Guest Post: Bill Gaythwaite, Continents Away

Photo of a globe and fountain

Photo by Tom Westburgh

When I was just out of college, a man I barely knew left me some inheritance money. He had been a friend of my father’s when they were both very young. This man didn’t have any family, had never partnered up or had any kids of his own, so when he died, his estate was to be divided up among the children of his old friends. I’d met him maybe two or three times in my whole life, when he’d come to visit my family in Boston from his home in rural Maine. These were awkward meetings. He seemed much older than my father, spoke with a thick Maine accent and wasn’t used to being around children. His first name was Wesley, which seemed to fit. He’d ask me the standard questions about school or sports, which I would grudgingly answer, while my parents looked on, raising their eyebrows at me, willing me to be more polite. I did my best, but I couldn’t wait to be excused and dodge the guy.

Later, of course, getting a windfall from this odd, shadowy figure would be a big surprise. It was not exactly an amount I could retire on.  Not trust fund money or anything. I think it was a little over $4000. But since my family wasn’t wealthy by any stretch, and it was over thirty years ago (when this sum went a lot further) I considered it a fortune. I got a lot of advice about what I should do with it, which mostly centered on putting it in the bank or using it to pay off some school loans. But there was never any question. I was going to travel. I was afflicted with a serious case of wanderlust back then. I’d been lucky enough to study in Italy for a semester and travel a little in Europe. Now I wanted to see everywhere else.

I bought a round-the-world ticket from a now defunct airline and first flew to Tokyo. I had no set plans really, from one day to the next, though I’d had to secure some visas before I left home and get some shots in my ass and had started taking malaria pills too.  Aside from the plane ticket, this was going to be shoestring travel. I was always keenly aware of how much money I had left.  If I didn’t spend cash on lodging or food, I’d be able to travel longer, further. A youth hostel or a room in a YMCA was a real luxury on that trip. I spent a lot of nights sleeping in train stations or airports or simply curled up outside.  I was gone the better part of a year, made it to over 30 countries and lost 40 pounds. Somehow I still came home with a few bucks in my pocket.

I did a lot of stupid things on that trip. I was too trusting by half and got ripped off a few times. As an over-privileged American, I probably deserved it. I got lost, missed travel connections and made a mess of basic phrases in a variety of languages. Still, by the time I reached Bombay I was feeling invincible. (This was before the city’s name was changed to Mumbai.) I drank water out of a trough on a filthy street and then was miserably ill for several weeks. Given the real suffering in India, I didn’t have a right to complain too much. I learned some things when I was traveling. One time a local man in Kowloon quite accurately called me an idiot when I gushed about how much I loved Hong Kong, how I’d love to live there. He asked me what I could possibly know about what it meant to live anywhere, other than where I was actually from. “You rich tourists are all alike,” he snapped.  “You see what you want to see.” I hardly felt like a rich tourist. I hadn’t eaten for a day and I was staying in an overcrowded flophouse, but he was right, of course. No matter what my personal circumstances, I had a rich person’s opportunity. I was, after all, traveling around the world. I didn’t fully understand what this man meant until much later, but it humbled me enough to know when I should keep quiet.  One of the reasons I liked traveling alone was because no one was there to see me screw up in these ways or fight with me about directions or tell me which museums to see. I liked the idea of controlling my own narrative and there was something very freeing about doing that half-way around the world, continents away from anyone who knew me by name. The memory of that freedom has stayed with me.

Another real gift of that trip is that it was the beginning of my writing life. Alone in the evening, wherever I was settled for the night, I’d pull out my notebook from my backpack and write about what I’d seen that day, quick snapshots of my life on the road. I was quite faithful to this little journal.  I also had another notebook where I started writing stories and some poems, which I guarded feverishly for fear this book would wind up in the wrong hands — meaning anyone with a passing knowledge of the English language. The work was terrible (this is not modesty) but at least I was doing it. I liked the idea of putting words down at the end of the day, of creating characters and plots, imagining dialogue.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I was never lonely on that trip. Not once. I was creating other lives and situations to keep me company. The writing itself might have been triggered by my travels through China, Thailand, Egypt, and all those other astonishing places, but the nightly ritual of jumping into the work didn’t go away when I came home. It remained part of my life when I moved to New York City and then on trips to other countries in my twenties and early thirties. (Wanderlust percolated in my system for a long time.)

