Monday, November 2, 2009

INDIA: How to preserve the memory

I have a bad memory. Maybe it’s because so many thoughts bounce around in my mind. Maybe it’s because I’ve killed too many brain cells. Or maybe it’s because life moves at such a fast pace that I never have time to properly file away a feeling or experience. For a memory to stay with me it does not have to be a moment of great achievement, a nail-biting situation, or the realization of profound thought. Actually, I wish I could recall those moments more clearly. I have realized that an honest description defining each of my five senses is only way to construct my memories in a way that catapults the reader into my own reality. Thus I have unknowingly created my own rubric for cataloging details about a country or culture. Look out Hoefstede, Hall, and Trompenaars; here I come.

When the sun sets, bursts of bright orange and yellow are brushed across the sky’s smog canvas, the sherbet colors a gradient of smog-soluble watercolors diluting the sky’s polluted. Sunsets in India are compared to those in the old, list topping polluted Los Angeles. Four of the top ten cities affected by air pollution are in India. I was told that sunsets in India will stand out vividly among the thousands of sunsets seen in a lifetime. Again it wasn’t until I saw it that I truly understood. I see black smoke coming from the exhaust of a taxi in front of us. Behind us, I see a bicyclist covering their nose and mouth with a handkerchief. Before we even reach port I see the crew laying plastic and cardboard on the staircases and down the long hallways to protect carpet from the natural filth of glorious India.
The density of the population is visible through the images of poverty stricken crowds of emaciated bodies covered in dirt clothed in rags. I see a swarm of shack homes and the families getting a night’s rest on the side of a busy road. I see a petty theft of bread. I can count the ribs on this little boy. I see a girl tuck her school rationed crackers into her shorts and her jealous mother at the school gates putting her hand out and claiming them for herself.
I have taken notes in science lectures about pollutions effect on agriculture, the atmosphere, and my body. I notice the activists on campus and pause long enough to hear the list of pollution’s effect on daily life and I roll my eyes as they begin to preach that earth’s future is in dire straits. I have taken exams testing my knowledge of the Malthusian Theory.
Now I see it. I travel, I see, I understand.

The sound of India is distinctly different during the day and night.
With sixteen different main languages, horns are used as a common communication. In India every ride is a nail-biting experience. Horns are used by drivers to self-regulate the vehicle flow. We ventured by rickshaw to Spencer’s Plaza (a roof-covered version of Moroccan souks). We screamed with questioning smiles on our faces as we tried to balance the tiny cart and cheered when we successfully high-fived friends in another rickshaw that we streamed by.
Molly and I met Said, the kindest shopkeeper, while we were in a rush to get back to the ship. We were in enough of a rush to trust his twenty year old son Tosef to drive us back to the ship. “If you can survive learning to drive in India, you can do anything!” he announced as he started the engine. He was a good enough driver to get us to the ship on time, we only stopped twice. First when the road closed was closed by police. I rolled down my window and heard the chanting of teacher’s protesting something indecipherable. The traffic started again with the sound of a long whistle. Our second stop occurred when we heard the crunching of our front bumper and the yelling of a motorcyclist- a major earful for a minor scratch.
A unique sound from India, the repetition of English words and sentences in a training room at Perot Systems. I visited this outsourcing center with my intercultural communications class.
By night, the chaos of India is put to sleep by the melodic beat of dance drums and the rhythmic sound of port workers loading a train.

How to describe the scent of a nation? Hesitantly I untie my laundry bag.
Gasoline fumes are released into our small cabin. The source is my tarred capris from my painting job at the Dalit school. My job: to paint blackboards. My paint: a mixture of gasoline and tar. When I ran low more gasoline was added. The only way to wash it from my hands was with a gasoline soaked rag. Also contributing to the smell is each article of clothing worn while weaving through traffic in an open-air rickshaw.
The salty smell of sweat permeates the room next. Source: my tie-dye tee that I wore while walking to the rural Kanicheepuram village down an unpaved road which cut through large a large field that absorbed the equatorial sun. I recalled the program director saying that the child laborers in the quarry were only allowed a break when sun was highest because the rocks were too hot to touch. We laughed when I pointed out that we had begun our mile trek at the point of day that even child laborers are permitted to seek shelter from the sun. When we reached the village, we all wiped away our perspiration trying to look presentable.

