Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Twenty two twenty nine on my mind

Today had been an unremarkably routine day. Nothing to write home about, as they say. Unremarkably routine day. One down. Twenty-nine to go. Only twenty-two at Rishi Valley. Frightening calculations for a girl who has grown so fond of the place she’s learned to call home. The Subcontinent. Incredible India. My own Rishi Valley.

The day had started as most days in Rishi Valley do, with waking up to a screaming Bollywood alarm melody, to close the doors for a hope of privacy. A few hours later, I rubbed my eyes out of bed awoken by the intrusion into privacy, the maid in the window singing a long “Helloooooooo”, intruding into the hideously messy cocoon of my life, fit under and on top of two twin bed cots put together with thin mattresses on top.

Some time after the usual morning routine of brushing teeth and inserting contacts, walking to lunch to the hum of my iPod being overrun with outside sounds: cicadas buzzing, various birds singing various songs, tractors plowing down the road, rickshaws blaring more Bollywood tunes. Rice and dhal consumed, kofta gathered into the folds of warm soft chappati pieces placed gingerly in the mouth. A friend once told me that Bengalis have a saying, “Eating with a fork is like making love through an interpreter.” Makes perfect sense. I dread the cutlery waiting for me back home – shiny spoons and sharpened forks, the interpreters of my love for the Subcontinent. Incredible India. My own Rishi Valley.

Post lunch, heading to the office for browsing the internet, connecting with the outside world. Learning about new status updates, request of technological friendships, news of engagements and breakups, reading articles about sadness drenching our world with old wars, new conflicts, neglect, and somewhere maybe even hope. If only the world was drenched with more rain. I hope the sky turns grey. If only over the Subcontinent. Incredible India. If only the rains would come just to my own Rishi Valley.

The afternoon heat is sticky. Physically disturbing. The cool comes after five, close to six, close to dinner-time. But my room remains hot, everything, each piece of the mess under and on the cots and even the cots themselves, warm and unpleasant to the touch. It used to cool off by the time dinner was over, by the time I had finished licking the rice and sambar off of my fingers and walked in the cooler air down the road in the dark by the faint light of my cell phone, familiar sounds mixing: the tunes from the iPod, the birds still chirping, the relentless cicadas, the honking of rare motorcycles going by. But now, it does not cool off until midnight, technically the next day, ruining the post-dinner plans of comfort and productivity. I lay uncomfortably on the warmth of the sheets, swallow pain-killers for the dehydration headache, sip water mixed with Glucon D, try to read, think if I can afford a cold shower during this drought. Mostly, I am filling my head with thoughts not revolving around the numbers twenty-nine or twenty-two. One month left to shudder and distract myself.

When relief flows with the wind from the screened windows, it is not immediately noticed. The air cools gradually, like water boils gradually, first becoming lukewarm, then warm, then hot, only finally bubbling. The desire to sleep floats out the window with the hot air. The cool air allows the head to think clearly, to be productive, to be comfortable, to be creative, to be alive. Fully. Even though it is technically the next day, it is time to savor the one just lived, even if unremarkably routine. After all, it is this unremarkable routine that I will miss the most. The annoying Bollywood melody. The screaming cicadas. The green of the palm trees waving as I walk by them on my way to my forced vegetarian diet. A familiar “Helloooooooo” in the window. My whole life fitting under and on top of the two twin bed cots put together with thin mattresses on top. The heat sneaking out of my room when relief quietly spills in. The Subcontinent. Incredible India. My own Rishi Valley.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mystery Solved!

Due to the barely bearable heat in the afternoons, I spend my hours post-lunch to about 5:30pm in the computer lab. Of course, it's still just as hot in the computer lab, but the internet and communication with other human beings (Rishi Valley is a lonely place during school breaks...) keeps me conscious. However, since it is hot, I try to stay hydrated by drinking two one-liter bottles of water during the span of the 3-4 hours I am in the lab. Since I don't want to initially lug two bottles of water up to the lab, and since I live so close, I usually take a break at around 3:30 to go back to my room and swap out the empty water bottle for a fresh one (which is usually unpleasantly warm in the afternoon temperatures).

Anyway, during these breaks, I have recently noticed that sometimes, the tap in the courtyard of my house is open. As there is a huge water shortage in the Rishi Valley, this is a big deal. Who would come into my house and open my tap and then leave it running? This was a sort of unsettling mystery... Was it the kids? But they know, they know about the water shortage, they wouldn't... Would they? Who else could it be? Couldn't possibly be the adults -- they know better than anyone!

This morning, the mystery was solved.

I had quite a late night yesterday, reading and doing some work late into the night (past 3am). Since it cools off a bit at night, it's much nicer to work then. Thus, I let myself sleep in this morning. I wake around 11am, only to find intruders in my courtyard. Who is it? I scramble for my glasses and peer out the mesh window, where I see, no joke, a troupe of bonnet macaque monkeys! One jumps on the tap and opens it and begins drinking the water! When he is satisfied, more monkeys follow suit! Also, by my tap, there are empty tin cans from condensed milk left over from the pumpkin pie fiasco of Thanksgiving09. The monkeys were actually using these as cups!

I watched them for about 15 minutes and the show was truly incredible! Such confidence and swiftness in their movements. They were able to use both the tap and the "cups" -- intelligent! They took turns, shared, some showed dominance, they climbed stuff, and I think one tried to make sweet love to my hammock (thankfully, he failed). Also, they always had a monkey watching the main door to see if any disturbances were approaching. It was AWESOME. A mother not only got water for herself, but also made sure her little baby, clinging onto her front (stomach/chest area) got its fill. It was really an amazing sight.

When every member of the troupe was finished drinking, the last monkey closed the tap and climbed up to the roof and out of my house. He didn't close it all the way, though, so I had to venture outdoors to tightly close the water. I'm pretty sure these guys are the reason my tap is sometimes open in the afternoon. Mystery solved!

And that's how my day began today! Studying monkeys! Who could ask for more out of life?
And it's days like these and moments like these, when, despite the heat, I could not be happier about my decision to come to India this year. :)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Gender Bender

A few months ago, the Economist headlined the problems of Gendercide, the phenomena where many girls are aborted during pregnancy due to their sex. This is mostly a problem in east and southeast Asia, but it is prevalent in Africa and the Middle East, as well. The Economist article can be found here.

Yesterday, I was having a discussion with faculty members at Rishi Valley, where it was said that the tables are turning when it comes to Indian marriage. Traditionally, it is the men's family that decides on the size of the dowry, the presents the bride's family will provide, the date, the largess of the wedding, etc. The groom's family held all the power in the transaction and received many riches in the process, while the bride's family paid out. However, now, with a noticeable shortage of girls, the power balance is shifting. As less and less girls are available for marriage, they gain more and more power in the process. This is great news for India!

Ironically enough, gendercide, and the differences it creates in the realm of supply and demand of Indian brides, could play a significant part in empowering the women of India. This empowerment, in turn, can lead to a reduction of selecting only for the male child. India has a long way to go, but it is refreshing to see progress being made. Let's hope the awful practice will stop sooner, rather than later.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The magic of milk

As a lactard, I miss out on a lot of Indian delicacies.  First, there is buttermilk, which south Indians drink with and post meals daily.  (Buttermilk is yoghurt diluted with water.)  Then, there is cool curd, or yoghurt, which one can spoon into their mouth after eating some delightfully spicy thing, or which one can mix into rice for a cool trat.  Then, there is raita, a variation of curd with vegetables (usually onion), which one mixes in with their lemon or tomato or tamarind rice -- sooooo delicious.  I won't even get into the amazing desserts, all milk-based.

Indians eat milk products to quell their stomachs after the spicy main course.  Usually in the form of yoghurt, these post-meal snacks aid in digestion and provide the body with healthy probiotics (the opposite of antibiotics), the healthy bacteria.  It's great stuff. 

As I am bitter I can't have any, I urge all of you to double up your milk product intake today!  Have an extra ice cream cone in honor of me!  Yoplait your little heart out!  Slap an extra slice of cheese on that sandwich!  Do it for me.

And, if you want to learn how to make your own yoghurt, go here:

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Rains

I am in my room and the power has been cut. Once again. I am reading by the flashlight of my cell phone, a worthy and indestructible $20 investment I’m glad I’ve made. After the sun sinks, the heat retreats, and the air resembles something close to pleasant. As amazing as all of my travels have been, I enjoy greatly the feeling of being home, of being in my own bed, of being on my own terms. I notice the wind has picked up, and it smells of rain. Yashada and I have joked about rain earlier today, wistfully looking towards the heavens. Can it be?

I am in the bathroom, and the wind has picked up. It is noticeable even through my picture-frame-sized windows, ruffling my scattered clothes, disturbing the hygiene products on my shelves. This wind is strong, and I smile at the thought of the relief it’ll bring. Suddenly, I hear water. Or at least something I can hope is water, and I rush out.

In my room, through my window and screen door, I can hear it. Pouring. Gushing. Rushing and wetting and saturating every square centimeter of earth in my courtyard. The rain has come. It has finally come!

