S: Travels with Baldy 2011
FC: Travels with Baldy Join me as I discover the urban sites of Hong Kong, the waves of Bali, the markets of Thailand, the mountains of Nepal, and the heart of India. August-December 2011
1: This morning I awoke after a very short 3 hours of sleep stirring with a mix of anxiety, excitement, regret, and fear. My last few hours in the U.S. are always the worst. I second guess my decisions and constantly create irrational fears that slowly begin to consume me. With many of my friends returning to work after summer vacations, I begin to wonder if that is not what I should be doing too. I am an adult and adults are supposed to have jobs. And I do not have a job nor am I actively searching for one. I am going on a 4 month vacation. As I sit waiting for my connecting flight in New York though, excitement begins to overcome all of my anxieties. There is something refreshing about minimizing your life down to a 37 pould backpack and setting off into the unknown on your own. What is the use of saving money if you never do anything exciting with it, right? So in just a few hours, I will be boarding my flight to Hong Kong and in 16 hours I will hopefully be landing safely on the other side of the world. I hope that you will join me on my journey. I promise it will be nothing short of entertaining. | Christina | Ready Set Go
2: Looking through the crowd waiting to go through immigration in Hong Kong, I realized I was incredibly underdressed for the occasion. My Merrells just did not seem to cut it compared to the high heeled shoes of my fellow travelers. And I must say it is bold to wear a silk mini dress on a 16 hour flight. The majority of my wardrobe was chosen with India in mind, where only prostitutes show their shoulders or knees. This was obviously not the standard in Hong Kong. Either that or I was on a plane full of prostitutes. | Hello Asia
3: Accepting that regardless of my understated wardrobe, I was obviously a tourist, I set out to conquer Hong Kong. . . in 36 hours. My day in Hong Kong began on the subway, an experience that left me completely elated with how well I had managed not only to find the subway station, but also to buy a ticket, find the right train, get off at the right stop, and then finally find my way back out of the subway station. I spent the majority of the morning exploring Central, the skyscraper hub of Hong Kong Island. The skyline in many ways reminded me of Chicago. Innovative architecture abounds across the island while the feng shue elements of their design aesthetic becomes evident as tranquil resting areas lined with ornamental trees and water sculptures pop up in between the buildings. Walking through the city, I then discovered where all the fahionistas from my flight bought their clothes. In between the skyscrapers, there are blocks upon blocks of high end stores including perhaps the largest Coach store I have ever seen. Once again my backpacking wardrobe seemed insufficient.
4: I spent the afternoon visiting a giant Buddha statue on Lantau Island. Well, technically I spent most of the afternoon waiting for the cable car to get to and from the giant Buddha statue, but nevertheless it was nice to see a different side of Hong Kong. The statue sits on top of a beautiful series of rolling hills looking out peacefully over the valley. I topped off the evening with a cruise of Victoria Harbor which included viewing the world’s largest light installation, a laser light show timed to music which is projected from over 20 buildings lining the harbor. It was a fitting ending to a whirlwind day.
