Thursday, December 31, 2009

Be the Change!

Last day of the year. Last day at the ashram in Rishikesh. I feel this bring about the first leg of my return HOME! I leave at 4 AM by taxi to Haridwar, then the train to Delhi and in the evening return to Indore where the mad rush of packing my last 5 months in India into two suitcases.
Today was a good day. I started out the day assisting a lecture given by a guru at the ashram where the Beatles stayed so, so long ago. Something Swami Dharmanandaji said helped me solve a little of the "Indian Code" that has been puzzling me so much. Don Miguel Ruiz in "The Four Agreements" says in his first agreement "Be impeccable with your word." For a people that is so deeply religious, I could not understand how can Indians be so casual with their words. Many instances where they say one thing and next thing you know they do something totally different. And they never give you the impression of being sorry or ashamed of going back on their agreement with you. Well, the guru said, in India, feeling of guilt does not exist which would then explain why they can change their word on you without feeling any sense of remorse. When I got back home I intended to write some choice words to the management of the hotel where we stayed Laurence, Kahlil and I a couple of weeks ago, for going back on their words without any excuse to us. I realize now, I can save my time! It won't change anything.
After the lecture, I walked over again to Lucksman Jhula for coffee, met a couple of Italians who are also staying at the same ashram and we had a nice discussion on this idea of guilt that we catholics know so well how to harbor!! Can we find a balance?! That would be the ideal!
Tonight at the aarti, Swamiji, the Guru at the Ashram where I've been staying, for the first time during his homily, said a few words in English! Joy, I could finally understand what he was saying! I am paraphrasing here but basically he said, as you are leaving the Ganga, remember to observe yourself first, don't look at others and what they are doing. Talking of the New Year, he said "Be the Change" and don't look at others. These words went straight to my heart, and I thought that would be a great focus for the New Decade!! Now, a day or so ago, a friend on FaceBook was talking about New Year's Resolution and suggested that we should write it down, not just talk about it. So here and now, Telio, I am writing down MY New Year's resolution "Be the Change". This is not going to be just part of my email signature, but also part of my being. In small ways or big. Whatever comes. No looking at what the other is doing. Just what can I do to make this world a better place for me and those around me. Sometimes it will be hard Sometimes I will falter. I will remember then to not beat myself to the ground, but try as best I can to make amends and pick up from there.
OK, more to tell, but it is late and I am freezing!!
There are just three hours left of 2009! It was a good one. It brought me to India where I learned a lot and grew for the better, I think. Mildred said of 2010 "Son equilibre mathematique a comme une promesse." Isn't that beautifully said?! So, wishing all of you a beautiful 2010!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

One starfish at a time

At a cafe in Lakshman Jhula, a stone throw away from Rishikesh, where I spent Christmas eve, a group of four young rich, hippy looking Americans just had latte, carrot cake, spinach and corn sandwich, fruit and nut cookies, brownies, mineral water. Why the list of what they ate?... to show they have not only cheese on their bread but also ham (figuratively this one of course, in the Abode of Gods!) As I sit inside having my double espresso (heaven, folks!... still not Bustello! and certainly not a Pantal's cup!) and carrot cake I watch them leave. Outside the door is an old beggar woman so emaciated, you could see through her. She touches their elbows, as they pass, her hand outstretched asking for a few rupees. One of them brush her away, the others walk by not even seeing her. And it strikes me. I do it too. Most of us do it. What motivates us to pass by this immense poverty without any emotion, pity, sadness, disgust, outrage, anger... whatever... something. How can we turn away so readily? How can we not see it? Are we pretending? Do we feel it is not our problem? Do we feel too powerless? So it's been, so it will always be. Whoa! A very well-off Indian I met with whom I was discussing this issue told me, "Don't worry about it, Isabelle. India has plenty food to feed its people." Is that so? I've seen food lines in Rishikesh. But also I see hundreds of people lining up the streets asking for a few rupees of passer-bys.
It is overwhelming here. I feel a weight on my shoulders that is overbearing. There is no putting it down. My favorite quote which I am very hard trying to make my motto "Be the change". What can I do to make a change in this world? Not have that second cup of coffee? What will that accomplish? Give the 30 Rs. or so to the old woman? And then?... Remember the "forward" (I am sure most of you received!) about an old man on a beach with thousands of starfish (or was it turtles?) that were stranded on the sand and he was throwing them back in the ocean one at a time. A passerby asked him what difference what he was doing made with so many to save. He wisely replied as he threw one starfish back in the water "It makes a difference to this one!" The deal here is, you give this one old lady 10 Rs. and you are soon surrounded by 10 outstretched hands! See, here I go already finding excuses!... One outstretched hand at a time, Isabelle!
Eight more days in India, then back in Miami in my pretty pink house with the well manicured lawn in the nice neighborhood where no old lady with an outstretched hand will come in my path. But in my mind's eyes she'll always be there. Because she is not only here in India, she is in Haiti certainly, in Paris (remember, Mildred, the lady in the train the day I arrived last January?) and of course in Miami too, somewhere I'll find her.

This earth has to find a way to feed its people decently. H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, the Guru at this ashram says the solution to poverty is for the whole world to become vegetarian (you hear that, Kap?!) He suggested at the next summit they serve all veg meals!! I think his take is that there is room everywhere to grow all the foods we might need to feed everyone, and as vegetarians we will be in better harmony with each other! Nice idea (and I crassly add, "after my fillet mignon when I get back home!!)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My traveling companion

So, Kahlil is gone back home. I miss him. I miss him. But when I tell you this trip to Rishikesh was a divine intervention... Not only for me but for him too! There isn't a meal that passes by that I don't thank God he isn't with me. You see, we weren't in Indore a week that Kahlil had discovered ALL the non-veg restaurants in town! He had a slew of rickshaw drivers at his beck and call to take him to this or that restaurant. For those of you wondering why would I be so glad he is not here with me, well, for the very simple fact that there is not ONE single place in the state of Uttarakhand, or the Abode of Gods as it is also called, can one find ANY non-veg place to eat! I don't even think they understand the concept! So Kahlil would have had a little problem! His request to Sole and Taro and Antoine was to have a bucket of chicken wings from "Sports Grill" upon his arrival at the airport!

OK, so in the gastronomy department Kahlil would have been rather unhappy. Otherwise, he would have loved it! I have to divert my eyes to all advertisements for white water rafting I pass by. Now that I am a pro at back motorbike riding (I am sure there is no such term, but you get the picture, right?!!) we would have rented a bike for the whole 10 days! (A 100 Rs. a day, folks! that's about $22 for the duration !-)
How was it with Kap for the 4 months here with me? He was the PERFECT companion! A couple of days before he left we were making a bilan of our time here and decided it had been a 97%! For the sake of decency I won't discuss the 3% that wasn't good and it was a trivial point. I feel myself blessed in this son of mine. Even our disagreements were good because they taught me faces of him that are not bad just different from mine. Kahlil had just enough independence that I didn't feel his weight at all. He did his things, I did mine. When we were to be together it was most of the times joyful (except some of the school activities that we had to attend, and even then he gave most of the times most gracefully, and shopping, that a little less gracefully!) Nothing was a problem for Kahlil. Going to the bank to get money for us, get dinner at Wady, dental floss at Treasure Island... no problem! Just jump in his pants, make a call to his auto buddies and off he goes. Eggs and chips across the street at night for dinner, no problem! A last minute trip to Daddy's Kitchen, no problem!

We had great talks. He never complained, nor wanted more than what he had. I loved the way he loved his volunteer job at the Barli Institute. He loved the workers. He spoke fondly of them. We had great laughs together. The second look that we got in the streets was a source of myrth for us! We loved trying to decide which one of us had provoked it, him or I. We kept each other sane when the realities of India were too overwhelming. We were HOME for each other. I have one hope, that he lost some of his shyness in this trip. And I think he did. And I have one regret! He came to India an occasional smoker and found cigarettes so cheap here he left a much heavier smoker! Ha! Ha! You knew I wouldn't miss this one, Kap!!
I love you and I am grateful for you!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Another First

In 28 years of marriage with Pantal, this is the first Christmas we are apart! ...and I tell you it is not a good first! It is not that it was horrible, but it was not Christmas! I have to reiterate again and again, it was a divine inspiration for me to do something so totally out of my normal life, coming here to this ashram. I really just went the whole day never allowing myself to think it was Christmas. Some people wished me a Merry Christmas, I just pretended they were saying "Have a nice day" or something trivial like this. I can not imagine the soldiers onerseas who are so far away from their loved ones in horrible circumstances. I have a new respect for them. For me, I can say 13 days over and over again and know it will be over soon. How do they do it?... Mr. President, bring our troops HOME!
OK, loved one, let's not do this again!

A Christmas not like any other!

