I am not good at travel blogging.

•May 17, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Hello, friends. It’s been a while.

The fact is, I’ve been having far too much fun to actually write about what I’ve been doing. I’m abismally behind in my written journal as well; according to my Moleskine, I’m still in Thailand at the Sriracha Tiger Zoo (a vegan’s nightmare! o jeez!).

Here’s basically what’s been up:

Thus far, my trip has been a series of legitimate Pittsburgh reunions, plus making new friends on the road.

My first stop was Japan, where I spent most of my time in Tokyo (and more specifically a suburb of its suburb Yokohama) with my friend Ram from college. Tokyo is a bit crazy, but I really enjoyed it. We did a lot of people-watching, which is quite fruitful in Japan. My favorite outing was one Ram sent me on one of the days he had to work, out to Kamukara, a small town on the ocean that has a number of shrines and temples in walking distance of one another, including (another) huge sitting Buddha statue! A very cool and relaxing area, just slightly off the tourist route of Tokyo. We also had a great time riding the Cosmo Clock in Yokohama, the largest clock in the world, which is also a huge ferris wheel. While we were in Yokohama, we bought panda-face dessert bao, which while not super delicious, were super cute. I also really enjoyed the trip Ram and I took down to Hiroshima (via bullet train, which is quite speedy) to visit my friend Kristin, who I know from high school. We spent most of our day on Miyajima, an island near Hiroshima with an enormous Shinto shrine, tame deer, and lots of monkeys. But, we also made our requisite trip to the A-bomb Dome, which was overwhelmingly depressing. Fifteen minutes was enough for me while on a short vacation!

Next was Thailand, where I met up again with “Bah Duh” Jon from Pittsburgh. He’s been on the road since the beginning of April, after spending about one to two months in southern Spain on a WWOOF farm. We stayed with one of his family’s old exchange students, Montira, and she and her family made sure we knew how to get to places of interest around Bangkok and were more than happy to drive us around themselves when they didn’t have to go to work. Jon and I went ourselves to the two major temples downtown, Wat Po and Wat Phra Kaew, on our first full day in town. Wat Phra Kaew has an enormous complex, including an expansive mural of the Ramayana, but Wat Po was my favorite of the two because it had (another) huge Buddha statue, the largest I’ve seen thus far. 46 meters long! That’s huge! On day trips with Montira and with Oui, a friend of my friend Grant’s from when he was doing mission work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we went to a floating food market (plus boat trip to temples), the Sriracha Tiger Zoo (false advertising! so false! tigers jumping through hoops! eek!), and “Ancient Siam,” a drivable scaled model of the entire country of Thailand.  Lastly, I actually had a surprisingly difficult time finding vegetarian food. I’m wondering if, like in Japan, vegetarian options are just an American tourist/restaurant construction. Or, we just weren’t eating at enough street stalls. Anyway, I still ate lots of noodles and fruits, and that was fine by me.

Then Jon and I made the long flight to Egypt, and his jetlag was fully messed up 🙂  However, Egypt was awesome in all ways, so we still had a great time. We tried couchsurfing for the first time, which means I signed up for a website and found a host family for us in Cairo. Very cool! We got a couple family dinners and some very relaxed time playing with the two young daughters and the kitten of the family. It was a great situation after long days of being tourists. Our first day we drove out and saw the pyramids at Giza and Saqqara, which were AWESOME. The Lonely Planet describes the Giza pyramid area as a site which “never fail to disappoint,” but they are full of crap. Pyramids are AWESOME. I cannot express that enough. Hilariously, the city is built up right to the edge of the Sphinx, so you’re just driving around thinking you’re not about to see an enormous pyramid, but BAM, then there it is. I hope my use of capital letters shows how cool they are. The step pyramid at Saqqara was also pretty neat, and though it was too late in the day for us to make it out to the other pyramids at nearby Dahshur, we could still easily see them in the distance. We made time in our last two days in Cairo to go see the Egyptian Museum (King Tut was pretty cool), the Citadel (another cool place disrespected by the Lonely Planet that was very close to where we were couchsurfing), Islamic Cairo (with a big touristy market among big mosques… uuuugh touristy markets), and Coptic Cairo. Coptic Cairo was probably the best, because while we got there too late in the day to go in any of the churches (oops) we ended up following a big marching band parade to St. George’s Convent’s church, which was fun and the church was gorgeous. Despite what I had heard about Egypt and women travelers, I didn’t come across trouble at all. Part of this was that I was with Jon, my surrogate brother/husband/whatever, but a bigger part was that I wore long sleeved shirts and ankle-length skirts. Jon called my makeshift headcoverings “instant respect.” Do you know whose legs and arms you see in Egypt? Tourists. Don’t go to Egypt in shorts and sleeveless tops! You will be the only one in town showing off those parts! Culturally inappropriate! Sheesh.

Our trip to Jordan was a little nutty, but worked out well in the end because we made new friends and saw Petra, which was Jon’s favorite monument (except maybe the pyramids, which again, are too cool). We took a bus across the Sinai and spent the night in a small hut along the Red Sea at Nuweiba. Then, we took the very not fast fast-ferry to Aqaba, on the Jordanian side, which left four hours late and thus we arrived in Jordan around 10 pm. This would have deterred some travelers from the extra two hour car ride to Petra, but not Jon and I! We made friends with an Australian living in Britain, a Chinese-Australian living in France, and an Indian-Fijian living in Britain and had an insane trip out to Petra.  Of course, in the process, we became friends. The Australian-in-Britain, Mary, ended up coming and staying with us in Jerusalem as well! Anyway, we got up reasonably early and went to Petra, which was also SO COOL. It’s way more than what you see in Indiana Jones. The canyon is enormous, and there are tombs all over the place. The two best preserved things (the Indiana Jones Treasury facade and the Monastery) are at opposite ends, but both well worth the walk, if the hundreds of facades in between didn’t do the trick. We all got sunburnt, but otherwise it was a delightful day. Like in Egypt, the people in Jordan were really hospitable and friendly. I think my favorite compliment was when one of the hotel guys said, in reference to me, “This girl is not like other Americans! She knows some things!” Oh dear, America. Lastly, this Jordanian journey made us Moses Jones. Hoorah!

