Saturday, January 7, 2012

India: Aggressive Driving and Primary Education

After a long eight-hour flight into Jaipur and a six-hour layover attempting to sleep on the cold airport floor, we got into our host families and settled down.  Jaipur struck me right away as much more foreign than South Africa.  Though there are American touches, such as malls and fast food restaurants littered around the city, the immense language barrier and absurd traffic make India much different than our other countries.  Jaipur as a city is very urban, with cars, motorcycles, and rickshaws bustling everywhere.  The fumes permeate the air, and I miss the clean mountain air from Ecuador.  The streets are very dusty, a kind of mix between truck fumes and dirt, and looking at the sky I often feel as though I am looking through a shroud.  Beeping is constant, and the rickshaw rides into work are a mess of organized chaos.  Motorcycles mostly occupy the road, but bikes, pedestrians, cars, tractors, and even camels and cows use the streets too, and using Chris’s words, it looks like a go-kart race.  The amount of weaving and beeping motorcycles astounds me, as few have rear view mirrors or blinkers.  Almost all of the roads have no lines, and often a rickshaw driver will drive against traffic in order to make a u-turn into oncoming traffic.  I laugh everyday at how close we come to accidents, but realize now all the seemingly chaotic beeping signifies that someone is passing or close to your vehicle.  Although we are almost always close to another vehicle, so close I could touch the driver next to us.  The rickshaw drivers frequently become lost, prefer not to use the required meter, or try to rip us off as Americans.  Most rides cost about a dollar fifty, or 70 rupees, with about 50 rupees to the dollar.  There are speeding laws in place, but I have not seen one traffic cop.  Though a motorcycle handle did touch my leg, I otherwise have not seen one accident. 

Hindi is the main language spoken here, but we learned that really no one speaks true Hindi, but a dialect called Urdu.  We have picked up on some basic phrases like “Namaste”, meaning “hello” or “aapka naam kya hai?”, meaning “what is your name”.  Interestingly enough, I knew of Namaste already from yoga in the US, and this morning I had a chance to do yoga with my host father, who does jewelry.  He showed me multiple meditation exercises with short, fast lung breathing and stomach breathing, along with slower breathing towards the end with ohms.  I didn’t expect to be doing short fast breathing with meditation, but he said that the breathing gives energy.  There are many volunteers in our house, from the US, Brazil, and even Poland.  Much like South Africa, with so many people coming in and out, the house feels like a hostel.  The family has one servant who helps with the cleaning, and the inside feels very spacious with gorgeous white marble floors.  All of the boys live in the basement, and we use the bathroom water heater for our bucket showers.  Humorously, I jumped on my bed expecting a soft mattress and instead found my bed to be a table with a slight cushion on top.  Despite the rather hard sleeping surface, I have slept wonderfully- Chris also sleeps great on a piece of plywood.  Recently, we have even seen the basement transform into a construction zone, as we wake up to screaming metal saw blades.  In many of the India households and offices, everyone must take off their shoes before entering, and one weekend we visited an outdoor market in order to buy some “camel leather” sandals to wear inside.  For about four dollars, they have proved a great investment.  The place we went was incredibly crowded with people, but the owner ushered us towards the back in order to try on certain pairs.  Once I found the pair I liked, I asked if they had a darker pair.  Instead of getting another pair of shoes with a darker shade, a boy brought me the same pair of sandals dripping slightly.  I could smell the strong aroma of paint thinner.  Welcome to India.

Being a foreigner, many people stare at us.  Between our American accents and incredibly white skin, we stick out and receive a lot of stares.  On one occasion where we visited an outdoor mall area with blaring club music, a man flipped us off and proceeded to direct beggars toward us.  Nice guy.  Once again, I felt so struck by the effects of globalization once again here.  I ordered a frozen yogurt at CocoBerry, taking about twenty minutes because of the language barrier, the other guys bought food at a nice McDonald’s, Chris ordering a Big Maharaja Burger, with chicken instead of the traditional beef burger.  Cows here are considered sacred by the Hindi religion, so slaughter of a cow for food is viewed as a sacrilege.  I even saw a woman with YouTube flip flops, along with a Bollywood movie sponsored by YouTube.  We saw a Bollywood action movie called Don 2 with Shah Rukh Han, a famous Hindi actor, in a ridiculous action movie, all in Hindi.  After the absurdly embellished two and a half hour film, we caught little of the Hindi humor.  No English subtitles.  Back to our mall experience, I saw that the Pizza Hut, a run down beat up food chain in the States, presented itself as a sit down family restaurant with shiny tables and folded napkins.  Even McDonald’s looked very clean and organized, adorned with flashy New Year’s messages as people filled all of its tables.  The format of the mall struck me the most, that as I went to the mall in order to find traditional Indian clothing, I looked around and saw all these younger Indians sporting Western, brand named clothing instead.  The strange relation between my trying to understand and embrace their culture while they sought to escape from their own jarred me.  The sound of Sean Paul played on a cell phone belonging to a small Indian boy in a slum really shook me.    

