Friday, November 26, 2010

Taj Mahal by Logan

A new blog entry by Logan,

"When I was little, I thought the Taj Mahal was some other building."

age 6
12 November 2010

Thoughts on Contemporary India

A week hardly does justice to a place as large, varied, and storied in amazing history and culture as India is, but that was all we had, and so I planned accordingly. Only the very brave or woefully naive undertake an Indian vacation completely on their own, and so within a few weeks of launching preliminary research I'd (Jennifer leaving all arrangements to me on this trip) zeroed in on a private tour group that came with a long list of satisfied customers from across the globe, a few of whom I contacted directly by email, just to be sure.

The tour group, Trinetra Tours, turned out to be an amazing find. They came up with the Delhi-Tiger/Game Preserve-Jaipur-Agra, seven-day itinerary, furnished us with a van, a talented driver, varied and welcoming hotels, and a knowledgeable guide at every stop. They also met us, and later dropped us off, at the brand new Indira Ghandi International Terminal in Delhi, just completed for the recently concluded Commonwealth Games. Indeed, it was the getting to and returning from India, the only part that Trinetra didn't organize, that proved the most problematic in our overall expedition. One thing is for sure: The Evans family will never be taking Air India again!

And how was India? Amazing, complex, rich, poor, serene, bustling, ultra-modern, ancient, Hindu, Muslim (and Jain, Sikh, Buddhist ...), anglophile, or Hindi-speaking, or both, high-tech, menial, and much more. "Contrast" is a word that constantly describes India and all that is Indian.
We found Delhi almost overwhelming. I had left there 37 years previously, which is to say 10 million inhabitants ago. Although we spent a good chunk of one morning driving around my old neighborhood, we couldn't find the house. Too much had changed, and I couldn't get my bearings since the field across the street from where I thought I'd remembered living - then an impromptu cricket field that doubled as a pyrotechnical display lot during any Hindu holiday, festival, or wedding - had disappeared.

In a similar rapid evolution, when I took Jennifer and the boys to see the school my sister and I attended in late elementary and middle school years, I found a place again all but unrecognizable. The field locations and sizes indicated that it must be the same campus, but each building had been completely redone, and the campus, like the city, had dramatically increased its building density, its in-fill. Everything looked vaguely familiar yet wholly dissimilar to what I'd envisioned. Logan, true to form, jumped right into a recess game with kids his age, on the very same field where a Presidential Fitness Test during
my 6th grade PE class first gave me a nascent sense of athletic identity. It remains a wonderful institution, and, to a person, each adult we briefly chatted up had great things to say about the school. Yet Delhi, at 14 million folks officially and probably more like 16 million unofficially, is beset with all the attendant problems of any city that might be located in a country not yet 65 years old undergoing such rapid change. The vestiges of the British Raj and the Moghul Empire remain and still variously define, but Delhi is so rapidly, sometimes painfully, changing that urban planning must be a huge challenge at every turn.

One of the best unintended consequences of our tour hinged on Trinetra Tour's inability to get us first-class rail tickets out of Delhi. Instead, we were accommodated on the world's largest rail system, with 1.5 million employees, in the next class, and in the sleeper section, even though we, unlike most, would not be taking the train to its Mumbai (Bombay) terminus 1400 km down the track. The sleeper car we found ourselves in those four hours provided a rich, largely unadorned tableau of upper middle-class Indian life. We were the only non-Indians on any of the cars the boys and I walked through, and yet at every turn individuals and families were happy to see us and were especially friendly toward the boys. If Istanbul is remembered by Logan and Hayden for the cheek tweak, then India has become equally legendary for the hair pat. Many folks, young and old, gave the boys a loving tap on their blond heads, with more than a few quite eager to crowd them into spontaneous family photos. At the Taj Mahal Logan was so highly sought out for group pictures that I thought it would be hilarious to set up a stand and rent out the boys for just this service - "Here's the picture of Shah Jahan's unparalleled homage to love, and, oh yeah, here is our adopted American son..."

In the end, we saw the Moghul triumphs in Delhi, Jaipur, and, of course, Agra, and soaked up whenever we could an increasingly ubiquitous middle- and upper middle-class contemporary Indian culture. I was astonished at the scope of change made largely possible by arguably the world's largest middle class in easily its largest democracy. India was indeed abuzz, having just hosted the Commonwealth Games and then, just a few days prior to our arrival, a lengthy (by US presidential standards) visit by President Obama. It was not difficult to notice that India is ascendent, excited about its future, especially in IT and related fields.

Yet it was also easy to see an India often challenged by mostly unchecked population growth and a natural environment struggling with omnipresent and consequent human pressures. Interestingly, most of the Indians we spoke with acknowledged the role of the British in their current success. Three generations of humanity later, and counting, can make the heart grow fonder, as can beating them in the Commonwealth Games. But it is also unescapable that 200 years of British influence has left defining treasures and practices, in education, transportation, law, government, and many other contemporary Indian institutions, and many Indians are now grateful for this legacy. I found this especially interesting, my family having originally moved to Pakistan in 1958, barely a decade after India and Pakistan were essentially wrenched apart at their very birth as nations and weaning from the British, and a time still quite raw and recovering from some of the more unfortunate aspects of protracted colonialism.

