Woodstock High School, Mussoorie, India

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"Another" New Season

If you return to my very first blog, you’ll find it with the title of, A New Season.  I was discussing the difficulties of transitioning out of a community that I have been so involved with, and friends that have affected me for the better.  Leaving Woodstock school fills this category all the same. 

Woodstock, more than most places, has to say goodbye to people quite often.  The retention rate for staff is a constant struggle.  People stay for a few years, after giving international education a go, and then perhaps move on.  In a sense, it draws in world travelers who are eager to go and live elsewhere after giving India a chance.  It would be very easy for the long-term staff members not to invest time in these people since they come and go at such a rapid rate (student teachers especially).  However, I have experienced something quite different.

Most of the Woodstock staff took the time to invest in me, they got to know me, and they constantly made sure everything was going great.  They would ask questions daily about life, they invited me for dinner and they formed relationships that will stay with me the rest of my life.  It’s so curious that with the short time I was here, how much one can learn from the sincerity and attitude of others.  I’m again very thankful to be a part of such a rich community, and I am hoping to carry with me these sweet lifelong lessons.

Thank you Woodstock for making my student teaching experience the very best that it could have been.  I hope to see you again very soon.

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"Yes My Friend?"

I traveled to Rishikesh this weekend, which is a well known city throughout this region and India.  Religion is business here, and Hindus come on long pilgrimages here to bath in the mighty Ganga River.  This is also a magnet for young people who come and relax to experience the world  through meditation, and it is also worth mentioning that Rishikesh is indeed the Yoga capital of the world.

I boarded the bus to take me down the mountain, but at the last minute a family of four asked for my widow seat.  I cooperated and shifted down for them to squeeze in.  Before long, I heard the sound of vomiting, which is not at all uncommon on the bus rides. You can always expect to see the brown decorated “decals” streaking down bus and taxi windows. 

I flagged down a rickshaw to take me to the other bus station, and I arrived in Rishikesh a few hours later.  The Lonely Planet recommended a nice little tourist café called the Little Buddha, overlooking the Ganga River.  As I entered the packed restaurant filled with tourists, I found one empty table left near the back.  All around me were languages being spoken in French, German, variety of English accents, Russian, Arabic, and plenty of others I didn’t recognize.  Since English is the reference language, broken or full, all the orders and business from travelers around the world are done in English.  I found it fascinating when a Russian attempted to order food from an Indian.  I could overhear them, but I had absolutely no idea what they were saying. Their accents were so thick, and their ability to communicate was very impressive.  There is no way I could translate, although they were speaking in English for sure!   

I spent a lot of the weekend down by the river rapids reading and relaxing.  There are also many Bazaars along the way, and I still needed to buy plenty of gifts for family and friends back home.  Every shopkeeper that I accidentally made eye contact with would acknowledge with the phrase,  “Yes my friend?  You come what I have!”  Their strategy to lure me into their shops was not always successful, but I found it delightful.  I made a lot of friends that weekend in the shops, even if I didn’t want their trinkets.

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Somewhere Special

I was asked to write a short story on what I have experienced at Woodstock.

Living here in the foothills for over twelve weeks now, a question which never fails to surface is, “So what do you think of Woodstock?”  Instantly as I begin to formulate my answer, a smile is drawn to my face when I recall how much I have experienced here in such a little amount of time.  That which comes to mind are all the great weekend hikes, the Taj Mahal, Activity Week at Gaird Village, the incredible landscape, and simply experiencing the Indian life.  However, above all the ‘things’ I have done here, there is one that is clearly elevated above the rest.

This one is difficult to put into words, as C.S Lewis states, “Who can describe beauty.”  The beauty I am attempting to unwrap is not the physical layout of the foothills, but rather the beauty of a non-comparable community that makes Woodstock what it is.  I have been blessed to be a part of a few incredible communities in my life thus far, and Woodstock is one of its kind.

This diverse population being together in such a perfectly cohesive environment is astounding.  Countries have fought for so long over the borders of this world, over superiority, over religions, and over power, that, at times, it is difficult to see a hope.  Woodstock is the perfect platform for a glimpse of what this world could be as far as living at peace with one another.  The idea of a world immersed in harmony has been in sight for ages, yet, the achievement of it is just as far away as it was since the fall.  However, places like Woodstock do exist in this world where this goal has become a reality.  It ripples from a choice of each member, of each community, and Woodstock has made that stand together. 

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The Taj Mahal

Over quarter break, my friend Ed and I traveled to see the Taj Mahal in Agra.  I was very much looking forward to viewing this magnificent work of art for two reasons.  The first was obvious; it’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World!  The second reason was to avoid the statement from friends when I return to the States, “You were in India and you didn’t even go see the Taj Mahal!”  So off we went on Thursday afternoon, transported by taxi, train, bus, and rickshaw, we arrived at our hotel.

