Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Wild Elephants

Brent and I along with the five other volunteers at the conservation center were lucky enough to be invited along with the owner/vice president of the center into a rural village to witness some of the human elephant conflict that takes place in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the village we visited has, like so many others, encroached on the natural habitats of the wild elephants which leaves the elephants either hungry for more food or confused as to why their usual migration path now contains houses. As a result elephants wander into the village and ruin the crops of the local farmers in order to get food and are often shot or injured. Too often, locals are killed by bull elephants who are aggressive, have been previously injured, are frightened or are simply looking for food. Just days before we visited the village a man was killed by an elephant who was frightened of his flashlight. The purpose of visiting the village was to see if we as outsiders could come up with any fresh ideas to combat the issue. Through a translator we chatted to locals about the issues and how they felt about the elephants. It was decided that not only did we need to come up with a way to repel the elephants but a way to educate the people on how elephants can be used as a resource (in terms of tourism, compost and dung paper) rather than be seen as a pest.

After a traditional Sri Lankan lunch we were taken by jeep into the jungle to spot some wild elephants and see them in their natural habitat. We were so lucky and spotted around thirty different elephants including a calf as well as two bull elephants fighting. It was an incredible experience and I found it quite an adrenalin rush considering our new knowledge about how dangerous they could be. At one point our jeep was about 5 meters from an elephant and while I snapped as many pictures my heart was thumping at the though of what this wild beast was capable of.

At the end of the day we were treated to another traditional style Sri Lankan meal cooked by the locals and we discussed a plan of action. The following day we managed to put together a plan based on some research we found on elephant/human conflict in other elephant abundant countries together with the information we gained from our trip. Hopefully something positive will eventuate and the people will learn to live in peace with these magnificent animals.
Safari style!

two bull elephants fighting head to head

A little calf elephant

Monday, April 25, 2011

Letting go on Adam's Peak

Whilst at the elephant conservation center we are allowed to take weekends off if they aren't too busy, so along with two other volunteers we organised an overnight trip to Adam's Peak or Sri Pada as it is known in Sri Lanka. This holy mountain is a sacred mountain to Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims and stands at 2,243 meters high. At the top of this tear drop mountain is a footprint and legend has it that it is the footprint of the Buddha, while Christians believe it to be the first footprint of Adam from the bible hence the western name 'Adam's Peak'.

We had heard that it was best to get to the top to see the sunrise and this meant leaving our guesthouse at 2am!. I shared a room and a very small bed with the other female volunteer while Brent shared with the other male. During the night, my restless sleep was interrupted by a very strange dream about my late Grandmother. I woke in the middle of the night startled from my dream, covered in sweat with tears rolling down my cheeks and decided then and there to dedicate my climb to my Grandmother as my way of finally saying goodbye.

We set off in high spirits at 2am and began climbing stair after stair along with thousands of Buddhist pilgrims who chanted and sang the entire way up the mountain. The dedication of these people was incredible, with young women carrying their babies, elderly people slowly hovering up the steps and even a one-legged man on crutches. The path is dotted with little tea-stops and we made one refuel stop before continuing on. Not surprisingly it started to rain on our way up and the four of us shivered and dripped in our very unprepared outfits.

About three quarters of the way up I bought a single lotus flower from a man selling offerings to Buddha. I decided I would lay my flower down at the top for my Grandmother. The flower was tightly closed when I purchased it, but as I slowly made my way to the top of the mountain in the pouring rain, my flower completely opened its petals, strangely moving me to tears once again. As I reached the top of the mountain I prostrated respectfully to the Buddha and left my flower and Grandmother at last, at the top of the mountain.
There was something extremely magical and spiritual about walking up those steps in the dark and the rain amongst such devout Buddhists. Unfortunately the rain was so heavy by the time we reached the top that there was no sign of a sunset or any sort of a view or 'footprint' but I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders at being able to finally let my Grandmother go in such a beautiful place.
Suzi, me and Kate wearing our Buddhist bracelets

Adam's Peak

The start of the walk

The walk down in daylight with a lot less people

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Teaching in Sri Lanka

Teaching in Sri Lanka is understandably nothing like teaching in Australia. To begin with, the teaching takes place outside on the concrete under a tin roof. There is a blackboard and nothing else - no chairs, desks or most importantly lights, which means while I take my one-two hour English lesson in the afternoon as the monsoonal rain belts down, the children squint to see me and my well-intended resources. I also need to  yell quite loudly in order to compete with the crashing thunder and sound of rain belting on the tin roof.

