Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Millinium Development Goals

Achieved by this team from January 18 - January 22

65 Hours of class room instruction in conversational English and computer skills by 4 volunteers and 65Hours of preparation time.

10 Hours of childcare by 1 volunteer

15 Hours of construction at Seams to build the Dormitories

1 School, 2 children's Home and over 115 students

Monday January 18, 2010

Quote: Whenever I see your smiling face, I have to smile myself. James Taylor

After we had a busy and exciting weekend trip to Pondicherry, Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram, we started a new week with the kids. Kathy headed off to Grace School. She took over Lucy's fifth grade class, and she had the students for more than an hour. She said it was a little hectic, but went okay. Sheeba and I went to Assisi Illam. The kids greeted us with their bright smiles. I can't help but smile myself when I see all the children smiling and reaching out to say “hello.”

The kids had their snacks, and then Sister Matilda and Jessie sent the kids upstairs in groups of 5 to 7 children. We sang our songs and then the kids looked at the nursery rhyme books. The kids watched the Tortoise and the Hare, and Sheeba and I headed back to the guest house.

We had guests for lunch – a professor and his wife who work at a college in Oregon. The professor is looking into volunteer activities for his students.

After lunch, Kathy, Lucy and I prepared for our lessons this week. We are trying to be as creative as possible and think of new ways to teach the children. Lucy is telling the older students at SEAMS the story of the Wizard of Oz; Sheeba was helping her with the translations.
This evening we went to SEAMS. I started “The Hungry Caterpillar” book with the girls. They liked the story. Lucy was working on the question words -Who, What, When, Why, Where and How- with the older students.

Unfortunately, Tom is still under the weather. We hope he feels better soon.


 Tuesday January 19, 2010

Quote: It is winter now. Only 31 degrees celsius!!

by Stephen

Having had a sick day yesterday, because of too much sun and allowing myself to get dehydrated, I was back in the classroom this morning.

It was a very good morning with my 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classes. We started with song, and this time I was ready to stop thd kids after only two songs. We switched to talking about nouns and verbs, and they really know the difference and were able to give me lots of examples. We looked at a map and were able to name many countries; they had been to the zoo and had many animals in English, and, in fact, have quite a bit of English vocabulary, though they have trouble makiing sentences. After some urging, they were each able to tell me three things about themselves, mostly the things they like.

We also did some arithmetic problems, and they know their addition and multiplication facts quite well. The fifth grade also knows the relationship of division to multiplication.

In both English and arithmetic they are far ahead of the children at Seams, who go to public school and are taught entirely by rote. I was impressed and surprised.

They did have the same problems with English pronunciation that manyTamil speakers have. The problems with the long A, with the H at the beginning of words, with the inability to hear a difference between ship and sheep, with V and Wand so on. I have been recruited to help the teachers with some of those problems next week and am looking forward to working with adults. I hope my English holds up!

In general, the children were eager and cooperative and a joy to work with. It was fun to teach them to say See you later, alligator with the excuse that I was working on the long A. when we left, one of the girls tested me to see if I remembered how to say See you tomorrow in Tamil.

After lunch and a rest and preparation period, we went over to Seams to meet with the children there. My two girls were charming as usual. We talked about opposites in English and had some desultory conversation. They have not thought much about their future, and perhaps do not realize how much they have to depend on their own resources. Thus neither is a serious student, and Stephen said he also worries about that and is talking to them about it. We finished up with another installment about the adventures of Dorothy and Toto.

After a while the boys charged in and we practiced the three multiplication facts I had assigned, hoping they can at least master the 6, 7, 8, and 9 tables before the end of next week. Then it became clear that one of them had a fever and another a bothersome insect bite, so I asked Stephen to see what he could do. The others continued the session, but they are very playful and hyper and I doubt they absorbed much academic material.

When I think about how far these children have come it is hard to complain about their academic progress, but I get sad when I compare them to children of the same age at the Grace School. I wish them the best in future and hope they take advantage of the opportunities they have at Seams.on an upbeat note, it is clear that the love and care they receive there is extraordinary and that they seem very happy and well adjusted.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

A teaching can be profitable only if it is perfectly sincere, that is, if it is lived while it is being given, ..” The Mother (from Auroville)

I don't think we could have fit anything more into today! We started very early with a trip to the market before breakfast. What a busy and colorful place. I couldn't believe all the thousands, maybe millions, of flower blossoms for sale. Many were already made into garlands or other decorations and some were just sold in bulk. Stephen told us tonight that there were many weddings today so many of the flower decorations were likely purchased for them. The merchants kept giving

flowers to Heather to put in her hair so she had a lovely headful by the time we left that section. Also, there were many different greens for sale, some were leaves and others looked like grasses. Everyone was very friendly. Many people – men and women, young and old, asked to have their photo taken. There was a very short period during which the five of us got separated but we found each other before anyone panicked or got upset. After the flower section, we walked through

some of the fruit area and then briefly into the vegetable area. I took a couple pictures of potatoes with their vendors to show the potato project at home.

Rani had a fresh breakfast ready when we returned to the guest house. Then Tom went off to SEAMS to work on the staircase, and, there was a last minute change in the schedule, so Lucy and Kathy went with Heather to Assisi again rather than Grace School. I like that because there, Heather is in charge and does such a great job with those little ones. They do like the songs, and when we do London Bridge, no-one wants to walk under the bridge but rather, as many kids as can

scrunch into the middle and just stand there giggling until the bridge falls down and they are enveloped in the big “hug.” All three of us were pretty tired after three groups of lively children. Managed by Sister Rexline, it seems be a well run program. Sister Rexline also manages the hospital and on the way back to the guest house, we stopped there so Lucy and Heather could meet her and so I could thank her for Tom's care the other night. She invited us into her hospital office and served us drinks and treats. After a few minutes she excused herself because she had to attend a meeting so we finished our

refreshments in the peaceful, fan-cooled setting and then left for the guest house.

After lunch, I went to the roof where I sat in the shade and read and stitched. There was a nice breeze and it was lovely. Then I walked around and did some errands. Tom went back to work at Seams and Lucy and Heather snuck in short rests. The three of us and Stephen went to SEAMS at 5:00. I had the 7th graders for the whole time and we were very busy working on opposites, a memory game, and number bingo. It's interesting to see how different kids excel in different kinds of activities. I am going to miss those boys especially.

We came home and changed into nicer clothes then set out into crazy rush-hour traffic ,with additional sound effects by Tom. We arrived to a lovely restaurant at a hotel in Chennai, where it seems a wedding was in progress. We had a very delicious meal and as always, interesting conversation. Stephen is like an encyclopedia and we have learned so much from him. After another crazy ride back to the guest house, we thanked our driver, the other Stephen, for bringing us safely home and all went in and retired.


Friday, January 22, 2010.

Today was Kathy, Tom and my last day. I am not very good at goodbyes, so I knew the day was going to be a little tough. Tom headed to SEAMS to finish the stairs, which look great. Kathy, Lucy and I went to Assisi Illam. The kids greeted us with “Thank you, Aunties” in unison. The tears welled up, but I managed to hold it together, We had three energetic groups with songs, flashcards, books, balls and balloons. Sister Rose, a beautiful, strong woman, made sure we had some tea and soup. I will miss Jessie, the teacher, and Shobina, Reena and Sister Virgin, who also work with the children. They were so welcoming.

After Assisi, we treated Stephen, Sheeba, Stephen, Barnabas and Rani to lunch. They have worked so hard and have gone over and beyond to take care of us during our stay.

We went to SEAMS in the evening. We all spent time with the children before they sang songs for us and came up individually to thank us for coming. These children are beautiful, and I am going to miss them. I will miss their bright smiles, and I will miss being greeted with “Auntie” and “Sister.”

Raje, Anand, Murugah, Vinitha, Nancy, Joys, Sneeta and all the children at SEAMS and Assisi now have a special place in my heart.

I wish Kathy and Tom safe travels, and I hope our paths cross again. I hope Lucy has a nice third week. And finally, to Stephen and Sheeba, many thanks and my door is always open for you in Washington, DC.