After a long taxi ride and wait at a contested border, we made it over the King Hussein Bridge and into Israel. My first impression of Israel was not great: there was a kid maybe my age in sneakers and a polo shirt standing outside the customs office with a machine gun, and the girl who was interviewing Jon and I (who was maybe as old as Jon, but I doubt it) was girlishly delighted over our Lonely Planet… but stuck out her tongue in girlish distaste when she saw the title included the Palestinian Territories. Ah, 18-year-olds… with weapons. Eesh. However, my opinion was shifted because Jerusalem was really, really great. I dragged Jon to all sorts of religious sites, which he was very gracious about. Of course we visited the Temple Mount (though non-Muslims can no longer go see the Rock in the Dome of the Rock — alas!), but there’s so much more in Jerusalem, especially if you’re interested in Christian history. One afternoon we just spent walking the Stations of the Cross, which lead into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a very interesting and zany Crusader church that supposedly is built on the cruxifiction and burial sites of Jesus.

Probably the coolest thing I thought we did in Jerusalem was actually outside the city, in the little town of Bethlehem. I was reluctant to go there because it’s in the West Bank (ooooh noooes) but then my dad offhandedly informed me that the His Holiness the Pope himself was visiting Israel and would be in Bethlehem the day after we arrived. All fears gone aside! I was so excited to go and see him. Jon and I linked up with a Canadian guy named Cameron at our youth hostel, and made the (surprisingly easy) bus journey to Bethlehem, only to discover on arrival that you needed tickets. Drat! But, Providence provided us with two nice young Catholic ladies who were volunteering at the papal office in Jerusalem, and one of them had extra tickets in her purse. Hoorah! We got to see the smallest public papal mass, and, AND, most importantly, the Pope driving around in his Popemobile.  A great day.

Now we’re in Haifa on our last day in Israel, and about to go out and see the Shrine of the Bab and Baha’i Gardens. We’re couchsurfing again, and to say that our host’s apartment has a fabulous view of the Mediterranean is a great understandment. We’re having a great time so far, and plan for this last day to be just as good. Then Jon’s headed back to Pittsburgh and I to Ghana to see my high school friend Mike, who’s been in the Peace Corps for almost two years now.

About the Children’s Village, I’ve heard from our friends out in India that five of the older children were able to participate in the annual youth conference, which happened earlier this month. Possibly because of their presence there, the UUNEI Youth Wing is planning to have a “volunteer day” at the orphanage soon! It would be great to have more people from the UUNEI community out at the Children’s Village to help out. Bahun, the eldest of the two Mukhim sisters, has also brought a doctor out to Mawsynjri to meet with the kids, and he recommended that they go through deworming medication and vitamins as their first course of healthier living. On that note, the Meghalayan government supposedly gave out a mass meningitis vaccination to villages including Kharang about a week ago; still waiting to hear if that actually went through (ahh, the Indian government). I’ve also heard that construction has “slowed,” which is worrisome because last time I heard that, construction had come to a full halt for three weeks. Eesh. But let’s all pray that that’s not actually what’s happening and that the septic tank is finished. It’s strange only getting this information second-hand when I used to be the main contact about the kids, but that’s how it has to be now. I can just hope that I can return soon to visit them!

Phew, that’s the long of it. Maybe I’ll post again from Barcelona so that Ghana will be in a reasonably sized chunk 🙂

The final word.

•April 26, 2009 • Leave a Comment

This is the sermon I gave at the Mawsynjri Unitarian Church on my last day in Meghalaya (exactly one week ago now):

When I was young, I would always draw a particular small picture. I remember putting it everywhere for many years. It was a balloon, like at a party, with a smiling face on it. Next to that, I would write, “Be Happy.”

Then, I did not know how important that phrase was “Be Happy.” I did not know that when I became older, more and more of my friends and family would become unhappy. I know many people in my country who are not happy. For the past four years, I have done a lot of thinking about why so many people in my country are unhappy. These are not people who worry about whether they have enough food to eat, or whether their house was well-built. They have these needs met, but they still want more. And there is always more a person can have, so they stay unhappy. They are never satisfied.

But I don’t want to talk about unhappiness. Doesn’t it feel easier sometimes to let yourself be sad than to be happy? You can always find an excuse to be sad. Maybe it’s raining outside when you have forgotten your umbrella. Maybe you are having a difficult time in school. Maybe you are having a difficult time with your wife or husband. These are reasons to be sad.

But what I have learned in these years of thinking about happiness is that you don’t have to succumb to that sadness. You can choose to be happy. And you can choose to live your life in such a way that you are likely to find happiness. I think about this very often, and want to share these thoughts with you.

The first step on the way to happiness is to choose to behave in a correct way. If you are doing the wrong thing, unhappiness is surely to follow. As it says in the Bible’s Galatians, you reap what you sow. If you plant a bad seed, it will grow into a big, bad tree. If you do not study your books, you will fail your exams. If you are unkind to your neighbors, gossiping and unwilling to give them help, you will lose your friends and be alone. If you are drinking so much alcohol, your body and mind begin to waste away. You must act in the right way as often as possible. No person can be perfect, but you must strive toward righteousness.

