Wednesday, June 1, 2011

And, we're back!

Hello Everyone!

Well, this blog was beginning to look lonely, with no update for almost four months! So much has happened, and so little has been written. My special apologies to anyone who has send me an e-mail since, uh, late January (to put things in perspective, as of the time of my last posting, Hosni Mubarak was still the President of Egypt).

Things are going well, with June expected to be the busiest month of my life, with two big projects to wrap up before I finish my work at Puvidham. The first is the curriculum documentation, which has to be made into a form that can be easily understood by other people -- not an easy task. Who knew that curricula were so big? Especially since one of the major goals of this curriculum was to develop all of the material ourselves, from the daily schedules to the learning materials for eight classes (Lower kindergarten to 6th grade).

The second Big Thing is something that started with my parents' visit in January, a herbarium that gives information on the local species of plants. I've been spending some very enjoyable mornings collecting plants, drying and mounting them, and talking to villagers about the traditional uses of the plants in their communities. I've learned a lot, not just about plants, but also about the history of the place, the way that people's beliefs and aspirations have changed even in the past 30-40 years. With a little tweaking, this should be my thesis also! I have to say, it is just about the opposite from what I expected to happen.

You see, both of my parents are botanists by training; many days and weeks of my childhood were spent accompanying my father into the field, the best of which was the time I missed a month of the 5th grade to be a 'field assistant' on my dad's trip to Northern California. We spent these trips mostly collecting specimens of hawthorns for his research. While the trips were usually fun and I got to see a lot more of the outdoors than most kids who were raised in Toronto, I was always deeply embarrassed at my father's lifelong study of a plant which is unremarkable aside from the fact that it has killer thorns and you can make bad-tasting jam out of the fruits (admittedly, it does allow him to claim to be one of the world's foremost experts on the genus, since only like two other people study it). I have been determined to never have anything to do with plants, or herbaria in my adult life. Now I find myself enjoying it, even using the interminable dichotomous keys filled with botanical jargon which is a must for identifying plants in the field. (Don't be too proud, parents. I still hate your hawthorn jam).

Well, that's what life is like now. I'll try and post some stories from the past four months. Until then, enjoy these photos from the exchange trip I chaperoned to Darjeeling, West Bengal.

Darjiling Trip -- trip to Tiger Hill

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Happy Pictures!

Well, I felt the need to continue the 'happy' vibe that has been going through my blog post titles. It makes me feel nice and warm inside. That may or may not be true for those reading my blog, but regardless, here are pictures for you:

1) Pictures from my family's visit over Christmas and New Years -- we used a lot of different cameras with the result that I got photos of some places, other people of other places -- and now we're on different continents. So, there are nice photos but a lack of any narrative. Sorry!

2) The preparations for annual day, and annual day itself

3) The Pongal celebrations at the hostel

Have fun!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Happy Pongal!

Hello Everyone!

Well, it has been an eventful couple of weeks since I returned to Dharmapuri. Back in Canada, the holiday excitement kind of dies down around New Years, especially for those of us who believe that no holiday between New Years' and Easter is worth celebrating (Valentine's Day? Family Day? Puh-lease.)

In India, this is different. January marks the festival of Pongal, a harvest celebration which I have been told is sort of analogous to Thanksgiving. In rural areas it's a huge deal, since a lot of people in these parts go to various cities or other areas for work. Pongal is when almost all families are reunited, and everyone comes back to their native towns and villages for a celebration.

In addition to this, Pongal is when Puvidham has their annual day. This is because it has always been difficult to get the parents to come to school at any other time of the year, for the same reasons as above. The annual day is done during the Pongal festivities, so that everyone can see what their children's school has been up to. Of course, this runs into the difficulty that the children must be absent from their festivities because they are preparing for their annual day.

