A Travellerspoint blog

December 2010

Under the Indian Big Top

A stupendous entertainment of regal splendour

I’m a sucker for the circus, so when one sets up shop for a few weeks about five minutes down the road, I knew it was not a matter of “if” but “when”. Saturday was the day - we took a group of the younger kids from the hostel for the 4:00 pm show and spent a few hours under the Indian big top.
Indian elephants. not an uncommon sight even on the roadways.
This circus had a "broken in" feel to it.

I had read John Irving’s novel “Son of the Circus” back when we were on our honeymoon some years ago, a novel that takes place in part in a Bombay circus and many images from that novel have stayed with me, so I was excited to experience this unique form of theater. I was even more excited when I learned that the group tickets were half price - instead of 100 rupees, the half price group tickets cost 50 rupees each, or about a buck (Jenn felt that we just about got our money's worth, I thought we got more than our money's worth...).

We walked into the tent and selected our red plastic deck chairs in the front row at ringside. We were close - REAL close.


One of the great things about living in India is that there is a far lower level of paranoia about getting sued for things, and consequently, places like the circus are far more exciting. From my seat in the front row, I watched the feet of the elephant pass inches from my own during the opening parade

We needed to move our feet so the elephant could walk by during the opening parade.
The stage work was as fascinating as the performance
I had lean to the right while the circus hands pulled on massive hooks and ropes to raise the nets for the trapeze show

The circus crew constructed the trapeze net in short time.
I looked nearly directly overhead to see the performers perched above me.

I feel like I get a lot closer to things that I’m sheltered from back home due to anxious insurance companies. Am I at a greater risk as a result of this additional exposure? Probably, but it is so worth it.

As for the performances themselves, it was typical circus fair. Some of the feats represented true feats of acrobatic skill or strength while others left me thinking that with a little bit of practice, I could do that.
These three went about trick shooting their pellet guns with same level of enthusiasm as one has for doing the laundry. We saw each of them in at least three other acts.

I've seen this act before on a few of the highways in India...
This one was a new one - elephant cricket.


Of course, the circus is always enjoyed by the kids...

What's a circus without clowns? In India, the role of the circus clown is traditionally filled by dwarfs and there were three performing in this show. I found myself drawn to them not so much because of their unique appearance as much as a curiosity of what it must be like to be born into the Indian culture with such a unique human condition. I couldn’t find much online about this history and sociology of dwarfs in India. Unlike the other performers, they were a constant presence in the ring – there was no formal ringmaster – and while they performed a gag or two during the show, they mostly filled in as assistants to some acts like tossing the ball to the cricket bat swinging elephant or tossing balls or hats to the juggler. I wouldn't describe them as "happy" clowns - in fact, kind of bored and a little peeved seems more accurate. It was the 2nd of three shows in an 8 hour period after about three weeks in the same muddy, grubby hovel - I guess I'd be a little bitter too.

The clown was trying hard to get Mari to come out of the audience and participate in a bit but she was having no part of it...
The clowns seemed a little bitter.

The show was an enjoyable distraction and provided an insight into a unique lifestyle in a unique culture. These last two images capture the vibe of the show for me - an attempt to be "a stupendous entertainment of regal splendour" when it actually felt tired, bored, and a bit worn out.

Posted by SteveJenn 03:44 Comments (1)

Jamboree Night at TRINS

All dressed up for an evening of food, dance, and song

A few weeks ago, a colleague shared with us that there was going to be a “Jamboree” in a few weeks. What’s a jamboree? We had the same question at first but soon sorted out that it is a faculty party with dinner, dancing, and performances. Dress for the evening was kurtas for the men and saris for the women. This occasion provided the perfect event for Jenn’s debut in the sari she bought a few weeks ago and I acquired a long kurta in Ahmendabad (on clearance even!) the previous weekend, so we were good to go.

We discovered about 24 hours before the event that we were the guests of honor and in fulfillment of this most auspicious honor, we were asked to give a speech or sing a song… The event took place in the courtyard of the senior school starting at 4:30 pm. The teachers simply stayed on after school and were taken by bus back home when things wrapped up at 8:30 pm.

From what I’ve seen, Indian event organizers have a knack for dressing up a space for special events – banners were hung on the assembly area balcony rails and a small mural was composed at one end of the hall.

