A visit to Thiruvannamalai

Towards the end of my trip I had the opportunity to travel southwest to the small city of Thiruvannamalai.  I hadn’t known much about it before I went and found it to be a really interesting place to visit. It was pretty busy, and boasts a large temple in it’s center.  Tourists also come from all over to visit the famous ashram, Sri Ramanashramam, there.  One of the reasons we went there was to check out a school located on the outskirts of Thiruvannamalai called, Marudam Farm School.  It’s an open concept school, and founded on the principles that the students guide their learning.

It takes about 5 hours to get there from Chennai, but you travel through some really interesting spaces.  Lots of history and old mountains.  Some forts and also some of the prettiest countryside you can see in this area.  There wasn’t a lot of traffic when we drove and it was a really pleasant journey.

If I had known about this place sooner I probably would have made an effort to spend more time there to really get to know it.  I loved the area, the energy and the people.  It seemed like a very laid back kind of place, with lots of chances to view extremely important historical sites.   If you look at a map, it’s just west of Puducherry, and really easy to get to.

Here are a few pictures of the area, I’ll post more about the school later:

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Starting the day off right with vada.

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Ruin near Gingee
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More around Gingee.
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Mountain formations older than the Himalayas.

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And, maybe a Jesus sighting….;-)

A walk with the elephants

After a quick change and a quick “shower” we had quick break and headed over to the elephants one more time.  We were led around a little area where they take the elephants for a walk.  You meander around a desert area that makes a trail through the property.  It’s quiet, you can hear dogs barking in the background, no cars, no hoards of people, and some occasional cows wander through.  I had never ridden on an elephant before, and it was a very calm experience.  You kind of sway side to side and just slowly move past the scenery.

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Stopped for a picture.
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Getting some extra snacks, after the whole experience.
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Love their faces, eyes, and wrinkles.
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These two were the elephants we cared for during the day.
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Three of the elephants at Elefantastic.
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Quick shadow shot.

 

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Yes, I would say, this was a totally Thumbs Up experience.

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Time to wash the elephants?

So after we painted our elephants, we walked them over to a grassy area with long hoses and washed them down.   The elephants took turns drinking from the hose and splashing themselves with the water from their trunk.  We scrubbed a little bit and they the handlers allowed us to sit on top of the elephants.  Little did we know that we were about to get washed ourselves.  They said,” Make sure you leave all your electronics with us”.  Uh-oh, that could have been the tell-tale sign.  Good thing I brought a change of clothes.

We walked over to another grassy spot and got drenched.  The handlers let the elephants fill their trunks with water and splash us.  It was cold, wet, and amazing.  They got us pretty good.  We couldn’t stop smiling.

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Elefantastic!

This will probably go down as one of the best experiences I have ever had. It’s really no secret that one of my most favorite animals is an elephant.  They are beautiful animals in almost every way.  I’ve seen elephants in zoos when I was a kid, and became hooked on their massive presence.  I had the opportunity to see elephants on safari in Tanzania, and that was the most thrilling experience to witness the massive quietness of their movement.  These animals radiate a special warmth and some how gentleness that you cannot overlook when you are with them.

Elefantastic is a special business that takes care of elephants. It is located outside of Jaipur.  Before we took care of the elephants we had a tasty vegetarian lunch prepared for us by the mother of the owner of Elefantastic.  It was super delicious.  Then we spent the day feeding the elephants, painting the elephants, and washing them clean.  After that we had a lovely ride through the desert, trying relish the entire experience before driving back to our hotel.

These next few pictures are taken from the first part of the day where we fed them and got to know them a bit better.  We were encouraged to be close to them and talk to them, and feed them before we did anything else.  It was amazing to look the elephants right in their eyes and feel the weight of their trunk as it pressed against us when we were close.  It was clear that this is their life.  They eat, get cleaned, walk and sleep. They aren’t forced to labor people up and down Amber Fort or be chained down.  These were happy elephants.

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Stay tuned– next up– washing the elephants.

Jaipur – Round 2

In late February and early March I got to spend a week in Jaipur.  It truly is a jewel of a city.  Located in Rajasthan, it boasts one of the most visited cities on the “Golden Triangle” circuit.  I can see why.  It has a rich history of forts, palaces, majestic views and a number of locations for shoppers to buy all kinds of beautiful block print materials, tailors and seamstresses who can make anything you desire, and of course beautiful gems.  There is a lot to do in and around the city.  This time I made it to many places that were a little bit off the beaten track, but totally worth it.

