Greater Hyderabad Adventure Club cleanup of Ananthagiri

Cleaning up
Cleaning up

*Photo credit: All photos by GHAC. Thanks for sharing!

I have been hoping for an opportunity to join the Greater Hyderabad Adventure Club (GHAC) on an outing ever since I discovered them two weeks ago. They have meetups ranging from local bird watching to multi-day trips that all seem exciting and fascinating. Today I finally was able to follow through. The meetup was slightly later than the usual 6:30 meeting time, and on a weekend when the kids were free. Equally important, the kids were excited: It involved both a hike and a chance to do something for mother earth (pick up litter). Both kids have been asking about volunteering recently and how children can be involved, and my son seems especially intrigued by the concept. Both children were very excited when I told them about the meetup, so we signed up. The day began with an alarm clock, a little horlicks (ovaltine) and a long wait at a local bakery after we were dropped off. Luckily, new friends showed up shortly and introduced themselves — both were as new to GHAC as us, and very friendly. Good thing too, as the usual hurry & wait of travel set in. Once we were settled in the bus, we were surrounded by friendly faces, many of whom offered the children food and drink as we drove. The GHAC is an organization that started three years ago. Because of the special nature of this trek (cleaning up), there were many folks involved who had helped found it or been involved for some time. Most other events have two organizers (a leader, and someone to mop up the crowed at the back end), who have been extensively trained in safety, outdoor survival knowledge, and so on, and are limited in size to a manageable number of folks accompanying those leaders (around 15 maximum). The club started small, but about a year ago began growing dramatically and now has over 5000 members, only about 100 of which are trained leaders. As a result, most meetups book up very very quickly after they are announced, even though there are many each week. This meetup, again unusual in nature, had no limit. In fact, a group of about 30 college students met us there and helped tremendously with the cleanup. After a quick stop for Idli and other breakfast yummies, and a long drive, we finally arrived at the temple marking the start of our walk. We headed down a set of steps into a valley near the temple and began picking up garbage.

Cleaning up
Cleaning up
We filled about 15 of these bags
We filled about 15 of these bags

The GHAC leaders helped to organize us (and the students when they arrived a few minutes later), provided special gloves and facemasks to anyone who wanted them, provided garbage bags, and generally kept things moving. The kids documented what we did with videos and photos, and had a great time exploring the forest. We helped make sure they avoided any spiders and snakes. The kids were far too noisy for me to worry much about the bears, boars, and other animals that live in the surrounding forest. I did run into one spider web myself, and discovered a VERY large spider walking down my neck a few minutes later. After seeing me doing a bit of a dance, someone suggested I just hold still and calmly grabbed its silk and moved it. Wish I’d had the presence of mind to think of that myself! It was BIG, though.

The forest here is beautiful if you can ignore the litter (or remove it!)
The forest here is beautiful if you can ignore the litter (or remove it!)
After ... the litter is in bags now instead of on the ground. In the background are some of the many college students who helped us.
After ... the litter is in bags now instead of on the ground. In the background are most of the many college students who helped us.
Heading home
Heading home
The view from the top of the hill station area
The view from the top of the hill station area

Although we didn’t spend much time touring, the organizers were kind enough to take us around a bit. We were surrounded by the constant sound of birdsong, and drank in the beauty of the surrounding forest while trying to ignore the litter that hadn’t yet been cleaned up. Most beautiful of all to me was the eucalyptus grove. We did try to look for birds, but we heard them far more than we saw them. Instead, we saw boar tracks, a toad, a very large spider, and many kinds of plants. The organizers of the event did a great job of using it to educate as well as clean up. After the main cleanup, we piled the bags high and joined in a circle to pledge to protect the earth.

Next, we piled back into buses and traveled on to a beautiful overlook, where we discovered more litter. This time, we were able to gather more than half as much litter in 10 minutes (there was a lot, all in the same area) as we had in 3 hours before. The kids delighted in taking on the role of time keeper as we cleaned.

The event ended, after lunch and relaxation at the hill station’s main resort hotel, with a long ride back to Hyderabad. This was a chance to talk and make friends with the wonderful group of people who helped the cleanup to happen. The children were playful, as were the grownups and we shared a great deal of laughter during the long drive home.

