Behind the scenes, so to speak, I have been diligently working on the photographs of my recent trip to Thailand. This is no small feat since I took over 1800 photos in two weeks. What I have tried to do, simply for my sanity, is, for each blog post, to display a photo from the trip that is from the city we were visiting or the activity we were doing. Well, we were only in Bangkok for 3 days and I have really exhausted what I want to say about Bangkok but I have not gotten through processing all of the Bangkok photos. My head can’t move on to writing about a new city until I have finished with all of the photos of the current city.
It is hard for me to believe that I slept nearly 15 hours but that is exactly what I did. I can say that when I finally got the rest I needed, I was more open to possibilities and curious about what the day would bring. After showering, I went into the lobby to see if I could find the internet café and get a few other questions answered. It was shortly before 8am and the hotel restaurant was not open yet nor would the internet café be open. I decided to go visit the ashram next door but that proved to be a bit difficult to figure out as well. While there was activity all around, I could not figure out where the entrance was and I was so afraid of entering someone’s private space that I just kept on walking.
Noise and excessive stimulation are often times difficult for me to deal with. Given the choice between city dwelling and living on a remote farm, there is no question what I would choose. Frankly, the excessive noise and visual stimulus of the previous day could be one of the reasons I stayed in bed so long. I was very aware of this thought as I walked past the ashram which is in the opposite direction I walked yesterday.
Another thought I needed to address in this crazy head of mine is that I may have bitten off more than I could chew in thinking I could come to a foreign country with little to no preparation and just figure things out. More than once I wished for a travel companion or a least a tour guide to learn some of the in’s and out’s of this city. It was another example of feeling alone even though I was surrounded by lots of people. But I really tried to just keep walking knowing that once I got to volunteer at the school that I would meet people who I would develop a relationship with and this current loneliness would pass.
My plan for walking anywhere I am unfamiliar is just to stay on a straight path. That way, I have very little chance of getting lost. Today was no different. As I continued to walk, the streets became quieter and emptier. The scenery was beautiful and the road traveled gaining elevation but I always had a view of the Ganga. In all, my walk lasted three and a half hours and took me to the Rishekesh Valley where I stopped at a road side stand and had a bottle of mango juice. By this time I was very tired, hungry and in need of a seat for a few minutes. The shop owner was a younger, very handsome man who joined me at my table. We tried to make small talk but there was a definite language barrier. I had asked him if he had traveled outside his country and whether or not he had been to Nepal or Tibet. It was a disjointed conversation where he suggested I stay in a house in the valley and then alternated that together we should just go to Nepal and then told a passing friend we wanted to hire a cheap minister. While the idea of a boy toy has a certain appeal, I am afraid I was able to resist, sure that he would leave me at the first opportunity once we returned home. I also passed a bridge opening and dedication that was to be attended by the Chief Minister – of what I am not sure but there were police everywhere and the immediate route had been cleared of all garbage and decorated with brightly colored flags.
On the way back, I was getting even more tired from the lack of solid food and weariness from the heavy bag I was carrying. At one point I sincerely had the very over dramatic thought that I was not sure if I could really make it back to town without either a long rest on the side of the road or a ride in one of the passing vehicles. Within a few minutes, after being passed the entire trip by many scooters, motorcycles and taxis that never did more than honk to make sure I got out of their way, a car pulled up next to me and the driver said, “Ma’am, may I help you?” He did not ask for any money and without much thought I got in the car. He did not try to make small talk and his two other companions continued talking as if I was not there. When we got into town, which was less that 10 minutes by car from where he had picked me up, he dropped me off , I thanked him and away he went.
Once back at the hotel, I stopped at the front desk to order lunch and retrieve my room key. A woman was sitting in the lobby and we exchanged nods. She then asked if I was from the states. She was here studying yoga with my teacher for the month of December. She was a bit of a chatterbox but very likeable and mentioned that my teacher had told her I was coming. We talked a bit longer and I went upstairs to eat lunch. While I was there, my yoga teacher appeared. Over the course of the next hour, we had an interesting conversation that I am still processing. We also discussed my going to visit the school that afternoon. I was excited that I would get to see the kids today rather than having to fill another afternoon with solitary activities.
The ride to the school was via scooter and I can only imagine that my previous cab ride was the Universe’s way of preparing me for what was yet to come. I had thought that weaving in and out of traffic by car was absurd but the route to the school via scooter was positively paralyzing.
To add to my anxiety, earlier in the afternoon, during the conversation with my yoga teacher, I discovered that he thought I had credentials as a teacher and told me I could basically teach whatever I wanted. He seemed a bit surprised when I told him I had no formal training in education and that I was just here to help as needed.
