Monday, September 27, 2010

gratitude, and our first YAV retreat

Well, it’s been an interesting couple of weeks. In reflecting on the past month in India, I am finding that while I have always been happy to be here, I become more and more grateful, if that’s possible, with each passing day. I am thankful for and utterly steeped in so much GRACE. Amazing grace. And I am surrounded by wonderful people, which extends, figuratively, to those at home who never cease to be with me.

(How did I get to be so lucky as to know so many incredible people, both here and around the world? Do you know how incredible you are??)

As to what I’ve been doing lately, we had our first YAV retreat this weekend. Jim, Maggie, Achen, Kochamma, Achen’s colleage, Joychan, and I met in Kottayam and stayed at the local CSI (Church of South India) Retreat Center. There were a few more mosquitoes around than I’m accustomed to, but it was all and all wonderful to be with the India family—to laugh, complain, tell stories, and enjoy each other’s company.

Throughout the course of the weekend, we…

-Met with the professors and leadership of CMS College, where Jim is placed, and discussed the purpose of our presence in Kerala; learned more about CMS, Kerala’s first institution of higher education; and got to know the faculty.  After learning that one of my degrees is in English Literature, someone from the Literature Department asked me if I might like to teach a class sometime. Not sure if I’m quite ready for that yet!

-had a thought-provoking Bible study on an unconventional interpretation of the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. 

-Visited Mahatma Gandhi University, where we met with the Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Rajan Varughese, who gave us a lecture on the Kerala’s economic history, and taught us about the Kerala Model of Development. If you didn’t know, Kerala is a communist state. While India has a very low human development index (HDI), ranked 134 out of 182 countries, Kerala outranks, by far, the rest of India’s states. It is known for its education—high literacy, in particular—and health care; Kottayam was the first district to achieve a 100% literacy rate. Kerala’s birth and death rate are both low, and there is a very low infant mortality rate. All of these social achievements are perplexing to most who are familiar with Western theories of economic and social development, due to the fact that the former is expected to precede the latter. In Kerala, however, a state with little industry, the reverse has happened, and this phenomenon is usually referred to as the ‘Kerala Model of Development.’ I’m not making any sort of political comment here; rather, I’m just giving you a little background on an aspect of something that makes Kerala distinctive.  And in spite of these social triumphs, it goes without saying that Kerala faces its own challenges, too.

Sunset over the Kerala backwaters
-Visited a bishop of the CSI at his house, where we were served tea and snacks for the millionth time that day. He was a very, very nice man, and as his home is right next to CMS College, I have a feeling that Jim might be frequenting his kitchen often, as previous volunteers are said to have done.

-Went on a boat ride in Kerala’s backwaters. Surrounded by palm trees, banana trees, and rice paddies, it was a beautiful way to spend the afternoon and a unique insight into the lives of the ordinary people that live on these waters. At any given time, one might see in the water children playing, men fishing, women washing clothes, pots, and pans, or a cow enjoying some grass near the shore.

After an educational and restful weekend, I’m ready for what’s ahead. This week I should be finalizing my day-to-day schedule with my site supervisor, Jaimol Kochamma (who I LOVE!!), which means I will officially start teaching. In addition to this, and in response to the pleas of the girls I live with to continue Sarah’s exercise class, I’m going to start teaching—you guessed it—ZUMBA! So, things are about to get a lot busier. I am ready!!

For those of my readers (ha, like I have ‘readers’) who aren’t on facebook, check out some pictures I’ve posted of my time in Kerala thus far.

Fairly regular stories in the newspaper about elephant rampages, as well as signs that say “Che and football never die—both spread glorious socialism” are fun reminders to this Florida girl that she’s not in Kansas anymore.

What with all the measuring in love I’ve been able to do recently—I don’t think there’s anywhere else I’d rather be, than right where I am. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

penpals, anyone? And a way you can help!

This post was written on September 10 and I am just now getting time to put it up. Hope all is well back home! :D

I now have a mailing address and would LOVE for you to write to me. I promise to write you back!

