Tag Archives: accomodation

Corrupt Grammar and Apostolic Essays

I arrive at the college and start to teach; I’m confused by seasons, depressed by marks, inspired by students with biblical lives, and make myself at home with peanut butter and books.

I caught my third overnight train from Hyderabad to Bangalore – back in second class, with egg biryani for dinner – and on Easter Monday I was driven 40 minutes northeast from the centre of Bangalore, 5 km past the Outer Ring Road, and turned into a lane that winds past the college.  After 14 different beds over five weeks, averaging 2.5 nights between each set of sheets, it’s good to be settled for seven straight weeks.

Just past the guard house inside the gate a rock displays the verse, “This is the Lord’s doing.  It is marvellous in our eyes.”  Beyond lies the main quadrangle, with dining hall and kitchen on the left, admin and classrooms at right, chapel with small spire and library at the far end.  The buildings are of red brick, with cream pillars and balustrades. Low hedges, flowerpots and shrubs in Bangalore’s red soil edge the central lawn.  The lush green is patrolled every morning by three or four white herons.

Accommodation is scattered around the complex, interspersed with trees and flower beds guarded by big black crows, swings and slides for kids, and dirt clearings for cricket, badminton, soccer, volleyball.  When the rain came, the bare soil turned green almost overnight.  Seasons are different here – as someone said to me, “It’s spring: the leaves are falling.”  Which they were, but trees also dropped yellow and red and lilac blossoms, while three-striped squirrels scampered up and down their trunks.

out-my-window-bangaloreI was at the college during its summer break to help teach a seven-week English enhancement program for the students starting in June who’d scored less highly in the entrance English exam.  Three other Kiwis completed the volunteer team.  Aucklander Dennis, a teacher of high school geography and now English as a Second Language, ran the course last year with his wife Barbara.  Isla from small-town New Zealand taught it before that.  I was the newbie, unsure what to expect, and had only spoken to the others on the phone. Dennis said he had imagined me as short and pot-bellied: I was less surprised at his appearance.

We had 23 students aged from early 20s to 40s.  During introductions, I noted their home states and identifying features: glasses, thick beard, thin moustache, spiky hair, no hair.  Only three girls.  The biggest cohort came from Nagaland and Manipur in the Northeast, where the people look quite Chinese.  The students from southern India were dark skinned, with a few fairer guys from central states.  For the first week, the roll lived in my breast pocket for constant cribbing, and I added a few character traits to jog my memory: laughing or shy, cheeky or serious.  There were easy biblical names: Samuel, Daniel, Thomas, Paul.  Others took longer to memorise: Benjongsenla, Worchihan, Surendra, Srinivas.  My favourite name was “Graceson” (son of grace).  Another student on campus was “Lightson”.

As the names sank in, we settled on a schedule.  At 8:30, a student gave a biblical reflection.  By nine, Dennis, Isla and I headed for our own classrooms, with a different group of seven students each day.  I taught in long trousers, but jandals and a loose short-sleeve collared shirt gave reasonable ventilation.  In the morning we worked on the Academic Writing track of the Cambridge International English Language Testing System (IELTS), used by many Western universities to vet overseas students.  We tackled grammar and structure exercises like rephrasing and connecting sentences with conjunctions, or organising thoughts into a logical flow.

The linguistic workout earned an hour off for lunch, which all staff and students ate together.  As in old monastery refectories, a picture of Christ’s Last Supper hangs on the wall, though it’s not as large or impressive as da Vinci’s in Milan.  There’s always white rice and vegetables, often with chapattis; frequently chicken or beef, and a veg-only table.  Even my Colgate toothpaste read “Always 100% vegetarian.”  Yoghurt to cool the spice, and bananas, watermelon, or jackfruit that hung from campus trees in bulbous bumpy shells and I found a little sickly.  Apart from those I enjoyed the food – especially the biryani chicken – and twice-daily heaped servings of rice and rich sauce tightened my belt a little.  I was surprised that some students found the food too hot to eat.

To work off the meal, two afternoons a week was a trial IELTS writing test.  Task One (150 words) was to summarise graphical or tabular data, such as bar charts of an imaginary survey like “Factors Motivating People to Succeed” and “Irritants for Theatregoers”, or line graphs of company sales.  I brainstormed synonyms on the whiteboard so every sentence wouldn’t repeat that sales that year boringly “rose” or “fell” or stayed the same, but rather “soared/rocketed” or “collapsed/plummeted” or “hovered/fluctuated fitfully/erratically”.  My favourite graph showed the output of four imagined authors from age 20 to death.  For fun we drew curves for Moses and St Paul.  Test Task Two was a structured essay of 250 words, mostly on a controversial environmental or social issue.  I enjoyed discussing Indian examples.

