Tom’s Tales: Year-end Reflections

It’s hard to believe, but we are finishing up our first year here in India. I’m not going to lie. This has been the hardest thing I have ever done, which I guess says a little bit about how easy my life has been to this point, and a little bit about how I just have not been as good at moving to a new world as I wanted to be. Melissa pointed out that this blog has turned into vacation documentation at the expense of all the other things we wanted to document along the way, maybe because so much of the stuff we wanted to document just became part of every day life. I wanted to take the opportunity presented by this one-year milestone to process what I have learned about myself and our life in India.

There is a way that how I try to live my life has saved me, and a way my priorities just simply don’t work here. First, one of my most important mantras comes courtesy of one of the most important people in my life, Jay Watson. He likes to say, “Make new mistakes every day.” I love that, I try to live by that, and I teach it to all my students every year. Jay likes to point out the many things at play here. He isn’t saying “Don’t make mistakes”; if you never make mistakes, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. Embrace the mistakes you make, but learn from them, move on, and make new mistakes tomorrow. Early on, it felt like I was repeating the mantra to myself hourly. I was making so many mistakes every day, many of them only once, but way too many I would repeat over and over again, from mistakes at work, to being too timid in public situations, to I don’t know how many things. My primary correction also comes back to something Jay likes to say often: “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” I’m getting better at that; not just documenting what we’re experiencing, but trying to learn from my mistakes. Now, when someone is telling me something that I need to know, especially around a mistake that I’ve made, I write it down and repeat to them what I understand about the issue. That gives them a chance to correct my understanding, which again I write down and repeat to them just to make sure I’m getting it.

Another one of the cornerstones of the way I try to live my life is that I know that I don’t know anything for sure (My answer to Aunt Mary’s greeting, “Whatdoyouknowforsure?”: “Not much, Aunt Mary. Not much”). Wow. That has never been more true than this past year. Every time I think I’m starting to understand something fairly thoroughly, something pops up that proves I didn’t understand that thing at all, from paying bills to how Hinduism effects modern Indian culture. Some days it has felt like I don’t know anything at all, much less “for sure”. I hope my attitude has allowed me to learn about all these things I don’t know about, but I’m afraid too often it gets in my way of taking some risks, too. Next year will be better.

While those two philosophies have saved me, there are things that are similarly important to me that just simply don’t work. I like to be deferential to people. I don’t always have to be first, get the best thing, pretend I know the most. Here, it feels like that is seen as weakness, either physically while people are pushing ahead (more on that later) or intellectually when people assume I am not as competent as I hope I am. I’m kind of hoping that I am learning to be more assertive in general, since being deferential often does look weak, and I do miss out on some cool things. Similarly, I think it’s important to leave room for people to make their own decisions, and when a decision is to be made that affects others, that decision should be made as a group. Leaving that kind of space means someone else is going to decide for me. I am learning again to be more assertive and declare what I need to do.

The thing that is hardest for me related to my life priorities is the importance of asking “Why?” If we can’t answer the why of a process, of an activity, of a purchase, of anything, we shouldn’t be doing it. If the answer to the why of a rule is unsatisfying, we should be advocating for a change. My favorite example of this being anathema here is around my old walk home. There was a fence between our first apartment and the lake that was the highlight of the walk. For a long period of time, there was a hole in the fence that made it a super reasonable walk and gave a little village near the lake access. For an equally long period of time, the hole was sealed, and guards were posted to make sure no one got through. I asked three different guards why. “Why can’t I pass through?” “The fence is closed.” “But why? It makes the villagers’ lives so much easier” “Because the fence is closed.” “But why?” “The fence is closed.” This is the response one gets everywhere. Why this paperwork? Because it’s required. Why is it required? Because we have to follow the rules. Why are these the rules? Because it’s required. Why are we doing this thing? Because it’s the way we do things. Why do we do it this way? Because we always have. But why do we still? Because it’s the way we do it. The worst answer ever for why. It’s the opposite of making new mistakes every day. We’re going to continue to make this mistake because it’s the way we’ve always done it. This one, the only thing I’m learning is to pick and choose whom I ask “why?”, but it’s going to continue to be important to me.

To make some of the harder elements of life less hard, I am constantly reminding myself of the economic situation that surrounds us. By some accounts, India is no longer a Third World Nation, but just barely. Even if that is true, want is everywhere. As a larger culture, it will take a good long time to climb Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. So many people are still, and so many more people are only one or two generations removed from, simply trying to feed themselves and their families,  comforts of more well established wealthy countries are simply unreasonable. I’m talking basics – regular garbage service, clean air and water, expectations of indoor toilets. There are movements underway to try to build the infrastructure and attitudes to address these problems – movements to reduce disposable consumption, clean up the rivers, reduce air pollution, encourage people to use toilets – but it’s going to take a while to see the effects of those programs. In the meantime, we hold our noses as we go by the worst of the spontaneous road side garbage dumps and cross over streams. It’s just the way it is, but people are trying to make it better. Remember, it took us in the West a long time to clean up our acts. (Side political note – hopefully we didn’t do so good of a job that we’re willing to let our current administration and EPA chief undo that work.)

