17 September, 2011

The Second Storm (aka Whirlwind 2), Day 1: Prayer at Tumkur

Our journey to Tumkur combined our visit to the TVS Academy School with a family gathering at our host and coordinator of the TVS Academy’s Montessori school, Ambika Srinivasamurthy’s house. There were a few extra family members traveling with us, which turned out to be a few more than our little Hyundai could manage. So a few of us left directly in the car, leaving the others us to the services of an auto to Magic Stick, followed by a bus to Tumkur.

It was a bit funny that the bus crew got there first by a pretty good margin. Or at least, we were surprised. In the car it felt like we were making good enough time, though I suppose we did stop for Café Coffee Day, and Murali was driving, as always, ever so carefully, cautiously, and with constant awareness and fear of the unpredictable drivers and their cars that surrounded us.

And I’m sure at some point on our trip, though we didn’t realize it at the time, that one of the ridiculous bus horns we’d heard go “doodly-doodly-doodle-doo-doo!” (click here for the real sound) with added doppler-effect fashion was our cousins and mummy rollin on by.

We arrived in Tumkur late afternoon/early evening. Just before sunset, we headed over to the Sree Siddaganga Mutt to witness the evening prayer, led by the 104-year-old Dr. Sree Sree Sree Shivakumara Swamiji himself. Swamiji has been running the Mutt for the last 70 years of it’s more than 500 total years of operation. In addition to founding the Sree Siddaganga Education Society, he has expanded the reach of the Mutt to provide free education, food, and shelter from the 200 students it had when he started, to over 8,500 students today.

His story is both inspiring and epic, as he has worked tirelessly for his entire life for the benefit of the less fortunate. He has given special attention to denounce and attempt to move beyond the caste system, which appends a particular social status to individuals based on their background. In order to accomplish this, he has offered his goodwill and assistance to all those in need, regardless of caste. He has fed three meals a day to his entire student body, and additionally to any hungry souls who request it, supplied purely through food donations from nearby farmers. He started out walking door to door asking for food, and after many years his efforts have garnered the respect and support to prompt unsolicited donations from farmers and families alike. But even after all this time and work, the centenarian still toils tirelessly at a pace that would make even the most devoted CEO fall to his knees and weep, as Swamiji works 18 hour days to manage his numerous projects and provide basic needs to over 10,000 people daily. More about his origins and work can be read in this article from the Deccan Herald Spectrum.

Back to us, our experience at the prayer has been described in vivid fashion by our very own Kat O’Connor in case you need a quick refresher. There was a crowd of thousands of boys, all dressed in red cloth with three white stripes marked across their foreheads, praying in the streets of the school. We arrived somewhat in the middle of it, and proceeded to take pictures and video tape them, as white people (and Pras) do (though Pras’s pictures mostly turned out blurry and we didn’t end up using them).

Of course they became curious and proceeded to mob us as soon as the prayer ended. It was a bit funny as we failed to notice that we stood directly in the path of Swamiji and his pedestal, where he proceeds after the prayer to sit, write, and receive his admirers for thanks and blessings. So we couldn’t understand why the kids that stood around us, near this rope fence leading to an altar at the end of the suddenly formed pathway through the magically parted crowd, were being scolded and beaten to get out of the way. We, meanwhile, had no one to look out for or after us, so it was only at the last moment when Swamiji came barreling down on us that we realized it, just barely able to leap off the tracks into the safely waiting arms of our newly adoring fans.

There were seriously, literally, exaggeratedly, millions of children reaching to shake our hands all at the same time, some even multiple times. Personally, I tend to walk slowly and patiently, and I became left slightly behind the rest of our group as we went to leave. At one point, completely mobbed and nearly hopeless, I had to pull a (gentle) spin move à la american football to loose my arm and make my way towards the waiting car. Once I got inside the car I looked around, and it was literally completely surrounded by people, watching us, some tapping on the glass, smiling and waving, but all for reasons, I’m sure, no one could really explain.

The next day we would visit the TVS Academy School and then return here, but under completely different circumstances. That tale is forthcoming, if it’s not out within a week please, pleeeease feel free to send me hate email (or friendly reminders =).

