, the entire school will sing to you during the afternoon snack and you get to pass out a piece of candy to the entire school. Birthdays and family are very important to the children – they clearly have their priorities straight! All in all, the children had a blast and the volunteers were really glad to have pulled off a successful Halloween celebration!

The 8th graders trick or treating at the guest house

Sunday, October 25, 2009

My So-Called Indian Life

Here’s a shot of the guesthouse where I live at Shanti Bhavan:


I’m not kidding you when I tell you this is the picture of our backyard:




Yes, a cow comes over every once in awhile to chew up some grass around the coconut trees. Cows are a mainstay in India – roaming busy city streets and country roads. They are everywhere!

I only taught on Monday this week because I’ve caught a respiratory bug. I can’t complete a full sentence without coughing. The Indian teachers have been very kind in loaning me their vaporizers and decongestants, but I still have a raspy voice. I’ve spent four straight days in my room and have devoured two and a half books so far - Born Round and The Last Chinese Chef. Both books are about eating and cooking which has made me crave western food even more! I’m half way through The Help that also has some delicious descriptions of Southern cuisine.

On the weekends, we’ve typically been hiring a driver to bring us into Bangalore (1.5 hrs away) or into Hosur (45 mins away) to use the internet, print documents, grocery shop, run errands, and eat out. Everything in India takes much longer to do. In the US to run the above errands would typically take me a few hours, but in India, it takes us all day. You are dealing with poor road conditions, traffic congestion, your driver’s knowledge, etc. You learn to be very patient and flexible about time.

I’m hoping to get to travel in the upcoming weeks to see a bit more of southern India. If anyone has any recommendations for Chennai, Kerala, or Goa, please send them my way.

Namaste.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Happy Diwali


Diwali is the festival for lights but I think it should be renamed for a festival of frights.  Imagine 210 kids aged 4-18 with explosives for 1.5 hours.  It was complete mayhem!  A culture shock indeed!  Aside from some shrapnel putting a few holes in my t-shirt, everyone came out of it unscathed!  Here’s a picture of the battleground:




Happy Diwali!!!

Week 3

Thanks for those of you who want to donate things to the kids of Shanti Bhavan! 

I spoke with the principal yesterday and she said the donations that they need the most are underwear, socks, shoes, and scientific calculators. 

That said, sometimes it’s easier to give money directly to The George Foundation/Shanti Bhavan since the US dollar can go a lot further in India, you don’t lose money on the shipping costs, and you don’t have to worry about it getting lost in customs.  It is also tax-deductible.  I can assure you that your donation will be well-used and appreciated.  If you still would like to send something, you can send it to their Bangalore address:


Shanti Bhavan
c/o The George Foundation
# 316, 5th A Cross, 3rd Block, HRBR Layout
Kalyananagar, Bangalore 560043, India


I have had a total of one hour of internet usage in the last two weeks!  Very disturbing indeed!  So far, my time has really been spent getting used to the schedule, the kids, the routine, and understanding the pattern to all my bug bites. 

I’ve been substituting for a volunteer who has been sick so I’ve been quite busy teaching-on-the-fly to the third, fourth, and fifth graders.  It is absolutely exhausting and there are some days when I just want to wring their little necks because they create absolute mayhem in the classroom with their incessant whining and talking over each other.  You spend more time trying to control their ADD tendencies than teaching, but there are other days when you get a token of appreciation from a student that makes it all worth it. 

Here’s an example.  Meet Barath…


Some days he really is the bane of my existence!  In class, he is constantly out of his seat, taking off his shoes, shouting out answers when others are called on, and disrupting class.  Every day I hear “Miss Vivian, can I go to the toilet?” or “Miss Vivian, can I sharpen my pencil?”  He clearly knows his way around the volunteer vulnerability.  Surely, he must have to pee at the same class period everyday and I bet his pencil becomes dull like clockwork.  The tricks never change - kids always want to test their boundaries! 

Here he is causing trouble below...



Last week, I caught Barath doodling with a red glitter pen in his grammar notebook (fyi - red pens are reserved for teachers marks) instead of doing an exercise with linking verbs.  I asked him several times to pay attention, but he continued to doodle.  So I made an example out of him by taking the glitter pen into my possession.  I told him that my friends in America would probably like a letter with glitter.  His remarks were “I’m sorry, Miss.  I won’t do it again.”  Of course, I felt better for a quick minute, then guilty for calling him out in front of his friends.  After class, Barath comes to me with his tail between his legs, “Ma’am I’m really sorry.  Can I have my pen back?”  What?!  Apparently, he took it from another boy and promised to give it back.  On a matter of principal, I didn’t give him his pen back. 