Also related to the economic situation here, people are constantly trying to get money from us, to the point of feeling like everyone is trying to scam us. I continually ask myself, “How much does this person get paid?” The answer is often very very little. The wealth gap, the income gap, all of those gaps we progressives in the US want to address are unbelievably worse here. As a result, we live a life of luxury I can’t imagine living anywhere else. A driver’s trying to get more money out of me? Fine. He probably makes a dollar an hour. I can share a little bit of what I am lucky enough to have. I try to think of it less that people are trying to scam us as they are trying to survive.

There are some things we are trying very hard to not learn for ourselves. We keep being told that any interaction with the police will end up with us handing over shockingly large sums of money. We got into an accident in one of our last weekends in town before leaving for summer, and (thanks to our friend and getting-through-life-in-Bangalore guru Prem) we were able to solve the issue without the police getting involved. The apartment building seems to want a police background check beyond what the immigration folks have already done for us; we keep talking our way out of that. Speaking of immigration, we have been told very clearly that our immigration paperwork, the Golden FRRO, is very important and must be kept in pristine condition despite being required in all kinds of places. We like living here. We don’t want to get kicked out. We keep our FRRO very well protected.

There are things about life in Bangalore that drive me crazy. The bureaucracy. Everyone has to have a say about our choices, and they all have paperwork that needs a passport photo. The pushing. We call it the “It’s always my turn” syndrome. In line at restaurants and grocery stores, in traffic, in any kind of crowd larger than ten. People will push past, through, and over you to do what they need to do right now. The bureaucracy. Every layer has an added cost to it, whether that was made clear at any point in the process or not. Garbage. It is everywhere. Yes, I know, it’s part of what I try to remind myself is part of the developing infrastructure and economy, but it still just makes me sad. The bureaucracy. Just when you think you’ve conquered all possible layers, someone needs to revisit his paperwork because it changed or just because that’s the way we do it. The refusal to say no, even when it means lying to us. I didn’t think it was a Western idea, but maybe it is; I’d rather hear the hard truth than be lied to, since at some point I’m going to learn that I haven’t done something right, and it would have been easier to fix it to begin with. And the bureaucracy. Because it is everywhere.

The extent of white privilege here has been a surprise. Maybe being a foreigner plays into it, too. Probably those two things really get wrapped up in to the same thing. My assumption was the opposite. White people did terrible things to this country. It was one of the richest regions of the world before Europeans discovered that fact. Seventy-one years after independence, India is still trying to get to its old status. I thought people would be pissed at people who look like me. Instead, people treat us like we’re special before we have done anything to deserve such a thing, and even when we do something to deserve quite the opposite, people give us a wide berth to make mistakes. The down side is that people definitely try to profit off us whenever possible. As I mentioned before, though, it’s not a completely unreasonable thing. We do have means many don’t. It does get frustrating, though.

Not all surprises of the past year have been difficult. There are a lot of things that I love about this place. There is a generosity that is the foundation of every relationship that is simply heartwarming. Everyone seems to talk to strangers on the street as if they’re old friends, creating an atmosphere of community we don’t have in the States. South Indian breakfast is AMAZING. Seriously. Why have Americans not discovered the joy of masala dosas? Vada? Idly and sambar? Uttapam? We talk a good game in the US about cultural diversity. The beauty of the cultural tapestry of Bangalore is incredible. South Indian cultures have their subtle differences, then you go North and expectations are totally different. Northeast is its own little world. The Himalayas feel like they have more in common with Nepal than with Kerala. One of the best things about Bangalore is that one of the reasons it has grown so unreasonably in the last ten years is that people from all those regions have congregated here, so all of those cultures are present in this one city. This one huge, crazy, unreasonable, amazing city. And mangos!

Lastly, and this does not fall in to the category of something I learned this year, but something that was confirmed over and over and over again. Melissa Parkerton is amazing. I have had a rough year; my lows have been very very low, and my highs have been fleeting. The number of times I have broken down at her expense is quite frankly embarrassing. Her patience, her eagerness, her joy, her unending compassion have kept me as sane as possible. Then there’s the work she does. She is in Bihar, the poorest, least literate state in India trying to help hospitals reduce infant and new mother mortality despite challenges we in the West simply have never considered. She is at Shanti Bhavan, creating a mentorship program for graduates. She learned that one of the challenges they were facing was figuring out what the world of opportunities meant to them; she didn’t shake her head and say, “Ooo, that’s so sad.” She’s doing something about it. She makes my life better, but mostly she makes the world around her better.

I don’t make New Years resolutions, but it was important to me this year to make one – I resolved to do what needed to be done to look forward to returning to Bangalore in August. Without Melissa, I don’t know that I would have made it. I won’t know until August rolls around, but thanks to her support and the changes we have made in our life in the past few months and the things I have learned about this place and about myself, I think I made it.

Tom’s Tales: Trek to the Himalayas

I took my first Melissa-less trip since moving to India. Along with three colleagues, I chaperoned 28 young folks to the top of a Himalayan mountain. Even with torrential rain, a little bit of snow, and some freaky heat, the only real problem was the Melissa-less part. It was an incredible trip, like a magazine spread.

