Amy is an English teacher and educator. She has lived in Singapore teaching English for the last decade or so and is now a volunteer at Siddharta Kendra Vidyalaya, a primary school in North Lakhimpur run by the Tathagata Trust. Amy will stay until May 2013. Here is a the first entry from the journal she is keeping. I hope you enjoy it. Jnanamati
22 December 2012
Hey, everyone, hope you all are well, and that NONE of you are experiencing the holiday blues!!
Right now I am at my typewriter, which is running out of power because there is no power point within distance. That is just scratching the surface of my “luxury resort” residence in N Lakhimpur, India. I am typing on a small table in the kitchen. Outside, workers are hammering and kids are running around. The house is not yet completed, and workers are building a house; their families are with them. Noise, constant noise, that is India … there goes the whirring of the drill as the guy drills a hole in the wall. His wife walks in and starts talking to him in Assamese. Very tranquil, you see.
Across the small table in Jnanamati, the British Buddhist monk who is my main contact in India. He and I, am pleased to report, have become very good friends in a short period of time. This is probably due to all the stuff we’re already experienced!
The trip to the airport from Delhi was … problematical. All my fault. As I had mentioned, we were staying in a flat that is part of a very, very narrow, rickety alleyway. Hard for anything to fit in there, but Prakash (another one, Prakash!) got an autorickshaw to come clattering down. Jnanamati came down with his 2 modest bags and my HUMONGOUS gray suitcase. I am still loaded down with three bags: one for camera, one for my computer and tablet, and one, my purse. I look like a refugee. We get in the autorickhaw, say goodbye and thanks to Prakash, and we start. After two minutes, I mutter, “Oh, crap,” and ask the driver to stop. “I forgot my other bag,” I say—this bag is a cheap cloth thingie I got at Chatachak market in Thailand – a ridiculous thing that just hangs there limply, but it can fit a lot of stuff. Jnanamati nods calmly. “Shall I get it?” he says. I think. Well…this could be a way to divest myself of ALL MATERIAL GOODS, just like Saint Francis of Assisi. “No,” I say, “I’ll go without it. Heck! I don’t need it!” I feel proud. The driver starts again. “Oh, god … my meds…” I say… “Stop,” I sigh to the driver, Jnanamati also sighs. “You need it?” he says. “Yeah,” I say; “my meds. Can’t live without ‘em,” so he gets out of the rickshaw and goes back down the alleyway. Ten minutes later he is back, very sweet-tempered, which I would NOT be. We start. Plenty of time, I think. The autorickshaw probably goes at the top speed of 25 miles per hour. He starts. Typical Delhi traffic, which mean stop and go, and this continues for 90 minutes. Plenty of time, plenty of time … ??? Traffic consists of the usual Asian mix: motorbikes, bicycles laden down with unbelievable stuff, cars, trucks, all honking and all getting nowhere. The rickshaw driver lets us off at SOME location at the airport. Now I am burdened with five bags, which means Jnanamati will be burdened with some of them.
My main bag, a 25-kg gray monster, is the size of a small closet. It rumbles when it rolls. So Jnanamati and I roll the monster along, staggering under the weight of mostly MY stuff, when we realize we’re at the wrong terminal. How do we get to terminal 3…?? No signs. Someone points to a bus and we get on. Fifteen (15!) minutes later we arrive at terminal 3. Now it should be smooth sailing … A guy with a GUN is at the main entrance of the terminal. “Passport and tickets, please,” he says. “Tickets!” I say, and my triumphant grin fades. For various reasons, I don’t have my e-ticket, but the guy on the phone ASSURED me I WOULDN’T NEED IT, so I didn’t print it out. First time in my life. I cannot enter the terminal; Jnanamati must take my passport, get my ticket, and come back for me. He trundles along, wheeling the monster and his stuff. How much more of a burden can I be on a human being …?? I think and close my eyes. Fifteen (15!) minutes later Jnanamati comes back to fetch me, ticket in hand. I stumble inside. “All this was my doing,” I say. “Yes, it is,” Jnanamati says equitably. I apologize, he accepts easily, we then look at the time, gasp, and start running … well, Jnanamati makes a good clip, I hover between a limp and a trot, with four bags dangling at various angles from my body. Smack/whack/smack/whack as various materials from various bags hit my body. “This is why a monk only needs a change of robe and a begging bowl,” Jnanamati jokes with me as he takes two bags from me. I burst out laughing. This is … true.