Then you have students like Hemanth:



He is the antithesis of Barath.  He sits quietly, pays attention, and is quite adept at getting positive attention from his teachers.  Last week, in my art class, they were instructed to write Diwali cards.  I was the happy recipient of his Diwali card which read:

The front reads:
To Miss Vivian!  I Love U!

Then the card opens and reads:
Dear Miss Vivian, I love you.  You are teaching us so much.  You are the best teacher.  Happy Diwali.  By Hemanth

On the back it reads “Thank you, Vivian!


Of course, my heart melted…call me a sucker, but Hemanth is smooth!!!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Week 1 in India


I’ve completed my introductory week at Shanti Bhavan and I must admit that it has been a tough adjustment and very exhausting. I finally got my schedule. I’m teaching 6th grade math, 9th grade creative writing, 12th grade thesis writing, 4th-8th grade health, and 1st-5th grade art. Here’s what a typical day looks like (they also go to school ½ day on Saturday):

7:45-8:30
Breakfast
8:30- 9:15
1st Period
9:15-10:00
2nd Period
10:00-10:45
3rd Period
10:45-11:05
AM Snack
11:05-11:20
Assembly
11:20-12:05
4th Period
12:05-12:50
5th Period
12:50-1:20
Lunch
1:20-2:05
6th Period
2:05-2:50
7th Period
2:50-3:35
8th Period
3:35-4:00
Afternoon Tea
4:00-5:00
After-school Activities


7:30-8:00
Dinner
8:00-8:30
Evening Session

A few of my art students below:


I’m also helping the administration with some fundraising efforts when I get the chance.  The school cut a significant number of full-time staff because of the recession and the school has deferred enrollment for the next two incoming classes.  My art classes have limited supplies - there aren’t enough crayons and colored pencils.  Paper is cut in half to conserve resources and the children are asked to use the opposite side for additional writing or art work.  The kids use their pencils until you can hardly hold them.  I have big blisters on my fingers from sharpening pencils using those small portable pencil sharpeners – what I would give for mechanical pencils or an electronic pencil sharpener!

Teaching is easier said than done – commanding the attention of young children is a difficult challenge.  Plus, things change at a moments notice here because of the limited staffing. For example, I covered 3rd and 4th grade grammar and 3rd grade creative writing today because the teacher was sick.  You have to be flexible with whatever they throw at you. 

I’m really living in the sticks.  We are 40 minutes from a real town. I haven’t seen a Starbucks nor McDonald’s yet - a true sign that I’m in the depths of the 3rd world.  The power goes out every afternoon around 4 pm for a few hours.  I’m glad the gentleman at the outdoor wilderness store talked me into getting a headlamp because I’ve used it several times already. 

Along with the modern conveniences of electric pencil sharpeners, the internet, and my Blackberry; I really miss good coffee and a hot shower.  The food is ok but monotonous - it’s usually a starch and a vegetable curry.  My roommates and I are already daydreaming about our first meal when we get home.  Of course, mine is DiFara’s pizza…I salivate just thinking about it…

The Shanti Bhavan grounds are bucolic – there are beautiful trees, plants, and flowers everywhere.  I saw a huge flock of parakeets today – though I really hate birds, I thought it was really neat to see.  There are also bats, big black crows, lizards, cobras, vipers, and bugs on the premises.  Oh…and let’s not forget the random cows that roam the campus and wander around chewing up the grass.

There are 11 volunteers so far – 2 more are coming in the upcoming weeks.  9 of the women are from the US (CA, TX, NY, AZ) and 2 guys from Europe (Spain, Denmark).  Everyone so far is really great and we all seem to get along despite our sordid backgrounds (theatre, dance, science, accounting, robotics, engineering, economics, public health, music, visual arts).  Here are some of us on our way to Hosur (the closest town with an internet cafĂ©) in the back of the school jeep:




The Shanti Bhavan children are really what make the inconveniences worth it.  Though they can test your limits at times, you know that they all they are looking for is a little attention and love.  These children learn early on to be very extroverted – they jump at the chance to read out loud, volunteer their answers without hesitation, and are well versed in greeting international guests and visitors. When you see the desperate conditions they come from, you realize that their transformation is extraordinary and that a good education is the best gift that you could ever give them.  My short time here makes me appreciate my life so much more!  We often forget how privileged we are to not have to worry about clean water, buying books, consistent electricity, and reliable methods of communication and transportation. 