The way Canadian International School’s schedule sets up, Grades 12 and 10 finish with classes in late April in order to take IB and IGCSE exams full-time (I’m working myself up to writing about my somewhat strong feelings about such things). While they are out, we send our grades 11 and 9 out on excursions. The grade 9 kids went to the Andaman Islands, an Indian state in the form of an archipelago about two-thirds of the way toward Thailand across the Bay of Bengal. Grade 11 kids went three places: Thailand, Dehradun to work with Habitat for Humanity, and the Himalaya.

With the help of Indiahikes and our fabulous guide Geet, we climbed Kedarkantha, a 12,500 foot peak in the state of Uttarakhand. We took 28 kids to try to get them out of their comfort zones and challenge their sense of self.

We started and ended at our “base camp,” which was actually an adorable little guesthouse in Gaichawan Gaon, a crazy eight hour drive from Dehradun. Perched on the side of a hill in a valley that makes the Columbia River Gorge look like a ditch, the seven girls and four of us adults slept in one building with private rooms. The 21 boys were divided between two dormitory rooms. The grounds were swarming with cows, sheep, and dogs, the last of which would soon follow us all the way up the mountain. That first dinner was our first one with the incredible, very un-camp food-like meals IndiaHikes would feed us over the next several days.

The first night in the mountains we experienced a heck of a thunderstorm. The way the rooms were set up, we were able to go to sleep to quite the light show. All the while, we were feeling for the other group of CIS trekkers who left a day earlier so were out in tents during that storm. One result of the storm was that we woke up to a dusting of snow in the hills above us. Nearly half of our kids had never experienced snow, so it got them mightily excited for the adventure to come.

Our first day on the trail presented us with six hours of some pretty rigorous hiking. Mid-way we came across a cute village where some of the men have set up an omelet and Maggi station for hikers. The kids loved it. Once we got to the campsite, we got dumped on by another thunderstorm. This time, it was our turn in the tents. Jeremy, Ganesh (the other two male chaperones) and I were distressed that our tent that had a little leak in the downhill side of the tent where the water was gathering, and that there was a river running underneath the tent. Then Elsa (our one female chaperone) described her tent as “a swimming pool”. The three guys were ok by comparison. The most impressive part of the storm was when Geet and another one of our hosts came around in the worst of it with tea and a kati roll. Otherwise, the three of us played cards in our damp tent until dinner time.

Day two was easier and beautiful. The first sign that the weather would be better was when I got up in the middle of the night for reasons old guys like me have to get up in the middle of the night. The sky was full of unbelievable numbers of stars. The walk involved several pastoral high mountain meadows with our first vistas of the expansive scope of the Himalaya. Once we got to the high camp we found the remnants of the six inches of snow the first trekking group was getting while we were flooding our tents. We arrived early enough that the kids had a fabulous afternoon exploring the area, playing games, having snowball fights, building snowmen, and resting for the early wake up the next morning. I had a concern about my blood oxygen levels, so I decided to not push it. I found a nice place to rest while watching storm after storm roll down the valley, almost entirely missing us. One short snow flurry got the kids fired up, and then it was time to prepare for our early summit push and get to bed early.

Summit day was incredible. The kids did great. One student turned around after falling ill, so 27 of our 28 students made it to the top despite a couple of them having quite the struggle. We were so proud of them. Meanwhile, the summit lived up to what one might expect from a Himalayan peak. The size of each mountain, the size of the visible part of the range, the size of the valleys. Everything was like nothing I have never seen before. After spending some time taking in the views, we started heading down. There were several stretches the kids were allowed to slide in the snow, so that was a good time.

By lunch time, we made it all the way down to the first camp where we got flooded the first time. On this day, it was warm enough for shorts and sandals, more games, and resting up from that early morning and extraordinary exertion.

One more hike downhill; one more stop at the omelet stop; one more day (of 90 degree weather) at base camp; one early morning drive to the airport in Dehradun. The whole experience was just fabulous. We had some superficial issues with language and some other stuff, but the kids were by and large amazing. As for next year, I’m of mixed feelings. I would happily do this again. I also wouldn’t mind doing an excursion to another part of the world (or at least the country).

Random Notes:

The excursions are done as part of the IB CAS process. IB makes an effort to make learning a more all-inclusive experience. Kids need to participate in, document, and reflect on a number of activities with the goal of making them well-rounded, life-long learners. Kids of course take this process more or less seriously, but we were excited by the number of times we heard the exclamation, “CAS photo!”

Dehradun is the base for an important religious pilgrimage. Hindus believe the mountains are the birthplace of Shiva, and there are four holy places in the mountains surrounding the city, 100s of km away from each other. Travelers take 10 days to visit them all on a trail called Char Dham Yatra (Hindi for something along the lines of journey through the four holy places).

