Time has graced me with gifts great and small. From the stone that the Sadhu gave me to something as grand as the mind and body I am inhabiting. Some of the greatest gifts time graces all of us with are the people that surround us. Family and friends are among the things we all take for granted at one time or another but in this piece I will try to do justice and shed some light on those I have had the privilege of sharing a part of my life with here in Kalimpong.
The King Thai restaurant and hotel is my most frequented spot in the bazaar. The food is tasty, they have the infamous Darjeeling chya (tea) and lets not forget beer (we all have our vices). But what keeps me coming back is the people. Manoj and Hanok, two young waiters working 12 hours a day 7 days a week for about $40 CAD a month are among my best friends here. Society here dictates that you live at home with your parents; you move out when you have married and had children and there are simply too many people under one roof to be comfortable. But these young men are living on their own, and sending money home as well. I am warmly greeted by all the staff from the bartender to the hostess when I walk in with handshakes and Namastes aplenty. One of the other waiters proudly told me he applied for English Honours at the local college. The hostess is a hearty woman and a mother of one. I made the mistake of saying, “Thank you Didi”, didi meaning older sister. “Do I look like a Didi to you?!”. No no, little sister from now on, my apologies. My prime source of Nepali vocabulary and my best place to practice I can depend on them to point me in the right direction for things I am looking for. I even got free tea the other day. In return for their knowledge of their mother tongue I try to teach a bit about mine. When I need to get out of the busti (village) I bring my work here for the most part.
At D.P. Upasak, the bookstore I frequent, as I have mentioned before, I have been given a discount on all books. Mr. Upasak hunts down the books I am after if I give him a day or two’s notice. His smile never fails. Just the other day he tells me he only has one Ernest Hemingway book, which I bought. So he tells me, here take this book read and do not damage then bring it back. No charge. Not a big deal I know, but I cannot help but feel rather ecstatic about it.
Here is it rude to call people by name. There is no need to ask for names whatsoever. Everyone here is either your sister, brother, aunty, uncle, father, or mother. The word ‘cousin’ has no parallel, they are only brothers and sisters. The cab drivers to Eechey Busti all know me by now though I do not know their names. The small talk in the shared taxis also proves invaluable practice as well and I have many many characters living in the village this way. Also a good way to meet students parents oddly enough. Squeezing 7 people into the back of a van the size of a sedan and 2 more in the fronts means you get very personal with all of them, and their smells (some better than others).
.The more time I spend with Dinesh and his family the more my heart grows. It is strange having a very similar view of the world around you as the 42-year-old principal of an Indian elementary school, but comforting nonetheless. The more we talk the more we dream. Dream of what we can do. Dream of what we will do. “No religion says hate the poor people”, he tells me all the time. His earnestness in wanting to help everyone around him is no less inspiring as his humility in being a pillar in his community, house, and school. His younger brother, Umesh, is the joker of the family. He comes over ever night before dinner and usually has everyone in stitches before he makes his way home. His wife also makes some mean momos, let me tell you. His 2 year old son Deepom comes over every morning and afternoon. He calls my ukulele ‘jing jing’ and asks me without fail, “Jing jing koi?” – “Where is jing jing?”. Anupa, Dinesh’s wife, struggles with her health. But when she is feeling well the only thing warmer than her smile is fire of the woodstove in the dead of winter. Indian men are very lucky, for every woman I’ve met can cook for the angels. Anupa is no exception. Dinesh’s father (or Baba) is a hearty old man. At 76 he still works the fields, though he is long retired. An interesting note is that retiring age here is 60, younger than in Canada. Anyways, of all the people I enjoy speaking Nepali to he is at the top of the list. I have never known a more earnest smile, or one so big for that matter, on anyone but a child on Christmas Day. But that was before I came to India.
These are the gifts I am given everyday. The smiles of those around me, the smiles on the children’s faces. These are among the greatest gifts I get, and I get them everyday. I do not know what it is I am doing right, or what it is I have done right, but I am not about to complain.
Obviously living in India hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, although the sun is rather relenting. That being said a degree of, not quite homesickness, but a definite craving has arisen. Being unable to express myself fully, or be as obnoxious as my usual self. has left me coping by trying to learn as much Nepali as I can. Though it can be exhausted in one short conversation I am more than satisfied with my progress. The biggest frustration I have is not being able to learn how the language works, i.e., the grammatical structures. After beginning to teach English grammar simple phrases are not quite cutting it for my craving. But unless I take formal lessons that simply will not happen, and time is not exactly on my side anymore. Oh well, next time.
