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.

14 June, 2011

Respect not Pity

We've been in Bangalore just 48 hours, which is extremely confusing to me and Tony. Not only does it seem that we've done more than we normally do in a week, but we've also been sleeping a healthy amount thanks to some lingering jet lag. And with the infamous travel times due to traffic, it's fairly impressive (to us) that we've made it to six different locations already.

Our second day started early, as my mother's family had donated breakfast to the Shree Ramana Maharishi Academy for the Blind, and Tony and I tagged along to help serve it. That required a 6:30 wake up, which wasn't an issue given our scattered sleep schedules.

When we arrived at the school, the students and staff were preparing for another week. While many of the 175 students live at the school, most do not and so not everyone was there for breakfast. The first thing one notices is how effectively the kids navigate the halls and doorways, using tricks such as counting steps or echolocation. If it weren't for the look on their faces, one might forget for a moment that these students can't see where they are going.

The breakfast was a simple and traditional Indian meal featuring idli, sambar, and rice. The students filed into the modest cafeteria, feeling their way around the tables to their seats. It was noisy given that everything from the benches to plates are metal, and of course the children were busy yelling and laughing.

We learned about the history of the school, which is remarkable. The short version is that 42 years ago, the founder was moved to help the visually challenged. Starting with just one student, the organization has grown to have served over 1000 students in a variety of areas in southern India. They focus on traditional education as well as vocational training, showing students how to work machinery, tend gardens, milk cows, collect honey, and perform traditional dances. We encourage readers to visit their website or ask us questions for more information.

We didn't interact directly with the kids as much as we would have liked, but this visit was about observation. We did hear the touching story of one young boy who lost his sight when he was five months old. His grandmother, hearing that olive oil was good for sight, applied it in his eyes and he lost his vision. Today he is roughly six years old, well behaved, and his mother works at the school.

The biggest lesson that we learned is that these children are just like any other children: mischievous, playful, curious, and happy. Some were defiant, others were quiet, but they all acted like kids. Certain daily tasks presented challenges, but most didn't seem to know any better. The purpose of the school appeared to be to assure these students that if they held themselves to the same standards as everybody else, they could find similar success. Indeed, the mission statement stresses creating dignified members of society, in a culture where any disability can lead to ostracization.

Based on our experience, I would encourage anyone that is saddened by the images of these children to remember that your pity does them no good. It was difficult to watch a child get slapped for misbehaving, but the very act demonstrated equal treatment. There is no reason why these students should be exempt from learning discipline, much like any other school subject. For those that had limited vision of us filming the breakfast, I can only hope they understood that they were being filmed not because they were blind, but because they were just another student at another school.

We also had the pleasure and fortune of speaking with the founder of the school, who carries a stature that is larger than life. Most might not even notice the simply dressed old man, but you can see the years of service on his face and hear them in his voice.

We will return on Wednesday to serve lunch, and we expect it to be much busier and chaotic. We are hopeful we'll have the chance to speak with some of the students, but we don't know what to expect. Either way, this last minute addition to our trip was one of mostly smiles and a little disobedience.

The First Rule Of Biere Club

We hadn't even been in Bangalore 24 hours when we managed to make it to southern India's first microbrewery, the Biere Club. The Indian beer market is a virtual monopoly dominated by Kingfisher. The traditional slim selection makes an American long for even the choice between Coors, Pabst, and Budweiser. So it was shocking to learn that just a month ago a friend of my cousin had started the Biere Club, a European style pub featuring handcrafted beers and offering Bangalore another spot to socialize and drink.

The placed was packed, especially for a Sunday night, as we stood around waiting for a table that could accommodate 7 of us (no family outing is small). It was hard to tell whether the crowd was developing a taste for complex beer, or if they were just enjoying the latest venue to see and be seen. The clientele was young, reflective of the increasing number of single people earning good incomes thanks to the IT boom. And the attire was noticeably Western. It appears that with wealth and social status comes a desire to look American, at least in fashion. And it doesn't help that the television shows I've seen advertised are Keeping Up with the Kardashians and that show about the former Playmate turned mom who can't get by on her youth any more. Regardless, it was a familiar looking crowd, despite being halfway across the world.

The brews on tap were a cloudy Hefeweizen and a rusty Vienna Rye Lager. The former was good, and surprisingly unique considering how many wheat beers we've tasted. The latter was better and reminded us of Hamburg, although it's completely unfair to compare it to an ancient German recipe.

But the point of all this is that as the pints flowed, our theory of Saving The World One Beer At A Time seemed to take form as the conversation turned to our project. The major insight offered to us is that the quality of education in villages is a sliding scale between poverty and connectivity. A village that is poor, but has access to major towns, can be better served than a village that has wealth but no accessibility. And so the problem becomes much deeper (which was to be expected) than simply improving education or creating wealth. Instead, we will have to understand how all facets of rural life comprise the overall situation of their children, as well as what they are capable of after being educated. Which is just fine since even though education was our simplest in, we have many more questions and partial thoughts flying through our heads.