I had a number of experiences throughout the week that just felt like quintessentially Indian moments. For example, one of the things I am most impressed by about Indian culture is that people talk to each other as if they already know each other. Our bus driver took this to a whole new level. He seemed to know everybody. Every once in a while he would stop in the middle of the one-lane, curvy road with a cliff on one side and a drop off on the other, in order to exchange words and a handshake with drivers going the other way. Or the gentleman we gave a ride several miles down the road as he stood between the driver and the front passenger. So many elements of this moment would never happen in the States: a stranger on a bus full of students, standing unbuckled in the middle of a van, someone simply asking for the ride in the first place.

Our biggest hurdle was the travel. Somehow, our flights were changed back in March and no one, not IndiGo (the airline) nor Windstar (the travel agency) bothered to notify us. As a result, about half of the group that was supposed to be in the group a day ahead of us along with one of their chaperones missed their flight. We ended up with, instead of two roughly evenly divided groups, one group of about ten people including two chaperones and one of 32 people including four chaperones. All I know is that we had a great time with all of the kids we had and were super happy to have the addition of Jeremy on our team. It also inspired us to check, or rather ask Melissa to check from home, our flight home. If we hadn’t done that, we would have ended up missing our flight in Dehradun, probably requiring us to stay there an extra 24 hours. Thank goodness we checked. The irony is that our new flights were way better than our original flights, but because both agencies failed so badly with the communication, we certainly aren’t using Windstar again, and we’ll try to avoid IndiGo (though I also get the sense this is SOP for Indian airlines in general).

 

Tom’s Tales: My last walk home

This weekend, Melissa and I are taking a huge step toward improving our day-to-day lives in Bengaluru. We are moving from Yelahanka, almost as far north as you can get and still call yourself in Bangalore, to Malleshwaram, nearer downtown, right on the Metro, and past a notorious bottleneck. More on that later, after the move. Yesterday, I took my last walk home, which is, along with our friends we made at NCC, one of only two things I will miss about the move.

I wrote about the walk to and from work earlier in our stay. The walk has changed many times since then. Most significantly, I quit walking to work in the morning. The hole in the fence was closed and reopened and closed again and a new hole opened up. The little farm stopped being part of the walk, first thanks to monsoon inspired mud and then construction. The end result was that it went from a 20 minute bit of bliss to an hour and fifteen minute, at times contentious little slice of India.

img_0027
A random celebration just outside the park in one of the villages. Note the god in truck in the background.

What I appreciated most about what my walk turned in to was how purely it represented India as we’ve experienced it. It was beautiful, with the lake and its birds, the trees, the greenery, and everything. It was also stinky, with occasional toxic spills in the lake and the constant sewage-filled stream that feeds it. The people along the way could be stubborn and unreasonable, especially the guards, whose sole duty it seemed was to stop the very reasonable act of cutting through the fence to the village near our place, but most of the people were kind and wonderful.

The longest route I was forced to take took me through two little neighborhoods with adorable children, with smiles and eyes that simply lit up their faces. People along the walk were always friendly, making small talk, showing off as much English as they could muster, and asking how my vacation was when they noticed I hadn’t been through in a while.

I didn’t see most of the regulars on my last walk yesterday, which is probably for the better. I probably would have done something weird on what was just an average day for them.

I’m also going to miss the occasional times I got to walk home with some of my colleagues. Ashi and Elsa tried to make a point of walk-in gone fairly regularly, though I usually walked later than them. One time I walked home with Craig and Ivana. It was always such a nice way to catch up with some really great people.

It has been fun to watch the workers beautify the lake. It is one of several that the city has built to try to fix some of the paving over of so many of the green areas. Since I’ve been making the walk, all kinds of trees and flowers have been planted and the lake shore has been cleaned up. On the other hand, since this is the land of contradictions, just over the fence in a couple of places there is some pretty major development happening.

The longest version of the walk also sent me on that stereotypically Indian thing of

img_0001
Baby Donkey!

waking down the train tracks. While doing so I also came across baby animals of all kinds: baby goats, baby donkeys, puppies, chicks, calves, and probably cutest of all, little baby piglets.

If you want to see more photos of my walk home, I frequently posted them on our Instagram page, wellserton_wanderings.

I’m going to miss my little walk every day. I’m trading it in for a bus ride with cute little sleeping kinders because so so much of our lives are about to get better.

Tom’s Tales: What’s the Difference?

This has not been a banner year in my teaching career. Noteworthy, sure. I moved from a low income suburban American public high school to a private international school in Bangalore where I literally have a prince in class. It’s been extraordinarily noteworthy. It’s also been rough. I’ve had to rethink a lot of assumptions I’ve held dear about myself as a teacher. Things have gotten better as the year has progressed. During the first several months I made noteworthy mistakes every single day, from huge, where I misunderstood the scope of an exam I was supposed to have given (one of my greatest headaches of the year and one I’m still convinced I was not the only one in the wrong but was the only one who paid a price), to smaller mistakes like misplacing stuff that would have been more forgivable if not for the other, more major issues.

While I’ve gotten better, there are times it still feels like I’m back in my first year of teaching. One thing that has helped is that I’ve started to put the many things that have been foreign to me in easy to digest categories: IB vs. AP, IGCSE vs. teacher-controlled curriculum, private vs. public, Indian vs. American, wealth vs. poverty, International School vs. neighborhood school, and, finally, figuring out the unique culture of any school one might join.

img_2446
Sometimes, in the middle of all the stress, one of the feral kittens runs through.