When we finally got back to our flat, it was long past dark. After a quick snack, I put the children to bed. When we stopped as usual to make wishes and thanks, the importance of an event like this was made abundantly clear. My children had absorbed its meaning far more deeply than I had imagined. Both children talked about how bad litter and plastic were. My son wanted to organize a cleanup of the play area near our flat that all the children use. My daughter planned to invent a special device the fairies could use to tell everyone on earth never to litter again. However, after finding out that plastic takes a long time to degrade, she wanted my reassurance that we would not gather the litter up simply to throw it in a landfill where it would continue to bother mother earth. Her fairies, she told us, needed material to make there houses, and couldn’t we use the plastic for that and other projects?

Despite the joys of the day, there was one thing about the event that concerned me. My son refused to take an oath to help the earth when others did. Later, as he went to sleep, he asked me how he could possibly make up for all the bad things he does to mother earth (especially driving so much). It breaks my heart to think that by letting the kids know when we decide to take a train instead of fly, or bike instead of drive, I may have led my son to feel he was doing so much bad that he couldn’t promise to help her. Perhaps I should never have done more than show the kids how beautiful the earth is at this age, letting the rest come when they were ready. For sure, striking the best balance is difficult.

Since I can’t undo what’s been done (and I’m not sure I know a way to describe the choices we’ve made in the past that’s truthful without creating guilt), I tried instead to explain that the impact of what we did today was far greater than the garbage we picked up: If what we did ensures that the students and others who attend never litter again, or stops other visitors from littering, we’ve saved lifetimes of garbage from being thrown out. That sort of impact is bigger than any one person.

So my hope for my son (and all of us) is that we can again and again create the kind of waves that today’s event did. If that happens enough, if enough people create waves, perhaps each of us can “make up” for the negatives inherent in today’s lifestyle, or better yet change lifestyle and culture enough that living on this earth is once again a shared act of creation rather than destruction.

Monkey Business

Monkeys in class
Monkeys in class

After complaining so much in my last email about the 120 degree heat, with no power or water, I wanted to share something more fun.

Yesterday (Thursday) was my 2nd to last day of teaching here at RK Valley. We’re leaving tomorrow for Hyderabad. I teach 3 classes, 1 hour each, from 3-6 everyday. 4pm is chai-time (the British weren’t all bad, I suppose), so at 4, someone brings me a cup of chai, a bottle of ice-water and a package of biscuits for my chai. I was walking around the classroom and had my back to the front of the class, when I heard a small crash. I could tell from the crinkling that the biscuits had fallen to the floor – no big deal. The package was closed, and I wasn’t going to eat them anyway. About 10 minutes later, I got to the front of the classroom, and the package was gone. Remember this was only a few days after one of my shoes went missing, and I had to go to the local village to get a new pair. So, I was pretty confused. I opened the door to my classroom, and you can see below who came to visit me. It was a family of 4, including a baby (which was pretty scared of me).

It’s things like this that make me forget about the scorching heat, and really appreciate where I am and what I get to do. It also makes me miss Pittsburgh – we’ve all been getting a little homesick lately. But, I guarantee, nothing like this would ever happen at CMU :-).

Temples, Shopping, and Tombs, oh my!

We’ve been busy teaching, working, and relaxing, but we’ve also managed to squeeze in one or two sightseeing trips. Vempali is a busy little village (of 100,000 people!), about 16 kilometers away from RGUKT. There, we bought some fabric to make much needed clothing for the kids (we seem to have left too much in Hyderabad) and ate a delicious lunch of chicken Biryani. Mostly we just took in the sights — oxen, tricycles, motorcycles, tractors, and cars shared the road (and the burden of moving goods around). Children ran happily by with a clear independence we are still trying to teach our kids. Despite the prevalence of mobile phones, the town sported a payphone that we actually saw being used. The buildings are colorfully painted, the streets and shops narrow.

A few days later, we visited a local (new) temple. Surrounded by rocky outcroppings (temples are usually on/among hills here), it hosted a busy market and a steady stream of visitors. Monkeys ran in and around the people and trees, while music filled the air. The atmosphere was both festive and peaceful. We experienced a personal Puja for the family thanks to our RGUKT hosts and enjoyed the Prasad (blessed sweets) afterwards. We ended our temple trip with a visit to the tomb of the former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh (the state RGUKT is located in), who helped to make RGUKT possible. RGUKT is located on land that he donated, and he helped to ensure substantial funding for the university as well. Unfortunately, he was killed about a two years ago under suspicious circumstances. As a result the university is struggling to find more funding.
[flickr video=5971924201/]


Today was one of those days that makes you want to dance. In order to explain why I need to back up a bit and describe a little about the teaching I’m doing here at RGUKT. Many of the students at RGUKT are from rural communities and the vast majority are here on scholarship. Their main language is Telugu, and although they are taught in English, not all of them speak it perfectly. The university aims to admit students who excel at their local school from all over Andhra Pradesh. My understanding is that students are not required to pass any national exams before being admitted. This means that while the students here are smart and motivated, they may not all have equal background. They spend their first year (or two?) here covering needed pre-college material.