My happiness gushes as well; it pours out of me in the form of a big smile, even though there is no one at the rural center campus to see it. This rain will make everyone’s day. It will cool the earth, settle the dust, allow the trees to sprout more leaves. Maybe the pond will get bigger – so big that the villagefolk will be able to wash the cows there again. The frogs will come out. This is good for everyone.

But it is dinner time. I must go. The Rishi Valley dining hall waits for no one, and I am slightly hungry. If I don’t make it, I will definitely be hungry in three hours. And most of all, I have missed the food. My taste buds have missed its spice, as much as my fingers have missed its texture. I will go. The rain can come with.

I put on my flip flops and grab the umbrella. I cannot remember how many months have passed since I have needed to use it. Five? Four? I am excited at the thought. The smile has not left my face. Fumbling to open the door, the umbrella prematurely opens – perhaps it can too, somehow, feel the excitement of the event. As I step across the threshold, the rain intensifies. It is dancing now. Saturating. Filling. Flowing. Overflowing. Even in the darkness, it is beautiful. It covers the almost-full moon, interrupting the layer of night only with short flashes of lightning, which make me giddy.

I step out of the courtyard and into the wet sandy dirt. I know my shoes will be dirty, my feet covered in mud and sand and wet, sticky leaves even before I reach the road. I pause for a moment, savoring this thought. I know that my clothes will be soaked and no umbrella could ever truly assist in this type of downpour. This does not deter me. I pause for another moment, this time deciding how to navigate – my usual path includes scrambling down rocks where a stream once was, where a stream will now be reborn, thanks to the crying of the skies. I decide to brave it. Ankle deep in water, I descend. My cell phone, still my only source of light, is in my hands. I hope it will not get too wet. I hope it will still function. I hope my mom will still be able to call me. The phone gives me a wide, but not intensely bright, light. I hope the snakes aren’t out; the doctor is out of town this week.

The main road is a maze of tiny rivers and streams. I navigate clumsily, cool water rushing sand and mud particles between my toes, brushing my ankle bones, lapping at my shins. I try to walk in the middle of the road, where there seem to be the least amount of puddles. I have been traveling for too long to blindly walk the path; I cling to the light and persist.

Soon, the bottom of my Bermuda jean shorts is soaked, clinging to my legs. I pass the bridge and trudge uphill. The wind changes, bringing rain from my right, rather than my left, and water is running down my lower back. How silly I must look! There is no one on the road, no noise coming from the villages around, at least not any loud enough to overpower the rain. I pass the gate, and the watchman says something. He is hiding in his tiny booth, holding a flashlight in order to help me light my way. I say hello and smile vigorously. He cannot see or hear this, of course, in the midst of the rain. He must think I am insane. He might think that all while people are a little insane. In India, weather dictates, and the rain is loud and clear in its demand for you to stay home. But I am hungry, and I have missed the rice and sambar. In our Western contexts, we have been taught over and over that weather can be “conquered”. We put in air conditioning units and powerful heaters in our homes. We buy snow tires. We build overhead tunnels in Minneapolis to show nature who’s boss. It takes a volcano erupting and grounding flights for nearly a week to humble us, to humiliate all of our silly inventions. Of course nature knows, as it has always known, who is boss.

I hop now, from one sandbar to the other. My fear is no longer of snakes, but of branches being torn off of the neem trees and hitting me in the head. Still, I think, the branches that have fallen from the previous storm are not that large; I could escape with a few bruises and still make it to the dining hall for dinner. The rivers and streams lap at the soles of my feet; I am not cold.

Lightning strikes. Again and again. The night sky thunders. I play a childhood game, counting from when lightning strikes to when I hear thunder, bringing back memories of huddling with my grandmother in a huge bed in our dacha, amidst many heavy blankets, and counting from when lightning strikes to when we hear thunder. The point of the game was to find out how far away the lightning is, each count representing a number of kilometers, and thus, safety. I remember Ilya playing, too, and us rarely counting in unison, but somehow always ending on the same number. I count: one, two, three, four. Usually, you can stop counting after four, because the lightning is then far enough for you to stop caring. It flashes again, and I see the rivers rushing through the Rishi Valley campus. It is an exhilarating, beautiful sight. I laugh a laugh audible only to myself in this downpour, as my skin tingles with wetness. It is raining harder now.

A huge stream has formed where my trusted path once was. I navigate by jumping onto a sandbar and then a higher bank the water has made. I walk amongst vegetation, which holds the ground in place. This rain is the earth’s way of rejoicing. This rain gives life. It quenches the thirst of the ground, the crops, the food we’ll eat another day. It cools the air so we might be more productive the next day. It seeps into the ground, providing us with more cups to drink and more showers to be had. It is magic of the simplest kind – natural.

Here, in rural India, it does not take a volcano grounding flights to show you who’s boss. We all know. Nature is worshipped and loved and revered every day. A torrential downpour greatly changes the schedule of the next day, the next week. As does the lack thereof. Or even a three degree increase in the temperature. Here, in rural India, we do not see nature as a force to be conquered, something to be outsmarted by technology. Here, we see it as an inherent and symbiotic part of our life – a god, a mother, a natural complement of our day. And we celebrate it.

I finally reach the dance hut, from where I can see the dining hall. It seems eerily quiet, only wisps of whispers reaching through the music of dancing drops. As I prepare to climb the stone steps, I see that they have transformed into a mighty waterfall, water rushing down the stairs, splashing its way towards vegetation. I climb through the roaring pressure of the fall, washing my shoes in the process. I am thankful that we, as a society, are not sterile here. We don’t mind mud between our toes or rainwater to wash our feet. Some time later, when I return home, I do not wash my feet under the tap; the water of the rains is pure enough for me.

As I approach the dining hall, skipping over tiny streams making vessels in the tissue of the ground, I laugh again, inaudible in the downpour. I am soaked. I am happy. I’m not even cold. And I finally made it to dinner. I open the tap to wash my hands with soap before my meal, and at this, too, I laugh, for there is water all around me. A thought slips into my mind, I wonder how bizarre I look, I bet my hair is a mess. And this is, too, pleasing, an obvious worry of the Western world penetrating this beautiful Indian moment.

I hang my tired umbrella and sit, soaked, to have my dinner. The lunch lady gives me a smile that warms, comforting my dinner experience. It is pleasant in the dining hall – the power is out and the dim emergency lights add softness and warmth to the hot and tasty meal. I pick up rice and dal with my fingers and gingerly place it on my palate. It is nourishing, filling, comforting. The rain is pounding, banging, and threatening against the roof.

A couple of hours later, I am back in my room. The rain had ceased, moved on to water someone else’s crop, to better someone else’s day. I am dumbfounded by the stillness outside. It is like the rain never happened, like it never wreaked joyful havoc on our little valley. But I will not forget. I will remember. I will always remember.

Tomorrow will be a new day. A different day. Tomorrow will be a day after the rain.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Back at Rishi Valley...

I'm back at Rishi Valley from visiting Charlie and Samir, two fellow fellows, in Utterakhand, in the Himalayas working at APV School.  The visit was very insightful, as well as cool and beautiful.  I enjoyed myself a lot.  Thanks, Charlie and Samir, for being such wonderful hosts.  I'll definitely write a more elaborate post about my experiences at the school later.

Rishi Valley greeted me with cool air and the feelings of home.  The Mango Showers, intermittent rains before the monsoons, have started, and RV got a storm the day before yesterday.  Some trees lay broken by the side of the road, but the earth had a refreshed feeling to it, as well.  No longer does dust abound in great clouds as you walk through the soccer field.  There is a new green-ness to the campus, with new leafy sprouts coming from the earth.  The air smells cleaner, less dry.  It is a refreshing Rishi Valley, reminiscent of days in September in October, when it was still hot, but pleasant, crisp, and lush.  It is my favorite Rishi Valley.

It's also great to see the staff, the teachers, my favorite lunch ladies.  They have become so ingrained in my routines of life that I miss them without noticing, realizing their importance only after returning.  As my stay here winds down to the last two months, I get prematurely nostalgic.  Oh, how I will miss this place.  But, now, no time for sappy-ness, no time for sadness.  Now is a time for work.  As travels and sickness took away motivation and capability to complete more milestones, I now must return to productivity. 

Updates to come.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Keepin' it hot

I know I might seem obsessed with this heat dealio, but I'm serious. It's crazy hot.  I grew up in Texas. I used to play tennis matches in 100 degree weather. It was okay.  This is not okay.  It's over 100 every day now and the sun feels like it's sitting on your shoulers.

A fun story: the other day, Yashada, an awesome friend and lizard-researcher/ecologist here at Rishi Valley presented me with a chocolate bar (Yashada is obviously awesome).  I was very excited about this chocolate bar, because I do love me some chocolate.  The chocolate bar, upon lying in my room for half an hour, melted completely and stayed in this molten state throughout day and night. I had to squeeze chocolate into my mouth from the wrapper (my life is hard, I know).  It was in the shade, on the floor (which is cooler than other surfaces), and it was still molten 24/7.

