Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Living a Dream

I have been living a dream.  No, better.  Really, I could not have planned this if I tried.  Clearly, Italy and I have gotten along quite well.

To preface...we've been doing mostly Couch Surfing in Italy.  That's where you contact someone local, through the Couch Surfing website, and they let you sleep on their couch for free instead of using hostels or hotels.  It's made the trip so much livlier and more varied.  They show us sides of the cities that we would'nt have seen and make the experience more authentic. We are never quite sure what the next "couch" is going to be like, which makes the adventure so fun.  Also, my Dad doesn't know (yet) that I'm couch surfing.  We'll tell him when all is said and done. So shhhhhh...don't spill the beans :)

We started our Couch Surfing in Roma with Davide.  The first afternoon we got there, we took the bus/metro downtown to start seeing the Eternal City.  We started at the Coliseum.  It was surreal--right when you step out of the metro station, the Coliseum is right before you, and next to it, the Arch of Constantine.  I forgot how much I love art history.  Well, I knew I did, but seeing these things in person made me love it all the more. We spent the afternoon touring il Coloseo and taking tons of pictures.  We wandered around Rome a bit afterwards, but mostly just headed back to Davide's. When we got back, Davide made some homemade pasta sauce for us, and then we went out for gelato. Not a bad start to our time in Italy...

The next day, we went back into the city center and explored more of all the history and architecture.  It is so crazy to see all these ancient ruins right amidst the city.  Really, you can be walking through the streets, turn a corner, and be surprised by beautiful sculptures or fountains.  We got to hit most of the major sites...the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Forum, the Spanish Steps, etc.  I'm sure we saw more that I'm forgetting--I'll remember when I look back at the pictures.

We went back to more home cooked food (it'll become a theme...) and then Davide took us out to a bar with some of his friends.  That's why we're loving CS'ing, because we get to meet lots of local people and see what life is like outside of the touristy stuff.

We spent the weekend in Rome repeating this pattern--going to the city during the day and then out at night.  I loved Rome.  I loved just walking around the city and stumbling on all the beauty.  One unfortuante thing is that when we went to Vatican City, by the time we got there, the museum was closed.  That means I didn't get to see the Sistine Chapel the Last Judgement, and especially the Peita.  The Pieta is undoubtedly my favorite piece of artwork, so turst me, my disappointment is quite overwhelming.  I guess this means I'll have to be back, and as I did throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, I'm sure it will happen. 

After missing 2 trains...we left Roma for Naples.  When we finally got there Monday night we went to our hostel--we couldn't find a Couch Surfer in time.  We spent about 3 days at the hostel and around Naples.  It was much less exciting to me than Rome, partly because I was kind of sick/exhausted.  But we met some really cool people at the hostel.  One couple from Israel cooked us an Israeli dinner one of the nights and we got to chat with them for awhile.  We are going to try to meet up with them again when we go to Israel at the end of the month.  We also got to go down to Amalfi for a day and quickly realized that wasn't  nearly enough time for Amalfi.  The best part was taking the ferry back to Naples--I definitely need to live near water and have lots of access to boats wherever I decide to live.

After 3 days at the hostel, we found a couch surfing friend and went to spend 2 days there.  It was a completely different experience than our first one.  Walter lived outside of the city and was younger so he still lived with his family.  The first night we stayed at his place, his parents were there too.  They were an adorable Italian family, and even though they didn't speak English, we loved eating dinner with them and trying to converse.  Of course, we ate lots of pizza in Naples, as it is where pizza originated. 

We only spent one more day in Naples, but it was an awesome one--we went for a hike with Walter up on an old volcano near where he lived.  We packed a picnic lunch and hiked for about 5 hours.  It was so nice to get outside in nature after having been in cities for so long.  And staying with Walter was such a relaxing break.  It was much cooler, we all had our own beds, and his mom gave us fresh towels and prepared breakfast for us when we woke up. 

The next stop was Florence, another city that I fell in love with.  We spent 10 days there in total, yet I still need more time to do and see everything.  There is just so much there.  And, unfortunately, we have acclimated to Italian schedules where we wake up at 10, can't get out of the house before 2, eat dinner at 9, and go to bed at about 1:30 a.m.  It makes it much more difficult to do anything productive.

The first couple of nights we stayed with Andrea and Guiseppe, right in the city center.  They lived at the top of the building and had a rooftop terrace that looked right at Duomo.  Really, we were about 2 blocks from it and could've probably thrown a stone to it.  They were a bit crazy and staying with them was interesting to say the least.  We could only stay there for a couple days though, so next we went to stay with a different Andrea and his six other roommates.  It was more like a hostel living with them...it was quite chaotic, but Andrea was a great host.  He let us have his room all to ourselves and they were great at helping us out and giving us rides when we needed, etc. 

I don't know if I can say enough about Florence.  Kristen (a friend who lived here for a semester) gave me a list of things I needed to do, and I probably only got about 1/2 of them done (sorry Krit...) I spent most of the days just wandering around Florence, trying to get lost in the city.  And I would gladly do that for another month if given the chance.  I did get to see the Uffizi gallery, with lots of beautiful artwork, but was unable to climb Duomo or see the real David (again, this was due to us not being productive ever, coupled with Italy's completely illogical hours of operation).  So, Florence also goes on the list of cities I will certainly revisit.