We go through security. “No, no, Madam, cannot go,” says the security guy. I just look at him mutely. “No tag on the bag!” he says, and pulls me to one side with another disgruntled passenger. We have to wait until another official comes, looks through my bag AGAIN. A tag is put on my bag. The official—who has seen the tag being put on my bag—STOPS ME AGAIN as I try to rush to the plane and insists on looking at my tag again.
I look at my seat number and moan with joy and guilt. I am not sitting next to Jnanamati (which would have been very nice). I am sitting … in first class.
The conversation with my first-class neighbor was quite interesting, but let’s fast forward. The flight ends (all too quickly; boy, they serve great palik paneer in first class), Jnanamati and I are reunited, and the hard part of the journey now starts … the overnight bus to North Lakhimpur. Jnanamati has warned me about this trip.
Stop: right as I have typed the above, the electricity has gone out in my bedroom in the kitchen in North Lakhimpur. This is a daily occurrence, lasting from one to a few hours. Yesterday, we would get no electricity; it would come on in 30 minutes, and go out again for another hour…
SO IT GOES!!
So. We land in Guwahati, which is the capital of Assam Province, India. We NOW need to find the bus that takes us into town to take the OVERNIGHT BUS … sigh, boy, wouldn’t it be nice to have lots of cash so we could afford the, what, $200 for a cab to drive us the 8 or 10 hours to N Lakhimpur …?? I don’t know how, but Jnanamati points to a bus in the distance and he asks if this is the bus into town. We get the usual response: People stare. Stare again. Look at each other mutely and roll their eyes. Some brave soul would try and repeat what we have said in incredibly heavily accented Indian English. Usual we then just get a “no”, but this time someone nods and we get on. Twenty minutes later, we enter Guwahati. It unfolds like a cartoon background: it rolls through a scene and repeats the scene again and again. Rickety shops selling the usual cheap stuff. Food stalls. People shoving each other. Autorickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles, and other contrivances shoving for a small piece of the road. Noise level beyond insanity. Life, teeming life. At first glance, Guwahati seems to have a certain manic charm; but after a few minutes, one just gets fatigued. TOO much teeming life. TOO many tense bodies, all trying to find a certain place in the world. Reminds me of conversations I had on the flight from Delhi to Guwahati: a very handsome air attendant told me that for every ten openings in his airline, two thousand people would apply. I told this to the gentleman sitting next to me. This man, an ex-professional tennis player who now works for some oil company, told me that a few years ago, his company had 800 openings. “That’s a lot,” I marveled. He smiled. “Guess how many people applied for these jobs,” he said, and leaned back in his chair. Finally he offered: “2 lakhs.” This means: 200,000 people. I could see this fierce competition in Guwahati. People and their goods were all desperately trying to get a piece of the economic pie, to survive. You could feel it. Both amazing and frightening at the same time.
Still no electricity. It is pitch dark outside, and in the kitchen/bedroom. I am so glad Jnanamati is with me. More on that later.
So. Where to get off …?? Somehow Jnanamati knows. We alight, luggage thinking, and we are immediately besieged by people offering: rickshaw. Taxi. Tours. Godnose what else! “We want the bus to North Lakhimpur,” Jnanamati says, amazingly composed, and one guy immediately points forward and takes one of my bags. Not a HEAVY bag, mind; one of my lighter bags. So we follow him and find a hole in the wall that is a bus station. The guy puts a hand out and Jnanamati gives him some rupees. We buy tickets and wait. We have 2.5 hours to kill.
Now, the fun part? We have to change buses!!! So we get on this astonishingly rickety bus, piled full with people, and get off thirty minutes later at some switching point. ONCE more we pick up the luggage and … don’t know where to go. Five buses are converged, and no one can understand Jnanamati’s “North Lakhimpur” question. But for every degree of not understanding English there seems to be a correlating degree of staring and gawking at a slender Buddhist monk in red robes and a frazzled American tourist laden down with bizarre-looking luggage. Eventually, we find the right bus and find our seats, only to be kicked out by another guy who claims THESE are his seats and the ones in FRONT are OUR seats. We change, too dazed to even care.
“This is the worst of it,” Jnanamati says as I gasp and close my eyes. “I know that we will be met at the bus station in North Lakhimpur.” So the bus rolls forward and we start the journey. Uneventful. Wonderful, as Jnanamati and I have long, meandering, wonderful conversations that go everywhere and nowhere. He’s a fascinating, widely read man—a former art therapist—and his insight into many issues seem to be slyly subversive, designed to make you think. We try to sleep; no luck for either of us.
