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.