Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Stomp Stomp Stomp

As I go stomping through the woods on my way to work each day, I often find myself humming or even singing cheerful marching tunes to match my steps. The most appropriate song and therefore the one I sing most often is, of course, "The Bear Went Over the Mountain." Now, you might not think of this as a good stomping song, but you’d be wrong. It’s got quite a nice beat. Observe:

Left...left...left right left...

The bear went over the mountain
The bear went over the mountain
The bear went over the mountain….
To see what he could see

*stomp* *stomp* *stomp*

The other side of the mountain
The other side of the mountain
The other side of the mountain…
Was all that he could see! (stomp)

It’s quite an invigorating experience. Stomp stomp stomp. Plus I like to think that it keeps the monkeys away. Who wouldn’t be intimidated by a woman in a fleecy hat with a large red backpack striding through the trees and singing loudly about bears?

Monday, November 28, 2005

An Autumn Day

It’s Sunday afternoon at Mt. Hermon. Cole (our fabulous student-teacher friend) is leaving this evening and we’re all stuffed to the gills and lounging about, wallowing in the glow of a tasty farewell brunch. The Snows are out in force, just visible through the trees. The air is sharp but it’s still glorious to be outside in the sunshine.

Anne is working on her slack-line skills, patiently balancing again and again on the thin web rope. Jamie and Ethan are lying spread-eagle in the grass practicing their yogic breathing as we offer commentary on whether or not their stomachs are inflating enough. Joanna is cutting Brian’s hair into a mullet (thoughI still do not understand the 20-something male’s fascination with this hair cut). And I’m sitting on a blanket diligently cutting strips of red and green paper for paper chains to festoon our common room.

Next week, grades are due and there’s a myriad of “getting ready to leave” things that need to be done, loose ends to be tied up. But no one is thinking about those things now. We’re all soaking up the sunshine, reveling in the company, and enjoying the moment. This is our life. And it is good.

Bucari Tips

Kate's Bucari Tips #32

Before lighting your bucari, you should always remove all flammable and/or meltable objects (and this includes candles) from the top of the bucari. Unless, of course, you want to spend the entire evening in your neighbor’s apartment waiting for the clouds of smoke to dissipate in yours.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Why I Love Living in India

As I was walking to school this morning, zigging and zagging down the switchbacks, I saw motion ahead of me so I paused to check it out. And there, in a clearing below me was a troop of adolescent Languors break-dancing. Okay, they were probably just playing, but it did look rather like break-dancing. There were about 10 of them frolicking about together and it was about the cutest thing ever. Most of the time Languors stick to the trees—they’re far more arboreal than the Rhesus Monkeys of Death—and I had never really seen them moving about on land before. It’s quite a sight. They would stand up on their hind legs and sort of hop about for a few paces before thunking back down on all fours, sometimes with spins or summersaults thrown in for good measure. Then they’re pause for a little bit until one would break the stillness by tackling his neighbor and the romping would begin once more. It was great.

Then, after I had torn myself away and continued walking, I got my first glimpse of a Pine Marten. These little creatures are related to the weasel but are much more winsome. Their coat changes with the seasons from tan to black and right now they’re in between. This one had a black head and big black bushy tail but a tan body. They’re slightly larger than your average housecat and quite shy so I was lucky to meet him. He was shuffling up the mountainside towards the path, though he quickly reversed direction when he realized the path was occupied.

With all these fun sights I was a bit late to work, but it was worth it.

**Note: I didn’t take the picture of the Pine Marten. I found it online. This is why you should never leave the house without your camera.

Turkey Day

I’m happy to report that my first Thanksgiving in a foreign country went off quite well. It wasn’t a school holiday here so I had to work until 6. But then there was a big potluck dinner for all the American students and staff which was grand. The menu was somewhat altered from the “traditional” American feast because many of those traditional food products are indigenous to North American and cannot be found in Himalayan Indian. Like turkey. You cannot buy a turkey here—except at the American Embassy grocery store in Delhi which has groceries flown in daily from the States—so we substituted Ham Loaf instead. Except that there wasn’t very much ham loaf and we were limited to one paper-thin slice each. So really it was a vegetarian Thanksgiving.