New Year’s Eve in Jaipur, for our family, amounted to a fairly simple night.  We asked if they had any traditions surrounding New Year’s, and although they said they sometimes go out, our host father mentioned that he was alone this year.  As the other volunteers left to go to some restaurants and parties later that night, we were left alone to decide how to spend our New Year’s Eve.  So Chris and I crossed the street to go to a kite store.  Crossing that street gave me the first legitimate fear that a car or motorcycle might hit me.  The cars do not necessarily yield to passengers, and darting across the road proves very dangerous because of the weaving motor bikers.  Timing the cars made reaching the other side like a Frogger game.  Being kite season in Jaipur, I thought to fly one on the roof.  We bought four paper kites, and after seeing many kids in the city flying kites effortlessly, I thought I could do it too.  I was wrong.  Unfortunately, flying a kite requires more than an occasional tug, and Chris and Conner watched as I proceeded to shred the kite with repeated crashes on the hard, cement roof.  After our failed kite attempt, we decided to go up on our roof overlooking the city to watch a movie on our laptop and to catch the fireworks at 12 in the center of the city.  One of the next days, we saw some of the volunteer girls in the newspaper, from the New Year’s Eve party.  The city still looked beautiful from our rooftop all the same.

            The food here is incredible, and because of the huge population of Hindus and Muslims, beef is practically nonexistent.  Only some of the bigger corporations and hotels, like the Marriot, have a license to sell meat.  I learned the other day that hurting a cow results in three years of prison, and killing a cow results in ten years of prison.  So we have not yet had beef.  Nonetheless, I love the almost vegetarian diet, and realize that meat for me has been an addition rather than a necessity in my food choice.  Although we have a similar menu every day, our host parents serve great porridge, papaya shakes, banana, a tortilla like dough called chapatti, vegetables, and curry dal or lentils to serve over rice.  Instead of utensils, we use the chapatti to scoop up the vegetables while we pour the dal over our rice to eat with a regular spoon.  What surprised me even more was that the family grows the papayas in their garden!  Tea also plays a big role in the culture here, and our group loves the chai breaks at Idex almost as much as ice cream.  Though we have gone to the McDonald’s twice now, I have not bought any of their food, and every time I think about going out I miss our home cooked Rajasthani meals. 

            Our work project for India revolves around the education system, so we chose between three venues, including a primary school, a government-run school, and a women’s computer literacy program.  Both of the schools lie in an area called Katputali Nagar, also known as the Puppet Maker Slum.  Upon arriving, I noticed the multitude of flies on many of the kids sitting in school.  The first school children invited us in with screams and shouts of joy, reaching to introduce themselves and shake all of our hands as we crammed into the small school room.  All of the children sat on the floor cross-legged with backpacks in front of them, ranging from a generic knapsack to others more colorful, including one with Mr. Bean’s face blazoned across the front.  The kids kept pointing at which of us they wanted to teach them, and moving from the bustling children to the government school I noticed quite a change.  The kids at the government school remained much more quiet on our entering, and though they waved at us they remained seated on the concrete outside floor as the teacher watched over them.  The head teacher appeared hardened and stolid as we entered, and I watched as flies continued to bombard some of the students.  I learned later that we would help to teach kids from classes 2 and 3, about 8-10 years old.  Hairy pigs nosed through the trash piles outside the schools, and I noticed other mangy looking dogs and animals trudging through the mud road.  One day as we walked out of the school, a man accosted us and asked if we spoke Spanish, and continued to chat in Spanish with us.  Many of the other children greeted us as I was reminded of the housing from the Qolweni township in South Africa, looking at the beaten down shacks.

            Teaching, so far, has been incredibly difficult, and the most difficult of our projects so far.  Without any training, teaching children very excited to learn but not always excited to calm down and listen, I’ve found correlating my idea of fun learning to fun teaching very challenging.  I think of fun learning as interactive, creative, but so far I have found that I move toward repeat-after-me style learning from the board, with worksheets as a supplement.  The kids understand simple English, but explaining activities to them remains a task we often need to ask of our project leaders.  Attempting to standardize the learning in order to ensure that they all learn the same material is also difficult, especially with a broad range of talent in certain areas.  Because of kite flying season, many kids do not come to school, so with each day we have had more kids coming in, providing more children who we know little about.  Splitting them into four tiny groups led to slight chaos, with more attention to each student but moving and distraction between groups, yet two larger groups of about 12 each proved a huge number of kids to try and have focus.  I found that while on student would be eager to make sure he spelled 1-10 correctly, another student would not know the quantities of 1-10, and would instead hit another of the students and play with the black board eraser.  On one occasion I also noticed the head teacher hitting a student on the head during a morning song.  I begin to wonder how common teachers use corporal punishment in classrooms.  Without giving them worksheets and tests, I find it hard to gauge ability levels and sort them into groups depending on their level.  Even more difficult is that their levels differ by subject, so we would need to make different groups for English and Math classes.  I still feel excited to teach, but the patience and work behind making curricula and teaching plans remains daunting.  After seminars about whether our educations have been subjective or objective, oppressive or liberating, and starting to examine the ways of influencing a liberating education, I find myself thinking about how I can apply what I liked in my education to teaching here.  Though teaching styles in high school differ greatly from those in primary school, and finding the most fun and effective teaching style may require a lot of experimentation.      

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