Despite the objections of our hosts, we obviously had to go to Pisa and take the obnoxious "holding up the tower" pictures.  We almost didn't go because the trains were on strike the day we planned to go, but I'm glad we still made it out there.  You really don't need more than an afternoon in Pisa, but it was worth it to go.  The Leaning Tower is such an infamous sight of Italy, so seeing it in person was again, a bit unreal.  The whole complex with the Baptistry and Cathedral in Pisa is quite beauitful as well.  But really, one afternoon is sufficient.

One of the highlights of Florence was doing a tour of wine country.  Its one of the few "guided" things that we have done, and were reluctant.  Truly though, I don't know if it would've been possible to see so much of the countryside or the little towns on our own, without a car. We saw San Gimignano, Siena, and the Chianti countryside, and got to do a wine tasting in Chianti.  I was unfortunately a little disappointed in the wine tasting as they seemed to rush through it and it wasn't very personal, but I'm still glad we did it.  And the Tuscan countryside is as beautiful (if not moreso) than all those dreamy looking pictures. 

One of my favorite parts of the entire Italy experience has been the train rides.  I could sit on a train, reading or listening to music, all day long.  I usually wish that the train rides were longer than what they actually are and I'm sad to see them end too quickly.  Maybe one day I'll just spend a vacation riding trains all over Europe.  And boats of course. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Asia Part 2

So after India, we headed to Thailand to meet up with my Mom and sister.  I wish I could say that all the travels went smoothly, but, well, they didn't.  Let's just say the number of international flights I've missed has now doubled.  My flight left at 1:30.  Now wouldn't you think (without actually thinking about it too much) that that meant 1:30 in the afternoon? Well you, my friend, would be wrong.  As was I.  So we flew into Delhi from Mumbai that morning, thinking that we had a couple of hours to kill at the airport.  But instead they looked at me very confusedly and let me know that I was 10 hours late for my flight.  Long story short, Kingfisher airlines are incredible, and they re-booked me for the flight at 1:30 the NEXT morning, without charge, and so I just had to chill at the airport for 12 hours.  That was quite a miracle.

Those 12 hours in the airport were pretty killer.  As usual, I was going off zero sleep, plus I was totally unprepared to spend the whole day in the terminal.  They actually wouldn't even let me in the terminal for the first couple of hours, so I was just sitting outside of security for a while.  The worst part though, was sitting there alone.  Katy was a responsible adult and did not miss her flight, so she was off to Bangkok without any issues, staying in our hotel (also alone though).  It was such a mix of emotions.  I was stressed and upset about missing the flight, and then by the time I had calmed down, it was just me.  And I was left there thinking about how India, this crazy and life-changing experience, was now over.  It was quite a low.

I made it through though, and eventually connected with Katy at the Bangkok airport (which is more like a runway than an airport...I've never seen so many high-heels in an airport).  Even after less than a day apart, we had so much to catch up on...we weren't used to being apart.  And then, finally, on to Phuket.

Phuket was gorgeous--definitely the vacation time we had been looking forward to.  It was so great to see my Mom and sister too--a little bit of comfort and home.  We managed to pack our time pretty full with Thai massages, jungle treks and elephant rides, a canoe ride, and lots of delicious Thai food.

We also made it down to Singapore for a couple of days.  I was completely surprised by Singapore.  It felt like we were back in the States.  No, maybe nicer than the States.  Again, it was such an extreme to go from India to Singapore.  India is by far the dirtiest place I have ever seen.  Lets just call a spade a spade-India is absolutely covered with trash.  Singapore was spotless.  On the other hand, it was also wildly expensive.  Glad that I did that part of the trip with my Mom, that's for sure. :)

One thing I didn't expect about Thailand and Singapore, is that the shopping there was so great.  And not just the markets--they had tons of enormous malls.  Seven stories tall, and they went on for days.  It was so overwhelming and disappointing that I don't have much room in my suitcase.  When we wanted to go shopping in India, all our Indian friends told us to wait for Thailand and we didn't listen...for shame. My advice if you are planning an Asia trip at all: pack very very light, go to Thailand first, and get all your clothes for traveling there. 

I also got to meet up with another friend from high school (Emma) who is living in Bangkok.  She helped me out and let me stay with her for 2 days while I waited to meet up with Suzanne and Emily.  Emma was such a sweetheart and a great hostess.  It really reminded me that I love being from a small town.  No matter where I am in the world, I still love being from good ol' Chesterland, Ohio.

I did finally get to connect with Suzanne and Emily though, and I'll be traveling with them for most of the rest of the trip! We went from Bangkok up to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.  I must say, Chiang Mai was gorgeous.  And such a friendly, comfortable town.  We found a hostel for about $3/night and it was incredible.  The people there were so nice and really did treat us like family.  They gave us rides when we needed them, and helped us to set up any tours or reservations we needed.  Plus, the town was super cute and we felt completely safe walking around, even by ourselves, even at night.  I spent my birthday in Chiang Mai, and we did a cooking class for the day.  It was a wonderful way to spend it-I love Thai food and I love cooking, and it was a lot of fun learning to make the dishes.  We are hoping to do a cooking class (or learn from a local) in Italy, so maybe when I get back I can throw an international cuisine party? Don't hold me to that though...

