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Lokesh by Matthew Escalante

August 30, 2015

In my brief career as a teacher thus far, I have heard students say and do so many funny, sad, and interesting things that I have added so many stories to my repertoire.  It would seem that many of my friends know my students well, just from listening to the many stories I tell about them.  I don’t believe this is unique to me, but actually common amongst all teachers; young students are pretty good source material. Now, I would like to tell another story; a story about a student whom I worked with while teaching in Hyderabad whom reminded me of the importance of building relationships and the need to know your students as people.

Lokesh was a year or two older than most of the students in the class. He sat at the back of the class, and when he wasn’t grinning cockily, he had a sly expression that would make any teacher suspicious.  The first day Des, Liz, and I observed Anusha; we ALL noticed that Lokesh was always off task.  He didn’t always follow directions right away, and when he did he soon stopped working only to find something else to take up his time.  He had this demeanor that he just didn’t care about class.  More noticeably, that first day we observed, he even left the classroom and didn’t return for 25 minutes! Where was he that whole time?  Anusha was working very hard, but admittedly having trouble managing behavior and was too busy putting out other fires to worry about Lokesh. When we asked him where he had been, he told us he had to help his little brother get water.  None of us were particularly trusting of his excuse.

Lokesh quickly became the student who earned the most warnings in our newly implemented behavior management chart. Yet not even this deterred his periodic absences. On the third day of teaching, while I was supporting Anusha in a small group lesson, a small boy appeared at the door and called for Lokesh.  Lokesh quietly rose from his desk and followed the boy out of the classroom without so much as asking for permission.  A few moments later, Des also left the room (to return Lokesh to class I presumed) except that a few minutes had gone by and neither of them came back.  Liz was sick that day and I was left alone to manage the class with Anusha. Five minutes went by, and then ten, but still neither had returned and I was wondering where they were.  Finally, more than 15 minutes later, Des and Lokesh returned from wherever it was they were and continued class as if nothing had happened.  I, of course, was confused and wanted to know the situation, but knew I had to wait until after class to speak with Des.

Finally, the lunch bell rung and Des, Anusha, and I were able to talk. Des is a serious teacher and hard worker, so it’s not like she just up and went for a walk. There had to be a reason. I asked the obvious question, “Where were you guys?” Des let out a sigh and I could already tell it wasn’t an obvious explanation. She told us that she followed Lokesh and the younger boy to a house a few blocks from the school.  The school we were placed, Picket Government School, was in a poor part of Hyderabad called Secunderabad.  It was the furthest school from our hotel in the more posh area of Banjara Hills and some locals hinted that the area didn’t have the best reputation. Nonetheless, we had never felt unsafe there and Des followed them out the school.  Upon seeing the two boys approaching the house, a woman stepped out from the inside of the building and invited the boys in. Des told us she took the opportunity to introduce herself and informed the woman, whom she assumed was the boys’ mother, of Lokesh’s behavior. This woman, however, was not the boys’ mother, but their caretaker. As Des explained, the woman ran some sort of home for the boys–similar to an orphanage or a foster home–and she had been raising the two boys, whom were actually not related.  Des continued to explain that the woman told her it was sometimes challenging to have the children prepared for school–as she had other children to look after too–and that the young boy often forgot his water bottle at home.  (While you may read this and think forgetting a water bottle isn’t a big deal, note that it is roughly between 80 to 90 degrees and quite humid everyday, and the classroom’s only form of temperature control is a single, rickety fan.)  The woman continued to explain that Lokesh was like a big brother to the younger child and regularly looked after him as needed be–in this case, accompanying him back home to get his water bottle.

After Des told me this, we both felt incredibly guilty.  Although Lokesh’s behavior needed to be addressed, Liz, Des, and I had, consciously or not, labeled him as the naughty, problem child.  Lokesh demonstrated he was nurturing, and very responsible for someone his age. I immediately had a moment where I was reminded to check my privilege. I do not know what it was like to grow up without my parents and have to take care of my younger siblings. And Lokesh was doing this in addition to the socioeconomic obstacles I was lucky enough never to have had to overcome.

