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Happy St. Patrick’s Day! :)

Check out my newest piece for the Lost Girls – 10 Snacks and Sweets in Kolkata :)

I can’t believe it’s already the second half of March – where is the time going? The past week has been great. On Saturday morning Ashley, Elizabeth and I went to Loreto to go along on their weekly trip to the villages. Every Saturday, the older Loreto students (around class 7 and 8) go to nearby villages to teach. We had about a two-hour bus ride to the villages, and the whole ride I talked to a group of 4 girls in class 8 who were in charge of leading me around. They were very cute and very interested in me and how I’m liking India. The school in the village was more than I was expecting – a huge building with several classrooms for many different ages. The facilities were quite nice – I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I can tell how much my standards have changed from home…this was a great school but it didn’t have electricity or desks for the students. The girls I was with took charge of a class 3 classroom of about 25 students. These students didn’t know any English – not more than numbers 1-10, so I wasn’t able to help very much since I’m at about the same level in Bangla. The girls were pretty good teachers, but some of them were more interested in talking to each other than teaching the class. I watched most of the time since I couldn’t do any teaching, but I often felt more like a distraction than a help since the students would focus on me instead of the lesson. It was still great to see. It was definitely worthwhile for me to go, but I don’t think I will go again since I felt almost more of a hindrance than a help.

Bengali on the chalkboard - all I can identify are the numbers at the left. 6 (choy), 7 (shat), 8 (aat) and 9 (noi).

Sunday was a relaxing day at home doing homework, and I watched the movie Food, Inc. I loved it – and it was very similar to the book I just finished, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The author, Michael Pollan, was in the movie and so was one of the farmers he visited while writing his book. I’m learning so much about our food system in America – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I can’t wait to learn more! Next on my reading list will be Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.

Durgi

We didn’t have class this week since it’s mid-semester exam week for all the St. Xavier’s students. We only had one exam to study for – our elective course at St. Xavier’s, so for me that is Sociology. Since we didn’t have class on Monday, I had the whole day free but I made some productive use of it by going to St. Xavier’s to study in the air-conditioned library without distractions. I went to Loreto afterward, and I’m slowly but steadily enjoying my time there more particularly because I’m starting to build relationships with the girls. One of the girls, Durgi, is becoming more attached to me each time I come. She gives me a huge hug every time she sees me and makes sure to ask when I’ll be coming back before I leave. She even made me a really cute drawing and poem about how we are friends and she loves me – how cute :) I took out my camera to take some pictures of her and another girl, Parveen, but they became very rowdy once the camera came out. It was very hard to get them to calm down afterward – they were climbing all over me and yelling and stole my shoe as I was trying to leave. It started to wear on my patience, but I’m constantly reminding myself of how much these girls are really desperate for the attention. I came home for a nice relaxing yoga session before our big night of switching rooms! Elizabeth and I share a bedroom here and so do Ashley and Brynn – but one room is much bigger than the other and also has desks for studying so we wanted to switch rooms so everyone had a fair chance to live in the bigger space. I’m enjoying the smaller room so far, though I’m still adjusting to sleeping in a new bed.

Suman and Parveen

Tuesday was a great day – we went to the Cricket World Cup! Madhu tried to get us tickets to a game with India playing, but that didn’t pan out so we got tickets to a South Africa vs. Ireland game. South Africa is one of the top cricket teams in the world so I was really excited to see such a world-class team play, as well as go to my first world-level competition! I met up with everyone at New Market to walk to the stadium, Eden Gardens (which is one of the biggest stadiums in the world!). There was really strict security – no cameras are allowed, nor are plastic water bottles (apparently the fans would throw the bottles onto the field?). We were there a little while before the game started, and we had plenty of time to find our seats which were fabulously placed in the lower tier so we were really close to the field. It was incredibly hot at the beginning sitting in the full sun when Kolkata already regularly reaches 95°F. They don’t really sell water in the stadium either…they give you 3 little plastic pouches of water with your ticket though, and it’s the worst packaging possible. You just have to rip the corner of the bag, which spills water everywhere and the little plastic cups you could use to drink the water didn’t hold the whole bagful. Stupid. It was great to relax with everyone though – I felt like I should be at a Twins game at home! I felt like I could be in America, and really wanted the typical American sporting event snacks that go along with it – popcorn, pretzels, nachos, etc. but instead there was Indian snacks like papri chat and egg rolls. Watching the game was great – I didn’t know much about cricket going into it but luckily Vinayak sat near me and he explained whatever questions we had. I have a solid understanding of the basics now, so I could at least follow the game. People will often say that cricket is like baseball, but if someone tells you that just don’t listen. Cricket is not like baseball except that someone throws a small ball, someone hits it with a bat, you run, and someone tries to catch the ball. It was a lot of fun, but we didn’t stay for the whole game. It started at 230pm and was scheduled to go til 1030pm, but we left around 730 – turns out Ireland didn’t do so well at bat, and South Africa won by 131 runs. The form of cricket used for the world cup is one where you play 50 “overs” – an over is 6 balls – and there are only 2 innings. One side will bat for the first inning and one will field, and they switch for the second inning once either the 50 overs are finished or all 11 players of the batting side are out. The traditional form of cricket lasts for 5 days! I’m looking forward to learning more about the game and to watch Vinayak in a match!