Later, as a busy suburban dad, when I wasn’t going anywhere more exotic than the Jersey Shore, my writing habits stayed with me too. I never felt right if I didn’t spend a little time on my work before I turned in for the night, even if that meant only editing a paragraph. Mine is often a slow process, but it’s a deliberate and fairly constant one. Today this all feels more like reflex than habit, as if my writing routine is hardwired into me, a kind of muscle memory. Wesley couldn’t have known what I’d do with his inheritance and I couldn’t have imagined the impact it would have on me to this day.  I will always be very grateful to him.  And I do still think of Wesley, in fleeting moments and sometimes longer.

Guest Post, Sudha Balagopal: How Parallel Lines Meet

draw-the-line-1159036All aspiring writers have heard these two pieces of advice that some consider inane, others gospel: write what you know and write the book you want to read.

What if the two are parallel lines that cannot meet?

Let me explain. Although we spoke a different language at home, the medium of my education in India was English and stayed that way throughout school and college–part of the legacy the British left behind.

My first memory of reading is from a text book called The Radiant Reader. The words tap a rhythm in my brain even today: “Sing Mother Sing, Can Mother Sing, Pat Sing to Mother, Mother Sing to Pat.” From there, our readings evolved, as we grew older, to include stories like Jerome K. Jerome’s Uncle Podger Hangs a Picture.

In life outside school we didn’t often come across names like Pat, Jerome or Podger.

By third and fourth grade I’d expanded my pleasure reading, salivating over descriptions of chocolate eclairs in Enid Blyton’s books. I experienced the adventures of the Five Find-Outers with Fatty (politically incorrect these days, Fatty’s name was shortened from Frederick Algernon Trotteville) and Mr. Goon.

I’d never laid eyes on a chocolate eclair. Nor did the inhabitants of my books look anything like my neighbors who wore sarees and salwar kameezes and ate gulab jamuns instead of scones.

Somewhere along my reading journey, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys appeared on the bookshelf, introducing me to a world different from the British one I’d known so far. Their American adventures were fun to read, but mostly, they ignited envy. The teenaged Nancy Drew drove a car (a car!), solved mysteries and had a boyfriend. Few women I knew drove. If a family owned an automobile, most likely a hired driver or the father of the house drove it.

At school, I absorbed Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and Shakespeare. In my final year I pored over the text book Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, only to fall in love with the gentle, reliable Gabriel Oak.

During summer break, I cowered in my bed while Bronte’s Jane Eyre suffered. I devoured books by Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse which made for an interesting amalgam of mysteries and humor. I wept when Beth died in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which presented a different America from the one I’d read in the Nancy Drew series.

Our English curriculum included few Indians writing in English. My Calcutta school introduced me to the luminous Rabindranath Tagore. His evergreen short story, Cabuliwallah, in which a father and young daughter share a close relationship, also explores the unexpected yet tender connection between people of different social classes—the vendor from Kabul and little Mini. Later, in college, I discovered the unpretentious but humorous and memorable literature of R. K. Narayan, nominated several times for the Nobel prize.

Fast forward decades and I am now a writer. Words emerge from the deep well of consciousness and they must be that way to be authentic. My work might paint a world that’s not familiar to those in the western world. My first collection, There are Seven Notes, thematically links stories against the landscape of Indian classical music.

Thus, the conundrum. How do I bridge the gap between that which I know and that which I read today, have read in the past and will continue to read?

One day, when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for perhaps the tenth time in my life, my brain went “ting.” It didn’t matter that the author and I inhabited different worlds. The book touched me and it remained with me. Harper Lee may have written about places she knows, about issues specific to the American South, about race and color and justice, but she also torched a deep truth within me, tapped into what I too know, what I too am familiar with. Blending her truth with mine. What is wrong, is wrong. Justice knows no boundaries.

Neither do human relationships. Scout and her father, Atticus Finch had a special bond. Scout also had another connection, the reclusive Boo Radley.  On the opposite side of the globe, Tagore describes a similar tender kinship between Mini and her father, and between Mini and the man from Kabul.

I pay obeisance to Harper Lee. She made parallel lines meet. That’s how little Mini in Tagore’s Cabuliwallah and Scout Finch in Harper Lees’s To Kill a Mockingbird occupy the same corner in my heart.

Writing, then, is not about geography or the color of the characters’ hair or eyes, about the snow or the heat, about chocolate eclairs or gulab jamuns. Those make up the scaffolding for something larger. It’s about universal truths. That’s what I love to read. That’s what I’d like to know more about.

That’s what I want to explore in my writing.

