Monday, November 29, 2010

Time Flies...

Wow so it’s been a super long time since I posted a blog so it’s definitely about time I catch you all up to speed! I guess the old saying is true: time does fly when you're having fun :)

Generally speaking things are going so so well!! I’m at a place now where I’m really feeling settled in, really enjoying my routine, loving work, and actually really enjoying my living situation, too. After living alone the last 2 years I’m realizing now how nice it is to come home and have other people (even if it’s 6, at least) to just hang with.

Traveling: Oongol, Markadapam, Vizag
The last 2 weekends I spent traveling: last weekend to the small villages of Oongol and Markadapam for work-related assignments, and then this past weekend all 7 of us traveled to Vizag – an absolutely beautiful beach located in Coastal Andhra. The bus rides there and back were 17 hours each (shoot me!) but 4 of us stayed in a luxury suite at a resort on the water ($11/night) and the beach + pampering made it all pretty worth the long bus rides. I’ll post pix once I upload them from my camera.

The trips out to Oongol and Markadapam were equally as treacherous with the long car trips (7 hrs there, 10 hours back, all within 1 day!) but the meetings we had were really interesting. While the Engilsh/Telugu language barrier persists to be quite a challenge I’m really learning how valuable it can be to observe how something is being said as opposed to purely listening to what is being said. It was fascinating to sit on this rooftop for a late night meeting with about 50 teachers from local villages all discussing their perspectives on corporal punishment. As the token American, I was asked on the spot to just give a 20-30 minute lecture on the status of the American education system and how it regards corporal punishment. Given the lack of fair warning I had to prepare I’d say I actually spoke really well. I talked a bit about the lack of corporal punishment and the reasons we don’t practice it in the states, I addressed the status of education in the US post the passing of No Child Left Behind, and then I provided some concrete teaching practices used in the United States by teachers who have overcrowded classrooms (a common justification for the use of corporal punishment here is that it’s the only way a teacher can maintain control of his/her classroom when there is 1 teacher for 50-200 students).  I had to really maintain an awareness of my White-ness and my American-ness and understand how it might be easy for them to feel judged by me or inferior to me because of that. I did my best to name the difference, drop my ego, and keep the door open for challenges and/or follow-up questions to my comments. I received lots of thanks after my lecture and I had my picture taken a whole bunch with meeting attendees and their children who seemingly traveled to the location of the meeting to meet the White Americans who were visiting their village. An interesting and unprecedented experience for sure.

So Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday was soooooooo much fun!! All 7 of us ate at home and invited our Indian program director, Venkat, and his family over to join us. Each of us cooked at least 1 dish and made each portion large enough to feed 11 people – sooooooooooooo much food!!!  They don’t eat turkey in India so we had to replace it with chicken but we also had mac and cheese, stir-fry veggies with tofu paneer, Israeli salad, some Brazilian chocolate treat with fresh pineapple, egg fried rice, mashed potatoes, aaaaaaaaand my favorite two dishes that just so happened to be made by me and Rachel were stuffing and curried pumpkin-vegetable soup. Deeelicious!!  Of the 11 of us at the table it was the first Thanksgiving for 6 people so it was really something special to be able to share this part of our American culture with everyone else. The evening concluded with naps on the couch and then an early morning Skype date home – perfect J

So that’s about the long and the short of it from the last few weeks. I’m not planning on traveling again for another 2 weeks so I should have more time to keep my blog updated.  Much love to everyone at home!!  I miss you guys J


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Visit #1 to Rural India

For work last week Gabe and I were taken out to a few rural villages outside Hyderabad to witness first-hand the work of MVF out in the field. The following day at the office I was asked to write and share a report of what we did and my personal reflections on it. So that I don't have to reinvent the wheel here, I'll share with you what I wrote for work rather than write a new blog that'll say the same thing:

Visit #1: Village Board Meeting

During this meeting, (which was conducted in Telugu and translated for us by Ankita and Swamy) members of this tribal village were being educated on the recently passed Rights to Education Act (which entitles all children ages 6-14 to free and compulsory education in India). Provisions of the act were being explained to them and there were two opposing views in the room: One that had no faith in the government to create the necessary infrastructure in order to implement the act, and another view that maintained faith there was a way to implement the act regardless of the government's initial cooperation in doing so. Representing that first perspective was a village farmer/father who expressed his frustrations with all of the following: The local government school's (compare to your districts public school) student-teacher ratio of 200:1, that the poor were being discriminated against, that teachers were being deployed from the classroom for purposes other than for teaching, and that there are entrance exams and screenings being given at the government schools. Ultimately, this man didn’t believe that the act would actually be implemented. On the other hand, a villager who identified himself as a politician tried to encourage this man to recognize that they now have legal protection from their concerns which is why they can believe the act will be implemented, particularly with the help of MVF.

