A Travellerspoint blog

School Days

We in the UK may have had a few minor gripes with our education system over the last few years (I, for one, want to overhaul the language system in a bloody scholastic coup, but keep that quiet), but let’s be honest, we have one of the best education systems in the world, and we know it. Those with a less fortunate draw in the post code lottery may disagree, and would be right to, but on a global scale we’re pretty bloody lucky. And it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with I-Pads or SmartBoards. (Incidentally, I find it somewhat dubious that politicians are handing out free laptops here, in an area where there isn’t even a reliable flow of electricity – buying votes, much?)

Since I’ve been in India, I’ve been watching different groups of kids learn, and it’s been an eye-opener. The work of the DAAN Foundation in Udaipur, to which I hope to return at the end of the month, is aiming less to create an academic experience than an educational one, which is not at all the same thing. Samvit is trying to promote an outlook on life that is aware, independent, conscientious and forward thinking – things we would take for granted, like not throwing rubbish in the streets and expressing personal opinions. My time in Sandila has shown me exactly how important this is.

The kids here spend about four hours a day in government schools, with only half an hour on each subject. A group then comes to the house in the afternoons for homework help and a little extra practice, which is when I get contact with them. It’s less what they are learning that is an issue, but the way they are doing so; they learn by rote, memorising huge chunks of textbooks in English with absolutely no evidence whatsoever that they understand. The same even goes for maths, copying out sums they’ve already solved as if writing them out again would hammer home the whole principle. I even watched one girl painstakingly copying an incredibly detailed diagram of a heart, with every single line and speckle in place, but not a single label. She thrust it at me proudly, asking what I thought; when I said it wasn’t finished without labels, she told me there weren’t any on the original diagram, so they can’t be that important.

This lack of independent thought goes all the way to university level. Firstly, the resources are incredibly low (the library, about the size of that of my tiny village primary school, is open for half an hour a day), and even textbooks contain model answers that the students just highlight chunks in. Secondly, there’s a uniform. Now, anybody who’s given a passing nod to Foucault will tell you that control of the body is also control of the mind. It’s impossible to self-express when you’re part of a crowd.

So, what this all comes down to, in my mind, is a pretty sorry state of affairs. Resources and materials are one problem, but the real issue looks to me to be a lot deeper. Asha, the NGO I’m working with here, is an anti-corruption charity, aiming to make people aware of their rights, but it seems to me that until the education system permits the development of a nation of independent, analytical thinkers who ask ‘why?’ and not ‘what?’, the massively damaged political system will be very slow to change indeed. Knowing that the syllabus in the hands of these politicians, and seeing their faces plastered on the screens of every free university laptop is a very sobering thought indeed.

Posted by PhilippaW 22:17 Archived in India Tagged children culture india volunteering activities udaipur exchange classes wwoofing Comments (0)

Stiff Upper Lip

If you’ve been wondering if I’d dropped off the face of the Earth over the last little while, you would not have been too far wrong. My address over the last week has been ‘The Squat Loo, Rani’s House, Rural Indian Town.’ I’ve only finally emerged because I’ve taken so much Immodium that I may as well not have a rectum. (Sharing is caring!)

But my digestive issues aside, it’s interesting what happens when your personal limits are tested like this. Many, probably even most people would have problems with the flat white cockroach lurking in the lightless squat loo, washing from the hand pump behind a towel or the world’s least comfortable bed (imagine, if you will, an 18th century farmhouse kitchen table, covered with a 0.25 tog duvet that has been put through the washing machine at 60° several hundred times. You now have a fairly accurate description), but actually, all this doesn’t bother me a huge amount. I’d be lying if I said I was enjoying it, but I can cope.

What I am seriously struggling with, however, is a lot more mental. Firstly, the large expanses of nothing-to-do-ness mean my brain is like a panther shut in bird cage. An empty bird cage. (Mohini’s comment: ‘You have done something today, you chopped an onion.’ Not exactly what it says on my supremely expensive Employment visa.) I’ve been henna-ed and threaded and made a pair of trousers, but done very little of any real use. Hopefully this afternoon, though, I’ll be conducting some interviews, in Hindi. Interesting.

Secondly, the big thing which I knew I’d have issues with, but didn’t realize how much it would affect my whole mentality – a total lack of personal space. ‘My room’ is a misnomer – it’s also the office, living room, classroom, printer repair centre, back door, generator cupboard and mosquito hatchery. The upstairs room is generally full of women drinking tea, charging their phones or just generally observing my every movement. There are only certain places where I’m allowed to sit, lest my coveted paleness come into contact with a sliver of sunbeam, though I am permitted to be escorted for a trudge along the main road once the sun’s gone down.
I’m going to try and stick it out, I don’t want to be the pampered white girl that can’t hack it, but it turns out that the Great British Stiff Upper Lip is maintained not by tea and collar starch, but rather by privacy and a rapidly dwindling loo roll supply.

Posted by PhilippaW 22:16 Comments (0)

Busy... Beetles?

