Friday, 28 December 2012

Full Circle

This time last year, I was a ball of nerves. It was the night before my flight to India for the adventure of a lifetime.  Now I sit here, 365 days later, wondering how time can fly so quickly. It really feels like only a short while ago that I flew halfway around the world to embark on a grand adventure.

I have traveled many places before, and even taught in England for a year after university, but going as far away as India was a big leap for me, and I had a lot of uncertainties leading up to my departure date (particularly about food and health, and whether or not I'd be stranded in Mumbai when my flight arrived in the early morning hours two days later...)  Funnily enough, everything worked out just fine!

Most of my family was able to see me off at YVR...

 So, what can happen in a year? I would love to say that the adventures have just kept coming, and to some degree that is true, but it's pretty hard to top celebrating the New Year in a different country.

New Year's Eve in India! What a way to start.
 For the three months I lived at Sangam and worked in the nearby community I experienced so many amazing things. I tried new food (mmm...kulfi and dosas. Even the McSpicy Paneer burger is pretty great.), learned how to get on and off a moving city bus, practically perfected sari tying, got a taste of the Indian education system, rode a camel, drove a rickshaw, and safely crossed busy streets. Better than all of that, however, I gained a whole new group of friends.  Sure, most of us don't live anywhere near each other but the bonds of Guiding/Scouting (and Facebook) help keep us connected. Perhaps our paths will cross again one day soon.
Our welcoming ceremony at Sangam. 
Kim and I on our camels. They were SO huge!

Driving a rickshaw requires a fair bit of coordination -- you shift gears on the handles.
(Yes, this photo is staged. Krista's coffee would be in her lap if I was really driving.)

The rest of my year was just as busy, but definitely not as exciting as the first three months. I came home at the end of March to 5 degree weather and rain. Lot's of rain. I don't think I properly warmed up until the middle of July.  My spring was full of teaching and sharing about my time India with friends, family, and Guide units. I've lost track of how many units I visited -- and there are more still to come.  I also hosted an Indian afternoon which gave my sisters an excuse to wear their saris and my friends an opportunity to enjoy some home cooked Indian food. I put my Sangam cook book to good use that day!  I'll post about those events in greater detail soon -- there are some fun things to mention. I started writing about them but then got distracted, naturally.  (I only just finished putting together my second photo album yesterday. I have at least one more to go...)  In amongst all of that, I applied to Grad school and am now working on finishing my MEd, while pretty much working full time.  Yikes!

All in all, 2012 has been an amazing year.  I am forever changed by my experiences in India and very thankful for the community in which I live where it is very easy to continue experiencing so much of the wonderful Indian culture through food, music, festivals, and even my students.

My local Indian takeaway. Delish!

Here's to a new year, with new adventures!

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Return

It's hard to sum up three months into just a few paragraphs… A year ago, I never would
have imagined myself embarking on an adventure to the other side of the globe and now here I sit, reflecting on my time as a Tare at Sangam. How thankful I am for this amazing and life changing experience!
For three months, I worked at Anand Gram School teaching English to the children who live on site as well as in the nearby village. This position was equal parts challenging and rewarding as learned to how teach within a different education system. Spending time with each class of
students from 3rd Standard all the way up to 7th Standard was always exciting and their enthusiasm for learning English made riding the bus to school each day completely worth it.
I feel that, even in the short time we had with them, I have helped to make a lasting impact on their understanding of the world beyond them, as well as the potential they have to go out and accomplish great things. Seeing their smiling faces each day as also reaffirmed that I have this potential too; they have taught me just as much, if not more, than I have taught them.
As a part of the Community Programme, you are able to immerse yourself in so many aspects of Indian culture all while living in the safe and supportive environment that Sangam naturally gives. Being a Tare, I gained more than just friends, I gained a family. The time I have shared with everyone here will be treasured forever. We have laughed together and cried together, sharing and supporting each other in our journeys. I am coming away from this experience with a better understanding of myself, a renewed passion for education, and a desire to promote awareness of global issues. This truly has been the most amazing time and it has been a privilege to share it with such wonderful people. I can't wait for our paths to cross again.

So now this chapter is closing and a new one is beginning. I'm not sure what it will hold, but I am confident that it's going to be great. Once I get used to a new, colder climate, that is. One thing is for certain, though, I see India in my future again.