My Christmas Eve this year was spent with a group of strangers. It was one beautiful experience. But a side story first! While waiting for the film to start I went down to a cafe on the first floor to have a coffee. A couple is sitting at the table next to mine. The young woman says hello and tells me she was in my yoga class in the morning. Immediately I recognized her! The "Perfect Headstand", I exclaimed! I tell you folks, she could put the lady at the beach in Auroville to shame any day of the week and twice on Sunday (I love that expression! Who said that?... in a movie, romantic, male...?! It will come back!) She came out of that headstand in the most perfect child pose! She was next to me in class and as I can only do "foot stand" ;-( I had plenty of time to watch her elegantly execute her headstand. I remember thinking very foolishly at the time "I will do this one day." I didn't tell her this of course, lest she thinks me a complete lunatic after my performance in class that morning!! Well, she was kind enough to be encouraging and tell me that she was doing yoga two years before she was able to do a headstand. To be so kind, she deserves to do it so well!

So, revenons a nos moutons! So a group of young people who have a yoga school in the town next to mine, decided to have a Christmas celebration of sort by showing a movie called "How Jesus became Christ", offering some chai and cookies, and a sort of meditation called "spiral meditation". To get to Lakshman Jhula, I had to get a taxi called a "jeep" for 5 Rs. I was told. I ended up paying 20 because what I did not understand was that the jeep has to be full with 10 passengers for each one to pay 5 Rs.! Only in India! (Well, maybe not!) It was only a 3 minute drive from Rishikesh. (So tomorrow morning I am actually going to go back to have a cup of REAL coffee at the Indian version of Starbucks, that I saw!)

First we watch the movie. Very interesting film made by an Irish priest, named Miceal Ledwith. He was a professor of Systematic Theology for sixteen years, and the president of Maynooth College in Ireland for ten years. Just what I needed, another one out there trying to answer the big question about Christ and the universe and our role in it. The portion of his research that we viewed had to do with the years in Christ' life between 12 and 30. Very interesting the comparisons he makes between Christ teachings and all the other Masters, Buddha, Krishna... He makes some interesting point and I would recommend watching the movie anyone interested.

After the movie, we had a chai and cookie break then came the meditation. We were 24 total. Everyone was arranged in a spiral in order of the sign of the Zodiac, and holding hands of the persons next to you, we were asked to close our eyes and visualize a picture of Jesus in our mind and with the most soothing and powerful music ever, we stayed like that for what must have been 20 or 30 minutes! Can you imagine standing without any movement eyes closed for 20 minutes? Well we all did it without realizing the time pass. It was really incredible. The image I had the whole time was one of a Puppet of Jesus in a show Sole and Kahlil used to do at Saint John Neuman "Let the Children come"! And I swear to you everyone, the kids were right there with me in that room. In the beginning I had tears running down my face like Peligre (long long ago when there was water there!) and then I just felt great and sort of enjoyed their "presence".
After the meditation, We just sat in a circle and introduce ourselves. That's when I found out eight of us were celebrating Christmas for the first time in their lives! We discussed the movie for a while. One young man had his doubt about miracles. I pointed out to him that just the fact that this weird group of people gathered here on Christmas Eve was a small miracle in itself, it doesn't have to be a walk on water for it to be a miracle. I told everyone the story of the prayer I found on Meli's FaceBook page that she had posted on August 4th, the day of Evna's birthday. That was a miracle.

Then we had a gift exchange. On the announcement posted on the walls they had asked everyone to bring a small gift to exchange. I received a marble cut owl which is a symbol of wisdom! Nice, ne?! There was an American newlywed couple on their honeymoon in India. We were the three from America. The woman had left for a minute as we were picking numbers for the exchange. "Santa" said he would pick a number for her. As he was going to, someone said "wait, here she comes". He puts the number back in his hat and she picks her own number. She ended up getting the present her husband had brought! Now how is that for a "coincidence"!
The evening ended with lots of laughter and hugs.
...well, not quite for me! But I have to go. The aarti is starting. I hear the music.
Will tell the story of how I got home in the morning. (I'll tell the story in the morning, I didn't get home in the morning!!!)


In a country where gods come by the lacks, I find myself often questioning my relationship with God (Thank God we only have ONE to contend with!!!)! The other day at a temple in Mumbai, as I watch some women praying and going through all the rituals they have here, somehow I couldn't bring myself to join them. Not just because I didn't know the proper gestures, but because my relationship with God is a strange one. One, I feel totally and completely grateful and thankful for everything I know and everything I have. And I always send prayers of gratitude to Him. On the other hand, I don't feel I have the right to ask Him for anything. Just then, as I watched these women, I felt deep inside of me that if I asked in prayers to God, to make my knees stronger and more flexible, it would happen. But something stopped me. I felt also very seriously that if I wanted that I had to do it, through diet, through yoga... it is for ME to do it alone. It's as if God is not interested in helping me with my issues. This is a very simple example that I gave here, but this is how I feel about every problem I face. Is it over confidence in what I can do... but then why the gratitude?... or is it a feeling that I am not worth His Almighty's help?
I tell you, in a place where gods come by the lacks, my relationship with my ONE God has been a source of great questioning for me.
...what is one more question in the wave of queries I have been hit with lately!!!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A beautiful closing to an incredible experience

This trip would deserve a blog all to itself! One must not die without spending a few days in an Ashram in Rishikesh! So I've changed my earlier statement! Quiz time... which blog was this and and which place was I referring to?!!!

A picture is worth a thousand words... so, lots of pictures will be posted on FaceBook once I get back in Indore. I have been here two days after Kahlil and Laurence's departure. This was truly a divine inspiration to come here! It has been so invigorating, the prayers, the chanting, the look on the children's faces, the lighting ceremony called Ganga Aarati (musical offerings to the Mother Ganga, every evening from 5:30 to 6:30), the 4 PM and 5 AM yoga classes (notice how this one comes last?!!)! All have contributed in making this the best way for me to close this incredible journey.

