Saturday, September 19, 2009

Of Weddings and Festivals

Now that we have been in Chennai for a month, time seems to be speeding up. The weeks go by more quickly and the longer we are here, the more we learn about South India. Over the past week, we’ve been fortunate enough to see two cultural traditions firsthand: we went to a wedding reception on Saturday, September 12, and we were invited to join several families for their celebration of the Navarathri festival.

Last week, when I dropped James off at school on Friday, one of his classmates, Balasubramanian (Bala), came up to me, grinning broadly, and gave me an envelope. “For you, aunty,” he said. (“Aunty” is a common term kids use to address women here). Inside the envelope was a beautiful, handmade invitation to Bala’s older sister’s wedding reception, which was being held on the following day. So, on Saturday, we made a quick trip to a nearby handicrafts store to buy a gift, then dressed in our finest and went to the Lakshmi Mahal mandapam (wedding hall) to attend the festivities. Although no start time was specified on the invitation, we were told by the Vidya Mandir teachers that 7:00 p.m. would be a good time to show up.

Upon arrival, we were led upstairs to the upper floor of the wedding hall, where the bride and groom stood on a stage, wearing flower garlands. Groups of friends and family took turns going up on stage, giving them wedding presents (wrapped in very shiny paper!), and posing for pictures with the couple. Videographers were on hand to capture the moment, and the photos were immediately displayed on monitors prominently placed around the hall. There was music provided by a live band, and most of the guests sat on plastic chairs, watching the bride and groom. Once we sat down, we were greeted warmly by Bala, who was thrilled to see all of us. He was dressed in a traditional outfit and looked like a little prince! He soon corrupted James into running around in the back of the hall with him and a few other classmates from Vidya Mandir. Meanwhile, Taz and I gaped at all the gorgeous outfits – beautiful saris and lots of gold jewelry!

We eventually went up on stage to present our gift, and then were told to go downstairs, where food was being served, buffet-style. The food was delicious – South Indian vegetarian fare – although there were no tables to sit at, or even chairs. No decorations either – I guess these were reserved for the upper floor of the hall. Most people ate fairly quickly, mingling and chatting all the while, and then went back upstairs to watch the bride and groom again. When it was time to leave, we were given a parting gift of a flowered metal storage bowl!

The week after the wedding (our fourth week of school here) was exam week for the upper classes (Grades 6 – 12). However, even the threat of exams could not dampen the excitement of the upcoming Navarathri festival, which started this Friday. Navarathri is a nine-day Hindu festival, dedicated to the Mother Goddess in the form of the goddesses Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. It is celebrated differently in the various regions of India. In Tamil Nadu (the state we are living in), families set up steps in their house (either in their living room area or in their puja [prayer] room) and place idols on them, known as golu or kolu. The kolu include wooden or clay figures of the gods and goddesses, and even bowls of miniature food. During the nine days, friends and families gather at each other’s homes to see their displays and receive gifts.

Today, our family joined some of the teachers from Vidya Mandir School and went on the rounds, visiting three houses. Families take turns serving as hosts, entertaining guests and giving presents. Each house we went to had a beautiful display of the kolu dolls, arranged on a set of steps. Most of the clay dolls are handmade and they vary in size from fairly large Ganesh idols to small bowls of miniature food. We visited each house for about 45 minutes, talking and enjoying refreshment. As we prepared to leave each house, we were each given a thamboolam (gift) bag with traditional presents - a coconut, a lime, betel leaves, and mini containers of yellow and red turmeric powder (which is put on the forehead). The kids were also lavished with other gifts as well; Taz received a beautiful, handmade silver necklace, bangles, and a pair of earrings. My kids were just grinning like it was Christmas, unable to believe their good luck.
This is just the beginning of the festival, so there are more houses yet to visit. We all feel very privileged, gaining entrance to this slice of traditional life in South India!

Friday, September 11, 2009

First Impressions of Vidya Mandir Senior Secondary School – from Mike

Having taught for the past eleven years at Cedarburg High School, I was a little nervous as I was about to begin my teaching assignment in India. At Cedarburg High I was accustomed to a well-equipped classroom with the latest technology, class sizes that typically stay below thirty students, and a great support network from my colleagues. In terms of a high school teaching assignment in the United States, I find myself fortunate. What exactly would I face as I prepared for my first day in an Indian classroom?