Strangely, though, no-one really seemed to mind much, and all the kids were really intent on practicing their dramas, songs and dances all day, every day, with the teachers throwing in whatever revision they could during the down time. For my part, I spent some time with the fifth grade class as they rehearsed their drama and their dance, set to a song from a Tamil movie. Not much help was needed, though -- by the date of the performance, they not only knew their own lines, but also the lines of most of the other children!

One highlight for me was going to the hostel a couple of days before the big event to participate in their Pongal celebration. Since the whole point is to celebrate the bounty of the crops, there was a lot of good food! First they made an offering out of some rice and curry, spread out over a banana leaf and covered with bananas and jaggery (a sugar byproduct, I can only liken it to hardened molasses). Then they lit incense and set fire to a few sugar bricks to cries of 'pongaloo pongal!' While I was really interested in everything that was going on, I was secretly really anxious about all the good food I saw before me, well, not getting eaten. How do these things work? Luckily, only some of it was 'offered,' the rest was portioned off among all the children in sweet jaggery-filled rice-and-curry balls (if you're not salivating now, you really should be). The whole things was fairly short though, just a few minutes and then some more for photos, followed by a lunch so big neither me nor any of the kids could really move afterward.

It was hard for most people to even get nervous by the big day, since they had prepared so much for the presentations. The overriding sentiment was just one of complete excitement, which really got intense from about 4 PM on, when the kids began their two-hour-long makeup and dress session. Everyone, from kindergarteners on up, had themselves covered in makeup, from eyeshadow and bright red lipstick to fake moustaches to a sort of white foundation. Full disclosure, a) I know nothing about makeup so the above may not be accurate, and  b)I thought a few of the kids looked a bit like scary clowns because of the combination of that cream and the red lipstick (which was applied by absolutely everyone).

The presentations were a lot of fun, everything went perfectly and the parents seemed to really enjoy it -- so much so, that they gave their unanimous vote to having it remain at Pongal time (possibly to the disappointment of some of their children). In addition to the dramas and dances, two of the first graduates of the school came up and told the parents about how they were doing, and what they were studying. A visiting dignitary also came from the National Child Labour Program, which supports the work of the school, and gave a very nice speech -- I understood very little of it, but he was talking about the school's history and how it is an example for other schools in the district. He used the analogy of a rice paddy, which one has to nurture carefully in a small plot before planting the larger field, and said that the school was like that small, well-tended plot. Neat!

That is it for now, I promise pictures of all of the above will follow!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Okay, it's coming a bit late, but I figure it's only the second week of 2011 so I'm not that far off!

...I just realized that it is actually the second week of 2011, and I panicked a little. Where did 2010 go?

Part of the reason I am surprised at how quickly 2011 has appeared is that I spend the last few days of 2010 having the best time I've had in a while. The reason? My family came over on the 19th of December, and spent an amazing three weeks in the country. While the story of their visit may not be as exciting as the holiday travels of some of my colleagues, it was lot of fun and makes for a good story/blog post!

(Disclaimer: the holidays were a bit of a family reunion for me, so the blog post which follows is a lot about the family. If you are a member of my family, or someone who knows my family, this entry will probably be quite entertaining. Otherwise, I make no promises! Also this is easily the longest post I have ever written, so apologies to everyone about that)

As mentioned in my previous blog post, I spent the last week before my parents came at Timbaktu, in Andhra Pradesh. While it was an excellent experience, towards the end I really found it hard to concentrate on anything except the pending family reunion. From the time my parents' plane touched down at 4:30 AM on the 20th, my life was a series of double takes – it was really weird seeing my family in settings that I had associated with not being with my family.

Anyway, the first few days were pretty chill, we took it easy until my brother's flight landed on the 24th. Since my mother was catching up with her siblings, my father and I spent a lot of time wandering the airport. My father has an avowed hated of all things touristy, so we just roamed around randomly, our 'sightseeing' consisting of crowded Bangalore markets and whichever plants caught his eye. For those of you who don't know, both my parents trained as botanists, and are unable to turn the 'botany' part of their brains off.