We arrive at North Lakhimpur at 7:30 in the morning and are greeted with the usual gawks, stares, and widening of eyeballs. Of course no one is there to meet us. I swallow the snarky “Gee, what a shock” comment I was going to make and try to emulate Jnanamati’s calmness. Eventually, we end up at the house of a friend of his, who I will call Laba (low-bow), because I don’t know how his name is pronounced.
I’ll skip over the visit with Laba and his wife and kid, even though Lobos owns a business that produces Assamese silk embroidered textiles (stop, my beating heart!) to fast forward to where we are staying now. The place had been arranged by a friend of Jnanamati, and a person deeply involved in the school where I will be teaching. Chandan Siam is a professor of physics Digboi University, and a devoted Buddhist. The place has potential.
Well, it’s part of a building that is still UNDER CONSTRUCTION, so even as I type, men are in the other area, laying down concrete, burning stuff, so smoke permeates the entire building. Privacy? No such thing. Jnamati is in a bedroom that other men are using; a cloth partition separates him from them. I have my own room. This is good. It’s the kitchen. OK. No running water. No SINK. Hot water? No such thing in all Assam province, I have been told, including the hotels in Guwaharti. No closet, so my clothes remain in my grey monster. There is a sit-down toilet, but you need to flush it by using buckets of water. When more water is needed, the workers on the site will pump it into this huge container, and the sound of the pump is reminiscent of a tractor trailer running over nails.
The scary part? I’m beginning to like it here. I think that’s because I’m sharing the misery with Jnanamati who, in spite of his monk-ness has a wonderfully wry sense of humor and is 100% human, with his own foibles and admitted weaknesses.
We are fed by Chandan’s incredibly capable wife, Anu, who graciously cooks us two full meals a day, and we are talking about five courses for each meal. Five different dishes. Astonishingly healthy stuff: all vegetables, including a fresh salad. But small amounts are offered, and nothing—NOTHING—is wasted. It’s always enough. You leave the table satisfied, but never over-sated. It feels great, actually.
Let’s fast forward to the school. We are located literally right next to the school, which is in an astonishingly pretty part of N Lakhimpur—a little hut amidst the rolling rice hills of Assam province. Three teachers actually came to our place to greet us, and we went to the school later…I thought, to meet with the teacher to see what they expected. Naahhh … Nothing happened the first day. The next day was Saturday, and school meets then, so we went down to check it out. The kids have a little ritual at the beginning of the school day, culminating in a “walking meditation” that involves just walking slowly to the beat of a singing bowl that a student strikes. Then we went into the classroom. Because exams had just ended, and it was a Saturday, only 12 students showed up, and from kindergarten to class 5 (as they called it—fifth grade). I sit down, eager to see what will happen. The teachers sit quietly. So do the students. We all wait. And wait … I fidget, ask a teacher, “So, what are the students doing?” She smiles at me quizzically. After five minutes, one of the teachers coughs and says to me, “So, Madam, when will you start?”
“WHAT? I’m expected to teach??? I’m not prepared!!” They all stare at me gently. “No one told me!” I whine, and realize there is no hope. I sigh, stand up, upon which the students immediately stood up. Resignedly I use my hands to gesture them to sit down. God. Kids. I am not prepared …!!! Some basic ESL games came back to me, and I actually had an idea. I gave a lesson which seemed to work. It lasted about forty minutes. Smugly, I stepped back. “OK, that’s my contribution for the day,” I say. The teachers stare at me blankly. “There are all different levels here, Madam,” one teacher says, as if explaining why only I could teach such a difficult mix. “I need to keep going …??” I say; and OK, I take the kids outside and we do an easy vocabulary game involving a ball. I add a variant to it, thinking that I must be a genius. The kids seem interested, but I think it was just the novelty of being taught by a Westerners; we are truly as rare as blue moons in this part of India. As we re-enter the classroom (more on a description of a school another day), I do say, firmly, “That IS it for today; honestly, I need to PREPARE lessons, I can’t just do hours and HOURS without preparation.” The teachers stare at me sadly, with disappointment in their eyes, but they nod OK. Good, I think; I can now see what they DO. So the art teacher says, “OK, I draw something.” I thought she would make the kids draw with her. And she could have …!! She drew a great elephant using basic shapes. She showed this to the kids, and then erased the image. Drew a bird. “That’s a bird,” she said. “Bird,” the children chirped back. She erased, drew another …
“Wait, I have a game,” I say, and I do remember a great, monster-drawing game that uses good vocabulary having to do with body parts. So we play that game … it’s great.
So. I start teaching tomorrow. No one knows when I should teach, which classes I should teach, or what I should teach. Should be interesting. Bye for now.
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