Quote: We cannot do great things. But we can do small things with great love. Mother Teresa


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Millinium Development Goals

Achieved by this team from January 11 - January 15

81 Hours of class room instruction in conversational English and computer skills by 5 volunteers and 81Hours of preparation time.

20 Hours of childcare by 2 volunteer

4 Hours of construction at Seams to build the Stage 2 of the Dormitories

1 Schools, 2 Children's Home and over 115 students impacted

January 10, 2010

Hello India! It has been a very interesting experience being in between 2 groups. I sadly saw the last group leave but was thrilled to meet my new team members. Lucy was the first to arrive, surprising me upon my return from touring Chennai Saturday evening. She is a 77 year old woman with amazing experiences. She volunteers for 3 different organizations in Washington D.C., helping kids succeed, and she taught English and math in China on the Global trip last year. Her big love in her life are her grandchildren, of course. Since Lucy was placed in the really small room in the corner of the first floor, I moved upstairs so she could feel more comfortable. No need to sleep in a matchbox when there's only 5 of us in the group! Heather arrived next, coming in later than expected Saturday night. Unfortunately her luggage never left Dubai so she had to make arrangements to get it sent to the guesthouse. So of course she was overjoyed to see Stephen as one of the first smiling faces to greet her upon leaving the airport, relieving her worry of being left at the airport like her luggage. Heather is a 35 year old who works in D.C. and she's come to India to get away from American politics, so we've promised to discuss them as little as possible. She also used to be a special ed teacher in New Orleans.

Saturday afternoon I showed Lucy the main road with our favorite grocery stores and we took a fun rickshaw back. I thought the young boy said 100 rupees and he laughed and made fun of me with the driver and said "no maam, 10 rupees!" Of course I gave him double for being a smart attack. Sunday was nice and relaxed and we were all well rested. We had breakfast and lunch at the guesthouse while we went over orientation. Lucy will be teaching math and english at Grace School while Heather and I teach the alphabet and nursery rhythms to the kids at Assisi illam. Our other 2 group members are unfortunately stuck in Frankfurt, so we're anxiously awaiting their arrival as well. I then brought Heather down the main road. I bought cookies for the group and Heather got a beautiful blue top that looks great on her. Hopefully that and the Global parka will last until her luggage arrives.

Heather and I organized all the school supplies that Lori left behind for the kids while Lucy contemplated all the many trips she could take on the second weekend. We then headed off to SEAMS Children's Home where we were greeted with smiling faces and songs to welcome us to India. The kids screamed my name and quickly learned Heather and Lucy's. I pointed out who are related, who are the best dancers, and who are the trouble makers. We then had dinner at the hotel down the street. Stephen gave us the choice of the rooftop or the dining room and we mistakenly chose the dining room, only to find out we were much too early for the buffet. Se we went to the rooftop to find out it had a roof with water running throughout it into a side canal, with an opening to view the city. The breeze and view was amazing. We scolded Stephen for not saying how nice the rooftop was. Lucy had the great idea of sharing meals, so we had tandorri chicken, spinach paneer, vegetable and prawn curry, with my favorite cauliflower dish as an appetizer, and of course ending it with pistachio, butterscotch, and mango ice cream.

We then headed back to the guesthouse and Stephen headed home. We worked on our journals but retired at 2230. I am waking up early to greet Tom and Kathy in the morning. I will be glad to see them arrive safely. Lucy sang a song that perfectly described my experience of being in between 2 groups and making lasting relationships in India, so my quote of the day is "Make new friends but keep the old."


January 11, 2010

Quote: The earliest you can start any project is now.

No philosophy in this journal piece, just details about the day. It was all in all a good and productive day. More generalizations forthcoming in the next edition of the journal.

I woke up at 5, to find Maria already up and working. She was awaiting arrival of the lost couple, who, we learned later, were again stranded in the Middle East. We ate breakfast and had our morning meeting without them. This was my introduction to the Grace school. I was introduced around, and saw some bare bone classrooms and a bunch of normal, lively children. I was finally taken to my classroom, which was comparatively well lit and minimally equipped. It does have a blackboard, and an eraser plus some plastic furniture which serves as bench and desk for multiple kids.

The first group consisted of about 15 over-enthusiastic 3rd graders, who happily sang and shouted their way through my activities, consisting of some songs, Simon Says, and a review of various vocabularies. I did all exercises with the help of stick figures, which they had no trouble interpreting. I got them to work on some troublesome sounds, such as the short I sound. They had to say: “I like” (or “I don't like” ) 'to eat fish.' Not feesh, which is what they wanted to say. I also asked them which was their favorite animal, and we did a few more exercises and then switched to arithmetic, where they seem to know addition and subtraction pretty well, but we have to find out more tomorrow.

Then there was a break, during which the principal came in to talk, so I started Group 2 (Grade 4) without that lovely head-clearing minute between classes that I craved. O well. Group 2 consisted at first of a boy who had been introduced as the principal's son, and a pleasant little girl. We worked on the exercises I had tried with the first group, but, because there were so few children, we whizzed through them. A third child wandered in and sat down So I turned to stories, in this case those faithful three bears. They knew the story, so we alternated narrators. I'm not sure about comprehension, because they could not tell me how the baby bear felt when he saw that his porridge was gone. But they seemed to get the general idea.

The surprise of the morning came when the new student wanted to tell a story. He told an illustrated tale, complete with plot, characters, and suspense. He's far ahead of the others. One student, on the other hand was difficult to control, as he is a motormouth, and just smiled and continued as I used various strategies to get him to react to the tasks at hand. His story was pointless, derivative, but well-illustrated. The little girl told a nondescript but adequate tale.

The break for Session 3 apparently was not supposed to happen, so when the bell rang my 4th grade left and the 5th grade, consisting of 6 boys and 1 girl, filtered in. They were lively and had the usual pre adolescent male wish to punch each other and carry on. We played some Simon Says, with the children each taking their turn to be simon, and tried some other exercises, then turned to arithmetric.

They appear to know their basic facts reasonably well, and have the method of multi-digit multiplication down pretty well, though they can use some practice.

We went back to Seams this evening as planned. We were greeted by the usual hand holding and skin stroking. I was given two groups to work with, preferably on multiplication and division. The chaos in the big room prevented much discussion with the first group, of middle school age boys,, but they seemed to have an idea about basic addition and multiplication. They practiced what they knew, but we could not venture into anything new..

The second group was older boys, and we developed the entire multiplication table from 3 through 9. After they each created the table we were able to analyze it, and find some general rules about the commutative rule in multiplication and the unique characteristics of zero, the 5 table and the 9 table. They seemed to be excited when they saw the relationships among these one-digit numbers. I plan to work with them on division tomorrow.

After classes, there was an awards ceremony for the students with best academic record. They received presents, to much applause.

More news: It looks as if Heather’s suitcase has finally arrived! And the couple we have been awaiting has missed yet another flight. The airline business is having troubles, and so are the consumers, i.e., us!

That's all for now. Things started well; let's hope they continue that way!


January 12, 2010

Yay! Kathy and Tom arrived early, early this morning. And sure enough, they got up for breakfast this morning ready to go. Wow! After breakfast, Kathy joined Lucy at Grace School. Tom went over to SEAMS to use his skills and muscles to help with a dorm construction project. Maria and I headed off to Assisi Illeam.

When we got there, the kids rush to greet us. They want to grab our hands, our arms, our legs.

The first group of kids came upstairs. If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands. Clap, Clap. Lots of smiles, lots of hoorays. The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round was up next . Again, lots of smiles. Lots wheels going round and round, wipers swishing, horns beeping and babies waaaaing.

Then the kids did Ring around the Rosie in Tamil. We go on a bear hunt and we make it home safe and sound.

To calm the kids down, Maria brought out books and puzzles. The kids loved the books, and at first they struggled with the puzzles, but with a little help, they started to get the idea.

