Welcome to my blog! I am so excited to have this back up and running so I can keep all of you up to date on my experiences in Ghana. I will be embarking on a 3 month internship in Accra with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) developing anti-child trafficking initiatives in schools around the city.

I hope you enjoy the blog! I will do my best to post regularly!

02 August, 2013

Exploring the Central Region, Ghana

17 June 2013

Today was one of those days so chock-full of memories it’s hard to know where to begin…In the last 12 hours I walked through the canopy of a rain forest, touched a live crocodile, and stood in a place that had seen unimaginable suffering. Two of these experiences seem great, but it was actually the third that will likely stick with me for the rest of my life.

We loaded into the van and left Immuna at about 9:00am and drove to Kakum National Park. Once there we took a brief look through a museum detailing the various species of plant, animals, and insects who call the park ‘home.’  We paid 20 Cedis each (about $10) and proceeded to hike with a guide and about ten others. At the beginning of the path there was a beautiful sign that read, ‘Leave nothing but your footprints,’ a motto more of us should take.
Walking through the forest canopy
The rain forest is exactly as I've always read…as you enter and hike deeper, very little light is able to penetrate the thick canopy above. The forest floor is covered with vegetation, insects and organic detritus and a strong, earthy scent mixes with the intense humidity to form an intense sensory mélange. Only a few hundred meters into the climb, I was sweating considerably, though not short of breath quite yet. As we climbed through the massive trees and low hanging vines, butterflies of every color flitted around our feet. We soon reached a platform from which the first of seven ‘canopy walks’ is suspended. Long rope bridges with study side netting span the treetops and groups of five are allowed to embark one after the other. Though the bridges teetered with each step, I never felt worried. Walking at this height afforded some stunning photo opportunities and a unique vantage point of the tropical forest below. I was amazed at the lack of animals and even birds, but I suppose there was plenty of room in the park for them to avoid the human intruders.

After the hike, we went for lunch at a restaurant on the grounds of a crocodile and bird sanctuary, which boasted over 40 crocs, hundreds of loud, yellow birds, and whitish/pink egrets. The meal of beans and plantains was quite good, but the highlight of the lunch was getting to touch a living, breathing crocodile!
Touching a crocodile!
From the dining area we could see the crocs in the water and one up on an island inhabited by the yellow birds whose nests hung down from the ends of the branches. For the price of 5 Cedis I walked, with a guide, through a metal gate and over a small bridge flanked by crocodiles on either side to the island. The sunning croc was completely still, mouth agape. Our guide walked right up to the easily 8’ long animal and touched its back. I was so intrigued that I began to move towards the croc, taking a cautious route so as to come at him from the side. Once there, I crouched low and placed my right hand squarely on his back. Crocodiles feel exactly like you think…hard. The girls each had a turn as well and as we were leaving our new friend gave us another gift when he slowly rose and began to walk in our directions. My bravery left as quickly as it had come as we hastily shuffled behind our guide. Yet another memorable experience!

The next leg of our day saw us in the city of Cape Coast for a visit to St. George’s Castle, more commonly referred to as El Mina after the Portuguese word for ‘the mine.’ This was one of the most touching and deeply moving experiences of my life and, at several points along the tour, I was moved to tears. Emotions ranging from pity and anger to remorse and hope, yes hope, coursed through me. Originally built by the Portuguese and subsequently owned by the Dutch and the British, El Mina was once the center of European trade in West Africa. Gold, wood, and slaves were stockpiled in the castle until ships came to take them away. Once inside, the castle’s white walls temporarily masked its dark history, which was brought to life by our skilled tour guide.

El Mina Castle, Cape Coast, Ghana
We were first brought to the female slave dungeons which were overlooked by a balcony from which the governor could select slaves who he desired to sleep with. The dungeons were dark, crowded, and had litter air flow. Standing in a place where such horrific acts and unfathomable suffering had taken place was mind bending. On the very stones where I walked, thousands of slaves had slept, urinated, vomited, bled and died before being forced on to the next in a long chain of torturous holding cells. We later experienced the punishment cell for those slaves who dared to fight for their freedom. It was a small, nearly airless chamber with no light. Rebels would be slowly starved to death and often times rot next to other dying people.

