Friday fun

Today we celebrated James’ birthday. Siobhan snuck a cake up to the flat without him knowing and invited us all over around lunch time to eat some. James didn’t know about the cake, which must have made the synchronized arrival of Hari, Mads, and I seem kind of odd. When Siobhan brought the cake up, we were relieved to have a reasonable cause to be situated in a circle around an empty table. The cake read “Happy Birthday Mr. James,” seeming not at all out of place in a land of formal English like India. The cake itself was like everything else Western in India: good, but off enough to signal that some ingredients had either been refrigerated too long or substituted for something missing.


In further celebration, we went out to Pondicherry in the evening for dinner and drinks. The French half of Pondicherry is surprisingly clean and still retains some of its former French charm. At the posh outdoor bar we sat down at, our waiter was flamingly French and Westerners dotted the other tables. After drinks we navigated our way through the mess of cars, bikes, beggars, uneven sidewalks, and stray dogs to make it to a pizza place located on the fifth floor of a hotel. The hotel’s air conditioner seemed to crystallize the stagnant humidity that covered our bodies. The tiny elevator, however, took us to an outdoor restaurant where we quickly got re-acclimated to the heat. At the door, a strange man we assumed to be the chef with a thick Italian accent greeted us. He took us to our tables and listened intently as we ordered. After ordering, he quickly shot questions at us. “Where are you from? Why are you here?” Upon learning Hari and I were from Arkansas, the man concluded that our state had “Bill Clinton but not much else.” Throughout the course of the meal, he drilled us on everything from Monica Lewinsky to 9/11. He took a poll to see how many of us at the table believed 9/11 was an inside job, and the proceeded to attempt to convince all of us of his point of view. After we agreed with him to end the discussion, he turned to Siobhan and James. “Do you like the Queen?” he asked. They agreed that she was alright, and their conversation turned to an agreeance that Prince Phillip was an idiot. Just as we were wondering what he could possibly say to Mads about Denmark, he gave us an interesting factoid I hope to someday use on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” “Denmark,” he claimed, “is a very tiny country. But, it has the most pigs in the world. It has more pigs than China.” I have absolutely no idea how this man knew about Denmark’s pork economy, but apparently he was right. According to Mads, there are 20 million pigs in Denmark. There are four times as many pigs in Denmark as there are people. I learned this today as I was eating pizza on the fifth floor of a hotel in Pondicherry, India.


Apparently the man came to India 30 years ago as part of the Auroville project. Auroville is a communal village located about ten minutes away from Pondicherry. We plan to visit tomorrow, so I’ll fill you in on my verdict. So far, I’m leaning toward creepy; Siobhan and I agree that Auroville seems like an expat community based on the idea of a spiritual, untouched India and not the India that actually exists. It seems to avoid most things and people that are too “Indian.” I’m hoping that a trip to Auroville will change my mind.


School-wise, today was exciting and long. The kids decided they wanted to play the game Red Rover that we had taught them the previous period. They absolutely love it, as most kids love running into each other and screaming. I did get the opportunity to teach an art class today. I had fourth graders. As I said before, art classes basically consist of the teacher drawing a picture on the board from a coloring book and the kids copying it. They’re not actually learning anything at all; I had a couple of fifth graders have absolutely no idea that yellow and blue made green the other day. I decided to teach them something simple and fun– drawing a face. I used the traditional method of drawing lines through an oval to show them where the eyes, nose, and mouth should be. The kids were so excited and interested in learning how to draw what I showed them. They attempted to show me their drawings with bird-like chirps of “Madam! Madam! Madam!” It was hard for them to grasp the concept of a self-portrait, however. I would really like to work on face structure with them again; they were so eager and intelligent, I believe they would be able to pick up more.


I’ve noticed that the kids at the school are, in a lot of ways, more well behaved than American schoolchildren. They are so smart and respectful; they might get rambunctious like any kid, but they are never purposefully disrespectful. They genuinely want to learn. They are the easiest pupils. The kids are also amazingly resilient. Their playground, for example, would be about eleven instant lawsuits in the states. The slide is made of concrete. The swing has a rusted support bar that makes the entire metal frame shift and also leaves jagged rusted piping exposed for whatever tetanus-filled fun might be had by it. The only word I can use to describe them is one that my high school basketball coach used constantly: scrappy.




