Thursday, February 6, 2014

What the Number One Teacher Education Program in the State of Michigan Failed to Preare Me For; Or Why I Am a Teacher and Not a Zoologist

I blame the man in the yellow hat for giving me an inaccurate picture of monkeys. They are not mischievous in an innocently curious and laughable way. They are not snuggly. They are not named George.

Just before winter break, an injured monkey took up residence at Kitini School. Since the school was empty and peaceful for a month when it arrived, it seems to have decided to stick around. It’s kind of a milky brown, about the height of a small child when it sits on its haunches. It can be quite fast when it wants to, and it does a nice job distracting students and teachers alike for vast portions of the day. It’s male; which I know because today it sat outside my classroom window and played with itself. In this instance, I was actually happy that my students haven’t mastered questions in English just yet.

Did I mention that the monkey is terrifying? Because it is. It has nasty looking sharp teeth, makes scary noises when provoked, and definitely seems ferocious enough to send a kid (or an American volunteer) to the hospital if it wanted to.

But no one else seems concerned. Most of the students now spend their breaks taunting the monkey. They like to throw food at it and then see how close they can get before the monkey lunges at them. It is a horrible game, but I have yet to see an adult make the effort of approaching the herd of screaming children and encouraging them to leave the monkey alone. I frequently try to warn children by miming a scary monkey biting them. Apparently I’m not very convincing.

Today the monkey (and the mob of animal hating children) were between me and my classroom. It was unfortunate. I worked my way up to the front of the group and then made all the kids go back downstairs…which meant they backed up in the general direction of the stairs. With more enthusiasm I got some to leave at least temporarily. But when I turned around one poor little boy from grade one had been left alone on the opposite side of the monkey. Without the protection of the older kids, he was now realizing that being trapped in a 3 ½ foot wide hallway with a wild monkey between you and the stairs was not an ideal situation. Especially if you are six years old and the monkey probably weighs more than you.

Annoyed that I somehow seem to end up as the only adult around in these situations more than my share, but also sympathetic for the kid, I took on teacher role #1356: human shield between student and aggravated wild monkey.

Getting past the monkey to get to the kid was no problem because I just walked really close to the wall. But escorting him back to the other side meant I was suddenly a full child’s width into the middle of the walkway…a clear invasion of the monkey’s territory. Plus once said child was an inch past the monkey he was no longer interested in matching my calm – let’s not frighten the animal – walking speed and he bolted.

The combination of proximity, sudden motion, and loud footsteps startled the monkey. Obviously. And it basically lunged at me. The few students who remained within sight laughed because I’m pretty sure my entire leg visibly trembled and I may have made a small noise of terror. I don’t entirely remember because the whole time I was just thinking, “what are the nurses going to say if I go back to the clinic and ask for my THIRD post-exposure rabies series?”

All’s well that ends well and, for now, the monkey has yet to actually make contact with anyone at the school. But perhaps Hope College should consider some interdisciplinary courses for education majors like: Animals in the Classroom 101 or Introduction to the Schoolyard Dynamics of Primates and Immature Homo-sapiens.

Monday, February 3, 2014

January: A Series of Mildly Unfortunate Events

Here is what your federal tax dollars have funded over the past month:
1) The aforementioned trip with my American family to Pokhara and Chitwan. 2) A massage and facial at my favorite Nepali spa. 3) A two week sightseeing tour with my friend Sydney, another ETA, to Lumbini, Gorkha, Manakamana, and Bandipur. 4)Two group celebrations, a firecracker candle, and a really delicious slice of birthday cheesecake.

It was an eventful month with lots of delightful plans and unexpected...inconveniences.

This unassuming “town” is the birthplace of Buddha. It’s really just a small collection of ruins, a dozen monasteries, and a few basic hotels. But it was on my list of places to see before leaving Nepal so Sydney and I made the nine hour bus ride, loud Hindi music playing the whole way.

The best way to enjoy Lumbini is to rent a bicycle and spend the day riding along the canal to the various attractions including a large peepul tree, the actual site of the ruins, an eternal fire, a museum, and one of the World Peace Pagodas.

