Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Technology Re-Entry and an Identity Crisis

As the end of the trip neared and we all stressed throughout our State Park stay in Virginia, reflections of the trip continued to barrage me.  Our experiences seemed even more distant and absurd with each day back in the United States, and above all I feared that I would slip back into my home routine.  Sitting inside on the computer, watching movies, eating ice cream, losing touch with the ambition and curiosity I had spent all year trying to foster.  
In Virginia thankfully, still with the group, I could work with a clear head and try to focus on what I learned most from the trip: interconnectedness.  What a large and vague word that is…oddly it took a lot of journal writings and thinking to find what I learned most from the trip, and that what I learned most was not necessarily about the world or global issues, but myself.  That I am not independent, that I rely on others on a day to day basis for support, motivation, food, resources, more than just the members of the group but those around the world who make my clothes, grow food, etc.  In such an individualistic country and culture, it became hard for me not to place individualism and independence as the pinnacles of character.  But more and more I learned that I needed to become aware that I could never truly be independent, and needed to learn that I could grow from relying on others.  But as with many lessons, TBB doesn’t solve the problem, and I continue to have to reassess what independence means to me and how I interact with others according to my definitions of such terms.  Nothing is solved, I just reach a new set of questions or experiences to redefine my previous solution to a problem.  As a student and learner searching for concrete answers, that was probably the hardest lesson to learn:  for the most important problems/issues, often there is no solution.  All my life I was told that learning is a journey but never really understood why before TBB.
After an elegant graduation ceremony in the Capitol building, speeches, food, tears and hugs with the group, we left and the program ended.  Home didn’t hit me until I actually left the company of the group, and felt the deep silence of being alone.  I had to reintegrate myself with my family, my house, my culture, my “old life” and self.  I stayed silent for the whole plane ride and car trip home, bursting out when I saw such trivial items like a plate of fruit or my house and garage.  I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t open up, and I could no longer rely on the group for support like before.  Seeing a plate of fruit meant “where did this come from?” and seeing my garage meant “why do we have so much stuff we don’t really need?”.  TBB taught me critical consciousness and now I would have to experiment with how I could fit into my life.  The scariest part was that my “self” I had evolved into over the trip wasn’t who I was the first few days and weeks of being home.  Thankfully I came to realize that I hadn’t lost the group, and the cliché “don’t be sad that it’s over but happy that it happened” became more true.  I understand now that as I think of TBB I know I have not lost the group, but gained a new family I can rely on at home.
          Being home has meant many things.  Up and down moods, boredom, sloth, fatigue, apathy, and I realize now it will take months to really acclimate back to US lifestyle.  I look more at my values with each action, which means that though I feel more conscious of my choices, when I choose to ignore my values the cognitive dissonance becomes more severe.  As I think about my lifestyle now I don’t really know where to quite begin.  I need to refigure my values, apply them to my lifestyle and become comfortable with my way of life again.  I may have been comfortable before but now seeing how I have lived I don’t know if I want to continue living the same way.  People keep asking me what my favorite country was or my favorite experience, and though I answer that my favorite countries were Ecuador and China, I have no idea how to offer a favorite experience.  There really was no favorite experience.  The culmination of all these events and experiences changed who I am now, and I feel that I can’t easily convey such a massive year in a simple conversation.  I have to redefine myself and reincorporate my TBB self into my day to day life and actions.  All the opening up, interconnectedness I experienced with the group I now must apply again.  I never realized before how comfortable I was with the group until I see now how inwards I have acted in the past few weeks.
          Certain activities and quirks frustrate me.  I spent what seemed like an hour standing in the supermarket staring at the food as I struggled to find the mere five items I needed.  Trips to the movie theater have left me angry and tired rather than excited and satisfied like before.  Looking into my closet and at my room I scowl at all my clothes I never wear that just take up space uselessly.  I visited my cousin Peter’s school and as I sat in the foldable plastic chairs in the cold gym, I took the time to count eight people on cell phones.  And still I cannot find how to incorporate the lessons I learned from the trip to motivate myself to act now.  I do feel myself slipping into old routines, and though I realize that change isn’t linear and I may regress, I find myself attacked by pangs of pure indifference and laziness.  Periodic apathy over the trip has become more frequent now and I need to rediscover how to combat such feelings.  It’s scary.  I need to relearn how to talk with my family, and have been unusually quiet in comparison to TBB, very uncomfortable in big groups of people and shocked by stores and malls.  All very exhausting, but thankfully with time many of the confusions and frustrations become more clear and easier to sort out.  Exercise becomes a bit more regular, structure slowly returns.  With time, incorporating my TBB self into day to day interactions has been cyclical and very dependent on time of day and circumstance, yet in moments it shines through unhindered.  I realize progress will be slow, but somewhat certain.
          Reengaging with technology has been a major challenge.  I expected so much of facebook to make me feel better the first week, so much time spent checking posts from the group, sending texts, and making phone calls, but with all of the reliance on technology I relied little on other people around me for help.  Thus I secluded myself more.  In an attempt to understand my situation I went more inward when I had learned the whole year that most often what had helped the most was to reach outward.  The importance of engaging other people.  After a year of being with people constantly, facebook doesn’t quite seem like enough, a phone call or text not as satisfying anymore.  Face to face, personal conversations remain the most satisfying way of communication for me, but if I rely on such a small setting I limit myself to the connections I could make using technology.  Talking with my Dad he told me that technology, phones, etc allow me to have those conversations with others that don’t need to be next to me to have meaning and purpose.  I do know he’s right, but through my love for the small community feels of Ecuador or China, I must try and incorporate technology into my life without letting it invade my personal time.  My Mom shares such feelings, that technology can take time away from one’s day, can take away the 100% attention that I feel others deserve from me.  But then not answering a call or text also becomes taking away attention from a friend, and balancing how much time I spend with such devices/connections remains a challenge.  A big help in trying to understand such a struggle came from a TED talk by Sherry Turkle called “Connected but Alone”- it’s pretty awesome.
          Overall the questions I have been asking myself on TBB continue.  Who am I?  What are my values?  How do I want to travel?  And unfortunately none of these questions have answers, and as I go through these struggles thankfully I learn more about myself every day.  My expectation that TBB would make sense of the world for me has certainly not come true, and each problem “solved” just reveals a new set of questions to ponder.  TBB gave me an environment to try out a new me, a me that I would want to become in the future.  Now I just need to bridge the gap.  My progress embodies my asking these questions, and continuing to ask myself these questions while not forgetting the past year immersing myself in the “home routine”.  And the biggest question of all that continues to persist and drive me insane:  how do I want to live?  Hopefully it will continue to persist and pester me for a few more years at least.     

