As a Fishel fellow, I was placed in India with JDC Entwine Multi-Week Global Jewish Service Corps with Gabriel Project Mumbai, and I am now working in Berlin as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps fellow.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Slum Reality


Imagine a typical day of elementary school.  For me, it started with waking up in my own bed, eating breakfast that my parents prepared for me, and then getting driven to my school.  When I got there, I went to my class, which consisted of kids my own age, and sat at my own desk which was filled with an abundance of crayons, markers, paper, and other school supplies.  If a classmate couldn't keep up with what we were learning, they would get some extra help, maybe in the form of a tutor or an after-school program.  I would eat the lunch my parents packed me and play handball or on the playground during recess.  After school, my mom would be waiting for me and would ask me about my day and what I learned.  She would drive me to soccer practice and then to art class or a play-date with a friend.  I would end the day with dinner with my whole family.

Now, back to India.  I’m teaching 2 classes of elementary school-aged children.  While I had all of the tools I needed to be successful, these kids lack most if not all of those tools.  They wake up in the morning, usually in a one-room shack with their entire extended family and walk up to an hour through trash and fecal matter (often barefoot) to get to their classroom, which is a small, dark tin shack filled with kids ages 3-14.  There are no desks, and the only school supplies they have are little chalk boards or a small notebook.  Most of them are malnourished and will not get much to eat that day.  After class, they either work or they wander the slums looking for some entertainment, even in something as simple as a stick.  I had people who believed in me, but many of these kids, especially the girls, don’t have that kind of support system.
This is the reality here. 

Some photos from our walk to and from the classroom:

A lot of people have been asking me, “How can you handle all of that?” “Isn’t it just too sad?” “How do you not cry?” etc.  But believe me, when you walk into the classroom and are greeted by a chorus of “Gooood morning, teacha!” and these huge, adorable smiles, it’s impossible to feel sad. 

I also feel fortunate to be able to not just see and be made aware of these issues, but I have been given an opportunity to do something about it.  I’m thankful every time I see a student’s face light up because they got the answer to a question correct or when we successfully teach the class an English song.  You can tell that they love every minute of it and are so eager to learn, and that inspires me. 

You come to quickly accept the reality of life in the slums when you see how the people living there don’t dwell on the hand they've been dealt.  They go about their lives and work hard to provide for their families.  And for the parents who agree to send their kids to school, they work hard to provide an opportunity for a better life for their children through education.  It’s admirable and provides a flicker of hope for the future of India.

Some photos of the classes:

These are from an activity we did to teach the kids the difference between vegetarian and non-vegetarian food:

Monday, June 24, 2013

Shabbat in India

Shabbat in India (with LOTS of pictures)

We took the train down to South Mumbai for the weekend to experience Shabbat with the Indian Jewish community.  Mumbai has about 9 synagogues for a Jewish community of about 5,000 people.  The guesthouse we stayed at was right next to a big blue temple that we went to for brief services Friday night.  It seemed like the temple is not frequented much- they rarely have enough people for a minyan- and the women’s section upstairs seemed especially unused. 

The inside of the synagogue

After services, we walked down the street to the home of Sharon and Sharona (best name match ever), an Indian couple who had us over for Shabbat dinner.  They and their 3 daughters and both sets of grandparents welcomed us as well as several other Jewish travelers and current/former JDC fellows.  It was so strange but amazing to sing the Shabbat blessings with all of them in the same tunes I grew up with.  Their 9-year-old daughter, Tiferet, led the group in “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” which was very powerful coming from a little girl from this tiny diasporic Jewish community which somehow is able to remain so connected to Judaism and Israel.  I met a girl who was the JDC fellow in Mumbai in 2006, and she gave me a bunch of advice about how to make the most of my year in Berlin, and I also talked to one of the current Mumbai JDC fellows.  I’m coming to see just how amazing and interconnected the worldwide JDC community is, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

Saturday was a free day for us, so we spent some time exploring So-Bo.  We started at Colaba, which is a long market with countless stalls lining the sidewalk (kind of like a shuk) selling anything from shoes to henna.  I used my notorious bargaining skills to score myself a long, Indian skirt (as I hopelessly attempt to blend in more) for less than $3 US.  I still find it baffling how cheap everything is here.  You can get a good meal at a restaurant for $1, and a 30 minute cab ride costs (ready for this one, LA people?) $2!