12 June, 2011

Hitting the Ground

We're here at 61, the nickname of my grandfather's home. It feels great to be back in India, and the reality set in that this is my second trip in two years, a great luxury after only making it three times in the previous six. I've only seen a few relatives thus far, but the joy of family never gets old. And my grandfather, who is over 100 years old, woke up at 2 am to firmly say, "It is with great pleasure that I welcome you."

I'll leave the observations to Tony, as everything has a hint of familiarity to me. But I am looking forward to the culture shock he experiences when the seemingly empty streets are flooded with millions of people, cars, bikes, busses, scooters, and everything else you can imagine.

We thought our plan of partying all night in Hamburg, then catching a six hour train, and then a nine hour flight would sufficiently confuse our bodies to avoid jet lag. But it's almost 6 am and we're still up, so I guess not.

It will take us a few days for updates on our project to really get going, as we head to Kudugal at the end of the week. But that doesn't mean we won't be busy, as we just learned tonight that we get to serve breakfast at a school for the blind on Monday, and hopefully lunch there on Wednesday. It's in relation to a charitable endeavor headed by my mom, but we expect to sneak in some lessons about education.

I've been pretty clear that charity is not our intention here (I don't believe it is sustainable, and I think it frames problems in the wrong context), but there's no denying that in small doses it can do a lot of people a lot of good. And there's no denying we're excited about actually doing something after talking about it for more than a year, so we'll help in any way we can (for now).

The first touching moment came much earlier than expected, as my mom explained to me our schedule for Saturday. In India, school is generally six days a week with Saturday being a half day. The school in Kudugal generally gets out at 11, but the students collectively decided that they would stay until 12 so we could have more time with them. I can't imagine agreeing to more school at the end of the week just for some strangers, but the gesture speaks for itself. Now we just have to make it worth their while.

First Impressions in the Dark

We made it to Bangalore.

Arrived around 01:30, warmly greeted and kindly chauffeured from the airport by a welcoming committee of three of Pras’ cousins.

The first lessons I (Tony) learned were about cars. First, the steering wheel is on the right, which is pretty neat. Second, people here drive kind of interestingly, going wherever makes physical sense, and acting based on what other cars appear to be doing. It's a little like Dutch people walking, or riding bikes. People also use their horns and blink their lights a lot (at night anyway) so that everyone else knows where they are and what they’re doing. And the best part was driving halfway between two lanes, just in case we wanted to go right, or left, or maybe right.

We were also lucky to go on a short tour of the city at night, seeing the back of the state capital building and a bunch of stray, wild-dog-looking dogs. It seemed almost like a ghost town with the streets literally empty of people, apparently a stark contrast to the everyday hustlin' we'll join in on tomorrow.

As we pass out now we're listening to some birds outside that sound a bit like monkeys, and car horns, oh and Akon on the iPod.

Hamburgermeister Meisterhamburger

We arrived in Hamburg late, and at the wrong train station.

Poor Julia, who came to pick us up, was worried sick about us and had no way to get in touch, so we ended up calling her on a pay phone. T Mobile pay phones in Germany suck: Tony put in a 10 cent euro thingy and it gave him 5 seconds to talk. Just enough time to hear Julia say “Tony! Where are you?” and for him to blurt "5 seconds!?" and to fail at getting another coin into the machine before it disconnected. So we spent the rest of our change calling her two more times and eventually figuring out how to get to her place.

We arrived, ate some delicious pasta, drank some German wine, and passed out til morning.

The next day Julia gave us an epic tour of Hamburg. The sun was shining so we strolled around, saw many monuments, churches, German people, canals (who knew?), and boats.

We ate some special pickled herring sandwiches, ham, bacony hammy pigskinny meat, turkey, potatoes with bacon and onions, wurst, sauerkraut, bretzls, und of course, bier. Much of this was at the Gröninger Braukeller which had a delicious house vienna lager of which we each drank about 2 liters.

After dinner we went home, passed out for a bit, woke up, and partied til our train left. Hamburg has some pretty sweet party spots that go all night long, and even feature such delicacies as Beck’s Gold und Beck’s Lime.

So we did that, and then traveled for almost 24 hours...

Amsterdamster II

Our time in Europe was more a vacation than part of our project, but we want to share the highlights. Not only for those that know us, but it's great practice for once we're going full speed in India.

For our first full day in Amsterdam we toured the city with intentions to visit 3 places of which we made it to 0 in time to actually get in. That evening our host Jonica took us out for some rad Thai food place in the red light district, after which we wandered around, got yelled at by some women in windows, and saw some sweet live music in the dam plaza.

Part of the reason for our delays, other than not being concerned about rushing through the city, has to do with Pras and bicycles. Through no conscious effort of his own, Pras hadn't needed to ride a bike in over 20 years, and he never really learned the first time.

But in Amsterdam everybody bikes everywhere. In fact, if you aren't riding a bike, locking up your bike, dodging bikes, or talking about bikes, it's hard to feel connected to the city in any real way.