Madison Munoz
BIGHS Pallom
Pallom PO Kottayam
Kerala 686007 India

But keep reading--you’re going to need the above address for something else later in this post :)

Things at Buchanan are coming along well. There was no school today due to the end of Ramadan, so a couple of girls accompanied me into town to buy some miscellaneous things, including jewelry. It seems that in India, no matter how simple or fancy one’s outfit is, regardless of one’s socio-economic status, one is ‘naked’ without jewelry (earrings, necklace, and a bracelet, whether real or fake). Incidentally, I brought ZERO jewelry with me in my whole quest to live-simply-wear-no-makeup-care-not-about-what-I-look-like-because-that’s-not-why-I’m-here for a year. Not that my lack of jewelry turned into some horrible, immediate problem, but I can’t tell you how many times girls and women of all ages would be talking to me, stop mid-sentence, and with bewilderment and concern ask me, “Don’t you wear jewelry?” So I finally bought some.

Other than shopping, I have spent today brainstorming and thinking about lesson plans and the like. As I mentioned in a previous post, the most obvious thing I’ll be doing here at Buchanan is teaching English classes during the week. A more subtle part of my service, however, that will take place at both scheduled and unscheduled times, comes from where I live—the BI boarding hostel.

Some of you might be thinking, like I originally thought, “wait…I thought a hostel was a cheap place where travelers stay a few nights and then go on their way?” While this is a correct assumption, here, in Kerala, the word “hostel” is used to denote a residential boarding establishment away from one’s home, in the same way we would refer to a college dorm or residence hall. So, I’m basically living in a dorm with young women, ages 18-20, who are students at the Teacher Training Institute (TTI).  (“Buchanan,” as you have heard me refer to it, is technically an institute comprised of several smaller institutions, including TTI).  That being said, surrounded by these outgoing girls who are all basically my peers, the hostel is a pretty lively place to call home.

While many of the girls have had English instruction throughout their years of schooling, they really struggle with conversation and comprehension. So in addition to teaching actual classes at the High School, part of my time at Buchanan will be spent helping the TTI girls at the hostel with their English. I can also organize “for fun” activities. Last year’s volunteer, Sarah, for example, started an exercise class that the girls are asking me to bring back. Last night I taught them how to play Uno.

All of that is to say that the great part of living and working with these girls, in particular, is that I get to be creative with how we work on their English skills. Given all of the requests I have had from them to sing English songs, and given how much listening to Spanish music helped me with my Spanish fluidity and pronunciation, I think music might be one of the ways to do it. Being that I have no music on my computer, and no access to internet…I need your help!

If you are interested in helping these young women improve their English skills, as well as broaden their musical horizons beyond Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On”…make a CD and mail it to me! It can be any kind of music. Currently popular, your old favorites, pop, country, classics from movies or musicals…you name it. Just try to make sure the songs are appropriate, keeping in mind that it’s best to air on the side of prudence, as India’s culture is more conservative than that of the United States. So no, Lil’ Wayne won’t make the cut. That’s really the only prerequisite or “rule”. If you REALLY want to go above and beyond, you can print out the lyrics, so that the girls can simultaneously read and sing along…but worst-case scenario, I can write the lyrics out myself or perhaps type them and find a printer.

In case you have forgotten in the time it has taken you to read this ridiculously long post, my address is at the top.

This is a great, easy way for you to enrich the lives of these girls, allowing them to improve their English in an unconventional way.  Let me know if you have any questions, and most of all, on behalf of Haripriya, Serene, Sruthy, Anu, Saumya, and Renju (those are the only names I know right now)…THANKS!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

friends in unexpected places

'First day of site' picture!
The following post was written the evening of the day I arrived (Wednesday, 9/8) to my primary placement site, Buchanan Institution Girls' High School. I had to save the draft and wait until I located Internet access today.

Well ladies and gentlemen, today is the day: the day that I am on my own in India. This morning, Maggie, Jim, and I awoke to partake of a quick breakfast and leave what had come to be a very comfortable, cushy existence at Achen’s house. Dressed in our churidars, Jim in regular clothes, feeling like we were leaving for the first day of school, we took what Maggie aptly termed a “first day of site” picture.  And off we went.

