Part One: Saltonstall Teacher Travels to Rajasthan, India
Saltonstall teacher Susan Brown shares her adventures in India.
“No way, you rode a camel and an elephant!?” my student exclaimed one morning early in September.
I quickly produced the photos and began to explain. This year, I have had great stories to share during the what-did-you-do-this-summer conversation that begins each new school year.
At the end of July and through much of last August, I traveled to India to learn about the culture, history, geography and educational system of this most ancient and fascinating country.
GEEO, a non-profit group dedicated to helping teachers travel the world, arranged the trip. One goal for me was to visit schools in a different culture, compare and contrast our teaching practices and bring back new ideas and information for my own classroom. There were 14 teachers from all over the United States on this tour, which was centered mostly in the northern state of Rajasthan.
The largest of India’s 28 states, Rajasthan is known as the “Desert State” with much of it covered by the Thar Desert. It is home to ancient cities, palaces, forts and temples built over many centuries by Rajasthan’s maharajas and mogul rulers. In addition to visiting Rajasthan, we also spent a number of days in Delhi, visited Agra and the Taj Mahal and then a few of us continued our journey onto Varanasi, one of the holiest cities of the Hindu faith.
Our gracious and ever patient guide, Shiv Patel, was a constant source of information. In addition to giving us historical background, he helped us understand the cultural conflicts inherent in the “two” Indias. This oft repeated phrase refers to the conflict or contrast between the modern, technologically, socially and educationally emerging India and the traditional, religiously-focused culture and mores of India passed down through the generations.
Sometimes these paradoxes are embodied in a single person — an Oxford educated lawyer agreeing to an arranged marriage; a woman with a veil talking animatedly on her cell phone. Other times you can see it in a larger context — the juxtaposition of glorious beautiful temples with people begging right next to them; cows, camels and dogs standing in traffic right next to a shiny new Mercedes Benz; a luxury hotel with the employees right outside its doors cutting the grass with handheld blades.
This mix of cultures, purposes, directions and forces is what I found so captivating. India is one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, but it is also home to a vibrant youthful morass of humanity deep in the struggle to emerge as the next India.
To this outsider, it seems that the very traditions of religion and culture in conflict with the “modern” India is what gives the people a deep sense of who they are. There is a confidence that comes from the strong ties of culture. It is almost as if India knows it is destined to thrive in the struggle of the 21st century as it has for over 2000 years.
Susan Brown teaches grades 5/6 at Saltonstall School.