Thursday, September 26, 2013

Of Cultural Exchanges

Rustavi, Georgia

Dear Family and Friends,

Nearly a month has passed since arriving in Georgia.  In the past few weeks I have had some very enriching and oftentimes entertaining intercultural exchanges, most of which have happened in the two weeks I have been living with my host family.  In this newsletter I want to share some of these moments.

One night after dinner all the family was sitting in the living room when Nukri, my 8 year-old host brother, asked me to teach him some French techtonique dance moves.  Thanks to a bizarre New Year’s resolution in January, I happened to know some. The French music was then switched to a Georgian folk song and the little girls proceeded to dance around the room with the quick steps and upheld arms characteristic of Georgian dance. I then, in turn, taught them a country line dance and a hula.  This cultural exchange escalated.  Soon the coffee table was moved and all the adults were sitting around the room clapping as the children performed a succession of dances – from salsa to Michael Jackson. 

Last Sunday I came home from church to a decapitated pig in the back of a truck.  My host grandfather had gone to the countryside that morning to kill it.  The next day after dinner, I sat down in the living room to write.  Alina, my host sister, came over with a plate of home-made fruit leather.  I grabbed a roll and bit into it as she said, “It is pig. Do you like?”  My thoughts suddenly jumped back to the massive pig in the truck bed, wondering what part of the animal had been dried to make these lumpy, red rolls of leather.  Then I remembered that Georgian has no F sound – the closest letter they have is a soft P.  The substance was indeed fruit leather, made of fig.

Today I had my first supra (a traditional Georgian feast characterized by overflowing food and alcohol).  At each supra there is a Toast Master – generally an elder in the family – who starts off the drinking with a raised glass and an eloquent toast.  At traditional supras, a horn full of wine is passed around the table.  Today, due to the Russian guests that were visiting my host family, each toast was offered with shots of Russian vodka.  I joined in the festivities with a bottle of Coca-Cola that my host family fetched me as the toasts began.  And for the next several hours we sat around the table, feasting on an endless stream of khatchapuri (Georgian cheese bread), khinkali (large, meat-filled dumplings), and shashlik (skewers of chicken and beef).  There was also baskets of bread, battered fish, chicken salad, various dishes of vegetables, and green peppermint soda.  The occasion also allowed me to try out my newly-learned Russian, which of course was mixed with Georgian, English and Magreli (the regional language of my host family).  

I am now back to finish this newsletter after having been pulled from my computer to rejoin the supra at the restaurant across the street.  Six hours later, the circle of elderly drinking men has tripled in size and my host grandfather insisted I dance with him to a Brazilian pop song.  When I left to come home, toasts were still being made. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Rustavi, Georgia

Rustavi, Georgia

Dear Family and Friends,

My last newsletter was written back in February after having returned to India from some travels around Southeast Asia.  A lot has happened since then.  In March I concluded my Fulbright year in India and spent the next several weeks in and out of the Central Asian countries of Tajikistan and Kazakhstan before returning home to Utah in April.  I made the difficult decision to defer my grad program at Georgetown and take a position in the Caucasus nation of Georgia.  So with a bit of Russian study and a suitcase full of sweaters, I set off in August for a new adventure in the Southern Caucasus of Eastern Europe.

I have been in Georgia for two weeks now.  Earlier this week I concluded a 10-day orientation in Tbilisi, having learned some basic Georgian and made some great friends who will also be participating in this government program.  Then on Tuesday we were all bused out to our respective regions to meet our host families. 

I was placed in the city of Rustavi, a Stalin-era industrial center just south of Tbilisi that attracted a population of over 200,000 to work in its numerous steel factories at the height of the Soviet Union.  This history defines the character of Rustavi.  The entire city consists of massive concrete nine-story apartment buildings, aligned side-by-side by the hundreds.  Old smoke stacks jut up along the skyline.  The overall scene is quite drab and oppressive. 

However, I was placed in Old Rustavi. Although both the old and new quarters are considered the same city, Old Rustavi is a world apart, separated by a river and a few kilometers of forests from the Soviet extension.  This area has the feel of a small town with quaint, shaded avenues and classic European architecture.  It is here where I will be living and teaching for the next few months.

This is my apartment building.  The back wall is adorned with a Soviet-era tile mosaic of factory workers and scientists.