Reflection: I had never been in a village like this before so I was really excited when we arrived. While I couldn’t understand what was being said during the meeting I was encouraged to see how passionate everybody was about it. I wondered a few things: Why would some members of the village not have attended – were they all working? If so, how do their voices get heard? Why was there only one woman at the meeting? Who was she? There was a boy at the meeting who was sleeping on his father’s lap - does he work? What does he do and why wasn’t he in school?

Visit #2: Boys Bridge Camp in Dharur

Note for blog readers: So I didn't include this in my report but the bridge camps that we went to are MVF schools that have been created as residential facilities for children of designated age groups to live and receive formal education and counseling in order to prepare them for school. The vast majority of them were laborers (i.e. a boy I met at this camp who was 9 or 10 years old and had already worked in construction for 5 years...) and had been taken out of those environments to be prepared for school. None of these children had been to school before and some of them were as old as 14 years of age.

We arrived at the camp just in time for lunch. We briefly walked around the campus and had the opportunity to take some pictures of what we saw. There were about 170 boys and I saw about 8-10 adults/teachers there supervising the kids. The boys sat in 4 straight lines when they ate lunch and seemed to follow directions well from their teachers. When lunch was over we had the chance to play with the kids and teach them songs and dances in English. After that we sat with a panel of teachers, leaders in the community, and a reporter from the local newspaper, where Gabe, Ankita, and I had the opportunity to hear more from them about what they do and ask them questions. We had tea together and soya beans together before leaving. The reporter asked us questions about who we are, what the LIFE program is, and then his final question was “What can you say regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?”

Reflection: This was the most fun visit of the day! I really enjoyed interacting with the children and teaching them songs and dances in English. They were so eager to learn and I was taken by how interested they were in us. Is it because we are foreigners? Is it specifically because we are from America? When we first arrived and walked around the campus during their visit I wanted to be as invisible as possible so as not to interrupt their lessons but I learned pretty quickly that nothing about my presence was invisible. I was saddened to see the quality of their bathrooms, they didn’t look terribly clean. I also wondered how they get clean water? Where does their food come from? How is the school funded? Are the teachers paid or do they all work as volunteers? Do the teachers sleep overnight with the boys or are other people hired to do that?  What do they do with the boys who have special needs? I didn’t see anyone interact with them much and I’m curious about how the other boys treat them. Do these boys with special needs have the opportunity to learn? How are they taught? What accommodations are made for them?

Visit #3: Boys Government School

We walked across the street from the boys bridge camp over to the boys government school. The boys there were dressed in uniforms and appeared to be a bit older in age. There were some students playing outside and others inside in a class. When we arrived we were greeted by the headmaster of the school and a few other adults. We were brought to a classroom where there was one female teacher and about 50 male students. The boys were given the opportunity to ask questions and they asked the following: What times do you go to school in America? How did America become a developed nation – what were the strategies? Is there poverty in America? Are their child rights in America?  We were in the classroom for about 5 minutes and then sat to have tea in the staff room and take some pictures before we left.

Reflection: At the boys government school I was surprised to see how many students there were crowded into one classroom with only one teacher. Do the students just spend the day playing outside when they’re not in class? There was a teacher from the government school who met with us across the street at the boys bridge camp – why wasn’t he teaching? What were his students doing while he was meeting with us?

Visit #4: Girls Bridge Camp

The girls bridge camp was our last stop of the day. There were about 70 girls playing in the courtyard when we arrived. A few minutes after we got there the girls were called to sit in a circle. They were called on one-by-one to stand up and sing a song or review a part of their lessons from the day. We took a couple pictures of the girls and got to speak with a few up them with the help of Ankita’s translations. I met one girl who told me her name and said that she didn’t know her age or her birthday.

