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?"


"It is far, you should eat something."

"No thanks, I'm ok."

i'm on a train wheeeee

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?"


"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.

14 July, 2011

The Blog Goes On

I've been noticeably absent from the Blog lately, and for a variety of reasons. My computer crashing had something to do with it, but the real reason goes a bit deeper. Given the number of places we visited, we were trying to process information in real time so that we could use it to shape our other visits. So there wasn't as much time to record what we were seeing, because we needed to understand what we just saw and how that altered what we wanted to see at the next stop. And counter-intuitively, processing things that fast required designated time away from thinking about our trip. So, I left the blog in Tony and Kat's capable hands while I focused on coordinating the last few meetings, discussing topics with family members, and trying to let ideas come together. Luckily, our cousins were all willing to join us for a drink when our brains needed a break.

But now we're back in the States, recovered from any jetlag, and almost completely repaired. I'm yet to make it to Scottsdale since my car decided to break down immediately after my return. Thanks to a long story not worth telling, I'm waiting for a radiator to be sent from Arizona to L.A. so it can get put in my car and I can drive back home, a place I haven't been in 41 days.

Our trip may be over, but the ideas and experiences are just starting to be shared. Currently, the blog is only updated to halfway through our trip. We'll continue to update the blog, recapping our experiences in roughly chronological order, with some occasional detours to discuss what those experiences mean for our future business plans.

Jessica arrived on the same day Tony returned from Pollachi, completing the team we had assembled. Armed with Jessica's professional camera equipment, we set out on another whirlwind tour. We revisited Kudugal and Mysore, while adding a stop in Tumkur. The footage is yet to be seen, but the pictures are available on our site.

In short, the camera changed everything. Especially the combination of a blonde girl and a camera. Everywhere we went, Jessica drew a crowd. The crowd usually just stood and stared at her, wondering what she was filming. But it also drew reactions from the kids that our Flip videos could not.

The first thing we did after getting Jessica and Tony is meet with Pratibha aunty, who had recommended that we meet with Sister Celestine, Sister Theresa, and the Center for Sustainable Development. We rehashed our experiences, asked questions, and got her advice about where to focus our future efforts.

From there we headed straight to a family member's house for dinner and beers, before preparing to head to Tumkur the next day. As an educator, Tumkur is where I learned the most, so be sure to check out the upcoming entry.

09 July, 2011


written a couple of weeks ago in Pollachi...

The monsoon is outside, I’m inside, dry, lying on a bed of coconut husk.

Pollachi is in the southern end of Tamilnadu, in a valley between two mountain ranges to the west and the east. The monsoon hits twice here, coming in from both directions.

Coconut palms thrive in this region, and are, by my witness, the most extensively farmed crop by far. They have a wide network of shallow roots so they collect and store water quickly from sudden downpours.

And the torrent continues outside.

Earlier today Sam and I were caught in the middle of it. We left her uncle’s house as he was trying to convince us of the “interestingness” of the family coconut husk mattress factory, which is actually probably interesting, and if we’d had time and will we would perhaps have toured interestedly, but the emphasis on “interesting” as not only its best but also its only descriptor inclined us to leave it for another day. Less gently I could say that Sam's absolute refusal to entertain the possibility and her loud claims of "It's not interesting! It's boring!" refuted only by her uncle's calm but deflated reclamation of "It's actually very interesting." dissuaded me slightly.

So we were on our way on the two block walk home, just talking about the unnecessarity of having a driver waiting for you in a car outside after you drive two blocks to see your brother whose house you can see from your doorstep, when the rain hit and we sprinted back to the car to dive into the dry back seat. Sam’s dad Ram came running out of the house to join us and we rode together in shelter back to the house where my body and shoes became soaked on the 12 foot awkwardly-through-the-confusingly-latched-gate walk to the house, even under the umbrella we shared.

From the roof I can see many similar, flat with full access, and efficiently drained as the water dumps down. I think it might be a good idea to catch it all and store it somewhere, but a full understanding of the current extent and the potential forgone alternatives eludes me. I should do some research.

We are living in a suburban community. Pollachi is a suburb of Coimbatore, and this house specifically is in a quiet neighbourhood of friendly folks and garlic salesmen with our family all within walking distance. Popping in for meals, planning events and negotiating their logistics to the unnecessary degree, sleeping in, and confusingly arguing about nothing at all combine to provide some entertainment and activity in the laid back, slow-paced atmosphere.

In two days here I’ve observed much, learning about family, education, weather, wildlife, politics, utilities, food (of course), and [fooling] around. It has been great.

And everything always seems to work out with the right environmental stimuli. Our minds are put at complete ease with a simple gaze across the densely packed landscape of trees and green. Relaxation is automatic as Pollachi prescribes double doses of chill pills to any and all. Worries melt away, the world seems right from here no matter what. All problems seem soluble and irrelevant. Morning coffee and afternoon tea keep you on just the right number of your toes. And pauses abound for introspection and reflection, easily and even unexpectedly arriving with a quick glance across the rooftops for a higher perspective.

A Kannadiga on Chennai

My conversation in Bangalore with an 'anonymous' Kannadiga on my plan to visit Chennai:

"Chennai is terrible!"


"Soooo many things."

"Name a few?"

"It is sooo hot, and sooo humid, you'll be sticky all the time. And the water is soooo bad, much worse than Bangalore. And the traffic, the traffic is much, much worse."