6: Eat, Pray, Love is often the first thing that comes to mind when people here the word Bali. I must confess that I did not even know Bali existed until I saw the movie, and watching Julia Roberts bicycle through an endless expanse of rice paddies made me want to share in that same experience. With this image of Bali in my mind, I set off to Ubud, a town nestled in the rice paddies where many scenes from the movie were actually filmed. As with most Hollywood productions, the real Ubud is not quite as calm and peaceful as the movie portrays. Personally, I would describe the town itself as a giant traffic jam. The narrow roads are packed with cars and hundreds of motorbikes/scooters. Traffic regulations are definitely a joke. Take for example the line down the middle of the road. Here in Bali it is really just a suggestion as to where you might want to drive but has very little impact on where people actually drive or in what direction. So as one might imagine it is quite chaotic. I spent my time in Ubud just a few blocks away from the chaos at an idyllic little health spa called Ubud Sari. Here I enrolled in a 6 day program to cleanse my body, and for 6 days I filled my stomach with nothing but juice. At first this sounds like a lovely treat. The fruit here is fantastic and there were dozens of juice combinations to choose from. As time wore on though, the joy of juice definitely started to diminish. My typical day consisted of four juices. In between the morning walk and yoga, I usually had a green juice of spinach, apple, and cucumber. I like to get my veggies done with early as they were honestly not the tastiest part of my day. For breakfast it was usually a carrot apple blend, a little more fruit but still on the vegetable spectrum. Then by the time lunch and dinner rolled around I was definitely ready for an all fruit juice, my favorite being pineapple coconut. Of the 24 juices I drank, there were only two I truly could not stomach. Let’s just say I do not like beet root and cilantro is not meant to be drank | Detox & Relaxation
11: In between all of the juice breaks, my day was filled with spa treatments. Over the course of my stay I had 9 different spa treatments and over 6 hours of massage. It takes time you know to rub away the stress of three years of teaching. I was reminded of this during a particularly painful reflexology session when the reflex spot for my lower back was hit. It took quite a bit of teeth clenching to get through the pain as I realized the toll teaching had taken on my body. Although painful at times, other spa sessions were competely relaxing. During one such session, I recieved what is known as the Javanese Princess Treatment which includes being scrubbed in a shimmering gold paste, poured over with warm milk, and then put to rest in a bath of flowers. Through my six days of fasting, I like to think that I have become more in tune with my body having realized just how much strain my lifestyle was placing on my body. During the first half of my cleanse, the daily juices were barely enough to quiet my hunger for a few hours. After a leisurely walk through town, I often came back craving an afternoon rest. But when day 4 arrived, I felt a change in my body. I had more energy and felt my hunger less and less. It is amazing to realize how little your body really needs to thrive. I leave my retreat feeling refreshed and energized, ready to take on the rest of my travels. So with my body fine tuned and the stress of my previous life massaged out of my body, I head to the beach to take in some sun.
12: With the limited time I had remaining in Bali, I decided it would be best to spend my days in just one quiet beach town. So, I began paging through my guidebook reading the descriptions of Bali’s countless beaches. Bali is famous for its beaches, and particularly its surf, causing waves of Australians to wash up on the coast during their holidays. As you can imagine, this creates a bit of mayhem on the beaches. On my drive from the airport earlier in the week, I passed through one such surf town named Kuta, and honestly it looked like more than I cared to handle. The town is known for Kuta Cowboys and Bintang Boys, and I really had no desire to meet either. Amid my reading, I then came across a beach named Nusa Lembongan. My guidebook described this small island off of mainland Bali as a sleepy little town with no cars. It sounded perfect, so I hopped on a speed boat and bounced across the waves to my quiet little island retreat. While on Nusa Lembongan, I was able to catch a glimpse into a more traditional Balinese way of life. Only 5% of the island’s economy is based on tourism, meaning most people`s eveyday lives had nothing to do with me or the other tourists. The island`s main economic activity is seaweed production. The tidal zone off the island is partitioned into plots where families grow seaweed. All day long, men and women can be seen hauling baskets of harvested seaweed from their tidal plots onto large drying mats along the beach. The majority of the seaweed is exported and then processed into carageenan, an emulsifier found in many foods including ice cream. | The Other Side of Bali
14: During my stay, I took some time to walk around and explore the island. Walking the entire perimeter takes about six hours, which I split between two days. Around the island, I discovered small enclaves of humble family dwellings. Most people live in a simple one room thatched home surrounded by mats of drying seaweed. In front of each collection of homes, there were often children selling seachells, much like the American lemonade stand. At first I thought their little ploy was ingenious. The more kids I came across though, the more uncomfortable I became. Every kid said exactly the same sentence, “Excuse me, you want to buy shell, 1000 please.” Each kid would repeat the sentence over and over until the potential buyer was out of earshot. In many ways it seemed more like begging than an entrepreneurial childhood activity.
17: While in Bali, I was also able to experience many beautiful aspects of Balinese culture. Temples abound all across the country. Every home dedicates a corner of its compound to the gods, and every day the women present beautifully crafted offerings of flowers, food, and incense. This deep religous sentiment can be observed at every level of society. Another thing that Bali is known for is the friendliness of its people. A typical greeting on the street involves a series of questions consisting of where are you coming from and where are you going. At first I found these questions a bit intrusive. When I travelled in South America, you never told a stranger where you were staying because they might just show up at your room later having considered it an invitation. The Balinese view these questions very differently. They want to know something about you so that they can consider you a friend rather than a stranger. After having recieved satisfactory answers, they simply go on their merry way. Although my time in Bali was short, I was still able to glimpse what life is like in the South Pacific. From walking through rice paddies to exploring ancient temples to riding a boat through the ocean, I had many of the quintisencial Balinese experiences. And with that, I now head to Thailand.