The Big Apple and A Bigger Bagel

         After a week with my head in the clouds in Cambodia, we returned to the US to reconnect with our home culture and our families in New York.  A rough fever on the 13 hour flight didn’t make me feel too great, but nonetheless the girls sang in excitement as we approached New York.  The weekend was chaotic as I didn’t quite know how to act around my parents, what to say, what to do but sleep.  I had my first good steak in a year, saw “Spiderman”, went to a fancy lunch with the rest of the TBB families, had a great weekend looking solely at what we did.  Our hotel was incredible, an atrium with statues and stone floor, but it all didn’t quite fit.  My stomach couldn’t take the steak I had eaten with ease before the trip, the hotel seemed absurdly big compared to the modest hostels I was accustomed to.  My first meal in New York was a bagel with salmon and cream cheese, but the first thing I noticed about it was the size.  It was massive.  After hounding food over the trip from the rest of the group, I barely ate that weekend and had little ambition to see any parts of New York.  Commercials appeared excessive and foreign, and with so many people and lights in the city I felt constantly lost and distracted…a space cadet’s worst nightmare.  Everything around me just felt too complex, too complicated, and why did everyone go so fast everywhere?  Everyone was in a hurry, and I struggled to make sense of a lot of what I saw.  Going back would definitely prove harder than leaving. 
Throughout NY and DC we continued to visit different organizations and the confusions continued.  I committed myself to asking questions at meetings like Planned Parenthood, Iris House, the UN, Global Financial Integrity, but after immersing ourselves in a country and a service project, I couldn’t grasp many of the organizations’ purposes, and more importantly how those purposes related to work on the ground.  With such short meetings, I couldn’t understand actual work that the organization accomplished- it was all general, all statistics, all abstract ideas and motives and reasons that had little meaning compared to the detail we went in with each country.  I could no longer nod my head in satisfaction that an organization fought poverty or helped empower others because such words no longer have a set meaning or definition.  Development has become more broad, and thus harder to understand in an office when the actual work does not happen in that setting.  I expected to feel satisfied with such examples of change in the US, and I did feel hopeful, but generalities no longer mean as much as work on the ground.
          In DC we had the chance to learn how to lobby with an organization called RESULTS, a chance to do our own research on bills and budgets, to voice our support to our actual representatives in our home states.  I had no idea that anyone could really do that!  But looking through the bills and acts I understood the incredible difficulty of policy.  I didn’t know what to support and even if I did find a bill or appropriation ask that interested me, I couldn’t begin to understood how the language of the bill translated to action.  It was too large scale, too sweeping for me, so disconnected from the real implementation. 
My fellow Connecticut resident Katherine and I set out prowling the streets of DC in search of a bagel before our meeting with staff of Joe Courtney, Jim Hymes, Richard Blumenthal, and Joe Lieberman.  I felt a bit stiff in my suit but thankfully I fit right in with the citizens of DC.  I guess there are a lot of important jobs there or something.  We were off to lobby for the Education for All Bill, and surprisingly got through security in all of the buildings, it was pretty easy really.  They didn’t even ask who we were seeing or if we had an appointment…US security.  I felt very intimidated looking at all the flags and plaques of the representatives lining the stone interior of the building, the immaculate carpet in the office, the tv showing live broadcast of voting on a recent bill in the House.  But all of the staff agreed with our points, agreed that we should support education, and in many cases our representatives already supported education.  I’m not sure if I really felt that fulfilled because the meetings were so short, and though the staff did take notes they have many meetings a day with many different issues to try and solve.  Did I make an incredible difference?  Probably not, but at least I could have the chance to, and never before did I realize I could.  We met another Connecticut couple with a man lobbying against budget cuts for science classes in school, and even being so close to DC, I never had interest in such political procedures.  I probably won’t in the future either, at least for a job, but unfortunately I need to realize that change can happen in that environment, and politics is a vital part to making change anywhere else in the world. 