Rishikesh is located at the foot of the Himalayas, some 200 miles North East of Delhi (Note it took he driver who took me here 7 hours and 40 minutes to drive this distance!... don't ask, the cows, goats, dogs, trucks... :-) In a brochure I saw, he state of Uttarakhand is described as he "Land of Celestial Beauty" and I tell you it deserves its name! The calm serenity of the majestic Himalayas everywhere you turn is breathtaking. And the Ganga, this forceful flowing river that seems to draw all life around it is to be reckoned with. When I think the discussion we have, Dannie and I about the Haitian Mass at Christ the King that lasts too long ONCE a week on Sunday and here daily, 365 days a week all along the river life stops for an hour and a half ceremony called an "aarti". In all temples along the river, at the same instant, as the sun sets, this spectacular musical ceremony is performed. Offerings of lamps and flowers are made to the river immediately following this ceremony and it is a moving sight to watch hundreds of miniature lamps float along the river. As promised in the beginning, pictures will follow once I am back in Indore. The Ganga is one of the 6 lacks of gods in India. They call it "Mother Ganga" and nothing is done here without the blessing of the Mother! All the shop keepers have their little reserved container to get some of the water to bless their stands of fruits (guavas!), artisanats of the region, sarees, shawls all throughout the day (what I like best is when they sprinkle some on their cash drawers!)
Life at the ashram. Very quiet! Wake up at 5 AM :-( for yoga, meditation and prayers till 7 AM. Breakfast at 8. Free till 1 PM. I walk a lot, come to the Internet cafe, have a cappuccino (no such thing as a good espresso coffee!) here and there, find a spot by the river, in a sunny spot (it is freezing here!) sit, sleep, read... Back to he ashram around 1. Lunch. Then back to yoga and prayer at 4 until 5:30, when everyone goes to the river for the aarti till 7. Then dinner till 8, and the day is over.
Yesterday was different for Christmas Eve. A new post will come tomorrow or later about his.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Remember the old movie "Papillon" with Steve McQueen, where he is emprisoned and out of hunger in jail, he goes after a roach and eats it?! Now everyone saw this and I am sure we all said, I know I did! NEVER would I eat a roach!!! Well on our journey to Mumbai two days ago I learned a very valuable lesson, NEVER say NEVER!!, I did not eat a roach :-), but I did just as bad :-(. So here is the situation.
As we were boarding the train, there was a couple already in the train all comfortably settled in top and bottom berths in my cabin. I very politely told them that the bottom berth was reserved to me. Both in my tickets and on the travellers list posted outside the wagon my name was clearly printed "Isabelle Camille, Lower Berth 19." He proceeded to inform me in a not so very polite way that I had a problem because he also was assigned seat #19. He would not show his ticket, though, just said he would only show it to the ticket collector. So the train starts pulling out of the station and I am still standing in the aisle, because they have bags and stuffs feeling up the berth. As all the other seats were occupied, I just stood there for a while. After a moment, I said to them "I guess I am going to have stand the whole way to Mumbai. It's OK, I guess, this is India, the incredible!" The young woman took great offense to my comment and want me to take it back! As I am still standing, I ask her under what principle would I feel the need to take it back or even apologize?! Her fiance/husband tries to calm her down, but not an easy task. In the meanwhile I am still standing!! Not the smallest gesture to move their packages so I could at least sit while we're waiting for the ticket collector to settle the situation! Kahlil who was in another compartment comes by, tries to talk to them, no cigar! Now she is even more enraged saying I could have just gone and sat with "my company" (her expression, thought it was cute!) instead of making this comment about India!! Imagine, 15 hours sharing a berth with Kahlil, sitting instead of my nice (I didn't know then what I know now! "Papillon" is coming!) berth by myself, (again, I didn't know then what I know now!!) where I could sleep! Finally the man in the coat arrives! He checks the tickets and as expected, the berth was mine... I won't gloat, and I have a story to get to, so that was settled! Being that it was only about 4PM at that time, I very graciously accepted for them to stay together on the berth with me while I read and when we got ready to sleep one of them would have to move. I am very quietly reading my book while they are watching a movie and talking next to me. Suddenly I feel something pass over my feet. I move them and forget about it. About an hour later, I feel it again. I had a blanket over my legs, so I move the blanket, don't see anything and I continue with my reading... Now it is starting to get dark so I am starting to think about sleeping. So I tell them once their movie is over, we'll go to sleep. They agreed and we continued, me with my book, them with their movie. And folks you will not believe it but a few minutes later a mouse came crawling on my arm stood on its hind leg as if to take a good look at me! I tried to scream, but the breath had been knocked out of my lungs. Finally, I realized she was looking at the thing also and made a very casual comment "A rat, yes, I've even seen one in First Class!" Then I found my lungs, screamed, jumped still in a very composed manner as I realized the audience was not going to be sympathetic! From that moment on, it is as if we had become buddy-buddy, the creature and I!! It just went on in its hunt for food and came back from time to time to check if I was still there! The other two just kept at their movie watching and talking as if nothing.
Well, folks, when it came time to sleep, "Manges-Moi" was just not keeping me awake anymore to chase the creature away, I told them it was time to sleep, she went on to the bunk given to him, which was a lower berth, he climbed to the top berth in our cabin. I stuffed the blanket all around me to fill the holes where my little friend was crawling in, in the hope that it would suffice to deter his visit, and I slept!! I still can't believe it! Kahlil refuses to believe me as I am sure some of you who know my rodent-phobia (is there a term for this?!). Once I realized there was nothing to do about it, they thought it was just a small nuisance, so I wasn't going to get any help from anyone, I just made do! My body was begging for sleep so I did! Incredible! Unbelievable!
By the way, there is a joke in India, that rats here are smarter than rats anywhere else in the world because they travel so much in the trains!! When I was told the joke during our first trip to Khajuraho, I had thought it was funny. Not anymore!
Morale of the story: Il ne faut jamais dire "Fontaine, je ne boirai pas de ton eau!"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Through their windows

When I look into their homes through open doors and windows as the train passes along, I come to wonder about their lives. What do we have that they don’t have? …they have gods by the lacks (that’s 10,000 to us!), they have food, they have water, they have family, they have community, they have a place, no matter how small and précaire where they can put their head down at night and sleep. What do we have that they don’t have? Liberty? …to do what? Dignity? … When I think of the kids in “Slumdog Millionaire” or the ones in the documentary we saw at Daly College once, they were doing the filthiest jobs, by our western standards, but with such grace and joie de vivre, this is dignity! They are doing what they know best in order to survive.
When I look into their homes through open doors and windows as the train pass along, I come to wonder about their lives. What do we have that they don’t have? …Liberty to dream and succeed in moving out of the zone where we were born. Whether we want to or not, the possibility is there. We can formulate the dream. Some succeed some don’t. But the dream can exist. Here, this belief that where you were born is where you must stay is suffocating, to me as a foreigner. What is life without dreams, hopes for knowledge, a better tomorrow for ourselves and our children?
When I look into their homes through open doors and windows as the train pass along, I remember a quote from Nehru that I saw at an exhibit at the Nehru Science Center in Mumbai: “India with all her infinite charm and variety began to grow upon me more and more, and yet the more I saw of her the more I realized how very difficult it was for me and for anyone else to grasp the ideas she has embodied.” I could spend a lifetime in India, I don’t think I would ever fully understand it. I feel frustrated with this idea of "place". My favorite quote of course you all know is Gandhi's words: "Be the Change you want to see in the world." In a small way, I tried to tell everyone I met here if only in the small gesture of saluting them on campus for example that I believe their "place" didn't matter to me. I valued their presence and felt them worth the acknowledgement. I am in awe of the diversity here. My time here has helped me come to term with some of my ideas. I have more questions about my life now (I needed that, right?!). Some I have answered, some are still out there. I know I am more accepting of myself now. I am less afraid of finding myself in new surroundings. I am much less judgmental of other people's ways of responding to life. I try my best to accept that each and everyone of us have different experiences that makes us tick differently.

India, I may not understand you, but I've reveled in your diversity.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

I forgot about the COWS!!

So, in Auroville, the most efficient way to get around is either by bicycle or two-wheelers. After Kahlil very insistently proved to me that renting a motorcycle would be the best idea, as we could see more and faster, and together, I decided why not. Our friends Evelina and James were also renting one so we could all go out together! After a few very uncomfortable moments on the road, I started to relax a bit and taking pictures while Kahlil drove. And suddenly, Holy Cow!! Here goes one crossing James path and we are right behind him!! Not pretty, what my heart did! But we lived to tell the tale!
More on Auroville and the whole week, slowly throughout the week.

This is James and Evelina in front of us. If you click on the picture you will see the cow they are approaching...

This is us now passing the cow!! I tell you not pretty!!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Christmas Carols

This morning I woke up with a Christmas carol in my mind and was singing along happily until it dawned on me suddenly that the part of the holidays I liked the most, I was going to miss completely this year. Listening to Christmas carols on the radio! What a sad thought! Yes, I know I could just listen to the songs I have on my iPod, but just like watching “It’s a wonderful Life” at home on a DVD and watching it on TBS with millions of other Americans is a whole different experience, listening to the songs alone or on the radio is not the same!! My family doesn’t get it! Whenever they are showing it on TV, the Queen of England could be coming to town and invite me to tea, I would say, no thank you, Marm! And the kids would be annoyed with me and say, but Mom, you have the DVD you can watch it anytime you want! Not the same! There is a feeling of satisfaction to know that you are crying your eyes out with million others when James Stewart goes running through Bedford Falls, screaming, “Merry Christmas” to the world! Until next year!
Today, I visited the Junior School at Daly College. Embarrassed to say all these months I’ve been here, first time I went to this part of the campus. I visited a few classes. Was very impressed with the behavior of the students and the attitude of the teachers. In the pre-primary school, one teacher was painting a very elaborate flower scheme on an outside wall. I asked her, “Getting ready for Open House, he?” (in a couple of weeks), she said “No, just wanted to brighten up the place a bit.” “One teacher said about the kids “They’re full of mischief, but they’re so loving!” That’s the attitude, he? I visited a dance class. They were practicing an Indian dance for a presentation. I really enjoyed that. The expression on their faces, the hands gestures… and when the teacher joined them to demonstrate better, I was in heaven!
At the end of my visit I spent some time with the Headmaster of the Junior School. Very interesting character. Of course, first thing he did was to order a cup of tea for me, though I told him we had just had our tea in the senior School! You don’t sit with an Indian to have a conversation with him without the obligatory tea! I am learning! He has been at DC since 1970! First as a Math teacher, then Chemistry and since 12 years now as the Junior School Headmaster. He was due to retire this December but has asked for an extension. He doesn’t know yet in what position, but he’ll do anything he says as he has nothing else to do!! I could think of a few things I could do!! We talked about Bhagavad Gita. He read a few passages for me. He keeps it in his desk at all times, and refers to it often throughout his day! He has an interesting philosophy, which wouldn’t sit so well with a few parents I’ve had to deal with! He says if a parent comes to him, furious, complaining about another child hitting their child, his response is, “What do you mean, your child, they are both your children because they are both children of God. Therefore, what you need to do is scold them both and teach them that hitting is bad because tomorrow it might be the other one doing the hitting!” He told me the story of a man who is visiting Heaven and Hell. Two rooms, both with a huge pot of soup in the center with very long ladders attached to their hands to drink the soup with. In Hell, everyone is crossed with each other, they are hungry, they are angry. They cannot eat because the handles are too long and they can’t put them in their mouths. The other room, same situation, but everyone is happy, content, well fed. Because instead of trying unsuccessfully to feed themselves, they feed each other!! Isn’t that a great way of looking at life?!
So, to say, I had a nice chat with him.
A few weeks ago, I visited two other schools in Indore. One was another private school, but this one religious, Satya Sai Vidya Vihar. Satya Sai is a religious leader in India, who has built quite a few schools, hospitals in India and abroad. He is very much loved at the school. At the entrance of the main courtyard there is a statue of the goddess of knowledge. Interestingly, every child that walks in the school, stop to say a prayer in front of her. Mind boggling! We’re talking teenagers, here, rich teenagers! It is not compulsory, they just want her blessing as they enter this place of learning! Do you see the picture?! Fortunately, I went on a Thursday which is the day they have their one hour Morning Prayer assembly. They sang one verse after another, the whole lot of them, about one thousand teenagers and younger ones (from class 5 to 12) eyes closed, hands joined chanting! The group was led that morning by about ten students of Class 5! Really not to be fathomed!
At that school, the separation, boys/girls, is even greater. They have separate classes all together. Each class has 2 sessions, 12 A Girls, 12 A Boys, 12 B Girls, 12 B Boys… At DC, they only have morning assembly and tea separately! No wonder marriages need to be arranged!
Same philosophy as Mr. Chansoria at DC… While I was visiting the Vice Principal, two students came in her office. One is crying, the other is looking mi-figue mi-raisin. The crying fellow reports that the other one had hit him. With the most loving arm, she embraces him and humorously says to him: “Now you know how it hurts when you hit someone, and hopefully you will never do that!” She asked the other one to apologize, which he did quite willingly. I wish I could have a picture of a child apologizing in India. They hold their ear in a certain way a few times while saying it with a look on their face that is priceless! That is really to be seen. It can’t even be in picture, but on video, so you can see the whole movement!
The other school I visited was a KV school. They are schools which cater specifically to the Government workers’ or Service personnel’s children. It was funny how everyone sort of wanted to excuse whatever I saw there, because they all said in the same apologetic voice “They are from the middle class, you see. Don’t expect much!” I visited three chemistry classes. Lovely, lovely children!! Full of interest and curiosity about my culture, my school, my students! One boy has a coin collection. My goodness, he was so proud to show me his American quarter!! That was really touching! A beautiful experience.
No pictures today to accompany my talk! Sorry! I am holding my ears, cross my heart and hope to die!!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Any entomologist in the house?!