18: Sensory Overload | When I landed in Hong Kong, I expected to be overwhelmed, surrounded by unfamiliar sights and sounds, but I was not. Hong Kong is like any large metropolitan city in the United States, except everyone speaks Cantonese. Then I thought perhaps Bali would be where my senses suddenly became overloaded with the new world I was venturing through. No such luck there either. Sure the traffic was a bit much, but overall Bali is an incredibly relaxed country where I felt incredibly relaxed as well. I started to think that perhaps Asia would not be as jarring as expected. Then, I landed in Thailand. I had only two days to explore Bangkok, so much like I did when I was in Hong Kong, I set off with a mission to see and experience as much as possible in the time alotted. I began my sight seeing adventure with a visit to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo. It was here that I realized how completely and totally overwhelmed I had suddenly become. Of course I chose to begin my day at the most popular attraction in the city. So along with a few hundred other tourists, I stepped through the gates of the temple. My eyes were suddenly overcome with an extravagant amount of shine and sparkle. As I looked around there was building upon building covered in reflective tiles and in the midst of them stood a massive shining gold pagoda. There were so many buildings and so much sparkle, I honestly could not tell which building was which. Despite my misdirection, I was able to find the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The solid jade statue sits atop a huge guilded throne and is one of the most revered Buddha images in Thailand.
20: After being overwhelmed by the crowds and sparkle of the temple, I decided I would head to the National Museum. I thought that the museum would be a nice respite from all hustle and bustle of the city. Unfortunately, I neglected to consider the possibilty of a school field trip undermining my peace and quiet. The teachers, equipped with whistles and megaphones, attempted to peacefully direct their students through the museum. This was quite unsuccessful given that each teacher was in charge of approximately 50 students. As a result, transitions from one part of the museum to the other usually resulted in a free for all of students running and screaming as if they were on the playground. So much for a quiet afternoon at the museum.
22: I started off my second day in Bangkok with a trip to the floating markets. Although largely a tourist institution today, floating markets were at one time a central feature of life in Bangkok. The canals are lined with vendors selling anything from souvenirs to knock off Gucci purses. Vendors use large hooks to pull in the passing boats in an attempt to make a sale. In addition to the stores lining the canals, food vendors simply float amongst the shoppers selling anything from fresh fruit to a fully cooked meal. In between all of my sight seeing, I was sure to make time to enjoy the flavors of Thailand. Whether is was a bag of fried bananas from a street vendor or a sit down meal in a reatauraunt, the food was amazing. I have never had a better curry or coconut soup than I did in Thailand. From the temples to the markets to the curry, Thailand was definitely an experience for the senses.
24: Like Nothing on Earth | Vail Ski Resort uses the motto Like nothing on Earth. I have recently decided that this is false advertising. Ski aficionados can identify what makes Vail unique, but to an outsider I imagine Vail looks just like any other ski resort of which there are many on this earth. Now Kathmandu, Kathmandu is like nothing on earth. Despite being the capital and largest, most developed city of Nepal, the tallest building is maybe eight stories high. There are dirt roads where cows and cars compete for the best parking spaces. The streets, which dart off in every direction imaginable, have no names. Addresses are simply based on the closest major chowk, or intersection. This means that hundreds of buildings have the exact same address. These intersections are fairly easy to find. The difficulty is in deciding which of the six to eight streets is the one you want and then later deciding which street is the one you came from. Finding your way through the city is often a process of trial and error, of which most of my trials turned out to be errors. Once back in Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, the chaos only continues. The roads are choked with cars that constantly honk their horns at you, and every other person you meet on the streets is a hustler trying to sell you something. The most popular items being tiger balm, sitars, and trekking information. Just two kilometers outside of Kathmandu, everything suddenly becomes more peaceful. Nepal is a very religious country where Hinduism and Buddhism blend together to create a unique religious fabric. Although some sites are distinctively Hindu or Buddhist, many are revered by both. My first venture outside of Kathmandu was to Bodhnath, one of the largest stupas in Nepal and a mecca for many Buddhists. The smell of incense and the sound of spinning prayer wheels fills the air as the eyes of the Buddha look out from above a large white washed dome. A peaceful and spiritual energy emanates over the plaza. It was here that I first experienced the other, more authentic, side of Nepal.
