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.