Sunday, 18 March 2012


Moving to India for 3 months required some forethought. Below, you see my things laid out, ready to be packed.
I managed to fit everything in this awesome bag borrowed from my friend Lisa. Woo hoo.
Now, with just under two weeks left, I'm starting to think about getting stuff home. I seem to have acquired quite a bit and I've had to go buy an additional suitcase. For the record, I'd like to point out that I am not the only one in this position! There have also been several trips to the post office recently...
The crazy thing is that the bag I bought today at Laxmi Road is actually bigger than the one I started with. It's pretty full already, after my trial run at packing, and I still have a few more things to squeeze in.

Fingers crossed!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

I Heart Recycling

I love India and it is a great place to live. However, one thing that I have not been able to come to terms with is the amount of garbage I see everywhere.

But, rather than taint my viewpoint of this marvelous country, it has caused me to reflect upon my own environmental footprint. Back home in Canada I recycle quite a bit (I even compost!) but I will admit that there are far too many things I just simply throw away. Out of site, out of mind -- we have dumps away from the cities where all of our garbage goes. Do you?

Recycling is not a foreign concept in India, it just seems to be taking time to gain momentum in a way we are familiar with. Thankfully there are organizations, such as eCoexist - one of Sangam's community partners - that are making efforts to shift the practices of people here. One such way is by promoting the use of eco-friendly canvas bags instead of plastic carrier bags (which are everywhere). It's also worth mentioning that Mumbai's Dharavi slum (one of the largest in the world) has incorporated recycling waste from the city into its own self sufficient economy. I have seen evidence of this resourcefulness in areas of Pune as well.

So, as I prepare to return to Canada, where just about anything I need or want is right at my finger tips (excess packaging included), I am now more conscious of my contribution to that big waste facility that I cannot see outside my door.

Have you thought about your footprint today?

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Holy Moly Holi

My first introduction to the Holi festival was through an episode of the Amazing Race where the teams had to race through a crowd of people to find their clues, all while having coloured powder and water thrown in their faces. That's pretty much how it is, although much less staged and loads of fun!

Holi festival takes place at the end of the Winter, in Spring (aka the two days before it gets really hot) and is a celebration of colour, light coming out of dark, etc. Indians love celebration and have some sort of festival each month of the year; Holi is one of the big ones.

Our festivities kicked off with our Children's Camp, where some of the children came from each of our sites for a day of activities and a holi party. It was great to interact with them on a smallerscale and see them out of their school environment where they could just be free and excited. The camel rides were a highlight for them and I really enjoyed my ride with Vishl.

eCoexist provided the natural holi colours and the kids had a blast throwing the coloured powders at us and each other.

On Thursday we celebrated together with eCoexist at a big party on the Sangam campground -- this time with water. Imagine a giant water fight with crazy sized water guns. Or just massive buckets.
After going crazy with the natural colours we decided to venture beyond the gates of Sangam to the streets of our neighbourhood to see how the locals were celebrating. As you can see by the vibrant (and chemically altered) colours on our faces and clothing -- it was a party out there.

"Ranga pancha" is the fifth day of Holi and it just happened to fall on a school day. Our afternoon at Anand Gram involved absolutely no teaching. Instead the teachers started throwing colours at each other and naturally the students, Elly, and I joined in!

Saturday, 3 March 2012

A Teacher in India

I love being a teacher; it is woven into every aspect of my being. I am deeply passionate about education and providing opportunities for students to recognize their potential, which is why I was eager to work at Anand Gram School.
Settling into the teaching here was a challenge initially, as it is so different to what I know and do in BC, but I feel that together Elly and I have made some good progress and it's hard to believe that our time here is nearly over. From the beginning we have focused on teaching essential English skills in a way that would hopefully make them excited to continue their language students. We were also hopeful that the teachers would see some new teaching strategies...

