Sunday, 5 June 2011

Tribute to the people of India

            Let’s see how this goes- I’m still at a stage when one game of solitaire exhausts me completely and recovery requires five hours of staring at walls.  But here’s my attempt at a tribute to the Indian people.  Obviously, I stuck out as a tall, blonde beanpole and I felt like as a bumbling American as I tried to respond appropriately to the flurry of natives that surrounded me.  Never before have I had to depend on other people so much for clean water, edible food, safe travel advice, language translation and directions.  However, the people of India did not disappoint.  Since my arrival, I was greeted with such grace, warmth and hospitality that I felt safe and cared for even when I had no idea what was going on.  Throughout my travels, I was constantly humbled as strangers stood when I walked by, to bow their heads and greet me with “Namaste”.  When I was at Qutab Minar and the temple, I wasn’t sure why a half a dozen young kids came up to me and touched my feet.  When I later realized touching someone’s feet is a traditional sign of respect, typically reserved by elders, I was humbled and honored.  Playing peek-a-boo with the baby in line at the temple broke down all cultural barriers when I saw him kick his feet and clap his hands with excitement when he spotted me in the distance later that afternoon. 
I’ll never forget my surprise as I was presented with a pot in front of an auditorium of little geniuses at the valedictory ceremony for the math Olympiad.  I never expected to find “a long-lost grandma” when I met the cute and tiny famous Indian mathematician.  I spent plenty of time with the deans at my undergraduate institution as I signed up for extra classes each semester but never did I receive a dinner invitation like I did from the dean at the top college in Delhi.
All the girls at the hostel and the staff at the college would never hesitate to put down whatever they were working on to help me resolve the latest source of confusion.  They told me I had a lovely accent when I butchered attempts at learning Hindi and told me I was beautiful last week when I looked like a ghost and felt like death.  All the doctors’ good-heartedly put up with all the questions my nurse mother made me ask.  (When the blood test results in the US came back to confirm that I only had shingles, my dad joked “those Indian doctors knew that just by taking your blood pressure!”).
            As always, my words do not do these people justice- I hope you go to India and experience their hospitality, playfulness and generosity for yourself.
            And in closing, I want to add that people in the United States aren’t half bad either.  When I finally made it through customs and baggage claim at JFK, my brother and mother were there to greet me.  I found the car packed to the brim with everything a person could possibly need with barely room left for me- five flavors of gatorade, water, home-made chicken noodle soup, watermelon, banana, poptarts, pillows, a bucket if I wasn’t feeling well and more.  All I could really appreciate was the water and the endearing ridiculousness of her excessive packing, especially considering they left our house at around 3 AM.  I returned to constant phone calls, dozens of e-mails, texts and facebook messages.  Thank you so much for everything- there were moments when I thought I’d never survive the plane ride then I remembered my Indian friends making offerings at the Hindu temples and all the people in America praying for me- even people I didn’t know.
            For nostalgic reasons, I’m sure I’ll find some reason to post something but I think this is pretty much the end of this journey.  However, I hope this won’t be my last encounter with India.  Thanks for sharing this wild ride with me! 

Saturday, 4 June 2011

My Indian family

After my initial energy burst yesterday, I had a mini step backwards so I don't feel well enough for a full post but here's the last of my pictures and a quote I've been meaning to share.
From left to right: Rehka, me (on the edge of death before the plane ride), the Warden and Dr. Jolly in the chair

At the airport

Rehka and I at the mall on the second day... my tall blondeness blends right in! 
"From the very beginning, I was mesmerized by the great capital, so totally unlike anything I had ever seen before.  Delhi, it seemed at first, was full of riches and horrors; it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices" 
-William Dalrymple, City of Djinns: A year in Delhi (written in the 1980s)

Friday, 3 June 2011

“So what did you like about India, anyway?”

            I was really surprised when my Dad asked me this last night- I thought I made it clear that I enjoyed this country immensely despite being somewhat overwhelmed, most of the time.  Since I’ve been back, multiple people have commented “I didn’t understand why you wanted to go there in the first place” and another person said “now you learned your lesson.  Stay away from dirty countries”.  I stand by the fact that this trip was an amazing, life-changing experience and here’s my attempt to defend India as an extraordinary place.
            In the Mark Tully book I referred to earlier, he said it was the beauty and the people that made him fall in love and stay in love with this country.  I could try to come up with unique reasons but I’m pretty sure that’s what it comes down to for me too.  
            I found the beauty of India (and this is without me having been able to visit inside many of Delhi and Agra’s most famous sites) in all the colors and exquisite clothing of the women, in the temples and in the historic buildings.  I mentioned how women are dressed in beautiful saris, even when helping on dirty construction sites.  There’s bright colors everywhere, excessive gold jewelry, intricate henna designs on hands and feet and a general grace with which they hold themselves, as they sit side-saddle on a motorcycle or carry a huge bucket on their heads.  These colors carry through to their artwork and the temples I have seen.  I love how lively Hindu temples are- there’s little kids running around, a clanging of bells each time someone enters, people circulating in the same general direction but everyone has a slightly different way of making offerings.  I always get a little uncomfortable during mass when everyone sounds like mechanized robots repeating the same prayers week after week.  I’m not saying I’m going to convert to Hinduism anytime soon but this somewhat individualized and very personal faith made me feel more connected to my God than being in an impersonal Catholic church. 
And, finally, the monuments I did get to see (Red Fort, Qutab Minar, the Akshardham templ, etc.) took my breath away.  The sheer size (Red Fort, in particular) instantly humbles visitors, the opulence of temples overwhelms the senses with the gold gilding and with thousands of deities carved into the walls.  The Red Fort and the Minar stand testimony to the resilience of this nation, which has preserved through countless violent takeovers and maintained some sense of identity throughout.  Even Dr. Jolly says its remarkable that the country “hasn’t blown itself up” when you think about the enormous land mass which joined together under democracy despite having a history of fragmented feudal states. 
I think this final testament will come in two parts and later I’ll write a second post about the people.  But the previous paragraph makes me hope the India will maintain its uniqueness as the country continues to transform by the day.  Even though the Western influence is impossible to ignore when you look at the newspapers and when you visit the malls and see the changing attire of the citizenry, I think India’s pride in its past with preserve and maintain its unique cultural identity.
I’ll finish this later but it’s nice to be waking from “zombie mode”.  I’m still having trouble with solid foods but I think after a week, my fever is finally gone.  Hurray for small victories.

