Sunday, 17 June 2018

Teaching English in Almora

Almora

So I have been in the Himalayas for over two months now! When I left in April it felt like I was going on a big adventure after a very, very long time. To explore a new area of India for a considerable amount of time, to live in and discover a new place for the first time after almost ten years! An adventure worth blogging, just like I used to do when my Indian life was still new and exciting... Except this time it was me and my little 2-year old daughter. I was going towards the big Unknown again, fully aware that it was going to be very positive yet a little anxious. Well, I am very happy that I did leave that unbearable heat! It has been wonderful...

I was in Almora from 9 April until 5 June, teaching English to classes 11 and 12 at Sharda Public School for a month and a half. This was the view from our nice little flat, in a very friendly neighbourhood indeed...


I wanted to blog while in Almora, but I was too busy preparing for classes when Leela finally slept...

Almora is a very cute town. The main market (town centre) is very beautiful. Very different from Khajuraho yet of course still Indian. And mountain people are very sweet and friendly. Very different from central Indian people somehow; perhaps with finer traits and different wrinkles, slightly more oriental looking, definitely healthier/thinner from so much walking up and down the hills, and women more free, it seems... It did feel like we were very close to Nepal, with men carrying loads off their heads like that.


Our neighbourhood was really nice. We didn't have streets down to our flat but stairs. Very tough to walk up with Leela in the baby-bag, but now I have learnt to carry her on my back, which is a lot easier than on my front! She's actually put on 1 1/2 kg since we've been here!

We shared a big terrace with our neighbours, with people going to other people's house very freely. Lots of kids played around our flat every afternoon after school, which was great for Leela. There were lots of flowers everywhere, because our landlords who lived nearby were keen gardeners. We could hear our neighbours as though they were inside our own flat. Not always pleasant you might say, but it made me feel less alone, especially at the beginning. I have always liked the sound of life as background; loved it all along in Varanasi. And the sound of playing kids was perfect for Leela. All the kids loved her and played with her; they especially were very impressed with her music books! We had a big empty front room in which it was great to dance or play ball. Empty rooms can be quite cool, actually! Oh and there was even a playground just five minutes walk from our flat!


My favourite neighbour was a mother of two boys aged 4 and 6, right next door to us on the right. Leela played with the boys and they shared toys. She invited us for tea, offered to me WiFi connection, space in her fridge and filtered water! She was studying yoga and even ran a few yoga classes for the entire neighbourhood on the terrace right in front of our door and window, mainly attended by moms and kids! And I loved waking up to the sound of the Indian radio or Indian classical music played by our landlord's brother, who later turned out to be the optician who did my eyes check! His wife played harmonium and sang some devotional songs every evening, on the terrace upstairs from our neighbours, but somehow through the grids and the flower pots we could never see her.  It all felt like being part of an old Indian film. Life woke up early and went to bed early. Everything was just, well, perfect.

Another beautiful thing was all the pine trees and the pine needles falling to the ground. They were slippery but their beautiful fragrance reminded me of Corsica. And there were prickly pears, just like in Corsica too! Oh, and did I mention the perfect weather, obviously!

We also spent a lot of time at my boss's house, a huge, posh colonial house turned into a homestay just up the hill from our neighborhood. There were a duck in a pond, three dogs, a lot of greenery to walk around the house and pebbles to pick for Leela and flowers, oh and they even grew strawberries! Leela stayed there with their domestic staff and the family while I was teaching. It was our second home, really. Wonderful people and great company!

Almora is lovely, but it was difficult to move about with a baby in a sling and no scooter! What a surprise to discover India without rickshaws! I had to walk a lot uphill to go anywhere, which took a lot of my energy. It is not a touristic town at all, and there was nowhere much to go for entertainment and no great restaurants to get out. So we were pretty confined to our few meters squares between our flat, the homestay and the school. At weekends my favourite adventure was to visit my friends from Baba Cake in Kasar Devi, about 10 km away from Almora. This was a whole adventure to itself because I had to cross the whole market by foot to reach the taxi stand, and then the jeeps would only depart when full and it could take up to an hour fill them with passengers... And to come back from Kasar Devi I had to leave in the early evening, walk about 1 km to catch a jeep on the way... And most Sundays I could see no jeep on the way so I literally came back to Almora hitch hiking. But that shop with avocados made it worth it...

