The end of a crazy year

So I left Canada on September 18, 2011… and I’ve just booked my flight back to Canada from India on September 27, 2012.  Apart from 7 very short weeks visiting Canada in the summer, about a year away from home.  It’s flown by in some ways, and in other ways it feels like a lifetime.  Though it’s been very tough at some points, all in all I’m very happy I made the decision to take on this job and take a year of working and travelling abroad.

Some things I have realized this year…

  • I barely scratched the surface of India as a country and a culture, but I feel incredibly lucky just to have had some exposure. One thing that has really stood out for me is just how frank and straightforward Indian folks tend to be – read, brutally honest.  Case in point: while colleagues were visiting Delhi from offices in different parts of India, I was asked whether I`d gained 5 kilograms, how much I was paid, and  whether and why I was not married.  In the latter example, I was also told asked whether I was aware that boyfriends are not really allowed in India and whether I knew that I was quite old not to be married.  My polite Canadian sensibilities have been quite shocked at first, but I am frankly also enjoying the flipside.  Like how the Indian culture seems to be less messed up when it comes to weight issues – it seems like most women would rather be thin, but there seems to be less judgment involved with being bigger. Indian clothes – saris, kurtas, etc – are all rich and colourful and look beautiful on every body type.  Even better, I`ve been told that it`s expected that when a couple gets together, the woman should gain some weight because she`s all happy and celebratory. Maybe this is why the man had this big smile on his face while telling me I looked fatter than last time I saw him.  Similarly, the flipside of being told I was an old maid was that I felt completely within my rights to ask when she was married, and her own opinion of arranged marriages. I`ve also had some great conversations with work colleagues involving an honesty about religious and spiritual beliefs that you would probably never hear in Canada.
  • Capacity building is hard.  I kind of assumed I`d be brilliant at it, and have spent a lot of time being humbled.  Not that I`m bad, but I certainly have a lot still to learn. I`m still at a stage that I`m figuring out the best way to do evaluation, so trying to guide others is challenging.  One has to be pretty self-aware to figure out what advice to give, how much to push, which battles to choose. My colleagues, lord love them, are smart, often busy with other work, and very clear on some parts of research and evaluation and very new to others. They are also as stubborn as hell and notorious for interrupting while you are trying to share nuggets of wisdom that should be blowing their mind.  I`m very slowly learning to listen as much as I can before giving advice, to offer as much support as I can, and then to listen some more.
  • I don`t really like travelling. Ha ha, ridiculous, right? Not that I don’t like seeing the world, I actually love that. But I’m no longer interested in running around for weeks on end with a backpack on my back unsure of where I’m staying that night. A few weeks, sure. A few more weeks with places and plans pre-booked, that’s okay too.  But I if I reflect back over the parts of this year that I’ve had the most every day contentment, it’s been really settling into my flat in Delhi… the last few weeks have been all about mornings with a good cup of strong assam tea and breakfast with my roommate on our lush garden patio.  Spending weekends popping out and seeing this amazing megacity, then popping right back to a calm and air-conditioned home to sip some beer and watch movies. I think I’m getting old.  That being said, I recently had an absolutely brilliant trip to Leh, which is in the Ladakh region of the state of Jammu Kashmir. Check out my facebook album:

http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152146299920574.910857.655905573&type=1&l=09d1978362

  • More than anything, I love the people in my life. I’ve missed so many people from home and ached for a feeling of community. In fact, I’ve come to realize that’s what it’s all about. When I feel like I’m searching, it’s usually for that. Very much looking forward to being at home for a while and enjoying my friends, my family – and my band!!  I also truly cherish the new friends I’ve made this year, many from here in India and many from the UK or elsewhere and hope to stay in touch with everyone once I return home.
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Reflections on Happiness and a Great Weekend

Wow, I’ve been here for 8 weeks already. Here’s the first in what I plan to be a series of posts about “the meaning of it all”.

