Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Drive to Learn

One of the first things that struck me at the school in Matendla was the difference between kids here and kids in America. I don't mean the physical differences, though the kids here are certainly smaller on average. I mean the difference in how they approach school.

School is not a task for them. It's not something they play sick to get out of. They really want to learn. At school, they get to eat their fill with the mid-day meal, with no limits on the number of time they can ask for rice or curry (though they are limited to one egg each). At school, there are balls and nets and bats and rackets to play with. There are grounds for running and high jumping and playing basketball and kho-kho (which is a seriously confusing game if you have never seen it before).

Here's an example of what I mean: the school has one English teacher spot vacant. Usually, either one of the other teachers will take over the class, or the class will just sit there for that period and do whatever they want. When we got here, however, the students would come seek us out when they had no teacher and ask if we would teach their class. It still astounds me how much they really want to learn.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Internet Woes

The Internet access here is not that speedy. Loading two pages at once is difficult. Nevertheless, it is working not too badly right now, so I will endeavor to post a real post after breakfast. And, there, as I tried to post that the first time, it stopped working.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


My aunt teaches a community yoga class on Thursday evenings, and yesterday we decided to join her (in the class, not the teaching). It happens at the area's community hall just down the street, maybe a 5-minute walk away.

As soon as you arrive at the hall, you have to climb up the flight of stairs outside to reach the yoga room. I suppose I shouldn't call it the yoga room, since it's used for a variety of purposes. It's a spacious, white-walled hall, perhaps the size of a basketball court, albeit longer and skinnier. Despite its size and sandwich-like location between two other floors, the hall has no pillars. There is nothing to block your view. The floor is made up of large, white tiles, with 4 giant rugs covering the majority of the area save for a sliver of white in the front. Sliding windows on one side look out onto the street in the back that you just entered from. Those on the other side provide a view of the dirt-packed courtyard.

As the women in the class slowly file in, shucking their chappals (flip-flops) outside the door, the rectangles of colored sheets and chaapas (jute mats) begin appearing all over the room. These are their yoga mats. None of that soft, padded stuff here. Soon, the hour hand spins to "5" and the class begins.

Perched within their little personal territories, the students begin with pranayama, exercises in breathing control. They are sitting upright, legs crossed in the half pretzel of the ardha padmasanam (half-lotus pose), spines straight, hands resting on their knees with thumb and forefinger touching and the other three fingers held together like a stiff-backed sign language "F".

More than twenty minutes go by in the practice of various breathing patterns. The kapilbhati pranayam involves short, forceful exhalations that move the diaphragm in like a hiccup in reverse. The teachers then begin to lead the class through the asanas, or the poses. The exercises here are those you would see at a yoga class anywhere, but returned to their original Sanskrit names. Downward-facing dog becomes adho mukha svanasanam, the tree pose is vriksasanam, and the two cobra variants are types of bhujangasanas. The resting pose is savasana, the dead body pose. After going through the asanas, the class returns to breathing for a short while before ending.

It's now time to fold up the sheets and blankets and go home, back to (for most of these ladies) cooking and taking care of the family. The parting of ways is quick but happy, as everyone makes their way back through the lightly sprinkling rain, a return to their everyday lives - until next week.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Strike 1, 2, 3! You're ou-...Oh, wait, what? You're going to keep striking?

My journey to the first school I will be working at has been delayed for two days, so I'll get a little more time to prepare my lesson plans before I go and have fun with my family. Right now, I'm in Secunderabad at my grandparents' flat (apartment), which is in the building next door to my cousins' flat. For anyone who isn't familiar with South Indian geography, Secunderabad is the neighbor of Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh (the Telugu-speaking state).

Okay, well, I'm not all that familiar with Indian geography either. But Hyderabad is a little bit east of the tip of that arrow (the jet lag is making me too sleepy and lazy to go back and correct it in Paint).

Lately, there have been some conflicts between the eastern and western parts of the state, leading to riots, strikes (that translation doesn't really cover everything - a bandh is a lot bigger), etc. The western part, called the Telangana region, would like to split off and form its own state, leaving the Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra regions in the state of Andhra Pradesh. I don't think I know enough about the reasons to explain, but I gather that among other things, it has something to do with resource allocation and language. At any rate, the biggest problem with this is that Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, is located within the Telangana region.

Hyderabad has been the site of many a bandh in recent months. One of my cousins had her final exams last semester postponed for at least a month because the college kept having to close. We were worried that it might bring trouble for my project if buses weren't traveling and the roads were supposed to be empty. Luckily, it's calmed down a little, and according to my uncle, should stay that way until elections are over at the end of August. I'll cross my fingers for that.

Still, I think it shouldn't bring too much trouble. The two schools that I am visiting are in Medak and Warangal districts, which both fall under Telangana, so I wouldn't be crossing any would-be borders. This reminds me, I should tell you a little bit about the schools themselves, but since I've got a couple extra days, I think I'll save that for when I am less sleepy. Now that's a rather abrupt conclusion, but I'm tired. I guess I could say bye. Okay, then. Bye for now!