The school provided the ham loaf and dinner rolls and then the staff brought salads, vegetables, and dessert. Lots and lots and lots of it. And it was Yum (a Woodstock-ism). My bean and veggie salad with lime cumin dressing was a smash hit. I think because it was pretty. There were a few too many dishes of glorified coleslaw or plain green beans so a salad with corn, peas, tomatoes, red onion, and green pepper with red and white beans, caught everyone’s eye. I was personally a huge fan of the whipped sweet potatoes. I had not realized that sweet potatoes existed over here because they are unrecognizable unless you know what you’re looking for. They’re white and look like big deformed carrots. But they tasted just like sweet potatoes—maybe even sweeter than usual.

The dessert table did include a few pumpkin items (no idea where they got the pumpkin) but as I’m not a big fan, I stuck to things like Snickers pie and brownies. My friends at my table all grabbed an assortment and then we grazed on each other’s selections. And then we all had to walk home up the mountain, staggering and wishing we hadn’t opted for that last slice of apple pie.

The other fun thing was that we segued seamlessly from Thanksgiving to Christmas by singing some carols after dinner. I realized that my 20+ years of singing Christmas carols with my family on Christmas Eve has really given me quite a repertoire. On several occasions, mine was the voice leading everyone through the less-well-known sections of things like “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland.”

But now, Thanksgiving is officially past and it is time for Serious Christmas Festivities. Of course, the Christmas festivities really started before Thanksgiving here. I spent much of the week creating Christmas bulletin boards in the library (Merry Christmas in 52 languages for one and the meaning behind Christmas symbols for another—did you know that the circular shape of the Christmas wreath is supposed to represent the infinite and unending love of God? I didn’t.) and this Sunday is the Christmas Chapel. But I did resist the urge to break out the Christmas earrings until today. Right now my ears are adorned with snow globes complete with loose glitter-snow inside. Small and tasteful they are not. But very very festive.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Staying Positive

The rat situation is distressing, but there have been some high points recently as well. For example, I've gotten some really great pictures of the area. I took my camera to work with me a few days ago and documented my walk. And Sunday night, I got some shots of the Snows at sunset. They turned pink as the sun went down and we clambered onto the roof to take pictures.

Good Sport

Okay, I have to say I think I’ve been a pretty good sport when it comes to all the adjusting that has to be done when you move to a new environment. I’ve turned my encounters with the New and Weird into light-hearted, even humorous, anecdotes about mice, monkeys, and mold. But everyone has a limit. The breaking point when you have to stop and shriek “Enough is enough! I am not laughing anymore!!” And I have reached that point.

You see, Mt. Hermon has rodents. And they are neither big-boned mice, nor feral-yet-ultimately-friendly guinea pigs (though I’ve tried valiantly to persuade myself of both those identities). No, we have rats. And I am just not okay with that. I had come to a grudging acceptance of the presence of a small mouse or two running about the house but these are fairly good-sized rats and I’m really not sure how many of them there are. Definitely more than one.

The problem first reared its ugly whiskered head on Saturday night as I was watching TV in the sunroom with Angie. I happened to glance out the door into the dining room and saw a rat skulking along the wall. This was not a pleasant sight but Angie and I temporarily rectified the situation by firmly closing the doors to the sunroom and barricading them with sticks of firewood at the bottom, lest the intruder try to sneak underneath.

I mentioned the problem to a friend on Monday and she gave me rat poison which I dutifully put out in several well-known rat haunts around the house. And the next morning, it was gone! Hooray! No more rats!

So, you can imagine my consternation when, last night as I was walking to the living room, not one but TWO of the nasty buggers went zipping across the floor of the dining room. Now, I will confess that I did get a moment of amusement out of the situation when one of the rats miscalculated and zipped headlong into the door jam with a thump. However, the amusement was fleeting while the revulsion has remained. I honestly slept really badly last night because I was very much convinced that every sound a heard was a rat making a beeline for my bed.