Though the program started at 4:30 pm, we were delayed a bit due to some minor challenges wrapping Jenn’s saree. Priya provided her expert guidance but it’s amazing how involved the process seems with all of the wraps, tucks, folds, tugs, and pins. It's truly incredible how much fabric there is in a sari.

My preparations involved putting on a pair of jeans and sliding into my kurta, a process that took all of 15 seconds. It’s not uncommon for things to be easier for the Indian men than the women… Here's how we turned out:

Before getting to the party, a little about the sari. After watching the process Jenn went through as Priya wound her up, I'm amazed that any woman can do this herself. Of course, if you've been doing something most every day for much of your life, it becomes automatic, but to the uninitiated, it seemed like a real Rubik's cube. The sari has some fascinating historical and sociological aspects to it. There are a multitude of styles and patterns in which it is worn and its said that at one time (and maybe to a certain extent even today), one could look a woman's sari and tell by its design and the way it is wrapped which region in India she was from and even which caste she belonged to.

The Keralan style of sari is distinct from others I've seen and is both simple and elegant. Kerala Day occurred a month or so ago and the women on campus wore the local style sari - the gold thread patterns are characteristic of this region.

The event itself was a great time. I gave my little speech and Jenn crooned America The Beautiful as part of a program that included individual singing and dancing performances from many of the teachers.


After the solos and small groups had performed, it was time for everyone to hit the floor for some stick whacking Garba dancing, a type of dance originated and performed passionately in Gujarat and apparently well known in Kerala based on the skills displayed by my colleagues. The dance is suited to large groups and involves not only steps but also coordinated stick tapping patterns between your own two sticks or with the sticks of others.



The kitchen staff served an excellent dinner near the end of the event and everyone departed on the buses (or returned to the hostel) by 8:30 pm. The event was a great time and showcased an Indian cultural attribute that is not as easily found back home. A large number of teachers at the event volunteered to either sing a song or dance as part of the program with little apparent performance anxiety. There seems to be a much higher level of comfort here with public performance. We think that this starts at a young age – last week we went to Elena’s weekly afternoon assembly which had music as the theme. Several teachers performed and then anyone else who wanted to sing was welcome to come up to the microphone. The kids just kept streaming up belting out everything from Mary Had A Little Lamb to lengthy local folksongs. I’m trying to picture my colleagues from any of the schools at which I’ve taught volunteering to perform for everyone and it’s hard to imagine.

It was a enjoyable, memorable evening and a chance to confirm what I had suspected right along - Jenn is as beautiful wrapped in a sari as she is in her American threads.

Posted by SteveJenn 05:47 Comments (1)

Taking Stock at the Break

Some thoughts about my teaching experience in India

“How do you like teaching here in India?” It’s a frequent question that I get from both my colleagues here at school and from others I meet when travelling. We talked a lot about this topic a couple of weekends ago when our group of seven US Fulbright Exchange teachers got together and swapped stories about our schools and our students. Since it’s December 6 now and I won’t be teaching my regular class load again until January 3, I figured this break in the action is as good of a time as any to share some thoughts about my experience.

When I made the decision to pursue a Fulbright exchange in India, I did so with an “I can do anything for six months” frame of mind. I was well aware of the challenges teaching in India can pose and I prepared to teach multiple classes with scores of students crammed into under equipped classrooms in conditions that might be sweltering and grubby. There are hundreds of thousands of classrooms across India that could easily fulfill this kind of expectation. Government schools and many unofficial private schools are simply abysmal. I know this not from first hand experience but from conversations and research I’m conducting while I’m here. Small steps are being taken, but the problem exists on a scale of magnitude inconceivable for many Americans. There are 1.15 BILLION people here and half of them are under the age of 25 years. Do the math – education is a big issue.

Living and teaching in India has been an amazing experience to be sure, but my experience has not unfolded as I imagined it would when I filled out my application 16 months ago. The Fulbright program is careful to place American teachers in situations where there is a good chance of success – all seven of us this year are in either a international or private school that are quite well off compared to many other schools. Still, some teaching situations are more favorable than others and it was clear to me from early on that I had drawn one of the most favorable school assignments possible.

