Sunday, 31 January 2010

Kids' Day and a few "typical India" photos

Last weekend I took the neighbours' children to a Kids Day Celebration at their school.  I guess the audience must have numbered around three hundred parents and children - a very good turn out.  Well, I managed to sit through the three speeches (Indians like their speeches) and was looking forward to the kids' performances.  Only I missed them because all of a sudden I had my head between my knees and fingers in my ears!  My God, the volume!  Phenomenal!  After the first little act was over I almost ran from the seating area, right to the very back, and it was still loud even there.  I was later told that there were fifteen loudspeaker stacks covering the area.  FIFTEEN!  It was louder than a damned rock concert!  I don't know but perhaps Indian have specially reinforced eardrums.  There were many kids between me and the speakers and not one seemed to be having difficulties with the volume, not that I hung around long to check!

On the thirty minute bus journey from Kovalam into Trivandrum, a couple of km before you arrive, there's this traffic sign which always catches my attention.  It says "Obay Traffic Rules".  The spelling makes me smile but I wonder how many people actually see it or comply with it, being as it is in the centre of traffic and signage chaos.  Nice pimped out Mitsubishi, by the way!

I like this little shop, advertising "Darning and Saree Polishing".  I know what darning is - it's a way of mending holes in clothes by weaving with needle and thread - something my mother would have done to mend our socks as kids fifty years ago.  But "saree polishing"??  A check on the Internet reveals it's a way of cleaning sarees using petrol, and then leaving the material in the sun to crispen up (and to remove the fumes, presumably!).  You might also notice from the photograph that Che Guevara is alive and kicking in India!

This monument to Gandhi must be the cleanest spot in the whole of the city, not least because no member of the public is allowed near!  It's in the middle of an area known as Gandhi Park, between Chalai Market and East Fort in Trivandrum.  The park is small and, if you're lucky, you might get a seat under the shade of the two covered sitting areas but generally they're packed.  A rare, green location, but not at all peaceful.

Finally, here is the little tea stall where I always have a glass of chaia to settle the dust from my journey into Trivandrum.  It's just to the side of Gandhi Park.  Nice friendly guys, always happy to see me.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Sound to Light Effects

Thought I'd just post to tell you the latest "Only in India". The temple music is blasting away again but we've now got something new: lighting modulated by sound!

Great eh? Not only to do I have to put up with aural pollution but now, also, visual pollution! I've had to turn the lights off in this room because they were flickering so much.

So, another bloody temple festival. This time it's the microscopic temple up the road. They've slung the usual horn speakers in the trees outside my house but amazingly they must have pointed them away because my eardrums are not reaching their end-stops. Thank the gods for small mercies! The depth of the sound has also improved because there's a bank of disco speakers a short distance away but, even though the quality is now marginally less screeching, it's still damned annoying, and I have four days of this!

Friday, 15 January 2010

Sri Lanka Beckons

A comment from my good friend, Marco, made me realise that I hadn't actually mentioned much about my leaving SISP and going to Sri Lanka.

Yes, it's something I have been mulling over for a while. I didn't ever consider SISP to be a job for life but rather one of a few before I pop my clogs. I think that 18 months is long enough to achieve something useful - even if it's only making six wall noticeboards!  However, there's always the feeling that you could do more, or that it would be good to complete everything already started but really, where would you stop?

 Back in April last year I happened to sit beside a Sri Lankan woman of about my age, on the plane trip back to the UK. She was a mother of four - two boys and two girls but, sadly, both girls had been killed in the war. Her sons were now living in London and the US, and her husband had just died (of cancer, I think). She was an ardent Christian and her faith didn't seem to have been shaken even after such tragedy.  She was friendly, and told me a little about Sri Lanka and the need for help there. It just planted a seed.
A month or so ago I started searching SL organisations in earnest. I found The Rainbow Centre, which is a bit like a mini SISP, and Adopt Sri Lanka - an organisation supporting teachers in rural schools in southern SL. I'm applying to work with ASL. I would be helping teachers learn about the use of ICT in schools and developing some course materials. I would mentor the SL teachers in their classrooms on occasion so I would still have some contact with kids (leaving the SISP kids behind will be a huge wrench for me). They seem really keen to have me on board, and are already discussing my role and what I might be able to do, and how they might give me some teacher trainig too. Dare I say it, they even sound excited about the possibilities and I think I might get satisfaction and appreciation there - it's all looking good from this distance!

I would be based in Tangalla (or "Tangalle"), right down the bottom of Sri Lanka. It's not completely the end of the earth - tourists do visit, I believe. Here's a map for you to peruse and consider whether you might like to visit me!

Update: I didn't mention dates, did I?! I come back to the UK on 28th March and will immediately apply for a visa for Sri Lanka. Once got, I'll book flights. target is around mid April. ASL would like me to overlap with a teacher who'll be returning to the UK in late April but I don't want my time in the UK to be a complete rush and I'd like enough time to catch up with friends and family!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

How much does living here cost?

In weighing up the feasibility of coming to India I set myself a target spend of £5000 a year.  That broke down into £1000 for two return flights, £1000 for my time in the UK between stints in India, and £3000 for all costs in India - accommodation, food, transport, sight-seeing and entertainment.  It didn't include insurances, subscriptions, maintenance, presents or any of my regular outgoings.
Now that I've been here for more than 12 months, how far off target was I?

Well, as I pay for everything in India with cash, it's easy enough to add up the ATM cash withdrawals, but being careful not to include any donations which are just passing through my account.  While in the UK I used both my direct debit card and my credit card - slightly more tricky as I also use the credit card for any on-line shopping - eg present buying.  Still, I've waded through the statements and the end result is...