After learning this about him, Des had a conversation with the woman and Lokesh to encourage them to check for the younger boys’ water bottle and other needs before school. Liz, Des, and I also began to see Lokesh differently. Although he was never the best-behaved student, his behavior did improve and when we had this change of heart.  We also quickly figured out that Lokesh was incredibly bright and needed to be challenged, and perhaps this was part of the reason he seemed so disinterested and didn’t do the work–of course.  Overall, this story reminds me that I still have so much more that I can improve in my practice as a teacher, and that being a teacher encompasses so much more than the teaching of academic content.

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Lokesh is the boy near the bottom right corner resting his chin on his elbows as he watches Samina deliver a lesson.

Reinventing Myself as a Teacher by Matthew Escalante

August 30, 2015

When I first stepped into Anusha’s classroom at Picket Government School, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I didn’t know the age of the students, what they would be like, nor their backgrounds. Of course, Samina had told us we would be working with students whom came from low socioeconomic backgrounds, but my experience as a preschool teacher in Chicago, taught me that there are different levels of poverty.  I had seen pictures in National Geographic of small, Indian children wearing almost no clothes and scavenging through trash, and was preparing myself for what I may experience. Yet, the first things I noticed when I stepped into the dimly lit classroom were all the students’ smiling faces.  It put a genuine smile on my face too.

It was true, however, these students were poor. Most did not have shoes to protect their feet, their classrooms were devoid of most of the materials that I require to teach, and their school lunch consisted of only a little steamed rice with some curry for flavor. (I was later told by one of the program managers of Teach For India-Hyderabad that it wasn’t uncommon for poor families to enroll their children in government schools, which are notorious for corporal punishment and chronic teacher absences, just so their children can eat a meal.) I even heard accounts that some parents were not invested in their daughters’ educations because they were simply going to marry them off (within a few months) in order to receive a dowry.  As any inner city teacher can tell you, poverty certainly plays a role in the lives of children and manifests itself somehow in the school setting.

Despite the obvious signs of poverty, the students were so lively and had a true sense of joy. As soon as Anusha dismissed her students to their half hour break that first day of school, they all crowded around Des, Liz, and myself (I was particularly a hit with the boys in the classroom.)  They all wanted to know our names, and immediately wanted us to learn theirs. I knew I would have trouble remembering who was who and asked them to write their names in my journal.  Soon I had a collection of names written in two columns–Manoj, Siddu, Joythi, Pavan, Kavya, Lokesh, and Geetha amongst others–and was trying to get to know them.  They were very excited to share about themselves. They all told me what they wanted to be when they grew up–air force pilots, doctors, engineers, and teachers–and listed off the names of their family members.

They were also curious about where I came from and wanted to learn everything about my family.  They asked questions such as, “Do you have brothers and sisters? What are their names?” and “Are you married? How many children do you have?’’  Although I think they were too polite or too shy to say anything, some of the girls gave me a sorry look when I told them I was unmarried and without children.  I remembered then what Samina told us in our orientation meeting back at Dominican. Although these students are materially poor, they are culturally rich and come from loving families. It was quickly apparent to me that these students were genuinely happy with their lives, had hope for their futures, and above all else were just like any other kids I had met.  Similarly to when I first entered an inner city classroom in Chicago, I felt at once incredibly humbled and filled with admiration.

Not Just the Taj by Matthew Escalante

August 30, 2015

When I returned from my trip to Hyderabad, my whole family–grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins included–was already gathered at my uncle’s house for a cook out.  I was excited to see them, and after two weeks of delicious Indian cuisine, I was nonetheless craving carne asada and guacamole.  Oddly enough, my family was also excited to see me and immediately asked about my trip.  My aunts and uncles started with the basic “who, what, when, where and why.” Understandable to ask, because although my parents and siblings knew I had been working with a first year teacher, the rest of my family was a little less clear about what I was doing in Hyderabad.  After the basic questions had been cleared, I was excited to share stories about the great group of students I had the privilege to work with, and of the many adventures I had had while in Hyderabad.  Yet before I could share, everyone wanted to know, “Did you see the Taj Mahal?!”  And it wasn’t just my family. Many of my friends asked the same question, “Matt, you saw the Taj Mahal right? How was it?”