26: Later in the week, I ventured even farther outside of Kathmandu to Chitwan National Park. Chitwan is located in the Terai, or lowlands of Nepal, about six hours southwest of Kathmandu. A beautiful river flows through the park surrounded by fields of eight foot high white elephant grass. From the banks of the river, one can see off into the foothills which eventually rise into the mighty Himalayas. While in Chitwan, I was able to check off an experience from my List of Things You Must do Before You Die. I rode an elephant. Although not the most physically comfortable form of transport, it was fantastic. Lumbering through the jungle on the back of an elephant is a surreal experience. The highlight of the safari, besides the actual riding of the elephant, was spotting two one-horned rhinoceros. A visit to the zoo just cannot do justice to how awe inspiring it is to see animals in their natural habitat. The beauty of Chitwan did not come without a price though. Having just come off the monsoon season, the lowlands are hot and humid. Truthfully, I do not remember the last time I was that hot and with the frequent power cuts, there was often not even a working ceiling fan to offer reprieve. I am now back in Kathmandu, fighting past the rickshaws and hustlers. My stay here shall be brief as tomorrow I fly off to Everest to experience what life is like on the rooftop of the world.
28: A Walk in the Clouds | An adventure into the Solu Khumbu begins long before a glimpse of Everest is even possible. It begins at the Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu where dozens of North Face clad tourists say their final prayers before boarding a dubious looking twin otter headed for Lukla. Staring out the plane’s windows, one is not sure whether to be mesmerized by the beautiful scenery or to be petrified at its close proximity. Thirty minutes into the flight, the plane appears to be diving into the side of a mountain. Then a short inclined strip of pavement suddenly appears. As the wheels safely hit the runway, the plane erupts in applause. From Lukla, the physical journey to Everest begins. I set off on an eight day ascent with my trusty Nepalese guide, Pramod, who also wonderfully carried all of our belongings. A typical day consisted of anywhere from three to nine hours of hiking on a trail that winded both up, down, and completely around the surrounding peaks. For the first two days of the trek, the trail followed a gushing river surrounded by pine tree covered hills striped with slender cascading waterfalls. The scenery was breathtaking although the snow capped Himalayas in the distance were often hiding behind the clouds. We spent a day acclimatizing in Namche Bazaar before continuing on our journey. The next two days brought hour long switchbacks and seemingly endless stone staircases that went both up and down the mountains. Although the downhill sections gave my lungs a much needed rest, it inevitably resulted in only longer uphill stretches to our next destination at 14,465 feet, Dingboche. Although at an elevation associated with mountain peaks in the United States, we were simply standing in the foothills looking up.
32: After Dingboche, the elevation really starts kicking in and downhill stretches are merely a memory of the past. The next day brought with it the challenge of climbing up the terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier, otherwise known as a massive uphill boulder field. After countless breaks to catch my breath we finally arrived at Lobuche. I woke up early the next morning hoping to catch some mountain views before the clouds set in, but instead I was greeted by snow. We delayed our departure by about two hours waiting for visibility to improve. As we neared the top of the pass at 16,728 feet, I could just about see the ground beneath my feet and Pramod in front of me. Then the booming started. At first I thought it was thunder, but I soon realized that thunder made very little sense in our situation. The booming was avalanches. Given the low visibility, I had no idea where the peaks were in comparison to us or just how close the avalanche chutes were to the trail. There was no choice but to continue on. After two hours of battling through the snow, we reached Gorak Shep where I was greeted in the lodge by about half a dozen other trekkers huddled around a furnace drying off their snow soaked clothes. I spent the rest of the day doing just the same.
