Tuesday, May 8, 2012

peer pressure.

I like to think of myself as a risk taker: I often find myself keen to push the limits, more than ready to take on new experiences and often times making rash decisions just because I feel like it and want a bit of excitement. Sure I might not be the toughest when it comes to monkeys, but aside from that, I have managed quite well for myself here in India.

So last night when my advisor group dared me to go on the local ferris wheel, I scoffed in their faces and got in line. Five minutes later I was more than ready to accept defeat.

Normally I don't even bother with the ferris wheel, deeming it too sissy for my tastes, and opting for the much more intense upside down roller coasters. But the ferris wheels, actually, any theme park ride, is not even close to comparable to those here; this was no 'normal' ferris wheel.

To begin with, there was no strap to keep my body from ejecting from the 'RIDE' at any given moment. There was a bar that was a good seven inches above my lap, and that was it. The seat I was in had to be about 40-50 years old, held together by rickety metal poles which were in some parts, almost completely rusted through. We had to sit individually, so I could not guilt trip my students,  there were absolutely no soft landing spots in the vicinity if I chose to jump (or fall), and above all, it was a man powered ferris wheel...
Who needs electronics when you can get a certifiably crazy man willing to risk his life contorting his body into crazy aerobic positions in order to make the wheel spin?
The thing about man power is that sometimes it is hard to stop; you gain the momentum and then you have to slow down; there is no instant abort button. We quickly gained momentum and my seat was rocking so hard that i was quite certain it would start flipping in circles at any second. This man had power, think the teacups at Disney on full speed mixed with the tilt a whirl from hell.
Certain of my impending death, I spent the ten minute 'experieince' with my eyes closed, arms gripped on the bars as tightly as possible, and mouth shut, afraid of the curse words I would begin to yell at the students if I opened it. Luckily, most of the kids were just as afraid as I was; turns out they talk big.
All in all, not the best ten minutes of my life. But, I have been meaning to ride the ferris wheel before leaving, and definitely will not need to do that again in life. Ever.

To get back at my advisees, I forced them to play dress up at one of the numerous tourist stands which line the bazaar these days, careful to remind them about lice as they put the head paraphernalia on. We were the source of entertainment for numerous tourists and locals, and the kids absolutely ate it up, fully embodying the Garhwali character presented by the hideous flee infested outfits.
As one of our last nights together as a group, it was absolutely wonderful; these ten students are definitely one of the things I will miss most.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


The monkeys are becoming smarter and it appears that recently they have learned the art of breaking and entering...

When we get groceries here, we call in our order and then a few hours later it is delivered, not in a truck, but on a man's back. Every Sunday we go through the same routine: unload the goods, feed the coolie some juice, perform some kind of first aid on the man (last week it was a band-aid for a scratch inflicted by a passing motor bike and the week before, duct tape for his god awful smelling excuse of a shoe), pay a tip of about one dollar, and then go on our way. We rarely ever get around to putting the groceries away in a timely matter.

So, as always, 2 Sundays ago, the groceries were sitting on the table waiting for us to get a burst of motivation. Sometime in the two hours that followed, a monkey opened the door, came inside and grabbed only the bread, opting not for the eggs, broccoli, or cheese, then left, shutting the door behind him. It wasn't until we went to leave the house and noticed the empty bread bag in the yard that we realized we had been victims of theft. Word must have spread round the monkey community, because this Sunday they were back and ready for more groceries.
Nan had a group of 13 Eighth grade girls over for a brunch and they were in the kitchen cooking. I was upstairs showering when the first shouts began. Turns out, a few monkeys had opened the door and come inside, frightening the girls and stealing our precious bananas for the week. I was sad for a few minutes and got on with things when the second round of screaming began.

What followed was absolute disorder and confusion, which I am slowly attempting to block from my memory.

According to the girls, a few monkeys came into the kitchen where they were making pancakes, grabbed the last banana and then ran out, afraid of the teenage shrieking (rightfully so, Woodstock students are completley petrified of the monkeys). However there was a major issue: one of the monkeys panicked, and rather than going out the door it came in, it ran up the steps. There I was, fresh out of the shower, when I saw what I thought was a dog run past. It took about 30 seconds for me to realize that, no, we do not have a pet dog and this might be a bit larger of an issue.