God will tell you what is right, in your heart, if you ask Him to guide you. Proverbs 3[:5-6] says, “To ngeit ha U Trai da la ka dohnud baroh, bad wat shaniah ha la ka jong ka jingshemphang. Ha la ki lynti baroh to phla ia u, te un pynbeit ia ki lynti iaid jong me. [Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your path.]” God will always show you the proper way, if you open yourself to His word.

The next thing I have learned about happiness is that you must always believe what you are doing is amazing. Do not just do the right thing. Do the right thing the best you can, so you may be proud of your work. You cannot be disappointed if you have truly done your best. If you are not doing your work excellently, then you will feel that disappointment. This year in Pingwait, the theme of the Unitarian Union’s General Assembly was about letting your little light shine. Jesus said, you do not hide your light under a basket. You put your candle on a table so that all may see. “To pynshai kumta ia ka jingshai jong phi ha khmat ki briew. [Let your light so shine before men.]” [Matt 5:16] May the excellence of your work reflect the best you can give to the world, and you cannot be affected by disappointment or regret.

Lastly, in addition to working toward righteousness and excellence, you must choose to be happy. Some people who have visited the Khasi Hills ask me, “How can you be happy here? Sometimes the water does not come to the tap. Sometimes you run out of oil, and you have to go all the way to Smit and Shillong to get more. Sometimes you miss the bus. You see broken homes and people falling sick far from a hospital.” These things are true. But I am happy here. I think you all are too. You have loving neighbors. You have good schools for your children to attend. You have much land for farming and in which to play. You choose to be happy with these things, even when you are facing a difficulty.

Are there problems here? Yes. But if you allow yourself to be dejected, you cannot alleviate these problems. You must feel in your heart that you can make your life better. You must choose that positive attitude and the belief that you can help yourself and your neighbors. Act righteously and do your actions with excellence. Choose righteousness, excellence, and happiness, and how can your joy decrease? How can you not improve the happiness of yourself and those around you?

I hope in this sermon, I am talking mostly to myself. I hope you have already chosen to Be Happy. You all have made it very easy for me to be happy this year, even though I am very far from my home. I will remember you all and will bring the joy you have given me back to America. I will miss you very much when I go away, but I am happy to have known you and to know that I will see you again soon.

Khublei shibun ki paralock jong nga. [Thank you very much, my friends.] May God give you every blessing.


My last day was lovely.

I went to the children’s service with the kids in the morning. Spent most of my morning over at the Children’s Village, eating lunch there and at the Mukhims’ home. Tea with our main construction workers at noon. Church service around 1 with this sermon and kwai and candies for everyone afterward. Tea at the Mynsongs, the family I’m closest to in the village. Packing up Khlur’s car at home, saying goodbye to his parents, Dari, and all the kids. Saying goodbye to the mothers and children at the Children’s Village. Goodbye dinner at Bari and Nangroi’s house in Lumparing.

As I’ve written before, the children are adapting well. The mothers and Birialna are doing a great job looking after them, and have plenty of resources to help them out. Construction is nearly finished, though most recently stalled by a cement shortage. But, our men have finished a big drainage ditch in the road (utilizing stones the size of eight year olds), and, now that cement has been found, can put in our last doors and windows for the kitchen and bathroom and build our septic tank’s filter. In the fall, they’ll come back to paint the whole place.

I am currently with my friend Ram in Toyko, the first of my stops over the next five weeks. I’ll probably write an update from each country I visit, so folks at home can collectively read where I am. Nangroi, Khlur, and I have talked about using this blog as a public way to update everyone on the Children’s Village, but who knows how that will pan out. In the meantime, this is now a travel blog.

Thank you all for your interest in this important project. Khublei shibun.

How you found me.

•April 25, 2009 • 1 Comment

This entry is silly.

My blog is hosted through WordPress, which has a statistics service that borders on creepiness. It keeps track not only of how many people came to my blog in a day, but what links they clicked from my site, where they clicked to get to me, etc. My favorite part of this is “Search engine terms.” Remember how my mom Googled “cat as parrot” to see if my blog would come up? Well, here are some other (funny) ways people ended up at my blog without meaning to find it:

  • khasi plaids // fashion // dress
  • buy bricks for an orphange
  • pictures of food for nongkrem dance fest
  • hindu blessing for children
  • “baby bonnets” 1900 photos
  • old india family portrait
  • missionary work
  • baby red pandas shillong and khasi
  • a whole bunch of kids at party
  • parle g ad dr sharmila
  • “jon janis”
  • “andre 3000 & Julie andrews”
  • mike dreyfuss
  • jenn altman-lupu
  • banjop mukhim
  • kimberly scudera (giggles for me, that is not my mom’s name)
  • smita deshmukh
  • sos children’s village scotland
  • guardian angels cat reserve, wayland ma.
  • crossfield elementary gifted and talented
  • langston hughes middle school
  • accelerated schools northern virginia
  • northern virginia steelers paraphernalia
  • montaigne kidney stone // on experience (many times for both)
  • slumdog millionaire philosophy (many times in various phrasings)
  • sano sansar(movie)watch
  • lovemaking in thamel
  • goat sacrifice nepal
  • road washed away between kakarbhitta and kathmandu
  • guwahati to bodh gaya by train
  • guwahati sandstorm flight
  • too huge for her
  • boys love
  • how did india end
  • “hello,goodbye,god bless”
  • + 1 homey 2008/2009

And, my number 1 favorite…:

  • darjeeling travel blood sucking leech

Thanks, all you wayward internet surfers, for stopping by.