Guest Post, Kim Eugene Hood: Becoming Reverent

I was told that there are four stages in life; you are born, you grow into adulthood, you marry and have children and finally, you give up earthly possessions and seek God. I have completed the first three. I am now an artist and pilgrim. In 2008 I traveled to India and completed the Hindu pilgrimage Char Dham.

Wind Prayers

In 2010 I made the overland journey into Tibet where I completed the Buddhist kora around the sacred mountain Kailash. And in 2012 I walked the 500 miles of the Catholic Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. It is the immersion and interaction with other pilgrims that has defined my search.

Tibet: As the trail rolled over another rocky bulge of earth I looked ahead at a pilgrim stretched out on the dirt. His arms reached out in front of his body where he would mark the ground, stand and walk to his hand prints, where he would lay down once again. He was demonstrating devotion to his Buddhist faith, something fewer and fewer are now choosing to do according to Geljen. As I stepped to the left to pass, the tired and grimy figure looked up at me and motioned for water. I dropped my pack and pulled out my water bottle. As he stood up and opened his mouth I unscrewed the lid and gave him a drink.

He swallowed and nodded for more and I filled his mouth with water for a second and then a third time. Finished he looked into my eyes, bowed his head and returned to his prostrations. I gathered my pack and as I walked away it began to lightly snow even though the sun was still shining. The clouds parted and Mt. Kailash appeared. Snowflakes mixed with emotion as I walked on in solitude.

 

India: The loose dirt gave way under my feet, spilling rocks down the slope as I made my Kim Hood Photographyway to the river. I reached the sandy bank and stepped onto a flat rock where I could kneel down to touch the cold glacial water. A hundred yards upstream it rushed out of the bottom of the ice wall. This was the “Mouth of the Cow,” Gaumukh, the source and headwater of the sacred river Ganges, beginning its long journey towards the plains of India. I cupped my hands in the frigid water and lifted them up and over my head, letting the drops fall, wetting my hair. As I walked back along the trail I passed an elderly man on his own pilgrimage who smiled and said what a happy day this was. I grinned and agreed that yes, this was a happy day. He looked intensely straight into my eyes and hugged me and repeated, ” Yes, this is a very happy day.”

India: As I passed the men who were bent over hand shoveling the embankment one stood up and calmly asked “What is the name of your God?” I responded “God.” He smiled and laughed. As did I.

Spain: “This 34 day walk has been a mental and physical purge. I have become emotional and cried so many times: in the small hamlet churches, at La Cruz de Ferro, over thoughts and memories of those who passed beyond this life and in front of the cathedral in Santiago at the end of the walking; tired, cold and finished as I leaned against my walking staff. Sitting towards the back of the cathedral, I waited for the Pilgrim Mass to begin. A fellow pilgrim who I had seen many times over the last month walked over and shook my hand and told me his name. We are both tired and overwhelmed. A young woman knelt next to me and sobbed. I feel I have come closer to my personal God.”

India: The hike to Vasundhara falls was only another five miles but after the long trek earlier that morning I was moving slowly and tired. Arriving, I dropped my pack and sat in the dirt exhausted. Over my shoulder and up the hill a voice pulled my attention from the valley. Sitting above me on some rocks was a shaggy haired man wrapped in a blanket motioning me to come up and join him. I grabbed my bag and joined him in front of his stone shelter and took the hot flower tea that was prepared by his attendant. I smiled and nodded; him also. He pointed at the flowers, the tea’s ingredient. I sipped the brew, sitting on the stone bench next to him and marveled at the towering peaks and valley that snaked into the mountains. I asked the name of one peak and he laughed as I poorly repeated his words, enjoying my poor pronunciation. Soon, five men hiking up the trail joined us. Taking off their shoes they knelt down and pressed their heads on the feet of my new friend, a holy man, a sadhu. They then bowed to me, one might say reverence by association.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 13

It’s been about a week since I returned from Delhi to Phoenix and I don’t really know how to process things. Everything is now as different to me as it was once familiar and I find myself appreciating a variety of things on a very conscious level. Not that I was unappreciative before I left, but after really feeling what life can be like in a place so radically different from Western society, every little thing seems like something for which all should be appreciative. Water tastes way better; my house looks at least 10 times bigger than it did before I left; and going hungry is about as likely an event to occur in my life as that asteroid from Armageddon crashing into my front yard.

I suppose since spending the summer in my homeland, I have developed a very comprehensive realization that even on their worst day, any given member of the American middle class can find boons in spades when compared to the lifestyle of the average Indian person. I’m not trying to minimize the strain both Americans and Indians and other cultures all over the world have to endure on a regular schedule. Everybody deals with some version of struggle to a greater or lesser extent on a moment-to-moment basis, and I completely understand that fact.

