Saturday, November 25, 2006

Winding Down

All of a sudden my time in India is coming to an end. When did that happen? Looking back it all seems to have gone by so quickly. I've got a little more than two weeks left here in the beautiful Himalayas, then a few days in smoggy Delhi. Autumn has come and gone, too. I've finished midterms in all three of my classes, and now it's crunch time again as my final project deadline is approaching. The length of my beard, which I've let grow since returning from Rajasthan almost a month ago, reminds me of the long time past and the short time to come.

Nobody really did anything special for Thanksgiving, but for tomorrow's dinner, supposedly, someone has gone in search of a turkey. Now that Thanksgiving has passed as well, one thing I'm definitely enjoying is the lack of Christmas music. When I come home I'll only have to suffer through four or five days of it, or less if I manage to sleep through it altogether.

A view of the mountains from above my cabin. Nanda Devi (नंदा देवी), the tallest peak in India, is on the right side. The cabin on the right is my Hindi teacher's where we have class on the porch facing the mountains. I might not miss writing exams with cold fingers, but when I come home, I will definitely miss this.

So what's winter like here? Yesterday morning was the first frost. For one thing, the cold air gives an even better view of Nanda Devi. Every night we eat in a bitter cold dining hall. No buildings are heated, so I'm making good use of all the winter clothes I brought—often all at the same time. There's still hardly any rain. I've heard about the flooding in Seattle, and I'm not the least bit jealous. I think if it were any wetter here it'd quickly go from cold to miserable.

Most of the trees are evergreen, even the oaks, to take advantage of the post-monsoon growing season, as cold as it may be. A few non-native species are deciduous, like this one behind the dining hall where local people graze their cows and sheep.

Classes are still enjoyable, even though the workload has been a bit excessive considering the amount we learn just by being here in this place.

Below are some photos from a Forest Ecology class field trip to a “nature trail” being set up below the nearby village Sitla. CHIRAG, the NGO my group is working with, promoted the idea as another way to re-establish the people's connection with the forest, and also to produce revenue for the growing tourism industry. Being winter, the “nature” isn't very captivating but the sunset vista is worth the hourlong trek.

Evan, Josh, Matt, and Adam playing hackey-sack before class. Our teacher Rajesh giving a lecture about forest management. The same trail a few days later in the evening.
The only autumn colors from this vine growing by the trail.
The sun casting rays through the ever-present woodsmoke haze. A million porchlights after sunset.

I have helped out a little with that nature trail project, making a map with my GPS and trying to take some nice photos that they could possibly use in a brochure. But for the past two weeks, I've been working on my own project. The rural people depend on the forest for their lives and livelihoods, collecting fuelwood, fodder, leaf-litter, timber, and pine resin, grazing their livestock, etc.

The government school in Sitla (शीतला), where there are 150 rowdy kids, 5 classes, 2 rooms, and only one overworked teacher.

Separately, government schools here are severely understaffed. In addition to working with the village governmental bodies responsible for regulating forest access (known as van panchayats), starting in 1992, CHIRAG has been attempting to raise environmental awareness amongst the youth via primary school programs. CHIRAG provides additional teachers and their own curriculum geared toward locally-useful knowledge, rather than only what's taught in the standardized textbooks that have little to do with life here in the hills. I've been looking at the history and effectiveness of this and similar programs with regard to forestry.

Chandan-ji, the only teacher still around from the original 1992 environmental education program. Today he still teaches and maintains CHIRAG's library in the village Reetha (रीठा).

Last week I visited a few nearby villages in order to interview students and teachers. The 1992 students are now grown, and most have moved on to college, employment, or the army. After talking with their old teacher, I met with three who might be considered the “star pupils” of the environmental education program. One is studying forestry, another now works for an environmentalist NGO, and the third is the youngest member in his village's van panchayat. Their stories were interesting, but for me, the most exciting thing was doing this all in Hindi. Fortunately I had an interpreter to fall back on, because it seems it doesn't matter how many times you tell some people to please speak more slowly.