The last bit of emotional anxiety stemmed from my own misunderstanding. I was certain, before the scooter ride, of the direction of the school but when we went the opposite direction, I was filled with more than a little fear. By the time we arrived I was convinced I was being dropped off in the completely wrong location and as a result asked more than once if the teacher knew I was coming.
One of my flaws is that I suck with names and at this moment, I cannot tell you the names of the four female teachers I spent the afternoon with. There were also two male instructors but they never once spoke to me. Through limited English, I was told that the school had 125 students. The students pay nothing to attend and everything is provided, including the uniforms. Currently, the school is only three hours per day because the building is owned by the government and the school shares the building with another organization. In addition to basic reading and writing, the school also teaches sewing, yoga, arts and crafts and I am sure other topics that I will discover in the coming days.
Prior to the start of school, I had some time for small talk with the women. It was a bit awkward as they clearly had other things to discuss. What I did discover is that three of the four women are single. The arts and crafts teacher is only there on Saturdays and only one of the women has an actual certificate/degree in teaching. The other two women are students in a teaching program – at least that’s what I think I learned. It was easy to pick out the comedienne of the bunch as well as the bold one and the shy one. Our small talk was interrupted by two small boys coming into the classroom, hands filled with small, grape sized berries. The comedienne made a face before taking a bite that clearly indicated this was not going to be a tasty treat. Nevertheless, she took a small nibble with her front teeth and made sounds for the boys to indicate how happy she was to receive such a treat. She made sure the boys offered every one of us these berries and watched with glee as I tried one. Yuck. The women laughed at my facial expressions and that went a long way to ease some of the awkwardness.
School began with the kids lined up in rows reciting a very long prayer while the teachers watched. After the prayer, one of the male teachers led the students in what I can only describe as a series of somewhat odd calisthenics. The kids could not help themselves from staring at me throughout this period and while I have no knowledge of Hindi whatsoever, it did seem apparent that no one introduced me or even mentioned why the gigantic American woman was there. So my anxiety remained quite high.
The afternoon took a decided upswing when we got to break out into groups for arts and crafts. The arts and crafts teacher was clearly worried about whether or not I would be of any use to her and haltingly asked me if I was “crafty”… That gave me more than a little chuckle. At this moment, I wish I had taken photos of what we made because it will be difficult to describe but I made a conscious decision to not pull out my camera that first day. In short, we made components for what would have been a wind chime if made from different materials. This project was made of plastic straws, thread and beads. I sat between two girls and through hand gestures only, learned to make one of the plastic straw components. What was so funny to me was the fact that I was sitting there making this and not “helping” at all. Add to that, the first one I did was rejected by the arts and crafts teacher (the bold one) and I was told I would need to do it again. My second try was much better, if I do say so myself, and my opinion was clearly shared by the adorable eight or nine year-old girl who patiently taught me how to do it. My determination to win the teacher’s approval and show her I was in fact “crafty”, led me to make several more, each one tighter and completed faster than before. Had I had another 20 minutes, I could have dazzled them with my speed and prowess even further by completing the first project and moving on to the second one. Well, maybe next Saturday.
In the middle of arts and crafts, I was offered tea. One thing I did not mention in my earlier discussion of tea – they serve this stuff blisteringly hot. I saw the milk at a clear rolling boil prior to it being served and yet it never tastes scalded or burnt. That fact fascinates me and I am unsure of how they do it. I asked if the milk was cow’s milk and was told yes. That lead to a discussion of other milks and the bold one indicated she has two buffalo and uses buffalo milk at home. Tea was served in metal cups that transfer heat very well and I nearly scalded my hands trying to hold it. There was a brief discussion of whether I liked sugar in my tea and the comedienne made faces about how much sugar the bold one liked in her tea.
After arts and crafts, the children had a bit of free time before being fed. The bold one and the comedienne and I had a conversation about my marital status and who was watching my son. The bold one could not wrap her head around the fact that my ex currently lives with me but is still my ex. This is a country that still has arranged marriages and very conservative views. She could not move off the point that if we lived in the same house he must still be my husband. Fortunately, the time came for us to serve food and the conversation ended.
To be honest, I am not sure if this meal was considered dinner or a snack or frankly, the only food the kids had all day. The children all went to the roof of the building took off their shoes and sat in rows. There was another prayer and then each child was given a metal cup and milk was served from large buckets by metal pitchers. After milk was poured, we handed each child something that resembled a pastry. By the time they were done eating, school was over for the day. The women and I sat around for a few more minutes and they worked out who was taking me, via scooter, up to get a taxi and my first day at the school was done. Another harrowing ride, this time by six passenger scooter/taxi, a long walk down a windy road to the hotel and one more day of this fascinating journey completed.