To begin, I’ve been assigned to teach in Kerala, one of the more affluent states in India, a region that has historically valued education, demonstrated religious tolerance among the three major religions represented here, and supports a much higher status for women than in most parts of the country. Kerala’s tourist board advertises the state as “God’s Own Country”, a somewhat pretentious promotion but often it doesn’t seem too far off – the state is very tropical with excellent beaches, beautiful mountains and a rich culture – it is the land of coconuts, palms and green vegetation. The weather is tough to beat – 80’s during the day, high 70’s at night, not much variation, at least during the months that we are here. The poor in Kerala don’t seem as poor as the poor in other parts of India – it’s a rare occasion to encounter a beggar or observe people living in destitute conditions. Without any truly major cities nearby , there is a somewhat provincial feel here. All and all, it’s a very nice part of the country to live in, even it if geographically we couldn’t be much further away from the rest of India.

The Trivandrum International School is only seven years old – the girls hostel in which we live was the most recent building to be completed just last year. The tuition is very high by Indian standards and the students attending mostly belong to affluent families living in Trivandrum and abroad, mainly in the Gulf States. The campus is quite beautiful and the facilities are architecturally elegant. In exchange for the high fees, students are taught in small classes and offered many extra-curricular activities and special programs. There is a strong emphasis on academics, but the school is hardly a “pressure cooker”. The commitment of the faculty is truly impressive – they are called upon to run all sorts of activities and fulfill different duties outside of their teaching responsibilities. There is a distinct underlying tension between the effort to prioritize academics and the interest in offering a full and diverse school program – there are numerous days when it feels as though academic classes are low on the priority list. I’ve mentioned the number of classes that were cancelled for so many different reasons.

When designing my particular teaching assignment at the school, Sreeja, my exchange partner, limited my responsibilities to only teaching. I live in the hostel but have no formal duties here. I have only to teach my classes and jump in to school life wherever else I want. Compared to how much I would be teaching this semester at Andover High, my teaching assignment here is relatively small. On Monday and Tuesday, I have only one class to present. Thursday is my busy day and even then, it doesn’t equal what I would be teaching every day at Andover High this semester.

When I’m not teaching, I usually hang out in an empty classroom, the computer lab, or the staff room to work on lesson plans or come back to the apartment to work. Compare this schedule to my teaching load at Andover High where each day and I would be teaching 3 classes that are 82 minutes each (246 minutes a day) for a total of 20.5 hours a week. So I’m being asked to teach less than half the time that I would at Andover High. This also means that Sreeja is teaching more than twice as much at Andover.

The big shocker when I heard of the details of my assignment was my class sizes. My 9th standard class consists of 12 students, my 11th standard class has a total of six students, and I have four students in my 12th standard class. So yes, I am teaching a total of 20 different students here, about a quarter of the number of students I’d be teaching right now in Andover.

Given the class sizes, meetings with students often feel more like tutorials than traditional classes. I’ve had to adjust a lot – many of my lessons from home are based on online videos, animations, models, posters, and other resources not available here. I try hard to diversify my lessons and avoid period long lectures, but the combination of limited access to the things I usually use as well as high level of comfort most students feel with the lecture/Q+A format makes sometimes results in teacher-centered class presentations that I’d not typically make at home. I’ve needed to bone up on some biological details that I hadn’t previously mastered and in that regard, I’ve been filling a few holes in my personal store of biological knowledge.

I have truly enjoyed the students here – they all such great kids. Most of them are working hard to meet personal and parental expectations. I will never grow tired of hearing “Hello, sir” with their radiant smiles and friendly dispositions. The kids here exude a much greater sense of innocence in the manner in which they respond and view their world, or at least that’s my impression. Socially it’s quite different here in that there’s an understood separation of the sexes in India both among the kids and adults. The segregation is not absolute, but since I’ve been living here among these teenagers, I’ve yet to see a public display of affection between students of opposite sexes and neither drug or alcohol use nor even smoking has come up as a issue even once. A high level of camaraderie exists among students and their friends and it’s normal to see two girls walking holding hands or a couple of boys with arms around one another’s shoulders. Compared to my sometimes sexually overt American high school students, the Indian kids truly keep it under wraps. It’s been quite refreshing.

After I return from the Christmas break, I’ll have only three weeks of classes left to teach (though I just found out that my 9th standard students will be on a trip of one of those weeks…so it goes). All in all it’s been an enjoyable teaching experience. While hardly stressful, it has required me to be resourceful in the absence of many of the resources that I normally have access to. I have enjoyed sharing with my colleagues – one of the other biology teachers regularly sits in on my classes and seems to really enjoy observing some lessons that she might use herself.

