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!

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!

28 September, 2010

Village Adventures

Hello all! Life in Agartala is great. Recently, we celebrated Aja's 22nd birthday at a restaurant in the town, which reminded all of us of the Rainforest Cafe. The food was great as it was nice to have some new dishes. We couldn't completely leave our traditional meals behind so Mukta came with us!
About a week ago we accompanied Father Joe Paul to the small village of Radhanagar for a Sunday morning mass. After picking up Father Jilson at the Blessed Andre School, we
proceeded through the jungles and rice paddies. Father Joe Paul drove admirably, but even he couldn't defeat the slippery and dangerously soft mud that awaited us. After getting stuck once (we managed to free the car with the help of some local men),
we came across another, slightly larger, stretch of mud that the Fathers wisely decided to avoid. We went the remaining distance (only a few kilometers) on foot, which was beautiful thanks to the bright blue sky and unreal greens of the paddies. I had got some pretty nice shots of some workers tending the fields. Take a look!
We reached the village after a very steep and thankfully short hill. Father Joe Paul led us along a narrow path surrounded on either side by a steep drop into dense jungle below. We then came to a small building made of thatched bamboo, wooden posts, and sheets of metal for the roof. This was their church. It was one of the more spiritual moments of my life as we
approached it because even though their priest was over an hour late, not one person had left. The church was full; men, women, and children sitting in neat rows on the tarp covered dirt floor. We sat in the very back of the room and waited for mass to begin. The entire mass was in Coakboroak, the tribal language of the region, except for a few words such as "tax collector," which didn't quite translate, and "Americans," which was followed by a nod in our direction and the turning of every head. As the mass was difficult to follow, I used the time to reflect on our experience of the day and as a whole and to wave to all of the cute kids! I snapped a few pictures of them as well.
After mass had concluded, we were called up to the front of the church where we were greeted warmly with smiles and bouquets. We then proceeded into the village where we were taken into a traditional mud home and served lunch.
After our amazing day in Radhanagar, I hope to spend more visiting villages in the area and experiencing everything they have to offer.

14 September, 2010

Palaces and Temples and Teachers, Oh my!

I apologize for the length of time between my last post and this one. School has gotten much busier here as we have been given new classes to meet the demands of the Blessed Andre School. A quick fact: the Blessed Andre School will be changing its name in mid-October to the Saint Andre School when Blessed Brother Andre becomes officially canonized!
Keeping with the school theme, my classes are going very well. Working with such a wide age range (3rd to 12th grade) has proved to be challenging, but it also keeps you on your toes and guarantees that every day will be different than the last.
Recently, we had the opportunity to take a bit of a day trip to see a Hindu temple and a palace. The Sundari Temple is one of the 51 holiest ‘Shaktipeeths’ (Shrine of the goddess of power ) in India as per Hindu mythology. It is constructed just off the bank of a man-made lake where children and adults alike feed the hungry(and might I add frighteningly large) fish. The temple itself was very crowded as we visited on a religious holiday. We were able to make our way to the temples entrance and see the idol inside. While at the temple complex, you must remove your shoes as a sign of respect. Forgetting it was such a hot day, we complied and immediately found ourselves searching for any spot that the sun might have missed...no luck! Here is a picture of us at the temple...note three things in the photo 1. The beautiful temple in the background 2. The way we are standing to avoid burning the soles of our feet 3. How many people are staring at us!
In Agartala, we have noticed being stared at plenty of times...let's face it...it comes with the territory of being the only 4 white people in a city. When you leave Agartala and travel to some of the more remote areas of Tripura, you become even more of a curiosity!
From the temple we proceeded to a palace built in the middle of a lake called Neermahal, which translates to water palace. It was one of the more impressive things that I have seen in India so far. Once you arrive you have to purchase a ticket for the ferry that will take you across the lake.
The palace was built by King Bir Bikram Kishore Debbarman (quite a name!) from 1930 to 1938
and was intended to be a remote and peaceful escape from political life for the royal family of Tripura. I could immediately see the appeal of the chosen location. You have 360 degree water views with beautiful gardens and wildlife on property. I would imagine that in 1938 there weren't even any buildings within eyesight!