15 August, 2011

How I Lost All The Flips; Indian Independence

One of the last realizations of our trip was that while we arrived with 6 Flip cameras, we flew back with none. But first a note in honor of Indian Independence Day, which happens to be August 15th.

Today India celebrates 64 years of Independence from British occupation. It's easy to forget that a culture so ancient can be a country so new to self rule. Many of India's challenges are put in perspective when compared to the United State's 64th year, 1840. Then again, Japan became democratic around the same time India did and has certainly addressed social issues much faster. And technically Canada has only been independent from the British for 29 years, so the time frame doesn't completely excuse the social problems that persist.

The remnants of British rule can be seen everywhere, from culture to geography to, most notably, education. The needs of the British were for Indians to be proficient and educated, but reluctant to question authority. And thus the educational systems they instituted focused on standardized memorization, aiming to produce identical students rewarded for being a willing part of the system. Discipline wasn't just emphasized, it was a core belief. Teachers were not to be questioned, rules were not to be broken. Success was more about doing what you were told than producing independent or creative thoughts. Naturally, this produced citizens much more likely to accept the political system than challenge it.

Despite being 6 decades removed from occupation, the education system is largely unchanged. Very little of what is taught in school embraces the wealth, tradition, and history of India in a meaningful way. Students may memorize related facts, but almost none of the rich educational methods of ancient India are present in modern schooling. The inherent wealth of knowledge India developed from thousands of years interacting with the land is essentially absent from their schooling. You're more likely to find Ayurvedic math being taught in a tutoring center in the US than an Indian classroom. Of course some schools, like the TVS school in Tumkur, are challenging the current model, but there are very few of them. The best comparison would be if a student's SAT score not only mattered more than their entire high school performance, but single handedly determined which career path a student could choose.

The process of connecting rural India to valuable education seems to require redefining schooling to include and celebrate the knowledge passed down from generation to generation. A future farmer needs little of what is on the normal 10th grade exams, but they would certainly benefit from an education that incorporated agriculture, holistic medicine, basic financial understanding, and global exposure.


But back to the Flips. In an effort to film our experiences before Jessica's arrival, we acquired six Flip cameras. I bought 3 at Costco figuring I could return them upon arrival. The first one went missing when we repacked in La Verne days before our flight. But that still left us with 5 so we felt pretty good.

Our Flips were extremely useful in Europe and during our first few days in India, leading to the numerous videos available on the Kudugal site. And they took on special significance when we shared them with the kids of Kudugal, who went crazy playing with, learning about, and fighting over the cameras.

Despite handing our cameras over to countless kids, we returned from our first three day whirlwind tour with all but one of of our cameras. The only troubling thing is that Flip has some footage not suitable for public viewing, and we can only hope it's in the heart of rural India and will never be found by anyone with Internet access.

Because of the number of cameras we had that looked the same, there were few times when we were able to do a complete inventory check. Rather, we each usually accounted for one, not knowing if it was actually the same one we had earlier. Our second whirlwind trip led to the disappearance of another camera, and to this day we don't have the slightest clue where it went. Despite the losses, coming away with three of our cameras wasn't a complete disaster. And then our last day happened.

Virtually every morning in India I woke up to my mom telling me that I couldn't leave things laying around or they would disappear. It was never clear if the reason was because she didn't trust the maid, was fearful of robbery, or believed in ghosts. But she was persistent that things left out didn't last long.

So for all but one day I had left my Iphone and the Flips inside a cabinet. On our final day, in an effort to get a jump start on packing (a mistake I'll never make again), I laid those items out on the bed so I could put them in my backpack. But then we were summoned to our final shopping trips, and I had to leave them where they were.

When we returned, the house was full of activity in preparation for our departure. Tony and I had a last minute checklist of experiences that we desperately wanted to accomplish, from drinking beers wrapped in newspaper to trying street food to visiting the once famous Dosa Camp. We made it back home just before it was time to head to the airport, and everything that was laying out got packed in bags and we were on our way.

At some point during the long car ride to the airport, I realized I didn't remember packing my Iphone. That led to a search of all our carry ons that confirmed that not only did I not have my phone, but we were Flipless. A call back to 61 didn't turn anything up, and so I boarded the plane wondering how I could have possibly lost 6 Flip cameras on a trip where I was always looking for them.