"I heard it was clean though, Wikipedia said it was one of the cleanest cities in India."

"Oh noooo, it is sooo dirty you would not believe it, it is just a terrible place. Why would you want to go there?"

"I have friends there, they want me to come visit."

"One thing you should know, everyone in Karnataka absolutely hates Tamilnadu."

02 July, 2011

Whirlwind 1 – Day 3: Vinayaka Gnana Vidya Shala, Mysore

Last issue of the Whirlwind 1 summary, second season out soon! Enjoy!

We arrived at Mysore late, looking everywhere and with Murali asking everyone we passed for the King’s Kourt Hotel. It had a large neon sign on the top, so we found it, unloaded our stuff, and checked in. They wanted to see my passport, I think because I’m Canadian and Canadian passports are famous for their beauty, but I didn’t have it so the desk clerk unfortunately missed out on an amazing experience.

We were later than expected, and had plans to meet some family for dinner at their house. Ever so polite, they had been waiting to eat until we came. Based on my experience here Kannadigas eat dinner fairly late, but it was after 10 when we finally made it to their house so I’m sure they were all very hungry (although my experience also tells me that people here are constantly eating, and I haven’t experienced hunger once in my time here, so hopefully they’d at least had tea or something recently.) The dinner was absolutely delicious.

Afterwards we went back to the hotel, got some Kingfisher Strongs, some Antiquity, and some Peter Scot from room service at almost American prices, and watched the India vs. West Indies cricket match until we passed out.

After breakfast we were met at the hotel by Mr. Jayaram, the secretary of the International Human Development and Upliftment Academy, the NGO that runs and funds the Vinayaka Gnana Vidya Shala School that we were visiting that day. He drove us about 20 km out of Mysore into the village of Mullur. The views of oxen pulling ploughs through the fields were enjoyable as we passed through several small villages before we came to the school.

The administrative staff were happy to meet with us. We were greeted with welcoming arms and cooperative minds, especially on the part of the head master, Madhusudan Rao, Mr. Jayaram, and Suresh, the administrative officer, who combined to answer any and all questions we had and told us the story and history of the school. It started in 1994 with a plea from the villages to Dr. Ajay Kumar for a legitimate source of education in the region. Along with his brother Amar, the two started the school with about 12 children and oversaw its growth and success to include over 400 students from 9 surrounding villages, and operating on a yearly budget of only about 15 lakhs.

The school has actively recruited students from the villages of Mullur, Gopalapura, Thibaiyanahundi, Beerihundi, Devagalli, Salhundi, Beerihundi, Mooganahundi, Yadahalli, and Dhanagalli, alerting parents to the availability, quality, and proximity of the education they offer. They boast a 90% attendance rate, and now accommodate almost all of the school aged kids in the local villages.

Many students have gone on to higher education institutes in Mysore, not only earning degrees but often bringing them back to the village to give back to their family and community through means such as agricultural engineering, resource management, and education.

One former student had even gone on to become a teacher at the school. We were happy to see him teaching the children maths after being inspired to give back so directly to the educational institution that had trained and nurtured him.

Another nice story we heard was of a girl who was excelling in the school and was offered placement at a private school in Mysore. After spending some time at that school, she decided that she preferred the education offered by Vinayaka Gnana Vidya Shala and opted to return to complete her studies there.

Vinayaka Gnana Vidya Shala School had initially offered free enrollment, but found that this detracted from the perceived credibility of the school. So they instituted a nominal fee of about 500 rupees. This conveyed both a sense of value and a sense of commitment to the parents, and remarkably increased enrollment.

The curriculum is not typical, as they emphasize creativity, art, gender equality, environmental awareness, yoga, and nonviolence. Physical discipline through the beating of children with sticks is not uncommon in Indian schools, but Vinayaka Gnana Vidya Shala achieve remarkable student discipline through their method of education. This is partly due to the eagerness of the students to learn, as they are grateful for the opportunity to get an education in an area that would likely otherwise be underserved by a small government school.

One shortcoming they told us about was their English language program. The head master himself was the only teacher they had with both the English speaking, reading, and writing skills to teach kids, and the time available to actually do so. Although several teachers had some skills in English, they lacked a venue in which they could practice conversation with either native or fluent English speakers.

After stepping in to every class at the school, from kindergarten through 10th standard, saying “Hi!”, introducing ourselves, listening to a couple songs by the kids, and saying bye, we took the kids’ lunch break to put together a short lesson in geometry.

Pras took the lead, basing a lesson on a brief description he’d read online about conveying hands-on understanding of the formula for the area of a circle. Geometry, and mathematics in general, are often taught in a context that not only lacks a connection to the real world but also fails to establish an intuitive understanding. Even such a physically relevant subject as geometry seems to frequently skip the part where students measure angles in nature, cut pieces of paper apart, move them around, and build awesome things using the beautiful principles of mathematics.

So Pras and Kat tackled a small part of this problem, using paper, compasses, protractors, razor blades, and hands to draw a circle, cut it out, rearrange it, and construct a rough rectangle with a length of half the circumference of the circle, and a height of its radius, giving an area of π*r*r, or πr², a.k.a. the area of a circle. It makes sense, but I’ve definitely never seen it before and it sure captivated the kids for those 45 minutes. The whole lesson was captured on some flips, so we should have a video of it at some point for you to see.