Aside from our small trip, we feel much more comfortable moving around the city of Agartala without escorts now and have hailed and ridden auto-rickshaws (here's a photo of one)
to and from various shops and markets in town.
We also celebrated Teachers Day here in India on the 4th of September. Not having grown up with this holiday, none of us were completely sure how big of a deal it was...let me assure you, it's a pretty big deal! Aja and I arrived at school to a warm reception and decorations throughout the hallways. We were then told to go and check on one of the 3rd grade classrooms. Upon arriving we were instructed to stand in the center of the room. The students cheered and laughed as the ceiling fans were turned on and confetti and glitter rained down on us! We were then presented with gifts, flowers, and homemade cards and drawings from the students. What a great holiday! To make the day even better we were then brought to the school hall where the students put on an impressive program for all the school's teachers. The acts ranged from dancing to singing to speeches and even one Michael Jackson impersonator! Here is a picture of Aja and I with our 3rd graders.
We are very much looking forward to our upcoming holiday in mid-October during which we will be heading north to Darjeeling. While there, we will be able to visit monasteries, tour tea plantations, and view the Himalayas including Mount Everest at sunrise! We are also in the midst of putting together an elaborate almost 40 day trip that will take us around entire country! More details on that to come.
Until then,

19 August, 2010

My Big Depressing Indian Wedding

Hello! It's been a while since my last post, so here goes! Recently, the four of us had the good fortune to get invited to our first Indian wedding. Pintu, one of the men who works at the Blessed Andre School, excitedly informed us of his youngest sister's impending marriage only two days before the occasion. We later found out that the entire wedding was planned in under one week! (I can't even imagine trying to do that!) Marriages in India and predominantly arranged. It was explained to us that there are "some" love marriages, but the vast majority are set up by professional marriage brokers or match makers. The process is quite interesting, but parts of it can make you cringe, especially if you're from a liberal Western tradition.
Girls get married around the age of 18 and boys are usually closer to 21 or 22, which must be why so many people ask me if I am married when they first meet me! Many times the bride and bridegroom have met only once or twice before the night of the wedding. The wedding also marks the first time that the bride will move away from her family's home. All of these factors make the process less than joyous for the bride. Contrast this with your typical wedding in the United States. Here is a picture of the four of us with Fr. Joe Paul and the bride to be. Pay attention to her age and her expression. It was tough for all of us to wish her congratulations and smile at her when she looked so down, but we did our bests. I think we were all a little saddened by that portion of our night.
One of the most striking aspects of the wedding was the "building" in which it took place. It was, in fact, an elaborate series of colorful fabric tents that were built up between several houses in a rural village. Fr. Joe Paul told us that once the tents were taken down, you would not recognize the village from the night before.
The rest of the wedding was also very interesting. There was a lot of dancing and chanting as well as an abundance of delicious food. I tried many new dishes that night including fish head curry, goat, cheese curd, and several spicy chicken dishes along with a yellow soup called dahl. Our next course was called sweet and sour, which was actually a lumpy brown liquid that tasted like a mixture of licorice and peanut butter. I know that sounds disgusting, but it wasn't all that bad! The meal finished, in traditional Bengali fashion, just as it had began, with a sweet. Yummy!
On the ride to and from the wedding, which was in a town called Simna, we had to cross the border into the country of Bangladesh. I was very excited about this because I can now say that I have been there, but all of us agreed that we would like to return to see more of our neighboring state.
In other news, I have begun teaching full time at the Blessed Andre School! I enjoy it there very much and I have found the children to be wonderful. They are quite shy at first and their self-confidence needs work, but they are bright. I have quite the age range throughout a typical week at school. Some days I teach 12th grade followed by 3rd or 4th grade. It's difficult to make that transition at times, but am really loving teaching. I couldn't believe what I was saying when I told Katherine that I could ALMOST see myself doing something like that in the future. I guess the family teaching gene hasn't totally skipped me!
Until next time,

