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Teaching at the Himalayan Culture School

My first day of teaching began when I got two conflicting schedules from the principal, who, if his office is any reflection, is rather disorganized. In addition to English, I am also teaching social studies and science.

The kids have been very welcoming and enthusiastic, but the books being used and the curriculum taught is way beyond their abilities, no matter what their age. There were times when I went over material they had supposedly already learned, and although they could parrot the words, it was obvious they didn’t understand a thing. Not a good situation. I hope to discuss this with Tashi and the principal. The curriculum is no doubt dictated by the J&K government, but so much of it seems like a waste of time.

Morning lineup

Morning prayers

For the past several days I have been trying to use their assigned books, and then going off from there, but the kids are used to simply repeating often difficult English words without any understanding. When I try to get them to talk with me, I often get a yes or no answer without any willingness to go further. I have tried to start a story and get them to continue it, but even with the older kids I am lucky to get a sentence or two. Also if one of them says something, the others then simply repeat it. I think much of this is pointless. I will have to use much simpler materials if I am to teach anything at all. As an example, I did an experiment with the standard books in which I read a 2nd grade story, one they had already read and been tested on, to the 5th-7th graders. Generally, with a few exceptions, they were unable to understand the story after I read through it twice. I’m sure if English is too difficult then the other subjects are also a problem.

Fifth grade class

I spoke to the English teacher, and he seems to be well aware of these issues, as is the principal. Not surprisingly, the principal said that he is forced to use these books because they are used throughout India. In Jammu, a large city, he thought that most of the students would be able to understand them. I’m not sure that this is the case, at least with the poor students. In the 5th grade class, only Passan was the exception. He lives in town all year long rather than in a village, and both of his parents are teachers and speak English with him at home. Most of the other parents don’t speak English, are not educated, and a number of them are illiterate.


What can be done about this situation is another question. It is a bit like “No Child Left Behind,” with standards that are unrealistic, and forcing teachers to teach to the test because that is how they are evaluated. I doubt whether the teachers here are evaluated this way, but the kids are given standardized tests, and most of the teaching that I have observed is aimed exclusively at getting them to score well. At best, they will be memorizing and parroting without any understanding. On one afternoon I used a pre k book to teach 2nd and 4th graders and even that was a struggle.

I have found teaching to be quite tiring with four, 40 minute classes with the older kids in the morning, and then three more classes with the younger students in the afternoon. Lunch, however, always provides a nice break, especially with Tsering, her best friend, and neighbor's baby.


The youngest kids that I teach are around eight, although the school has some as young as four. The younger boys especially can get pretty rambunctious toward the end of the day, and it is hard to keep things under control. After several days, I more or less gave up on teaching the youngest kids. They simply take up more energy than I have. While I have taught ESL before, it has mostly been with adults, and that is a very different experience.

Younger kids in school yard



One of the youngest

On one occasion, I gave the older students an assignment which we then read in class, to write about Gulabgarh or their village in the mountains. They said only positive things about each, raving about the beauty of both places in a somewhat repetitive fashion, while overlooking the garbage, the dirt, and the poverty. They seem to focus only on the good. On the one hand, this is admirable, and seems to reflect their enormously positive and happy outlook, but on the other hand, they seem to ignore the problems. When I discussed this with them they understood, but were at a loss to know what to suggest to improve things. They didn’t seem to think that talking to people would do any good, something that Tashi had already indicated. Several of the kids said that the rains would eventually wash everything away and make everything clean. Not likely, as there had already been plenty of rain and there was still garbage everywhere. There is no central garbage dump or landfill, and seemingly little motivation to create one. Perhaps if the many policemen would get off their duffs and fine people 10 or 20 rupees for littering, this would make a difference. Also not likely.

Older boys with my travel speaker

Their female classmates

Another time I asked the students to write about their favorite holiday. Usually, what I got back was a description of a Hindu holiday, Diwali, for example, that word for word came from their English book. Unfortunately, as in so many Asian countries, the emphasis is just on rote learning. I have had somewhat more success when I have created my own teaching materials, but this takes time and energy, and the kids are well aware that this is not what they will be tested on.

I don't want to be overly negative. Most if the students here come from impoverished backgrounds with little, if any opportunity for book learning outside the classroom. Considering that, many of them are obviously curious about the outside world, and more knowledgeable, at least about Indian pop culture, then I would have thought. The older ones know about Indian celebrities and pop musicians which is an accomplishment considering that many of them have not been to Kisthwar, which is not exactly a cosmopolitan place. Most of the kids seem interested in what I think, despite the language problems, and a few of the most diligent students have wanted me to teach them after their regular class periods. Often by then, I am too tired, but still this shows the initiative of the best and the brightest.