I really had no idea what to expect on the first day but I wasn't surprised to find 20 odd children ranging from 4 to 16 years old waiting eagerly to learn something when my tuk-tuk pulled up in front of their 'school'. I had heard a range of reviews about their level of English but after the first day  found that it varied from non-existent to reasonable with those who can speak English having mainly memorised things in a particular rote order, including the letters of the alphabet which many struggle to identify if asked randomly.

Obviously it is quite a challenge teaching to such a broad range of abilities but their appreciation and beautiful smiling faces make it more than worth while. I didn't bring any resources with me and even left my computer back in India with all my teaching ideas and plans on the desktop but I have managed to rack my brain for enough lesson ideas that are adjustable enough to the different levels. Ideally, splitting the children into ability groups would make their experience much better but as there are no pens or paper or resources each group would require a 'teacher' to support them and of the 10 or so volunteers working here, Brent is the only one I can convince to come along. Yesterday I discovered the children love to play Bingo, so I spent the day creating Bingo cards that have simple sight words instead of numbers so hopefully that will be a hit and a good teaching point for today.
The children making letters in groups with their bodies - this is a T

Using the floor and chalk instead of pencil and paper

Word Bingo

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Our first week at Millennium Elephant Foundation

We arrived at the Elephant center about a week ago now. It's a little like stepping onto the set of Jurassic Park, with random monsoonal rains, giant mosquitoes and other flying creatures and wildlife buzzing about and of course these incredible dinosaur-like elephants.

Brent and I were allocated a large male elephant named Saliya, he is about 5o years old and is extremely placid. Initially I wanted my own elephant but once I  started looking after him and got involved with all the other happenings at the  foundation I was more than pleased to be sharing. When we arrived at the center it was extremely disorganised due to it being Shri Lankan new year and due to the English coordinator having left. There were already some other volunteers here but it didn't take long before Brent and I got cracking on things and with the help of the owner/vice president of the foundation brought a bit of order and organisation back to the place.

Our day goes a little like this: At around 730am we meet our Mahout and go and collect our elephant from his sleeping area. While Brent assists the mahout I get the lovely job of removing between 40-100 dung balls (with my hands!) which has to be counted, observed and recorded for medical reasons. After this we take our elephant down to the river to bath and scrub him with coconut. This is pretty strenuous work and leaves your hands blistered and arms aching. We then head off for a quick breakfast before returning to our elephant to check his feet and feed him his vitamins. From about 10am onwards Brent and I have been working in the eco-garden. This was in pretty bad shape upon our arrival and has required us to remove the entire garden, bring in new soil (which of course we had to dig up) and plant new seedlings. We have also managed to transfer all the elephant records to electronic version, create a teaching resources 'corner', shift an entire veterinary room, update files, sponsorship packs, newsletters and more. Three afternoons a week we head into town to teach English to the local kids and today I will finally get this privilege as it has been school holidays.

Usually in the late afternoon just as the monsoonal rains begin our mahout decides to put our elephant to bed. Of late this has required us to drag 30-60 giant coconut leaves to our elephant as well as tend to some of his cuts and wounds, usually while a huge electrical storm crackles and thunders overhead.

Exhausted, saturated, covered in leeches, mosquito bites, rashes from the wild grass, cuts and bruises we drag ourselves to bed rather early but having felt pleased at accomplishing something worthwhile each day. We are looking forward to what the next week or so brings.

Me and our Mahout 'VJ' scrubbing Saliya

Brent cleaning Saliya's feet

Me with one of the house dogs 'Collin'

