Monday, December 22, 2008

Thanksgiving

The morning India woke to learn about the violence in Mumbai was also Thanksgiving Day. The volunteers traveled by train, being joined by one another along the way, south to Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), Kerala's capital, for our November retreat. Thanksgiving, possibly my favorite holiday because of its pressure-free, (largely) noncommercial nature, brought a mixture of emotions. Although we had been promised
pumpkin pie, I was skeptical of how much a single pie could make the day actually feel like Thanksgiving. There was no way around the fact that none of us had family, cold weather, or turkey to celebrate with. After we arrived in Trivandrum, visited the much-too-touristy beach, and got cleaned up, we met for "Thanksgiving" dinner in the hotel's dining room. Well, they sure showed us.

With Kochamma's direction, the kitchen staff had conjured up roasted chickens, potatoes, something yellow that tasted as much like a sweet potato as possible without being one, real stuffing, tomato and cucumber salad, delicious soup, and pumpkin pie with ice cream. It really tasted like Thanksgiving! However, what meant the most to me was the amount of effort, preparation, and love that went into that
meal. None of the dishes we were served (other than the rice and chicken curry that none of us could reconcile with the rest of the courses) are typical Kerala cuisine. Far from it, for that matter. All said and done, this Thanksgiving may be the most memorable one I'll have for the rest of my life. And of course, before eating we
discussed what we were thankful for. My gratitude was for all of those supporting me; I am reminded daily that this passage is far from a solitary one; family, friends, and most importantly, Christ are journeying with me.

[Excerpt from my November Newsletter to friends, family, and supporters.]

Mumbai

After the horrible attacks on Mumbai many people expressed their concern for the other volunteers and myself. Your concern means a lot to me and I ask that you continue to pray for those directly impacted by the attacks, the attackers, and the governments of India and Pakistan.

I feel like I should begin by assuring you that I feel as safe here as I ever have in the States. India is an incredibly diverse country with over 20 official languages whose cultures and peoples are as distinct as the languages they speak. Unlike Mumbai, a huge, cosmopolitan metropolis in the state of Maharashtra, I am living in Kottayam, Kerala. I feel incredibly secure in Kottayam, a city of ~ 60,000 people, venturing into new neighborhoods on my own (a morning walk favorite) and do not have even a single story of hostility directed at me for being a Westerner/Northerner/American.

It is for this reason that the travel advisories from the U.S. and some European countries against traveling to India distress me. In no way do the attacks reflect the atmosphere of Kerala, other parts of India, and even Mumbai usually. As with traveling anywhere, you must simply be cautious and aware. There is always risk; should that fear keep us from exploring the world? I don't believe it should. It is evident our Mumbai, New York City, has survived attacks of its own and I plan to visit there one day as well. I hope that when we speak of other nations we do not generalize a country as "dangerous" with a tone of superiority, but are careful to speak of specific regions facing conflict (instead of an entire nation of more than 1 billion people).

[Excerpt from my November Newsletter to friends, family, and supporters.]

Friday, November 21, 2008

Host Family

Many of you may know that one of the aspects of the Guatemala site that really drew me to it was that the volunteers live with host families. There’s just something about living in the midst of other people’s lives that offers you a deeper glimpse into who they are. I thought that if there were one thing I would change about the India site, I would have lived with a host family.

What I’ve recently realized is that I do have a host family in PG Hostel. There are only seven of us, me, two first year Chemistry students, and four second year Chemistry students. I do everything with them that I would with a traditional host family: share meals, run errands, see each other off at the railway station, complain, rejoice, say “goodnight,” read (they study), and play.

What’s really special about these six men is that they don’t see me as their token American friend. At least not to the same extent as I feel many other CMS students do. With the hostel guys, my Indian family, I feel like as much of a Malayali as I’m ever going to. I can be honest with them: ask them not to call me saip, tell them when I’m not having a great day, and share that I miss my American family and friends deeply. In return, they listen to me and show genuine concern as if they were my brothers.

I recently found out the four second years are leaving at the end of March and will only return occasionally for their last exams. That only leaves the two first years and me until August. Except I found out this morning that one of the first years is leaving CMS. He has decided that a Masters in Chemistry has absolutely nothing to do with what he wants to do professionally, become a civil servant. I can’t say that I blame him, but this is a rough time for everyone.

Back in September, he was by far the most exhausting person I had met at CMS. He threw a ceaseless volley of questions at me concerning United States and Indian politics and social issues. To illustrate the struggle, I told the other volunteers that he must be the person God is “calling me to love.” I was soon able to appreciate that at least he asked the questions others were afraid to and spending time with him has become a joy, not a struggle.

But now he is leaving us. And to further complicate matters, that would leave only one student in PG Hostel proper (I live in an adjoining room), which leads them to think they may close the hostel after March. I pray this doesn’t happen. Not because I don’t want to move (frankly I don’t have enough things to even make it a hassle), but because I don’t want to lose my host family. I hope that they are able to find more students or some other solution. As long as I don’t lose the family I’ve found, I’ll be content.

I Do

I was sitting in my room Tuesday night when I saw two figures approach my door. It was two men, one of which I knew better (and took care of the speaking) and the other I had seen around CMS. The former informed me that the latter was getting married on Thursday at the CSI Cathedral in Kottayam and wanted me to be at the wedding. “Of course,” I immediately replied. It didn’t hurt that they also mentioned that biriyani (a kind of glorified fried rice) would be served at the reception.

I was so excited to have finally been invited to and Indian wedding that I called another volunteer as soon as they left. While I was on the phone with her, two other men approached my door. I quickly got off the phone, walked over, and saw that one of them was a PG hostel guy and the other I didn’t know. My friend proceeds to inform me that the latter is getting married during the weekend that I’ll be on retreat with the other YAVs; I explained and declined feeling quite disappointed.

