Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Hello again!

So before I leave for our Hyderabad trip, I thought I'd share some pictures from the last few weeks, from the Field Trip posts below (note: this is the second of two posts, see below for the other one).

Since the pictures are taking a while to upload, a funny story. So Elonnai, another IDSer who is doing her placement in Bangalore, invited me out with some of her friends here to a trivia night at a pub. I felt pretty in the zone, since random knowledge and drinking are two of my real strong suits. Things are doing pretty well, and our team was cleaning up (we ended up coming in second). Anyway, the MC was saying something about Australia and asked if there were any Aussies in the crowd. There being none, the bar kind of went into an awkward silence, which Elonnai and I, in a bout of inspiration, decided to break by shouting "Hey, we're Canadians!" To which the MC looked right at me and said "Canadian? No, no, no, anna! You are South Indian only!" He then proceeded to tease me in Tamil and ask about how much I liked Rajnikanth (a famous Tamil actor). It was at that moment that I realized that thanks to my moustache, a remnant of Movember, I was definitely the most desi-looking person in the bar, including the actual desis, most of whom were clean-shaven and in jeans and t-shirts. Possibly this is a sign I should shave?

Anyway, fun times. Here, have some pictures! I am sure that is what everyone wanted for Christmas. This first album is a collection of pictures from the field trip to the dam, and my time at Timbaktu in Andhra, both of which you can read about in the previous posts.

The next album is one which I was totally going to write a blog post for but then I didn't. Long story short, I saw a bunch of temples back in October. Enjoy!

Finally, the piece de resistance: a map of all my travels. I had a pretty awesome nerd-out session with Google Maps and made a map showing all the trips I have made so far. This includes the exact location of Puvidham, found via satellite map and my map reading skills (thanks, Remote Sensing course!), as well as the (almost) exact road routes I took in getting places. Why? Why not? (for best results, click the link below to see it in a new window)

View India Placement in a larger map

Field Trip number two!

Dear readers,

The last two weeks of my life have been pretty hectic! A couple of days after the field trip mentioned in the last blog post, I headed out to visit another school in Andhra Pradesh for a while. After coming back, everything was a rush of activity as my parents, and then my brother, arrived from Canada (woo!) and we've been showing them around. Tomorrow, we set off in a giant 12-seater van for the second ever epic massive road trip to Hyderabad, compliments of the Shaik clan (aka my mother's family). The first ever was during my last visit to India in 2005, and the Andhra countryside has only just recovered.

But first things first. My visit to Andhra two weeks ago was pretty amazing, so I'll start there.

When I started working on an 'alternative' curriculum project back in September, it did not take long for us to realize that I could not really understand a large part of the exercise, since I had no idea of what 'alternative education really meant, in an Indian context. We decided that the best thing to do would be for me to visit a number of other schools to figure out how things ran, so that I could better understand the environment in which the school operates. So far, I have vaguely-formed plans to visit a few schools all over the map, but the first one to work out was one called Timbaktu, in Andhra Pradesh. After a few phone calls and e-mails and setting of dates, away I went!

The Timbaktu Collective is a pretty amazing organization, and the Timbaktu compound (for lack of a better word) is a pretty amazing place. It is in a pretty dry area of Andhra Pradesh, known mostly for its groundnuts. You immediately know you've arrived at the collective's area when the hills around you start to look very, very different. They look different because they, unlike their neighbours, have forests growing on them, the culmination of almost two decades' worth of land regeneration work. In talking with one of the directors – all of whom live in the same compound as the children and staff – I learned a great deal about the Collective's activities, which reach beyond the school itself. Since the conversation was, admittedly, brief, I will forward interested readers to their website, where you can see their projects in greater detail.

Since I was there to observe the school, I spent most of my time with the kids. Since I arrived on a Saturday, the children were enjoying themselves – I joined a game of cricket which I failed miserably at, so I mostly stuck to the sidelines. The kids here seemed really comfortable with me as a visitor, which I imagine must be because they get so many of them. I was a little disappointed, though – I was demoted from my post of 'uncle' for the duration of my visit. Instead, I was referred to for the whole visit as “Adam brother!”

Linguistic aside: most Indian languages have some titles of respect for those older than you. People slightly older than you will be called 'big brother' or 'big sister,' while those a little more old will be called 'auntie' or 'uncle.' If one's proper name is used, it will be in conjunction with one's title, like 'Adam uncle.' For aunts and uncles, most languages also differentiate between those older or younger than your parents, or those on your mother's side or your father's side. I have steadfastly refused to learn these distinctions in any language.

The rest of the week, I sat in on classes and did some teaching wherever I could. Mostly I stuck to the odd game of hangman, or teaching some English songs – mostly Christmas carols and 'skinni mirinki dinki dink,' which I have decided is my key to communicating with small children all over the world. I also gave some of the dramas that the Puvidham teachers had written and used, since they were curious about the teaching material that we were making. Mutual learning for the win! It was a really positive experience and I learned a lot. I hope to be back there for thesis research at some point, since I would like to look at the different teaching methods employed by alternative schools, and the choices behind those methods – but that requires me writing a proposal, now, doesn't it...

The ride back was eventful, in that I ended up taking a bus to a place I had never heard of before. There were no direct Bangalore buses, I guess. That and I ended up walking through Bangalore to my family's place at past midnight. I'm really enjoying all the random bus travelling that I am doing, much to the surprise of most people I meet, who generally do everything in their power to stay out of buses and bus stands in general. It works for me because it requires little planning, is cheap, and completing a bus journey makes me feel good about being able to get around in a language I barely speak (if you want linguistic confusion, try asking someone for directions in Tamil while trying to read bus signs in Telugu in a city where most people speak Kannada. Thanks, Hindupur!).

Anyway, that was Timbaktu! I have spent the last week since then hanging out with my family, and showing the place in Dharmapuri to my family, who just arrived. Tomorrow we head to Hyderabad, so I am going to sleep now!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Field Trip!

Hello Everyone!

It's an exciting time of year now, and my life here in India has definitely been no exception. As I write this, I am impatiently waiting for 3:30 AM Monday morning to come and bring my parents with it, and for my brother to arrive on the 24th (edit: parents are here now, hooray!). Over the next three weeks, I'll be showing my folks around my new life in Dharmapuri, and then going on a sweet road trip to see the village my mother grew up in and meet family I've never seen before! You can expect a blog post about that in the new year.

But what have I been up to lately? After all, while it seems only yesterday that I wrote my last blog post, I am assured by reliable sources that more than three weeks have passed in the real world. So, here goes:

I finished my stint as a fifth grade teacher last week. The new Puvidham curriculum is split into a number of four-week modules. The last week of the module provides a sort of closure to the module – on Wednesday, all the classes present what they learned in the last month to the whole school, in the form of a drama and songs.

The 5th grade class did a drama on one of the stories they learned, about how oil is formed. Other dramas included the 3rd and 4th grade class doing one on soil formation and the 1st and 2nd enacting a baby cuckoo bird's search for its mother. I will write more on the curriculum process in another post in greater detail. For now, I'll just say that I was very impressed at how the new process makes such extensive use of everyone's creativity: the teachers and the students really shape the way learning progresses, and it has been a joy to see things take shape, from the initial brainstorming and story-writing to the final product at the end, the drama presentation.

Thursday and Friday were a bit of a break, the students got a break from the normal routine to have two days of unspecified activities. I was not quite sure how this would turn out, but I figured it out pretty quick when I arrived on Thursday to a chorus of “Uncle! We will go to the forest!”

