Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A game of Scrabble

On this dreary Tuesday with not much happening at all, I got an email from "Coolest Prerna," my student from India: "I AM VERY HAPPY WITH NEW VOLUNTEERS HOTHECK. HE IS A COOL BOY BUT NOT TEACHING LIKE YOU."

I thought about our last class in December.

On our last day, I scrapped our usual agenda of vocabulary, sentence completions, and skits. Instead we pulled out an American board game favorite: Scrabble. My students hadn't ever played Scrabble before, hadn't played it in Hindi and definitely not in English.


As sure as I could barely explain the directions, you could not tell this group they could not win at Scrabble. Competition is global. After a quick demonstration of pulling out tiles, arranging them on the board, they were all about "Ma'am, please," their polite way of saying "Let's get this game going.

So we did. With newspapers, notes and the ocassional hint from me, we covered the board with both basic and complicated English words. Shalish and Prerna skimmed the newspaper for words (when Prerna wasn't distracted by the gleaming picture of gorgeous movie star John Abraham). Intent on winning, Prem and Kavita studied their class notes and fussed around with the tiles in front of them. Dharamjeet and his buddy who just dropped in for the day pestered me silly until I taunted them as weaklings. For a guy who plans to enter the Indian army, that was all the motivation he needed. They got busy digging in the tile bag, and monitored the board carefully.

All were particularly thrilled by the discovery of "Double Letter" and "Triple Word" score options. Scores were tallied furiously, and Hindi numbers thrown around with abandon. I forget the winning words, but I think Dharamjeet took the lead with a skillful use of bonus points, and a few existing words. He jumped up and saluted the board, celebrating his triumph. Only studious Prem was disappointed at his loss.

We took a few pictures, and Prem gave me a bunch of flowers whose buds were dotted with lights that blinked at the flick of a switch. In his farewell, Dharamjeet reached to touch my feet, the traditional gesture of respect to elders. In that instant, I began to miss them.

I'm glad the new volunteers are keeping up with my students. Not really mine, but still mine. I'd love to meet him and share stories, monitor their progress. And remind him that they love to play Scrabble.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Last Class

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Chasing elusive tigers and slow moving trains, pt. 2

Saturday, December 10

At the appointed hour, we clamored to the top tier of a sleeper car, and slept the entire way to Jaipur. Our first visit to Jaipur was tons of fun, and I looked forward to enjoying the Pink City's majestic insanity for a few hours, beginning with the thousands of people crowding around the train platforms, waiting to board, hauling trash, or crossing the tracks. As predictable as a train station should be, with all sorts of computerized lists and timetables, it's actually quite chaotic and unpredictable. I never expected to stand on the platform and, while mulling over lunch plans, see the only person we knew in Jaipur step out of the wild crowd. And there he was, the nattily dressed Ali, our tour guide from Jaipur 1. As surprised as we were at the meeting, he quickly offered to take us to lunch. "I know a very nice place close by."

Now, when a guy in the tourist biz in India "knows a very nice place," it's often owned by his cousin, friend, uncle, or brother who will cut them a commission for bringing by tourists. Ali had been known to try this gig before, so we made clear that we needed lunch, nothing else, preferably some place nearby. "I understand. American close-by. Not Indian close by," he said. "American close by, 1-2 km. Indian close by, 5-10 km."

The spot Ali took us to allowed a few moments of peace on a lovely roof-top restaurant. Three weeks prior, on my first visit to Jaipur, the city seemed so mysterious, so mythical, and yet still India. I gazed at the tops of apartment buildings, strings of laundry, and the mountains...on the right. For a moment, I felt incredibly calm, aware of how many things were going on around me, and yet not intimidated by any one of them. Gradually, the events of the morning were allowing me to feel prepared for any craziness.

Like fighting to board our 2 pm train back to Delhi. Delhi is home to 15 million people, and probably half are from some place else, or just pass through to some place else. Obviously the train was packed and the guys in front of me were taking a while to board. I stood near the door and waited for them to board. Unlike the ticket counter, I couldn't elbow my way through. Further, we didn't have reserved tickets and weren't guaranteed a seat. I just waited...

Until I heard Angela yelling at me to get on. What was the rush? The guys in front of me were still...in front of me and I couldn't move. Oh, but the train was moving. Slowly, the hulking beast of a train was pulling out of Jaipur, and I was standing on the platform.

"Rhonda, get on!"

"Move!" I yelled at the guys blocking the entrance. "Get the hell off, cause I'm getting on!" I grabbed my bags with one hand, the grimy handle with the other and propelled myself into the train. For a few moments I hung between the steps and the thin air, nothing but the ground to save me, and it was the most exciting moment of our trip. We've seen lots of people casually hopping on and off trains, but my American sensibility never allowed me to enjoy the feat until Indian crowds forced the situation. I erupted into loud laughs and leaned outside to take photos.

I saw a lone guy sitting on the rails smoking a cigarette, and a second running atop the cars. Angela continued to shriek until I assured her all of me was fully on board.