My host family is abnormally large for a Georgian household.  I live with two grandparents, their two sons and their wives, and five young grandchildren.  They have been exceptionally affable, and have given me the name Il’ya (pronounced ILLI-A).  In Georgia all names end with a vowel, so if a foreign name doesn’t follow this rule, it is changed. Hence my name would have been Porteri – doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?  So I thought to go by Illi, which resembles the Russian name Il’ya.  Thus, my new name.  This is like Morocco all over again, when I was called Hassan for ten months. 

With a placement so close to Tbilisi, it makes for easy travel around the country.  This can’t be said for everyone.  A friend from orientation was placed in a small Muslim community on the Turkish border situated at the bottom of a desert valley.  And most other volunteers are far enough in the mountain villages, that even getting to the nearest town can be a great inconvenience.  Yesterday I ventured out to a nearby region to visit a friend.  It took over two hours in various overcrowded martshukas, but I did eventually reach his tiny village of grape-lined dirt roads and free-roaming chickens. 

Next semester I hope to have a more rural placement, but for now I am grateful to have my kind family in my small town across the river. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Of Monkeys and Teaching

New Delhi, India

Dear Family and Friends,

As I live on a roof, my landlord has always told me to keep my kitchen door locked shut, warning that monkeys will sneak in and steal my food.  I didn’t take this advice too seriously.  Then last week I left my door open for a minute as I ran down to the ground level to pick up a pizza.  When I returned I stood frozen in the doorway, staring at a massive rhesus monkey standing on my bed.  He had bitten open a box of colorful erasers and was popping them into his mouth.  I shouted at him as he ran past me and scaled up the roof.  Evil monkeys.  Urban monkey populations are a huge problem in India's megacities.  The more elite residents of Delhi actually purchase large black-faced langur monkeys to keep in their yards in order to keep the monkey gangs at bay.

In the three weeks I have been back in India, I have implemented a different approach to teaching my students.  Instead of basing each class on a specific grammar point, I would focus on a different cultural region of the United States each week.  Through the respective history, pictures, music and dance from that region, I would then instigate conversation and grammar activities through cultural exchange.

The first week was Western Week.  We talked about deserts, cowboys, rodeos and Amerindians.  The latter was the most complicated subject to explain as most Indians refer to Amerindians as “Red Indians” and many think they are Indians who migrated to the Americas.  I would explain how Columbus erroneously labeled an entire hemisphere of people.  And by showing a myriad of pictures on my iPad of modern-day Amerindians, I convinced my kids that their skin is not actually red.  After one such discussion, I showed a picture of some Navajo dancers and asked, “So who are these people?” to which the class responded, “American Indians, Sir.”  I felt pleased.  Then one boy raised his hand and asked, “Where are the red ones then?”  That made me laugh.  The highlight of Western Week, however, was teaching my students the country line dance to Cotton-Eyed Joe. 

The following week, in light of the presidential inauguration and Martin Luther King Day, I did a Black History week.  Not only was the lesson timely for US events, but talking about the Civil Rights movement was also well-timed for my students considering the nation-wide protests for anti-corruption and women’s rights.  I had my students write their own “I have a dream” speeches about what their aspirations are for New Delhi and India as a whole.  I was taken back to see some of my seventh graders write moving poetry about equality, peace between India and Pakistan, the protection of women, and the leveling of the caste system.  Some of the lessons taught that week proved to be the most impactful lessons I’ve been a part of all year. 

Some of my students watching my sisters dance hula.
Last week was Hawaiian week.  I taught my kids songs like “Pearly Shells” and “Aloha ‘Oe” along with the classic ALOHA greeting which I now hear shouted here and there as I walk down the halls or across town.  With the help of a video my sisters put together, I was also able to teach my kids about hula.  The Aloha Spirit is alive and well in India.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos

Bangkok, Thailand / Siem Reap, Cambodia / Vientiane, Laos

Dear Family and Friends,

This year began with a brilliant adventure.  Taking advantage of my winter holiday to escape the bitter cold of Delhi, I flew out of Delhi to Bangkok where I would spend the next 11 days venturing around Southeast Asia.

I spent the first couple days in the historic districts of Bangkok, visiting various temples and the Grand Palace.  The most notable sites included the temple of Wat Pho, wherein is housed a 140-foot long reclining Buddha, gold in colour, with mother-of-pearl inlay for the prints on his feet.  I also enjoyed Wat Arun, a towering stupa decorated with colourful pieces of china dishes and sea shells. 