I get it. The Taj Mahal is a magnificent wonder known the world over, and yes it is deserving of all the attention and awe. I loved our program visit to the Taj, and the experience was possibly a once in a lifetime chance. The Taj, and the gardens that surround it are beautiful, and made only better when I learned about its history and the interesting tid-bits of information our tour guide shared. For example, did you know that the tall spire atop the main dome used to be made of pure gold? Or did you know that Emperor Shah Jahan ordered its construction as a tomb for his third wife, and when he tried to construct an identical tomb built with black marble the emperor’s son imprisoned him? Fascinating, right? The history nerd in me loved every minute of the tour, and I am very happy I got to see the Taj.  However, I had been in India for two weeks–most of it in a city 833 miles away from Agra– and I experienced a side of the country your average American has never seen before.

Firs and foremost, I wanted to share my experiences working with the students in Picket Government School.  While I certainly enjoyed playing the tourist, I was also in India to work with a TFI fellow and her students. I spent a good chunk of my time with them, and they were what made my whole trip uniquely special.  I was proud that I could–somewhat at least–direct a rickshaw driver to a small school on the other side of an Indian city. I was happy for all the growth Anusha, our TFI fellow, made in only two weeks. And I still laugh thinking back on all the hilarious things the students did and said.  I feel that our authentic interactions with people who live in the places that we visit give us some of the memories.

Additionally, one of my favorite things we did during the whole trip was explore Amber Fort.  Amber Fort is a medieval, Hindu fortress and palace perched on the mountains overlooking the city of Jaipur.  It was beautiful and, similar to the Taj, the history nerd in me was loving it. As I explored its narrow corridors, winding staircases, and grand courts where the King hosted dignitaries and kept a menagerie of exotic animals, I couldn’t help but feel like a royal myself–and how fun it would be to play hide and seek inside the fort.  I would have loved to have spent more time there and get lost in its passageways only to discover a new part of the palace.

While both the Taj and Amber Fort were amazing, I didn’t have to stray outside of Hyderabad to find interesting and memorable experiences.  On our first day in Hyderabad, Samina took all of us to explore Golconda Fort.  The fort was initially established in the 10th century and had been taken over and conquered by various sultans and kings of both the Hindu and Muslim faiths.  It was also famous for its gems, and was the discovery place of two of the largest diamonds–one of them being the Hope Diamond–ever discovered. Although grasses and plants had overrun parts of the fort, its ruins were beautiful and the hillside offered sweeping views of the city.  In addition to visiting Golconda Fort, I also had the chance to visit a beautiful Hindu temple that was entirely covered in white marble, enjoyed a Bollywood romantic comedy (even though I only understood the occasional English phrase the actors would say), shop at the historic Charminar, and ate so many delicious meals at various restaurants in Hyderabad.  I even enjoyed high tea at the Taj Falaknuma Palace, an extravagant 19th century palace that has been converted to a hotel that redefined my understanding of luxury.

So, if you have the opportunity to visit India, I highly recommend you take it. Its sights, sounds, and tastes are beautiful, (at times) frantic, and interesting.  And although, yes, you MUST see the Taj Mahal, don’t forget to experience what else India has to offer. I promise, you’ll never forget it.

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The Taj Mahal.  One of the couples in the photograph really wanted a picture with me–not sure why.

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A snap shot of Amber Fort from one of its many passageways.

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Me, Jessica, Becca and Marten at the Falaknuma Palace.

The Two Indias by Matthew Escalante

August 30, 2015

Prior to leaving for our much-anticipated trip, those of us participating in the program were asked to read a few books to give us a cultural context for our journey. One of the books–and one I would recommend to anyone–was Aarvind Adiga’s The White Tiger. This novel tells the tale of an Indian villager whose ambition leads him from rural poverty to entrepreneurial success, corruption, and murder. While my knowledge of Indian literature is admittedly lacking, The White Tiger unveils the gritty underbelly of contemporary Indian society. Adiga writes from the perspective of Balram, a servant for a wealthy family, and this affords the reader with a uniquely authentic perspective that many of us would not normally see As opposed to other representations that I have read about or seen before, Adiga does not romanticize India or its culture and often makes fun of those very exotic notions of the idyllic, Indian society.

In the weeks leading up to our trip, Samina reminded us to keep our readings in mind; we were to make connections between the texts to what we experienced in a country that is unfamiliar to anything we knew.  Despite a draining experience with British Airways and an exhausting day of travel, I was alert as soon as we touched down in Hyderabad.  As I waited to collect my bulky suitcase from the slow moving conveyor belt, I saw characters and places from The White Tiger take physical form in front of me; slick businessmen, gaggles of software employees, merchants peddling their wares on large carts, and slouched mounds of people taking shelter under viaducts.