Huh. Well, I'm always down for a hike and I had heard that there was a lake a few hours' hike away, so I suggested this course of action to them. Their first reaction was “woohoo,” and their second reaction was “are you sure we are allowed to do that?” This last question convinced me that this was an excellent idea. The only small problem was that I had no idea which way to go.

This is where a curriculum that is based in self-reliance and experiential learning is awesome. It is perfectly acceptable for a teacher to tell their class to take the teacher on a field trip, rather than the other way around. All I had to do was make sure that I knew the way back so that we could get back to school.

After they argued on the best route to take (I probably should have gotten worried at that point), we set off towards the dam. Two miscalculations became evident. First, noon on a hot day is not a good time to start a hike. Second, if you must go at midday, it is generally a good idea to bring more than three bottles of water for a dozen people. But our spirits were high, and the route was beautiful.

As an envirosci nerd, I was in heaven seeing the changing landscape and the different ways people were using the land. To indulge my curiosity about everything I was seeing, I gave groups of children 'assignments,' like telling me what different trees were, or the different crops and how they were grown. I learned many things: firstly, the kids know the names of more plants at the age of 10 than I have ever known in my life. Second, most of them can explain, in their second language, the local practices of paddy agriculture, crop rotation, and intercropping. Thirdly, all the children had some relative along the way and were eager to show their land and what they did with it. One of the girls' grandfather grows sugarcane, and he gave us some, woo!

I also learned that taking a dozen children to an overflowing dam is a terrible idea. The lake we went to is an artificially made one; the local river has been dammed to provide irrigation water for the area, which is usually quite dry. Since the rains had been very good this year, water was spilling over the edge of the dam, creating sort of a natural algae-covered waterpark. There was a part of the dam where one could slide down about twenty feet or so into a shallow pool at the bottom. Of course, everyone did this at once – what happened next is a bit fuzzy. No one was hurt, though I feel like the stress of watching them shaved a few years off of my life.

(edit: for anyone who is confused about this dam -- an irrigation dam has no moving parts, it is just a big wall that people put up across a river to trap water. When the water level gets really high, it flows over the other side which slopes gently downward. I would not have let children play in the vicinity of hydroelectric turbines. Just clarifying.)

Anyway, that was my last week at Puvidham before the holidays. But there's more! Last week, I took a trip to Andhra Pradesh, a state to the north of Tamil Nadu, to visit a school there called Timbaktu. More on that in the next post!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Another long-overdue update!

I have been meaning to post this for quite a while -- I actually wrote the bulk of this post last week -- but laziness prevented me from uploading it until now. However, a series of excellent updates on a lot of my favourite blogs have inspired me to get off my behind and write something. 

It feels like a lot has happened since the last blog update, and at the same time it feels like there's very little to write about! I have certainly not gone on any crazy trips since being to Goa three weeks ago.

I guess it's good, in a way, since most of my blog posts have been about travelling to some far-off place and not really related in any way to my placement. Since I like to flatter myself that my work/life here is pretty interesting, I'll write about that for a bit.

As for the life part, I'm still staying in the hostel. This involves waking up at about 4:00 to the first sounds of activity (I'm not honest enough to say what time I get out of bed, though). Since breakfast and lunch are cooked at the same time, the older kids have to get up insanely early to prepare meals. There's usually an adult who does most of the work but lately the kids have been doing everything on their own. I'm pretty amazed at the energy of these kids – I mean, even the smallest kids are up and doing chores by 6:30 and the bigger kids (by which I mean, ages 12-16) pretty much run the hostel on top of doing their studies.

Part of my living here is that I eat my meals at the hostel as well. Breakfast is usually uppuma, which is cracked wheat boiled with spices and eaten with sambaar, which is like a really soupy dal (lentils) with some vegetables. Dinner is ragi mudhe, which is a big brown ball of ragi, a local grain. That too is eaten with sambaar. Lunch, which I eat at the school, is rice – also with sambaar, as well as yogurt (or curd, which is just really runny yogurt). Aside from the ragi, which is a bit of a shock at first, I guess my diet is not as exotic as some folks out there. I am sort of missing cooking for myself and keeping my own house, but the advantages of not having a mountain of dishes to wash and not paying for food or rent are so far winning out. Also, my diet is conspicuously heavy on grains, and low on everything else (except chillies, getting lots of those). A few weeks back, I got pretty unwell and since then I've been stashing some 'supplements' in my room at the hostel, which means mostly a lot of fruit and nuts, plus, of course, some awesome junk food.

The school day here starts around 9:30 with a series of prayers/songs. Then class is from 10-4, with a lunch break of an hour and a half (!). Up until this week, I was observing classes, meaning that I sat in class and watched how things were going and took notes and wrote about the new curriculum and methods. I guess we figured after 8 weeks of that, I'd pretty much gotten the hang of how the place worked, so now I'm teaching a class! Turns out the principal here was teaching like three classes herself so we spent the last little while putting together a new curriculum for the grade 5/6 class (which is a continuation of the curriculum we have for K-4 here), and hey pronto! The class is now mine to teach. How will these tender young minds be affected by being exposed to my tutelage? Only time will tell, folks. I have to comment, though, that these are some of the smartest kids I've seen anywhere. Class is mostly in their second language (even when it is not me teaching), and the material is far from easy.

After school, the kids have a while to play before they go home around 5. There's usually something to keep me busy after school. I keep a running documentation of the progression of the curriculum from K-6, help write and rewrite the curriculum itself, since it has only just been introduced, and, lately, help with some proposals. We've been planning to expand the school to the point where we can rely on fees from students' families to cover the main operating costs of the school, all while keeping about a third of the kids here on subsidized/no fees. The fees for the rest of the students would be as low as possible while still maintaining class sizes and being able to pay the teachers. It also means we need to apply for funding to increase the school's infrastructure to the point that it can handle this number of children, hence the proposal writing. That's been a fun, engaging project – on a related note, if anyone knows of any Indian/western agencies that fund this sort of educational/infrastructure work, give me a shout. I'm a little out of my league on that one.

Usually I finish at the school at around 6-6:30 and head back in the night. Often, while walking back, I am reminded of my pre-departure medical briefing that I went to with my friend Richelle, now in Sri Lanka. The doctor told us both, point blank, that the greatest risk to both of our lives on placement was late-night traffic, especially motorcycles, and especially in rural areas. Well, doc, thanks for the heads up – motorcycle dodging at night after work on the hilly, curvy roads that lead me home is something a daily routine. Though to be fair, buses are far worse – motorcycles don't push you off the road!

At night, I have been developing a few habits. Once I get back from the school, I play with the kids for a while – they have an undying passion for climbing me, being lifted by me, or playing games or singing songs with me (I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that none of these things are homework). Sometimes they also borrow my camera and take a couple hundred pictures – the kids here have taken over seven thousand pictures since I got here. I also have a few personal time things, for example my newfound ability to relax with a movie for a while. But not just any movies – the only way I can justify burning valuable time like that is to make sure that I am watching movies conducive to my Tamil or Hindi learning ability. That has meant a lot of Bollywood, as well as, lately, a bunch of 'multi-language' DVDs – at the bus stop in Dharmapuri, there's a stall that sells English movies that have been dubbed into Tamil, Hindi, and Telegu. Most of them also have subtitles in English. Most of them are action flicks, meaning that the language is mostly pretty simple. Oh, and they cost less than a dollar so there's that too. So far, I've seen Tamil dubs of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and a mountaineering film called Vertical Limit (tagline: 'it'll leave you hanging....'). Since writing this, however, my DVD player has met with an untimely demise. Dear HP: if your products can't survive a two-foot fall, then I can really never be a customer of yours. This is a serious stumbling block in our relationship. So I am currently without any of my DVD awesomeness. I've discovered Tamil music, however, so that should be an adventure!

