Explode The Moment

Every month we have a writing competition where students choose from a creative, descriptive, or argumentative prompt and we select the top entry from each grade and an overall winner from middle school and high school. As a prize for a recent in-class grammar competition (one of the only ways to make learning grammar rules exciting), the winners got to select the topics for February (in addition to minion stickers).

The descriptive topic, inspired by a recent workshop conducted by visiting writing professors from Massachusetts, was ‘explode the moment’. Pick a moment, any moment, and describe every detail. Make ordinary moments seem extraordinary and make extraordinary moments seem unbelievable.

The moments here pass so quickly and I know that one day I will blink and it will be time to leave. I don’t think it was India that caused this change in my perception, because I felt it creeping up on me last year in D.C. when I started walking places without music, singing extra loudly in the kitchen and trying to move through life more slowly, but I am hyper aware of every moment: the sounds and smells and how my body feels. I memorize the paint cracks on my office walls and the way the sky changes color every evening around 5:30. This is a time I know I will never get back and I intend on remembering every moment.

Like when I have grumpy moments and let my voice get harsher than it should be and I can’t keep my eyes open to grade papers anymore. Learning from the unhappy moments are usually more important than the happy ones.

When the school building is empty except for a handful of my favorites who want to experiment with melodies to ‘Say Something’.

When I get to roar like a tiger during story time (and the kindergarteners squeal with delight when I tell them I am coming for KG story, even when I lost my cool with them the day before in class).

IMG_1328When I am bouncing in the back seat of a car with no seat belts eating McDonalds for the first time in years, laughing and getting ketchup everywhere while singing along to the radio.

When I sing my heart out with a beautiful thirteen-year-old girl to a song I used to belt out in the back seat of my parents’ car when I was her age – you know, when CD players were a thing.

When the other volunteers and I start a dance party at a random bar in Bangalore and I realize we are the only women dancing. And then when we realize we don’t need to worry about any unwanted attention because all of the men only want to dance with one of my male co-workers. Cool.

IMG_1323 copyWhen I realize I piled what I thought was spinach on my plate but turns out is a super spicy pickle that makes my tongue go numb and I try to hide it from the Aunties when I compost it so they don’t scold me for wasting food.

When ice cream has never tasted so good as it does here and I have been forced to eat so many things I normally wouldn’t because I don’t want to be rude and then realized that tomatoes aren’t really that bad after all.

When I have watermelon juice dripping down my chin and I learn how to fire off the slippery seeds by pinching them between my fingers.

IMG_1334When we are driving and the most wonderful smells and the most horrible smells blow through the open windows. The afternoon heat is gone and I actually get goose bumps when we drive faster.

When an 18 year old girl specifically picks an outfit to match me after she sees me at breakfast or a 17 year old boy chases me down to point-out that we have the same white sneakers (his are about three times the size of mine though).

When 20 pairs of brown eyes watch me intently as we discuss why feminism is also incredibly important for men and about the lack of voice for male rape victims in the discussion in India and the U.S. about violence against women. How, we never thought about it that way before, is one of the sweetest things a teacher can hear.

IMG_1286 copyWhen cake is smeared across my face and I talk politics and love and religion with one of the wisest 21 year olds I have ever met and I am so overwhelmed by how much I love these kids and how I want to give them everything and how their eyes got so wide when I let them try their first chocolate croissant (also how finding chocolate croissants made me happier than I ever thought a pastry could) and my ankles always turn orange when I play soccer and I failed miserably when I tried cricket for the first time and I’m told my half-up-half down hairdo makes me look like Arwen (and as two five year olds delicately tuck every strand of hair behind my ears before clasping my face and smiling in satisfaction) and the first graders ask me if my freckles are bug bites and I realize how much I miss wine and my friends from college and I can’t breathe when I am playing taboo with the best group of Australians because I am laughing so hard and how much I love waking up to the sepia morning light when I can sleep in on Sundays and the 12th graders walk out of their English board exam with a huge smile for me and say ‘It was easy Ms. D – your questions were so much harder!’ and that I have no idea how much I am learning or where my life is going and how it is all ok (no, actually it is wonderful) because I am so lucky to have these moments.