Brent feeding Saliya his vitamins

Monday, April 11, 2011

I survived a semester at an Indian University

I officially finished university lectures today. I wish I could say I am sad that I am finishing up here but ‘relieved’ would more closely resemble the truth. I would love to be able to write a long list of things I will miss about this university the way Jessica Watson did towards the end of her sailing adventure but all I could come up with was friends. Having said that, my time studying here has been a very steep learning curve and no doubt has brought about much change in my own beliefs, ideals and values and for that I would not wish to change my experience.
Ok, so while my lectures have officially finished I still do have to come back to the uni at the end of May to sit my end term exams. During this time my classmates will all head off to different schools to complete their practical teaching .This was one of the things I was looking forward to the most about studying in India – teaching in India! However, when I arrived at the uni I was told it would not be possible for me to teach in Punjab because I didn’t speak Hindi or Punjabi. I have no idea why they couldn’t have told me this while I was in Australia but I am beginning to think that many Indians actually believe a large majority of people outside their own country speak their language. Of course I have since found out that there are in fact many primary schools in the area that are strictly English medium and I even know a Polish girl who speaks English as her second language who teaches as an ‘authentic English teacher’ at one of these schools. I feel now that perhaps the real reason I am not permitted to teach at one of these Primary schools is the fact that in LPU I am studying how to be a ‘university’ lecturer not a primary school teacher as requested and promised.
Nevertheless things have worked out well because I now have a month free. And with that I have booked a plane ticket to Sri Lanka where Brent and I will be volunteering at an Elephant conservation centre. Next to horses, I am slightly obsessed with elephants and completely captivated by their beauty and magnificence. I suppose we could have found an Elephant centre in India to volunteer at but when you are so close to so many countries it makes sense just to pop over for a look (oh and did I mention there is better surf in Sri Lanka!). I am told that while we are at the park we will be allocated our own elephant to care for. This includes cleaning his paddock (I am no stranger to mucking out stables and paddocks but I assume cleaning an elephant’s paddock might be a ‘bigger’ job), bathing the elephant, feeding him and giving him any medicine or first aid care required. Contrary to what you might think, caring for an elephant is not an all day job so while we are there (and this was the clincher for me wanting to stay at this particular centre) we also get to choose another volunteer project to partake in. There is an option to teach English to the local children and adults in the Buddhist temples (which is what I am hoping to do) or you can volunteer in their completely self-sufficient organic garden (which is perfect for Brent given he is studying Environmental Science). In addition we can also accompany the local vet on his house visits for those people with sick or injured pet elephants – strange but true. Apparently there is little to do at night time at the centre so I have packed my books and intend to study for my end term exams.
We head off early Wednesday morning so I’ll keep you posted on the Elephant adventures.
Some of my Guidance and Counseling classmates - my teacher on the right in the pink top sitting

Some of my educational entrepreneur classmates

Monday, April 4, 2011

Shimla Hill Station

After quite a challenging week, Brent and I made a very impromptu decision to take advantage of our rare two day weekend and head to Shimla, in Eastern Himachal Pradesh. Having not booked a bus we jumped on whatever we could find and took a very bendy and squishy trip to Shimla Hill station. Although I was quite comfortable, the poor woman in front of us sat nursing her baby with her head hanging out the window, vomiting on every second turn and unfortunately she wasn’t the only one.  
We arrived at about 1am and the first thing that struck me was how empty the town was. Usually I would welcome this change however we weren’t even being hassled by taxi drivers and this of course was the one time we needed one. After walking the streets aimlessly for a while with no map, no clue of where to go and the sound of wild dogs growing closer we eventually found a man who (at the right price) offered to walk us to our accommodation. The following morning we woke to playful monkeys banging on our window and an amazing view of seemingly endless mountains.
Our first stop was a Bird park that interestingly only contained a few Geese, roosters and some locked up Pheasants and probably wasn’t worth the 25 rupees but nevertheless the baby gooslings were cute. We then weaved our way up the old English influenced streets that are dotted with cheeky (and sometimes aggressive) monkeys to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. A friend had suggested I see the building and at the time I couldn’t help but wonder why I would want to visit another university but on reaching the magnificent building I understood her request.  Built in 1884, it looks like something straight out of a Harry Potter movie, surrounded by manicured gardens and incredible mountain views. We stayed here a while and walked around the quiet gardens taking in the views.
We then slowly made our way to the main street of Shimla, Mall Road. It is extremely British influenced with old English buildings lining the streets, children being led on ponies up and down the road and street sellers selling handicrafts and Indian sweets. We drank coffee in an old Indian coffee shop, and then watched the world cup cricket over lunch in a quiet but surprisingly well lit bar and restaurant (most of the bars are hidden away and dark). The streets of Shimla are immaculate due to a new law that forbids littering and surprisingly the town is hassle free. I even found bargaining for a pair of sunglasses to be relatively easy as much more laid back than in Punjab.
The following morning we took a train ride back down the mountain. It took five hours of twisting and turning through the most incredible scenery and views of Shimla. Shimla is vastly different to Punjab where we live and is almost like a different country. The diversity of this country never ceases to amaze me. It was definitely worth the trip and the perfect anecdote for a long and draining week.
The Geese and their goslings

Indian Institute of Advanced Study

A rooster at the Bird park

Hindu Monkey God, Hanuman

The view from our window

Some boys playing cricket stop to wave the train goodbye