I will be getting more poison this afternoon. I’m hoping that one large, piggy rat ate all the initial poison and is now dead and that I just need to get a bit more to take care of his friends. I really don’t deal well with traps. And my brave male housemate has offered to bludgeon them to death with sticks whenever he sees one, but this is a) ineffectual and b) really gross so I’ll just keep putting out the poison cakes, thanks all the same. Maybe we could get a cat.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Love From Home

I received a wonderful birthday present in the mail today. It was a card from my fiance. But wait! It was more. When I opened it, I discovered a birthday card signed by all my loved and missed ones in the seminary community. Luckily, I read it when I was by myself, because I got a bit sniffly. But in a good way. As much as I enjoy being in India, I do miss home and it was so nice to get some love from the homefront.

So, to everyone who signed the card and made my day....


Staying Warm

As the warm autumn days slowly give way to bitter, soul-suckingly-cold winter nights, my thoughts turn increasingly to the dilemma of how to bundle up and insulate myself against the chill to avoid such nasty experiences as frostbitten toes. Now, those of you living in the land of central heating are probably thinking that I’m a weenie and it’s not as bad as all that. And I am, in fact, a weenie. However, that does not change the fact that it gets cold really here in the land of drafty third-world construction. The inside temperature inside one’s house usually only manages to reach at most 10-15 degrees above the ambient outside temperature. Which means that when it gets down to freezing outside it will be in the 40s in my house. And that, my friends, is cold.

But do not despair! There are a variety of heat-producing options available to the resourceful Indian inhabitant. These include:

The Kerosene Heater – The nice people in the hospitality office of Woodstock provided me with a small kerosene heater for my apartment. They did not, however, provide me with any kerosene nor any insights into where one might acquire such a thing. Huh.

The Propane Heater – These are cumbersome metal contraptions, attached to large propane tanks. Lighting them is a bit of a pain and they smell but they do produce warmth. I have one in my office but didn’t want to shell out the necessary cash to get one in my house. Besides, inhaling the fumes for 8 hours a day is really enough for me.

The Blow Heater – Blow heaters are small electric heaters, about 2 feet by 1 foot, which blow hot air out from a series of fans. For the most part they are fabulous though there are two areas of potential difficulty. First, if the power fails, as it frequently does, there goes your power. Second, and more worrisome, if you turn the heater up too high, it can do bad things to the wiring in your house. These bad things can range from simply blowing the fuse to causing flames to shoot out from your fuse box (as happened to my friend Tara—ALL the wiring in her house had to be replaced).

The Electric Blanket – I brought one with me from the States and finally got a voltage converter so I can (in theory) make it work. The idea is that you put it in your bed and turn it on about a half hour before you want to climb into said bed. Then it’s all cozy and warm and welcoming rather than frigid and awful. Only I’m not sure if mine works. You’d think it would be pretty easy to tell—either the blanket is warm or it is not—but you’d be wrong. The blankets never really get hot to the touch so it can actually be quite difficult to tell if it is functional. However, in a brilliant demonstration of mind over matter, I am telling myself that it works and thereby feeling warmer.

The Bucari – A bucari is an Indian wood-burning stove. They consist of mid-sized metal cylindrical drums with a door, an air vent, and a pipe to channel the smoke out of your house (again, in theory). They’re a bit of a hassle because you have to light them, using large quantities of newspaper and often employing lots of blowing and frantic fanning with magazines. But once they get going they provide an incredible amount of heat (as I discovered when I left our plastic firewood barrel too close to the bucari in the sunroom. Now it looks somewhat like a piece of modern art). They also consume an incredible amount of wood. Part of the problem is that the quality of my firewood supply at the moment is less than impressive. It consists of broken up pieces of furniture that I bought from the school. Many of the pieces are varnished or painted (yay toxic fumes), most have metal in them in the form of nails, hinges, etc. and all of it burns up in moments. However, I have ordered a supply of better firewood and some pinecones to use as kindling so all will be well soon.

