Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bringing Fall to Kerala

Weather is a great conversation starter no matter where you go however, I have found that in Kerala its even better! Everyone has a different opinion about what season it currently is, in Kerala. In my opinion the timing of the seasons have shifted, due to global warming, so no one really knows which season it is. However, its comical to here conflicting opinions as an outsider. I am coming to understand that while we have our definite months for certain seasons Kerala’s seasons are not as exact. I am also learning to judge whether I should do wash based on what the clouds in the sky look like. Today great day to do wash- sunny and hot!!

Whichever season it may be, I brought our fall traditions to Nicholson this past weekend as we carved pumpkins and ate candy corn. This was definitely an experience! My search for a pumpkin was more than exhausting and I had to pay extra for one that was orange. It was fun to explain Halloween and our fall festivities to the girls as we ate candy corn (sent from the United States) and attempted to carve our pumpkin. The girls are very artistic and had high hopes for the face of the pumpkin but our butcher’s knife and thick pumpkin skin limited our ability to do anything creative. Sending our Halloween wishes!!!

Friday, October 22, 2010


Since I’ve gotten to India, I have spent more time thinking about trash than ever before. I would have considered myself moderately-highly conscious of my trash consumption, relative to other Americans, before I left. However, in comparison to how much I have thought about trash here, I now see my previous trash attentiveness being more of a none-low conscious level.

The first week I was at Nicholson, I was told that my trash bin was outside my door and that I should keep it out there to avoid a bug invasion in my room. I have always been a little OCD with my trashcan, simply for convenience sake. However, bugs vs. convenience? I decided I could live with the trashcan outside my door.

During the first couple weeks, I often noticed my trash spread across the ground, outside my door. I assumed the wind was the cause and intuitively put the trash back in the can. As the days progressed, it became more clear that it was not the wind but rather a person spreading my trash about. This was very upsetting, as I was still adjusting to the lack of personal space. The fact that I couldn’t even throw a piece of trash out without someone knowing aggravated me.

One Sunday afternoon, during naptime, I got a knock on my door. I scurried to put on clothes and open the door, only to find girls holding my trash in their hands. In broken English they asked if these were mine…very angrily I answered “Yes!” Then I proceeded to ask why they were going though my trash. They began laughing and said, you eat a lot of sweets. I was upset as I closed the door that afternoon. It sounds funny but in a way, as I wrote in my journal that day, I felt violated. Looking back on it, I think embarrassed would have been a better word but in either case- I hated the fact that I couldn’t throw anything away without all the girls knowing…not even sanitary products.

This feeling has amplified over the weeks, causing me to really think and reflect on trash. People in India don’t use paper products; no Kleenex, no napkins (with the exception of fancy restaurants,) no papertowels, really nothing disposable (with the exception being cups for chai J). Furthermore, nothing is ever broken. In the United States if our umbrella breaks, we buy a new one. In India, people work on the streets fixing umbrellas, sewing together broken flip-flops or sharpening knives. Nothing is wasted. This eliminates the need to throw things away. Resulting in limited public trashcans which consequently leaves the ground as the trash can.

Your imagination of India may include litter everywhere and while it would be a lie to say this is not true, I can honestly say, I was expecting worse. Think of all the people who live in India over 1 billion people. Now think about how much trash you throw out weekly. Imagine the amount of trash that would be- but it is not because they do not waste like we do! The trash laying in random mounds is ugly, smelly and everything else. However, the amount is minimal compared to what our trash in the United States would mound up to be, even with considerably less people.
I was again reminded of trash as I worked in the kitchen last week. Wednesdays I don’t teach. During the first couple weeks, I sat in the staff room, reading, sewing and simply being present on Wednesdays. Sitting all day and doing nothing becomes boring real fast and last Wednesday I decided to change that! I went to work in the kitchen. I must admit I was very apprehensive at first, thinking watching the food preparations would curb my appetite for the year. I couldn’t have been more wrong! It gave me a greater appreciation for the food I eat at each meal as I sat with 4 others and cut vegetables for 4 whole hours.