"Be happy"

So I’m feeling a little more alive so I figured I’d update you more on my interesting experiences with the Indian healthcare. The first doctor I saw was at the University health center and he just talked to me a couple minutes, looked at my rash, said “oh, its herpes, be happy, you’ll be fine.”  [They call it herpes there but it’s not an STD, I promise!]  And then he wrote me a prescription for like five drugs and he was ready for me to get on with my life.  After some persisting, he took my temperature which was 102* and he was waving as I left “be happy!”.
             My other two visits were very similar- (I had to see so many doctors because I was miserable and none of them were collecting any empirical data and I needed a form to fill out to file a medical claim for insurance to cover switching my flight).  Advantages of Indian doctors are: I got taken right away and it’s refreshing to see people who believe strongly in the healing powers of positive thinking.  However you were lucky if they decided to check your blood pressure or your temperature.  At least all of them were consistent with the diagnosis, even though they prescribed a variety of drugs.  I agreed with their diagnosis but my mom made me worried that it might be something else too and all of them are like “no, no, you’re fine”.
            So even though I was frustrated with the quality of healthcare, all the people at the hostel and college were so sweet.  The girls would stop by to check in and visit.  The warden went out of her way to arrange for food to be brought to me.  I had no appetite and there was over a day when I couldn’t keep any food down, but she kept trying.  She asked me if I would like to try a boiled potato, and I said I’d try that.  A little bit later, we came back with at least a quart of cubed boiled potato.  I felt terrible when I could only eat a couple cubes.  And she arranged for chocolate ice cream “chocolate makes everything better!” (even though there’s barely any chocolate in Indian desserts- usually they serve sweet dairy dishes).  I laughed when the warden asked the guard twice to get me two mango juices in Hindi and she wrote it down on a piece of paper then the guard came back with one apple juice and 2 packets of ramen noodles.
            A bunch of people offered for me to sleep over in their rooms and I said I’d be fine because I toss and turn and didn’t want to disturb them.  The warden was so worried that she kept stopping by my room every hour until I gave in and moved into her room for the evening.  But Indians really are the most loving, sweetest people and I’m going to miss them.
            I’m not ready to write my final tribute to my trip- I’m still feeling a little loopy but getting slightly more revived by the day.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Home safe!

Just a quick update, that I safely completed an epically long return journey to the US.  I love India and I'm definitely going back but it isn't the best place to be sick, with doctors who only give minimal examinations (they take your temperature OR your BP, if you are lucky).  I'll close with more detailed information when my mental capabilities return.  Thanks for your warm thoughts and prayers!

Monday, 30 May 2011

Darn my weak American Immune system!

            So it turns out I have shingles, which is like chicken pox except the rash attacks your nerves instead of your skin.  So that explains my brain-splitting headaches, sore body, 102^ fever, nausea in addition to my increasingly painful rash.  The worse news is this could take 2-3 weeks to improve.  Today I’m going to pick up some anti-virals that hopefully will shorten the duration but the thought of feeling this terrible for the remainder of my trip is just unthinkable. My parents want me to come home early and I’m not ready to leave India but I’m in so much pain and it sounds like the best case scenario would be 10 day recovery.  It’s impossible to think rationally when there’s lightening bolts of throbbing constantly erupting in my head.  I know I’ll regret it if I fly home and recover quickly but right now a mattress that feels better than my hostel mattress (its equivalent to a yoga mat on a concrete floor- I tested it out) seems like enough reason to make the trip.  I'm trying to stay positive and mentally make myself better but its tough when I can't eat or sleep.  I’ll talk to Dr. Jolly about it this afternoon but since I keep feeling worse even when it doesn’t seem possible to feel sicker, I might cave and return to the States.  Keep praying for me!

Counseling session & Cottage Industries

            Another busy day!  This morning, I went with Dr. Jolly to the Hindustan Times Aspirations 2011, which claims to be the “World’s Leading Education Exhibition” at the Ashok Hotel.  She was on a panel with a professor at a college and some one who worked in DU’s student welfare.  It was an open floor for students and parents to ask questions about the admission process, college choices and career options.  These students and parents were so intense- practically fighting each other to get the microphone and I felt like most of them interpreted the session to get private counseling.  They would introduce themselves, list their marks and ask something vague like “Is Econ. Honors a prestigious course of study for me?” or “will I make the cut-off?” (the cutoffs will not be released for another couple of weeks and none of the panelists could say anything conclusive on the subject).  So I was not impressed by the quality of questions but it was another example of how stressful and competitive the next couple months will be, as they will get locked into a course.  I decided to go exploring during the second counseling session.  The exhibition hall was filled with private universities and specialized programs (chef school, fashion academies, film & animation school).  A bunch of representatives tried to get me to sit down so they could tell me about their programs even though I explained that I already finished college. 
The panelists spoke at two sessions and after each one, everyone flooded the stage to get a chance to ask their questions.  When we were being escorted to the banquet, hoards of parents and students were following and yelling out their questions- even when Dr. Jolly stopped to use the bathroom!
When we finally survived the walk to lunch, there was tons of delicious food in a gorgeous room where they had a drum and sitar player serenading us as we ate.  It was interesting hearing about some of the proposed changes for the application system- one of the most helpful changes is trying to get the application system online; currently, the process is all done with paper!
After some more crowd fighting, we got in the coach and stopped at the Cottage Industries, which showcases fancy crafts from all over India.  The variety of products was amazing- engraved silver, bronze, fabrics and bed linens, world carvings, paintings, paper-mache boxes, carpets and more!  I love the art here- my Asian Art class was influential in putting India at the top of the list of places I wanted to visit!
I love elephants

Cottage Industry Building

Unfortunately, I haven’t been feeling well so after I got back to the hostel, most of the evening was spent curled up in the fetal position.  I’m going to the Health Center tonight so hopefully they’ll find a way to get me feeling normal.  It’s pretty scary being in a faraway land when even lying down hurts.  Pray for my speedy recovery!