While many elements from the book came alive, I kept returning to Adiga’s metaphor of the Light and the Darkness.  As mentioned briefly before, Adiga writes the story from the perspective of Balram, a poor Indian servant turned businessman.  Balram writes a series of letters to the Chinese Premier and explains that if the Premier truly wants to understand the success behind Indian entrepreneurship he should take note of his personal story.  Throughout the series of letters, Balram tells the Premier that there exist “2 Indias” within his country. One India is the India of Darkness and, the other, Light. The India of Darkness is rural and mired in tradition and religion, while the India of Light is cosmopolitan, educated, and outward looking. Adiga makes it clear that within this dichotomy, those who are members of the “light” look at the Darkness and those from it as backwards and partially responsible for India’s lack of development.

Although the province- metropolis binary is hardly unique to India, I did experience strong examples of the “two Indias.”  One example I observed was between our host city of Hyderabad and the small town of Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal.  Hyderabad is a city of 6 million people that has built a robust economy in telecommunication and software industries.  In addition to the tech offices in “Cyberabad”, one can find stores that line 5th Ave or the Miracle Mile while cruising down the city’s Taj Krishna neighborhood.  Agra, on the other hand, appears impoverished despite the thousands of tourists who flock to see the Taj. And unlike the unending urban sprawl of Hyderabad, rice paddies and quiet countryside surround Agra.

Even more interesting, however, was experiencing both the “Light” and “Darkness” within our host city.  For example, many of the women shopping at the Charminar, a historic market in Hyderabad, dressed in full burkhas and were surprised at seeing white tourists pursuing the markets’ many shops.  Yet, when we a few of us visited the GVK mall to see a Bollywood movie, the hip young men and women visiting the shops were nearly indistinguishable from Americans: Calvin Klein jeans, Nike sneakers, and Starbucks latte all in tote.

Yet I didn’t have to rickshaw between different neighborhoods to experience the “2 Indias.” As is often the case, the “Light” and “Darkness” coexisted side by side in Hyderabad–and I assume, throughout India.  Street food vendors often parked their carts carrying samosas and dhals next to a Pizza Hut of a trendy sushi restaurant, and poor families living in makeshift shelters often squatted outside the walls of luxurious mansions.  Although Adiga highlights the power struggle between the “2 Indias” and the discrimination those from the “Darkness” experience, I am not writing this to demean the traditional and still developing elements of Indian society.  Instead, what I took away from my experience is that Indian culture and society is complex and hard to categorize in a simple binary.  Almost paradoxically so, India exists as both rural and urban, traditional and modern, poor and wealthy, and I am very curious as to how the country will mesh, or separate, these elements amidst a changing, global world.

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The luxurious grounds of the Falaknuma Palace

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A man walking outside the walks the palace walls.

First Day Jitters by Matthew Escalante

August 30, 2015

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I awoke the morning of Monday, July 16th equally excited and anxious to stand in front of a classroom full of students. I had just finished my second year as a Teach For America corps member in Chicago, and was now in Hyderabad, India preparing to mentor a first year Teach For India fellow.  I had taught preschool back home in Chicago, and I was worried about working with older students–let alone coaching a first year teacher.  True to my nature, a cacophony of questions buzzed around my head: “Where is this school? How old are the students? What do they already know? What does the TFI fellow need help with? Will my preschool experience be relevant at all?” To no one’s surprise in the program, I was nervous. Yet, despite my tenuousness, I was excited to meet the students.  Everyone I had spoken to who had done the trip the year before had only glowing reviews of their teaching experience, and I was eager to have the same.

After breakfast, everyone made their way to the main road and waited as Samina flagged down a fleet of rickshaws. Des and Liz, two fellow TFA preschool teachers, and I were one of the first groups to head out. We piled in to the back of a rickshaw as Samina quickly spoke to its driver.  While I couldn’t understand them, Samina’s Hindi was punctuated with the occasional English word: “Picket Government School….cantonment dispensary.” The driver bobbled his head in agreement and gave Samina a thumbs up after they had agreed on the cost of the trip. “Alright, its going to be 200 rupees. I told the driver where it is,” Samina reassured us. “Good luck!”