And, of course, there is the “wear every piece of clothing you own at the same time” method. From what I’ve heard from my more experienced friends, everyone spends all of February wearing so much clothing that we’ll all look like chubby marshmallow people. At least then if we happen to go tumbling down the mountainside, we have built-in cushioning.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


I have a goal to read through the entire Bible during my time in India. Despite the fact that I have a master’s degree in Biblical Studies, I still suspect that there are snippets that I’ve never actually read and there’s certainly a lot I haven’t read recently. Like Chronicles. Be honest—have you ever actually read through 1 and 2 Chronicles? Does anyone ever sit down and just read Chronicles for kicks? I doubt it. And if they did decide that it would make some nice light reading, they would almost certainly give up in frustration after 8 chapters of genealogy. Yes, the first gazillion words of that lovely book consist entirely of “so and so was the son of blah blah blah.”

Now I confess to getting a certain amount of enjoyment out of reading the crazy names people had back then. I say we bring back some of them. Like Arpachshad. More children should be named Arpachshad. Or how about Hodaviah? Davi for short. I wonder how Josh would feel if I suggested a good Chronicler name for our first born son. I know he has his heart set on Joshua David Snyder Junior, but I bet he wouldn’t mind giving that up in favor of Eliphelet Tappuah Snyder the first.

I decided against tackling the Good Book systematically—where’s the fun in that? Instead I’m reading the books in no particular order, driven simply by my whim. I do try to alternate between Old and New Testament. And because I’m a nerd, I’ve made a little chart so I can track my progress. So when I’m feeling like I’m not making any headway, I can quick read a tiny book like Titus and then feel good because there’s another check mark! Very satisfying.

I think my favorite OT book so far is still Genesis—I mean, how do you beat a book that talks about things like Nephilim?—but Amos runs a close second. Social justice rants just never get old. In the NT, I’m partial to James, Champion of Works. Good man. And I surprised myself by enjoying Hebrews. It has a lot of super high Christology but if you want an amazing description of faith, read chapter 11. Or even just read verse 1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Beautiful.

So my voyage through the Holy Scriptures is going well. It’s a nice way to end the day, to read a Psalm and a few chapters and then sleep. I recommend it.

Monday, November 14, 2005

In The Name of Beauty

Human beings—and, let’s face it, especially women—do some strange things in the name of beauty. For example, yesterday I paid a woman to rip all the hair off my arms. Why? Well, because it looks nice that way. Waxing is very popular here and my housemate Joanna got her arms waxed about a month ago. I was captivated by the result so when she announced she was heading into the Bazaar for beauty treatment, I plucked up my courage and tagged along.

There’s a really cute beauty place in the Buz called My Salon, that is decorated in the most shocking shade of Barbie Dream House pink. I dare you to walk in and keep your eyes from widening to twice their normal size as your brain struggles to process the assault to your senses. It was fun. They offer a full range of beauty treatments including such strange things as “body polishing.” I have no idea what might be involved but I’m not sure I want to find out. In my mind, I see a giant floor buffer being applied to one’s exposed derriere.

The waxing process itself was actually not as painful as I had expected. Not great, mind you. The hot wax (mine was standard but I’m told that for a slightly higher fee you can get “tutti fruiti” wax that smells nice) is applied in wide slathers and then the cheerful Indian woman firmly presses a cloth over the wax and RIPPPPPPPP. Eeeeeeeek! No, actually, I did not eeek. I was very stoic. Joanna got her armpits and legs done in addition to her arms for she is braver than I. I might try it in the future, though, because shaving is a pain.