How do I describe them? These incredible, ordinary moments? Weaving through narrow streets while dodging bikes carrying entire families, stray dogs, tuk-tuks, entitled cows, and colorful pedestrians. Everyone honks as they drive, less a form of aggression and more a form of echolocation – each honk screaming, “I’m here! I’m here! Don’t hit me!” I will never be able to capture the feeling in words or even in pictures, but I want to remember it. I want to remember it always.

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My life: morning light, elephant plaque, coffee maker, baby bananas, a book on how to start a coffee house and A History of Love, a bruised apple, an embarrassingly large collection of medication, a fresh loaf of the sweetest bread I have ever tasted, and crumpled chocolate wrappers.

To Travel

Last year came and went in a blur of plane rides. I truly am the luckiest girl in the world because I got both my white Christmas with family and the opportunity to come back to India – back to the all of the smiles that remind me why I wake up every morning.

The first month of the new year is already gone and my head is swimming with dreams and plans and the guilt of unmet resolutions. My midnight promises were: play more soccer and stop feeling guilty about the things I am not doing. Not writing a blog post a week? Rest. Not mastering the art of running a school at the age of 23? Eat more chocolate and then rest. Not actually fulfilling my only measurable resolution of kicking around a ball for an hour every week? Let it go. When the weight of 300 children is on your shoulders, you forget to take care of your own needs sometimes.

Like every evening on December 31st, I reflect on what the past 364 days had brought and fantasize on what the coming year will bring. And, as always, it is like nothing I could have expected. You never know what life will bring until it comes. This is what 2015 looks like so far:

  • A blog remake underway (by the lovely Monica)
  • Job applications (the hunt is the worst but the opportunities are endless)
  • Bachelor Tuesdays and Zumba Wednesdays (see: volunteers who support my guilty pleasures and the most wonderful girls who love to dance and giggle in the grass)
  • Long distance love notes to the piece of my heart that is in China (see: Justin)
  • A stack of books I might finish by the time I leave India (currently: The Lowland)
  • Dreams of future traveling in India (Ladakh….because I want to see mountains again, Gandalf)
  • Dreams of future traveling outside of India. Apparently per my visa rules I have to leave the country at some point in April so I don’t get arrested. (see: Nepalese tourist visas on arrival)

My job has shown me true peace (whenever there isn’t complete chaos). Shanti Bhavan is a haven amongst the traffic and the noise and I don’t just mean in India. I arrived in Minneapolis at 4 in the afternoon on December 19th, ready for my first American meal in months. Our hotel was across the street from the Mall of America – the largest shopping mall in the United States. Shock. That is how I would describe how Justin and I felt. Shock that two bowls of pasta could cost so much. Shock that there existed so many things to buy, to consume. Life was aggressive again and, though I almost cried when I bit into my mac and cheese and hugged my family for the first time in months, the blood orange sunsets, long conversations, and deep laughs were pulling me back. It is a simpler way of living here, one where I receive daily doses of perspective and humility along with my rice and dal.

So this place here is the best place in India. In many ways, it is the best place in the world. Still, I find myself thinking as I stare out my office window during 2pm lulls: I can’t wait to travel. But – the voice inside my head agues – aren’t I ‘traveling’ right now? Wasn’t that the whole idea behind this adventure? Work abroad and see the world?

As I navigate narrow crowded streets, language barriers, and indigestion it certainly feels like I am traveling. The six planes rides (and nine hours of delays) it took to get me home and back certainly felt like traveling. When I watch The Bachelor late at night with friends while eating chocolate and make my sleep-in-until-8am Sunday morning coffee, it feels like I am home. My weekend in a hotel bed and brunch date with a plate of waffles felt a lot like vacation. When I get up with the sun and run around until I am ragged, it feels like work. When 300 kids tell me they love me and when I walk home under the brightest stars I have ever seen, it feels like a dream.

“So, how was it?” people asked. “How did you like it?”

When I couldn’t regale people with stories about cultural boundaries I navigated or mountains I climbed, I felt inadequate. Like I wasn’t ‘traveling’ the right way. The truth is, I don’t really know what to say about my experience (hence the absence of blog posts for quite a long time).