Before we could wave good-bye, the driver hit the clutch and accelerated down the hill.

Any apprehension I had about being in front of the classroom was quickly supplanted by fear of a terrible rickshaw crash.  Driving in Hyderabad, can already be a stressful experience for a Westerner accustomed to the rules of the road. Thousands of cars, motorcycles, pedestrians, and the occasional cow clog the streets and weave in and out of lanes with no warning; the honking is incessant and it’s common to leave only an inch of clearance as you pass another vehicle.  Our rickshaw driver, however, was quite exceptional and earned the nickname, “Fast and Furious.”  Even Liz and Des showed the limits of their normally calm disposition as they squeezed my arms as our driver–on multiple occasions–narrowly evaded a crash.

After our white-knuckle ride through the city, we had finally made it to Secunderabad–the neighborhood where our school is located. It was a ways off from the city center and noticeably less developed than where we were staying.  Despite making it to the right neighborhood, it became apparent that our driver did not know where our school was. To his credit he stopped 10 times to ask for directions, but ultimately dropped the three of us off at the wrong Picket School.

Liz, Des, and I spent the next hour and a half searching for ‘our’ Picket Government School.  We walked alongside an Indian highway with only a vague sense of where to go. Thankfully I was with friends and all of us in good spirits and determined to find our school. After stumbling in a local high school, an English teacher took pity on us and drove us to the correct school. This teacher is a saint and the only reason we made it to class that day.

When we walked into the school, Anusha, our TFI fellow was in the middle of her morning meeting. She seemed happy to see us, and not at all upset at our untimely entrance. As soon as she introduced us to her 5th grade class, the three of us were immediately bombarded with gleeful hellos. I was expecting to work with younger students, and her students ranged from 10 to 13 years old; my initial nervousness returned. Anusha had to refocus her students and reassured them that they would have plenty of time to get to know us later.

The first day, we simply observed Anusha in order to determine her strengths and what areas we could target to better strengthen her practice. Within a few minutes it was apparent that her students were very excitable, and that she needed help with procedures and management (I almost freaked out when a few students jumped from desk to desk). That, however, was something that I as a preschool teacher was familiar implementing.  Moreover, I could see that Anusha was trying, and empathized with her.

When the lunch bell rang, all the students ran to Liz, Des, and I. A group of 6 boys surrounded me and excitedly asked me a series of questions: “Bhaya, what is your name? Where are you from Bhayia? In India, our nation father is Gandhi. Who is America nation father?”  I almost laughed when one boy stroke a pose when trying to describe the Statue of Liberty.  This lunchtime chat with the students instantly eased my nerves. True that these students were at least twice the age of my preschoolers, but they were eager, curious, and, honestly, would benefit from some of the same structure and wiggle breaks I used in my own class.  While differences certainly exist and should not be overlooked, I was more struck at the similarity between students in Chicago and those in Hyderabad. Kids are kids regardless of where you are, and I was excited to be there.

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Liz and me with some of the students on our last day there.

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Working together. Myself, Anusha, Des, and Liz

Two Teachers, One Classroom by Cinthya Quintana

August 23, 2015

As long as I can remember I have always wanted to travel the world and learn from every experience.  When it came to India I thought I would have much to teach my TFI fellow.  And while I think I was of help to a new fellow just four weeks out of institute, I am happy to say that Shobitha taught me way more about teaching than I could have taught her in two weeks.

The lessons were simple but necessary after a long school year where so much changed in my classroom and school.  When it was time for summer break I was excited to be visiting India and that the kids were on vacation.  However, watching Shobitha teach made such wonderful reminders to be humble and happy.

Many times it can be intimidating to have another adult in the room.  You begin to question everything you do and everything you say.  However, with my in the classroom Shobitha really shined through.  She wasn’t nervous or “too” anything.  What I mistook as ‘too nice’ in the beginning I soon learned was a person being understating to her students.  She took such pride in her students learning and that pushed her to learn more.

Each day she wanted feedback (good and helpful).  And the very next day Shobitha would look over my notes and changed or tweaked her lessons.  She was so happy to have someone in the classroom to engage in the work that she did everyday.  Her happiness was contagious and I found myself so engaged in her lessons I couldn’t stop smiling.  Thank you for reminding me that true work happiness comes from making the work fun for the kids, and challenging for one’s self.