It has been a remarkable journey, learning to work within an almost entirely different system. We have bonded with our students for sure; there are some great personalities that will never be forgotten. 3rd Standard has some real gems. Harshal, who chased us down the lane last week to return my star pointer. We could hear in the distance "Madam! Nadia Madam! Elly Madam!" and turned around to see him running towards us with that ever-present beaming smile on his face. There is also Dipak, who we only taught a few times before he switched classes, but whom we argue over which one of us will take him home. Vishal and Sandeep, with their politeness and hard work -- they have learned so much!
Then in 6th there is Sonali, with her gentleness and infectious giggle, and Akshay, who is our comedic translator. Mahesh, the delightful keener, who is always trying to make sure his group is listening.

5th Standard is the lively group with a lot of kids that aren't yet aware they have the potential to succeed. Hopefully we've made some progress in this area... My fondest memory from this group is when Nikhil's father came up and spoke (in broken English) with us about us teaching English to his son. This was while we were waiting for our bus home on the main road!
Our singers and quick learners can be found in 4th Standard! Nagsh, who was so excited about his ABC notebook that he took it home to write in. Shamboh, Vijay, Ajay and Protiraj who share their ideas freely and with exuberance.
I could probably keep going, but with 50+ kids in 4 different classes (most of whose names I've learned!!) this would be a very long post. So, I will conclude with a favourite quote of mine:
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
~ Nelson Mandela
I hope we provided opportunities for positive change during our time at Anand Gram.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

World Thinking Day

Waaay back when I was a Brownie, I remember learning about the four World Centres as part of our Thinking Day activities. The memory is so clear, I can even picture us all sitting in a circle looking at the pictures in our Programme books! I don't think I ever really imagined that I would have the opportunity to be at a World Centre on Thinking Day itself, but when I was in the process of applying to become a Tare, that was one of the first things that crossed my mind.
I don't really have words to describe how it felt to be across the world, with my Guiding and Scouting sisters, celebrating the birthdays of our founders, Lord and Lady Baden-Powell. So, I write this blog with a caveat that it isn't likely to be very eloquent... ;)

In true Indian fashion, our morning began with a flag and welcome ceremony in the campground under the jazzed up stage tent with 250 or so members of the Bharat Scouts and Guides from the Pune area. Then the Guides and Scouts participated in crafts and games activities organized by the event participants. As as Tare, I was a floater and so able to see bits and pieces of everything.
Throughout the morning various groups came and made presentations to the dignitaries on the stage, which ranged from modern dances, drumming, and traditional dances. I even got to try twirling a giant baton thing with some of the girls.
Our regular Wednesday Tare activities followed...Hindi lessons and rest (this week!) The evening was the highlight of the day for me as the Sangam Family (and we are indeed a family now) joined together with event participants for our special Thinking Day Ceremony.
Carrying the flag in the procession and representing Canadian Girl Guides with Olivia was an honour -- I hope we have done our organization proud during our time at Sangam.
The poolside readings and songs were thought provoking and setting our tea lights afloat at the end added to the overall ambiance. Our ceremony concluded at the Thinking Day tree, adorned with cards and letters from Guides and Scouts around the world.
It was truly a remarkable, memorable day. One for the history books.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Northern-ish Delights