It’s Thursday, and Hari and I have officially

It’s Thursday, and Hari and I have officially been in India a week. We stayed in Chennai for a few days,  saw a couple sketchy hotels, and slept a lot to ward off the jet lag. Most of our time was spent in an incredibly nice mall and at a movie theater. We didn’t really do anything touristy; we were tired and looking for creature comforts. Besides a few terrifying auto rickshaw rides and some confusing encounters with the hotel staff, India did not seem that different from a very dirty American city. By the time Hari’s cousin drove us to Pondicherry on Sunday afternoon, the heat, lack of air conditioning, and increasing amount of garbage everywhere were a bit of a shock to us.


Sunday afternoon an administrator at the Nirvana school, Elumalai, checked us into our volunteer residency. Volunteer residencies are in the Nirvana High School complex, which is a short walk from the Nirvana Primary School that we were assigned to volunteer at. The residency was simple, but clean enough; it had a bathroom, bedroom, two beds, and a strange living room with no furniture in it. We expected to not have air conditioning in the room and the first night was fairly tolerable heatwise. Indian ceiling fans are no joke. They aren’t like the pretty decorative fans with light fixtures attached to them that we have in the United States. They are constructed out of metal and move fast enough to make me not want to go anywhere near the ceiling. When you turn them on, all of the air in the room moves around you like a cyclone, creating the illusion of coolness. With the fans, we figured that we would adjust to the Pondicherry heat (which usually has a heat index of over 100 degrees Farenheit) and be comfortable enough.


We met the other volunteers. James and Siobhan had been at the school for a couple of weeks and occupied a different volunteer residency on the second floor. They are recent graduates of Cambridge and have been in India since February volunteering and traveling. Mads, a Danish student about to enter University, arrived the same time we did. We all get along well, and often eat meals and hang out together. James and Siobhan noticed the insane amount of garbage in Kottakuppam, the village we are staying in, just as we had. One field in particular, which children often cross to get to the school, is horrifyingly dirty. Besides the mounds of trash, feces, and the large amount of stray dogs and goats, the field has broken glass in the sand that causes problems when children play games on it. According to the headmaster of the school, Mrs. Samani, the field used to be a coconut grove. When population rose, the trees were cut down and it was turned into a trash heap. The stench of smoke from burning trash and animal dung are horrible. James and Siobhan have been researching previous efforts to clean up the trash, and found that the village as a whole would like to see the field cleaned but have no where to put their garbage. Kottakuppam does not provide sanitation services, and the nearest dump is kilometers away. James and Siobhan are now in an effort to find out about successful sanitation efforts in Tamil Nadu, hoping to inspire the village to clean up the field. Hari and I like their idea and have offered to help educate the children about sanitation, something which they seemingly know very little about.


After a few awful days of drowning in our own sweat, the volunteer residency became unbearable. The lack of air conditioner wasn’t a problem as much as the lack of circulation was. Our room was a first floor room surrounded on both sides by a large concrete security wall. The bedroom itself was very small and received even less circulation than the living room. No breeze could pass through the walls, and the room was completely stagnant. We woke up more than one night so hot that we couldn’t sleep and had to take a walk around the complex just to cool off. We were drinking about 2 liters of water each just overnight. While I’m pretty sure the sweat lodge effect cleared my skin up a bit, we were so hot and miserable that we couldn’t eat. We wanted to tough it out and stay in the residency though; the money went to the school and plenty of people in India survive without air after all. It became clear, however, that we would not adjust to this situation in time to actually get anything out of our trip. We wandered into a guesthouse behind the school and asked about rooms. Rooms with AC were almost double of what we were paying, and we began to walk out of the guesthouse. The owner stopped us, saying he had a large flat next door with AC in the bedrooms and a kitchen for the same price we were paying at the school. We moved in that night and have felt much better since. While the power still goes out often and the air isn’t always working, the room itself has incredible circulation and we no longer have to drink an entire soda bottle of water overnight.