I usually end the day accessing the internet after 10 PM, when it is free for me. As previous blog posts have indicated, this involves a complicated setup involving the roof of the hostel, the scaffolding of our water tank, and duct tape.

I'll try to upload some more pictures of this by the weekend, so that you all can get a glimpse into my daily life. That's all for now!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Good times in Goa!

Trip to Goa, Oct. 31 - Nov 4

Hello All!

This past week, I've had a bit of a break from the normal day-to-day life at the school as the children received a ten-day break for Diwali, since this is the one of the main times when families get together during the year. My family in Bangalore used the occasion to plan a trip for us to Goa, which was very nice of them considering most of those involved went along despite the fact that they were missing out on school/work commitments to do so. But hey, a vacation is a vacation I guess, and the rooms were booked so off we went!

Goa is a wonderful place, separated from Karnataka (Bangalore's state) by the Western Ghats which we crossed in the dead of night. It was colonized by the Portuguese and was one of the last states to become a part of India – so the culture there is very distinct. This manifests itself in things like the different names (most Goans have Portuguese names like da Silva or d'Souza), the abundance of churches, and the very beautiful, very different, architecture. Oh, and it has gorgeous beaches!

We spent the first day there recuperating from the long (16 hour) train ride from Bangalore to Vasco da Gama, one of Goa's chief towns. Said recuperation was aided greatly by the hotel's seaside location, meaning that within two minutes of our hotel room we had access to a pool, a restaurant, and the beach. We made some ventures into town as well as to some of Goa's beach shacks, which are, well, just that. They're wood and thatch structures on the beach where you can get drinks and some tourist-friendly Goan fare. Culture shock from day 1: As we were on a tourist beach, there were very few Indians there! I found myself surrounded by white people for the first time since leaving Canada. This was also a shock because aside from some Brits and Americans, most of the white people were Russians who spoke very little English (or any Indian language), making communication difficult. Many Goans have learned some basic Russian, and there are signs in Russian dispersed through most tourist areas. The tourists were also of an older, fatter, generation. A generation that did not know shame, at least where swimwear and body weight were concerned. To escape the bikini-wearing grandma squad, we planned our escape for the next day.

This escape took the form of a rented scooter from the hotel watchperson. Note to travellers: the watchman is your friend, since he is likely to have cheaper hookups than the people at the front desk. We paid Rs. 500 ($11) for a two day rental. Side note – if I ever quote a price, I am not sure whether it is the Indian rate or the tourist rate, since I tend to get both. This one was negotiated by my cousin so I assume that it is an okay deal! Now, I had never ridden a scooter before, but after a two-minute explanation by my cousin I felt fully qualified. To my credit, I took my first and only spill in a parking lot made of sand and loosely-packed gravel. We saw Fort Aguada that day, which you'll see in the photos above. After a little discussion, we decided to visit Colva beach, as there was a resort there which my family used to go to. It was a 50 km drive or so, which is a formidable distance when you don't know the roads, the bike only goes 40-50 km per hour, and both drivers are inexperienced. Suffice to say, it was an adventure. Getting into Colva, after a few detours, we even managed to get a flat tire which we got patched up – though the bike kept wobbling funny afterwards. To top everything off, the resort we had meant to visit was closed, meaning that all we ended up doing was getting lunch, relaxing on the beach for a while, and going back.

The ride back was also pretty eventful; we got stuck in a traffic jam, also the first Indian traffic jam I have ever been in. Note to the uninitiated: traffic jams in India are insane, especially if you are on a bike. The general tendency is to traffic weave among buses and cars – you can't opt out either, because doing so blocks the way for the bikers behind you, so you have to keep going (I have to say, Toronto cycling experience really stood me in good stead on this one). So on we went, narrowly avoiding rocks, buses, lightposts and concrete dividers – although I did manage to jam my cousin's foot against the median so that was kind of bad... though I consider it his comeuppance for telling me repeatedly, while going at top speed or through an intersection, “no, go that way!” Aspiring motorcycle passengers take note: the driver cannot see which way you are pointing, he is more worried about not dying. Near-death experiences aside, the drive was gorgeous! I highly recommend scooter rentals to anyone visiting Goa, definitely the best non-guided way to see the place.

The next day we made another scooter trip to Anjuna beach, which was less than 50 km away. It was quiet and touristy, we smoked hookah in a clifftop restaurant, which was amazing. Then I got ripped off hardcore in the market there, which was slightly less awesome. In many ways, it was like a robbery – I came, was surrounded by people, the rest is a blur and then when I came to I was missing a significant amount of money. Although robbers don't usually give you potential Christmas gifts, so that was nice I suppose. We also had a nice drive back through a torrential downpour which I found exhilarating.

The trip to Anjuna also marked my first up-close-and-personal experience with corruption – exiting the hotel, my cousin was driving and we were pulled over by a roadside cop. He proceeded to run us through the mill of questions, and it was revealed that my cousin had 'forgotten' his license (reality: he did not have one). While he went off to the hotel to look for said imaginary license, I conversed with the officer. Having heard that the best course in this situation is to be obscenely respectful, I showed a lot of deference, used 'sir' a lot, and so on. Those who know me will know the pain caused to my soul by such a display, but that's another story. Anyway, when my cousin arrived, sans license, he informed us that he would write us a ticket for 950 rupees ($21). I told him that I would pay, at which point he told us that he would 'help us out' because I 'spoke so well,' and reduce the fine to 500 rupees. Of course, a ticket was conspicuously absent from this transaction. I decided not to push the issue, which I have been kicking myself for since, despite assurances from people that insisting on paying the official fine can lead to negative consequences from police officers who want the bribe.

After this whirlwind of activity, it was time to leave the next day. I think I would need to come here for at least two weeks before I would be able to actually relax on the beach. There is just so much to do and see! Though now, after a nice break, I am pumped up and ready to get back to work and finally tackle the dreaded T-word (more on those developments later; I should really write a serious post one of these days).

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Do you know how to cut hair?

Hello again!

First, a bit of self-reflection: it seems like all of my blog posts since getting to India are collections of embarrassing experiences, cute photos, or random anecdotes. There's not a whole lot about what I'm doing or any reflections on the culture, my work, or any of that. For the record: I am working, interacting with people, undergoing culture shock, and (slowly) learning a new language. But I'm not going to write about that stuff just yet, since I want some more time to get my own thoughts in order. For now, enjoy a story from the last few weeks! There's a bit of everything here, humour and tragedy, love and loss – oh, and a really awful haircut, too. (honestly I just read Jonathan's post and wanted him to know that there are other placement-related awful hair stories out there)

“Do you know how to cut hair?” These are words that should strike fear into the hearts of most people (that is, most people who are not hairdressers). It certainly made me feel a little uneasy. As it happened, the school had just come into a set of German-made hair clippers. They had one of the dealies to adjust the length it cut and that was about it. One's choices here were a 1 or a 0. Because I had a nice computer and a camera, and was generally good with technology (relatively speaking), I was chosen as the natural person to try it out.

