All posts in India 2011 Peace Exchange
It isn’t really work, exactly. There is work involved, but all of that so-called work: planning, preparations, fundraising, travel, organizing, budgeting, etc etc, all comes with such high reward when at the end of a 2hr workshop with 175 students, you are left with a feeling of such joy and contentment that none of all that effort is really so significant. Today’s Peace Exchange workshop at the Ladakh Public School was really quite special. Ladakh Public school is situated on the main road in Leh and is perched on a nice plot of land with pristine views to all sides. Mountain-scapes fill the eyes from almost every spot in the school yard and the peaceful and pristine atmosphere of this Leh town is reflected perfectly in the students of this “private” school. To quote the Founder and School Director “In India ‘public’ means ‘private’ not like in your country.” We arrived at the school around 1040am and we’re escorted to the meditation hall to ensure the arrangement of the tables and chairs were to our liking. Two rows of tables on either end of the room left ample floor space for the remainder to sit on the astro-turf floor cover where they were all too familiar with sitting. Students filled in single file as we organized and separated art supplies. Older kids entered first and quickly took to the chairs and tables. The remainder of the class 8, 9, and 10’s filtered into the space on the floor. Without an introduction we were off. There was a steady and continuous murmur throughout the workshop. I took it as a sign of interest, understanding, and curiosity. I had no trouble gaining their attention to explain the project. The concept is simple and this group of highly intelligent and adept young people got it with ease. A few of them shared some thoughts on peace, but once they got started on the peace cards, the wisdom and messages of peace that were shared are some of the most beautiful and moving to date. In a school where is seems not a visual art class exists, the art work created by this group of students was phenomenal.
We’ve all heard the importance of being present; being in the moment, aware of your self and your surroundings, present and attentive to this now, this place, without thought of the past, nor need to predict the future. But no matter how many times we here this simple philosophy, the practice takes focus, discipline, and attention to execute. Have you ever thought on: why is it so important to simply BE, (not do, all the time)? I’ll leave that question for you to consider. Consider: Simply being here. Being present is not an easy thing to do. The practice takes mind power: an inner strength and discipline. In other words, mind control: a.k.a. mindfulness. A quality taught by the Buddha and sought by millions of practitioners around the world, every day. Questions are: Who taught us this hurry up life style? Who told us that we needed to participate in this race for wealth and fame? How did we end up in this place where the pace of life is not conducive to the health of our heart, body, mind? This is the paradox of our times. Who introduced this w ay of life in which you’re not allow to feel ok if you slow down to simply relax into the moment and simply do nothing? But can you simply: Be with that. Doing nothing. Seriously, how often do you give yourself permission to simply “do no thing?” Breathe into it. Right now. Breathe into this moment. Engage the eyes. Open the ears. Feel into yourself and your surroundings. Look and listen and be attentive to this present moment. Experience your self here. Now. Right now. How does that feel? And so I do. Sitting here in Leh. Feeling that deep so-called Western mindset of ‘I should be doing something. What am I going to do, accomplish, achieve today.’ It’s quite an intimidating voice that I, and if I may speak for you, WE, often face. This morning, while sitting at the breakfast table, looking out across the Himalayan range stretching before my eyes, I am reminded of this beautiful practice. Sipping tea, I am going to simply be. Here. Now. In this magical moment and give thanks for the opportunity to share this with you. Majestic snow covered range in the distance. Crystal clear blue skies expand eyes as the glorious sun warms my body. Dry and dusty fields awaiting a spring planting in the foreground. Paths lined with rocks weave in and around. As a few souls walk beneath barren poplar trees on their way to and from home. I am being with the rocks, the mountains, the ever-changing stationary now sounds of the permanent fixtures of this place. Too often the moment escapes us. In some way, the moment is even escaping me as I write this. I am here, typing, thinking about the words I shall use to convey this present moment experience to you: some unknown recipient of my musings, somewhere off in the future…that I know. But being present to this fact, brings me back and I smile knowing these words are just about finished and I can save this file and return to my tea, the view, the glorious sun shining down, and simply breathe into this moment, knowing there is nothing I must do on this beautiful Sunday in Leh except BE, with me. (control S = Save)