I know, I know. I had just been invited to another wedding, but the second was going to be quite the affair. Not only was it a Hindu wedding, meaning another level of opportunity for cultural and religious observation, but it was going to involve traveling with the guys and to another part of Kerala. But I love weddings, so I was still excited to go to the Christian one on Thursday. And of course, Becca had been invited too (her Malayalam tutor is the groom’s grandfather); the Christian community in Kerala is quite the network.

So after teaching a class on Thursday morning, I made the fifteen minute walk (yes, uphill) to the CSI Cathedral, where I’d attended a worship service previously, to wait for Becca. She was being brought from Mandirim by a Malayali, so they were naturally late, culturally on time. I took a seat by myself and soon found that I didn’t have the best view. Frankly I’m not sure what went on for the next forty-five minutes because of my vantage point and the language barrier. But of course, I do have a few observations:

One of the most astounding moments was when the wedding march began (same “Here Comes the Bride” that we have) and the bride was proceeded by twenty Achens (Pastors). No exaggeration, I counted. The aforementioned grandfather to the groom explained that the family was basically well connected. Normally, he said, only three Achens are necessary. And don’t you worry, the Bishop was also present.

A general cultural observation is the clothing worn by the guests. Although the groom wore a suit and the bride a white wedding sari, guests wore what they would to go out for tea in. Kerala just doesn’t have the same concept of levels of dress that we have. It was incredibly nice to know that I could wear the same thing to teach and then to the wedding. I didn’t have to worry about being over or under-dressed for either.

We go as far as to tell our guests what to wear on the invitation. Why!? Where does our concept of dressing “up” come from? It doesn’t change who the person is. Why try to alter the perception? And because Malayalis don’t dress up for events doesn’t mean they take them any less seriously. They just have other, less material ways of making events special. After being here, it just seems strange to me how much importance we place on a person’s clothing.

The reception was fairly similar to American weddings. The couple sat up front and the guests at tables to eat the delicious biriyani (I consumed more in one sitting than I have since coming). However, it was only an hour long and didn’t involve dancing. What it did involve was a soundtrack of American 90’s boybands; spectacular!

One last similarity and difference. Similarity: the wedding photographers (film and still) were all over the place just like ours. And I’ve found that Malayali wedding albums are quite the sight and are shown enthusiastically to guests in homes. Difference: the time and day of the wedding (11:30 AM on a Thursday) was quite different from your typical Saturday evening American wedding. I’m not sure when most Indian wedding are, but this one was a little different than what I’m used to.

Schedule

Slowly but surely, I’m uncovering my path here in India. While it is sometimes frustrating to not have the amount of guidance and pressure that I’m used to, it’s also a blessing to have the kind of flexibility my site offers me concerning the utilization of my time. I thought it would be nice to provide some of you at home with an idea of how I make use of my time in the form of a schedule of sorts:

Tuesday/Up-for-Grabs-day – Nothing formally scheduled here; it is becoming a pseudo-Sabbath of sorts (unless I am asked to teach three classes like this week). I do usually tutor an MSW student from a neighboring town in spoken English any day of the week I’m available. So, a lot of catching up on emails, reading, relaxing, praying (ok, maybe not a lot on this one), and grabbing any opportunities that arise. Of course, everyday that I’m here (not including Sunday), I go to Jacob’s (a coffee shop) with the PG hostel guys, where a woman about 40 years serves us coffee and gives us free snacks sometimes. What can I say; she loves us and we love her. Other than that, I do whatever pops up on Tuesday. For example, while I was at a wedding yesterday, an Achen (Pastor) introduced himself and proceeded to tell me he would pick me up next Tuesday to visit a seminary that he’s speaking at. My response: Sounds good! Indian flexibility, my friends.

Wednesday/Mandirim-day – After talking with Becca, who is often overwhelmed by the number of ammachis and appachens (elderly women and men) she needs to visit each week at her site, Mandirim Society, and realizing that I have an excess of time, it has been decided that I will visit Mandirim each Wednesday to spend time with the residents there. This week was my first visit and Becca had to kind of escort me around, but soon I’ll be visiting on my own. It’s also great to spend time with another volunteer to process, rejoice, complain, and generally have some good laughs. Of course, I go to Jacobs when I get back to Kottayam (it’s about a 20 minute bus ride) and tutor the MSW student, who is not from CMS by the way. I actually met a friend of his at Jacobs and was then surprised with a visit from the two of them at my room that night. Slightly random, but mostly an exciting opportunity (I much prefer “tutoring” one person to “teaching” a class).

Thursday/Teaching-day – At ten o’clock I teach a class on Critical Essay Writing to the Communicative English students for an hour. The students generally have better English skills than other departments and there are some real characters in this class. They’re a lot of fun and when we have time, we even play games. From 1:15-1:45 I engage a class over at the Baker L.P. school (about a 10 minute walk to the elementary school). This is a bit of a struggle. Mostly because I don’t really know what to do with the kids; their English is pretty limited so I will read them a short story and ask a couple comprehension questions. We also play games like Simon Says, which build vocabulary. I’m learning what works and doesn’t. And there’s always Jacob’s and tutoring (have you caught on yet?).

Friday-Monday/Kanam Time! – Anywhere between Friday and Monday (leave on Friday or Saturday and return on Sunday or Monday) I take a one hour bus ride to Kanam to stay at the CSI Boys Hostel there. The children are either orphans, deserted, or come from families too poor to support them. There are almost 50 boys that range from fifth standard to college (including two at CMS who I ride the bus with). I’ve really begun to look forward to my time there. I feel a real sense of purpose when I’m in Kanam that I don’t always feel at CMS. We sit around and talk, play cricket, badminton, or volleyball (that’s right, I’m playing sports), eat, sleep, read, teach/learn English grammar, and attend Friday night prayer and Sunday morning worship. And whichever days I’m not there, of course include Jacobs and tutoring.