With that we were sent to the headmaster’s office, for tea, bananas, biscuits, and more bananas. We said our goodbyes and thanks and headed to the house of Dr. Ajay Kumar, one of the school’s benefactors who also runs a cancer research and treatment center in Mysore.

He almost literally lives in a palace. We had another amazing meal in his 150 year old massive, beautiful house formerly belong to the Maharaja and situated at the foothills of the local mountains adjacent to the famous and literally literal Mysore Palace. The doctor was not in but we met his wife and son, learned a little about the various projects they and the rest of their family are involved in, and even got to see some lovely blow-ups of Lake Louise in Beautiful British Columbia. I had instantly recognized the landscape in the picture on the wall when a sense of home and comfort came over me.

Our departure was hastened by Murali’s fear of night driving, so we got back to Bangalore at a reasonable hour. I forget specifically but my experience with assumptions, and for the sake of this account, we can pretty safely say that we were somehow fed heartily before we all fairly instantly passed out, literally dead from the powerful whirlwind we’d drawn across Karnataka over the past three and a half days.

30 June, 2011

Whirlwind 1 - Day 2: The Kudugal Kids

Written this morning:
I’m in the car to Kudugal for the second time, so I’m writing down all my thoughts of the first visit before they get convoluted with our revisit. So here is the story from over a week ago.

On Monday, June 20, we woke up, got dressed, ate dosas, drank coffee, laced up our chappals, and hit the road for the 20 minute drive from our hotel to Kudugal. Unlike the previous day, today there were actual children at the school, which was exciting. They had no idea what to make of us, casting sideways glances while leaning into their friends and giggling. We were introduced at the front of the class, said hi with smiles and waves, and introduced ourselves as Sir Tony, Sir Prashanth, and Madam Kat. It was a bit weird but the kids eventually shortened all our titles to just “sir”.

Next we asked the teacher to continue his lesson so that we could observe. As the day went on it became more and more apparent that we wouldn’t be witnessing a planned program. The students were recently returning from an educational interstice and so the planned review period was gentle and non-rigorous.

The first event consisted of the students standing together and singing what seemed to me like every song they knew. Following this we taught them a modified version of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, and they taught us a song in Kannada. They were definitely better at learning our song than we were at learning theirs, though I guess that could also mean that we're the better teachers, which is maybe why they are the students, not that I'm a teacher, but I do know a couple, and if they hum a few bars I can fake it.

So the school usually has two teachers, but on this day only one was present. Teacher absenteeism is a widespread problem in the governmental school system in India, and it stems from a lack of funding due in large part to corruption, with officials on every rung of the ladder each taking their unfair share. Today we learned that the absent teacher will be present on our next visit, but the teacher with whom we worked last week will be absent. So far teacher attendance is average at 50%.

A big draw for student attendance is the free lunch. Sambar and rice is served daily, afforded on a meager 65 pisa per student per day. This comes out to, let’s calculate here,
65 pisa / 100 rupees * 1 US dollar / 45 rupees * 100 cents / 1 dollar = 1.45 cents per child per day.
The teacher informed us that he often supplements the budget with his own, similarly meager salary, occasionally purchasing supplies for the school.

We adjourned to the lunch room (the other classroom) and watched the kids line up for their meals, big kids and little kids sharing plates, coming back for more, being scolded when they didn’t empty their plates, and struggling to wrestle down the last of their sambar-rice-balls.

While a few of the older girls were commissioned to clean up the lunchroom floor of spilled meals, the rest of us moseyed outside to practice barking like dogs and dodging bullets like Neo in The Matrix.

We returned to the classroom and showed them the flip video cameras. They got really excited and began filming everything, though I think for the first while at least they thought they were taking still pictures and captured several moving portraits. We’ve just compiled a selection of the films produced into some youtube films, viewable here:
Kudugal by the Kids
The Kids of Kudugal Present... a second in the life

It soon became apparent that there were fewer flips than children. We had to stop a couple kids from hitting and wrestling with each other over them, but it wasn't anything serious. It definitely would have helped if we could explain cooperation and sharing in Kannada, but as it was our communication was limited.

The time came to end the flip session, but it was never forgotten. Somehow I (Tony) ended up with all the flips in my pockets, and for the rest of the day, during any lulls between my pseudo-lessons, I was faced with prods at my pockets and pleads of “sar, camarra sar, please sar camarrra”.

Pras ran away with the big kids to start a math lesson while Kat and I attempted one with the younger kids. We had some cubes with numbers, operations, and Kannada symbols that fit into a carrying case matrix with which we attempted to teach them some basic identities 1 = 1, 1 + 0 = 1, 1 + 1 = 2, but found the greatest success with counting from 1 to 10. Then we switched it up a little and did a little 10 to 1 blastoff.

Kat’s teaching expertise is a bit beyond counting, so she ventured to the other classroom to join Pras in their as-yet-undisclosed-though-I-heard-something-about-writing-and-calculating-the-same-thing-in-different-ways-and-different-orders-to-convey-something-important-about-numbers math lesson.

I was left on my own almost running a daycare, though I was able to get a couple kids to add some triple digit numbers and identify India and China on a poorly drawn world map. At one point a girl visited the class and I was delighted at her ability to speak English and her skills in math and geography. I later learned that she wasn’t a student of the school. She lived in the village but her parents could afford to send her to a nearby English-medium private school, and so they did.