OK, where I come from, which has more or less the same weather pattern as here, one waits for "winter" not because we are wanting to see snow or pull out the fur coats, but because the pesky little mosquitoes are gone!! More than the slight drop in temperature that we get, we wish for November to March for the lack of buzzing sounds that can drive someone trying to sleep, absolutely bunkers!! Well, here we are in Indore, beautiful cool weather (I've seen very interesting ways of wearing a sweater over a saree these past few days!), no more sweating so profusely that one looks like one has just gone under a fire hydrant, clothes that are put out to dry do so in just about a day because no more extreme humidity. But I tell you it is as if we had moved to the heart of the Everglades in the middle of July when it comes to "God's mistake" ("Oh! God" Georges Burns -God- said the seed of the avocado was His one mistake, I say "mosquitoes are His mistake!) I have always thought that the cooler temperature, the eggs of the mosquito would not "hatch" (I am only pretending to be a science teacher!!) and that's why they disappear during our winter. So can a REAL :-) science teacher explain to me why the inverse occurs here. I am told actually that in May-June when the temperature soars in the 3 digits here that's when they get a break from mosquitoes!!!
A world upside down!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Bollywood evening!

Last night we were invited by the Moydes, a couple who teach chemistry also at DC, to go to the movies and then dinner at a beautiful hotel in Indore. It was the Moydes, their two children, Madhri and Anou, Madhouri's mother, Kahlil and I. What an evening! We first saw a Bollywood movie! Though it was in Hindi, it was so filled with beautiful and powerful music and dances, that we could follow the story line somewhat. Anyway we sure enjoyed the music! The name of the movie was "London Dreams". I will be looking out for it when it comes out on DVD, hopefully they'll have English subtitles! Then after the movie dinner at the Hotel Sayaji (very "White Tiger" like!) The food was to die for, both in taste and quantity!! :-)

But what made the evening so magical was not only the movie or the dinner, it was the company! I saw a side of the Moydes that was very endearing. A great couple and loving parents. They are very generous and loving. He is, in a very subtle way, a very strong character. When we got to the restaurant, first they told us without a reservation, they can't sit us. So he said OK, we are going to visit the hotel and see a painting exhibition that was going on there. Beautiful hotel and humongous! A little city! When we came back, they told us the wait would be an hour and a half. Well, folks, I don't know what Mr. Moyde told them but 10 minutes later we were sited and eating the most succulent shrimps ever! And all that with a smile on his face! And she didn't look at all surprised. She knew once we had decided we wanted to eat there, he would make it happen!

On the way home we stopped at a Temple of the God Galesh (spelling?). Very interesting! A Catholic church in the open air with the main altar and all the saints around it. The main temple was in the center and about 10 smaller ones to different gods, Saturn (who has another name in Hindi), Sai Baba, Vishnu and many others all around it in a huge yard paved in white marble. Their 9 year old daughter knew everything about each temple! It was really very impressive. When I asked Madhouri who teaches the kids about their religion, since there are so many gods, she very simply said "We do, and our way of life teaches them." Isn't that interesting? It is not left to a catechism class to teach them about their religion.

One enchanted evening to remember always.

Kahlil's Barly experience

This post is from Kahlil. Tomorrow at the Barly Institute a group of the girls are graduating and the Director of the Institute has asked him to write a few words for the occasion. and this is what he is going to say.

Two months into my volunteer work at the Barly Institute and I am having the experience of a lifetime. I have learned so much at this institute including why these young women are here, how the solar cookers work, working in the garden, and I have learned how most Americans are completely ignorant thinking that their life is so hard when they don’t even know half of it. I must admit I was one.
With much love from Janak and Jimmy McGilligan, these girls, who had nothing, have found a place that they can call home, get an education, and learn a work trade. I am almost certain that you girls will go on now with a different perspective on life and have more discipline, which is a key note for success in life.
I, for myself, have learned a lot about the solar panels. Before I came to India, I had no idea how they worked, that there were mirror made solar cookers. I actually thought they worked on electricity! I enjoyed assembling a solar cooker, helping the workers fix the clocks for the panels, and enjoying the food and chai made from them. I’ve also had a good time working in the gardens. I had never seen the way people dried corn before I came to Barly. Before here, I hadn’t seen the preparation that you must do before you drop the seeds in the ground.

My time at Barly has opened my eyes so much and has taught me that not much is impossible. If I had never come to India and someone back in the US brought me to an open grass-field and told me to squat down and cut the grass using only a knife and my bare hands, I would look at him straight in the eyes and tell him that he is absolutely crazy, it is impossible to do. Well, my time at Barly has not only taught me that it is very much possible, and I have done it myself now quite a few times.
So to Janak and Jimmy, I think what you are doing here is amazing and I thank you so much for letting me help out at this Institute.
I will end this speech by saying that what I enjoyed most at the Barly Institute was the friendship that I made with 3 great workers, Rajendar, Sacaram, and Bharat. We worked together, talked about our lives, talked about money, and laughed so much! That describes a great friend to me. I thank them and everyone at the Barly Institute for teaching me new things and letting me have a once in a lifetime experience.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Les Americains sont des gens tristes!

"Americans are sad." This is the conclusion my mother came to one day that she was visiting us in Miami. See, mom is a "haitien dan lame!" (Kev, correction please! This is embarrassing! You know more written Creole than I do!) That day we were going home but I had a few stops to make on the way. First Eckerd, the sales girls after our purchase "Thank you very much, have a nice evening!" Then Publix, again "Thank you for coming, have a nice evening" Then the gas station, same response "Thank you. Come again soon. Have a nice evening." That's when she made the comment to me in a very pensive way, "Les Americains sont des gens tristes!" What she saw was this need to make conversation as a sign of a sad life and therefore let's talk to all those strangers and pretend they are friends! In India, I find myself being a "sad American"! It took me some time to understand my attitude and the attitude of Indians here. Again, let me say, this is based on MY observations of only 3 months of a nation that is very complicated and therefore might be not so correct. When I walk on campus, there are a lot of construction workers and their families, who live here in the shacks you see in the picture, and there are the Class 4 workers, which are the servants. From the beginning, as I pass by them I always said “Good morning” to them. At first, they wouldn’t even answer, just gave me a stranger look than they would anyway! But then, they got used to it and they would answer me with an amused look on their faces. That’s when I started realizing that the other teachers did not greet them at all. In my American thinking, at first I thought, they did not because they’re looking down on them, and think they are not worth the acknowledgement. Now after close to three months in this country, I am realizing I was totally wrong. They don’t greet them not out of disrespect or prejudice but simply because in India everything and everyone has their place. These people are there for a purpose, they have a role to play that does not include interaction among caste. They value them greatly for what they are doing. They realize how fortunate they are to have those “bhai” (it’s either that or “bahai”! One is brother the other one is maid! I mean the latter, Boris! Though I am fortunate to have you too!) I do admit, I have had limited exposure to the interaction between the caste but from what I’ve seen, the interaction is to the point, without any personal contact. But not abusive or verbally disrespectful as I’ve seen in Haiti for example or many places where there are servants (what was the name of this movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, where he played an English butler who was treated with such disrespect by his master?! “Howard’s Ends” or “The Remains of the Day”?) Anyway, the condescendence and the open “you are beneath me” attitude just isn’t found here. It’s just everyone has their place and no one tries to cross the line in any way at all.

