Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cracking Indian Transportation

With three hours of sleep under our belts, Liza and I wake up at 5.30am to start our adventure. Our goal: to get to Varanasi as cheaply and quickly as possible in order to surprise my Mum, Dad, and sister. Our first step is to go to the airport, check all the airlines, and buy the cheapest ticket possible. When ticket prices to Varanasi proved exorbitant, we settle on a one-way to Dehli. A few hours later we arrive and go straight to the train station where, after at least an hour wait, we are curtly informed that there are no tickets to Varanasi that night. The night before we had been advised that if we couldn’t get tickets we should get on the train anyways and pay whatever necessary to stay on. With this thought in mind we wander the streets of Dehli for the day. Fortunately, over a mutton dinner next door to the Jama Masjid, we meet a man who warns us that if we are caught on the train without a ticket we will be charged 3 ½ times the most expensive ticket price. Hm . . . Plan B?

This nice man takes us to a nearby travel agent who, after much cajoling and many “No Madames, not possible” (noticing a theme, anyone?), walks us through the ticket booking process step by step. Train charts close four hours before the train and only one train to Varanasi is still open. This train, however, has only Foreign Tourist Quota tickets available. These tickets can only be bought at the station in the Foreign Tourist Bureau. The Bureau closes at 6:30pm. It is now 7:00pm. Time for Plan C…

Pick a station between Delhi and Varanasi that is night’s travel away: Lucknow. Make friends with the travel agents and pay extra to get two waitlist tickets confirmed. Book waitlist tickets from Lucknow to Varanasi for the following morning. Leave a healthy layover period to allow for the assured tardiness of Indian Rail. As the trip will take only four hours, take a chance and don’t pay to confirm the tickets. Share one berth for seven hours. Success! Fourty-eight hours, one taxi, one bus, one bicycle rickshaw, six auto rickshaws, one plane, and two trains later, we have completed the journey from Matendla Rural School to the oldest living city in the world, Varanasi.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Great Escape

As Liza and I settled into an uneventful Christmas Day at the deserted Matendla School, we received a call from Vandita wondering if we were coming back to Hyderabad since there were no classes. We could leave?! Quickly, Liza and I tracked down Puroshatam and expressed our desire. After the requisite three “No Madames, impossible,” he made a few calls. “Okay, all arranged, thirty minutes.” Our persistence had paid off and would prove a crucial lesson as we began our first Indian travel adventure. We threw everything into our backpacks and climbed into an auto rickshaw that miraculously appeared outside our door and took us into town. The Indian club music playing from the tape deck was a fitting background as we joked about our “jail break,” giddy from the sudden turn of events and already making plans for the unexpected holiday. We arrived in town just in time to run and jump onto the already moving bus that would take us into Hyderabad.

Three hours later we were safely back at Vandita’s flat, just in time to change for the night’s events. First stop was a wedding celebration across the street in a beautifully done up house that felt like walking onto the set of Monsoon Wedding. This was the night before the wedding and the bride and groom were sat awkwardly upon a stage with cameras and bright lights trained on them, while the guests mingled and were served a steady stream of appetizers at our seats. The stage was later used for traditional dances performed by the bride’s family to songs that curse her future in-laws for taking her away from the family! The bride and groom had met face to face for the first time two days earlier and after the wedding she will return with him to the U.S. where he works. Apparently, this situation where the woman is married off not only to an unknown man but an unknown country as well, is increasingly common in the upper classes.

The second event of the night was - surprise, surprise - a Christmas party! Here we had the pleasure of mingling with people our own age, sipping dangerously colored cocktails, and eating delicious goat marsala (which the host jokingly assured us was proper Christmas turkey, despite the fact that we could see the entire goat, head and all in the massive pot). Meanwhile, classics by ABBA, Michael Jackson, and the likes played in the background. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

House Arrest

For the second time since arriving in India, I am on “house arrest” due to political turmoil. The Centre has gone back on their promise regarding Telangana statehood and as a result a 48-hour bandh has been called throughout the Telangana region. School is closed, businesses are shut down, and public transportation is not running, everything has come to a standstill. From the newspaper reports it sounds as though areas of Hyderabad are quite volatile at the moment. The protests, which are largely student led, have turned violent in some areas, targeting buses and private vehicles as well as forcing shops to close down early. There is talk of possibly instating President’s Rule if the situation isn’t resolved and the U.S. has even placed a travel alert on the state.