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Busy being an "Ambassador for America"

            Today, I had the privilege of accompanying Dr. Jolly to the “Mathematics Olympiad Valedictory Function” which involved traveling to the neighboring state Nodia to attend the host University.  Nodia is considered more of the suburbs so we crossed the river and I enjoyed seeing cows and people on elephants on the side of the road.  The Amity University campus was beautiful- I guess it was one of the first private universities in India and they have spared no expense.  I didn’t get to go inside most of their facilities but when we entered the building for the ceremony, we proceeded through hanging flowers, then they greeted us by name, throwing flower petals and placing a red tikka (I think that’s the right word) to denote honored guest.  At every door, an Indian Army officer with a beautiful dog stood straight and tall.  We were ushered into a fancy side room with the other guests of honor and waited on with tea and appetizers as we awaited the start of the ceremony.
            The ceremony itself was quite long- it opened with an invocation by a choir of girls who grew up the in the slums.  These girls came to the University after hours to take classes, learn hygiene and the choir has proved to be an empowering experience- its alumni includes doctors and engineers!  All the guests of honor were acknowledged and presented a potted plant.  They even acknowledged me with a potted plant in front of the whole auditorium!  Almost every speech started with an extensive greeting of all the fellow guests, and boy, do they love thanking people!  I felt like I was at the Academy Awards when the chairperson started graciously thanking each faculty member, each collaborating school, each administrator, her husband, her mother… In general, a very enthusiastic but chaotic ceremony- Indians haven’t discovered the “silent mode” on their cell phones so some people on stage were answering their phones during the talks, little kids were running all over the stage, gifts were constantly being presented to the late arrivals…
            The speeches were definitely interesting- once again, praising India’s initial strides in mathematics and astronomy (“invention” of zero, determination of Pi up to 8 decimals in the 6th century, calendar), focusing on the interdisciplinary needs of innovative research and empowering these students to become worldwide leaders in math and science.  The president of the Indian National Science Academy mentioned how Obama is worried about India and China outperforming the US in math and science, but he emphasized that India has to focus on constantly improving itself.  These Indian students are so self-motivated, disciplined and hardworking that there’s no wonder American students have trouble keeping up.  Many Americans have a sense of self-entitlement that impedes the unyielding ambition of this upwardly mobile society.
            After the ceremony, we met in the faculty lounge and I loved talking to all these impressive people.  Dr. SV Eswaran, who gave the talk at the workshop yesterday didn’t recognize me in my kurta (Dr. Jolly didn’t recognize me when she saw me at first- she called it my Indian samsara “rebirth”) but once he did, he enthusiastically introduced me to his wife who said she loves cooking for hungry people!  I talked to the President of the Indian National Science Academy, this brilliant teeny, old math professor who is one of the most precious human beings I have ever met, lots of principals from these high-performing schools and many administrators from Amity University. 
My "Indian samsara"
            On the ride back, I heard more about the chaos preceding the Commonwealth games.  Dr. Jolly says between the inefficiency of a democracy and the corruption in the country, mobilizing the city was an incredible mess until about two weeks before the games.  One interesting point she made was that when England ruled India, they trained the people to be servants in the shadows. She said India still struggles with making the average worker think creatively and work hard instead of just following orders. Another one of the next big steps for the country is finding ways to ensure quality control.  With many illiterate and untrained workers in Construction and other entry-level jobs, there’s no way to standardize training in many of these professions.  That’s why she says India will never be able to surpass China, who can quiet the opposition and get things done quickly.
            So that little excursion turned out to be an all-day affair but an interesting one, for sure.  Tomorrow’s the press conference about college admissions. 
            All the best!

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Last Day of Workshop

            That was a super-sonic-speed three days of the workshop!  This morning, Dr. SV Eswaran who is the head of the chemistry department and dean of academics at St. Stephen’s College (top Delhi University college!) gave a talk titled “Seeking Common Ground for Science Teachers”.  He was a very charismatic speaker, walking all around the lecture hall and interacting with random members of the audience.  He opened by encouraging teaching to embrace innovative teaching methods.  He praised crossing multi-disciplinary boundaries and cited improbable collaborations that lead to Nobel Prize-level research.  He also gave some intriguing examples of ways to engage undergraduates with high-level research (a 12th grade physics class collected data a paper he published in Resonance titled “Why does the grasshopper not eat spinach?”). 
            The afternoon for physics people involved video-analysis of projectile motion and an attempt to get the teachers to brainstorm ways to use cell-phone technologies (like timers, cameras and videocameras) for educational purposes. 
Some teachers at the workshop- the photographer said he'd send me better ones

