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.

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


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


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.



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.



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.

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


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.


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

Something is going on down there.
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.
It actually stormed!

Chennai Photo Biennale

It’s hard to believe that with all of these posts, I still haven’t gotten into March!  One of the last events I attended in February was the Chennai Photo Biennale.  It was simply one of those things you actually couldn’t avoid.  BUT- Why would you want to!?! There were photo exhibitions all over the city.  Some in galleries, some in restaurants, but many that were out in public.  Many performances and happenings occurred around the city at different times and places.  It really felt electric throughout the city, because you never knew when you would happen upon an exhibit, and when you did, it was always something intriguing, thought provoking, and surreal.

A perfect example of this occurred in my neighborhood.  I lived in the oldest neighborhood in Chennai called Mylapore.  It is known for it’s temples, it’s also considered the center of the city, because everything built up around it.  It’s a very historic part of the city, and I loved being able to walk around and view all temples mixed into the contemporary apartment buildings, old shops and restaurants.  One of the best places in the entire city is actually a park.  Nageswara Rao Park is a large park where people walk, jog, play badminton, have fun on the jungle gym and swings, and of course do yoga.  It’s a lively place.  It got even more livelier when a photo exhibit was placed all around the park.  It was an amazing exhibit, with giant poster sized photos from a group of international photographers.  Their topics focused on a variety of social justice issues which included:  child marriage, race relations, poverty, homelessness, and culture.  The pictures were from around the world.  Not just focusing on India.

I walked through this park most days, but when the exhibit was there, I made sure I passed through it everyday.  One day I saw people taking down the exhibit, and soon it was gone.  The park was still great, but for a while I felt like there was something missing.  Art in public provides a profound experience for those who interact with it.  What an amazing change for this particular community to interact with the photography and also the messages it conveyed.



Untitled – on purpose

This morning, I wake up, make coffee, hop aboard the FB train and look. I look because people are sharing their news, showing pictures, posting articles and opinions. I enjoy it for the most part and also think about how open and honest people can be. Essentially inviting a wealth of people to view some part of themselves that they feel ok about sharing. I’ve been doing that for the past 10 years myself. I’ve shared my stories about my life, my work, my vacations, my opinions and opportunities.

It’s a lot to put out there, if someone were to sit down and organize my thoughts I wonder what it would say? Probably some vague posts, but also some thoughtful (I hope).

Today I share something I’ve been holding on to. Today is my last day at the detention center. I’ve been working there for a full 9 years, and I definitely have mixed emotions about leaving. I think it’s a good decision for me, because I want to do something different, and I also feel the need to re-calibrate myself personally and professionally. Maybe people will find that funny, but I’ve spent 10 years being associated with the detention center, and I’ve put my all into every single day of working there. I think I’ve had a lot of opportunities that have led me to some other pretty fantastic experiences. However, the experience of working there is taxing on most who spend a significant amount of time there.
I don’t want to downplay the stressful environment, because it truly is one of the most challenging places to teach. It’s not just because of the kids, but also the type of place, the potential for aggression and the constant barrage of verbiage that comes out of mouths. There are always noises.  Constant motion, and an underlying current of anxiety.  One of the most anxious parts of my day occurs every 50 minutes.  When a class ends, I have to round up all the art supplies by myself, count them all, and put them away.  Everyday I count markers, pencils, color pencils, erasers, fine point markers, paint brushes, scissors, rulers, stencils, and many other kinds of supplies.  I clearly don’t think my students should be limited in the act of art making.  True, I could limit their choices more, and leave out one pencil for each students, and give them one marker at a time to use.  But I have always felt that it’s ineffective and takes way too much time from the short class period we already have.
The decision to leave didn’t come easy to me.  And some might say I waited too long, or some might say too soon.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I’ve been a part of something that taught me a lot about myself.  Everyday was like staring into a big mirror and seeing a reflection of things I didn’t like inside myself, that were too painful for me to deal with on my own.  Working there was the biggest education for me, even though I was the teacher.  I am not sure if some of the students recognized that or not.  Every chance I got, I told them,”  You are my teacher too.”  I would often see so many students rise above the daily challenges, the trauma they have incurred, the barriers they had to overcome, the recognition of their faults just by the virtue of being placed in a detention home.  How many people do you know are forced to take responsibility for their actions on a daily basis?  How many people do you know deliberately avoid and overlook their own shortcomings in the world and keep on moving?  I’m sure we can count ourselves sometimes.
The fact is, yes, my students are there by court order, many of them have done unspeakable things, and many have done things only a teenager could be in trouble for.  Many of them come from circumstances that we would never understand or be able to recognize.  Some go to great lengths to cover up their circumstances and are constantly trying to show that “everything is ok”, or they’re “in control”.  We know that’s not the case.
So the daily challenge becomes- what can you do now?  All students are not the same, each of them require a lot of different kinds of services, interactions, accommodations and treatment.  All of them carry with them individual habits, predispositions, interests, histories that we may uncover or not.  Many students have realized the opportunity that education could change their course and station in their current life.  In school, they get our undivided attention, working with teachers who care and will not let them give up, or allow them to see alternatives to the path they have previously chosen.  Many struggle with letting that control go, and hold up that heavy wall of protection for themselves.  It can be extremely hard to keep up, by the way.  However, there are holes in that wall.  Some of which start to crumble, but some of which they begin to tear down themselves.  They become vulnerable and open.  Sometimes, they flail around because they may have never had such opportunities or people who care about them and want to support them.  Or, maybe they’ve  realized they have already wasted some opportunities like this.
And maybe that is one of the difficult things for me.  It has take a lot of patience to get to the student, creating  a lot of access points to interest the student in doing something, and also being ready when the moment happens.  But, when it does, it is rewarding.  For everyone.
When I started teaching, I really had no direction, or goal of teaching in a particular kind of school, in a particular kind of setting.  I actually started out as a Social Studies teacher in a tough school in Albuquerque.  I too, flailed around to see where my feet would land, and it landed at the detention center.  I had the opportunity to work with some amazing people on the education side and detention side.  I’ve learned about hard work and dedication by being in their presence and observing how my co-workers interacted with the students.  I learned that you have to collaborate, you have to ask for help, you too— have to be vulnerable and willing to fail, and willing to get back up, go to work, and try again.   Most importantly, you need to be you. Authentic, real, and compassionate.  Towards yourself and others.
I never knew all of what my students were attempting to overcome, or battle with, but it never really mattered to me in some ways.  They needed me to guide them, be supportive of them when they needed it, and offer them an environment where they could flourish in the midst of chaos.   If they were willing, they came along on that journey with me.

There is a popular saying that people use, often under difficult circumstances, but it all rings true to me.  It encompasses non-judgment, compassion, and empathy:  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”


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.


The camp space.
Student receiving a welcome pin!


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


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


Presenting their community posters to all the other groups.


Me!  Teaching origami cranes, step by step.


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


Shadow puppets to tell a story.
Clay figures.


Trust game– “Crazy taxi”.


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.