Coming to India this year involved quitting my job, asking Jeff to quit his, and signing on for quite a bit of time away from places and people I love. It has been very lonely at times, and since I am working 9 to 5, at least 5 days of week, it just feels like regular work life, but in a different culture, away from my social support network and my home.

However, what I hope is that it will help lead to bigger and better things.  Last week I had a great discussion with my office mate Parul, a great gal from Delhi just a few years younger than me. She’s definitely a kindred spirit with similar overall goals, and it was really interesting to compare our cultures. We wholeheartedly agreed that above all, the most important thing in life is to find out what makes you happy and do that. And we also agreed that this is simple to say, and not at all simple to achieve.

This reminded me of a big reason of why I am here: to get closer to this elusive goal. I find it somewhat funny that I’m here in India, because how often do you hear about people giving it all up to “find themselves” in an Ashram or learn to teach yoga. I’m not quite taking that approach, but I am hoping that the change of scenery, having more time alone, being around the culture that bred yoga and meditation, and having a lot of time to travel, will bring about three main goals that I think are most key to my own happiness:

  • Relaxation. Like, actually learning how to relax. Working hard and playing hard, and achieving some work-life balance. At home, I seem to go between being at work but avoiding working (sorry, Alberta Health Services), feeling guilty about not working, or slobbing out in front of the tv eating bad food. Remember that scene in Eat Pray Love in the barber shop in Italy?
  • A sense of purpose and passion in my life. This is about my job being fulfilling for me (something I will talk more about in a future post). It’s also about arranging my life so that I can feel that sense of purpose in everything I do, not just if I’m being paid for it. My strong suspicion is that purpose will come from my links with people – from my very special inner circle to society as a whole. Based on a lot of evidence, including talking to “happy” people, spiritual and philosophical things I’ve read, and especially, what I’ve seen in my own life thus far. I just have not been able to harness this consistently.
  • Creativity!!!   Another things I’ve had in fits and spurts, but haven’t felt consistently in my life. Creativity is one of the best things about being human. I mean “creativity” in the most common use of the word; i.e.  I want to write more music, do more art, get crafty, make my house beautiful. But it’s also more generally about a mindset. The feeling that you are doing something new, not just running through the same old activities or thought patterns you are used to. And I want the chance in the work I do to let my mind run around wildly, to find the best solution to a problem, to get past what other people think are challenges.

Which brings me to this past weekend. I felt happier and more at peace than I have for a long time. Why?

  • A lot of time alone, but lots of great skype and email conversations with people from home. Somehow, I feel closer to people even though I’m on the other side of the world. Probably because I appreciate every minute I get to talk, since I’m such a recluse lately. And/or because all this time alone has helped me to feel more grounded.
  • I spent a bunch of time thinking and writing about this very topic. This is one that drove me to study political philosophy and psychology and health promotion in university , has been the topic of most of the songs I have written, and is what I consider the basis of my spirituality (more on that in future posts…). Yet it has eluded me. Not that I’m the only one.
  • Tons of time playing guitar. I got a new Martin Mini, it’s so beautiful and I’m head over heels in love.
  • Planning for my consulting business. Which I hope I can get off the ground in the next year so I can stay away from the old golden handcuffs – no more 9 to 5 work for me! And I hope to blend some interesting work with collaborating some of the awesome people I know. I made a list of people that are in the evaluation or applied research field that I have worked with or am friends with, and it’s got 25 people already, mostly in Edmonton and Calgary. Big ideas brewing, I’ll be writing about that in the future, too, but if you’re reading this and want to be on my list of people I’ll be contacting with business and consulting ideas, let me know!
  • I’m joining the home workout movement. 12-15 minutes of ridiculously intense strength-building exercise- like cross training but from home – and it’s demonstrated by people with the hardest bodies I have ever seen: [http://www.bodyrock.tv/2010/10/13/how-to-start-working-out-with-us-at-home/]. If you can look past this lady’s insane cleavage (or even be motivated by it), I highly recommend it, even though I am currently hobbling around like an old lady and discovering muscles I never knew I had.