Besides the residency, the school is wonderful to be at. The kids are absolutely enamored with Hari because he can speak Tamil and understand them. They make fun of me; apparently my name sounds like the Tamil word for “body odor” to second grade boys and my accent is hilarious when I try to talk to them in Tamil. Listening to them draw out their vowels like me in jest is really strange. There are a few things at the school we’d like to teach; the art class basically consists of copying a picture the teacher has put on the board and the physical education isn’t always fun. We started a mural of the Tamil alphabet on a wall and have had the kids help us with that as well. Today, we received timetables. I will be teaching mostly computer classes, PE, and one art class. I am going to speak with Elumalai to see if I can teach more art. Some days, we will be tutoring the high school students as well.


I will post again when I can get internet. We have to go into Pondicherry via a loud, crowded, and erratic bus that we can never seem to catch to find an internet cafe. I’ve posted pictures of the trip that I can manage to take.


Pray I don’t drown in the apparently oncoming monsoon,


Touchdown in the blogosphere

So I’ve avoided the blog thing for a while, mainly on the premise that I do not like having an audience for anything I do. I’m beginning to find that phobia a little ridiculous as I push forward into the “real world,” or whatever they call it. How am I supposed to find a job if I’m scared of performing for people? How am I supposed to find a job with my degree in history (don’t forget the ever-useful minor in interdisciplinary studies), period? So, in an attempt to develop my writing skills past fifteen page research papers, I’ve created this pretty little thing with one of the nice preset themes WordPress offers. Like the colors?

I’m going to India in about a week, which is another motivating factor for creating a blog. My mom wants me to be a female Anthony Bourdain and has been pushing me to record every moment of my trip. I don’t really tend to do that- I HATE seeing a new place through the lens of a camera instead of with my own eyes- but I owe it to her and the nice people at UCA Honors that paid for the trip to record it in excruciating detail. My boyfriend Hari and I will be spending four weeks volunteering with the Nirvana School in Pondicherry, and another week travelling around the state of Tamil Nadu. I have basically no functional knowledge of India, teaching, or travelling by train. I’m thankful Hari can at least speak Tamil, even if he hasn’t lived in India since he was a kid. I can’t really say what I expect out of the trip, because I feel as though India is going to be a completely indescribable culture shock. Although I am excited to arrive in Chennai on June 12, I can’t say I’m completely at ease about the entire experience.

The impression I have of India so far mostly concerns paperwork– getting a visa (which I didn’t realize I had to do until the last minute) was like paying to wrestle a bear while waiting in line at the DMV. I was so paranoid I wouldn’t receive it that I spent two full days simply filling out the paperwork and getting documentation in line. I’m finally ready, though; I have my passport, Hari’s passport, and Hari’s Overseas Citizen of India card safely tucked away in a folder, visas intact. I’m chronically disorganized so I’m making up for it by planning every square inch of this trip beforehand. Even then, I’m sure I’ll end up with a few mishaps. Between the paperwork, the Indian heat, and the threat of Delhi Belly I’ve become uselessly worried. The root of most of this is sitting at home with nothing productive to do besides clean my room, which I’ve of course neglected. As a result, hours upon hours of time have gone into researching the trip and frequenting the indiamike forums. I can’t help it– the history major in me loves to pursue knowledge, whether it is useful or not.

I’ve used up some of my free time in the past few weeks by beginning to dabble in genealogy again. Last summer, I worked as an intern at the New York Genealogical and Biographical society. It was an amazing experience, and I came back with both a love for New York and an even more curious mind than I had before. Messing around on always produces great results, and there’s never a lack of ancestral branches to research. Spending an afternoon tracing a far-off corner of my family tree back to 1600’s Virginia never disappoints. Currently, I’m reading the book Hey America, Your Roots are Showing by Megan Smolenyak. The book (so far) is about solving genealogical puzzles. I want nothing more than to be Megan when I grow up.

Whether I turn into Megan Smolenyak or Anthony Bourdain isn’t really important right now, though. Today I’m more concerned about selling my old clothes to earn some extra trip money and meeting Hari at Subway for lunch (we’re classy people, we go on classy dates). If I haven’t updated in a few days, call the police; I’ve probably been snared by a creature made of old jean jackets and lost socks in an attempt to organize my ridiculous room.