Everyone loves a long weekend, right? Last week, eight of us Tare took a vacation from our "vacation" (working in India) and capitalized on Shiva's birthday, heading further north to explore the wonders of India. We touched down the first night in the super fancy New Delhi airport, however didn't stay long as our mini bus was waiting for us just outside. Hiring a car and driver is a fairly common way to travel here and surprisingly cost efficient. It also makes for an entertaining ride -- the Bollywood tunes were pumping into the night as we made the four hour journey to Agra. Even in the dark, the sights along the way were amazing. Sleepy little villages right next to massive, lit up temples and industrial parks or colleges. At about one o'clock in the morning we pulled over at a random little stand, that was not much more than a tin shed on the side of the road, and had freshly made chai while someone slept bundled up on a cot in another tin shed. Despite arriving at our hotel in the wee hours of the morning, we still managed to get up early enough to enjoy breakfast in the roof top restaurant and have a full day exploring the Taj Mahal and Red Fort. It's hard to put into words what the Taj is like, so I'll show you a photo instead:
It's a pretty amazing building from far away and the closer you get the more you are able to appreciate the details and craftsmanship that went into this marble monument to love. The story goes that after the Taj Mahal was completed, Shah Jahan had the hands of all the workers cut off so that they could never build anything as spectacular again. I don't know, maybe that's just an urban legend... Either way, it's size and solidity are indeed remarkable.
Our drive back to Delhi was more eventful than expected -- about an hour into the drive something blew in the engine preventing us from going any faster than 40km/hr. Now, many people might be frustrated at the slow pace (the rickshaws and horse-driven carts behind us for example) but I found it to be a great blessing. Instead of whirring past things at crazy Indian speed, we were able to have a leisurely, scenic tour of the villages and countryside we'd passed only two nights before. Rural India is something to treasure and I wish we'd had the opportunity to spend more time exploring this laid back part of the country. The tranquility was gone as we approached Delhi late in the afternoon...
Exploring the Main Bazaar in the Paharganj area of the city on a Friday night was an adrenaline rush and gave me many opportunities to fine tune my bartering skills. :) Another early morning departure for the first of three long train journeys and my introduction to the Indian Railway system. We're on our way to the deserts of Rajasthan! I love riding trains and wish I had the opportunity to ride them more often; it was one of my favourite things about living in England and travelling through Europe. Indian trains are quite different, especially if you go the way of the regulars and experience Sleeper Class. Despite the steady flow of people getting on and off, and lack of closed compartments, I had a decent amount of sleep on the overnight journey from Jaipur to Jaisalmer.
I attribute this mainly to the lovely pashmina blanket I bought at a shop in Jaipur which shielded me from the wind. I am also thankful for Bec and her jasmine oil which, when dabbed on a scarf, helps to diffuse the horrid smells at the stations. Sadly, I can never use this scent again...
The excitement was building as we arrived in Jaisalmer, ready to begin our desert safari and camel trek. At this point, I'd like to give a shout out to Trotters Independent Travels, the best place in Rajasthan for authentic non-touristy camel trekking ("Unique Safaris from Half Day to 21 Days). The only other people we saw on our whole trek were across the sand dunes at least 5km away.
By far, the camel trek was the best part of this trip. I have done a lot of camping in my life but nothing compares to waking up in the desert to fresh chai after being tucked into bed the night before by your desert guides, with a vast sky of stars to put you to sleep.
Two hours of riding on a camel is more than enough at a time. I think I may still have some bruising. But, my camel Lilyia and my young guide Rohit were pleasant company. If it weren't for the occasional ring of a mobile phone, it was like I'd travelled back in time 2,000 years.
Our three Rajasthani desert men were fantastic guides. Their campfire chapatis and dal were the best I've had to date and we were all mesmerized by their traditional stories and songs.
But alas, all great holidays must come to an end. After 6 crazy days it was time to come home to Sangam.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Hindi 101

मेरा नाम नदिया है मई हिंदी बाल्टी हूँ मई कनाडियन हूँ मई संगम जाती हु अप हिंदी बोलती है

One of the great things about being a part of the Community Program at Sangam is all the extra cultural activities we participate in on our Wednesdays 'off'. A big selling point for me, when researching the program, was that we would get Hindi lessons. I love languages and wish I could be fluent in all but I will settle for knowing bits and pieces of a few.

So, that script above should say (if the 'type in Hindi' button was accurate) "Mera nam Nadia hai, mai hindi balti hun. mai Canadian hun, mai Sangam jaati hun. ap hindi bolti hai" which means "My name is Nadia and I speak Hindi. I am Canadian and I stay at Sangam. Do you speak Hindi?". I can also say a few other things and will now attempt to give you a quick lesson in key Hindi words:
  • jaldi -- fast
  • basa -- sit
  • kitna? -- How much?
  • ha (with a nasal sound -- yes
  • nahee -- no

Now for some important sentences:

  • mujhe _____ pasand hai.
  • I like....

For example: mujhe chai pasand hai. I like chai. or mujhe imli pasand nahee hai. I do not like tamarind.

I really could go on an on about all the great things we're learning to say but what I love most is that I'm starting to use it a bit with the students at Anand Gram as well as rickshaw drivers. We learned a whole rickshaw conversation -- provided the driver follows the script, I'll be good to go.