33: The snow had prevented us from reaching Everest Base Camp, but the following morning still brought with it hopes of a clear sunrise from Kala Pattar, an 18,000 foot peak claiming to offer the best views of Everest short of an actual summit expedition. Our lodge was the first group out that morning at 4 am meaning that our guides had the wonderful task of breaking trail. Headlamps on, we began a zig zagging path up through the steep snow field. I honestly felt like I was summitting Everest although I know that I was no where close. About an hour into the adventure the sky started to lighten, and the panorama slowly began to show its face. Ama Dablam was the first to catch the morning sun’s rays. All but the very top of Everest remained shyly hidden behind the clouds while Nuptse took center stage. Slowly the clouds parted from Everest exposing the massive black pyramid. Interestingly enough, from the angle we were viewing the mountains, Nuptse actually looks taller. As the sun peaked out from behind Everest, Pumori caught the sun rays and illuminated the valley with its reflecting light creating a 360 degree view of the Himalayas including the superstars Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, Ama Dablan, Pumori, and countless others. With the valley awash in sunlight, I continued on my way up Kala Pattar stopping nearly every 50 steps to catch my breath. After a total of eight days of trekking, I reached the summit of Kala Pattar at 18,192 feet, still just in the shadow of Everest
36: When backpacking through South America, I fell in love with Ecuador, a small country often overlooked by travellers interested in the more famous sites of neighboring Peru. Now, I find myself falling in love with Nepal, another small country often overlooked by travellers drawn immediately to the massive subcontinent of India. In my experience, these small low-profile countries often offer the most to discover, and Nepal has proved a case in point. After over five weeks traversing the country, the list of places I long to visit has only lengthened. | Good Things Come in Small Packages
37: For my final Nepalese adventure, I decided to head to Pokhara and relax on the shores of the Phewa Tal, a sparkling lake nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. As I boarded the bus in Kathmandu, I quickly realized that this would indeed be an unforgettable adventure. There in the middle of the aisle stood the most disgruntled toursit I have ever encountered. In skin tight red jeans and a white tank top, she did not exactly match her surroundings. Before the bus even left the station, her list of complaints was a mile long. Apparently the air vents were not working properly and the smell of the bus was absolutely disgusting. As the bus began to inch its way through the morning traffic of Kathmandu, our disgruntled tourist quickly transformed into a paranoid conspiracy theorist. As we came to a stand still in the most disorganized traffic jam I have ever seen, she began a shouting match with the driver convinced that our bus was not actually going to Pokhara. She insisted that we all had been tricked into boarding the wrong bus so that the company could run away with our money. Her concerns grew so great that when the driver refused to pay her any mind, she decided to call the police who also paid her no mind. The highlight of this exchange was her ending plea, “What do you mean there is nothing you can do? SAVE US!” Unfortunately for her, the police never came, but the traffic did begin to clear. Outside of Kathmandu, the road began to wind around the foothills of the Himalayas. The scenery was fantastic, but the roads were anything but. Most stretches of road were so narrow that only one vehicle could pass at a time leading to a dangerous game of chicken with oncoming traffic at nearly every turn. It was at this point in the journey that my favorite passenger decided she urgently needed to use the bathroom. As we passed a roadside cafe, she pounded and pleaded for the driver to stop. The bus continued a few hundred feet until we were clear of the cafe, and then stopped. The driver explained to her that if it really was an emergency she could just squat down next to the bus. As you can imagine, she found this completely unacceptable and refused to get out. This game continued passed three more roadside cafes, leaving the driver in stitches over his brilliant form of payback. As entertaining as the bus ride turned out to be, I was thankful when we finally arrived at our destination. Pokhara is only 120 miles from Kathmandu, but because of traffic and road conditions, the journey typically takes over eight hours. That is an average speed of 15 miles an hour, just slightly faster than a bicycle. By the time we arrived in town, the afternoon clouds had already rolled in masking the snow capped peaks that lay in the distance. From my hotel window the next morning, I watched as the first rays of sunlight hit the snowcapped peaks of the Annapurna Range iluminating what had been hidden the day before. Reaching above 8000 meters, their beauty rivaled that of Everest.