Out here in Matendla village, we are relatively unaffected by the bandh. Liza and I have the school mostly to ourselves, along with Puroshatam who sleeps here, a couple alumni, and the kitchen help. We were reassured that as soon as the bandh was announced the kitchen stocked up on petrol and vegetables, so at least we won’t go hungry. Boredom is another matter, however, since we actually have five days holiday now: two days for the bandh, Saturday for Christmas, Sunday as usual, and Monday for a state holiday. I expect that Liza and I will spend the next days detailing our program for Kalleda School, initializing Operation GRE, improving our abysmal karam technique (a board game version of pool), and wandering the surrounding jungle in search of the ever-elusive peacock!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

No “Thank You”

I can tell you how to say “thank you” in every country to which I’ve traveled. As a family it’s always been the first word we learn in a new country, and depending on the difficulty of the language, sometimes the only one. A simple thank you in someone’s own language is such an easy way to show appreciation. Along with “hello,” “thank you” was the first Telugu word I started throwing around at Kalleda. Over the last couple weeks my vocabulary has expanded but I still rely on “thank you” as my only way to express gratitude for the many tasks that others perform for us. However, last night Puroshatam (a teacher who has become our translator and cultural guide at Matendla) set me straight. As Ramesh (there must be some way to describe him other than as our “servant”) cleared our dinner table, I said “dunyevadum.” Puroshatam, who must have already heard us thank people on several occasions, then explained that we shouldn’t say “thank you.” The school community is viewed as a family and among family and friends “thank you” is considered to be very formal and is not used. So by using thank you with the people who serve us, help us, translate for us, etc. we are actually setting up boundaries and separating ourselves from them. This is definitely not the effect I was going for! I can only hope that the people around us will continue to notify us of similar cultural blunders as I’m sure that’s neither the first nor last.

Indian Time

We were invited to attend Matendla School’s equivalent of a PTA meeting this evening. The fortnightly meeting includes ten parents, two village vice-presidents, the head of Matendla, and a handful of teachers, students, and sometimes alumni. Although not everyone is involved in the discussion, there are many groups represented to maintain transparency. In accordance with the national law requiring 33% of seats be reserved for women, there are a few mothers on the committee. However, their attendance is hampered by the fact that when meetings are held during the day the women are usually working in the fields, and when the meetings are held in the evening the women are working at home. But the women are on the committee, so the law is upheld, and all is well . . .

I should preface this account with the explanation that RDF holds punctuality as one of its three core values. Having mostly experienced life within the RDF schools and organization, I had not yet been exposed to the phenomenon of “Indian Time.”

Tonight’s meeting was scheduled to be held from 7-8pm. As we are leaving our room at 7, Puroshatam tells us to come over at 7.30 instead. At 7.30 we arrive to a room with several teachers, a few students, and two villagers. Vishnu, the head of the school, is on the phone tracking down other committee members who have yet to arrive. By 8pm one more has arrived and two are on their way. Cue musical interlude. Tabala (bongo-type drums), cymbals, tambourine, and hand-drum appear out of nowhere and the entire group sings in call and response style for the next thirty minutes. When the meeting finally starts at 8.45, nearly two hours later than scheduled, I think to myself that this sort of delay isn’t so bad if there is a spontaneous concert every time!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Today was our first full day off since arriving, and it was glorious. We drove four hours to join Vandita’s extended family in celebrating the reopening of her brother-in-law’s quarry. He has owned the quarry, which contains an expensive red granite found only three other places in the world, for about ten years but it has been closed for about five due to Naxalite agitation. Naxalites are a political group that subscribes to a Maoist form of communism. They originated in West Bengal, spread south, and are quite active in some areas of Andhra Pradesh. My understanding is that initially they were a good influence on the community, unionizing workers in struggles to gain rights from the local landowners. However, now they seem to be a rogue group of agitators who largely live in guerrilla fashion in the jungles and make trouble for local businesses and government programs. Prime Minister Singh went so far as to label them one of the greatest threats to India’s internal security. I have only heard one side of the story though, so please take it with a grain of salt and I’ll get back to you if I ever meet a Naxalite!