We moved onward. Rajasthan, that sliver along our railway line, was beautiful. Women in bright colored saris bent over green grass, guys on motorbikes rolled along and reminded me of the "Motorcycle Diaries." When we passed through towns, there was always a crowd of cars, bikes, and motorbikes waiting patiently to cross, yet also seeming to want to board. Slowing through one stop, I saw a group of boys, they saw me and yelled "American! Hello!" I clicked their photo.

And the hours rolled on. Conductors on the train never announce the arriving train stations, so we relied on the degree of activity on the platforms to determine Whether we were in New Delhi. When substantial chaos was present, we hopped off, and knocked everyone out of the way. Again, an acceptable manner of passing through a crowd. It was 8:45 pm. Plenty of time to get ready for what we rushed back to Delhi to do: go to the hottest nightclub in the city, Elevate.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Chasing elusive tigers and slow-moving trains, pt. 1

We knew our chances of seeing a tiger at the Rathambore National Tiger Reserve were slim. Supposedly, there are only thirty-five at the park, and they rarely come out for meet and greets. Most of the stories we heard from others who had visited included woeful phrases like "just missed the tiger by an hour" or "came out the next day." Our story includes the woeful phrase: the High Court of Rajasthan ordered the park closed to private safaris ten minutes after we arrived. Or, when we looked at our watches, 5:10 am. We knew our chances were slim when we began our journey. Our chances plummeted to zero once the agent announced the high court's decision. If this isn't a story about the joy of the journey, not in the destination, then no such story has been written.

Friday, December 8. We jet off for Sawai Madhupur on a dusty blue Indian train from New Delhi railway station. Everyone in our group was present and accounted for, as was the train, so far, so good. About an hour into the ride, a youngish Hindi-speaking Belgium guy boarded with his best friend Radhebaba, an elderly Brahmin yoga instructor. We, being young single women, and they, being who they were, supplied each other with sufficient entertainment for the better part of the six-hour ride. Cheerily, we bid them adieu at the Sawai Madhupur railway station, clearly still under construction but the least of our concerns. Eleven pm in a small town, what were the chances of getting an auto rickshaw? Apparently, pretty good as one driver literally sprinted across the parking lot in a flash of pink flannel and halted in front of me, at our immediate service. Impressed by his commitment, we accepted his offer and he efficiently dropped us at the Pink Palace, surely the grimiest hotel in Sawai Madhupur. As I surveyed the pink cement walls, and ripped sheets, my flatmate opened the bathroom door and heaved. (For some reason, she stood in the middle of the floor and couldn't get over to the trash can). One room change later, my flatmate was snoring and I began a four hour contemplation of whether I would be attacked by the gigantic spider in the bathroom.

At the crack of black, as my girls say, Pink Lightning returned and zoomed us to the reserve to receive the dreadful news. No safaris. Oh, the devastation! Last weekend in India, and no tigers. Five am at the closed Rathambore National Park, and no tigers. Lonely Planet, what do we do now. LP's spare descriptions of other sites in SM, some random fort and a distant bazaar, tactfully implied we should high-tail it back to Delhi.

Via a hitched ride on a passing jeep (an easy Rs. 100 for the three drivers), we went back to the train station and I forced myself to the front of the line, an acceptable manner of joining a queue in train stations here.

"Is there a train to Delhi today?"

"Yes, but no availability," declared the silver-haired agent. No seats on any of the trains to Delhi from SM. Clearly, high-tailing exists neither as a Hindi phrase, nor a mantra in the train system. What we could do, he suggested, was ride to Jaipur, then catch the evening train to Delhi. We'd be back in Delhi by...10 pm. It was 10 am, we'd been up since 4 (I never really slept), and no tigers. Did we want to spend an entire day on the train? We surveyed SM once more: skanky black-haired hogs noshing on raw sewage, curious crowds of men staring at the disoriented tourists, and crumbling food stands. Too much character for us. To Dilli we returned.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

"It's the past tense, baby!"

So said my student, Nithi (not her real name), to me yesterday as I struggled to read a passage from her homework. Of course, I said, and cracked up. Nithi's English, generously flavored with Hindi-accented American slang, is quite good. Consequently she serves as class translator for both Hindi language and culture.

Nithi is one my portals into Indian youth culture as I piece together the diversity of perspectives and opinions. Her outlook is a mix of traditional and modern, rather than a firm commitment to either one. For example, she's completely enraptured by American celebrity (particularly Leonardo DiCaprio) and fashion, asks lots of questions about life in the United States, and has more than than a mere fancy with western culture. With her near-fluency in English, she's interviewed for jobs at call centres and other industries that appreciate this skill.

At the same time, she looks forward to "having many sarees!" when she marries, a marriage that most likely will be arranged by her parents. Does she believe in love marriage? Again her opinion doesn't fit into a neat box. She's got a huge crush on a guy, but won't dare talk to him because she anticipates her parents' reproach.

So when she tells me, laughingly and with tremendous conviction, "It's the past tense, baby!" I wonder what else she might be referring to...marriage, career, traditional gender roles, divisions between East and West...??

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A Tornado of Fresh Air

And now the long-awaited whimsical romance with Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Couple weekends ago (which really feels like a lifetime), my flatmates and I visited Jaipur, a city couple hours outside of Delhi and in the state of Rajasthan. Rajasthan. I love the name, and fell in love with the "Pink City," as it's known.