Taste is intrinsically linked to smell.
I smiled as I pulled out a pashmina scarf that I wore to Indian family dinner at Said’s house.
At first I was skeptical of his incredible Semester At Sea discounts and an invitation to his home. But Said and Tosef had been so helpful showing us around the city and explaining Indian culture, I accepted his good will. I bought this colorful silk from his shop (along with many other things). I unwrapped it to wear to dinner to show my appreciation, it had the familiar scent of his shop- incense and tea. Now as I smell it there is a residual scent of dinner- an array of spices. The curry scent makes my stomach crave the delicious multi-course meal.

I stuff the filthy clothes back into the bag but keep the scarf out. I like it’s smell because all together the scents trigger a homey familiar feeling and there’s no smell better than that.

When exploring, my friends laugh and say I am going to get myself in trouble because I touch, poke, and prod everything.
You can touch anything mass produced and it will feel the same in every country, maybe a little grimier in some. The way to get a distinct sense of a country through touch is to examine the detailed things. Like the century old temple carvings of marble and stone tell the stories of the Hindu gods, each scene frozen in time by precise craftsmanship. Or the wall hanging made from pieces of colorful Indian wedding dresses, each unique in material, beading, pattern, and size, and meticulously sewn together, linking happy memories together into a work of art. Or the soft touch of a little girl’s hand, her young skin is a reminder that she has endured too much too early.  Or the fresh paint of a political symbol, two leaves or a spread hand, on the outside of someone’s home. Or the raised henna itching as it dries in a creative design on my hand.

It is easy to say a country has touched one’s life. What is difficult is encapsulating the reason why. I think that exploring the five senses will help me remember exactly how my memory of a country was defined by my experiences.

INDIA: Dalit Work Service

You must be the change you wish to see in the world- Gandhi.


Gandhi is the most well-known social activist from India. After making his point in South Africa he moved back to his homeland and begun his pacifist work towards social equality. Since then, many other political, spiritual, and humanitarian leaders have steps towards the abolishment of the Indian Caste System. There are four main castes: the Brahmins (teachers, scholars and priests), the Kshatriyas (kings and warriors), the Vaishyas (agriculturists and traders), and Shudras (service providers and artisans). Within these four groups there are over 2,000 subgroups. The lowest sector of the Shudras is the Dalit, the untouchables. In 1950 India adopted its Constitution fashioned after our own, emphasizing human rights. Although the caste system is no longer an official part of the Hindu relgion, it is still deeply enculturated in the attitudes of Indians, especially rural in rural India.

My first day in India I was amped to do service work in a Dalit Village. I was surprised to be greeted by song, lei of eucalyptus flowers, and a spiritual blessing. We were paraded by school children down the street past awestruck onlookers. Upon our arrival a few groups of children beautifully danced for us. I was beginning to get upset, it seemed like these kids were just fine, I wanted to go and actually work to help. All doubts were queued as soon as the intricate welcome reception ended. I was told to follow, to grab a paintbrush and tin, and begin. I painted blackboards with a paint mixture of gasoline and tar. Class did not stop, I was just pointed to a classroom and I would go in to begin. Of course there was a lot commotion to the teachers’ dismay. They would ask my name, I would say ‘I’m Kate,’ they ooed ‘her name is Imkate.’ I learned to say just ‘Kate’ and to not attempt to pronounce all of the names declared in my direction. I would say ‘what pretty/handsome names!’ Whenever I paused my horrific painting to interact with a class one of the leaders would come in and say ‘work, work, work’

The school we were working at had been deemed worthy of repair by our service organization. A group of us painted blackboards, some planted small shrubs, and some whitewashed the walls. The school deserved all of the attention our small group could give in the few hours we spent there. Over a thousand children make it to school each day to be instructed by only thirty six dedicated teachers. There was not enough room for all of the students, some classrooms were situated outside between buildings. When school let out, we all celebrated good work playing and taking pictures (I’m telling you, every child I have ever encountered on this trip is fascinated by cameras)

I had my first extreme toilet experience here, the hole in the ground type experience. I was escorted to a outhouse that was kept locked. A little boy ran in before me and turned on a water spout. The water flowed into a full bucket causing the overflow to run down the sloped floor towards.. the hole. I stared for a bit, thinking of my approach, and eventually made it out alive.

At the end of the afternoon I had tar all over my body and clothes. A girl came up to me and started rubbing my arms with gasoline. She said it was the only way to get the tar off. I was fine with this until the president of the school concluded our service by leading us in a peace meditation that involved several open flames.