Pretty view on campus
            I got my survey distributed and over twenty-five responses collected so I’m happily immersed in a mound of new data.  Even though that’s not enough information to say anything too conclusive, I’ve already noticed a shift in the idealistic career plans of undergraduates and the more realistic considerations of people who have families and other commitments. 
Dr. Jolly asked me to give a talk on my universities research sometime in the next coming weeks.  The faculty here are really excited to see all the top of the line education-reform I’ve been talking to them about.  It’ll be fun to hear their reactions when they see the studio environment- groupwork is still pretty rare in India.  And I’m sure they’ll find the abundance of technology impressive- even though Miranda House’s equipment is considered leaps and bounds ahead of most institutions, its limited to a couple rooms and most of the classrooms look like they could be from the 1900’s.
Not too much else here- I’m joining Dr. Jolly who was invited as guest of honor to give a talk at the Math Olympiad Closing Ceremonies tomorrow. A leisurely evening will be a nice way to recover and re-energize before reassuming my role as “an ambassador from America” as she introduces me to the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University and other distinguished people tomorrow.  She usually introduces me as a “visiting scholar on a prestigious fellowship” so when the college staff scurry by, they always stop mid-stride to bow their heads at me.  Oh the royal associations of being a foreigner- I laughed when my Indian friend saw some of my family photos and commented, “Your grandmother looks like Queen Elizabeth”.
That’s all for now- enjoy the long weekend- no Memorial Day celebration here.

Friday, 27 May 2011


               So I’m sharing the following story for the benefit of humanity and because it’s hysterical even though it’s embarrassing. I’ve been putting off laundry because they don’t let you do it yourself here.  I surprised myself with how strangely possessive I was of washing my own clothes but that’s the only option.  So when I spotted the housekeeper this morning, in my rush to get to the workshop, I flagged her down, thoughtlessly presented her my pile and proceeded on my merry way.  It was a last minute decision but I figured she would dump in the washer and returnmy clean clothes this afternoon. 
I didn’t think much about it until Rehka said she saw the laundry man surveying my items in the office, quizzically holdingup a bright purple sports bra.  I never expected a man would be going through my things piece by piece.   In the future, I know to launder my own undergarments- haha.  I definitely blushed when I heard that because it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out whose batch of clothes includes “Providence College Gaelic Society” T-shirts.  Now y’all are officially forewarned!
            This afternoon was fun- I sat with the girls and enjoyed some Indian soap operas.  I didn’t think it was possible to get much cheesier than “Days of our lives” but I think this show takes the cake!  I didn’t even understand what they were saying because it was all in Hindi but the bright colors, tacky soundtrack and exaggerated gestures gave me a pretty good idea of what was going on.
Rehka and I went to a nearby crazy market- here you could find McDonalds, KFC, a bunch of American stores as well as a ton of used bookstores, convenience shops, and people selling things on the street and generally, lots of insanity.  I picked up another kurta and soaked up the surrounding chaos.  There were blocks and blocks of crowded stores- we were there for a couple hours and we only covered half of it!  Here’s a video of the traffic on the rickshaw ride...
            On our way back, we stopped at the temple, which was infinitely quieter than the last time we visited.  I can’t remember which god that temple was dedicated to but Tuesday is his holy day, which leads to lines out the door, which is what happened the other day.  And there was keel (rice pudding) with dinner so I was smiling!  Time for a shower- I’ve noticed that there seems to be hot water only on hot weather days- it would be nice if it was the other way around. 

Human Balloon

            Today was day 2 of the workshop and the talks were a little different which was interesting.  The morning talk was by a biologist from the University of Delhi who won awards by all three of India’s science academies.  He talked about communication between mammals, which seemed to be a review of high school biology hormones, cell receptors, endocrine system, etcetera but he had some interesting interdisciplinary connections.  He mentioned how the existence of life seems to violate the third law of thermodynamics and went to describe biological processes in terms of steady-state equilibrium situations.  One of the highlights for me was a slide from a UCONN study so when I enjoyed the acknowledgement of Farmington, CT, as a hometown shout-out.  The afternoon was more labs with sensors then the closing talking was a talk and demonstration about “Fingerprinting: how to catch a thief.  They just started a joint program between a college in Canada and Delhi University to offer DU’s first degree program in forensic science.  Apparently, only 3% of Indian crime cases are solved using forensic techniques.  Just another example of how far India still has to go- I don’t know what percentage of cases are solved with forensic techniques in the US but I know I took forensic science in high school.
            I did learn more about the BEd program and what school days and science classes are like but they seem relatively similar to the US- seven 40-minute periods and a couple of labs a week.
            However one of my daily highlights is reading the Times of India and the Hindustan Times.  Those newspapers never fail to make me laugh.  Today, there was an article on the second page about an intoxicated man who insisted on going through the baggage-screening belt at the local airport.  They also highlighted a story from New Zealand about a truck driver who fell on the fitting of a compressed air hose, it pierced his left buttock and he started inflating like a “human balloon.”  Supposedly, he’s hospitalized because all sorts of weird things happened as the fat started separating from the muscle as he blew up but they say he’ll be ok.
            The newspapers are geering up for college admissions here, which begin mid-June so I might miss them.  It sounds like a mad-house- you bring copies of the Delhi University college application and copies of your marks on the specified day then you have to visit all the campuses with which you qualify for and drop off your applications in person.  So you don’t even know what school you’ll be going to until a couple months before you start- furthermore, you’re pretty locked into to the course of study you chose.  Sounds stressful!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Athletic benefits of finicky computers