So for my next post I’m planning to write some things I have figured out about what makes me happy, so I want to ask those who have read this: what makes you happy? What makes you smile, laugh, feel good? Little pleasure or overwhelming joy, doesn’t matter. I just want the good stuff.

I’ve loaded a whole bunch of pictures on facebook, just cause it can handle the bulk a bit better: #1: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150945013630574.763566.655905573&type=1&l=a7a3890d5c

I’ll post some pics of the dinner I made today – my first attempt at my new favourite Indian dish, poha (http://www.manjulaskitchen.com/2011/03/21/poha-or-chudway-flattened-rice/). I’ll also post a picture my beautiful guitar, who needs a name. Any ideas?

At the 4 week mark

It’s been a while since I wrote last  …  I realized that I have been here almost 4 weeks, so a good time to update everyone on how things are going.

First, I’ll talk about a few interesting cultural experiences I’ve had.  The first was on Thursday, October 6, the Dussehra festival (see http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/india/dussehra). This is a festival celebrating the triumph of good over evil, or when the Hindu God Rama triumphed over the evil king Ravana. One of the ways it’s celebrated is by burning very large statues of Ravana and other evil villains.   Me and my housemate Dougal very much wanted to see this, but were not exactly sure where or whent this would happen on Thursday night, so we ended up on a wild goosechase throughout the city. Like, left one area of the city by metro, hopped in an auto rickshaw, and ended up in pretty much the same place we had just left by metro.  We waited in a long line, and pushed our way through the gates with hundreds of very excited Indians. In addition to the statues being burnt, the grounds had some rickety-looking ferris wheels and other rides. You’ll see a picture of a big villain head on the back of a truck and some burning in the photo album for this post.   I also got to see part of the Ramlila, a play stretched over 10 days telling this story, when I was here last year, there’s a few pictures in this photo album on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150278216030574.498117.655905573&type=1&l=26bb9d7599

Earlier, that day we also visited Jantar Mantar, an astronomical park in the middle of Delhi built in the 1700’s.  The park is filled with large red stone astronomical instruments.  For example, a sun dial the size of a small house. Very neat.

Another great thing I got to do in the last while was to visit the tomb of Nizamuddin, a Sufi saint.  Sufism is defined as the inner, mystical dimension of Islam, and music is a big part of their faith. Me and a few others went to see the qawwali music that happens there every Thursday. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qawwali) It was amazing … winding our way through the narrow marble halls of the building,sitting under the nearly-full moon in the open air next to the tomb with a large group of worshippers, and listening to the beautiful singing and drumming. I’ve included a “stock photo” of the same men that we saw singing.

The rest of the time, I have mostly been working. There were a few people visiting last week to deliver a workshop on program evaluation.  See the attached picture from our field trip to buy spices from one of my favourite markets: Brad Cousins, visiting from Ottawa (who hired me), Darleen Opfer, visiting from Philidelphia, and Barbara Rosenstein, visiting from Israel. My office hosted this, and it was attended by staff at various levels of the educational sector from all over India. I was busy with some other work, but attended most afternoons and also delivered one session on an example evaluation from India. These and a few other professors and PhD-level evaluators will be involved in guiding the planning for the evaluations I will support this year.  Great learning experience for me!  Looks like we will be doing a few studies and engaging people from quite a few different states all over India.  We will likely be evaluating teacher training, offering mid-day meals to children, and changing assessment systems.  I’m ready to dig in 🙂

I’m struggling with trying to figure out how to embed my photos in my blog, rather than having it all in a gallery at the end. Any tips from blogger friends would be helpful!  In the meantime, here’s some pictures. Keep your eye out for a recruitment poster for extras for a Bollywood film (with a colourful plot description), and the elephant I happened upon while driving to work.