Birthdays, banks, and buses.

•April 22, 2009 • 1 Comment

Let’s pretend I published this “on time,” last Saturday, instead of now when I’ve already left Meghalaya. If anyone comes to this blog in the future, the specific dates will be less meaningful.

Nangroi and I, and by extension Dee and the UUPCC back in the States, have had a bit of a circus out here regarding the kids’ birthdays. What would seem a simple manner back home is actually quite complicated here, in our villages and more generally in India.

Last week, Nangroi finally received documents from Wahmawlein and Mawlat which are the closest we’ll get to birth certificates: school records and church records. Because our kids were born in their parents’ home in rural areas, they don’t have birth certificates. In retrospect, it was perfectly ridiculous for us to expect such a thing.

As I’ve written, Marshall’s guardian claimed that he was 4, leading to much worry about how malnourished he must be. Two weeks ago, I asked the kids (via Birialna) if they knew their own birthdays. All of the older kids knew theirs (Pynkhraw 15, Badashisha 13, Phlinsimai 13 on her birthday this past Saturday, Blestar 11), and two of them knew the birthdays of the younger kids (Badashisha’s younger brother Batkupar is 9 and Blestar’s cousin-brother Minit is 6). Rilum knew Krom’s (8), as she’s been his foster mother for almost the entirety of his life. However, this leaves us with ten children who don’t know their own birthday.

This is the necessary background for my surprise when Nangroi showed me all the school records (for Pynkhraw, Phlinsimai, and Blestar) and church records (for Bankhrawbok and Marshall).

First, it seems in the villages that people know only vaguely when they were born. For example, Badashisha’s birthday is in February, near the start of the school year. So (if she actually didn’t know her birthday, which she does), she would know she’d completed another year just by seeing when the schools opened again. If her parents were still living, this is likely how they would keep track of Badashisha’s age. The proper date is not important.

Second, Marshall is only two-and-a-half. That would explain why he looks like he’s two-and-a-half. Phew! A relief, to be sure, but also strange for me that Marshall’s guardian could have gotten his age wrong by two years. Nangroi reminded me that his guardian is illiterate and, as just stated, age is usually just determined by the passing of seasons, not days. If you’re not paying attention, it’s probably easy to lose track of a year.

Third, the school records are hilariously inaccurate. Blestar’s age and birthday were correct, but Phlinsimai and Pynkhraw’s were very, very much not. These records reduced Phlinsimai’s age to 10 and Pynkhraw’s to 11.

Here’s a photo of Pynkhraw I sent back to the States for his sponsors:

Pynkhraw Is Not 11

Eleven years old? Really? Really?

As it turns out, in India, many higher education institutions and governments have maximum age limits. As in, if you’re over the age of 30, you can’t apply for a government job. (That isn’t the exact age, but it’s something like that.) So, if a primary (elementary) school principal sees kids like Pynkhraw and Phlinsimai, who are a couple of years over what they should be for their grade, the principal just changes their birthdates. Because birth certificates aren’t particularly common, this age change in school records (the only official documentation a person might have) is surprisingly common. Actually, in talking about this issue with other Indian friends here, I’ve found a number of them have had their ages reduced. Many more of our children may have their ages reduced once they graduate primary school; because many of the orphans didn’t go to school regularly before coming to the Children’s Village, we have a bunch of kids who are 8-10 years old and are only in preschool.

Nangroi and I made the executive decision to keep on the UUPCC records the correct age of the children, though all other official documentation in India will give their school record birthdays (whatever they turn out to be). We’ll also inform the UUPCC (and the sponsors) when a child’s age has been reduced, just as an FYI.

*       *       *

One of my tasks before I left was to cash the remaining construction-money traveler’s checks at the bank. Because I was planning to be in Shillong for five days the weekend before my last weekend in Meghalaya, this seemed like an easy task.

Oh no! Not easy at all!

On Friday, it was Good Friday, and thus all banks were closed. Okay, fine. I had four more days, right?

Saturday, the bank is only open for about 4 hours – it’s supposed to be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but that’s on Indian Standard (or, as we say, “Stretchable”) Time – and during that time, I had Last Meetings. First was the final Orphanage Management Committee meeting. Our biggest discussions were trying to finalize the staff contracts so they could be submitted for Khasi translation, and outlining what tasks should be carried out over the course of the next year. The latter list included things like acquiring more church birth records, investigating more thoroughly how we can get a proper asphalt road put in as the orphanage’s driveway, and finding our third caretaker.

I also had a meeting with the Executive Board (Derrick, Helpme, Pearl Green, and Darihun) during which we all enthusiastically agreed that communication between the UUNEI and UUA (and associated groups) must improve. I told them I’d work from my side to encourage people to start supporting proper UUNEI staff instead of focusing all donations on social projects. Because, really, how can we run all of these Unitarians schools and such when the UUNEI has, literally, only two part-time paid staff members? How can the leaders in the UUNEI answer e-mails and phone calls from abroad when they don’t have internet or cell phone service in their villages, nor is the UUNEI their main career? The ministers (of whom the UUNEI has way too few) aren’t even paid for their work.

Anyway, so, no bank Saturday, and no bank Sunday, because it’s always closed Sunday. (And it was Easter. Happy belated, by the way 🙂 )

Monday was a big Khasi festival, so the bank was closed again. In addition to it being a festival, some local political(/separatist?) group put up a “ban” from morning until 6 p.m. because they were angry Sonia Gandhi (Congress Party leader) was visiting Shillong. This basically means that if your business opens or if you’re on the road, someone might throw rocks at you. No one told me about the ban, so I went down to Police Bazar to pick up my latest salwar suit, only to find no one out and nothing open. Great. As I had been barred from attending any Republic Day events because of a “ban,” I decided I was tired of such foolishness and called Banjop to take me around to the various events of the day.

