Friday, December 23, 2011

Children, part 3: Beggars

I was waiting at the train station a few nights ago and was approached at various points by children who were begging.  I hadn't eaten dinner and had walked I'm not sure how many miles that day, so I was trying to buy a little something to munch on.  I first bought a tangerine and it was at that point that some kids started following me.  Next I bought samosas and I bought a couple extra to give to the kids staring at me. They followed me and a few more materialized as I bought some cookies, but I didn't buy any for them.  My thoughts wavered between the warnings I'd been given not to give to beggars and something I'd read about how Mother Teresa always carried food (and I think some money, too), so that she could always give to anyone who approached her.  I am no Mother Teresa, I can assure you; in fact, during the day I was rather nasty at various points to people I encountered trying to sell me this or that or convince me to ride in their rickshaws.  However, in the station my eyes and heart could not ignore the young faces before me, so my feeble attempt to relieve the ache in my heart was to buy two extra samosas.  The ache remained.

I then proceeded to my platform to wait for the train.  There didn't seem to be any beggars except along the first platform, which I had left. My train was late (only by a couple hours, which is pretty good, given that some trains are 6, 8, 12, even over 24 hours late here, especially this time of year when dense fog is a big problem), so I was standing on the platform longer that expected.  I was in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and waiting for the same train was a young American couple, who came to India for a wedding and were also doing some sightseeing.  The woman had been to Europe; the man had never been out of the U.S. before.  India was quite a culture shock for both of them. The man, in particular, seemed quite frustrated with the dirt, poverty, and difficulties he'd encountered, more, I think, because of his own discomfort than because some people have to live such harsh realities every day. Of course, I've had my own such times, so who am I to judge him...?

As we stood there chatting, the kids showed up again, one or two at a time, to beg.  The man was clearly getting angry with their persistent presence.  Using a little of my Hindi, I tried to tell the kids assertively, but not angrily, to go.  One boy remained and I put my hand gently on his head, looked him straight in the eyes and said, "I have nothing for you, but my real wish is for you to have an education, so that you wouldn't have to be here begging."  Of course, he didn't understand my words, but I felt the need to let him know that I knew he was there and a real person, even if he didn't know what I was saying. Eventually he left.  My heart ached for him and for the others there without, as far as I could tell, any adult supervision, though maybe there was someone out of sight the kids were begging for.  Who knows?

As I continued talking to the couple, I found out that the woman is a music teacher in a school for kids with learning disabilities.  I told her about my teaching, both in the U.S. and in India.  As we talked about our students, I kept looking at the dirty kids begging at the train station: the kids who were probably old enough to be in kindergarten through maybe fourth or fifth grade and the little toddler boy with them with only a sweater on, no pants, no shoes. Besides the life they were born into, were these kids different from those I've taught or the woman teaches? For awhile the station kids were huddled together spinning a few of the coins they'd been given, laughing and having fun.  The difference between their begging and the child who begs her mom for a particular snack or his dad for some toy is that the station children are asking something of strangers, not of people who know and love them.  Would we be angry at our own children if they were telling us they were hungry and were asking us for food?  I doubt it.

Yes, the station kids' begging could be seen as annoying, but it shames me even to use the word "annoying," as it implies that the children themselves are the problem, when the real problems are the inaccessibility of food, water, clothing, shelter, and education.  If the children's needs were met, would they be at the station? Anger is an appropriate response.  Anger directed towards the children is misplaced. Much easier, but misplaced. 

I stood there wondering what else I can do to make another tiny dent in the mammoth structure called "Injustice." I don't yet have an answer, but I'm glad that most of my time in India was spent hammering at that structure and I'd glad I lived with and met so many SCNs and other people who have made hammering their life work.  I'm glad I've been here long enough to understand a little bit about some people's lives here, though I have a long way to go in my learning, I know. Otherwise, I might feel the same misplaced anger and/or condescension that I saw in the man.

Our train finally came.  The couple went off to find their train car and I to find mine.  Right before I got on the train, I saw the little boy I'd spoken to in English, found the last few cookies I hadn't eaten, and gave them to him.  Still a woefully inadequate response, but maybe it means that that night, he had to beg from one less person...

My greatest wish for this Christmas is that no more children be born into a life of begging.  My wish for myself is that I become more aware of people's needs, so that I may give more freely from my abundance.  My wish for us all is that the Advent season of waiting and preparation that is ending leads us to experience and share the gratitude, joy, generosity, and peace of this Christmas season.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Children, part 2: Stuff

Each day when I went to Chetna Bharati in Chatra, I'd bring a few toys and other props for class: my cell phone, sunglasses, a bracelet, and some funny pictures like a purple dog, a cow with earrings, and others. Finn and Lightning, the two cars who have been featured in some photos in earlier posts (and will be featured in the future!) also came with me. The sunglasses were quite popular, as I taught the girls that the one wearing them must stick her thumb up and say, "Keeeeewwwwweeelllll."

Most recently, I brought some of my clothes, since we were practicing the words " put on," "take off," and " wear." We had some good laughs as the small girls put on one of my T-shirts or skirts over their own clothes. The T-shirts came down to their knees and the pants and skirts had to be held up. Quite a sight to see!!  I can't think of another class I've ever taught in which I would feel comfortable handing my jewelry, my clothes, or my phone over to kids.  Generally, in my classes, if I have something to pass around, I closely monitor kids as  they pass things.  With my girls (yes, I have claimed them as "my" girls) as they asked "Please may I have ____," I'd hand the requested item over and then move onto the next girl who asked for a different item. Often after distributing things, I'd have them stand up and  go to each other to ask in English for whatever item they may want. Those conversation times were organized chaos, with all girls up and moving, and, to my great delight, speaking in English.  When it was time to stop, I collected the items back and never, not once, was anything missing nor did anything come back damaged. The girls always returned  everything without hesitation.

There is one little boy, maybe 3 years old, who was orphaned a year ago. Each day when I arrived, he greeted me excitedly. Before class began, I used to ask him, "Do you want the blue car or the red car?" He would think hard for a minute about this important decision and then make his choice.  Towards the end of my time, when I'd arrive he'd say in his sweet little voice, "I want blue car red car." We didn't quite master "and." He played with the cars and at break time brought them back to me. After break, he took them again and played until the end of class and then, without me having to say a word, brought the cars back to me.

I visited another branch of Chetna Bharati a month or so ago. All girls live there, too. I had put my small foam ball and, ever faithful to the promise to my nephews to take Lightning and Finn everywhere I went, the two cars in my back pack. Like at Hunterganj weeks before, I played catch with the girls and later gave the ball to them to play with for awhile. I also took out the cars for them to play with.  As far as I could tell, there was not a single toy where they lived besides those 3 items I brought.  The girls went off to play and came back later pulling the cars by strings they'd tied around them. Like my girls in Chatra, when it was time to stop playing, there was no arguing. They handed me the toys and moved on.

When I originally wrote this, it was Black Friday in the States. People were buying all sorts of things they and/or their loved ones probably didn't need. It is a stark contrast to these girls and little boy who have every right to want stuff they don't have and yet as far as I can tell, they don't complain about their lack of things and they are absolutely respectful of mine, things they may never have in their life.  They enjoyed holding, using, or trading those things while I was there, but easily gave them back when it was time to. Without toys, they still played and had fun. They didn't seem to be too attached  to stuff.

They are attached to people. They cried when the novices left them in November. We cried together when I left Chatra a few days ago. After the SCNs I lived with, I spent the most time with the girls at Chetna Bharati.

When I think about my houseful of stuff in the States, I think Hindi may not be the only thing I can learn from my girls. I hope that I can let go of some of my well-ingrained American attachment to stuff, buying less and giving more easily. Because both consumerism and materialism are deeply imbedded in my being, I have a long way to go on the path away from them, but I think the example of my girls will help me take a few more steps in the right direction: towards people and away from so much stuff.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sisters of Charity of Nazareth

Since I've spent the last 3 months living with eight Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and two candidates and since this past weekend kicked off the celebration of the SCN becentennial, it seems only appropriate to dedicate a post to these amazing women. 