The second reminder lesson was about humility.  While she has almost double the students I had last year (in a classroom 1/6 the size of my classroom) she was humble.  I brought some books for her library and she was so excited to get them she couldn’t wait to show them to the students.

Many times I complain about missing materials or the lack of funds etc.  Which, to be fair, are necessary in my work with my students in the City of Chicago.  Her attitude and creativity taught me that while it is important to fight for the things my students need it is equally important to instill in them a love of learning without all of the glitz and glamour.  Her tenacity and creativity to teach her students (sometimes without working markers or chart paper) is admirable.

Shobitha, thank you for reminding me that the love of teaching comes not from the things you can get for your students or the trips you can take them on.  But from a simple (and far deeper) level; teaching is about making students so engaged in learning that they do it on their own without needing anything special to bring out that love.

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Rickshaw Nation by Cinthya Quintana

August 23, 2015

There is a great skit by the comedian Fluffy about his experience while traveling through India.  The best part is when he talks about the traffic.  It is hilarious!  The most honest line in the skit is when he says something to the extent of even though there are three lanes there will be ten autos, cars, scooters, cows, etc. across the road.  The lane lines are there to more or less tell you the direction in which you should be going.

And this is true but nonetheless, the best way to see India is on the back of an auto rickshaw (aka auto).  As synonymous as the elephant is to the Indian jungle the auto rickshaw is to the big city.  Riding on the back of a rickshaw is the most much fun and the best way to really get to know India by her sights and sounds.

The easiest way to get a rickshaw is by just standing outside.  There seems to have been thousands of rickshaws in every city we visited in India.  I am sure the number is in the millions but I found no concrete number in my research.  In order to sit back, relax, and enjoy your ride below are some tips and information to get you ready for that first auto rickshaw ride.

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Traffic chaos: point of view from the back seat of an auto.

Auto rickshaws are safe.  Yes, there are accidents in India; and yes, some of those include auto rickshaws.  However, the traffic (which is super crazy) is part of a dance all motorists and pedestrians do on a daily basis.  I felt no more in danger in a rickshaw than I do everyday while driving.  Apart from jumping out of a moving rickshaw or extending limb out of the side you’ll survive many a ride.

If you are too shy to just pick up an auto rickshaw on the corner try UberAUTO.  Just like the app in the US UberAUTO allows you to choose the closest rickshaw to your location.  And what’s best, it allows for cash payment.  Just download the app and order when you’re ready.  According to a press release by Uber the prices are calculated locally by transportation standards (more on this below).

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#AutoSardines… six people packed into an auto.

Speaking of prices be prepared for a few things.  First, rickshaw prices are negotiable to a certain extent.  It all depends on the time of day, the distance, whether or not you’re local to the area, how many people are riding the auto, and how good of a haggler you are.  First, the price of a ride is higher during the night when far less autos are available.

The easiest way to pay for a ride is to get a rickshaw with a meter.  In my experience this is the easiest.  In fact, there were many billboard signs all over Hyderabad saying that meters in autos are the law.  However, sometimes the meters don’t work or you’re willing to pay more of an even number to get somewhere.  With the dollar being close to 60 rupees my group and I mostly decided to pay an even number.

On average it seemed to costs us about 27 rupees per kilometer.  However, when speaking to locals and checking out some travel blogs it seems the average price for a local would be 25 rupees for the first 2 kilometers and 8-12 rupees for the rest of the ride.  If you are comfortable enough haggling you can haggle based on locals recommendations.  If you’re not, paying approximately 20-30 rupees per kilometer seems the average for a tourist.

Video of fast and quick morning rush hour traffic.

If you happen to meet a driver who you trust and mesh with get their number and call them to pick you up when needed.  When we met a driver on our first day that seemed nice we asked for his card.  We would call to get picked up for school, from school, and for our evening activities.

Lastly, be as prepared as you can be.  Sometimes drivers won’t know where the place you’re going is.  Sometimes they say they don’t but they don’t.  If you search the area online, take a screen shot and have it with you.  It will be easier for you to reach your destination with less frustration this way.

India, One Plate at a Time by Cinthya Quintana

August 23, 2015

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Much like the author Zuju Shareef in his short story Food, Glorious Food! I too have many amazing memories connected to food.  India can be taken in with every sense of the body.  My favorite sense to use while in India, however, was my sense of taste.  The food in Hyderabad was absolutely delicious.  A Hyderabadi friend of mine would even say, “Hyderabadis have the best food in all of India” (thanks Irshad!) and I would agree.

