Thursday, December 8, 2005

Term is ending

Hi all,

It's been a while; I never seem to get around to writing no matter how often I remind myself I should. Tonight, however, I have a term paper to procrastinate and therefore the perfect excuse!

I would definitely say that life is accelerating in all its facets: I seem to be spending more time on everything and less time on nothing... classes, research, friends, my radio show... and there is this crunch-time vibe rippling through campus as each of us realize that we'll be home for break in two weeks--and all the work we have to do before then :)

Some exciting tidbits to share....

Apparently the guys downstairs have a deal with some people who dispose of dry ice because it keeps showing up in various creative and sometime explosive experiments around here. The coolest part is that the young woman in the foreground of the picture, Jen (a junior on my floor), as she was playing with the vapor pouring out over the sides of the container, commented: "fluid mechanics are so cool. I used to understand them better: It's all about the Navier-Stokes equations that completely describe the motion--they just aren't solvable." It's mind-boggling to think about all the things people here know that I will never, ever know or understand.

I found out that I got into the 4 week class to become certified as an EMT - emergency medical technician - the first responders that arrive in an ambulance. That's what I'll be doing this january, and after that I'll be able to volunteer at the student-run MIT ambulance. It's going to be intense, but I'm really excited at this chance to learn how to give real patient care, and see whether medicine is the life for me.

I'm getting more involved with our radio show "Spherio: The Local Voice of Our Hemisphere" and actually co-hosted one of our recent shows on AIDS. It was not a little bit nerve racking, but awesome at the same time.

Perhaps the biggest life development is that I have mastered the art of procrastination. Up until college I did pretty well with the idea of putting aside schoolwork in favor of anything that was really worthwhile... the problem is that, here, in any given evening there are probably at least three things that meet that definition. There are so many events I'd rather go to, people I'd rather talk to, and ideas I'd rather explore than sit down and do my homework :) But such is life, and it is the best kind of problem to have.

That's all the news I can think of around here -- I try to pull out highlights but really, everything runs together into a mishmosh and what once seemed extraordinary becomes a mundane routine. I do my best to keep it fresh, and for the most part it seems to be working!

Hope you all are enjoying the beginning of winter. I'd love to hear what is going on with you, so please write if you get the urge.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

sailboats and problem sets

Hey everyone,

An update on life at MIT: term has started, ushering with it a new
set of lingo.... "tooling" is doing school work "problem sets" are
the only kind of homework we get here-they consist of some amount of
challenging problems and take a few hours to complete. Even my
sailing class called our assignment to learn to tie a few knots a
"problem set". "Punting" is when you blow off your work to do
something fun... like my newfound diversion of watching episodes of
Firefly on DVD :) There isn't much in the way of free time around
here, and I've got an interview tomorrow for a research position that
I hope will be my paying job for this semester.

I continue to really like my door, my room, my roommate, etc. I also
like the way things just seem to *work* around here. It's the little
things, like having a swimsuit dryer in the locker room at the pool
so you don't have to carry around a wet suit all day, that make all
the difference. MIT seems to have thought of (and paid for)
everything and more. I just started my sailing class (it is my gym
class for this term) and I'm so excited to learn to sail on the
Charles River. It is so beautiful. Boston is great, but the tall
buildings and complete concrete coverage makes me miss the open
greenspace back home - cows, cornfeilds, rolling farmland - it's all
so beautiful and freeing.

The hardest thing for me to get used to is the overwhelming political
apathy around campus. I'm used to life in Madison, and especially
with my circles of friends, where people talk about politics, social
problems, world events, questions, and solutions all the time. I
never realized how much until I got here and the silence is stifling.
There is a sense that "We're at MIT. The real world doesn't apply
here. It doesn't affect me." A lot of people wished they were more
involved, but are convinced they are too busy. This saddens me most
of all because these are the people who have an incredible capacity
to make the future of the world, and yet there seems to be little
concern about what the best way to go about it is. There are some
very wonderful, inspiring exceptions to all this (Noam Chomsky is a
professor here, for example) and some awesome student groups that do
great work. I'm working on finding my place amongst them all and
surrounding myself with people who will continue to reinforce and
challenge my beliefs about the world and the future.