£   761 for two return flights
£ 1,233 for my time in UK (6wks)
£ 2,467 for everything in India (46wks)
£ 4,461

Now I reckon that's not bad!

My expenses in the UK were a little more than I'd budgeted for but that target was just a guess.  It doesn't include any accommodation expenses because family and friends have very kindly put me up.

The flights were less than predicted but then they are so variable anyway - tomorrow they could be more.

I'd based my predicted India living expenses on experience of holidaying here in 2007.  Sight-seeing trips and entertainment didn't really happen so that partly accounts for being within budget.  That and luck.

All in all I'm pleased to say the £5k/pa figure is just about spot on!

Friday, 1 January 2010

The Day After New Year's Day

New Year's Day. Now when was that?  Ah yes, yesterday!  I'm losing track!  It's not that I have such a hectic social life as the fact that I'm knackered!

On New Year's Eve I finally got to bed at 1am, what with fireworks, texts and emails.  But I woke early (5-ish) with the sound of some big engine outside.  It went on and on - just a low but loud rumbling sound - and it turned out to be a large machine for making tarmac to repair the road.  Making tarmac - tar and ground rock go in one end, it's all heated and churned about in a monster cement-mixer drum, and hot smelly (in a nice way!) tarmac comes out the other end.  That's what they did all yesterday - a gang of workers and little 3-wheeler trucks whizzing about. They did the same in 2007 and will, no doubt, do it again in 2012.  Preparation is not their strongest point - I notice that they've even tarmac'd over mud up the road!  So not much sleep, and I woke even earlier today.

Apparently, on New Year's Eve, there was a staff meeting at SISP but I only got to hear of it by accident the day before.  Why had no one told me? Anyway, I decided to spend the day with, as it turns out, some nuns.  Yep, nuns! I'd been thinking that what I am doing at SISP is not as effective as it might be so I thought I'd go and see how Computing is taught elsewhere.  I went to SFS School, which is where the neighbours' children go, and discovered it was run by nuns! 

The whole experience was a bit of a revelation actually - the kids there were so well behaved.  And polite.  Bright and confident too, but not over-confident, if I can judge from a single visit.

Class sizes were up to 45 per teacher - and yet there are no discipline problems apparently!!  The classes I saw had around 30 children each.  It's a private school, costing parents Rs.450 a month per child.  That's £6!  No doubt there are other costs too, for books, uniform and transport.  The parents value education and want value for money; there is big school-parent interaction, with the parents encouraging firm discipline (because it's always others' kids who misbehave). 

The lab had 25 computers and when there was a power cut the kids didn't go crazy - they just sat, and chatted quietly, and waited for the power to return.  Up to three kids per computer and yet the kids all worked cooperatively.  Amazing!  But I did notice one teacher using a small stick on one child's legs - not so good, but it wasn't excessive.

The lab was in a dedicated room with ceiling fans and air conditioning.  All the windows were shut and dust sheets were over some of the computers - I didn't notice the dust problems we have at SISP.  There were stools for the children, not chairs, so you could pack the kids in and they (the chairs!) could be dragged over the floor without making a screeching din.  There were two large UPSs (uninterruptible power supplies) and a few computers were fed from direct mains.  Because of the holidays the batteries of the UPSs had become discharged and were giving problems while recovering, but the kids just got on with it.

The nuns gave me lunch, a cup of tea, and a cup of coffee, and I had several long chats with the Principal - Sister Vincy.  Turns out she had visited SISP - I remembered her coming and she remembered me - so I didn't need to grovel to get to see the lab or watch the lessons.  She actually gave me a complete set of ICT text books which she'd been given as a publisher's sample.  I've now browsed them - not wonderful, but I can get some ideas.  Cool nuns!
New Year's Eve eve was spent alone.  What did you expect?!

So today I've been mulling things over.  I've decided that my work at SISP is not so easy because:
  • Kids not well disciplined - chat, shout, fight, and are disrespectful, and there's no real ultimate threat since many parents don't care whether the kids go to school or not.  Management is soft with them anyway, probably out of necessity, because these kids have hard enough home lives.
  • Kids barely speak English and I speak no Malayalam I'm afraid to say.  That's my own fault - I should have tried harder, even if I thought I might only be here a short time.
  • Difficult planning a meaningful programme of work.  A year ago, all of the kids were at exactly the same level - all beginners.  The oldest kids have had to be brought up to speed extremely quickly but perhaps they're missing the fundamentals.  It's difficult to teach theory  - they don't understand the language!
  • The classroom is noisy and there's noise from adjacent classes/activities.
  • No real value is given to teaching Computing - it's like Art, a fill-in between Maths, English, etc
  • I've had no school text books until recently. You can't buy them in the shops. Now that I've got them I find they're good for ideas but I can't use them quite as intended with one book per year class as SISP's kids are grouped by ability, not chronologically. We have six groups, mapping to Standards 1 to 10.
  • On-line resources are geared to kids with on-line connections - which we don't have!
  • On-line resources are geared towards the latest gizmo - Facebook, Twitter, "Web 2.0", on-line games, whatever.  Sure, they have their place, but basic skills and understanding are more important IMO.
  • And I'm not a teacher!
Still, yesterday I managed to spend a little time looking back over what I/we've done in the last year, worked out where there are holes, and am thinking how to plan the months ahead...  Reviewing the past, looking to the future.  Taking stock - what we all do at this time of year.