Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Mathematically Challenged

My job for the Admissions Office right now is to collate a bunch of surveys given to all the new students in middle school and high school. They’re open-ended questions like “What did you most enjoy most about the first six weeks of school?” and I have to turn their open-ended—and frequently either virtually illegible, broken English, or both—answers into nice coherent data tables. I’ve been asked to collate them by grade, by school (middle school and high school) and for all new students.

That doesn’t sound so bad, right? And it’s not. It’s fun most of the time and the answers are entertaining. The kids don’t like the food—surprise surprise. And several have suggested putting in a cable car between the dorms and school. The wimps! One high school boy mentioned that what he looked forward to most at Woodstock was the girls. Hmmm.

Now, the problem arises with my, apparently rusty, math skills. I go through and do all the surveys by grade first. Then I collate all the middle school responses. Then I suddenly realize that the total number of responses for middle school doesn’t match the sum of the responses for 6th-8th grade. And then I curse. So I recalculate. Repeatedly. And suddenly I realize that I counted “our bedtime is too early” twice and all is well. Repeat for high school. More cursing, this time with flared nostrils and pursed lips. And finally it turns into a nice chart and graph set. But en route there is much grumpy mumbling. Luckily I work in the basement all alone.

Monday, September 26, 2005

On Mountain Life

Most of the time, I really love living in the mountains and not having motorized transport. The real beauty of the area in on the paths and switchbacks, not out on the road, and I enjoy my walk to school each day. The flowers are just amazing here—huge, gorgeous, and completely exuberant. Plus, as I hike (well, okay, stagger) up the mountain in the evenings I feel Fit. Healthy. Virtuous, even. Or at least like I’ve worked off two bites of the baked potato soup with cream and bacon that I indulged in this weekend.

The only downside to this outdoorsy life is that there is no escape from unremitting bad weather. You can’t just dash out the door and drive to the supermarket in the dry sanctity of your car. Oh no. You slog the half hour to and from work on foot even if it is raining buckets. Which it has been for the last two weeks.

This weekend was particularly nasty but at one point on Saturday afternoon, the rain seemed to abate. Joanna and I took advantage of this opportunity to make a break for the closest grocery story, about 15 minutes up the mountain. Sadly, we’d gotten about 5 minutes into the trip when the skies opened once more. However, as stalwart mountain dwellers, we had come armed with our rain gear. Out came the umbrellas. Inside out went the umbrellas. CRUD.

By the time we returned from the store with our precious eggs and butter, we were both completely and totally soaked. We’re talking drowned-rat level of squish. But that’s where the good part of bad weather comes in. You can come in out of it! When we got home, we dried off, both put on fleecy pajamas, curled up with tea and biscuits, and congratulated ourselves on what brave outdoorswomen we were.

PS – As a side note, if anyone offers you rose-water flavored digestive biscuits (i.e. cookies), allow me to recommend that you politely pretend to have gone suddenly deaf. These particular cookies smell very rosy and taste like they smell and really it is an unpleasant experience all the way around. So if anyone offers...Just Say No. You'll thank me later.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The Snows

Mussoorie is actually only in the foothills of the Himalayas, a fact I frequently forget as I’m huffing, puffing, and stumbling up the mountain. North of us are the “real” Himalayas, “The Snows.” They’re quite a ways off, with any number of foothill ridges between us and them, and during monsoon, you can’t see them very often because of all the fog and low-hanging clouds. But every now and again they break free. And it is spectacular.

One such appearance happened last week. I was sitting in the common room, reading a book when my housemate came charging into the room and gleefully announced “grab your shoes, we’ve gotta go to the roof—The Snows are out!” So I dutifully extricated myself from my cozy bundle of blankets and scrambled up a rickety ladder and across the sloping, corrugated tin roof (yikes!!!). And there they were, just beyond the tree line. A line of ragged, snow-topped peaks. The Snows. It was just about sunset and the light was hitting the catching the snow and turning it pink. Wow.

Just a few days later, I was walking home at night and glanced north across the valley toward the Snows, not really expecting much. But I’d forgotten it was a full moon and they were out again. There was cloud cover in the valley and the peaks rose up out of it, looking for all the world like islands at sea.

Maybe people who’ve lived in the mountains in the States would be less impressed by the sight of the Snows, but for one coming from the ever-so-flat Midwest, they’re magic.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


I made an important discovery on Friday. Ready for it? Seventh graders are Very Loud Creatures. Now, many of you may already have been aware of this fact, but it was a new experience for me. I agreed to help my housemate, Ethan, chaperone his 7th grade advisees Friday night on a camping trip. Really, I was tricked into this, as he made it seem like a staff camping trip when he asked if I wanted to go. But once my word was given, I vowed to honor the pledge.