Yikes that was a bit of a tirade. Sorry about that :) Life is good,
the weather's gorgeous, and there is a very pleasant chocolate smell
wafting in my window...

To all you ysp-ers on this list---I've got my wallpaper on my
computer set to cycle through the Henry IV pictures, so I think of
you all the time :) . I hear Othello has 60+ kids in it! That is
amazing. Othello is one of my favorite plays, I'm so excited for
everyone who is in it.

Love to you all,

P.S. I'd love to hear from you all about what you are up to or a
simple tale from good old life in Madison.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

greetings from MIT

Some of you are friends and family that I talk to regularly and others of you I haven't seen in a long time. Just wanted to send out a quick hello from the fair city of Cambridge Massachusetts and the MIT campus.

MIT is truly like no other place on earth. The first 48 hours or so were rather overwhelming and intimidating, but I'm past that now, making friends, and finding my way to fit into this world of endless opportunity and possibility. I was assigned to a dorm called "East Campus" temporarily for the first few days of registration, which was a great place - classic dorm style halls except that they allowed mural painting on the walls, and literally everywhere was painted - halls, rooms, and bathrooms. The bathroom nearest my room was painted black with lots of fluorescent colored paint and lit entirely by black lights. The dorm was known for it's crazy constructions... some guys on one of the floors last year built a computer controlled disco floor with over 500 squares with LED lights for nearly infinite possibility for color combinations which they then programmed to do all kinds of gorgeous moving color patterns. And they did it in about a week.

East Campus was a great place, but almost on a whim I decided to ask for a different dorm called "Random Hall" in the readjustment lottery, so here I am, in a gorgeous double coming straight off a spacious kitchen in the only dorm (at MIT and likely in the world) where you can check whether or not the bathrooms, washers, and dryers are in use or not via the internet in your room. A wonderful result of MIT's policy of enabling you to live exactly where you want to live is that there really is a unique culture and personality to each of the dorms--mine is a little towards the geeky side of the MIT spectrum (who else would decide to wire bathroom doors to the internet in their free time??), but extremely friendly, close, and does a lot of cooking.

I am amassing quite a collection of "only at MIT" sights/experiences: eating ice-cream that upperclassmen had just frozen using jets of liquid nitrogen, wandering through the 'activities fair' and seeing someone's random electrical project featuring a mess circuits and forks allowing a row of dill pickles to sizzle and sparkle on and off (it was counting to 256 in binary numbers), hearing a girl in my seminar tell about the business she started in Nigeria, and the ubiquitous number jargon that peppers daily converstion: it's not "I'm not a biology major, " but "I'm course 7", not "I'm taking multivariable calculus," but, "i'm taking 18.02," not "Meet you at the main lecture hall in Green Building," but "Meet you at 54-100."

In the past few days I have been increasingly impressed by not just the brains and quirkiness of MIT students, but how engaged and interested they are about more serious issues. I've had some great discussions about religion, race, prejudice, politics, globalization and all sorts of other topics. There are a great many international students here with fascinating perspectives on their own culture and life in America.

The plan for the fall right now is to take chemistry, genetics, physics, and a class on race/gender, plus my advising seminar "AIDS in the 21st" century. Classes start this coming wednesday, and I am very excited. I'm intending to major in biology.

Saturday, May 7, 2005

Back from the land where everyone is named Lepcha

Hello all,

We're back in Darjeeling, the original city where we did our homestays and had our first real chance to adapt to life in this part of the world. Being back here is surreal--a slam in the face to confirm how rapidly this journey will come to a close. As much as I have thrived on each new day and the experiences each brought with it, I am also feeling content to return to the language, food, bed, and family I've grown up with. I'm eager to apply some of the attitudes and ideas I've learned here to life back in the states.