There were many ideas on the table for the last week of March. We had invitations to Tami Nadu in the south where we were considering visiting schools in Chennai and Auroville. Connections were warm, but confirmations were posing a challenge. I also knew it was going to be hotter than hot. An recent email from an organization in Nepal, prompted new curiosity, as the program coordination was requesting our presence in Kathmandu. And with influence of friends and family on Facebook, I was weighing the possibility of heading north to Leh, in Ladakh. I had heard many great things about this high altitude desert, and so a decision was made, let’s go! The weather looked to be warm enough during the days to make something happen. I began investigating schools and NGO’s based there. Many emails were sent and requests made from Delhi, to no avail. And so Heather and I would head out for an 8 day adventure with no confirmations and simply attempt to manifest our way into a few schools. I was prepared to work with 1,000 students during the 8 days we planned, and packed the necessary supplies and peace cards to do so. The flight in was spectacular. Flying out of the low land smog surrounding Delhi, you fly across the foothills of the Himalaya before a sudden shift to towering peaks and snow-covered range encapsulates all sides. The mountains and snow left me feeling a bit intimidated and thoughts of “where the hell are we going?” began to fill my mind. For as far as the eye can see was white snow covered range…..there had to be a reason there was a plane full of people flying to Leh. An hour flight culminated at a clearing in the mountains and there we saw Leh; a dry and arid desert situated between the peaks of the Himalaya at 11,500ft. My eyes widened and the excitement grew at the plane took a wide u-turn in that gap of the range and made its way onto the ground in Ladakh. Advice from multiple people indicated that a day of rest was required of travelers arriving at this high-altitude landscape. We followed the advice. Friday I awoke ready to roll. My goal was to visit several schools and schedule the following week with workshops. I did a small meditation prayer in the morning asking for grace and ease, permission and simplicity in manifesting what I was seeking. And so out we walked. Having met a young girl and her mother on the plane, we headed towards Ladakh Public School. The school was beautiful: a large open yard where groups of students were preparing a dance routine for an up-coming school-wide contest. We were escorted to the principals office where we met the founder and director of the school. Noney Wangchuk, a kind and gentle man, with a sweetness and softness of expression I have rarely seen. He greeted us with warmth and receptivity. Within about 5 minutes of explaining the project to him, grabbed the calendar and asked when we wanted to come. We confirmed two workshops in about 10 minutes for the following Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. We would work with the 8,9, and 10 classes on Tuesday and the 5, 7, and 7th Classes on Wednesday. He walked us to the meditation hall and kindly inquired if the space was suitable and how we would like to have the 10-15 tables arranged. Everything was happening so smoothly and we thanked him for his willingness to welcome us to his school and were on our way. After a brief stop back at the guest house, Heather decided to take rest as the altitude was catching up with her. I was on a mission and had no capacity to stop. I got some directions to the largest school in Leh, Lamdon Senior Secondary School. Lamdon was situated much further up the road on the mountain side and the students had written LAMDON in large letters on the mountain side, large enough to see from miles away and easily seen from the sky. I knew this was a big school and was curious to see what I could create there. When I arrived the Principal was not in. After a brief wait, he arrived and even though he was in a bit of a hurry, he took time to sit with me for five minutes and hear what I had to offer. Again, I was greeted with receptivity and willingness to host us. I feel so blessed by this capacity to quickly convey what I am up to and gain immediate approval from a school’s principal. We confirmed two workshops for Thursday and off I went. Ershay was apologetic for not offering me tea and taking more time, but that was fine, mission accomplished, and off I went, 2 for 2, with an approximate of 800 students and four workshops confirmed. Back down into town I stopped at two other schools where the principals were not in and I was asked to come back tomorrow and try again. Feeling grand, like I had accomplished something significant, having only been in Leh 30 hrs, confirming two schools and four Peace Exchange workshops, I headed back to the Nobel Guest House where we were staying for some tea. Here is a link to photos from our Thursday workshop on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/fbx/?set=a.10150176152388485.313958.641273484