Wednesday was the day of our exam. We left quite early so we arrived with about an hour to spare before our exam began. We had heard from Kia, who took her exam on Monday, that it’s confusing trying to figure out where you have to go so we wanted to get there in plenty of time. We went to the office to ask which room we would be given the exam, and turns out the administration didn’t even know we would be taking the exam! Apparently the departments didn’t notify them we would even be taking the exam, so we were not included in their very elaborate seating chart which separates each class into different classrooms and specific assigned spots to take the test. They put us all in the same room. Luckily the exam was not difficult – I had prepared enough so the questions were very straightforward. The kind of exam that is given here is an essay exam where you have to write down basically everything you had memorized from the notes the professor dictated in class. It’s very much a kind of regurgitation of information – and I’m glad I only had the one exam to study for, unlike the rest of the St. Xavier’s students. I’m glad it went well, but now we’ll have to see how they will be grading us. We’re not sure how the grade conversion will work, or how the professors will grade our papers since they know we are not Sociology majors and that we have had no background in Soc. or India before coming here. After the exam, we met a few of the visiting CSB/SJU professors – there’s a group of about 7 professors who are visiting from our campuses to help assess how the program is going and also to introduce more faculty to the India program so there may be potential future program directors from this group. Elizabeth, Ashley and I went to Loreto afterward which was okay. We showed up at a time when there were very few students, but I spent the time with Jhuma and Durgi. Jhuma thoroughly enjoyed combing and braiding my hair, and I helped Durgi with a little homework. That night, we met up with our visiting professors at a great Chinese restaurant called Bar-B-Q. It was a wonderful dinner and it was SO nice to talk to them. I miss campus a lot so it was nice to talk to someone from there, and it was even better to talk to someone outside our group who really understands how different home is from here. They much better appreciate the joys and frustrations we have here, and they were very keen to listen to us describe our experience and to hear all our feedback, both positive and negative. I’m optimistic that this group will seriously consider our negative criticisms and will take action to help make this program better and more established in the coming years.