INDIA: village overnight, microlending, and temples

        At dinner the program director answered our questions. Upon pulling into the school I was put-off by the large banners that had the program name and the director’s face proportionally stretched across. After his Q&A session, I had learned enough about the director to know that he was more selfless than the banners let on. Also, Molly pointed out that facial recognition was a huge part of Indian marketing. This is probably due to their literacy rate.        
       While we stayed at the RIDE program offices, the director’s wife made us each meal. My favorite thing was the lushious mangos. I remember eating Indian mangos at Josh’s house in high school and thinking they were delicious. How exciting that I got to eat Indian mangos in India! 

        Our sleeping conditions were awesome. Awesome, like an awesome story to tell and a great experience, nothing regal. We walked up three flights of stairs. At the base of the next flight there was a community bathroom, a toilet, a sink, a bucket, and a drain. When I walked into the room, the image of the cartoon Madeline flashed into my mind. There were six beds closely lined up on each side of the room. The beds however were not like the colorful cartoon. There were different shapes and lengths but all were cots plus thin padding plus a piece of sheet fabric. The building must have once been a hospital, there were still IV holdings in the corner and monitors fastened to the walls. Also, there were strings draped back and forth across the ceiling, these must have been to hang sheets for privacy. The eerie effect was completed by the barred windows sans screens or shutters. I stayed up late chatting with a few kids in my group. I love hearing people’s stories. Everyone on Semester At Sea has something interesting to talk about. (I am still searching for my go-to story, fact, or monumental experience.) Julianne works as an EMT, backpacked through Alaska, and took a semester off and moved to Australia for a while. Suzie dropped out of high school and is completing her associates degree in design, she believes everyone has a color that represents their aura. Eric goes to UVA, the school that sponsers SAS, he lost all of his luggage and started from scratch in Spain and is still accumulating things he needs. Three new friends from a simple conversation on a muggy evening in rural India.
        The next morning I was told by Barbara who was sleeping in the bed next to me, that a large iguana had crawled through the window at night and decided to curl up next to me. She shooed it away. I am glad I didn’t roll over or wake up for this.

         The second day of our trip was spent learning first-hand about micro-lending. We drove to a rural village. Our bus was unable to go down the road that led from the highway, so we walked. We passed a purple structure that was a hangout for the goats; we later found out it was a mausoleum for the last village president. To receive their guests wholeheartedly, we were ushered to a small temple. We removed our shoes and were odorned with flowers and the traditional forehead dots. The dots are made organically with flower and spices. They are marked to remove stress and bad thoughts. A spiritual service was performed to ask for a blessing on the visit.
       We were invited into the current president’s home where our director showed us record books of loans. Each week, different women’s groups met and delegated loans. They supported each other keeping on track to payback loans. We were given onion cookies that tasted like they sounded.
       We also visited a home (a hut with clay walls and palm leaved roof) occupied by a widowed woman, her three children, her parents, and her sister’s family. The woman had petitioned for a loan to start a pottery business. With $400 she was able to start her business and support her family. I bought a clay piggybank.

     Throughout our driving we stopped at a few Hindu temples. They were beautiful stone and marble carvings that reached high into the sky. The first one we visited had 180 separate meditation coves, each with its own depiction to focus on. The other was built in 1994 and had large colorful statues of a few of the most prominent gods.

INDIA: Child Labor and Rural Education

The school we visited was started by a man who was expelled from the government education system because he believed in a different education style: he answered children’s questions honestly about religion, politics and social issues. Against the will of his family and society he started The RIDE Program: Rural Institute for Development Education aims to bring victims of child-labor up to speed so that they can enroll in government schools. Basically, kids of all ages come to school when they can and are able or allowed. Attendance is usually low, parents do not want their kids to leave home because they are jealous or they need them to work. Some of the kids were part of silk-weaving families. Some had the dangerous job of working in a quarry where explosions played eeny meeny miny mo with the children’s lives. The kids were behind in schooling because they had not yet been able to attend because of forced labor. The school aimed to teach fundamentals like the alphabet, washing hands, and simple arithmetic. Most memorably, there were posters of large gruesomely mutilated bodies laying in streets because the school wanted to educate the students about safety, specifically staying out of the streets.

We played in the dirt schoolyard with the kids. It was peculiar that they were visibly divided in two groups: the silk-weavers and the quarry workers. The silk-weavers had shoes and school uniforms. The quarry workers wore a pathetic excuse for clothes and their bodies were much dirtier than the others. I thought it was hypocritical to have started a school based on establishing equality of education among the youth but not have made an effort to break barriers inequality within the school. 