I'm not sure what it was that prompted me to ask an SCN friend of mine about the possibility of working with them in India, but I am so glad I did.  Honestly, I didn't know much about SCNs, but knew they worked in India and knew that the ones I did know were impressive women.  When I told a friend from another congregation about my interest in going to India, she gave me information about her order's missions in India, but I never pursued it, confident for reasons I still don't understand that it was the SCNs I would be working with.  Obviously I made it here and couldn't be more pleased about it.

"O daughters of Catherine, simple and free,
Pioneer women, we are called to be,
With the love of Christ, urging us on"

The above words are the refrain of a song we often sing during evening prayer, based on the SCN mission and charism.  I can say that the words accurately reflect my experience with the SCNs here.

Pioneer women.  As I've been writing my blog posts, I've mentioned no one by name, unless I've quoted a song or text.  I've thought about mentioning this person or that, but in the end decided to simply describe them.  As I write this post, it seems appropriate to break that trend and say something about Sister Ann Roberta, one of the six SCN pioneers to leave the U.S. in 1947 to come to India.  Incidentally, the day I began writing this, December 5, was her birthday.  When she left her home in 1947, she did so thinking she'd never see American soil again.  That was the commitment she and the others made.  I'll be away from home about 9 months and I communicate often with family and friends.  I can't imagine making the decision to leave permanently to go to a land about which I know very little without any means of regular communication.  That is true commiment.  As it turns out, she has gotten to go back to the States to visit, but India is and will remain her home.

There is something so compelling about Sister Ann Roberta.  She exudes peacefulness and joy.  I have gotten to be around her on numerous occasions.  She lives in Gaya, a place that we have passed through numerous times going to and from Mokama and Patna.  We also visited Gaya for Diwali.  When we arrive, she is always there to greet us with a warm smile and hug.  She sits with us as we drink tea and eat our tiffin, always offering us whatever is in the house to eat (true of all SCN houses I've visited).  She has a keen memory and is a wonderful storyteller.  I could listen to her for hours.  She also has a wonderful sense of humor, sharing that lightness with those around her.  I asked to take a picture with her one time and afterwards showed it to her.  Her response was something like, "When I see pictures of myself, I always wonder, 'Who is that old woman?'"  She may be old in body, but not in spirit. Her smile and laughter radiate from deep within.

That joyfulness is a quality I have experienced with so many SCNs.  It has been a long time since I've lived with others and it's not always easy here to share space.  I think living in community is challenging for anyone, though.  In community meetings in Chatra, discussions sometimes get heated.  But then a compromise is reached or a decision is made, the meeting ends, and everyone is cutting up and laughing.  Laughter comes easily.  Like I have observed with children in various places, with the SCNs, work does not seem to be dull drudgery, perhaps because it is shared work.  The work itself may not be interesting, but the company shared in doing it makes it fun!

And let me talk about the work they are doing.  In the compound in Chatra, we (I know I'm not an SCN, but I'm still working with them for a few more days!) are serving about 2000 children in the 3 schools.  Yes, there are other lay teachers and staff, but the SCNs provide leadership and are at the heart of everything that happens on campus.  Ninety or so of the girls attending the schools live on campus in a hostel.  At least in these parts, it is very common for children (as young as kindergarten age) to go to another town and live in a hostel so they have a chance at a good education.  One of the young SCNs here is in charge of the hostel girls. 

Last week during the community meeting, there was a discussion about a proposal brought to the house for 40-50 more girls to come live on campus for another educational program.  Some money would be given to support them, but the SCNs would ultimately be responsible for the girls' well-being on campus.  My first thought was, "No possible way.  Everyone (except me) already has such a full plate." The SCN response was, "How could we not help these girls get an education?  What do we need to do to make this happen?"  The love of Christ is certainly urging them to see not limits, but possibilities.  Currently, preparations are being made so the girls can come.

I have seen numerous large events- the feast day celebration, a fair, two Annual Day programs, and a Sports Day program all come together as if there were many more people making them happen.  Everyone puts in whatever work needs to be done to make them successful.  I've helped a little with the events, but have not put in the long hours of labor before and after than everyone else in the house has.  I can at least say I've taken some good photographs of the events, though, and was the "official photographer" of Sports Day.  That was fun!

Also in Chatra is Chetna Bharati, where girls and boys get a rudimentary education and with it, the possibility of more formal schooling. Self-help groups, women's groups, trainings and workshops on various topics, and many other projects also come from Chetna Bharati's tireless work towards a more just world.  From here the unjust systems at work are challenged.  Actually, it might be more accurate to say that unjust systems are explained to those who are being denied their rights, so that they can stand up and speak for themselves.  It's all about empowerment.

These are examples of only a few of the many ministries of the SCNs in India.  Their work also includes work in hospitals, work with persons affected by leprosy and polio, work with children of sex workers, and many others.  A number of you have said very kind things to me about my presence here, and I thank you for your support, but I have to say that my short-term and rather relaxed commitment is nothing compared to the work these women have committed their lives to do.  I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with them and learn from them.

I'll also say that as my time is almost over, I am encouraged to have heard the words, "the next time you come..." several times while I was in Mokama last weekend.  I hope with all my heart that there will be many next times for me with the SCNs here.  I am certain my relationship with them will continue and, as with any new relationship, I look forward to seeing how it will continue to develop.   

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What's in a day? Part 2

I've described the first half of the day; now let me continue...

1:45- I walk to Chetna Bharati. It's about a 10-minute walk, through the compound where I live, then up the road, then along a narrow path. During my walk, I pass multiple cows, maybe some goats or a pig. I always receive unwanted stares from others walking along the road or from people in passing vehicles. There isn't another foreigner for many miles around, so sometimes people gawk. My presence has even been the subject of several articles in local newspapers, some more accurate than others. I have copies of 5 of them. I know there are at least 2 more where I am either talked about or in a picture. Who would've thought?

Anyway, when I arrive at Chetna Bharati, I am greeted with even greater enthusiasm than when I walk to school in the morning. "Good afternoon, didi (the affectionate word for sister)!"  The girls are often finishing lunch when I get there, so my arrival prompts a flurry of activity as girls finish eating, wash their plates, and come up to class.

The girls living and studying at Chetna Bharati are grouped according to ability: there are red, yellow, and green groups.  I teach the girls in the green group.  They range in age from, I'd guess 7 or 8 to maybe 14. I haven't taught them what in the U.S. would be a normal introductory question: How old are you? Most do not know their age, nor do they know their birthdays. When they were enrolled in the program, if these facts were unknown, their ages were estimated and each was given a "birthdate."  I was talking to someone here about birthdays and was told that celebrating birthdays is a fairly new thing in India because community has always been more important than individuals.  I know there was more explanation given, but that's all I remember.

2:00- Class starts with the ringing of the bell, again a metal disk that is hit. I greet the girls and ask, "How are you?" Most now answer, "I am fine, thank you," but some enthusiastically say, "I am thank you," which I then correct. Incidentally, I have recently taught them other words to answer this question, so after the rote group response, I ask individuals the same question. "Happy" is a common response, especially because I ask a follow-up question like "Do you want to dance or jump?" (Those are thing I might do if I'm happy.) After they answer, they get to do that action.   For a laugh, someone may answer, "I am sick," which prompts me to ask, "Are you very sick?" If the answer is yes, then there is a vomiting gesture made by the "sick" girl, causing great merriment for all.  If someone answers hungry, the follow-up is something like "Do you want to eat an elephant?" The whole class, 2 hours long, goes like this. Lots of laughter, lots of movement, as they act out vocabulary or stand and practice new questions and answers with each other. I've also taught them Simon Says and Mother May I?, both of which are wildly popular, especially when I let them play the part of Simon or Mother. We sing, too, the most recent song being BINGO. I'm sure the teacher next door is not too happy with all the noise we make, and I do try to quiet the girls down sometimes, but honestly I don't want to dampen their joyful spirits or enthusiasm for learning. As far as I'm concerned, if their noise is in English, it's fine by me! I have only had to be stern with the whole group twice over my three months and rarely do I have to say anything to individuals about their behavior.