Another example of this place that everyone has here. The other day there was a cricket game at school. There is a pavilion where teachers and guests were to sit. Plastic chairs were placed for everyone but right up front were a couple of sofas for the Principal and dignitaries to sit. Of course on one side the women and the other the men! When we ran out of chairs, a couple of teachers who came in later stood in the back but did not go sit in the front row, though it was empty. I mean if it were a formal function, I would say OK. But just a friendly game of cricket between Old Dalian and the present students! Very interesting! Everyone has a place in India and no one crosses to the other side.
So the amused look on the workers’ faces is simply them looking at me like my mother looked at the cashiers in America “Here is the sad American woman who doesn’t know her place in life”! …what is my place in life?!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fall Back!

It was with a saddened heart this year I missed my "Fall Back" hour! I still pretended by changing my little clock that I have kept on home time this morning as soon as I woke up! I did not miss Halloween though last night! As the kids were growing up, and with the years of difference between our first batch and the second, that was many years, Pantal was the one who made the rounds with the kids and I stayed home to be the candy giver! Well, I enjoyed, not having to get up a hundred times to make sure our house was not egged or papered!!! But Severine, you'll miss out on the Starbust!

A totally unrelated thought!! Just completed a wonderful book "Eat Pray Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert. Loved it! Loved it! She talks about deciding what your name stand for. I've decided mine is "Seek". India is not giving away much, though! So I have a serious dilemma here! :-) I am not giving up!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A puzzling characteristic

As I sat on a bench outside the chemistry Lab, I observed a behavior of two students with a senior teacher that left me puzzled completely. It is not the first time I am observing this. It has happened many times in my class, and at first I used to think it was of course the "new/foreign" teacher aspect that made them believe they could behave that way... ["You mean you've never been a governess before?" ... "the Sound of Music", of course!] But now I am observing this everywhere and many teachers talk of it. So what was the incident? Revenons à nos moutons! The teacher is taking her class somewhere and two students want to have a drink of water before going. They just passed a water fountain. She says no, they must follow her right away. They stood there for more than 5 minutes arguing about it without any resolution. In the meantime the rest of class is long gone! People here have a way of insisting when asking for something that is mind boggling in their perseverance! One of the ways of dealing with a misbehaving child here is to ask them to stand at the door of the class for a while. That child can drive any respectable person insane in just about 3 minutes! (in the picture, my latest victim!) He/she will say "I'm sorry, Mam/Sir" nonstop the whole time he's standing there. No matter what you say, they will just keep repeating it till you either give in, and let them come back in (...and they start again whatever behavior got you there in the first place!), or you suddenly from a calm human being become a totally frustrated person with thoughts of vengeance coming in your mind! OK, you are going to love this one because it so totally out of alignment with all educational philosophies, I've made threats to them that I KNOW I cannot uphold!! Looking at them straight in the eyes, I'd say "If you say it ONE more time I will not allow you to ever come back to my class!" Once after I said this, I did crack up laughing right there in that child's face and poor him not knowing what to do, should he laugh with me or cry, just stared while I had the best laugh of my life ("Laugh till I cry" ... "Bucket List")! A lovely colleague of mine in the Chemistry department told me "they do it to irritate you!" Well, if that’s the objective, they succeed every time! No really, it is a strange situation. The thing is both teachers and students do it! Once they have something in their mind nothing will get it out! Many experiences of that I've had. And it’s like you’re talking to a wall! With the least bit of expression, they will repeat their point till you eventually give in. You feel, there is a communication gap somewhere. I mean this teacher stood there arguing with the kids to march and they had their own thoughts to drink water and nothing was going to make them march and she was not about to allow them to do so. How did it all end?... The teacher went back with the kids to the fountain! Yes, this is why they insist, they know in the end they will get their way!
When a child asks you for money in the streets, she will stand there and repeat the SAME words over and over again as long as you are standing there. She won’t change her expression, she won’t change her line and will NOT leave! “10 Rs., Mam, no food, no Mama” over and over again in the same tone. (The interrogation in “The Lives of Others”!! Is she lying?!) Some of you are thinking, why not just give her the 10 Rs., she sure can use it, and be done with it? Because if you do, no matter how you may think this child was alone, as soon as you give this one person, a dozen of them immediately surround you for their 10 Rs.!!!
The puzzling characteristic here is the often inability for people to understand the word “no”. It feels really that it has no meaning for many. I would really like to understand!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

School Activities

I tell you, I will go back to America a changed person!! (How many of you believe this?! How quickly we forget!!) No more complaining about too many activity hours that takes away from teaching time!! We don’t know the beginning of this issue! At Daly College, I don’t think I have ever had a full class of students any given day that I’ve been here. They are either gone for Shooting competition, Cricket match, Squash, NCC (which is something like a J-ROTC but that is compulsory for all students, I think?! I’ve asked about it so many times, don’t fully get the idea but can’t ask anymore!!) It is mind boggling! There are a few girls in my 9th class that I haven’t seen in class for about three or four weeks. So in the higher classes, they miss school like that and the parents hire tutors to keep the kids up to speed with their classmates! Now that tutoring job is not so bad when you consider that for a couple of hours a tutor can make 500+ Rs, while at a school, they will make about 4000-6000 Rs a month! If they have a few students they can make that and then some without the aggravations of working for a school and all the side duties that come with that!! An interesting article in the paper not long ago, was talking about this issue and it was mentioned that teachers in the KV schools (schools for the Government workers’ children) were not allowed to do private tutoring, because apparently they were not doing their jobs in the schools because they know they would then have these kids to tutor privately and make more money! (Clever!) What about those who can’t afford the tutor?!
So next week, we actually have only two days of school. Tuesday and Wednesday. Monday is a legal holiday “Guru Nanak Jayanti” who is a major figure in the Sikhs religion. At DC, though there is an important Cricket match in the morning that the whole faculty is required to attend, from 9 to 11ish. Then starting Thursday it is one event after the other for End of the Year Prize giving ceremony. Now the school year ends in March… don’t ask!! I did many times, and still don’t get it! We have students’ work exhibition, in all the fields. A major concert. I know they can’t be better than the Coral Reef’s band! A tea party for the parents. The Old Dalian Association is participating heavily in all the activities. So classes have been suspended for all those days. It gets better. Since we will be working so hard for all these activities, next Monday was declared a holiday by the principal!! Please, don’t think I am complaining, now!!
Another aspect of teaching here that is different from the Sates. I said already how they did not have substitutes. When a teacher is absent from school, they break her schedule among her colleagues. And whoever gets the substitution continues with the class as best as you can. If you have a substitution that is not in your field, you can actually teach them your subject, allow them study time. What is not allowed is free time to talk and play! I’ve done a few substitutions for the French teacher and that has been fun! But what is another interesting thing is that if you are falling behind a bit with your subject you can make “arrangements” with another teacher in another field who is caught up with their topic and take over one or two of his/her class for your subject!! Isn’t that interesting? So I was starting to panic a little of not finishing with my 11th class chemistry as I had to cover Redox and Thermodynamics before the Half Yearly Exams at the end of November, well after a few arrangements, I am all caught up and progressing without any pressure! That would be a novel idea at Coral Reef or any other school in America, I think!! Now hold on to your seat! Which is the subject we are told will be most willing to make arrangements with us?! The English department!! Supposedly they are the department with the lightest curriculum!! Again don’t ask!!
The beauty of this arrangement situation is that it has to be simply between one teacher who needs more time with her students to cover her curriculum and another who is caught up with said students and can afford to miss a class or two. There is no memo to be written to the principal, attendance office doesn’t have to be notified, department chair doesn’t have to give her/his approval. This is simply between two colleagues who have a common goal of giving their students the best that they have. If it is for me to teach a couple of classes extra, so be it, I will do it without feeling I am being cheated. I will actually look for it, because the students need the extra hour or two. And the other teacher will do it not to get out of teaching an hour or two but because it will be beneficial to the students. It works simply and smoothly. One characteristic of the Indian teachers I have observed, at Daly College anyway, is that they have a level of professionalism that is not seen in many in the states. The amount of duties that they have outside of their teaching duties leaves me speechless. They do it without complaining because, “the students need it” and that’s the end of that. But then there is a level of trust from Administration that makes me green with envy! Next week with all the activities, all teachers are expected to be present in school and participate. On Saturday, (yes, remember we teach on Saturday!) one of the administrators, just came in the Staff room during tea time and simply stated that. And that’s that. No one will be checking your name off in the auditorium, we don’t have to sign anything and I can guarantee you, everyone will be there at their post. I love it!! In the beginning of my stay here, I went through a nightmarish situation with my school because the administration wanted me to send a timesheet of sort to show that I did go to work in order for me to get paid. I don’t want to get into too much detail, but it was really very absurd! Until the district stepped in and said enough, we have the Fulbright contract that’s that! My apprehension was to have to go to an Administrator here and ask them to take my attendance daily and send it half way across the world when my presence is good enough for them here!!
Teaching is a respected profession in India while back home sometimes I feel it is considered a second-class profession!