That's how hot it is, ladies and gentlemen.  My brain refuses to work from noon to five. Womp womp.


Sorry I haven't updated in a while.  My b.

Here's a Cliff's Notes version of what's been going on:
  • It's been getting hotter and hotter every day
  • I've been crunching out milestones like it's my job (oh, wait, it is my job...)
  • I went to Delhi for a teacher's conference in the first week of April -- interesting insights gained
  • I am going to visit fellow fellows Charlie and Samir up in the Himalayas at the APV School.  They use a crazy holistic methodology up there, which sounds fantastic, so I am super psyched to check it out.  I am also really excited about escaping this damned heat for a week.
  • I will have the first draft of the 3rd grade curriculum done by the first of May!
  • I might or might not go to Rwanda next year.  Am trying to figure it out. Would be an AMAZING opportunity
  • I miss Chicago, even though I hear it snowed this week
  • All of the students and most of the teachers from the main boarding school left on the 1st.  Life is much more lonely now
  • I just found out that REC has been operating at half-days.  This does not motivate me to work harder...
  • I still love my job

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Oh, the weather outside is...

...blippin' HOT.  It's ridiculous.  I'm sure it gets to somewhere in the 30s (Celsius) during the day.  The worst is between 3 and 4 pm, where you just want to kill yourself (or maybe take cold shower, but there's a water shortage...).

Now, I've been in hot climates before (hello, Texas.  And Ghana.), but never in dry heat.  Everyone always says that dry heat is awesome and humid heat feels like you're stuck in [pardon my French] a ballsack.  I disagree.  Not with the latter point, but definitely with the former.  I actually prefer the humid heat.  Even though you're unpleasantly sticky, at least you're not ridiculously dehydrated.  The dry heat makes everything feel/look like a barren dying wasteland.  It kind of sucks.

Also, it's confusing, because it's March, but leaves are constantly falling/have already falled off of trees and it's scorching hot all the time.  It's a mix of what fall looks like and what summer [/hell] feels like, so I'm very confused.  And my skin and hair are continuously angry, because everything is so dry and unpleasant.  Booo.

The only refuge with this dry heat is that it actually cools off significantly at night, to the point where I have to cover my body with a sheet at around 6am.  Apparently, this will no longer happen in April.  And it will be even hotter in May.  Oh, summer in India!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Vacation = awesome

I returned back from my travels around Coorg and Ooty yesterday, and although it feels good to be back home, the vacation was FANTASTIC and I'm sad it has come to an end. 

Here's a brief review of all the awesome things that happened while traveling:
- Smoked some hookah in Bangalore with Nikolai the Sunday night before my departure for farther places.  It was an awesome transition from Rishi Valley to traveling, and the soundtrack was AWESOME.  Huzzah!
- Hiked to a waterfall in Coorg -- the 8-10km (depending on whom you ask) hike through coffee plantations and beautiful forest was GORGEOUS
- After arriving at the waterfall, we found ourselves at a Bollywood movie shoot.
- Bought many kilos of Indian coffee beans, as well as amazing Indian spices (so. much. cinnamon.) in the Coorg market.  AWESOME.
- I have missed Chinese food.  In the past week, I had gotten my fill.  Nom nom nom nom.
- Went to Dubare Forest Reserve to BATHE RETIRED ELEPHANTS.  This was, perhaps, the highlight of the trip.  Old elephants were walked out of their pens to the river, where they peacefully laid down to be scrubbed by their caretakers.  I got to scrub an old lady elephant.  She was the sweetest.  Some elephants got feisty and sprayed the tourists.  It was awesome.  Another elephant kind of flipped his shit and ran away to the deep part of the river -- the caretakers had to get a much bigger elephant to push him out and back to his appropriate place.  It was awesome.  I love elephants.  We then got to feed the elephants.  Best day ever?  Mayhaps.
- The weather in Ooty was AWESOME.  It was light-jacket weather ALL DAY every day!  Amazing!  It was cuddleweather ALL NIGHT.  So great to feel cold again! 
- Went around town to see some fantastic botanical gardens, rowed a boat in the Ooty Lake, climbed some hills to see magical overviews of the city.  All in amazing weather! 
- A bunch of people make their living by making homemade chocolate in Ooty.  Epic win.
- Rode horses up the hills in gorgeous forests.  Beautiful, scenic, fantastic.  Our horses were also super sweet.  We fed them lots of carrots.
- Bought and planted flowers.  I miss gardening and grandma.
- Found non-dairy whipping cream and had a tremendous amount of coffee shakes!  NOM NOM NOM NOM
- Speaking of noms: shwarma. 
- Back in Bangalore, went to karaoke with Nandan.  What an awesome time! Dancing and singing with some neat Indians.  Crazy great stuff!!

Now, it's back to Rishi Valley, where we're hosting a training for some peeps from Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan.  Fun stuff!  I've got to complete 10 milestones in a month, so this is a challenge I am looking forward to! 

My life is exciting beyond belief.

If you want postcards, send me your address!!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

New Travels

My travels to Coorg and Ooty are starting in an hour!
Overnight in Bangalore on the way and then off to the cooooooolness of the Western Ghats!

It's been much too hot at Rishi Valley.

Can't wait for a week full of awesome.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

New phone number!

My phone might or might not have gotten stolen in Chennai**, so I now have a new number.  Call me, honeys, it gets boring in the evenings (which is mornings, your time).

+91 889 756 7457



**Do you notice how we/people automatically assume that things get stolen when something goes missing?  The immediate reaction isn't the thought of us being careless or us misplacing something, but someone else stealing it.  This might be just a fact for me and the people I know, but I feel like we've been trained by society (to have this expectation) to always assume that it's other people's fault.  I hate that.

Friday, February 26, 2010


Heading to Chennai in a couple of hours to visit my awesome fellow fellows and run a marathon!  (By marathon, I mean 3.7 kilometers.  And by run, I mostly mean walk, 'cause I've been feeling under the weather lately...)  It should be a blast!  I'm excited to see good people and have good conversations and hugs.  And see Chennai!  I haven't done that yet!  Should be fun times.

The English Camp Session one is over and we've had two other sessions since then (I didn't participate much in those, since I got sidetracked with other work).  I will debrief on that excitement in the next post sometime next week.  I will say that if you have really really low expectations for something, it definitely increases the chances of them being met.  So...hooray?

I hope everyone's doing well state-side!  I've been reading some depressing news about our generation and about American politics and about unemployment.  It's all very sad, really. 

The time is now rushing too fast -- I can't believe it's the end of February!  Aaargh!  Where did the time go?!?  Only 4 months of the Fellowship left...  Crazy stuff!  (It also seems to be moving at an increasing pace...)

Much love.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

What I'm working on...

On Wednesday of this past week, one of the co-directors of RIVER, Mrs. Rao, had a brilliant idea: why not host a 3-day camp for 2nd and 3rd grade children in order to teach them essential lessons in English, in order to enable them to start the English program next year at a higher level than our 1st grade babies?

This idea had been discussed since November. As our lessons are based around multi-grade multi-level learning, it would be kind of silly to have all of the children start at level one the first year.  Thus, we decided to equip some children with the knowledge to start at the appropriate level for their age/grade level. 

However, the brilliance of the idea comes from the details: first, 3 days.  That really doesn't seem like enough days to cover two years worth of curriculum.  Secondly, 2nd and 3rd grade children.  That equals around 140 students.  And that is a lot of students for 5 instructors (which is how many we have to run the camp).  Thirdly, essential lessons in English include learning how to read.  In three days.  With a teacher:student ratio of 5:140*.  Brilliant.

The best part?  The camp will start on Monday, giving us approximately two days to prepare, as Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are all holidays here at Rishi Valley this week. 

So, this is my challenge of the week:
2 days to prepare
3 day camp
140 children
5 instructors
2 years worth of curriculum
kids all need to learn to read

Needless to say, I'm working through the 3-day weekend.  Can't wait for Monday. I'm hoping it'll be bloody brilliant.

*We've decided to split up the children in two groups. So, this reduces the teacher:student ratio to 5:70 or 1:14, which is much better.  Hooray.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Watching Bollywood in Rishi Valley

I don't know if any of you reading have had any experience in watching Bollywood movies, but it's quite a trip.

First, some fun facts. Bollywood is the largest film industry in the world. The name originates from the location where most of the filming takes place – Mumbai. The “B” comes from the old name Bombay. The -ollywood part comes from America. Most Bollywood films are in Hindi. Bollywood is not the only film industry in India. There is also Tollywood, in southern India, with the “T” deriving from the Dravidian languages spoken on screen, most notably Tamil (although Telugu is also thrown into the mix, along with Kannada and Mayalam from Karnataka and Kerala, respectively). Bollywood is huge and Indians love it. And I love it.

Another fun fact: another emerging film industry in the world is Nollywood of Nigeria. The movies are pretty hilarious, and not really in a good way. They are definitely worth a watch.