Jessie, one of the beautiful women who work at the home, came upstairs and told Maria and me to come downstairs. When we got down there, the music was playing and kids were dancing away. Maria and I had lots of dance partners. Maria and one of the girls started the Macarena. We all joined in, even Jessie. The music changed. Jessie asked Maria and I to sit on the bench. Two of the little kids started an Indian dance. It was so cute. Some of the little ones joined in with their own versions of the dance.

What amazed me the most about these kids is how happy they are. For the most part, they had smiles on their faces. Happy, happy, happy.

The kids had a little time with a counting program on the television. They wanted to sit on our laps, next to us or as close as possible. After the show, the children washed their hands and feet and sat down for lunch. Stephen was waiting for Maria and me.

Lucy, Kathy and Tom arrived back at the house. Tom looked a little tired from his hard work out in the Indian sun – it was the hottest day so far.

After lunch, we all started preparing for the evening with the SEAMS' kids. Sheeba and Maria took me to get some clothes – my clothes' suitcase still hadn't arrived. I worked and slept in the same pants for five days. I think the pants were ready to walk away on their own.

SEAMS was great. Stephen introduced Kathy to the children. The kids were excited to introduced themselves to her, and they were asking about Tom's whereabouts. Tom is a hit!

I felt much more confident working with the kids on the second day. With the girls, we worked on identifying fruits and vegetables. Then, I set up Heather's store, and I had them practice the terminology for picking out the items and paying for them with American dollars. They seems to have fun, and they picked up the language quickly.

Kathy, Lucy and Maria had a good evening as well.

One of the best parts of the day happened at about 8:00 pm. The phone rang and the person on the other end told me to open the door. IT WAS MY SUITCASE WITH MY CLOTHES! I couldn't get the bag and shrink-wrap off quickly enough. My clothes! Thank goodness.

Quote - For it is in giving that we receive. St. Francis of Assisi


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

If Mother is not happy, then no one can be happy

An anonymous male

Today was the beginning of Pongal, a five-day festival which celebrates completion of the harvest. The school that the children at SEAMS attend was closed as was the Grace School. Construction at SEAMS was also stopped for the rest of the week. Lucy, Kathy and I went to SEAMS in the morning for English lessons. However, the Sisters’ school was open and Heather and Maria taught in the morning. After lunch we all went back to SEAMS for the afternoon session.

We returned for a quick dinner and then out to the center of Chennai to attend a classic dance program. The dancers were all female between 10 and 17 and the costumes and pageantry were amazing. A wild van ride – was enjoyed some!


Thursday, January 14, 2010

The real reason we are here is to give the children love.?


The early risers were again privileged to see colorful fresh artwork on the street. It was decided that today's schedule would be the same as yesterday. Today was the second day of the celebration of Pongal, which meant, among other things, that for the second day the children had no school. After breakfast Stephen drove Lucy, Tom and Kathy to SEAMS, then went back to the guest house to take Maria and Heather to the nun's orphanage. The days have already started to meld together, and for Tom and I it is only the third day. For the first hour of this morning, I had two very attentive young students ? Madhan and Kumar. Before the end of that hour, however, various other children started coming over to our cluster of chairs to check out how the two were doing and to see what I might have in my bag today. Tom and his group played cricket on the concrete for the first hour. Lucy was in the girl's room with the older girls making good progress. Because the rest of the kids seemed pretty revved up and Stephen wasn't there to keep them in line, Tom and I tried to go with the flow and it went pretty well. The special thing this morning was that each child got a piece of raw sugarcane. To eat that was quite a lengthy and rather quiet activity. The only down side was that wherever the kids spit out the woody insides became a mass of flies within minutes, which I soon realized was the reason the director asked everyone to sit together in one place. Lucy came out for the last hour of free time and tried some sugar cane. On the way back to the house, I was talking about how hard it had been to maintain any sense of order that morning and Stephen said ?Remember, the real reason we are here is to give the chidlren love. Thank you Stephen, for reminding me of that!

Lunch was tasty as usual,though we missed Sheba and the baby. After lunch we each did various things. Maria and Heather showed me the internet cafe, Tom fixed Lucy's mosquito netting and some of us took wonderful naps. At 4 pm all 5 of us headed back to SEAMS. Maria did the first of two lice treatments on each of three girls ? what a job! The rest of us did our thing with our kids. I would never have imagined that I could sit still in such heat and flies and mosquito and be feeling good but that's the power of those kids.

Tonight was amazing. We went to a music service at a temple near enough for walking. The music was drumming, horn blowing and singing or chantings. The people were very friendly, insisting with their gestures that Lucy be right up in front. After the temple, we walked to a restaurant and had some wonderful Indian food. A couple of the dishes were really hot, by American standards, and made some of us cry and cough. We all had desert, including carrot Havel ? a new dish for Tom to make.

It was a full and fulfilling day.


 January 15, 2010

My last full day with my team. I am saddened and dismayed to not be able to spend another week with them, especially leaving Heather to handle the rowdy 3 year olds on her own, but she'll do great. The children love her and she has a glowing energy around them. Today was special because we all went together to SEAMs. I once again assessed Arun's wounds, cleaned them, and rewrapped them. The wounds are already healing with only one application of Neosporin. We all had our first group and did our lessons in the morning. This time I perservered through teaching my group how to tell time. They struggled at first, but then understood the concepts and the differences between the short arrow and long arrow and am and pm. It felt great teaching them something new, even if it's my last day. We then watched Narnia for the second part of the morning and afternoon. The kids have not seen a movie in a long time so it was a great treat for the holiday. Afterwards they sang a song and danced a dance for me and said their goodbyes. Stephen and I gave them treats and I promised to return in the morning to finish the Lice treatment on all the girls' hair. I also have to give them their new combs which they shouldn't share, although I know that's impossible with a close-knit gossipy group of girls.

We then all went to Stephen's house for dinner. Stephen, Sheba, and Roshan, Stephen, Rebecca, and Robinson, Stephen's sister and her husband, and their parents were present. Stephen's mom has the most warm and welcoming smile in all of India. It could light up more than the palace in Mysore. We were each given plates with multiple Indian cuisines as we stuffed ourselves silly and oh'd and ah'd over both Stephens' wedding albums. We laughed at Robinson's nonstop discussions with himself and Roshan's driving skills. We even had a dance session with Frosty the Snowman – Robinson was not amused. The evening was wonderful and we couldn't thank them enough for having us.

As I reflect on these 2 weeks in India, I am reminded of how fortunate we are in the U.S. We must appreciate every little thing we have in this world, and really be grateful of the small joys in life. I worry so much back at home, over stupid stuff, yet I worry about nothing when I am here and listen to Stephen when he says "just go with the flow." India has taught me greater kindness, trust, humility, and above all, patience, of course. Although I would like to end with one of my favorite quotes by Anne Frank "How wonderful it is that we need not wait a single moment before changing the world," I used that one last year. So I will end with a motto of mine which reflects my desire to deviate from societal norms, move to India, and what brought me to India on my own in the first place – "Well behaved women rarely make history." by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich


Friday, January 15, 2010

Millinium Development Goals
Achieved by this team from  January 4 - January 8 ;

130 Hours of class room instruction in conversational English and computer skills by 9 volunteers and 130 Hours of preparation time.

30 Hours of childcare by 3 volunteer

24 Hours of construction at Seams to build the Stage 2 of the Dormitories and we fixed the roof in this team

1 Schools, 2 Children's Home and over 115 students impacted

Jan 4, 2010

Quote: If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito – Dalai Lama

After the great second weekend with amazing food, the sun of the new day had risen. I got ready myself for the last one week. In the morning, global volunteers finally met Maria, who joined the team late because of her work. Maria had come to India last September and decided to volunteer again. Probably the children’s bright smile and lovely eyes led her to visit India again.

We all started with a new schedule. Kimberly and Lori went to Grace School, which was where I went for the first week. Bruce and Kathy went to Seams for construction. Roma, Maria, and I went to Assisi Ilam to play with little kids, who age from 2 to 5.