I took the kids outside for some air and they were happy to tell me (or maybe ask me) about the wonders of the environment, the trees, the village, the farms, the local stray dogs, the world, and the universe, in Kannada. Not too much got through. I did attempt to repeat some of what they said back to them but I’m sure I was way off as they seemed to get more confused, beyond not addressing their clear statements and questions, I was replying in gibberish.

This essentially concluded the day. We reconvened, said goodbye to the kids, and thanked everyone for their time and cooperation. Before heading out we stopped across the street for tea at a newly built house where some family of Pras lived, including the girl who had visited my daycare, and where other out of town family were visiting, hanging out following the wedding earlier in the day. We took some orange Fanta there, brought the bottle for the road, and hit it. Off on the longest drive ever from Kudugal, through Bangalore high traffic, to Mysore. It was long, we made it, and the next day is another story.

Whirlwind 1 - Day 1, Part 2: The Village Sisters

After much anticipation (I know you all have been refreshing your browser windows for the past week now) please enjoy the second issue of my as-complete-as-i-can-remember-since-i-didn't-write-anything-down-at-the-time-somewhat-but-not-necessarily-matter-of-fact account of our first whirlwind school tour. Right now we're in the middle of our second whirlwind school tour (Tumkur > Kudugal 2 > Mysore 2), so be prepared to be confused =D

After passing through Kudugal, we continued down the bumpy country agriculturey road to meetings we had set up with two local changemakers.

The first, Sister Celestine started her NGO, Sunanda Maitri Sagar, about 30 years ago to bring aid to the homeless, the poor, and the neglected children of the local village of Gollahalli and surrounding areas. They are well established now, with a beautiful campus and diverse range of programs designed to help people in need. Included in these are after school education, self help groups, and the production and sale of newspaper pens and incense sticks for supplemental funding.

Newly developed is their Better World Movement, which teaches their philosophy of love and cooperation by helping people realize, develop, and enact their potential as changemakers. If you want to get involved or learn more you can contact Sr. Celestine by email at suncelestine@yahoo.com or call the center at +91 815 327 7654, or get in touch with us and we can hook it up.

The second local good-doer, Sister Theresa, started her school two years ago through an organization she established called the Divine Charitable Trust. The school is a small building on a piece of relatively undeveloped agricultural land adjacent to a small village called Angondanahalli. Along with her colleague, Sister Juanita, and two local women who help them in exchange for basic healthcare and shelter, they teach in a single room a class of 55 children with minimal resources.

In meeting with them our eyes were opened to the hope and the struggle involved in such social ventures. The sisters have grand visions of a big, wonderful, equipped school for these children who are eager to learn, raised in a largely illiterate community by parents equally eager to seize the opportunity to educate their children. Their grant proposal requests a total of 90 lakh (~200 gizzles) and includes plans to expand with additional teachers and facilities. Undoubtedly they will face many difficulties in their work, but with persistence, optimism, and time, I am sure they will do great things for the future, bringing inspiration and education to thousands of local children and families.

Contact info for Sr. Theresa will be posted here soon. And of course, any messages you have we would be happy to receive and relay on her behalf.

29 June, 2011

A day in the life of a celebrity

Jess has arrived!! I was very happy to see her and have another girl around. We have been giggling non stop.

She accompanied us on our journey to Tumkur. We arrived in the evening and went to see a prayer service that is held everyday, twice a day, at a school that at first, seemed to be all boys. When we arrived, I was in total awe. There must have been around 1,000 or more kids chanting prayer. It was so beautiful. Then all at once they put their hands in anjali mudra, prayer center, and bowed and continued chanting. I wanted to chant too! If only I knew what thy were saying...

And then came the mob. After the prayer, the kids (who were staring at us out of the corner of their eye the whole prayer) swarmed us, especially Jessica...she had the giant video camera that they love to jump in front of. They were shaking our hands constantly and at one point I counldn't get my hand free from about 60 kids. The teachers were swatting at the kids...hitting them...kinda unsettling.

When we tried to get in the car and leave the kids continued to mob us and it was so hard to get in the car...like a celebrity...I couldn't imagine having to feel that way all the time.

We went home and ate dinner around 11:30 as usual...(man I am going to be fat)...then went to bed.

The next morning we headed to the school in Tumkur where Prashanth's aunt works. It is a private school and the first one that I have seen where all the students...even age 6 or so...speak Englsh very well. I took some footage of a math class and Prashanth teaching and a Social Studies class where they were talking about Democracy...very interesting points of view...and I know my U.S.History studies teacher friend JOY will appreciate the footage ;)

We asked the Principal many questions about the school. I love hearing that they do many interdiciplineary activities and projects. Like discussing the water shortage and remedies for that problem...they took surveys and research etc. Truly a worthwhile learning experiance...not to mention a great math lesson ;)

We viewed the rest of the school but when we got to 4th standard it was a celebrity fest. We observed their math studies for a minute, but then the learning was over......they began asking my name, where I am from, for my autograph and even our phone numbers. It was crazy...notebook in front of notebook, pencils in my face..."Please akka...sign here..please akka me next." (Akka mean older sister...kinda like how we say "auntie" in Hawaii)

So I signed a dozen or so notebooks...drew the USA and Hawaii to show where we are from...they know very very little about islands. I wish I could have told them more about the islands, whales, hula, the language, etc but we had to leave.