After landing back home, we did find that the phone and some flips were found in a cabinet. True to my mom's mysterious warning, they had changed locations with no one knowing exactly how or why. A cousin was able to unlock my phone and use it herself, and the 3 remaining Flips were sent with a cousin of mine that was flying to the US the following week. However, only 1 of those can actually be returned at Costco.

As interesting as the footage that we took was, the possibilities of where the cameras ended up are far more intriguing. None of us has any idea where they could be, and if we ever see them again, I'm sure the footage on them would be well worth all the trouble.

01 August, 2011

India: Unsafe for Women


One of the major news stories during our trip was that TrustLaw released a survey of experts that found that India was the 4th most unsafe country for women. While everyone recognizes women's rights is a major issue in the country, it was jarring news to hear that only Afghanistan, Congo, and Pakistan were less safe for women, as judged by 213 experts in the field. For a country that is trying so hard to be first world, it's a pretty damning judgement of how half the country is treated. And perhaps more troubling is that India is home to about 1/7 of the world's population. Which means roughly 1/7 of the world's women live in conditions less safe than Somalia. When the world's largest democracy comes up so short in basic welfare, there are a lot of questions to answer.

The main reasons for the low ranking are human trafficking, female foeticide, and child marriage. It is estimated that 100 million people in India are involved in human trafficking, mainly women and girls. Perhaps even more troubling is that most of that occurs within India's borders, which is a departure from our usual notion of trafficking. And perhaps the saddest element is the trafficking leads to approximately 3 million prostitutes, 40 percent of which are children. Other forms of trafficking include forced labor and forced marriage.

Female foeticide is the practice of aborting fetuses once they are found to be female. While in India I did notice that a law was being debated to outlaw abortions after a certain point of pregnancy. At first it seemed counter-intuitive in the fight for women's rights, but that point in pregnancy (which I have since forgotten) was when couples can find out the gender of their baby. Regardless, people are trying not to have girls, which has caused there to be only 914 girls under age six for every 1000 boys, the lowest ratio in a long time.

Forced marriage, and dowry related problems, comprise the other biggest safety concern for women. Roughly 40 percent of women in India are married before the age of 18, and obviously many are not by choice. And despite dowries being illegal, they still persist, and often lead to physical and mental torture of women that too often end in suicide or murder.

All of these depressing statistics seemed to be proved by the local media, as the major news story virtually every day of our first week in India was rape. Whether it was police suspected of raping and killing a girl, or a father being accused of allowing hundreds of men to rape his daughter, there were gruesome tales of mistreatment of young women. But more alarming was that these stories invoked outrage only because they received so much media attention, reminding us all that there must be countless situations that don't get reported.

But for all the damning numbers, this perception of India didn't exactly match what we experienced. In the city I saw more young women expressing themselves and their independence than ever before. Whether through clothing, career choice, or marrying later in life, the youth in India seems to be moving in the right direction. And yet for India to turn up so poor in the world's eyes illustrates the huge disconnect between the cities and the rural areas we were trying to explore.

All that said, I don't think any of my female cousins or family members feel particularly unsafe. And I don't believe Jess or Kat experienced safety related fears. The closest we came to a questionable situation is when we stopped to buy some alcohol, and Kat and I remained in the car because the store was deemed "not a decent place for girl."

To tie this back to our project, one would think education would be one way of combatting the issue. Particularly education in rural areas. If women are in fact getting married so young, there is a limited window to expose them to the ideas and concepts that can lead to empowerment and social change. Many of the stories we heard about communities addressing their problems centered around women coming together. In short, it seemed clear that the best avenue to change was by assisting women, because that in turn leads to better lives for their children and husbands. In villages and farms, women often bear the brunt of caring and providing for the rest of the family. And yet for those women, so essential to their community's well-being, to face such safety concerns raises questions about how progress can occur.

This issue pertains to our trip mostly in the timing of the news, but it definitely shaped the lens through which we viewed certain problems. For example, one school we visited cited teacher turnover as a major problem. The reason was that most of the teachers were women, and their career is always secondary in the household. So if the husband lost his job or was transferred, the women had to follow, even if teaching was the better opportunity.