This was a vastly better option that sitting scared at Bari’s house all day. First, I got to see Sonia, who is an interesting lady to me as she is Italian and married into the Nehru political dynasty, and now is in charge of one of India’s strongest political parties. In fact, it was Sonia deciding to take up the position (after her husband and mother-in-law had been politically assassinated) that seems to have revived the Congress Party’s power. She flew in by helicopter, wore a very nice traditional Khasi dress, was requested by all the local speakers to build an airport in Shillong (which I think is a fabulous idea), spoke of Congress’s (and her family’s) particular support of Meghalaya, and then flew out again directly thereafter on way to another northeast state. Second, I got to go to the big Khasi Festival (Shad Mynsium Basuk, which translates as the Happy Soul Dance), which is even bigger than the Nongkrem Dance. It was most neat.

By this time, I’m starting to worry whether I will make it to the bank. But, I assumed that Tuesday, which was in no way a holiday, it would be open.

The bank was closed Tuesday for no reason. Thanks, banks. I did pick up my (totally awesomely plaid) salwar and run into “my” trio of street kids, who know me as the Two Biscuit Lady. Because I was likely never to see them again, I bought them each a bag of Rum Pum, trying to explain I was going to America which is why I was breaking my own two-biscuits-per-kid-bas rule. It was nice seeing them. I was tired of being in Shillong, and thus went back to Kharang that afternoon instead of staying Wednesday.

Thursday was election day in Meghalaya, so everything was closed and most public transportation was being coopted for transport to polling stations. No point in even trying.

Then, I missed the two buses to Shillong on Friday because apparently the bus time shifts with the changing length of the day. No one mentioned this to me. Sigh.

I finally got to the bank on Saturday, my second-to-last day in Meghalaya. Hoorah! Task complete! I also bought a cake for Phlinsimai’s birthday, which was a very nice day in general because Kong Cream visited and brought a ton of donated clothes, much of which was sized perfectly for girls Phlinsimai and Badashisha’s size.

Ah, misadventures, how many of you I have had over the past 8 months! I hope all these misses also illustrate how difficult it is to get around and get things done over in Shillong. This is why folks, like those on the Executive Board, have so much trouble keeping in touch. Sometimes, some group puts up a “ban” and everything’s closed, or everything’s closed because of some holiday or another, or you miss the bus, and that’s that. It can be tough out here.

Day in the life.

•April 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I recently sent the kids’ “schedule of activities” over to Dee, and she had some questions, like, why the kids don’t eat anything from 10 a.m. until teatime in the afternoon. So, I felt like it’d probably be a good idea to write an entry about what the kids do every day. (I’ve thought about doing this for my daily activities, but my schedule is so weird it’s impossible to say what I do “every day.”) They follow a very typical village Khasi schedule, which is…

Way early in the morning, the kids get up. The younger children who go to Mawsynjri LP (basically elementary school) have to leave for school around 6:30 a.m., so before then, they have to get dressed, wash their face and hands, and eat a small breakfast (usually just some plain rice). Before every meal, one of the children is called upon to say grace. Then, the little kids go off to school, while our four big kids (who are in grade five and above and enrolled at Kong Barr School) help with chores and get themselves cleaned up. They depart for school around 8:30 after having a large breakfast.

Like all small children in these Meghalayan villages, ours only have school in the morning, so they’re back by 10 a.m., if not earlier. Then, they have their proper lunch. If it’s nice outside, they take their stools outside for a picnic. If not, they’ll eat in the kitchen or the Lennox Room (our main hall). On the subject of food, every day the kids are given as many vegetables that can be found (this time of year, there are no fruits and few vegetables available) and one source of protein. This means meat once or twice a week, and otherwise eggs and Nutrella, a delicious soy-based product, not the delicious chocolate-hazelnut spread. And, of course, always rice.

If the mothers – or our construction workers – have some small chores that they need help with, our little kids help them out. For example, recently no water came to our nearby tap for over a week (this is not uncommon; we’re lucky even to have multiple taps in the Mawsynjri/Kharang area!), so our kids spent good chunks of their day helping Birialna and the mothers carry water from a local pond for drinking, cleaning, and mixing with cement.

If there are no chores in particular to help with, the kids have time to play. Nangroi and I also just spent some of our construction budget (we have some extra because of the donation from the British Unitarian General Assembly) buying toys, so now they have a local game called carmon (it’s like pool, only you use your fingers to hit discs instead of a cue to hit balls), snakes & ladders, a jump rope, a Hindi dance cassette tape (complete with a handheld cassette player/recorder left here by Jon), and a proper cricket set. Pynkhraw and the workers also built a couple of swings, and the boys enjoy playing soccer with the balls donated from First Church of Pittsburgh (though one ball has already been completely destroyed from the near constant use).

The mothers and Birialna have also been good about taking the small children out into Kharang. This past week was “School Week” at Kong Barr School, which, ironically, involved no school at all, only sporting events. All of our small kids got to go over to watch our big children compete in soccer, races, and more. Evan, Birialna, and I also went with a bunch of the small kids to a wild raspberry field last week. Delicious.

In the early afternoon, Birialna and the mothers lead the kids in study time. The children in nursery don’t have too much to study, so often they practice songs. The children in first grade copy words and are given simple math problems to solve. We also plan to institute a “story time,” once we have a good place to store our books. (Right now, our bookshelves are being used as general storage, as our workers haven’t had time yet to construct shelves in the bedrooms.) Then, the kids have tea with rice, biscuits, or subjee (sorry, don’t know the English!).