Other…

Chapel – Chapel services at CMS are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9:30-10:00. I attend each of these that I’m here for and sometimes lead the English service, which is on Monday.

Breakfast – Sometime between 7:30 and 8:3, the guys and I take about a 10 minute walk to a hole-in-the-wall hotel (restaurant) for delicious breakfast. It’s so good, I always get the same thing: iddyappam and mota curry.

Lunch – Anywhere between 12:00 and 2:00, I usually go to the college canteen for rice unless I’m invited by students somewhere else.

Supper – Between 7:00 and 8:30, the guys and I take another 10 minute walk in the opposite direction to have canye (rice soup) from Deepika Canteen (a place for newspaper employees, but others are welcome).

This in no way covers all the random events I find myself at or illustrates my time spent at the hostel with the guys, but should give you a pretty good idea of how I use a good portion of my time.

Being...

Back in February, when I began applying for the YAV program, I was emailed a Word document named “Important YAV Concepts.” The first section, “Being and Doing,” explains the challenge and “healthy tension” between these two ways of living; “In our culture, much value is placed upon what we do and achieve. If we cannot show that we are ‘usefully’ occupied or point to the evidence of our work, we can feel a sense of failure or lack of purpose because our culture values doing… Allow God to use you whether you are being or doing. Often times one leads richly to the other.” This tension is probably the biggest struggle I’m having in India.

Because CMS simply does not ask much of me, I can rarely show that I am “usefully occupied” which has at times led to feeling a “lack of purpose”. Much of what I’m asked to do simply involves showing up at events to simply be present and not directly participate. In the beginning, when my focus was on simply adjusting, it was nice to not have too much asked of me. But eventually it was not nice at all, primarily frustrating. Being present at event after event is simply not quantifiable, and quantifying work and time is what American culture does best.

Yet slowly I am coming to realize that the most beautiful, fulfilling moments really do come from my least structured activities (e.g. going to coffee each day with the guys, walking around and striking up conversations with students, visiting people’s homes, even reading with students). It is in these moments that I am able to offer myself, not what I can accomplish. In a recent email, a close pastor and mentor reminded me, “The work you are doing - the ministry of presence - is truly one of the things that is the hardest to learn.”

[Excerpt from my October Newsletter to friends, family, and supports.]

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Holidays, Services, and Untouchability

This Monday was a holiday and all but one of the men in the hostel went home to take advantage of the three-day weekend. Overall, the weekend was fairly uneventful; the two of us both enjoy reading, which consumed most of our time. In fact, we spent about an hour on Sunday afternoon reading The Hindu, the national English newspaper, and I would explain the definitions of words here and there. Also on Sunday, I was able to visit my fifth church in Kerala. I must say the differences between services that I am able to pick up on are few and far between thanks to my friend The Language Barrier.

However, my first Sunday at CMS I went with a friend (now gone to Goa, another state, to work after completing his graduate work this September) to a Catholic service. Some clear differences were definitely present. Of special note was the amazingness that was the priest’s robe and cape combo; he would have fit right in on a stage in Vegas. I found myself daydreaming of becoming Catholic so that upon ordination I could take advantage of such exhilarating attire (it would even make up for that whole celibacy thing… maybe). But I digress…

After spending the entire weekend at a professor’s house the weekend before, I learned this Sunday that I much prefer one-day visits where I am able to return to my room to process the day. This trip consisted of being picked up at the hostel by my Malayalam tutor, a CMS student and quite the character, taking a rather empty bus to his village, having coffee with his family (including his adorable 29-day-old nephew who made me miss my own nephew terribly), having breakfast at a CMS staff members home, attending the customary two hour church service, being escorted back to the bus stop, braving an impressively crowded bus back to Kottayam on my own, and finally crashing on my bed for a nap until lunch. One of my “favorite” things is being asked by everyone, “How was the service?” Of course, my answer is always positive while I think to myself, “I have no idea what was going on!” This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the visit, because I most certainly did.

Aside from The Language Barrier, my constant companion, there are a few other aspects of Kerala worship services that I have found challenging to reconcile with my theology. One of the main characteristics is that women sit on one side of the church and men on the other. This isn’t particular to churches though; the same is true for busses, classrooms, eating, etc. Communion, which I’m thinking may be served every Sunday, further reinforces some gender separation. Not only do men go to one side of the altar(?) and women to the other, but the women obediently cover their heads with their saris to receive communion. And lastly, the services are extraordinarily liturgical. Every week the same order of worship is followed with the same prayers (except for slight variations where allowed by the Book). And they call Presbyterians “the frozen chosen.” Oh, and did I mention the services are usually around two hours long?

Disclaimer: I mean for none of this to serve as a critique; I just thought I’d share a few examples of what has made me appreciate my own Presbyterianism and give my readers a little less of my regular white-washed view of India

After tea on Sunday, my friend and I watched a documentary that his friend, who is working on a Masters in Film and Editing, lent him. The documentary, India Untouched, was directed by Stalin K, who is, I believe, a Malayali (a more often used term for Keralite) to highlight the issue of Untouchability in India. Now I’m not going to go into an explanation of the caste system because (1) I don’t know enough about it and (2) it’s two exhaustive of a subject to attempt to explain in a blog, but the film brought a lot to my attention; mostly along the lines of how incredibly diverse India is and as a result, how little I really comprehend of this nation’s complexity.

Kerala, which, by the way, uses Untouchability (practiced like it sounds) against the Dalits (lowest caste) only in more subtle ways, is renowned for its level of development, literacy rates, and beauty. Therefore, I’m really looking forward to April when the volunteers will embark on our All-India Tour (specific states yet to be determined by us) and Christmas break which will be spent at an orphanage in Andhra Pradesh. I’m excited to be able to have something to compare Kerala too because I’m finding my current lens is pretty limited.

