After two very long flights, one layover in Paris, two nights in Delhi, one train ride and one crazy Indian car ride later, I arrived in Patiala, Punjab, where I will be spending the majority of the next 10 weeks. During my two night and one day stay in Delhi, I briefly toured the city in the back of a taxi, getting out to observe a few temples, malls, the Parliament building, and the Indira Gandhi museum. All of these sights, while inspiring and beautiful, were nothing compared to the experience of being a passenger in a car in this crazy country. All, and I mean all, driving rules aside, my taxi driver navigated around the busy streets full of cars, buses, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, dogs, monkeys, children, beggars, other pedestrians, policemen, and ox carts. There is no need for the dotted lines on the roads to mark the lanes, as the various modes of transportation all get jumbled together. People fight with their horns and wheels to inch forward through the traffic. A young woman from Denmark, who I met in the hotel that evening, articulated what I had been thinking to myself all day -- friends can tell you about driving in India, but no amount of description can accurately portray the actual experience.
Having survived the car rides, I boarded the train for the small city of Patiala. Patialia is small only relative to other Indian cities; it has a population of about two million. Aside from weekend trips to go sight-seeing, I will spend most of me time here in Patiala, working at a school for children of all ages with special needs. Due to the cold that this region is experiencing and the lack of central heating in any of the buildings here, school was cancelled for the first week. Therefore, I will accompany the other volunteers here to the orphanage for this week to teach at the school and play with the kids.
Don't expect to get anything done in India before a cup of tea. Thankfully, I can say, “Yes please! Thank you!” in Punjabi so I can reply when anyone asks me if I would like a cup (I can also say “No, thank you” in Punjabi, but why would I say no to tea?). So after drinking a steaming cup of sweet, milky tea, most often in the company of people with whom I can barely communicate, I can start whatever I had arrived to accomplish at school that day. In the case of this past week, I have been teaching English in the 4th/5th/6th combined class at Navjivini School. The class, despite consisting of three grades, is only made up of 13 kids, about equal boys and girls.
From what I can gather so far, the Indian style of teaching English is completely about memorization. Students learn how to copy lengthy paragraphs in English. They are then graded on whether they were able to copy the words with correct spelling. They have no idea what they are writing about or how to pronounce the long words they copied. Most of them can read aloud in English, but have simply memorized how to say certain words. One of the girls could accurately read the word "adversary" when she came across it in her assigned paragraph, but could not understand or reply when I asked her name and age.
Per the teacher's request, I taught the students the correct usage of the suffix "-ing." I also added future tense verbs, so that by the end of the class the students learned to fill in the blanks correctly. When I tried to teach them the conjugation of the verb "to be," they already had it memorized from a previous lesson. The teacher and I praised their ability to answer correctly, but I knew that they had no idea what they were actually saying. It was challenging for me to praise the students for simple memorization. My goal, therefore, is to help them learn the meaning of the many words they have memorized, both in pronunciation and is spelling. It will be slow going, but it is a good challenge for me. All in all, I definitely know that my presence is exciting to the kids. After English class, we had a sort of Q&A. The teacher translated all the questions the kids had about me, such as, "are you married? and "do you have brothers and sisters?" They are so excited to have a new "madam" teaching their class, and despite our language barrier, we are slowly learning about one another.
Partial group photo at the orphanage
These last two weeks have been a whirlwind of vibrant colors, hairy elephants, long car rides, delicious food, spices, teas, a few bumpy autorickshaw rides, and many a cultural experience. The whirlwind started the moment I stepped off the plane, but has escalated since Republic Day, which fell on Saturday the 26th. Some of the students from Navjivini School had been practicing for a dance contest in the Republic Day parade, so I accompanied them to the stadium to watch the performance. The enormous venue was decorated in brightly colored ribbons and was filled with thousands of people whose traditional Punjabi dress shimmered under the warm sun. The dance group from Navjivini School was made up of some students from the “special school” and some from the “normal school,” all of which were talented dancers, earning first place in the day's dance contest! Being the only foreigner in a stadium of I don't know how many thousands, I soon attracted the attention of the press, and found myself posing holding a miniature Indian flag and smiling at the cameras uncomfortably. One particularly obnoxious photographer barked an order at me in Punjabi and gestured for me to follow him down the bleachers to pose with another group of performers from a different school. At first I stood up and walked a few steps, but when I finally understood what he wanted me to do, I turned right back around and sat with my students, telling him that I would only pose for the camera if the students from Navjivini School were behind me. This caused an uproar from the journalist, and he spent the next ten minutes in a shouting match with my school's superintendent. From what I could understand, she was also telling him that I would only pose with my students, and so he left without taking my picture. It made me uneasy, but I got the feeling that the photographer wanted me to sort of endorse another group of students, and refused to take a picture with my kids because we came from a special education school. I did not compromise, and my actions were affirmed by the superintendent's thankful smile and nod in my direction when the photographer finally left us alone.
Jaipur, nicknamed the Pink City for its salmon colored buildings and rose colored dirt, was the next stop after Agra. We shopped until our jaws dropped at the sight of elephants walking down the stree. After crashing a Hindi wedding procession, discovering a hole-in-the-wall serving the most delicious thali on Earth, and watching a jewler custom make me a ring out of mined silver and a pearl I selected off its shell, I was exhausted but filled with such adrenaline that I couldn't sleep at all during the 12 hour trip back home to Patiala.