Reflection: By this point in the day I was really tired and had less energy to interact with the kids than I had at the prior 2 settings. I observed that from the bit of the campus we saw it seemed as though the environment for the boys and the environment for the girls was just about equal, one didn’t seem to receive more or less funding than the other. I was really struck by the girl I met who didn’t know her birthday. From my frame of reference that shocked me, but what was even more alarming was the realization that she is one of thousands of children who doesn’t know what day she was born or how hold she is. Note to blog readers: I discussed this with my supervisor who informed me of the thousands of children who are not documented when they are born and don't know their birthdays or ages. In cases where the parents are still living and in relation with them, sometimes they can identify an era when their child was born (i.e. during so-and-so's term as prime minister).

This is Nagamani. She doesn't know her age or her birthday. Her father lives in another state and her mother is deceased. She's scheduled to live at this bridge camp and attend school for 18-24 months to prepare for the 7th grade.
The following video is the boys singing to me the end of the alphabet (the video starts around Q). The last video explains itself :)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Daily Indian Living

So now that we’re finally caught up on real time (yaaay!) I thought I’d fill you all in on the work I’m doing here, what’s going on with my fellow LIFErs, and just regular daily living things. Fair warning: this is likely to be a super long blog post…

My Internship

I’m working these 15 weeks as an intern at the MV Foundation ( where I’m assisting them with their campaign against corporal punishment. There is a tremendous amount of literature available on issues related to corporal punishment in India but there is a major gap in published research on teachers and teaching strategies that do not employ corporal punishment. Sooooo, as a result, my job is to fill that gap in the literature by spending the next 15 weeks researching and ultimately producing a paper that highlights the profile of teachers and teaching methods that do not use CP. Check back to my blog in 15 weeks hopefully for a copy of my paper J  If I do a well enough job I may even get my first publication out of this (fingers crossed!)

The work environment is really comfortable and relaxed. The office is in an apartment building and there are only about 20-25 people who work here. It’s a national organization and I’m working at the headquarters which means I get to work amongst the head honchos of this place, pretty sweet… With the exception of one, all of the employees are men, which has been way less of an intimidating experience than I anticipated it would be. I genuinely feel like I’ve been treated as an equal here and that my input and presence in the workplace are really valued. Not at all what I expected but a very pleasant surprise. I’ve already started making a couple friends here at work and am really looking forward to getting to know my co-workers and my supervisor better.

My office is in a neighborhood about 15 minutes from my apartment called West Maridpelly (pronounced Mardipolly). There are a few schools in the neighborhood and yesterday Gabe (the guy in my program who is also at MVF) and I discovered a market that sells the nicest, freshest produce we’ve seen yet. I picked up veggies to make stirfry last night and seriously got the best deal in the entire world… 2 eggplants, 1 cabbage, 1 green pepper, 5 tomatoes, a bundle of basil, and a bundle of chives for 74 rupees, which equals less than 2 dollars. That’s even a good deal for India standards!!

Fellow LIFErs and My Home Life

There’s definitely forward motion with the group in a positive direction. Noa, the director of our program, left India last night so we’re now officially on our own for the next 3 months (with the help of Venkat, our designated coordinator here in India). The dynamics have changed a lot from where we were a month ago and I’m starting to find that I’ve been spending more and more days comfortably feeling like myself again. I can roll out of bed in the morning with my hair all over the place, I can dance in the living room and leap down the hallway, I can get sassy and competitive when we play board games (and for the record I haven’t lost a game of Checkers or Monopoly yet! Just sayin…), and I can talk about how garlic noodles and cottage cheese mixed together is still my favorite food. We’re all getting to that point where we experiences each other quirks and it definitely makes room for us all to enjoy each other’s company that much more.  Actually this Sunday is Alex’s birthday so we’re planning on spending the day at a nearby hotel to enjoy the pool, the gym, the wireless internet, and the all-you-can-eat buffet. Should be good times :)

Our apartment is really big and super nice, with the exception of the way sound travels. Somehow we manage to hear everything from outside at a super loud volume yet can’t even hear each other from the living room around the corner to the kitchen.  While the amenities are all pretty dirty, outdated, and to be brutally honest they’re just plain right disgusting, I think the fact that we have a maid makes up for it. We had to get one, despite the seemingly majority consensus against it, because our landlord got one for us. She cleans every day, does all our dishes, cleans our laundry, hangs it out to dry, and then folds it and brings it back for us every day.