10 August, 2010

First day of school and other updates

Hello! I am very happy to tell you all that we have completed our first day of school! This past Monday, the four of us traveled by bus to the Blessed Andre School. The ride alone was interesting as students from class 1 to class 12 along with teachers piled onto a small school bus. The ride was bumpy and cramped, but we all made it to school just fine. Once there, the children lined up for morning assembly, which is held Monday and Fridays in the schoolyard. The students then parade into school by age and head to their period 1 classrooms.
The four of us were asked to play the role of substitute teachers for the first few days we are in the school to give the administration time to ready our classes. Collectively we subbed in classes 8, 9, and 10. Instead of trying to pick up where their regular teachers had left off, we were asked to engage the students in conversation to gauge their English ability and to try to get them used to our accents and us used to theirs. Indian English and American English are very different animals, so this was a nice opportunity to practice our active listening skills!

My first impressions of the school are mostly positive. The children are shy, but very bright, and once they began to feel more comfortable with us, they began to ask questions about the United States, our travels, how we were finding India so far, and of course American popular culture. Sadly, some of the worst of the U.S. has made it to even the remote villages of India. The WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) was mentioned, along with Justin Beiber, Miler Cyrus, and Michael Jackson. Oh well! I guess we can’t control what makes the leap and what doesn’t!

The classes, along with much of society, are extremely gendered. The girls sit on one side of the classroom, the boys on the other. When the boys speak, the girls listen, but when the girls speak, the boys tend to chat amongst each other. This attitude is reflected in marriage practices, family life, and most definitely in the political realm as well.

The younger classes are very cute! Their English comprehension and speech are not quite as good as in the Holy Cross School. I hope to sub in one of their classes at some point so I can spend time with them as well! Here is a picture of class 1!

One of the most eye-opening moments of the day for me was when a student asked me where in the world I had traveled. I told him that I had been to over 20 countries and the whole class let out a collective gasp. I asked them how many of them had been to Delhi, the Indian capital, not one hand went up. The vast majority of these children have not left their small state of Tripura, some potentially never seeing past the city of Agartala.

In other news, our neighbor Jinu (7 years old) has begun to teach me to play cricket! It is a very interesting sport that resembles baseball (but only a little). I will admit that I’m not very good at it, but Jinu says that there’s hope

for me yet! I hope he’s right!

We also took a group excursion to a local zoo! It was a very exciting to see all of the monkeys, rhinos, leopards, lions, and tigers! While we were there, one of the monkeys actually escaped! Here is a picture of the Royal Bengal Tiger that we saw.

I think that is all for now, but I will most definitely keep you all posted! ~Ben

05 August, 2010

Visiting the Blessed Andre School

Hi everyone! Just wanted to give a quick update as to what’s going on with us in India! At the moment, I’m counting the geckos on my wall…I’m up to 5 and I’m suspicious that I’ve missed a few. Some people around here think that they’re annoying, but I love watching them dart around the walls (not to mention they eat mosquitoes).
Yesterday we traveled to the Blessed Andre School with Father Joe Paul. The drive was around 25 minutes and took us through some beautiful country. Rice paddies lined both sides of the road at some points filled with workers and nature alike. The colors here seem more vivid than anything I’ve experienced before.
The greens of the paddies and jungle are especially bright.

The children at the school were very excited to see us and when they were told that two of us might be coming to teach there, they became even more enthusiastic. They genuinely seem like they want to learn as much as they can to better their chances at progressing in their education. Here are a couple of pictures from our morning at the school!

We have had a few meetings lately to determine our exact roles for the coming year. It was decided that Aja and I will be heading to the Blessed Brother Andre School for the first half of our stay and will then switch to the Holy Cross Agartala School with Marie and Ellen in January. I am very excited about this placement because the children we will be working with are slightly more in need than those at Holy Cross, though help is required everywhere.
Also discussed was what we would be teaching/contributing once at the Holy Cross School. I, for one, will potentially have two roles. First, I might be teaching Communicative English, which can be likened to public speaking. It is also possible that I may be used in social studies. Second, Father Emmanuel and Father C.V. Jose said that I should be able to lecture at the college in Political Science! This surprised me, as I do not feel qualified to do so, but it is an opportunity and a challenge that I would gladly take on!
Though we will be much busier once we start working at the school on Monday, I will do my best to continue to update the blog!

