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).