The main reason for being in Jaipur was the Fulbright Conference.  Each year it is hosted in a different city in India.  All the Fulbright scholars that are in the country as well as neighboring countries in the Central Asia are invited to attend to share their research, listen, meet and make connections.  I was on a panel of educators to present what I had been working on with NalandaWay.  It was a great opportunity to listen to my colleagues, as well as listen to other researchers present on their subjects.

I felt fortunate to be a part of the whole experience.  Not only were we well taken care of at the hotel, I had a chance to extend my stay and take a printmaking workshop by a master printer.

This is going to be a series of posts, because it was a week long adventure in Jaipur.  It was an extremely interesting place to visit a second time. There were a lot of things I didn’t notice or experience the first time because I was mostly in heavy tourist areas.  This time I ventured out into other parts of the city, had a chance to visit some real neighborhoods and interact more with local people.  I also was able to compare my experiences in India. Having been in South India for two full months before traveling back to Jaipur, I realized that it was a much different place than Chennai.  Jaipur seemed to be a bit more conservative, and there was a clear dividing line between tourists and citizens.  I really  hadn’t experienced that in Chennai, even though it was obvious that I was an outsider.

I was glad I got to observe these kinds of experiences, it made me think about how India is such a diverse place, full of possibilities, challenges, experiences, and cultures.  There is no wrong, there is just different.  It’s hard for me to lump India into just one package now.  There isn’t just one India.  It would be like saying the United States is all the same.  Each region has it’s own special traditions, culture, and attitudes. The more I visited, observed and took part in the daily life, the more I learned about that particular place and myself.

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Amazing view from my window, over to the right is where you would go to see Old Jaipur.
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Roof top party!
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Well appointed room, but later in the week I could hear everything that was happening below it….weddings, parties, turban ceremonies.
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Carved wall in the hotel.
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Strange prints in the elevator.
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Turban wrapping ceremony.  I was engaged in this activity for at least an hour.

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This woman was looking for her “date”.  I saw her come in, look around, and she couldn’t find him in the sea of turbans.

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Hanuman!
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In the lobby area, every evening they had traditional Rajasthani dancers and musicians perform for the patrons. 

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Something is going on down there.
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Last meal in the restaurant.  The staff worked long shifts, we would be down there at any time of day and see the same staff.  This restaurant was called the 24/7 restaurant, and I think it meant that anyone who worked there, also worked that shift.  We were well taken care of.  The staff worked hard.
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It actually stormed!

An arts camp, with the future in mind.

I took thousands of pictures while I was in India on the Fulbright. I carried my camera around with me wherever I went. The one time where I ran out of memory and battery power was the time I spent at the arts camp in Kuppam at the Agastya Foundation. I wanted to record everything I witnessed all the days I was there. The Kanavu Pattarai arts camp was something I wasn’t sure I was going to experience. Fortunately, I did. The experience was something that I will never forget.

This particular Kanavu Pattarai camp is supported by collaboration between the NalandaWay Foundation and the Agastya Foundation. NalandaWay provides the teachers, the curriculum, the resources, and Agastya Foundation provides the space. The camp pulls from near by towns. Both boys and girls, ages 13-16, attended this camp. It was not a residential experience but a day camp for 3 full days.

The first day students were introduced to each other and jumped right in on camp activities. The teachers organized the whole camp, and when there was some spots that needed an activity I filled in with yoga and a quick lesson in making origami cranes. I also participated in a trust exercise, which was really fun for all of us.

All the students were extremely excited to participate. They made a large amount of art in just three days, and presented on topics that were important to them and their school community. It just goes to show you, that when students are given a chance to perform, act, interact, create, make, design, and do—THEY WILL! Most of the students were really into the arts projects and produced a lot of amazing work together.

Collaboration is a big piece of the puzzle for this kind of camp, especially since the goal is to build a community of peers. One of the best parts of the camp for me was when the students were tasked with creating a group song. It was a huge challenge. Many students were very happy doing visual arts, or even making posters, and speaking. BUT singing? That was a big leap for some of them. Many of the students didn’t know what to do, or how they should attempt that particular task. However, there were a few girls who would not give up. While the group took a break from song writing, a couple of girls stayed back to finish the melody and lyrics. They were the only ones in the building, and I don’t think they were even aware that I was paying attention. What I saw was true collaboration, respect for one another, and the desire to come together to accomplish the task. These girls continued working on the song until everyone came back in the room. They shared their lyrics and taught the whole group of students the melody of the song. The other students were amazed, excited and couldn’t wait to be a part of the musical task once again.

