Saturday, 12 December 2009

Exam week

Exam week is upon us.  Normal lessons have been replaced with mocks in all subjects for grades 6 and above.

The American volunteers refer to the exam invigilator as the proctor.  Somehow proctor better conveys the experience of sitting in a room full of scribbling children for 3 hours.  The conversation is limited. More paper please.  Can I go to the toilet please?   Knowing that all of the those scribbling pens are churning out marking makes it worse.  Mile upon mile of wiggly blue lines to be deciphered, corrected and scored.

The kids here all have 'autograph books' which departing volunteers leave notes in. As with everything else, the kids are very competitive with their books, so a quick 'work hard, be good' doesn't cut it.  It has to be original and witty. So many children, so many books.  

I caught the kids arguing over which magazine cut-out Blackberry had better features.  This on has a bigger screen, better for games!  Mine has 5 meg camera! 

I gave the boys in question a good talking to, pointing out that it was ridiculous and childish to argue over which was better.  Everyone knows that the cut-out iPhone beats beats the Blackberry hands down.

 I think that these two are on the phone to each other.

Speaking of technology, a friend posted a lovely surprise to the school, a tiny Polaroid printer which prints directly from my digital camera.  The kids are love it.  I've taken portraits of a number of the younger grades so that they can take them home to show their families.  Cheers Ludwig.  As you can see, photographing the kids here is easy work; they're a  photogenic bunch.

Despite growing up in the smelliest country on earth, the kids have very sensitive noses, sensitive enough to distinguish between volunteers as it turns out. They can identify us by our smell before they can see us.  Each of us has a unique pong.  Our smells include: like a salty biscuit (no bad), cheesy (not good), like a goat (ouch).  I'm delighted with my signature odour - soapy.  Or was that soupy?

A surprise screening of the latest Harry Potter movie is planned for Sunday night. The kids are going to go bananas.  They shake their heads in disgust when they learn that I haven't read the books, especially as I dressed-up as Harry for Halloween.  

When I first arrived I was a bit mystified by the children's requests for me to speak to them - 'just say anything Mr Peter'.  Then I twigged.  To their ears I sound just like Harry.

Last weekend I escaped to Hampi with my compadre Min-ho.  We took the Hampi Express sleeper service from Bangalore.  As it was dark during both our outward and return journeys, we didn't see a great deal.  I do remember waking as we passed an enormous power station.  Alongside was the longest train I've ever seen. In keeping with Indian bureaucracy every wagon was plastered with labels identifying the contents as 'Imported Australian Coking Coal'.  Aussie dinosaurs are being dug up, shipped half way around the world and burnt to power India tv's and air conditioners.

Hampi, in the state of Karnataka, was once Vijayanagar, a great 15th century city.  At its height the city's 500,000 inhabitants traded gems and spices with merchants from far off lands.  The city's enormous wealth was used to build a complex of temples and palaces which cover an enormous area. Deccan sultans sacked the city in 1565, but most of the monuments remain very good condition. If you plan to build a monument to your greatness, I recommend using granite.  The landscape is dramatic. Enormous granite boulders are scattered across broad domes of smooth rock.  Paddy field and banana plantation bring a bit of green to the red and orange of the granite.  We hired a couple of old school Indian bikes; they look great, but as they're built to a 1930's design they're not the best rides. No gears, no brakes, damned heavy.  

The experts don't seem to mind.

Mmm...nice hot pouris, "cheap and best!"

We stayed outside the main town in the village of Kamalapuram, a short boatride across the Tungabhandra River.  The village is a major stop on the India backpacking circuit. Hundreds of Israeli kids spend their days here, chilling out and playing guitars in cool caf├ęs. Nice.  

After a very relaxing weekend we had to haul ourselves back onto the train. Time is running short. Sadly, just a week from now, I'll be leaving the school for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  I'm trying not to think about it too much.  What will I do without my little friends?

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Killer chickens...

What was terrifying at first is now routine. Up at 7am, breakfast, into class at 8.30am, blink, and it's dinner time. Two more weeks have been swallowed up.

At one point a couple of weeks ago 96 of the 210 children were taken ill with a flu like virus. Kids get colds, and in a school like this they inevitably spread faster than rumours of rice pudding for afternoon snack, but this seemed more serious. Thankfully it wasn't what we feared it might be and all of the kids are much better.

Classes are progressing well. As we're approaching 'exam week' I've concluded my 'Scratch' programming courses. Having started with very little computing knowledge the children are now writing their own games; we've had great fun and the kids are now proud to call themselves programmers. One of my favourites is 'Sponge Bob', an addictive game written by a couple of 7th Graders (11 year olds); eat the cheesy puffs, avoid the killer chickens.

My older English literature students have been working hard towards term exams which I have set and will mark. Quite a responsibility as the marks will be sent to Delhi and count towards their final grades. It's hard to judge where teaching stops and spoon-feeding begins. I want my kids to do well, but making things too easy isn't going to ready them for the big board exams at the end of March.

As a change from the usual slog into Bangalore, a few of my fellow volunteers joined me on a trip to Pondicherry last weekend.

En route we stopped at a massive temple complex in Tiruvannamali, built on the spot where Shiva appeared as a column of fire, giving rise to the original 'lingam' symbol of the Hindu religion.

Pondicherry, on the East Coast, 100km south of Chennai (Madras), is a former French colony. A little Gallic charm endures and the Indo/Franco cuisine is delicious; superb, delicately spiced fish curries. (Yes, it's true, the seafood was too good to miss so the veggie experiment is over.) The wide boulevards, with their colonnaded houses are pretty; it helps if you squint slightly and hold your nose. This is India after all, so you often catch a whiff of worse things than frying garlic. The long promenade besides the Bay of Bengal is more Blackpool/Coney Island than St. Tropez, but the local tourists were having a great time. Their first glimpse of the ocean.

Most interesting for me was Auroville, a community 20km outside of Pondy. Conceived by 'The Mother' in the late 60's, Auroville is 'an experiment in international living where people could live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, politics and nationalities'. 2000 people from all over the world live with no personal possessions, each with their own role in farming, maintenance, the arts, etc. The centre of Auroville is marked with an enormous golden structure, the 'Matrimandir'. Within this weird alien structure, hidden from the eyes of visitors, is a meditation chamber lined with white marble at the centre of which stands an enormous sphere of the quartz crystal. Mirrors direct the sun's rays onto the crystal to light the chamber. Far out man.

A wonderful concept, that really appeals to my inner hippy. I'd move if only my inner cynic didn't feel that it's all just a little too good to be true.

The drive to Pondy, 7.5hrs each way, was both fascinating and terrifying. It's all very well visiting the sights, but the people live in the in-between places; you see the real India on the road. The worst poverty is on the fringes of the big towns. So many pitiful sights. People lying like corpses on the fringes of the highway as lorries roar past, just a couple of metres away. Perhaps they would welcome a quick end. Life certainly looks harder in the cities than in the towns and villages, but then I'm the lucky one on the inside of the car looking out.
The Gods have smiled on our children at Shanti Bhavan, that's for sure.

Next weekend I'm off to Hampi on an overnight train. I leave Bangalore at 10pm and will be woken in my sleeper compartment with a cup of chai as we arrive in Hampi at 7am. Much more civilised.