Pools and Leisure in Cambodia

It has been quite a while since my last post, but since I have been back in the US after a trip to Cambodia, I haven't really felt like I have been "abroad" anymore.  Oddly, even though I was still travelling, I didn't feel as motivated to blog, take pictures etc. because it felt like I was finally home.  In a gray area between being home yet still having to visit organizations and work on my presentation of learning for our DC portion of the trip.
After the end of China and moving to our last village called Caicun, another farming village outside the city of Dali in Yunnan, we took a plane over to Cambodia for a week of poolside leisure before jumping into our last core country: the United States.  We stayed in an eco-friendly hostel much like in Costa Rica, owned by a Swiss German couple.  Very personal feel, banana smoothies by the pool, very much different from Indian slums or a South African township.  Almost too much leisure as time seemed to lag in the Cambodian heat and humidity.  It was a tourist trip, and after little experiences such as a cooking class and pottery introduction, we made sure to hit the biggest tourist destination in Siem Reap: Angkor Wat. 
Angkor Wat’s beauty truly goes way back and although it looks monotone, as I looked more I saw many shades of whites, grays, blacks that endured centuries, and the depth and intricacy of the stone carvings.  Unfortunately as a tourist destination everyone can see the sites, so many were somewhat crowded and I felt as though to experience the site fully I needed more solitude.  In such majestic temples I wanted to wander on my own but as part of the group I needed to keep up and we couldn’t roam as much ourselves- not to mention the crowds of other tourists looking for pictures too.  It is almost a shame that we visited at the end of the trip as I felt that my overall energy was waning, anticipation to see parents, summarize our learning from the trip in our final presentations.  I expected to be full of vibe, fully awake in the presence of such amazing temples but I really wasn’t, and much of the responsibility falls on me.  After such a long trip travelling, so many sites, the extraordinary became ordinary and I couldn’t wrap my head fully around the site’s aura. 
Around town I preoccupied myself with tourist oddities- fish eating at my feet, looking at artwork, cooking class.  The entire town has been transformed for tourism- markets, shops, land mine victims selling books for the travelers.  I even saw a man jumping through a ring of fire on the side of the street in the hopes of money from foreigners.  Our floating village tour didn’t feel real, genuine, as we stopped to see crocodiles sitting cramped in a stagnant pool, waiting to be sold.  Shops littered the central docking area as tourists scattered; one woman pointing at different objects to bring back as souvenirs, with seemingly little care as to what she was even buying.  I felt the incredible awkwardness of sitting on a boat knowing that we paid to drive and see a lifestyle that has now become a way to make money.  And with only a day to visit, trying to “understand” a culture becomes near futile, a mere excuse.  I always came into a conflict with myself of expecting to see “traditional” clothing, culture, etc, when in many ways I have no idea if such tourism actually helps the people at all.  I was careful not to point the camera at the little kids’ faces for sake of decency, careful not to disturb someone for a shot of “poverty” to bring back home.  It is such a delicate issue for a tourist, how I want to travel and how I want to affect others while I try and make my own experience.  And as I sat looking into the eyes of children holding snakes around their necks as they floated in metal bowls down the brown river, asking tourists for a dollar in exchange for pictures, I couldn’t help but feel sad.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