Foundation squares are all that remains of many buildings in Lumbini.

The World Peace Pagoda at Lumbini
The most uncomfortable way to see Lumbini is to rent a bicycle and spend the day riding in the POURING rain. It was wet. It was cold. The path was so muddy that at times the bicycle wheels just sunk into the ground and it was impossible to move without using your feet like paddles to inch forward. The wet conditions also mean I don’t have too many photos. But we did ask a hotel staffer to take our picture in the world’s most ridiculous lavender and buttercup yellow raincoats (the only ones in the whole town) before we left. Throughout the day, many other people stopped to pull out their mobile phones to snap a quick picture of the out-of-place tourists, in pastel rain jackets, riding rickety bicycles with plastic bag wrapped backpacks in the basket.
Make it work?

My favorite part of the day was when, approximately 2 minutes into our ride, the chain came off my bike. Or was it when, upon reaching our final destination, the clouds literally parted and the sun came out to mark the beginning of the perfect afternoon for riding bikes. Ke garne?
Not wanting to waste the sunshine, Sydney and I extended our bike ride past the hotels, around a local village, and out into wide fields of mustard. Under a cluster of trees we happened upon a collection of elephant statues. It was extraordinarily random and beautiful.
This hillside bazaar town is where six of the other ETAs are living and teaching. It was really fun to get to visit their families and schools. Each homestay has a distinct flavor; even the daal tasted different! Doing some classroom visits gave me an appreciation for some of the things I haven’t seen at my school (intoxicated parents entering school grounds, young students toddling dangerously near to ten foot drops in the landscape, a child having a seizure during class, etc.) And hearing the kids in Gorkha add an /i/ sound before words like school and shoulders was a comforting reminder that my students are pretty much on par with students in other government schools.

And the sunsets in Gorkha were worth watching.

The only really disgusting part of the trip was when, after four days and an increasingly offensive odor in our hotel room, we realized that the brown hole in the wall of our bathroom was actually a broken pipe leaking raw sewage from the toilets upstairs. In America, you alert the health department, sue the company, and collect a large settlement in exchange for not writing about this on tripadvisor. In Nepal, you ask for a different room and remind yourself to ALWAYS wear shower shoes.
Perhaps the most surprisingly worthwhile part of the trip was taking the cable car up to Manakamana. This foreign sponsored project eliminated the need for a four hour, uphill hike to reach this famous temple and pilgrimage site. (After seeing how roads are maintained in much of Nepal, I will admit that as I boarded the little white car that would carry me dangling over the hills, I hoped that the foreign investors were still involved in keeping this form of transportation running safely.)

Sydney and I estimated that the line to enter the temple was about one mile long. We didn’t go inside, but I did spot one of my co-teachers among the thousands waiting! Even with the partly cloudy conditions, we enjoyed the view over a cup of hot tea.

The day trip was punctuated by several incidences of public nudity while waiting in line to go down the cable car. Two from small children whose parents decided letting them pee in the gutter was more convenient than walking to the public bathrooms, twenty feet away. A third from an adolescent boy who was jumping around a nearby grassy area with his pants at his ankles. Neither his friends nor the security guards seemed bothered by this behavior.

Our last stop before returning to the noise and pollution of Kathmandu was the peaceful hilltop community of Bandipur. To round out our trip of misfortunes, we visited a silk worm farm with nothing to see because it was the off season, and walked before dawn to a high plateau where the sunrise was perfectly blocked by another hill. But thanks to a long, luxurious hot shower the night before we boarded the bus feeling rather content.

And then… we got into a heated quarrel with some Chinese tourists about seat numbers, folded under their frighteningly loud voices, and spent five hours feeling jostled, nauseous, and unreclined in the very last row of seats.


There have been many occasions during the past six months when I have called upon my mantra “if you are not having a good day, you are in the middle of a great story.” But even the annoying, inconvenient, and confusing times haven’t been unbearable thanks to great friends and family both here and back home. All of whom made my 23rd a very happy birthday.