21 July, 2011

Inching Forward in Time

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

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

"Sir, Biryani?"

"No I'm ok, thanks."

"No? Not hungry?"

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

"Where are you going?"

"Bangalore."

"It is far, you should eat something."

"No thanks, I'm ok."

i'm on a train wheeeee
"ok."

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

"Sir, biryani sir. Please, eat."

"Ok, thanks."

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

"You are going to Bangalore?"

"Yeah."

"I think we're here."

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

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

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

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

Big mistake, apparently.

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

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

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

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

Pollachi

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!"

"Why?"

"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.