Monday, June 14, 2010


For once, our flight to India left not in the wee hours of the morning, but in the afternoon. As we did a year and a half ago, we flew Emirates via Dubai to Hyderabad. Unlike the airlines that go via Asia and stop in between, this one had a nonstop 16-hour leg followed by a shorter 4-hour hop.

For those who don't know, Dubai is located in the United Arab Emirates (hence the name of the airline), in the Arabian Peninsula.

Yay Google maps!

To get there, however, we took off from SFO and flew north. We crossed Nevada, Idaho, a corner of Nebraska, and Montana before entering Canada. Looking down out of the window 6 hours into the flight, I saw the icy floes of summer in Newfoundland. Off we went into that good night. We went so far north, though, that even though it was 3 am local time, the sun was shining brightly. We passed over Greenland and went north of Iceland (no volcano pics, sorry - I was sleeping).

I don't recall exactly when we turned back to the south, but I think it was somewhere past England and the prime meridian. As we angled back down the globe toward the equator, I awoke to see that we were crossing the Mediterranean. Another short nap later (yes, lots of sleeping, but in my defense, it was a pre-emptive strike against jet lag), I found myself looking at a barren landscape. From our aerial view of Iraq, we could see pools of red-tinged, almost Martian ground with distinct edges. My mother and I came up with the theory that these were dried lake beds, enriched with minerals like iron oxides (a.k.a. rust) that would have turned the soil red. There were mountains near the coast, but further inland, the land was as flat as an untuned piano. There were few buildings in the areas we flew over. The only signs of inhabitation we saw were the long, thin roads running straight across the plains, occasionally curving where they ran into mountains.

By the time we reached Dubai, it was 6:30 pm there, and a balmy 102°F. The terminal we were in was shaped like a flattened cylinder laying on its side (I was going to say like a squashed cigarette, but it was nicer and cooler-looking than that). 2 hours later, after eating dinner breakfast lunch a meal, we went to the gate to board. We handed over yellow boarding passes and got white stubs in return. According to the computer, our seat numbers and ticket reference numbers hadn't matched or something like that, so we got a free upgrade to business class!

Oh my god, business class is so different! It's ridiculous. Instead of a little tray with food covered in foil, we each got a little tablecloth for our tray tables, nice dishes, real glass glasses, butter pats in the shape of a flower. Oh, and a menu that included appetisers like cream of mushroom soup and entrees like lobster and Hyderabadi biryani. Definitely not economy class. The best thing was the reclining chairs. Where we had suffered through the 16 hours from San Francisco to Dubai trying to stretch our legs and get comfortable in a seat with no footrest, we had what basically amounted to beds for the last 4 hours. Wide and comfy chairs, with big, fluffy pillows and La-Z-Boy type footrests were like heaven for our sleep-deprived bodies. 

By the time we arrived in Hyderabad, it was 3 in the morning. With the time claimed by customs and waiting for baggage, it was past 5 am by the time we reached my grandparents' flat. The day was just beginning, and for us, it was time to sleep.

Introductions Are In Order

Hello and welcome to my blog for my Global Poverty & Practice project. I'm going to repost a little bit of an introduction to what I'm doing here, so if you've already read it elsewhere, you can skip right to the last couple paragraphs.

We have a minor at Berkeley called Global Poverty & Practice. It's not like most minors. You do take your 4-5 classes, but that's not enough. You have to do a practice. Something in real life. You're supposed to go out into the world and help alleviate poverty (or at least learn about it first-hand so that you can do the real work soon in the future with knowledge of what kinds of things are going on). They encourage you to go abroad, and that's just what I'm doing.

The students in the minor are involved in a diverse range of projects, from self-led to student-run to NGO-directed, from creating crops for sustenance farming to helping medical teams service remote villages to fighting disease in urban slums. And me? I'm going to be working in education. My practice project is going to be improving science education in a couple of rural schools by making it more interactive.

Sometimes when I hear myself talk about it in comparison to all these other things people are doing, I wonder if it seems like my project is much too narrowly focused. But, to paraphrase and contextualize the Pareto principle, 80% of the problems come from 20% of the causes. You just have to pick the right 20% to fix. There was a study done in rural China that showed how the presence of a science lab in a school, even after controlling for financial differences and student self-selection, was correlated with students attending school for 1.8 more years. If a little science lab can encourage some interest and keep students in school, isn't it worth having?

At any rate, I've been working on finding/modifying/writing lab protocols, lessons, and questions for some of the simple experiments I've picked. So far, I've got a DNA extraction, chlorophyll chromatography, electrolysis, and that bullseye lab we did in Mr. Robinson's physics class in high school, as well as a few others based on things we did in biotech class. I've tried to use labs for which supplies are inexpensive and easy to find, and modified the procedures and materials where necessary to make them that way. Even if I can get more expensive equipment, I'm shying away from that, because I would like other schools to be able to implement these labs in the future if they work well.

So that's the general overview of what my project is about. I'm going to be posting mainly about the project here, so if you want other details about India and the rest of my trip, you'll have to visit my normal blog. I'm really excited for this, and I hope I'll be able to convey to you the whole experience. Enjoy the journey!