A trip to Gujarat to reunite with the US Fulbright Exchange Teachers in India
It had been a long time since we had been very far out of Kerala. Aside from my 24 hour trip to Chennai which is in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, we really haven’t strayed from Kerala since arriving in August. So it was with great anticipation that we boarded our plane on Thursday for the first of two flights that landed us in Ahmedabad, the largest city and former capital of the state of Gujarat. Metropolitan Ahmedabad has just over 5 million people and is the fastest growing city in India and the third fastest growing city on the planet. The place makes our little Thiruvanathapuram feel like a village.
You know you are in India when your aircraft instruction card looks like this...
The purpose of our journey was to attend a weekend meeting and conference of the US Fulbright Exchange Teachers living in India, a group that includes seven of us in total. In addition to my placement in Trivandrum, Kerala, Tracy Groom from Oregon and Mary Stanton from Minnesota are teaching in Delhi, Laura Telep from San Francisco teaches in Gwalior, Jason Cervenac from Ohio is up in Mumbai, Beth Wilkins from Chicago is in Surat (which is also in Gujarat), and Steve Tomb from upstate New York teaches in Ahmedabad and was the major catalyst in making the meeting happen because it almost didn’t.
Normally, the United States India Education Foundation (USIEF), the group that administers the Fulbright programs in India, organizes a conference for the teacher to allow for sharing and discussion about our experiences. This year, however, we received an email in October basically saying “Sorry, there will be no conference this year” with no reason given. To make a long story short, Laura and Steve Tomb designed a program for our own conference and convinced the US Fulbright program to fund it. So our family enjoyed a wonderful weekend in Ahmedabad.
Our day on Thursday didn’t start out very promising – as I sipped my tea and munched my toast, a text message came over the phone from Air India informing us that our flight that afternoon had been cancelled. Given that the second leg of our journey was on a different airline, that was particularly bad news. However, Jenn called Air India and an hour later and was told that our flight was back on again. Anyone having dealt with Air India before would not be surprised by this sort of thing.
When we arrived in Ahmedabad we were picked up by one of four vehicles employed for us for the weekend and brought to the Rajpath Club, a huge private health club / function facility where we met up with the other teachers and their families who had arrived earlier. It was great to see everyone – our little cohort connected with each other quite well during orientations in Washington and Delhi and we have been keeping in touch via our Google group and Skype, but it was fun to be together again in person. It was particularly enjoyable for the kids – Laura has nine year old twin girls and Steve has ten year old triplet boys, so among us we have a group of seven kids between the ages of nine and eleven and they have quite a raucous good time together.
Living it up at the Rajpath Club.
Enjoying fondue for dessert.
We set some time aside on Friday morning to share what our teaching and living experiences were like. To no one’s surprise, each of us has had a very unique experience in India. After hearing about the others’ experiences, all of which have been mostly positive, the conversation confirmed what I had suspected about my own assignment – frankly, I have a comparatively “cushy” gig down here in “God’s Own Country”, as the Kerala tourist board likes to refer to our state. I’ll get into that more in another entry on teaching at the Trivandrum International School.
Tracy, Steve T, Mary, Steve S, Jason, Laura and Beth
At midday, we headed over to Ahmedabad International School (AIS) to meet the administrators and some teachers and to sit in on some classes, something I have been eager to do. I observed an 8th grade science class on soils and an 11th grade genetics lesson, both of which provided a great insight into some of the differences in Indian teaching styles.
We were greeted by students from AIS with a blessing and a necklace of flowers.
The AIS welcoming committee
A meeting with the AIS administrators
The school chemistry lab taken while being given a tour.
11th graders in a genetics class
Sex-linkage genetic inheritance explained
The courtyard at AIS
We left the school and joined the families for a little field trip to a structure called the Step Well, an amazing bit of subterranean architecture built over 500 years ago. Basically, it’s a very deep well with an ornate stair well leading down to the water and a series of stacked balconies lining the walls of the well shaft itself. A truly amazing structure to explore. Take a look.
Read about the step well
Entering the well
A 3-D architectural wonder
Inside the step well
Many nervous moments for the parents
Fantastic stone carvings everywhere
Outside the step well, Jenn was making a new friend. Near the entrance to the well, a bustling little market was going on. Even in the cities, people get their food mostly from these outdoor markets rather than food stores
The kids got their own car complete with videos.
The evening’s activity offered one of the more surreal experiences we’ve had since arriving in India. Our drivers dropped us off at the starting point for our “Hijacked” bus tour. That was the name of the company – no kidding. The bus itself was a massive luxury bus with an open air second floor where tables were set up and a full dinner was served. The downstairs offered a large screen TV playing videos and disco-type light show for those inclined to boogie. The waiters were dressed up, of course, as hijackers. So there we were, slowly driving around Ahmedabad in this colossal mobile restaurant (live music was performed after dessert), gathering odd stares and feeling more than a little bit conspicuous. Looking out from my hijacked perch while enjoying my dessert, I could see dozens of makeshift squatter tents and shacks off to my left while on my right were a number of immense, ultra modern shopping malls brightly lit in Vegas-style. The contrast was both fascinating and unsettling – I wondered what India will look like 50 years from now with its middle class and impovished lower class both exploding in numbers. I also wondered in how many American cities this scene might be repeated.
