Monday, March 26, 2012

India: A Perspective Shift

For Spring Break, me and three other teachers decided to travel to India for the whole week.  I had a lot of expectations and ideas of what India might be like and they were all far inadequate.  There is so much I could talk about with this trip; the food, the culture, the sights, the people, and the list goes on.  For the reader's sake, I will attempt to just hit the highlights of each category here, and the rest I am sure will come out through conversations.

The first place we flew into was Mumbai (aka Bombay).  For the first half of our trip we were so extremely fortunate to have an incredibly gracious and hospitable host to show us around.  Tara knew a missionary couple, Eddie and Macarena, that lived in Pune (a few hours south of Mumbai), and they picked us up at the airport in Mumbai.  Since we had an extra day in Mumbai as we waited for Caeley, the last member of our crew to arrive the following night in Mumbai, we got to tour around Mumbai.  We went and saw the Gate of India, a monument built to celebrate the arrival of King George V; the Taj Hotel, where there was a terrorist attack in 2008; and then we went to the Terminal Railway Station, which, for all you Slum-dog Millionaire fans, is the scene in the movie where he rendezvous with the girl.

The best part of Mumbai was when we got to tour one of the slums there that is home to over 80,000 people.  All of Mumbai was already pretty dirty (I am talking about people going to the restroom in the streets, burning huge piles of trash on the sidewalks, and living in little shanties everywhere), so I didn't really expect the slums to be too much worse than what we had already seen.  I have never been so wrong.  It is not acceptable for foreigners to just walk up in a slum, look at the people and just start taking photographs of them, so this was a real special treat we were getting to experience.  The reason we were allowed into the slums was because of Eddie.  He supports a church in Mumbai that has a small Christian school in that slum, and we were going to go visit those kids.  I earnestly hope that I never forget the sights that I saw on this day.  The conditions these people live in far surpass the poverty I have seen anywhere else in my life, whether that was in person or even on t.v.  The corridors between the different shacks were tight and often times would be obstructed by a goat or stray dog.  The pathway that we walked on was literally nothing but sandbags and garbage.  In fact, this particular slum was built on the ocean, but none of us noticed this until our guide pointed it out because the ocean was covered in a layer of garbage so thick that water could barely permeate through it.  Despite all this, it was amazing to see how happy and close all the people were.  As we walked through we began gaining followers, as it is not everyday that white people walk through their slum.  At first I was too ashamed to take any pictures.  This is their home.  What message would I be sending by taking their picture?  I did not want to humiliate these kind people, who already have so little and are hanging on to what little dignity they have left to try and provide for their family.  Eventually, through smiles and broken English, the locals began to warm up to us and even wanted us to take their pictures.  A couple of boys tried to teach me how to play their game of marbles, but I was horrible at it and they found this hysterical.  By the time it came for us to leave, I was sad.  Sad to be leaving this slum...never in my life would I have imagined being sad to leave a slum.  But it was just so nice seeing how warm and happy these people were with so little, and I don't ever want to forget that.  Just goes to show that it is not WHAT you have that makes you happy, but WHO you have.

The following day, with our whole group now there, we packed up and headed to Pune, where Eddie and Macerena live.  Eddie runs a boys home there with about 40 something boys.  Both mornings we were there we woke up and went to the boys home and spent a few hours just playing games, singing songs, and just talking with boys there.  They were so much fun, so full of energy and had plenty of excess love to give.  One thing that was interesting with these boys is that usually when I am around kids and I pull out my camera, they all want me to take their picture.  With them it was the opposite.  I pulled out my camera and immediately the boys go grabbing for it wanting to take MY picture!  I kept explaining to them that I do not want pictures of me but of them, but they would just beg and beg to be able to take my picture, so we reached a compromise.  They could take my picture, but other boys were going to be in it with me.  What I found out was that these boys rarely get to see, not to mention, play with electronics, and just using and operating the camera was what they really wanted to do.