Bollywood movies are pretty awesome. A lot of them rival American films in drama and poignancy and acting. However, one ever-present characteristic is the fact that all the characters, along with hundreds upon hundreds of extras, will spontaneously burst into dance and song. It's kind of crazy. Think of watching American Beauty and then having everyone bust out into a pop song with NSYNC choreography. This stuff is nuts. However, it makes sense in the Indian context, and the viewers love it.

In my second or third week at Rishi Valley, a co-worker of mine, Kala, was kind enough to take me to the movies to watch Maghadeera, an action-packed Telugu film. Now, the film wasn't entirely philosophic, but it was a pretty hilarious action bit. Furthermore, it was pretty great, because I understood everything that happened even though the movie was entirely in Telugu. Good acting or the best acting? Exactly.

There were a few moments in the movie-going experience that were completely foreign to me. First, there was an actual velvet curtain in the theater. Haha. You got assigned seats. You could bring your own snacks. But, these are the little things. The big things included the fact that people openly cheered, whistled, and whooped all throughout the movie. (Awesome.) In addition, there was an intermission, when the movie was shut off. Crazy stuff. (This was appropriate, considering the average time of an Indian movie is more than three hours.) Also, the plot included lots of dancing. And singing. And badly (or greatly?) choreographed dance. It also included the characters all of a sudden appearing in the Swiss Alps and Zurich for one of their musical numbers. (My friends here have repeatedly told me that this is completely natural, because it's like they're in a “dream land”. When I tried to explain that Zurich isn't actually a dream land, but a real place with real people in it, they didn't get it. They're like, “But in the movie, it is like a dream. It is a fake place, like Candyland.” Um...okay. I guess. I still don't get it.)

In moments like the ones I experienced in the movie theater, you always wish you had a friend around. A friend from your context, with your schemas and expectations, whom you could look at and burst out laughing without having to say anything. The movie experience was awesome for bonding with Kala, but it also highlighted how foreign I am here, how there are some things that I will likely never understand.

Last weekend, I watched my second Indian movie, this time a Bollywood film with Amir Khan. (He's like the Brad Pitt of India or something like that, although I'm convinced he looks like what I'd imagine Jude Law's and Eminem's love child to look like, if one ever came to existence. He's hot, though. And does great/thoughful movies.) This time, I was at Rishi Valley, and the film, the name of which escapes me at this moment, was played for our senior school students.

The film contained a great lesson about friendship and the complexities of love. The actors were talented and showed a range of emotion. However, the movie also did not lack those whimsical pop songs and choreographed dances (Switzerland was replaced with scenes from Goa and Australia, this time), as well as the overly cheesy B rolls. Awesome stuff.

Yet, there was no intermission. And, at Rishi Valley, our students did not cheer, whoop, and holler. They laughed. Loudly. With me. They made fun of the overly cheesy portrayals of “love”. And they rolled on the floor during ALL of the singing/dancing scenes.

And you know what?

I felt right at home.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Speaking of other fellows...

I have forgotten to link this before, but you can read all about the other fellows' placements, projects, and experiences on the AIF Service Corps blog! 

I just contributed with my own reflections on my year here.

[P.S. Thanks for all who read my blog and send me their thoughts.  It's really great to hear from you!  :)  Sorry I haven't updated in a while -- I'll make sure to write some stuff about the travels/midpoint/getting back to Rishi Valley soon.]

Other awesome things going on in India

So, lots of fellows are working on all kinds of awesome things all over India, and I wanted to share one with you!

Kirsten, a fellow fellow in Chennai who has extended her fellowship from last year (meaning this is the second year she's been kicking ass and taking names), is making a DVD series for public schools in Tamil Nadu to help teach kids English.  The material is pretty awesome!  I urge you to check it out and support Kirsten, if you can!

The link below provides the project description, teaser video, links to imporant blogs, and just more information on this really cool project:

First and foremost...


Happy 27th, bro.  I hope everything is fawesome on your side of the world.

Yer sis.

P.S. Since I am unable to call you, I will use all kinds of social media to wish you a happy day today.  Mmmhmm.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I know I haven't updated the blog in a while, and that has been due to the abundance of traveling I've engaged in in the past month.  Kolkata was followed by the Sunderbans, then by Darjeeling, a five day trek in the Himalayas, more Kolkata, a brief 4-day stint back at Rishi Valley, Hampi in Karnataka, and midpoint in Kerala.  It's been a fantastic, fantastic time.  I'll try to write a collection of essays highlighting my thoughts on each of my destinations, and I'll try to include pictures, as well (if the internet will allow).

The current news back at Rishi Valley is:
  • It's warm again!  80s in the daytime, 70s at night.
  • The puppies are growing, although my favorite, WonkyEye, is missing.  This breaks my heart.
  • The internet is off at REC.  This is sad and limits a lot of my capabilities at work.  We're hoping it'll start running again soon.  I can use the internet at the main office, but this seems to be a hassle for all parties involved.
  • The food is still delicious!  I have really missed Rishi Valley food.
  • We're expecting a team from Mumbai to come visit on the 1st of February.  Hopefully, that'll work out this time.
  • Fellows will come visit me!  Samir, a fellow education fellow, is scheduled to come see me in early February -- it will be exciting to show him around and hear his feedback!  Behzad is supposed to come early Feb, as well.  Kirsten, an awesome fellow who has been here for almost two years (her fellowship got extended from last year) wants to come visit, so that'll also be exciting, as her work is so interesting and closely related to ours!  :)  Charlie should also be here in March or April or so. I'm hoping some others will come, too!  I love visitors.
  • Currently, a Canadian woman is staying at REC.  She is really fantastic, and I have enjoyed my interactions with her greatly.  She's a bit older and is full of fascinating stories.  She is presently working in Bhopal on human rights issues, and it has been great to learn from her.  She is working on enhancing our English curriculum (she did a lot of ESL and English-reading learning with students with disabilities back in Toronto).  I am so happy to have her help on writing more passages -- I feel like she will do great things for our program, even in the short time that she is here.
  • I HAVE HAMMOCKS.  I am super excited!  Pictures to come.

Life is good. 

Also: happy belated birthday to my awesome mother!  And, mom, thanks for the care package you sent me: it was the best thing ever!!

Monday, December 21, 2009

My 2 days in Kolkata

I guess I underestimate the internet sometimes.  Haha.  I had an eventful day today, in which I'm sure I logged more than 6 kilometers of walking (I'm pretty sure I'm underestimating), so I decided to spend my evening in a chill way, checkin' my mail and eatin' some pastries.  (Rock.)

The past two days have been pretty awesome.  I like Kolkata. 

Whenever I was on the bus in Bangalore, I kept thinking, "I don't really like traveling in India all that much.  I love Rishi Valley a lot, but I don't think I like India otherwise."  This is a surprising and shitty and pretty terrible thing to think, considering I live here.  But, now, sitting at this internet cafe off of Sudder Street in the cool Kolkata evening, I reconsider.  I do like India.  It's diverse and scary and crowded and a complete sensory overload, but it is also fully fantastic.  I am loving it.  Maybe not all the time, but I am.  So...that's good. :)

Yesterday, I got in and checked into my hostel.  I'm staying in a dorm of this hostel, and I gotta say, it's pretty neat.  I thought this might be a challenge, to be a lonesome chick traveling, but so far it has been safe and private and comfortable.  (The only other girl in the dorm, from Korea, did say she saw a "rat".  But then she said it was tiny and cute and called it "Micky Mouse".  Either way, the beds are high off the floor and all my stuff in in my under-bed lock-box, safe from rodent teeth.  Win.)

After a shower and unpacking a bit, I tried to take a cab to Tagore's house.  I kind of failed.  The cab took me to Calcutta University (it's still spelled that way for some reason), which is in the same area, but not in front of the museum.  I wandered around a lot and checked out the sights, but failed to find the actual house/museum. No matter.  After that, I got a call from Nafisa and met up with the girls in front of the Victoria Museum. 