But back to the party . . . near the quarry, there are two areas set up. The first is made of thatched strips of thin wood with a roof of thatched palm leaves and serves as the kitchen. The second has walls and roof made by hanging brightly coloured and beautifully patterned cloths. Underneath are tables, chairs, and all the men. After a round of introductions, one of the men leads me and Liza to the tented area, provides us with a plate of mutton, and offers a choice of beer or whiskey. This will be our first drink since arriving and we opt for a cold beer. Little did we know that our first beer in India would be none other than the American classic, Budweiser!

Meanwhile, the women move around the kitchen, feed the children, and eventually sit in a circle outside the tent. They come in to get some food but don’t touch the alcohol. The brother who owns the quarry takes interested men on a tour but does not invite the women. Well, except Liza and myself. As foreign guests we are allowed the liberty of operating outside the social norms, hence the invitation to sit under the tent, the freedom to drink alcohol, and inclusion in the quarry tour. I am reminded of the post-wedding party I attended in Thailand where Lauranne and I enjoyed beer and cigarettes outside with the men while the women cooked away in the kitchen. The thing is, at least from my outsider’s perspective, the men just seem to have more fun. But, as I savour my cold beer, I realize that if I really want to understand Indian women and their situation, I will have to join them “in the kitchen” next time.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Our House

Because providing rooms at the school for Liza and I would have meant giving up classrooms, RDF arranged for us to live across the street in two bedrooms and a shared bathroom on the top floor of a house. Downstairs live three generations of one family. I sometimes wake up to the singing of the grandfather who sits on a plastic lawn chair underneath my window most of the day. There he is bathed and fed and if he needs to move anywhere the chair becomes his walker. When I stepped out of my room on the first morning I was greeted with “Good Morning, Auntie” by Parvya, the 2 ½ year old daughter. Parvya loves to visit us upstairs and often performs, sometime singing nursery rhymes and yesterday by dancing around my room singing “Hare Krishna!”

In the morning we scatter chickens as we leave the house and cross the yard, walking through the rice powder designs made by the grandmother first thing each day. If we come home to do laundry in the afternoon, we often find the mother and grandmother stringing together fresh picked marigolds to sell. There is a multi-level roof where we hang our clothes to dry and if we go out in the evening we can watch the buffalo, cow, and goats coming back from the fields. This will be my home for as long as I stay in Kalleda.

Monday, December 14, 2009

On a Mission, or two, or three . . .

Some of you may be starting to wonder if I am doing any work out here! Rest assured, we are working hard every day. The intent is to spend the first week and a half acquainting ourselves with Kalleda school and village. There is no shortage of people to meet, classes to observe, and problems to solve. As it turns out, our arrival time and our intentions correspond perfectly with a number of other events taking place in the RDF community. Many of these events stem from the fact that Vandita intends to dedicate all of her time and energy to RDF during the next two years before she will step out and hopefully assume grandmotherly duties! Vandita is an incredibly strong leader and an inspiring woman with a never-ending list of ideas for improvements to the RDF community and problems to be addressed.

In this stage of RDF’s development the focus is on young leaders. As the founders of the organization reach the stage where they will be passing on the reigns, there is a need to identify and encourage new leaders to step up and take control. Along with Liza and I who will be living in Kalleda, there are two men from Hyderabad that will travel to the schools regularly in order to assist with this process. Kiran is working on career counseling and Ravi is assisting with the development of small local projects in the village. Liza and I will be working with the current students, teachers, and alumni to build leadership skills, improve English, and solve local problems. It seems that our biggest challenge will be limiting the ever-growing pile of tasks on our plate.