Within hours of my first day on the job at Vidya Mandir Senior Secondary School, it became clear to me that any fears I had were unfounded. Students, faculty and parents greeted me warmly. Now three weeks into the job, the enthusiasm continues. Any walk down the hallway involves returning dozens of greetings of “Good morning, sir!!” I also seem to be the daily beneficiary of birthday treats from any student who happens to be celebrating their birthday that day. With nearly two thousand students in the school (K thru 12), I have not lacked for sweets.

While there are tremendous strengths in the American educational system, I have found some interesting and inviting differences while teaching at Vidya Mandir School. A tremendous culture of respect is reinforced with students. Each morning begins with a brief assembly where students chant a Sanskrit prayer. While I don’t understand the words, I am impressed with one thousand teens showing daily reverence to their gods. When I enter the classroom, all students rise and stand as they wait for me to greet them. At the end of the lesson, some students will rise again and say “Thank you, sir!” as I leave the classroom.

I was a bit surprised to find that most students like math! Even abstract math. The level of engagement is high. Every student takes notes in a school issue “class book”. These we periodically collect to grade notes and to make sure students have completed the homework. Since students typically work EVERY problem in the text as either class work or homework, these books fill up quickly. Some students buy supplemental texts and work these problems as well. The curriculum is abstract, challenging and several grade levels ahead of the standard U.S. high school curriculum.

While I occasionally yearn for my air-conditioned classroom back in Cedarburg, my teaching experience in India has been excellent. I love the high level of mathematics that is being taught and I am confident that these experiences will help me to continue to improve as a teacher.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Queensland - "India's No. 1 Amusement Paradise!"

Another school week done and we are gradually adjusting. To be honest, it was not a full week for the kids. On Thursday afternoon, it was announced that Friday would be a school and government holiday, due to the tragic death of YSR Reddy, the Chief Minister of the province of Andhra Pradesh. Mike had to work a half-day on Friday, but the kids had the full day off and accompanied me to my Yoga class (they even got to participate!). Afterwards, we went to a wonderful coffeehouse called Mocha Mojo, where they serve decadent milkshakes and even muffins and bagels!

Mike also had to work on Saturday at Sports Day (sort of like a track and field meet), so we decided we’d attempt a family outing on Sunday to one of Chennai’s theme parks. We chose Queensland, which was recommended by most of the students and teachers at VM School. I was a little anxious, worrying about ride safety standards and such, but Mike and the kids talked me into it!
It took us about 45 minutes to get to Queensland, in the comfort of an AC call-taxi. The park itself seemed clean and well-run, with the rides in working order (always a big plus!). The entrance fee was only 350 rupees ($7.00) per person, with the caveat that you could only go on each ride once. No problem here, as there were a lot of rides, most of which were like typical carnival rides, plus a section of kiddie ones. The carousel was quite unique – instead of animals, the kids rode on musical instruments! Taz was psyched to ride on a baritone – her band instrument.

The tricky thing about the park was the “Timings.” Certain rides/areas were only open at specific times, which would be announced in Tamil and English on a loudspeaker. Unfortunately, the announcements were incomprehensible even in English, so we couldn’t tell if things were starting or stopping! However, park employees went out of their way to help us. “Cable car closing at 12:30” one of them said to us. “You must hurry. Go there!” OK, and off we went, and had a super long cable car ride with a great view of the park. Later, other employees came over: “Himalayan Water Ride closing at 2:30!” So again we ran over to the ride, which was like a rapids ride (awesome!).

The best part by far was the water park, which included an “American Wave Pool” and a swimming pool. I had read about the water area and wisely brought our swimsuits in my backpack. Once we got there, however, I realized that we didn’t need them. In the “Ladies and Children” section (the men and women are strictly segregated in the pool), all the women were fully clothed! Most were wearing full saris or salwar khameez (long tunic and pants). Rather than put our swimsuits on and stand out even more, the kids and I went in with our t-shirts and shorts on. Once we got over the weirdness of swimming in our clothes, it was wonderfully refreshing, especially since it was 95 degrees out! It was a great area, kind of like you’d find in the Wisconsin Dells, with slides and buckets dumping water. The men’s side was even more exciting, with tube rides and huge body slides, but only Mike got to go on that side! I have no photos to share, as photography in this area was strictly forbidden!!