So now we are spending one night in Qatar as we had a 20 hour layover and decided not to spend the whole time in the airport.  It's been an unexpected stop, and a quick one, but Qatar is a memorable place.  I lived in Arizona for 6 years, but this is DESERT. Like desolate, nothing redemptive about it. And then this new, modern looking city right in the middle of it.  We also happened to arrive in the middle of Ramadan.  The last thing we heard as we were getting off the plane was "During the holy month of Ramadan, it is illegal to eat, drink, or smoke in public." So even in less than 24 hours, we have had a bit of a culture shock.  We went to the local shopping center here as well, and felt wildly out of place.  Since we didn't get to pick up our luggage, we are stuck wearing what we got on the plane in Bangkok wearing.  That unfortunately means I am walking around a Muslim country, during Ramadan, in shorts.  Super uncomfortable....

We head off to Rome tomorrow to start the European part of the trip.  We'll be mostly in Italy, with hopefully some side trips to Paris and maybe Austria/Germany.  We are also still hoping to get to Israel before we come back Stateside.  After Italy, I'm going to head to Denmark and Scotland to spend a couple days each with 2 of the volunteers that I lived with in India.  That's one of the greatest things I have gained from this trip--meeting tons of endlessly fascinating and wonderful people with whom I hope to stay in contact for many years to come.

One more thing--as we get farther and farther away from India, both in distance and time, I miss it more and more.  I miss traveling with such a large, fun, and diverse group of people.  I miss the family immeasurably.  I miss a lot of the cultural aspects--I still do some of the head nods and hand gestures, and I want to say Shukriya (thank you) or Koi Botany (No problem) to everyone.  I find myself drawn to some of the other Indian tourists that we've seen and I just want to talk with them for awhile. I get excited anytime I see something Indian or that reminds me of India.  I don't think I expected that when I first signed up to go to India....I'm sure I'll write more on this later. India seems to be on my mind quite a bit more these days. 

Mo' Money, Mo' Problems

So I know its been a long time since I've written anything. I am going to try to get a couple posts done and cover a lot of the last 3 or so weeks...starting with the end of India.

It's been about 2 weeks since we left India now.  That's given me a lot of time to gather some thoughts about everything.  There is still a lot more to gather, I'm sure.  But having met and talked to lots of new people since then, the topic of India usually comes up.  And then of course, people ask me how I liked the experience.   Well, that's a very simple question for a more complex answer.

I think the best description I've heard of India, and one that I will probably use to describe my experience to most anyone that asks, is that there is a lot to LOVE about India, and there is a lot to HATE about India.  And that's how it seemed to be with most of my time there...India is a country full of extremes.

One of the most obvious contradictions is seen in the economic breakdown.  I don't know if I have ever seen so much poverty juxtaposed directly next to so much wealth.  I remember when I went to South Africa, and Michelle Tessendorf described the mission house as being on the corner of the first and third worlds.  You would look down one side of the street and it could've been anywhere in suburban America, and you look the other way and see a village, complete with the lean-to shanty houses.  At first, I tried to use this paradigm to see India.  However, in India, the lines between rich and poor are not so neatly drawn.

Living with the family, we really thought we were experiencing "authentic India."  And to an extent, we were.  We would walk part-way to school everyday in the slums, and saw our fair share of naked children and definitely stray dogs.  And the lack of A/C, and sometimes even power or running water made us feel extra tough for sticking through.  And again, we thought that this was Real India.  Tunrs out though, I don't know if there is just one "Real India."

When we started meeting up with friends during the last three weeks of our time, we saw a totally different side of India, and one that I think is just as accurate.  We rode around in luxury cars driven by their drivers, and had meals prepared by their servants. The restaurants we ate at were incredible and we could order pretty much whatever we wanted.  The cover charge to get into the clubs was insane.  It was such a change from life in Faridabad. 

Still though, even in New Delhi or Hyderabad or Bombay, right outside of the beautiful shopping centers, you would still have the beggars.  Or slums within sight of the 5-Star hotels.  There is actually a house in Bombay called Antilia that is referred to as the Billion Dollar house.  It is an actual skyscraper that houses a family of 5.  And like 40 servants.  And I'm sure it has a wonderful view of the expansive slums.  We were about 10 feet away from the son of the owner one of the nights we went out in Bombay.  We went from the lowest end (maybe the THE lowest, but close) of the spectrum, to the highest end, within a couple of days.

That can really mess with you if you let it.  It's hard to reconcile those two together, better yet when they're within sight of each other.  And then when you start to think of how you fit in with all of it, that can just get crazy.