My brother came to Bangalore on the 24th of December. His flight was rerouted to Kochi (Cochin) in Kerala due to heavy fog in Bangalore, and was delayed by about 8 hours. In a show of sibling devotion that I will never let him forget as long as he lives, I waited at the airport for a good 7-8 hours, alone, for his flight to land.

Since JS (my brother) only had a week in India, things got hectic the day he arrived. On Christmas day, which, as other have pointed out, feels nothing like Christmas if you are not freezing your buns off, we headed to Dharmapuri to visit Puvidham. He, my father, and I stayed the night and into the 26th, and my father taught a botany lesson that morning. After a few hours of nomenclature and sketches of flowers, we had a nice lunch with all the kids at the hostel and were off. Shout out to Raju for driving us back to Bangalore and showing us the scenic shortcut while you were at it!

The real action began the day after we got back from Dharmapuri, when all the aunts, uncles, and cousins from Bangalore piled into a 12-seater minibus and headed off to visit my aunt in Hyderabad. Hyderabad is about 600 kilometres from Bangalore (roughly the distance between Toronto and Montreal), and given the swanky new highway that had just been completed, it was possible to make the journey in just 8 hours.

On the way there, we made a bit of a detour, however. You see, my mother had been born in a small village between Hyderabad and Bangalore named Koilkuntla. I had always wanted to see it, and it sort of held a place of mystery in family lore since my mother always talked about it but on our previous visits to India, forbade us from going there because the sight of village India would, apparently, overwhelm our delicate Western bodies and we would surely fall ill and die.

Well, as I pointed out about a month before they were to land, I had survived being in a village far smaller than Koilkuntla for the better part of four months now, and nothing untoward had happened to me. After some more begging, pleading, and rationalizing, my mother caved, though she still wondered aloud why on earth we would want to go to a place like that.

The road to Koilkuntla is a sizeable detour off of the main road, and involves driving through vast fields of sorghum, chickpeas, and groundnuts, as well as the many small villages, the odd town, and one truly massive cement factory seemingly in the middle of nowhere, sort of attached to the side of a mountain. We measured our progress by our proximity to the nearby town of Owk, which no-one could pronounce without giggling a little (or a lot; my family is very, very easily amused).

Once we got into Koilkuntla, we were immediately greeted by an immense throng of great aunts, great uncles, and more cousins that I knew existed. Since my father is an only child, and I had only met my mother's siblings in my previous trips, I think it is fair to say that in my first five minutes in Koilkuntla, the number of family members that I knew was doubled. We were immediately treated to a massive meal of rice, sambaar, vegetable and chicken curries, sorghum rotis and a sort of sorghum porridge (specially requested by my mother). We ate to our hearts content and thanked our hosts profusely.

Eating that much turned out to have been a mistake, however, because we then embarked on a tour of the houses of all the relatives who were not at the first house (yes, there were more! I now know where all my family is hiding). Everyone offered us tea, coffee, snacks, another meal, all of which we declined. However, Indian hospitality is Indian hospitality, and polite refusals are merely a sign to one's host that they should try harder to persuade you.

The houses were a blur of unfamiliar-yet-familiar faces. One face stands out, that of a great uncle, my grandmother's younger brother, who, from photos I have seen from his youth, was a spitting image of me some 50 years ago. During the visit, I came face-to-face with this great uncle, realized that I was looking at a five-foot-tall version of my 75-year-old self. The experience was jarring to say the least and I have spent the intervening time denying all resemblance to said great uncle and claiming that I was really adopted.

As we passed from place to place, I remember my mother, aunts and uncle being shocked at how much the houses of their childhood had shrunk, both literally and figuratively – most of the houses have passed on to multiple children, who have since divided one small house into two or three smaller ones, putting up walls in the middle and filling in courtyards. The entranceway that my mother once came through on her way home from school now has a wall placed in the middle of it, and a house has been built on the spot where their tamarind tree once stood.