We then visited the orphanage school and the blind school. Both are government schools. Prashanth asked them questions about the difference between private and public schools to the students and their answers all seem to be ones that would appease and almost flatter the teacher. Prash told them that it was ok to say things that they didn't like about the school...but they wouldn't.

The blind school was amazing, we could have spent more time there I think. We met the blind teacher and he wrote our names in braille on a braille writing type writer ...it was so cool! He showed us how it worked too. Then he took the paper and had a blind student read our names from it. My heart was...well ya know..happy!

We left Tumkur shortly after. The drive home was very long, but we were kept entertained by our driver, Murali. He has grown on us I think....He loves Tony. He always yells, "Tony!!?" and Tony yells back, "Murali!!" and then Murali says, "Indian music?? Very nice??" Its Hilarious...everything is Very nice. On the way home though, Tony was not in the car, yet Murali kept saying, "Tony!!" Jess and I couldnt stop laughing :)

It was an amazing experience as everything has been. I am so happy...I guess you already know that :)

25 June, 2011

Technical Difficulties; Tony Ran Away

We've been in one city for three days now (although still with plenty of time in cars), which gave us some time to attend to important matters: shopping for gifts, writing emails, visiting family, going out to bars, etc.

It was also supposed to afford us some time to completely digest our first excursion and begin preparing for round 2. But of course things don't always go to plan.

The most significant setback was that my Macbook's hard drive decided to crash. This created some complications regarding pictures and video, but more costly was that I burned a day standing around at the i Store. Time will tell if our data can be saved as I left my computer there overnight, but we are mostly back on track. The pictures are up, the blog is slowly lurching forward, and the videos should come around eventually (albeit with some delay).

It's hard to be too upset since it's the first thing that has gone wrong, and I'm trying not to think about the potential impact of losing my business files. Anyways, I have Tony's computer because he decided to spend the weekend visiting a friend in a neighboring state.

Tony left earlier tonight from a crowded bus station, and we're all hopeful he will reach his destination (Pollachi) safely tomorrow morning. So it's just me and Kat until Monday, when Tony returns and Jessica joins us from Delhi. Those of you anxiously waiting for Tony's part 2 can take a few days off. But as a bonus, when Tony returns he can tell you about our meeting with the Center for Sustainable Development.

A few setbacks won't stop us from enjoying a weekend full of family related activities, but it might slow us down a bit. Once we're at full strength, though, things will be happening quickly as we visit each school for a second time and film it all in stunning HD.

23 June, 2011

Whirlwind - Day 1, Part 1: Kudugal the Village

I’m working on summarizing our whirlwind school tour, so this is the first issue of my (Tony’s) as-complete-as-i-can-remember-since-i-didn't-write-anything-at-the-time account of our experience in Kudugal, Gollahalli, Angondanahalli, and Mysore on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. I’ll try to minimize redundancy between this and Kat and Pras’s posts, but if I repeat something I'm sure you won't mind, and don't forget to read our other posts to get the full story.

We arrived in Kudugal the day before the wedding, Sunday. We met and congratulated the groom, set to marry a girl from Kolar Gold Field. On that day we found our way into the center of the village, which on our approach had seemed almost empty but harbored a closely assembled crowd celebrating the impending event. Among them were other members of Pras’s family visiting from Bangalore, and extended family living in the village.

As we approached the town, the first thing we noticed was the school. It is made up of three small buildings, each a single room, and a small temple in their center. The outer walls of the two classrooms and the kitchen were all painted with educational material: historical leaders of India, the English alphabet, shapes, punctuation, outer space, biological diagrams, and many terms in Kannada which I couldn’t read.

We first drove past the empty school, went right at the first fork in the main road, and stopped at the second. Looking back at the satellite image of Kudugal I now have a new understanding and appreciation of the village, like it’s become real. We were warmly greeted by family and ushered down a small stone alley into a room covered from the sun by a large tapestry and containing two long dining tables. The groom was busy preparing for his wedding in a small stone room adorned with incense, flowers, gods, and offerings to his passed ancestors.

After introductions, they were quick to join us in their feast with what I’m sure was the Kannada for “Eat, please, eat.” We ate and the food was fantastic.

Then the monkeys came.

Apparently it was nothing special but I was pretty pumped. They had smelled the food and looked at us from a nearby perch, assessing the situation. At first they were shooed away but after I started taking pictures (in development) everyone humored me and even tossed them some lentil chips so I could get a better shot.

We said hi to a few more people around the village before briefly wandering around and then heading out to meet with some Sisters running programs in the neighboring villages.

Updates on those visits are upcoming, stay tuned!

22 June, 2011

3 days, 4 schools, 6 cities, 0 internet

We just returned from a whirlwind trip that had us riding in a car for well over 15 hours total. Our lack of internet access, which was expected, has resulted in a few oddities.

First, you'll notice our entries are a bit out of order and feature the date they were published. When possible, we've listed the dates the entries were written. We encourage you to read all posts by one author in order if you're looking for that real time feel.

Second, we added Kat. Her arrival definitely boosted morale as she's been nothing but exuberantly happy (and full). Having another person enabled us to do much more in the classroom, and having a female perspective is definitely appreciated. Plus having the eyes and ears of another teacher is continuing to pay off.