Anyways, the plan was to take the kids camping near the school and then cook them breakfast back at our house on Saturday morning. But of course it rained. Not just rain—torrential downpour. So we ended up ordering pizzas and watching movies and “camping” on the verandah of Mt. Hermon. And it was pretty fun. We toasted marshmallows over a fire we built on the porch and the huge burnt spot on the concrete will be a monument to our adventure for eons to come.

But the changed venue made the event much more of a “slumber party” than a “camping trip” and the kids were pretty zany. First of all, they talk ALL THE TIME. I mean, nonstop. Primarily about the horror movies they’ve seen. I have no idea who is letting these wee children watch The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre but if I ever meet them I’m going to whack them. And they shriek. And giggle. And poke. And spend large amounts of time debating who might be the origin of the alleged fart noises.

As for sleeping? Well, not so much. Most of them weenied out of the “sleep outdoors” plan and pitched their sleeping bags on the living room floor. A few brave souls camped out on the concrete porch (Like me. I was testing my new sleeping bag, which, I’m pleased to report, is quite snuggly, musty smell notwithstanding). But they got “scared” halfway through the night and all went charging inside, still wrapped in their sleeping bags, tripping over their sleeping comrades, and generally wreaking havoc.

And they liked to migrate. We decided that, between the three chaperones, we chased them out of Ethan’s apartment at least 6 times during the night. I would wake up to the sound of surreptitious giggles, stagger down the hall and find them, wide awake, looking through Ethan’s belongings, playing his guitar, and generally NOT SLEEPING. I swear some of them didn’t sleep at all the whole night.

But, they had a fantastic time and announced that we’re the coolest teachers ever. And that made it all okay in the end.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Activity Week

There are many great things about working at Woodstock (have I mentioned the whole tea-with-treats-twice-a-day thing?) but one of the most exciting is probably Activity Week. This is when we take the learning outside the classroom and all the students go off on adventures of various sorts for a week. Some go to Delhi and do cultural studies; some go to a dance academy to learn traditional Indian dances; some go on massive week-long hikes; some go rafting and do ropes courses, etc. etc. And the best part is—staff have to (get to!) go along to chaperone.

I’ve been assigned to the 9th grade Activity Week. The 9th graders go to hillside villages for the week and assist with agriculture, building projects, water conservation, anything that’s needed. It’s sort of like your typical service/mission project but with less of an explicitly Christian thrust and more of an anthropological one. Our kids will have a chance to talk with village elders about the area, meet village kids their own age, participate in the cooking of meals, and learn a basic handicraft (like spinning thread or weaving a basket). Our primary objective for the week is to start construction on a school building so that the kids don’t have to walk as many kilometers to get to school. We’ll also devote one day to a full-day hike to a place of importance to the villagers, like a temple.

We’re teaming up with an NGO in the area that is overseeing the school project. We’ll be camping out for the week a little ways from the village, which means we have to cart all our supplies in on our backs – tents, sleeping bags, some food, water purification, etc. The villagers will cook some of our meals for us (with the help of our kids) and we’ll be responsible for making some on our own.

I’m super excited about the trip. There will be three adult chaperones (one leader, two helpers) and twelve kids. I’ve never camped for that long or roughed it to that extent so it should be quite an experience! Activity Week is at the end of October so I’ll keep you posted as I find out more.

Monkeys in the Morning

When you are attempting to leave for work in the morning, and notice that your yard has been overrun by a herd of marauding Rhesus monkeys, what is the appropriate response?

A) Charge out the front door, waving your umbrella in circles above your head and screaming at
the top of your lungs so as to chase them off

B) Call in sick to work--clearly you can't leave with that kind of a menace lurking around the

C) Decide that there's safety in numbers and force your housemates to forgo breakfast and/or
more sleep in favor of walking down with you

D) Climb out your bedroom window and slink down the path, hoping they won't notice you.

This is a tricky question, so take your time answering. There are several tempting answers.

I myself would have liked to employ "B" this morning, but was unconvinced that my boss would find it an acceptable excuse.

I then contemplated "A" but decided that I could provoke an attack rather than scaring them off, as there were quite a few of the nasty critters, including mothers with babies which always makes the males aggressive.

"D" seems like a good response, and would be, except that the windows don't lock from the outside and the only thing worse than a gang of monkeys in the front yard is a gang of monkeys in your bedroom.