I stood back on the school steps watching everyone play and taking photos trying to capture the happiness in the schoolyard. Mom, my compassionate guide in life, has always said that in orphanages around the world and other services that help society, the young adults don’t benefit as much. They are not as cute as the little children and they are not old enough to be trained for the real world. Sure enough, standing on the outskirts were three older boys not receiving attention or asked to join in a game. With my mother’s humanitarian spirit I engaged them all in a game of catch. Our group leader Mr. Wulfman from the Field Office, had brought his two sons along on our village trip. The younger one Gabe joined in our game as well. The Indian boys spoke no English and we spoke no Tamarin. Nevertheless, we all laughed and enjoyed our games. Gabe and I showed them how to play volleyball. We practiced their English counting, seeing how many hits we could keep it in the air. We demonstrated monkey-in-the-middle, our friends enjoyed playing keep away from Gabe, but once one of them was in the middle they didn’t understand why they were being left out. So we stuck to basic catch.

The program director pointed out one boy that was fifteen due to malnutrition he looked age nine. He kept his brother on his hip like a host carries its parasite. The younger brother looked no older than two but was in fact age five. Anytime the younger parasitic brother was separated from his host, he wailed. I felt…I felt sad and helpless. The older brother was already being held back in his education and his physical development. Now, he was obviously an outsider because he had his other half with him at all times. I tried to involve him in our game, he smiled because he was able to catch the ball with his free hand. The other Indian boys never threw the ball to him. When he fumbled the ball it rolled behind him into wet mud. Through the universal communication of laughter and neglect, the brother and I both knew that he was hindered by his parasite. He left the game. It was so sad. It was noble for the brother to take care and understand his little brother. The little one needed to be taught to stand, to be alone, or at least accept the arms of another.

I was helpless because I am so unfamiliar to their lives. No one told us what to expect, what we rode away with were our raw observations. Less than two hours were spent at the RIDE school. I was thankful, appreciative, and moved. Thankful for my own education, the ability to go the ability to touch the lives of these school children, to have a mom that taught me how to handle these situations. Appreciative of the opportunities I have had in education thanks to my parents and grandparents, starting with the Montessori school that taught me at age four the fundamentals these preteens were learning, an amazing prep school that gave me the tools for analysis and opened my mind to experiences like these, and the choice and ability to attend a top ranking school. Moved to help the world through education. Moved to learn more about these children’s lives. Moved to question the structure of our own education system.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

India: Is there room for everybody?

     Bus rides, like most things, are great in moderation. Looking out the window is like watching a movie, better yet like seeing a discovery channel show in the IMAX. I had already played a part in the congestion of Indian traffic, as a pedestrian, in a taxi, and most memorably in a rickshaw. But, watching the scenes change as quickly as the bus moves gives way to a completely different response to a country.
The crowdedness of India was stressed repeatedly during preport. It wasn’t until I had my elevated panoramic view that this was validated for me.
     India has a population of over one billion (one-sixth of the world’s population). My first few days, I didn’t realize the impact of the population density. I thought there was not much traffic at all.  I could walk among the crowds with ease. From the bus-view I could see it: the crowds, the expansive living areas, the lack of living areas, the array of people, and the disorder. In other places, crowds form around specific places. In India, crowds form up and down every street and alley, inside and outside of stores, with two to fifty people, for a specific reason or (on most occasions) no apparent reason at all. In all seriousness, on my two hour bus ride, there probably wasn’t a space longer than a half mile that wasn’t decorated with the compliant people of India. In Ghana, I had been shocked by the reality of poverty- living in a shack. By South Africa, I was accustomed to being surrounded by poverty. In Ghana, the shacks lined the major roads. In South Africa, the shacks were crammed within the walls of the infamous townships. What was striking about India was because of the population the shacks were piled everywhere: up and down every street in rows, between stores, stacked upon each other down allies, and finding foundation in every nook and cranny available. Although there are these expansive living areas, it is not enough for this population that is growing quickly at nearly 2% a year (globally it is just over 1%). Many people and entire families post up on sidewalks, doorsteps, and in ditches. One of the uncanny sights I came across was not on the bus ride but in a rickshaw around nine at night. On a ride to the beach along the busiest road in Chennai, I saw real life.  By day, families stood guard around their makeshift shelter. By night, there were dozens of people lying on the large slab of sidewalk under a thin sheet or often just the sky.

     On the bus I passed the time trying to answer questions like: was that slab of concrete there for a civil engineering purpose or for the purpose of giving an area to sleep? Who among this multitude of people we are passing sleeps on the street? It is hard to distinguish economic class when every woman is in an equally bright and beautiful sari walking through the dirt. Who has a job? Who is Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, or Jainist? Where is everyone going? What are they doing?