When I get home, I'd be more than happy to share with you my new knowledge... :)

Monday, 6 February 2012

School Days

It has been about three weeks since Elly and I started our volunteer work at Anand Gram and each day it seems there is something new for us to learn as we try to understand how this school is run.
School officially starts at 11:30 (although sometimes it is 11:15...) with a morning assembly on the outside stage which provides some relief from the heat in the summer. Here, the students are led in some quick calisthenics, they sing their national anthem (which I am slowly catching onto in Hindi!), and recite the Pledge of India. This is followed by Hindu chanting and meditation. Every now and again, a student or two will recite something in front of the whole school, and then we all clap for them. Did I mention that there are about 350 students at this school, only 8 teachers, and each class has anywhere between 40 and 65 students? Yikes! These numbers fluctuate daily it seems. Attendance is .... varied. :) Many of the students come from the villages that have sprouted up around the site as well as those that live at the orphanage there. (Check Anand Gram to get more information about this Society).

After this the students file back into the school and to their respective classrooms and the teachers go off into the staff room for bit. Around noon, the teachers make their way into class. As for our schedule, the teachers have asked Elly and I to teach English to three different classes a day for one hour each, covering Standards 3 to 6 (and now they would like us to do 7 as well). That's a lot of prep!! We've discovered that there are great variations in the English abilities between the Standards (as to be expected) but also huge differences within each class. Schooling in India seems to be mainly rote and the teacher in me struggles with that method, especially in light of recent coursework. However, given the class sizes, I can appreciate the need to teach this way although I suspect that it is easy for kids to slip through the cracks...

There are some other aspects of this school that I have found much more challenging than their methodology. Corporal punishment has been illegal in India for about five years now, but it seems that things are slow to change in this little school way on the outskirts of Pune.
The other week, as the children arrived and lined up in their class groups, if they were not in uniform (or the new one the had just been given) they were either slapped across the face, smacked repeatedly on the back, or (if they were lucky) sent home to change. I found this really hard to watch and it left us both very unsettled. I'm sure my gasp was audible to the students nearest to me. Despite this horrible start, the time with the kids that day was really great, we left feeling enthusiastic about what our impact on the students could be. Conversations were had when we got back to Sangam that day, in an effort to understand this discrepancy in punishment style.

The following Monday, the teacher who had been implementing most of the abuse, made a point of initiating conversation at lunch time about the reasons for this kind of punishment (a term that he used) at Anand Gram. While I do not agree, I a) appreciate his willingness to help us understand, despite broken English and b) recognize that this is part of the culture at Anand Gram particularly and that our Western 'punishment' (discipline, consequences...) wouldn't work immediately. There would need to be a huge shift in belief and practice. Elly and I felt more comfortable after this conversation, knowing that they were aware of our feelings towards such punishments. Conversations around this continued on Tuesday as well. Some of the teachers are curious about how we manage students in Canada and England without hitting them...

So now, I look to the next 7 weeks with mixed emotions. It's hard to feel like you can make a positive impact in a situation that seems to be stuck in the past. I am hopeful that between the two of us we can model some other teaching strategies that promote classroom environments based on trust and respect, not fear. For example, today I showed the teachers another use for a stick -- I made a star pointer to use in our vocabulary lessons. :-) Both the kids and the teachers loved it. Small steps....

All this uncomfortable stuff aside, the kids are generally really lovely and super keen to learn English. Naturally, every class has their clowns, hard workers, helpers, and mischief-makers -- just like at home. But, seeing their smiling faces and hearing echoes of "Good afternoon, Madam. Namaste." every time we walk into the classroom sure makes it all a little better. We've got some real characters that we're teaching and I can't wait to get to know them better.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Busin' About