I have learned and seen so much in my time in India (more than I am capable of processing….the answers will come over the years), but I think the biggest realization is that life is just…life. You adjust and you adapt to your new normal. Sure, I gushed about the children, reminisced over pictures, and laughed about the one time someone did something funny. But the best and most meaningful stories I had weren’t mine – they were the kids’.

I’ve come across all kinds of advice columns, essays, lists, stories, etc. about what travel should and should not be (you know, the 17 things you learn while living abroad, the 8 things you should do while you travel, 26.2 things you must see in India, or the 11 places you should visit with your girlfriends in your 20s). People talk about the difference between ‘traveling’ and ‘vacationing’; about the superiority of ‘venturing off the beaten path’ over ‘following the guide books’; about traveling to ‘escape’ the ‘mundane’ world we live in filled with routine. They say to travel is to come back with stories that begin with, “When I was in…”. To travel, in one sense, is to experience life in a way that others haven’t. Or perhaps more appropriately, to finally experience life in ways that the majority of others live every day.

Again it might have been the American tendency in travel. One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward.

A dear friend of mine told me about her Fulbright experience and how turned off she was by the snootiness of some ‘well-traveled’ folks. This foreign city is so much better than that foreign city, they would say. Wearing the number of countries they have visited and oceans they’ve swam in as badges of sophisticated honor, claiming they have traveled the ‘right’ way.

I hate these restrictions. I have seen so little of India, but have been forever changed by a part so few will know. So what does that mean then about what I should learn, what I should bring, what I should do? Maybe I will find the meaning of life, the answers to all the great questions in my remaining months. Maybe I will return with nothing but some bruises and stories and new perspectives. And, the reality is that I am not just ‘traveling’. I am working.

Why go half way around the world to teach? It is something I have asked myself. There are teaching opportunities at home. So many students need help at home. Then there are the terrifying questions: What good are you actually doing?

Am I ‘voluntouring’? Technically not, because I get paid. But even for the volunteers who receive love and popcorn instead of money, they are no tourists. They work long hours monitoring, teaching, prepping, grading, sweating, reading, loving. They never stop and they pour their hearts into this place. Maybe some of them come with misguided intentions. Perhaps a lot of people only go abroad to take pictures of exotic places and tell stories for years about how they helped the world. And, yes, there are stories of high school students going abroad to build wells and schools during their spring breaks, unaware that their work is not needed and their funds will never reach the ones they intend to help. Maybe there is something fundamentally strange and/or problematic (dare I say imperial?) about traveling abroad to volunteer. But stopping voluntourism doesn’t seem to be the answer. Maybe there is another way, one that can foster both cultural sensitivity and curiosity about the world. Be mindful of the organizations you participate in, be mindful of where your money goes. But don’t shy away because it is difficult.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I have learned three things from when I started ‘traveling’ last August. First, journeys are what you make of them and you shouldn’t judge people based on how they choose to navigate theirs.

When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.

When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to chose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teen-agers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

Second, if you choose to travel with people, make sure they will be the right traveling companions. Make sure they will help you make the best out of difficult situations, push you to reflect on what you see and experience, be open to talking about your poop (or lack thereof), and pick lice out of your hair after you realize that your adopted cat might not be so clean after all (see: difficult situations). Thank you, Justin, for loving me even when things get gross and never failing to make the best out of the murkiest situations. I could not have asked for a better traveling companion and – best of all – I know that with you adventure is never far away. Driving an hour to a new town, trying a café in a new neighborhood, flying half way around the world…you see the value in all new experiences. And you give me a shoulder to sleep on when we find ourselves without a place to stay.

Sleeping Travelers

The third thing is that nothing beats coming home. I know now without a doubt that the U.S. is home. It is where my family is, where my heart feels most at peace, where I know I will always return to. But India is home too. These tiny hands and brilliant smiles have left permanent imprints on my heart and I know I will always find my way back here. Perhaps ‘traveling’ means finding home….remembering the places you’ve left behind and finding pieces of your soul in places you never thought they would be. That, I think, is the true value of traveling.

*Quotes from John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Borders

There is one question I have struggled to answer since I have been here, one that every person has asked. It is the most basic question you would ask someone who has moved to a new country and started a new job, but still, I never come up with a satisfying answer.