Wearing our matching purchases
At night, we went back to Sharon and Sharona’s for some chai tea (which we drink multiple times a day, and it’s SO good) and to do havdallah.  We then headed over to Chowpatty beach, which is a really cool area with carts selling food, mats to sit on, and little carnival rides.

On Sunday morning we woke up early for a bike tour of the city.  Biking through Mumbai traffic was absolutely insane.  We biked on the busy streets, swerving around cars and people.  The tour was great- we got to see a lot of South Mumbai including the Gateway of India, a flower market, spectacular temples, and a cow sanctuary in the middle of the city which is home to hundreds of cows!  I knew that Indians consider cows holy, but I finally learned why.  Hindus believe that 330 million of their gods live inside each cow. 

Gateway of India
Fruit and veggie market

Flower market

We spent the rest of the day at the JCC where the JDC in India is based.  We first got to participate in Gan Katan, a class for Jewish Indian children taught by one of the JDC fellows.  The kids were adorable, and I had a good conversation with a group of boys.  I learned from them that the Indian community here is incredibly connected to Israel.  Many of them have visited, and they are all pretty knowledgeable about the country and its history.  One of them also told me that “Women here are MAD about cosmetics.” and that LA is “mad sick.”  So funny.

After the Gan Katan class, we had lunch and then met with the Jewish Indian youth who are ages 18-25.  It was so interesting to interact with Jewish Indians my age.  Most of them live with their parents and for the boys, they probably will their entire lives.  That definitely contributes to a different mindset from the young people I know from the U.S. who, at that age, are starting their lives, independent of their families.  But these young people still have curfews and are supervised to a certain degree by their parents.   This emphasis on family and community over independence keeps being brought to my attention here.

I really enjoyed our weekend with the Jewish community.  From the fascinating conversations I had with local Jews to seeing little kids learn the months of the Jewish calendar, it was an impactful experience that gave me a glimpse into the status of this small but lively community.  A few weeks ago, I had no idea that this Jewish community existed at all, and I definitely had no clue that it’s truly thriving. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Kalwa Slum


I can’t believe I’ve only been here for 3 days- it feels like weeks!  I’ve been experiencing so much every day that I started to take notes on my phone to try to remember it all.  Get ready for a long post.

Today was very exciting because it was our first trip to the slums.  We were all anticipating the visit- after all, this is the reason we’re here!  I have to warn you all that I wasn’t able to take pictures of the kids there because it was our first visit, and we wanted to be respectful and not distract them.  But there are more pictures to come in the next few weeks!

A short rickshaw ride took us to the base of the Kalwa slum, home to 80,000 people and the place we will be volunteering.  We walked through winding alleyways filled with shoe-less children playing and women washing clothes to get to our first stop, the home that we will be cooking meals for the children in.  This area is considered the nice part of the slum because the homes have concrete walls.  We then began the 30 minute walk through the slum to the classroom.  I have never seen anything like what I saw there.  Most of the walk was through a field that used to serve as the slum toilet, so it is completely filled with feces and garbage.  In the past few months, the Indian government put up a wall surrounding the slum to discourage more settlement since the slum is actually illegal.  This created a huge sewage problem because it blocked people from the field they used to use for the bathroom, so now people defecate anywhere.

The "nice" part of the Kalwa slum

 Holy cows- some of them had necklaces on

There are children running around and animals everywhere- dogs, cows, chickens, goats, ducks, donkeys and pigs (I have never seen such happy pigs with all the mud and trash).  Homes are made out of sheets of tin and whatever scraps people can find.  But when I looked around, people seemed genuinely happy.  All the kids are giggling and playing together, and adults are hanging out and joking with each other.  It really makes you think about different standards of happiness.  Too often in the U.S. I see people who are rich with regards to money, love/support, and opportunities but are unhappy.  But here, these people have nothing.  But they do have a strong sense of community and identity.  Just something interesting to think about.

We met the children who we will be teaching in a tiny one-room classroom made out of sheets of tin.  There are 3 classes of kids ages 3-14, and they are all ADORABLE. They were beyond excited to see us and are so eager to learn.  And we’re so eager to start teaching them!  I have done a lot of teaching in many different settings from international students at UCLA to disadvantaged kids in LA and Israel, but I know this is going to be very different.  I can’t wait to get to know the kids better and to see them learn and develop throughout the summer.

Other excitement in the past 2 days:

We’re taking a yoga class next door every evening.  I’m not a fan of yoga, but this class is great.  The teacher chants in Sanskrit, and the class is outdoors, so it’s really relaxing- so relaxing that I fell asleep.  People had to wake me up at the end of the class when they saw I wasn’t moving anymore.  I’ll try to get a picture in the next few days to show you what it’s like.

