Thursday, September 23, 2010

Exploring the Village Life

This past Sunday, Father Joe Paul invited the four of us to accompany him to a remote village in the state of Tripura. Every Sunday, he journeys out to various surrounding villages that are in need of a priest to say morning mass for the villagers. Even though the mass was spoken in the native tribal language, Kokborok, he thought it would be a good opportunity for us to exoerience the true life of a small Indian village. The car ride there was about two hours, but took a little longer than expected due to minor difficulties. Unlike America, not all roads in India are nicely paved. Most are bumpy, muddy, and greatly affected by the monsoon season. As we traveled closer to the village, the roads were extremely uneven and muddy, which made driving rather difficult. A couple of miles outside the village, our car got stuck in the mud and Father Joe Paul and local villagers had to push the car free. After that aggravating, but humorous battle, we decided to park the car on the side of the road, and walk the remaining two miles.

Upon arriving a bit late, all of the villagers were already gathered and singing in the small church with a bamboo roof. They were anxiously awaiting Father Joe Paul's arrival and were extremely excited to see that four American guests had stumbled into their community. Mass was said in Kokborok and afterward, Aja, Ben, Ellen, and I were warmly welcomed with flowers and hundreds of handshakes. The four of us and Father Joe Paul were then invited to the house of the President of the village for lunch. Before the meal was prepared, one of the villagers picked fresh guavas off of a nearby tree for us to eat. I had never tasted fresh guavas before arriving in India and they are delicious! None of us have ever seen them for sale in the Boston area, but hopefully we will be able to find some when we return.

Lunch was soon ready and consisted of white rice, a fish curry mixture, a rather spicy chutney, and a piece of fish. I have grown to love the curry mixtures here in India! However, utensils are not an essential part of life for local Indians, which is always a challenge for utensil-dependent Americans. Before this experience, we had only attempted to eat a rice meal with our hands once, which turned out to be pretty messy, but also really amusing! There is also a science behind the hand-eating technique. You want to mix just enough curry into the rice so that it clumps and is easy to grasp. If you mix too much or not enough curry, you are soon faced with a feeding struggle. It is surprisingly enjoyable to eat with your hands once you learn the proper hand-feeding technique!

After the meal, we cleaned our hands, were directed to use the “bathroom facilities” (in which we were asked, “Number 1 or 2?”), and then began our two mile walk back to the car. By the time we had reached the car, we had many animal followers such as, dogs and goats. Only in India does a leisurely walk remind you of Noah's Ark. The village experience was one that I would love to revisit in the future. Traveling to this remote location was a true immersion into a foreign culture and it was great to escape the Holy Cross safety-net that we have in Agartala.

On a side note, since I am talking a bit about the unique culture in India, I have posted a video below of a few performances that occurred on Teacher's Day, an annual Indian holiday in which students honor their teachers. These cultural dances were choreographed by the students and I thought everyone might enjoy a taste of the cultural programs that I attend quite frequently! The first two dances are classical Indian routines while the third clip is a performance from a well-known Bollywood film, "The Three Idiots". Thank you to the Connolly, Costantiello, and Abbott Families for the FlipCam!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A New Adventure Everyday

Despite one of us becoming a bit sick and the occurrence of a small earthquake, everything is still going very well in India! At around midnight last night, Ben spiked a fever along with other symptoms and was taken to the hospital accompanied by Ellen and a very helpful friend of ours from Holy Cross, Biju. Aja and I stayed behind because four Americans tagging along in a hospital late at night would have been a little overwhelming for everyone involved. However, after receiving an IV and rehydrating, Ben is recovering and well taken care of. From what both of them reported back to us, health care is on a completely different page here in India than in America. Upon arriving at the hospital, it was very common to find homeless individuals and even dogs sleeping on the floors of the late night care unit. There were IV lines, dirty clothes, and trash on the ground of the hospital, displaying the lack of concern for sanitation. What surprised me most (being a health care nerd) was the fact that health insurance is generally not spoken about at all. When a patient enters, they are seen by a doctor/nurse and that medical professional gives the patient a list of needed supplies and medication depending on the diagnosis (ie: needles, syringes, antibiotics, IV lines, etc.). That list is to be taken to a nearby pharmacy and, as the patient, you, or a friend or family member, is responsible for paying for each item in order to take back to the doctor/nurse. Once everything is purchased, the treatment may proceed. This approach definitely ensures that health care is being paid for by the individual, but it lacks efficiency. The process is much slower than the operations of an emergency room in America because the needed supplies and medications are not readily available to the doctors and nurses. Another huge downfall to this approach is that those individuals who cannot afford to buy supplies and medications at the pharmacy will not receive care. Hopefully none of us will have to return to the hospital in Agartala; although, it would be extremely interesting to experience this atmosphere in person.