The guide adeptly walked us through the journey of a slave all the way to the ‘room of no return’ from which slaves were forced on to boats bound for the United States and Europe. Standing in those rooms, you could almost feel the fear that these walls had echoed back onto helpless masses.
The 'door of no return'
The tour also worked its way up to the European’s quarters to show the contrast and allow visitors to see the fort from another angle. As I peered off the balcony we had seen from the female dungeons below, a group of Ghanaian children on a school trip looked up at me and I down at them and for a fleeting moment, I had to look away, shamefully staring at the ground. In that moment I had imagined myself back 150 years and could not bear the image. When I looked back up, some of the children glanced up at me and, instead of looks of horror and dread that had passed between people in our places in the past, I was greeted by giggles and beautiful smiles. As I grinned back, tears in my eyes, I felt an overwhelming sense of hope. Emotionally and physically exhausted, I walked out from El Mina’s walls and gave one last, long look at a place that I will never forget.

15 June, 2013

Akwaaba! Welcome to Ghana!

Hello from Ghana! I arrived safe and sound on June 10th and I can honestly say that Ghana has already lived up to its billing as one of the most hospitable places on earth. From the minute I stepped off of the plane and into the humid Ghanaian night, I was greeted with smiles and "Akwaaba" which means welcome in Twi. Adjusting to life in Ghana has been seamless for the most part. The IOM (International Organization for Migration) has been very helpful getting the interns settled and oriented to life here in West Africa.
Our orientation has familiarized us with the various departments within IOM and each of their projects, and has also included basic language training (greetings, numbers 1-10, days of the week, school terms, etc.), a first aid course, and several trips throughout Accra. Also included was the IOM staff retreat this past Thursday. I am so happy they decided to wait until we arrived to hold this day of team-building and fun. It helped me to get a better feel for the office culture (passionate and fun) as well as determine who works on which project. The retreat was held at the Coco Beach Resort which was owned by the Ramada group. The day ended with a real treat as the professional side of the day segued into a soccer match on the beach!
As for my role with the IOM, I will be working on an array of projects with a focus on Counter-Trafficking (CT) and Migration in Development (M&D). Child trafficking is sadly a very real problem in Ghana. Parents of impoverished families are often scammed into selling their children into modern day slavery within Ghana's fishing industry. Fishermen will promise remittances and a better life for the children including ample food and education, but in reality some as young as 4 years old can find themselves forced to do backbreaking work 14 hours a day in dangerous conditions and without pay. IOM has been working for years to rescue these children, reintegrate them into society, while concurrently educating their parents and families about the dangers of child labor. They also help thefamilies start micro-enterprises to supplement their income, allowing them to better take care of their dependents. Here's a link to the organization's website if you're interested! (IOM Ghana)
Accra has been full of excitement and surprises. Despite having recently heard all about the rise of Africa at Syracuse's African Development Seminar in Washington, it is different to actually experience it. Ghana is booming. Construction projects abound and people from throughout the continent and the world call Accra home. Behind the shiny buildings and abundant Mercedes lurks the danger of poor management of the 'growing pains' so often accompanying rapid development. This 'gap' we so often see is quite evident in Ghana. Accra is home to a massive shopping center complete with a supermarket and movie theatre. But after strolling through the beautifully kept shops and aisles of imported foods, a short walk beyond the mall's parking lot brings you to rickety shacks and open sewers.
To end the post on a happy note, I want to share one of the many reasons I am going to love living and working here. The morning commute. No, no, I'm not pulling your leg. Even though Accra's traffic is a nightmare causing a 20 minute trip to take over an hour, it's hard to be bored looking out your window. In Accra, you could get most of your shopping done on the way to work, without ever getting out of the car. Vendors peddling everything from fruits, water sachets, and doughnuts to tummy tightening machines, end tables, and cell phones weave between the cars calling out prices. A simple honk of your horn or nod of the head beckons them to your window. Transactions are extremely fast and then they're gone, on to the next "custom-muter." While I haven't purchased anything by this method yet, the vendors often come to the window just to have a curious peek at our group. These rapid interactions remind me that a smile is often the best currency!