Despite the many other areas in which we will be assisting, our priority remains developing youth empowerment through the art of digital storytelling and leadership workshops. With this goal in mind we have created the following mission statement:

Our mission is to empower youth to recognize themselves as agents of change within their community. Our goal is to utilize the medium of digital storytelling to explore the concept of leadership and possible solutions to community problems while developing skills of critical thinking, self-expression, and Action Planning.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Other Side of Service

After spending the last year and a half serving people, it’s a nice change to be waited on. Since arriving in India, meals are cooked and waiting for us at whatever time specified, a driver is arranged to take us anywhere we need to go, and if we are thirsty someone rings for tea and coffee – a phrase that has taken on a whole new meaning since the invention of cell phones! We are permitted to do nearly nothing for ourselves. Although this setup can be nice at times, my Mum would be surprised to hear that it actually makes me rather uncomfortable to have people constantly waiting on me. I also realised that knowing where to go and how to get things for myself is part of what makes me feel comfortable and settled in a new living situation. Now to convince everyone else . . .

My first step in the quest for independence, in true Seattle fashion, was to insist on learning how to make my own coffee. To bolster my argument I tell Suma that I used to make coffee for a living. Suma humours me and together with Rama (one of the kitchen ladies) teaches me how to make Indian coffee. Next, we proceed to the porch where Liza and I learn how to separate the waste and powder from the lentils that will be used for breakfast. We each work for five minutes on the same basket before Rama takes over and finishes it in 30 seconds. Maybe I’ll stick to coffee!

By getting involved in the kitchen and trading elementary English and Telugu lessons with Rama and Srimati, we’ve developed a relationship where they seem to be comfortable with me and Liza coming in and doing some things for ourselves. It’s important to pick your battles though, so I will continue to suffer through fresh sheets on my bed every other day and a lit mosquito coil when I come home every night!


I was a little surprised when I saw a young student entering the school grounds carrying a small, curved and rather dangerous looking knife this morning. The fact that I blithely continued on my way to breakfast may be an indication of just how different everything is out here. Apparently my reaction to culture shock is to act as if everything, no matter how bizarre, is completely normal. An hour later, when the high school students (grades 6-10) finished morning assembly the reason for the knife became clear. A teacher informed me and Liza that we could not observe classes as planned because the students were “cutting paddy.” Did we want to join? Clearly there was only one answer. Within half an hour Liza and I were happily harvesting rice...for about five minutes. Then the student needed her knife back and proceeded to clear about four times the area in half the time. Oh well, it was a good photo op, and maybe by next harvest I’ll be bringing my own knife to school!

Yes I Can!

While visiting Vandita’s family farm this afternoon the boy showing us around climbs a tree to pick fresh guavas for us. It isn’t until we are a few minutes out of the grove that I realize how much I had wanted to pick my own guava. I can’t believe how quickly my own thoughts changed to reflect everyone’s expectations of my abilities and the role I should play.

In the past few days, “Be careful” and “You can’t do that” have already become a common refrain. The intent is to protect and take care of us, which I appreciate, but the reasons are because we are “VIP guests,” foreigners, and female. When I realized that I’d already been conditioned to fulfill my role as a female by not even consciously acknowledging my desire to climb the guava tree, I immediately vowed to break out of the box forming around me.

“Next time I’d like to pick my own guava.” Giri tells me I’d have to practice. At first I think he means the technique of knocking the guavas down, then I get his drift and retort, “I’ve climbed a tree before!” Giri doesn’t hide his surprise. Next we go to the rice paddies. As we watch the women labourers and snap photos, they call over to ask if we’re married. The women had noticed our lack of pudu (the red dot on a married woman’s forehead) and clearly thought we were a little too old (i.e. over 18) to still be single. Then they ask us to take a group photo of them. I say yes, but only if they’ll let me cut rice. On my new independent Wonder Woman kick I brush aside warnings that I can’t because I will get dirty or cut myself. I tie my chori, tuck in my kurta, hike up my pants, and climb barefoot down into the paddy. The mud oozes between my toes as a woman who, to much laughter, claims to be named “Baby,” lends me her knife and corrects my technique. Armed with my new “proper scything” knowledge and a little buzzed by the sense of rebellion, I am ready to clear the field! After a few minutes though, my still concerned audience urges me out and, figuring I’ve made my point for the moment, I concede. But now I’m not quite done yet…

To top off my independence day, I tie my chori, slip off my shoes, and scale the 8 foot metal gate when we realize we were locked out of our compound. The shocked look on Giri’s and Mahender’s faces when I open the gate from inside is all the satisfaction I need. Maybe next time they’ll let me climb the guava tree!