From Dusty Air to Fertile Soil

            Moving from the incessant dust and noise in India to China feels like the discovery of a long lost oasis.  I can hear my thoughts, see green again, and remain surprised once again at the beep of a car. 
            The end of India came quickly with the closing of media projects, saying goodbye to our project leaders exchanging email addresses and taking pictures to moving out of our homestay off to Agra.  Standing in line early in the morning to see sunrise at the Taj Mahal, what a sight.  The dull bright morning light glancing off the curvature of the building made it look two dimensional, like a backdrop from an old movie.  And it only got brighter as the sun rose in the sky, becoming almost transparent white.  I only wish I could have been there alone without the other tourists; I feel that I could never really have spent enough time to do the site justice.  Tourists sat sketching, I snapped pictures, but I’ll always wish I had more time to enjoy its aura. 
            Time moved quickly form Agra to visiting some famous tombs and sneaking pictures to New Delhi, the ultimate backpacker location.  Quirky shops lined the main street and I saw many other tourists and backpackers, maybe the most this trip other than Macchu Picchu.  Quite an odd moment when I find myself staring at foreigners more than the Indians.  From seeing a modern Lotus Temple to witnessing Muslim prayers, navigating shops to find the most resonant meditation bowl, I enjoyed exploring Delhi’s side streets before leaving tuk tuks for the quieter streets of China.
            After long flight through Hong Kong, we arrived in Kunming for the week.  I filled my lungs with fresh air, no exhaust, no dust, no dirt.  No piles of trash or urine stains on the walls anymore.  We started our venture in China with the more basic part of travelling to a new country- learning the language. Learning the difficult tones and some common phrases, I could go on my own to breakfast, ordering a noodle bowl, pizza-like dough, or pork dough balls with sweet soy milk.  One night we even ventured to try add hot water noodles, but as I expected they did not taste amazing.  One of our first meals astounded me, the welcome dinner to China.  We all sat around a giant table with a revolving center, accommodating all different dishes in larger bowls for the table to share.  We struggled to grab the different items, all different vegetables, fish, meat, eggs, and of course the staple: rice.  The meals represented the most sharing in our food we have seen this trip, and reminds me of how different such a meal stands from a microwaveable tv dinner someone eats alone in front of a movie.  As I have read and seen, China is a collectivist society, putting the group’s needs before the individual, much different from the American individualistic mantra.  In my homestay I remember seeing a job training commercial emphasizing the group, lines of organized uniform workers, rather than in the US where the same commercial would emphasize the personal attention each trainee might receive. 
            I delighted in the funny English tee shirts, Angry Birds paraphernalia, and the generosity of the store owners to be patient with my Chinese.  I felt more comfortable as classes continued, but once we moved out of Kunming into the rural farming village for our homestay, communication became a bit more trying.  As we scaled down the winding mountain roads, Scott distracted me from my movie to see several farmers hiding behind giant backpacks of sticks they shouldered down the slope.  Diving into the village to the sound of drums with the looks of hardened Chinese farmers, I felt a rush of excitement.  We were really rural.  Feelings of Atahualpa rushed back as we were introduced to our homestay parents, me alone in a family with several daughters.  As I walked in I noticed the animals, the dog chained at the entrance, no door to the courtyard area leading to several rooms including the kitchen, family area, and bedrooms.  After meeting the pigs, cow, and chickens my host father leads me in front of the television with a cup of green tea before leaving for other errands.  It kind of surprised me, no formal introduction, no conversation.  Ho could I communicate beyond hello, being majority Bai, a minority in China, they speak a different dialect than I am learning.  Our Chinese teacher sometimes does not even understand their conversations.  At our first meal I finally introduced myself as an American, but did not learn their names until several days into the visit. 
            Privacy is not as private here.  My host sisters may peer into my room, even come in as I sit reading or studying.  Communication remains difficult and mostly a game of pointing and repeating the word from my host father.  Almost all foods include rice, maybe some dough or bread like meal for lunch.  Vegetables like beans are cycled with eggs or pig fat, most likely slaughtered by the family.  Any food we don’t eat we eat the next meal, and some also goes to feed the dog or pigs.  No waste.  And they don’t hesitate to give me more rice as it becomes a challenge is I can reach the rice bowl before my host Mom.  3-4 bowls of rice a meal, and even if I said I don’t like the meat, they’ll laugh and give me a little bit more.  It’s all the culture of having a guest.  The meal schedule is bit od with a late breakfast, around 10, with a 3 o’clock lunch and dinner between 7 and 8.  Other than meals I spend time with the family watching tv or playing soccer with the kids- the Chinese soap opera like show we watch entertains me, and they always laugh as I try to speak Chinese or say their names.  My host father will make sure to show off how I know their names to any new guest.  He knows my name too, despite a strange pronunciation, and is always excited as I nod my head when he says “drink”.
            My host family is a farming family, and my host father is also a plumber.  We do not have too many material comforts, just a squat toilet and a shower I can use at someone else’s house.  The town houses several hundred people, so the community is tight knit.  The majority of families are farmers, and for our work project we accompany our family in the fields.  I have done a lot of weeding, one day hitting a rock over and over to break it into smaller parts, or even harvest garlic scapes.  It’s amazing that I did not know where garlic came from, or even what broccoli looks like in the ground.  We visited an organic farm near Kunming where virtually everything in the meal was grown on the farm.  Working close to the land is rewarding but hard, as meditative and satisfactory as weeding feels I ache towards the end.  And I work only a few hours- my host family does most of the work and they are almost like grandparents.  The aging of farmers and the lack of younger labor on farms is becoming a bigger issue in farming, especially with more labor- intensive sustainable farming practices.    
            We visited a market recently and I got to see an actual pig cut and sitting out for the consumer to see.  Vegetables sitting on a cloth by the side of the street next to other farmers.  I even saw live fish in a little pool for people to buy.  Why is it that I have never seen my food so live, so raw before?  Live fish!?  I remember seeing live lobsters in the supermarket, but now that becomes more rare to see.  All of these issues with food transparency become more apparent when I eat the family’s own food, and most of the food I see here has no plastic packaging.  How did we become so far removed from our food?  These are the topics of sustainable agriculture we study here in China. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