31 May, 2013

Where's Ben is back!

A new blog post can only mean one thing...I am about to embark on another trip! This time I will be traveling to Accra, Ghana to begin an internship with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). I am very excited to explore Ghana's rich culture, experience its world-renowned hospitality, and to put what I've learned at the Maxwell School into practice!

Some recent updates: After finishing my last semester in Syracuse, I loaded up the old wagon (pushing 150,000 miles and running like a champ) and eventually made my way down to Washington, DC for a seminar on current trends in African development. In addition to making me even more excited to spend some time on the continent, it reminded me just how incredible my Maxwell colleagues are. I feel so fortunate to have begun so many wonderful friendships that will assuredly carry on and I look forward to following each of their promising careers. I have no doubt that this group of young leaders will "be the change they wish to see in the world." An added perk to attending Maxwell is the ability to point to nearly any country on the globe and say, "I have a friend there." Let the Mafia be advised, from Georgia to Japan, Kenya to Palestine, you might just find me at your doorstep one day!

A healthy dose of friends and family will ensure the time between now and my departure will fly by. Though I will miss them all, it is their incredible love and support that enables me to pick up and head overseas like this and for that I am extremely grateful.

I hope to update the blog regularly as Accra should afford me decent internet connectivity. So, until I post again, be well!


25 February, 2011

Holidays 2010: Surprise!

Unbeknownst to my parents and my girlfriend Katherine, I decided way back in September to fly home for Christmas. I bid Aja, Ellen, and Marie goodbye in Delhi and as they made their way to the train station; I headed to the airport.

Still not feeling well, I was ready for some good food in Amsterdam, where I was scheduled to layover for no less than 12 hours. When I first saw this itinerary, I was thrilled. I would get a full day in an amazing city and then proceed to New York from there! Unfortunately, the weather had other plans and the city of Amsterdam, along with a good deal of Western Europe, was effectively shut down. All flights out of Delhi to Europe were either delayed indefinitely or cancelled, so finding another way home wasn’t going to easy. There were just about 1,000 people in the Delhi airport in the same predicament as me, which didn’t improve my odds of escaping India. A family behind me wasn’t going to be able to get out for another 3 days and the airline was refusing to put them up anywhere…Inside I began to have a bit of a melt down, but then, salvation! Or so I thought…

I had pushed my way up to the front of the crowd and literally threw my passport on the counter because I had just discovered an Air India direct flight from Delhi to Chicago leaving in just over an hour. I was given a seat and even a ticket. I was ecstatic…I would still get home on schedule. When I got to the gate, however, I was flatly told that my ticket wasn’t good and that my initial carrier had assumed there would be enough room on the plane. I think I stood and stared at the woman behind the desk for a full minute without speaking. I was angry…to put it mildly.

I had now been in the airport for about 9 hours and I knew that the chances of me finding a second flight were slim to none, but I went back to the main ticketing area and began to attempt to negotiate my way onto a flight. After about another 2 hours of haggling and arguing, I was able to get a seat (business class no less) on Royal Jordanian Airways to JFK with a stopover in Amman, Jordan. At this point, I was in no position to be picky, so I jumped at the opportunity. I rushed through security and didn’t relax until I was sitting on the plane bound for Jordan.

Amman and then another 13 to JFK and by the time I landed in an absolutely frigid New York City, I was feeling worse and very ready to stop traveling. Seeing my brother at the airport was an amazing feeling. He was in on the plan and had graciously agreed to drive me home from the airport.Once home I collapsed on my bed, which seemed so much softer than I remembered it. My parents were at the McCoy’s annual Christmas party so I had a few hours before they would be home. My sister Julie arrived home first and we had a wonderful reunion. When I heard my parents walk through the door downstairs, my heart began racing. As we rehearsed, Julie called down, “The package Ben sent from India came!” At that point I walked down the stairs and literally shocked my parents. My father took it in stride but was extremely happy and mymother just kind of stared at me as if I wasn’t real. It was good to be home.