Teaching


For the first time since Leela's birth I had four whole hours to myself, six days a week! And it was the first time I had a proper job in a very long time...

Teaching in a government-approved school was very interesting for me. I had been curious about how it would be to teach in an official Indian school for a very long time, so it was a great opportunity for me to give it a go and to see if I liked it. I have to say it was very challenging at times! I had many students per class as I had to combine groups to teach fewer hours because of Leela, between 30 and 50 pupils per class! For a few classes I had a "helper", i.e. a member of the school staff whose presence in the classroom turned the students silent like magic. I think they didn't take me as seriously as their other teachers because I was new, I was a foreigner and I wasn't going to stay for a long time. So otherwise the classes were noisy and I had to shout a lot to make myself heard...

It was challenging but fun to try and remember as many names as I could... Some names I could remember easily because they were my nephews and nieces' names, some faces I could remember easily because they reminded me of other faces. Some of them were nameless faces until they scored great marks at the exam I drafted. And I probably had about ten Abhisheks in one class, so whenever I didn't know a boy's name I tried my luck calling him Abhishek. In my last week I realised I had some identical twins in a group, which hadn't helped me much. It was great teaching over 150 kids though, because I felt quite popular walking through the streets of Almora, every time meeting five people I knew and within just a few weeks - ha! I also have to say the girls' compulsory two-plait hairdos really don't do them justice! And would I ever get used to the assembly, listening to the prayer, the nationalistic pledge and the national anthem every morning? Not sure! Musically-speaking I did love Jana Gana Mana though - it is way more beautiful than La Marseillaise!

My main difficulty with teaching was that students were often just waiting for me to give them answers, and - let's put it this way - there was a lot of copying around! Sometimes as soon as a student had finished a task, she would automatically give her answers to her friend to copy! Automatically! I kept having to tell them to try for themselves, that mistakes help you learn etc. It was difficult to get most of them to write in their own words; only the best students would...


I was glad to have my English books from the UK with me! With classes 12 I picked a topic from their syllabus which had a lesson plan in my writing book: summary writing. The lesson plan was well-made, giving step-by-step instructions, getting the students and to analyse and compare a text against its summary, to practise paraphrasing etc. I was tempted to teach classes about formal letters and CV writing as this also was on their syllabus, but the writing style that was expected from the students according to their books and sample exams was just so weird and confusing to me that I didn't dare deal with the subject. It would just have been too difficult for me to comply with such Indian English language - words and expressions that no-one actually uses in the UK or outside of India... For the last few weeks I started literature classes on the novel from their syllabus, The Invisible Man, although really, teaching literature is not my best talent!

With classes 11 I had agreed to only teach grammar. The school didn't give me any books but I had my own exercise books from the UK as well as loads of Internet resources. I am a grammar geek so that was not going to be a problem! I picked the topics from their syllabus, tenses, modal verbs and passive voice, and planned my lessons accordingly. I really tried to clarify their knowledge about tenses especially! I think it was a bit new for the students to work the way I did, but it seemed to have worked somehow. It's weird with Indians: They have a lot of theoretical knowledge but they don't know how to apply it in practice (all that learning by heart...), and there is a lot of confusion about grammar in their heads. So I tried to fill the gaps as best I could... Some of the best students were really happy I think. Well, one of them actually gave me a really sweet thank you card on my last day; she was really sweet! At least for her, it made my time worthwhile...


I had to teach six days a week which I found pretty intense. So usually on Saturdays we did a song. That was fun and it gave me some rest from the shouting, because the students were more quiet when I played the song...

Another difficult thing was that it was the beginning of the term for students of class 11. So new kids kept enrolling and I never had the same number of students from class to class... Number just kept growing... up to 57!

All in all I was very happy with my experience, and the students were really sweet. However it didn't really make me want to be an English teacher in a regular Indian school in the long term...

Friday, 19 February 2016

Something I want to remember...

This is a text by Maria Rosenstone, written in Frederick Leboyer's Inner Beauty, Inner Light - Yoga for Pregnant Women (pp. 187-188), which I want to remember...