An American High Schooler's Thoughts on Teaching in India

Over the course of these few weeks attempting to teach English and Math to Hindi speaking children, I have come to greatly appreciate preschool and elementary school teachers.  We help to teach a government school in Katputali Nagar, an urban slum.  Mud, dirt, fields of trash with pigs and goats scavenging for food.  Dirty kids squatting in broad daylight.  One day a beggar girl asked for some water, and strangely the students urged me to say "no".  I felt awful, not because of the beggars but that after shaking hands, I would need to sanitize back at Idex.  It just felt insensitive as the first thought to pop in my head.  We heard some of the beggars here have "pimps", and when offered food they decline and ask only for money.  But every time we climb out of our auto rickshaw kids run up to try and shake our hands, saying "hello" and "how are you".  For many of these people, we are probably some of the first white people they have seen, not to mention Americans.  
The school is fairly large, with kids both younger and older than the ones we teach in 2nd and 3rd grade, our class averaging around 20-30 students.  The school attendance fluctuates because of family or even religious duties, so some students may not come to school for 5-6 days at a time, where we will need to visit their family.  Then some days students will not be in school because they are flying kites instead, so the rules for coming into school are not nearly as strict as in the States.  One day we visited some of the families, and the kids were so excited to drag me by the hand towards their family houses in the back alleys of their neighborhood.  They seemed so comfortable, knowing every turn and climbing on roofs, jumping around to take shortcuts.  Expecting to see glum, morose faces, everyone looked very happy and intrigued to see us.  We heard about the puppet making traditions of the parents, but that because of television the job is becoming less and less supportive.  Though passed down through generations, the parents recognize that their children should not become puppet makers and instead enforce the importance of schooling by having some children attend extra classes.  I learned recently that they all go to school through Saturday too!  I did not expect to hear that at all.  One man in the slum mentioned that he had been to Spain, and even spoke Spanish!  The slum looks desolate only in appearance, not character or intellect.
            Learning about liberating education in our seminars has made me question my own education as well as the way I approached education in the slum.  One of the first impulses that struck me when I saw the kids was the yearning for order, for discipline as they ran around and tried to shake our hands, grabbing and clawing for attention.  I knew that I shouldn’t want to place myself above the students, but in that instant I realized how easy it is to do.  Easy for control, and as the teacher, older and physically bigger, I thought I should have authority in order to teach.  That though I wanted to be the students’ friend, I also needed to exercise authority.  What also struck me was the difference in sound between classes outside and our own- kids outside were silent, slaving in workbooks while the teachers supervised silently, while ours yelled and ran around the room. 
Over time I began to realize that I had to cater my teaching style to multiple abilities and learning styles, every day an experiment for the one worksheet or activity that would work for everyone.  I discovered there was none, that one of the best activities for the class was “Boom Chicka Boom”, and that was not a lesson.  Every worksheet had a takeaway, every lesson a plan, every activity a guideline.  One day the leaders challenged us to use no worksheets for two days, and over those days I discovered how much we relied on them.  But thinking of fun, engaging activities made their learning much more fun, though it did not help to calm them down.  Their sheer amount of energy and vigor drained me every day, excited to leave the chaos for a quiet group lunch back at Idex.  Often I woke up unmotivated or felt weighed down by the challenge of our own lesson plans, but now seeing them progressing and becoming more confident in their learning I don’t want to miss a day.  Ironically, I have found that often the less control I impose on their lesson, the more they discover and learn for themselves.  They learn more when I am not a teacher but a facilitator, when resisting my urge to give the answer becomes incredibly challenging. 
            A recent remark one of the leaders stressed was that these programs, our work is not meant to create meaningful change, that our six weeks here give us a service learning experience.  I find it strange that volunteers from everywhere come searching to make a difference, but yet as teachers we have no experience and do not even know the native language.  The kids learn from us, but we have no training.  I’ve found the nature of volunteering here absurd, that students or other volunteers can come to India and not even know the project they will work on or the nature of the work.  As part of development, working on a project to make change without even knowing its nature or the credentials astounds me.  And our leader, Kayce, is right—this work gives us an experience, for our benefit as well as that of the students.  Yes, we do make a difference, but changing the world takes an incredible amount more of commitment.
            I’ll end with a story.  One day we were trying to catch an auto rickshaw to go to work and though many pulled up to offer rides, they gave prices much too high because we were foreigners.  After walking away from multiple drivers, bargaining down to a fair price, one driver finally agreed.  Expecting him to be frustrated at our bargaining, I smiled when he called us “intelligent” instead.  Contrary to my belief, though the drivers may try and rip us off, many remain good hearted and want only to test our cultural intelligence.
            Very little time remains in India, and in the whirlwind of media project work and IST, wrapping up with teaching and seminars, I have had little time to slow down and enjoy each moment.  In the bustle of cars and motorcycles and beeping, India continues to drive on, and in less than two weeks we will be on a plane to China, our last core country before returning to the US.  The world tour is sadly winding down.     

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.      