When we were with the family, the topic of money became kind of a sensitive one.  This was probably one of the few souring points about our stay there.  In fact, a couple people had asked me if they could contribute any money to what we were doing, or said that they felt led and wanted to give money to help out.  I never really followed up very well with them (sorry about that...) because I wasn't sure what to say, or even what I thought about it all.  There were numerous times when Gill would ask us to borrow money to cover some expense that was really quite basic and minimal.  But then, at one point, he bought a bunch of new potted plants for the backyard.  That seemed a little unneccessary to us and made us re-think their actual situation. And then, after talking with our more well-off friends, we were even more unsure.  They told us that, given what the family probably makes from volunteers, they should've been more than fine when it came to expenses.  And furthermore, they should've been feeding us better than what they were.  I guess it is kind of normal for people to either over or under-exaggerate their wealth depending on what is most beneficial.  So to them, we were white and very rich, so they would try to play down their status with hopes that we would be more generous.  At first we totally fell for it, but by the end we had caught on and didn't really respond.  Luckily, Madison (a fellow volunteer), lived in India for 2 years and was able to explain this to us and let us know that it wasn't anything personal, that's just what they do here.  Still though, it became an unfortunatley uncomfortable topic that was brought up more often than we would've liked.

On the flip-side, when we would meet up with people in Delhi, we were overwhelmed by what we saw there.  I don't want to go into obnoxious detail, but again, we saw a lot of money thrown around.  So in that situation, we felt like the poor working-class. 

Which is I guess why you can't look to the left or right to compare yourelf to others.  Or why you can't base your on worth on your actual wealth, because its a very fickle measurement. 

Part of our walk through the slums to school

Us walking back from school.  The kids would always walk with us for a while.

Monday, August 1, 2011


So I realized that I didn't ever really write much about teaching in the slum school. Which is weird because it was clearly such a huge part of what we did here in India.

So we didn't originally sign up to teach and had no idea that we would be doing that, up until the kids arrived at the school. But somehow, Katy and I managed to wing it for a good 6 weeks. It was funny to see the other volunteers arrive; most of them had signed up to teach English, so they came much better prepared than we did. They brought paper, pencils, crayons, painting stuff, flashcards, etc. Either way though, Katy and I got to be pretty good with at least keeping the kids entertained for most of the time we were there.

At first, when we were with Telma and Rikke, we would try to split the kids up into an older group and a younger group. Because, in theory, we could have had different lessons for each group. That sometimes worked, but sometimes even if we split them up, we would still teach mostly the same thing to each group. We ended up teaching a lot of different things: vocabulary, geography, grammar, math, some history, some science, etc.

In the end, we're not really sure how much the kids learned. Some days it seemed like we were just telling them to be quiet and write things down the whole day, which none of them did. Not all of them (actually, quite few) spoke English very well. They mostly understood "copy" though, so when we would write words on the board, they would copy them down into their notebook. So at least they now have notebooks full of English vocabulary words.

I think it got so frustrating for a while because the kids who could understand what we were saying already knew most of what we were teaching, and the kids who could've learned something new, didn't understand English. So I eventually took to just talking with the older kids for most of the time. Katy was much better at being a "teacher" than I was. In fact, sometimes I was the one causing problems when I would talk with the kids (surprise surprise, right?). But, for me, I felt like it was just as beneficial to have conversations with them in English as it would have been to teach them geometry shapes. I think the combination worked well together.

So, since Katy and I were with the older kids who could speak more English, we were able to get to know them a little bit better. And being that I am a terrible teacher, I definitely played favorites. One of the first kids that we befriended was Dharmender. My homework the first week was to remember his name. He was maybe 13 or 14 years old and was a very very smart boy. He spoke English well, and was one of the few kids that also went to public school. He was always so well behaved and polite, which helped when everyone else was going crazy.  When we would get to school in the morning, we would go up on the terrace to call the kids to come to school.  You could see his house from the terrace, so we would always call for him and his brother Johnny to come.  Sometimes he would have to go to the market with his mom or something, so he wouldn't be able to join us, but even then he would often come by to say hello. 

This is Akhtar Ali.  Actually, I never remember if the "k" or the "h" comes first in his name, so I usually just switch back and forth whenever I feel like it.  He was one of our other favorites also.  At first, it seemed like he was going to be a troublemaker.  And sometimes he was, but we befriended him and got him on our side instead of him always causing problems.  We also gave that advice to the new volunteers, because when you first meet him, it really seems like he'll be difficult.  It was so worth it to put in a little extra effort to be friends with him though.  He also spoke English very very well and was very smart.  Again, this was because he could afford to go to public school as well.  So he would help us translate a lot of things. Also, because he was so loud and liked to yell a lot, he would help us to keep the other kids in line--as long as it wasn't him that was causing the problem.  Towards the end, he actually ended up just teaching for us sometimes.  And those were probably osme of the most useful lessons for the younger kids.  They actually paid attention and wrote down what they were supposed to. 

Ahktar Ali lived around the corner from the slum school.  So, apart from going on the terrace every morning to call kids to school, it also became part of Katy and my routine to go over to Akhtar Ali's house to get him for school.  His house was obviously very basic, but it was more comfortable than I would've expected.  They had a well/water pump when you first walked in, where they would get their water everyday.  I still think how different that is compared to the life of convenience that I have always known.  Ahktar's family did have a computer though, which he was usually on when we would come over.  He showed up pictures of all of his family.  He is one of 6 kids; he has 5 brothers and 1 sister.  His brother's names are : Ameen Ali, Samin Ali, Assin Ali, and Aman Ali.  It took me so long to remember all of those and keep them straight.  Either way, going over to his house and talking to Ahktar Ali before and after school was one of my favorite things.  We also met his mom, and they were always so welcoming and happy to have us over.  I think that is part of the reason we ended up feeling so close to Ahktar.  On our last day, Katy and I bought notebooks for Ahktar and Dharmender, and wrote notes in them so they would remember us.  We both told them that they were very very smart and that we really hoped and believed that they could achieve a lot and encouraged them to do so.