Not ready to admit defeat, I peered around the corner of my bedroom door and watched as a monkey bounced on my bed, rammed into all of my things, played with my pillow, and stared at me with a freaking banana in its mouth....

I would like to think that I handled the situation as most people would do, by screaming bloody murder on repeat and eventually having enough nerve to yell for my sling shot...What I was going to do with the ammo-less sling shot I still don't know, but it seemed like the best option at the time.

Tiring with the exploration of my room, and afraid of the crazy lady, the monkey decided to run into Nan's room, where he again proceeded to bounce off the walls as I watched in terror. By this point I was boarderline heart trauma, and instead of attempting to save the day, all I could think about was rabies, and how I have been so proud of myself for making it two years rabies free, but now that would all go down the drain. A few minutes of tag mixed with hide and seek proceeded, with me still screaming at him all the while and the girls screaming from downstairs, 'Ms. Shriver, are you OK?!"
Finally I decided the best option would be to sacrifice myself by cornering the monster in hopes that after a quick bite he would sense his escape route and not harm the students. I was about to hatch out my plan when Nan, the superior of the primates, arrived in full survival mode to save the day.

We shut all the doors except the one to Nan's room and she managed to stick her head in through a window to scare it out. He ran downstairs where he got another quick dose of screaming from a bunch of eighth grade girls, before he made a grand exit out of the front door, victory banana in his mouth, leaving behind a few peels and many foot prints.
In a final desperate act to redeem myself, I threw some clothes on and headed downstairs to recount the situation with the girls, hoping to laugh it off. It didn't happen and I found myself incapable of proper speech. It took a solid two hours before I had calmed down and was able to semi function; after all, it is not everyday that a wild beast is in your bedroom.

Monday morning at school, word had already spread through the eighth grade about my freak out and the incident. One student asked me if I had washed my sheets yet. I responded with a laugh and said, 'Are you kidding? I don't have a washing machine and I am not about to bucket wash my sheets then hang them up to dry so the monkeys can play on them again". The room went silent with disgust and I had an epiphany of sorts; I still have a long way to go before I qualify as a real adult.

Long story short, my room is currently infested with monkey germs (although I did flip over my pillow), my heart beat is still a bit irregular, my fear of the monkeys is now worse than it has ever been before, I jump at the slightest movements, and to top it all off, now my joints hurt because my potassium level is out of whack...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

freedom in exile.

This past week, Rebecca and I braved the travel gods and made the journey to Dharamsala in the only way possible: by bus, resulting in one of the more interesting bus rides so far...
Usually I have the uncanny ability to fall asleep on public transportation, however a 14 hour overnight city bus that involves sitting on the back bench seat, which does not recline, with four other people, is not my idea of ideal. Especially when you are in the middle of the bench and get no breeze from the windows. Once about every five minutes we would be speeding along and hit a mighty big bump, amplified by 20 thanks to the incessant speed at which we were going. My head hit the ceiling. Twice. Sleep was absolutely not an option, and so by the time we pulled into Dharamsala, I was entirely removed from myself and in a zombie state. 
Above Dharamsala, in Mcleod Ganj, is where we spent all of our time. It is home to the Tibetan government in exile as well as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and hundreds of other Tibetan refugees. Thanks to a pretty open schedule, I was able to spend a lot of time interacting with the locals and hearing their stories. In America, barely anyone knows the story of Tibet. Sure I had seen the Free Tibet t shirts and bumper stickers back home, but living preoccupied, I never stopped or bothered to learn the full story. So here is a quick history lesson for those of you who might need a refresher:

In 1949, the Chinese government marched in and took over, or as they say, "peacefully liberated" Tibet. Since then about 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed, and about 90% of their cultural heritage has been destroyed. More than 250,000 refugees (including the Dalai Lama) have fled their homeland, traveling by FOOT over the Himalaya, to seek sanctuary in India and Nepal, hoping to find freedom in exile.

