Kolkata is lush, green and tropical, pleasantly less chaotic than Delhi. I realize that this information doesn’t make much sense, because statistically Kolkata’s population is as much, if not more than Delhi’s, but it seems more relaxed somehow. Maybe the warm sea air cools not only the temperature, but peoples’ temperament, too. It is also immediately obvious that Kolkata is more liberal than Delhi, as more women dress in western attire.
After checking into our hotel, we traveled post haste to meet the Carmelite Sisters at Carmel High School on Gariahat Road. The principal and vice principal, Sisters Nithika and Roshni respectively, greeted us warmly, serving us light refreshments in the school office. The school is comprised of a 4-story concrete building, the 3 lower floors for the school and the top floor for the convent where 8 Sisters live.
Our host teacher, Rita Banerjee, then took us to a beautiful club for dinner, where we realized another distinct difference between the two cities, and all Indian states, for that matter...the food. Bengali food is much lighter fare, coming from the sea and freshwater lakes and rivers that surround this tropical locale. Even the naan, an Indian flat bread, is lighter and a bit sweeter than that made in other states. (Correction from previous post: roti is the name of the other bread we learned to make. I mistakenly called it raga. I’m learning as I go along.)
Today the whole of Carmel High School greeted us respectfully and repeatedly with, “ Good morning, ma’am,” “Hope you are enjoying your visit, Miss,” “Is there anything I can do for you, Miss?” The girls, grades 5-8, are a confident and accommodating group, filled with a joy of learning and great pride in their school. The Sisters and staff have no issues with tardiness or absenteeism as the girls are all eager to spend as much time as possible in their wonderful school. All will go on to study at university and hope to become leaders in business, government and all manner of careers. They speak at least 2 languages, Bengali and English, and many speak a third, Hindi.
Tomorrow is a very special day in the school’s history, the 150th anniversary of its founding by the Carmelite nuns. Everyone is extremely excited about tomorrow’s festivities, so I will close for now to rest and prepare for the big event.
The Internet wars finky yesterday, so I didn’t get to blog. If you follow me on Facebook, you can see some pictures I posted from our first school visit—Rajkiya Pratibha Vikes Vidyakaya School in Shalimar Bagh, Delhi. This school is one of Delhi’s best. We were met there by the Minister of Education, treated to a wonderful program featuring the students and guided tours of the school by exceptionally talented students. Once again we received blessings from students, called Puja Thalia, which includes a red dot on saffron on the forehead, a blessing and often flowers. The students preparing to enter the military demonstrated their skills and a group of yoga students preformed what can only be categorized as something similar to Cirque du Sole.
In the afternoon we visited USIEF: Education in India and Opportunities for Collaboration and the Fulbright House, the governing body for all Fulbright Fellowships in India. Each place we visit gives us more and more information and understanding for the educational system in India,
My other cohorts and I have discussed much about the effect the daily practices of yoga and meditation have on the students here. Each day all students participate in school wide yoga practice and meditation times are worked into their school day. India is a country of many, many religious faiths, all of which are respected, but the yoga practice and meditation is a connective link that helps center the children, focus their energies on the tasks of the day and regulate their behavior and stress levels. I often use meditation in my classroom, but wonder what effect a more comprehensive approach might have on all of the students at my school.
Today we visited a school at the opposite end of the perspective: a primary school for the most marginalized children in Delhi. My impression: children are children, no matter their circumstances. Bright and enthusiastic, the children today shined, demonstrating that if the opportunity is available, all students can thrive.
More tomorrow. Thanks for listening.
This morning began simply, as any other morning, but quickly transformed into one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Rajesh Kumar, one of our Indian hosts, arranged for us to visit the tiny village of his birth, Pachayara. Our bus arrived at 5:00 a.m. and transported us through an early morning fog along the rarely quiet streets of Delhi. Kilometer after kilometer, our surroundings evolved from packed city to suburb to rural, and finally to a sparsely populated area dotted here and there with small farms. The population of Pachayara is about 150– I met each and every one of them today. Only one family were forewarned about our visit, but word of our arrival swept throughout the community and within moments we were surrounded by a throng of elated men, women and children, all singing and waving, having never even seen a “foreign person” before, (much less ever dreamed that a group of us would descend upon them out of the morning mist.)
We were first welcomed into the home of Rajesh’s uncle. His wife gave us a quick lesson in the preparation and cooking of raga, a flat bread staple of their daily diet. We were privileged to meet the family’s livestock, 4 enormous cows and one little fellow who was just getting his bearings on his new legs, and learned about the myriad uses of cow dung and urine.
A few of my brave cohort members shared a puff or two from large water pipes to savor home grown tobacco. When we approached the village temple, a throng of people appeared as if from a mirage. Rajesh was taken aback by the villager’s excitement. We were ushered with great fanfare throughout the village, introduced to elders, Blessed by Rajesh’s Mother, and everyone else, and given an impromptu demonstration of the making of curd and churned butter. Soon dancing broke out and we were again personally introduced to their wealth..the cleanest and most pampered Brahma cows I’ve ever seen. (Actually the only ones I’ve ever seen) We were then loaded into flatbed carts pulled by the same cows and taken on a thrilling jaunt down the road to yet another home where we were welcomed with many more blessings and delicacies to eat.