Johnny, Dharmender's brother also came most days. He didn't know as much English as Dharmender, but we were still able to talk to him  a lot.  He had one of the prettiest smiles I have probably ever seen.  He also had 2 thumbs on one hand.  When I would thumb-wrestle him, we would joke that I would feel extra accomplished because I would beat both of his thumbs.  I promise, it wasn't as mean as that sounds: Johnny was okay with it.

There were obviously a lot of other kids there too, but we weren't always great at remembering everyone's name.  Not all of them came everyday; some days we would have 30 kids, some days we would have 5.  One of the girls that came often, Annu, was gorgeous.  She had such a beautiful face and was such a sweetheart.  Unfortunately, she didn't speak English very well, but we still hung out with her a lot.  Her best friend, Subnum, was also very sweet.  She spoke English much better, so she helped Annu.

 Ramu (right-->) was one of the younger boys that would come.  He and his little brother, Babu, looked like Buddhist monks.  They were so small and would wear these tiny little shorts every day.  Ramu and Babu were some of Rikke's favorites.  Which was good, because Katy and I got annoyed with him pretty quickly.  He didn't speak English that well, but he did understand when we would tell him to copy something down that we were writing.  He usually didn't listen to us though, and would get up and wander around, or try to find chalk to write on one of the blackboards, etc.  So even though he was a cute kid, he got very irritating.  So again, its a good thing Rikke liked him. :)

All in all, teaching in the slum school was suprising in many ways.  Looking back, Katy and I just laugh that we were able to make it through 6 weeks of teaching, without ever really having any lesson plans or strategies.  And when new volunteers would arrive, they would somehow think that we knew what we were doing, and they'd listen to us. We had everyone fooled.  But really, we came in to a totally unexpected situation and ended up doing pretty well with  it.  We also really enjoyed it most of the time.  There were a lot of days when I didn't feel like going to school, but I always would end up going because I liked seeing the kids.  Not to be obnoxiously corny or cliche, but even though we're not sure how much they learned from us, we definitely learned a lot by teaching them. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

New [Delhi]

This past weekend Katy and I again got away to New Delhi. We had a great, and somewhat relaxing weekend and got to meet up with some of Katy's friends from MSU. They were all super sweet and took great care of us. One of the weirder things that happened was when I was telling them that I went to ASU. One of them said "Oh I have a friend that went to ASU." Now, I've heard this line before. ASU is the largest university (depending on the year) in the States, so it's pretty useless to ask for names. Plus, he was talking about one of his friends in India, a country with over a billion people. But then he goes, his name is Sharan Vallaru." I almost died. For those of you that don't know, Sharan is one of like the 4 Indian people that I know. So, halfway around the world, in the second most populated country, I realized what a small world it really is sometimes. I'm still in shock that we knew the same person.

When we got back on Sunday, we were supposed to leave the Gill's house to go to our new host family. We got back too late Sunday night though, and Katy and I still had to pack, so we instead decided to leave in the morning. I was a little bit glad, because that gave me at least a little more time to see/say goodbye to the boys. And when we got home, Ely and Simon were already asleep. So Mowgli and I went in and sat on the bed with Ely and just hung out. Sharlini came in and sat with us for a minute; she also picked Ely up and put him in my lap while he was sleeping. We tried to wake him up to say hi, but that kid doesn't wake up for anything. William was literally hitting him, and Sharlini had sat him straight up, and he still kept right on sleeping. He eventually did wake up just a little bit, enough to know that I was home and he was laying on my lap, and he managed to give a small little smile. It was so good to just sit there with the family and talk for a minute, with Ely in my lap and Mowgli making me laugh. I was trying to soak up everything I could while I was still there. Saying goodnight to them was tough, since I knew that I wouldn't get to do that again.

In the morning, I woke up early so I could see the boys before they went to school, because we would be gone before they got home. Again, Sharlini got Ely and put him in my lap as he was waking up so I just got to hug him for a minute. And he is such a little sook, especially in the mornings. When they finally got up, the boys got letters that they had written for me. Actually, Mowgli had given me his the night before, but not Ely or Simon. All the letters pretty much said the same thing-I think Velma had written most of them for the boys. But the boys had written my name on them and drew pictures, and then they wrapped them up in envelopes/wrapping paper and tied them with ribbons so they looked like little presents. My favorite was Simon's. He had been playing the "I'm too cool" card for a couple of days, which, because of all his swagger, he obviously pulls off very well. So when he came up to give me his letter, he was kind of sheepish about it. He had also put my and his name in a little heart. I don't think he really knows what that means, other than "I.P.R.U."

Saying goodbye was so hard, even though it had been dragged out for a couple of days, including being away in Delhi. Still hard though, maybe because it almost seemed normal and non-eventful. I just watched them walk down the street, off to school. Ely was turned around and waving the whole way. I tried to get a cute/artistic picture of it, but my photography skills don't really do justice to most of what I've seen.