My health has been steady but a bit shaky at times. The first time I got sick was in Kerela, and I never fully recovered until I came to the hills. I see why the British wanted the place so badly. The second time was within two weeks of coming into Kalimpong, but that was only for two days. Thethird time was two weeks ago and the sickest I have been so far. I actually ended up vomiting (I’ll spare you the other details) but that lasted only one day; fresh by morning. I cannot say the same for this time however but it is the flu season here. Waiting for the monsoon to wash the land clean as well as our health
The small town banter is nothing unlike that of Whitehorse; simply different words to express the same thoughts. I catch myself finding many parallels to my hometown in Canada. Alcoholism is not as in your face but is very apparent, especially in a village full of manual workers. Instead of a case of beer for some work, its usually a bottle of 75 proof Sikkimese rum. Not exactly high grade but it gets the job done, literally.
The teachers, as I mentioned before, are very warm and compassionate. But the lack of discipline mentioned in my briefing reports is no exaggeration. I am the only teacher that shows up (aside from Dinesh) longer than 10 minutes before school starts. And even then 4 of the 6 teachers show up on a good day. After the children partake in their daily routine of prayer, professing allegiance to their country and singing the school song I go to my class with the students. This appears a foreign concept to the teachers here as they hang out in the staff room for about 15 minutes talking amongst themselves prior to their classes. At least most of the other teachers if they show up, show up in this time frame. My first class is in class 5, right beside the nursery full for 3-4 year-olds. They like to pop into my class while unsupervised which proves both distracting and frustrating. One time I had to go to the staff room to prompt them to go to class. I am in no position to tell them how to do their jobs so I simply lead by example. Ultimately it’s the children that suffer. The other irritating thing for me is how inconsistent the periods are. Only supposed to be 35 minutes each the bell is rarely sounded on time. During the ’10 minute’ break after 3 periods again there is no rush to get to class by the teachers. This again repeats itself during the lunch break.
Okay so this is getting you downtrodden I get it. It does the same thing to me, however the pros outweigh the cons by a tonne, for me at least. How about a bit of a lighter note, nah?
Now lets get started on the food. I have been almost on a purely vegetarian diet here, eating vegetables I cannot begin to describe let alone pronounce. My stomach is very happy with that and I have developed nothing shy of an addiction for momos with tomato chutney. Essentially a steamed cabbage and onion dumpling the ingredients are only flour, water, cabbage, onion, salt, veggie oil, and monosodium glutamate. Not as easy to make as they sound they’re always better made at someones home, but then again what isn’t? Rice is served with almost every meal but they insist I eat toast with jam and an egg every morning for ‘kaja’. Not the standard two slices like back home, nope. Anything less than 6 slices and they wonder if I am feeling alright, but I’m not complaining. I was never much of a tea drinker, but the ‘chya’ (Darjeeling Tea) is irresistible. Throw in the added pleasure of fresh milk from the cow up the hill and you simply cannot go wrong. Even the tea in the market isn’t as good as it is at my Himalayan Home. A cup is usually one third of this delicious milk. They do not refrigerate milk or eggs, a bit alarming at first, but they boil the milk everytime tea is made. And never any problems with the incredibly fresh eggs.
I said lets get started okay? My mouth is watering at the thought of all of this. But though everything is borderline heavenly I am still in a very poor country. The unemployment rate is quite high here, the smell of bovine fecal matter is heavy in the country and human fecal matter in the city, and I can honestly say that the roads in Whitehorse are dreamy compared to roads here. Especially in Sikkim. But take it all with a grain of salt, nah?
Today was the first day I struck home. Literally and figuratively. I sat down with Dinesh today after class, to discuss some business regarding the NGO that sent me and money sent by a former volunteer over the years. As we poured over some of the books I got to see this mans life on paper. Then I got to hear about it. He told me how when we was growing up, particularly when he was in class 4 and 5, his family was quite poor. He told me that he had to sleep in a shopping bag. “We had no blanket”. I sat in silence nodding and smiling as he told me ‘frankly’ how when he was a young man he managed to build this school, Gyan Jyoti; Ray of Knowledge. How he made less than 200 rupees a month (todays exchange rates about $4). How he married in 1998 two years after the school was built.