Third, we've had a lot of time to sit around and think about what we've been doing. This means more developed views, but it also means that some things have faded to the background. I strongly suggest readers ask any questions they have based on pictures, videos, posts, etc. Each question seems to remind us of something we had completely forgotten about (or at least deemed not blog worthy when trying to recount our travels).

We saw an incredible variety of rural education. From a school that just started with one room to a program that has been in place for over 30 years, and just about everything in between. Here are the major takeaways, to be investigated and discussed further when we decide which places to visit again:

There is a lot going on. I was well aware that numerous efforts were being made to address education, but the sheer amount happening on the local level surprised me. From government programs, to NGOs, to good old fashioned Christian charity, there is no shortage of people that want to help (although still well below the number of people needed). This has helped us reframe the question from "How can we help the students?" to "How can we help those helping the students?" The recurring theme that we've encountered so far is a need for teacher training. Particularly in English, but I believe they also need training in creative ways of fostering student's talents. The government curriculum has a lot of strengths, but the ability to adapt to the endlessly different needs of rural areas is not one of them.

Kids want to learn. It's easy to imagine that a kid whose parents are working on a farm would love some guidance and attention, but the extent to which these students are eager to participate shocked us all. We saw students fighting with each other for the chance to answer math questions. We saw a classroom of 50 students operate flawlessly because every student desperately wanted to understand the material. And we saw kids teaching other kids, because there was some kind of communal satisfaction in accomplishing what was being asked. I was asked the biggest difference between American and Indian education, and my clunky response was that "the poorest students back home have given up on education, and the poorest ones here have a blind faith in it." I think the latter has plenty of problems associated with it, but they sure are nice problems to have.

The language barrier is serious. Everyone was prepared for the students to have no idea what we were saying. But there is a language barrier even among local English speakers. Tony and Kat had communication issues with even the best speakers that we found. I did too, but my exposure to my family over the years helped me filter what I was trying to convey. From syntax to vocabulary to pronunciation, there was a lot to decipher for all parties involved. This drives the need for the English training mentioned above. But it also began to reveal the limitations of education by studying. At some point, you have to be able to practice what you're learning. No matter how many resources these rural areas are provided, they're going to need real interaction and communication to be able to enter the global economy.

Nobody has websites. Understandable given how many other things need to be done, but also hard to believe. If all we do is set up websites like this one for these organizations, they should be able to make some serious strides in terms of exposure.

Plenty of fun pictures, videos, and anecdotes are on the way. Stay tuned.

The beginning

From June 19th

We began our journey to Kudugal early (by my standards) this morning. For reasons I can't understand, my mom insisted on McDonald's for breakfast. One peculiar aspect of the experience is that the large, clean restaurant was completely empty at 10 am. And the other is that they were playing an uncensored 50 cent album. So as we mulled over the Indianized menu, we heard 50 cent repeatedly say mother$%&in. Luckily the food didn't appear terribly processed and we ate some kind of potato sandwich (aloo tikki).

The drive took about two hours, and the traffic wasn't as bad as expected. The scenery was familiar to me, but I'm sure Tony and Kat have some observations to record. We're currently at our hotel and in great spirits. The hotel is so nice that I almost feel bad. A shower, hot water, western toilet, fresh towels, and a flat screen television are not luxuries I expected when traveling to rural India, which says a lot by itself. No wireless internet, but that's our only complaint.

We've already demonstrated that we can entertain ourselves in any setting, as I passed the time by throwing water in the air and encouraging Tony to catch it in his mouth. Also, we spent all night trying to learn how to solve a Rubik's cube. I've mastered about two thirds of it so far, and am hoping to finish it before we share it with the students.

We're heading to Kudugal now to say hello to everyone. The school isn't in session since it's Sunday, but we hope to survey the scene and be prepared for tomorrow, when ideally we will spend the entire school day with the teachers and students.

My teacher heart is happy

We are now visiting schools. We visited the school in Kudugal. About 25 students total for grades 1-5 or “standards” 1-5. When we arrived they were excited to see us it seemed and they all introduced themselves one at a time, “My name is ____ 5th standard.” There was only one fourth standard boy, he quickly became one of my favorites :)

They did many rhymes and songs for us. We tried to teach them “Row row row your boat” and they taught us a song about Ganesha...the God that has an elephant head.

We saw where food was prepared, it seems they feed their students for only pennies a day. They eat rice and sambar every day. After lunch Prashanth worked on some addition, subtraction, multiplication with the kids and Tony played with the younger ones :) I helped and observed Prash, just taking in the students way of learning, and how Prash was teaching. When the students add, they make tallies for all the numbers and then count them all. Prash tried to teach them a better way.

At one point during the day, we gave the students our cameras and video cameras. They instantaneously became obsessed. It was so cute to see them all so infatuated with filming each other and taking each other's pictures. Most pictures are all close ups of eyes or up their noses, it's funny.

Soon after we were preparing to leave Kudugal, some of Prashanth's relatives saw us off with some snacks and drink. As we were leaving they put the red blessing dot of power on my forehead, and yellow turmeric powder along side my ear to my neck. I loved it, I kept it on all day.

We then had a long car ride to Mysore. We were invited to eat dinner at another one of Prashanth's relatives and even though it was 10 o'clock at night, we could not say no. I am glad we didn't. The food was so good....dosas :) Spicy, but maybe I am getting used to it?? Maybe not. They were so very kind to me giving me bindis and even a saree as a gift. They called me into the other room where three women wrapped the saree around me, I felt so special to have all these women taking me in and treating me like family. The saree is the most amazing saree and I cannot wait to wear it.