As an only child, who was raised as the youngest among relatives, I was not used to play with kids rather kids usually played with me. Children at Assisi Illam were ready to welcome us with saying “HELLOOOO!” I appreciate that the children had a good time, amusing themselves whether or not I was a good entertainer.

Coming back from Assisi Ilam, our project for a performance, led by Kimberly, was planned more specifically. I chose a Korean number song to sing. Actually I wanted to choose a song, which I used to like to sing when I was in an elementary school, but it was hard to find its lyrics and I couldn’t read Korean words anyway. I found youtube videos of Korean children’s songs which showed the lyrics in the video. Because I get shy when I sing a song around people for some reasons, after watching the video, I slightly went up stairs and then practiced the song a couple of times. We also arranged a cooking lesson by Rani, who is a cook in the guest house, for tomorrow dinner. I’m not sure if my Indian food would be as good as hers but I believe it will get much much better after some trials with friends when I get back.

At the evening, all of us went to Seams. Thendrel and Priya, who are 9 years old girls, have been in my group. I’ve had difficulties to make them pay attention and get more interests in learning English. I had a book with me for tonight and tried to read it out together, which was not a great idea. When I frowned my face, thinking what to do, Stephen came to me and said, “These two are the most challenging kids. Don’t expect too much. Just walk with them, teaching basic Alphabet and words.” I couldn’t smile but I felt way better suddenly. I realized I was just focusing on just my plan. I didn’t consider enough what children could do and enjoy. For the rest of this week, I hope I could enjoy the time with the kids more and the children could be happy as well.


January 5, 2010

Hello India! Another day came and went, worsening my dread of leaving next week. Although I just arrived, it already feels like I’m going to leave too quickly. The team had a very successful day though. Kim and Lori had their hands full at Grace School. Lori is working with the rowdy youngsters in kindergarten and Kim has an iron fist on the rambunctious older kids, both diligently working through 3 sessions of 45 minute lessons. Even I would need a crazy, sloppy oil massage after that, which incidentally Matt went to St. Thomas this morning to receive. Bruce, Kathy, and Candice dirtied up and sweated it out at the construction site, defying gravity to see who could carry the most bricks on top of their heads to the second floor. Actually, they carried bricks and sand up to the second floor of the dormitory with their hands, but defying gravity sounds cool. Roma brought her usual spunk to Assisi as she danced the Hockey Pockey, if you’re happy and you know it, and other nursery rhythms with me and Nicole. A priest was visiting and he made Nicole sing in front of everyone while he played the drums and she got terribly embarrassed. However, he complemented her on her beautiful voice, on Roma’s agility and youthful nature, and on my energetic interaction with the children. The children laughed, danced, and screamed at the activities and drum-playing, which helped with their nap shortly after. After lunch Kim strutted her stuff to teach us a line-dance and organize the songs and dances we will be performing at SEAMS on Thursday. It went very well, was much easier than originally expected, and even Roma busted a move, giving Bruce a run for his money. Kim and Lori then received a delightful cooking lesson from Rani and Sheba, which we all greatly enjoyed later at dinner. I tried to nap before SEAMS, but again it was useless, I was too excited. As I walked into the gate at SEAMS, 10 children pushed and shoved to hold my hands and arms to guide me to the new dormitory. It was wonderful to see them all again. I had John show me the scar where his stitches were that I removed, I told Rajesh how tall he’s gotten, and it was great to see Rebecca again. We then got down to business and worked on the alphabet while Kim taught advanced computer skills to Suresh. Later that evening Kathy, Nicole, and I strolled down the main road. Nicole is like a statue walking down the street. She’s stubborn and doesn’t move side to side. If you need to walk by her, you better know to move over, because she’s won’t, and even motorcyclists learned this quickly! Kathy bought a very beautiful knitted bag, I bought balls and cars for the children at Assisi, and Nicole of course bought sweets at the bakery. Although I only got 5 hours of sleep last night, that brings me to my quote, which exemplifies my feelings of enjoying every single moment I can during my time in India, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”


January 7 2010

And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.
- Babylonian Talmud

India is a teenager; its birth, resulting from Independence in 1947. Suckled by the British Empire, India benefited from some of the infrastructure left behind by its colonial masters - specifically, a web of transportation and communication as well as a universality of English. Like any baby, it suffered separation anxiety; hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Hindus met terrifying and tortuous deaths as partition was enforced in the early day. As the nation grew, it became a petulant and impudent child. A policy of self-sufficiency was launched by its government in the 1970's, severely limiting imports of any sort. You could not buy a pair of Levis or a Coke. The only car available was the locally produced and stodgily styled Ambassador, still on the road today. While such a policy produced short term hardships and second grade products, it served to launch India into the 20th century. In less than a generation, the country evolved from a sustenance based agricultural society to an industrialized nation, created a new middle class along the way and sowed the seeds for future growth.

As 2010 rings in, India is in its adolescence. Sometimes and in some ways, it steps forward onto the world stage and assumes an adult like role. Witness its continued economic growth over the past two years while the west remains mired in an entropic recession. India is part of the BRIC anagram, joining Brazil, Russia, and China as the national vanguards of this nascent century. Yet in other ways, it remains under-developed, displaying an immaturity reflective of all teenagers, acting as men one day, children the next. For example, a lack of social responsibility on the governmental level, requiring all of us volunteers to be here to provide the types of services which should rightly be handled by a nation state striving to attain first world stature. The underdeveloped road system, the unreliable power grids, the chaotic mix of live animals, three wheeled rickshaws, large trucks, motorcycles and other vehicles competing for limited road space, with a rancour and cacophony of noise pollution from incessantly blaring horns unbefitting a nation that has made such strides forward in such a short period of time. A good first step wold be adopting the use of the turn signal, an apparently vestigial organ on all cars here. But it will all come. Not for free, but it will all come.

As India moves toward adulthood, it will do as all adults do - employ certain lessons learned from its parents while rejecting others. This is where culture comes into play. Unfortunately, as maturity sets in, part of the magic of youth will disappear. As cellphones become even more ubiquitous, part of the face to face communication will disappear forever. As children leave small towns and villages where their ancestors have lived for generations, moving to places such as Bangalore, getting higher paying jobs in back office call centers, and becoming Roger instead of Rajid, part of the country's uniqueness will vanish. Development means homogenization. The beautiful temples with their storied legends that have been sewn into the mindset of every young Indian child like the rich and colourful weavings of the saree will become distant memories as the next generation trades religion for TV. For the first time conscious effort will have to be expended to ingrain a culture that in previous times had entered the Indian psyche by osmosis.

Is this a good thing? Yes and No. Children will read. They will eat. They will receive medical care. They will also get divorced, take drugs, and become just another cog in the globalization machine. The march to adulthood is an inevitable one, full of joy, pain and uncertainty. With proper leadership, socially and politically, to lessen the inevitable trauma associated with growth, India will mature and take its rightful place as a global superpower at some point this century. It is my hope that as a world leader, it will not have given up too much of what made it a unique nation. India's spirituality, its diversity, its creativity and above all else the grace that is exhibited by its citizenry should be reflected in the new order and serve as a role model for the other nations of the world as India assumes its paternalistic duties in the coming years.

Millinium Development Goals

Achieved by this team from December 29 - January 1;

184 Hours of class room instruction in conversational English and computer skills by13 volunteers and 184 Hours of preparation time.

24 Hours of childcare by 4 volunteer

24 Hours of construction at Seams to build the Stage 2 of the Dormitories and we fixed the roof in this team

1 Schools, 2 Children's Home and over 115 students impacted

December 30, 2009

The days have developed a certain routine: yoga at 7:30am, breakfast at 8:15am, j-date discussion at 8:30am and placements at 9:15am. we headed out to SEAM for a field trip to a theme park.

My newly learned yoga deep breathing observer mindset quickly kicked in and I was surprisingly calm amidst the chaos of organizing 36 kids for a field trip. After repeated head counts and queue formations, the pastor said a prayer. I wasn't sure if the prayer was intended to invoke the spirits to keep the kids safe or the volunteers sane. Finally, after 45 minutes, we boarded the bus for the theme park. Not long after we set off, the kids were singing and dancing in the aisle and my western sensibility was quite accepting. It was refreshing not to hear repeated admonitions to children to "be quiet", "sit still" and "keep your seat belt fastened".