Our rural home stays these past few days were absolutely amazing... We backpacked about 45 minutes down to the village with all our gear, then dispersed to families all over the small village of Pekang, in West Bengal, India. My family lived about a 20 minute walk uphill from the main house we used as a group center during our five days there. I've always been directionally challenged, and it really came into play out as I tried to find my way to and from the main house, my home, friends' houses, the elementary school, etcetera on the paths—a winding web of narrow dirt trails worn by years of feet trodding up, down, and around. Though my poor directional sense guaranteed that I'd get lost at least once on any journey, this led me into a lot more encounters with random villagers who would give a fond smile and point me in the right direction.

Pekang is situated in the last dribbling foothills of the Himalayas, which translates to my experience as "extremely steep hillside". It is very much an Agrarian community, with simple dwellings claiming anywhere that it is reasonably flat and terraces occupying the rest of the land. The vast majority of people here are of Lepcha ethnicity, so literally everone's last name is Lepcha, making role-call at the elementary school rather amusing.

My family was absolutely wonderful - so warm and loving and so eager to share with me their way of live. My ama, at 27 years-old, has one 10 year-old son Yuel and an extremely hardworking husband. Our abode consisted of: a 3-room house, a separate cement/mud kichen room, a wooden outhouse-style toilet, an outside cement washing area with a tap, 2 oxen, 1 cow, 2 dogs, 2 hens, a beautiful garden with flowers, banana trees, and vegetables, plus a number of terraced feilds on which we grew rice, millet, and corn.

Though I wasn't there during the peak planting or harvesting season, I was still taken aback by the extent of daily labor in the village. It hit me hardest when I spent some time with another home stay family: watching the absolutely gorgeous the 30-year old mother dressed in worn clothing haul huge baskets of firewood, batter rice with a giant mortar-and-pestle to unsheathe the grains, and look after her children: three-year-old Lagan and five-year old Agan, I was struck by how cheerfully she carried her load but how strongly the exhaustion came through in her eyes.

Basic household tasks and maintenance require so much more work here than we are used to. Take cooking dinner as an example. Rice, the staple grain, is grown on terraces here and then stored in its husks. To un-husk it, you have to use a giant log-and-stump mortar-and-pestle for about 10 minutes, shake the husks off using a flat bamboo basket-tray, and then repeat the process again to completely remove the husks. The heat source for cooking is a gorgeous earthen stove with a space for a small fire beneath two holes with built-in props for pots—forming an earthen, wood burning, two-burner stove. Of course, the fuel must be hauled from the forest, split, and the fire tended as it burns… Now you have the raw materials, and finally the cooking process as we know it can begin.

That's the other thing I realized in my time in Pekang—as you move along the scale towards a more simple, agrarian life-style, conveniences may go by the wayside and daily living may become more labor-intensive, but the fundamentals remain the same. Cooking, cleaning, childcare, family, love, education, sleeping—all of the things that truly matter and really define human life remain remarkably the same. I got lost on the footpaths just as I lose my way on the streets of Madison; kids go to school and do their homework; parents work to provide the best they can for their children. In coming to a "rural village," the preconceptions we are taught are inescapable ingrained in our minds—we think village life is hard, the people are poor, and few opportunities exist to move out or up. Yet we also idealize the serenity of the village, expecting to fall in love with the romance and simplicity of country life. These two extremes are balanced by the reality we experienced: the work is hard, the air is clean and quiet, communities are tighter, and people do not have the same opportunities we do.

I was slightly sick for a few days of our stay—good old traveler's diarrhea come back again as my system struggled to adapt to new food. This made toilets an experience I treated with a lot of care—keeping an eye out of the scorpions, oversize spiders, moths, snakes, and leeches that have all been spotted in the area; trying not to think about exactly what might come out of me; and plotting what it'll require to wash everything down. When toilets consist of a wooden outhouse equipped with a stone hole leading down to a pipe—and, if you are lucky, a bucket of water to help wash things down—things sometimes get a little hairy. I definitely had some experiences I won't forget for a while. Long ago in an early e-mail I promised a toilet description, so there you go—I think you get the idea.