The big children arrive home at approximately four – but really just whenever school lets out that particular day – and have their tea then. They help out with some of the tougher chores, like carrying firewood and cleaning the house. They also, of course, are made to study. The small children like to go on walks, including taking their bath in one of the local ponds.

At around six, all of the children sit down for dinner. As after every meal, they clean their own plates and cups and help their mothers with the rest of the dishes. Then they have more time to play and study, and before nine o’clock are all asleep in bed.

On the weekends, they have a different schedule. On Saturdays, they have much more free time to play, though studying is still a must. On Sunday, they go to two services at the Mawsynjri Unitarian Church: first, the children’s service at 7 a.m. (often led in part by Trei); second, the regular service at 2:30 p.m. And that is the day in the life of our children.

As a more general update, construction is going along nicely. The main house has been fitted with all of its doors and windowpanes, so now every room can be put to use. We’re waiting on doors and glass to come in for our separate kitchen and bathrooms, but those are otherwise finished as well. Part of our construction has been stalled because there’s suddenly a cement shortage, and the price of a bag has double or tripled in the past couple of weeks. Nangroi is going to cave a buy an emergency 10 bags on Friday even if the price hasn’t dropped, because until we get more cement, we can’t finish our moat or the septic system (which is so close to being done, the pipes have even been installed!). In the meantime, the workers are building drainage lines in our (mud pit of a) road to stop so many pools of water forming. They’ve also put more primer paint up inside, and I’m hoping at least some of the colored paint can go up before the rains really start next month.

The kids are all doing very well. It seems all of them have settled into their new home quite comfortably. I’m very sorry to be leaving them in less than a week’s time.

Visitor etiquette // The crusade for cats.

•April 7, 2009 • 3 Comments

This should probably be two entries, so I’m gonna put a little line in the middle when the topic changes. Here goes!

The end of my time in Meghalaya is fast approaching. On April 20, I’ll fly from Guwahati to Delhi, and then the 24th I’m off to Tokyo. (In case I haven’t written about it here or haven’t written it recently, after my Indian visa expires, I have five weeks before I really need to be back in the States. So, I’m traveling: Japan, Thailand, Egypt-to-Jordan-to-Israel, Ghana, and then a cruise out of Barcelona with my family.) If I were thinking about it more, I think I’d feel strange to be leaving India for such a long time after living here for about eight months. But, as according to my first blog entry here, I’m not thinking too much about it yet.

The orphanage is still running pretty smoothly. Our construction workers are still working hard, and are near completion on the kitchen (the clay stove needs to be crafted) and the septic tank (hoorah!). They’ve also built a moat (really) around the orphanage so that the monsoon rains don’t soak through the walls. I think that’s great, and believe that for the Children’s Village to be perfect, we need some alligators and a drawbridge. The kids are doing quite well as well. All of them are going to school every day and helping out when they’re at home. The whole of Mawsynjri village doesn’t have water right now (why? I have no idea, but apparently the taps are dry and the headman hasn’t heard the reason yet), so yesterday all the small kids took a good chunk of the morning hauling water from a small pond nearby.

Since the Children’s Village has opened, I’d missed all of our visitors from abroad. (They came while I was traveling with Dan.) But, no longer! On Friday, Suzanne Reitz and her two daughters (Julia and Margot) from Wayland, MA, came to visit. Birialna taught the kids to sing “We Shall Overcome,” and she, Dari, and the mothers cooked up a delicious lunch for us. The Reitzes really enjoyed seeing the children at play and their tour around the house. We also swung by Kong Barr School so that they could meet Pynkhraw and Phlinsimai, who are Wayland’s sponsored children.

Then, we continued onto Wahmawlein, Wayland’s partner church village, with Nangroi. The ladies got to see Wahmawlein’s new soccer field, of which they had helped a bit with construction a couple of years ago. We also had our second lunch there (when you’re visiting places in India, you better have an empty stomach at all times!). The Reitzes only had that one day in Meghalaya, and I’m so glad that they spent a good part of it at the Children’s Village!

One other thing I want to write about in relation to the Reitzes visits is the idea seemingly a decent number of folks have out here that Americans have infinite money. An awkward subject, but it should be broached.

I was really glad that the Reitzes didn’t have anything to give to the kids right then; of course, it was explained that their church sent Pynkhraw and Phlinsimai to school, fed them, gave them new clothes, etc., but that’s all. No extra frills gifts beyond the most important things, which is providing a good home and good education. It seems very easy for the kids to get that bad impression that they can just ask foreigners for anything and then immediately receive it. For example…

People have given me a ton of stuff to give to the orphanage, so I’ve been bringing it over there in stages. Stuffed animals from Fairfax one day, games from Janis and Pittsburgh another, etc… Well, the kids sort of think it’s all from me. They also sort of think I built this house singlehandedly. Because I’m the foreigner they see the most, this is somewhat unavoidable. They also think Nangroi and I are the only ones in charge, as they really don’t see anyone else from the Management Committee on a frequent basis. They’re kids. They’ll have ideas.

The First Unitarian of Pittsburgh’s knitting circle recently sent a bunch of adorable knitted hats to the Children’s Village, but there were only 12. We have 14 kids, and I checked first to see if two kids already had hats. Krom and Batkupar did, so I thought I was safe to give out these gifted 12. But when I did, the mothers decided that Pynkhraw and Blestar wouldn’t want the hats. The boys were not consulted on the matter, so I felt pretty badly for them, especially because all of the other kids love the new hats and wear them all the time. Thus, I went to Shillong and bought them each cool grown-up-boy skullcaps. I am very glad that the boys love those hats and wear them all the time too. Everyone is warm and pleased! Hoorah!