On the following day, Thursday, Heather and I packed it up and boarded a car. We grabbed Rama, our filmmaker pal and, to our surprise, her brother, who would take us to their father’s village, to lead a workshop at Rama’s childhood school, on our way to Jodhpur. About an hour out of Udaipur town, we turned off the highway road onto a side road towards Rama’s village. Stone walls lined either side of the road. If felt as if you were driving down a long driveway to an estate, or some resort….albeit in the desert. Beautiful rolling landscape stretched out to either side. Soon small market centers began to appear and we rounded a corner to a huge camel and it’s master chilling on the road’s side. Over the hill, the valley revealed itself with a wide river and expanse of green field. This was a most beautiful detour and one I am very pleased we were being escorted into. We arrived into town, stopping first at the school to confirm our plans. The students were sparsely lingering about, the school appeared desolate on a Thursday afternoon. The head teacher met us on the street, lots of children and young men gathered around the car. There is always a moment of nervousness when lots of eyes and bodies gather quickly and closely to see “who the ‘tall white people’ are?” and “what are they doing here?” The head teacher attempted to decline what seemed like a previously agreed upon arrangement. Maybe he wasn’t in fact the principal, and was attempting to make a decision, but whatever the circumstances, Rama wasn’t taking anything but a firm YES, seeing as she had brought us here and wasn’t going to be denied another opportunity to show off her new friends, share this project with these kids, and film another workshop…all of which added up to an eventual agreement by this elder Male in charge. I smiled when she got the ‘yes’, and then told us to get in the car, that we were going to visit her father and would come back in an hour or so to do the workshop. Awesome. Our detour for tea included parking the car, hesitantly leaving all our belongings with a driver we could exactly communicate with, walking down valley, across river, back the other side to where Rama’s father was building his humble abode on the opposite side of the river. We got the tour, saw the oxen powered water wheel drawing water from the river, up onto the plateau into the irrigation canal where it fed the wheat and other fields. We had tea and ate Rama’s home prepared chapatti and subgee: Indian vegetable dish. After a nice pause and a bit of show and tell, meeting the numerous workers working on Rama’s fathers house, including building the U-Turn walk way from the flat up and around the rock encrusted hillside where the house was situated, we headed back to the school. This time, we did as the locals do and rolled up our pant legs and carried our shoes as we walked through the river, rather than atop the rocks. As we drove the 3 minutes back to the school, we rustled up man students on the streets, as Rama excitedly encouraged them to return to their school for something exciting. Boys ran hard next to the car as we moved up hill. We were hearding our participants and it worked, about 125 kids showed up to a school where I would guess there were only three teachers present, if any teaching anything on that day.
The driver said the road was impassable. He said he could not drive any further. So, on the second day of our two-a-day school visits, we found ourselves at a place where we were going to have to walk to get to our next workshop. And so, with a bit of reluctance, considering we didn’t exactly know how far we had to go, Shailendra said about a mile, and we were hoping to get home before dark, we got out of the car, assembled our gear; my two bags, Heather’s camera gear, Rama and her things, and started trudging up the hot and dry dirt road towards…..only god knows where. It seemed that that road ended fairly quickly over that first hill. We were on a small crest, with fields and farms before us. The school was in sight, on a hill top in the distance and so on we walked beneath that hot Rajastani sun. With Ravi and Shailendra leading, each holding a strap of the heavy red art supply bag, we followed along on a dirt path into the farm lands before us. We walked near homes and across plow sites, asked directions from the locals, and smiled at the curious stares. Strolling along narrow pathways between wheat fields and out into the open where orange colored flowers sparsely covered spindly trees across hillsides into the distance. Mountain ranges expanding to all sides, you could barely differentiate property lines as small homes and farms seemed to blend into each other for as far as the eye could see. We arrived at a shady spot atop a hill where we stopped to rest. Heather pulled out the Indian take-out from last night and we shared a bit of food to give us some strength and nourishment for the rest of our hike and up-coming Peace Exchange session. After about 40 mintues of walking, we arrived at the school. A warm welcome and without much time to think, we were into our next workshop. This time about 125 students, ages 10 – 16 gathered on the shady platform in front of three classrooms facing East. A warm welcome from smiling eyes and faces of intrigue, this was a happy group, a forward and confident, playful group. A deep group, with powerful and focused meditation. I felt a deep feeling of peace with this group and very much enjoyed their company for the 2hrs we were together. They created beautiful postcards. They shared loving messages and they were polite and super easy to work with. This group was one of my favorites of the 5 schools we worked with in Udaipur. Watching these students explore themselves with art supplies they had probably never handled was fun. Seeing what they created as an expression of peace, even more moving. When we finished, they were polite and calm, warm and friendly and I very much enjoyed giving these students their cards from kids in the US as part of this day’s Peace Exchange.