But the gap between what people already have to begin with in metropolitan areas like Tempe or Scottsdale compared to Delhi is just so vastly antonymic that it almost defies my sense of reality. I mean, for the love of God, when was the last time an American population had to worry about a power blackout covering 620 million people since the turn of the 20th Century? The closest North America came to this kind of power failure was in 2003, and that was staggeringly low in comparison, coming in at 55 million people.

And food? At last count, 60 million children in India were listed as food insecure. What’s the count for all food insecure members of the entire American population? The data varies, but I’ll bet my left lung that it’s nowhere in the same state, let alone the same neighborhood, as 60 million.

And housing? Oh man, the worst project developments in the United States put together don’t hold a candle to the rampant poverty in the majority of Indian living spaces. In Tempe, I’ll see 1-2 homeless people every couple of months with a street sign in their hand and a tin cup next to it. Maybe the sign says something funny, and people give some money to him or her, and call it their good deed for the day.

In India, I saw the homeless, the crippled, the destitute, and the derelict live in droves under freeways, overpasses, and on the streets, scouring between moving traffic for alms, many without even tattered rags to cover the little modesty they might wish to retain.

And coming back from that kind of differential has been a massive shock to my world paradigm. It’s placed in my mind a more universal idea of what it would mean for me to have a happy, successful life. And that idea is just keeping it more basic than basic. I don’t mean Survivorman or ascetic monk basic; just whittling down the things in my life to the bare essentials, like food, water, clothing, shelter, and enough power to turn a light on.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 12

About a week and a half ago, I went to sleep with the air conditioner running like I have pretty much every night since I’ve been India. Anyone who’s ever been to this side of the world recognizes that the utilization of indoor air conditioning is one of the most important inventions developed for widespread use by the Indian populous since the discovery of spices in making all our food. Without the AC’s pumping cool air into the bedrooms at night, comfortable sleep devolves into a sweltering difficulty producing the results of a hardcore cardiovascular exercise.

However, power outages are not exactly the major figures of new problems in India, so I’ve learned from a very young age that when the lights go out, it’s to be expected since it happens quite often. So when I woke up at 2 a.m. sweating like all hell just broke loose, I figured the power went out like usual and would be back on soon.

After an hour, I got a bit impatient. After two, I became skeptical. And after I passed out from exhaustion and woke up still sweating six hours later, I was more or less confused, but still, it didn’t break the mold of the accepted norm for how things worked in India anyway. After a few more hours, the power kicked back in, and I watched Dexter until I had to leave the house to run some errands.

A few days later I was talking to a friend of mine with whom I hadn’t spoken in a while. So we went through the milieu of average question: what’s up, how’ve you been, what’s your life like nowadays, those kinds of things. I found out he was spending the summer interning in San Francisco, and I thought that sounded like fun. Then I told him I was interning in Delhi, and he asked me if I had heard about the blackouts.

And my first thought was, how the hell did he know what I was doing a few days ago? The thought had never occurred to me that being a part of a blackout was daily news, even worldwide news. To me, it was something that happened a lot. No power to a house? Okay. No power to a whole neighborhood? Okay, it happens. No power to a whole city? Eh I suppose, what of it? Massive traffic jams backing up as far as the eye could see? Have you been here before? What else is new?

Then I did some further reading, and the numbers were totally staggering. Apparently the blackout happened TWICE in two days, with three key power grids failing first in sequence and then simultaneously. The first day, 370 million people lost all electrical power for about 8-10 hours. The second day, 620 million people lost all electrical power for over 16 hours. If this happened in America, people would think Bruce Willis was on the chase for Timothy Olyphant while conducting a live reenactment of Die Hard 4 (if the metaphor is lost on you, watch the movie).

I was one of 620 million Indians who were essentially powerless (pardon the pun) against a completely ineffective and blundering infrastructure, an infrastructure headed by leaders who are ineffective at managing the country’s power supply, despite the exponentially increasing demands for more power due to the country’s jumps forward for economic growth. It’s strange to think that all my experience in the Western world has been characterized by infrastructural solidity, yet my acceptance of faulty Indian infrastructure as commonplace still persists.

I’ve always known this country had problems, problems that become even more pronounced when compared to America’s, but I never stopped to think of how bad because it’s just the way things have been in India for as long as I can remember. I used to think I could never relate to hardcore rap music, but most of the places around here would put the derelict state of housing projects to shame, just minus all the guns and drugs. Crooked cops, poor living conditions, power and water shortages; all these things could be parts of a treatise on life akin to that of the worst American cities of the past few decades.