Nafisa and Jess did a fantastic job showing me around.  They are so awesome!  We took a crazy cab ride over the two bridges crossing from Kolkata into Howrah and back, briefly checked out BBD Bagh and Park Street, and chilled for a while at the Park Street Cemetery, which is home to a bunch of dead Brits.  The place has a crazy vibe to it - I really enjoyed it (even though I am not a fan of cemeteries in the least).  Then, we went back to Jess's and Nafisa's for a much needed nap (right after Nafisa and I chowed on some quality Chinese food).  Post-nap, we had dinner at an awesome Indian restaurant, which had a Bollywood theme.  (Win.)  The food was delicious.  The company was also great.  Jess and Nafisa have some fantastic friends, and everyone was super nice and hilarious.  :)

I came back to crash at the hostel.  Today, I woke up and explored Kolkata by foot and metro.  I walked to the Park Street Metro Stop, getting an omelet on the way.  It was delicious.  I met this crazy Brit, who talked about education and Russian literature.  Then, I took the metro (which was designed by the Soviets and has the looks to prove it) down one stop to walk around the Maidan.  The Maidan is to Kolkata as Central Park is to New York.  It was a pretty great time, and I got to see a lot of statues (among them of Indira Ghandi), the Birla Planetarium, various museum and movie complexes, and generally a bunch of south Kolkata landmarks.  After checking out the areas around Victoria Memorial, I hailed a cab to Gorky Sedan to check out the Russian Cultural Center.  (Fun fact: Kolkata has a bunch of yellow cabs riding around that you could hail.  In other Indian cities, I've only seen this type of thing with rickshaws.  For example, in Bangalore, if you want a cab, you have to call it and then wait for it.  But you can hail a rickshaw at any corner.  In Kolkata, on the other hand, the cab is everywhere, and a rickshaw functions as a shared transport - 5 people per rickshaw - with specific pre-determined routes.  Crazy stuff! :))  There was a sweet street sign on Gorky Terrace, but, unfortunately, the Russki center disappointed, as it's library was "under construction" and I wasn't even allowed to pee, as the man was like, "".  I could've returned from 4pm to 9pm to watch some Russian television, but decided against it. :)

After Gorky, I walked to the metro stop (I got a little lost on the way, but that was cool, too) to head to the BBD Bagh area, which is the administrative area of town with a bunch of super old super British buildings.  I got to see the famous Writer's building, a bunch of banks (beautiful architecture!) the High Court, and some general mayhem.  There were a bunch of working peeps in suits and the like eating lunch at various chop stalls along the road.  It was an awesome opportunity for people watching.  I enjoyed it.  :)  I got really hungry when looking for the metro stop by Gorky Sadan, so when I was wandering the surrounds of BBD Bagh, I was SUPER hungry.  But I couldn't find any place to sit!  So, I got some street chow mein and made peace with that.  It was delicious.  I also got some pastries (the West Bengalis are way into baking and pastries -- love it). 

Then, I headed to the Armenian Church, which was in the midst of a crazy crazy crazy market (which I'm proud to say, I navigated with only little frustration).  Apparently, there's a pretty sizable Armenian community here, and they have their own church. Cool stuff.  After this, my plan was to go to the flower market or to go to Park Street and chill out at the Oxford Book Store, but I suddenly felt extremely exhausted, so I headed back to my hostel for an afternoon nap.  Now, I got a bunch of pastries for dinner, and am exploring Sudder Street.  I'm going to take it easy tonight, shower, re-pack, read some books (I bought White Tiger and The World Is Flat at this little bookstore right by my hostel) and hit the hay early, so I can get up at 6 or so to head to the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve.  Should be pretty awesome!  :-D

Nafisa is feeling a bit under the weather (get better, homegirl) and Jess is entertaining a woman from the UNDP for work, so I think I'll let them rest and chill out.  I hope to see them on the 3rd, when we'll be swinging by through town (24 hours for me, 2.5 days for Charlie and Anya).  It was so awesome to see the girls, and also see Kolkata with peeps that live here and own the city.  Yayyy.

Thus far, the adventure has been pretty great.  I'm psyched.  Sunderbans tomorrow early morning for two days, and then meeting up with Charlie, Behzad, and Nicole, and Anya on Christmas.  Can't. Wait.  Awesome. Overload.  w00t.  w00t.

Happy holidays to all!  And happy birthday to my awesome awesome awesome sister-in-law.  I wish you great things this year! :) 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rocky start...

My adventures have begun, albeit with a very rocky start. 

The first road bump occurred when Andhra Pradesh proclaimed a massive state-wide bandh (strike) on Friday and Saturday.  My flight was scheduled for Saturday at 6:45pm.  I asked around, and everyone assurred me that no buses were going to be running, and that I needed to order a car.  The taxi costs ten times what I allotted for the trip to Bangalore, so I wasn't very excited about this.  I was even less excited, when I heard that I would have to leave at 4am on Saturday morning, because of border violence.  Apparently, protesters shut down the borders and vehicles can't really get in or out past 6:30am.  Womp womp.  This sucked.  I was a bit down, but decided to make the best of it.  Even being ten times the budget, the trip would still be under $30, so whatever.  And I decided to be productive and spend my day in a coffee shop or internet cafe, finishing up the last of my grad school apps and letters to grandma.  We scheduled the car.

The day went on.  The car got rescheduled to 5:30, as the border is only 20km away, which was nice.  Also, Kala, my awesome co-worker, and Nirmala, the 6th and 7th grade English teacher at REC said they would join me for the trip, significantly reducing car costs (win).  I packed and got ready and everything was looking up. 

When I arrived to Bangalore, things got even better.  Nirmala invited me to her super swanky apartment in a suburb of Bangalore, where I took a nap, was fed fruit and cereal and tea and cookies, and wrote a letter to grandma.  I was excited that this didn't include spending a bunch of money.  A huge thank out goes to Nirmala for her hospitality and general awesomeness.  Later, she drove me and her son (he's so cute and 10!) to a mall, where he insisted that we have McDonalds for lunch.  This was pretty funny.  I always like going to chains in foreign countries, because you can really see the differences (and if you can't, that says something, too).  Oh, globalization.  It's so tricky and stuff.  Anyway, I had a "Mexican chicken wrap", which didn't taste Mexican, but DID taste delicious.  Then, I was off to the bus to take to the airport!

It was a bit after 4 when we reached the bus stop, which was in a different place than the one I usually go to.  The bus was scheduled to come at 4:30.  The usual journey time is an hour - an hour and ten minutes.  I was already cutting it close, so I was a bit nervous.  (Although, Indians suggest you get to the airport an hour before departure, which means I would've had 5 minutes to spare.)  The bus showed up almost at 5pm.  Now, I was visibly nervous and generally freaking out, quietly, on the inside.  But, everything being out of my hand, I turned on my Visbor playlist on my iPod and tried to enjoy the ride.

And, wow, what a ride it was.  We arrived at the airport almost three hours later, due to traffic, which left about seven people, yours truly included, completely missing their flights.  I have never missed a flight before, so this was a real DebbieDowner.  Also, as I am in India, they really don't care why you missed your flight, so they charge you out of the wazoo for replacement tickets.  Womp womp. 

I don't know what the deal is, but I am way more zen in India than elsewhere.  If I was home, I would've probably cried for three hours and then called my parents and cried to them and then cried myself to sleep in a corner somewhere.  Here, I decided that it was out of my hands by this point, and I had to do what I had to do.  I bought another ticket to Kolkata, leaving the following morning, and silently reflected on the circumstance.  Somehow, I was not freaking out.  I finished the letter to grandma and got the envelope all put together.  I will be mailing it out Monday.  I sat and read my guidebook about Kolkata to figure out what I was going to be doing the next two days.  I napped.  I listened to Vysotsky.  I did not even cry.  I like this.  I mean, I feel like sometimes, crying can be and is very helpful.  But shit happens.  And you have to roll with it.  (I think a redeeming factor is that I don't spend any money at Rishi Valley, so I can actually afford to throw some away.  The only awful thing is the opportunity costs.  I could've done so many things with that sum...  I'm trying not to focus on this.)  I did feel stupid.  And I still do.  This definitely could've been prevented.  I could've arrived at the airport at 7am and sit there for 12 hours all day before my flight.  But, ugh, I don't know.  Bygones?

At least I had a good day in Bangalore.

I'm trying to be more positive in life.

Alright, I'm off to catch my flight and truly begin my adventures.  Hopefully, this is the worst of it, and everything is gonna be awesome from here on out.  Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Much love to everyone. 

I probably won't be able to blog from here on out (surprisingly, Bangalore airport has free internet in a room tucked away behind a bookstore!  Who knew!), since internet access will be very limited ('cause I'll be on a mountain, hoes!), but I wish everyone the happiest of holidays.  And happy new year.  I hope it rocks.

Friday, December 18, 2009

New phone

Oh, also, speaking of phones, I got a new number.
Ever since April 2008, I have been terrified of people not being able to reach me in cases of emergency.  This post is so this doesn't happen.

My new digits are: +91 810 692 7939

Adventures abound!

For the next 16 days, I will be traveling.  My schedule is roughly as follows:

Dec. 19: fly out to Kolkata
Dec. 20-21: exploring Kolkata
Dec. 22-23: exploring Sunderbans Tiger Reserve and taking a night bus to Siliguri
Dec. 24: meeting up with fellow fellows - Behzad, Nicole, and Charlie
Dec. 25: greeting Anya at the train station and hugging a lot (Merry Christmas, indeed!  I love that girl!).  Heading out of Siliguri to either Darjeeling or Sikkim, depending on the political situation
Dec. 26: Day in Darjeeling or Gangtok, Sikkim
Dec. 27 ~ Jan. 1: Trek in the Himalayas.  Watch sunrises.  Appreciate all the beauty in life.
Jan. 2: Back to base.  Hang out, buy some tea and souveniers, get excited about 2010. Night bus to Kolkata
Jan 3: Day in Kolkata with Charlie and Anya (and maybe Behzad)
Jan 4: Early morning flight from Kolkata to Bangalore.  Inshallah, go back to Rishi Valley.  If border violence is still prevalent, stay in Bangalore, order a car to Rishi Valley for tomorrow and wait for Anya to arrive.  Eat at Pizza Hut.  Start working.