I’m sure it was comical to watch as I awkwardly held a butcher’s knife and attempted to cut potatoes and cabbage. However, 2 things were notable. The amount of time it took me to cut a single potato and the lack of consistency in my slices. These women were fanatics with their knives. I often just sat, on my stool-just 6 inches off the ground, staring at the quick precision they had with all vegetables. I was able to cut one potato in the time it took them to cut 4. Even more notable than my ability, was the amount of potato I wasted compared to the other women. As I attempted to peel my potatoes with this large butcher’s knife, I slowly peeled away the skin…peeling off the brown skin but also taking off good chunks of the white potato flesh. These women hacked away the skin but rarely took a piece of the potato’s flesh. While I would love to think that skill had something to do with this, I know it was due to instinctive need to get ALL the skin off. Similarly with the cabbage, I put the core of the cabbage in the waste pile as the women just sliced it in the bowl along with the other parts. When we were finished, my rubbish pile tripled theirs. I was embarrassed, the women took my cores and sliced them in as if they were pieces I had forgotten. I had purposely left them out though, not wanting to ruin the dish with the core of the cabbage. As I thought about this, I realized I have eaten that cabbage dish numerous times and never once noticed the core. Reminded once again of the amount of things I waste.

I’m not sure I will ever be comfortable with people going through my trash, but I do know I am uncomfortable with the amount I waste. I hope in the coming days that I can become comfortable; knowing I used the thing, whatever it may be, to the fullest before I deemed it trash worthy.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Delhi Here I Come

Exciting news to share!!! I will be running in a half-marathon in Delhi on November 21st!! Crazy and ever so exciting, I know!!! A friend I met at Xavier, who is originally from India and returned home after graduating with his MBA, asked me if I wanted to run in a marathon with him. He knows I enjoy running at home- and thought this would be a great bonding experience. While I am a bit nervous- as the training situation is less than ideal (I will be running laps around a basketball court,) I am very excited to run in a marathon in I-N-D-IA!! I will definitely keep you posted but for now, I must commence training.

Spreading least to some :)

Last Friday night, I heard my Dad’s words echo through my head; “Margaret, you need to think before you act.” I regularly was in trouble when I was little. Many of the times, it was caused by failure to think before I acted. My wise Dad told me that one day it would create problems. Dad, I never thought I would say this from India, but you were right!

Friday afternoons are a heartrending time at Nicholson. The youngest boarders (K-5) are allowed to go home for the weekend if their parents come to pick me them up. However, with no phone access for the girls, they never know if their parents are coming or not. The girls stand excitedly waiting to see if their parents will be the next one to appear over the hill. As girls trickle out- tears begin to trickle down the faces of those who are left. Their parents are supposed to come between 3:30 and 4:30, however 5:00 rolls around and girls are still holding out, wishing and hoping that their parents are running on Indian time I guess. A previous week, one of the girls noticed an eye-lash on another girl’s face. She put it on her finger for the girl to make a wish. After her parents didn’t come, she told me her wish didn’t come true. I couldn’t find any words, the only thing I could do was hug her to prevent my tears from welding up.

I usually sit with the girls during this time; holding their hands or tickling the one’s who need a smile at that moment. This particular Friday, I was even crying- I watched the same girl, stand patiently for 3 weeks in a row with no sign of her parents. I decided I needed something to lighten the mood- so without thinking I ran back to my room and got some paper. With the 10 girls that were left, I made paper airplanes. It was fun to teach them the folds and then fly our planes. We were playing in the central courtyard located outside the head mistress’s office, in the middle of the central pathway and the place the laundry is hung to dry. At a school where all the games are ‘prim and proper’ playing with paper airplanes was beyond exciting. Thus, it didn’t take long for the older girls to join in. After I taught a couple girls the folds, they taught a couple girls who then taught a couple girls and soon there were at least 100 girls throwing paper airplanes around. As you might imagine 100 + girls doing anything, created commotion….chaotic commotion! I was nervous eyes were going to be poked out, but before I could think about the havoc I created the sound of the head mistress’s flip-flops quickly hit my ear-drum. It was at this point that I took advantage of the drying laundry and hid behind it as I quickly escaped the area. As I walked back to my room, I could hear the head-mistress scolding the girls- but I couldn’t help but smile…I think I even stuck my chest out like a pompous jock. I came back to my room and sat in front of the mirror laughing, loving what I created! While maybe I should have thought before I acted, especially knowing things spread like wildfire here, I couldn’t help but be proud. I was able to see the joy I was creating…at least for some.