So now I have no hair from shoulder to finger tip (not that I really think my fingers were particularly furry, thank you very much!). It’s a strange sensation. I keep petting my arms because I’m entranced by how smooth they are. And I imagine that I’m colder because I’ve lost a valuable insulating layer, but that sensation is probably mainly in my head.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Winterline

As the cold weather sets in, an interesting meteorological anomaly occurs in Mussoorie. The Winterline. The winterline is basically a false horizon, rising above the actual horizon after the monsoon clouds dissipate. I’ve been told it’s caused by pollution, but I choose to ignore this unromantic suggestion. It’s hard to describe, but basically a line forms in the sky each evening and the sun sets on that line, rather than on the actual horizon below the line. It’s really gorgeous. I don’t have a picture yet, but if you follow this link there’s a picture and a brief description in the middle of the page.

Also, I’ve posted birthday pictures in their own album and added a few pictures of the snowy mountains to the “scenery” album. Enjoy!


Monday, November 07, 2005

The Big 24

To be perfectly honest, I was not expecting a lot from my birthday this year. I’m a zillion miles from home, it’s busy time of year, and I had visions of spending the evening alone watching bad TV. All of which made the reality of my birthday that much greater. It was FABULOUS—a thoroughly memorable and happy day.

First off, I doubt I’ve ever experienced a more beautiful birthday. The weather here gets really cold at night but during the day it is sunny and warm in the sunshine and Saturday was particularly gorgeous. I spent a lot of the day outside and enjoyed 3 motorcycle rides throughout the day—woo hoo!

The day started off splendidly. My future brother-in-law, fiance, and parents all called to wish me a happy day. Then, my housemate Joanna and I made chocolate chip pancakes together which we then ate outside in the yard, allowing us to admire the Snows while munching contentedly. We were constantly vigilant for party-crashing monkeys but were fortunately able to enjoy our breakfast in peace. From there it was off to the St. Paul’s Church Fete. St. Paul’s is a lovely old stone church on my level of the mountain, about a half-hour stroll along the road with a perfect view of the mountains. The church was raising money for a new roof and so was having crafts and food and games and general fun on the lawn as a fundraiser and I agreed to help.

My task was to run crowd control and collect money at the second-hand clothing sale. Now, I’ve been at garage sales in the States so I know that people take bargain shopping seriously. But let me tell you right now that Midwest Americans have nothing on Indians when it comes to eagerness for a good deal. It was pandemonium! We had the clothing all on the verandah of the church and had to limit the number of people allowed onto it at any given time, just to maintain order. And then I had to square off against very pushy Indian women who were insisting that they should be able to pay 100 rupees for items clearly marked 500 rupees. I kept insisting that things were “fixed price” and we were not going to come down but apparently they took this as a challenge and simply redoubled their efforts (frequently in Hindi) to negotiate a better deal. I stood firm for the most part. I had no trouble refusing the aggressive bargainers. It was the clearly destitute few who came through and simply didn’t have the asked-for amount that I couldn’t refuse. And after all, it was a church affair.

Once the initial mad rush was over, I was free to wander the rest of the Fete, munching mutton momos (yum!), admiring handicrafts, and cheering on the participants in Bozo Buckets—a game unknown until this point in India, but met with great enthusiasm. Eventually I settled down in the sun with my knitting and just people-watched for a while until my friends appeared for a trip into the Bazaar.

For dinner, I met up with 7 of my good friends at one of the nicer restaurants in town and we engaged in a serious Indian feast. So much good food! And they all gallantly refused to let me chip in. We ended up at a Guy Fawkes Day party being hosted by some of our wacky Brits. (For those unfamiliar with Guy Fawkes Day, it involves lots of fireworks and, if you’re lucky, a burning effigy. Very fun). We arrived a bit late and missed the best fireworks but there was a nice bonfire to huddle around and my wonderful housemates produced a birthday cake with candles so there was much singing and rejoicing. All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better day.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Activity Week -- Final Chapter

We got lots of exercise during our week in the village. Every time we needed to go down to the school, it was via the same steep path we had initially climbed. Granted, it was much easier without the mega packs, but it still took a solid half hour to hike back in the evenings.