The next day I was able to see most of my family at my Aunt Helen’s birthday party and they were all so surprised. Now I just had to make it 6 days before seeing Katherine. It felt strange to have been home for so long without being able to contact her. Those 6 days flew by thanks to fun times at home, sharing stories, listening to Christmas music, and just being with my family. I also spent quite a bit of time at my doctor’s office.

Christmas Eve arrived and I was so happy to be home. My family went to midnight mass at Saint Thomas in Thomaston and sat through a wonderful service. The church looked so beautiful; particularly because I had not seen the new carpeting, paint job, and kneelers. After mass, we went back to the house and waited for our guests to arrive for our annual Christmas Eve party. It was amazing to have everyone over the house and to see all of the smiling faces. My cousin Becky resurrected the tradition of having a piñata at the party, which made for even more memories. At the end of the night, my family and I cleaned the house and then exchanged gifts, as I would be leaving very early the next morning to drive up to Albany to surprise Katherine on Christmas!

I felt like a little kid waiting for Santa to arrive that night. I couldn’t sleep. I had been planning Christmas morning for four months and I was too excited to shut my eyes. Finally, after some of the longest hours of my life, my alarm sounded. I had already packed my car so I got dressed and hopped right in. I didn’t see another car on the road until I hit I-90, so I made great time and arrived at the McCoy’s around 8:15am.

When I arrived, I found the garage door unlocked like Katherine’s mom had promised. I put on the Santa hat that was waiting for me and quietly went into the house. Mr. and Mrs. McCoy (who I have to thank for helping me plan everything!) were already awake and waiting for me. I snuck upstairs and slowly opened Katherine’s door. She immediately lifted her head and what happened next was like a scene out of a movie. I barely got, “Merry Christmas!” out before she shot out of bed and jumped into my arms. It was one of the best moments of my life and I immediately knew my trip home had been worth it. We were both smiling ear to ear all day.

Katherine’s family came over for a Christmas feast, which was a lot of fun and the next day we headed into New York City to see Billy Elliot on Broadway! It was a phenomenal show and the dancing was particularly impressive. The trip to the city was made far more interesting by the blizzard that awaited us. I certainly didn’t envy Mr. McCoy as he was charged with driving back to Albany from Poughkeepsie. We arrived back far later than expected and the snow was still coming down fast. Katherine and I had to be up in just a few hours to make our way to the airport for our flight to Chicago, but the weather being what is was, we were certain that we would be getting a text alert that we were delayed or cancelled.

To our surprise our flight read “On schedule” on the Albany airport’s website. We were one of only three flights that went out! Thank you Southwest Airlines! We were both very excited to be going to Chicago to visit Uncle Paul and Aunt Robin, Diana, and Claire who Katherine hadn’t seen in years and I had never met.

From the moment we were met at the airport to the moment we were dropped back off, we had a great time in Chicago! Our stay included some amazing food, sledding, a neighborhood new years party, a trip into the city, and even meeting Mike Ditka! I am looking forward to seeing them all again this summer when they visit us. I was so happy to get to meet more of Katherine’s family. What a great group of people!

After returning to Albany, I drove back home where my family and I had a nice week of visiting, food, and games. Before I knew it, it was time to get back on a plane and return to India. I knew my time at home was going to go by quickly, but I was still a little taken aback at just how fast it had passed. Saying goodbye to everyone for a second time was slightly more difficult, but it was comforting to know that I would be home in another 4 months or so.

The NFL playoffs were on the night I was leaving, so I made sure to find a seat in front of the Packers VS Eagles game in my terminal. I was actually the absolute last person to board my Air France flight to Paris to the obvious annoyance of the flight crew/airport staff. I kept stalling and stalling until the 3rd quarter came to a close. I looked at the exasperated AF employee standing over my shoulder and joked, “Do you think I have time to watch the 4th?” Apparently she didn’t appreciate my humor. They like cheese in France, but I guess not on their heads!

During my short layover in Paris, I got some great coffee and enjoyed eavesdropping on people’s conversations in French. Then it was off to Bangalore where the girls would meet me later that night. Little did I know that my baggage would decide to stay in Paris for an extra day! I can’t say I blame it, but as for me, I was back in India!