~

"The celebration of birth begins with a sudden yet gentle release of the primordial waters. My body is awakened to a new movement within, not yet rhythmic, but strong enough to begin the breathing and the inner meditation that my teacher has given me. I continue to breathe while bathing and wrapping myself in a towel, when suddenly I am seized by an incredible tremor arising from the depth of my body. I hold to the window's ledge and, while watching the familiar mango tree in the yard become unfamiliar, my entire being is convulsed and drawn into itself.

I sense immediately that I will be continuously absorbed by this passionate movement until it culminates itself. I am now totally taken by this energy that is not separate from myself. With each rise of its force I feel the passage that I have become opening itself ever more and more, each breath seems to uncover a new space. There is only expansion now and no limitation is endured. The event tolerates no measuring, will not be in any way contained. It seems on the contrary to have contained my whole self. There is no choice to be had, the meditation is the dance.

A natural birth is a manifestation of spontaneous expression and cannot be schooled, urged, or thrust upon a mode of living that is not natural. It requires only a clear channel, a body in health, a mind in understanding, a whole being that is totally open. When the intelligence of the body is awakened, as through the practice of yoga, it will guide the woman throughout the pregnancy, making her feel perhaps more in touch with her self than ever before. She is then close to her own nature and ready to flow with the movement of birth when it begins.

The breath will move evenly throughout each phase. Conscious maintenance of the breath can be the means through which the woman retains the pulse of what is happening. She is then one with all that waxes and wanes, rises and falls, inhales and exhales. All of creation is with her as she becomes the very passage for life itself. And when the moment arrives to receive the fruit of her love, she is truly there in that silent, joyous space to meet the small one with reverence and wonder.

Birth can be seen now, not as a procedure separate from the living of each day, but rather as a proceeding from the very roots of it. The greatest preparation that can be made for the birth of a child is to allow for the constant arising of birth in one's self. And this arising can take place only in a space that is clear and free of all expectation.

The sublime energy that, when trusted to pass freely, will move the womb to open and empty itself, bringing forth the new life, will also sweep through the being of the mother, giving rise to birth and rebirth simultaneously and at each instant. The intensity of childbirth brings the supreme moment in which the usual hold on one's self can be shaken and undone. One falls into the exultation of life as it lives itself. Birth then is the occasion of vibrating with the universal rhythm, a moment to feel the perfect accord of what is below with what is above, a merging with the cosmic dance."


Thursday, 28 January 2016

"Be the change you want to see in the world"!...

Long time no blog, yet again! But today I have a lot of energy to write!

Back in November, our German friend Pia from the Blue Bank association was in Khajuraho for about 3 weeks. She has been coming regularly for the past six years to promote ecological awareness through art. I had never been in Khajuraho at the same time as her until this season, so this time I was glad to be present and to see it for myself. It was interesting. The same locals get involved in her actions every year, and she attracts crowds of children because she organises programmes in which she gets them to draw postcards to send to her friends in Germany and in Africa, and of course she has snacks and sweets to distribute at the end. Vijay is always the main organiser of such events. This year she also presented her own nature-related painting to the children, and one of the local adults told a story to the children, to try and raise their awareness about ecology. It was for such an event that I played violin back in June 2014 (although Pia wasn't there at the time). For last Diwali, on 11 November 2015, again she organised a similar action, and I played a little violin concert with my student Udit by the Brahma Temple.

After the event she started talking about gathering some locals to clean the area around the temple and what we could reach of the lake around it - all in front of our house. Now, I had been dreaming of such a thing for years, but feeling completely powerless about it... "Why don't we organise this before you go?" I asked. And so we did, on the following Sunday. I was really excited. Vijay went to buy a bin that we have since then been keeping in front of our house. Quite a few people gathered, and we filled about 5 big bags with all sorts of litter. Everyone had a lot of energy, and it was really nice to work all together for a noble cause. This was possible also because (I forgot to mention) a rubbish collector has been passing our house regularly since about September - an amazing piece of news for me, as from then on we wouldn't have to throw our own rubbish in the lake behind the temple (for lack of anywhere else to throw it)!!! So after we had picked all the rubbish, the collector passed by and we gave him the five bags... In the end, Vijay went to buy some water nuts for all the hard workers and we all ate them happily.

This action was a kick start for me, as it really motivated me to carry on. I designed an explanatory poster not only in English, but also in Hindi, so that it would also make sense to the local population. The objective was to build a board and plant it next to the Brahma Temple, to raise our community's awareness about the project. On our Friends in Khajuraho homestay's website, I added a section in our menu about our new eco-friendly promise, and on our Facebook page I added a mention and photo gallery of the same. And our group of locals agreed that we would carry on cleaning every Sunday...