The next morning we went to the Mysore school. Standards 1-10 and in some classes as many as 50 students. Boys on one side of the classroom, girls on the other. I took particular note of the 8th standard, as that is what I teach. There were 46 students. I couldn't believe it. And they were all sitting politely and respectfully for us..as I am sure they are all the time. Prashanth decided to teach a lesson to the 10th standard students. It was a lesson on Area of a Circle. Why the formula is pi times radius squared. It was a great lesson, Prash had the kids drawing using protracters and compases, cutting out the pieces of the circle we made etc. A very hands on activity. The kids all took part and enjoyed it. I was just so happy I could help.

After the lesson, I had the teacher translate to the students the gift I was giving them. I gave them rulers and on the rulers were Hawaiian words and the word translated to English. The teacher went over the words with them and the students read back the words to us. One student asked what an island was, I tried to explain Hawaii, but I don't know how well I did. I also gave them pencils and when I was done passing things out they all said, “Mahalo!” It was so awesome! They kept saying mahalo to me over and over. I left them with an “aloha!” and a shaka. They all said aloha back and gave me one shaka!

My teacher heart was so happy that day.

Cows, sheep, dogs, monkeys, chickens...

Off to Kudugal today, a rural village that Prashanth is named after. Prashanth Kudugal Murthy. His family built some and repaired the temple/school that we are going to visit. The drive is about 2 and half hours but it was an amazing drive! Of course honking and beeping of the cars, swerving in and out of lanes, other cars, and pedestrians, but the weather is amazingly beautiful and so many animals to see once we got to the rural area!

Cows, sheep, dogs, monkeys, chickens, all of them so cute! I can't help but want to talk to them....Tony, on the other hand, constantly trying to communicate with the animals. Every animal he sees it's a “baaa” or “mooo” They never respond, sad face :(

We arrived at the village and were greeted by relatives of Prashanth who were having a lunch, so to speak, for a groom to be. We were welcomed in and of course told to eat. We sat and ate off a leaf like placemat that is apparently a new thing as people used to eat off a real leaf. We ate with our fingers/hands off the leaves...which looked like giant Ti leaves to me. All the eating is with your fingers. Prash tried to teach me the ways without dropping food or making a giant mess all over my face...it was a nice effort on his part. The rice, cucumber mixture and everything else on my plate was spicy. As is everything I have eaten here. I love love love the food, but its soo spicy, I am trying to train my mouth. Side note: Dosa is the bomb.

As we were leaving some monkeys came in and started to steal the food off the table, the people quickly proceeded to shoo them away. They were cute so Tony and I tried to go after them to take their picture..

After we finished eating we folded our “leaves” inward to say that it was yummy and we will be back. We visited the school where we will see students tomorrow. There will be about 25 students.

Next we visited a Catholic retreat place where some sisters met us. They created this place to have children come and study from the nearby village. Also they have created a self help group for women to come and find relief.

Sister Celestine took us to a meditation room and for me this was the best part of the day. Being from a Catholic background and seeing two cultures combine for one greater common good was all that I have been searching for the past year or so. Each pillar in the meditation room had a picture on it and sister described these in her perspective... Same meaning as what we in the west learn but in a different and may I say, more refreshing light. Humanism and universal. Refreshing.

We visited one more small school. Nuns teach there as well. Each place so very very hospitable. Always offering coffee or tea and always food. We will be fat soon.

I hope we can find a way to offer our services to these wonderful people so that they are able to use whatever we give them in a circular sort of way, it will continue to help them for many years to come. We want our efforts to not just be a donation that stops but that keeps reproducing and continuing to help them.

Tonight we are going to a reception for the groom I mentioned earlier. Should be more food and drink. Yes we will be fat.

18 June, 2011

First day in the dark

I have arrived in Bangalore, or Bengaluru. I arrived at night so I am anxious to see what its like in the daylight. Prashanth, Tony and Prashanth's cousin, Sandeep, picked me up and I just feel so lucky and blessed that I have the opportunity to be here. Swarna, or auntie Swarna, Prashanth's mom is so hospitable and nice, she even gave me a malaria pill last night just in case. She looked beautiful this morning in her Saree and I told her so, she laughed and said that this was her casual daily wear. I hope I get to buy one and look as beautiful. There is a shrine to some Gods at the house and I am so intrigued, I will ask Swarna about it today, perhaps she will share the prayer she was reading with me as well.

The streets here or the driving here, is, well different. As I got into the car, Sandeep said, "No need to wear a seatbelt." Were as in the States its like, "Put your seatbelt on or we will all get a fine and beheaded" :)
No rhyme or reason to the driving, much like when I was in France. Just a lot of beeping as if to say, "Hi! I am right here, howzit?!...don't hit me, beep beep"

I slept the entire way to India....about 27 hours. So now everyone is sleeping and, well, I am not. I am anxious to see India in daylight, visit different towns, eat the food, take in the culture and buy a Salwar Kameez. More to come as I experience India in the daylight;)

I got that Three-Wheelin' Feelin'

We’re a bit behind, so here is a slight progression toward the present:

On Wednesday evening we went to visit some friends of a cousin in the outskirts of Bangalore. This story, experiencially speaking, is anecdotal and of little more than the journey itself (though I did google in at least two instances).