Cooking

So my first weeks in Delhi I was able to pay the maid to do the shopping and cooking… now she is away for several weeks, and the girl covering for her doesn’t cook. Perfect opportunity to try out some cooking myself.

We don’t have a choice as far as having a maid goes – the couple downstairs who own the building insist that whoever rents the apartment employs her as well because they can’t give her full time employment.  And I won’t lie – it is amazing to come home from work to a clean house, your laundry folded on your bed, and a healthy tasty meal waiting for you in the fridge.

Me and my housemate cooked on Sunday night, and I complained that I felt in the dark both metaphorically and literally.  Metaphorically, because even though I was only making dahl (boiled lentils with spices) and rice with veggies, we had a cupboard full of unidentified spices and I have not yet mastered the art of using spices in the true Indian manner (i.e. not just plunking a spoonful of curry paste in the pot).  Literally, because the light in the kitchen had burned out!

Anyway, tonight I felt much more confident, and tried out a simple and tasty recipe found on an Indian cooking blog (http://www.quickindiancooking.com/2011/09/29/on-the-move/#more-926).  I have found quite a few of these, and will share any good recipes I find. I am determined to master a few great recipes in the next few weeks, since I love this food and it is hearty and healthy.

I also realized tonight just how important the ritual of cooking can be to just embracing and enjoying where you are.  I’m looking forward to hitting a few markets to track down some more spices and ingredients – this was always the part I envisioned when I imagined myself living abroad. Not that I ever thought I would end up in India! Life is certainly full of surprises.

I’ve attached some kitchen and food pics…

Changing Educational Paradigms

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms.html

as i just wrote on facebook…

this was being sent around a while back, and i looked it up since it touches on lots of salient issues for my current work project. interesting, because india is attempting to bring in a massive national standardized test, even as their guidelines for curriculum changes are pushing towards being increasingly “child-centred” and “constructivist”. hope i get to see some of that tension play out…

Settling in…

Two weeks since my arrival here in Delhi.  I’ve been enjoying many things here, especially the ultra-quiet life in my apartment. And the fact that, even though traffic is utterly insane, it’s not me behind the wheel!

Work is going well, though I am discovering just how difficult it is to be in the role of “consultant” and responsible for “capacity-building” and therefore not completely in control of a project.  I ended the first half-week here almost manic in my excitement of all the things I will do to steer the project in the right direction this year.  I still intend to aim for that, but in any setting it is important to sit back, listen and learn, before attempting to steer anything.

Regardless, I am still very happy to be involved in the project.  I spent a lot of time reading about education in India, the changes made in the last decade or so with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program, the caste system, and the attempts to integrate Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes into mainstream society (essentially through affirmative action, just as controversial here as in North America from what I can tell).

A lovely weekend as well… after doing some work on Saturday, me and my current housemate Dougal ventured out to our favourite market, the Dilli Haat. We’ve been informed by our coworkers that it is a tourist trap and overpriced, but we can’t seem to find the same quality and type of things in any other market. I picked up a great bracelet and a beautiful silk bedspread. We also got to see a Saudi Arabian band, part of Saudi Cultural week in Delhi, and some kind of anti-corruption theatre performance (in Hindi, but still entertaining for us).

On Sunday, we headed to the centre of town.  On the way there, we somehow found ourselves in the middle of a large group of people walking with luggage on their heads. One man managed to stop traffic by holding up a large flag. Not an easy feat in Delhi.

There is a booksale in this part of town every Sunday. Booksellers lay out books of every type imaginable, for very reasonable prices. I bought a favourite Tom Robbins in hardcover, an APA style manual to give as a gift to the office (the research officer I share an office with was quite excited), and a Carl Hiaason novel, all for about $10.  Halfway through, we sought refuge in an old imperial-style hotel with lots of air-conditioning, good snacks and coffee, and some funny eastern-european tourists that were taking pictures of everything – including the bathroom.  Not that I’ve never done that 😉