3:00  There is a 5-minute break in the middle of class, and we often don't even realize an hour has gone by until the other groups walk through (they have to go through our room to get to/from theirs). Those who want a break go and come back quickly. Many choose not to go and will check out whatever I may be getting out of my basket for the second half of class.The second hour goes equally fast.

I have to say the two hours at Chetna Bharati are usually the best hours of my day. I am continuously amazed and crazily proud of how much English the girls have learned. I'm told that my teaching-style is quite different from the average Indian teacher. Knowing that some of my girls will get the opportunity for further schooling, I only hope their enthusiasm for learning is not squelched by more conventional teaching styles.  My results have been so positive that I was asked to lead several teacher trainings while I've been here, an unexpected and wonderful honor.  I have also been observed numerous times by various teachers. My success makes me realize just how much I have learned from my own teachers, teaching colleagues, and students and I am ever grateful to them for helping me become a better teacher.

4:00- When class ends, I drink tea, usually accompanied by good conversation with any of several people working at Chetna Bharati. This is usually a time when I hear and learn about the social activists and movements going on in India.  Topics might include right to education, land rights, women's empowerment, or more recently, the emerging details of the murder of a nun working for the rights of coal miners. She was brutally murdered on November 15. Investigations are still going on, but one of the contributing factors leading to her death may have been that on November 16, she was going to help a rape victim file an official report denouncing the rape. As I'm typing, I have to stop because I don't even have words to express the horror of it.

4:30 to 6:30- After my tea/social justice education, I return to the compound and convent. By this time the cows and goats may be on their way home, sometimes with obvious human accompaniment, sometimes without.

Often when I enter the compound, the girls from the hostel are cleaning the campus. This includes picking up trash, sweeping all areas, whether paved or dirt, burning trash, and preparing their dinner.  Some of the youngest girls will come running up to me to have the privilege of carrying my basket back to the house. If there are more than 2 girls, I'll hand out individual items until they all have something to carry.  When I arrive back to the house, the sisters are usually sitting at the table having their tea and chatting, so I often join them for the conversation, not the tea. Of course, if there are good snacks, I may eat something!

After tea I usually go to my room and check email. If I washed clothes in the morning, I take the dry clothes down, fold them, and put them away. Sometimes I'll read or write a little.

6:30 to 7:30- We gather in the chapel for evening prayer. Before entering we take our shoes off. Many of us sit on cushions on the floor (sitting on the floor is standard practice in many situations here);  some sit in chairs. There is a rotation for leading prayer. Each of the 8  sisters and the 2 candidates takes a turn. I also joined the rotation after I'd been here awhile. Prayer is conducted in English, though sometimes Hindi songs are used. Usually there is a lot of quiet time for reflection and there is always time to share our prayer petitions. I am so grateful for this time. I am particularly grateful for this time on the days when I walk into the chapel ready to scream. I always leave feeling much better than when I enter. I hope I will have the discipline when I leave here to continue making time for quiet reflection.

7:30- Dinnertime. The meal includes leftovers from lunch, some new vegetables, and, once or twice a week, meat. I am vegetarian, so there is a paneer (mild Indian cheese) dish for me when the sisters eat meat. After dinner, as at the other 2 meals, fruit is served.  Because the weather is cold now, hot water is served to drink. Most of the sisters don't drink it until after they've eaten. I usually drink cold water and drink it throughout the meal. After dinner everyone participates in the cleanup, clearing the table, washing and drying the dishes, and putting them away. There always seems to be laughing and joking going on during this time, but actually there is a lot of laughing and joking at most meals or any time a few of us are together.

8:15ish to 10:30ish- After dinner, the sisters watch the news, sometimes in Hindi, sometimes in English. After the news there's a soap opera some of them watch. I may watch the news, but always go to my room before the soap. I get ready for bed, which lately includes putting up the mosquito net, something I didn't have to do often when I first arrived. Then I'll read, write, maybe listen to my iPod, and go to bed. And after sleeping, it all begins again...

The description that I've given here is a workday. It seems that almost every week, we have a day off for a holiday or a special program. This week we didn't have classes Monday because of the English medium Annual Day program Sunday. Friday we only had a 3-period day because of the high school's sports day starting in the late morning. The school week is supposed to be a 6-day week (with a 1/2 day Saturday) but most often the school week is 4 or 5 days, at least while I've been here. I am only scheduled to teach Monday through Friday anyway. I go to Chetna Bharati 4 days a week, whether school is in session in the compound or not.

That sums up "regular life" here. Of course, traveling interrupts the routine.  This weekend I'm in Mokama  for the SCN bicentennial celebration and in a couple weeks, I will be leaving Chatra to travel a little more in India (including going to a wedding!) and then Spain, ending any sort of "regular life" until I get settled in Palestine in mid-January.

Until I go, I'll enjoy the last few days of the routine...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What's in a day?

Some have asked what exactly I do here… Let me walk you through a typical day. Actually, to give you a good feel, there may be some explaining to do, so I’ll split this up into 2 parts. Let me start with the first half:

6:00 AM- I get up. This time is an hour to an hour and a half later than anyone else in the house gets up. By house standards, waking up at 6:00 is sleeping in. The sisters are already at mass (which begins at 5:45 AM) when I get up. I usually check my mail or Facebook on my phone (oh, how glad I am that I can access them from my phone!), do some exercises, take my malaria medicine, and get dressed.

6:45 or 7:00- When the sisters return from mass, we have breakfast. There are two women who work in the convent, cleaning the common areas and preparing the food.  Porridge with hot milk and sugar and a yummy chickpea dish served with chapatti (tortilla-like bread, made with wheat flour) are usually served for breakfast. Sometimes there are eggs instead of the chickpeas.  After eating this, we have some sort of fruit. Lately, it’s been apples (about plum-sized and so yummy), guavas or papayas (from trees next to the convent), or bananas.  Orange season is beginning. :) Custard apple season is over. :(

7:15 or 7:30- I continue getting ready for the day. This is usually when I bathe. That may be TMI, but because bathing is done differently than in the U.S., I thought it worth discussing. We recently got the solar water heater fixed, so I no longer have to go ask for "garam pani" (hot water) from the kitchen before bathing; I now have it in my room! The way to bathe here is by filling a bucket (which I'd estimate holds about 5-gallons) with water and then using a small plastic pitcher to pour the water over one’s body, soaping up, and rinsing the soap off, again using the pitcher. There is a showerhead in my bathroom, but being very aware of how scarce water is here, even in a good rainy season, and how much more water I’d use if I showered, I’ve never tried the shower. Let me add that there is no separation between toilet, sink, and bathing area, so whatever water is poured falls on the bathroom floor. Using the shower would just increase the areas where the water would fall. After bathing I have a squeegee to guide the water to the drain in the bathroom floor, so the floor dries more quickly.

Alternately, I may have clothes to wash. I have a separate bucket for bathing water and washing water. The directions on my Tide powder bag are “for bucket wash” and start with something like “Take a ½ handful of powder and dissolve it in water in the bucket.” There are no directions on the package for any other way of washing. I soak the clothes in the bucket of soapy water for a bit and then take them up to the roof where there is a washing area with a ridged surface to scrub the clothes. After scrubbing and rinsing, the clothes go on the clothesline.

8:15 or 8:30- I head over to school. This mean about a 1-minute walk from the convent across the concrete patio area of the school to the school building. In that 1-minute walk, I get greeted with a sing-songy “Good morning, sister” or by those in-the-know, “Good morning, miss” by approximately a jillion kids. It’s pretty sweet when they come running up to greet me. The bell rings (meaning the appointed student or adult strikes a metal disk hanging in the courtyard) for 8:30 assembly. On campus, there are 3 schools: the Hindi medium, the English medium, and the high school. The difference between the English medium and the other schools is that primary language of instruction is in English.