So then I just went back upstairs and had to finish packing, which sucks almost as much. Our tuk-tuk got there about an hour early, and was dropping off some new volunteers, so we had to hurry it up a little bit. Saying goodbye to Sharlini, Velma, and Gil was also hard, especially when Katy then started crying too. We were kind of a mess. Indians don't show much emotion, so they just kept saying "No it's okay, don't cry."

So now we're at our new placement. The house is a little nicer. After 6 weeks though, we aren't too picky so its not too big of a deal. We have a "cooler" at night, which is kind of like a window unit A/C, but not as strong. No complaints though, I got a very good night of sleep last night.

This family is the one who is supposed to host the medical volunteers. One of the girls here has been here (in India) almost as long as Katy and I, and has been doing the medical volunteering the whole time. So we're a little annoyed and confused as to why it took us 6 weeks to finally get to do anything medical. But other than the frustration of it all, we have no complaints about working in the slum school.

So the first night (last night), we went to the Ultrasound clinic to observe. It was all mostly standard stuff. However, for pregnant women, the doctors aren't allowed to reveal the gender of the baby-it's against the law. This is because too many people would get abortions on girl babies. Such a sad reality. We also saw a 15 year old girl who was pregnant. She came in with her mother and grandmother. When the ultrasound image came on the screen, the grandmother just squatted down on the floor and was wailing and crying. Then she started begging the doctor about something. She was literally at the doctor's feet, pleading with her. We imagine it had to do with help as to what to do, or about getting an abortion or something. Then the grandmother, mother, and doctor all proceed to scold the girl. And slap her in the face. It was all in Hindi, so we don't completely know what they said, but we did hear the words "jail" and "future." The doctor started to tell us the story; I think the girl had been living with a relative away from home when she got into this situation. The 15 year old didn't say anything and was just kind of staring, mostly downward. I would love to know more about the situation. Like how this will affect her and her family, what their standing in society/the caste system has to do with any of it, and about a dozen other questions. Unfortunately, the stream of patients was absolutely non-stop, so we never got a chance to ask the doctor more information.

Today we went out with the "Ambulance" service. It is a medical unit that goes around to different sites in the villages or nearby temples to offer medical care to elderly patients. We got to play pharmacist, and helped to divvy up drugs into packs of 7 for a weekly supply. We also learned how to take blood pressure and got to do that on the patients. We were there for most of the day, and it was one of our more productive feeling days. We'll be doing that again tomorrow, and then hopefully going to the hospital for Thursday and Friday.

Katy and I are planning to end our volunteering a week early because we realized that there is still a lot more we want to see. So we'll be going back to Delhi for the weekend, and then flying around the country from there. Right now, we are planning for Mumbai, Goa, and Hyderabad. We might go up North near the Himalays and see Leh if we have time also. We'll see--in India its kind of useless to make plans too far in advance.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Highs and Lows

I know it has been awhile since I have updated.

We are still here at the Gill family's house. I thought we were leaving on Saturday, so I didn't go to the internet much last week because I preferred to stay home and hang out with the family. But now I suppose I have to write some more.

These past couple of weeks have definitely had their shares of highs and lows. I'll start with the lows and end on a high note, okay?

Telma and Rikke are both gone now. It was kind of weird and surreal once they left. We were only with them for 3 and 4 weeks, respectively, but we still all got pretty close. I guess when you are thrown into such an unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable situation, you tend to bond more quickly. I will most likely be seeing Rikke again at the end of my travels, when I'm in Europe, so that's at least something to look forward to. We have gotten some new volunteers since then: Stephanie is from Scotland, Lawrence and Madison are from Vancouver. We had 2 others, Anne from the States and Indiana from France, but they didn’t last long and it turned out to be kind of an unfortunate story, one for another day.

We have had a couple small problems with things here, and they have all been made worse by poor communication.  It seems that every time we have even a minor problem or question, it turns into "Why are you not happy here?" For example, when Katy and I would ask about working at a hospital, like we had originally signed up to do, they would think we were asking because we didn't like the family or the school or something. It's very hard to have them understand that we just wanted to work in a medical setting for a little bit, even though we have been very happy and had a lot of fun with the slum school and our family thus far.

There were also a few somewhat unsettling incidents that we've seen.  I hesitated to write about them because I don't want to make anyone look bad or cause concern. But, in reality, they were some of the more impactful moments for us, so I think it's only fair that I share. I had mentioned before that while we were in Delhi (or when we go to the market or the mall) Velma was on her phone the entire time. She never seems to be on it at home, unless her parents are not around. Clearly, this is because she is not supposed to be on the phone. We figured her parents knew that she used it, but just not as much as she did. Turns out though, they don't like her using the phone. Last week (or 2 weeks ago maybe?) Katy, Velma, and I were sitting in our room. I was laying on the bed, and Velma was sitting on the corner near my head. Sharlini came in and started yelling at her. She would leave and come back and yell again, and she did this a couple of times. Then she started smacking Velma. Again, she would leave and came back about 3 or 4 times and would yell and smack Velma. We had seen her smack the boys once or twice, but those are usually almost playful, like if they wear their shoes in the house. These were not playful smacks though. And Katy and I had no idea how to respond. Sharlini had to actually reach over me to smack her. We couldn't really get up and leave, nor did we know if we should. Afterwards, Katy, Rikke, and I talked for a little bit about the whole incident, and how it was very uncomfortable, but it could've been worse. I understand that physical punishment is normal here; even in the States, spanking or hitting is not uncommon. To literally be right in the middle of it though, and to not understand what they were yelling about, was kind of scary. So we thought all was said and done, and the rest of the afternoon seemed to pass quite normally. Gill was out somewhere for most of the evening, and towards bedtime, Sharlini came over asked me if we could go to bed early. Her English is not great, so Simon, our 11 year old brother, had to come over and translate that she wanted us to go to bed early so that Gill could hit Velma when he got home. I was at a total loss. I kind of made up some excuses about how I would have to shower still, etc., because I didn't know what to say. I went in and told Rikke and Katy what Sharlini had asked. We were really confused and unsure what to do. On top of that, Velma had asked us to stay up, knowing that if we did she would be okay. The social worker in me wanted so badly to intervene, but the difference in cultures made that impossible. So we decided to keep our lights on and our doors cracked for a while, later than usual. We obviously didn't want to get in the middle of their family issues, but we also didn't want to witness any of it. For whatever reason, whether it was our stealthy little plan, or something else, when Gill got home, he just went to bed. Thankfully, we haven't heard anything else about the situation since.