01 August, 2010

Welcome to India: First impressions

After four flights and several days blurred into one we have finally arrived in Agartala, India! Everything about India is warm. Its weather, the food (though for now I would characterize it as hot!), and of course its people. Since landing in Kolkata two days ago, we have been treated very well by everyone we have met. Our first friend, Father Joe Paul, met us at the airport in Kolkata along with his friend Manish, who owns the company that supplies them much of their school supplies. Manish had graciously offered his flat in the city to us for the night and made sure that we arrived there safely.That being said, the drive from the airport to the apartment was one I will never forget. Nothing can prepare you for the level of poverty we encountered as we made our way down the streets of one of the world's most densely populated cities. The air is thick and heavy with humidity and pollution. The threat of a storm hung over the city. The streets themselves were not overly crowded in the midnight hour, but the gutters and sidewalks were filled with men, women, and children sleeping on the hard ground, dogs and garbage strewn around them. At one point I saw a mother with a small child wrapped in her arms, using the curb as her pillow. As our taxi driver veered left and darted right, the smells of the streets filled our nostrils. At times, the smell reminded me of strong spices, but would quickly switch to the strong odor of sewage and decay. Once at the apartment we carted our baggage up and set up camp for the night. Here is a view of Kolkata from the window of the flat.
Once in Agartala the next day we were brought directly to our cottages before heading to the priests' compound for lunch. Here are some photos of our house, our cat Jax, and the jungle/forest surrounding us.

We have already met several students at the school. Two of our neighbors Ginu and Bijoy have come over to the cottages a few times already to meet us and just spend some time. Ginu is about 7 or 8 years old and Bijoy is in the 11th grade. Today Bijoy taught us a new game called Carem. It is a mixture of pool, air hockey, and paper football! Here are a few shots of us learning and playing!
After this, Ginu spend some time with us playing spoons and go fish!
In the afternoon we traveled to meet the Bishop of the diocese and then toured the campus with Fr. Emmanuel. He then took us to the girls hostel were it was tutoring time. We walked up the stairs and straight into a classroom of almost 30 students! I have never seen so many beautiful smiles! All of the girls immediately said, "Good evening Ma'am, Good evening Sir," which will definitely take some getting used to. They sang us a beautiful welcome song and gave us paper flowers to symbolize friendship and then asked us some questions before we headed back to our cottage for the night. It has made me even more excited for our teaching experience to begin!
I think that is all for now, sorry for such a long posting, but so much is happening so quickly!
Best, Ben

27 July, 2010

Sessions and Saris

While at the college we have had sessions on Indian culture, community living, career planning, and our summer volunteer experiences. Last year's volunteers have been amazing resources to us answering questions big and small. Tonight, they even came over and taught the girls how to properly wear their saris. I learned as well in case anyone needed help getting ready in the morning!
I am getting more and more excited for the trip as the departure gets nearer and we learn more about what we will be doing while in Agartala. I will do my best to post as soon as I can once we arrive in India!



13 July, 2010

Summer and getting ready!

My time since graduating from Stonehill College on 23 May, 2010 has flown by! I have had the opportunity to spend quite a lot of time with family and friends. Most recently, I took a trip to Beaufort, South Carolina with Katherine to attend the wedding of my good friends Gabi and Seth. Beaufort was, as always, charming and we had a lot of fun! Congratulations to the bride and groom!
As far as my trip goes, I am beginning to make packing lists and Mom and I will be going shopping soon to get anything else that I need! I am very excited, but also very nervous for this experience of a lifetime to begin and I feel so very blessed to have the love and support of family, friends, and Katherine!