On the following Sunday I was the only one to do any cleaning, but I filled our entire bin nonetheless. Since then, I have been cleaning the area around the temple on my own, once in a while, when I felt it was necessary... The board hasn't seen the day yet, but I am determined that it will... Of course, no-one from our gathering has ever turned up on a Sunday to clean because keeping everyone motivated does take time, but I will keep doing it to show them all, and hopefully things will grow from there...? I feel so lucky and blessed to live on such a beautiful, historical, UNESCO-protected site, that I do want to do something! The Brahma Temple is the most ancient of all the famous Khajuraho temples, and it stands there, right in front of our house!


About two months after the Blue Bank action took place, some more great news broke out: The Brahma Temple, which up to then had always been closed to the public except for maybe two days per year, was now going to be open for visitors. And along with this a guard had been assigned to sit by the temple everyday - with the duty to broom the platform around the temple regularly! I was so happy to hear this! So since then, the platform itself has been clean at all times. I guess I should mention here that the main items of rubbish gathering around the temple are all the small individual sachets of betel nuts and/or tobacco or whatever mouth fresheners, which men sitting by the temple doing nothing throw as they chew everyday. That and packets of crisps or spicy snacks or whatever. So the temple platform is now clean all the time; however, where has the guard been brooming all the aforementioned rubbish into? Just a few meters down of course... Down the steps of the temple platform and around, into the sloping ground that descends to the lake, into the lake, etc...

This morning the gathering litter was just too much for me to see, and I hadn't done any cleaning for a while. I had not yet had my shower, so I set up for the task with my little bin, crossing the road every time it was full to empty it into our big bin... Whenever I start, I have to say it's difficult for me to stop, because it just never ends, and I have a hard time stopping any unfinished job! I dug many sachets and plastic bags out - really, you don't realise how much crap goes down and down into our poor soils until you try and clean it yourself! Besides, doing this in front of the passing locals gives me tremendous energy to carry on, because I love to give an example and (perhaps) make them think! "Be the change you want to see in the world", as the great Mahatma Gandhi of India famously said! And so I cleaned the entire lawn on the right of the temple and around the Blue Bank's blue bench and statue (Pia got these designed a few years ago as part of her awareness action), the beginning of the sloping ground as far as I could reach it, the ground down the steps and to the left side of the temple platform (all this with body awareness to spare my 7-month pregnant belly, of course... :-)

Soon after I had started working, the guard started brooming around the temple, and so I cheekily remarked that although the platform was clean, his brooming didn't help much if the rubbish was thrown down a few steps away. He did tell me that "someone" (from the municipality?) was going to do something about it later on. I guess he just told me what I want to hear but let's see... Some passers-by always stop and comment as I clean because I think it's odd for them to see a white person dare put her hands in "shit", accepting to become an untouchable perhaps (I have to shower and clean all my clothes to be allowed back in the house afterwards - but don't worry, I do it whole-heartily at that point!) Quite a lot of passers-by stopped by and more of them showed an interested in what I was doing today. One woman asked me what I was doing, really sounding puzzled. As she passed by, with eagerness and positivity in my voice (I hope!) I answered "I'm cleaning! All this plastic is harming our earth!" and then as she took some distance, I shouted "Our earth is our God, we shouldn't spoil it!" Two women from our neighbours' house whom I know quite well passed by, too, and one of them made a remark about what I was doing. I exclaimed "All that plastic you see, it goes into the land. Then it goes into the plants. And we eat the plants! Do you want to eat plastic? then litter away!" - "That's right!" she answered. But the best was that kid.