Every school has its own assembly during which each class stands in lines of boys and girls (usually 2 lines of each, since the classes are large). In the English medium school where I teach (and I assume it’s the same at the other schools), a group of 6 to 8 children from a different class each day leads the morning assembly. First, they lead exercises. Then they lead in the recitation of a prayer and the singing of a song.  Then while the rest stand respectfully, the leaders may recite poetry, ask trivia questions, give a “Did you know…?” fact or two and/or give an inspirational thought for the day. That is followed by either the national anthem or a patriotic pledge.  Students in grades 2 to 7 lead this way.  After the students have done their part of the assembly, the principal makes any announcements that need to be made.  LKG (pre-school), UKG (kindergarten), and first grade meet separately and have a similar assembly which teachers primarily lead, but the little ones do lead songs for each other. 

8:30 to 11:30ish- I have 3 classes. When I first arrived, I taught computer- 2 days each with grades 5, 6, and 7.  One day is theory; one day is practical, when we go to the computer lab.  When I began teaching, we were not able to use the lab, because the electricity was not sufficient to support all the computers being on.  Now students go to the high school computer lab, which works very well.  A few weeks after I arrived, a teacher was hired to teach computer, so I started co-teaching first grade. I was very thankful that there were two of us working with this group, as there are 60-ish children in the class. There is a lot of energy in those little ones!! For quite a while we worked on “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly"; they just sang and acted it out during the annual day program on Sunday.  As of yesterday, I am back to teaching computer, since the teacher hired has been let go.  Finding qualified teachers is difficult... 

I have a break after first period. Usually, I get ready for the other two classes then.  After 2nd period, the kids have a break. Here children don’t move from classroom to classroom, teachers do, so the kids have 10ish-minute breaks to stretch their legs, use the bathroom, etc. Third and fourth periods I teach grades 7 and 6. They are a lot of fun and their English is quite good!  One thing I should add: when I (or any other teacher) enter the room, the students stand and greet me with a chorus of “Good morning, miss.” Students who come to the classroom after the teacher is there wait at the door and ask, “Please may I come in.”  At the end of class, students again stand and say, “Thank you, miss.”  This is rather endearing, especially on the days when I lack patience. In the sixth grade there are 50 students and in seventh, 40. That’s a lot more kids than I’m used to having in class, so it has been an adjustment! Thankfully, even when they are a bit naughty, they’re pretty lovely kids!

11:30 to 2:00 I come back to the convent and have tea (the sisters who teach drink tea during the student break), usually with one sister who is still recovering from angioplasty surgery 3 months ago. She is quite lovely, so I enjoy sitting and talking to her. Around noon, everyone comes back for lunch. Lunch is rice, chapatti (people usually take either rice or chapatti, not both), dal (a soupy lentil dish) and various vegetable dishes. These might include cauliflower, potatoes, green beans, squash, green papaya, or whatever else is in the garden or can be bought in the market. After the meal, like at breakfast, fruit is served. Then the sisters go back to school and I get ready for my class at Chetna Bharati.

That sums up the first part of the day.  As I finish up, I realize that I haven't mentioned the lack of electricity, which is the norm rather than the exception.  Maybe I've adjusted to things a little since I arrived.  The above routine all seems pretty ordinary now to me now, but when I think about a typical day in the States, well, there are a few differences!!  I imagine you'd agree!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Learning the Language

According to my Lonely Planet guidebook, eighteen languages are officially recognized by the Indian constitution and in the last census over 1600 minor languages and dialects were listed. Though I’m pretty good with languages, I decided only to work on one while I'm in this country.

Before recently, except for a few select words and phrases, Hindi mostly sounded like gibberish to me. I still don’t understand much, but I have been hearing it long enough that the sounds are familiar now. What’s cool is that both with and without my conscious effort, my brain is starting to organize those sounds.

I feel like I’m going to make some big gains in my Hindi acquisition in my last month here. Not only is my brain getting chummy with the sounds of Hindi, I have now heard some language patterns enough that I can  ask, “What does the ___ ending mean?” because I now actually notice that the ___ending exists. I know enough Hindi to see grammatical patterns emerging as I learn new phrases. The structures are becoming clearer, even though they are very different from other languages I’ve studied. Just to give an example, the word order in the question, “What is your name?” is “Your name what is?” in Hindi. It takes some getting used to…

Having a linguistics background and being a language teacher, I have to say it’s a lot of fun to both participate in and observe my own language acquisition.  It’s been a long time since I’ve taken on a new language and during my time abroad, I’ll be tackling two!! I only wish I had something better than my little Berlitz travel phrase book to help me learn (though my Chetna Bharati girls seem to have fun looking at it)! Nevertheless, I am learning and it’s fun to surprise people when I break out with a Hindi word or two, or sometimes even…a sentence!

Teaching at Chetna Bharti has probably most helped me to learn… My need to translate things so I can teach them is great motivation for my own language acquisition. For most of my time teaching at Chetna Bharati, I had SCN novices with me in my English class to help bridge the language gap. They’ve left Chatra now, so I’m on my own with the girls. They correct my Hindi (usually after laughing at my inability to pronounce words correctly!) as I try to translate what I want to teach them in English. We are learning together!

When I am volunteering in Palestine, I’m fairly certain that Arabic lessons are offered to volunteers. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes my brain to realign itself from Hindi to Arabic. I am also curious to see the teaching method that will be used with us, since I know of too many cases of well-intentioned, but not particularly effective, language instruction.

Of course, besides Hindi, I am learning the nuances of the English dialect spoken here. There are a few words that are new to me, like (and I’m not sure I’m spelling it correctly since I’ve never seen it spelled) tiffin, which is a snack. What I call a notebook, people here call a copy. A grade (A, B, C, etc.) is a “mark.” “Standard” means grade (level), so I am teaching standards 1, 6, and 7. However, at the school where I teach, they say “class” instead of “standard,” so here I say I teach classes 1, 6, and 7. Tuition does not mean fees paid for classes. Here when someone talks about “taking tuition,” they are referring to what I’d call “tutoring.”

The use of the word “reach” really used to throw me. “When did you reach?” is a common question and I used to expect another word to follow it, but now I know “reach” is the last word in the question. So, while the meaning is similar to its meaning in American English, it needs no object. “I reached her there” does not mean I arrived to where she was, but rather that I brought her there. Today at the lunch table, I heard,” He’d better reach them on time,” which, in the context of the conversation meant “He had better bring them (books) on time.”

I’m sure I could give you many more examples. Of course, there are also all the intricacies of the non-verbal cultural languages; certainly there are many different cultural languages, too, as one travels from place to place. However, that is a discussion for another day!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Children, Part 1

"I believe the children are our future.  Teach them well and let them lead the way.  Show them all the beauty they possess inside.  Give them a sense of pride.  Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be." 

A few weeks ago I was at an ashram in Hunterganj, about an hour away from Chatra, where I live.  I was there to lead several sessions of a teacher training.  The ashram is part of Chetna Bharti and children (mostly girls) live there for at least a year, learning life skills like cooking and gardening, as well as "school skills;"  you know the three Rs- Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic.  I spend 4 afternoons a week at Chetna Bharti's main center in Chatra.  Girls come there for a similar year-long training and I teach English to some of the girls there. 

The teachers I was working with at the ashram are new teachers who go into small villages and teach children in nonformal schools.  This means they work with children a few hours a  day trying to teach the most basic reading and math skills.  Ideally, children at these schools will get at least a third grade education.  Some may then go on for further schooling.  Many will not. 

Anyway, while I was at Hunterganj, I did as I do everywhere I go: I took lots of pictures, mostly of the children.  During a break from the training, I was looking through my pictures and the Whitney Houston song I've quoted above popped into my head. 