Another post, another reflection…this time it’s about beggars. When I decided to come to India, I knew I would see poverty like I could never imagine. I knew I would see beggars and I knew I would see slums. I knew, but at the same time I didn’t know that seeing this would affect me the way it has. At home, there is most often a clear division between a well-off neighborhood and less wealthy neighborhoods – you may be driving along in a rich area and as you drive the city slowly changes into less privileged areas. There is a very clear distinction and physical separation of these areas. Here in India, it is not like that at all. There is no clear division between wealthy areas and impoverished areas – you may be walking along next to a giant beautiful fancy hotel and within the next 20 steps, you find yourself walking through a slum. For such a long time, Calcutta was the West’s image of human despair and suffering and today there are still many examples of suffering. It’s hard to see such abject poverty – there is a slum area right outside my house and I walk by so many people every day who literally have nothing. There are so many homeless people on every street, and beggars at every corner. It’s hard to see this poverty – it’s emotionally draining and results in an ethical/moral dilemma. The hardest part of seeing this poverty is to see the vast majority of indifference to it. People walk along without even noticing the beggars or the homeless and ignore them when they are approached. I understand now how or why there is such an apparent indifference – if you became emotionally invested in every person that approached you on the street, you simply would not be able to function. It’s certainly easier to just walk by them. But is that even the right thing to do? How can we walk along so involved in our own lives that we ignore the humanity and suffering around us? I’m surprised at how quickly and easily I’ve become desensitized to the poverty, and a bit ashamed. I can honestly walk down a street and not give a second glance to the dirty woman and malnourished child huddled in the corner on a piece of cardboard.  It’s also hard to know that they seek me out specifically because I am a foreigner. When I’m approached by beggars, I never give money. I have no idea where that money is going, if they will actually use it themselves or if it will be given away to someone else or spent on unnecessary things. I give food when I can, and unfortunately just say no and sorry to everyone else. There was one incident that really stuck with me the other day – on Tuesday, when I was in New Market. New Market is a very popular shopping area where you can find almost anything in a great selection and bargain your price down to something reasonable. I like going to New Market, but I hate how hassled I am there. Vendors and beggars follow me around constantly, and they are very persistent. While Elizabeth and I were standing trying to figure out where to meet up with the group, an older woman with a baby in the crook of her arm approached me. She was following us/me, saying “didi, auntie (terms of respect here)…help…please, no money, milk for my baby…”, touching my arm, etc. She was very difficult to ignore – and it’s really hard to say no to someone when they are asking for some real thing they need and not money. I was stuck so uncomfortably in this ethical and moral dilemma – do I give her money? Do I buy her the milk? Do I just ignore her? And I hate that I feel like I have to be suspicious of their motives – is she seeking me out just because I’m a foreigner? Is that even her baby? If she was really desperate, wouldn’t she be asking everyone else? It feels awful having to judge someone’s motives when they are clearly in desperate need. I hate knowing that I’m targeted and that they are relying on manipulating my emotions – and should they? Do they have that right? I’m always so self-conscious when I take out my money to pay for something, because then they (whoever they is) can see how much money I actually have. Whenever my wallet comes out, that’s directly where their attention is focused. I can’t be giving out money all the time. I may have a lot of money by their standards but I’m still a poor college student with a lot of student loans and not a lot of money will be coming in this summer when I have to pay for things in U.S. dollars again. But still – I know I can always get more money through some way or another, even if that money will be in the future when I have a salaried job which I am so privileged to be able to rely on and plan on having. So when I ignore the beggars, I just feel like such a cold-hearted person. In the end, we did buy her the milk for the baby, and she did seem appreciative or grateful. I did notice that her attitude changed immediately after we said yes though – it was like she had assumed the position of power and became very confident, she was triumphant. I just hope she actually uses it. I wish there were easier answers for this dilemma – there seems to be no answer as to what is the “right” thing to do.

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Namaste, everyone!

It’s hard to believe I left home exactly a month ago. In a couple days, I will have been here officially for one month! AGH! Even weirder, I was in France 2 months ago. This is just a crazy year of my life. I feel like I haven’t even been able to really process France yet because I haven’t had time. I realized that yesterday, as I was showing pictures and telling some Europe stories to Brynn…and she’s the first person I’ve shown pictures to and told stories to! I didn’t have time while I was home, plus I was mostly with my family and Karl who basically knew what I did while I was in France.

I am feeling much better. I started antibiotics the day after my last blog post, and they made me feel better right away. It was hard eating the following few days, and I definitely didn’t want Indian food! Being sick really made me homesick too – I just wanted to be home with the people who love me and with my mom’s food! Indian food is such an adjustment. I don’t hate it, it’s just hard to eat something so different from my normal diet at home and that’s all there is to eat here. Our host mom is a really good cook…but it’s just an adjustment to having rice at every meal and some vegetable mixture and a lot of fish. With the exception of 2 nights ago, I can’t remember the last time I had meat. Last night, Elizabeth made dinner (veggie stir fry) and our host mom said she wants to learn some cooking from us! She says she not very good at making pasta and has never made cookies and wants to learn how to make bread – it’s going to be great teaching her. Of course, she’s going to be teaching us some Bengali cooking in return. She was actually very sweet when I was sick – the day I stayed home I was by myself and feeling very homesick and my roommates were all gone. I was having tea, and Arundhati came home from work and was sitting with me. I started to get a little teary, and she gave me a big hug and took me upstairs with her and we just  talked for a few hours. We all had dinner together as a family, and watched a little television. They are a wonderful family, and I feel very fortunate to be living with them and such great roommates.