Not mentioned, but totally on the agenda: chicken and beers.

I will be tweeting my trip, since I now can using my Indian mobile phone.  You can follow at:
I've never really gotten into Twitter before, but maybe now that it's available on my phone on some Himalayan trail, it'll work.  We'll see...

Anyway, HAPPY HOLIDAYS to everyone!  Much love from this side of the world.  Send me postcards and cookies to Rishi Valley, so I can come back to some holiday cheer.  :-D

Thursday, December 17, 2009

This has nothing to do with India...

But!  I was procrastinating writing my grad essays, and stumbled upon this on Wikipedia.  A friend and I were discussing birthdays and Wikipedia-ing dates (it's fun), and I stumbled upon this for Tatiana's Day!

(All of the following information is from Wikipedia)

[I had no idea that Tatiana's Day was actually directly connected to Students' Day!  I thought the two just coincided.  So awesome!]

Tatiana Day (Russian: Татьянин день, Tatyanin den' ) is a Russian religious holiday observed on January 25 according to the Gregorian calendar, January 12 according to the Julian. It is named after Saint Tatiana, a Christian martyr in 3rd century Rome during the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus.
In 1755 on the name day of Ivan Shuvalov's mother Tatiana Rodionovna, his mistress Empress Elizabeth of Russia endorsed his petition to establish a university in Moscow. The church of Saint Tatiana was later built in the university campus, the Russian Orthodox Church declared Saint Tatiana the patron saint of students, and Tatiana Day has become celebrated as Russian Students Day.

[And then I decided to learn about my saint.]

Saint Tatiana was a Christian martyr in 3rd century Rome during the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus. She was a deaconess of the early church.
According to legend, she was the daughter of a Roman civil servant who was secretly Christian, and raised his daughter in the faith, and she became a deaconess in the church. This was dangerous, and one day the jurist Ulpian captured Tatiana and attempted to force her to make a sacrifice to Apollo. She prayed, and miraculously, an earthquake destroyed the Apollo statue and part of the temple.

Tatiana was then blinded, and beaten for two days, before being brought to a circus and thrown into the pit with a hungry lion. But the lion did not touch her and lay at her feet. This resulted in a death sentence being pronounced, and after being tortured, Tatiana was beheaded with a sword on January 12 (Julian calendar) (January 25 in the Gregorian calendar), around AD 225 or 230.

[That is quite a story!!  Thanks, dad, for my name.  :)  I do find it interesting that Tatiana is the patron saint of students.  Maybe this whole education reform track was meant to be, if you're into that fate-ist stuff...]

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bad news, good news

Bad news: We did not make it to Bangalore today, because there is a bandh (strike) in Madanapalle, shutting down stores and businesses. Andhra Pradesh has canceled all of their state buses. There has been some agitation in the state. To make a very long story super short (and overly simplistic), a politician dude in northern Andhra Pradesh went on an 11-day hunger strike asking for the creation of a new state. This new state would be called Telangana and would encompass about 10 districts in the north and northwest of AP (Andhra Pradesh). Central government said last Wednesday that it approves of the secession, which is when all shit broke loose. This weekend, riots and strikes have reached the south, most notably Anantapur. However, they even reached Chittoor (my district's capital). Madanapalle pretty much shut down today. This sucks.

I assure everyone I am safe at Rishi Valley. There has been no tension/unrest here. Even though Madanapalle is only 9 miles away, Rishi Valley is worlds away from it all.

To make life better, we had pizza night tonight at the dining hall and Harry Potter 6 was screened for movie night. Win. :)

Good news:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Woo woo!

Sorry I haven't updated in a while! Work has been super busy, and I've been trying (and succeeding!) to meet deadlines and get everything done before leaving for the Xmas break. It's been pretty great, though.

I'll do a general update of what has been going on around here:

1. Drama
Pradeep decided to leave the English team without telling anyone. He still works with the 7th grade children at the rural school, but is no longer involved in the English team. This is SUPER awkward, considering he was the head of the English team. Womp womp. Anyway, in this process, he's managed to screw over all of his co-workers in the ET, since they had a deadline the week he left and were relying on him to finish his work, which he did not do. Ughhh. I hate drama, so this was kind of stressful/generally unpleasant. Everything is still pretty awkward regarding Pradeep, but at least our expectations of him have dropped to zero.

2. Mallory and Chase!
Mallory e-mailed me a while back asking if she could come and volunteer, and we said we'd love to have her. She is a superstar. We went to Northwestern together and had a bunch of mutual friends. We also hung out a couple of times in some good company (and at a TFA interview - haha). Now, Mallory is being a BAMF/Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, but she wanted to get out and do awesome things in India for winter break, thus she is here. She brought along Chase, who is an awesome Kentuckian also on the Rhodes at Oxford. They have been really really great. They brought a thousand pounds of fun-sized candy, which we devoured in three days. And we curse all the time. And it's just great to have someone to fully understand your perspective. They've been given bikes by the REC, so we're out daily scaring villagers on our awesome white-people-bike-gang. It must be quite a sight, haha.

3. Puppies!
Are still adorable! And growing! I'm gonna take the wonky-eyed one and love it, I'm pretty sure. Pictures to come (I've already taken them!). The puppies will be a really great time-consumer once I am done with my grad school applications.

4. Foundation for English Curriculum for Grade 3 completed!
Yesterday was my deadline to complete all of the themes, vocabulary lists, structures and reading passages for the grade 3 program. When I come back from all the traveling, I'm gonna start spittin' out mad milestones. It's going to be AWESOME.

5. Bangalore
We're going there for the weekend. BALLER. We're gonna go to the movies and drink lots of coffee and eat lots of pizza/chicken/meat/NOMNOMNOMs and maybe see some sights, as well. (Bangalore really isn't a very spectacular city, sights-wise, but it's supposed to have fantastic food/shopping options. Haha. Oh, well, we'll make the best of it! :)) We're leaving in a couple of hours.

6. TRAVEL!!!
I have exactly a week until I leave for West Bengal awesomeness! I'm going to hit up Kolkata, the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, Darjeeling, and do a Himalayan trek. Happy holidays, indeed. My Christmas present? Anya's rolling in to meet me in Darjeeling on Christmas Day to accompany me on the Himalayan trek and be generally awesome. I! AM! SO! EXCITED!

7. It's cold in Rishi Valley
Not Chicago-cold. But cold, nonetheless. I have to wear socks and sneakers every day. And my hoodie. I also have to close my windows at night. And I use TWO woolen blankets in addition to two sheets and a soft blanket I brought from the States. Brrrrr. I might or might not have caught a cold. I'm hoping the pizza and beers will help this weekend!

Life is pretty awesome. Since next week is supposed to be super busy with me tying up loose ends before leaving, I don't know how much I'll be updating (I'll try my best). And I doubt they have internets up there in the Himalayas, so that will be limited as well.

Happy holidays to everyone!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Co-Worker One-liners

Pradeep: Tania, now that Michael Jackson is dead, who will replace him as America's great music maker? Who is now the big popular person like Michael Jackson?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I just wanted to share with everyone how my Thanksgiving went. As you may or may not know, I am the only American working at the Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Resources (RIVER), as well as the only American at the Rishi Valley School. And by "American," I mean "Russian." I guess what I'm really trying to say is that no one here has ever heard of Thanksgiving.

This past week, we had a guest staying with us. Tony Anderson is a volunteer for Open Learning Exchange in Nepal, an organization that works to enhance the One Laptop Per Child project. Mr. Anderson brought us some laptops, a server, and a bunch of great new ideas on incorporating laptops into our classrooms and, more importantly, how to improve (and essentially fix) the OLPC project through our methodology. In this way, we could very easily provide fantastic educational opportunities to thousands upon thousands of kids in Rwanda, Mongolia, Uruguay, Brazil, Nepal, etc. Since he's so awesome and brought laptops, the bosses wanted to show him a good time. Thus, when I mentioned pumpkin pie and Mr. Anderson seemed excited, they said they'd arrange whatever was needed to make this work.


Now, I've never made pumpkin pie before. This is probably because you can buy a pumpkin pie in the store in America for way less than what it would cost to actually bake one. The store bought ones are quite delicious, and our family is usually in a turkey coma before getting to the pie, anyway, so it doesn't matter much. I love cooking/baking, so I thought I could handle making a pumpkin pie. I made a list of ingredients.

We planned to start making the pumpkin pie by 3pm on Thursday, so it would be cooled and ready to serve after dinner. Mmm mm mm. We were so excited.

The first snag in the plan came when I found out there was no evaporated milk anywhere near Rishi Valley. No one has even heard of it. I decided to search for another recipe, and found one that called for heavy cream. I ordered that from the office. Apparently, it was all sold out in Madanapalle (the nearby town) and would not be available until the Monday after Thanksgiving. Fail. I did some research, and decided it was appropriate to substitute condensed milk for evaporated milk. I decided to not use any sugar, because the condensed milk would take care of the sweetening. Okay, we're back on track. This is still going to be awesome!