The next day we were again reflecting on the whole thing. I think we were more scared than Velma had been.  She was clearly not that affected by it, as she got a new phone within a day or two.  Apparently, her parents think that the phone that she is always carrying around belongs to one of the volunteers.  We don't know how she plans to keep the ruse up, but that is not for us to have to worry about.  And really, I know that physical punishment is quite normal here. I don't think that Sharlini or Gill are very harsh at all.  And I think we were so scared that evening because we really didn't know what to expect.  I didn't grow up with physical punishment, so it always unnerves me.  Even when we were at they boys' school and Simon had to go to the director's office to get slapped for fighting, I was nervous for him.  He thought it was kind of funny though.

The other not so fun thing was me getting sick.  I am very grateful that I have not been sick very much, but when I did I was miserable.  I woke up with a fever and flu symptoms.  And there wasn't much to do to feel better.  Luckily, the power didn't go out at all, so I was able to stay pretty comfortable.  I did spend all day in bed though.  And given that our beds are more akin to tables (no mattresses, just a board), I was pretty sick of lying there after a couple hours.  The worst part was trying to communicate to everyone in the family that I did not want any food or drinks other than water.  I was already having trouble keeping that down.  Sharlini came in one time and asked if I wanted anything...here's the gist of the conversation:
Sharlini: Lunch?
Me: No, no food.
Sharlini: Chappatti?
Me: No, I can't eat.
Sharlini: Tea?
Me: No no, just water.
Sharlini: Whiskey?
Me: No really, only water

A couple mintues later she showed up with milk tea for me to drink. They don't take well to us not eating, even if we are quite sick.  But I am thankfully over that now and hopefully it won't come back.

Other than that though, life is still great.  We go up on the terrace almost every night with the boys to fly kites.  They are so fun to watch with their kites.  I have learned that I am not so great at flying kites, but they are pretty good.  Kites are a big thing here; you can look up almost anytime during the day and see at least a handful of kites.  In the evening they're everywhere.  Gill said that I need to come back for India's independence day in August because the sky is filled with kites.  I love being up on the terrace and watching my brothers though.  Their faces are filled with joy when they're trying to get their kites higher and higher.  Even if the wind is bad and they aren't very successful, they still have fun trying.  One time, the string on one of the neighbor's kites broke, so the kite was falling back down and he had to chase after it.  Simon and Mowgli took off to go chase it as well.  It felt so Indian to me, watching them run across the terrace and hop over every little wall to follow the kite.  I think that's why I love being on the terrace so much: it's so authentically Indian, and such a multi-sensory experience.  Looking around, its just terraces and kites and pollution as far as you can see; you constantly hear kids playing and horns honking, and the occasional Muslim call to prayer; you're still sweaty and sticky and covered with dirt, but there is a nice breeze which makes it almost comfortable; and of course there are always the random and usually unpleasant smells. I know it doesn't sound all that great, but I think you have to actually experience it to appreciate it.

We got to take the boys to the mall on Wednesday.  We never get to do anything with just them, so we all loved it very much.  William was able to help us get the tuk-tuks because otherwise we are pretty incapable of getting anywhere on our own.  We treated them to Domino’s pizza and then ice-cream from McDonald’s.  And of course the mandatory trip to the toy store.  It was so fun to hang out with just them.  And they all dressed in their Sunday best for us too. They all were wearing jeans (Simon had to roll his up because he was wearing William’s jeans) and collared shirts.  Simon even wore socks and shoes! They looked adorable. It was funny to see what they looked like outside of the house too.  William was much more quiet and reserved.  He’s very crazy and playful at home, but when we were out, he definitely played the mature, responsible role.  We have always seen the boys as quite fearless-they climb and jump on everything.  Simon was so uneasy taking the escalator though! It was almost like the scene from Elf-it took him a long time to finally step on it.  By the end of the day, he had gotten better and was pretty natural with it.  They were all excited to have chicken on their pizza and we were excited to have something familiar and not spicy.  Of course the boys put the crushed red pepper on their pizza. And a lot of it. They would put an entire packet of crushed red pepper on each slice.  Indians do like their spicy food!