I almost forgot to mention- the other highlight of my day was finally being able to do a full arm extension inversion- apparently my daily yoga and aerobics involved with navigating the computers is paying off.  Research here involves physical exertion in addition to mental exertion as I bounce between labs- only a couple computers in each have Internet that works occasionally, many computers hate my flashdrive, they are very picky about having the right version of Word (for example the Words 1997-2004 document version from my laptop doesn’t work on the Word 2003 computers), they freeze regularly, have limited printing capabilitiesand any time I have a problem, I have to go through an ever-changing chain of command and/or an elaborate game of charades.  Additionally, the lab assistants like to camp out in the computer labs for “man time” and if I enter, they scurry out even if I tell them not to go.  So even the simplest task is never straightforward.
Speaking of exercise, (sorry parents) swimming and running are definitely some of the things I miss most (especially after hearing about Amanda Granger’s half-marathon at the Great Wall of China- you go girl!). I think this contributes to why I’m not sleeping well still- when I’m used to swimming 1.5 miles five times a week and 13 miles twice a week, an hour of daily yoga and lots of walking and stair climbing doesn’t cut it.  And the campus isn’t big enough to run around, (they close all these gates after the workday restricting my potential “track” to the quadrangle you saw in earlier photos) plus the weather is not conducive to staying hydrated (especially when water is one of my major expenses here!).  I’m sure my shins and shoulders are exceptionally grateful for the break but I can’t wait to start training for my first triathlon in earnest when I return to the States. 
As far as exercise in India, there’s seems to be societal pressure to be thin for aesthetic purposes and everyone’s crazy about watching cricket but sports and fitness have nowhere near the fanatical following as in the US.  Aayushi said she might know of one marathon in India, and badminton is the only sport any of the girls I’ve talked to play.  I’m sure as India before more developed, this will become more of a priority but I think I’ve only seen one person exercising since I’ve arrived.  Haha, I’d be curious to see what women wear when they work out.  This morning, I saw a woman in a beautiful sari, balancing a huge heavy bowl of mortar on her headas she went to help with the dirty, dusty, sweaty construction of the hostel addition.  I think I mentioned on the first day, I saw women in colorful saris, attacking the ground with huge pickaxes.  These are the things I wish I could show you pictures of!
Thanks again for reading- it’s exciting to get e-mails that many people have been starting their days by reading my confused ramblings.  If there’s anything you’re curious about, feel free to let me know and I’d be happy to investigate.  All this talk about science education might get boring for people who don’t “geek out” about these kinds of things like I do!

Workshop Day 1

            Today was the first day of the three-day teacher workshop “Building Concepts in Science with Hands on Activities” which approximately 45 biology, chemistry and physics high school teachers attended.  Dr. Jolly gave the opening talk, which described India’s current educational strengths and areas for improvement.  Some of the statistics were pretty dramatic- literacy for India’s 1.2 billion people, is only approaching 70% (but rapidly increasing).  Currently, only 7 out of 100 people in the age range of 17-23 years are in college.  India has about 350 universities but it’s estimated that they would need 1500 to meet demand!  The progress in education is incredible (some of the test scores I talked about yesterday are proof of that) but there’s obviously a lot of room for improvement!
            Then she presented a brief summary of the physics education research- the importance of having “hands on” and “minds on” activities that explicitly confront student’s “naïve conceptions” with multiple representations of laboratory experiments, simulations and discussions.  I want to get a better idea of how familiar or unfamiliar this information was to these high school teachers but the day was so action-packed, it was hard to fit in extensive conversation external to the activity at hand.
            I did talk to one graduate student in elementary education, who is wrapping up his a year as an ad-hoc professor specializing in the physics aspect of science education for primary teachers.  From him, I did get some idea of how foreign this technology was to the average Indian.  I asked if the elementary education majors got to use this innovative science teaching labs and he said they would be so overwhelmed with the technology, that the educational benefits would unreasonably delayed.  It was fun talking to him about his graduate school experience- the University of Delhi only allows PhD students 4 years to finish their work, which I think would be helpful for motivating some US students who drag their research on for eight or so years.  He marveled at being able to enter the hostel area as we went to the mess for lunch, and started to talk about how strange it was being a male faculty member at an all-female institution where all full-professors are female.  I was very interested to hear more about that, especially after my yearlong mentorship with a male teacher at an all-girls college in the US, but a flurry of activity postponed that conversation to another time.
            I did get a slightly better idea of the how to earn a degree in secondary education but then I got de-railed talking about their children and one woman is visiting her daughter in DC, then they are going to tour the West Coast.  It was nice to give someone else travel recommendations for a change!
            There was parallel sessions divided by section on how to use Pasco and Vernier software for real-time data collection.  It was fun to be surrounded by teachers exploring this technology for the first time, and exploring the distance/ velocity/ acceleration graphs of anything they could get their hands on- balls, carts on tracks, newton’s cradle, a pendulum, mass on a spring and more.  And then a group session displaying the multi-disciplinary uses of this technology- sensors for taking pulse rates, biomechanical grip sensors, force places, calorimetry equipment, gas pressure measurements and more. 
            Even though most classrooms don’t have access to this equipment, Dr. Jolly constantly asked teachers to come up with related pocket-experiments that could be done with little or no expense.  She shared the equipment she developed 20 years ago with the international collaboration for low-cost, locally constructed real-time data collection equipment, which had similar an interface with equivalent capabilities for a cost of around $30 USD (as opposed to at least $100 for the commercially available options) and compatible sensors for less than $1.  She says it’s not worth trying to market it as a commercial product, because its nearly impossible for an educator to keep up to date with the constant advances in technology.  However, I was very impressed, especially because much of the programming and development of the interface was done by enlisting the aid of undergraduates.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Aal izz well