38: I spent my first two days in Pokhara lazily walking along the shores of the lake before I ventured into the hills for a few days of yoga and meditation. I enrolled in a three day introductory hatha yoga course expecting to do some exalted warriors and downward dogs. At the time, I was unaware that traditional hatha yoga was not exactly the yoga to which I was accustomed. The sessions began with a series of breathing exercises that required repetitively sucking in your abdomen while forcing air out of alternating nostrils. Fifteen minutes later and rather light headed, we were on all fours breathing out like a lion with our tongues out. It was only after these warm up exercises that the real fun began. I have always viewed yoga as a way to stretch and relax, but in this course it was apparently all about the cardio. After learning a sequence of eleven postures, the instructor took his stance as drill seargant. Standing in front of us, stop watch in hand, he called out the the number of each posture in sequence at rapid fire speed. When the timer buzzed thirteen minutes later we were all dripping with sweat. After a two minute cool down, we entered a posture I was more familiar with and were then told to hold it for three minutes without moving. This time endurance was apparently the goal. Although not exactly the relaxing experience I was expecting, it was indeed a good workout. As my travels in Nepal draw to a close, I find myself longing for more time. Nepal is a beautiful country full of history, culture, and breathtaking scenery. It is a country that I have come to love and am hopeful to return to one day.
43: India is a demanding country with a strong national identity that does not bend for outsiders. As a tourist, one must conform in order to survive. This requires first and foremost a wardrobe change. No matter how loose fitting or modest you think your clothing is, unless you had it made in India, it is not up to par. The women will stare you down, and the men will verbally harass you. The first step in assimilation is therefore a visit to the local fabric store followed by a trip to your neighborhood tailor. A week and ten dollars later, you will be outfitted with an appropriate Indian suit consisiting of flowing cotton pants and a knee length tunic blouse. At this point, the women will begin staring less, although the men will continue with their harrassment. The next step requires collecting the approproate set of accessories: jingling anklets, two wrist fulls of bangles, and a bindi. At this point, the women will start to be intrigued by you, instead of offended. Learn a few phrases in Hindi and perfect your head wobble, the universal response to most questions, and you will have an in with the women. Unfortunately the men will continue to harass you, but at least now the women will be on your side. I am proud to say that after three weeks in India, I definitely have some women on my side. I now own two Indian suits made by my local tailor and am slowly collecting the necessary accessories. Although my Hindi is rather basic, my head wobble is nearing perfection. | Assimilation
44: Decoding the Education System | Amitpal looked up at me exhausted from his failed attempts to answer my cordial questions. He picked up the Level 5 English Course Reader and pleaded, “Mam, please. Reading now.” Glancing at the length of the text and the level of vocabulary, I was doubtful that this was an appropriate choice. Although I had yet to extract a full, coherent sentence from him in English, he was adamant that it was time to read. As he opened the book, I took a deep breath preparing myself for a brutal decoding battle. To my surprise, Amitpal began accurately reading the text on his own. Intrigued as to how one develops reading proficiency before basic speaking skills, I asked him to tell me what happened in the story. He looked at me completely bewildered, and there I discovered my answer. Amitpal had no idea whatsoever that he was supposed to derive meaning from the text. He did not actually know how to read, he knew how to decode. This missing link was by no means unique to Amitpal. At school, every student in the room reads from the same grade level course reader. The emphasis is on pronunciation and speed. Students are subsequently taught to memorize the spellings and pronunciations of the words, not the meanings. Following each story, the students answer a set of questions that basically require them to find the corresponding sentence in the text and fill in the missing word. At no point are the students required to retell or derive meaning. Even more interesting is how they learn to decode. Typically this skill is based on phonics, but whenever Amitpal came to an unfamiliar word, he read the letter names out loud, not the letter sounds. He had been taught to memorize spellings and that is how he read. Thus my mornings have been spent convincing students that letters make sounds and that the purpose of reading is to derive meaning. Ideally, the students should be reading a much lower level text until their comprehension ability improves, but this is not an option. The students will only read from their designated course reader. Anything else would be considered absurd. I am therefore challenged to bring the text to them. We spend days building vocabulary and background knowledge before even thinking about opening the course reader. The students play round after round of memory and simon says with all of the new words, while I draw countless pictures to add context to the unillustrated text. By the time we open the course reader, the students are relieved to be back in their comfort zone. This sentiment does not last long, though, for as soon as we finish the text, I promptly ask them to tell me what happened in the story. This is when the frustration returns. We reread the story several times focusing on the paragraphs one at a time until the students understand what the words are trying to tell them. It is a laborious process, but each week the students become more accustomed to my routine and the expectation that reading must include comprehesion.