Our hijackers have just arrived.
The Fulbright kids approved...Check out some of these moves
The whole evening was as bizarre as a dream can be.
Our hijackers were actually quite nice to us
No hijacked double decker travelling restaurant is complete without live music
The bus - note the light show taking place on the first floor.
Returning to the Rajpath Club, we had the opportunity to see the full glory of a Gujarati wedding underway – the fireworks as we approached the Club were the first tipoff. A walled off grassy area larger than a soccer field served as the setting for the event hosting hundreds of attendees and very loud, thumping music to entertain the guests.
Preparing the floral arrangements prior to the event
Wedding guests settling in.
Something going on on the main stage - notice the ornate headwear on the men - a Gujarati style. Here's some music from the wedding band.
The Rajpath Club at night
Other curious spectators checking things out - big brother is in charge
While some women were enjoying the festivities in the Rajpath Club, other women were still at work in the parking lot while children looked after the babies.
India in general seems to suffer from a general lack of tools. Perhaps it's cheaper to pay these women a few rupees an hour than to invest in a decent wheelbarrow
On Saturday night, we were invited into a party being thrown for members and families of the local plastics trade group and were seated in the front row for a rousing concert of Gujarati folk and contemporary music. We were asked by the one of the officers of the organization to tell everyone back in the US that plastics don’t pollute. I’m guessing he was using the same logic used in the “guns don’t kill, people do” argument, but as a party crashing guest, I decided not to encourage the conversation and changed the subject. Here's a little taste of the entertainment.
Saturday was conference day. After a guest speaker delivered an address to about 100 Indian teachers in attendance, each of the American teachers offered 30 minute workshops on various teaching practices and strategies. I presented a program on how to engage all of the students in a class no matter how big it was and as I expected, the program drew a lot of interest from the many teachers standing in front of crowded classrooms. The conference lasted most of the day and was very well received both on the day of the event and in feedback collected since.
The Fulbright presenters
Steve Tomb opens the conference with a greeting.
Over 100 Indian teachers attended the sessions that were presented
Tea time at the conference
After a quick stop to change and freshen up, we were all off to visit Gandhi’s ashram, his home for many years before leaving and pledging not to return to it until India was free. An excellent museum offered a more intimate introduction to the man with an iconic image symbolizing non-violent resistance to oppression. I learned a lot about the man – I’ve borrowed his autobiography from the school library to find out more.
The history of the ashram
A truly iconic figure in world history
Gandhi's home near the river.
Dinner on Saturday night brought us to the rooftop terrace of a recently remodeled heritage hotel for a candlelight Gujarati thali dinner, an assortment of different breads, sauces, chutneys, and local specialties served under the stars. A very memorable meal both for its content and for its setting.
A few appetizers while we awaited our table.
Perfect atmosphere, perfect company, perfect evening
Some of the foods that comprised our dinner - the different foods just kept coming
The next morning our plane to return to Kerala departed at 12:30 pm, so in the spirit of maximizing every opportunity explore a new place, most of our group took a 1.5 hour “heritage walk” through some of the old neighborhoods and backstreets of Ahmedabad. As interesting as the various temples, mosques, and architectural oddities were, the chance to stroll through the old neighborhoods with everyday people going about their business was both fascinating and memorable.
A view of the building where our heritage tour started. Note the location of the person in the red shirt in the high window
Elena in the same window
A view of a neighboring temple - being the last day of Diwali, things were happening in there but we couldn't really tell what.
Notice the life size wire car art work hanging over the street.
This man was preparing kite string for the upcoming international kite festival that takes over Ahmedabad each January. We were told that during the festival, literally thousands of kites fill the Ahmedabad sky, many connected to their master by this specialized pink twine which has been coated with tiny glass shards so that the owner's kite can take out the other kites around it. All in good fun, of course.
Winding our way through the neighborhood
One of numerous neighborhood bird feeders - feeding the animals is a blessing in the Hindu religion
Finally, our own vehicle.
Time for laundry
Feeding the neighborhood dogs
Just part of the Ahmedabad cityscape
The Fulbright kids
It's very real...
Wondering what all of the strangers are looking at
Cricket can be played anywhere
Neighborhood coffee stall
Catching a snooze in comfort
Preparing street side delicacies
Lena counts her blessings by feeding the cows. A continuous stream of people paid a few rupees to feed the cows gathered on the corner of the square - they arrive right on time every day.
A colorful spice stand
Kettles cook up a feast for a neighborhood wedding later in the day - not everyone marries at the Rajpath Club.
The ingredients are ready to go
Life in the old neighborhoods of Ahmedabad. I was told that many of the people living in this rather rundown area could afford to live elsewhere. However, the social bonds among the people of these neighborhoods are so strong that families stay for generations. We finished up at a large mosque.
We left the tour and went straight to the airport for an uneventful return trip to Kerala. The weekend offered the perfect mix of professional exchange, conversation among friends, and sightseeing. Given our geographic distribution across the US, it was also likely the last time the seven of us would be together, so we made the best of it and will carry fond memories