As for the earthquake, it occurred at the same time that Ben was very sick which made last night pretty eventful. The earthquake was very small and there were no reported damages or injuries. It was the first time that I had ever felt an earthquake which initially made it a bit scary, but also really exciting. Northeast India is situated on a fault line which makes the area prone to such events. It only lasted about ten seconds or so and it was a 4.8 on the Richter Scale, situated over Bangladesh. The good news is that it was nothing major and we are all perfectly fine!

On a lighter note, the pictures that I have attached to this post (and one on the previous post) are of a recent journey in Tripura to one of the holiest Hindu temples in this part of the country, Sundari Temple, and also to Neermahal Palace, a unique piece of architecture built in the middle of a lake and only accessible by boat. I also tossed a picture in this post of myself with some of the adorable nursery school students. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Becoming a Teacher

Sorry I haven't updated in quite a while! The internet here has been down and is still in the process of being fixed. Anyways, these past three weeks have been quite an eye-opening experience into the education system here in India. Before I begin with my personal thoughts and feelings, let me first briefly explain the structure of the Indian education system. As I mentioned in a previous post, Ellen and I are teaching at the Holy Cross School, consisting of a mix of local Bengali students and native tribal students. Ben and Aja are working at the Blessed Andre School which is 99% native tribal students. Keep those facts in mind...

There are many daily and independently run after school programs referred to as, tutions, where students' parents pay certain adults to re-teach their children the same material that is learned in school. Parents believe that tution solidifies their children's knowledge and ensures the passing of exams throughout the year, allowing them to move on to higher grades. Tution also relieves parents of homework and study duty. Only children who can afford these tution programs may attend (the majority of the Bengali students). Most tribal students are not as financially well off as the Bengali students; therefore, these children do not have the “luxury” of attending tution. The Bengali students who attend tution have no motivation or reason to stay attentive throughout the school day because they know that the material will be presented to them again in the evening. The majority of the students at the Blessed Andre School do not attend tution and are eager and willing to learn in the classroom. However, it is quite the opposite at the Holy Cross School. These children are attending tution on a daily basis, making it extremely difficult to keep the class engaged for even a 35 minute period. You can see that this system needs a bit of restructuring, but the four of us try to stay positive and overcome the tution interference.

I am teaching five English Language classes to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders and one Moral Science class to a class of 7th graders, each consisting of fifty students. One teacher attempting to control fifty inattentive and rowdy students, let me tell you, is not a simple task. I should not say that all three hundred of my students do not pay attention to my lessons because there are a number of children who are eager to learn. I feel sorry for these students because I was brought here to teach, but some of their peers make teaching nearly impossible at times. This classroom atmosphere was nothing that I had ever experienced in America and it was extremely shocking at first, but I am adapting to the fact that the classroom will never be entirely silent for more than two minutes. The teaching aspect of this adventure has been quite frustrating at times, but it is also the most exciting. No day is like the next. Some days, I walk out of the classroom on top of the world and knowing that I connected with at least one student. Other days, I come home with a sore throat from hours of shouting and ask myself, “What exactly did I sign up for?” Although, to some degree, I suppose those feelings come along with any job. There are always going to be amazing days mixed with those that are frustrating.

Outside of the classroom, Ellen and I spend some of our mornings with the girls that live in the hostel and also with the little ones in the Holy Cross Nursery School. Since the classroom can be a bit difficult at times, I believe that spending my mornings with both of these groups will be the most rewarding and fulfilling part of my teaching duty here at the Holy Cross School . Spending time with the hostel girls allows me to have one-on-one tutor sessions and these girls are my teachers as well. I have gained insight into their specific tribal cultures, Indian dances, unique arts and crafts, foreign pop culture, etc. At the nursery school, the children are so young that their English is not at a fluent level; however, they are extremely adorable! The children sing, dance, color, play games, and are quite interested in the shapes of my Silly Bandz. Spending a morning at the nursery school is an uplifting start to the day.

Everything is going well for all of us in India so far! We are all adapting to the culture very quickly and are able to hail an auto-rickshaw (basically an open metal box with three wheels... kind of scary) and venture into downtown Agartala on our own. We even booked our first trip for our break in October. During this month, school is dismissed for two weeks for those of the Hindu religion to celebrate Durga Puja, the largest of the Hindu holidays (comparable to our Christmas). The first of the two weeks, we will be working at a peace camp at the Holy Cross School, while experiencing the festivities of Durga Puja. The second week, the four of us will be heading into the Himalayas to a city called Darjeeling. From there, we will be able to see some of the highest peaks in the world including, Mount Everest. Darjeeling also has world famous tea plantations, a variety of monasteries, hiking, incredible views, and based on restaurant reviews, we may even get the chance to experience many missed American foods and drinks! Lonely Planet categorizes Darjeeling as a “must see” so, we're excited to make the trip!