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Now, for those of you who don't know me well, you don't know that my passion is guavas! And unfortunately it has to be an unfulfilled passion because in Miami, guavas are always filled with worms. We actually had to cut our guava tree because it was always infested with worms. Poor Guilene got her bad experience with that once at our house! Unpleasant memory! Well, if someone can explain to me why don't guavas in India have any worms, please do so! Jacques, help here! So another passion fulfilled. And as the DC ground is loaded with guava trees, I have died and gone to heaven! I eat guavas as if nothing! Everyday on my way home from school, I just have to reach up and here is snack when I get home, desert after dinner and late snack before I go to sleep. In the street, you can have them cut it for you and add a little masala to it and then it is the fruit of the Gods!!

I am filling up with the best fruit in the world for the end of time! Lucky me!

Monday, October 19, 2009

My Bucket List

A student of mine in her morning talk, spoke of the influence movies have on her. She said when she saw “Erin Brokovich” she wanted to be a lawyer, “Mona Lisa Smile” she wanted to be a teacher… well, after I saw “Bucket List” I wanted to see the Himalayas… and this past week-end I did! It’s a good thing I didn’t want to have a tattoo!! So for the Diwali break, Kahlil and I went to Leh in the Kashmir State. So another WOA experience!! Where to start? “Let's start from the beginning… it’s a good place to start” Anyone wants to guess at the movie? ...“The Sound of Music”!
The preparations for the trip were a bit worrisome. First, we had an email form the Fulbright Staff in India not recommending any trip to the Jammu - Kashmir States because of unrest in the Pakistan/India border! So I pretended to either not know that Leh was in Kashmir ;-) (where is Miami again?... in Idaho or Oregon?!!!) or not having received that message so we could go on with our plans! Then, the travel agency who was supposed to arrange my trip was giving me the run around and pretending everything was done when they had not made the reservations at all!! So in my superstitious mind, I kept on thinking, maybe it is a sign that we should not go!! But the “Bucket List” wish was stronger, so finally when we got our tickets, I said we’ll go. Since I am back to tell the tale, we can say it’s a good thing!
So we left Indore on Thursday night late, spent the night at the airport in Delhi and 6AM on to Leh. Leh is straight north of Delhi, closer to the China border; it is 3500 m + above sea level. First we flew over the majestic white Himalayas “in a hair-raising flight that weaves between the peaks” (Lonely Planet)! What a sight!! Looking down you don’t really know if it is clouds you’re seeing or the white capped mountains. No really magnificent! Then suddenly no more snow! Just incredibly brown totally devoid of any life form mountains! And from time to time a little patch of green, yellow, red trees down in a valley alongside a river! And around there a little village. Truly impressive! The whole flight over was truly breathtaking.

Then you arrive in Leh and the military presence is overwhelming! In the Lonely Planet, the army’s job was described as mostly a road and bridges repairing Army and keeping the mountain passes clear of snow! Well from the massive number of Army personnel we saw, there must be lots of broken roads and bridges!! No really, I panicked when we landed and could have made a U-turn right then and there if it weren’t for the image of the cool and collected Mother to keep in front of Kahlil! And then we crossed the town to go to our Guest House! What a sight! The mud brick houses flanked all along the mountains, the prayer wheels, which are round structures filled with prayer flags that you rotate clockwise and all the prayers get sent up to God; the many Buddhist Stupas, which are mud bricks structures laid in geometric patterns along the roads in Ladakh. They used to be funeral mounds built in honor of an enlightened person or a great teacher. Some of them will hold the relics of the dead person, but now more and more they don’t. They are everywhere. Big ones, small ones, extremely ornate ones and very simple ones! A quote about what a stupa represents: “The visual impact of the stupa on the observer brings a direct experience of inherent wakefulness and dignity. Stupas continue to be built because of their ability to liberate one simply upon seeing their structure” - Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The Shanti Stupa was built to promote world peace.

We stayed at the Snow View Guest House. That was an experience of itself. The owners were incredibly kind and helpful. Their cook just amazing! We had the best vegetarian foods one could ever imagine. I thought of my cousin Stephane. What a joy that would have been for him to eat there! The hotel was already closed for the season, so we had their 100% attention! I tell you royal treatment all the way. All was not so well, though. Kahlil got sick because of the altitude. I talked about in my last blog what it costs to have him taken care of! Incredible!
We visited many of the monasteries of the region. Pictures of the trip and comments can be seen by clicking on the link. Pictures of Leh.
I mentioned in the beginning that we went during the Diwali break. Well, Diwali is a very special season for Hindus. It is a bit like our Christmas and New Year, when everyone wears new clothes, get together with families, and fire crackers are a major part of the holiday! Well, Buddhists don’t really celebrate Diwali. Leh being majority Buddhists, we missed the whole “crackers” (this is how they call fire crackers here!) part of the celebration. Must admit I didn’t miss it! It was peaceful and eerie. Now when you add to that the snow falls that we had the second day, the Fairy Tale had just begun! Kahlil was on cloud 9! First snow experience. How lucky does one get! Suddenly all the brown mountains were covered with snow. Magic! Everyone was amazed. First time it snows so early in the season! Ha! Ha! Lucky us.

As we travel around India, all of you back home are always very present in our minds and from time to time one of us will say, “this reminds me of Sole”, “Carol would love this”, “here is Nael, Mom”, “that’s pops alright!” "Mommy Yole would walk like this." Well, this trip for one reason or another, my brother-in-law, Jacques Cassagnol, was extremely present with us. From the moment we started flying over the mountains, it was as if his ghost was right there with us! Why? I have no idea. As we landed in Leh, I asked Kahlil, “who are you thinking of?” Immediately his response was “Jacques”. To tell you folks, we take you all along with us everywhere we go.

Mr. President, a new Health Plan Proposition!

We’ll call it the 5/55! This is what it has cost me tonight to take my son to the hospital, have an X-Ray and a sonogram!!! 5 Rs. for hospital registration, 55 Rs. for the 2 procedures!! I’ll let you do the math, $1 is equivalent to 46-48 Rs. And I tell you folks, he had the best of care! It felt like we were in Miami, going to Jackson South and being given the special treatment we always get there, with Lenny and Marie-Maurice! The owner of the hotel we were staying at, knew the right people, so we went right in, were seen by the Senior Doctor, had the two procedures done in a flash, and we were out of there! Now the medicines cost quite a bit! 124 Rs.!! I don't think anywhere in the world can beat that! The whole thing costs about $4!! Crazy, ne?!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