We arrived at Queensland without incident and were met by a theme park version of a Walmart greeter, albeit stranger looking, furrier and much more aggressive. Undeterred, we proceeded to accompany the kids to the various rides and theme park activities. Before long I realized that everything you need to know can be learned in a theme park. In no particular order:

- Bumper car rides are the required driver's ed for obtaining a driver's license in India.

- If you are confused and don't know where to turn, there is always someone to give you direction (House of Mirrors).

- If you are afraid of dark and scary places, there is always a friend you can stand behind who will protect you (Fun House).

- You only ever need to learn to count to 36.

- A picnic lunch of rice with friends is better that any gourmet meal at a 5 star restaurant.

- You can soar above your fears with the encouragement of others (Cable car).

- You can never be lost when there are people who love and care about you.

So another day has gone by - another day with lessons learned, perspectives changed and blessings bestowed.

Quote for the day:

Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood. (Emerson)

December 31, 2009


There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no

happiness in any place except what you bring to it, yo


-----Henry David Thoreau

At seven thirty a.m., Lori, Lucia, Kathy, Ellen, Candice (our financial manager) and I met up on the roof for yoga. As we stretched into our poses, our neighbour, the cow, who lives two houses away cried out in her mournful plea, across between a deep "Moo" and a groan. We followed our teacher through the poses, as a gentle breeze caressed us. It's the best time of day to be on the roof.

At breakfast, we again reflected on yesterday's unanimous vote that Candice should go out with the nature-loving historian, who is seeking a "nice Jewish girl", and he lives in Brooklyn, how convenient! We briefly reviewed our objectives for our work in Chennai. We decided we had met all the goals. We then launched ourselves into the day.

Roma, Kimberly, Stephen, Candiice and the triplets packed ourselves into the van for St. Thomas Hospital. We drove by the usual activity along the road. The goats, cows and occasional pig, the homeless dog all searching for food in the recycled/ compost sites along the edge of the streets. The people, working and going about their business, live harmoniously with the animals.

Carmel Julice met us in the admission area to begin our tour. In the CT Scan room, the scanner was modern, only the bed appeared a little hard. The cost for a CT scan is one to two thousand rupies for those that can pay and free for those who cannot. We removed our shoes outside most units that we entered. The marble floors reflected the lights on the ceiling, they were so clean. Onto the ten bed ICU where there was an impressive array of modern equipment: ventilators, cardiac monitors, along with sophisticated oxygen delivery systems. Most of the nurses were able to tell us about their unit. We were priviledged to witness the admission of a dialysis patient who seemed to know the routine. His left arm had several sclerotic areas, where the fistula had been placed for repeated treatments. Two nurses worked skillfully. One placed an IV into the venous part of the catheter, which is under the skin. The other nurse placed a large needle into the arterial side. The nurses showed us the filters and pump, which controls the rate at which the blood is removed and returned, all clean back to the patient's body. Lucia, Roma and I watched attentively, examining every bottle of medicine that was used, while the others had probably had enough of dialysis talk at the bedside, moved away to talk with the multi-lingual interpreter.

The renal MD spent time with us talking about herbal and traditional methods of treatment for renal failure. Lucia, our herbalist, had lots of questions concerning types of local herbs available for treatment.

Our next stop was the pediatric hospital. we learned that the most common ailments in pediatrics are respiratory infections, dehyadration and diarrhea, malaria, and some dengue fever, Ellen and I parted from the group briefly, to visit the psychiatric floor, Ellen's speciality, and had a tour. We were impressed by the entire set-up. We returned to the group and as usual, Stephen demonstrated his endless patience, waiting, no doubt wondering what had happened to us.

At the end of our tour, Sister Rexline insisted on having cold drinks and pastries in her office. Sister Rexline, an MD, worked with Mother Theresa and manages the entire hospital.

Ellen asked her, "You were pursuing a dream?" Sister shook her head and said, "No, through the grace of God."

If someone were to ask me would I ever want to have this experience again in India or another country, I would respond, "Absolutely."


Monday, January 11, 2010

Millinium Development Goals
Achieved by this team from December 21- December 26;

234 Hours of class room instruction in conversational English and computer skills by13 volunteers and 234 Hours of preparation time.

24 Hours of childcare by 4 volunteer

36 Hours of construction at Seams to build the Stage 2 of the Dormitories and we fixed the roof in this team

1 Schools, 2 Children's Home and over 115 students impacted

Dec. 20, 2009
Message for the day: Why choose the narcotic of war when we can have the
elixir of peace?
After having a day to recuperate and settle into the guest house and annex, we started the day with another satisfying Indian meal of spiced eggs, tidy little rice cakes and papaya. After breakfast we did team building exercises, and Stephen presented
us with job descriptions at the various sites, from which we chose our preferences for the week.Following another spice-filled interesting meal, Stephen gave us surprising information such as; 17% of the population in Chennai have diabetes.  At 5:30 PM we took mini vans to St. Thomas Hospital where we attended a gala extravaganza of a Christmas parent. Words cannot adequately describe what we witnessed for the next few hours, but will try to summaries:  dazzling, shimmering, glittery colors in mostly orange and red hues, little girls with flowers in their dark hair, taking our hands and saying, "come here, Aunty and uncle.” Instantly we were among family! We sat among the children, nuns, and doctors the only way I can describe the parent is "eclectic", a west meets east, Hinduism takes Christianity on a wild romp through Bethlehem to revisit the night Christ was born.  The speeches, including the sombre tones of the head doctor the singing and dancing performances from traditional .Indian dances to modern pop numbers. the drawing of the "lucky numbers", to the appearance of a devil like character, to a skinny Santa Clause with a mask of a white man, it was a bedizening performance.  The last sound heard over the air conditioning, the fan, and the ever-present horns in the street, was that of the young cow in the yard behind us, whose familiar moos and groans seem to be letting us know thither or she is in need of a diagnosis of some sort.


Dec, 21, 2009

‘’The enthusiasm of the children is infectious’’

Quote of the Day: ‘’Expectation versus reality-so much of what we perceive is skewed by our North American views and standards’’

We awoke after a night of near monsoon level rains and prepared for our first real day of volunteer work in Chennai, the purpose for which we had each travelled to India. As we were about to take our first steps out the door to go to the main house, Stephen called offering us a lift. This was quite a welcome offer since it was still raining and the streets were a maze of puddles and mud which none of us had quite the right footwear for.

We arrived at the main house and joined everyone at the breakfast table. Within a few minutes there was a knock at the door which was opened to 3 young boys from SEAMs who were stopping by to say hello on their way to school. Stephen invited them in and on his cue the youngest of the three proceeded to enthusiastically circle the table introducing himself, asking our name, then repeating it as he extended his hand to shake ours and with a large and proud smile said pleased to meet you. Hi, my name is ...what is your name? Say the name, nice to meet you, shake hand.

The boys left and Lucia was asked to reading her journal from the previous day. We then dug into our breakfast of fried eggs and noodles and tomato red sauce. The team also welcomed Kimberley who had finally arrived after missing her connecting flight and spending two nights trying to get a flight out of Heathrow.

We were then informed that due to the rain, there would be no construction work and the schedule we had so diligently prepared would be completely altered for the day. The need for flexibility, one of our team goals, was already being put to the test. Once all the assignments were reassigned we each headed out to our respective location. Bruce, Kimberley, Cathy, Candice and I proceeded to SEAMs where upon arrival were met by three lovely young women who introduced themselves asked our names in similar fashion to the boys. We were also introduced by Stephen to Pastor V. Arul Pragasam who has been director for years.....After being provided with some of the basic background and mission of SEAMs, which we now know stands for ‘’South East Asia Mission and has existed for 34 years with numerous facilities and programs running in several other Indian states ...20 year old Rebekah, who grew up at SEAMs and now works at SEAMs, showed us the three dormitory rooms each of which houses 12 children aged 7 to 16, while the young girls living in them giggled with embarrassment when we asked to see their bathroom. We were also informed that the children of SEAMs, each of whom comes from a disadvantaged home, some orphaned or with only one parent, complete their high school education then go on to trade school where they learn an employable skill.