But we also had more enjoyable forms of physical exertion. On Thursday, we took the day off from our constructing and farming and went on a day hike to a nearby temple of importance to the village. The hike was greeted with much trepidation by my weenie kids, partly because the villagers enjoyed regaling them with tales of what an arduous journey it was. But we set off boldly somewhere in the vicinity of 8am (promptness not being anyone’s strong suit) and it turned out to be a great hike.

The temple is located on the top of the next ridge over from the valley in which Dwarghar is located. So we basically had to trek out of the valley and up to the top of the next mountain over. Wow, sounds impressive when you say it like that. Anyways, it actually only took us about 2 hours to reach the temple and while it was a steady incline, we weren’t scrambling or using grappling hooks or anything. At one point, we passed a cluster of small farms and a few children ran out to feed us fresh sweet peas, fortifying us for the rest of our trek.

The view was stunning, the weather was warm but with a cool breeze, and I actually found myself enjoying the hike. Surprising, I know. I think my enjoyment partly stemmed from the fact that, since I was in charge of motivating the kids, I couldn’t give in to my own negative attitude about hiking. And it made a big difference.

The temple itself was a small, pretty stone building, surrounded by a stone wall and shaded by a number of trees which produced a strange, bitter (yet edible) fruit. The view from the ridge was astounding—a Himalayan panorama on all sides, mountains, valleys, villages. Just stunning. We all kicked off our shoes, ate tuna and cheese sandwiches, and dozed in the sunlight for a few hours before heading back down. The hike down was actually more difficult than up because the path was covered in loose rocks that made descent a bit treacherous. But we all returned sun-burnt and happy.

Our other main chance for physical activity came each evening when the villagers would gather in the square before the temple to dance. And dance. And dance. Several men would drum and the men and women would sing to accompany their dancing and round and round they’d go. They were all terribly excited to have us join in and if I sat too long, some insistent village girl would appear in front of me, grabbing my hand, and dragging me back out. The dancing wasn’t – for the most part – wild or crazy, but it was steady. Often it involved linking arms in a big circle and stepping clockwise, then counter-clockwise, then front then back, in a never ended sea of human movement. It was very different from any other dancing I’ve seen.

On our last night, there were several special performances, including one by our kids. They had spent their free time over the last couple days choreographing a dance routine they could perform for the villagers. It was a smash success. Then the villagers reciprocated by acting out (dancing out?) several stories from the Hindu religion. Hindu tradition has it that if you take on the character of a god in dance, you might become possessed by that god. So as the villagers whirled and spun, the dance got more and more intense and wild until it was clear that these people were no longer fully in control of themselves. They danced with small braziers in their hands and when the coals spilled out onto the ground, they danced over them without even flinching. This display seriously frightened several of the kids and we left before too long but I thought the whole thing was fascinating.

The next morning we broke camp and headed home. By that point, I’d developed bronchitis and was ready for a rest. But my kids are already talking about making a trip back in early December for a local festival and I might be willing to go along, if asked.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Activity Week Part 3

In addition to the construction project, my kids got time to interact with the local school children. We spent a whole afternoon playing games together in the grass. We taught them American Ninja (which is a glorified version of duck-duck-goose, beloved by Woodstock students) and they all played Kabardi, which is an Indian game. It’s tough to explain Kabardi. Part capture the flag. Part rugby. There’s some tackling. And a bizarre rule that states that if you are the person “it” and venturing toward the other team, you must constantly mutter under your breath. Often it’s just “kabardikabardikabardikabardi;” and if you stop at all, you’re out. Besides that, I’m not 100% of the rules, but everyone seemed to enjoy it.