Still today, China continues to invade Tibet, forcing the people to face unimaginable persecution. 
Time is becoming more of the essence considering that the Dalai Lama is getting older, and the Panchen Lama, the monk who is supposed to pick the next Dali Lama, was abducted by the Chinese government when he was six and hasn't been seen or heard from since.

Public protests are becoming more and more common over here in India: just the other week in Delhi, a 28 year old man who had fled Tibet 5 years before, lit himself on fire in public, just to make a point to China that what they are doing is unethical. This has been the 29th person to light themselves on fire in the past year. Hearing students talk about it, I knew I needed to learn more, and what better place than Dharamsala?

Many of the Tibetan refugees have relocated to Mcleod Ganj, making it the center for Tibetan exiles. We were able to visit many museums and monuments about the past 60 years in Tibet and it was absolutely shocking. I left each feeling an overwhelming urge to do something to help out, to at least spread the word and break the silence, sharing the story that is always under wraps.

If you're interesting in learning more, or helping out in anyway, try checking out 
Many of our days were spent walking from palace to museum to temple to palace to restaurant, and repeat. But we also had a good chunk of time to spend with fellow tourists. Rightfully so, McLeod Ganj boasts many volunteers from all over the world, one of them led an afternoon session on making trash wallets, and of course I attended. There were about 20 people there, and for every 5, a new language was spoken. This made it quite hilarious, especially considering everyone was frustrated and swearing in their respective native tongues. I managed to construct what a few might consider a masterpiece, although the milk box wasn't properly washed to it carries a nice, natural aroma...
Tibetan people are easily the nicest people I have come across in my travels. They are genuinely interested in what everyone has to say, appreciate all that life has to offer, and are constantly insightful. It was great to simply sit in the middle of the bazaar and watch time go by. As one of my last travels in India, I am very satisfied with the way it turned out. Mcleod Ganj has a rejuvenating and peaceful quality and I left feeling more than ready to take on the fourth quarter. 
Throughout India, including in Mussoorie, there are many Tibetan orphanages and schools; these children either made the journey here with family friends while their parents stayed behind in opression, or they never made it all the way here. On our way back from the village a few weeks back, we stopped for momo's at Happy Valley, the local Tibetan school and refuge. Two of the students who were with us are Tibetan and we were able to arrange what could easily have been the event of the month, a basketball game involving their staff, and Woodstock students.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

complicated simple life.

I have always envied the simple life. The people who know how to work the land and make something out of nothing; the idea of being able to sustain yourself. And so when activity week rolled around and I was headed to a nearby village, Gaird, with a group of 14 ninth graders and 3 other chaperones, I was beyond excited. We fully immersed ourselves, living life the way the villagers do, and well, it was hard.

It felt as if I had stepped back in time; how could a community be living without modern day conveniences or any connection to the outside world (other than the occasional mobile phone)? Our entire group felt the overwhelming hit of culture shock unlike any of us had ever felt before.
Akansha and Kheytson in front of Gaird
Perhaps the best example of how differently this culture operated comes from our second night. We were camping in tents, and the first night me and a few other girls had heard rocks being thrown down at the tents. We approached the village leader about it the next day, and he assumed that because we were women, we were making it all up (I won't even get started with how many tiffs I had with this man). After attempting to put up a fight that consisted of me telling students what I wanted to say and them translating, we gave up and headed back down to our camp.

About 20 minutes later, as one of the girls was zipping up her tent, a rock came in and hit her hand. She of course was a bit shaken, and acted in typical ninth grade girl style, crying and screaming. The entire village came out of their homes, and began frantically searching for the culprits. Turns out, it was just two 8 year old boys who were trying to scare us.

Now, in most Western countries, the boys would be given a stern talking to and maybe be grounded for a day or two. These boys were literally thrown down the hill by a pack of angry men, brought in front of us, forced to apologize and then beat repeatably as we watched helpless.