From Bangkok, I traveled across the border to Siem Reap, Cambodia with a Dutchman and two Austrians I met en route.  Situated in the tropic forests of northern Cambodia, the French-built town is picturesque with charming avenues and restaurants juxtaposed with floating villages on the lakeside and dark jungles along the outskirts of town.  For the next few days my new friends and I went “templing”, exploring the temple ruins of the Khmer civilization.   

The first temple I visited was Angkor Wat – a temple built for Lord Vishnu which remains, to this day, the largest religious edifice ever built.  My sentiments after visiting the sites reflect that of the first Westerner to see Angkor Wat in 1586, Antonio da Madalena, who wrote that it “is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world.  It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”  Indeed, from the massive moat surrounding the complex to the intricate devatas and Ramayana-themed bas-reliefs adorning the walls, this main temple was a wonder to behold.  

From Angkor Wat I went to the Bayon temple with its numerous, iconic towers with carved faces – 216 in all – peering out in all cardinal directions over the jungle canopy.   The lower levels of Bayon with narrow stone corridors lit through crumbling, moss-covered walls were reminiscent of the romantic exploration photos I had always admired as a child.

The most captivating temple, however, was Ta Prohm.  This was the site I always longed to see as a child, where enormous fig trees have grown up through the walls, spreading their roots down around temple doorways and mounds of stone blocks.  It was surreal to stand in the National Geographic photograph I always dreamed to visit.  

The next day I separated from my dear European company as I traveled back across Thailand to the Laotian border.  For the next two days I stayed in Vientiane, Laos – a quiet capital à l’air française where adventurers stay a day or two en route to their next audacious destination.  It was a great place to relax after several days trekking around Thailand and Cambodia.

For the final few days of my trip, I ventured back into Thailand and took the train back across the country to Bangkok.  From there I was able to visit some nearby ruins, like the old Siamese capital of Ayutthaya.  And at the end of each day I would settle down to a plate of pad thai, a pineapple shake, and a Thai massage.  It was a great end to such an extraordinary adventure.

And at the end of it all, I came home to India. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Of Elephants, Christmas, and the Punjab

New Delhi, India

Dear Family and Friends, 

This morning as I was walking to church, I came to the busy six-lane highway I always cross to reach the metro station to find a massive elephant lumbering down the outer lane in front of me.  She was a beautiful creature with swirling designs of white, pink, and lime green painted on her head and ears.  I waited for her to pass before I ran across the street.  Moments like this one remind me of my deeply instilled love for India.

My first week of winter holiday has been extremely well spent.  Christmas here in New Delhi was simple yet profoundly meaningful.  On Christmas Eve I went to the colonial Sacred Heart Cathedral in central Delhi where the grounds were adorned with nativities and strands of lights and paper stars hung overhead.  Catholics from across Delhi were gathering and singing carols in Hindi while awaiting midnight mass to commence.  It was a beautiful night.

On Christmas morning I joined together with fellow Mormons at the church for a devotional and loads of fruitcakes. 

In the afternoon I was invited for a Christmas lunch at one of my Muslim students’ home (an example of India’s rich religious secularism).  The father apologized for not having meat, saying that his son (my student) informed him that Christians don’t eat meat on Christmas.  I laughed and asked Nadeem why he thought that.  He explained that in my lessons on Christmas the week previous I had talked about fruitcakes, chocolates and holiday candies – making him think that Christians ONLY eat sweets on Christmas Day; thus, being interpreted through an Indian perspective as being vegetarian for a day. 

I spent Christmas evening sitting on a piece of cardboard on a curb alongside a busy street in Old Delhi for two hours waiting for a bus.  A completely last-minute decision, I bought tickets to travel up through the Punjab with a friend.  The bus finally came – an ancient dented bus with broken windows and an aisle filled with produce and crates.  Needless to say, the next nine hours were sleepless as we traveled through the bitter cold night across the Punjab.

I arrived in Amritsar early the next morning, and immediately set out to explore the city.  Home to the revered Golden Temple, Amritsar is deemed a holy city by Sikhs.  I spent the afternoon at the temple grounds where all, regardless of gender, religion or nationality, are welcome to visit.  After removing my shoes and covering my head, I walked through the entrance, looking out over an enormous rectangular pool of holy water.  All around the pool are white marble floors and stairs which are then surrounded by looming white gudwaras on all sides.  In the middle of the pool lies the Golden Temple.  It was an enriching experience to walk around the grounds while people around me were washing in the water, praying, and presenting offerings.