My last evening with my home stay family was an extremely wonderful, warm, memorable one. I was instructed in the finer points of momo-making (momos being small cabbage dumplings that are absolutely delicious and serve as the fast food for pretty much everywhere we've been on this trip). We had a blast as I learned to fold and crease the dough, my brother Yuel cheering me on as I finally caught on to the method of keeping them together. As we waited for them to steam over the fire, we talked about food in America and they were surprised to learn that corn, cabbage, spinach, potatoes, etc were all available in America too. From there, we somehow dissolved into body games; I pulled out the American classics: we curled our tongues, patted our heads while rubbing our tummies, tried to touch our noses with our tongues—and they taught me some new ones—we struggled to lift up the appointed finger with our hands all mixed up, failed to snap our wrists like my baba, and marveled at Yuel's double-jointed thumbs. My ama and baba, though the've been married for 11 years now, still have an amazing youthful exuberance about them and we entertained ourselves with giddy laughter for hours until the momo's were done to perfection and we all enjoyed the warm and tasty treat. We exchanged photographs and addresses (the photo of Yuel was 7 years out of date, but so sweet of them to give to me!), and I went to bed that night brimming with warmth and happiness.

Hurrah! The internet just started to work!! (This e-mail is so long because it took that long for my e-mail program to load, and now it's working fast as can be. Who can ever tell about the internet here).

This is probably my last e-mail before I'm back in America in person. It is unbelievable how fast this trip has gone, and equally unbelievable to look back and think about all the crazy, heartwarming, terrifying, and absurd things I have done and learned.

Love to you all,

Saturday, April 30, 2005

An anigompa sleepover and gulab jamun

Hello all, just a quick update of where I am and what I'm up to. I'm writing from Kalimpong, India, a medium-sized city and our springboard to begin our rural homestays for tomorrow -- we'll be staying with farming families for about 6 days, and they won't speak any English so we're in for a challenge. We've spent the last few days seeing a few sights and driving through Sikkim--staying in smallish towns, enjoying the lush greenery and avoiding the frequent rains of the monsoon season that appears to have begun a bit early this year.

Outside of Gangtok, us girls had the chance to spend the night at an anigompa or nunnery. We had quite the adventure, including a gang of yappy dogs, a 3:45 a.m. awakening for a 4:00 puja in which we determinedly held our eyes open while a dozen nuns chanted in Tibetan for 2 hours, a broken bench (that I had slept on the night before), which we nailed back together by using our nalgene bottles as hammers, and a bunch of really sweet, amazing nuns who guided us through it all.

I'd like to get out of the glare of this computer screen and back onto the streets, so I'll just share with you all the 'yak-yak' I wrote about the Indian sweet that has taken all of us (myself most definately included) by storm:

Known to the fans in our midst as 'brown balls', to exasperated group leaders as 'indian crack', and to our taste buds as the doughnuts of the himalaya, gulab jamun have become a fetish, addiction, and dare I say preoccupation of 90% of our group.

Picture a sweet ball of doughnut dough -- now deep-fry it, then soak it in sugar syrup until it is saturated and dripping, and keep it in a heated tray in your street shop until the consumer comes to eagerly devour them as the sugar drips from her hands and down her chins. Sometimes they melt in our mouths with warmth, other times we discover a hard, doughnutty interior, sometimes the sugar syrup drips all over the place, other times they develop a delicious crust from sitting in the tray too long -- any way they come they please the taste buds and warm the heart.

We have all developed eyes for the small sweet shops that stock our favorite spherical delicacies -- when we come into a new town in our jeeps we scout out the best places and frown in disappointment if no-one makes the beautiful delicacy that is gulab jamun. Other indian sweets -- julabi, bright orange pretzel-shaped deep fried corn syrup; sweet white patties in custard; fudge-like sugar cake -- they please some among us, but nothing can bring a delighted smile from the whole group like a bag of gulab jamun on a humid Sikkim afternoon.

Love you, and I'll be home to see you all before you know it!

Saturday, April 23, 2005

H.H., monks, and the blind - a message from Kathmandu

Hello everyone,

We're back in Kathmandu for a one-day layover, before tomorrow's day long journey by plane and jeep to Gangtok, India.