Choking back tears we went from topics of God to family. His three things he lives by are Paris rami, Iman dhari, and biswasi. Hard-work, honesty, and trustworthiness. “Do not wait for tomorrow”. Of course I have heard that last bit before from many sources. His tone struck me. He told me I am like his son. Again, smiling nodding. “Just listen just listen, I tell you frankly”. He expressed frustration in not being able to communicate through English as he could Nepali. “I feel the same way”, I tell him. So I listen. His words bled out of his mouth. “I think to my past when I start thinking, do it tomorrow. And I work. Hard labour, honesty, and…. and….”.
“Yes yes that word”.
Today I got to remember that I have two ears and one mouth. This small, well mannered, borderline timid and very quite Rai Gorkha told me the whys. How he cuts everyone a deal, how he manages his school; his life. A strange feeling of both humility and pride came over me. Humility because I have never known struggle like that. Here I am the lazy Gora who can’t do his own dishes and doesn’t know how to plough a field comes over from his wintery country who does not know what it is like to go to bed hungry. Not, ‘I didnt have time to eat’, but ‘I had no opportunity to eat’. The pride for having an opportunity to come here. To not only work for this man, who has his priorities not just straight, but in his mind at all times. No cheating others and a firm belief in karma. But I get the privilege to share a roof over my head with him, his daughter, his wife, his niece. His parents just on the other side of the hill (‘that side’ in his words), his auntie Santa just down the hill. The other teachers living even closer.
His quietness and concerned look on his face greatly worried me when I first arrived. ‘What have I done wrong? I hope I am not done something wrong… Am I teaching okay? It must be my teaching”, I would think to myself. After almost two months, prior to the talk, I came to accept it as his nature, no concern at all. But now I know the whys, the why nots. His humour is disarmingly charming and innocent; not unlike his smile.
Before I loved this place for the place itself. Warm climate, the nature around us, the food. But now I know it is not the place that is holding me here. The glue of my Himalayan Home that sticks to both my feet and heart are the people. I don’t know how I am going to leave.
Everyday I find myself loving this place more and more. From the birds singing to wake me in the morning (although 5 am is a little early) to the daily power cuts. A much simpler life. The people of the hills have greeted me with nothing but smiling faces and copious amounts of laughter. Of course the laughter stems from my slaughter of the Nepali language when I try to speak it. That being said I have learned a new phrase that puts them into stitches even more so: “Khee-na hasnu Bhako Daju/Didi?”, or as a Gora might say: “Why are you laughing Brother/Sister?”.
With Anu-pa’s niece staying with us now the house is almost full. Daily visits from Dinesh’s 2-year-old nephew are nothing shy of hectic and, albeit, entertaining. I have discovered the true meaning of ‘mischievous’ with the student boarding with us, Aung-Su. Rain comes, rain goes; just as the power does when the lightning comes. Life on the home-front is full of colour and plenty of sound. And don’t get me started on the food.
The morning stroll down the hill to school is lush and green full of flowers and plants I have never seen before. Bumble-bees the size of large cherries buzz by with the dozens of different butterflies, some the size of small birds. I know I’m at the school when my nostrils greeted by the stomach churning smell of the toilets; simply two holes in the ground that lead to the closest drainage ditch. Next a minor league cricket match and then the children line up to pray, declare their allegiance to India, and sing the ‘School Song’. Single file they march to class and my day begins.
Exams begin this week, where nursery aged students, lower kindergarden, upper kindergraden all the way to class 5 have them. Kind of shocking for myself, especially considering their entire mark depends on the tri-annual exams. I chose to write mine on the computer, a foreign concept to both the teachers and Dinesh. Software problems are the bane of my existence here.
I am finally managing to memorize the children’s names; not a small task when you can hardly pronounce them. What the school lacks in supplies and curriculum it makes up for in personality. The teachers themselves are very warm, caring, and provide great encouragement for my attempts at speaking their language. I usually fill in the the teachers who are sick by taking their classes and so far the students really do not mind.