What really threw me was the vastness of the gulf in each one of these categories. In 18 years in Beaverton, I taught in three different schools with seven different principals. In each school I took pride in teaching whatever was thrown at me, from college classes to literacy labs, from fairy tales to literature of protest, from 8th grade sex ed to AP Language. I taught whatever I was asked to teach whether I thought I was ready for it or not. Journalism is a great example. Now I think back on it as one of my top few experiences of my career, but I was asked to take over an award-winning newspaper in my third year of teaching when no one else wanted to even though I really wasn’t qualified. In part because of all of that, I came in to this year thinking I would be able to roll with whatever was thrown at me.

Unless you have a billion dollars and a news network telling you you can do no wrong, misplaced confidence tends to bite one in the ass pretty darn quickly. I think the adjustments are starting to come, though. I’ll try to break down some of the adjustments I’m trying to make:

IGCSE is a prescriptive, exam-heavy curriculum that is almost the opposite of what I love about curriculum-building. Some of the writing for which the kids are held accountable penalizes critical thinking, and the literature seems designed to make kids hate reading. But it’s what I have to teach. Mid-year, I instituted a choice reading program in class without the classroom libraries enjoyed by my Beaverton colleagues. I had to do something to remind kids that reading is fun. I’m now trying to establish a system where we practice the IGCSE-required writing using the choice reading books, so they can practice those skills while having fun exploring their books. My first go at it resulted in two of my students writing an encounter between Hazel of Fault in Our Stars and Peter Rabbit of Peter Rabbit in the poetic form of Peter Rabbit. I see promise. I also submitted a request to purchase 115 books for a nascent library to make the system real. Finally, I have visions of next year connecting them online with the students of one of my fabulous Aloha colleagues (yay Nichole!).

CDDC7F46-7166-4D8F-87D4-28862ECB6053
Socratic Seminar

I don’t help myself with the stress. I have some of the same old self-imposed challenges — procrastinating the grading, speaking my mind a little more freely than I probably should, letting my shyness keep me from talking to as many people as I should, and some other stuff. I’m trying, though. I feel like I’ve started to get my feet back under me. Maybe I’m not yet the teacher I was that made me so confident (maybe I never was), but I’m starting to make my classroom my own and teach some of the things I want to teach the way I feel comfortable teaching them. I’m getting out of my classroom a little more to talk to a more people. I’m hoping this summer I’ll have the wherewithal to plan my stuff next year to start at least where I am now rather than continue to be challenged.

Tom’s Tales: Religious Tourism and Other Notions

One of the few things that Melissa and I don’t see eye to eye on is how excited we get to go see temples. She loves them. What I hear her say is that she finds them fascinating windows in to a little bit of the ancient culture of this place we live. I see that. I really do. Particularly in the differences between the different temples in the different cities or run by different sects. The history around whom, why, and how each temple worships says a little bit about the people who live near there.

Even acknowledging the education we get at the temples, I am uncomfortable. The best I can come up with why comes back to my religious background. I grew up religious, in a church (and church camp) community that was so important to me that it took me many years to realize that the community was everything and the religious structures and stories were different than how I saw the world. I have never believed in an omniscient nor omnipotent god; I spent my entire youth translating the stories of God and a divine Jesus into thoughts about love and common bonds. My faith was a very personal thing, and it was difficult for me to ponder outsiders looking in and wanting to understand. When we are at temples, I feel like that outsider. People are always friendly and welcoming, and if they aren’t welcoming, they make it clear with large signs outside declaring “No Non-Hindus Allowed”. Even as welcoming as they are, I feel like an interloper in a spiritual, important moment in these people’s day.

This weekend, we went on a tour with the fabulous Bluefoot Tours (led by one of our favorite people we’ve met here in Bengaluru, Kaveri — she’s amazing) that brought up all of the above feelings. We toured a graveyard and learned about a sect of Hinduism that believes spirits don’t go from this body to the next instantaneously, so if you cremate a body, the spirit is left to haunt until the next life is ready. As a result, they bury their dead in lotus position with their heads above ground in order to make it easier for the spirit to escape when its next life is ready. We learned about a little bit of black magic which enables you to quiet people who are being too pushy or gossipy (I’m pretty sure that’s not precisely what Kaveri said, but something like that). We learned a whole bunch more, too.

The part that mostly has me thinking about this whole religion thing on a broader scale than just the outsider-looking-in bit was the visit to the Sikh temple. I have been looking forward to learning more about Sikhs since arriving here. There is a lot to respect about the way they express their faith: Their doors are always open to anyone, Sikh or otherwise; feeding all visitors is a primary function of their temple; if you need a place to stay, you are welcome to live there as long as you would like as long as you are not lazy, drunk, or violent. The origins of Sikhism are kind of amazing. A twelve year old boy who would become Guru Nanak got tired of all of the wars and hate and set out to find the common bonds that might bring humanity together and end all of the bloodshed. He sent people to all corners of the world (or as far as they could go in the late 15th century) to discover what makes people tick and religions stick. What he concluded was that love will bring us together. He incorporated tenets of all major religions that spoke of love into a faith community that begat the welcoming, compassionate, nurturing space described above.