During this week of exams, there is not a lot of teaching going on, but they seem interesting in hanging out with me. Most of the time they prefer to play games, especially one called Kabbadi, a rough game of tag, and then pulling the person to their side of the schoolyard. The girls are every bit as competitive as the boys. I try and resist the games until the end of the school day, but it provides an informal way to communicate in English, and this may be more valuable than what goes on in class.

Author in back with one of younger grades

Hamming it up from 2nd floor window

The Himalayan Culture School has a website, http://hcspadder.com/ as well as a facebook page. They are always looking for volunteers to teach for a few days or a few months, as well as donations. If you want to experience buddhist culture in non touristy surroundings, this is an ideal place. You must be prepared for a very simple life with few western conveniences. The school or a villager will provide you with a place to stay and food. You can also contact Tashi at lonpoadv@gmail.com. Email is very slow so be prepared to wait a while for an answer.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:51 Archived in India Tagged people children educational living_abroad Comments (1)

Chan Chan and Moche: Northwest Peru

With considerable reluctance, we left Vilcabamba early in the morning, to catch the first bus to Piura, and then, after a night, Trujillo, Peru. We stayed at the guest house of Clara Bravo and Michael White who were knowledgeable guides of the nearby ruins. Located in a quiet residential area about a ½ mile from the center of town, their house can best be described as a work in progress, at least when we were there. They initially put us in a room that was literally still under construction, promising that the window in the shower would be finished by the end of the day. Not wanting to alienate our hosts, who we intended to hire as guides, we accepted this. They offered to serve us dinner at whatever time we wanted, nothing if not flexible. In the kitchen a couple of mestizos or cholas, as they are called in Peru, were already hard at work. The meal was served shortly thereafter, a late lunch as it turned out, in the couples own cluttered dining room, while Michael watched soccer on the tube.

They were a rather unlikely pair, though just how unlikely would take us a day or two to find out. Clara is a diminutive Peruvian, of mixed race, highly educated, a speaker of several languages including English, who had been involved in the exploration of Chan Chan. She seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of energy for dealing with the obvious chaos of running her household and guest house. Running is perhaps the wrong word since it appeared as though no one was actually in charge. Think Faulty Towers. Guests arrived and left at all hours of the day and night, and meals were served without any schedule. In a room in the front of the house, their grown daughter was running her own restaurant in the evenings, catering to the locals. A couple of workman seemed to come and go in a somewhat desultory fashion, and so the “construction” proceeded at a snails pace. Michael is a middle aged Brit, who also spoke Spanish, German and Italian, all with an English accent. He seemed to cope with all the chaos by blocking it out. He was friendly enough once you engaged him in conversation, and also extremely knowledgeable. In fact we thought he was going to be our guide for both days, but that turned out not to be the case.

The center of town, Plaza Mayor, was choked with traffic, and the cars looked to be 10-30 years old. There was a mix of old and new buildings, including a cathedral dating to 1666, and the impressive looking Hotel Libertador. For the most part the city seemed as if it had seen better days, though probably never had. Located on the desert coastal plains, it was dry and dusty despite the green palms and irrigated trees. Although it had over a million people, it seemed provincial, though later I learned that it had been a hot bed of radical politics in the 20's. When we returned to the guest house, a Romanian couple was still there, as well as Jack, who made a point of telling us he had a pension from a branch of the Canadian coast guard. He looked and sounded like a burnt out biker/aging hippie, with a pony tail, Harley t-Shirt, and several tattoos on his arms. His Scandinavian girlfriend was much younger, and had a more innocent look. It seems they had spent the last year living in a shack in Vilcabamba growing a few of their own vegetables, and most likely, though they didn't mention it, imbibing the local hallucinogenic cacti. Perhaps some of the hippie types had moved on to Peru. We all had dinner together, not particularly good, but dirt cheap , and then went to our room. The window in the bathroom was of course still not in, but Clara had rigged up some curtains that looked as though they might fall down at any minute. Unfortunately just as we turned out the light, her daughter's restaurant directly underneath us, began to fill up and the music and noise was pumped in through the air shaft.

We were up early, not an effort since I hadn't slept much, and set off with Michael for the Moche Pyramids. The enormous Huacas del Sol and del Luna, dating from around 500AD and constructed with millions of adobe bricks, are impressive. Built over the course of several hundred years, they were both houses of worship and sacrifice, and home to 15,000 nobles. Some 20,000 others lived in the surrounding area.