I have to add, also, that unlike an American theme park, all the food and drinks were super reasonably priced. This photo of one of the stalls shows the kinds of snacks you could buy – all of it under 15 rupees (30 cents): popcorn, cotton candy, ramen noodles, sugar cane water, tea and coffee. There were also places selling ice cream, and a restaurant stall where Mike and I had yummy, spicy Indian/Chinese fried rice and noodles.

In the end, we purchased the kids a couple of Queensland T-shirts (70 rupees - $1.40 each!) to replace their wet ones, and headed for home. It was an exhausting day, but definitely a success, and I’m sure we’ll be back!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Weekend Excursions

After the exhausting first week of school, our family was ready to do some sightseeing over the weekend. On Saturdays, Vidya Mandir school is in session, but usually just for special events (sports day, geography bee, track and field meet, etc). Mike had to go in to proctor a math exam, but the kids got to stay home. They were so happy to sleep in and watch Saturday morning cartoons on the Disney Channel and Pogo (kids’ channel with English language programs, including Mr. Bean – one of our favorites!).

In the afternoon, we were taken by Mr. Umapathi (our exchange teacher’s husband) and Balaji (her son) to the Periyar Science Museum and Biral Planetarium. Once there, we were treated like VIP’s – one of the guards escorted us around and showed us the Optical Illusions room, which had all kinds of cool trick mirrors. The planetarium show was wonderfully air-conditioned (a huge plus!) although a little out of date, as it said we would be sending robotic missions to the moon in 2008! The 3-D movie was “trippy” (Taz’ quote) but got a huge response from the audience, who exclaimed with excitement and fear at each thing that popped out at us.

On Sunday, we decided to try the “Hop On / Hop Off” bus run by the Tamil Nadu Tourist Corporation. The idea here being that you take the bus from downtown Chennai and you can get off at many different stops along the ECR (East Coast Road) and then “hop on” again at half hour intervals to continue the ride. A great idea . . . in theory! We went first to Dakshina Chitra, an excellent outdoor folk museum with recreated houses from Southern India (provinces of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka). On the grounds was a large open area where local craftspeople demonstrated and sold their wares. Taz and James learned how to engrave on a palm leaf with a stylus to make intricate drawings. I spoke at length with one artist about his miniature paintings, which is a big interest of mine, due to my writing. We also saw people making woven grass yoga mats (they smelled wonderful!) and carving designs on stone elephants.

Our bus came as scheduled, about an hour and a half later, and we proceeded to Mamallapuram (also called Mahabalipuram). This coastal village is famous for its rock cut temples, which were created by the Pallava dynasty in the 7th century AD. The South Shore temple, which overlooks the Bay of Bengal, was huge and impressive, though a lot of the details of the rock carving had been eroded by the salt air and wind. We then walked over to see “Arjuna’s Penance” – an elaborate bas-relief carved into a rock face. On the hill above it were more carved rock caves and “Krishna’s Butterball” – an immense natural boulder perched precariously on a slope. There were tons of goats wandering everywhere, as well as women sitting on the rocks, selling cut up cucumbers!

Alas, when it was time to leave, our “hop on” did not go as planned. For some unknown reason, our bus never showed up, and we waited for an hour at the bus stop. It was hard for the kids, as they were pretty exhausted by this time, and the humidity was intense. Every time a city bus pulled into the stop, crowds of people would run after it and try to hop on board, while it was still moving! Luckily, when our bus did come, it stopped first! On our return trip, as we drove into Chennai, we saw all these large Ganesha idols (elephant god), draped in garlands, being pulled along the road in make-shift floats, with people walking alongside. Some of them were taller than a bus! Apparently, the idols were going to be immersed in the sea, as the final part of the Vinayaga Chaturthi ritual that had begun a week ago. We were tempted to follow them and watch the process, but we had been warned that the crowds might be too intense, so we proceeded along to our apartment, to rest up for our second week of school.