Here’s what has me thinking: Why does that idea only take hold when those bringing the message are made into the divine? Humans are love. We love each other. Our love of each other far too often makes us jealous of others, but I have always assumed it’s all part of the same package. Because we wrap this message of love all up with countless shapes of divinity, we are discrediting the amazing beings that we are. We are not love because a god told us to be love; we are love because we are. Why isn’t that enough? Guru Nanak was an enlightened young (and not-so-young by the time he crystallized his notions) man. Jesus told us to love those who don’t love us back. Buddha, Mohammed, the ancient teachers of Hinduism, so many others. They had their fingers on something about humanity that has persisted. Why do we have to make them all divine? I find Martin Luther King, jr. and Mahatma Gandhi all the more impressive because the were flawed people who sometimes treated people imperfectly; that doesn’t mean that they were any less enlightened.

Way too many wars are fought over the notion that my prophet of love is better than your prophet of love. Way too much hate is lashed out because someone thinks your way of connecting with love is blaspheming my way of connecting of love. In the global sense, it doesn’t seem to be working out very well for us.  I wonder if we were to appreciate the fact that our crazy little biological/chemical/electrical processes that happen inside of these way too fallible vehicles are why we love, it will be easier for us to celebrate in what ever way we choose to celebrate without turning to hate.

I came to grips with my atheism 15 years ago (maybe)? I wasn’t able to articulate it super clearly until Melissa came along eight years ago. Members of my old church community are still the most important people in my life even though we have all drifted away from the church. I allowed my relationship to my church camp community falter as I felt more and more like an interloper in a place I used to think of as home; I’m hoping to figure out how to balance all of that in the months and years ahead. In the meantime, I love you. Not because a god has told me I should, or because I will be damned if I don’t, but because very wise people — my mom, Gene Ross, Sue Longaker, Jay and Mary Ann Watson, Sheryl Stafford, Mark Hardin, my Grandma and Grandpa George and Emma Morris, Melissa Parkerton — taught me how. I love you.

Tom’s Tales: Homemade Masala Dosa

We love breakfast. We love going out to breakfast. We love cooking breakfast. We love fancy breakfast. We love low brow breakfast. We love just the two of us breakfast. We love social breakfast. We love breakfast. Since we’ve been in Bangalore, we’ve done ok for ourselves. Our first breakfast out, we went to Koshy’s, a Bangalore institution, where we were introduced to appam and broth, which is a cousin to one of our new favorites, idli. We went to a super fancy brunch at Leela Palace. We’ve taken advantage of pastries from Cafe Noir that are delivered once every week to school. But truly, so far, our favorite is a South Indian traditional breakfast, masala dosa served with coconut chutney. We’ve had it in two different places: Lakshmi Natraja Refreshments, a small amazing place we were introduced to on our market tour; and Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, another Bangalore institution. Both times, we were absolutely blown away.

Also, I love cooking. One of the balances I have been struggling to strike here in Bangalore is how to cook frequently enough to be satisfied. The reasons I don’t cook as much as I’d like are all things I do not want to change. I get home a lot later than I do in the states, so I have less time during the week. Melissa being more often at home does most of the cooking when it needs to be done. Our cook (which still feels weird to say) Bharti makes incredible meals two days every week, often enough for left overs for both lunches and one more dinner. On the weekends, we like going out and finding new favorite places. That doesn’t change the fact that I want to find more excuses to cook.

Today is Melissa’s birthday. As I was thinking about how I wasn’t going to be able to spoil her in the same ways I spoil her back in the states, I thought maybe I’d combine my love of spoiling her with my need to cook more: I would tackle masala dosas! As I talked about my plans with everyone around me, I got very consistent responses:  “Oo, really? You ought to have a back up plan on hand when in case it doesn’t work out quite right. And plan for it to take a lot more time than you think.” Turns out, both pieces were sage advise. Most people make dosa from a mix (made often by MTR, Mavalli Tiffin Rooms). That’s because it takes a full day to day-and-a-half to make them. Also, there are only three elements to the dish — the dosa, the seasoned potato stuffing, and the coconut chutney — but all three require their own version of tricky prep work.

img_2053
Coconut, both chopped (left) and grated (right).

I actually started this little adventure on Wednesday. I had this very plausible vision of me buying a coconut and spending hours trying to get into it, so I planned to ask Bharti to show me how to open a coconut when she was here cooking. It turns out, it just takes brute force. She also showed me how to peal it and described how to grate it.

img_2054
Soaking rice (top) and dal/fenugreek (bottom)

First, though, on Saturday morning, I got the dosa batter going. Dosa is a crepe made of fermented rice and lentils. The first step is straight forward: rinse and soak the rice and lentils for six hours. The lentils get soaked along with fenugreek. By the way, where cooks in the states basically have two types of lentils to choose from, green and brown (and red if you’re getting really fancy), here we have I-don’t-know-how-many types of lentils. In this step, we’re using urad dal.

img_0027
The completed stuffing.