Disclaimer- I wouldn’t normally sit in front of the mirror and stare at myself but I’ve found this technique helps when I am lonely or need another person with whom I can share the moment.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Views of India in the last week

October 2nd was Gandhi’s birthday. There was a great celebration at Nicholson, complete with a parade and whole school cleaning. It was very interesting to be a part of this day. The girls were full of excitement as they wore their Sunday’s best for this occasion. As I was explained what was happening, the translation was quite hysterical. “Gandhi never cleaned his own bathroom so on this day the whole country cleans.” The logic of this was comical. My immediate thought was, too bad India can’t celebrate Gandhi’s birthday multiple times a year. While I never quite got what or how the country cleans, at Nicholson each grade was assigned a job from scrubbing the floors, to “plucking” the weeds. It was fun to take part in this day eat their special sweets and celebrate with the girls.

On Sunday night, the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games took place. This was another fun bonding experience. 400 students packed around this tiny TV to watch the opening ceremonies in their home country. For the past two weeks, I have been reading about the lack of preparations in New Delhi over these games. The main bridge to the stadium collapsed and needed repaired. Then 4 days before the games were to begin the roof of the main stadium collapsed. One article in the newspaper quoted a man who said he thought the standard of livings were just different. I chuckled to myself.

On Tuesday, after teaching my one class of the day, (we talked about farms, learned about animals that live on farms as well as the sounds they make and wrapped class up by learning Old McDonald’s Farm) I ventured over to see Jim coach his softball team at a local college in my town. This was a real treat for me- I was excited to see Jim in his element and get out of my daily routine at Nicholson. The game was supposed to start at 11am. I got there at 12:15 and the game had not started yet. I was excited I hadn’t missed anything, Jim was frustrated that his game continued to be delayed (the game had been delayed since Monday afternoon.) The delay didn’t end- in fact, his team sat at the field all day (8am-5pm) and never played. A whole day was wasted as his college students sat and watched other teams play, but no one seemed concerned that the students were missing school-work for the continuous delay.

Two things intrigued me most as I sat on the sidelines and watched other teams play; the ability level and the cheerleaders. Watching these teams play was like watching 12 year old girls play ball. They often mis-calculated where the ball was going and would run in to catch it and the ball would fly over their heads. The umpire and score-keepers ability was also interesting. The games were stopped multiple times for 7 to 10 minutes to figure out, what had happened and often argued over the play. One time the umpire even made a phone call to get confirmation on a rule. Something you would NEVER see in the states. As all of this is happening people were loudly cheering, sometimes in English, sometimes in Malayalam, sometimes in Manglish. One team even had a grunter. The best part of the cheering section was watching the men cheer for the women. Men and women are constantly separated in Indian life. Women sit on one side of the church, men on the other. Women sit in the front of the bus, men sit in the back. Individual men and women cannot walk together in public without signifying a more intimate relationship. In writing, this doesn’t sound as extreme as it is in real life. However, being separated from men in all parts of my daily life, I was excited to see this interaction.

Watching sports in other countries can tell you a lot about a place’s culture. Women don’t play many sports in India- frustrating to me because I was hoping to join a soccer team while I was here- but a few colleges do have women’s softball. Interestingly enough, I read an article in the paper this morning that said India needs to produce more women athletes if they have any chance in winning the Games in the coming years. The idea women do not participate in sports is fascinating to think about, on many levels. It is yet again another indication of the status of women in Indian society. It also reinforces the separation of sexes. It’s highly unlikely to see a co-ed pick-up game, something we would never think twice about. Most notable, is the lack of importance on a woman’s figure. The idea that women do not participate in sports or for that matter, part-take in any physical activity eliminates the consuming anxiety around one’s weight. While people in India are very blunt, especially around weight issues, I have noticed little to no concern over being physically fit. Even advertisements are just a person’s head, not a lean, sexy body attempting to lure you in. It makes one wonder why. Is it connected to their status of a developing country? Does is say something about their values? Or is it connected to arranged marriages? There is no need to be attractive to the opposite sex when your parents pick the person you will marry. Whichever it may be, it illustrates perfectly the idea that everything is interdependent; our being, our culture, our world.

