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.


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):

8:30- 9:15
1st Period
2nd Period
3rd Period
AM Snack
4th Period
5th Period
6th Period
7th Period
8th Period
Afternoon Tea
After-school Activities

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.