So, how is India?

Diwali Lights 2

{Diwali – The Festival of Lights}

Shanti Bhavan is a haven, isolated from the rest of India by large expanses of highway, fields, and broken dirt road. My job is the most rewarding and exhausting position I have ever held. By 6:30am I am at the school building, helping the students prepare the morning news and roaming the halls to tell sleepy children to hurry up and get to their classrooms for prep time. By 4pm I am gulping my third cup of chai, stirring in the instant coffee that keeps me awake enough to wrestle with the small children or play soccer during PT time. By 10pm I am shooing students out of my office, ready to collapse in bed (usually falling asleep halfway through an episode of Game of Thrones). By the time the weekend comes, the two days a week I am free to leave this beautiful campus, all I want to do is sleep and spend unscheduled time with the kids. So I guess you could say India is pretty exhausting.

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{Silk scarves in Mysore}

I have never crossed as many borders as I did when I came here: across oceans, continents, and countries. Here, I frequently  cross the threshold of the school gates and weave between villages and cities. The more I see of this country, the more I want to love it. I do love it–the colors, the music, the dances, the kindness, and the understanding that there should always be dancing. But I’ve found that when I leave the walls of Shanti Bhavan, I feel a certain frustration.

Frustration when people stare at you everywhere you go. Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they look angry, sometimes they smile. Frustration when the majority of times you eat something outside of school you get sick. Our most recent excursion to Mysore involved the most colorful market of spices, jewelry, silks, oils, and hanging flowers. But I also spent half of it in bed, clutching my aching stomach. Frustration when you finally feel self-sufficient, adept at traversing public transportation…and the bus driver waves happily at you as he drives past, leaving you standing at the bus station after you have been waiting for an hour, counting the cows and throwing stones for entertainment. The frustration subsides with little victories, little moments of belonging, and then bubbles again when you come so close to feeling like you can live somewhere the way others do, and having that sense of belonging dashed. So I guess you could say India is sometimes frustrating.

Farmer and cow

{A farmer in rural Tamil Nadu}

Outside the iron gates of Shanti Bhavan, I am acutely reminded that I am foreign. Inside the gates, we have become such an integral part of the school’s functioning that I never feel like an ‘outsider’ here. But the borders aren’t gone. Every day I navigate the blurry boundaries between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ cultures, between teacher and administrator, between good cop and disciplinarian, between boss and friend.

Sometimes when I close my eyes I imagine mountains, rivers, quiet streets and fall leaves. Sometimes India doesn’t feel like home. But then there are moments when I am hanging my laundry, when the air is crisp and the sky is orange. Sometimes it is pure, like a tangerine. Sometimes it is rich, like a blood-orange. Sometimes it is subtle, like a grapefruit. Every evening it is beautiful. Handing out medals after the school sports day, while music played and children danced and the sky was streaked with purple….I felt more at home and at peace than I ever did in Washington D.C. So I guess you could say India is a little confusing.

20141116_123 20141115_084 20141115_082{Devaraja market in Mysore}

I could say that India is a blur of color, that it comes in waves of sounds and smells and cows and people and joy and frustration. But that wouldn’t be any different from what every person before me has said about India. I can’t capture it in words and I no longer feel the need to categorize my experience in neat boxes. India is India. Just like every single person in every other place on earth experiences, some days are good and some are bad. Some moments are beautiful (like when fifteen girls pull at your hair, paint your face and hands, and wrap you in silks to celebrate a day of dancing and amazing food or you find yourself cutting snowflakes out of newspaper with second graders) and others are painful (like when you have a migraine and are nauseous and have been stuck in Bangalore traffic for over two hours with an ambulance blaring on the way to the hospital).

Perhaps I will always be balancing on the border between India and home, my teetering feet the only things keeping me between full acceptance and painful nostalgia. The truth is I have seen so little of this country, but have also developed an intimate connection to a part of India few get to see. After four months, I still don’t know when it is better to cross borders—keeping your identities on either side distinct—and when is it better to blur them. To ignore the differences between myself and those around me would make me ignorant, but to focus on them might create borders where there need not be.