And then there was the day that we tried our hand at agriculture. Wow. Let me say right now that the life of a farmer is not easy. First was plowing. This process involved following a pair of cows around the field and trying to steer the wooden plow to which they were attached. No mean feat. It was especially difficult for tall folks like me because the plow was very low to the ground and I ended up bent double to reach it. Next was field smoothing (although I doubt this is the technical term!). This project again involved cows, but of a more spirited variety. This time they were attached to a flat plank of wood which ran along the ground, smoothing it out. The cow-controller would get the beasts moving, and then leap onto the piece of wood, maintaining balance by gripping one or two cow tails. It was really rather like water skiing. Except with cows. We didn’t get to try this for long, due to the fact that our first student fell off immediately and the cows made a break for it, racing free of the field with several villagers running along behind waving their hands and shouting what I assumed was “come back!” in agitated Hindi. There ended our cow skiing adventure.

But there was more work to be done. Our next stop was grain harvesting. Armed with scythes (wow those are scary) we attacked a field of finger millet. This is a very graceful grain with long stems and feathery “fingers” of pods spouting from the end. We chopped off the tops and piled them in burlap bags. The villagers told us that it takes a large handful of grain to make a single chapatti and it probably took an armful of the pods to produce a handful of grain. Harvesting is thus a never-ending task in a village of 70 families.

We also got to pick chili peppers. I never knew how they grew, but they appear dangling from the ends of little bushes, bright red and about as long as your middle finger. They’re beautiful, but we were strenuously warned to carefully wash our hands afterwards lest we inadvertently touch our eyes and be very very sorry. The grains and chilies are then piled up on any available flat space to dry and between the clumps of yellow corn, red chilies, brown grains, and green herbs, it made for truly gorgeous displays in the village squares and on the rooftops.

Our final task was pounding the collected grain into useable form. Oh my goodness. 5 seconds of that task and I was ready for a nap! We were taken to a row of large stone slabs, each with a bowl-shaped depression hollowed out of the center. The grain is placed in the depression and then whomped with huge wooden bats. Each one is probably 4 feet long, tapered in the middle to provide hand-holds, with rounded ends. The bats are probably about as thick as your two fists cupped together and they’re quite heavy. The villagers (including fairly young children) wielded these with effortless grace, raising them high above their heads and slamming them down deftly. They make it look easy. When I tried this maneuver, I barely managed to raise the bat at all and when I came down, I landed off center and sent grain flying everywhere. After that, they put a sort of splatter shield around the depression. The agricultural equivalent of training wheels, I believe.

Then I got to separate out the chaff from the good grain. We poured the pounded grain into a rectangular metal tin and then shook it about and flipped the contents like a short-order cook with an omelet. And in theory, the heavy grain separates from the light chaff and the latter can be easily blown away. Ha. Just when I thought I was getting the hang of it, I gave an over-zealous shake and the contents of my tin went sailing into the air and onto the heads of the amused bystanders.

An accomplished farmer I am not, but I did have fun. And so did the kids, although I suspect we did not work long enough for them to truly appreciate the difficulty of agricultural life. I distinctly overheard a few boys discussing the grain harvesting, and coming to the conclusion that they could do it “all day.” I find this unlikely, but thus is youthful exuberance.

To be continued…

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Activity Week Part 2

The 50 children were fun at first, but I will confess that it got somewhat oppressive to be surrounded at all times by a large mob of people who possess a whole different perspective on “personal space,” firing questions at you in a language you don’t understand, and trying very hard to clamber into your tent with you. Fortunately, they were ultimately more interested in our kids, who were closer to their own age, than boring, stuffy old chaperones.

So what exactly were we doing in the village for a week? Apart from providing ceaseless entertainment for the villagers with our strange ways, of course. Take the process of water purification. We would fill up a large jug with water from a local spigot, and then I would carefully measure in the appropriate number of drops of iodine from a small syringe, cursing under my breath as the iodine came out in uncontrolled spurts rather than sedate drops. This is not normal village-folk behavior and they found the process fascinating.