Marking took up to two hours.  It was satisfying when I found an eloquent opening, punchy conclusion, or successful use of a phrase I’d just taught.  It could be depressing, even when I saved the best students till last, and I pity professional teachers.  As I corrected the same mistakes every day, I asked “Am I a lousy teacher?”, “Does anyone listen in class?”, “Does anyone read my comments?”, “Does anyone have a gun?”

Learning more about India cheered me up.  In an essay on corruption, caste or dowry, one student wrote: “Justice has become a strange word for the people of India because of corruption” – which most of my class named as India’s biggest problem.  “The caste system is a poison to Indian community life”, wrote another.  It “has wounded the hearts of the people”.  “Marriage is becoming a business entity” and “even today… thousands of women have committed suicide because of dowry problems.”  As we read a booklet of Old Testament studies, I discovered how similar rural India can be to the biblical world, as I’d seen a few weeks before (see here).  Students told of pastoral festivals and rites which echoed Scripture, such as thanksgiving at harvest times, or sending a scapegoat into the wilderness.  More gruesomely, one had seen village priests decapitate a goat and drink its blood from the neck.

Some of our students had almost biblical lives.  Speed-climbing thorn trees when wild elephants charged during a jungle trek; nearly dying from malaria; being beaten for their faith by Hindu fundamentalists – one was left for dead much like St Paul.  Some came from poorer backgrounds; others had surrendered careers in IT or banking or business to study theology.  All were great people, and as time progressed we laughed more in class, shared more in the evenings, met some of their families, and enjoyed the Friday night games – rock-scissors-paper recast as Samson-Delilah-lion – or movies like Oliver Twist, where I noticed that 19th-century London market lanes look like India today.  (Extra entertainment from the cracks of mosquitoes frying on an electric racket.)  Two had studied in Dehradun in the Himalayan foothills, near one of the oldest and most recommended Hindi language schools.  The steep snowy streets in their photos resembled a ski resort and suggested my next India destination!

my-kitchen-bangaloreTeaching finished at 3:30 pm and we went back to our own flats, which all had names.  My door read “William Carey” (my office was “Jerusalem”).  Grey stone cladding, with window bars shaped like diamond lead lights.  As I’ve learnt to do when arriving in new Indian accommodation, I immediately inspected the insect mesh on all windows, opening shutters for a breeze where they didn’t leave cracks.  In a few budget hotels I’ve taped over holes in the mesh.

Staff in red sari uniforms delivered a jug of creamy boiled milk every day, as well as eggs, small sweet bananas, tea and coffee, bread and muesli for breakfast.  After finding ants in my cornflakes, I found the airtight pots.  I even had a toaster, with peanut butter and Bournvita chocolate milk powder from the supermarket.  I swapped a photo on the cream-painted wall for my Tramping New Zealand calendar, lined up my books on the shelf under the Readers Digest miscellany, and the place felt quite homely.  Especially once I visited the library, where filling out borrowing cards by hand took me back to schooldays.  After teaching all day, it was good to relax on my cane lounge suite.  The geckos on the walls were peaceable companions, mostly darting behind a cupboard or picture frame when I approached, although I feared squashing their babies on the floor, especially at night in bare feet.



Rail Rage and Hindi: India Take Two

I battle to book grumpy trains and incensed hotels, I’m insured against mad dogs and bone up on strange scripts.

Friends, relations, colleagues,

For those who haven’t heard, I’m going to spend most of 2012 in Asia!

On Tuesday 28 February I fly with Malaysia Airlines to Kuala Lumpur for three nights, then on to Bangalore in southern India.  I’ll leave my suitcase there, and fly on 5 March with local airline SpiceJet to Delhi for a month in northern India.  From Easter I’ll be back in Bangalore, joining a team to teach academic English to theology students for seven weeks.  On 27 May, I’ll return to Kuala Lumpur for 5 to 6 months, continuing my current web development work for the University of Auckland on line, before coming home for Christmas.

I spent two weeks in Malaysia in 2004 and two months in southern India during 2007 – you can find my India reports here.  Now these countries are drawing me back.

Last week I battled to book trains.  With 63,000 km of tracks and around 6900 stations, the Indian rail network is the third longest in the world (after Russia and China – one guidebook said 109,000 km of tracks, making it the second longest).  7500 locomotives transport 13-20 million passengers per day.  It’s the world’s largest utility employer with 1.5 million staff and has a massive booking system, which, I have found, is massively overloaded.  The third-party website I used (www.cleartrip.com) was elegant and fast but mostly failed when interfacing with the national system.  Its upbeat messages were amusing at first, but grew stale after four or five readings, exasperating after seven or eight, and infuriating by the time they reached double figures:

“Oops! We weren’t able to process your payment.  Your payment has been declined by your bank. .. We know this sucks but it happens at times…”


“Just like people, our system sometimes has a bad day and gets grumpy.”