Favorite house feature: filtering water! Once a day, Rachel and I are responsible for getting “drinking water” from the “drinking water” tap and taking an hour to boil it. Then we have to let the water cool over night before we pour it into the filtration system that drips for about a day until we can drink the water.  We just started this process last night after struggling with how to assemble the water filter for a good hour. It was actually kind of fun and if this exciting feeling of “we’re making our own water!” persists then this process may end up being one of the more fun perks of Indian living. Yet TBD on that one.

There’s so much more I want to share with you all on my daily living here but if this blog gets any longer then there might be a max of a whole 3 people who read it!  More to come…

P.S. Rando India fact of the day: Rather than nodding or head shaking, people here tilt their heads to the left and right. It doesn't mean yes or no, in fact it doesn't really mean anything. 

Our apartment! Mr. and Dr. Bakshi live on the top floor and their sons and their families live on the other two floors. Our apartment is on the floor with the balcony just above where it says Bakshis. That's Amy and Nurit's room with the balcony.

Ya know, just the irregular garbage pickup. Looks efficient huh?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Home + Sick

Written November 7th...

Ya know that really vulnerable feeling you get when you’re sick. You just want someone to take care of you, make you soup, watch a movie with you. You want to take a hot shower or bath, snuggle up in bed, and just spend the day there. So I’ve been sick for the last day and the unavailability of all those things that I want is making me pretty homesick today :(

It’s frustrating how much sound travels in our apartment and our neighborhood, it’s frustrating that when the shower works I only get 3 minutes of hot water, it’s frustrating that if I spend even just five minutes outside my nails turn green because of all the dirt and pollution, and it’s getting annoying to be wearing the exact same dirty clothes every single day. Ughhhhh… my gut tells me that I’m just having a bad day and this too shall pass. I also think that at the end of it all these might even be the quirks that I miss the most.

So, for all you reading this in the comfort of the US, here are some things I’ve found I have a newfound appreciation for after missing them so much today: Shower curtains, the availability of clean water, the availability of healthy foods and clean produce, the fact that the majority of people speak one national language, toilet paper, the FDA, traffic lanes and signals, the lack of bargaining in our culture, the multitude of races, the cleanliness in the air, being able to recycle, laws against smoking in bars, sewage systems, garbage pickup, ovens, dryers, wireless internet, freedoms enjoyed by women, and wow there’s more. This makes me think twice about anything I’ve ever complained about at home…

Right now I’m having one of those why-am-I-here-again days… ugh…

Some of our neighbors

Photo taken of the street just outside my apartment

The dumpster around the corner from my apartment. You can typically find 9 goats there, no more no less. 

Namaste from Mumbai!

Written October 30th

It’s been a while since my last update and man-oh-man has it been eventful since then!!  Last weekend was rather epic but in order for this not to be a novel of a blog entry I’ll link Rachel’s blog so you can read about there about our weekend together in Ashdod: (scroll to the one called One For the Books).

Now that we’re in India I can best sum up the 2 week orientation in Israel by explaining it as having been full of high highs and low lows. I’ve wavered between the what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here phase and the I’m-so-pumped-I’ll-be-here-for-9-months phase. It’s been challenging having such intense quantities of face time with the same 6 other people who I’m living with and I anticipate there will continue to be an adjustment phase next week while we get settled in our apartment in Hyderabad. At times it really feels like we might as well just have cameramen around shooting us for the next season of Real World. However, I also think these challenges are really to be expected when participating on an international 9-month intensive journey like this. And, you can tell by my prior blog entries that for as difficult as it’s been at times there have also been as many incredible once-in-a-lifetime adventures and thrills already. For right now I’m really just day-by-daying it. ;)