Finally we went to the main hall, a large rectangular room, concrete floor, sparely equipped to which several plastic lawn chairs were brought to begin our morning of working with five of the older children who were on site scheduled to write exams later in the afternoon. Three modern laptops were brought out and Kimberly, Candice and Bruce each paired with an adolescent and got organized to work on computer and language skills. Cathy joined in with Candice while I spent some time talking with two 15 year old girls who were studying for the accounting exam they would write later in the day. Both aspired to become Bank Managers. They were quick to learn and proud to show me their notebooks full of accounting tables and neatly entered items and calculations. After about an hour, they excused themselves to go back to studying but not before they had charmed me with their personalities, impressed me with their knowledge, confidence and dedication to their studies. They were also comfortable enough to tease me at the fact that I was married to Bruce. I only later discovered that this fact was particularly amusing to them because they had underestimated my age by about twenty years (thanks girls) and could not fathom that I could be married to such an older man! Sorry, Bruce)

After a quick study of the room and the contents of the concrete shelves, random stacks of humid, dog earned notebooks and textbooks stacked in no particular order (Cathy and I only wanted to clean and organize everything!), lower shelves holding Power Rangers Knapsacks and odds and ends that looked as if they had been left behind years ago. Yet when I looked at each of the corners where a SEAMs child was hooked up with a global volunteer all I saw and heard were smiles and laughter, and the occasional clapping and shout of glee when a question had been correctly answered. I’m not sure who was having a better time, student or teacher. In fact it was quite obvious by the end of the morning that the roles had reversed as teachers became students and vice versa as each of us walked away having learned something new: How to use the program paint, or the names of numerous flowers, animals and body parts, or how to use movie maker. Cathy and I shared impressions on the whole of it, and realized that things need not be shiny and new nor neat and tidy in order to learn. All that is required for learning is enthusiasm and willingness, the rest simply falls into place on its own.

Finally, a call in to Stephen, who had not yet arrived to pick us up a half hour past the expected time. We learned that Meredith, unfortunately, had suffered a fall resulting in a chipped tooth and was being seen at St Thomas hospital. It was arranged that one of the students would escort us back to the main house as we were not sure where we were in relation to it. The growing feeling of familiarity with the neighbourhood was felt by all as we walked through enjoying all the waves, hi’s, and what is your name, coming at us from all sides. When we happened upon a cow chewing on some grass behind a makeshift fence of sorts, one of the local boys who we had already met offered to assist us in getting a photo. Suffice to say that the bravado of the young man in question was seriously challenged after a provocation with a branch caused the cow to turn and run out heading straight for the now startled young boy. Fortunately, no one was hurt, the cow strutted off down the street and Matt managed to catch the whole thing on video.

Lunch, which consisted of Tamarind rice, lemon rice, chicken and yet another delicious vegetarian concoction was spent embroiled in conversations around the table, each of the team sharing stories with the other, and exchanging impressions on the morning’s activities.

Afternoon was given to leisure time in preparation for the evening schedule where those who had been at Assisi Illam in the morning would switch with the others who had been at SEAMs.

This was to be followed by dinner at 7pm and yoga at 8.

Assisi was yet another amazing experience. Children of all ages eagerly greeting and bombarding us, all eager, bright eyed and smiling. Within minutes it was a room full of ‘’Auntie, auntie, uncle, uncle’’ Books, crayons, stickers, dominoes, all came out and circles of children and adults started to form around the room. It was as if we had been getting together like this for years. After being treated to dance rehearsals upstairs for an upcoming Christmas show, we finally happy but exhausted took our leave back ti the main house. Goodnights and inquiries about when w were coming back, others they had met in the morning but not seen at night and good wishes and thank you’s by all.

Dinner of egg curry, rice, vegetables, and yes, Indian sweets which we had truly earned. A quest for the elusive bag of coffee finally resulted in success; then an hour of yoga on our full stomachs.

To end the evening, a power outage and more rain, which had Bruce, Matthew, Candice and I heading back to the annex with the assistance of a small flashlight built into Bruce’s recently purchased cell phone. An investment that had already paid it’s way. The end of a very full and satisfying day. Oh, dare I mention it, the power in our annex came back on a few minutes later!


Dec, 22, 2009

The inspirational quote I chose for today is: "We're all a family under

one sky."

This is a song I frequently sing with children and is written by Ruth

Pelham of N.Y. - USA

The day started out with a relaxing bit of yoga at 7:30 a.m. I breathed in and breathed out as much as I could, but try as I might, thoughts of the malarone I forgot to bring from the apartment, how I was going to finally email to my friends and family the four page treatise I wrote about my first few days here and call my mother before I was to go off to my construction job plagued me. Amazingly, however, I was able to call my mother, email the treatise and even have a bit of breakfast before I left for my day of hard labor-hard labor it was. (I skipped the malarone and hoped that taking in the afternoon would not induce a bout with malaria). We arrived at SEAMS all bright eyed and bushy tailed waiting for instructions as to what to do. No sooner had we arrived then we were escorted to a large pile of bricks which we learned we were to haul across the courtyard on her heads and ascend the stairs to the second story of the building. Bruce, Kathy and I diligently began hauling the bricks with pail situated directly on her heads. As we ascended the stairs, we were met with the horrified looks of the laborers, who insisted that we place a cloth cushion on her heads. We complied and quickly realized that hauling 50 or lbs or more of bricks or more in Bruce’s case directly on her heads without anything to cushion the weight was probably not the best idea. ( I must admit I was guilty of continuing this practice of direct head contact as my cushion often fell off as I was hoisting the pail over my head and I was forced to go bareback much to the chagrin of the laborers who watched). Throughout our working day, we were continually humbled by the sight of Bhatma, a lithe twenty or thirty something (we debated her age), systematically placing 8 bricks over her head (without a pail) and blithely walking across the courtyard and up the stairs. As she repeated this pattern over and over we were amazed by her poise and grace and most importantly, her ability to never break a sweat!

We continued this work for over three hours, with Bruce, our most diligent union representative, calling out for five minute water breaks so that we remained hydrated and able to work. As we hauled the bricks across the courtyard, we heard the sounds of Lori and Kimberly teaching their respective students. Bruce and I commented that we finally understood the plight of our ancestors in Egypt and I thought to myself that this year at the seder, I might have more of an appreciation of the exodus from Egypt.

After over three hours of this work, our ride arrived and we were off to shower and then lunch. After lunch, we had our break, after which we were shuttled to Assisi Illam for our afternoon session with the children there. When we arrived it appeared that someone had taken to heart the old biblical saying of be fruitful and multiply, as it appeared that the student population had doubled from the previous day. As we came in, the children rushed us, so eager to see us and take us into their home. We each sat down with a few children and began to work with them using the tools we had brought. While I was struck with the knowledge that some of them possessed, I was most impressed with their diligence, their respectfulness and the caring they demonstrate to those around them. These children certainly are marvels; they have almost nothing but appreciate everything. Although I still battle with the mosquitoes here in India and most particularly, at Assisi Illam, each day I leave this place, I have a smile on my face.

As I sit here in typing in my bed, with a few muscle aches, and after two showers, pieces of grit in my hair from my morning battle with the bricks, I am reminded of the old adage my mother used to quote to me as a child which I believe is apropos for the day : “a little hard work never hurt anyone”.


Dec, 23, 2009

Our collective work as a team so far certainly illustrates this quote. We have committed ourselves individually and as an entity toward certain goals, but what is especially wonderful about the philosophic cornerstone of Global Volunteers is that we are entrusted to follow our creative instincts toward that end.