I went to the mall for the first time, which is very modern and Western.  I should probably take this time to describe the Western vs. Indian situation here.  The first taste I got of this was when I got off the airplane.  I had to use the restroom, but when I walked into the stall, there was just a hole in the ground.  Completely thrown off, I just took my stuff and walked right back out.  Apparently you have to ask everywhere you go if there is a Western toilet (the kind we know) or an Indian toilet (a hole in the ground).  Also, clothing stores are divided into Western and Indian sides.

Here's a photo of the mall- it's really big and modern, and the best part? There's A/C!

We saw the Superman movie at the mall which turned out to be an interesting experience.  Differences between Indian movie theaters and American movie theaters:

They made me give them my camera battery because people film and bootleg movies all the time.

We tried to sneak in food, and everybody got caught except me, so they had to leave it outside.

They sell Indian food like samosas inside the theater.

There’s assigned seating and an intermission which happens exactly halfway, which in our case was during a dramatic scene where Superman was mid-sentence.

The audio cut out a few times, and each time people in the audience yelled.

I tried kulfi, a block of Indian ice cream on a stick.  It has the consistency of frozen halva but tastes kind of like dulce de leche (yum).  In this pic I'm with 3 of the other program participants and Hayley, one of the Indian staff members.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

First Day in India!


Today was JAM-PACKED in the best way possible.  In the morning, I got to walk around the city for the first time, which was such an experience, especially with the torrential downpour.  People are everywhere- in the streets, in shops lining the streets, in cars and rickshaws, on bikes, on top of trains and buildings.  It’s total sensory overload, and I love it.  When I got back to the apartment, we had Hindi class (learned the days of the week and a few questions) and then Indian culture class.  We learned what is considered rude and polite in Indian culture.  Some interesting things I learned:

-It is considered rude to stare at somebody when they are talking to you.  Instead, you are supposed to look away and bob your head around.

-If you are invited to something like a dinner at somebody’s house, it is considered rude to show up any earlier than 2 hours late.  So for example, if they say dinner is at 7, you better show up no earlier than 9 to avoid pissing people off.  Oh, and you have to bring candy.  Indians love candy.

-There are 653 main deities in the Hindu religion, and households choose a few favorites to worship.

-Some people eat food with just their fingertips, and others use their whole hands to scoop out food, and it is considered a compliment to slurp your food and burp.

Our teachers are these adorable 18-year-old Indians, Viraj and Meghna, and they hung out with us for the rest of the day.  We decided to go to South Mumbai, about an hour away by train.  To get to the train station, we took rickshaws, which are these little go-kart type of taxis that drivers weave through traffic in.

The back of my rickshaw driver's head

The train station was PACKED with people, but Meghna explained that this was not even a busy time of day.  I noticed that the trains all had open doors, and when I asked Megna if people ever fall off, she said, “Oh yes, about 7 every day, and they die.”  When I looked surprised she said, “It’s not a big deal.  There are loads of people here.”  That really stuck with me all day.  It’s hard to imagine living in a place where the sheer number of people makes it difficult to view people as individuals with value, and death is just an everyday occurrence. 

From the train, I got my first look at the slums that line the train tracks.  Entering South Mumbai, I was amazed by the stark contrast between this wealthy area and the absolute poverty that exists only miles away.  I’m sure I will get a better sense of all of this when I actually start working in the slums.

Roxanne, the other California girl and I got together to take a picture, and these 2 boys ran over to be in it.  Everybody stares at us here because for many of them, we are the first white people they’ve ever seen.  Also, note the Indian Ocean (well actually the Arabian Sea) in the background woohoo!

On the train ride back from South Mumbai (if you're cool, you call it "So-Bo" which is short for South Bombay), somebody came over to me and tapped my head while saying some kind of prayer.  Meghna explained that they call this kind of person a “lady boy” (hermaphrodite), and she was giving me a blessing.  I guess it was my lucky day that she chose me!  Meghna also told us about how hard of a life they have- they are basically thrown away by their parents from a young age and have to raise themselves.  It's a very rough life for so many people living here.
I had my first Indian chai tea (SO GOOD), and something called pani puri, which is a ball filled with onions, chickpeas, and some kind of curry sauce.  Let’s hope this doesn't result in stomach issues.  If it does, it was probably worth it anyways.