The landscape is lunar, as it is extremely dry and desolate, though only a few kilometers outside of Trujillo. Stark rock mountains are all around. It is hard to believe anyone actually lived here, and it was only possible through the construction of irrigation ditches which brought water down from the high glaciated mountains.


The pyramids are decorated with elaborate red and gold geometric designs, some abstract and some of deities.


It is a testimony to just how dry the climate is that the original colors have lasted this long. Michael, who told us more than we wanted to know and could possibly absorb, took us home for lunch and then we returned in the late afternoon for the completion of the tour.

The next morning we were up early again and sat around after breakfast waiting for Michael, who apparently was still asleep. Clara kept telling us not to worry , that he would be with us shortly. Another hour went by and then he finally did emerge , obviously in a bad mood and yelling at Clara for not getting him up at the proper time. This dispute went on for perhaps 15 minutes with Michael getting louder and louder, and then saying to Clara that it was going to be too hot now. and he was not going to take us. Clara, argued back, just as vociferously though with less volume, eventually said she would take us. Nothing like being in the middle of a domestic dispute conducted half in Spanish and half in English. While this was going on, we made the decision to spend the night in Huanchaco, the seaside resort adjoining Trujillo. That way we might at least get some sleep.

Chan Chan, though not as old as the pyramids, dates from about 1200AD, but is even more inspiring. It is the largest adobe city in the world, consisting of more than nine compounds built by the Chimu Kings.


They ruled an empire that stretched for miles along the Peruvian coast, and the ruins of more than a dozen towns and a vast viaduct still remain. The walls and courtyards of Chan Chan, go on as far as you can see, and likely more of them remain buried and overtaken by other buildings built on top. It is hard to take it all in.


Many of the high, thick, and sometimes triple walls surrounding each compound are intricately carved with geometric patterns, as well as fish, and other animals.


Amongst all the brown and sand, there are small green oasis' of ponds and greenery, the site of ancient irrigation ditches and wells.


The dull roar of the surf in the distance can be heard echoing slightly between the buildings, like when you put your ear against a shell.


Clara proved to be an excellent guide and somewhat less obsessive with facts than her husband. She told us several stories about the culture and the history of the excavations, and then we simply walked amidst the adobe walls, sensing the presence of the once mighty kings and their subjects.


At the time, I had no idea that there are more recent ghosts that haunt Chan Chan. However, in 1932 there had been a massacre of over a thousand people. Most were Apristas, or members of the APRA (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance), a socialist and reformist party found by Victor Haya de la Torre in the 20's. Many of them were lined up and shot in Chan Chan, after the failure of a revolt against Sanchez Cerro, the dictator who was trying to wipe out the APRA and its supporters. According to Carleton Beals, writing in the early 30's, Chan Chan was a “charnel house. It's pestiferous stench rose to high heaven for miles about, even to Trujillo.” (Fire in the Andes, taken from The Peru Reader, p260, Duke University Press).Trujillo was and maybe still is ardently Aprista. Beals notes that there were signs with the APRA logo carved in desert plants and house, even on some high Andean precipices outside of the city. I noticed a few of these signs during our stay here, but did not appreciate their significance.

For many years the APRA party represented the progressive wing of Peruvian politics, but their image was tarnished considerably by the regime of Alan Garcia, the first elected APRA president in l985. He was defeated 5 years later amid charges of corruption and incompetence, after presiding over an increasingly bankrupt country with hyperinvation, in the throes of the Shining Path insurgency. He was followed by Alberto Fujimora, who recently was extradited from Chile and convicted of war crimes. Ironically, as with a number of other seemingly corrupt Latin American politicians, Garcia has been resurrected and recycled , and went on to win the most recent presidential election.

So it seems that Chan Chan's history goes beyond whatever violence may have been committed by its Chimu rulers hundreds of years ago, followed by the Incans who conquered them, then the conquistadores of course, and it stretches all the way to the 20th century.

Posted by jonshapiro 17:54 Archived in Peru Tagged educational Comments (2)

Arrival in Guatemala

Finally, at long last, we did actually leave and flew to Guatemala City without a problem. We had made a hotel reservation in Antigua, our only advance reservation, aside from the Spanish School in Xela, and we went directly there from the airport. Guate City is big, dirty, dangerous, and best avoided if possible. Antigua, only 45 minutes away, is the opposite. It is relatively clean, safe and charming, though arguably the most touristy spot in Guatemala. We spent the first couple of days walking around and getting used to speaking Spanish again. Our initial plan was to spend just a few a few days here, and then to go on to Xela, several hours north, to study Spanish for a month. However at the end of the week, the road to Xela remained closed because of "derrumbes" (mudslides), and so we decided to stay in Antigua and study here instead. Both Xela and Antigua are full of high quality, well organized schools, as well as private teachers. The difference is that Xela, or Quezaltenango, is bigger and much less touristy, so you more or less have to speak Spanish. It is also colder, at 7500 feet, (2300m), compared to Antigua at 5000. The days in both cities are usually warm, but the nights in Xela can be quite chilly, especially in winter. There are many guide books that describe both cities in detail so I won't do so here. Suffice it say, that Antigua is the old Spanish capital, full of authentic colonial buildings, some in disrepair, some renovated.