So that leaves "C" --safety in numbers. I was actually the housemate being rushed out of the house, as Zoe has to be at work earlier than I do and was absolutely refusing to leave her apartment without support. I was alerted to the presence of the monkeys when I heard her screaming "GROSS!!! GO AWAY!!!" out the window. We also recruited my housemate Ethan for the walk down, since the monkeys are decidedly sexist and are far more likely to harass women than men.

I am happy to report that we all emerged unscathed but -- coupled with the scorpion in my shower this morning -- it was quite a lot of activity for not even 8am.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Culinary Epiphany

I had an epiphany in the kitchen last night. A blinding moment of culinary clarity that brought with it a resolution...I will never again buy pre-packaged tortillas from the grocery store. Home-made tortillas are among the best things I've ever eaten in my life and may well be the answer to the age-old question as to the meaning of life. I'm serious. It could be that my taste-buds have been deprived by a month of eating chapatis (the sadly-inferior Indian version of the tortilla which lacks the key ingredient--oil--and is essentially just flour and water. Bleah) but those tortillas were truly divine.

The tortilla bliss came about because Joanna and I decided we needed a Mexican food fix last night and so tackled the problem of how to create a Mexican feast in a land without Mexican spices, tortillas, sour cream, or avocados. Nita Mehta to the rescue! She is a chef in Delhi who produced a whole line of cookbooks that help you cook foreign cuisine with Indian ingredients. She's got one on Mexican, Italian, Japanese, you name it. And so with her help, we produced bean and cheese burritos, salsa, and a pretty-convincing sour-cream substitute. It was fantastic!

Cooking over here is really a different experience than back home. For one thing, ingredients, as mentioned above, are limited and creative substitutions are required. We also only have a couple pans, most of them tin and cruddy. The "stove" is a gas-burner with two settings--inferno and off. This makes delicate frying (like French Toast, say) a challenge. But some things are great. Like the tawa--a round, flat, griddle-type object used to make chapatis and/or tortillas. I love it. I'm going to buy one and bring it home with me. And pressure cookers. Why did those go out of style back home? They're great. We flung the beans into the pressure cooker with some onion, garlic, and tomato and a short while later...VOILA! Refried beans! Amazing.

This morning I'm still feeling a bit of the happy Mexican-induced stupor of last night. It's great.

New Pictures

Yes, there are finally new pictures. Check the "Fun and Friends," "Scenery" and "Home Sweet Home" and "Independence Day" albums. I don't have captions up yet for the Independence Day photos. Suffice to say a bunch of the staff learned (sort of) and performed a traditional Indian dance. They rehearsed up at Mt. Hermon then wowed the students at the Independence Day celebrations.


Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Eco-Friendly Uttaranchal

At this moment, "downtown" Mussoorie looks a lot like most third-world countries. A lot of dirt. Random, malnourished animals wandering the streets. A lot of garbage, much of it plastic. But in the not-too-distant future, at least part of that picture will be changing. The state of Uttaranchal has banned plastic. Mainly this applies to plastic grocery bags and they're taking it very seriously. If a merchant uses/offers plastic bags, he can be fined 1,000 rupees (or about $25 -- a LOT by Indian standards). As a customer, if I request a plastic bag, I can be fined 500 rupees. I think technically the law has been in existence for a while but they're really cracking down. And people are responding. On my last trip to the Bazaar, only one store gave me plastic bags. The rest make do with paper or just load things directly into my backpack. The school will be having several sessions on how to make bags out of old newspapers and I'm pretty excited about that "craft" opportunity!

It's just so great to see a clear, noticeable change in favor of the environment. We don't witness that very often in the US. And there's something vaguely ironic about this incredibly poor, resource-needy area being better than the wealthy Americans at doing something for the plant. I mean, many of the people who live in Mussoorie have enough to worry about just trying to survive, never mind mobilizing to clean up the town, and yet they take the time and the effort to do just that. It's amazing.

Later today I will (hopefully) be posting some more pictures. It was finally sunny so I took pictures of the outside of Mt. Hermon to give you a feel for where we're located.

Monday, September 12, 2005

High School = Crazy

Have I mentioned that I love working in the high school library? I get to interact with the kids and watch their insane antics, without feeling like I have to take too much of a hand in controlling them. I patrol the computer lab shrieking "no playing games! How many times do I have to tell you that?" and must sternly inform wayward students that they will NOT be playing full-contact hide and seek while I'm on duty, but most of the time I can just laugh at them.