As they say in the Bollywood movies- I’m not sure if it is supposed to translate to something other than “All is well” in English but it does convey the same sentiment.  I was reading an interview of one of the top scoring girls in the CSBE (Central School Board Examinations) Class 12 examinations in the Hindustan Times and that was her mantra during the physics paper.
            Although it has been a chaotic time at the College as Dr. Jolly navigates examinations, admissions and the workshop that begins tomorrow, it is an exciting time for education in the newspapers as these test scores are published.  Delhi was excited about having some of the top scores in the country and they showed girls celebrating leading males by about 8% (I’m curious about the scores in science specifically- I’ll have to do some data digging).  They said the percentage of people scoring over 90% tripled in Delhi, which is going to mean dramatic raising cut off scores for the University. 
Reading these surveys, examinations have such a huge influence on determining both where you go but also what you study- some of the students had to resort to their third choice course of study and once you get to college, you’re pretty locked into that subject.  That would make a lot of the undecided American undergraduates pretty stressed out!  After all this happy news, there was a short blurb in the corner about a girl committing suicide when she found out she failed.  My questionnaire includes some questions about the level of competition in high school and college, and the pressure to succeed academically by parents- the surveys I have seen so far don’t seem to indicate that these are sources of major stress for these students.  But it is obviously a big deal for some.
            Today, I was mostly caught up in the whirlwind of preparation for the workshop tomorrow.  I worked on coming up with a questionnaire for the 45 participating high school teachers to echo some of the questions I asked the undergraduates.  I’m curious to see if/ how their career aspirations evolved into high school teaching (there really is little to no existing research in India that looks into this!).  Now I’ve got audio recording equipment (no batteries right now) but hopefully I’ll get to record some conversations to supplement the surveys.
            Oh and today, I entered the college “washroom” which was my first “public” toilet experience besides the mall and the airport.  So there were three stalls with all these hoses and holes in the ground- I didn’t even know what to do!  After staring bewilderedly at the foreign contraption in front of me, I bolted before anyone could see my confusion. Talk about humbling- I’m studying for a PhD in physics and I can’t figure out how to operate a bathroom!  Needless to say, I took that as an excuse to enjoy the outdoors as I strolled back to my normal toilet.  Oh, India- I feel like I’ll never figure this country out!

Monday, 23 May 2011

Haven't reached the plateau yet

I was driven to such extremes of thumb twindling as I waited for these surveys to trickle in that I even started revising my NSF graduate fellowship application (which isn’t due until November). I decided it was time to raid Bhawani’s secret book stash! She pulled out an Archie comic book, several spiritual pieces, A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks (it had the picture of an Indian girl on the cover which took me by surprise) and the Heart of India which I selected.  It’s a fictional piece written by a retired BBC correspondent who worked in India for over thirty years, fell in love with the country and didn’t even consider moving back to England after his retirement. 
In the introduction, he writes about how he fell in love with the beauty of the country and the friendliness of the people.  One line struck me in particular how his stories, (which include some pretty dark aspects of village life) “may seem a poor way to repay that affection.  They do not paint an idyllic picture.  But Indians do not expect uncritical acclaim.  They do not deny reality.  So I hope the stories will be accepted as they are intended to be- a tribute to the Indian villager”.   Initially, I felt a little hesitant to write about the beggars and the dirt because that’s not what people talk about when they describe their vacations.  But I’m not on vacation and I shared the same feeling as this author voiced.  In general, I feel like this country unapologetically and openly displays the good, bad and the ugly in a refreshingly honest way.  And I think that’s admirable and it makes me feel more attached to this place.
After dinner, I was talking to Bhawani who was telling me about her thirty-two years of diabetes and how eight of her nine siblings are similarly affected.  She said how celebrates the anniversary of her diagnosis and I thought I misunderstood- I’ve never heard of anyone commemorating the day they found out they had a life long disease.  But then she continued with details about the annual large luncheon with lots of friends and lots of sweets.  When Mercy and Bhawani saw the surprised look on my face, she continued by listing some of the things that should be honored with festivity.  Mercy added “every day should be treated as a birthday because we receive the gift of new life”.  Although it sounds cheesy when I repeat it, I see Indians live that sentiment every day- never before have I met such playful and fun-loving people, with endless generosity and optimism.
            Besides that, I’m still learning more and more- Mondays are the Hindu day of fasting, which explains why a lot of the historic sites are closed.  The red sindoor in the hairline and toe rings usually indicates that a woman is married.  (Since India has a much older culture, I can’t help but wonder who decided to move wedding rings from the feet to the hands- it certainly makes it a little more visible for countries there’s no mark in the hairline). 
            And my neighbor, Aayushi, stopped by to visit.  She showed me some pictures from Holi, the festival of color (I would love to be in India for this!), and the flower show that happens every February at the University of Delhi.  I got her to help (bachao) me with my pronunciation, which needs a lot of work. She says she likes my accent and when I told her that I got some kurtas at the market, she said “Oh, you probably look so beautiful in the kurtas.  Foreigners always look better in our clothes”.  And here I’m constantly thinking “Oh they have such wonderful accents” and “their clothes are so pretty- I could never pull that off!”. 
            Time for bed.  Shukriya (thank you) for reading and sharing this experience with me- there were over 180 page visits in the first six days! 

“I must say I feel as small as dust sitting down here”