29 January, 2011

Traveling India: Delhi

Being in Delhi was like being on another planet at times, and then, there were glimpses of the India we’ve come to know, or try to know. On our first day, we visited the Red Fort, which was similar to Agra Fort but had restaurants, shops, photo exhibitions, and museums inside.

I enjoyed being there and taking photos, having tea with the girls and taking in the beautiful Moughal architecture. We spent a good deal of time there and then went to the Jama Mosque (the biggest in the city), which was beautiful. I love Islamic architecture and the “feel” of them when inside. Perhaps the most poignant moment of my day was after we finished view the mosque and were walking back to the car and we had an encounter with two street girls about 4-6 years old. Two little girls, beautiful, their faces and hands were

crusted with mud and sand, their smile yellowed, their hair matted, but their eyes shone with a childlike glow that made them so amazing. They laughed when I showed them pictures of them on my camera. When we left we gave them a few Rupees and waved goodbye. I couldn’t get their little faces out of my head as we drove to the hotel in a nice car towards a warm Indian dinner. I can still picture them, perfectly, without consulting my photos. Two people dealt remarkably different hands in life.

The rest of our stay in Delhi was a time to forget, at least for me. I had come down with a stomach bug (I later found out that I had e-coli poisoning) that had me running to the bathroom every 5 to 10 minutes, but the girls were able to go out and see the city, and from what I heard, had a great time.

Regardless of my stomach’s woes, I was very excited to leave Delhi and make my way back home for Christmas. I said goodbye to the girls who were heading to the deserts of Rajasthan, and waited a few more hours before heading to the Delhi airport…Next stop Amsterdam then off to New York! Or so I thought…

Traveling India: Agra

Agra is…different. According to all of the guidebooks and general consensus of other travelers, the city itself isn’t worth a second glance. In fact, its only redeeming quality is the fact that it is home to the Taj Mahal. If it weren’t there, no one would visit, willingly at least. In fact, aside from the Taj Mahal, Agra is best known for filthy streets, crime, and rampant corruption.

Our hotel was within a 2-3 minute walk of the Taj, which was great and its rooftop restaurant offered great views. Our only night in Agra was a terrible and sleepless one for all of us. We happened to be so lucky as to arrive in Agra in the midst of a big Muslim holiday that apparently requires obscenely loud music to be played from speakers around the city that would put the Tweeter Center’s to shame. Parts of our rooms were literally vibrating. When I asked the man at the front desk of the hotel if the music would stop, he flatly said, “It goes all night.” Wonderful. When he said all night, he wasn’t kidding. Our walls shook from about 8pm to 5:30am we were all a bit grumpy when our alarms went off at 5:45…We later found out that the holiday is actually a sad day meant to lament the deaths of important Muslims long ago. Upon learning this, I felt bad for wishing the music would stop so fervently.

We left the hotel around 6:15 and headed to the Taj where we purchased tickets and collected our complementary water bottle and shoe covers. As we proceeded through the West Gate, it was apparent that the Taj Mahal was one of those things that lives up to its billing. It is absolutely massive and perfectly symmetrical from all 4 sides. The closer I got (snapping pictures all the way), the more impressive the monument became. Intricate carvings of floral scenes graced the sides and more than 30 types of semi-precious stones are inlaid in elaborate designs and floral motifs. Before climbing up the stairs to the main platform, all visitors need to either remove their footwear or slip on the bright red shoe covers provided with your ticket…we all went with the latter.

Inside, the tombs chamber surrounded is by a solid marble screen. The twin red sandstone mosques flanking the Taj were perhaps even more beautiful with equally impressive floors and archways. With the rising sun giving the white marble a golden glow, I got some great photographs.

After taking some traditional tourist pictures at the Taj we went for lunch and coffee before moving on to the Agra Fort, an amazing architectural feat in its own right. Located just on the opposite bank from the Taj, the fort’s red walls and opulent features were breathtaking. The king at the time of its construction even had his own private fishing pond (at which he used a bow and arrows to fish) and 365 girlfriends…needless to say, the man had it good. After a late lunch we grabbed our train from Agra to Delhi.