So far, the personal experience has been memorable because of all of the amazing places we’ve been and people we’ve met, but what I’ll take away professionally has been the opportunity to experience what my life can be like when it isn’t completely dominated by my work. The greatest challenge of reintegrating into my life back home will be to apply the lessons of my experience here in an effort to seek a greater balance in my professional and personal life at home. If I can make progress in this area, it might be the most lasting benefit of this whole experience.

Here are some pictures of my students in action:
(pictures to follow)

Posted by SteveJenn 02:58 Comments (1)

Setting Out

Hours away from the big trip

When we looked at the TRINS school calendar this summer with an eye to planning some travel, it was clear that the Christmas Break was going to be the big opportunity. It's really the only extended block of time off we had since starting school. We arrived here during the last big break, Onam, so beside a few long weekends we've been able to string together, our December journey has been thought of as "the big trip" for a while. However, some unexpected changes has expanded the length and range of our journey.

It's exam time at TRINS - no more classes until January 3rd. Our original plan was to depart after exams on December and travel through New Years. However, the 11th grade has taken their exams early in order to go on their class trip that leaves today and we have been able to join them for their week long bus excursion. So instead of starting on December 16, we're heading out today (December 7) and won't be back until after New Years. We have quite an itinerary ahead - I'll sketch it out.

We'll board the bus with the students for an overnight trip to the hills of northern Kerala and plan to see some areas of scenic and cultural interest throughout the trip. During the week, we'll be visiting some hill station towns as well as the beautiful city of Mysore before ending up in Bangalore (most people have spoken to someone in Bangalore at some point...). On the 14th, we'll leave the bus trip and fly to Udaipur in Rajastan for the main purpose of going on a camel trek in the desert. After the camels, it's on to Jodhpur and finally Jaipur (where were before for the monkey temple) in order to catch a flight to Goa where we'll be for five days including Christmas. After Goa, its on to Aurangabad for the primary purpose of seeing the Ajanta and Elora Caves for a couple of days. After that, an overnight train will carry us to Mumbai for three days including New Years. From there it's back south again. It promises to be quite an odyssey during which we will be carried by buses, cars, auto rickshaws, planes, camels, trains, boats, and maybe even an elephant at some.

We'll be in touch when technology allows it - I shouldn't be typing - need to finish packing.

Posted by SteveJenn 02:58 Comments (1)

Holiday Greetings From Udaipur

Wishing All A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year


Warmest Christmas wishes from India. So many of you have been following our adventures for the last few months from our blog posts, but in case you are just tuning in, we are here through the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program, living at the Trivandrum International School in the Southern Indian state of Kerala where I (Steve) am teaching biology from August until late January. Both Mariana and Elena are students at the school and Jenn has been busy trip planning, helping the school with design work, and doing a lot of reading. A few minutes of flipping through the blog entries will catch you up with what we’ve been up to since our mid-August arrival.

It’s ten days away from Christmas as we sit on the rooftop terrace restaurant of our Udaipur hotel overlooking some island palaces which appear to float in the middle of a beautiful lake. As we enjoy the views of the old havelis and temples from this hot, sunny terrace I’m thinking of a photo posted on Facebook by the husband of my exchange partner, Sreeja Rajan, in which he standing on about a half inch of Lake Attitash ice in Amesbury. Watching a tourist boat ply the warm lake waters below, the New England winter couldn’t seem further away for us. This sense of separation from our home lives has been a dominant feeling since arriving in India – there’s so little here to remind us of our lives back home. We’ve had a wonderful, fascinating experience, and India never ceases to surprise us.

From the start, the thought of being away for Christmas has been difficult for the girls, so we considered our best options and booked the five days surrounding Christmas in Goa, a former Portuguese colony and home to many Christians as well as hordes of other western tourists making merry for the holidays. The light colored sand of the Goan beaches will supply our “white Christmas” this year. We’ll spend New Year’s Eve with friends we met on our honeymoon 14 years ago, who live in Mumbai with their two daughters. We will be glad to return to Trivandrum on Jan 2 after living out of our suitcases for 26 days. Then just three more weeks of teaching at TRINS, and my part of our teaching exchange will conclude when we return home on January 24.

Though we are enjoying a remarkable experience here, we will be ready when the time comes to “re-enter” our lives among the family and friends who enrich our everyday lives at home. We look forward to reconnecting with you soon in the New Year. May each of you be blessed with love, laughter, adventure, and peace.

Steve, Jenn, Mariana, and Elena

Posted by SteveJenn 04:15 Comments (2)

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