I wish I had something exciting to report but it’s been a pretty low-lying Monday.  It’s hard to believe its only been a week since I arrived- I feel like one of those little capsules that you can buy at a joke store- “grow a boyfriend” type things.  I feel like this new perspective has opened my eyes wider than I ever thought possible, this new knowledge is constantly being stretched, my taste buds are constantly being exposed to new flavors and textures and dealing with the heat upon my arrival definitely had my sweat glands working overtime (fortunately its cooled down to ~100*F which feels incredibly refreshing).  So maybe I’ll plateau but I think its safe to say I’ve grown more in the past week than the first ten years of my life.
            Last night was pretty much- Rehka thought I had to try this dessert so we went on a quest for jalebi , reinvigorating our nightly walk with a delicious mission.  I should have taken a picture of these but they are kind of like thin funnel squiggle cakes but with more of a crystallized sugar coating.  It was superfun to see them make them as long as I didn’t think about the fact that they were making them in the middle of the dirty street (unfortunately, if you thought too much about the cleanliness of food preparation here, I think there would be very little you could eat).  And so I tried a piece, enjoyed the instant cavity sugar-rush, but a little of those goes a long way. 
            The evening was pretty clear, so my undergrad friend Anjulie (the student council president of the 2010 class) and I laid on the benches and looked at the stars.  She knew “Twinkle twinkle little star” which made me smile.  It was pretty surreal, being in a place where even the night sky is different.  The city smog and light pollution made it hard to pick out any specific constellations but the experience sure inspired some pensive thoughts.
            Today was a lot of unsuccessful waiting- I woke up early (well 8 AM, which is relatively early considering my sporadic sleeping- 6 AM yoga is going to be much more of a struggle than I originally anticipated) to catch up on e-mail and brainstorming how to adjust my proposed project to get at something interesting by focusing exclusively on Indian students for now.  When I got to Dr. Jolly’s office at 10 AM to ask a couple quick questions (regarding audio recording equipment and putting the questionnaire online), she had just entered a meeting.  When I offered to come back after lunch, the secretary thought she’d be done in an hour so I hung around.  Six and a half hours later, she was still in meetings so I gave up after tea sharing.  It was tragic to waste such a beautiful day waiting in the workshop, especially because by the time I gave up, rush hour was beginning on the metro.  I was squished like a sardine travelling at 3:00 in the afternoon on a Sunday so I decided I didn’t have a destination worthy enough of that kind of scrunching considering I should be back before dark for safety reasons.  Without having a phone, I feel like someone in Victorian England where you had to come “calling” and you leave a little card when you want to arrange a visit.  On this trip, sometimes I feel like I’m traveling more through time than I travelled in space.
            I did print helpful Hindi phrases so I think I’ll practice those.  Fortunately there’s no tones in this language, so I sound less like a wailing cow than when I was learning Chinese (I'm sure my roommates remember those three semesters with affection).  Main chalta hoon!  Main chalta chalti! (for any female readers)

Sunday, 22 May 2011


Finally, some historic monuments!  This morning, I decided to bite the bullet and brave the great outdoors- I didn’t come all this way to sit in my room.  So stealthy disguised in my native garb, with a scarf covering my head and sunglasses covering my eyes, I strode bravely to the metro armed with the map of the metro which is practically the only kind of map you can find here (I asked at the hostel, a bookstore, two tourist gifts hops and they replied “A map?  What for?” and looked at me funny). 
I started off at the Qutub Minar, which is the largest stone tower in the world, and often used as a symbol for the city.  I gave into hiring a private tour guide because I hoped he had advice about getting around Delhi in general- not so much but as you can see, I enjoyed having a private photographer! 
This is the first Muslim mosque built in India, and the Imam was proud to state he constructed it out of materials from "27 destroyed Hindu temples".  You can see evidence of pre-existing Hindi temple, on the pillars with defaced Hindu gods and goddesses.  It is rumored that if you encircle the random black metal pole in the middle of the courtyard with your back to it, your wish will come true.    The Imam feared misfortune if he touched this sacred Hindu relic, so it stayed, rust-free for centuries!
At the qutub minar in my new kurta- holding the magical metal pole

In the tomb at the Minar

The intricate carvings are mind-boggling!

Partially destroyed Mosque at the Minar

            I also went to the Swaminarayan Akshardham, which draws Disney-sized crowds.  This enormous temple “mandir” honoring Bhagwam Sqaminarayan with an 11-ft high, gold plated murti of the Enlightened, as well as beautiful meditative gardens, ornate sculptured exterior walls, fountains and a pool which contains “the holy waters of 151 rivers, lakes and stepwalls” visited by this holy man.  Some optional exhibtions include a animated boatride, large screen Imax movie and an moving figure show (told you- it's Disney world for Hindus!).  There were no cameras or cell phones or purses allowed inside so all you can see from here is a photograph from a distance and some of the advertisements at the metro stop.  Waiting in that line was fun- for some reason, small children love my pale skin and especially like to touch my feet.  Indian babies are the cutest.  In line, I spent a hour playing peek-a-boo with a new friend- his sisters didn't speak any English but we had a blast and he would kick his feet in excitement when he spotted me on the grounds later in the afternoon.  It was a breath-taking place- newer than most of the temples in this area- Rehka estimates it was built in the past decade and it took less than 5 years to construct.
            After that, the storm clouds were rolling in so I decided to head back.  The India tourguide in Borders probably would have been a good investment- I had no idea that it would be nearly impossible to get maps, brochures and information without Internet access. I haven’t even found postcards- good thing I'm still here for awhile!
Akshardham... as close of a picture as they'd let me take!

Metro Ads for Akshardham

I heart Dilli haat

            It was nice having a cooler weather day today but this storm’s kind of ridiculous.  All the campus grounds were flooded this evening and I keep hearing doors slam open and closed with the extreme winds.  I won’t be surprised to find more fallen trees tomorrow. 
This afternoon ended up being a lot of fun- a hoard of seven men came to fix my air conditioner today so I no longer the serenity waterfall sound of it leaking as I sleep. L  There are so many people in India that labor is extremely cheap.  As a result, there’s an absurdly large gang of people assigned to any given task.  I had to suppress a laugh as I saw all seven of them bumbling over a job that could easily be completed by one.
            After tea, Rehka and the Warden and I went to Dilli haat (I learned haat means market), which was a blast.  It is an open-air market that highlights regional crafts and food from all over India.  I ended up with a scarf, 2 kurtas (shirts), tights (unfortunately the kurtas and tights are warmer than they look to wear but at least I’ll have something culturally acceptable to wear when I accompany Dr. Jolly to the two events next weekend.  I definitely didn’t pack any clothes appropriate for high-profile events and even though these are pretty causal, its better than anything I had), several souvenir keychains, dinner and almond Indian ice cream on a stick all for 1650 rupees (roughly $35 USD).  I love how cheap everything is here- I just wish exchanging money wasn’t a huge ordeal- I’m going to try hard to avoid having to do it again.  Getting receipts here is also almost impossible (that's another thing I took for granted in the US), which is going to make it difficult to get reimbursed through my grant. 
Outside the Metro near Dilli haat

Dilli haat Entrance

So colorful!