Well, as it turned out, there were a few kids who lived at the hostel who were in need of a haircut, and these clippers were a world simpler than using scissors for the whole deal. Of course, then you need someone who knows how to use a pair, and, well, you can see how I got volunteered for it. Think about the fact that there was a) a fancy new toy about to be demonstrated, b) someone's hair about to be (possibly) ruined, and c) a golden chance to see “uncle” make an ass of himself – you can imagine the audience this haircut attracted.

Now, to repeat, I have never cut hair before, except my own. I have, however, watched barbers work while they cut hair. To anyone who is under the impression that this is sufficient to know how to cut hair, be warned: this is not the case! I kept doing things that I *thought* were barber-y, and the haircut got further and further from what I thought it should look like. After a while, people sort of started smiling at me, so I assumed that I was done. As for the poor dude I was shaving, he had fallen asleep! So he would have some time to adjust to his new 'do.

As for how it looked, I think all of us have, at one point in our lives, had a terrible haircut – usually during our childhood. You know how it goes. Your mom brings you to the barber shop, gives them some instructions you don't really understand, and you come out looking like a cross between a Navy SEAL and Frankenstein. Anyway, I gave this kid that haircut. I feel a little proud to have been part of such a formative moment in his life. For your benefit, before and after photos:

So there you have it, folks: I am alive and some of the things that have happened to me have been mildly humorous. The next blog post will still not be about work, but it will have photos!

PS: To those I told this story already – yes, it happened a while ago. I was lazy and didn't finish writing this blog entry until now. Sorry!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Pictures: they're easier than writing!

Hello Folks!

I'll just write a quick note for now, and hopefully I'll have a for-real entry put up by the weekend. The general gist of this note is: I have more pictures up! I uploaded a couple albums for work over the last week or so, and I figured that I would share them with you.

NB – since these albums were made for other organizations/people, please don't comment on the photos. Pretty sure this only applies to Conor and Radu, so, uh, yeah. Don't do it! Also, how does one turn comments off in Picasa? Can it be done?

The first one is from an event we had here on Saturday the 18th. It was held by Fifth Pillar, an anticorruption advocacy organization. They held an information session in which people presented cases pending with village officials, in which they had been asked for a bribe, or simply refused services, such as pensions or ration cards. They also hosted a discussion on corruption in small villages, making the point that the government is not invulnerable, and if all villagers refused to give bribes, officials would have to stop demanding them. That, anyway, is what I got from the translation – this event would have been far more enriching if my Tamil was better! Luckily for you, readers, their own people posted an entry on their blog. You can read it here, and you can access my photos of the event here.

The rest are pictures from around the school. They were sent to a partner school in Toronto (!) as a way of showing where their gifts have been going. I don't know too much about the partnership there, so I won't say too much, but I will post the pictures! Click here to see them.

Oh, and these pictures are only available to people who get the link to them, as is my blog. These pictures are not just on the web for anyone to see, in case you were wondering about confidentiality.

More soon!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Some pictures for you!

I've had access to high-speed internet over the weekend, so here are some pictures I uploaded!


Thursday, September 23, 2010

I am surrounded by little children

Hello again!

Well, this week was the official first week of placement times (edit: first two weeks, I was a little late in posting this). I've started work and it's been fun, if slow at times. I think that I will write more about that in my next entry, once I have more of an idea of what I am doing.

Another important detail of life is that as of Tuesday, I have the internet where I'm living. It's a pretty sweet hookup, it gives me just-faster-than-dialup speeds in the middle of nowhere. However, I have to hold it as high as possible for it to get signal, which has meant duct taping it to an old water tank when I use it. Whatever works, I guess. Also, it gets broadband speed in all major cities in India, meaning that if I spend a weekend in Bangalore or something, I can skype people after 10 PM India time.

My living arrangements have been the most noticeable change so far: I am living in the school's hostel, where schoolchildren live whose families live far away, or whose families can't keep them at home, or who otherwise don't have a home to go to while they are at school. It is worth noting that these children are the hostel's sole residents, making the maximum age here around 14, with many as young as 3 or 4. The only exceptions to this rule are myself, and a lady who does the cooking. However, the cleaning, washing of clothes, upkeep of the garden, and all the rest of the hostel's maintenance is done by the work of the children who live here. Everyone, down to the smallest toddler, has some sort of work to do. The kids also do a good deal of the cooking, which leads me to believe that if all contact with the adult world were to be broken, these kids could probably run the place pretty decently without resorting to a) some kind of lord-of-the-flies-esque power struggle, or b) starving.

They all live in two main buildings, and in pretty close quarters. I am the only one here with my own room, which comes pretty decently equipped, with its own bathroom, balcony, and, wait for it, rooftop. I am currently writing this entry from the roof of the Puvidham hostel, with a pretty sweet view of the surrounding valley.

The kids have taken pretty well to me. It's fair to say that the last place I expected to be was in a place where I would be surrounded by children, but things are working out pretty well. I am, thus far, a constant source of novelty. Every day has had some sort of theme associated with it, which has led to constant amusement for the kids, and a mix of jetlag and exhaustion (and also some amusement) for me. Day one was “Uncle!” in which they find a new big person in their midst who doesn't speak Tamil, and make him teach them things like duck duck goose and skinni mirinki dinki dink (is there a better name for this song? Also, any suggestions for new kids songs? I could only think of the wheels on the bus and row row row your boat. Pity me, I never went to a real summer camp).

Day two was “Uncle has arms!” in which the discovery that I could lift them pretty effortlessly led to swarms of little children pulling me down to the ground. Days three and four were “Uncle has a computer!” and “Uncle has a camera!” respectively, where they played games and took pictures (SO MANY pictures. Some of them have actually gotten pretty good at the camera.) under my very watchful eyes. If any of you have ever seen a toddler playing with a piece of electronic equipment, you will understand my horror at the prospect of these things being at the mercy of a few dozen very hyperactive pre-teens.

I've been able to get to Bangalore on my last weekend, and next weekend I'm travelling with work to Chennai, to do some serious curriculum development (I have no idea what that means, but I will be doing it!). It's been nice to have a change of scenery every few days; I think that these days, I like to have a balance of urban and rural living and so far placement has given me just that!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Good Times in Bangalore!

I'm writing this with about half an hour to go before we leave Bangalore for Dharmapuri. I've been staying with my family here in Bangalore for the past week, getting my feet on the ground and getting over my jetlag (an excruciating 9.5 hours, which is still not as bad as the folks in Vietnam and China—I don't know how they do it!).

Part of the reason I stayed in Bangalore so long was that this Saturday was Eid, the festival that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. I'd never celebrated it with my family, so I was pretty pumped to stick around for it. Wwe got up for prayers in the morning—I was told that they start extra early and to get ready first thing in the morning, with the result that I was changed and ready to go by 7 AM, around the time that my family was waking up!

The prayers were in Arabic and the sermon was in Urdu, so I understood very little, but it was interesting to go to nonetheless. All the men were on one level, and the small children were on a different one (I was on the men's level, if you're curious). We stood in rows and went through the motions of prayer. There's a set etiquette as to when to do what, which meant that I was concentrating pretty hard on what the guy next to me was doing.

The rest of the celebration consisted of eating a lot of biryani, which I enjoyed. Elonnai, another IDSer who is working in Bangalore, came over for the festivities. True to embarrassing form, the family album was brought out after lunch and we got to pore over pictures of my uncles and aunts in their youth. Luckily, none of my photos had made it this far, so I was spared.