Also, the monsoons have started a little bit, so it’s cooled off just a little.  It’s my favorite time when it rains though.  I really think these boys are like my kindred spirits.  The second it starts raining they start yelling “Carly, terrace! Park!”  They love to play in the rain. Rain is one of my favorite things and I love playing in it, but I never actually get to. So to have 4 people to run around with in the rain is heaven for me.  The other day when I was sick, it started raining.  I heard the boys calling to go play on the terrace, but Stephanie (our new volunteer friend) said she forbid me from going to play in it.  Which is good because otherwise I might have gone.

One more thing is that now the boys have started school again.  So now we go in the mornings to their school to help teach and then we go slumside in the afternoon. Even though the boys go to a real school, it’s still not a great education.  We are helping to teach because there aren’t enough teachers there.  When we got there, William and Simon’s class (they’re in the same class, and Mowgli and Ely are together also) didn’t have a teacher.  Actually, there are about 10 or 12 classrooms and only about 4 or 5 teachers.  So we started teaching.  It is much easier to teach them than at the slum school.  They have actual textbooks that we can use and the kids pay more attention than in slumside.  One of my favorite moments was when Stephanie (our Scottish volunteer) had Ely and Mowgli’s class write sentences such as “My name is ______.  I have ______ hair. Etc” One of the sentences was “My friend is _______.”  Both Mowgli and Ely wrote “My friend is Carly.”  They sure do know how to get me.

So now we’ve been told that we will switch placements at the end of this week, when the other family near the hospital has an opening.  I already thought we were leaving once before and so I’ve already started crying about it.  It will be so hard.  I’ve definitely had mission trips or other experiences where I’ve gotten attached to people, like Danielito and Alex in Mexico or Olebogeng, Tumi, and Karabo in SA.  But I only got to see them for a couple hours a day for about a week.  I’ve been living here for what will be 6 whole weeks.  Every morning I get to see them and I get to say goodnight to them every night.  They bring me fresh picked flowers almost every day and share all their cookies with me.  I’ve played so many different games and “fought” with them for hours.  They’ve spoiled me with attention and impressed me by how smart and brave they are.  Velma, Sharlini, and Gill take such good care of us and are always ready to help us with whatever we need. In short, life has been so so good. There are times when I get homesick, but I think once I leave here I will be just as homesick for Faridabad. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Birthday Parties and Child Labor

We had our birthday party for Velma last night!! Yesterday seemed extra hot, and I had gotten sick earlier in the day, so none of us felt very much like partying.  But we rinsed off and tried to make ourselves look as presentable as constant perspiration will allow, and partied on.  We got chicken again for dinner, it's only the 2nd time we've had meat here.  Gill actually took a video of our chickens getting killed and cleaned earlier that day.  He used Telma's camera, and when he brought it back there were actually blood splatters on the lens. Authentic.

There was so much going on, and so many people in a very small space, it was almost overwhelming.  I think most of the people who came over were cousins or neighbors...we had seen most of them before.  Still though, they all kept asking to take pictures with us. That gets exhausting; maybe the celebrity life isn't for me afterall. Velma said that she enjoyed it very much though.

We didn't go to the school today, I'm not completely sure why.  It did give us a chance to get some things done though.  I'm getting better at hand-washing everytime I do laundry.  That's also because Sharlini and the boys keep showing me the best ways to wash things.  Mowgli and Ely were like my little quality control monitors today while I did laundry.  They also loved to help out, and kept switching out my water buckets for clean water.  Eventually they just wanted to do the actual scrubbing for me, and I happily obliged.  Doing laundry outside is one of the more exhausting and sweaty things I have maybe ever done. It's at least tied with Bikram.  So to have them do my work for me was wonderful.  I told them I would buy them Pepsi's or Mango Fruitees later, which made them super happy too.

Speaking of which, Katy and I have discovered that our brothers are quite easily persuaded (read: bribed) into helping us out.  Whether it is giving us back massages, running errands for us, or finding our lost rings, they are eager to help.  And we usually don't have to even offer incentives but we still do.  It's making me think twice about child labor...just kidding. But I do love the ingenuity and creativity that they have.  We learned a phrase in Jaipur that the only thing not possible in India is nothing.  Indians are very inventive at finding solutions or fixing things.  It's fun to watch, especially in 7, 9, 11, and 12 year olds.

I only wish they could fix the power-outtages.  Those are the worst...they happen at least once a day still. When the power is out, we don't want to do anything but lay there.  And we still sweat doing that.  Even if we are getting used to it, it is still miserable.  I think the worst times are when it goes out at night and you wake up because it's just too hot.   
I think we are going to end up working at the hospital for about 2 weeks, for the last 2 weeks of July.  Kind of a long story but our volunteer agency emailed us asking how our hosptial placement was going and we pretty much let them know that we weren't doing anything of the sort.  We said we loved where we were living and were very happy, but if it was possible to do any hospital work that would be good too.  So they found us another placement, like another family, but now we don't want to leave our family yet.  So we settled on the final 2 weeks, so that we can still get some of that in at least.  Apparently this new house we'll be moving to has A/C and wireless internet, which will be glorious.  I'm willing to sweat for a couple more weeks though to hang out with our family.