22 January, 2011

Traveling India: Varanasi

Hello! Now begins my somewhat futile attempt at telling you all about our amazing travels around India as well as my surprise trip home to see my family and Katherine for the holidays.
We left Agartala on a rainy December 9th and hopped a quick flight to Kolkata. The next step was an overnight train ride to Varanasi, the first stop on our adventure.
Varanasi is touted as one of the oldest "living cities" in India, so I was very excited to explore some of the local culture and history. We decided to change our accommodations relatively last minute because of a terrorist bombing that had occurred near the site of our hotel just a few days prior. While we felt perfectly safe throughout our time in Varanasi, our stay at Nav Sadhana (a college/cultural center run by nuns) was wonderful. The sisters treated us like special guests and made sure we wanted for nothing. Our first day was full of touring. We visited several Hindu temples as well as the city's largest institution of higher learning. The most impressive temple, in my opinion was called the New Vishwanatha Temple. It was beautiful inside and out with a soaring white tower and red main structure. The inside was marble with intricate paintings on the walls and ceilings.

Our second day in Varanasi was on of those days when you feel like you've seen and done too much to ever fit into a mere 24 hours. We woke up at 5am and left for the ancient banks of the Ganga (Ganges) River. We arrived and promptly hired a small boat with one rower. The Ganges is just like the guide books described it, but to actually be there to experience it was incredible. A thick mist enveloped us as the boat glided along the water. Every minute the sun
gets higher and your visibility begins to improve. Slowly you are able to discern more and more of what is happening all around you. The thousands of faithful crowding the banks to take a dip in the sacred river so as to purify themselves, the ghats, where hundreds of bodies are cremated each day, the boaters, the bird, the smells...all made this an amazing experience that I will not soon forget. We passed the site of that week's terrorist attack and, apart from the ghat being vacant, not much looked out of sorts. The world moves on.

The boat ride was one of the most interesting and spiritual experiences of my life. Though not a Hindu, my appreciation for spirituality and respect for custom and religious practice. Perhaps most fascinating was the clash of modernity with ancient ritual. All around us were people submerging themselves in the river, an age-old practice, but behind them camera flashes blinked, cell phones rang, and the noise of traffic from nearby roadways could be heard. Despite the influx of reminders of today's world, I still felt transported back to a simpler place. That's the power of the Ganges.
After our spiritually charged morning, we were off to the Nav Vani School for the Hearing Impaired. The school was beautiful, but per usual is a schools inhabitants that make it extraordinary. The school runs from kindergarten to 12th grade and caters specifically to children with hearing disabilities, though I wouldn't gather that those students feel disabled when within its comforting walls. I am so very happy that I took elementary American Sign Language (ASL) at Stonehill because although Indian signs are different, I was still able to
communicate basic words an ideas to the students. This took them by surprise and made them extremely happy. The children even said that many Indian teachers and officials have visited them, but they just look and smile and and not communicate so they were very impressed.
My experience at the Nav Vani School was a heartwarming one to be sure, but more than that it made me wish that I could do more for them than just smile and fumble over some American signs. We left our new friends with wide smiles and wonderful memories and made our way to the city for some marketing. What an experience! Marie encapsulated our thoughts best when she said, "Just walking around in the city is physically and mentally exhausting." Physically because you're constantly jumping and darting between cars, autos, buses, cows, bikes, scooters, goats, and of course throngs of people...mentally because your brain is trying its very best to keep up while processing the incessant noise and sometimes noxious scents that fill the air. We visited a silk factory and several shops. I purchased some Christmas gifts for family and ever broke down and got a pijama for myself! With marketing finished we headed to our final stop of the day, the largest Catholic church in the city. It was a beautiful building, very modern in its design, and we spent a few reflective moments inside before making our way to the cathedral's basement where the most elaborate Bible "display" I have ever seen was located. It was quite well done, but with all of the poverty in Varanasi just outside its doors, I couldn't help but wonder if that was the best way to spend their money. Completely spent, we went back to Nav Sadhana retired to our rooms.
The next day, our last in Varanasi, was also quite exciting. We went on an excursion to Sarnath, one of Buddhism's holiest sites. It is comprised of ruins and several temples as well as a well maintained park where many people were picnicking and enjoying the wonderful weather. One of the temples actually house some relics of Buddha himself. Also on the grounds was the Dhamekh Stupa, an impressive sight rising 33.5 meters in a huge cylinder of brick.
Also at Sarnath is the tree under which Buddha gave his first sermon after achieving enlightenment. We were quite lucky to see the holy places of 3 major religions while in Varanasi and I was looking forward to visiting some mosques in Delhi.
We proceeded to the train station and as we pulled out of Varanasi on our way to Agra and the Taj Mahal, I couldn't help but smile...