Before I leave, I have to tell one other anectode from my time here in Bangalore. On Tuesday, I called the woman I'll be working for at Puvidham, just to tell her that I'd landed and would be coming after Eid. She mentioned that there was a woman working at the school whom I should meet, as she had been developing the curriculum that I would be working with. However, she would be leaving this week, so I'd have to make a day trip.

The trip itself was pretty neat, I met a bunch of people and found out a) that I had a job, and b) that it would probably keep me busy, and c) that it would involve a lot of learning Tamil. More on that next time.

The adventure started on our trip back. One of the teachers at the school was heading in to Dharmapuri, the main town, so he gave us a ride. We found a bus pretty quickly, this one was pretty no frills and stopped in most towns, so it was pretty cheap, and a really nice ride. Also, by 'no frills,' I mean that there was still a TV blasting Tamil and Hindi music videos the whole time, so there's really no cause for complaint. Anyway, I mostly slept for the first little bit, while my cousin, who was there to make sure I didn;t get horribly lost, got more and more bored. He briefly got off in Hosur to go to the bathroom, telling the bus driver to wait for him, the driver said he would, he got off, and the driver promptly left.

So things got interesting. I had no freakin' clue what to do or what to say. I was frozen in my seat and really freaked out, and stupidly said nothing to the driver. I formulated a plan on how to get home--I would get off in Bangalore, call one of my relatives, get directions and hail an auto. Seems straightforward, right? Well, after getting off in Bangalore, I looked around for an phone booth, to no avail. Okay, I figured that I'll find an auto driver, and ask to use his cell. So I did that--the dialogue went a little like this (original Hindi included to showcase just how lost I truly was):

Driver: "Auto sir?"
Adam "Haan. Ganganagar, CBI?" (the location of my uncle's house; Ganganagar neighbourhood, near the central police station)
D: (vague agreement, gestures to get in>)
A: "haan. aap ke paas fon hai?" (do you have a phone?)
D: (gives phone)
A: (get out my phone to see azeem's number)
A: (phone dies completely, can't read number)
A: (give phone back, get in)
D: "ganganager, CBI?"
A: "haan" (yes)
D: "250"
A: "nahin, nahin. 200" (no, no. 200.)
D: "220. (something along the lines of, it's dark and my meter's broken)"
A: "okay okay. 220." (apparently, the upper bounds of what one should pay are more along the lines of 150 rupees, but i really wanted to get home)
D: "fon kijiye?" (you want to make a call?)
A: "nahin. mujhe number nahin malum hai" (no, i don't know the number)
D: "aapka fon me hai?" (is it in your phone?)
A: "haan. lekin fon dead hai" (yes. but my phone is dead.)
D: "aah. card me hai?" (do you have it on a card?)
A: " nahin" (

Okay, so at least I was in an auto by this point. I even managed to get him to the house with minimal getting lost (the one notable exception being my telling him to go the wrong way on a one way street, with excellent consequences).

In the meantime, of course, everyone had been panicking and they were overjoyed to see me. My cousin had called at about 8:15 and I got in at 10, so the family was on emergency standby for about two hours. My family's capacity for freaking out is pretty legendary. One of my aunts went to the bus stop to see if I would get off there (I didn't, the driver let me off somewhere completely different). My uncle sat next to the telephone for two hours while assuring everyone "hey, he's travelled before, he'll be fine!" and pacing up and down.

At the end of the day, it was all a little discouraging because it really shouldn't have been a big deal, but because I wasn't confident enough to express myself in a language that wasn't English, I ended up getting totally lost. Oh well! Hopefully this will get better. Next time I update, I'll have started work!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Trip!

Well, time just flies, doesn't it? The last time I wrote here I was busily preparing, impatiently awaiting my departure from Canada, and now here I am, seriously jetlagged in my aunt's place in Bangalore! Getting here was an adventure—international travel always is—so here are some highlights:

10 AM – 2 PM: Frantically finish packing, shopping, doing all manner of last minute things. Those who have seen me before I travel (mercifully, not many people have) know that I tend to get into a kind of 'zone' just before I leave.

2 PM: Little brother leaves for Vancouver, accompanied by my luggage. I was told that there's only enough space in the car for me or my luggage, not both, so I saw him off from the house.

2-3 PM: Naptime. Possibly the last time I slept until now.

6 PM: Get dropped off at the airport and say my goodbyes to the family. My bag got searched as we went through security, by an overly polite customs official who apologized when she didn't find anything. I love this country.

6-7:30 PM: I spent my last hour and a half in Toronto... deciding what to do with my last hour and a half in Toronto. As soon as I start reading (The Satanic Verses), the plane starts to board.

8 PM (EST) – 8 AM (GMT): Flight to London. Mostly consists of me trying to sleep. As soon as I give up and start on the book again, we land. I think Rushdie must be cursed.

8 AM – 1 PM: London's Heathrow Terminal Five is another world. There's a full mall (complete with three duty free stores of the same name) and enough seats for a small city. There's a seafood/caviar bar. There's a cafeteria named 'eat' (I ate) and a Starbucks where all their espresso is Fair Trade. Since I am a creature of suggestion, I ordered one and concluded that it was far superior to the North American variety. Britain has an abundance of fancy chocolate and tea, of crackers in tins and everything else in tins (sometimes the tins look like double decker buses). They have a curious overabundance of gingers (it is noticeable). I paid five pounds for under an hour of internet because unlike any civilized airport ever, Heathrow does not have free wi-fi. I'm far more indignant over this than I should be—my lesson here is to not promise my family any contact until I'm at my destination.

2 PM GMT – 4:30 AM India time: Three movies and multiple failed attempts at sleep later, I once more picked up Rushdie's Verses just as we get in. I highly recommend travelling with this book; it makes planes reach places faster (ie right when you start enjoying the read). I've gotten through the first fifty pages and it's still weird. I can't see why it merits a fatwa, aside from the atrocious number of made-up words it uses.

4:30 – 5:30 AM: So I go up to Indian customs. I've got my passport, I've got my visa. Actually, I've got a step up from a visa, namely a Person of Indian Origin card, essntially a multiple entry visa that lasts for 15 years. Pretty sweet, right? Well, the officials didn't seem to think so; upon seeing it the first guard informed me that I would have to step aside with his colleague to clarify some things. Shit, I thought. I am going to be the first ever IDSer to not even make it to placement. I am going to be deported. This is what is happening.

As it turns out, that is not what happened. Mostly I had to show all my documentation several times to several different officials, who let me pass, after repeated head-nods and queries of where my mother was from and whether I spoke Telegu.

Anyway, I got out of the airport and met my uncle and cousin who were waiting for me, and I've spent the last few hours driving around the city and sleeping—mostly sleeping. I think I might just do some more of that right now. Peace out!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Adam in India!

Hello again!

I know, I know. Two updates in under a week is a little much for this blog to handle. However, I think that I'll be able to update a little more regularly now, since there is to be no more hard labour in my life for the time being (lots of work, yes, but none of it quite as physically taxing, I hope). Also, this post is kind of a 'part two' of the last one, since I'm really in the same position as I was when I wrote the last one.

The difference is that while that one looked back at the summer, this one will look forward to the year that is about to happen.

I'm about to leave on a ten-month placement to Dharmapuri, India with Puvidham Rural Development Trust. This is a part of my university international development studies co-op program, where students undertake a work placement for their 4th year. As with many of my colleagues, I will get on the plane on September 4th not knowing what will happen, or what exactly my job will entail. I'm worried, but I know that that is part of the experience, so that's okay.