"These beautiful children are the future," I thought. Of course, this is true of all the children I have encountered, whether in my classroom in the States, a village in Guatemala, or an ashram in India.  Each child in his or her own way will contribute to this world, hopefully in a postive way.  At Hunterganj, children are learning not just simple gardening, but composting and sustainable agricultural practices.  Every child, boy or girl, at some time does every job- cutting vegetables, hauling water, washing dishes, feeding the pigs, or anything else that needs to be done.  They are learning to work, play, and live together as they come from different villages and different tribes.  Their lives are very humble- we played a group game of catch and had wonderful time.  I brought the ball.  I'm pretty sure they don't have one there.   As soon as I took my camera out, children seemed to materialize from nowhere to pose.  They loved looking at the shots after I took them, as they don't often see pictures of themselves.  Apparently, there was a lot of buzz among them about what they posed with- a broom, a knife, a bucket of water.  Many of the pictures I took were as they were working.  And boy, did they work!  But they didn't seem to gripe about it.  They seemed to enjoy working together.  And when the work was done, they seemed to enjoy playing together.  Though I'm sure life at the Hunterganj ashram is not as easy or perfect as I viewed it those days, it certainly seemed to me to be a beautiful vision of how India, or our world, could be. 

Those children are being taught well that there is a time for work and a time for play.  They are being taught well that we are all in this together and we need to work together to accomplish tasks.  They are being taught well that there is dignity in work and that doing that work is something to be proud of, not something to look down on.  And when they finish the work, or even while they are doing it, their joy is evident in the laughter that they share.  This is the type of future I'd like to be a part of.  I am glad I got to share a little piece of it in the present. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sabbatical Year

A few weeks ago I was in Mokama for the silver and golden jubilee celebrations of several of the SCNs. Incidentally, Mokama is “where it all began” for the SCNs in India, so it seemed like a pretty important place to visit if I wanted to learn about the SCNs’ work here and I am glad I got to go. But that’s not what I’m here to write about…

During the homily of the jubilee mass, the priest reflected on the reading from Leviticus 25 about sabbatical and jubilee years. The reading says that farmers should rest the land every 7th year and that the aftergrowth from the harvest should be equally shared between landowner, slaves, hired help, and tenants. The reading goes on to say that God will make sure the fields yield enough in the sixth year to provide for several years, making that 7th year rest possible. The priest related that to life today. The sabbatical year, for the farmer then or for you and I now, is not about doing nothing for a year. Rather it is a time to rest from normal activity and do something different, with a special emphasis on acknowledging the abundant blessings God has granted, on knowing that all is possible through God and all is given to us by God; in other words, the year should be about gratitude.

Certainly I’ve heard people talking about taking sabbaticals, but I never really thought the term had any relevance in my life. College professors took sabbaticals. However, when I heard the priest speaking, I thought, “Ah, so that’s what I’m doing!” I taught at the same school for the last six years. My last year was incredibly, sometimes overwhelmingly, busy. However, like the field in its sixth year, my sixth year working there produced such an abundant yield that I am certain I will still be enjoying the fruits after this year is over. Friendships with colleagues were strengthened. The depth of student reflection went beyond that of previous years and we even put a collection of their writing together in a book. I was able to save enough money for this year away (I think). One goal I’d had since I began at the school, to lead an international service trip, finally happened. Those are just a few examples of the plentiful harvest from my sixth year of teaching. Of course, my personal life also held many blessings.

This year, my seventh, my sabbatical, I am living from the harvest. Every joy I experience here, like wearing my sari for the first time, is richer because I share it with friends at home. Likewise, the difficult moments, like when I am frustrated by my inability to communicate what I need to say, are easier, because of the love and support I know I have.

As I live off the fruits of last year’s work, I am resting from the particular work of teaching high school boys, and trying to share the aftergrowth and to use my time to do something different. I am teaching, but I am teaching English instead of Spanish; first, sixth, and seventh grades instead of high school; and in my afternoons, girls instead of boys. I’ve also had the privilege of conducting two teacher trainings, something I’ve never done before. I’m trying to learn Hindi and will try to learn Arabic when I am in Palestine. I am living in community after many years of living by myself. Let me also add something that may shock those who know my (messy) personal habits well: for the first time in my life, I am making my bed every day as soon as I get up. Yes, I am living differently! :) In fact, I can’t stand to leave my room with it unmade! (Yes, Mom, this is true.) My time here is more relaxed than at home, but I think I am using it, rather than wasting it.

Every night I participate in community prayer. A friend who recently made her final profession as a Benedictine sister wrote not long ago that she is convinced that if everyone took quiet reflection/prayer time daily in their lives, our world would be very different. I would have to agree with her. For me community prayer is a time when frustrations melt away as our focus always includes recognizing all the good things in our lives, so I am ever-aware of God’s goodness in my life. And, wow, what goodness there is! I certainly have a new appreciation for water and electricity. As I’ve said before, I have amazing support from friends and family, who, while physically far, are very much with me on this journey. I have made new friends as I travel and work. Each day I receive the smiles on the faces of students as they greet me. These days I see the golden splendor of the rice paddies ready for harvest. I enjoy going out to our terrace to see the amazing star-filled night sky with no street lights and buildings to hide it. I am overcome with joy by the way my afternoon girls respectfully handle any prop I bring for class, including a necklace, pair of earrings, and my cell phone. In other circumstance I might worry that these things would disappear or get broken, but I have never worried with the girls. There is the sweet cat at the house who never used to purr and now does all the time. I eat delicious food every day, and am having lots of fun trying new foods. Sadly, the season for my new favorite fruit, custard apples, is nearly over, though there were a few at the breakfast table this morning! I could go on…

And so, thus far, I think I am living my sabbatical year in the spirit it is meant to be lived, resting but active, mindful of the goodness around me. I hope I will continue to live it well during my next weeks in India, when I move on to Palestine in January, and anywhere else I go during my time away from home. As I write this, I am ever more aware of how fortunate I am, as there are many people, perhaps you included, who can only dream of such a year. Of course, I am surrounded by people who probably can neither take such a year or even dream of it… But maybe my way is only one of many ways to live a sabbatical year. Perhaps one can live differently and express gratitude in other ways, without leaving the country or leaving a job…I hope you have that good fortune. In the meantime, thank you for graciously sharing in mine.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lightning and Finn: Part 3- Onam

 Lightning, Finn, and I were in Ft. Cochin, Kerala for the beginning of Onam, a statewide festival.  For Onam, people make beautiful flower designs at their businesses or in their homes.  Below is one that was made for the public square.  It took several days for them to create this...


It was beautiful when they finished it....Can you imagine how many flowers it took to make?

To offset costs, there was a raffle.  I can't remember what most of the possible prizes were, but I do remember one: a bag of rice!  Since that is a staple of the diet here, it'd be a good prize to win!

On the second day of Onam, we got to share an Onam lunch with a family.  First we spruced up their flower decoration (below)

There are particular foods prepared for Onam and it is tradition to eat the meal on a banana leaf. Seeing the spread, we were reminded of Thanksgiving Dinner!

The foods also have a particular place they go on the banana leaf.  Rice (not served yet), goes in the middle.  Bit by bit, mix the rice in with the various vegetables (it's a vegetarian meal).  The rice soaks up the juices.  All the mixing and eating is done with your hands.  Most people eat with their right hands, but I was told it was OK to eat with my left.  The important thing, I was told, is that the same hand used for eating not be used for serving.  After the meal, it is very easy to clean up.  Fold the banana leaf (away from you, so no leftover juices fall into your lap) and toss!    

We left very full and thankful (so perhaps it was a Thanksgiving meal!) to the family who'd shared their tradition with us!  It was here, by the way, that we sang "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria."  Such fun.  We went straight from this meal to the airport, headed for Calcutta! 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Rips and tears

There is reality and then there is REALITY. Certainly I've witnessed pieces of daily life and have seen the best of humanity in so many people I have encountered here. Undoubtedly my encounters are a part of the truth of India. They are the pieces of the tapestry that is India, so attractive; they have given me such a sense of peace.

But there are rips and tears, weaknesses in this tapestry, too. I have seen a few, as I've indicated in previous posts. The poverty accounts for some. The violence adds many more. Thankfully, I have not personally witnessed any violence, but I fear I was very close a few days ago.