But none of these things have the propensity to be glorified when living among them. It’s just the sad facts of life that make up this varied place. It’s just been a humbling experience to truly understand how much I have compared to how much I could have easily not have had in my motherland.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 11

It has been a while since my last post, so I’d like to begin this dispatch with a quick update: this past week, instead of teaching English classes as forecasted, I have been handling the special education/remedial education courses at New Era Public School by myself as a sort of introductory rite of passage before taking on the more specialized job of teaching a specific subject area. It’s a very rewarding place to teach, because the kids come and go in much smaller groups as opposed to the full class sizes (5-10 instead of 45-50 at a time), which allows me a large amount of time per day to give each child the individual attention required to assist them with their work.

New Era Public School

New Era Public School

This gives me much greater insight into the structure of the Indian school system because the children in my classroom range from 2nd to 8th grades, and have learning issues in different subject areas. There is rarely a case of me having to teach/tutor more than two students in each grade, and even in those cases, hardly do I ever have more than one student working on the same subject material. As a result, I get to conduct mini-teaching sessions with a wide-ranging demographic for a variety of different subjects varying from English to Social Studies to Science to Sanskrit, often tackling 3 or more subjects per 45 minute class period.

Contrary to my own initial thoughts, I now consider teaching/assisting different children with such a veritable smorgasbord of information as a great catalyst for creating an interesting work environment. The main thing it has taught me is this:

All kids are different.

Teaching a variety of different subjects varying from English to Social Studies to Science to Sanskrit.

Some kids are quicker to understand certain subjects. Some kids require the extra attention provided by a smaller work environment because they require a bit more clarification. Some kids have learning disabilities that make it difficult for them to comprehend assignments. They require more time to slowly and methodically absorb what they need to know about math or English or science.

And some kids are just lazy little buggers who don’t understand what it’s like to confront a teacher who absolutely refuses to have their patience worn down by their wanton misbehavior. For some kids, the whole daily grind of school just doesn’t make sense in any applicable way and they just follow the crowd because their parents tell them it’s school or bust.

All kids are different. But when they’re in the classroom, it’s not a teacher’s job to assimilate them into one total blob that needs to be taught the same stuff. A teacher is someone who understands the standard to which all of his or her students must be raised, and then to not lower that standard, but to work out the kinks in each student’s learning process and help them achieve what each sometimes doesn’t even know he or she is capable of.

In short, though I’d prefer the intellectual stimulation provided by older students, I have a greater appreciation for the profession of teaching than I ever had before. The only way to learn is by doing, I suppose.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 10

Tomorrow marks my first legitimate workday as an English teacher in another country (another continent). And it’s a country that is by and large considered a part of the underdeveloped third world. The geographical shift alone has greatly enhanced my perception of what education is supposed to mean in a place like India, but without hands-on experience, my knowledge still leaves much to be desired.

So far, my capacity in the school’s hierarchy has been assistance-based learning, meaning that all the teaching or guidance I have provided over the course of the last two months has been closely supervised by a more senior staff member. Although these staff members varied greatly in age and subject of interest, each one was able to help me understand that the Indian education system is one that does not permit great unorthodoxy in curriculum.

In short, despite being comprised of individuals dedicated to drawing forth the potential of their students, the Indian education system allows no pedagogical heroes. Teachers are not allowed to deviate from the state-mandated standards. They have limited resources at their disposal to subvert or fill in the cracks in the system. Now, I’m not saying that this kind of situation doesn’t exist in American classrooms, but I am saying that the average American classroom has a lot more creativity and financing to foster student growth. And having been in both classrooms as a student, I can say this with absolute certainty.

But without having been a teacher in either type of classroom, does my opinion really cover all the bases? I’m not sure yet. That’s why tomorrow is going to be an important day for me. Not just because it’s my first official step into teaching, but also because I will finally be able to put myself in front of the blackboard for hours on end. This repetition will help me fully comprehend the rigors of being an educator. I will need to eschew the romanticized notions I still associate with the often thankless job of a teacher.

And when my view of the profession is stripped down to its bare essentials, just like my worldview has been from my continued exposure to the starkness of India in general, whatever remains will tell me whether or not I am committed enough to education to make it an integral part of my life for the next decade.

Right now, I don’t know much about the specifics of teaching. After tomorrow, I might not know much more. But what I will know is whether or not the entire prospect of it is something I want to know more about. For now, I’m just going to put my best foot forward.