What I do know comes mostly from Puvidham's website ( and a series of excellent e-mails that I exchanged with Meenakshi, the organization's co-founder and the founder of the school. I learned that Puvidham is an organization that integrates a commitment to sustainable agriculture and community development with a passion for teaching. They operate a school on their farm, in which the young children from the surrounding community come to study for the first few years of their schooling. Some children live in a hostel, also on the farm, because their parents often travel into the cities looking for work.

Since my coming to Puvidham is a bit of an experiment, for them as much as for me, I don't know exactly where I'll fit in. So, rather than go into much detail about my job there, I'll update this blog regularly with information about what I've been doing so that you can discover Puvidham, and Dharmapuri, with me over the coming months. I look forward to it!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The last of the farming!

Well, I'm back! Back in Toronto from my summer experience on the farm, that is. Well, I'm really sort of on a stopover in my home city for a couple of weeks while I prepare for my next move, namely my departure to Dharmapuri, India for my co-op placement. That's on September 4th, a date that seems to be getting rapidly closer.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I haven't written on this blog for over a month, and a lot has happened in the meantime! I think I'll use this opportunity to write a bit about my last few weeks on the farm, as I should have been doing all along.

About two days after my last blog post, I worked my first day on the garlic farm. Some of the guys I was working with had already transferred there, others had gone back to Mexico (I drove those two to the airport, which allowed me to have a nice couple of days off).

My first shock at the garlic farm was the sheer scale of the operation. I suppose it wasn't quite justified, since the fields weren't much bigger than the asparagus field we worked in. But with asparafus, you take whatever grows each day for two months and that's your harvest. With garlic, everything in the field needs to be taken off in as little time as possible—that means we were working with, literally, tons and tons of the stuff every day.

There were also a whole lot more people. In addition to me and the six Mexican workers, we also had crews of a few dozen Indians come up from Brampton several times. So every day, a small army of workers would attack the garlic, laying in massive pearly-white rows that the harvester had dug up. We would take a wagonload or three into the barn, while the Indians would go right into the field and work there all day. We would cut the roots and stems off of the garlic, and then separate it based on size before sending it to a barn on another farm to dry.

This was, more or less, how I spent every day for a good three weeks. In between cutting, I would also go on trips into the field to pick up the garlic that the Indian workers had cut, often practicing my poor Hindi with the workers that I saw. They were all from Punjab, so they spoke Punjabi, a sister language of Hindi. It meant that they could understand when I said things like “chaar basket” (four baskets), or “bahut accha hai” (very good), or “mai panjabi nahin bolta hu” (I don't speak Punjabi). Some of them would reply, in rapid-fire Punjabi that I hadn't a hope of understanding, or in loud, thickly accented English.

In short, garlic harvesting is intense. We would go at it for 12 to 14 hours every day for the better part of three weeks. By the end of it, our hands were well-calloused from the clippers we cut the roots with, and I had done more reps of lifting those 60-pound bushels than I even have – or ever will – in a gym.

By the beginning of August we were about ready for a change, and what a change we got! We moved into the garlic factory to process and ship out those tons upon tons of garlic that we'd gotten off the field. The garlic had been dried in the meantime, in a massive barn that pumped hot air through the bins of garlic.

The factory was an experience: most of the guys were further upstream on the conveyor belt, peeling the outer layers of skin off of the garlic bulbs that came through. I was near the end, picking garlic off of the assembly line at what felt like breakneck speed (I'm told that it looked like something considerably slower to the outside observer). We then sorted the garlic into bins depending on what customer they were to go to.

The teaching stuff was pretty cool, too. Because of the work, we didn't do a lot of formal, sit-down classes, but we had a lot of informal classes throughout the last month and a half—especially when we were working in the barn, we talked and learned a lot from each other. Leaving the farm last Friday, I really couldn't believe that it was all over, as much as I had been counting the days all the while. I think the biggest stress on me in the last few days was knowing what a short turnaround time I would have between getting off the farm and getting on the plane to India – from my last day on the farm to my flight is just over two weeks, and as I wrote before, it seems like no time at all.

So that's what was going on for the last little bit! It was great and I'm looking forward to what is coming up next, which I will write about very soon!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Bunkhouse Diaries, part 2

Hey everyone! Sorry it's been a sparse time in blog-land. I've been a busy bee, finishing up the asparagus season, doing classes (still not as much as I should) and lots of informal learning stuff.

I've also been talking to a lot of people about the program--people I meet while doing deliveries, people who stop by the farm, friends I see or talk to in my rare forays into the world outside the farm bubble. Lots of people have lots of questions about just who these migrant workers are, and what the program does. Part of my fears when I started this experience was how ill-equipped I really was to answer these questions, since my knowledge of the people I would be working with was so vague. In this way, at least, I think this experience is a good preparation for the IDS placement.

Well, two months (61 days as of this writing; I've been counting!) have passed since I came to the farm, and I'm still asking lots of questions. I think that's something that will be a constant while I'm here--there's too much to learn about the workers, about Mexico, about farming and running a business than I could possibly absorb in four months. But I've also learned a lot, and I've been telling lots of people. Now, I'd like to tell the internet! So here goes.

The guys who are here on the farm are part of a group of over seventeen thousand workers who come up from Mexico each year to work on farms in Ontario through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. This program is coordinated between farmers, the Canadian government, and the governments of the various countries that send workers (several Caribbean countries also participate in the program).

In order to join the program, the workers must apply and be interviewed by the program people in Mexico. In general, workers must be from rural areas, have experience doing farm work, and be heads of families in Mexico (this definition includes a small number of women, largely single mothers. Nonetheless, the workers who come to Canada are overwhelmingly male, with females making up about 3% of the workforce). Needless to say, of course, a large amount of luck and x-factors go into deciding whether a given person is selected to come to Canada. As anyone who has ever applied for a government grant, visa, or otherwise come into contact with bureaucracy can undoubtedly understand, the selection process for a program like this can be tricky, to say the least.

Once they get here, they work on a wide variety of farms. Most farms in Ontario don't require a large number of workers, since most of the harvested land is taken up by crops like wheat, soya, corn, or canola that don't require a huge amount of working and are largely harvested by machine. However, crops like apples, asparagus, garlic, or onions are a whole lot more labour intensive and so they require people to pick them for an extended period of time. There are also a lot of guys working in greenhouses picking things like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, or on nurseries tending to the trees that are eventually used in urban landscaping jobs. Those tree-lined streets are a good example of this.

So, where does Frontier College come in to all of this? It all has to do with the living situation that the workers find themselves in when they're here. Very few have any knowledge of Canada before coming, or of the English language. This leads to a number of difficulties in areas such as understanding what the boss is saying (some farmers speak Spanish, but not all), understanding people in town when they go shopping or to the bank, or learning about their rights as a worker--things like workplace safety, or filing taxes.

At the farm I'm on, there's never been a worker from Frontier College before. For a lot of the guys, I'm the first Canadian they've met who wasn't their boss or a relative of their boss. So a lot of these issues, and others, have come up. The teaching, if you can really call it that, has taken the form of formal lessons where I give out exercises and write on a whiteboard, or conversations around the dinner table or during work (a favourite 'classroom' was the assembly line where we sorted and trimmed asparagus). These informal conversations cover all kinds of things, from how to speak with a cashier at Western Union to the university system in Canada.