Yes, it sucks, and I too became grumpy – to put it mildly – when getting these errors at all hours of the day and night; after typing my credit card details until I knew them by heart; after five long calls to my New Zealand bank made no progress, and bad lines plus strong accents rendered the Mumbai helpdesk incomprehensible (though high marks for courtesy and effort to both countries); when about one reservation per day succeeded, as I watched trains I wanted book out two months in advance and I began to wonder if I’d ever make it on board…

As well as the impressive stats above, 400-500 train crashes occur per year in India, I read, killing 700-800 people, making it the most dangerous rail network in the world.  Do I really want to get on board?  Here I am fighting Indian infrastructure before I even get there – why on earth am I going back?!

After a week that threatened premature baldness, I now have almost all trains and accommodation confirmed:

  • Two weeks in New Delhi with side trips to the pink city of Jaipur and perhaps the Taj Mahal.
  • A homestay in Lucknow, centre of the 1857 uprising against the British – I hope they’ll be more welcoming to me.
  • Two days at The Leprosy Mission’s Vocational Training Centre in Faizabad.
  • A week at Allahabad Bible Seminary – might I possibly teach there in the future?
  • Several days in Bhopal, site of the 1984 chemical disaster, from where a most welcoming e-mail provided some relief from railroad rage:

Dear Sir,
It is with special pride that we invite you to be our honored guest at Bhopal, Splendidly we introduce to you our New venture HOTEL SONALI, …
….  We Offer you the following exquisite facilities…
Our endeavor would be to provide you the best service, comfort and Convenience. So we hope during your next visit at Bhopal, you would surely Give us a chance to serve you better. We assure to make your stay a pleasant And comfortable one.  (sic)

We will see whether reality matches the rhetoric!  It is a good sign that the manager monitors travel website www.tripadvisor.com.  To the latest review on 27 January:

“Far too much incense is constantly being burnt in the lobby. When we entered the hotel it was like stepping into a cloud.”

He replied in three days:

We will take use of incense stick down immediately”

I’ll let you know whether I’m asphyxiated upon arrival!

As second and third classes were fully booked, I just had to go first-class for 15 hours overnight to reach Hyderabad by Good Friday.  (See a map of my trip here.  Click on any city for my dates there and information about it.)

Medical visits have also provided respite from the rail: my optician for an updated lens prescription; my dentist for my first filling ever L; my doctor for a typhoid booster, three rabies shots at $120 each, and so many pills he joked I’ll resemble a walking pharmacy.  (I had most other vaccinations in 2007.)

Rather less costly and significantly more stimulating is some great reading on Indian culture and history over the past months, and digging into Teach Yourself Hindi.  Of India’s 1 billion inhabitants, around 10% speak English, and 40% Hindi, the biggest of 23 languages recognised in the Constitution.  I can now slowly read the Hindi script and know some simple phrases with basic grammar.  Hopefully I’ll be able to pick up newspaper headlines and introduce myself after the month in Hindi-speaking northern states.

All in all, 2012 promises to be a rich mixture of travel and teaching, language and learning, culture and computing.  A time of growth and discovery and challenge, exploring options for my future.  I’m both effervescent and apprehensive, especially about the first month of solo India travel.  And later looking for a flat among the 7 million residents of Kuala Lumpur!

This will be my longest time away from home and family so a new season of life for me, and likewise for my mother, learning to live alone after Dad died one year ago.

And the Lord said to Abraham, “Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, and go to the land I will show you.”  Genesis 12, c. 2000 BC

If anyone asks for me, tell them I’m off on an adventure.  I’m lost on purpose, to be found by love.  John of the Cross, 16th century

Day One: Chapattis, Chips and Polychrome Chaos

Fighting for curry and setting up shop, my first taste of combat and sensory shock.  My first day on the ground brings fear and fascination, exhaustion and new shirt and colour and spice.

I’ll be in this room for the month so I dusted shelves, spread clothes on one and stood books on another. I untied the mosquito net – considerately equipped with holes so I can reach through and swat any bugs – and pushed my bed under the fan.  No sign of mossies last night, mesh on windows looks intact, and I will drape my untorn Bivouac net over the bed frame if needed.  The bathroom “hot” tap is warmest on sunny afternoons – its water comes from a solar panel and tank on the roof.  In the small library I discovered daily print editions of the papers I’d perused online from Auckland, and I met the Ecumenical Christian Centre director (he graciously dismissed the wake-up call last midnight) I’d been emailing for months – wow, I’m really here!