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Yesterday I arrived in Kalleda, Andhra Pradesh; today I woke up in Kalleda, Telangana. Alright, back up…Unknowingly, Liza and I arrived in Hyderabad in the midst of a state crisis historical happenings. Shops, businesses, and schools were closed as people took to the streets in a city-wide strike, or “bandt.” The issue at hand was a bill to divide Andhra Pradesh in two, thereby creating a new state called Telangana. Having no background on the politics of Andhra Pradesh, Liza and I read the morning papers for clarification. In my mind, I had been comparing the Telangana bill to a hypothetical bill to split Washington State in half along the Cascades. When I pictured the protests and rallies, I pictured WTO in Seattle or the March For Women’s Rights in Washington D.C. A cursory glance at the paper, however, was enough to remind me that I’m not in America anymore, and my previous experiences won’t provide much of a foundation for understanding Telangana or likely many other events that are bound to take place while I am in India. This is a country where the 50 year old issue of Telangana recently came to a head because a noted politician was arrested for going on a hunger strike; where another group of political leaders organized a relay hunger strike, which seems a bit pansy if you ask me!; and where villagers parade through the streets with white cattle painted hot pink, the Telangana state color. Well, it all worked! Although there are many details to be worked out over the next several years, from new political leaders to new license plates, I now officially live in Telangana.

Time Travel

Arriving in Kalleda it feels as though we have traveled back in time. Men with turbans and huge mustaches wander the estate grounds, tiger skins hang on the walls, servants in traditional dress await orders, and feudal landlords harass poor peasants about money. Oh wait, that’s just the period piece being filmed at the school!

A big name director of Indian films that delve into local social issues both new and old apparently decided that the ancient estate which now functions as Kalleda Rural School was the perfect setting for his newest film. It would have been interesting to get his take on the relevance of the social issues addressed in the movie to the local village in which he was filming. After all, as Vandita pointed out, he is using a different medium to work towards the same goal of raising awareness regarding current problems in the society.

However, an enlightening discussion was soon out of the question when, during pleasantries, the director found out that Liza and I are American. He promptly went off on a diatribe about how America had really belonged to the “red men” and was settled by the British so how could we claim to be Americans? Liza politely pointed out that he had asked “What country do you come from?” not “What country do your ancestors come from?” An important distinction, but at the end of the day I don’t think that I should have to defend my American identity to anyone. Besides, my ancient ancestors aren’t British, my Mum is! A genuine conversation about what it means to be “American” and the intricacies and social repercussions of that definition would be another matter entirely, but that wasn’t on the director’s agenda.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Define "Rural"

One can often guess what I’ve done each day based on the vocabulary I’ve learned. Like the time in Thailand that Louise came home from work and the Thai whiteboard said “toilet,” “broken,” “flood,” and “Oh no!” On my first day in Kalleda I learned the Telugu words for sun, rice, buffalo, cow, hen, and goat. And this was before I went to the farm. So how rural am I? Let’s just say I am reconsidering the validity of describing Williamstown, MA as “a small town in the middle of nowhere.”

Kalleda is loosely connected to a string of other villages along one main dirt road. The surrounding area is all farmland where I have seen cotton, corn, and rice fields, as well as guava and mango groves. There are water buffalo, cows, and goats that are led down the road past our house on the way to pasture every morning. The land near us is flat but there are small hills in the distance and palm trees scattered in between. It takes about five minutes to walk through town and on the way we pass by houses ranging from plaster, to brick, to mud huts with thatched roofs.

Our little village is on the up and up though. They recently installed a water treatment plant where the villagers can get clean drinking water. In the same lot they have also built a public toilet because most of the villagers do not have toilets, showers, or running water in their homes. Kalleda also has electricity . . . sometimes. We share electricity with the next village according to a schedule that changes every week. Even when we are supposed to have power it might go out and on occasion the generators that power the water go out as well. But it’s all a part of getting into the local frame of mind, taking things as they come, and enjoying what we have when we have it, whether it’s internet, electricity, or water.