So 2 days ago we arrived in Mumbai. The second I stepped off the airplane onto the jetway I could feel the thick, hot air, and this potent stench of what I would describe as adolescent body odor meets urine meets Nag Champa incense.  Pretty gross, but, after a few minutes I really couldn’t even notice it anymore.  Mumbai is a beautiful city right on the coast of the Arabian Sea and our arrival here is rather timely because not only are Diwali celebrations beginning now (Indian New Year) but the city is also getting ready for Obama’s arrival in early November. The major streets are being thoroughly cleaned, everybody’s buzzing about his arrival, US security personnel can be spotted at touristy sites, and the locals are busy making plans to celebrate the holiday sans firecrackers since they’ll be forbidden while he’s here. In just the short time we’ve been here we’ve already done the following:
-          Walked through Gahndi’s home (now a historic site and museum)
-          Toured a Jain Temple (a sect of Hinduism)
-          Met with the President of the Indo-Israeli Federation and Chamber of Commerce
-          Attended a Diwali dinner party with Rotary International-Mumbai
-          Had breakfast at Leopold CafĂ© (a local famous/historic site)
-          Attended Shabbat services at an Iraqi Jewish synagogue in Mumbai
-          Visited the Jewish community in the small village of Alibag on an island in the Arabian Sea

Before we head off on Monday to Hyderabad we have plans to visit Elephanta Island, attend lunch at the home of a sweet women we met at the Rotary Diwali dinner, meet with the Israeli Ambassador to India, and last but not least attend a Jewish, Indian wedding!

So to say that we’ve been kept busy is just a bit of an understatement… it’s been such a thrill and I can hardly keep my eyes open wide enough to catch all that’s going on. The people we’ve met have been incredibly hospitable partly because it’s just in their sweet nature and also because I’ve learned that it’s an honor for them to host people from America (which I have to say actually makes me proud to be an American…). They’re also so eager to share their culture, which has been such a heartwarming beautiful, and genuine experience to witness.

So far this has been every challenge and every reward I’ve hoped for. While I admittedly end up tearing up when I read 90% of the letters I get from home I need you to know how recharging it is for me to hear from you all. Even if there’s “nothing new” at home I love keeping up with you all and staying connected. Please keep the letters coming!

Much much much much love,

Dock at Elephanta Island

Jewish Cemetery in Village of Alibag

Airport in Tel-Aviv before boarding the plane to Mumbai.  Think we have enough stuff to carry?

From Left to Right: Gabe, excited Natives taking pictures of White foreigners, Alex

Uhhh... it's possible I forgot his name - whoops! This is Itamar's friend who took me off-roading on his motorcycle

Jain Temple in Mumbai

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Brief Check In

Hi Everyone!!

It's been a long time since I've posted a blog (Internet access has been really limited) so here's a very brief update until I can access internet (fingers crossed tomorrow we'll get access at home...):

I'm now writing you from Hyderabad, India!!!  After 5 days in Mumbai and a 14 hour bus ride (fully equipped with Bollywood films blasting on full volume throughout the first half of the ride... wow... oh wow...) we arrived this morning and have had the afternoon to get settled in our apartment.  I can't even begin to tell you how nice it is to now have a bed I can call my own and to not have to live out of a bag anymore!!  Ahh!!  I'm rooming with Rachel which is fabulous and totally makes up for the fact that we got the shafted room.  At the moment, the shower doesn't work, the toilet constantly drips, and there's no AC, but I'm pretty confident that either our concerns will be addressed by the landlord or we'll be able to make due just fine.  Part of the joy of this crazy experience... :)

Mumbai was AMAZING!  India has so far infinitely passed all my expectations. NYC crowds have absolutely NOTHING on Mumbai... I just don't even have the words to describe it... Traffic is really interesting too... there are few stoplights, there are no lanes, and crossing the street continues to be one of the biggest adrenaline rushes I've experienced to date. It's actually so crowded on the streets that the majority of cars don't even have those side mirrors (are they rearview mirrors?) because they take up too much space. Really.

Being White around here has been interesting as well.  It's allowed me to make some friends rather easily (sketchy ones and otherwise) and it looks as though I've made it into some random photo albums of natives and other non-White tourists.  Sweeet! It's been kind of fun at times to feel a bit like a celebrity around here but I can start to see how it might get a little old pretty soon... we shall see... people constantly stare everywhere we go and get a little too excited... sometimes entertaining but I'm sure you can imagine how sometimes (especially as a woman) it gets to be a little much...

Alright so this brief update has turned into one that's not so brief - I'm just so exciting about everything going on here I wish I had more time to write and keep you all posted!!  We should be getting internet in our aparmtment tomorrow so I think I should have more time to post more updates as well as some pretty amazing pix and videos.

So so so so much love to you all!!  Your emails keep me energized and I LOVE hearing how you're all doing at home.

More to come soon...