Once I got that started, I started in on prepping the other stuff. Being incapable of simply following a recipe, I decided to make one key adaptation: add cauliflower to the stuffing. One of the commenters on the recipe suggested it, and the birthday girl loves cauliflower AND comments on online recipes. Since we had a capsicum (bell pepper for you Yanks) that wasn’t getting any younger, I decided to roast it and the cauliflower and throw them all in. I was going to just prep the vegetables for the stuffing, but I kept hearing the voices of all of those friends: “Plan for it to take a lot more time than you think”. I threw together the sauce on Saturday while Melissa was getting adorned with henna.

Side note: We got a fun new toy: an immersion blender that also serves as a mini food processor and whisk. So fun.

After going on our adventure for the day (trying out the Metro, scouting out the train station, buying me some fancy clothes), we got home in time to grind the rice and dal. I’m not 100% sure I did it right. It looked good, and I was pleased with it at the time, and it was kind of fun, but it seemed to be grittier than I pictured. In any case, I set the batter on the counter to ferment overnight. It’s supposed to get bubbly, which it kind of did, but it took quite a bit longer than I expected. Fortunately, we weren’t hungry until about noon after our feast at The Royal Afghan last night, so it had time to puff up nicely.

This morning I was left with two tasks: make the coconut chutney and put it all together. The coconut chutney was as close to a mess as this little experiment produced. It didn’t grind like I pictured, then I added more water than I should have, and in the end it wasn’t as spicy and delicious as we had in the two restaurants (or that Bharti made for us on a third occasion). It took me a while to find the right tool to grind it with (it turns out, it’s the spice grinder, just like the recipe says).  I assumed that all of the flavor was going to come from the temper-the-chutney stage. I don’t know if I didn’t use enough spice or what, but it just didn’t have a ton of flavor. So, other than being a strange, gritty consistency and a bland flavor, it was delicious!

img_0033
The frying dosa.

Making the dosas themselves was its own little adventure. Maybe the dough was too thick, but it didn’t spread as thin as I pictured right away. I kind of got the hang of it eventually, but it was rough. The dosas themselves were a little bland — I’m thinking I should have added more salt.

The whole dish was saved by the stuffing; it was good.  The dosas served as a reasonable vehicle for the stuffing, so the bland was forgivable. We will definitely be working on this. Some notes on what we’re going to do better next time:  I seeded and de-ribbed the chiles. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that. When adding so many vegetables, I probably should have added more spices. We’ll try to grind the rice and the dal in the spice grinder like we finally did the chutney. The dosas themselves might have needed more salt. One can apparently tinker with the ratios of dal to rice in the dosa batter, so we might increase the amount of dal just to make it more interesting.

I have dreams of going home and making a feast of masala dosa breakfast for our people who share our love of delicious breakfast. Today’s attempt was not to that level of deliciousness yet.

Citing my sources (not according to MLA format, students):

Masala Dosa recipe from NY Times

Coconut Chutney recipe from Veg Recipes of India

Tom’s Tales: My Walk to Work

Sorry, Corrine, Mike, and Adina. My commute to work is so great. Last year, I struck the lottery with my carpool. It was more relaxing, more entertaining, and more interesting than spending an hour or more every day in a car by myself. This year, getting to work is even better. As I started looking at the new life I had just signed up for, I got excited about my new commute. Most days, I get to walk to work. It’s a quick 30 minute walk, but it includes this incredible little cross section of India I didn’t anticipate.

 

The walk starts with crossing the Doddaballapura Road just outside our apartment complex. We’ve already discussed how intimidating crossing the street is here and how unintimidated the locals are. It turns out, Doddaballapura Road is a piece of cake. In our first three weeks here, we have successfully navigated a few streets that make ours look like our little Cook St. in Portland. The key? Keep moving. Traffic in Bangalore is described as a liquid — it flows around all impediments. If you stop suddenly because you get startled, the drivers who are trying to flow around you are not going to be able to know what to expect and . . . higgledy piggledy.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Then I head down Kenchanahalli Road. This road is interesting for its many transitions. First, on one side of the road, comes an apartment complex far fancier than ours. On my way home, I frequently see monkeys bounding about the fences of the complex. On the other side of the road is a huge construction project that I’m afraid is either an oil refinery or a diesel power plant (or possibly both — did I mention it’s huge?). Around the corner, after the sign that announces that the property has been seized to investigate the owner as a slumlord and another huge construction project that looks like more apartments, comes a little building that looks like the Bangalore version of the classic Portland development — retail first floor, residential above. The retail, though, is more like little stores people set up in their garages.