First, we went to Jim’s site, CMS College. After getting him settled and saying our goodbyes, we left for my site, Buchanan Institution Girls' High School. Maggie left for her site, Nicholson School, shortly after, and since then, it has been nothing less than a whirlwind. I think it’s literally impossible to describe to you the content of my first day here: it’s been filled with gawking, a million knocks on my door by interested little girls, meeting LOTS of people, having mutually hard-to-understand conversations, learning names only to forget them 2 seconds later, being unsure of social decorum, getting lost on campus a couple of times, a significant amount of pantomiming, 3 power outages, my first bucket shower, being asked to sing songs in English (supposedly “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic is a popular request, but I haven’t encountered that one yet—thank goodness), more staring, shy smiles, endless introductions, and no shortage of exuberance from students or teachers. But more than once, I found myself craving a friend who 1) wouldn’t be too intimidated to talk to me, as many of the girls seemed to be (not out of unfriendliness, but rather shyness), 2) would understand my accent, which has so far proven to be problematic, if they were so brave as to start a conversation, 3) I could easily understand, and 4), would not give me special treatment.

Along came Aleena, a fifth grader. With a confidence uncharacteristic of those around her, uncommonly good English, and the kind of honest openness and friendliness that only a fifth grader has, Aleena has been my saving grace today. She is the first person here that I have not had to work to have a conversation with, and who has not treated me any differently because I am a foreigner, a madama.  Walking to dinner with her and chatting the whole way, I found it ironic that my first friend at Buchanan is a ten year old, and that those my own age were shyly trailing behind us. I know they will come around as I learn Malayalam and they become less shy about speaking English around me, and when I am no longer a novelty. All in good time :)

I will certainly miss the predictability of life at Achen’s—the bell that would summon us downstairs for breakfast, lunch, tea, or dinner—Kochamma’s unfailingly delicious food—meaningful conversations with Binu and the others—the fish man’s daily appearances—internet!—and, of course, the companionship of Maggie and Jim, who I miss very much already and who I’m sure are facing similar joys and challenges.

I’m excited, however, to get immersed and involved in life here at Buchanan. All it will take is learning some names, learning some Malayalam, and learning how to teach English—stumbling through all of the above with a smile and depending on the graciousness of others.

If the kindness and welcome, transcending language barriers, I’ve received from the students and teachers is any indication thus far, I think I just might make it.

Update: The very next day, Thursday, the Titanic requests ensued.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

elephants, lots of learning, and looking ahead

India YAVs and 40 yr old female elephant
Yesterday we visited the Kodanad Elephant Training Center. The plan was to go on an elephant ride, but for some reason they weren't doing rides that day. We got to pet/observe them, though--the baby elephants were especially cute. We also spent some time walking around the zoo. I felt bad for the chicken that was trapped in the python enclosure as its next meal. He looked pretty happy, I suppose--ignorance is bliss, as they say. Before leaving the zoo, we had tea at the concession stand—4pm tea time is no joke!

Today, we began as we do every morning: breakfast, deliciously prepared by Kochamma, followed by a time of song and devotion with Achen. Normally after this time we have some sort of lesson, whether about language or a topic related to our new life and surroundings. Today, however, Achen had an errand to run, so Jim, Maggie, and I were left to entertain ourselves. We decided that our first solo trip to Aluva was in order.

We set out, not without instructions and expressions of concern from Kochamma (‘do you have your cell phone? Is it charged?’), and walked to the bus stop. It wasn’t long before we boarded a bus, paid 4.5 rupees each (about $0.05), and were on our way—standing room only.

I am happy to say it was a successful trip; no one got lost or ran over. Maggie and I bought credit for our cell phones, and I bought some new sandals. Jim searched in vain for a Coke (only Pepsi products to be found, it seems).  In order to be on time for lunch, we took a rickshaw home, rather than the bus. It cost 35 rupees, the equivalent of about $0.60.

Here’s some good news: I’m finally getting used to the time difference! Our first day, I woke up at promptly 4:30AM. I laid in bed til 6AM, only to discover that Maggie had been awake the entire time, too. Yesterday, we successfully slept til 6:30AM, and today, 8AM. Hooray!