An exceptionally empty bus!?!
When I was preparing to come to India, it never really occured to me that I would have to take the bus anywhere. But, as it turns out, Elly and I are the two Tare who ride the bus each day to our Partner site, Anand Gram. Perhaps many of you have an idea in your head of bus travel in India. If it looks anything like this, you're on the right track.
Fortunately, this type of scenario seems rare in Pune, although it is very common to find 4 or so people holding on in the rear stairwell because there isn't room elsewhere on the bus. Why, just last week that was me! Thankfully, it wasn't for very long -- after a minute or so things shuffled enough that I could push through the crowd and actually be standing in the bus. My general rule when I'm riding on the stairs of the bus (yes, I have a general rule for this now) is to hold on tight and don't look behind me at everything we're zooming past.
Somethings to note about riding buses here:
Everything is written in Marathi. I don't read Marathi, so this is a challenge. Our typical tactics are to flag down any public bus that is coming and as it slows down (they don't really stop) we shout "Alandi?!?" to the conductor at the back and if he bobbles his head in that lovely Indian fashion we run and hop on. Yes, run. The other day, I still had one foot 'on the ground' (mid-air) when the bus picked up speed. After successfully boarding a moving vehicle, it is then time to communicate with the conductor our destination. Me: "Kate Vashti, 2." "Kaste Vashti?" "Ha." (This means yes in Hindi) Money is exchanged and we hold on for a wild ride. Of the 20 or so bus trips we've had to date we've been able to sit for about half. A few times some courteous locals have given up their seats for us. This is because they want to talk to foreigners. :) There is definite crowding, although nothing like 'super-dense-crush-mode' which, believe it or not, is a form of measurement for train carriages in Mumbai. I await, with trepidation, the summer season when things really start to heat up. What will the buses be like then??
So, as our stop approaches, we begin to make our way (if possible) to the front of the bus where exiting is meant to occur. Thankfully, the conductor rings the bell to let the driver know he should slow down -- just a bit -- because two people want to get off. The cool thing is that this bell is really a bell, on a yellow rope, that hangs the length of the bus and jingles just above the driver's head. Truthfully, I'm not sure how he hears it over the roar of the engine, grinding of gears and squealing of breaks... We brace ourselves for the hasty exit, fearful of getting left hanging mid leap.
This is Elly and I on our first bus ride. It's blurry because it was fast and bumpy --going over speed bumps it felt a bit like the downward motion on a roller coaster where you're kind of hanging and gravity hasn't kicked in yet. But hey, at least we're sitting.
Another thing to note about Pune buses, is that most don't have doors. On Friday afternoon's bus, some of the vertical bars weren't attached to the ceilings anymore... that made for an interesting ride.
I wish I could share some more photos of our bus rides but, quite frankly, I need to hold on with both hands. :) The good news is that I am starting to enjoy this daily routine and it gets easier each day. We've yet to get on the wrong bus, so that's always a bonus. I have conquered rickshaws and buses; next on the list is trains...

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Indian Essence

What's the date today? I can't believe it's the 22nd of January and I've been here almost one month. The time has just flown by in a whirlwind of activity, so I thought I'd take a moment to reflect upon some of the highlights of my time in India so far. Pictures included, of course. The Tare (pronounced Tar-ay, in case you were wondering like I was at the beginning) had the benefit of participating in the Essence of India event as part of our orientation, and what a great event it was. (Thanks SVs!!)
Here are just a few of my favourite things we did:
1) Sari, bangle, and bindi shopping on Laxmi Road
2) Exploring Phule Nagar, the neighbourhood across the road from Sangam
3) The Pune Challenge -- a bit like The Amazing Race (minus the whole "last team to check in may be eliminated" thing), where we had to navigate our way to specific locations via Rickshaws. Everytime I get in a rickshaw I feel like I'm on The Amazing Race a) because I'm never completely sure they've understood/know where I want them to take me and b) I have this crazy urge to shout "Jaldi! Jaldi!" which means "Fast!Fast!" in Hindi.
4) Visiting an Indian Family for dinner and having spicy food. The food at Sangam is farely tame, due to the 'international flavour' of the place.
5) Our Indian Afternoon, complete with a lesson in tying our saris (and then wearing them), chai (yum!), mehendi, and a traditional Maharastrian Wedding Feast -- and I mean feast! There is no end to the food. Oh yes, and playing badminton in our saris. I realize this is not particularly Indian, but it's really worth trying.
6) Learning about some of the WAGGGS initiatives to do with gender equality and the other UN MDGs.
7) Bollywood Dance lessons and a Bollywood movie night. We watched an Aamir Khan movie which in English is called "Every Child is Special". Not your typical bollywood flick, but sooo great. To all my teacher friends: you need to see this film.
At the end of the two weeks it was hard to say good-bye to Maxine, Anne, and Christine; they felt like part of the Tare team. But, the great thing about Guiding is that our paths could very well cross again.
Onto the next part of the adventure...the Community Program!