Wednesday night, I received a pressure cooker (for the pumpkin) and a mixer. I though I would use the kitchen by my apartment to prepare the pie, and then head to my bosses' house (they're an AWESOME power couple) to bake the pie.

On Thursday, I started to make the dough. I mixed all the ingredients and kneaded that shit and it even tasted a little bit like dough. The recipe called for the dough to be refrigerated, as that makes some sort of science-y process (social science represent!) happen to make it more delicious. After half an hour of running around and trying to get the keys to the kitchen, which has a fridge in it, I finally figured this out. Also, in the process of making the dough, I was brought all of my requested ingredients: pumpkin, eggs, sugar, salt, cinnamon, cloves, ginger. The ginger was just a dry piece of ginger. It was in no way in powder form. The cinnamon was in little bits of bark. The cloves were also in a weird flowery shape thingy. (It turns out, I don't know what cloves are!) The day before, there were jokes made about me pounding away at a mortar and pestal, bu the only problem was I wasn't given a mortar and pestal. But I had no time to worry about this, because we were already a little behind schedule. AND we had another new development: I was brought a microwave oven manual. Um...they couldn't possibly be thinking that when I said "oven," I meant "microwave," right? I mean an oven is an oven! This is a PIE for Bob's sake! I really hope they just want me to catch up on my reading of manuals... There's a real oven waiting for me somewhere, right? Right?

With the dough chilling in the fridge, I went to the Directors' Office with Tony for a meeting. We were presenting some ideas about next steps in collaboration with Nepal and Rwanda. Right before we left to walk to the Office, the chai-wallah comes to me with a bike, on which I see a microwave in a blanket tied to the backseat. Oh, fuck. He politely implores me to open the kitchen and places the microwave on my kitchen counter. He is beaming. I thank him. Oh, fuuuuuuck.

We enter the Directors' Office.
"So, um...this oven? Did you mean microwave oven? Because I meant oven oven. Dry heat oven. I-need-to-cook-this-pie-at-two-hundred-degrees-Celsius-for-an-hour-oven. Do you have one of those?"
"Oh, Tanya. We have not cooked anything for the 23 years we have lived at Rishi Valley! Can you get creative? Can we innovate? Can we improvise an oven?"
Improvise an oven?! Double fuck.
"...I don't know how to improvise an oven."
But we laughed. And I remembered that I had that Nestle chocolate bar in my room. So maybe Thanksgiving tea could be salvaged...

The meeting went on for two hours. It was kind of awesome (I love my job). Then, I went back to the kitchen, and tried to improvise.

First, I decided to go ahead and cook the pumpkin. My first time using a pressure cooker was a success. Woo woo me. While the pumpkin was pressurizing, I used the rolling pin to pound the shit out of the cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. It was a very loud process. I think I might've scared some children. But no matter! This pumpkin pie was going to work. Or at least it would get as close to working as I could possibly get it. Just keep hope alive. The pounding process actually did wonders for relieving all that microwave hate. And, oooh, the pumpkin was finally ready!

But it was dinner time. So we left for the 12 minute walk to main campus to eat. They served toast with dinner, which somehow seemed somewhat related to Thanksgiving. We gave thanks. We ate rice and sambar. We smiled at each other.

Back at the Rural Education Center, I peeled the cooled pumpkin and put it in the mixer. I'm pretty sure this mixer was made in 1977 or somewhere around that time, because it was big and scary but the container that held the ingredients to be blended was no more than a cup. It's okay. I can divide the pumpkin and blend in stages. Just keep hope alive. This is also when I noticed that the one pumpkin they brought me only had enough flesh for one pie. All the other ingredients I had, including the batches of dough I made for the crusts, were calculated for two pies. I guess one pie is better than no pie. And so, the adventure continued. I mixed my freshly-powdered spices with the pumpkin puree, added egg, the wrong kind of milk, and mixed. It looked ... like ... something. I've never made pumpkin pie, so I had no idea what it was supposed to look like. It was very orange and kind of creamy and smelled like sugar from the condensed milk.

Earlier, Tony and I had inspected the aforementioned microwave oven manual, where it had mentioned a "grill" option. Apparently, the microwave that now stood in my kitchen could actually produce real heat, as well as microwave heatwaves. This seemed very interesting. I'm pretty sure it would explode before ever reaching 375F, but...uh...we could try? We decided to compromise (with the microwave) and cook the filling separately from the crust. This way, if the crust failed, we could still salvage the pie part. Wrap it in a chappati, maybe? I poured the filling into the microwave-safe pan (this came with the microwave manual), and set it on grill/microwave combination cooking option. But now, it was late, and it was time to go to the Directors' House for Thanksgiving tea. I went into my room and retrieved the candy bar. Welp, Happy Thanksgiving.

The tea was very nice. We sat in a circle by candlelight and discussed the issues affecting education in the world today. We said what we were thankful for this year. It was nice. It felt familiar. We smiled.

At 11:15pm, I was back in my kitchen (now being ravaged by ants), preparing to combat this pumpkin pie. Or...pumpkin mess, at this point. I started the microwave back up. Seriously, a microwave? Really, India? In twenty minutes, the pumpkin mess took on a brownish orange color (just like it should) and had the consistency of a legitimate pumpkin pie. The knife came out clean in the center. I set it to cool. I rolled out the dough and placed it in the other bowl. If this bowl isn't microwave-safe, the microwave could possibly be damaged. But then again, it's a microwave. And I hate it. And I have to make this work. Fuck it, I'll take my chances. I checked the status of the dough repeatedly, and after 25 minutes, it looked and tasted just like legitimate baked pie crust. Holy shit, SUCCESS. How did this happen in a microwave?!? I loaded the second half of the rolled out dough and put 25 minutes on the timer. I crumbled the dough on top of the pumpkin mess. Suddenly, it seemed less messy. I had succeeded in making upside-down pumpkin pie. MICROWAVED upside-down pumpkin pie. I covered it with a towel and set it all to cool.

On Friday morning, Indian Standard Time, I took out the pie and set it in front of my co-workers in the English Room. It was just after dinner-time back in Texas, exactly the time when my family would be rolling out the pumpkin pie anyway. I cut square pieces (the pan was square) and appropriated them within the group. We dug in. The Indians were brave, not even reluctant. And, you know, the pie was actually pretty good. It tasted a lot more pumpkin-y than it would have if I had bought it from the HEB bakery, but the crust was wonderfully flaky and set off the sweetness from the condensed milk. The Indians really liked it. Everyone had second helpings.

And everyone said thank you.

This year, there are a lot of things to be thankful for. Among my favorite things, I am thankful for the fact that each day in India, I learn something new, something extraordinary. Today, it was how to make a microwavable upside-down pumpkin pie. The possibilities for tomorrow are endless.

Happy Thanksgiving.
With lots of love from Rishi Valley.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Co-Worker One-liners

I start playing Blackalicious on my iTunes during an English work session.
Pradeep starts dancing. Gets up from his chair.
Pradeep: Oh, you just cannot sit still to this music!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Working hard or hardly working

The other day, I had a discussion with my co-workers about how much we're officially supposed to work. I noticed we take a lot of tea breaks around here, so I was just wondering what the schedule is. (Since I work a lot from my room on my own, I don't follow the common schedule. Also, all the chai here has milk in it, so I can't drink it due to my lactard status.)

This is the official work day schedule:
8:00 - Arrive to work
8:30-10:30 - Work
10:30 - 10:45 - Chai break!
10:45 - 12:00 - Work
12:00 - 1:30 - Lunch break!
1:30 - 3:30 - Work
3:30 - 3:45 - Chai break!
3:45 - 4:30 - Work

That's a whopping 6 hours of work a day! Hahaha. Even with working FULL Saturdays, Indians still work an average of 36 hours a week, compared to the American 40.

The only awesome part about this (besides from the fact that I can make up a Saturday work day by working an extra 1.5 hour from Monday-Thursday) is that I get to nap at lunchtime, if I need to. Win! :)

Busy busy busy!

Work has gotten really busy in the past few weeks, which is why I haven't been blogging much. I work 10 hour days, including Saturdays and Sundays (Saturday is always a work day, though). This is kind of crazy, but I'm hoping it'll give me more off days later, which I can use for traveling - so: score. These are some things that have happened, in no particular order:

1. A team from West Bengal (Kolkata region/Howrah district) has arrived for a two week training in which they are learning all about RIVER methodology and even designing their OWN Bengali ladders/milestones. It has been awesome to learn all the details of the methodology with them.

2. I bought a bunch of kurtas, so now I have enough Indian clothes to stop looking like an American! (But enough blonde hair to completely fail at not looking like an American. Womp womp.) I can't wait to receive all the positive reinforcement for this life choice. Haha. (Indians get SUPER excited when I put on Indian clothes and compliment me a bunch to discourage Tshirt wear. It's cute.)