Most tourists never get the opportunity to visit villages like Pachayara, as these villages are private communities of extended families, only open to outsiders through a relative, like Rajesh. I feel so honored that I was granted this very unique experience into the personal and joyful celebration of life by the beautiful people of Pachayara. I wish I could show them the same enthusiasm by my family and community in Memphis.
The children were the most enchanting, of course, so open and honest, their eyes wide with expression and joy. I probably took over 1000 photos in the brief time of our visit, each one now a memory of an experience that will remain fresh and cherished within my heart for the rest of my life.
Saturday, July 7th
On my flight from Houston to Frankfurt I sat next to a young man from Nigeria, flying home to visit his family. His name is Toya. Tall and elegant, Toya stood as I approached almost knocking himself out on the cramped overhead compartment. He extended his hand in greeting, his long fingers becoming a landing pad for mine as he leaned over as if to touch his forehead to my fingers. As the plane prepared for take-off, Toya and I chatted about the weather, his accounting job in Houston and how he grew up in an impoverished area in Nigeria. He explained with great conviction his gratitude for the many opportunities he has experienced in life and how fortunate he feels to be able to live in the U.S. and travel home a couple of times a year to visit. He asked about my trip and I told him about this teaching fellowship. “Oh, a teacher!” He exclaimed. “You will surely then understand my mission. Teachers always understand. We were destined to sit next to each other as I need to talk aloud about my plan.”
With great excitement he announced that he will “educate children in Nigeria who would not otherwise have the opportunity grow and learn.” He has already built a small school and the first class of 5 students will begin their studies in September. “I have hired a teacher and each year we will add one additional class until we have all grades represented,” he explained. “I may not be able to educate all of the children in Nigeria, but I can educate a few. They will go on to do great things for my country.”
I was so inspired by this young man. He said that people cannot wait, hoping that their developing country’s government will make life better for them. “We few who have made it out, must now go back and build our countries ourselves. Otherwise the poverty will never end, the suffering will never subside.”
What more inspiring way to begin my teaching adventure than by the gracious touch of a familiar stranger, a social activist, a man committed to advancing positive change in the world. Toya was a gift...to me and to the people of his country. Happy travels!
In the United States and many parts of the world people greet each other with a simple “hello,” “bonjour,” or “what’s up?” But throughout India another type of greeting is offered:
Many Americans hear this word and think of a bustling yoga studio chock-full of sweating bodies, or sunrise on a picturesque beach, a group of people contorting themselves into pretzel-like positions for the benefit of their health.
With hands pressed palms together at one’s heart and with a slight bow, Indians offer “Namaste`, which translates to:
“My soul honors your soul. I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides. I honor the light, love, truth, beauty and peace within you, because it is also within me. In sharing these things we are united, we are the same, we are one.”
Quite a bit more meaningful than, “Hey, dude, what’s up?”
In my Roman Catholic tradition and many other religious practices, it is customary for people to offer warm wishes, peace and blessings to others. But as I focus on the definition of namaste` and all it has to offer, I am touched by its great compassion, by the unifying properties it transmits. If I’ve learned nothing else this year in the fellowship, it is that, until we recognize and accept the goodness in others, we will never have peace in this world. As I embark tomorrow on my adventure in India I will embrace Namaste`, and truly honor those I meet. I will recognize the light within them and pray that they recognize the same in me.
I AM HAVING ONE OF THOSE DAYS. THE KIND OF DAY THAT OVERWHELMS ME WITH GRATITUDE AND HUMBLES ME SO MUCH THAT I FEEL I SHOULD DROP TO MY KNEES IN PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING. I AM SO BLESSED. THE CONFIDENCE MY SCHOOL, ST. AGNES ACADEMY-ST. DOMINIC SCHOOL, AND THE STATE DEPARTMENT HAVE IN ME IS SUCH AN HONOR. THE CHALLENGE THEY HAVE SET UPON ME TO SHINE MY LIGHT TO THE WORLD, (LITERALLY) TO BE AN AMBASSADOR FOR MY COUNTRY AND MY SCHOOL IS A GREAT GIFT. I WILL DO MY BEST AND PRAY THAT MY EFFORTS WILL BEAR MUCH FRUIT.
I HAVE BEEN REMINDED ALL DAY OF ONE OF ST. MOTHER TERESA’S FAMOUS QUOTES: “I AM A TINY PENCIL IN THE HAND OF A LOVING GOD WHO IS WRITING A LOVE LETTER TO THE WORLD.”
LET ME BE THAT PENCIL, LORD. I WILL WRITE AT YOUR DIRECTION. AMEN.
India, here I come!!!