As a group they practiced (led by the girls and a few other boys). The way the girls problem solved and helped their fellow peers was amazing. They reached out as a team to put something together that would bring a lot of joy to everyone in the whole entire room.

On a whole, this group exhibited a wide variety of talents and problem solving skills. I thought that this was a strength because they all had a particular way to exhibit that strength. It made the group of 30 kids extremely strong.   Students exhibited a lot of empathy and compassion for each other. Most times when one member of their group was having difficulty another would job in and say,” Maybe we try this?” The students always seemed like they were looking for ways to solve problems, think creatively, use the set limitations to their advantage, think outside the box to use limited art materials in a new way, and most importantly not give up on the project or each other. Only a few students really needed some extra help, but I think it was only because they had never had this much going on at once. Not much exposure to arts, not much exposure to group work and collaboration.

The Kanavu Pattarai camp is much more than a few days for kids to get away from school and have fun. This program is creating ways for kids to build their self-esteem, gain leaderships skills, practice problem solving, and be more self- aware. Without the arts, students are unable to see some the values that already exist within themselves. By providing arts camps, NalandaWay is essentially strengthening the school communities. The students who participate in these camps take everything back with them and share it at their school. They are able to talk about their experiences and show what they accomplished by participating in the camp.

 

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The camp space.
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Student receiving a welcome pin!

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Camp rules.
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Students creating their small group poster.
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Student beginning work on her self portrait with a tiny mirror.
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Decorative self portraits.  Using color and pattern as symbols.
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Students had a lot of discussions with each other for collaborative projects.

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Working on their community poster, discussing issues that are important to them and their community.

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Presenting their community posters to all the other groups.

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Me!  Teaching origami cranes, step by step.

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Uma and I on a tour around Agastya.
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All the camp goers and the teachers.
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The lovely girls who put the song together.
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Traveling to the camp spot.

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Shadow puppets to tell a story.
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Clay figures.

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Trust game– “Crazy taxi”.

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I was delighted to collaborate with NalandaWay on this program. I was able to expand the camp to five days, and add additional components like yoga and mindfulness. The more time we spend providing meaningful programs for youth to connect to each other and their own communities, the stronger we build the future for all of us.

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A peak at what’s around

I had the chance to visit the Kanavu Pattarai camp in Andhra Pradesh.  I was mostly in the very southern tip of that state where Tamil Nadu and Kerala come together.  First we traveled by train, and toured around in a car until we got to Kuppam.  That is where the camp was held.  The landscape was very similar to the southwest.  Dry, arid, blue skies, and puffy clouds.  It felt like a very familiar place.  I loved the Southwest when I lived there, and I really got used to being in this type of environment again.  If felt so familiar.

It was the perfect setting for the camp.  Very quiet, serene, beautiful.  Rambling vistas everywhere to just stare at, and take a very deep breath.  I think students would have no problem feeling inspired to create in this space.  In the morning and evenings it was quite cool.  However, just as you may have guessed, the day time was hot.  You really had to keep up your fluids up here, or else, heat exhaustion.  I loved visiting the Agastya Foundation and staying on their campus for those few days.  It was a great break from the traffic, humidity and people-packed city.  It would have been great to see more of the State itself, but I was happy I got to see  this small corner.

 

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The conductor of the train, wearing  nice jacket, but what you don’t see is the clipboard.  It had a very colorful cartoon character, and a unicorn on it!
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AC.
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Trains fill up fast, sometimes it was standing room only.  Not to mention 3 people to one long bench.
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Everyone has there hustle.  There are people selling everything: toys, jewelry, games, food, snacks, tea.  You name it, you can probably get it.
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Part of one of the schools we visited on our way to Agastya.
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Streets are far less busy here than Chennai.
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Trucks, palms, and mountains.
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Watching the sunset, was lovely.
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Small town we passed through to get to Agastya.  We had some tea and chips.

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We drove far away from the towns and villages to a huge plot of land that is the campus of Agastya Foundation.  We crossed over this big water body and we realized there was a full moon. 
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Outside of our dorm they are building a shrine to Agastya.
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After breakfast we walked the road to the art camp building.
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View from art camp.

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Another view from Art Camp.

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Typical South Indian Cuisine! That big spot is for the rice!
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You can tell it’s hot.

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View from camp.