The best time to visit the Taj are at sunrise or sunset, so we chose to get up early; however, so did 5,000 other tourists staying in the area.  There are two separate fees.  If you are an Indian, you pay 20 rupees (40 cents) and if you are a tourist you pay 750 rupees ($17.5).  This agitated a lot of the people in line who work, have residence or hold a diplomacy card; but the ticket man did not care.  If you were white, you paid the 750, identification or not!

We entered the great gate to the courtyard of the Taj with our audio tour guide providing the detailed history of the 15th century history of India.  From start to completion, it took 23 years, and supplies were brought from all over India and Asia in order for it to be built to perfection.  It was built by Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan in honor of his Muslim Queen, Mumtaz Mahalwho are now buried right at the center of the Taj.  The architecture is amazing for the time period it was build in and it is definitely a must see of you come to India.

However, I don’t plan on going again.  It is such a big tourist city and the Indian vendors  do their very best to charge you the most for what they are selling.  I’m getting better at bartering but I haven’t perfected it.  I began to get frustrated with some of the vendors trying to sell me their gizmos, because they wouldn’t take no for an answer.  At times it seemed as if everyone was out to get me, or perhaps that’s just the Indian style of retailing.

On a lighter note, I rode in my first rickshaw through the busy streets!  The Indians we passed by gave me a confusing look as I had a smile plastered on my face the entire ride no doubt wondering, “Why is he enjoying that ride so much?”

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Tibetan Ballers

After our week long of soaring temperatures, no showers, and dusty trails, we took down our tents and loaded up the vehicles which came to pick us up.  We bid farewell to the villagers and the many surrounding kids, who wanted to spend every last possible second with us.

We drove down the Himalayan roads for many hours on our return journey and decided to stop for a mid afternoon snack at a place called Happy Valley.  This is a Tibetan refugee area known to be the first place the Dalai Lama fled to upon his exile and then moved to Dharamsala, where he now resides.  (By the way, two of the Dalai Lama’s nephews were with us during our village stay).  As we waited for the restaurant to open, we took a quick tour of the boarding school and had ourselves a look around.  Only Tibetans attended this school and many of them are there on scholarship from their Government.  Many of the students have grown up in orphanages right there or have fled to seek refuge in Happy Valley.

The students were all on lunch break, and some of the teachers and Monks were shooting around and playing some basketball in the courtyard of the school. So, the polite thing to do would be to ask for a scrimmage right?  Well, I did just that.  Five of us, versus some Tibetan Monks in their very colorful robes, and a few in pants.  I have never seen so many behind the back passes in a single game!  A majority of them never hit their intended target, but still.  The though of, “I’m guarding a monk right now,” never left my mind the whole game.  The entire school, which was around 500 students dressed in uniform, all came out to watch us play a nice friendly game of international basketball.  It might have been the largest crowd I have ever played in front of.

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Don’t Throw Rocks

During our stay, we set up our tents just below the village on a terraced field that was not yet planted for the season.  After our daily debriefing, we would walk five minutes down to our camp and to get ready for bed.  We all shared a 55-gallon barrel of water for the week to wash our faces and get cleaned up.  This was the closest to a shower any of us got for the six days.

As we were zipping up our tents for the second night, one of our girls let out a short scream, quickly followed by an even louder and more frightening one.  During the first scream I figured they were just having some fun, but the tone of the second, clearly indicated something was wrong.  ‘I wonder if she’s okay,’ I thought.  And then it dawned on me, ‘Oh yea, I’m a chaperone, I better get out there!’  I slipped on my shoes and grabbed the flashlight, along with our entire camp, and got up to see what the screaming was. 

The girl was very shaken up and being comforted by her close friends while she explained, between the tears, that a rock had been thrown, and it hit her tent.  Then, a second rock had been thrown and hit her just below the chin.

With all the ruckus going on, the entire village began to awake, and started to quickly search the hillside for who had been throwing those rocks.  There was no doubt it was some of the kids in the village, having their nightly fun. 

After 20 minutes, a mob of men came down to our tents, holding two young boys, apparently the ones who had been throwing the rocks.  The punishment for actions such as this in the rural villages of India, if used in America, would warrant jail time.  The men started hitting these kids with rocks right in front of us, but a couple of us got to them before they could do any more damage.  The lead chaperone attempted to talk them down in Hindi.  Our group of students, now horrified, were amazed that the kids were being punished this severely. 

The village men wanted us to see the kids being punished for their actions.   They wanted us to see that they had everything under control and that this type of behavior would not be tolerated.  What struck me so bluntly was how brutal they would have been to this kid if we had not jumped in and stopped it.

After we talked the men down, an argument rose among them.  I couldn’t make out what it was about, but it may have involved one of the boy’s fathers.  The group of twenty plus men were yelling at each other and holding each other back from a very intense verbal and physical fight.  This continued on for at least an hour before silence returned to the hillside. 

That night, everyone lay on their mats with an uneasiness due to the night’s events.  It would be awkward and difficult to face the village the next morning.

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From the moment we arrived to the moment we left Gaird, there was a group of children constantly on patrol.  It seemed as if they had coordinated shifts to watch all the foreigners to maximize the time they were able to spend with us.  Hardly a moment went by where there weren’t thirty sets of eyes all over us.