The Foreigner

There is a word that follows each volunteer of Team India, as we jovially refer to ourselves, like a persistent mosquito. Yes, that really is an accurate analogy. For David and me, the word is saip. And for Lindsey, Sudie, Ariel, and Becca, it is madama. Each of the volunteers has a different relationship with their word/mosquito. Some swat it immediately, others wear Off! to prevent it’s attacks, and some may smile lovingly at this integral part of God’s creation. I fall into Category 1: The Swatters. I anticipate swatting the word when no one is even speaking. I dream about its death. If this word, saip, were actually a tangible being I would guillotine it.

The word saip, I am told, is the Malayalam counterpart to sahib, which simply means sir in Hindi. And now, Dear Reader, you are thinking, “Oh, how polite and innocent of a word.” Not so fast! During India’s visit from her "friend" (intended to read sarcasticaly) Colonization, sahib/saip began to be used out of (undeserved) respect for Englishmen (and madama for women in case you hadn’t put that together yet). And now the term is synonymous with “foreigner.” Having people recognize me as a foreigner isn’t offensive in and of itself; indeed, I am a foreigner and have no shame in being one. But there’s something about me that allows people to make that judgment: my skin.

I am struggling because for the first time in my life I feel defined by the color of my skin. As a white man who grew up in the U.S., I have always been the majority. And while there were times when I’m sure I was the minority in a room, they were rare and passing. No, unlike others, my skin has never made me feel abnormal. The society I come from repeatedly affirms that I am the normal one whose Band-aids have always matched my skin. But the truth is there’s nothing any more “normal” about the color of my skin, yours, an Indian’s, or Barack Obama’s. The challenge is that I have now received a label that I did not ask for and would prefer to reject. And because I don’t speak Malayalam, I will never even understand the complexity of the connotations associated with the word saip, my label, like its users do.

What I do have control over, and will use more carefully from here on out, is the labels that I place on others. For example, until now, I have never really understood why U.S. citizens whose ancestors were Mexican do not want to be referred to as Mexican themselves. I always thought, “Well, my grandmother doesn’t mind being called German.” I think I get it now. There are plenty of connotations and various understandings associated with the word “Mexican” and if you prefer “Hispanic” or “Latina/o,” I am happy to oblige. It is not denying someone’s identity; it is recognizing the common humanity and honoring people enough to empower them to choose how that identity is expressed through a medium as powerful as language.

So, one of my struggles in India is to not become frustrated or offended as I hear saip littered throughout Malayalam conversations right in from of me or when a child sights me on the street and immediately starts pointing to their parent while saying that dreaded word. Instead, I will try to appreciate that this situation offers me an opportunity to feel the uncomfortableness of being the minority (and believe me, it’s a unique, powerful, and irreplaceable experience) and allows me, in a small way, to be in solidarity with other minorities in the world, especially in my own country, who struggle to escape undesired, painful, divisive labels.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Temple Shenanigans

There’s something about walking around Kottayam at night that I really like. Last night was even better because it marked the beginning of the Hindu holy days this week, which have to do with the goddess of arts and education. So, I went with a few of my friends to the nearby temple for them to drop off their books to be blessed because no one studies over the next two days. Think of it like an extended Sabbath specifically for academia.

Of course, I’m not allowed to go into the temple, so Geevarghese and I waited outside while I amused myself with taking pictures and video (mostly to record the awesome singing that was coming from the temple) of the goings-on. And because I woke up very early this morning and have already finished reading more of the Bible than I honestly enjoy in one sitting, I gladly present the fruits of my effort: a short video. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Off to the Mountains

I bet you thought our trip to Cherai Beach was fun, huh? Well guess what, it only got better from there! Achen and Kochamma took us for an overnight trip to Munnar, a small tea plantation town in the mountains along the eastern border of Kerala. Munnar was breathtakingly beautiful and also cold! I don’t remember the last time, I was actually woken up at night from being too cold. We had a great time at the hotel relaxing, visiting a wildlife reserve for tahr (a threatened species of goat), and a tour through a tea factory.

The retreat (considered phase two of our in-country orientation) was really helpful to all of us. Achen has a knack for putting things into perspective. And simply knowing that all the volunteers are struggling with something at their sites, some more than others, is comforting. My challenge is trying to figure out how exactly I can be of the most use here. While the retreat was refreshing, I was really excited to get back to CMS to catch up with the guys and wear my mundu again to breakfast.

Tea plantains from a moving car.
More tea...
Homes in the valley of Munnar.
A tahr.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Fun in the Sun

After four of us traveled by train to Aluva from Kottayam (largely uneventful, yet successful), the six of us volunteers, Achen, Kochamma, and their niece drove to Cherai Beach , where we hung out for a few hours. Words just don't do the experience justice, so enjoy these pictures instead. And as always, there are loads more pictures to be found on my web album.

Becca and Sudie upon arrival.

Me, pretty excited to be out and about!

Lindsey and Ariel showing off their talents.

Sudie, Becca, and Ariel frolicking!

Goodbye, Mr. Sun.

The whole Team: Lindsey, Me, Sudie, David, Becca, and Ariel.

Woman who can wield a machete like you wouldn't believe.

Me "enjoying" some coconut water/milk.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Day of Possibilities

As he rolled out of bed this morning, it felt just like any other Tuesday at CMS. Nothing special was on the schedule today… actually, almost nothing was scheduled. It then occurred to him that this Tuesday was not just another day; instead, it was a Day of Possibilities. “You have to grab DoP’s by the horns and make the most of them,” he had always said. Yes, a Day of Possibilities is something to be treasured and he felt his excitement building as he brushed his teeth.

He went about his initial routine as normal, but noted the surge of confidence he felt. It was nothing abnormal; he felt this way on most DoPs. “Is today the day? Will I actually have the guts to try it?” he asked himself. The fear of what today could bring almost kept him from walking out of the door, but finally, he knew it was time for breakfast. And this breakfast would be special; it would mark the beginning of a new era of his time in Kerala.