Lots of people meandering around
I also learned another visitor from South India will be arriving on Monday to stay at the hostel as she does research at the University of Delhi- hopefully she’ll be a partner in crime for sightseeing.  I was amazed that even though Dilli haat is supposed to be a top tourist attraction, I only saw one white person who was married to an Indian girl and only one person tried to speak English to me.  Asian club prepared me for being outnumbered by foreign friends but I didn’t think it would be this dramatic!

Fallen trees, punk rockers, a confused Katie...

        So I just came back from lunch, and I’m all disoriented.  First of all, the lunch bell woke me up at 12:45 in the afternoon- fifteen hours of sleep with my insomniac intermission around 2 AM- I’ve never slept past 10 AM in the US!  And I heard a lot of slamming doors with heavy winds last night and it turns out there was a pretty huge storm so there’s puddles everywhere, and the tree fell down in front of the warden’s office.  And then at lunch, for the first time they didn’t serve the rice (chawal) and the bread (rotee) they normally do- instead a crispy flatbread.  Apparently, we are switching things up this Saturday!  I still haven’t been awake or alert enough to really figure out what I’m doing today but the Warden invited me along to celebrate her night off in Delhi.  I’ll probably take advantage of the afternoon to start formally writing up what I’ve been reading.

Fallen tree right outside the mess and the Warden's office

A photo to give some idea of the rickshaw experience- its blurry because they're so fast

An average lunch/ dinner- most people eat with their hands
In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my neighbor belting out Lady Antebellum’s “Need you now”.  The American influence here is fascinating- I saw “America’s Next Top Model” advertisements on the metro.  Also on the metro, I saw this punk boy in low jeans, overall edgy clothing, spiky hair, a pierced eyebrow rockin’ out to music playing on his phone.  He was looking pretty cool until someone called and his phone had a Justin Beiber ringtone… the chicks probably dig it here, but I was fairly unsuccessful in stifling that giggle. :P  I swear I’ve been more up to date with Hollywood gossip after five days of reading the Hindu Times than I have been before in my life!  It kind of makes me nervous how people like Paris Hilton symbolize America to many Indians…

Saturday, 21 May 2011

There's a lizard in my room!

            Ugg I still keep waking up at 3 AM IST but at least usually after I write, I can fall back asleep.  So currently there’s a lizard in my room- these harmless little guys are everywhere over campus.  A couple nights ago, Rehka was awaken by one falling on her face- I’m glad that hasn’t happened to me yet (knock on wood!).
            So our plans for the Tag fell through, which is kind of what I expected when we hadn’t book anything and it was getting to be a day before the tour.  The companies who got back to us offered private tours so an air-conditioned air tour for the two of us and Rehka thought that wasn’t safe and that it was too expensive ($65 USD for a private, air-conditioned car ride to Agra over four hours away, breakfast, lunch, informative tours and admission to over 6 sites and more is included so that seems like a steal to me when just a bus or train ticket could cost that much in the US!).  I guess if I’ve got to try again to find an air-conditioned group tour a couple weekends from now and she might consider it.
            I think as the workshop gets closer, she has more to do and she suggested I connect with a bus tour to see the Delhi sights she originally said she’d show me.  I hate having to depend on someone to accompany me everywhere but if she doesn’t feel safe visiting an unfamiliar place when she’s a native to the country, I think it would be an incredibly bad idea to try to go anywhere on my own.  Even though most educated people speak English, the accents make it difficult to communicate and Hindi is definitely the dominant language of communication- especially for rickshaw and taxi drivers, which I might need.  My growing but limited vocabulary, which currently consists of the words/ phrases for: water, bread, potato, curry, “how are you?”, “I’m doing well”, thank you, and “I’m full” won’t get me too far in the city.  But not knowing my way around, not having a map, not speaking the language, visibly looking like a foreigner and Delhi’s reputation for being the rape capital of the world does not make me feel like venturing out would be consistent with my two primary goals of staying safe and staying healthy.
            Besides that, I finalized and distributed surveys for the physical science majors in the hostel.  It sounds like a couple are excited to talk to me about their experiences but unfortunately tomorrow is the last exam for another batch of them so they’ll probably be heading out soon after.
            I did enjoy reading the college’s literary magazine.  I more about my new friend, (the campus cat), I read about the girls’ experiences at the Commonwealth games this fall and their opinions on switching to the semester system/ subsequent strikes.  I found comfort in the reflections of first year students from other parts of the country who were similarly overwhelmed by the fast-pace and diversity of this crazy city.  One wrote about traveling to Dhamasala (sp?), the holy city of Tibet on a twelve-hour bus ride.  That’s not something I expect to fit in this trip but definitely on the list of my life pilgrimages. 
            There were several social commentary pieces that were especially eye opening.  I found out the pile of old stacked chairs on campus marks the spot where a girl committed suicide a couple years back.  One of the pieces described in detail why Delhi has earned the reputation of being the rape capital of the world.  I wonder if the high security all around has made a difference.  Every time you go into the metro, mall, tourist site, pretty much anywhere, your bags need to be scanned and everyone needs to be frisked.  And I don’t mean the half-hearted pat on the shoulder of Providence College security checks- its borderline too close for comfort.  But at least there’s a separate line for both sexes.  Anyway, the literary magazine was a great find- these Miranda House girls are very talented!
            Well, I’m going to attempt to rid myself of the lizard and go back to sleep.  Wish me luck- these little buggers are fast!
The next three pictures are art from the INA metro stop- they didn't really fit anywhere else so I decided to jazz up this post.