Kids and Hats
But, then, the next day, I had a conversation with Blestar in my broken Khasi. He’s the best English speaker out of the kids, and I think was nominated to have this conversation. He told me that he and Pynkhraw wanted to ride bikes to school. (Don’t we all, right?) I asked him, “Who will buy you a bike?” He said that I would.

Yikes! Already, an impression that I, the American, have infinite money, and just because I personally bought them 100 Rs ($2) caps!

So, in conclusion, if you are visiting the Children’s Village, be careful about showering the kids with lots of stuff. I’m not saying that folks shouldn’t be generous and donate clothes, board games, sweets, etc., because our budget is pretty tight, and we really don’t have enough to get them toys and such right now. But, you know, not bicycles. Not whatever the kids ask for. This is the even the thinking of the Management Committee, especially because if the kids at the Children’s Village get a bunch of really nice new things, it could cause a division between them and the other local kids. The children already appreciate their new home and that it was “friends abroad” who made it possible. We definitely don’t want them to grow up believing it’s okay to expect their providers (mothers, sponsors, whoever) to give them whatever pops into their mind as a want. I guess that’s really the case with all children everywhere, isn’t it?

To shift topics…

*                        *                       *

I’ve done some other great things this past week, notably taking an Art of Living course, attending a Khasi archery competition, and having some last-time meet-ups with Marisa (my American-in-Shillong compatriot) and my friends at the S.O.S. Children’s Village.

But, now, I will write about my crusade for cats.

Some of you know, I am on a crusade for cats. As background, I am not a “cat person,” and am reasonably certain that (like my mother) I am allergic to them. Most cats, I don’t like at all. They’re either forcibly friendly (“no, I don’t want to pet you! stop rubbing your head on me!”) or annoyingly aloof (“why do I feed you if you just sit in a corner and glower at me?”). Dogs make way more sense.

Then, I came here and met little (Richard) Corey. She’s a great cat. If she doesn’t want to be held, she hops away without freaking out. If you don’t want to hold her, you put her down and she doesn’t freak out. She doesn’t whine or purr. She enjoys being carried around on your shoulder as though she were a parrot. She is the perfect cat.

I’m pretty attached to the little girl, so understandably, I hate seeing her eat rice. The dogs mostly subsist on rice, which is probably not the best for them either, but I have a dog at home, and know that dog food contains rice. You know what cat food doesn’t contain? Stuff that’s not meat.

For months, I’ve been trying to explain that the reason why Corey sometimes has “weakness” (and why our other kitten, Sarabi, is so skinny) is because cats are carnivores and cannot digest all of the plant matter they are being fed. It even says so on Wikipedia! So it must be true. But, no one listens.

So, last weekend, I went to the vet under the claim that if we’re going to donate Corey to the orphanage (which is Mei’s plan), we have to figure out why she gets “weakness.” No one wants a sick cat as a gift, after all. First, the vet was free! How is that even possible? Amazing. Second, I learned that when she turns one in the fall, we can take her to the vet and she can be neutered (for free!). Third, I learned from the vet that she should be eating beef and dried fish. It’s good to have a supportive professional opinion on the matter. I can tell the mothers to feed her fish every day, as per the doktor jong ki miaw’s orders. I feel like my crusade for cats is somewhat successful.

But why do I go on this crusade? I’ve talked a bit with other American folks I’ve met out here – Pip, Barbara, Marisa, those Presbyterian ministers (Abby and Alisa) – about this question. After these conversations, I’ve decided it’s because there are a ton of problems I see out here, and I just can’t fix them all. No one alone can. I can help built this orphanage, but that doesn’t help my neighbor’s kids who have parents, but not enough food to go around. They’re all malnourished. I can’t help their older brother who would like to go to school and has good exam scores, but has to stay here in Kharang to harvest crops (or, and I don’t think this is a big exaggeration, his family might starve). I can’t help that the Kharang’s water is polluted because it’s near impossible to build a septic system to encompass a whole village. I can’t get caught up in all the problems I see, or I’ll become paralyzed by how much there is. So, part of my focus while I’m here goes on these cats. I feel like I can help Corey.

And the cats are, I think, a good example of what I see in our kids. So, there are two kittens here, Corey and Sarabi. Corey was born here to Kong Robinson, and Sarabi in Shillong to Blackie. Kong Robinson is malnourished, and lost her other two kittens. Blackie is well-fed, and all three kittens thrived. Sarabi has already surpassed Corey in size, even though she’s two months younger, and in general seems much healthier.

You see this with the kids too. Yesterday, Pynkhraw (our eldest boy, 15) was teasing Badashisha (one of our oldest girls, 13) because she’s really short. Like, really short. As per my usual discipline-by-embarrassment principle, I turned the teasing back on Pynkhraw by showing that I, Huge Caucasian American, am taller than he is (at least for now, sheesh, that kid’s big). But, the point of the matter is, Badashisha will always be tiny because she hasn’t been well-taken care of in years. You all saw that picture of Marshall in my last blog; he’s four years old and looks like he’s maybe two! This is the case with a bunch of our kids: they’re scarily small. Working at MATCH, we learned about the importance of early childhood education in lifelong learning ability. If a kid starts falling behind in preschool, it just builds on itself, and then he graduates from high school with the equivalent of an eighth grade education. (By the way, that’s the average stat on high school grads from urban American schools.) For example, some of our incoming ninth-graders didn’t know what fractions were.