It was time… time to step out into the world in a mundu.

Why shouldn’t he? All the other PG Hostel inmates wore them to breakfast and supper. John had even gotten used to wearing this man-skirt around his room and sometimes, only when feeling abnormally brave, on the veranda of the hostel. He reminded himself that he never knew when the next DoP would be; for all he knew this would be the only one God would bestow on him for the entire year! He sure hoped not, but there was truly no way to know.

He walked over to the chair that his mundu usually called home. After taking a deep breath and a long look at it, he seized the sheet-like article of “clothing” that is so special to Keralite men, and wrapped it around his waist, pulling it as tight as possible to minimize the risk of his greatest fear: that it would disloyally leave his waist and fall to the ground as he trekked to breakfast. Yes, it was this Fear of the Mundu, and the resulting embarrassment if the dreaded event were to take place, that had prevented his mundu from seeing the world up to this point.

Upon visiting the other PG Hostel inmates, he resolutely declared his intent to join them in their mundus for breakfast. They all heartily agreed that it was time. After a quick lesson on how to flip the mundu up to make walking easier, it was decided that a picture had to be taken to mark an event as special as this.

To be concise, the morning went off without a hitch. John & Co. successfully made it all the way to the hotel, which includes jumping a rock wall, ate their breakfast (idiyappam and egg curry for John, of course), and made it back to the hostel, after climbing the rock wall again, with all mundus securely attached at the end of the journey.

John soon found that there’s nothing quite as rewarding as conquering the Fear of the Mundu. And to think that so much could be accomplished before 9:00 AM! He looks forward to what the rest of this Day of Possibilities will bring, which will surely include donning the his mundu for supper.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

My Humble Abode

It seems that I’ve now been at CMS over a week… and what a week it has been! The adjustment has gone exceedingly well over all (from my vantage point). After accepting the fact that I am not going to be told what to here, but am left to my own devices to discover how I am to be of use, I’ve enjoyed my time quite a lot.

Most of my time has been spent walking or sitting around meeting new students (all with names I find I am currently incapable of pronouncing) or reading. Now, we were told early on that most YAV’s found themselves reading a sufficient amount, and truth-tellers they are! Since coming here to CMS, I have completed The Shack and The Inheritance of Loss and am currently enjoying Pride and Prejudice.

While both completed novels are worth recommending, I will heartily encourage all readers of this blog to take the time to read The Shack if they have even the most minimal interest in God and the relationship humans share with the Trinity. Even if the book makes plenty of theological assumptions, most of which I agree with, I’m certain that people from any point in the theological spectrum have something to gain from the novel.

Back to my activities… I was thrilled to receive my first “assignment” on Monday, after delivering my (now weekly) message at the English chapel service, which was to edit and help publish the Malayalam-English Order of Worship for Morning Services, which will be used for the three services per week. Wow, a real duty; my ego quite enjoyed the opportunity to feel needed. After 24 hours my editing was complete and I was escorted to CMS Press (run by the local Diocese of the Church of South India) where I was able to view the first printing press in Kerala, brought over by Benjamin Bailey, founder of CMS College, himself in order to print the first Malayalam Bible in the early 19th Century.

On a completely unrelated note, I know there has been concern expressed about my becoming more of a stick figure than I already am while living in India. Let me put these fears to rest: I am eating more here than I ever have in my life (possibly combined). Not only am I eating breakfast, but each meal is huge and a clean plate is expected… and often refilled if a quick “mathi!” is not expressed. So, no fear is required; the John you told goodbye was only half of the John that will return in August.

Of particular interest was the first student strike, of which CMS is particularly famous I’m told, during my stay here. You see, student politics are taken more seriously than you can imagine. I’m still unclear as to the particulars, but suffice it to say there are two parties here at CMS (under the direction of legitimate national parties) who allegedly had some kind of (possibly physical) unfriendly exchange and one party, out of concern that the other would beat them to it, called a strike yesterday morning. Naturally, the professors simply don’t teach and all education halts. It’s as simple as that. Also, I’m told that there is no limit on the amount or frequency in which the strikes are called by the students. Naturally, the other party retaliated with their own strike today… welcome to Kerala!

I finally got around to taking some picture of my room:

Simply, my bed and desk. And that’s only half of the room I was provided with!

Part of my bathroom (separate room for my toilet!). Notice the buckets; one I use for laundry, the other is for drawing hot water, and the cup is to remove the suds after I’m squeaky clean.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Finally Here

I’ve realized over the last couple weeks, and especially the last three days, just how inadequate the words “thank you” are in expressing the gratitude I feel for the hospitality I’ve been given. I arrived at my site yesterday, with Becca, Lindsey, and Ariel in tow, to find the Principal (think President of a university in the States), my site supervisor, and a close friend of Achen’s ready to greet the four of us with tea and snacks prepared by the Principal’s wife at their house. From that point onward I have been bombarded with undeserved excitement and appreciation for my presence here. I kept saying “thank you” for each expression of hospitality while knowing that it in no way conveyed the depth of my gratitude.

As I was shown around CMS College, I couldn’t help but feel my excitement for being here grow more and more. My supervisor, Gigi Sir, took the entire afternoon to show me around the college and then Kottayam. CMS is an absolutely beautiful, lush campus with old buildings that have so much character. After tea, the first place Gigi Sir escorted us was my room at the Post Graduate (PG) Hostel. As he opened the double doors, I was shocked. My room is at least twice as big as any room I lived in while in college. It comes complete with a separate room for the toilet and shower, shelves galore (including a small, and very much appreciated, library left by the previous volunteer), a couple tables, a bed, and everything else I could ever need. As you can imagine, the other volunteers were a bit envious.