And so if there was ever a time and place to master the skill, we were in the middle of it. Thanks to the excellent teachings of Tony and Chrissy, after many stumbles Pras was able to ride around parts of Amsterdam. He still had to stop well before crosswalks and unnecessarily freaked himself out every time he came close to someone or something, but the world of two wheels was finally opened. The footage is priceless, and we'll have it up as soon as we figure out how to deal with the weird format it's in.

The one way to relate this to our project is that it's always important for teachers to remember what it's like to learn. It's too common to become so immersed in the material or subject that you lose a sense of what it was like to not know it. And if there's one thing Pras experienced by scraping up his legs and looking foolish in front of hundreds of adults, it was the child like feeling of learning through trial and error.

The next day went better than the first as we achieved all of the failed attempts from the day before. We saw tons of awesome paintings by van Gogh, looked into the Heineken experience and instead opted for a pint across the street at a local pub who had kindly given us directions the day before. Then we got some brews, meats, and cheeses at the Brouwerij ‘t IJ which had some pretty great strong Belgian style ales and a giant windmill.

Then we caught the train to Hamburg.

08 June, 2011


Ok, I just wanted to go over how awesomely everything has gone so far.

First, we stressed out Jenna being late on the way to the airport, but it turned out everyone else was early so we just avoided the lines. Then, I slept the whole flight to Frankfurt, where we got out train tickets to travel to Amsterdam, Hamburg, then back. At the station, we got internet access and Pras found an email from Owen, saying "I just got you a place to stay in Amsterdam with my awesome friend in her really cool apartment", so we instantly emailed her and got on the train.

Then, for most of the train ride we slept again, apart from the little girls running around who were from Australia, learning German, and visiting Amsterdam. They also helped us figure out whether we should get off the train yet or not.

When we got to Amsterdam Centraal station we wandered outside and promptly looked lost, which called a knowledgeable, random dude to our service who pointed us toward the library with free internet. So we got to the OpenBare Bibliotheek Amsterdam and checked in with Jonica (our gracious host) who told us to come right over.

The first thing she did when we got here was hand us beers. She also made us vegetarian burritos from scratch, offered us anything we wanted in her apartment, and took us on a late night adventure to acquire her lost bike so that we would all have bikes to ride around the city today, and shared with us some delicious local produce. Then she made beds for us, tucked us in, and sang us a local lullabye (jklol).

Oh btw, Pras hasn't ridden a bike since he was about 3, so I'll see about some video documentation of his learning experience. Stay tuned...

Her apartment is pretty awesome, so we're hesitant to ever leave. There are vines hanging from the ceilings, a canal outside we could probably jump into if we really committed, and the cathedral whose chime apparently brought comfort to Ann Frank back in the day.

But museums, beer and the city itself are calling to us, so we will slowly get up, drink some water, coffee, eat food, put in our contacts, take showers, and start planning our day...

Mommy, can I have a Lolli?

Well we're in Amsterdam. Through an unforeseen stroke of luck, our good buddy Owen Wiseman arranged for us to stay with a friend of his named Jonica. In mere minutes, she has proven to be one of the nicest people ever and has welcomed us warmly into her home, which is stunning. Her apartment is in central Amsterdam, and overlooks the King's Canal. Specifically the Homomonument and the Anne Frank House. Here's a map. Currently our host is cooking dinner, which tells you everything you need to know.

On the train over here from Frankfurt we were entertained by two energetic little girls running throughout the compartment, hence the title of this post.

Obviously, having a local friend to show us around and look after us is huge. Our plan was to wander and stay in a hotel or hostel. Clearly this is much sweeter. We are drinking a Heineken, which is much better here than back home. The biggest difference to note is that the bottle is brown, not green. And it tastes much less skunkier.

07 June, 2011

Frankfurt Train Station

So we (Tony and Pras) are finally off on our journey, just finished the leg from LA to Frankfurt, and just starting a leg up to Amsterdam. We decided to skip Brussels based off the reaction of the travel advisor Frau we spoke to at the Frankfurt airport (something like 'Brussels? Why Brussels?'), and it also makes this short trip simpler and easier. I (Tony)'d never flown or slept for 10 hours before but today I did both at the same time, and now it seems like it shouldn't be possible for me to pass out on this train right now, but I still might.

Our Frankfurt experience was pretty brief, but we did eat some wurst und bier so it was authentic I'm sure. Except for maybe the French fries...

...and soon we'll start our Amsterdam experience, with some Heineken out by the windmill in the tulip garden or something.

Our final packing list looks something like this, if you have any ideas about what to do with them, make sure to contact us.

1 video camera Sony Handycam mini-dv
1 film camera
1 digital camera
Flip Videos(5)
Creative Vado
USB mic
Shotgun mic
Rubiks Cube (3)
Rubiks Cube Jr. (3)
Tetris Cube (3)
You Can Count On Monsters
The Grapes of Math
Dice (10)
Set (2)
Light Up Frisbee (2)
Manga Mysteries Math Comic Books (4)
Operation Comics (4)
Mathnasium T-Shirts (many)
Professor E-McSquared's Calculus Primer
Dominos (3 sets)
The Next 4 Billion: Market Size and Business Strategy at the Base of the Pyramid
The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid
Intro to Mathematics
Puzzles and Brain Teasers