By frequenting a few places in the market I have manged to get to know a few people; the waiters at the King Thai (the cheapest language lessons are in restaurants), a local bookstore I frequent enough I have managed to get a ‘special discount’, and of course a few of the taxi drivers at the Echhey motor stand. The shared taxis to a from the market also prove to be full of invaluable Nepali lessons.
The other day on my way to the motor stand after having a beer at the King Thai I found myself saying, “Namaste” to a passing stranger as per usual. The ‘Namaste’ in response I got out this Southern-Looking Indian gentlemen had a distinctly North-East American accent to it. I stopped and noticed he was equally taken back hearing the greeting from a gora. Introductions ensued followed by a lovely conversation in the fluent English that I seldom hear anymore. After the pleasantries I found out he was only in Kalimpong for the night before heading back to his home in Mumbai. Asking if I would like to get a beer with him I promptly went back to, you guessed it, the King Thai.
He told me a brief overview of his life and why he came to the States. Growing up in a traditionally oppressive Brahamistic family and hearing of the great freedom the West brought from such a lifestyle the stars and stripes were in his eyes from an early age. Kumar immigrated at the age of 20 to the US where he started his own bussiness. Now at the age of 42 he has come back to his mother India. In essence he told me how we has rediscovering the place of his birth. After spending 5 days in Sikkim touring around he told me he felt a peace he only ever felt in (you wont see this one coming) Skagway, Alaska. Apparently he unknowingly visited Whitehorse at the same time in the standard Alaskan Cruise that happens along the Skagway docks.
After further conversation touching on subjects from God and religion, to mother Bharat herself it was getting late and I sadly had to leave. The concept of a “Global Village” really is not at far-fetched as some make it out to be. Yet another humble reminder of how small our world really is.
After a relaxing two weeks spent in Kerela I am now in the district of Darjeeling in West Bengal. In the village of Echhey (pronounced Ee-chay) about a twenty minute taxi ride from Kalimpong’s market. Living with the principal (Dinesh) of a primary school that goes up to grade 5, or Class 5, his wife (Anupa), his daughter(Suruchi), and a student boarding with us (Angsu) has proven, yet again, to be very humbling.
I have spent only a few days teaching thus far. My subjects are English Grammar for Classes 1 through 5 and English Literature for Class 5 as well. Living just a short walk up the hill from the school built in the memory of Dinesh’s grandmother makes for an easy way to work. The name of this lovely little school is Gyan Jyoti can be translated to ‘Ray of Knowledge’. As I stride onto the school grounds before class I am greeted with endless ‘Good Morning Saaaar!’s until class begins. The Nepali accent here has a difficulty with the ‘i’ in sir and for the life of the them are as good at saying ‘zzzz’ as I am a rolling R.
Never in my life have I had the pleasure of teaching such respectful children. Class 5 have my first classes in the morning and they ask permission for everything; drinking water, sharpening pencils, coming back into the classroom. The questions being, “Sharpen pencil?”, “Drink water?”, “Toilet?”. The enthusiasm to learn grammar of all things is simply electrifying, making my job with this group nothing short of delightful.
Followed by a short break after Class 5 literature I move onto the split grammar class for 2 & 3. These children are much in the same way as their older counter parts having a split classroom of Victorian style benches, just shy of enough breathing room, and only a chalkboard 1/5th the size of ones back home. These conditions have proven challenging. The most challenging part is simple classroom management; explaining a task for Class 2 while trying to have Class 3 sit and be idle and vice versa. While trying to explain one task to a class I am bombarded by “Sar! Sar! Sar!” from the other with questions about the work assigned to them. On the bright side, I get nothing but smiles and, literally, flowers every day I show up. Classes 1 & 4 are also in a split classroom and is much the same.
Done by 2 o’clock I find myself relatively idle in the evening as the sun sets before 7pm. Making class plans and correcting homework take up my time until dinner is served at about 9pm, then it is time to hit the hay.
Another interesting thing that is happening here: Election time. In this particular part of India there is a movement for a separate and semi-autonomous state for the Darjeeling District and few others in the North of West Bengal. Gorkhaland is the proposed state and if a certain party becomes the government they have pledged to create this new state. My host family supports this movement and on my third day here they had a sort of community feast for the occasion. About 300 people showed up, and was a lovely way to get my first contact with a lot of the community around the hills.