So the direction we are moving in (to be explained in much more detail in future posts) is teacher training. And a large driving force behind that is trying to address some of the root causes behind the treatment of women, albeit in a small way.

Over the past 10 years, India has made major strides in their global perception. But the idea that there are only three countries that are more dangerous for women shook up our perspective.

For more information on efforts geared at fighting prostitution, please visit ASSET India Foundation, an organization started by a friend of ours that seeks to end the cycle of sex trafficking through education and technology.

21 July, 2011

Inching Forward in Time

this is a monkey
OK, I'm back from Pollachi. As in I just now got back. Moments ago. To here. Here as in Bangalore. And just as in today. July 21, 2011. Either that or I'm writing about something that happened a while ago.

Either way, I took the train back after taking the bus there. I slept almost the whole way, my usual travel technique, though I woke up several times to the guy walking down the aisle offering "Chai, chai, coffee, chai". It got me thinkin "chai-a chai-a chai-a chai-a chaing". And then the biryani guy tried to feed me.

"Sir, Biryani?"

"No I'm ok, thanks."

"No? Not hungry?"

"No, I'm ok. Thanks though."

"Where are you going?"

"Bangalore."

"It is far, you should eat something."

"No thanks, I'm ok."

i'm on a train wheeeee
"ok."

Then, some amount of time later, which passed quickly because i was asleep, a box of biryani fell in my lap.

"Sir, biryani sir. Please, eat."

"Ok, thanks."

So I ate some pretty delicious biryani, probably the best I had in my time in India (er, so far), and passed back out. The next time I woke up it was the guy in the berth above me, a bed suspended over my sleeping bench.
chai, chai, coffee, chai

"You are going to Bangalore?"

"Yeah."

"I think we're here."

"Oh, thanks. This isn't my stop though, I'm going to Bangalore City. It should be soon, thanks."

Turns out my stop was about 2 minutes later. Awesome that he woke me up or I'd have missed it. My ticket was to a city beyond Bangalore, Krishnarajapura or something. It was booked through a travel agent by Sam's dad, who has selected the "print and deliver my ticket to the front door via two guys on a scooter" option on the online booking system, I assume. For some reason going beyond Bangalore was the only option available to book, even though the train was pretty empty. Which was nice since I was able to avoid what was technically my uncomfortable looking seat, an upper sleeping berth with no windows and little headroom.

So I got off, looked around Bangalore Central Station, aka "Magic Stick", aka "Majestic", saw the biryani guy out stretching his legs ("Hi boss!"), saw some monkeys, called Pras to let him know that I saw some monkeys, and that I could make our meeting later that day, and wandered off to find an auto.

A lazy american, always appreciative of convenience, I went with the first auto guy that asked me, who had approached from across the street when he saw my white self looking around, and who was literally two feet in front of the next auto guy wanting my business. Too slow though. So I ignored the signs I didn't quite understand that said 'Prepaid Auto Tickets Here' with the invisible subtitle 'So Auto Guys Don't Rip You Off'. I got in the auto and noticed the meter didn't read anything. It seemed old and broken or something, analog like the displays on gas pumps in India, and in the American boonies. I didn't think much of it until I got to my destination and the fare came to exactly 300 rupees. Oh man, six dollars and fifty cents, that's way more than it should have cost there's no way I'm paying that, I gotta argue with this guy, oh wait, no, that's fine, I'll just pay him, I thought.

Big mistake, apparently.

this is the guy
Word soon spread around Bangalore, and beyond (at least as far as Tumkur) that I'd been bamboozled by an auto driver, had paid 300 rupees for a 100 rupee ride. Hahahahaha, what a silly guy! Sheesh I felt like a fool. But I felt better when I realized that the features of that particular auto weren't quite standard: air conditioning, foot massages, complimentary caviar. And it got me home, which was my main goal at the time. Booooyaaaaaaaaa.

I wandered back through 4th block after calling Pras who came and found me and we got set for our impending meeting with Pratibha Auntie...

More coming soon, I swear, I've already written some of it.