We stayed the night in Koilkuntla in a guest house that was, contrary to my mother's warnings, quite clean and well-kept. We left for Hyderabad the next morning, begging the forgiveness of my aunt there for shortening an already brief visit by our stay in Koilkuntla.

Our stay in Hyderabad was fairly short and relaxed, but fun – we spent time with our youngest cousins and their new, hyperactive puppy (who is shaping up to be quite the guard dog, waking up the entire house at 1 in the morning because my father had stepped out of his bedroom to check his e-mail).

Definitely the highlight of the visit was a drama put on by the three younger cousins called “The Adventurous Sisters and the Murder in Egypt.” Any agents out there should sign these kids right away because they definitely have potential. And, to boot, the play was written and rehearsed in under three days! Once the Adventurous Sisters had cleared the stage, every other member of the family was called upon to do their bit as well. For some people, this was not a challenge: my brother, who is himself a talented actor, did one of the monologues he is giving to theatre schools across the country (break a leg, JS!). My mother and her two younger sisters, who possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Hindi movie songs of the 1950s through 1970s, did an eerily impressive song-on-demand session. My father cheated and sang the lullabies he sang from my brother and me. I impressed the assembled gathering with my complete inability to sing anything, even old lullabies, in tune.

That was the Hyderabad visit. The next day we headed back to Bangalore by the direct route, and I promptly fell asleep when we got back. I awoke the next morning to be informed that it was a new year and that I had missed a terrible party on the apartment's rooftop. The next day, my brother left for Vancouver and my father and I fled Bangalore, which now housed the fearsome Hindi-singing-trio of sisters (kidding, mother and aunties!).

Actually, my father and I wanted to go back to Puvidham to continue the botany lessons that he had started. The folks at Puvidham had indicated that they wanted some more classes for the children, and they also wanted my father to advise them on creating a herbarium which would record all the plants that grow in the reforested area around the school. The next three days were a blur of a lot of us learning about plants and how to classify and collect them. Perhaps because I haven't been doing anything science-y since I got here, I was really keen to learn about all the tricks of the trade, and have been collecting and classifying plants with the kids and teachers here hand over fist ever since. More on that later.

There's not much left to say about the visit – the next day we headed back to Bangalore by train and spent a day together with everyone before my parents headed back home. Then I went back to Puvidham. All in all, a quality vacation! Thanks for coming, parents, and thanks to all the family who made those three weeks possible and awesome!

Oh, one last thing – I couldn't figure out initually what to write for my first blog of the New Year, so I made a few 'resolutions' which were really more like observations but which seemed appropriate given the New Year's mood I was in. So, without further adieu, some thoughts:

1.I think that the ability to spend more time with my Indian family is one of the most positive aspects of my placement here. Before starting placement, I had spent a lifetime total of four weeks in India, during two visits in 1997 and 2005. I've been getting to know them a lot better and they've shown me a lot of things I would not have seen if I had come here, so to speak, on my own. I've always wanted to come to India for a longer period of time, and I am glad that placement has offered me the opportunity to do so. In 2011, I would like to keep spending time with the family, and especially make a return to Koilkuntla, for a longer period this time.

2.Related to #1, I am realizing just how crucial being able to speak the language is here. I've been trying to pick up more and more Tamil and, to a lesser extent, Hindi, but it has been slow going and I feel that I have not made much progress at all in that area. There are some times I feel like I should have gone to a country where I would not be so clueless, language-wise, even though I am really enjoying it here. Anyway, I'm not one for New Years resolutions, but I know that I need to step up my efforts in terms of learning the language, and quick!

Thanks for reading! If you're interested, check out my parents' New Years Greetings, which has their take on the trip, and also the placement map from my previous post, which now includes the route taken on the Koilkuntla-Hyderabad trip!