Every day -- another piece of a large tapestry. After yoga on the terrace roof this morning, with a gentle breeze, we descended to breakfast with (yes, real!!) coffee and yummy egg pancakes with curried noodles. By 9:45 our quartet was off to Assisi Home, dropping Matt off first at St.Thomas Hospital.

When it was our foursome's time to disembark and enter the children's center, we were greeted by a wave of open arms, smiles and "auntie-auntie’s from these little ones we have come to know. So eager to get underway!

So, we headed directly upstairs to our open studio and created our first morning circle with Ring Around the Rosie and London Bridges. We used sing-the-story books as well. Of course, Twinkle Little Star and Eensy-Weensy Spider top the charts. Free drawing with chunky chalk along a blackboard wall was very engaging and calming this morning. New age piano contributed to the flow. I was about to launch the kids into reggae around the world when I sadly discovered that the boom box was actually a cassette player. Alas...what would we provide to release all this preschool energy? Wonder of wonders...Who should walk in for our second day together but Father Christhu. "Can you stay for a little while with us?" Ellen asked eagerly. "Oh yes," was his reply. I ran upstairs to where I knew there was an old tabla in hiding. In mere minutes we co-created a movement exploration class. Father played drum-moods and we all moved freely around in response to the drum for a half hour. It was just what they needed!

As the children ate their lunch, the four of us had a chance to have an open dialogue with Father Christhu about his dreams for the future and his roots. And now...where am I? Sitting in an orange chair at St. Thomas Hospital, awaiting my turn for a first-ever aryuvedic massage. Just minutes before I took up the pen to begin writing this, a mother and nurse stopped by with a newborn baby girl on their way out to go home. With a deep smile, this mother moved closer toward me and placed her swaddled baby in my arms for precious minutes and then into Candace's arms beside me.

Now..who was it that said there are many surprises in Indian life?

This journey to India for me is more than community building and a gift of human efforts. It is also answering to a call to better understand and perhaps feel closer to my ancestry. My great, great grandparents had a shipping business all their lives, sailing back and forth between Calcutta and Newburyport, Massachusetts. With a home in Calcutta, they raised their children there. A four month journey it was between these two ports. Since landing here, I have come to realize that they sailed right past Chennai on every voyage. Now I need to find the diary that was meticulously kept with all of the notes of each crossing.

At 6 pm tonight, we were once again entertained at St. Thomas Hospital, where many children took the stage to produce the Christmas for Children Program, held each year. A wonderful sequence of dancers in full costume and spirited singers as well provided a great start for the Christmas season. Following this, we all had dinner together at a local hotel, guided so kindly once again by our team leader, Stephen


Dec, 24, 2009

-God does not require you to succeed, God only asks that you serve

Thursday morning came as quickly and with as much noise as the days prior, although the ritualistic beats of the drums and singing of the temple-goers outside of our window seemed more harmonious and less irritating today, perhaps a sign of me finally being settled in my Indian home. I even handled the ride to the hospital as I would a typical drive around the US, with the motorized vehicles coming within inches of our miniature, seatbelt-less minivan not even eliciting a jump from me. I met with the ever-charming Reverend Doctor Sister Rexline in her office as I have been doing the past few days, thirty minutes taken out of her ludicrously busy schedule to make time for me, a gift I almost felt unworthy receiving. She introduced me to the orthopedic surgeon, who, not surprisingly, was also extremely forthcoming. He stored my number in his phone and said he would call me if I was able to watch any of his upcoming surgeries. I decided to take an auto rickshaw to Assisi Ilam after about an hour due to the day’s decreased patient population and fact that most procedures were scheduled in the afternoon.

The driver insisted that he knew “Assisi Illam school,” a claim I was suspicious of, but I decided to take the ride anyways. After about 7 minutes of driving I asked him how much further it was, knowing it should have been very close to the hospital. “Four more kilometers,” he replied, “very far.” “Damn,” I thought, knowing my suspicion had proved to be true, that this guy had the wrong Assisi Illam in mind. Thankfully I had my phone on me and was able to call Stephen, who told me to hand the phone to the driver. “Great, I thought. This man has to be aware of a million different things going on around him in order to drive in this city and not kill us, and I’m handing him a cell phone. Stephen sorted things out with the driver in a matter of seconds, his rare selfless ability of taking care of everyone never ceasing to amaze. I will admit that Nicole’s rickshaw horror story did run through my head briefly, although the driver seemed harmless and jumping out of moving vehicles has never really appealed to me.

Assisi Ilam turned out to be a blast, and a decision I did not regret in the least. The children always greet me like I’m one of their long lost relatives, a position that I would be glad to fill any day. Although I hold education as paramount, I regrettably admit that my lesson plan at Assisi Illam and SEAMs consisted more of roughhousing and Tamil games than mathematics or reading. I left SEAMs sweaty and exhausted, my UCF Knights t-shirt that was subject to Barnabus’ tender care only the day before covered in dirt. In other words, a great success.

Almost in fairy tale fashion, Christmas Eve concluded with us sorting, packing, and wrapping gifts for the children, my 200 count bag of peppermints I lugged 17000 miles finally finding a home. With Christmas music merrily filling the room, the entire group wrapping presents and packing bags like elves, and a little Christmas tree flickering festively in the background, I, against all odds, felt the Christmas spirit half a world away.


Weekend – December 27 and 28

When you come to India if you have patience, you lose it; if you don't, you learn it – Kathy Bender