I have barely had any class. Last week, we only had a few classes and then I was sick on Thursday and stayed home. On Friday, we didn’t really have class. Our teacher on Friday is also the vice principal of St. Xavier’s and she was busy preparing for a big festival this past weekend, so she didn’t have class but had us watch a movie instead. We watched the movie Gandhi, which was pretty good. We haven’t had class this week yet, and I’m not entirely sure why we had Monday and Tuesday off but today is a national holiday, Republic Day. We’ll have class tomorrow, and then Friday we leave for our trip to North Bengal. We’ll be gone until Tuesday, so no class again until Wednesday! After that, I think we will finally have a regular routine of having class…but who knows. Things are so unorganized here, I never what’s going on each day. For example, this weekend we are going to North Bengal and are supposedly going to the Himalayas, but I have no idea where we are going and what we’re doing. Madhu, our director, always has about 8 million things going on in her head so it’s best if we just remain on a need-to-know-basis so she has time to sort everything out. It really seems like we will barely have class here, since we aren’t even actually starting classes until February, and then we will finish classes by about mid/end of April. So that’s about 2.5-3 months of class. It’s nice to have such a relaxing semester, but it would be nice to have a routine here! It makes getting adjusted that much harder.

We had an orientation at the place where most of us are going to be volunteering, Loreto Day School. It’s a school here in Kolkata for girls – half of their students are paying students, and the half who do not pay come from very poor families. Another group of students live at the school – they may or may not attend class at the school, but they came from off the streets and live there and they are called the Rainbow kids. This place is so amazing – it has about 20 programs, and it’s run by Sister Cyril, an AMAZING woman. The whole philosophy about the place is amazing – more about solidarity than charity. If they see the need for a program, they don’t wait for the money and logistics to start it, they just do it. They train teachers who don’t have the time or money to attending a teacher training college, they send teachers into the rural areas, the urban slums, the brickfields, and the fishing communities (all communities where children are not really allowed the opportunity to go to school), they lend money to local people to help them with businesses, they search out hidden domestic child labor, they have special ed students, they have a home for elderly people….the list just goes on and on. Sr. Cyril just sees the need for help and just makes so much good out of it, it’s amazing! We are mostly going to be working with the Rainbow kids, so it seems…but since we’re here for so much longer, we will also get to visit some of the other programs like going to the rural villages, going to the brickfields, or helping with the hidden domestic child labor. It’s so great to be able to be a part of this inspiring organization. When we were there, we just had a tour of the place and then sat with the rainbow kids for a while. I sat with a little girl named Priyanka, who was practicing writing English (the normal students come up to help teach/tutor the rainbow kids…more enforcement of the solidarity, not charity). She was very cute, and doesn’t know how old she is. She doesn’t speak much English, but she was so excited to teach me a little Bengali! She was teaching me how to count to 10 in Bengali. I’m not sure how we’re going to fit in there yet, but I hope it will be good.

There have been a lot of frustrations lately, and it makes it that much easier to feel homesick. India is just very intense, and it’s full of contradictions and extremes that are hard to understand and process. Being in class is supposed to help us understand India a bit more, but we’ve barely had any class! I’m trying to not be homesick, but it’s a struggle. It’s hard having 2 semesters abroad back-to-back, and I miss campus a lot more this semester. One second I feel like I love it here and am so happy I’m here, and the next second I don’t know how I’m going to survive here for the next 4 months. At times, May feels very close and other times it feels very far away. Part of the reason that makes India so hard is that it’s difficult to fulfill basic needs. It’s hard to sleep here, because the mattresses are literally rock hard and there’s tons of noise at all hours of the day; you can’t wash away the stress with a nice long hot shower, because you use a cup and a bucket to bathe; it’s hard to eat, because the diet is so radically different from home and your stomach is freaking out from bacteria and from the spices and doesn’t know how to digest this food that you never eat at home; it’s hard to find bathrooms, and they are rarely ever hygienic in the least; you’re always sick with something, if it’s not stomach upset, it’s something else – I’m congested with a cold now that my stomach troubles are over for the moment. On top of that, safety is a constant concern because we are women, foreign, and don’t speak the language. It’s unsafe to be out past 10pm for sure – 8:30pm is considered late. It’s just such a different atmosphere coming from college and from France when you can be out as late as you want. In France, we would leave at 11pm and come home at 3am. Here you HAVE to be home by 11pm. People always stare at us – we are getting really used to it now, but some of our new Indian friends have commented that people stare at us all the time. It’s just something you get used to, and you get used to them taking pictures of you too. Most people (men our age and little kids usually) will say “hello ma’am how are you?” about 10 times in a row since that’s the only English they know. It is a bit draining to have to be constantly on your guard about your safety – especially around men, and even more so at night. You also have to be really assertive with cab drivers. Kolkata is NOT easy to navigate, which is another hard thing to get used to. We can confidently go to school/the street our school is on and back, and a few other places like the mall and other places near our house, but other than that we need specific directions. It’s so hard here because the streets are not at all a grid, and they have 2 names – a newer Indian name and an older British name – and some streets are known better by one name more than the other, and some maps only have one name or the other, and on top of that the one-ways change directions at certain times of the day. Sometimes cabs will offer us a ridiculous price and refuse to turn on the meter, other times the cab drivers just refuse to pick up people. I still haven’t taken the metro yet, but my roommates have. One day we were going to take the metro but couldn’t because we literally couldn’t fit another body into the car.