Right now I’m the sole white face, but ECC staff are preparing for the 30 American students to arrive on Thursday.  Women are in colourful saris, men mostly grey shirt-and-trousers uniform, some with a turban.  They swing sickles to cut the grass and sweep with twig-bundle brooms that seem to work well. Some are climbing ladders to clean windows.  I waved to one and he brought his hands together in respectful greeting, almost losing his balance as he let go of the rung. I was about to shower when another began scrubbing at the skylight above.  A maid carried a pile of sheets on her head between rooms.

At breakfast the cooks delivered 4 sausages, 3 eggs, a bowl of porridge, 4 pieces of white toast, butter and jam – no risk of starving here!  I only managed half.  As I left the refectory, staff kids were heading off in the van to school.  At lunch, the workers tucked into rice and vegetarian curry, but I was ushered to a table with a mince dish, boiled cabbage, white bread, packet potato chips, rice, and a symmetrical platter of fresh sliced vegetables.  The care is touching but embarrassing – it made me stand out, I left the veges untouched, not knowing how they were washed, and the staff curry looked yummier!

At dinner, I took a plate of their chapattis and rice, but was also given toast and potato chips again, cooked potatoes and chicken (which seemed kind from the vegetarian Hindu cooks) and warned their food would be too hot for me.  I left the bread and chips untouched and hoped they’d notice that, however clumsily, I was indeed breaking bread, gathering rice and curry with my right hand, and not exploding with the heat!  The water is filtered with a faint chemical taste so is probably fine, but until I see the Americans’ policy, I’ll continue purifying it.

Before dinner I checked email at the “Communication Centre” and started this missive.  Battery and generators maintained the PCs when power cuts interrupted the internet.  Then Jabaraj walked me into Whitefield’s main street and India’s “assault on the senses” attacked  (see my Whitefield shots here).  It’s overwhelming, too much to process, like the “one great blooming, buzzing confusion” that psychologist William James said babies experience, “assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once”, before the infant brain turns down the sensory volume and shoves it all into boxes so we can cope.  I kept one eye on the ground avoiding potholes and litter, several eyes evading push- and motorbikes, cars, trucks, buses – footpaths barely exist.  It took my whole concentration to follow Jabaraj without being hit and, like a toddler, I was terrified of being left behind alone.  Little energy was left to observe the people: some in leather shoes, smart trousers and collared shirt, others barefoot in a lungi waist wrap-around.  Women’s saris were monochrome or multi-hued, pastel or dazzling, like all the spectrum of light swirling around me; plain or floral, striped, chequered or polka-dotted; silver-threaded or begemmed.  A few wore Muslim headscarves.

A large white bullock pulled a cart past churches and shrines.  Behind waste-filled gutters, walls guarded manicured gardens and elegant houses or multi-storey flats.  Overgrown sections in between are littered with tin shacks or tarpaulins – apparently not mini-slums, as I first thought, but temporary abodes of itinerant construction workers on the many building sites.  In a small store stacked floor to ceiling with clothing and trinkets, small statues of gods stood next to Western lingerie: Brahman nudged Bendon.  The proprietor offered me a tiny plastic cup of steaming sweet chai tea, and Jabaraj helped me buy a cool cotton shirt with a retro look.

One hour “in town” was enough.  Drained and bewildered, I stumbled back to the ECC grounds, a tranquil haven of trees, verdant lawns, and fresh air after the churning dust and fumes.  I cleaned out gobs of black from my nostrils.  After my first glimpse of the “bracing, or exhausting, anarchy of Indian streets” (Michael Palin, Himalaya), I can see this country could be bracingly exhilarating, but I was thinking: “two months to survive – what have I got myself into?” and hoping I’d not forgotten to pack anything important – I doubt I’d manage to find and purchase the simplest item.  I felt more positive after a refreshing shower and dinner and more smiles from the staff.

I recalled that night falls fast in the tropics, when it did about 6pm.  More brief power-offs required the headlamp torch from my local NZ hardware store to navigate my room and the two-minute walk to the refectory for dinner.  Reading at night, my bedside light often alternated bright and dim every few seconds, rather like my alternating feelings of fascination and fear about India so far.  The fluctuating power levels mirror my morale.  I switch off the erratic illumination and drift off, soothed by the lullaby of the fan overhead, speeding and slowing, whirring up and whizzing down, now eager, now dismayed.