Boys and Girls are often, and almost always, separated from each other. In nearly every workshop, boys are positioned on one side of the room and girls on the other. This has taken many forms and leaves me wanting to stand the kids up and mix the group, which I have done on a couple occasions. It’s almost certainly safe to say that after students reach age 8 they are divided by sex and positioned on opposite sides of the classroom. The final phenomenon with Indian government schools is ATTENDANCE. Attendance is the single most impact-ful issue facing the Indian masses incultivating advanced education. 1) Students seem to have zero requirement to attend school. This seems sensible since B) the teachers have an even worse attendance record than the students. So, in a country of a billion plus, with hundreds of thousands of schools, it’s understandable that there would be no structured way of keeping kids in school, and even so, in places where students do attend, who’s to say whether a teacher will show up on a given day, or week. I have witnessed all too many classrooms where there is no teacher and the students sitting quietly, somberly, by themselves on the cold stone floor – doing nothing. This is one sad issue and a problem that my lovely and passionate partner has been working for years to solve: how to get the teachers to the school, to teach the kids, and thus inspire the kids to attend and thus learn: a problem as endless as you can imagine in a country as massive as India. And so it saddens me every time to arrive at a school and walk into classrooms to witness 20 plus youngsters seated on the floor, huddled together without guidance or instruction, seemingly staring at the wall, without an adult or teacher to inspire them It’s not exactly prison, but it isn’t much of a school system either.
I love doing this work. I love meeting young people. I love seeing their beautiful hearts, wide curious eyes, and amazing spirits. I love sharing this project with them and observing and listening to their wisdom, watching them explore their creativity, and share in a moment of peace. The second day drive felt much less strenuous than the first: familiar landmarks, known bumpy roads, and a school slightly closer than the previous day. We were again five and we seemed to arrive in quick time at the first school. When we arrived, the majority of the school was seated in neat and organized rows singing their morning prayers. This was a beautiful sight and a wonderful welcome to this third Udaipur school. As I stood and watched, fleeting eyes and curious gazes from the group in our direction brought smiles. Thought of “I should be filming this” was quickly clipped as the sound of “om shanti shanti shanti” touched my heart and completed their prayer. As quickly as the group finished, they jumped from their seats and dispersed back to their classroom in a flurry. This gave us some time to get situated upon the same spot where the morning prayer was held. One of the highlights of this workshop for me was one particular girl who’s eyes were old and wise, familiar and so curious. She and I were equally intrigued by each other throughout the day and caught each other in silent communication numerous times throughout the workshop. Although she would never come close enough to make physical contact, her curiosity was deep and her joy was felt in our repeated playful exchange. After working in three schools I am present to many a phenomenon, perhaps similar across the continent. The first is the behavior of young girls. Girls in India are not supposed to be forward in any way. They are taught to be reserved, submissive and shy. There is deep curiosity and playful energy, but so very contained. This makes interaction, especially with a tall western man (even in the space of a peace project and a community building activity) nearly unthinkable. I was very pleased to find a small and subtle break-through in this phenomenon with the girls at this school (albeit, aside fromlittle miss curious eyes)
After completing the first school, we drove for another half hour, down into the valley across farmlands and deeper into the middle of nowhere to another school. Arriving a bit early, as the students were still finishing their lunch, we had a moment to relax. With many of the boys already gathered in the yard, a large open dirt space, I decided to pull out my frisbe and see how they responded. We made a large circle and had fun throwing the round plastic disk to and fro. This was a nice warm up to connect with the students and I think it may have led to a deepening of trust and familiarity for the upcoming workshop. After throwing for about 10 minutes, we wrapped it up and moved onto the school patio to decide where we wanted to position the students. This school was build in a “L” shape and proved a bit more difficult to position them all on one side, and so we grouped them in two bunches and I stood in the middle to lead. This group was warm and attentive, active and alive. Something prompted me to have the students stand up at some point, prior to art making, to stretch and lift the energy from the stone floor. We held hands and created a tight group moment of unity before taking our seats for a moment of meditation. It is apparent that students in these schools are being taught meditation and prayer, as they quickly took posture and held mudra (hand position) in a uniformed and organized way. A truly heart warming and beautiful sight to see every time I witness a group of young people poised in a posture of meditation and peace. After a beautiful meditation, culminated with a sweet simple ‘om’ we separated the large group into smaller groups for peace card making. It seems that Blue Shirts, blouses, over brown pants and skirts is the theme for Indian Government schools. Stay tuned for some added variety in the weeks to come. Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.