It is small, about 50,000, and surrounded by lush, green, 14,000 feet (4200m) volcanoes, some of which are still active. It also has a lively night life with many bars and restaurants. Not surprisingly, it is also one of the most expensive places in Guatemala, though still cheap by US or Euro standards.

We began by apartment hunting and school shopping. Many of the schools have websites and are listed in the Lonely Planet. Often the schools will let you sit in on some classes for free, but the most important thing is your particular teacher, so make sure you have a lesson with her (and it usually is a her), before making up your mind. Schools are often a good source of information about rooms and apartments, although most also offer the opportunity to stay with a family. This is a good, cheap option, but usually the accomodations are very basic, and some families are much more simpatico than others. The cost for individual instruction is anywhere from $80 to $120 US for 4-5 hours daily. The instruction in our school, Ixchel, was excellent, but there were few extracurricular activities, the administrative staff not particularly welcoming, and they did not treat their teachers particularly well. Nevertheless after a month we learned a great deal and met several interesting people. Most, though not all, were younger Europeans and Australians, long term travelers like us. Traveling is a great age leveler, and one of the pleasures was being able to spend time with folks much younger than ourselves, who treated us like peers despite the fact that we went to sleep much earlier than they did.

Rather than renting a completely separate apartment, we ended up in a large room in a colonial house, with a shared kitchen($350 a month). What sold us was the large, 2nd story inner courtyard, a fantastic place to sit and hang, with views of the buildings and volcanoes around town. Also a regular apartment would have been more money, anywhere from $400-700.

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Our typical day consisted of getting up around 7, making a quick breakfast in the communal kitchen, and then attending classes from 8-12 or 1. We would then walk back in a leisurely way, perhaps stopping off at Dona Luisa's bakery to buy banana bread. We might also go to the large, open air market to pick up fruit and vegetables for lunch or dinner. We ate a lot of "pinas" (pineapples) @2 for 5 quetzals, or about 30 cents a piece. The market was a great place to practice our Spanish, not to mention our bargaining skills. We could often wile away several hours going from one stall to another, buying string beans, tomatoes, potatoes, or whatever happened to be in season. We usually passed on the non-refrigerated meat, buzzing with flies. Most of the stalls were run by indigenous women, clothes as colorful as the veggies they sold. Near the market there were also several inexpensive restaurants, often with a Menu del Dia, always a bargain. The trick was to find places clean enough so that we didn't get sick from the food, and so we got several names from our teachers. For all its tourists, the market is an authentic place, as are other parts of the city.

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After lunch we would rest for a while, do some homework, and sit on the courtyard talking with other students or travelers.


Perhaps we would go for another walk around town and check the internet, have a beer, etc. As restaurants could be expensive, most of the time we cooked dinner, and brought it up to the courtyard to watch the sun set over the volcanoes.


There were 10 or 15 other people staying at the house, but most did not use the kitchen at the same time. Two young German girls were especially engaging. They were volunteering at Camino Seguro. This project, started by a woman from Maine, was set up to help kids and families who lived off the largest garbage dump in Guatemala City. There was a school which provided meals for kids and families right near the dump, and for older kids there was training for work in the tourist trade. The German girls(18 and 19), were spending 6 weeks there. They stayed in Antigua because it was just too dangerous to stay near the dump, and so each day, they had to take the chicken bus an hour each way. I found them to be remarkably self-reliant and mature, much more so than most US kids who had just graduated high school. We often ate dinner together and discussed their work at the project and their own families. They were only the first of the many young, European women we met, traveling on their own, often solo, sometimes to very dicey places.

At one point we considered volunteering at Camino Seguro, but the prospect of riding on the crowded bus two hours a day was enough to dissuade us. We also considered volunteering to help the flood victims. Antigua was in relatively good shape, but many of the nearby villages had been inundated by mud and water. We talked to several other people who had spent time digging out homes, but the work seemed so physically demanding that we didn't know how we could manage it and study Spanish at the same time.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:00 Archived in Guatemala Tagged educational Comments (2)

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