A boy approached the lake with a couple of friends; they must have been 13 or so. He had a small polythene bag full of stuff in his hand and I knew full well what it was, and what he had come to do with it. After pujas (religious ceremonies), Hindus don't throw the items they have used into an ordinary bin but into water, the idea being that the ingredients return into the earth. I think another reason is that all the items have become sacred to the Hindus' eyes, and so they can't just throw it away like ordinary rubbish. In older days it was not a problem because all these items used to be natural and biodegradable, such as paan leaves, raw rice and turmeric powder, incense, etc. (for a list of common elements used for rituals, click here). Today however, this practice is a disaster, because many harmful items - especially plastic - are thrown into rivers and lakes... And whenever I see a local throw a plastic bag full into the lake in front of our house, my stomach turns. This is what the boy had come to do, obviously. As I looked at his bag the only item I saw sticking out was a big paan leaf. "Don't throw this into the lake!" I exclaimed to the boy. "But it's puja stuff!" he replied. "So throw the stuff into the water, but please don't throw the plastic bag; it harms the environment!" The boy walked a little further near the pipal tree, and I saw him emptying the bag into the water. I was thrilled as I saw that he didn't throw the bag! Then he came back to me, I told him to throw the polythene in our bin and he did so. "Thank you! Thank you!" I exclaimed profusely. I truly felt like it was a little victory...


Friday, 25 December 2015

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The story of Niklas and Lili

Eight months no (proper) post!

We are back in India (Khajuraho) after three months in Europe.

I thought I would start blogging again with a story that started three and a half years ago. I remembered this incredible story when Ram Gopal passed by the house this morning...

It was in January 2012. We had some friends visiting from Belgium and we took them to one of the neighbouring villages for them to see some picturesque India. A very small village. I had visited it many times before, but this time, I can't remember why or how, we visited one house I had never seen.
The family members were very excited about our visit. At some point during the evening after having our chai - it was getting dark - the ladies invited me into the kitchen. A very rustic, minimal kitchen, with a bitten-earth floor and an old-fashion clay stove. One woman was making chapatis and she asked me to roll one. As I did so, pretty well, they all got amazed and excited and I felt like I was their all-time heroine!

After a while I came out of the kitchen to sit with my friends, around men and children in the courtyard, and we were presented with a new-born baby boy, who was just a few days old. They put him in my lap, then in one of my friend's lap... and then the main family man asked me to... find him a name! I was astonished by this request! I didn't know if he was serious but I started to think about it anyway. All I could come up with was the name of my sister's son, Niklas, who I thought would be easy to pronounce for Indian people. I suggested it, and in turn they all tried to say "Niklas". They did pronounce it nicely, they liked it, and so the decided to keep it!

I felt very special. It was an immense honour to have been given this precious responsibility, and it was a very foreign name for the family to accept and still they had. As they had accepted the name, a little ceremony was performed. Not much was involved. Vijay told me that as I had no sweets to give, I should put a 100-rupee note in the hand of the child, as it was custom. I felt a bit annoyed about this constant involvement of money in Indian ceremonies; however as I had felt honoured to have given the name, I accepted and did it. Shortly after this we left the village en route back to Khajuraho...

~

Over a year passed and I completely forgot about the story... Until Ram Gopal, the baby's uncle who had invited us to visit his family house, came by our shop. "Do you remember him?" Vijay asked me. I rolled my eyes and pulled a face in embarrassment. "Niklas's uncle!" he said. Oh my God! Niklas was more than one year-old now, and it had been serious all along! His name indeed was Niklas! So a few days later we went back to the village to visit the family. I held Niklas in my arms. He was responding to the name I had given him! It was really moving.

Then Ram Gopal told me there was yet another new-born in the family, one of his cousins had just had a baby girl! She brought me the girl and guess what? She asked me to give her a name! Again!!! As I had given Niklas the name of my own sister's son's I immediately said "Noemie", her daughter's name. Niklas and Noemie in the Indian family, just like in my sister's family! The Indians had a hard time pronouncing it however, finding the combination of two vowels ([o] and [e]) difficult. I guess it would have been too perfect or something. Or too obvious. So I started thinking about a name. "Sophie" came to my mind but I thought they would have ruined it, because the sound [f] is closer to an aspirated [p] in Hindi, and they would have difficulties with spelling it. I paused some more and suddenly it was it. "Lili" popped in my head and it was cute and it was the easiest. "Lili!" I exclaimed. They all pronounced it in turn and it was indeed very easy. They all liked the sound of it, and so we proceeded to the little naming ceremony. I placed a 100-rupee note in the girl's hand, kissed her forehead and gave her back to her mother.

~

Over a year has passed and Ram Gopal passed by our shop this morning. "How is Niklas?" I asked. "Good!" he said. "And Lili?" I continued. "She's well". And then he added: "So when are you coming to visit our house?"