46: The latter half of my day is spent teaching computer skills as part of a women’s empowerment program. I have ten students from two distinctively different courses of study at school. Five of the students are in their early teens and have been attending school since they were little. Their computer skills are comparable to mine, and their attitude is one of privilege. They complete the assignments simply to appease me, but are rather uninterested in the content. The other five students are in their late teens, but have only attended school for one or two years. Their computer skills are minimal, yet their attitude is one of gratitude. During our first class, I discovered that many of them had never even used a computer before, so we began with the basics. First, there was the mouse, a rather tricky device if you are not used to it. Then, came the keyboard which for them is like a giant word search. Now, they are learning to change the font, style, and size of text as well as how to insert pictures and word art. It is during my hour with these five young women that I find meaning in my day. They come to class full of excitement and eager to learn. With them, I truly feel that I am making a difference, even if it is as simple as teaching them how to use Word.
48: A Tale of Three Wars | Every morning Amit comes running up the stairs in his classically spastic manner. His shirt is usually untucked and his hair disheveled, but he is always the first student to arrive and has yet to miss a class. Amit is in his third year of school, yet five weeks ago he still could not read a three letter word. My supervisor had assigned him the task of spelling color names. When first asked to spell the color black, Amit very confidently began with the letter S. We obviously had a long way to go. Amit and I began by learning the color names through identification and memory games while simultaneously diving head first into an intensive series of phonics lessons moving from reciting letter sounds to building simple three letter words. Last week, Amit proficiently read his first story in English and then correctly spelled ten color names. My supervisor had assumed Amit would never have the concentration necessary to memorize his spellings and was fascinated when Amit correctly spelled all ten color names. Although she sat in on my lessons with Amit nearly every day, she still did not see the connection between his understanding of phonics and his ability to spell. Amit and I had courageously battled memorization with phonics and won. With my supervisor, I have simply learned to be patient. | The War on Memorization
49: The War on Beratement | Sandeep is only three years old, but when I met him he had already been so broken down by others that he would not lift his eyes to meet mine. He did not speak or engage with the other children. He simply sat quietly hunched over on the floor. For the most part Sandeep was ignored, except for the occasional beratement he recieved for not engaging like the other children. Everyday I chose to sit next to him, and I quietly encouraged him to participate. I handed him flashcards he had never been allowed to touch and repeated each word specifically to him. As the days passed, Sandeep began to sit up straighter. Although the women would still occasionally berate him, I quickly countered each attack with positive attention. Sandeep now comes to daycare every day with a smile on his face and engages in all of the activities to the best of his ability. The women are amazed by the transformation, yet they are bewildered that he will talk to me and not to them. They still do not realize that their negative attitude causes his disengagement. I am therefore required to cultivate patience and hope that eventually I will serve as a positive example to them as well.