3. One of the REC dogs HAD PUPPIES! There were five, but now there are four. I'm not sure if someone took one or what. Whatever. THIS IS SUPER EXCITING. I will bathe them and love them and pet them and train them to do tricks. Their eyes haven't even opened yet. Pictures to come!!

4. I bought a bunch of fresh mint for FOUR CENTS. Holee sheet! The equivalent would've cost $8-16 in the States and probably over $20 at Whole Foods. I can now make sweetass mint tea ALL THE TIME. WOO WOO. Win for India!

5. A volunteer from Open Learning Exchange (an affiliate of One Laptop Per Child) in Nepal is here this week to give us some laptops and talk about technology. I'm really skeptical about technology use in the classroom, and especially OLPC, but this guy is absolutely AWESOME. He has some TREMENDOUS ideas! The capacity these laptops bring to the schools can be fantastic! So, now, we're hoping to get 3-4 laptops to each of our satellite schools and establish electronic libraries for the communities in Telugu, English, and maybe Hindi, as well as digitize some of the ladder activities to create a fifth group (computer-supported!). Furthermore, this is going to be HUGE for the English curriculum, because I can now include all kinds of exciting activities, including Rosetta Stone-like stuff and videos and all sorts of awesomeness. SO COOL! I've been working on this stuff for two days and will be working on it until Friday non-stop, and it's really giving me a lot of different ideas!
5a. I also learned that a bunch of countries (Rwanda, Mongolia, Brazil, Uruguay) all have hundreds of thousands of laptops from OLPC, but they don't have the necessary content to successfully integrate the laptops into schools. Epic fail! The glimmer of hope here is that we can somehow integrate RIVER methodology for use on these laptops. This would actually be absolutely fantastic! I think the student-centered and self-paced aspects of our methodology would be perfect for computer use, and the ladder and activities wouldn't be difficult to digitize, if we can get some smart software developers. Furthermore, this would enable for the laptops to work in tandem with teachers, empowering them to be more effective in the classroom. I really hope that some of this can work out! The hope is that we get to go to Rwanda and collaborate with them, since we have the methodology and they have the laptops. Double win!

6. Bengali food (which our rural dining hall has been serving to make the guests feel more at home) is full of sugar! They put sugar in almost EVERYTHING: the rice, the dhal, the tomato chutney, etc. There is only one complaint they had concerning an item having too much sugar: coffee. Haha. Our Andhra Pradeshi crew totally made fun of their backwards ways. (In a loving way, of course!)

7. I GET TO MAKE PUMPKIN PIE ON THURSDAY! I'm super excited about this, since I don't get to pig out for Thanksgiving. I don't get to have turkey or tofurkey (fail, India). And I don't get to go shopping on Friday. Booo. But, I DO get to bake pumpkin pies! Yayyy! My mentor/RIVER director graciously offered his oven for my use! I'm hoping to make mashed potatoes, as well. It should be awesome. :) (Although, I haven't ever baked a pumpkin pie before, so I'm a bit nervous. The OLPC dude is American, as well, so I hope the two of us can kind of figure it out. Otherwise, I think we'll just be thankful to have something-somewhat-resembling-pumpkin-pie in the spirit of the holiday. Haha. I can make some rad mashed potatoes, so maybe that can compensate, if it has to.)

8. I! LOVE! MY! JOB!

Co-worker One-liners

Ramu: What is this, "rap"?
Tatiana: You know, rappers! It's a type of music. But people don't really sing like how you think of singing, they rap. You know, like spit rhymes?
Ramu: Oh, like Jackie Chan!!!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

From my Pushkar travels...

So, I've been meaning to post a bunch of pictures and stories from my 2.5 weeks of travel, but I just haven't had the time (since I need to catch up on so much work and fill out so many grad apps!). But! My friend and fellow AIF fellow Jenny B has graciously shared this video with me!

While in Pushkar, we met this awesome Bhopa (gypsy musicians) family and they put on a private show for us. They were pretty awesome human beings. I also have a CD of their music, if anyone is interested. (Also, this video does a great job showing just how COLORFUL Rajasthan is!)



Saturday, November 7, 2009

Exciting news!!

Rishi Valley's directors, Mr. and Mrs. Rao, just won "Social Entrepreneurs of the Year" award from the Schwab Foundation and the United Nations Development Fund, scoring a ticket to present our methodology to World Economic Forum's Davos Forum and all kinds of world leaders in Switzerland this upcoming January.

Check out Rishi Valley kicking butt and taking names!


How embarrassing!

I sometimes wondered what the budget of hospitals was for decorating. They always have such pretty walls and posters and chairs and the such. Even at Searle at NU, we had that spaceship lookin' chair that you got to sit in when you had blood-work done. It was awesome and made you feel like you were fighting evil aliens and such (especially if you were running a high fever during the test). Actually, occasionally, I thought that stuff was wasteful. You don't need this many magazine subscriptions. And you can do without some of the fancier decor.

Until today.

Today, I realized I really appreciate the high decorating budgets of American hospital. Score one for America.

Today, I had some blood-work done at the Rishi Valley Rural Health Center. Now, I am quite impressed that this rural health center in the middle of nowhere, Andhra Pradesh is even able to accept and process blood-work (score one for India/Rishi Valley!), so I'm not complaining. But I do want to note that hospital decorations have revealed their importance to me, here at Rishi Valley.

I don't deal well with needles or blood. I used to be absolutely fine about it. When I was a kid, I'd play with syringes (sans needle, of course), since my mom was a doctor and brought a bunch home and we always had them about. Growing up with an older brother, I was totally cool with watching blood and guts (on TV, of course). Mom and I would watch footage of surgeries, and I wouldn't even wince. Then, senior year of high school, during an Honor Society Blood Drive, I was talking to someone while they were giving blood and I suddenly just about fell down. And from that moment onward, I have gotten increasingly uncomfortable around blood and needles.

When I get any type of blood test/vaccination in the States, I always embarrassingly ask to lay down during the procedure and to have some water on hand, just in case. Usually, I am fine. I just can't run a marathon fifteen seconds after the needle's left my arm, but I'm fine.

The trick is to distract yourself. First, you read the magazines, then you look at the charts, you study the intricacy of the wallpaper, and you eventually ponder why the hospital spends so much money on decorating. It's an awesome and complex thought to think about while someone is digging a needle in you and it definitely does the job to keep you distracted from said needle.

But, today, there were no magazine subscriptions, no wallpaper, and no charts to read. I walked into the Diagnostic Center and sat at a barren white table alone for 15 minutes. Around me were doctor-people (meaning they might've been nurses or aids or randos) carrying around doctor-looking-apparatuses (my mother cannot be proud of me for this sentence) and generally doing doctor-like things. There was crazy machinery all around me and it smelled a lot like formaldehyde. Or bleach. Or disinfectant. It smelled a lot like what I called "doctor" when I was a kid. Mom would come home from her shift and I would say, "Mommy, I love you. You smell like doctors, go shower!" It was cute.

But, today, the smell wasn't cute. And I didn't love it. It made me increasingly nervous. I was also nervous, because I was close to missing breakfast and I had to fast for the test. Dum dum dum. I was even more nervous, because someone was going to stick a needle inside of me. How embarrassing. The doctor-lady came in (I had met her before), and resat me from the chair to the stool. Then, she tugged at my arm and gave me directions, as I tried very hard (and succeeded) to look away from anything that she was doing. But I couldn't escape it: there were all these hospital-y doctor-y things all around me! And it smelled 100% like doctors. And even though I didn't even see the needle, nor a drop of blood, my vision started to cloud over, I heard a dull buzz, and I broke into a cold sweat. I was more and more dizzy by the second, and I felt consciousness slipping away from me. I asked for some water, but couldn't quite work the pitcher to my mouth. I asked to be laid down, which involved me having to walk across the room. I made it. Barely.

Laying there, I still could not escape the reality that I was, indeed, in a hospital. Surrounded by needles. And blood. (Okay, not surrounded, but that stuff was in the same room!) And it smelled, unquestionably, just like doctor. I was not okay.

Finally, I decided to make a break for the fresh air, and I stumbled out of the room, mumbling a thank you to the very nice [and now utterly frightened] doctor that had drawn my blood earlier.

I felt much better outside, as I had focused on flowers, auto-rickshaws, and puppies. And I even made it to breakfast (thanks to the auto-rickshaw!).

Today, I finally answered the question of why American hospitals invest in decorations.
But the answer only raises more questions, like: how important are the ties between psychology and physical well-being? And is our lack of attention to psychological matters in the developing world reduce the well-being of the populations? By not affording the fancy decorations, could we possibly be turning off a lot of [perhaps embarrassed or scared] individuals from seeking proper health care? How important is this in the larger picture (as in, is it far more important to focus on increasing physical health through traditional means, without paying attention to this psychological aspect, as it probably affects only a tiny fraction of the population, whereas the other stuff affects people on a much larger scale)? And, finally: should I get that nice doctor lady some presents for scaring her by being embarrassingly scared of needles?