Along with another girl from my program, I also met some girls who had not participated in any such environmental education program. The difference in their personalities, for whatever reason, was astounding. I'd ask the same questions—How do you use the forest? Would you like to be a member of your village van panchayat?—and instead of getting a long winded environmentalist answer, I couldn't even get a simple yes or no. They just froze up. Were they just unsure of themselves? Having dropped out of school after 5th grade like many girls here, were they embarrased to sound stupid in front of these educated Americans? Were they just trying to tell us what we wanted to hear but didn't know what that was? Or was there some other reason? I'm not an ethnographer, and I've never done these types of interviews before. All I can do is reflect on this strange situation.

Some kids coming to check out books from the library. Chandan-ji told me that they've come with their families as sort of refugees from Nepal. They don't go to school here yet but they enjoy reading. If I were them, I'd rather have been playing cricket in the field outside the school.

Then Friday, I spent the whole day with Chandan-ji, the original environmental education teacher. My purpose was to visit his library, to see what kinds of forestry materials they were using in their updated environmental education program, which has changed a lot since 1992.

He reminds me of Mrs. Wick, my kindergarten teacher who was so nurturing. He knows just a few English words, not enough to hold a conversation—probably less than I know Hindi. So Hindi we spoke. He was clear and methodical, finding ways to define words I didn't know. This was a turning point for me, realizing that I could actually hold a coherent and interesting Hindi conversation, that I could actually learn something and remember what was said afterwards. I found myself thinking in Hindi.

Chandan-ji holding one of his hand-made books about life in Uttaranchal. One page tells how women carry grass on their heads, and the other tells of the Kauva (कौवा) bird, as drawn by a student in his 5th class.

I remember how Mrs. Wick made books of paper-bag puppets. There were firemen puppets that taught me about firemen, and also nurses, farmers, and a puppet for each letter of the alphabet. Every month since May 2006, Chandan-ji has similarly made by hand these wonderful books showcasing life in Uttaranchal. He's still intent on teaching his students about their environment, so most of the pages talk about the local forests, trees, plants, or animals. I hope he is able to publish them some day.

Life outside of school hasn't gotten any less exciting. Last week our daily jeep sprung a leak, so the driver put on a spare. The spare was even worse. With 11 people crammed into the car winding around trecherous mountain roads, we soon heard the flap-flap-flap and then clunk-clunk-clunk of the rim on the pavement, and felt the car swerving as it came to a stop. (Our record is 13 people in one jeep, plus the driver.)

This coming Tuesday, the entire group is traveling to Jim Corbet National Park, a “tiger reserve” about 10 hours away where we'll see some different types of forests and, hopefully, a tiger or two. I don't expect this will be any less exciting, either, because the park staff is on strike. We don't really know what to expect, and I won't be alone in being uncomfortable if we have to cross a picket line.

I expect I'll write one or two more updates before I come back home, so I'll tell all about Corbet and the tigers in a week or two. Until then, I hope everyone back in Seattle is having fun swimming and/or preparing for finals!

25 November 2006
Sonapani (district Nainital), Uttaranchal, India


Blogger chandni said...

This post has been removed by the author.

Fri Mar 14, 04:22:00 AM PDT  
Blogger chandni said...

Hello Peter, I m so amused to read ur article.I love nature,and animals as well, as I m born n brought up in Santiniketan(Rabindranath Tagore's place)!My birthplace has got a different philosoply.We had our classes under the trees.Forests,hills, streams,animals all attract me a lot.Also I m a teacher.I work for a N.G.O in santiniketan run by the Tagores.waiting to read more of your experiences-
Regards, Sudarshana Sen

Fri Mar 14, 04:29:00 AM PDT  
Blogger chandni said...

Hi peter,
I left a comment after reading ur article on Chiraag.Can I know more about the place?like u said its bitterly cold in the winters-but what about the other seasons there?Which months are the best to visit?Did u visit the place as a student? whats ur overall impression?Please do reply me if u have time in -waiting for your I mentioned before,I m n huge fan of nature and animals.and deeply interested into human development programs,helping the needy,animal welfare etc.
Do keep in touch-

Sun Mar 16, 05:16:00 AM PDT  

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