In the morning, I am walking toward school at the same time there is a flood of walkers in the other direction — groups of men dressed for construction and other types of work, kids in a rainbow of school uniforms, and women dressed in the stunning saris that serve as everyday dress around here. Also, I pass women in a wide variety of Muslim dress — from the niqaab (black robes that cover everything except a slit for the eyes) to the basic hijab, and I can only assume I pass many Muslim women who have chosen not to cover themselves.  The men, too, dress in a variety of ways. The key, though, is that I never see anyone being harassed; quite the opposite — groups of kids and adults frequently contain Indians of all walks.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Next, I cross the first of two railroad tracks. Melissa pointed out to me that the crossing gates are operated by a hand crank. On the other side of the tracks is a small neighborhood that looks right out of any Indian movie you’ve ever seen. At first, I wondered if there was indoor plumbing, but it seems like the homes have a wide spectrum of plumbing situations. At first, I thought this was poverty in action, but it seems far more middle class than I first thought. The kids are incredibly cute and happy, welcoming me with either cries of “Uncle!” or “Bye!” (I’m pretty sure they don’t know “Hi”). The adults seem more skeptical, often giving me hard, serious looks or quizzical “look at that carnival freak” looks. Almost invariably, those hard looks turn friendly and happy when I give them a quick nod and greet them with “Namaskaara”, Kannada for “hello.” Mixed in with these very modest homes and shops are a couple of estates that look incredibly lavish across the street from what is clearly the neighborhood dump.

As I leave this neighborhood, my favorite part of my walk, I reach the second railroad crossing. This is notable for two things: first, it’s not a railroad crossing, just the end of the road where people cross over to the second notable, the hole in the fence through which one must climb in order to get to the lake. I was nervous about the climb, until one day we climbed through and were met by park security. They waved us on through and later caught up to us on their bikes to take pictures with us.

One little diversion: Trains. About half of the time, I am held up by a train at one of the two track crossings. Sometimes, it’s full of flatbed cars with huge coils of steel. Other times, it’s passenger trains that fulfill every stereotype of an Indian passenger train — cars labeled air conditioned, sleeper cars to “third class cars” with open windows and packed to the gills with travelers.

A second diversion: White privilege. We have encountered white privilege several times in our three weeks here. I’ve tried to write about it several times, but it always comes off wrong — preachy or culturally ignorant or however else inartful discussions of white privilege go bad. One of the most uncomfortable moments happened at this point of the walk the first time I brought Melissa along. There were about 20 locals who had gotten off the back of a truck who lined up to go through the hole in the fence. We were in the middle of the group when a woman walked up beside the line, saying something loudly in Kannada which inspired all of the folks in front of us to step aside and gesture for us to go ahead of them. We declined and waited our turn. This kind of thing happens way too often for our comfort.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Once through the hole, I walk a small portion of a very large lake. My new friend Sandeep told me that it is a very clean lake by Bangalore standards (the lake near his previous home in the southern parts of Bangalore caught on fire), and the powers-that-be are trying to protect it. The result is a lovely path with a bit of green buffer between the lake and new construction. There are all kinds of birds — some loon-looking birds, hawks of some kind, herons, egrets, pelicans, and a wide variety of small birds I can’t identify. Despite Sandeep’s assurances, let’s just say I never see anyone swimming in it, and no one would recommend eating fish caught there.

img_1876
The iron train wheel factory.

The flip side to this part of the story is the part that makes the lakes catch on fire. Huge factories, including a train wheel manufacturer that spews (I’m told) orangish red something-or-other every day, line one part of the lake. Also, I am afraid the creek we walk over to get to the town of Yelahanka that runs black and makes us gag empties into our “clean” lake. One of these days I’m going to write about my hardening belief in strong regulation and the shortsightedness of the people who cry for regulations to be eliminated. Be aware: this will be some of my primary evidence.

Another funny feature of the lake is the nearly constant radio broadcast. We have no idea why.

img_1875
Adina’s apartment complex.

Adina, my colleague who had Melissa and me over for dinner our second weekend here, lives on the lake on the other side. Just outside of her complex is a whole sports complex with basketball courts and workout equipment. The authorities stopped a construction project that was starting to fill in some wetland between her apartment and the lake, apparently part of the effort to protect the lake. They seem to really be trying to make the lake something that people want to have as a resource.

In a field separated from my path from a very intimidating barbed wire fence, I often come across cows, both individual and in well-controlled herds, or goats, usually being herded. The cows are everywhere, so other than their sacredness they don’t feel notable. The goats, though, super cute. And if you’ve never been with Melissa when she comes across baby goats, well, her reaction is its own category of adorable.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At one of the gazebos that people use for meditation and the eating of lunch, the scary looking fence breaks apart. I scramble down a dirty, or, more often than not, muddy hill to a small field filled with butterflies and ants making crazy little ant hills. The field turns into a small palm tree forest that makes me wonder if this is how Bangalore used to look before 12 million people made it their home.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Next comes the trespassing portion of the walk. I pop through another hole in yet another fence into a beautiful small farm. The people their are kind and welcoming, especially after I greet them with a smile and a “Namaskaara!” The gate to the farm is occasionally locked, and I have to scamper through a gap between the gate and the building. I’m afraid that either that gap or the hole in the fence will soon be closed. The result will be a 15 minute longer walk, but most sadly I will miss this pastoral little stretch of the walk.

Once through the gate, I am at the front gate of Canadian International School of Bangalore, where I am greeted by the extraordinarily friendly security folks, and up into the school that feels like a resort.

I’ll write about my work soon. I’ve spent my entire career trying to avoid putting work stuff on the internet, and that caution is a hard habit to break. Stay tuned.