After seeing the other volunteers off as they headed to their sites (one only a few kilometers from me), Gigi Sir took me out to lunch at little hotel (synonymous with restaurant I’ve discovered) that is apparently quite the hit. We then walked around Kottayam for a couple hours buying this and that. Kottayam has everything you could ask for in a small city. It’s not too big and not too small. The college is in the heart of the city (while being remarkably calm and quiet), which has every kind of shop known to man available in walking distance. I was surprised to find that I already feel quite comfortable strolling the streets of this new place.

My day really began after Gigi Sir brought me back to PG Hostel and left me to finish getting situated in my room. After a few minutes, the PG men (studying for their Masters) began dropping by and the laughs haven’t ended since. Because they were so close to the previous volunteer, they’re quite adept in dealing with a spoiled American it seems. After spending a little while getting to know each other, they took me out for coffee at a different hotel. Finally, my first cup of coffee since arriving in India! I don’t know if it was deprivation or that the coffee had a little crack in it, but it may be the best coffee I’ve ever had (and I went back the next day to have more)!

After coffee, we took the long way back to the college, which was a relaxing walk through smaller streets. Back at the hostel, we visited some more and then I went back to the Principal’s house for supper/dinner (depending on what you call it). I was surprised to find that “eating” consisted of driving me over to the Bishop’s house (who wasn’t there unfortunately) and then giving me a night tour of Kottayam. I had a great time and we even picked up some beef curry to add to the meal that his wife was preparing for us back at the house. After picking up the Principal’s daughter from work, we went back and I ate more food that I ever have in one sitting in my entire life.

Since the my first day (I’m on my third as I write this), I’ve enjoyed relaxing, reading, being introduced to the faculty, spending time with the PG guys, eating out, walking here and there, and meeting former students as well. It seems that CMS students feel a real connection to this place even after they’ve graduated; I’ve possibly met as many alum as I have current students. While being away from the volunteers has unveiled a little homesickness, I’m really coming to enjoy my time here and it’s only the beginning!

One last note: I don’t have any pictures yet because the idea of walking around with a camera taking photos of this and that is a little touristy for my liking right now. But don’t worry, you’ll get pictures of this beautiful place soon enough. Also, from here on out updates will probably be less frequent seeing as my priority is to focus on being here, but I'll be sure to update a reasonable amount.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Silverware, Hot Water, and Toilet Paper

Tea time (around 4:00 pm) is by far my favorite part of the day. I'm actually anticipating it as I type. Achen and Kochamma had some engagements to attend, so us volunteers have used the time ever-so-productively... to nap. My nap was perfectly refreshing by the way. However later I'll be packing which won't be nearly as much fun as napping.

Before I get into my upcoming plans, let's backtrack a little. First topic: Culture Shock. Wow! Not what I was expecting. At orientation we were given a lovely little chart that mapped out the general path of highs and lows volunteers experience over the year. It did
not apply to me apparently. Instead of beginning in the "Honeymoon" phase, I'm pretty sure I just went into the "Unnecessarily Anxious" phase. Now, before you all go panicking, I'm much more centered again and already beginning to fall in love with this new place.

Now, in defense of my anxiety, India is quite different from home in many respects. For instance, not including my fellow volunteers, I've 
seen four white people over the last week and a half in a country of over 1 billion. From the moment we stepped into the Bahrain airport, we have been the extreme minority. I'm sharing this in no way to define India by ethnic categories, but to illustrate the difference I've felt as a white male from a region of minimal diversity and limited cross-cultural experiences, which is why I applied to the program in the first place; to expand my world-view and attempt to experience life as the "other." It was unnerving at first, but has shown me a lot about what it must feel like for minorities in the States. I can already begin to see that this year is really going to teach me a lot about myself and where I come from.

I'm excited to go to
my site, which I leave for tomorrow via a van ride of unknown length. But seeing as it is two hours from Aluva to Kottayam by train, I'm thinking it may take longer to travel by car. Anyway, I'll finally have my own space and such, which will help with the stress of all the "new" I'm experiencing. As my parents can tell you, my morning routine is usually to grab a cup of coffee before running off and spending a couple of hours by myself. I haven't been able to do that because of the other volunteers who are so fun that I can't tear my self away from them. And I'm not even being sarcastic ladies and gentlemen; I'm really going to miss them when we're all at our sites. Luckily, Becca's site is only four kilometers from mine so we may be able to visit each other occasionally. The point is, I'm looking forward to feeling a little more settled in. I feel like I'm finally approaching what I've been looking forward to all these months and I can't wait to share with all of you how it goes.

Over this weekend, two English professors, Jacko and Anne, were nice enough to come and stay in Aluva with the intent of talking to us about each of our sites and giving tips on how to teach conversational English. They are simply two of the most amazing people I've ever met and have been sources of invaluable knowledge. And their son, Steve, is quite the hoot! I'm at a loss for words to explain the joy this little guy has brought us. Between this family and Achen and Kochamma, I already feel like I'm building a meaningful support network here.

Steve and I after juice.

So, I will leave you with a few things I've already learned to live without:

  • Silverware: The use of my right hand as the means of getting food into my mouth is becoming less and less challenging and more and more fun. Don't worry, I'll be requiring everyone at home to do it for at least one meal. You've been warned.
  • Hot water: Ok, I'm having a little more trouble with this one. I've always been convinced that to get clean I have to look like a tomato when I get out of the shower. However, in a climate with 200% humidity (simply my own estimate) cold water is actually the more refreshing choice.
  • Toilet paper: Oh, yes, I've already "switched over" as us volunteers refer to it. I think we all have at this point. I'd like to refrain from providing the entire world with details on the subject, but I will tell you it really isn't so bad.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Happy Onam!

So, I've now been in India for over a week and what a journey it has been. I still don't feel like I'm at a place to adequately process the events of the last week, but for the sake of those following my journey, I will try!