At the end of the day, though, I'm definitely learning a whole lot more than I'm 'teaching' (still not so sure about that word). I've learned a whole ton of Spanish (and at that Mexican Spanish, which is something that is really impossible to teach in a classroom). I've learned, well, everything I just wrote about the program, the guys' perspectives on it (more on that some other time), and more.

That's all for now. All I really wanted to do was to write here some of the things I've been talking about with people for the last month or so. Maybe now that I've gotten these things out there, I'll start blogging about some of the other things that have been on my mind. We'll see!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Bunkhouse Diaries

So it's been almost a month here on the farm, I feel it's about time to go into a little bit of detail about my lifestyle here on the farm, to give you a bit of a feeling of just what life is like here.

As you may know, the guys I'm working with come up every year from Mexico for 6-8 months per year to work on farms here in Ontario. The guys I'm working with in particular switch farms about once a month or so, depending on what is being harvested. They'll harvest apples one month, asparagus the next, garlic the next, then more apples, and so on and so forth.

Workers from the same farm usually live together in a bunkhouse, which means different things in different places. Here, it is an old farmhouse with a kitchen/living room, bathroom, and three bedroomsfor six guys. This is relatively spacious; I've heard of 6-8 people living in a trailer, or a house the size of our serving for well over a dozen people!

The day starts about an hour and a half before we go to work—for example, if we start at 6, activity starts around 4:30. Breakfast is usually a combination of leftovers from the previous day, with some beans or eggs that the guys cook. I'm not a big breakfast person, so I usually just stick to my coffee and bread. Half asleep, we go about preparing a lunch to take with us to the farm, and then head out the door.

We're a good 15-minute drive from the farm, and as the only one with a Canadian driver's licence, I'm the chauffeur of our luxurious 1995 Dodge Caravan. Me being entrusted with a vehicle of any kind will obviously disturb anyone who knows how I drive. I'm sure no-one will be surprised by my new nickname, 'taxista' (cabbie), dedicated to my disdain for slowing down at curves in the road.

Dinner occurs right after we get back from work, and it is a communal affair, with everyone cooking and cleaning together. My creations are usually greeted with a mix of confusion and humour. Already my sauteed mushrooms have earned fame as 'ongos halucinantes' (magic mushrooms). The rest of the menu consists of beans, meat of all sorts, eggs, rice, and a mountain of tortillas.

I've been thinking a lot about what to put in here, and there's a lot to say, but I think I'll leave the rest for another time. I'm enjoying things a lot here; the atmosphere is not nearly as tense as I imagined a bunkhouse might be. Everyone gets along and people look out for one another. I'm assured that this is better than normal in a lot of ways—fewer people, less conflict, more laughter and joking around—so I suppose I've really lucked out!

Spanish Fails, parts 1 and 2

The season of 12-14 hour days has begun, which is good for my wallet but bad for my blogging ability. As a result, I've been unable to get to the internet for a while. This means a longer wait for posts from me, but because I've been neglecting you all so much, I've written two updates that I'll post today! This first one is entirely about my failure at communicating in Spanish, so if you a) don't speak Spanish, or b) are not as much of a language nerd as I am, you may not enjoy this post as much as I do. However, there's another one right belowthis one, so enjoy!

As you may have guessed, Spanish is the dominant language of the bunkhouse. My English classes are going pretty well, but we're a long way off from having anything approximating a conversation beyond 'Good morning. How are you?'

My Spanish is at a nearly-conversational level, thanks to my prior knowledge of Portuguese and an excellent Spanish professor. I've been feeling pretty good about getting on in conversations with the guys, and I'm learning a lot every day. However, that doesn't mean that I've been immune from a few memorable failures on the language front. And, as I am clearly a) shameless and b) a big language nerd, I just had to share some of them.

My first offence is a classic one, which makes it all the more embarrassing. When you learn about 'false friends' – words that sound like they should be right but are actually drastically wrong – this particular mistake just about tops the list.

The guys and I were working and talking about the weather, which has taken a turn for the better. One of the guys remarked that the farmer would be happy about the change in the weather.

“Sí,” I replied, “por que será caliente!” which I thought meant “Yes, because it will be hot.” However, having omitted a subject, I could have been referring to either a) the weather, or b) the farmer. Now, in English, it's clear that I was talking about the weather, but it's pretty ambiguous in Spanish. Moreover, 'caliente' has a fairly different connotation in Spanish. Basically, I implied that the reason for the farmer's good humour was because he was in heat.

And there you have it, folks. Always be careful with the word 'caliente,' because you might get burned.

My second offence is a little more pardonable but a lot more awesome. The verb 'mamar' is colloquially used to mean 'to speak foolishly, to bullshit.' If someone says 'no mames!' it means, roughly 'don't bullshit!' This is said roughly once every 20 seconds in Mexican Spanish, to convey disagreement, surprise, or as punctuation (though not as common as 'pinche,' which occurs every 5 seconds and is used somewhat similarly to our f-bomb).

Well, I decided to try using this new-found word, but I slipped in a little something extra, to show my Spanish prowess. In order to say 'don't bullshit me,' I said 'no me mames!' not knowing that actual meaning of 'mamar' is 'to milk' (as in, milk a cow). So, basically, I just ordered one of the guys not to milk me. I was assured that there was no danger of that occurring.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Asparagus, at a glance

So after a few days on the farm, I'm exhausted but forcing myself to put 'pen to paper,' as it were, and record some of my impressions of my first days.

A lot has happened, from the flight back to Toronto to the car ride to the farm, and my new life in the bunkhouse here. I'll tell you more about these some other time, but for now I'll write a bit about an odd-looking green vegetable.

Let me tell you a little about asparagus, which those less ignorant than I am probably already know. The spears that you buy grow right out of the ground; you're actually eating the young stalk of a larger plant. Asparagus is one of those plants that make me wonder just how it was domesticated. I'd really like to meet the caveperson who went around eating plant stalks until they decided that asparagus would be the right one to farm.

Asparagus is harvested by cutting the stalk off at the ground once it reaches a certain height. It is then put into crates and sent to be processed. The processing consists of sorting them into grades based on length: short ones get sent for pickling, longer ones become the bunches that are sold in supermarkets.

The spears can be harvested every few days when it is hot. Those of you in Toronto will have noticed that the last few days have been anything but, meaning less work for us. However, come late May and early June, the week will be an unceasing cycle of harvest and pack, harvest and pack.

I am told that sometimes, you can start in the morning, finish packing the asparagus you harvested the day before, and go back to harvest that very afternoon.

Once the short spears have been weeded out, the real fun begins. Five or six guys work an assembly line, where asparagus is put on a conveyor belt and passes through a rotating blade that cuts them all to the same size. The asparagus, now uniformly eight and a half inches, is now packed into 1-lb. bunches.

These bunches are packed into boxes with special holes for washing and a paper pad at the bottom. You wash the asparagus when it's already in the boxes, and the water soaks into the paper pad which acts as a sort of surrogate soil, providing water to the asparagus so that it continues to live a hydroponic life until it reaches the store shelves. Thanks, science!

Currently the Ontario Asparagus Drought is entering week two, and showing no signs of abating for the next couple of days at least. Supermarket shelves are bare! Crowds are panicking in the street! (the first one is true, at least. An unscientific survey of the Loblaws I was just at revealed no asparagus on the produce shelves)

While the waiting has been going on, we have weeded strawberries, planted strawberries, irrigated strawberries, shovelled manure onto a rhubarb patch, and so on until we run out of work. We're currently on half-days until the sun comes back out, which kind of blows (although it allows more time for blog writing, which is awesome!)