We were driving from Chatra to Mokama, making pretty good time, when all of a sudden we had to stop. When Indian drivers see stopped traffic, they do not stop in orderly lines and wait for traffic to get going again. They try to maneuver around whatever is keeping them from progressing. A large truck was stopped in front of us, but it looked like we could drive around it and be on our way. Our driver moved into the other lane (though I hesitate to call it a lane as that would imply things like lane markers and a semblance of order, both of which are rarely present on Indian roads, as far as I can tell).  As the jeep started to turn, we could see a crowd gathered around the driver's side door of the truck. As we got closer, we could see several men in the crowd trying to pull the driver out of the vehicle; they didn't look too happy. There was a heated exchange going on between crowd and driver, as some continued to try to pull the driver down. As we passed the truck, we saw that  it had rear-ended a bus, so we knew the cause of the anger.

All I could think was,"Oh crap oh crap oh crap oh crap, please don't let me witness someone getting the snot beaten out of him (or worse)." My thoughts were a little more emphatic, but you get the idea. I wanted to scream, just to provide some distraction. We didn't get much past the truck when we saw oncoming traffic which would require us to back up, passing the truck again. As we were backing up, there was still a crowd around the truck cabin, but no one seemed to have hands on the driver anymore. I was relieved, though still worried that things would heat up again.

As I have written previously, the book Half the Sky was the impetus for my journey. There are some horrific stories of violence in the book- rapes, beatings, killings- so I knew such acts were common here. The few times I've picked up a newspaper or watched the news here, I've seen the same kinds of stories- women gang raped, someone beaten to death or near death. Just a few nights ago on the news there was film footage of crowds beating a police officer with sticks. It was a scene hard to forget. Recently I was talking to one of the sisters, who was telling me how pervasive rape is here. She also told me about several people she knows who are in jail for murder. I don't personally know multiple people in jail for murder, do you?

With all of this in my mind, I was holding my breath and praying and praying that tempers would cool enough to keep the driver safe. Certainly, I could understand the anger. The truck had been going fast enough to do some real damage to the bus and there was at least one person being tended to after the wreck.  Just as certainly, I knew that beating the driver would not change what had already happened. Maybe the mob realized this, maybe they didn't, but I am a little comforted to know that when we passed the third time, finally able to continue forward, the driver was still in his seat unharmed.

As we drove on, I was trying to process what I'd seen and what may or may not have happened after we left. As we drove through a village, we passed another scene that jarred me. I saw a man holding another man in the air. The man being held was clearly struggling to get out of the grip of the first man. Again there was a crowd assembled. I saw no more than this, as we only drove past, but I have a feeling the man struggling to get away did not fare as well as the driver (might have).

These scenes remind me that there there is a lot going on here that is not immediately apparent, lots I have yet to understand or may never understand. The  tapestry of REALITY here is complex, the peace, violence, joy, and pain all woven together, inseparably bound. It is constantly ripped and torn, sometimes with brutal force.  I hope it is also re-sewn, mended, patched, with new threads woven in, and old ones pulled out.  My hope is that the cloth becomes ever stronger and ever more beautiful as the weaving continues.

As I sit here and write, I think: by being here, I am a small piece of this tapestry, too. How will I be woven into this place? How will I make the cloth stronger and how will I weaken it? What strands will intertwine themselves so completely with me that I will rip them out when I leave?  What will be torn from me and remain woven in?

My answer to all of the above questions: I do not know.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lightning and Finn: A Post for the Kids, Part 2

In our last series of pictures, Lightning, Finn, and I were in Bangalore.  There we visited Lalbagh Garden, where we ran into some unexpected characters...

In the background behind the clock and covered in foliage is Snow White's cottage.  We were very surprised to see that Snow White lived in Bangalore.  But, as you can see in the picture, Dopey and the rest of the gang
look pretty happy there. 

After Bangalore, we visited the southern state of Kerala.  Kerala is known for it s beautiful waterways, so we decided to go on an all-day backwater tour.  Lightning and Finn had great window seats!  
This is what it looked like looking out towards the front of the boat. 

 We saw lots of other people going about daily life.  Getting from place to place by boat is pretty common and necessary in this area.

  Part of our trip was in a motorized boat, but we also went through the smaller waterways in a human-powered (row) boat.  Here is a bit of that scenery.  Finn and Lightning decided not to get in the picture. We saw several water snakes in this area, but didn't get a good picture. They were too fast! 

We also learned about some of the cottage industries there.  Some people make their living spinning rope from coconut husks.  You can see the spinning wheel with the pile of coconut husks in the back.  This is also a big area for the spice trade.  Above is some             cinnamon bark, still on the tree.  It smelled so good!!!! 

As you might be able to tell, I am still figuring out how to get my photos/text  formatted the way I want.  Trial and error...  Finn and Lightning's next adventure...Onam! 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Scratching the surface of reality...

**Note**  Since I am doing a lot of writing right now, I have started to schedule post publishing for later, so I don't have zillions of posts coming out at once and then nothing for awhile.  When they are automatically published, I can't make a Facebook link (as far as I can tell, that can only be done once the post is on the page), so you might want to just check periodically to see what's here.  If anyone knows how to create a link pre-publication, please share your knowledge with me!! Thanks! Cory

I was warned about the reality.  The suffering.  The beauty.  The presence of both in a single place or single moment.  I have experienced this coexistence before in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize...

When I landed in India, a certain familiarity despite the fact that I've never been here led me to the thought, "I am home."  I don't know yet if that means for the next 3 months or for some longer time I can't yet imagine.

Many people have asked me if it's been hard to adjust to being here. The answer is no.  I slept well my first night, woke up refreshed, and never felt any jet lag.  I love Indian food, so eating it all the time has been delightful.  India is paradise for a vegetarian!  I don't know Hindi, but I've had so much help and/or have managed to communicate when there has been no common language.  The Indian toilets...OK, I'll admit that  I choose western toilets when given the option (sorry if that's TMI!)  The same is true of eating with my hands...but I'm warming up to that one a little more... At the lunch for the Feast of St. Vincent de Paul, I ate with my hands and later that day one sister told me how she'd loved seeing me eat with my left hand. Her mother had beaten out of her the inclination to use her left hand for eating and writing...

The poverty is, as I'd been warned, worse than I've seen. As I walked through several cities, I found the number of people of all ages sleeping on sidewalks staggering. Walking in Calcutta, I passed a man who was sitting on the sidewalk with only a small piece of cardboard covering his midsection.  It wasn't even covering his entire midsection... It makes me ache just to think about him. When I passed him, I felt helpless. I wondered why no one was doing anything for I also did nothing for him. So much for "Do unto others..."

I was told by people here and in the States (and was advised by my guidebook) not to give to beggars, but rather give to charitable organizations, as putting money into their work will make a greater impact than giving to individuals.  I have taken that advice, but as it happened with the naked man, it makes me hurt to walk past suffering people.  The best I can do is look into their eyes and think of a song whose main line of the refrain is, "I see you." So as I pass, I look into their eyes and think those words and hope that being here, working for a few months, and telling my stories will somehow make a difference in more than my own life.  In Calcutta one evening, I left a restaurant with some extra nan (bread). It was with great relief that I gave it to a woman who approached me in the street.  She'd done so the night before and I'd given her nothing.  It was a relief to have something to offer.  I hope she felt temporary relief, too.  A couple days ago at the school here, a child was crying because he had a large infected wound on his heel. Another  child had hit the wound, so it was bleeding.  Seeing the infection, I went to get antibiotic ointment and a bandage from my first aid kit. The school had neither. Again, it was a relief to be able to possibly alleviate some pain, but my antibiotic ointment won't change the fact that there are no bandaids in the child's home or at the school.

These are small glimpses of reality here.  Now that I am in Chatra, my immersion into the poverty and the injustice that exists here will not simply be in the form of observation, but interaction. I use the word "immersion," but I think that I will never be completely immersed, despite my desire to be.  I say this because, even when I want to understand, the realities I'll encounter are not my realities, nor will they ever be. I have the luxury of choice. I chose to come here and I can choose to leave. The naked man on the street can't just walk away and forget. I hope with every fiber of my being that even when I walk away, I won't forget.