All in all the Hill People are great, the children are great, and don’t get me started on the food. With no regrets a strange feeling of contentment has started to arise. I read once that you need to Surrender to India to enjoy it. And to say the least, life is grand
Now in Kerela living with my good friends family in a village about 20 km from Thrissur and being treated like a king (not sure what I am doing right, but I am not complaining!) I’ve started to become accustomed to a more Indian lifestyle. They do not nod their head here, instead the “head wiggle” is pretty much the equivalent. Smiling and waggling I have received nothing but warm smiles and dropped jaws. I walk down the street the children laugh and point. Their parents less wary, I try to show as much respect as I can. My vocabulary is greatly improving in Malayalam, the local dialect, however I can already start to feel my English deteriorating.
Mornings thus far consist of an early rise between 5:30-6am followed by some simple tasks fixing up the family’s ancestral home; raking leaves to burn, moving bricks, and soon planting some banana trees. By 8am a full body sweat begins from the heat and by noon it is 30C-35C outside. No sunburns, yet. Afterwards Udi (I can barely pronouce his full name) asks me where I want to go or what I want to do, which I generally respond ‘What do you need to do? What are your plans?’. I have been following him like a puppy the last few days trying to orient myself and I think I am finally starting to get a grasp. Having no mountains and few land marks are making this quite difficult for myself.
A German yogi who goes my Atman Shanti (Soul of Peace) has been staying with us the last few days. If you can picture a German speaking with an Indian accent and a shaved head with but a ridge up the top of her skull until it reaches a heart on the back of her head with just a smidge of crazy then you have her pretty well summed up. She warms my heart with her enthusiasm, and it is refreshing to have a western mind as well.
I now have my permission to enter the temples; a 4 hour bus journey to Calicut with my friends Susheej and his wife Regina, followed by a long wait and a surprise ritual provided me with such. In India my name is now Rahul Krishna. Afterwards Udaiya and I managed to get into Guruvayoor, an ancient temple in Kerela. Inside was fascinating and rich, but I was led to disappointment. On the certificate the men who gave it to me assumed I was Christian. This led to minor difficulties at Guruvayoor, leading to a long wait and an imposing few questions by the guard armed with an assault rifle:
‘Are you Christian or Hindu?!’
‘What is your name?!’
The answers I gave were of course Hindu and Rahul. After Udaiya spoke to the proper authorities inside the temple I was allowed to enter but had to wait at the entrance as per the internal security guard to get photocopies of my authorization. After another long wait we were finally able to walk around the temple. The splendour and history was rich, but again I was disappointed by the shoving match to enter certain parts of the temple. After making our round we headed home for the day.
As enchanting and beautiful as the temple was I was sad to see the necessity behind the guards. I was informed that 3 times Muslims had tried to bomb the place. Sad fact of reality. But what really got to me was how difficult it was to enter simply because I was white. Dressed in a dhoti, barefoot, with an Aum symbol obviously tattooed on my right arm they still were very precarious in letting me enjoy what was theirs. I cannot think of a church back home that would not let a Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu into their place of worship on the premises of not only race but religion. But that’s just the way of the road Bubs.
Speaking to my host family today brought my spirits back up; I arrive in Kalimpong on April 8th and I cannot wait to start the challenge of teaching Indian Children.
In preparation for my trip to India I have been volunteering and the Multicultural Centre of the Yukon (https://mcyukon.com/en/) working with level 0-2 class in the mornings before I work as a teachers assistant. Primarily with the lower level students (0-1) as there are fewer of them while the other teacher has been working mostly with the level 2s. Today we did an activity trying to teach two of the students the different between ‘is’ and ‘is not’, and at the end of the lesson one of the students looks up at me and says, “You’re good teacher!”. I told her I really appreciated it, but I don’t think she understood what I meant.
Strangely enough that has got to be one of my highlights for me thus far in 2014. Here I am, taking time out of my day, to try and help these fully functioning and very intelligent adults learn a new language and it turns out (according to Pat at least) that I am doing a good job. It makes me sad to think that I am going to be leaving these guys in a short time. I am looking forward to see how far I can come in my time in India.
Regardless I am very thankful for these people attending class and helping me grow and refine my skills. It always sets the mood for my day when I volunteer in the morning before work; the amount of gratitude I have for these guys is immense.
Note to self: check in with them when I get back