But anyways, my pre-departure initial impression of our trip to the village was that it was to be a service project. We would go to the village and help them construct a school, building up the moral character of our students and giving the villagers a hand. I realized quickly that this wasn’t really the case. For one thing, it became immediately apparent that the villagers really didn’t need our help. We 18 visitors could probably accomplish in 3 hours what 4 dedicated villagers could do in 2. The week was much more about giving the kids a chance to experience a different form of Indian culture than they were used to. The vast majority of Woodstock students come from the well-off portion of the population—they have to to be able to afford private school. Therefore very few of our kids had ever experienced anything like village life and this was a great eye-opening experience for them.

The cultural exchange took several forms. First, there was the school construction. We did go down to pitch in on the construction site a couple times (again, much to the amusement of the on-looking villagers) and were mainly used for grunt labor, moving things. Our first day we moved a large pile of dirt/stone/rubble and this activity gave us all a first-hand taste of construction in the third world. In America, the task would have been accomplished in a few minutes with a bulldozer. We had two shovels, a broken pickaxe, three metal saucers, and several “stretchers” made of burlap bags slung between wooden poles. But in India, people-power is what’s available, not the latest technology, and they make the most of it. We formed an assembly line of diggers, stretcher-loaders, and haulers and make fairly decent progress. And the kids actually enjoyed the opportunity for physical labor, I think. There’s something very satisfying about leaning back after a hard job, massaging your sore lower back and thinking “I’ve accomplished something today. The dirt pile is no more.”

To be continued…

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Activity Week Part 1

Well, I survived Activity Week! I return tired, covered in bug bites, and with bronchitis—but triumphant. Yes, triumphant. I really think that may be the best word to describe how I feel about Activity Week. I can’t really say that it was incredibly “fun” or “awesome” or any other gushing superlatives, but I feel very good about myself having completed it. I survived some serious hiking, camping out for a week, unfriendly cows, and trench toilets, not to mention keeping 15 9th graders in check for the week. Not a small feat.

But before launching into Tales from Dwarghar Village, I need to put the week into perspective by mentioning that the Friday before we left, I got the worst case of food poisoning ever. At least I assume it was food poisoning—I can’t think of anything else that could make you throw up 25 times in one night and then feel (relatively) fine the next day. But that was Friday/Saturday and we left Sunday so I was not quite as eager to go as I might have been!

Be that as it may, I was packed and ready to roll at the prescribed hour of 9am. I thought I had been quite restrained in my packing, but my rucksack still managed to way around 40 pounds. This doesn’t seem like much when you first hoist it, but after stomping around the mountainside with it on your back for an hour, it seems to gain significantly in mass (more on that later).

Our destination for the week was the village Dwarghar, located not far to the northwest of Mussoorie. Getting there, though, is not a walk in the park. We took a bus for a very bumpy two hours, prompting me to pop a motion sickness pill. That was not a good plan because I was still super lethargic when we arrived at our drop point. The road turned inhospitable to buses about 12 km from our village and we had to walk the rest of the way in. Fortunately, we were able to pile our bags onto a jeep and only had to carry ourselves for most of the way. This still took a good 3 hours because the kids are NOT particularly big fans of walking uphill in the blazing sun for hours on end. Funny. I brought up the rear most of the week and really got a lot of insight into the life of a sheepdog. Lots of herding, some barking; I even considered nipping a few of the stragglers but decided that might just cause greater difficulties.

After our 3 hour march, we caught up with our bags at a roadside village. But was that the end of the journey? No no. The best (???) was yet to come. We shouldered our packs and then faced an hour long hike UP further into the mountains to our village, which was off the main “road” (using the term loosely). I thought I was going to die. No, seriously. There were moments when I was utterly convinced that I wasn’t going to be able to continue. My pack weighed a ton; I was dehydrated from all the puking over the weekend; I was groggy from the pills; it was hot. But in a situation like that you really have no choice. There was simply no option other than staggering onward. And at last I made it. And all the kids made it. And we were there.

And waiting to greet us at our campsite were no less than 50 village children. I’m not kidding. I counted them. They moved around a lot, but I’m positive that I counted at least 50.

To be continued…