School Issues

Yesterday morning, an unheard of incident occurred in school. Unheard of in America, that is. at Assembly time, most days, after the prayers and chanting of the Om, one or two students will present a talk on a topic previously assigned. Well, that morning, two young men were to talk about the Indian flag. And they were horrible! I mean, they really were bad. First of all, the speech has to be memorized. These two young men couldn't even properly read what was on their paper! They made mistakes after mistakes, they muffled their words (is there such a word?!)
I mean it was a real disaster! Well, one old bird on the staff, (whom I admire tremendously! Will talk of her again I am sure) got on the stage, after their presentation and told them flat out, I am paraphrasing here, “You were taught better and you ought to know better. You will do your presentation again because you had some very valuable information to give to us that will help us all learn.” She went on to explain very clearly what was wrong with their speech, what had to be changed and that was that. Now this is right there in front of the whole student body! Brilliant!! I can’t imagine this happening in the States! No way Jose! What about the child’s ego?! You would have those parents demanding your head on a platter! But you see it wasn’t made in the mind to hurt the child’s ego. It was an open and frank way of calling a spade a spade. The day after, those two young men came back on stage and said their speech the right way; she congratulated them on a job well done. And that was that.
The Indian school system has its good points and some terrible bad points. Now, let me make sure I state unequivocally, that this is MY opinion and MY experience only. This is not going to be a “Good Points – Bad Points” writing. Because, often I find what they have that works in one way doesn’t work in another. The way that they do their lab practical, I’ve mentioned before is totally cookbook. The kids prepare the labs they are responsible for the year, and when you come to that part of the curriculum, you come with them to the lab, it’s all prepared for you, they follow the recipe and leave. They write up the results, you collect the notebooks, check what they’ve done, no grade is assigned for it, or is there?! I am not really sure! Lab safety issues are non-existent. No goggles, aprons, teachers could be in sandals. As they walk in the lab, if they are to use the flame, all Bunsen burners are turned on by the lab assistant and left on throughout the lab whether they are at their station or not. On the other hand the students have a confidence about handling of the equipments, analyzing a result that I hardly see in the American student! Shouldn’t we expect the opposite, since in America, the curriculum is much more inquiry-based? They should have much more ownership of their work. To the end of the year you will have students who will not touch the Bunsen burner if their life depended on it (or their grade, for that matter!) I know I am going to make less of an issue about safety. Not to say I will do it like they do it here, but I will try my best to not let them have this unhealthy fear of everything that touches the lab. Am I heading for disaster?!! I don’t think so. Time will tell!
Let me go back to a comment I made earlier. I am not sure if a grade is given for the labs the students do, that’s after 2 months working in the system! What I think happens is, in the 10th and 12th grades, where they have to pass the States’ Exams, there is a practical portion for their final marks and that practical will be one of these labs that they have done. What about the other grade levels? I have no idea. The Indian system is not very friendly to outsiders. Notice I said, the “system”, not the individual teachers. You see they were born in it! That’s all they know. So they truly don’t get what my questions are! When you couple that with the fact that they use different terminologies, we’re talking major communication issues!! So after I’ve asked 2-3 times about the grade given for the lab and they’ve answered about the marks, I feel totally uneasy asking again!! Because of the exams, you really have to teach the students the proper materials. Again they’ve been teaching the same materials over and over again, so they know it also by heart! And they have apparently old students’ notebooks that they use as back up since the curriculum doesn’t change much. A few times, in the beginning, the department Chair asked them to find me one of these old notebooks. That has never materialized. Now I’ve put it to rest and go through the book, meticulously, hoping I will touch upon everything I have to teach. It will be interesting to see how my students fare at the end! Actually, not to worry really, because they check from time to time my students’ notes to make sure I am feeding them the right stuff!! As I haven’t heard any comments, I must be doing it right! See, it is totally a close system, made by Indians and for Indians. Again and again, it seems to work for them! According to teachers here, it certainly works for the 2% minority that has it all and can afford the numerous tutoring hours to prepare them for the exams. The rest, oh, well, they’ll continue what their parents have done for years and years and their chances for advancement are nil or close to that. Is that fair? Not really. Are they complaining? Apparently not. One student, the other day, was telling me how unfair it is that according to the caste they are from, their salary will be different and that wasn’t right. So they’re thinking about it.
Complicated, India.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Pre-Conference tour

It's been a while!

I just got back from a week long trip with some members of Daly College and different delegations of Round Squares Schools from Canada, Australia and France.

…small interruption to walk over to the DC Hospital to check how I was to take the medicine prescribed to me by the Doctor this morning. OK, let’s start there! While on our trip, I caught the most horrible cold. Got back into town last night. This morning before going to school, I stopped by the hospital, which is right behind our Residence, to ask the Doctor about a cough syrup. After a brief 2 minute examination…”Open up wide, Aaaaaaah, Deep breath, again, again…” he writes me a prescription of 5 medicines which he writes in the stereotypic unreadable handwriting of a Doctor and tells me to send for them at the Market. When I get to school, I give the prescription to one of the Lab assistants with a 500 Rs bill, telling him if it costs more, to let me know. Since they had already arranged for substitution for me for the day, I was feeling so bad, I ended up going back home. A couple of hours later, Nahran shows up at my apartment with all the medicine for the incredible cost of 174.50 Rs (a little less that $4!) How crazy is that?! I did not pay too close attention to the Doctor’s direction on how to take the medicine, because I figured the “Medicine Man” was going to neatly type it all up for me like Walgreens does back home, right?! Well, that wasn’t to be. It all came in a green little plastic bag, the 5 or 10 pills, depending on whether I was to take it twice or once a day!!) So I had to go back to the hospital to ask for an explanation! ...and this time I paid attention! This is how medicine should be practiced! You go see a doctor for something, he sees about that ailment, and off you go on your merry way! You need 5 capsules of this medicine, 5 capsules of this medicine are cut out and handed to you. None of that fancy packaging that makes you pay $30 co-payment for any medicine!! Here is a new idea Mr. President! Would that make his Health Plan more palatable to the American Republican …ooops, did I say that?! I meant to say: “American Public”!
Our latest trip: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur.
I’ll start from the beginning. Sunday, Delhi was a total disaster in poor planning on the part of the tour organizers. How did they get it so right after Delhi, I don’t know! But one thing at a time… So Delhi, the hotel was too far from the city and traffic was a nightmare. Everything was partially done because we ran out of time. We had about a half hour to visit the Qutub Minar, which is the tallest brick tour in the world – 72 meters, built in the 12th Century. Really a magnificent sight. In the afternoon we were supposed to visit the Lotus Temple but made it too late there so we had to be content to take pictures from the streets! Laurence, I am sure you are happy to know it will be our first time with you in December. I like that better, anyway. It will feel more special to see it with you. Then the famous Akshardham, very irreverently put, a massive Disney production with fake river boat ride through 10,000 years of Indian culture! It is truly impressive. A giant Hindu temple in the center of the complex is carved entirely of pink stone and white marble. It took five years to be built(11-2000 to 11-20050. Unfortunately we have no picture of this visit because cameras were not allowed at all. But do google it! It really is a glowing testimony to what volunteerism, talent and spiritual faith can accomplish. My favorite visit of all, Raj Ghat, a simple memorial that marks the spot of Gandhi’s cremation! A black marble platform with an inscription of his last words “He Ram” (O God) and an eternal flame at one end. That was Delhi!