Achen gives an amazing social justice perspective on the Bible.  Yesterday’s bible study was an even better example, but in the interests of time, I’ll stick with today’s. We discussed Acts 3: 1-10. A lame beggar man asks for money, and Peter and John have none to give. Instead, they give him what they can, and what is worth much more—the beggar is healed. Rather than sustaining the man’s circumstances, Peter reaches out his right hand and helps the man to stand. This is a model for partnership and empowerment in mission—helping people help themselves. The man rejoices and is able to enter the temple, for all to see. Achen explained that this takes on special meaning in the context of India, as dalits (also known as “untouchables”—so low that they fall entirely outside the caste system) are traditionally not allowed in Hindu temples due to their “uncleanliness,” just as the lame beggar man was considered unfit to enter the temple, until he was healed.

In our lessons with Achen, we have been learning about things like…
-the caste system, which is abolished in theory but not in practice
-arranged marriages
-Indian culture, food, and language
-religions present in India, and Kerala's history

While a lot to take in, all of this is to prepare us to better serve in our contexts for the upcoming year. Speaking of which, we are here at Achen’s house until 9/8. On that day, we will each move to our respective sites. For those of you who don’t know what I’ll be doing, here’s a quick run down. My time will be divided between two placements…

Buchanan Institution Girls' High School, where I’ll be teaching high school English.

The Mandiram Society, which is comprised of a home for the elderly destitute, a hospital, an orphanage, and a Nursing School. I’ll be attending to the needs of and visiting the elderly residents, teaching English at the Nursing School, and interacting with the children at the orphanage.

That’s all for now—lots of love from 8,000 miles away <3 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

quick observations

"Learn Malayalam in 30 Days"...delusional.
Today we...

-bought churidars
-saw a person get hit by a car (I don't know if they were okay...I hope so!)
-had our first Malayalam lesson

The food continues to be amazing, and rumor is we're having ice cream for dessert! :D

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Day 1

Parade in Aluva. Check out the elephant! 
Maggie, Jim, and I went on a walk earlier with Thomas John’s son, Binu. He showed us around the area surrounding their house. The landscape is gorgeous in an untamed, tropical sort of way. It reminds me a lot of Central America, actually. I find myself thinking I’m in Costa Rica, or even Nicaragua, and am constantly having to remember: you’re in INDIA. The Muslim call to prayer has so far been useful at bringing me back to that realization. The overt presence and coexistence of so many religions here is really incredible.

On our walk, we passed a long, tightly packed line of people, mostly women, waiting. Binu explained that the women were waiting for their weekly ration of rice and other staples, which are distributed by the government to the poor. As we walked by, we attracted a multitude of stares, not unfriendly, and smiles. And as I smiled back, all I could think of was a comment made by a fellow YAV at orientation, in regards to our commitment to live simply and be part of an underprivileged community for the duration of our service: “We’re rich enough to be poor for a year.”

We returned from our walk and it was soon lunchtime. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Indian culture, utensils such as forks, knives, and spoons are not used. The only utensil utilized, in fact, is your right hand (not the left—it is considered unclean). So, as we sat down to the delicious meal that Betty prepared for us, there was a definite moment of apprehension shared by Jim, Maggie, and me as we all glanced at each other with the same frantic thought: “oh my gosh—we’re about to eat with our hands!” This was bound to be tricky, as there was rice involved.

As we quickly learned, there is a definite art to this practice. We managed pretty well, and laughed a lot at ourselves along the way (as did Thomas John, Betty, and Binu. I would have laughed at me, too!).

We spent the last part of the afternoon in Aluva, a nearby bigger city. We traveled there by bus—what they say about Indian buses is true; they are PACKED!—and spent time walking around the shops. Today was the birthday of a Hindu diety, so there was a parade of schoolchildren of all ages, as well as adults. They wore ornate costumes, sung, danced, and played instruments. Best of all, there was an ELEPHANT at the end! That was definitely one of those ‘whoa,-I’m-in-India’ moments, since I can’t imagine that spectacle ever taking place in the US. It was pretty much awesome.

As Maggie pointed out, however, I’m not sure which parade the onlookers were watching with more interest—the fancy Hindu celebration, or the trio of foreigners walking down the sidewalk. Probably both.