After a sweet warm up and ‘let’s get comfortable’ workshop with 25 local kids in Udaipur, we arose at the crack of dawn, packed into a small four seater: me, heather, Rama our film maker friend, and Shailendra, our Pratham lead, and headed out 50 km to a town called Jhadrol. I like to call it “JAH ROLL” in my head as we moved rocking and rolling into the rural extreme outside Udaipur. Driving through a vast and expansive Rajastani outback, villages interspersed between large patches of barrenness where sparse tree cover amidst brown and lots of rocks made up the rolling hillsides. Two hours plus later we arrived in Jhadrol where to our surprise, Ravi, another Pratham coordinator got in the car. Thankfully Indians know how to ride in groups, and he joined Shailendra in the front seat. The two of them quickly explained how folks from the village commute every day those 50km into Udaipur packed like sardines….and sure enough a four door jeep rolls by with a minimum of 25 people inside and another 3 or 4 on the roof. Typical buses are standing room only with rooftops covered and people hanging on the back. They have to pay to. Ain’t no free ride in Rajasthan. Another hour later, way out in the middle of nowhere we arrived at our first school. I was a little nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, how many kids we were working with, how the translation was going to go, and the mind naturally moves into making sense of this new location. We were warmly received and the school was clearly prepared for our arrival, a quality I was soon to discover common with these Pratham connected schools. In most government schools, which these were, the classrooms were typically laid out in long rectangular blocks, with a large open stone/cement patio-deck connecting them; a perfect space for large groups of kids to gather. Shailendra and I had about a 3 minute pow-wow on how I thought things would go, in preparation for him to translate and explain the project to these kids I was instructed to set up near the far end and as I moved my bags of arts supplies and postcards towards the table and chairs there, the students quietly and calmly positioned themselves on the floor before me. As I pulled supplies and materials from my bag, I looked up to see more than 150 students ages 10 – 15 seated before me. The wise elder, slightly orange dyed long-haired, Class 8 teacher welcomed me and quickly addressed the students to be on their best behavior and pay attention (my interpretation) He was a huge boost to this workshops as he was all smiles of encouragement and support to the students The morning was a smooth one. Shailendra took over and pretty much explained the project and jumped right in. I was a little caught off-guard with the language barrier and I wasn’t going to slow him down. We rolled with his lead, as I inserted my instruction and guidance at the appropriate moments. We were a good team and the kids got it. There was a strong feeling of warmth and excitement with this first school and I remember feeling like I wanted to stay, when I knew it was necessary for us to leave for our next school that afternoon. here is a link to more photos on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/album.php?fbid=10150139880178485&id=641273484&aid=301691
After a week in Delhi getting re-oriented to life in India (I lived here for a year in 2001/02), organizing initial plans, printing postcards, and meeting folks from Pratham; our key partner in accessing Indian schools, we flew to Udaipur on a 6am flight Saturday March 5th. It was, Heather Wakefield, my partner for this trip: the nor-cal country girl photographer extraordinaire, Lynn Murphy, my sweet heart who had arrived into Delhi approx 3am from Nairobi Kenya, and me, Ross, aka Joe Peace….carrying luggage for four, on our way out to do workshops in Rajasthan; our first destination on this 10 week art for peace tour of India. Arriving in Udaipur was easy and smooth. We settled into a nice guesthouse on the lake and found our footing in this new location. Our plans for Rajasthan included stops in Udaipur and Jodhpur, two prominent cities in the desert west of Delhi, where we would begin our partnership with Pratham (www.pratham.org) one of the largest education organizations in the world. Pratham staff, seemingly dispersed across the country, would kindly make introductions and escort us to schools for our Peace Exchange workshops. On Monday morning we met with the Udaipur regional coordinator Shailendra to discuss plans. Everything was happening seamlessly and effortlessly. We made arrangement to visit 2 schools per day on Tuesday and Wednesday. I hadn’t led two workshops in two schools before, but when you’re in India and there are children by the hundred millions, you stretch a little in order to touch as many hearts as you can. I was feeling very excited to be getting workshops started on the good foot. Over the weekend, thanks to Lynn’s previous connection, we had the privilege of meeting Manish Jain and the Shikshantar alternative education community he had started. There were so many inspiring young people doing wonderful things to promote community living, alternative education, and sustainable living. One guy, whose name I forget, was developing technology to create and then store energy generated from bicycles. He was developing mechanisms to charge batteries and run water pumps in homes. Another group, I dub the “thinking outside the box” crew, was working on collegiate level studies in an effort to create and perform actions that promoted community improvement, lifestyle simplification through real world experiments and actions in their local environment. I also met two young film makers who gleefully stepped up to join CPP on our tour of schools. One of the resident team leaders, an artist and arts teacher, offered to help set up our first session with a group of local kids he taught art too as a starter Peace Exchange workshop for us. And we were off. here is a link to the facebook album of images from that first workshop: https://www.facebook.com/album.php?fbid=10150139385723485&id=641273484&aid=301484