We saw pigs roaming the streets, owned by a local mobster. If you want to kill one, you can do so only with his permission. But beware: they feed on garbage and so the meat is of less than good quality. According to advice we received, if you want good pork you should go to the slaughterhouse. The streets are small, filled with mostly pedestrian traffic, and bumpy, and we were driving through in a Tata Nano. Many of the cars in India are small, but also modern. Miniature hatchbacks are very common, much like in Europe.

Also extremely common are Lovson or Bajaj autorickshaws, or tuk-tuks (as I was apparently geographically incorrectly introduced to them), or autos as they are most commonly called. These are three-wheeled doorless taxis, and they are probably one of the worst sources of smog in Bangalore (apparently they churn out about 4500 ppm of hydrocarbons). They run on four-stroke engines, so they make lots of noise and often spew black or white smoke out of their tiny tailpipes. In one area of town there is a conglomeration of auto repair shops, where many are parked along the streetside, several of which can be seen with engines completely dismantled and greased up mechanics laying down looking up confidently with wrenches in hands.

That said, the first half of this particular journey consisted of my first experience riding in one of these little beasts. After days of being chauffeured around in air-conditioned fuel efficiency, looking down at the stinky, smoky tailpipes of hard-earned subsistence, i was riding on its back. The fare was cheaper than any non-free transportation I’ve ever experienced. Based on the per kilometer fee of about 7 rupees (soon to be 9), some estimates of fuel efficiency (just googled it, about 22km/L), and the current gas price which is definitely more expensive that the US at around 70 rupees/L, they make about 4 rupees profit per km minus vehicle upkeep and precious, precious time. That’s about 10 cents.

The catch is, their meters stop when they stop, so time spent in traffic for the drivers is time when they earn absolutely nothing. Traffic in Bangalore sucks most of the time. And autorickshaws are a little unsteady and a tad unsafe so their business is primarily during the day when traffic is most common (during night passenger car taxis are preferred). Additionally, they operate mainly inside the city which has a radius of about 12km, so the most a driver can hope to make on a fare traveling clear across the city is less than a dollar. And it takes about an hour.

The fare for our journey came to about 50 rupees. I know Pras’ anna (cuz) gave the driver a tip, I’m just not sure how much (as a side note, tipping here is generally minimal, often amounting to whatever round number is next up from the total on the order thereof). Almost forgot to mention: at one point we went over a big hump (speed bump) at an angle, in our three-wheeled autorickshaw. When the rear wheels came up and then down in alternation, the car definitely rocked. I’m pretty sure it’s not rare for these things to tip over, but I’m also pretty sure the four of us could have righted it no sweat. Well, maybe a little on the brow.

ps - please excuse or enjoy the train-of-thoughtness of the above, it’s 6am and I’m about to sleep.

16 June, 2011

SRMAB Part 2

On Wednesday, Tony and I returned to the the Shree Ramana Maharishi Academy for the Blind to serve lunch donated by my mom and her family. This time we were able to observe some of the classes and speak in more detail with staff and administrators.

We were given a tour during class time, which allowed us to look in on English, Dance, Pre-School, Horticulture, and Vocational classes.

During the Dance class we learned about the Touch and Feel Method, where students feel the legs and hands of the instructor and then replicate the movements. After that, dance students Rohini and Vanitha performed for us, which was a pleasure to watch (video below). Traditional Indian dance is a large part of the culture, and one that most blind kids would miss out on if not for schools like SRMAB.

One cool program we learned about was their plant rental service. SRMAB, through their garden, rents plants to facilities such as banks and offices. For 40 rupees ($1) per plant per month, the school provides plants to be used indoors. They provide pots, soil, and regular watering. At the end of each month the students collect the plants and replace them with plants they had been caring for. This way the plants are able to receive sunlight and stay healthy, and the offices are able to have vibrant, healthy plants year round with no upkeep on their part. In this way, SRMAB is able to generate some revenue for their efforts and creep closer to sustainability.

We were also able to share the video we made after our first visit with the staff, and they were extremely appreciative. They remarked that most people give money and leave, but very few actually do anything afterwards. And so for the first time an example of what we can do to help started to emerge.

The donation by my family was great, and the kids certainly enjoyed the food, but the benefits ended as soon as lunch was over. The video, while very modest and amateur, provides a lasting benefit. Whether just by increasing their online presence or providing more promotional materials, they now have one more tool to work with. They already have a pretty good 20 minute promotional video about their school, but it's not online and we all know it's tough to get people to sit down and watch something that long.

And at the same time we have content for our blog, our readers have a new experience, and now there's a link on youtube that can wander the internet. So the act of donating became mutually beneficial (outside of the joy of helping), which is what we're really after. Whether that opens the door for us to produce professional videos for various organizations, or allows others to duplicate our efforts in other countries, is yet to be seen. But it felt like a small step in the right direction. With a second visit's worth of footage, we'll see if we're able to create anything else.

We also left behind a Tetris Cube, which is a puzzle I can't solve, but I'm confident the students will be able to. We attempted to make a large touching slate, but it wasn't quite ready for use. If we can work out the kinks we will drop it off at the school. More on that later.

With two unplanned days ahead of us (other than Kat's arrival), we hope to fight off the last of our jet lag and prepare for our first visit to Kudugal. We will be at the school on Monday followed by a quick turnaround as we head to a school in Mysore on Tuesday.