Each day we left the boys home in the early afternoon, which left plenty of the day to go explore all that Pune had to offer.  We went to their outdoor food market, just to look though, not to buy.  I am not the pickiest of eaters, and I even firmly adhere to the 5 second (sometimes 10 second) rule, but this market fell below even my cleanliness standards.  Flies all over the food, cows walking around trying to get a free meal, other cows and goats eating the rotten food that was tossed in a dumpster; these are a few of the sights you can see at the food market.  And although my appetite was lost for the time being, it was facinating to see the people busying around, making deals, measuring the food using old fashioned weights and scales, and just living their daily life.  Another thing we got to visit in Pune was the Aga Khan Palace.  This is the place where Gandhi was kept under house arrest for two years, and where his ashes are buried. Getting to see the ashes of the man who created passive resistance/civil disobedience, the man who inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to not tolerate injustice and to fight it at any cost, the man who led India to their freedom was quite the excitement for the history buff in me.

Our time in Mumbai and in Pune was made so remarkable due to the generosity and hospitality of my new friends Eddie and Macerena, who were our hosts.  Not only did they house us, feed us, and drive us around, they also showed us an India that we would have otherwise never have seen.  For that, I will always be thankful.

On Wednesday morning we left our hosts and flew out of Pune to New Delhi.  There we had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport and immediately drive us to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.  Despite being only about 200 kilometers (or 125 miles), it took us 7 hours to get there!  Part of this was due to the fact that I was traveling with 3 girls who need to make frequent stops, but it was more due to the crazy driving and traffic in India.  The roads are lucky if they have lanes painted on them, even though this seems to be just a waste of paint as straddling the lanes is perfectly acceptable.  Three lanes would find a way to fit 5 cars.  The best comparison to describe the driving is NASCAR.  If there was room for our car then our driver took it, if there wasn't then he made room by honking his horn and just sticking the nose of the car out there.  This was the nature of driving in India and it was effective, because we get to Agra in one piece.

The next morning was the climax of our trip, the crowning glory, the main reason we traveled to India: our visit to the Taj Mahal.  A lot of famous places I have been that have a high reputation have ended up leaving me disappointed (Mt. Rushmore being the best example), but the Taj Mahal lives up to and surpassed all the hype that is attached to its name.  As soon as I walked through the entrance gate I was hit with a "wow" moment and found myself just staring and trying to take in it's beauty.  The girls were frantically taking pictures as if there was a chance it might fly away any second, and after my momentary coma of wonder I too try to capture the moment.  Once everyone was satisfied with the pictures we went inside the palace.  We were provided a tour guide free of charge who added all sorts of interesting facts about the Taj Mahal and it's construction.

On the way out, we stopped to buy souviners at a shop where descendants from the original workers who constructed the Taj Mahal keep up the family tradition and art of working with marble.  In this shop, these workers, who carry a card proving they are truly descendants, make different artifacts using marble quarried from the same place as the marble used for the Taj Mahal.

As aforementioned, this was pretty much the capstone of our trip.  That same day we drove to New Delhi and crashed in our hotel before getting up the next day and flying back to Singapore.  It was comforting returning to the organization and modernization of Singapore, but part of me knows that what I experienced in India has changed my perspective on life.  I pray that I never lose it.

 This is the "ocean"

 The slums
 Maxing Relaxing

Boy's at the Boy's Home in Pune

 Where Gandhi was kept under house arrest for two years

Gandhi's ashes

 And There it is

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Hong Kong

This past weekend I chaperoned a group of 16 Middle School students to Hong Kong to volunteer at an English camp at a local school there.  We left early Friday morning and arrived shortly afternoon in Hong Kong.  We spent the first day there just traveling to our hostel, unpacking, and going to a nearby mall for dinner.  It was on the journey to the mall that we encountered our first scare as all of our group was able to fit onto one of the trains, well all except three students.  But that was quickly remedied and we were off to dinner, where I was talked into eating McDonalds for what was the second time already this trip (knowing that we would be served McDonalds for lunch the next day as well).  Not much adventure in the stomach of a early teenager.  After dinner it was back to the hostel where I futilely attempted to get the boys to sleep at a decent hour.