Saturday, December 31, 2011

South Africa in One Post

Unfortunately, this entry sums up all of my time in Africa, so sorry ahead of time for the sheer length.  Many of these paragraphs are directly from a previous post I wrote for a travel website called worldwinder.com, and to view that entire post you can go to their website under guest blog entries.  There are also some pictures from the area there.  

My time in South Africa has been incredible so far, visually, emotionally, mentally, and even physically.  I don’t know where to start with the sheer wonder of the landscape.  Off the 13 hour plane from New York, after several connections, I felt like I had stepped into Florida.  Palm like trees, ocean breeze, nothing like the Africa advertised on television.  After a sojourn at a nearby hostel playing a game called bitong (not sure if the spelling is right), like bocce ball, and watching cricket, we made out way exploring the area.  As we entered the townships I saw the first signs of visual poverty here.  Shacks with dirt floors, the poignant smell of urine and body odor, kids playing in garbage heaps, garbage and glass cemented into the rocky, dirt paths leading to some of the houses; these sights and smells defined poverty for me.  Though the American advertisements are incomplete- South Africa is one of the most developed and modernized parts of Africa, and although shantytowns exist, most of the area where we are staying has highways, cities, shops, supermarkets, and industrialized infrastructure.  Even stranger is that across the way from the poorest and most dangerous township lies a township lined with standard, government funded housing with pristinely paved roads.  The landscape looks like an old American suburb, except without the white picket fence and smiling families, child in hand.  Dogs lie as guards outside houses as kids run up and down the street as some mothers wash clothes or sit inside with their family watching television.  Amazingly, despite living in almost destitute conditions, almost every house I have visited has had a sound system and television.  Satellites poke out of the shacks’ roofs, and one day I saw a house with cardboard lining the outside wall.  Yet only minutes away by car lies an amazing downtown area with stores lining the streets, and a pristine beach waiting for the feet of tourists and their open checkbooks.

            Our work project here involves studying public health through an NGO called PlettAid, as we follow around home based caregivers and record psychosocial data regarding the patients’ moods before and after our arrival.  Unfortunately recording the patients’ moods can be difficult, especially with the language barrier.  In the townships, the two main languages spoken are Afrikaans and Xhosa, and while some of the people know English, many do not.  Often I find myself entering a home and feeling like an intruder because I am unable to communicate with that person- other than a simple hello and goodbye I know little of either language, and the clicks in Xhosa especially make it different than other dialects.  So every day we report to one of the clinics depending on where the patients live, but everyone was assigned a different clinic, so while I am with some of the people in the group, others work at different clinics.  We wait there every morning as residents file in and sit down, usually pretty full during the week, and as our caregivers arrive we either visit patients at their homes or go to another clinic with a patient using van transport.  Here are some anecdotes that I hope shed light on the biggest learning moments of my time in South Africa thus far. 

            The walls of my clinic are lined with signs and promotions regarding HIV/AIDS- free condom signs, family support organizations, and responsibilities and rights of the patients jump out from the white painted walls.  People fill the waiting area to see the sole Sister in the clinic.  On one of my first home visits, a talkative man asked me about America and where I lived.  What struck me was how he talked as if all of America were rich, and if all of the country looked as it did on television.  I assured it didn’t, and it made me think that when I first came to Africa I thought of the moving images of impoverished children clothes in rags peering at me through the screen.  But all of Africa is completely different- within each country, and within each region even city the landscape changes.  Shack towns to standardized, white government housing to supermarkets and tourist filled beaches.  Just like the US, all of Africa does not resemble television commercials. 

            Another huge part of the experience here involves immediate signs of both globalization and westernization.  From American Dracula movies to huge sound systems to blaring Rihanna pop music, I have found that even halfway around the world I can’t escape American culture.  Nike sweatpants, Hong Kong tee shirts, even a Washington D.C. sweatshirt that one of the caregivers wore.  I saw a man with an Eminem hat, Lil Wayne blazoned across a man’s wall outside his house, signs lie everywhere.  Inside one patient’s house, an older woman with high blood pressure, a poster of the pop star Jennifer Lopez resides right over her bed, and in that same visit I heard Pink Panther music from the South African radio frequency.  One of the most striking and stunning forms of globalization, and especially the world influence of corporations is the Coca Cola logos paraded next to the store names.  Little food stores and barbershops litter the townships, and many of the food stores have their names flaunted next to the global Coca Cola logo.  My caregiver explained to me that they pay less to have their signs made by the Coca Cola Company, so as they advertise their store name to township families Coca Cola reaches its arm further across the world.