20141115_010 20141115_018 20141115_021 20141115_02220141115_056{This woman taught us how to roll incense}

My stomach might not always agree with the food and my idea of home might not look like India…but it definitely looks like this. So I guess you could say India is pretty wonderful.

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“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

At our weekly volunteer meeting last night, we discussed the idea of a ‘dream job’. We all went around the room, gushing about what careers we would want if we could defy the laws of money, time, physics, and general feasibility.

I would be a Broadway star, performing in all of my favorite musicals (Beauty and the Beast, Les Mis, and West Side Story), while also owning a coffee shop on the side that doubled as a library. It would have mahogany shelves, plush seat cushions, and countless window-reading-nooks. It would be the kind of place where you take a book and leave a book, students come for English tutoring, little kids are read stories by people who excel in character voices, college students  study together, aspiring anythings dream over lattes, nerdy lovers come for a first date, and adults that are passionate about words and caffeine come to weekly book group meetings. We would have a coffee selection diverse enough to satisfy both the hipster aficionados and the pumpkin spice lovers. Our carrot cake and biscotti would be the best around and waffles (with a buffet of toppings) would also be served around the clock.

Snapping me out of my day-dream, Eric, our music teacher, chimed in with his usual deep thinking. If a job is a dream, he said, it isn’t a job. Work will always be hard. If it is always fun, if it is never difficult, if you never have to make sacrifices….then it isn’t work.

Now, I love my job. There are countless times I sit back and think,  how did I get this lucky? To name a few….

  • When I get to plan a haunted house and trick-or-treating for the most deserving kids
  • When the second graders give me huge hugs and press their faces into my hands
  • When it takes 12 girls pulling at my hair and poking my face with make up to get me ready for Diwali (and when I subsequently hand them my  phone to take pictures and get it back with 600 new photos)
  • When I get to interview pre-schoolers about what they want to be when they grow up
  • When the 10th grade boys engage me in heated dinner debates about Edward Snowden (they think he’s a hero and I plan on handing it to them…)
  • When students confide in me about their fears about graduating and fights with friends, as well as come to me to celebrate their accomplishments and joys
  • When the kids leaving on a 2 and half day field trip tell me how much they are going to miss me and realizing that, after a day, I miss them that much too

I love these children more than I thought I was capable of loving so many students in such a short amount of time and the sentence, “This is Ms. D, she is our English teacher” fit me better than the fall sweaters I miss so much.

But there are also times that I am frustrated, run weary, and so homesick I could collapse. There are times I want to crawl into my room and not surface for days, tired of the constant running around and nagging feeling that I should always be doing something else. Some days, when my alarm clock goes off at 6, it takes all the energy I have to roll out of bed and put on a sweater. I had grand plans to invigorate my blog, detail everything about my experience, and read all of those books I have been telling myself I will read for years, but when the free-time I crave finally arrives…I usually spend it playing with the kids, sleeping or watching re-runs of FRIENDS while eating biscuits and nutella. Because, why not?

In typical 23 year old fashion, I worry that I will never find ‘the job’. You know, the job that makes you feel excited to go to work every single day, where the spark never dies and the romance always feels new. The job you will still be insanely attracted to when it has gained a few pounds, forgotten to shower, and started to reveal its shortcomings.

A job, like a marriage I think, is a choice. You have to choose to love it, choose to approach each day as an opportunity for something great. And, you also have to accept that it is going to be hard, that sometimes you might hate it, and instead of focusing on how it makes you happy, think about whether you are doing your best. If, at the end of the day, something fundamental is missing, then leave. But in an age of instant gratification and entitlement, I think we may be expecting too much of our jobs, and of our lives, too fast.

Broadway is probably never going to happen (you never know, right?), but the coffee shop still might. For now, though, I am India. I love my job, but it is still very much ‘work’. Some days I can’t imagine being anywhere else and some days it is a struggle. But I get to be with these guys every single day and that is enough to make me want to stay….until June! I have officially decided to stay for the spring semester at Shanti Bhavan and I could not be more excited. No matter how much work it is, it is worth it.


 

Rocks 2

Rocks 1

We needed some pictures for fundraising purposes and these were some of the candid ones. Please note how unamused Bharath, Ruchita and Shivaroshini (the babies) look.