I'll begin with the logistics: After we were picked up from the airport, we moved into our rooms at Thomas John Achen and Betty Kochamma's house in Aluva, a suburb of Cochin. Their beautiful, green-ish house is situated at the end of a tiny little street with plenty of plant life all around (pretty typical for lush Kerala). Upon arrival we dumped out luggage in our rooms and explore the house a little before taking a power nap. Needless to say, power naps don't really help those with jet lag all that much. The good news: I think I've gotten over the jet lag at this point.

So, since September 4, the date of our invasion into India, we have been spending a lot of time at Achen's house getting oriented mostly. A large part of that orientation is food, a wild assortment of curries and crazy things made out of rice that actually taste pretty amazing when you're open to it. 

We wake up each morning to a huge breakfast (which is difficult for someone who has never been fond of that particular meal), which leads into Bible study with Achen. But wait, there's more! Before Bible study, we are "blessed" with the opportunity to sing hymns as a small, yet endearing, a cappela group. Now I must admit, I've actually become quite fond of this moment in our day and found myself excited about it this morning. 

Bible study itself has been simply amazing. Achen's insights into how Jesus' humanity requires us to take action in the world and actually strive to make changes to systems that only make peoples lives more difficult are eye opening to say the least.

After Bible study we usually have some kind of discussion on a variety of topics pertaining to the new culture we're living in. We have a little free time and then off to lunch we go. Nap time follows lunch, although most of the volunteers don't actually utilize this time as well as we could. Then we usually have another session in the afternoon on Malayalam or something else. Tea time, one of my favorite parts of the day, blesses us around 4:00 and then supper at 8:00, but not before some free time that we use to explore a little around town.

One of the spectacular activities we got to do one afternoon, was to go ride elephants at a training training center about an hour away. Let me tell you, elephants are tall! But fortunately, we took it a little slowly. I was under the impression that I would majestically climb up its leg and slide down its trunk. But alas, they were fully equipped with a platform atop a ladder. Not as impressive as I imagine, but safer nonetheless. But not only are elephants tall, they are also a little rough. I'll never take for granted the ease of riding horses after that experience. 

Baby Elephant... not the one we rode.

Me, Sudie, and Ariel atop the 30 year old elephant whose name I've forgotten.

Another exciting activity is Onam, originally a Hindu festival, has become the "Christmas" of Kerala (in the sense that everyone celebrates with a vegetarian feast and other festivities. The most thrilling aspect of today's holiday is the pookalam, or flower carpets, outside of people's homes and businesses. They are meticulously arranged, ornate designs made almost entirely of flower pedals. 

A pookalam done at a retirement home (Sudie's site).

Until next time (which shouldn't be long)! And don't forget to visit my web album, where more pictures are being published.

The ladies hanging a little laundry on the balcony.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Arrival

Well, it looks like I made it! I will tell you that the journey was absolutely exhausting and it took days to adjust. I'm still not sleeping at night like i'd like to, but it's getting better and better.

Seeing as I've only been here for five days, it feels like attempting to put words to the entire experience would be a little premature. So, I've decided to instead do a little photo entry for now:

Some Northern Ireland and India YAVs waiting at the Louisville Airport to fly to Chicago.

My passport wallet which was lost for an hour in O'Hare. Terrifying experience!

The India YAVs (minus David) made it past Customs! (Clockwise: Me, Ariel, Rebbecca, Lindsey, Sudie)

Other YAVs in front of us in their taxi.

Front of Achen and Kochamma's house. Notice 2nd floor balcony!

Traditional lunch we were served at Aluva Blind School.

Rubber farm outside of Sudie's placement in Aluva.

Indian sunset.

Yoga in the morning with Ariel, me, and Sudie.

Monday, August 25, 2008

T Minus 1 Day

Today is basically my last day at home since I'm flying out at 7:00 am tomorrow for Louisville. So, I don't really count tomorrow as being home seeing as I'll be barely coherent at such an early hour.

I'm am still absolutely thrilled, but I have been experiencing a healthy amount of sadness/pre-nastalogia over the last couple days. When cleaning my room on Saturday, I felt the first pang of sadness at the fact that I'm leaving. In the past, when I've been moving, I would wash all my clothes and then pack them. This time, I washed them and put them away in my closet.

I'm definitely leaving a lot more, material and immaterial, behind this time. It finally hit me that, no, this isn't going to be like another year at Schreiner. I will miss my family, friends, and comforts of home more, but the reward will also be greater. The final goodbyes have been good and not too depressing. I think most people understand that this is something I'm really looking forward to. (Although I have had to remind a few people I'm not on my death bed!)

It still hasn't "hit" me that I'm moving to India because, frankly, I can't really picture myself there yet. The idea of India, after all my reading, still seems so distant. A past volunteer assured me that this is normal, so I'm not concerned, I just hope that when it sets in, it's overwhelming in a positive way.

Speaking of overwhelming, this Sunday, my last day at Bethel Presbyterian for a while, was perfect. Even if there was a random barn dance song during the offering, it only made it more "Bethel." Jim, my pastor, did a very casual (much to my appreciation) commisioning of sorts. I keep telling people, but it really does mean so much to me to feel as supported as I do.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Of Special Note

My mouth is unbelievably numb right now.

I just had a pseudocavity filled. I am glad to report that it was technically a defect in my enamel and something I had little to do with. After the first round of anesthetic, my nerves were still very much awake! I informed my dentist of this and she graciously shot my gums up with some more juice. The downside is the fact that my mouth feels like it's about 12.7 lbs. (and I hear the human head is only 8).

Other than this slight uncomfortableness, my life is moving along quite well. I just bought some thank you notes so that I can knock all of them out this afternoon. I ordered a new Bible for India, The Discipleship Study Bible, which is not only an NRSV translation, but also has "a concentration on social justice - acts of Christian care and concern for all God’s people and God’s entire world." How perfect is that? I also got my absentee registration form to vote today. Haven't exactly filled it out, but it's a start.

