Archive for April, 2014

April 12, 2014

What makes India so special

by Tabitha Kidwell

When people heard I was coming to India, they often said things like “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to India – the colorful saris, the delicious food, such a holy place!”

Well, yeah, I guess that is all here. Most older women do wear saris everyday, and they range from the sari equivalent of sweatpants to stunningly ornate works of art worn for special occasions.

All dressed up for the Annual Day Celebration

All dressed up for the Annual Day Celebration

Younger women often wear saris too, but for everyday, they are just as likely to wear a kurta-shalwar-scarf combo, or just jeans and a tunic.

See?

See?

And they do have amazing food. America’s take on Indian food that seems to be fairly accurate, unlike “Mexican” food, which is basically unlike any food eaten in Mexico. In nice restaurants, and at fancy occasions, you can find chicken tikka masala, mutton biryana, palak paneer, butter garlic naan, and all the other the delicious dishes you might find in the “international” hot food bar at Whole Foods.

Thali - a sampler dish of amizingness!

Thali – a sampler dish of amizingness!

But, for everyday fare, at least in Maharashtra, there is an unending parade of rice, dal (similar to a lentil soup), and chapati (basically whole wheat tortillas), with a different vegetable thrown in everyday. A cucumber and some tomatoes might make a cameo as a “salad.” It got pretty boring for me, especially when I spent weeks out at City of Child, and was basically eating “camp food.”

Surprise! Rice, chapati and dal... again...

Surprise! Rice, chapati and dal… again…

Lunch was a challenge, too. People take tiffins (lunch boxes, but really nice, utilitarian lunch boxes) to school or work, and typically have 2-4 chapatis and a serving of vegetable in there. Sometimes, the vegetable would be something closer to bean soup, and I would spend lunch time trying to scoop it up with a flimsy chapatti. Hard at first, but I got pretty good at it:

Take 1

Take 1

Take 2

Take 2

Take 3 - note the  "chapati cone" technique

Take 3 – note the
“chapati cone” technique

Take 4 - success!

Take 4 – success!

And lastly, how about India’s renowned holiness? Yes, there is something to it. Two of the world’s great religious were founded here. People have beautiful altars in their homes, and you’re likely to get a blessing and turmeric on the forehead if you stop in for tea. There are plenty of ashrams and meditation centers scattered around, and you pass beautiful temples all over the place.

P1050568

But people also do mundane, un-holy things like go to work, go to school, go to the mall, do laundry, do homework, do exercise, show off their motorcycles, show off their mobile phones, throw trash on the ground, etc.

The common thread of a lot of my blogs recently has been the fact that I am just living normal life here – that I’m not heading out to be the tourist. Maybe you’ve noticed that I’ve felt a little guilt over this. I think it comes back to this expectation that people have of INDIA: The clothes! The food! The religion! This view, seeing the entire sub-continent as one big fabric bazaar/spice market/meditation center, focuses on India’s otherness. You can find those things if you’re interested in seeing what makes India different . But what has made India special to me are the things that are the same: the relationships with people, the everyday experiences, and the many ways it’s come to feel like home.

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April 7, 2014

Thank You For Being Here

by Tabitha Kidwell

Next week is my last week in India, and I have a vague sense of regret – like I haven’t done enough things or gone to enough places. That’s probably true, I haven’t, but then, that’s not exactly why I came. When I plan trips as a tourist, I usually pour over Lonely Planet and Wikitravel, trying to learn as much about what there is to do and see. I circle fun bars and enticing restaurants, and daydream about walking tours. I dutifully read the entire “history” section. But I didn’t plan this trip as a tourist – in fact, even after being here 9 weeks, “visit India” remains on my bucket list. My main reason to come to India was to volunteer at Deep Griha, and that is what I have done. I’ve only been to Pune, and the couple of villages 50km east where Deep Griha has programs. I haven’t really gone anywhere outside the sphere of Deep Griha – I stay at the Cultural Center (the volunteer house) on the weekends, then come out to City of Child (the boy’s home) and Deep Griha Academy during the week. Given that India can also be referred to as a “sub-continent,” and it really seems like I haven’t been anywhere at all.

I also feel a bit like I haven’t done anything. Coming here, I had an ambitious but ambiguous plan to do “curriculum revision” or “professional development” or “materials design.” Basically, I wanted to do whatever I could that would be of help to the teachers and the school. The first few weeks of my plan were set aside for an initial “relationship building” and “needs assessment” phase. This plan, however, was complicated by the fact that I was here during the final 10 weeks of the school year, which were busy with end of the year performances, parent-teacher meetings, and exams. This is not a time for big projects in any school, let alone here, when each day has been more oppressively hot than the day before, and no one has much energy left for anything. The weeks slid by and I seemed to be stuck in that initial phase. I built relationships – I chatted with the teachers in English, went to their houses for tea, gave some English lessons. And I didn’t so much assess needs as help with emergencies when they erupted (Can you copy this DVD? Teach us an American dance! Why isn’t the printer working?). I would go to school and be busy all day, but my work here didn’t end up as cohesive as I had planned. I substituted for absent teachers, gave IT support, checked English grammar, and coordinated other volunteers’ visits to the school. Finally, after 6 weeks here, I was able to start my “teacher development program.” We had 9 workshops focusing on best teaching practices, and worked together to develop a teacher evaluation rubric. The teachers spent a lot of time discussing what successful teachers do, and I think having the rubric will help them grow in the future. I think it was really useful work, so I guess I did do something, even if it was less than I had hoped.

But, in the end, what I did (or didn’t do) and where I went (or didn’t go) won’t be what defines this experience in my memory. Halfway through my time here, the school had it’s Annual Day, a performance for the parents. Each class did one or two numbers, and I had helped (finding the music, writing the script, or choreographing the dances) for 5 different numbers. At the end of the performance, the MC was giving the farewell speech (which I had edited.) She said “To Miss Tabitha, thank you for being here…” page turn and realization that the sentence was not over… “And helping us.”

She could have stopped at the page break. I suppose I’ve helped the teachers, here and there, but the important part of my being in India seems to be just that: I have been here. I didn’t need to go anywhere special or do anything important for this to be a meaningful experience – all I had to do was be. When I look back on this time, I won’t think about the great program I did or the amazing trip I took; I’ll think about the little moments that, added up together, make daily life. Sharing lunch with the other teachers. Dodging a cow on my morning run. Waiting to eat while the boys sang their dinner prayer. It’s enough. In fact, it’s more than enough. Living in India has been an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

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