I am so pleased to announce that my trip to India will include time in Dehli, Agra and, my teaching host location in the West Bengalese city of Kolkata!
My host teacher is Rita Benerjee, an English and Social Studies teacher at Carmel High School, a Catholic school founded by a group of Carmelite sisters in 1870. Carmelite sisters still run and teach at the school, however, most of the students and many of the other teachers are Hindu. Here is the school’s web site, if you’d like to check it out: http://www.chskolkata.in/index.php#page-top.
Once I regained my composure after hyperventilating with excitement when I learned that I would be visiting the City of Joy, the city that stole Mother Teresa’s servant heart, I broke out the massive travel book my daughter gave me for Christmas and rummaged through the pages dedicated to the West Bengal province I am sure to love. I have already corresponded with Rita and my American travel partner, Sandra Lins, from Denver, Colorado. We are presently making plans for our stay in Kolkata, which will include teaching students, facilitating professional development sessions and, of course, experiencing the sights, sounds, history and culture of the second largest city in India. (I also hope to visit St. Mother Teresa's house!!!)
As I’ve mentioned, my guiding question on this adventure will revolve around the transformative power of stories, specifically the sharing of personal stories. How can hearing or reading personal stories from other countries or cultures broaden our understanding of the world around us? Can sitting down for a meal and sharing personal experiences, really getting to know one another, melt away prejudice, resolve conflict, and create a more peaceful world? I believe it can, but one must be committed to learning, to growing in order to be open enough to give it a try. It is so easy for one to judge others by the labels society imposes on us, the stereotypes tossed around in the media disguised as fact. The perpetuation of the “us and them” mentality does more to divide our world than any other single factor. And what about the misconceptions some people have about groups of people, usually neighbors close to home who are “different” in some way, because they happened to have been brought up in a certain region of a country, or during a past age that did not fully understand the depth, breadth or harm of racism? A simplistic examination of the reasons for prejudice and hatred, I know, but this discussion could go on for years and deserves a much larger venue than my tiny blog.
On a more targeted level for my purposes, how can we achieve a more peaceful and empathetic world if our only understanding comes from sources with specific agendas, or sources pushing perspectives designed to make us feel or think in a way that will benefit the source, not us? How also can we work together as global citizens if we are pushing our own agenda, culture, values and perspectives onto others? Isn’t it time for us to learn from each other instead? I don’t mean that we should abandon our values, beliefs or patriotism, but instead, that we understand and accept other cultures and perspectives so that our new understanding will be driven by our informed perspective and will help us put aside differences and embrace similarities and shared goals. After all, what do all humans desire from others? Simple respect.
But this humble teacher and traveler seeks not only answers, but the skill of asking better questions. For many, our question and answer skills developed in our own local bubble. I want to learn the processes by which Indians, be they Hindu, Sikh, Buddist, Muslim, Zoroastrian — no matter the philosophy that guides their life — develop the questions for which they most want to find answers. The right and just answers always, always, always come from a perspective of love. If it is true that all major religions, and those that few even know exist, teach similar directives, instructions that humans are to love one another, to take care of each other and the world, and to strive for goodness in our life, then why is there such hatred and division in our world? I am seeking answers that will give me hope, hope for humanity, hope that, if the world can go back to good, old-fashioned, intimate storytelling, peace can spread from families gathered to share a meal with their neighbors, and from those neighbors to others in the local community, and from there the ripple of new and inclusive perspectives will multiply like ripples from a pebble dropped in a pond. That peace can then wiggle its way into workplaces and nursing homes, school classrooms and playgrounds, ushered into these places by the simple sharing of life, of story.
I believe that starting with the basics, such as sitting down over a good cup of coffee, tea, chia, Shikuwasa juice, Air Mata Kucing, egg soda or mango lassi, and telling stories about our children, our embarrassments, our joys and sorrows, our hopes and dreams can bring peace to our world. One conversation at a time. Two or more people at a time. One funny story, wedding story, death or tragedy at a time. It is through these tiny glimpses into one’s heart that we recognize our similarities. Our character is revealed and our emotions illustrate the essence of who we are. Once that intimacy is felt, the hatred has no where to rest. It will first diminish, and then fade away all together.
My grand plan for my Indian experience is to listen actively to the stories that are graciously shared with me. And I, too, will share. I will set aside my fears and self-consciousness and open my heart to the people I meet. It has always come easy for me to write my personal stories (and to make up stories in my imagination) while sitting alone with my computer or journal. The solitude of writing is both a gift and a curse. But that buffer of solitude often stifles my ability of have open, meaningful conversation. So, I will stretch myself and open up on this trip. I will gather stories and friends like a child in a field of wild flowers, appreciating each for its uniqueness and beauty. And I will scatter a few flowers of my own, a (mature) flower girl spreading petals to make the way toward beauty of a unifying event.
I guess we will all have to wait and see how well I accomplish this goal. I ask you, dear ones, to please keep me in your thoughts and prayers.