I did have a chance to meet with another Fulbrighter who is teaching in Delhi, Evelina! That was special! In spite of our obvious differences of origins and the likes :-) , I tell you I felt like I was meeting with a long lost kin!! We had dinner at the Banana Leaf, where we had had a couple of meals back in August when we had first arrived! Really, highlight of the whole week!
Then on Tuesday, miserable day in the bus going from Delhi to Agra. Now I know all you skeptics out there are going to question the veracity of this statement, but we drove the 200 Km (that's 120 miles!) distance between these two cities in exactly 7 hours. There was no breakdown of the bus, no accident on the way, nothing like that, just cows, rickshaws, goats, dogs, two-wheelers, whole families on ONE motorcycle, people, did I mention the cows? cows, cows resting, cows walking, cows crossing the street (do they know where they’re going?) people, cars, trucks, and broken roads! We just check in the hotel, and everyone crashes! I guess we had to be pure of any sightseeing for a while and fresh and disposed to take in what was in store for us the day after! God in his infinite wisdom! So, you guess it! The Taj Mahal! Words totally fail me. How was this conceived? From far, this humongous white structure, from close this incredibly tender white marble so delicately carved with such incredible details! How did they do it? Ronsard said “Il ne faut pas mourir sans avoir vu Carcassone”, Isabelle corrects Ronsard and says “No one should die without having seen the Taj Mahal!” I am almost sorry to post my pictures. They are such an injustice to what this place is all about. You have to see the whiteness of the marble. Imagine a baby’s cheek in a commercial for a baby soap or something, well, that will get you a little close to the reality, not completely but… It’s the translucent of this huge laced building that gets to you from up close, I think. This is what pictures will never show, folks. You’ll see the majestic, the grandiose, the perfect symmetry but not that! I tell you folks, I left my heart in Agra last week!
Two days later I was getting sick in Jaipur!! So I pretty much missed the pink city!
Very easily we forget. This week I had a bit of a wake-up call, of a sort. Truly this experience is turning out to be more than I bargained for originally! OK, you’ve heard this idea from me before, “kids are the same everywhere”, right? Well, can I change this to People are the same everywhere?! We hurt each other, we amaze each other, we disappoint each other, we break promises… and we heal and we move on. I don’t know why I had it in my mind that all Indians were going to be little Gandhi, all one billion of them (is that the count?)! Is everyone having a good laugh?!! Now, this is a touchy subject. It deals with the taboo idea that makes the world go round!!! You know what I mean, right?! I will try to be as sensitive as I can (…what, me and my big foot?!) Why even bring it up? some will ask. Well, because this blog is not only about my “Teaching in India” but also “Learning in India”. I know, the teachers reading me are saying “Well, duh, Isabelle, aren’t teaching and learning one and the same process?!” Touché! OK, so here goes. In India, it is not … I’ve been sitting in front of this blinking cursor for the past 15 minutes, no kidding, trying to put into words how Indians dealt with money matter and couldn’t come up with one single idea! Let me start with the incident and then maybe it will get easier to say what I learned. This tour was supposed to cost a certain amount of rupees. At the end of the trip I have spent one third more and I don’t mean in personal spending!! (No, I did not go crazy buying souvenirs, sorry!!) They just kept on coming with more and more expenses for us! And in the most polite of ways, “Yes, I understand how frustrating, Mam, but that will be another 2150 rupees.” It was very frustrating! And I wrapped myself in my proud American Way and thought, that would never happen back home! X amount is X amount. Period! It took me all week of being frustrated, appalled, annoyed, and feeling like I was being robbed, to realize, “Ne, Isabelle! They didn’t do anything that extraordinarily wrong! They misrepresented some truths J, maybe, they miscalculated, they didn’t see the big picture, but they didn’t rob me, they did not purposefully change the facts… And, sadly, they are not all Gandhi!!! So then I started to think, well what about my proud American Way? Could that have happened back home also?! What would be the need for “Tell it to Howard” (Is that the name of that show?) Of course, not this exact incident, but some other where one of the party feels erroneously they’ve been wronged one way or the other. And we get hurt and disappointed and we roll over and heal. The important thing is to let go of this feeling of having been wronged. An Indian guru told Wayne Dyer “there are two types of things one can worry about, one type, you can’t do anything about, so why worry about it, the other type you can do something about it, so you do it and it doesn’t exist anymore.“ (I’ve had to use this idea twice in the space of a day!) So I have realized that there was nothing I could do about this one, so I just need to let it go and remember the baby’s cheek commercial!!! As I told someone today, I will not let the small issues get in the bigger picture of this experience.
For all of you who are not familiar with my writing style, I do always use way too many exclamation points everywhere! I guess it is to make up for my lack of precise command of expression like the two people I mentioned in one of my first blogs! Now should be a game quiz moment, “what is the name of at least one of the persons mentioned…!!!” (see, I told you!) I’ve watched way too much Gilmore Girls!!

I'll post the pictures later! ... and here they are :-)

The agra Fort:

The Taj Mahal:

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Marraine Lala is coming! Marraine Lala is coming!

This is the milk man! He has a horn on his bike that makes a strange sound to announce his arrival for milk delivery at people's house. So when they hear this sound someone comes running out to get the milk. So how is this related to Marraine Lala is coming?! Well, when we were little and living in Haiti, Marraine Lala's visits were announced by a fellow on a motorcycle that had a strange bell to announce his delivery of a telegram, which would tell us of her arrival!! That sound made my sisters, brother and I very happy! So every morning when I am going to school, I love meeting him in front of the neighbors house, announcing his arrival! ...and I remember :-)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Some more thoughts...

Lots of ideas in my mind to share... some are just trivial things, some more thoughts on teaching here and there. We went to Aurangabad this week-end and it was an experience and a half.

First let me talk about a couple of people encounters we've had. They have confirmed my thoughts, people are the same everywhere... wait a minute, does this make any sense?! Let me explain, maybe it will then. I start from the end... On our return from Aurangabad, we were on the 12 Midnight bus, which came an hour and a half late!! That's India for you. Be flexible :-) When after 9 hours of a difficult bus ride we are in Indore, I am asking the men on the bus -driver and assistant- where is our stop, they just kept on laughing at me, and the fact that I did not speak Hindi. The more I asked in English, explaining that I did not speak Hindi, the more they laughed and continued speaking Hindi! I practically had tears coming to my eyes and had all the horrible thoughts for Indians at that moment. In the midst of all that, our cell phone rings, Kahlil answers, and it was the driver who took us around yesterday in Ellora, who was checking up on us to know if we had arrived safely back home!! Now this man had no obligation to do that, but out of the goodness of his heart he did this kind gesture! Now do you get it? People are the same everywhere. You find great kindness as well as jerks everywhere. If we could remember that always, we would be so much happier! So I had to come half way across the globe to learn this simple lesson! A recurring question "which system do you think is best?" Over and over I respond, "I don't think one is better that the other, they are just very different!" Driving... people say, if you drive in India, you can drive anywhere. I say, if you can drive in India, you can adapt easier to the driving system anywhere, but as Kahlil said this afternoon, after getting a few driving violations!! We're under a red light, 2 PM this afternoon, a zillion bikes, two-wheelers, rickshaws, cars... 13 seconds left of the red light. I swear to you folks, one biker decided he had waited long enough, drove off, and the whole crowd under that light just started moving, as if it was a full stop instead of a traffic light!! Someone, who shall remain nameless, very dear to my heart was banned from ever getting a license in the State of New York, for doing just that while taking her driving test!!
Open House last Saturday. An interesting experience. More or less what one would expect. All teachers were there to greet the parents, all the parents of the best students in your class were there. Those you wish you would get to say a few words to :-( were not there! All the parents were there with their child, so there was no awkward moments! One child has a straight "A" report card, in Bio and Physics she has "A+" and in Chemistry just an "A" :-(, Mom wanted to know what the child can do to improve her grade!! My response? "Hu! Hu!"
As planned, we left almost right after Open House on our trip to visit the Caves of Ajanta and Ellora. Whoa! What an experience!
Pictures of the Caves of Ajanta:

Pictures of the Daulatabad Fort:

Some of the caves were actually built from top down! Can you believe this?! India really has some architecture that is breathtaking. I am certainly enjoying this side of the experience. The caves of Ajanta, I was familiar with them from having received one of those emails from a friend with a PowerPoint presentation about the Caves. That was breathtaking, I thought, but not real. Well, to my surprise this past week-end I realized, the caves are exactly like in the pictures! A majesty about them that is indescribable! Yes you can see the pictures and see the beauty, but walking in the caves, the darkness, and imagining those men so long ago, building these magnificent statues, the paintings in he Ajanta caves, how did they do it? Why did they do it? I know, a place of worship... but why this grandiosity? How did they do it? who did it? I tell you, really impressive! This coming week we are in for another treat! Boris is convinced I have come to India under false pretense! Supposedly to teach but really to travel!! What can I say, if they have all these festivities around this time of the year!! anyway, we are off to visit three cities, Delhi-Agra-Jaipur. This is a school organized tour and we will be going with another teacher and some students. Looking forward to this!

Teaching wise -see, Boris, I do that too!!!- I am more and more understanding the system. Through my own experience and through talking with other teachers. I don't find it challenging at all. It is too much rot memory. The students, who are paying attention, are doing so by taking down what you are saying words for words. I stop from time to time to ask: Any questions? No they don't have any, just finish dictating the notes so they can copy it down and be done with it. Rarely do you get a word from the students about what you are telling them. Maybe, "can you repeat what you just said?" I can't do it that way. I need a dialogue. I need feedback, questions, comments. Don't get me wrong, they are wonderful children, and I enjoy my interactions with them outside of class. It's just professionally, I am not challenged at all. My only concerns here are, Am I saying it the way they need to have it? Am I teaching the right stuff? Am I going deep enough? Too deep, I don't have to worry. If it's in the book, they have to know it! How do the teachers do it? Year in Year out? One teacher said, "That's all we know. I was raised in it, and so I teach what I was taught." He agrees something is wrong, like all the others, but they say like I do, It works for them, so why not? I really want to poke a little deeper and get some more info about who does it work for? All the students, or just some? What happens after high school? after college?

OK, so this is going to be my time of questioning, these 5 months in India! Hopefully I'll have a few answers before I leave!

...and I haven't mentioned the cast system, yet! I didn't even realize, it still existed, stupid me!! I can't reconcile the idea of one of the greatest democracy in the world, to have such a patented (!) system of labeling and classifying people. Boris made a comment earlier about an earlier Post, where I was talking about what I pay the lady who helps us with the upkeep of the apartment. He reminded me that the two twins who worked for mother all these years back, had in turn maids of their own! So he said they did manage to live with that salary. I corrected him and said they did not "live" with that salary, not if living is like Walt Whitman described it "To live free and..." This is surviving. These tarp covers that house so many, we can fool ourselves and say they are happy there, but that can't be! Anyway, I don't get it at all, so let me not say a word until I've learned more.

India is Incredible! This is the saying here!