28 November, 2010

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving!
I trust that everyone had a wonderful feast and are still sporting pants with elastic waste bands! Despite no one here knowing what a turkey is, I would rate our holiday as an all-around success. Not wanting to dwell on the fact that I wasn't going to be home doing all of my normal Turkey Day things, I chose to head to school and teach the kids about one of the biggest days of the year in the US. They enjoyed seeing pictures of turkeys, parades, feasts, family, and of course the Pilgrims and Native Americans. I explained the settling of the "New World" by Europeans and then the genocide that ensued (don't worry, I totally brightened the mood by teaching them how to draw turkeys by tracing their hands!).
The girls were hard at work when I returned and already wearing their fun turkey hats! I donned my own and we prepared food until it was time to eat. Our menu was as follows: garlic mashed potatoes, string beans,
carrots, stuffing with apples, cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed pumpkin, pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, and pumpkin pudding pie! Everything was fantastic and we, in accordance with Thanksgiving bylaw #1, completely stuffed ourselves!
After our delicious meal, I took some time to take stock of everything that had happened since
Thanksgiving 2009. I had a wonderful Christmas with family, a fun-filled New Years celebration with the best friends you could ever ask for, a romantic Valentines Day, another shared birthday, successfully completed college, welcomed Julie back from South Africa, saw one of my best friends get married, and made lifetime of memories here in India. It's funny though, looking back the past year...it's not the biggest things that stand out the most. Walking around campus with Katherine for the last time before graduation, giving Emmy a bath, helping Andy and Karen with their hellish move, taking Lily for walks with Mom, having brunch with my grandparents, spending time with amazing people at Camp Sunshine, and going for hikes with Dad...It's the little things, the things we can so easily gloss over when we look back over a year, that I am most thankful for.
As the not so well known American playwright Thornton Wilder quipped, "We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures." So I vow to be more conscious of the small wonders around me and to therein, live. Happy holidays!

21 November, 2010

Children’s Day: A phenomenal idea about 10 years too late

Hello and sorry, once again, for not writing for some time. We are in the middle of prepping our students for exams, correcting final projects, and counting down until our 40-day trip around India.

On November 13th we celebrated Children’s Day here in India. It takes the concept of Teacher’s Day and turns it on its head (as India has a knack for doing). When I first heard about this holiday, I wondered, “Where was this when I was in school?!” I would have loved to see my teachers making absolute fools out of themselves purely for my enjoyment…but alas, on my first Children’s Day I was on the giving end of the hilarity.

So for the weeks leading up to the big day, each night our house was filled with the sounds of High School Musical, as we appropriately chose the film’s final song, “We’re All in this Together” as our dance number. The girls all caught on pretty quickly with the moves, but I, having never learned a choreographed dance before, had a bit of trouble keeping up at first. In the end (in my humble opinion) we had it down pat! In addition to this the girls, with the help of the Holy Cross hostellers, learned a traditional Kokborok dance and Aja because of her lighter colored hair was volunteered to lip sync to Shakira’s “Waka Waka” song from the 2010 World Cup. During the latter number, some of the male teachers from Blessed Andre and I donned soccer jerseys and kicked a ball around the stage as the music blared.