After an arduous week of construction, education and compassion, we were rewarded with an opportunity to visit some of the major sights within the proximity of Chennai. An early breakfast and we were whisked aboard two comfortable air conditioned buses. Our ultimate destination was Pondicherry but, in tune with the philosophy that permeates the region, the journey was as important as the destination.
Our first stop was the memorial to Rajiv Ghandi, who as Prime Minister campaigning for re-election, was the target of a suicide bomber posing as a devotee. Ghandi, a victim of the Sri Lanken War, was killed by a Tamil Tiger woman. The Ghandis, like the Kennedys in American Political History, all suffered a violent death in the service of their country. Their position in the Indian social and political psyche remains legendary.
The memorial is in the form of 7 obelisks, each ornately carved and topped with a traditional symbol of India's heritage. At the centre is a simple granite rectangle bearing a bas relief coloured carving of Rajiv.
Our second destination was the city of Kancheepuram, renown for its temples. Here Stephen took off his squadron leader hat and assumed the role of tour guide. We were educated as to the names and roles of the major gods, Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva along with their respective vehicles, children and the domains under their control.
The temples, ornately carved with images of the Gods, have been constructed through the centuries under the aegis of the dynastic kings of each era. Despite the passage of time, most of the temples, made from granite, show little signs of deterioration. Stephen, explaining the myths and legends that accrue to each specific carving, elicited a link of images and recollections of my childhood. Similar themes such as jealousy between siblings, as exemplified by the race around the world for the Fruit of Knowledge, evoke memories of Cain and Able as well as Adam and Eve. The sense of invulnerability resulting from a prophesy as felt by Narasimha, who was killed by a half man half lion emerging from a pedestal at dusk, is directly tied to the legend of Achilles in Greek mythology. Likewise the prophesy of the 3 Shakespearean witches who provided Macbeth with a sense of security based on seemingly impossible occurrences which ultimately came to bear, resulting in his demise. The first temple we visited was in honour of Parvati, the next two, Shiva and the final one Vishnu. Its 96 ornately carved columns told stories of battles between Muslims, Europeans, and Hindus. As a counterpoint, many of the carvings related to the Kama Sutra, showing that making love and making war hold equally high positions in India's long and colourful history.
Speaking of long and colourful, our after lunch stop was for beautiful silk scarves and wraps. The girls had a wonderful time selecting, modeling and comparing the various patterns and, after doing their share to rejuvenate the Kancheepuram economy, we were on our way to Pondy.
The rest of the voyage was uneventful as the two buses sped, well maybe not exactly sped, to the famous coastal town, arriving just as night was falling. First impressions of Pondicherry, or Pudicherry as it is now called (note to self – invest in Indian sign manufacturing company when you get home), was of a city less blighted by slums and poverty. The city's roads were well demarcated, there were traffic lights that actually worked, Pondicherry exuded a certain cosmopolitan charm. The hotel Mass was more than acceptable particularly since it offered the volunteers their first hot shower in a week. Those of us who have been residing in the annex guest house, however, had to do without our Jacuzzis and personal daily massages that we had left behind back in Chennai, but we decided to suck it up and put the welfare of the team ahead of ourselves for once.
When presented by Stephen with the option of dinner a la carte or buffet, we unanimously decided to spoil ourselves and chose to be served rather than deal with self-serve as we had earlier in the day. The two buses pulled into a swanky LA styled hotel and we were led outdoors to sit near the pool - a romantic and upscale placement. The staff scurried around setting up temporary seating arrangements next to the open kitchen, replete with delicious smells wafting out and tempting our taste buds. I now understand the overwhelming popularity of the buffet in India – one gets to eat before passing out from starvation.
Drink orders were taken and, being of British heritage, I was looking forward to my first gin and tonic of the trip – a drink invented by the British Troops during their Indian colonization to allow for easy ingestion of quinine- a drug used to combat malaria. It was akin to eating a hot dog at Yankee Stadium or Crepes Suzettes at the Eiffel tower. Sadly, the G&T will have to wait a bit longer since the waiter informed me that there was no Tonic Water available. It was a harbinger of things to come.
With drinks and food ordered, we sat around chatting about the experiences of the day waiting for our cocktails. And waiting and waiting and waiting. Eventually the maitre d' decided that he may as well actually hire some staff to serve us. He pressed several new faces into service, some of whom may have actually worked in the hotel business at some point in their lives. A few us were starting to foam at the mouth in anticipation, including Stephen who had received clearance from the home front for a beer. Lori and I opted for Mojitos, a drink I associate with Cuba more so than India. We sat and waited somewhat patiently as the rest of our party received their libations while the bartender waited for the mint to finish growing prior mixing up our two servings.
Dinner was eventually brought forth as we were serenaded by the delightful squeal of misbehaving, spoiled children who decided to use our elongated table as the centerpiece for their game of chase. Lori tried to get me to use some yoga breathing techniques to block out the annoying distraction, but I've always been a fan of a different form of relaxation, something that comes with a high alcohol content.
When the meals finally arrived, it seemed that the waiter had learned everything he knew about service by watching Manuel on Fawlty Towers. It began with Kimberly being offered her repast. “Here is your steak” the waiter declared with obvious pride that he had managed to deliver the goods in less time than it took for the moon, to orbit the Earth. “ I ordered chicken” was Kimmie's slightly vexed reply”. “This is chicken” replied the waiter, deftly changing lanes with the skill of an F1 driver. This charade was repeated with virtually every presentation, as we watched the food morph from its original incarnation into the desired order right before our very eyes. I am now a believer in the Hindu philosophy of re-incarnation. An animal died and was reborn as a different species directly in front of the astonished crowd. This magic took place for the benefit of all except yours truly. I explained to the waiter as he placed my meal down in front of me that in Canada lamb does not have feathers or drumsticks. Opting for a new tactic, the waiter explained to me that there was as much lamb available in the kitchen as there had been Tonic Water. He thoughtfully and unilaterally determined that I would enjoy the chicken just as much.
We finished dinner full of good cheer, aided to no small extent by the appearance of several bottles of Carlsberg. We awaited our individual bills since the waiter, at the start of the meal, was advised of our desire to go Dutch in East India. He meticulously kept track of each individual's order and, at the end of the meal, presented a single tab that Candice, in her role of Director of Fun, took back to her room and spent the rest of the night dividing up
The meal featured Stephen as the after dinner speaker as he regaled us with a story of his encounter with Vishnu in his 11th incarnation as Dominic the Volunteer. We hopped on the buses for our trip back to the hotel and despite my vow of secrecy forced on me by the Triplets, must say that their vehicle was like sitting in first class as compared to our coach. The extra leg room, contoured velour ceiling and amply stuffed seat cushions made for an exquisite journey back. Before carrying out your veiled threats, girls, remember – one phone call to Visa and you'll be walking home from Kochin.

Morning brought us down the streets of Pondicherry one last time. It was odd to see French styled street signs featuring the familiar cobalt blue background bearing names such as Rue de la Marine in the midst of India. This particular road housed the ashram started by Sri Aurovindo, an Indian fugitive from British justice who took refuge in Pondicherry seeking asylum from charges of sedition. His time in prison and subsequent inner spiritual development led to the creation of one of the most peaceful, tranquil and spiritually wholesome places I had ever visited. While I was allowed to enter as a tourist, I felt a strange uneasiness and discomfort as I wandered in amongst the disciples and the meditating faithful. I did not feel that I had earned the right to participate in this level of tranquility and left the building after admiring the flowers and the palpable silence.

Our next destination was Auroville, a large plot of land dedicated to the New Age, the physical embodiment of Sri Aurovindo's vision. My initial reaction, which was shared by many of the group was a sense of disharmony brought about by a large number of armed soldiers traversing the grounds. Shoes were a no-no but rifles were OK? Why would a military force be required to promote world peace? It turned out that the soldiers were there for the same reasons as the rest of us – to bask in the physical realization of one very special man's dream. The existence of Auroville, located seemingly in the middle of nowhere was dumbfounding. A brief video introduced the visitor to a spiritual vision that had taken wing and come to fruition over the past quarter century. Designed as a haven to transcend traditional religion, eschewing established paths in favor of seeking the divine presence that existed within every soul, the project's centerpiece was a perfect crystal orb designed to focus human concentration. It was contained in a pure white environment housed in a large oblate spheroid covered with gold discs. The term 'oblate spheroid' was taught to me in elementary school. It refers to a round object flattened at the top and bottom. The words sounded funny at the time but I never forgot them. I remember thinking to myself “When would I ever use that term in my life?” It seems appropriate that after these years that the single usage of the epithet would apply to a special and unique object that verged on other-worldliness.

The shopping areas and restaurants served the visitors like a well oiled machine. Instead of wind chimes and finger cymbals, the gentle clanging that I heard was the sound of cash registers ringing up sale after sale. Someone with a strong organizational and marketing sense was behind this operation. Initially I had felt that the main motivation behind the existence of Auroville was spiritual enlightenment. I left the property feeling somewhat cynical about the impetus behind it. I apologize for my cynicism, but it is very difficult to shake 50 plus years of jadedness out of my psyche this quickly. I looked to buy an appropriate T-shirt before leaving but was unable to locate one with the message that I wanted on it. As yet the marketing department has not come up with “There's no Place Like Om”, but I'm sure its in the works.

By the time we had reached the stone carving village of Mamallapuram, we had maxed out on beggars, hawkers, vendors, animal abusers, mothers with rented children and other assorted locals desirous of separating us from our rupees. Lily's shriek as a hand holding more souvenirs was thrust through the bus window, reminiscent of the scene from Night of the Living Dead, spoke volumes for all of us. Some vendors were relentless, not receptive to stern no's or indifference as clues to move on to the next 'customer'. The level of our groups' compassion speaks for itself. We are here trying to help out a little corner of humanity, but the overkill and constant bombardment leads to desensitization and a feeling of intrusive annoyance.

Upon Stephen's advice, we ignored the plethora of pleadings from the multitude and moved on the see some of the most awe inspiring stone carvings, some of which dated back to the 8th century. In the capable hands of our guide, stories were recounted based upon the displays in front of us. The gods came to life as tales of jealousy, penance, anger and trickery surfaced in the revelations. Unlike the attributes of the Western conceptualization of God, which places Him above human behaviour, the actions of the Indian Gods underline human foibles in an anthropomorphic sense, which serves to bring their Gods closer to humans rather than create a distinctive division. Whether temple, statue or gigantic butterball, the formations proved to be a unique and inspirational insight into Indian history, culture and religion. I will always be indebted to have had the opportunity to be shown such a fascinating cross section of a new culture presented by a man who had equal portions of knowledge, passion and respect. Thank you Stephen Raja.