            One of my most poignant and shocking experiences of the public health aspect of the trip here involves my proximity to HIV and TB patients.  We visited an AIDS patient who weighed about 26 kg, or about 70-80 pounds.  As I helped to lift her from the wheelchair into the van to see the Sister at another clinic, I felt every bone in her chest and the shaking of her breath with the pain and discomfort.  At only 39 years old, she lived off ARV treatment and looked as if she were in the final stages of the disease.  Incredibly weak, swelling in her chest, legs and arms as skinny as twigs, she looked at least twice her age.  I learned that they discovered the disease late, and that her CD4 count was already low when she began ARV treatment.  The second time we saw her she looked worse.  Her stomach swelled with a fluid, and as we took her to the clinic to drain off the more than 2L of fluid, she started to fade.  At first I thought she felt tired, but the Sister and nurses called the ambulance to bring her to the hospital.  Another lady in the room could barely speak from a stroke, and threw up right next to me.  In the next bed, a young couple sat next to their young son with epilepsy.  A few days later I found out from my caregiver that the AIDS patient had passed away in the hospital.  I didn’t cry, I didn’t feel sad or depressed, just a bit shocked.  I didn’t know her that well, and couldn’t talk to her, only lift her into the van and accompany her in the hospital.  HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death in South Africa.  Because her cause of death was HIV and TB, she must wait longer and pay more for her funeral policy.  Normal deaths involve a waiting period of six months while a TB or HIV related death involves a 1-2 year waiting period.  Openness and testing are highly encouraged, yet phrases like “do you eat sweets with the paper on?” referring to condom use perpetuate detrimental decisions.

            My reaction to her passing scared me a bit because I did not feel shocked.  Looking forward on these experiences I thought that I would be hit very hard, crying after work or feeling depressed.  Each day brought mental exhaustion and emotional drain, but I did not cry over the patient’s death.  Many of the township stories and experiences I heard sounded and looked so abstract to me, so foreign, that I struggled to grasp their reality.  I felt worse that I did not cry over her death, that I did not feel particularly sad, and after I brought that up in one of our group processing meetings I saw that others felt very moved by certain experiences.  It felt wrong, my seemingly indifferent outlook, but now I see that everyone processes these experiences differently.  With such an abstract and surreal experience, there’s no right way to feel or react, even if I think there is.    
            The public health system here involves aspects incredibly helpful and affordable to the people.  Home-based care is provided free to the people, along with visits to the clinic and medication such as antibiotics or ARVs.  Despite effective parts, there also exist complexities and weak points.  One of the controversial ways to support the patients is a disability grant, money given for healthy living and supporting oneself and their family if needed.  Yet underlying addictions in townships such as alcohol and cigarettes lead some to abuse the disability grant to buy alcohol, leading some to intentionally grow sicker in order to receive the grant.  When one becomes well they need to find a job to support themselves, but the scarcity makes finding a job difficult.  And the cycle continues.  My media project involves the reasons and factors behind one’s making detrimental decisions to his health.  Unlike my assumptions on arrival, laziness and ignorance play almost no role.

            Though the main part of town remains relatively safe during the day, a recent event in one of the townships changed many of our perceptions of their actual safety.  One night a man raped a seven year old girl, murdered her, and proceeded to show a neighbor the grave.  The town responded in a mob, beating the man and burning him to death instead of leaving him to the faults of the justice system.  One of the patients mentioned that the man had offended two previous times, the first for five years prison time and the second for fifteen years prison time.  The patient believed that the man deserved his death, and that killing him was just, elaborating that murderers should be killed, rapists should have their genitals cut off, and thieves should have their hands cut off.  They also continued that walking around at night one could encounter drug addicts on the street looking for a fix or get robbed.  He blamed these criminals for racial distrust, and that the racial distrust makes it even more difficult to find jobs. 

            December 1st was world AIDS Day, so as part of our project to raise awareness during the two-week party called Plett Rage, we pitched a tent on the beach to attract people to our activity.  Due to rain we conducted the activity the next day, including a bit of education on condom use through a race to put condoms on cucumbers.  Though a humorous activity, we tried to remind many of the intoxicated partiers who do not know much about the danger of HIV/AIDS in South Africa to use condoms as an easy way to prevent infection.  Changing mindset and consciousness is incredibly difficult in such a short exercise, but I hope we at least made some people think about the issue for at least the day.  Many of the beachgoers, to our astonishment, did not know much about the HIV epidemic raging right in their backyard.  I struggled with not feeling patronizing informing them of an issue in their own country, especially as a foreigner.  Before this trip, I didn’t even know there was a difference between HIV and AIDS. But it affects everyone from children to parents, and if no one knows about it or talks about it, then no one will be open about their contracting it.  As part of the patients’ rights, a patient with HIV has the right to keep secret their status.  In the US, I feel that the use of condoms is advertised as a way to prevent pregnancy primarily, but many leave out that condoms also prevent HIV infection.  Being able to talk about HIV at the dinner table eliminates the stigma and tension around the disease.  If no one knows, no one can help.

            Despite continuing hardships that some South Africans face everyday, the joy and happiness I saw every day amazed me.  Kids playing in the dirt with little food and broken down houses still smiled and laughed like any other child, and as I entered the houses the families would smile and greet me warmly.  Talking with one of the Sisters at the clinic, she told us that whenever she leaves she always yearns to come back, and that despite the medical difficulties, she loves the character of the people.  She felt that most of the people she saw living in the townships appeared much happier than those living in the more developed city area of Plett.  I felt that especially the African women, the mothers, had such pride and responsibility in the household, many of them taking care of the entire family and siblings on their own.  I admire their strength.   