I love playing with kids, but these guys gave me a run for my money.  My energy was well spent at the end of the day from playing hundreds of games of cricket (of which I still don’t know half of), duck-duck gray duck, multiple games the kids came up with, boomerangs, jumping on Chris, and the list goes on.

It became clear that I made the mistake of showing them a few of my talents much too early on in the week.  I vibrated my eyes for them, made whistling noises, beat-boxed, and did a little dancing.  Every time any kid saw me they would run up and indicate which one they wanted me to do, and mostly it was beat-boxing.  I attempted to show them how, but they seemed to want me to do it much rather than learn it themselves.  Sometimes I got away with the excuse where I would tell them, “No Hindi,” and they would just hang around instead of requesting a trick.

However, nothing captivated these children more than when they discovered the 197 cubic centimeter dent in my chest.  One of the kids came across it and proclaimed something to the rest of the children in Hindi.  I’m not quite fluent in their language yet, but I’m pretty sure it was something along the lines of, “Everyone! All at once charge the white man and reach for his chest!”  I had at least thirty sets of fingers all pushing me backwards so they could touch it.  They knocked me off my feet and onto the ground.

After I regained control, I also showed them that I could make noise with it, as you see in the picture.

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Gaird Village

During the spring, Woodstock has something they refer to as an Activity Week, where the different grades of the senior school go to various places to experience Indian life.  I was fortunate enough to go with a group of 9th grade students to Gaird Village.  We spent a week living with them (in tents), and talking about their way of life, the struggles they encounter, their roles as men and women, the scarce and abundant resources, and simply hearing their stories.  Our plan is to present our findings to the magistrate for improvements in their lifestyle.

Although they were only a three hour drive away, the 65 families of Gaird live a completely different lifestyle that those in the Mussoorie area.  The days begin well before sunrise with chores of milking the cows and feeding the animals and end well into the night where their work is illuminated by small candles.  Everywhere in between is filled with the essentials of the village life such as washing clothes by hand, working the land, watering livestock, grinding flower, cooking meals, and such.  All these duties of the villagers in Gaird are not even close to the duties of any western society.

My next few blogs will deal with stories of the village during this last week as a guest.

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Here’s Your “Change”

I enjoy walking up and down the Bazaar, seeing the variety of shops that line the streets.  I am not a big spender, but occasionally I will stop into a shop and make a small purchase.  Everything is inexpensive as it is, so, I usually don’t attempt to barter with the shopkeepers; or perhaps that’s my excuse since I’m terrible at bartering in the first place.  I’m sure many owners have rubbed their hands together after I left because they got an extra 100 rupees out of me.  I paid 150 rupees ($3) for a nice hand made Tibetan hat, and as I was leaving, I noticed a grin on his face.  I can only translate this grin as a “I got you sucker!”  But I guess if we both have convinced ourselves we each got the deal of the decade, then life is good.  Right?

Many of these shops have odd pricing systems, and if you want to buy anything, you better carry exact change.  When you go to the to pay the owner sitting cross legged, bare foot, and on a floor mat he will almost always say, in his thick Indian-English accent, “No change,” meaning he has no change for you.  In which case you will either have to dig deeper in your wallet and hope for the correct amount, or pay him those 5 rupees extra, since he conveniently “has no change.”  However, some of the shops are a little more honest, and they will give you your change, but they won’t give you your change in any sort or certified currency.  Rather, if they owe you 2 rupees, they’ll give you a couple of tootsie rolls, but if they owe you 5 rupees, they’ll give you a small pack of gum as your change, basically telling you, ‘We’re even!”

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The Other End

This past weekend I attended a religious education retreat at Torchbearers, which is down the hill about forty minutes.  Every year, a group of about fourteen Hawaiians will put on a mission trip.  They spend the week around the Mussoorie area helping out in the orphanage and putting on a retreat for the senior high students of Woodstock.  A few of our staff volunteered to go as chaperones, just in case something came up.  

We were told to hop in and mingle with the students wherever we can, but for the most part, we were to let the Hawaiians take charge and run things.  This was their mission trip.  It was a Christian retreat, but at Woodstock, we have Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and other religious backgrounds.  The Hawaiians were briefed about the various religious students attending the retreat and were asked to be mindful and sensitive to the upbringings of these students. 

I was very curious as to how they were planning on speaking to each of the students from a Christian perspective when many of them were not Christians themselves. Each of these religions recognizes Jesus as a great teacher, but their beliefs are not centered around his teachings.  The small group discussions I was able to attend really felt as if everyone was walking on eggshells with what they said.  It was a very different type of retreat than I have ever experienced.  I am still attempting to process it all myself, but nonetheless, it was fruitful.

Overall, being on the receiving end of a mission trip was very curious.   I have been on mission trips, but have never had one come to serve me.  I wanted to jump in and help out, but I let the Hawaiians do their thing.  I felt blessed to have been on the receiving end of the stick.