Many meals were outstanding on their own (Chicken Biryani, that garlic naan, can we talk about Mexican-India food…) but many more were shared in a most perfect moment that the entire experience of eating the meal has ingrained itself into my memory forever as a full body experience.

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While traveling to the Taj Mahal was no picnic (trains, planes, and automobiles) my favorite meal of the entire trip was at the Taj Resort as the sun set.  Thanks to our professor Samina we had the most amazing hotel in Agra.  The best part of this hotel was the rooftop deck/restaurant that looks over the Taj Mahal.

Since going to the Taj Mahal has been on my bucket list since I read a book about the Seven Wonders of the World in third grade I was giddy to walk to the rooftop and see it for myself for the very first time.  Let me set the scene; winding staircase to the lookout point, sitar musicians playing in the background, light breeze on a warm evening, the wafting scent of warm naan, saffron, sage, cloves…

As I walked up to the lookout point I began to get sentimental.  Here I was lucky enough to travel; lucky enough to travel to a place I had only read about in books, and lucky enough to be completely in this moment (sitar music in the background, the sun setting in cacophony of blues, greens, oranges, and purples).  What had I done to be so deserving?

And as all of this is going through my mind I walk up to the observation point and a tear fell from my eye.  I was awestruck.  The view was marvelous and more than I could hope for.  For me, the entire trip had been made in this single moment.

While traveling to the Taj Mahal was no picnic (trains, planes, and automobiles) my favorite meal of the entire trip was at the Taj Resort as the sun set.  Thanks to our professor Samina we had the most amazing hotel in Agra.  The best part of this hotel was the rooftop deck/restaurant that looks over the Taj Mahal.

Since going to the Taj Mahal has been on my bucket list since I read a book about the Seven Wonders of the World in third grade I was giddy to walk to the rooftop and see it for myself for the very first time.  Let me set the scene; winding staircase to the lookout point, sitar musicians playing in the background, light breeze on a warm evening, the wafting scent of warm naan, saffron, sage, cloves…

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Butter Chicken in the right hand corner of the plate with the obligatory garlic naan and basmati rice, and of course other samples I got from my tablemates.

No A/C, No Problem by Cinthya Quintana

August 23, 2015

My experience of traveling to India is different from people who are only traveling through the land.  I had the opportunity to be working with Teach For India (TFI), one amazing fellow (Shobitha!), and fantastic students.

As Teach For American (TFA) alum I thought I had an idea of what the experience would be like.  I worked in the inner city, my co-teacher teaches in the inner city.  I had students of many backgrounds; she has students of many backgrounds.  With all the similarities between our students I thought I would “so have this”.  However, the reality of going into an environment that is very different from your own is very jarring.  I was humbled and inspired by my time with TFI.

As a Chicago Public School teacher I know the realities of students in the inner city.  The realities of the home lives of my students sometimes include single parent/guardian homes, deep poverty, lack of health care, etc.  However, even these realities, which I’m sure some of us expected to find in India, were different between children and vastly different from my students.

One more thing, even though we can all discuss the pros and cons of education in America (and I personally have spent many hours doing so) I write this entry as a piece of reflection.  We have so many social services and safeguards available for our students that most of the world does not have.  And while the experiences of parents worldwide are similar, this post is written to highlight the hard work of Indian parents who put so much into the education of their children.

My students in India all paid tuition to attend the school.  In their neighborhood there is no public school.  That means that no matter how many kids in a family, how many working parents, or even how much parents make each family pays about 1,500 rupees per month to keep a single student in school.  That means that a family with two school-aged children would pay 3,000 rupees a month on education.  According to the average wage of a working family in India is 603 rupees for 48 hours of work (that’s an average of $10.03 for a longer than average work week).  The reality of many of my students is that parents work even longer workweeks just to pay for their children’s education.  The jarring truth is that a parent is working 16-20 hour days just to pay for living expenses and tuition.  The students in the neighborhood have two choices, pay the tuition or don’t go to school. Not much of a choice, if you ask me.