Being in South Africa for the holiday season, we have experienced two major American holidays here, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  We spent Thanksgiving at Rocky Road, the hostel we sojourned at intermittently during the trip.  Our homestay mother Steph also prepared a great meal, but the willingness to accommodate a holiday they don’t celebrate astounded me, and the meal at Rocky Road was one of my best Thanksgiving dinners.  Soft atmosphere, a nice fire, such a personal and relaxing atmosphere.  Due to the feeling of family here in the group and with the people we’ve met, I’ve hardly felt homesick the entire trip.  The food has been excellent, with the highlight being the number of braais we have had.  The braai is basically a barbecue, and the family we stayed with loved it, so many times we would have a braai with our host brothers and host mom.  I felt amazed that she handed us the house so happily, and she treated us more as friends than guests in her house.  The amount of people that she knew in town, the kids that felt so comfortable talking with her and staying over for the night, astounded me.  She really is Plett’s mom.

Our Christmas week we spent doing safari activities with an organization called CrissCross Adventures in Addo.  A young couple led us on amazing activities that week including visits to a raptor and reptile center, cheetah center, Addo Elephant National Park, and a river safari.  I let some snakes wrap around my neck, and hold them, as I learned that snakes are very misunderstood, and many are not aggressive.  Good to learn as I let one slither around my windpipe.  We saw a crocodile, very aggressive animal, an ostrich, even a goat ramming its head repeatedly against the fence.  We got to pet lion cubs and even a cheetah, along with seeing some sirvals, which reminded me of Egypt a lot and the jackals alongside mummies.  The cats were so majestic, and I can see now why Egyptians saw them as royalty.  Yesterday we went out on the river in canoes for a little river safari, learning about different plants and how ancient the land is.  Our tour guide Chris found a huge elephant tusk up on the bank of the river, and he told us that most likely it aged back to the days of ivory hunters.  Our funny guide Moses told us about his life growing up as a kid in the Xhosa culture, stealing honey from bees nests by burning a plant, sticking a plant in a termite hole to get them stuck to fry and eat as protein, even run 6 km to school then grab a branch with which to brush his teeth.  We tried the aloe vera plant, which tasted horrible, and even smelled a potent mint leaf.  The spearfishing and other hunting stories of the Xhosa bushmen amazed me, that everything they needed they could find in the bush.  My favorite day with CrissCross was our safari day in the National Park.  We drove through in a fish tank or pope mobile, as Moses called it, where we could see the animals out the huge windows.  We saw a rhino, ostriches, bunches of elephants, warthogs, jackals, kuddu, elands, and even a lion at the very end of our tour.  At one watering hole, we saw maybe thirty or more elephants sliding into the water to bathe and drink, some even coming close to the van.  Little warthog babies ran next to their mother, and we saw the most interesting ostrich mating ceremony.  The male sat on the ground, swaying its feathers back and forth in order to impress the female, and once they started mating it looked like a dance.  A strange site to see, but very intriguing to watch.

For IST, the whole group went to Cape Town.  The city was huge and bustling, and one night some went out to the clubs on the main street, even after we had already gone out multiple times during Plett Rage.  The amount of activities Cape Town offered was immense, so we had to pick and choose.  Hope and I couldn’t get tickets to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held, but we still climbed Table Mountain, visited the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point, Boulders’ penguin colony, Chapman’s Peak, and a seal colony off Hout Bay.  Table Mountain was one of my favorite activities, which involved a mere hour and a half to summit but offered great views of the city, ocean, and another hike called Devil’s Peak.  Recently named one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World, Table Mountain is available to everyone to climb by cable car, and because of time we took it down.  I felt mixed about the cable car; I feel that a Wonder of the World should be harder to see, to make it more fulfilling to reach that summit, but doing so would leave many without the opportunity to see it.  Our bus day tour hit many of the big attractions near Cape Town, and we hiked and biked through the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Point, the southern most tip of Africa.  Practically surrounded by water, I liked the endless blue save the numerous tourists seeing it with me.  With so many people it felt pretty crowded.  Seeing the penguins on the beach was cool too, especially because I wouldn’t think to see penguins on a beach at all.  Hope and I both enjoyed the market type shops too, being able to bargain and look at all the crafts people offered.  Thankfully the atmosphere was not as overwhelming as the Otavalo adventure.                                     

As far as other fun activities, earlier in the trip some of us went skydiving and bungee jumping.  I did both, and the surreal nature of the jumps was awesome.  With coastline and beach hikes scattered throughout our work project, we have experienced many sides of South Africa.  Whether a seal colony basking in the sun, bright flowers spotted on a hillside, or dogs sitting in dirt with ticks invading their faces, little children playing soccer on a dirt field, and garbage fires.  Yet throughout all the hardship, the people remain energetic, loud and lively, with the woman especially exuding an air of supreme confidence and pride, which I envy.  Through the work of PlettAid and caregivers, change is happening here in South Africa.