Most of all, Indians undoubtedly compromise one of the largest and fastest growing English speaking populations in the world, which doesn't do US interests any harm, and may end up doing quite a bit deal more. Certainly, President Obama wasn't there just to further open up the trade channels, regardless what the papers and websites say. My guess is that China was Topic A of discussion, with P.M. Singh and Pres. Obama acknowledging that now is as good a time as any to be particularly in tune with each other. Pakistan, and by extension Afghanistan, remain nettlesome for them, and India's imbroglio that is Kashmir remains a sticky point for us, but China's regional/global aspirations are so unambiguous by now to all those paying attention (which those two leaders certainly are) that an Indian/American rapprochement was perhaps inevitable. Necessity begets alliance. We will see what becomes of all this, and how our two countries increasingly collaborate, or not, in the future, but it was certainly a momentous time to be visiting a country that plays second fiddle less and less for anyone and has arrived as a serious geopolitical power in this world forever being redefined.

Thanks for reading, David

Sunday, November 21, 2010

On the Road ... in India

We recently enjoyed a trip to Delhi, India, during the Muslim Eid holiday. One of my most vivid memories will always be the sights along the road as we went from Jaipur to Agra and back to Delhi. I wrote the following while in the car during our journey:

The competent driver hired by Trinetra Tours drives us from Jaipur to Agra and then back to Delhi, smoothly maneuvering the Toyota around cows blithely sauntering across the bustling road. Pigs wander and root through all manner of garbage with piglets following some distance behind. Water buffalo stand across a lane of the road, thoroughly unmoved by the human chaos. Camels, with heads proudly held high, regally saunter along the dusty streets, apparently unaware of the attached cart piled high with goods and perhaps a brightly-scarved woman or a lean man with legs folded neatly underneath himself. All manner and types of dogs run, play, eat, and sleep on or along the road, assuming that all other species will pass right by, until they don't.

On the new highway, which offers two lanes in either direction and a median in the middle, I see motorcycles laden with towering boxes of goods of all kinds or with an entire family of 4-5 people. I observe bicycles progressing slowly. On one occasion when we were stuck in interminable traffic heading back towards Delhi, Hayden looked out the window and said, "Mom, that guy on the bike is going faster than we are." I worry about fast, crazy buses and slow-moving trucks with burlap bulging in all directions looking nearly to burst and spew lentils, perhaps, all over the drivers and riders surrounding. In the median breaks, drivers enter the highway from another road, never looking back once, and pedestrians stop to talk to friends on bikes, one or the other partially in the road. I notice crouching women along the median in the road, painting white along the median curb. We come to one sign which mostly blocks the highway, forcing all drivers to slow and slalom around the two-part sign with a u-turn arrow indicating an advertisement for some restaurant or shop the driver may just have missed. We come to an unmanned police check-point with a large painted word, STOP, and a speed bump. I look ahead and see a safari jeep coming our way, on our side of the road, in our lane, towards us! I see an old man carefully crossing the road with his rickety bicycle. I look up ahead again, and now there is a brightly painted and decorated truck heading directly towards us. Our driver easily moves to other lane. Honking his horn all the time. No sweat.

Along the side of the road, with the dogs, cows, pigs, and water buffaloes, I notice many goatherders working their goats along
the road, miraculously keeping them all together. I wonder why I never see goat on any menus? Cows abound, as do pigs, and yet most Indians, I understand, are vegetarians. Hinduism prohibits the killing or eating of cows; Muslims are not permitted to eat pig. And yet, here these animals abound. Is it religion? Or culture? Or is it because people see these animals searching through all manner of rubbish and choose other options?

We are so grateful for the amazing skills of our driver and the sights that we see enroute. More to come ...

Thanks for reading, Jennifer

Friday, November 5, 2010

Math Club at Harbor Secondary School

One of the pleasures of teaching math is being able to extend the subject on occasion, beyond the curriculum, in order to demonstrate a few of its myriad applications. Currently, perhaps nowhere is this more easily done than through the math club, an after-school activity that meets once a week and appears to be bringing together a polyglot of students, boys and girls, 6th - 12th grade. At one practice a few weeks back, we had a record 16 students show and, so far this year, we've been averaging about a dozen students per session. Three were Saudi girls from our school's all-girls program, the first time more than one from the girls' program had ever shown up for practice. Even though these girls attend our school, most of their classes are held in an isolated part of the building, and I so far have taught only co-ed or all-boys classes, so they might as well have been from a different campus.

As the practice session began and I saw the students - Saudi, Palestinian, Finn, Indian, American, Jordanian, German (with occasional guest appearances of Chinese and American graduate students from the university!) - tackle the first few problems, it suddenly grew clear to me that there were a few transcending themes evident. One, naturally, was the use of the English language. For many of the students before me, if you were to go back just slightly more than a year, and sometimes less, you'd find them in schools where instruction wasn't in English. Yet here they were, mixed and matched, using English to not just communicate, but to communicate often complicated ideas to each other efficiently, which is to say rapidly and accurately - the mainstays of a good math club member! The second theme was the language they were perfecting: math. If English is the lingua franca of instruction at our school, then math is arguably its subject analog. Like all knowledge today, math as a subject and technical language is profoundly and increasingly international in its scope, and so here I was watching a rich soup of nationalities hone analytic skills, tackling problems in much the same way they'd be approached in a classroom in Accra, Manila, or Frankfurt, say.
It's a quick 50 minutes each week, but in that time I've seen kids' eyes light up with new ideas, approaches, techniques, often evoking a quick smile or "aha!" moment, the kind that makes every teacher's day and keeps us, students and teacher, coming back for more. And so we will, me with a few more problems meant to provoke and stretch, (and with homemade banana bread or shortbread in hand to fire up those young minds!), and they with their boundless energy and enthusiasm, continuing a journey of inquiry possibly without limit... to use a math term!

Thanks for reading,