My hope is that with this orphanage, these kids and future kids can get proper care earlier and thus grow into healthier and happier adults. My hope is that it’s a good career for our mothers and Birialna, and that they can be happy with the job and help their families with what they’re earning. My hope is that Corey, one cat, will get better food and soon sterilized. The Children’s Village is a small operation if you zoom out to Meghalaya, India, Asia, the world… But, like MATCH, I think will it be very effective in helping this small group, and for them, it is a very important new home.

Two truths and a lie.

•March 27, 2009 • 1 Comment

This is a game I’ve played before:

  1. The monsoon has started,
  2. I am a good disciplinarian, or
  3. Our smallest child, Enjila, is actually her younger brother, Marshall.

Oh goodness, the monsoon has so started. Yesterday, I didn’t leave the Mukhims’ house until about 2 p.m. because it was raining and hailing torrentially, and the road to the orphanage is a mess when it’s raining out, and marble-sized hail is scary. However, in that time, I taught Dari and Wanrilung to play “go fish” with the Seattle-themed deck of cards Dan gifted to them. That was great.

I am not a good disciplinarian. I have been asked to give a talking-to to the two older boys (Blaster and Pynkhraw) twice since I’ve been back from my trip, and (in addition to not speaking Khasi…) I found this difficult because I’m not a great scolder. You’d think after a year at MATCH, I’d be better, but I’m just not. My only slightly effective method is to embarrass children in front of their peers. So, I leaned on this again. Using broken Khasi and my “what are you thinking?!” face, Blaster and Pynkhraw were thoroughly embarrassed in front of their peers because they had to clean the walls inside the house (after they’d played soccer there… come on boys!), and then again for being smelly because they were refusing to wash their school socks. Badashisha and Pynkhraw’s sister Phlinsimai, our two oldest girls, laughed mightily throughout said talking-tos.

Which brings us to the second truth: Enjila is actually Marshall. I’ve written about this child before: this is the one who is pretty terrified of me because I’m white, and looks really tiny and malnourished, and never speaks. Shortly after the children moved in, the mothers discovered that “Enjila” was a boy. Asking his brother Bankhrawbok, they learned that their guardian had decided to place Marshall in the orphanage instead of his sister. Nangroi and I came to know about this just before I left on my trip. We’ve done some research locally and have been communicating with Dee and Marshall’s sponsor, but basically what Bankhrawbok told us is all there is. I feel at fault for this confusion, as I was the one who greeted the guardians when they dropped off the kids, but I don’t think anyone on the OMC would have thought that a guardian would, without telling us, decide to bring a different child. Not to mention that while we were got signatures from all of the guardians agreeing to admit the children, these village kids don’t have birth certificates, which complicates the “hey, is this the right child?” matter. Eesh.

But, out of this big mistake comes our greatest success story (in my mind) thus far: Marshall.

As I’ve just written again, he was terrified of me for this whole first month (as in, would burst into tears as soon as he saw me). He was unsteady on his feet and wouldn’t talk to anyone. They thought they couldn’t send him to school this year.

But, the mothers gave it a try. Marshall has been attending nursery class at the local lower primary school. And I’ve seen the other kids trying to reach out to Marshall, even though he’d often strike at them and, as I mentioned, never say anything in response.

Three days ago, I saw Bobina (the middle child from Padu) trying to play with Marshall. As usual, he hit at her and made a big old frowny face. But, after about half an hour of this, I heard Marshall speak! I looked over at them, and saw Bobina teaching Marshall and hand game. I was very happy about this, but certainly wasn’t going to spoil it by walking over and sending him into a crying fit.

But, the next day, I saw Bobina carrying Marshall on her back toward me. I rushed inside, again trying to avoid upsetting him. I sat down with some of the other kids to play pick-up-sticks and jacks (thanks, Janis, for leaving us that box set!). Marshall and Bobina sat down too. Marshall wasn’t crying! Then, the kids asked me to take pictures of them, and I took one of Marshall. After showing it to him, he seemed pretty happy. Then I took a really cute picture of him and Sunita (the older girl from Puriang).

Here’s that photo:

Sunita and Marshall

And yesterday, he let me work with him on writing the letter “O.” He got pretty good at it, and we gave him a lot of praise. For a kid who we didn’t think would even be able to walk to school, much less attend, he’s doing really well!

So, even though Marshall wasn’t supposed to join our Children’s Village family, I think he’s benefited a lot from living there. I’m happy we have hm.

Really, all of the children are doing quite well. Nangroi, Birialda and I often comment to each other that we’re surprised how quickly the kids have taken the Children’s Village as their home, and how quickly the kids’ health seems to have improved. They all look great.

This upcoming week, the mothers are going to have the children write letters to their sponsors. Our part-time administrator, Ms. Thwiss, is going to translate the letters, and I’m going to print photos of each of them. So, if you’re a sponsor, hopefully you’ll have a letter and at least one picture of your sponsored child sometime in April!

Lastly, I’ve decided to go to Harvard. (Though I’m not sure if my “I accept!” to Harvard went through… Oh, cell phone internet!) A few things really helped my decision. First, I talked with a couple of current UU students, and it sounds like the UU community there is very positive, affirming, and close-knit. Second, I e-mailed all of the HDS UU “denominational advisors,” and one name looked really familiar… And then, when Reverend John Buehrens (former UUA president) e-mailed me back, I realized, “Oh, that’s the name on all those church buildings out here. OH.” Lastly, one of the students I talked to is an intern at the UUA’s international office. I would like his internship one day. And maybe Reverend Buehrens’s job too. Let’s see what unfolds in the future.