There's a lot to tell about farm life, and I'm sure that I'll tell you all more in the coming weeks. For now, think of asparagus and exhort the sun gods to radiate their rays of solar goodness or I'll be out of a job!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Adam in Ontario!

I'm writing this from the GO bus terminal in Union Station, waiting for my bus to McMaster University, where I'll be meeting the rest of the Labourer-Teachers for a training week before we head off to our farms. I must seem like the consummate traveller, harried-looking, muffin and coffee resting on a worn-out suitcase, typing furiously on a netbook I produced from an overfull backpack. It's my hope that I can get my thoughts out in the next 20 minutes, and post this on Union Station's excellent wireless connections, the last sure internet connection I am to access before I leave terra firma.

It was my hope to make this a sort of disclaimer, as the blog shifts over to my experiences as a labourer-teacher. The post will be modelled on Josh's far more eloquent entry (read his blog!), which I am shamelessly plagiarizing.

So, without further adieu: I hope that this blog will be informative, entertaining, and an all-around excellent reading experience. I hope that I can bring city-slickers like myself into a world that I know is completely foreign to me even though it is only a two-hour drive from my home. I hope that through this blog, people can see the world of farm labour in Canada, and the work that Frontier College does. If sometime down the road, this blog was useful to someone who was considering the Labourer-Teacher program, I will be very happy indeed.

However, there are a few important caveats here. Farm labour in Canada is a highly contentious issue. Most fruits are picked by so-called 'guest labourers' who are flown up for the growing season from places like Mexico, Jamaica, or Vietnam. Their presence, working conditions, rights and safety are issues that a host of labour unions, NGOs, and grassroots organizations are concerned with. Also, the workers I am working with will be in a teacher-learner relationship for me for the entire time, and therefore confidentiality is of the highest importance.

All this is to say that in order to be respectful to the people I am working with, and to ensure that I do not place Frontier College in an awkward situation, I will not do any of the following things on my blog.

1.Post any names, be they of farmers, workers, or Frontier College staff. The only name you will know will be mine. I'm Adam, by the way!
2.Post the location of my farm. I am working on a farm in South-Central Ontario. Those who know me personally will know where it is; I ask that you not post this in the public domain, i.e. this blog.
3.Discuss situations that involve legal issues that would be compromised by my writing about them.

Hope that works for everyone! I'm super excited to share this experience with everyone, and I hope you enjoy! And now, off to catch my train! Bus? I should probably know this by now!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Leaving 'n' stuff!

There's something about having only a week left in a place that makes you fairly introspective, and at the risk of taking myself too seriously, I'm going to try and capture that sensation. I actually find it to be one of the more distinct parts of culture shock, proving, I guess, that not all of us follow the 'curve.'

The last time I was leaving for a while was in 2006, when I went to Brazil and Quebec with Canada World Youth. It was an odd sort of experience, in that I was graduating high school at the time, and so when I left, it was with the realization that I wouldn't see most of the people I was leaving behind. But I was fine with that, being an angry 18-year-old whose favourite memory of graduation was skipping it.

You know what's the weirdest part of being about to leave a place? How normal it all is. Two weeks ago, I was studying for an exam, like I always have. Now I won't be doing that for nearly two years. I'm on duty on residence as I write this, holding the on-call phone and ready to respond to calls until 9 AM. This will literally never happen again, but it seems completely routine. It's like there's some kind of disjoint between what is happening now and what you know will happen.

On a lighter note, things Adam hates:

2.Health insurance

...and other things which, while vital to his survival, are really annoying and hurt body and soul.

Next time: Adam in India becomes Adam in Ontario, as I head out for Frontier College training! Stay tuned!

PS: yes, this was written on Monday and spent a few days gathering dust. I've been disorganized, sorry.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


For my first entry, allow me to write about something almost entirely unrelated to placement. This will be a story about one of my great loves: good food, and cooking good food.

As a result of this love of food, and my desire to get in touch with my Indian roots, I had been bugging my mother to teach me how to make the moong daal that she always made when we were growing up. This is an old family dish, passed down from my great-grandmother and native, as far as I know, to Kolkuntla village in Andhra Pradesh, where my mom's family comes from. So as you can imagine, my mother was overjoyed that I was taking such an interest in her side of the family.

“Adam,” she said, “why don't you just make pasta instead? You make such good pasta.”

So a week or so ago, I had my friend Ange over for lunch. Ange had had this concoction a while ago, and wanted the recipe, so I thought it would be a good idea to do a bit of a photo-documentary on the whole process. (some other time,. I'll post my aborted photo-doc on the excruciating pain of making sorghum rotis)

For the culinarily inclined, here's the recipe behind the photos: first, roast 2 cups of split moong daal in a frying pan on med-high heat, stirring constantly so that the ones on the bottom don't burn. Stop roasting when most have browned a bit and the daal smells fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside. Boil 4-ish cups of water and toss in the daal along with 2 tbsp of turmeric. Cover and let boil, adding water whenever needed until the daal get soft and mushy. Once mushiness is attained, simmer and make the bagaar.

The bagaar, or spice mix, consists of about a half-cup of oil, a tablespoon each of mustard and cumin seeds, a handful of curry leaves, a small onion and 3-4 dried chillies. The oil is heated until it is smoking hot, and then you toss in the seeds. They will pop violently. If they pop pout of the pot, cover for about 30 seconds and then add the onion. Otherwise, add the onion after the popping has started and the seeds begin to burn. The burning is good, it means it's working. After a bit, add in the chillies and curry leaves and keep stirring until the onions are nice and brown. Bit of a side note: make sure to add the onions first. I once added the chillies in before the onions and the kitchen filled with an acrid smoke that made everyone run out in panic. Then add the daal from before, simmer for a while, and enjoy!

Today, I paid my parents' house a long-overdue visit, the first since I had finished the mountain of assignments that had been plaguing me until last Thursday. My mother was making parathas, a kind of roti that is rolled multiple times so that layers are created, giving the bread a light, flaky texture. It is a finnicky process at first, but I gradually got the hang of it, and by the end my parathas were even round-ish, resembling circles more than their lumpy ovoid predecessors.

For a second, my mother's reaction was that my great-grandmother would have been very proud of me. She then appended her claim to “But she would probably ask why you didn't have a wife to do it.”

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Hello, hola, vanakkam!

My name is Adam, and this is my blog. Why, Adam? Why are you sharing your thoughts with the world like this? Do you really have anything worth sharing?

Why yes, blog! Yes I do. Also, harsh.

So the occasion of my starting this blog is the fact that I'm about to start the longest journey of my life. Starting May 4th, I will be leaving my home in Toronto to work as a labourer-teacher with Frontier College, on a farm around Leamington, ON. I'll be working with migrant workers from Latin America and the Caribbean. During the day, I'll be working as a labourer on the farm, and after the day's work is done, I'll volunteer as a teacher, mostly focussing on language skills.

After that, I'll be heading to Dharmapuri, India, on a co-op placement that should last, visa permitting, from September to July. I'll be working with Puvidham Rural Development Trust, an NGO that promotes education which emphasizes Montessori methods and a love of the earth, as well as organic farming methods. As a volunteer intern here, I'll be primarily working in the school, where my job will range from helping out with daily tasks to curriculum development and more!

All this as a roundabout way of saying, welcome to my blog, and I hope you'll share this journey with me.