One of our main aims in India was to help out at a school we had vague ties to. The school had been variously described to us as an orphanage (and is indeed for children who have not had the best start in life, but also for others) and a hostel. We had assumed, before arrival, that it was a small school with 200 girls attending where we could help with teaching English. It actually turns out the 'school' is more of a community. Based on 5000 acres of land it is a charity run organisation with a large school, hostel for the children, various (large scale) cooking facilities, a water treatment plant, enough farm land to be self sufficient for 9 months of the year, a college/university, an old peoples home, a blind school, a general farm and more. Our initial figure of 200 girls is about right, however no-one thought to mention the other 2000 male students living here! Almost all staff live on-site and their are a good number of administrators and other personnel for things like building, farming, cooking, etc.
This post is going to differ a bit from my previous India ones in that I'm going to pick on various parts of our stay and talk about them. Two weeks here has left me with far too much to talk about!
Being guests we ate in a different kitchen to either the elderly/blind or the main school body and mostly ate by ourselves - sometimes being joined. We were served by the same kitchen as the elderly/blind school just in a different room and I don't think either of us have been so voraciously offered food in our lives. At first I felt a bit beseeched having to defend my platter from being filled every time I looked away but slowly learnt the game of covering my food while pushing the cook and his serving away. It's a hard life being a guest in Gujerat! Water had to be filtered to make it drinkable, for us at least, and most people drink far more butter milk than water anyway. I gave butter milk a go, it was not a great experience. Poppy was a little sick in her mouth when she tried it. She did not try it again. I gave curd a go which was like plain/greek yoghurt when mixed up. I had some sort of brown powder added to it (possibly cinnamon) that added a sweet edge. Unfortunately this was probably the source of my day of bad bowels (rusty water much?!). After expressing a like for potato, a few days in, the cook jumped at the opportunity and every meal time onward had some sort of potato (aloo in Hindi) in one of the dishes - yes, even breakfast.
It would be prudent to note at this point that every meal consists of 3+ dishes essentially, called a Gujerati Thali - it's like a set meal. Your main plate is a platter with edges and on it you have 2 or 3 bowls and a cup. All metal of course. You are served with a variety of dishes. We got a lot of lentil based dishes that I loved and generally there was theme to the meal. Dal (a kind of broth made from lentils) was served with almost every meal and I loved it at first but went off it after having it for two meals a day for a week. We discovered that chapatis and rotis are basically the same thing - having an english speaking chaperone was great as I asked about every dish we got served and learnt the rest of the dish names that I hadn't worked out. My favourite was by far the mash potato with chopped potato bits in it (me likey aloo) and butter. Fresh butter is the best thing. Ever. They make it daily (from what I could tell) and use unthinkable amounts of it in everything. I was in heaven. It's not salted and is almost like whipped cream. Pancakes would have gone very, very well with the butter. Nom nom nom.
Like everywhere else animals roamed freely at the school. The main difference is that the cows are farmed. Gujerat is both a dry and vegetarian state in honour of it being Ghandi's birth place. There are of course exceptions to this, mostly meat being available (chicken and mutton) primarily for tourists. So we were a little surprised to see cows being farmed when we arrived. It was later explained to use that while cows are a sacred animal they can be farmed for their produce. The cows at the school are the biggest healthiest cows I've ever seen (all adult cows were a match, if not bigger, than prime bulls I've seen in the UK...). On average they produce 70 litres of milk per day over two sittings (explains why dairy products feature so heavily in the diet there!) and the herd is roughly 200 strong. Any cow that can grow horns has got an epic set of people stabbers on their head and as with all the cows we'd seen - they go where they please. We had one cow in the field outside our room for a few days who would randomly wander through a flower bed to get there before stuffing his face from dawn til dusk.
A lot of equipment used to farm is mechanical but it blends seamlessly in with the Ox drawn carts and ploughs. Having never seen oxen before we first thought they were just humungous cows with even better horns (these look like your stereotypical devil/fully grown hellboy horns). Got a little schooling on that....get it schooling, at a school... #terriblejoke
Dogs randomly potter around the place but are some of the skinniest we'd seen. It turned out that residents were told not to feed the dogs in an attempt to keep them away but the elderly, doing as they pleased (some things never change), seemed to break this almost constantly - giving them a permanent pooch presence.
I am no teacher. This is clearly evident if you have ever met me. I am happy to wander off on random tangents of thought and end up with cotton mouth 5 minutes into any public speaking (there is never any water around). So I do not, by any means, presume to pass judgement on the teaching techniques of the school. However I found them quite interesting. Theory and textbooks rule. Everywhere I went textbooks are being used by staff and students alike and whenever I tried to lend my expertise (only at the college/university - software engineering doesn't have much application for 3-16 year olds) the question that constantly popped up is: What book should I consult about this? This is not my way of doing things. I am a very practical person - something my academic career can attest to and books are by no means my preferred method of learning. In my opinion they are for stories, which has probably never helped me with textbooks! So I found this culture of text books hard to understand. Of course I don't think it's wrong, just very alien! I certainly know of a number of people who would flourish in the environment.
We were fortunate to be driven up to Rajkot when it came time to leave. Which was no doubt for the best, it probably would have taken us the whole day if we'd tried to do it ourselves. We said goodbye to everyone, which was no quick thing and grabbed pictures of everything we could think of (still managed to forget the room of course) and headed off for the night in Rajkot before jetting over to Mumbai.
To anyone reading this from the Institute - thank you so very much for a wonderful two weeks. I hope the lab is still working!