After about three minutes of hell we were able to get them to bring it back up to the main square, but the pack of men returned a few minutes later, this time bringing with the parents of the boys, who were fighting on their children's half. This proved to be exciting. By this point I had gotten all the kids into their tents, and the one chaperone of us who actually speaks Hindi, was trying to do damage control with the leader of the village a ways away. That left me and two other twenty something year olds with a pack of grown, pissed off men. I tried to get them to stop, yelling "Bas" over and over, and started to be pushed around before I decided I should probably back off. Luckily we didn't have to deal any blows and somehow we were able to usher them away and calm things down.

This is the way that problems are dealt with in the village. They don't just acknowledge a problem, they see to it that it will never happen again. The next morning we met with a group of the men and explained it as if we were the wrong ones, because we didn't know how to respond since this isn't how things are dealt with in our culture; explaining that many of the kids have never even been spanked. The men couldn't believe it, but they apologized and all was well.

After that, we felt we had fully been initiated into the village life. Once again, we were wrong.
Each afternoon we lead PRA sessions with the villagers. The girls would interview the women, and the boys the men in hopes that if the men were not around, the women would not clam up. We had a different focus topic each day, all of which centered around the difficulties and problems of daily life. We worked it down to a list of eight problems which the kids will bring down and present to the Magistrate in Dehradun, hoping to push for some sort of change.

These women are incredible. They wake at four each morning and work non stop until 10, taking their only breaks when they are eating meals. Wood is scarce, and to collect any they have to hike to the top of the local mountain, gather a bundle of sticks that they then carry back home on their heads, taking a total of about four hours. To get water they either have to walk two hours to the river, or to the village gate where there is one little hose they can use as long as people take turns. There is no medical care whatsoever and often they have to walk half a day to Dehradun if they need a doctor. They are often abused physically and verbally, many of them cannot even afford to send their children to primary school, and it eats them up.

At one point, a woman turned to me and said, "Here, take him, take my baby. I will miss him, but he will have such a better life with you"... I was left absolutely speechless and heartbroken. How are you supposed to respond to such a plea?

I am so privileged it is pathetic, who am I to not offer my help and services when I have so much going for me? Luckily, because the kids were translating, they were able to break the spell of my silence, explaining to the lady that I can't just take her baby legally.  I have come back to that moment hundreds of times since, wondering what the right response would have been... it really has made me take a second look at my life and my priorities.
The days were hard. Every morning we had an activity, we went to the local school to teach, learned how to use a plow (similar to one the pilgrims probably used), dug holes for saplings with pick axes and long sticks rather than shovels, helped to garden, picked weeds along the road, visited the river, and were taught how to 'properly' climb trees.
It was quite the experience to see the students do manual labor, many of these students didn't even know how to properly wash their dishes. I said 'suck it up princess' and 'man up' at least once an hour. They would ask for band aids for tiny scratches and blisters and spent most of the time dehydrated and sun burnt. But for the most part, they did the work without complaining, understanding that this is the one time in their lives that they have to work hard outside, and that it would help enhance the overall experience. They came out as quite the lot of troopers and I am quite proud of them.
The 'city' mill
We also spent loads of hours just playing with the kids. These kids have close to nothing, but they are some of the happiest children I have encountered. As with most kids, they had ridiculous amounts of energy and left us all exhausted by 8pm every night. We taught them games like 'dook dook goose' and bopbop bibbity bop, and in turn they taught us Hindi games that I still do not know how to pronounce.

Each night we went on family visits, going to a home and hanging out, asking one another questions, eating a meal together, smoking hookah (on their half) and having quality family time, village style. Despite the extreme language barrier, I was able to bond with quite a few of the older women and they were always eager to let me help out with their chores.

One lady told me that because my nose ring is large, it looks as if I have been married and have children (a compliment for them). I asked her how old she thought I was and she responded with "oh, 19 or 20"... many of these ladies are married around 15 and kicking out babies by 18, the wheel of life is always turning I suppose, just another example of how opposite our cultures are.
The pack of stories I have from this trip seems endless. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the little things in life, and a new outlook on materialistic Western society. I also came away with a horrible, itchy rash that I am quite positive might be bed bugs or lice or something of the sort (don't worry, it's gone now). It was definitely an adventure of a lifetime.