The next day was the English camp.  We arrived a little early at the school so that the kids could set up for the games that they would be conducting throughout the day.  As the Cantonese students poured in, it was easy to tell that they were a little reserved.  Our students were the first native English speakers that they had ever encountered, so feelings of intimidation and inadequacy were probably summoning in the beginning.  It was a little of an awkward beginning as our students found that each of their questions was met with blank stares, but as the day wore on the kids began to become more comfortable and shockingly display quite an impressive grasp of the English language.  Throughout the day our kids led the camp in different games, songs, and activities.  However, the highlight of the day was a mime/skit that the students had been working on that had a strong Christian message without being explicitly Christian (as that would not have been allowed here).  The mime portrayed a kid who falls victim to worldly temptations and enjoys it at first, but then finds that they lead to his destruction and becomes controlled by them.  In the end, a "man" (we know who this is right?) comes in and removes these temptations and saves him.  After the mime/skit, our students went back to the groups to answer any questions.  Although we were not allowed to witness to the Cantonese kids, if they asked questions about who the "man" was then our students were allowed to answer.  PRAISE THE LORD! A few of our students actually got this opportunity to share about who the "man" was and how he saved the boy.  No, no students came to Christ, but we can pray that curiosities were roused and seeds were planted.  In the end the same students who were too afraid to talk in the beginning were running around trying to get a picture with all of our students and write down their e-mails.  Quite the turnaround.

After the camp we were guided down a famous market in Hong Kong called the Ladies Market.  In short, it was a street with hundreds of different stalls where you could buy all sorts of junk and valuables together.  It was a nightmare for the chaperons who had to keep up with all the students in one of the most crowded areas of one of the busiest cities in the world, but we managed to get through it.

Sunday we got up and headed to Victoria Peak, a mountain that offers a wonderful view of Hong Kong and the harbor.  That is, of course, unless the sky is a blanket of fog covering the entire city like it was on this particular day.  We were fortunate enough to be blessed with about 30 minutes of clear skies, which opened up a spectacular view.  It was a nice peaceful touch to end our time in Hong Kong, as we packed up and left early the next morning.

All in all it was a pretty nice trip.  Bonding with students, experiencing a new city and culture, and making many memories.

 Students in their groups

 Playing games

 Taking pictures with some of the Hong Kong students

 The Ladies Market

 So many people!

 Street artist (This man had no fingers)

 Giving my student a smiling face

 At Victoria's Peak in the beautiful weather

 View of Hong Kong from the top

Hong Kong is the proud home of Bruce Lee

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Coffee: I Got That in the Bag

I apologize for the cheesy pun, but I just wanted to show you how coffee Asian style looks.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Fun Run 5k

So every year our school holds a 5k race that we use as a fund raiser at nearby park.  It is a lot of fun as everybody from school (parents, teachers, and students) get together with people from the outside community to run.  I have literally had this day marked on my calender for over a month now in anticipation, and tried to do some training for it as I found time, which was very seldom.

However, the event was a great success as probably around 200 people showed up and over a hundred of those participated in the race.  As teachers, we had been encouraged to give students extra credit as an incentive to come to the race.  I decided to give 5 points on a test to anyone who ran the race, but 10 points if they could beat me!  I was determined not to let that happen... Unfortunately, I was beaten by one of my students, but that was pretty much a foregone conclusion as this student runs 8+ miles on the weekends just for fun.  I did, however, finish in 9th place, which but as the fastest teacher, so I was pretty pleased.  I still do not know my official time, but through process of deduction I know it was somewhere in the 23 minute range.

Oh, and funny story.  As I was nearing the home stretch, I looked ahead of me and probably about 100 meters ahead was the director of our school.  Refusing to be beaten by this ABOVE middle aged man, I sprinted with EVERYTHING I had left in the tank to just barely pass him at the finish line.  For some reason (possibly due to the fact that I had just run a 5k) my brain did not process that I started the race at the front of the pack, did not see him among the front runners, and never saw him pass me.  Then, as I lie in the grass trying to not pass out from sprinting the last 200 meters of a 5k, he comes next to me and says, "I didn't run the whole race.  I just wanted to see if you would chase me down."

 The mad dash

 My place card

 Even my roommate came out to run (he is on the left)

 The student of mine who beat me

Me and Victor