Thankfully, I don't think I will. The poverty is is the beauty. The women in their saris- the colors and patterns...I wish I could take a picture of every single one of them. The shrines and temples that seem to be everywhere, as well as the flowers that are sold in the markets to adorn them...I love coming upon them unexpectedly.  The radiant smiles on the faces of children... sometimes I'm glad my Hindi is limited, so my only possible communication is a smile; the smiles I get in return make my heart swell with joy.  The rural landscape, now lush and green... The last several years have been very dry in this area, so the current lushness is particularly appreciated, not only by me, but by those who can grow food this year.  These are just a few examples of the beauty I have encountered. I'll post more pictures as I'm able, though they don't capture everything I sense.  This place is sometimes overwhelming to the senses.

And so I begin to scratch the surface of real life here...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Lightning and Finn: A Post for the Kids, Part 1

The day before I left for India, my youngest nephews gave me gifts: Lightning McQueen and Finn McMissile to accompany me on my journey. The older of the two boys was very concerned about their well-being and even checked to make sure I had them at the airport. Anticipating such a check, I had them in an easily accessible backpack pocket. I assured the boys that I would take pictures of Finn and Lightning as we travelled together. I didn't get pictures of them everywhere, but these should give you an idea of where Lightning, Finn, and I have been.  We've been having a great time together!!
One of the first places we went was Humayan's tomb in Delhi.

Finn & Lightning would be too small to see here.  Behind me is
 all of Humayan's tomb. 
We visited a Buddhist Temple in Delhi, too.  This was outside the temple.
We had to take our shoes off before going in. 

In Mumbai, one of the places we visited was the Gateway of India.
Lightning took this picture.  
We were also in Mumbai for the beginning of Ganapati,
the celebration of the elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesh. 

We went to someone's home and this was what they had done to honor Ganesh.
We also ate a special meal, prayed, and danced.  
And as we were walking through Mumbai, we happened to see a real elephant.
In Bangalore, we visited Bull Temple.  This monkey was outside,
but wanted to be the only one in the picture!

Near Bull Temple, we walked through a park that had hundreds of bats
hanging in the trees overhead!!
We also visited the flower market in Bangalore.  Lightning and Finn
thought they'd look particularly good with the yellow flowers! 
There is one more picture from Bangalore that Lightning and Finn would like you to see, but the computer doesn't seem to want to upload it, so we'll have to save it for another post!  In it they're posing near characters you might know.  Until that picture is posted, see if you can guess who!  

...the Unexpected

Whether I came here with many expectations or few, there have certainly been some surprises.  Often these surprises have been things I hadn't thought much about before coming. Below are a few of the unexpecteds:

1) Mothballs. As was true of my "bare feet" post, I never imagined I'd be writing about mothballs! The smell of mothballs brings back memories from my childhood. Our winter clothes were always packed in boxes with mothballs. When winter came, the same was done with our summer clothes.  The smell reminds me of the change of seasons.  When I was in Calcutta, mothballs came into my life twice. First, when I entered my hotel room for the first time, there was a faint but familiar smell.  I found one mothball folded into a blanket that was tucked in a closet. Another one rested in the drain of my sink. I left the one in the blanket, but tossed the one from the sink.  My second encounter the Indian Museum. Inside cabinet after cabinet of fossils (where I'm sure my brother could have spent hours and hours; I did not) and within other museum displays, there were mothballs. I will admit that it was the first time I've seen that particular preservation method used in a museum. 

2) Museums. Since I mentioned the topic, let me discuss the museums. I visited a few- in Delhi, Mumbai, Cochin, and Calcutta. They were different in theme, so I can't compare them to one another. I will, however, discuss what stood out to me about some of them.  I loved the Gandhi  Museum in Delhi, despite the poor lighting and heat.  It was rich in information and photos. I did tend to spend more time reading displays that were located near the fans!  At a small museum in Cochin, I was asked if I could hurry up a bit, because the attendant had just received a call and needed to leave for a meeting. He assured me that if I wasn't finished viewing, I could return later that day or the next and finish looking at everything. I decided to hurry and didn't return. I'd gotten my 50 cents worth (the entrance fee) already.  At the Indian Museum in Calcutta, I enjoyed the wide variety of displays, but was saddened that items in displays could not be preserved better. Animal furs and feathers had darkened so their natural color wasn't obvious; in a few display cases glass was broken. I thought of my preservationist friend from home who would probably have been more dismayed than I was to see things that way.  However, I still very much enjoyed the museum and appreciate all it had to offer.  One thing that fascinated me was a huge hall that was dedicated to the plants of India and was divided into sections according to how they were used: as food or medicine, for textiles or dyes, to name a few of the categories. I was amazed at the plethora of natural resources in that hall and in India.  Those are a few of my museum experiences.

3) Lizards. I think they're geckos. India is not the first place I've encountered lots of lizards that can be found inside or outside one's home. In fact, there were often lizards running around my own yard at home (though not inside my house). I am pretty enamored of the lizards here. I just think they're cute as they scurry across the wall of the chapel during prayer, make occasional appearances during class, or wander over the screens on my windows. One gave us quite a surprise today as it jumped out of the sink when we started washing dishes. I think we surprised it, too!

4) Gifts. I did not expect gifts before I left and I did not expect gifts  from people here. Yet I received several items to bring on my journey from money to bar shampoo to a Dorothy Day book to a rosary bracelet (among other things).  Each useful in a different way, all are with me and are wonderful reminders of my friends and family at home.  In India I have received flowers as I was introduced to the school groups in Chatra (as well as having beautiful flowers in my room when I arrived) and from students.  Many  beautiful welcome songs have been sung for me in various places.  I was given a lamp/clock for my room and on on St. Vincent de Paul's feast day, a pen. I was spontaneously invited to eat lunch with my class 6 boys on my first day of teaching.  Each boy gave me a part of his lunch, even though it meant he'd eat less. Collectively, they gave me so much chapati I had to insist that they eat some of what they'd given me!  That day they invited me to eat with them the following day, too, and knowing I'd be with them, they made sure what they had to share was special. They had even more chapati (which we again ate together) and brought sweets and chocolates especially for me.  In fact, they insisted I eat the chocolate right there in front of them.  Never one to turn down chocolate, I obliged.   With such generosity from so many people in so many places, I can't help but feel immense gratitude.

Perhaps that is a good place to stop. Gratitude for the unexpected. Amen. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


I tried as much as possible to come to India with few expectations. I wanted to be open and flexible, but I also wanted to be mentally prepared, a tricky balance. Therefore, I tried to limit having expectations to those experiences that might be difficult. Some of the expectations I allowed myself to have are the following:

- it will be hot and uncomfortable
- there will be lots of mosquitoes
- I may get sick
- I will see poverty like I have seen nowhere else
- I will not be able to communicate easily with people
- it will be hot and uncomfortable (yes, I know I've already written that, but I am not a big fan of heat, so I wanted to be extra prepared for that discomfort)
- the electricity will go out frequently in Chatra

Here's how the reality compares:

- It has been hot and I have been uncomfortable. I am not here during the worst heat India has to offer, for which I am very grateful. For the most part, the heat, though not my favorite, has been manageable, as long as there have been fans and plenty of water to drink! Thankfully, both have been available most everywhere. In Calcutta, I did splurge for a room with A/C for two nights (about $25 a night, woo hoo!). I'm glad that I did! It was particularly hot and humid there and most of my days were spent walking and walking through the city.

- The mosquitoes haven't been as bad as I had imagined. Every time I've been with the SCNs, I've had mosquito netting at night (and I am a bit enamored with sleeping under it). I have a great mosquito spray and a really really great itch relief product. In fact, I like both so much that I'll do a little endorsement here. Both are made in Louisville by a company called Divine Creationz. They are natural products and I bought them at Rainbow Blossom. The anti-itch stuff (bite balm) is so good I apply it only once to a bite and the itch is gone...forever!!!! It comes in a little tube like chapstick. Seriously, Louisville folks, if you get bitten a lot, I'd buy this stuff!

- I have not gotten sick once since I've been here. I know there's still plenty of time for it, but so far, so good! The SCNs have been concerned about me getting enough to eat. They were concerned I'd lose weight- I think I've actually gained a little (so much for "being light" in that sense)!! A couple days ago, I started eating less, so that my clothes start to fit like they used to and the sisters in Chatra were concerned that I've gotten tired of Indian food. They started making more "American" food, so I'd eat more. I assured them that I still love Indian food, but just need to be eating a little less overall!