Namaste.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

First Day at Shanti Bhavan

I arrived in Bangalore at midnight where a driver picked me up. Luckily, all my baggage made its way back to me. The airport is very new and modern and the initial roads to the city were nicely paved and well-lit. Once you leave the city center, it's a different story. The village roads have lots of speed bumps, potholes, and wildlife. There's tons of beeping too. The driver played Indian music from the radio and I noticed that Indian music has a lot of female/male duets.

I finally arrived at the school around 2 am where I was greeted by a school administrator and shown to my new room where I crawled into my metal-framed twin bed only to enjoy a massive amount of jetlag.

This morning I met some of the other volunteers and Mrs Beena, the vice principal, at breakfast. All are very nice and really excited to be at Shanti Bhavan. The kids are cute and seem too shy to come up to me. The food is good so far - rice and curries. It's spicy though so I have to bring a tissue to the dining hall at every meal (I look like a wuss in front of the children!) We're headed into Hosur (the closest town to Shanti Bhavan) this afternoon to get calling cards, sundries, and use the internet (a luxury in these parts)!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Three continents in three days....that's just how I roll...

Right now, I'm flying over the Middle East on my way to Bangalore and you can see the vast beautiful desert below the plane. The sun is setting, the sky is pink, and it's making me sad to think of all the conflict below me. I have serious butterflies in my stomach and I'm already feeling my world changing.

I traveled to NYC, Paris, Bangalore in three days. If your take a snapshot of my last month, I've traveled to 4 continents and 7 major cities (Sydney, LA, Las Vegas, Philly, NYC, Paris, Bangalore). Needless to say, I'm exhausted and I never know what time it is. I'm looking forward to sitting still in India for a bit and letting my body adjust to one time zone :) I'll be 9.5 hrs ahead of EST.

First...A Pit Stop in Paris

After a small luggage overweight fiasco, I arrived in Paris for a 22h layover. Air France at JFK takes their luggage/carry-on limits very seriously. After being asked to repack my 2 checked body bags to redistribute the weight, I was also forced to check in my carry on and repack into plastic bags at the gate. Very frustrating since I (and Beena - thanks Been) took the time to make sure I had all the things I needed in Paris. C'est la vie...

Luckily, I had two friends in Paris - an old one and a new one. Jules, a good friend from Boston and my resident Francophile (she lived in Paris for 6 months in college), met me at the airport. She was traveling to Milan for business and we were able to coordinate an opportune meet-up in Paris. I also made a new friend. On my flight to Paris, I sat next to a fellow NYCer, Kelly from SoHo, who was visiting Paris on her own for the first time. Understanding how it feels to travel alone, I invited her along to hang out with Jules and I for my short time in the City of Lights. It was cool to connect with someone who is a frequent visitor and one that's never been there.  


Je t'aime Paris. It was my 3rd visit there, but I'm always amazed by its grandeur and sense of timelessness. My time was limited but I managed to do a little shopping, some sightseeing, and fine dining. After a small purchase at the famed bag store (thanks a lot Macmahan ladies for the introduction - like I needed it!), we walked to the Champs Elysees, had a crepe at Rue du Rivoli, then more walking to see the Arch de Triumph, the Louvre, Garden des Tuileries, Place de la Concorde, Point des Arts, La Seine, and Notre Dame. Finally we dined at Le Petite Pointoise in the Quartier Latin where I enjoyed my last piece of beef for awhile and then after-dinner drinks Cafe Flore in St Germain des Pres. Our feet were throbbing at the end of the day.

Here's are pics of the Louvre and my last western meal  (D-the below pic is for you!):


A couple noticeable things about Paris...1) there are a lot of Americans there; 2) the fashion is pretty similar to NYC - just add motorcycle, helmet and cigarettes; 3) Parisian men have long messy hair - I'm not sure what's going on there... 4) don't mess with Parisians on the RER - they are all business and pouty on a weekday morning!

That said, I'm excited to come back for more than 22 hrs (Helene - if you are reading, I'm soliciting an invitation!) Au revoir Paris! A bientot.