It’s also hard to constantly be spending money. It was like that in France too, and certainly more expensive than here, but I didn’t have to spend money on the weekdays in France. During the week, I lived/ate/went to classes in the same place; weekdays are where I spent my money traveling and everything and managed a pretty good budget. Here, things are cheap – Rs 200 is $5, and you can get a lot of things for Rs 200 depending on what you’re buying. The only problem is when everything is “only $5” you end up spending so much more because it’s “only $5″…but then each $5 you spend, it adds up really quickly. Here we have to spend money on transportation a lot – if we ever want to go someplace, you have to pay to get there, spend money wherever you are, and then pay to get back. Since things are so cheap here, I need to start making a better budget. It’s also hard deciding on entertainment outside of the house because it takes a long time to get anywhere because of traffic and because Kolkata is so spread out. It takes 45 minutes to visit our friends who live in Salt Lake, a residential area of North Kolkata. Sometimes we can’t go out because it wouldn’t be worth it by the time we get there. I feel like I’ve been sitting at home a lot lately (doesn’t help that I was sick for a few days last week) but a lot of times it just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the hassle of going out, and we have to really plan ahead to go out because we have to be back so early.

It is getting better though because we’re starting to make Indian friends! We haven’t met very many yet because we haven’t had a lot of class time, but I met a girl in class named Satakshi. I talked to her one day in class, where she gave me her phone number and was super nice. I didn’t get to sit next to her the next day, and we weren’t in touch at all until yesterday. I was at the mall with Elizabeth, and she saw me there and we talked for a little bit, and later that day I got a text from her inviting us out to lunch and a movie today! It was great, and she brought along another girl from our class, Raddhima. Students are really nice here, and it’s like instant friendship. You can talk to them one day in class and they will give you their number right away and say, “Call me if you need anything, and I’ll show you around”…and the best part is they actually mean it! Satakshi and Raddhima are already planning on taking us to all these other places. People are so welcoming and so nice here, which is great. It’s really nice to be with students who can show us around and who speak the language!

When I was at the mall the other day, I got some mehndi! We call it henna at home, but here henna means something different. Apparently the mall is the place to get it done. They have several people there, and you pick the design you want. Mehndi is from ground henna leaves, which you apply to the skin and it dyes your skin. At the mall, the artists use a paper funnel with a very fine tip to apply it – and it reminded me of icing a cake. The artists are very talented, and very quick! My design only took about 3 or 4 minutes. Once it’s applied, you have to let it dry for about 15 minutes. Then you have to wait 2 hours before you can scrape the dried mehndi off your skin. After that, your skin is dyed. You can’t touch water for 5-6 hours, and the color darkens over the next 12 hours. The dye lasts for about 10 days to 2 weeks and slowly fades. Here, it’s traditional for Hindu brides to have their hands and feet decorated with mehndi for their wedding – and they say the darker the mendhi appears on your skin, the more your husband loves you. Now it’s not only for brides – anyone can get it done! I plan to have it done a few more times – and go all out the last time and get both sides of my hands done.

Other than that, I’m still writing for the Lost Girls and my first India piece is posted! Check it out: 8 Things You Should Know Before You Go to India. I’ve also decided to start contributing to another travel website, called Pink Pangea. I think I will have more time for writing here, and there is so much I could write about – the only hard thing is trying to describe everything! It’s so hard to put this experience into words, and I’m starting to realize that I have learned a lot more already than I think I have. At the same time, I feel like the more I learn, the less I know.

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