- The poverty I've seen nowhere else. I'll be writing about that in another entry, so I won't say anything more here.

- I can't always talk to people, but I have been able to communicate pretty well. It is amazing how much can be said without speaking the same language! Smiling is a particularly wonderful and oft-used form of communicating!

- The electricty in Chatra is actually off more than it's on. I was told "Electricity is not so good." My interpretation of this statement was that there would be an occasional power outage. Bad interpretation on my part. Not having power more often than having it has probably been the most difficult adjustment...mostly because my expectations were different from the reality. I don't mind not having lights. I do miss the power when I am sleeping at night with no fan. It is also frustrating that I cannot blog often, since I need power for the computer... I am so glad my phone at least has internet access for checking my email and staying in touch with people through Facebook. Doing anything else online from my phone (like blogging) is too difficult. Slowly, however, I am adjusting to the lack of consistent electricity...I simply need to adjust my expectation. I am thankful that a former student recently posted the Serenity Prayer (God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference) on Facebook. This was a good reminder to me that I need to worry less about the electricity situation, since there is nothing I can do to change it.

I am glad I did not allow myself more expectations. The above (except the last) seem to be serving me well...

This week I am in Mokama (where the SCNs began their ministry in India) and the power situation is better (they have some solar energy!) I hope I'll get to write more to you while I am here.

Peace to you all.

Friday, September 16, 2011

To be light...

As I was preparing to leave, I had some unexpected thoughts going through my head. The most unexpected one I dared not tell a soul, because I didn't want to freak anyone out. The thought has passed now, and so, I hope, has any fear it might have aroused prior to my departure. The thought was this: "If I die now, it will be OK."

Before going on, let me say in no uncertain terms that I have no desire to die, nor did I before I left.  I like living and was eager to see what the upcoming months had in store for me. I'd been planning for them for a year.

I think my unusual thought sprang from the fact that before leaving I got to spend time with my family and so many friends, some of whom I had not seen for several years.  After seeing them, I think that they knew that they had influenced my life and that they are important to me.  Feeling secure that I had expressed those sentiments, I felt very much at peace with leaving.

On the 15-hour plane ride, every time we hit a little turbulence, I thought, "OK, God, please let this just be a little blip, because I want to carry out the plans I've made, but if this is the end, thank you for the life I've had and take care of everyone I'm leaving behind.  Help them to know it'll be OK."  Thankfully, there was not much turbulence to pray through and I arrived safe and sound.  When we landed, I knew that in the time to follow, everything would be OK.

Upon further considering my thought, it occurred to me that while I did not, thankfully, physically die, the person that boarded the plane in Louisville on August 24 is most certainly not the person who will go back to  Louisville in May.  If I have not changed, my time away will have been wasted.  I must have some experience of my own death and rebirth, of letting go and being open to what will be.

One of the questions asked for couchsurfing profiles is one's current mission. My current mission is "to be light, in any of the many ways that can be interpreted..."  When I wrote it, I knew I had quite a task ahead of me.

For many reasons, I have yet to accomplish my mission.   First, there's the luggage I packed. Almost as soon as I got here, I realized I had brought unnecessary things.  At one of the places I  couchsurfed, I was asked more than once, "What is all that stuff?!?"  When I listed some of the things I had brought (particularly a couple of the books), I was told that I should have bought them here. I will say that I am OK with having brought them from home, since it means I didn't have to waste time/money here looking for them. Other things, particularly some of the clothing, I wish I had left in the States.  Luckily, I will have a chance to send some of it home with some people in October. I may also give some away as I go...we shall see... So I have not reached "light" in that sense...but I'm working on it!

I still have some baggage to shed in the figurative sense, too. As I mentioned in a previous post, over the last several years I have focused a little too much on my serious nature, to the detriment of the part of me that knows how to let go and simply live in the moment, whatever that moment may be.

Here I am trying to live only in the moment. That means that when I plan, I am doing so day by day, sometimes hour by hour, or even minute by minute. The plans are constantly changing as the moment dictates and that is OK.  This means that when I walked for two hours one morning because the first turn I took was not in the direction I intended to go, it was fine.  This means that I went out for Italian food with a couple I'd met earlier in the day, even though I had been on my way to another restaurant when I ran into them. This means that I went to Spanish mass next to Mother Teresa's tomb because I happened to be there when it started.  Flexibility has been, and must continue to be, among the most important themes of my travels. If it's not, I will surely fail miserably at my mission.

I am also trying to recognize opportunities for lightness when they present themselves.  I danced at the Ganapati festivities I attended.  I taught the Hokey Pokey to the SCN candidates in Bangalore. They were, I think, both scandalized and amused when we put our backsides in!  I sang "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" with a young girl who's been learning it for a school talent contest.  I read fairy tales with another girl.  Here in Ranchi I have lavished love on a kitten (currently asleep on my lap).  These times lift the weight that has somehow accumulated  and bring me a little closer to my goal.  I am sure many more opportunities will arise and I only hope that I'll notice them.

Heaviness and darkness dissipate.   As the weight lifts and the darkness fades, I hope to embrace the person that I am meant to be...embodying light. Seeing the words, I think of the Marianne Williamson quote I've discussed before.  I hope that you also will recognize your way to embody the light that most certainly shines from within.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Relying on the kindness of strangers

The other day I'm pretty sure I got ripped off. I won't go into details; they're unimportant. When I realized it, I was frustrated with myself for being gullible, mad at the people who took advantage of my ignorance, and annoyed that my guidebook did not warn me of possible scams. However, I kept telling myself to just let it go. I said it to myself many no avail. Eventually, still perturbed, I looked at the appropriate section in my guidebook, and, as it turns out, there was a warning about exactly what I had experienced. Perhaps I should have read more carefully...

When I re-read my guidebook, I was finally able to let go of the negativity and get a little perspective. I laughed at myself for not reading carefully, but more importantly, I looked at the bigger picture.

The reality of my journey so far is this: there are a handful of times where someone has taken advantage of my uncertainty. However, there are far more times where people I have never met have cared for me, sometimes because they agreed to do so ahead of time, other times because I have walked up to them and asked for help, and others because they saw me struggling and intervened.

The SCNs and various members of have taken me into their homes without ever having met me. The SCNs at least knew something about me, since I will be volunteering with them. Besides all the attention they gave me as I prepared for the Indian leg of my journey, and besides welcoming me to various convents along the way, they have helped me with practical matters like buying a phone, getting from place to place, and buying my very own sari. The members of couchsurfing (CS) only had my CS profile to read before deciding if they would meet me somewhere or allow me to stay into their home. One CS member has been suffering for months of an illness called chikungunya, which causes her to be in constant pain, and still she agreed to let me stay with her family for a few days. Other CSers have invited me to special holiday meals in their homes (Ganapati in Mumbai and Onam in Kerala). These are but a few of the unsurprising (though that is not quite the right word...) ways I have been helped by people who knew I'd need some help.

Then there are the many unexpected kindnesses. I have a horrible sense of direction. Street signs in India are hard to find; they are certainly not on every corner! I have gotten lost walking around...more than once. Thankfully, I'm not afraid to ask for help. When I approach a random stranger, my first question is usually, "Do you speak English?" If the answer is yes, I ask where something is, if I'm on the right street, etc. They very kindly point me in the right direction. Other times, when I am trying to communicate with someone who doesn't speak English, an English-speaker appears from nowhere and translates and/or negotiates things for me. I have also had kind strangers on buses and trains make sure I know which stop is mine. In all cases, they stop what they are doing to help me, as if they had nothing else to do. Most certainly they do.

Without all of these people (and there really have been many), my time in India would be frustrating, maddening, annoying. With these people,(except for in silly moments like the one mentioned initially) my time here is full of gratitude, joy, and an overall sense of well-being. I feel protected and loved, thanks to the kindness of so many strangers and now also, some new friends.