When Children’s Day arrived we dressed in our house uniforms (the same ones that the students wear on Saturdays) and hopped on the bus to Blessed Andre School. The Shakira song was first and was extremely well received. When the kids saw Aja come running out with a microphone, they went crazy! She should get a lot of credit for that dance because she had almost no time to prepare for it and the music kept cutting in and out. Next came our big HSM song, which went really well and the students got a big kick out of. Finally, the girls wrapped up our performances with their tribal dance. They did so well! I never could have balanced the plates while dance like they did and they looked great in the traditional dress.

As soon as they left the stage, we frantically collected our belongings and got into a car that was waiting to take us to Holy Cross School where we had to do it all again! I think the dances went just as well the second time and Children’s Day 2010 was a great success! Now I know what you're thinking..."Ben, when will you perform again?!" and "Where can we behold the sheer mastery that was your performance?!" To answer your first question, I have decided, after much deliberation and internal anguish, to hang up my dancing shoes. When you have a performance that you just can't top, you have to leave on a high note. (A certain quarterback should have taken this advice). As for your second, completely understandable, question, a video of the dance can be found on YouTube @ http://www​.youtube.c​om/watch?v​=U2AeA5AV8​OQ.

Another notable development is the completion of my 8th graders’ letters to my brother Andy’s 5th grade class in the U.S. When I first gave them the assignment to write a letter to a student in the United States, I wasn’t entirely sure how they would take it, but I am ecstatic with their efforts and enthusiasm! They are currently putting the finishing touches on their final draft and we hope to get them in the mail by the middle of next week. Many of them have asked question after question about the families, pets, and favorite things of their American counterparts. Some of them even included brief lessons in their mother tongue, Kokborok. It was great to see their creative juices flowing in a system that does not generally reward originality. My personal favorite was one letter that said, “I know that it is very cool in the United States now, but here, Sir Ben is still sweating very much.” You have got to love the brutal honesty and candor of my kids! In the end, no matter what they write, this is a valuable opportunity for them. Sure, they will be getting to practice their writing skills and English grammar, but in all honesty, they could do that copying out of a math textbook. They are getting to expand their horizons by contacting kids, like them, on the other side of the world and in doing so; foster a sense of cross-cultural understanding and appreciation.

So now, I bid you adieu. I will be sure to update the blog at least once more before we leave for our big trip.



31 October, 2010

Darjeeling...Breathtaking Beauty, Buddhists, and Bread!

Hello after far too long!
Recently the four of us traveled north to Darjeeling, India, near the border with Nepal. We departed Agartala on 17 October and set out on a journey involving planes, trains, and automobiles (though thankfully not quite as frightful as the John Candy and Steve Martin film).The trip there went quite smoothly. Our flight from Agartala to Guwahati was on time and our pilot had a thick New York accent, which was rather amusing to hear in the Northeast of India. From Guwahati we took an overnight train to New Jalpaiguri and then a jeep 3 hours up the mountain to our final destination. All I can say about Darjeeling is, WOW! If I could live there for a year, I would do it in a heartbeat! There really isn't much similar about Darjeeling and Agartala. The climate, language, food, feel of the city, and scenery were totally different, but in a good way. The weather was crisp and at times reminded me of the current feel of New England. While it felt strange to have the sensation of being cold for the first time in 3 months, it was refreshing. The food...was incredible! One of the places we frequented was called Sunom's Kitchen and specialized in omelets WITH CHEESE, REAL bread with butter, and other items that I forgot existed! As you can probably tell, we don't get much in the way of cheese and bread in Agartala.

The scenery in Darjeeling could leave you speechless. For as long as I live, I will never forget watching the sun rise over the hills and illuminate the Himalayas, their snow caps reflecting the golden rays. For much of the trip we were high enough to be looking down at the tops of the clouds, which was amazing as well.
Aside from the mountains and the restaurants, we toured a tea garden, walked amongst thousands of prayer flags on Observatory Hill, climbed barefoot into a sacred cave, chatted with locals, spent time with Tibetan refugees at a self-help center, and visited several Buddhist monasteries. The latter was one of my favorite things we experienced. The peaceful feeling you get while walking around a monastery is indescribable.
So, enough of telling you about the trip...Darjeeling was truly one of those places where pictures do far better than words! Enjoy!