This morning (Friday) I was walking to a meeting. I’m not sure what the meeting was about or even what the organization does. “Social work type work,” is the answer I get from everyone whenever I ask, it doesn’t seem to be clear what exactly this organization does. Anyways, I’m walking along the road, my awareness was slightly heightened only because the cars, motorcycles and buses are zooming by so fast and so close (sometimes I think I feel the bus brush against my arms they are so close,) otherwise I felt very comfortable. The sun was out- and blending into the culture, I opened my umbrella to provide some shade. As I’m wondering what exactly I am getting myself into, I notice a man do a sharp U-turn on his motorcycle right in front of me. He pulls off to the side of the road, and gets off his bike. I thought about making eye-contact but decided just to keep walking. Then I hear, “Miss,” and I turn around. The man waves me over and asks if I was British. I said I’m from the United States and he proceeded to ask me many, many questions. Right before getting on his way, he handed me his business card and told me, “If I was in trouble,” to call. While the extent of this run-in was a first, this is very common of India. There have been many times I have been walking down the street and someone will come up asking where I am going. The girls at Nicholson constantly ask where I am going, most often the answer is “the bathroom.” Sometimes I take this out of the intrusive context and put into a larger life context for myself, Where am I going?
I hope these small excerpts from my week give you a better understanding of the ‘life in a day’ but more importantly, I hope they make you consider 2 things; How does interdependence affect your life? Where are you going?

Breath of Fresh Air

(This blog was MIA on my computer- a little out-of-date but still wanted to upload it.) This past weekend (September 25-26,) was the YAV- India monthly retreat. I spent the weekend with Jim, Madison, Achen and his wife, in Kottoyam, a larger city about 20 km from my site. We had a great time! It was nice to get away and be with familiar faces as we continued to learn more about the state of Kerala.

Kerala is very unique to India as it has an exceptionally high human development index. Google Kerala. You will find information that may leave you wondering why. Why was I sent to a state where the literacy rate is 100% in a vast country where the national literacy rate is less than 50%? Kerala has a low infant mortality rate and a high life expectancy- opposite to the rest of the nation. A better question to ask is how.

After speaking with an Indian economist, the word empower was the only thing I could think. As a whole Kerala is very socially developed, surprising for a state in a developing country. However, economically Kerala is still under-developed. As it was explained to us, there are 3 stages in economic development- Kerala by-passed stage 2 and was able to develop socially without developing economically first.

Rubber, spices and tea are the main exports. These goods are processed in other states and countries because Kerala doesn’t have the ability to manufacture these goods. 40% of people living in Kerala are unemployed because jobs are non-existent. Those who are able, leave the state to work else-where. Many of my students’ parents work in the Gulf. Initially this was confusing to me, why Nicholson, why Kerala when your family is in Kuwait? However, after speaking to the economists it makes sense. The girls’ parents are originally from Kerala and don’t want to leave. Kerala has a rich tradition, and as it has been described to me, a distinct culture. Leaving this tradition behind is difficult. Supporting your family in another country means you aren’t fully leaving this tradition and culture behind. After talking to the economist, I saw my mission for the year. I want to empower the girls to stay in the state they love. Daily I here how great Kerala is and how much they each love it! Having learned more about the state, I can encourage the girls to continue loving it, continue making it a better state and a place that people can work. Unquestionable structures will have to change for development to occur, but my hope is to empower these girls so they become the future leaders of Kerala!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Hello October

Yesterday marked month 1. Hard to believe in so many ways-I am still discovering something new everyday but feel like I’m been doing this routine for months, a weird feeling to process. As I reflect on the journey of the past month, I am thankful for the support I have back home. While I wish I could describe every emotion of my day with vibrant passion and every experience with colorful words, I know both time and ability stand in my way. I can express though, that it is your support and prayers that make me push forward when I want to cry, and laugh from the bottom of my heart when I laugh. As you prayerfully continue on this journey with me, I’d ask that you also remember those we are serving. I say we, because it is your love that serves and sustains me so I can continue to spread love on this side of the world. Know I am saying prayers of thanks for you.