In contradiction, all children in the US that are school aged are legally mandated to attend a public school.  Parents usually pay minimal school fees but are given waivers if they cannot pay for the fees (my co teacher explained that India only had waivers for ‘extreme poverty situations’).  Like many of my Chicago students’ parents, families in India work multiple jobs to pay for their child’s education.  How inspiring all around.

I felt even more humbled when I walked into the classroom.  I will admit that I am the first one to complain if I don’t have a supply or resource.  After some complaining I find a way to get the resource (usually a trusty donor’s choose grant).  However, nothing will put me in my place next time I complain about something more than the memory of 300+ students placed into a school building half the size of a Chicago brownstone in classrooms 15 feet x 10 feet with NO A/C.

In the past I’ve complained about no A/C.  Heck, the summer of 2012 when I taught summer school in 112 degree heat really made me think I was prepared to teach in India.  In 2012 I didn’t have AC in the classroom but we went to the computer room every 2 hours to cool off.  We didn’t have AC but we got cold water and popsicles and when if got so hot, we got to go home early.  Boy was I unprepared to be in the classroom in India.

In my school in Hyderabad we had a fan; a fan that only got turned on when it was our turn to have electricity (the headmaster would ration electricity so that everyone was able to have some air at some point during the day).  A painful but fair way to allow everyone a break from the stale air every hour or so.

I don’t write this to be sensational; I write to be honest and to remind myself to be grateful.  The kids in my classroom in India really wanted to be in school.  Come hell or high water (or 100 degree heat) they were coming to school and learning.  Period.

During my time in India I mostly felt inspired.  I felt inspired every time I would collaborate with my co-teacher.  Shobitha was so sweet and so caring; she truly loved her job.  And even though she was in the thick of her first month teaching she was just a breath of fresh air for the students.  Every day she asked questions and wanted feedback.  And just as soon as I gave feed back she implemented the new ideas and wanted to get some more feedback.

Being with Shobitha re-centered me in my own work.  We go to work everyday trying to get through a lesson plan and sometimes it can be hard to remember that the students are children going through so much.  We are there not to just teach them but to nurture them, listen to them, and be fun with them.  Thank you Shobitha for reminding me.

So next time I want to complain or whine about something I will remember that even though I am separated from India by land sea I am united to those students, teachers, and families by the same goal.  And I promise to continue to give amazing children a great education regardless of the resources.

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Shobitha didi (middle), Cinthya didi, and my fabulously amazing students in Hyderabad


Caste Immobility by Rosaleen Egan

August 23, 2015

After reading Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, it became clear that caste in India is ubiquitous and never far from one’s mind. Balram, the main character, discusses the caste system at length and creates a metaphor for the lower class’s situation, relating it to a rooster coop. He explains that like roosters in a coop, the lower class is unable to escape their bleak fate. Even when given the opportunity to cheat a master, most servants would not, for fear that there would be retaliation on their families.

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Before going to India, I knew that caste was important to Indians, as they typically marry within the same one. It was eye-opening to realize that, while it is often not discussed as explicitly, Americans tend to do the same thing. Still, when I arrived, I was shocked at how explicit they could be about the caste system. While I was getting to know students at the middle school, one of them asked, “What caste are you from?” I was stunned that they would ask this question so casually. I know that in the U.S. kids are aware of their general social class, but to wonder so openly about a stranger’s place and to have distinct names surprised me.

Perhaps their place in the caste system is such a ubiquitous and casual topic because it is something that they are eager to change. Yet, as Balram explains, changing caste is a difficult task. One seemingly obvious way to rise to a higher caste would be through education. It is obvious that parents and students take school very seriously, as parents will spend what little money they have on tutoring or private schooling for their children. Families who can’t afford these educational extras take school seriously, practicing math in their free time, or showing up to school even when their teachers do not (see my previous blog post, “Teach Me”).

Unfortunately, teachers have commented on the inefficacy of many tutoring programs and private schools. When families spend their money in hopes that their children will rise socially, but do not actually receive the improved education they are hoping for, social mobility is less likely.

By focusing on the social mobility of servants by theft, rather than educational means, Balram implies that changing caste through education is even less effective. It seems that Adiga is commenting on the lack of opportunities available to lower castes. In order to change your status, education will not help. Theft will not help, because they will seek revenge on your family. The only way out is to abandon your family and leave them to pay for your rebellion with their lives. Perhaps Balram does so because the system is that aggravating and consuming.