In the late afternoon I took a cab out to the Pakistani border to witness the daily guard ceremony between the two countries.  It was surreal to sit only a few meters from the gates which divided India and Pakistan.  For nearly an hour guards on both sides, dressed up in extremely elaborate uniforms, marched back and forth, aggressively kicking and yelling, then shaking hands in a tradition that can only be described as bizarre.  All the while hundreds of Indian spectators were cheering and waving Indian flags while an equally large mass of Pakistanis were doing the same on the other side.  It all concluded with the lowering of the nations’ flags and the closing of the gates.

The next day I left Amritsar, passing through the Punjabi capitol of Chandigarh, and back to Delhi.  This next week I will be flying to Southeast Asia for 11 days to visit Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.  It should be a great adventure which I will write about in a few weeks.  

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Of Nepal, Protests and Christmas

New Delhi, India

Dear Family and Friends,

Nearly a month has passed since my last newsletter on the festivities of Diwali.  Over the last few weeks I have had some brilliant experiences – from traveling back to Nepal, to all the random mayhem that makes up my teaching experience here in Delhi. 

The month began with a nine-day trip to Kathmandu, Nepal for the regional Fulbright seminar.  ETAs came from all over South and Central Asia for a week of presentations, workshops, and a great deal of sharing of experiences.  As I visited with my fellow Fulbrighters I realized that our placements are just as varied as the countries where we work.  While the Indian and Nepali ETAs are placed in massive government schools, ETAs in Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan lead classes at universities while those in Tajikistan teach at embassy-run American Corners.  Regardless, we all came with a lot to share and learn.  

While in Nepal we also had a lot of time to explore the Kathmandu Valley – visiting temples, hiking in the hills, and frequenting local coffee shops and momo restaurants (a momo is a steamed or fried Bhutanese dumpling filled with veggies, chicken or buffalo).  In the meantime I made some extraordinary friends among my ETA colleagues – those kinds of friends who so genuinely revolutionize the way you see things.  

I returned to Delhi to find that winter had settled in with overcast skies and bitter cold nights.  Needless to say, the yak blanket I bought in Kathmandu has served me well over the past few weeks.  Along with winter, Delhi has ignited with protests due to a gang rape last Sunday.  I took the following picture during the protests in central Delhi yesterday.  While the passion behind these demonstrations is an inspiring indication of a rising India, I hope that this is all conducive to real change in addressing the hundreds of rapes that occur each year in Delhi.

In the advent of Christmas, I spent the last two weeks celebrating and sharing my culture with my students.  All week I sang for hours on end, teaching each class a variety of carols from “Jingle Bells” to “Up on the Rooftop,” consequently rendering me nearly voiceless now at the end of the week.  I taught some classes how to make paper snowflakes and in others I retold the nativity story, using my coloured chalk to best illustrate each character on the blackboard.  I even brought speakers to class to play a selection of holiday music; however, only one class actually had an outlet in the room (the commodities in each classroom are as follows: 30 wooden desks, 6 ceiling fans, a blackboard and a teachers chair – there are also tube lights but they are never turned on).  

On Friday – the last day before the winter break – I wore a Santa suit to school to the excitement of all my students. 

Along with all the fun activities at school, I have been celebrating the season with my small branch here.  On Thursday night all the YSAs and missionaries went caroling across Delhi to members’ houses.  Each family greeted us with fruit cakes and sugar cookies as we shared a song and a prayer with them.  The best part of the night however, is a tossup between watching the reactions of people on the street as Elder Hess walked past in a full Santa suit, and being chased down the road by a couple cows grazing a dumpster.  Oh India.

After caroling on Thursday, our branch Christmas party last night, and church today; I am left with a strong feeling of fellowship or brotherhood.  At church this morning, for example, I noted that among all the Indian families were two families from Afghanistan, several Nepalese, a Russian couple, a new American family that just moved in, and a few Nigerians – all joined together in worship.  That unity amid diversity, that bridging love of devotion and service, that commonality of faith – that’s what I think the Christmas spirit is.  And if it is, then this will indeed be a Christmas not soon forgotten.