50: Every morning I slip into a brightly colored salwar, carefully place a bindi between my eyebrows, and stack on half a dozen bangles. I dress as Indian as possible, but my whiteness continues to shine through. To those that I meet, I am the United States. I represent every stereotype and preconcieved notion that they have about Americans. I am assumed to be rich, ungrateful, self-centered, and promiscuous. Unfortunately, I must either accept this image or enter into battle. So every morning I put on my salwar, and I greet the women I pass with a few basic phrases in Hindi while keeping my eyes downcast from the men. I lose part of myself as I delve deeper into India. I dress conservatively and walk humbly showing gratitude to those that let me into their lives. Through my volunteer committment, I have built relationships and gained the respect of many members of the community, but to those that do not personally know me, I still represent all the negative stereotypes that they hold of the United States. Battles have been won, but the war is never ending. | The War on the American Stereotype
52: After seven seemingly endless weeks, my last day of volunteering had finally arrived. A celebration was planned in my honor that included an obnoxious soundtrack of Justin Bieber and Shakira hits interspersed with the occasional Hindi song. We were meant to joyfully dance the afternoon away while enjoying the two kilogram chocolate cake I was obligated to purchase for the event. Walking to school that afternoon, I was filled with excitement, not necessarily for the party or the cake, but rather for the two weeks of travel that awaited me. My five favorite students did not exactly share in my enthusiasm. Before I could even set down the cake, they had encircled me insisting that I was to stay in India forever. Apparently, we were best friends now, so there really was no choice. If I left, they would simply miss me too much. As Justin Bieber began to drown out their pleas, I thought back on all of the afternoons we had spent together. We had learned some computer theory and had experimented with the basics of Miscrosoft Office. We had mastered the keyboard and learned to control the mouse. These were all critical skills for them to develop in order to be successful in an increasingly technological world. Yet, there was something of much greater importance that they developed over the course of all those afternoons together, friendship. Each of those young women holds a special place in my heart, not for the computer skills that they mastered, but for the memories that we shared and the lessons that they taught me. | Saying Goodbye
53: First, there was Ranjana. Ranjana taught me that sometimes you need to slow down and enjoy the moment. As the ring leader of the group, she was infamous for delaying the start of class by simply insisting that I sit down for few mintues to relax. As soon as I was on the floor, she knew she was in charge. She asked question after question about my life in America until her English was exhausted. At that point, she would simply start talking in Hindi and naming random objects around the room. When she was successful, she easily cut our lecture time in half. Although there were days that I insisted we continue with our lesson as planned, there were also days when I found it more valuable to sit down and let Ranjana take over. Although we were not learning computer theory, we were learning so much more about each other. | Next, there was Rinki. Rinki taught me how to handle my frustrations. It was a very simple procedure involving a little smirk and a head wobble. When the younger girls in class had me at my wits end, I would look down at her. Totally unaffected by their disrespect, she would simply smirk at me and wobble her head. Somehow, this always made me feel better. The younger girls, who had successfully memorized all of their scrited computer definitions from school, felt that there was nothing left to learn. Their arrogance bothered me, but Rinki could have cared less. She was listening and that was what mattered to her. So with a smirk and a head wobble, we moved on with our lesson.
54: Jyotika, the quirky one of the group, taught me that it was okay to break from the norm sometimes, even in Inida where one can feel like individuality is neither respected nor welcomed. In her own small ways, Jyotika was an individual. Every day when I greeted her and asked her how she was, she responded with an ethusiastic, " I am excellent." Now this might not seem like a ground breaking response, but one must consider that every single other person in India will give you the same very scripted response, "I am fine, thank you." Jyotika always let her personality shine through showing me that perhaps even India could be a bit quirky at times. | Then there was Anu. Anu was the student to whom I felt the closest. Perhaps it was our proximity in age or simply the fact that she shared the same name as my best friend from high school. Either way, from the very beginning I felt a special connection to her. Of the five girls, she was the nurturing mother of the group, and like a mother she always seemed to know how you were feeling. She taught me that it was okay to show weakness. On days that I was overcome with frustraion, she was there, like a true friend, ready to offer comfort and support. Anu was the shoulder that I leaned on.
55: Finally, there was Nirmla, the quietest of the bunch. Nirmla taught me that sometimes relationships take time. During our first few weeks together, she barely said a word, even to the other students. When everyone else was rushing to be first on the computer, Nirmla just waited patiently for her turn. This often meant that her time was cut short, but she never complained. As the weeks went on, Nirmla slowly started to come out of her shell with the other girls. Then, with just a few days left of class, she suddenly began joining in on the daily proclamations of "I will miss you so so very much" and " You, me, best friends." I was startled at first by her new found confidence, but I soon realized that she just needed time. She came to our final class with tears already welling in her eyes. Although I did not realize it at first, our class probably meant more to her than to any of the other girls. She left not only with a basic set of computer skills, but also with confidence. | As much as the girls insisted that I needed to stay in India forever, they knew that inevitably we had to go our separate ways. As we all hugged goodbye, I could only hope that each of them was leaving with as many beautiful memories of our time together as I was. And if not, at least they now knew how to use a mouse.
58: So ends this adventure,,, with more adventures yet to come ...