For example, Friday was "Friendship Day." This really translates into "Gently Haze the 9th Graders Day." The 12th graders pair off with 9th graders and then do silly things to them all day. The school monitors it very carefully so it mainly stays in good taste and good fun. Somehow it has evolved into a sort of Halloween event because most of the seniors dressed their freshman buddies up in bizarre outfits. I saw hippies and samurai. Snow White. A giant cake. A basket of laundry. Go figure. Often the 12th graders dressed up as well, in a costume that matched or complemented their 9th grader. So Snow White had a Prince Charming. It was cute.

The other part of the day is that the 9th graders get a list of "dares" from their buddy that they're supposed to complete. Again, mainly harmless. I had several red-faced boys shuffle up to me at the desk and mumble "will you marry me?" then turn tail and run. And I witnessed a mummy dancing and singing "I want some hot stuff baby this evening" to a 50 year old Irish man who teaches Physics. A good time was had by all. Although I did have to ruin their fun once in the library because I spotted a young man in a dress and hot-pink wig dancing on one of the tables and was forced to make him come down.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Cross Country

Today was the school’s big sporting event. The Inter-House Cross Country day. Running is about the only sport that Woodstock takes at all seriously, which is somewhat deranged in my humble opinion, given the topography of the area. I think cross country is a masochistic sport under the best of circumstances (i.e. in the Midwest on flat ground). Here, at 7,000 feet, surrounded by the ups and downs of living on the side of a mountain, it is downright insane. But nonetheless the kids—and staff too, I found out—get extremely pumped up about the cross country races.

Part of the excitement stems from the (usually) friendly competition that runs rampant on race day. The school is divided into three “houses” and every student and staff member belongs to a particular house. You can be a Condor (green), an Eagle (blue), or a Merlin (red). That’s me. Merlin. Apparently we’re famous for losing. The Condors always win, in part because the PE teacher and “divide-people-into-houses-guy” is a Condor. But oh well it’s fun anyways.

This year, they paired the cross country event with “fair weather day” – a random, surprise day of cancelled classes that comes at the end of monsoon when everyone’s going stir-crazy after six weeks of rain. The weather was not, in point of fact, fair today—it was rainy and cold—but it was nice to be able to run the races in the morning and then give the kids the rest of the day off.

All the students race—it’s required for everyone up to grade 11. The wee tiny kindergarteners just pop around the corner from the main gate of the school then come pelting the 100 yards or so to the finish line. It’s exceedingly cute. Then the races get longer as the kids get older until the 11th and 12th graders “run” about 2 miles. Really, most of them sprint off the line, walk while out of sight, then come screeching around the bend to the finish line. You can always tell who actually ran the whole thing because they’re actually tired at the end!

Staff members are allowed to race, but their victories don’t count toward the day’s points. They run with the 11th and 12th graders, and both races (boys and girls) were won handily by jock-y staffers. My friend Jamie smoked the girls race and didn’t even look winded at the end. She disgusts me. Yours truly did not race, as I am 100% sure I can’t run two miles and I didn’t realize at first that walking was not only accepted but expected. But I got into the Merlin team spirit, wearing my red house t-shirt and permitting the 12th grade girls to paint my face red (I hope it comes off!). It was fun. I screamed myself hoarse, froze in the rain, and generally had a great time.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Second Shower

My apartment used to be a dorm and because of this, I have an overabundance of bathroom facilities, including two showers. I had always considered the second shower to be a fun conversation piece ("hey, I've got two showers"--"neat"), but didn't believe it had much value beyond this. Until this morning, when I learned that there is a very good--necessary, in fact--reason for the existence of the second shower. This reason becomes clear when one stumbles sleepily into the shower at an obscenely early hour and is confronted by a spider the size of a small cat.

After one's mind recovers from the initial horror-induced shock, one can then gingerly extract the shampoo and soup and retreat to the safety of the second shower rather than doing battle with the spider stark naked and bleary-eyed.

Now, you may consider this to be the coward's response, but you have not dealt with these spiders. I have. They are very large and very fast and alarmingly agile. They have a truly eerie ability to dart nimbly out from underneath a descending shoe and unless I'm very much mistaken I heard one chuckling at me under its breath the other day as it skittered away.

People tell me I should welcome the spiders because they eat other bugs, including the hated silverfish. However, I still have an unacceptable quantity of silverfish in my apartment which leads me to the conclusion that either my spiders are defective or else vegetarian. Either way, they are not earning their keep. So I squash them. When I can. And when I'm not barefoot at 6 am.