I just want to relate an experience in our last day in Lhasa when we went for a quick tour of a school for blind students. Only started 7 years ago, the school now has over 40 students and dozens of graduates who are now working and thriving on their own. The students stay at the school except for a 2-3 month winter vacation, and learn Chinese, Tibetan, and English, plus the corresponding braille for all three languages. The woman who showed us around was one of the first students, and she related how difficult it in her village because she was practically homebound because of her blindness, until she came to school and learned skills her sighted neighbors had never had the opportunity to learn. She now has started a massage clinic and has eight employees. The students get to decide what they want to do after they get the fundamentals down -- learn massage, go to school with sighted children, or go home and set up a small business, like two brothers who recently open a tea shop. Playing with these kids was absolutely amazing -- they have such confidence, poise, ability, and better english than anyone else we had met in Lhasa. One boy, about 10, sung us a practically un-accented version of that song 'you and me, me and you, so happy together'. We were all extremely touched of the beauty of the moment as he belted out the melody, his whitened eyes rolling and his entire heart poured into the endeavor. The sucess of these children and this school impressed upon us all what is possible if you just put your dreams into action -- one of the founders, a blind woman from Germany, discovered there was no Tibeatan braille, so she invented it; no blind school in Tibet, so she made one!

The day after tomorrow, in Gangtok, we may have a chance to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama speak. I would be thrilled if this possibility actually materializes, as I have been reading a few of his works and he is an incredibly inspiring man, both for his compassion and humor as a human being and for his iron-fast resolution to a peaceful path as a leader in exile. While we were in Tibet, his absence seemed to have a presence larger than anyone who was there in the flesh -- his picture is banned throughout, and his name is spoken only with caution. The throne (a simple raised platform on which one sits crosslegged, as all 'thrones' are in Buddhist tradition) he should be occupying in the Potala Palace in Lhasa is filled by an empty robe, delicately arranged into a triangle shape that gives just enough of a sense of a human form to make H.H.'s absence all the more of a presence. Carrying pictures of H.H. into Tibet is officially banned, and the Chinese customs officials are becoming even harsher about enforcing this. Nevertheless, Tibetans would occaisionally ask us for these pictures, which are impossible to find within Tibet. A few people in our group had accidently brought pictures in, and they described how those poeple they bestowed them upon would put them to their foreheads and simply cry.

Aside from the emotional allure of H.H., his books and interviews convey the depth of his wisdom and the thing that, for me, separates Buddhism from other faiths. The Dalai Lama holds to the idea that if science can disprove any of the beliefs of Buddhism, then they will revise that belief to accord with science; Sakyamuni Buddha himself told his deciples not to accept any of his teachings on faith, but rather to test them against their own experience. H.H. has much to say about everything from human compassion to global politics, and I would love to have the chance to meet him in person.

After a few days in Gangtok, we will be moving out into rural Sikkim to stay briefly (7 days or so) with host families and get to experience the reality of rural farm life. **A side note, a monk in his gold and maroon robes just sat down next to me at the internet cafe and is computing away.... such is the joy of this part of the world** Depending on how things go in Gangtok, it may be another week or two before I will e-mail again. By that time, I will be heading into the last week of the trip.

I cannot believe how fast time has gone, yet at the same time I also cannot believe all that I have seen and experienced, and what I have come to take as normal - monks walking down the street, disabled men and women begging on the street, disgusting trough-style toilets, living out of a backpack, crossing the road frogger-style because there are no traffic lights, and having to bargain down the price for everything from taxis to a pair of jeans. I have come to understand the reasoning and efficieny behind some of these things that at first seemed so foreign and counter-intuitive. Perhaps the deepest thing I have learned is something we've all, myself included, been taught on an intellectual level - as human beings we are all one and the same wherever you go and whatever you do - but I think I've finally internalized it, come to fully understand that we all have the same desire to find happiness. Even without a common language, culture, or background it is always possible to communicate this common humanity: with a smile, a laugh, or a touch of the hand.

Love to you all, Kendra