So along with the youth centre and trips to temples on the Cultural Exchange, we’ve been doing some pretty interesting classes and activities. This week we’ve saluted the sun in yoga, ridden camels, learned to cook(ish) and attempted to play traditional instruments. I have new respect for the humble chapatti and those who make them – you need fingertips of steel to make those things! And then there’s the challenge of getting them completely round (important note, ladies – if your chapattis aren’t round then you’ll never get married. Imagine how much your partner would suffer from the indignity of having to eat misshapen bread. Shame on you.) Camels also aren’t as uncomfortable as you might have thought (perhaps a different story if you’re a guy, I wouldn’t know), though a lack of stirrups is somewhat disconcerting. The few hours we spent with the musicians were rather fascinating; it turns out that I can more or less handle the drums, but the 17 stringed violin-type thing was a little bit above my skill level. Seriously people, how do you manage all that thinking at once?!
Everyone who has been involved in giving us these classes has been someone from Sam’s extensive network of contacts – no tourist traps for us! It’s meant some fairly intense tuk tuk rides going out to villages in the hills, as the Jeep is still with the mechanic (it is fixed, it’s just... not starting.) You’d be surprised how tenacious those little things are. We managed to get all the way up to a hilltop goddess temple, up roads that my little Mitsubishi would refuse to have anything to do with. But there definitely is a gap in the market for a Jeep-able bra for Jeep-able roads – all that shaking and bumping around gets just a teeny weeny bit uncomfortable.

Yesterday we also went out to where the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was filmed. Now, generally I don’t think it’s a good idea to go to film sets, as far as I’m concerned it only destroys the magic of the film when you see how small or CGI-ified the whole place is, but this was an interesting insight into the Indian mindset. Anywhere in Europe or the USA that had a connection to a film would have at least a gift shop and display, if not greenscreen photo set-up, neon signs, replicas of the characters etc. And it would no doubt be heaving with inappropriately dressed, camera-wielding international tourists. But this place was, in essence, precisely what it was in the film: a crumbling, badly managed hotel (and not even close to Jaipur). I suppose the set research team did an excellent job.

Posted by PhilippaW 22:15 Archived in India Tagged children culture india volunteering activities udaipur exchange classes wwoofing Comments (0)

Man! I feel like a woman.

If you’ve been keeping up regularly with these little brain splurges, then you may well remember that as a feministy- and generally femaley-type human being, I was a bit concerned about how I was cope with the whole situation. Well, here is an update on those thoughts.

We’ve all heard about the staring and I’m sure you’re aware of the usual tips: cover up, fake wedding ring, dark glasses etc. I’m going to put this very simply: there is no stopping it, you just have to filter it out and try not to let it bother you. What is more difficult to deal with, however, is people flinging their baby/ grandma/ next-door-neighbour’s cousin’s goat at you and insisting on taking a photo, without so much as a ‘do you mind?’ or even asking your name. But actually I don’t think this is a gender issue so much as a racial one. The two boys I’m with have the same problem and, in general, people don’t care which of them they have a photo with, provided they can just permanently record the spectral glow of our luminescent skin (trust me – we even seem to glow in the dark). My question is what do these people do with these photos? Do they go running home desperate to show their family this mysterious white being they encountered in the street? According to Samvit, we’re now their girl/friends – seems a tad desperado to me.

The only other time I’ve really been in a gender conundrum was at a village dinner. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great evening – fab food (as always, and from now on I’m only eating my curry served from a bucket), but I’ll be honest, the situation made me a tad uncomfortable. The men and children sat on half of the field, facing each other, and the women on the other. I haven’t seen a gender divide like that since primary school discos, separated by the Panda Pop table. I felt very much like diving in the middle and shouting ‘I don’t believe in the gender binary –GROUP HUG!’ but somehow I don’t think that would have gone down too well. ‘So what did you decide?’ I hear you cry. I’ll tell you what I did. I did what any self-respecting English-person would do... I dithered, until I was guided to the men’s side with the rest of our group. Was that the right thing to do? I don’t know. I imagine I would have had a very insightful night if I had sat with the ladies, but then again as talking isn’t really the done thing at Indian meals then maybe I would have just been very lonely. Nobody objected to me being there, so why anybody else? I don’t know, like I said, I’m not here to cause a feminist revolution. Cultural awareness seems to be winning out so far.

Posted by PhilippaW 22:14 Comments (0)

Just a Touch Touristy

So let me run by you some of the more touristy stuff the stuff we’ve been up to outside of the centre. But please don’t stress at me for not having photos yet – I’m trying my best! They’re just refusing to load, but I’ll have a quiet word with them on the side and see if they’ll think about their behaviour.
We’ve had a good dose of temples, starting with Eklingji and Nagda. Eklingji is still very much a working temple, complete with people making and selling garlands of flowers as offerings. Because it is still an immensely popular place of worship, we got shunted around a bit by the people who (perfectly reasonably) just wanted to get on with their prayers rather than inspect the architecture and countless statues and pictures of deities and demi-gods. But then again, I would always rather see a building full of life and being used for its original purpose rather than as an empty monument. Jagadish temple, right in the centre of Udaipur, was similar, although not as intricate. We got a guided tour from one of the students from the traditional art school, who pointed out the various features of the temple. One major tip – take socks with you for temple visits, the marble gets bloody hot under bare feet, even if it is white.
Nagda temple, on the other hand, is no longer used as a place of worship. According to the guy who took us on a very in-depth tour, it was destroyed by the Mughal invasion (but between you and me, and without getting too deep into the particulars of Mughal history, I’d take this with a pinch of salt). To start with, it didn’t look particularly destroyed to me – the carvings, despite dating from the eighth century, were remarkably clear. Anyone who’s anyone is carved on the building somewhere – Shiva, Krishna, Lakshmi, Radha, Ganesha, everybody involved in the Karma Sutra, the guy getting intimate with a donkey...

We’ve also just got back from the City Palace, a beautiful building which houses various museum-lets about the history of Udaipur. The photography archive is particularly fascinating, charting the history of Udaipur since the advent of the camera. We’ve had a couple of attempts to see the sunset from various buildings on high ground, though a couple of technical faults have meant that we haven’t made it yet.

Posted by PhilippaW 22:13 Archived in India Tagged children culture india volunteering activities udaipur exchange classes wwoofing Comments (0)

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