It wasn't love at first sight, mind you, as our arrival to a throng of over-bearing, extremely aggressive auto drivers was less than auspicious. Just to get out of the train station, we hopped in a guy's ride and off we went...to his brother's shop. Turns out he didn't know how to get to our hotel, but his brother did and the brother slid into the front seat and we into a tricky situation. Do we trust the other guy? Were we in a dark alley in Jaipur at 9 pm? Driver took us safely to our hotel, introduced himself as Ali and offered his tour services for the next day. He met us promptly at 10:30 Saturday morning, and nattily dressed for the ocassion. We squeezed into his stylish rickshaw (electric blue plastic covered seats) and he delivered a thrilling tour of the city with intermitten moments of whimsical romance. To christen the moment we crossed into the old city, the section surrounded by a pink wall, Ali disappeared from the auto (we groaned in distress) and returned with four rose garlands that he hung around our necks. Sigh. We saw a few incredible sites, like the marvelous City Palace, a museum of sundials, and the hardest-working laziest-looking camels in Jaipur. Mostly, we enjoyed the fresh air, a true gift that Delhi rarely delivers, and an open view of a gorgeous sunset atop our hotel. We're returning to Rajasthan this weekend, and this time not in search of romance, but tigers. Yes, Rhonda is going to a tiger reserve. Watch. Out.

I returned to class the following Monday and explained the excitement to the students, and happily most understood. Since our class began a few weeks ago, it has changed significantly in format. Where we had a small group of young women who come for a couple hours for conversation and grammar, our current schedule looks like this:

1st period: Neighborhood kids for rounds of Hokey-Pokey and Dr. Suess
2nd period: Young women for gossip and grammar
3rd period: Integrated class of young women and university guys for conversation and role playing.

Did we ask for it? No. It just happened, and it's working. Gayatri, 17, regularly asks for homework and is making real progress. Prerna, 18, continues to amaze us with her pointed insights about American and Indian culture. The university guy's conversation has really picked up, as had their understanding of English witticism. I'm most excited about Sunita, 17, who barely spoke at all, but has returned to class diligently, and now complains that the excersices are boring!

Sadly, two of the most advanced girls have left the class to, respectively, prepare for a wedding and tend to their families. I respects their decisions, but certainly miss their company.

Signing off...

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Amazing but Ordinary

The days since my last post have been especially exciting, and only today, Thursday, have I had a few moments at the local internet cafe (where access is just 50 cents an hour) for a post. So getting to it...

One of my primary goals in coming to New Delhi was to get an inside perspective on how children are educated here. Teaching English in Munirka offers one perspective, and a visit to Room to Read's New Delhi's office offered another.

Room to Read (RTR), like many non-profit organizations, has a lovely genesis story that I'll summarize this way: a former Microsoft techie John Wood trekked through Nepal and came upon a school without a library. Through donations from friends in the United States, he later supplied the school with 3,000 books. Room to Read is the formal structure that assists NGOs in several Asian nations in creating and sustaining libraries and other facilities to enhance children's learning and economic opportunities. India has RTR sites in several states, and the capitol region of New Delhi. Last Friday, I joined RTR staff and two other American visitors on a visit to sites in South and East Delhi.

What I was both ordinary and amazing. If you were to walk into a school library, and saw bright red ribbons atop heads buried in books, would you be amazed? Would you not expect to see students studiously engaged in their reading? The darily bibliophiles interrupted their work to recite poems and sing songs in Hindi and English. I especially appreciated their performance of "Baa Baa Black Sheep." Enthusiasm and pride fueled a few girls to perform five or six times. With the aid of staff translating, they told me they loved reading, and often read when they were bored.

The amazing element? Well, more like astounding. Without the school library, the children would not have access to books. No books! Many government school libraries do not have books, and book shops, I've noticed, are not widely accessible. As well, Nita explained Hindu culture is primarily an oral culture, and while reading and writing are not discouraged, there has been an active movement to make the practice more widespread. I thought of a similar campaign in the states some ten years ago. Campaigns posters that hung in my elementary school library (some are still at DC's antiquated MLK Library) and celebrities, like Whoopi Goldberg and Phyllicia Rashad, cradled books and smiled lovingly in testament to the joys of reading.

An ordinary, rudimentary element of the America student's school day, the trip to the school library, is a tremendous accomplishment for a school that serves many children who are the first in their families to attend school.

But this is not a Western-country to the rescue story. Recall that RTR partners with local NGOs to create and sustain the libraries. RTR India, like all RTR sites, is staffed entirely by native Indians, not foreign nationals. Within three years, and after several hundreds of books donated, the local NGO takes over library maintenance entirely. Also, RTR does not host international volunteers. So while in the states, check out your local chapter of RTR. There is one in DC.

Now off to dinner, and then to dessert in Khan Market. A volunteer returns to the States tomorrow, and that calls for massive amounts of delicious Indian ice cream, rumoured to be made with buffalo milk. I'll return and detail my whimsy romance with Jaipur and the Taj Majal.