To backtrack a bit, sushi on Friday night went quite well. Except for the fact that I'm disturbed by the size of each piece that is required to go into my mouth. My brother, his wife, and I went to Kubo's in Houston and I ate quite the assortment. Of special note was tuna, salmon, yellowtail, masago, and whitefish (all raw) as well as eel and softshell crab (cooked). I'm not a sushi fan by any means yet, but I did enjoy the experience and would love to have more as an appetizer or something. But eating is as an entire meal may have been a little intense for the first experience.

Saturday was equally as exciting. About thirty relatives (mostly my mom's side) came for a kind of good bye party. I got to see one of my favorite cousins, Nikki, which is always exciting and got to see quite of few others that I don't routinely see. And yesterday, church was amazingly refreshing. For the last few Sunday's I've been gone to either Dallas, Junction, or Louisiana and missed my Bethel quite a bit. Every time I go back to Bethel I am reminded of what a special place it is.

Well, I'm off to attempt to eat some soup (as I haven't eaten all day) and get back to preparing for a little place called India.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Antsiness

With only 11 days to go and (simultaneously) not nearly enough and plenty to do, I find myself feeling mixed emotions. I've reached a point of "antsiness" because half of me is ready to board a Kochi-bound plane tomorrow, while the other half feels overwhelmed by all the things that need to be done.

Most of my goodbyes have been said (other than close family) and the majority of my shopping is done. However, I seem to remember new things that need to be done everyday. None of them too big to tackle, but not small enough to ignore. Of particular note is the amount of reading I still need to complete and the unwritten thank you notes haunting me.

So, what am I doing tonight? Going to a sushi bar for the first time. And I'm pretty excited about it. I'll let you know how it goes!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why I Opted Out

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Summer of Goodbyes

Well, it seems I am nearing the end of my Summer of Goodbyes. At times it felt as if this point would never come. And at others, I wished I could have slowed its approach. Overall, I feel I struck a good balance between preparing for India, just relaxing, and visiting people to say goodbye. Remarkably, I never felt bored, which is a definite sign of growth for me. There were times when I felt a little too unproductive and uninspired, but in the end, the Summer was what it was and now that I find myself here, I'm ready for my next journey: possibly my greatest to date.

Here are a few visual highlights of my last few months...


 

Saturday, July 26, 2008

1/12 of a Year

Today marks a month until I leave Houston for Louisville to begin YAV orientation. August 26 will be an important day because it really will be goodbye to my family; I plan on leaving my cell phone at home so that I won't be distracted at orientation as we were told that it's at orientation that our YAV year really begins. I feel like this last month will be pretty critical to my preparation as a YAV. I need to finish the reading list, buy the things I still need, pack!, and prepare metally and emotionally for saying goodbye and uprooting myself.

Chasity, a long time friend of mine, emailed me recently and said, "So, tell me: What're you getting excited about and what are you getting nervous about?" So, I thought it would be fitting to include my response on my blog:

Great questions! Well, hmmmm, I'm excited about moving away from anyone I know (not totally true as I've already become close to one of the other volunteers, but still, I didn't know them before). That was scary when I went to Schreiner, but it worked out great in the end. I love building new relationships and it's simply awesome for that to be my 'job.' I'm excited about focusing on my relationship with God more than I have recently. One of my goals is to read the Bible all the way through (maybe not in order) before I come back. I feel like we all should anyway, but I think it would give me an interesting perspective to read it while in a foreign country, especially one where people are struggling at a different level than we are. I'm excited about being exposed to social justice issues that I already care about, but will now have faces to put with the issues. I also think this will be really hard, but good for growth and such. I'm honestly most excited about learning the things that I'm not anticipating because I just don't know. I love the mystery. Oh, and having tea every afternoon.

I'm scared about not being good enough at what is asked of me. I'm scared that I won't be able to handle some things. That something that everyone else is fine with (think scary situations) may be too much for me. I doubt this will really happen, because I'm going into it with a pretty adventurous attitude and a real desire to learn and experience new things. But, really, I'm not that scared. I think I should almost be more nervous. I was more nervous about the idea of going to Guatemala than I am actually knowing I'm going to India, so I think that's a good thing. Maybe I will become more nervous as I get on the plane and such, but it's difficult to feel nervous about something that feels so right.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Fare Thee Well

I've had quite the week. Last Friday I began my Farewell Tour (think retiring rock star) when I left Brazoria for Dallas, where I stayed with an old friend from high school. We had a great time even if we stayed up a little late for my liking. The most exciting part was meeting all of her friends, who I really enjoyed. They were a varied bunch and served for great people watching and intelligent conversation.

On Monday morning I left the big city for Winnsboro, an adorable little town where my friend Hannah grew up. This visit was bittersweet as the purpose was to say goodbye to someone I've become very close to over the last couple years. However, we managed to forget about having to say goodbye until the last minute. Until that time, I had a wonderfully relaxing week.

Her and her brother's friends would come over each day and we would hang around chatting and relaxing. Most of the time we would find ourselves on the porch of Hannah's 1907-built house with picturesque porch swings (one of which was sadly broken, and consequently repaired, during the festivities). It was just what I needed to wind down before the last leg of India preparations.

After waking up, packing, showering, drinking my coffee, having breakfast (shocking, right?), and saying goodbye this morning, I had a 7 hour drive from the Boro to Junction, where I spoke at the closing of First Pres.' Vacation Bible School about what it means to serve Jesus (using India as an example).

The drive was awesome because it took me mostly through back roads which winded through tiny towns. Some felt sad and desperate, while others seemed to overflow with new life. I also listened to some new and old favorite albums.

So, now I'm staying at my mentors' (Jim and Laurie Barker) house until Sunday, when I will speak at their two churches in order to ask one for support in India and thank the other. I will then be heading to Kerrville on Sunday for the final leg of my Farewell Tour.

Hannah and Me