RGUKT has a very large student body, all taking the same classes at first, and courses involve a combination of lectures and watching videos. The students all have access to shared laptops at least once a day (if I understand correctly — my understanding has been shifting over time) and do their homework either on paper or on laptop depending on the assignment. Internet access is carefully controlled and quite limited, though the campus does have a fairly fast connection (unless several thousand students are hitting it all at once 🙂 ). Internet is not usually turned on in the classroom, and when we requested that this change in our class, it took much of the first class to get everyone up and running. Outside of class, we had to download the documentation and files for our programming course so that students could access them without Internet (through the campus LAN).

The students here live on campus, and many only see their family members when they head home (the trip here is difficult and visits usually only last one day). Girls and boys live in separate dorms, sit separately in class (girls in front), eat separately, and do sports in separate locations. Impressively the student body is at least 1/3 (maybe even close to 1/2) female.

There is time for exercise and recreation, along with studying, every day. The students are friendly and cheerful, and often visit (usually to kidnap one or both of my children for fun, sometimes to talk to myself or Anind). When we join them in the sports fields or the mess hall, many are eager to talk and ask questions about the best engineering field to major in (this is an engineering focused school), how they can use their degree to make a difference at home, what jobs are best, why we are here, and much more.

We are each teaching three sections (“batches”) of about 70 students (a total of about 420 students) for an hour each, 5 days a week. The students rotate through the same set of laptops, which brings challenges (it is impossible to easily give them each a clean environment, or even to ensure that they each have their own set of files, especially given the confusions they have early in the course over which file to edit, where to find them, and so on). As described above we (now) have Internet access in the classroom (most of the time). Because of this, it is a precious opportunity to let them work on code/the interactive, online class pages (created using OLI). We do this 3 days a week (T/Th/S). To add to the challenge, Internet is not always available, and sometimes the power goes out for some or all machines as well (luckily not too often!). The day we had the worst power troubles, the students had to move in ever larger groups from laptop to laptop around the room as each died.

In the class room, the students are very different … or at least have been for the last week and a half. They all rise politely when I enter, speak in unison in response to my “Good Morning.” They sit quietly during class with notebooks open and scribble down as much as they can about what I have to say. Getting them to interact with me instead of their notebooks is very very difficult. The typical answer to a question I ask is “Yes ma’am,”  while the answer to “Are there any questions” has been a uniform shake of the head or empty silence in most cases. As an instructor, my job, then, is to find out why. Luckily, and slowly, the dam has broken open. The mother hen of the campus, a kind and wonderful, fatherly man who has taken care of us along with hundreds of students with which he is close friends or more  has given us feedback, as have the instructors who are helping us with the course. I speak too fast, we are covering a huge amount of material, my accent is difficult to follow. These issues, combined with cultural differences in question asking and answering, and stylistic differences in RGUKT teaching versus my own make it difficult to make forward progress.

Here are some of the things I have tried to use to rectify this in the last week plus:

  • Ask the students to stand up and sit down only if the answer to [pick a question] is [pick an answer] (this after the first time I asked them to vote on something and got no hands raised for any option). Verdict: It got us over the first hump (not answering even yes/no questions) and doesn’t require students to speak in a language they are uncomfortable with
  • Ask the students to discuss my question with a neighbor and then vote again (rinse and repeat until most students vote). Verdict: Also fairly effective early on, though often I have to ask more than once to hear more noise in the room when they are supposed to talk with their neighbor!
  • Tell the students that they have to ask a question but it doesn’t need to be about the material. Verdict: Mixed results. In one section, when I suggested the question “Ask me what I like most about India” I got a bite, but another section didn’t respond at all
  • Hand out my email address and respond quickly and kindly to email messages. Verdict: A definite success. It got me comments (“ma’am, please speak more slowly”) which I told them about in class, and I think helped them see that I was open to answering questions
  • Walk around the room while students try a task. If a question is good, go back to the front and answer it for everyone. If it is asked twice, tell them so and ask anyone else with the same question to raise their hands. Then point out how many hands are up and ask again that they speak up when they have questions. Verdict: I think this one takes time to sink in but helps.
  • Regale them with crazy facts when they have no questions to ask (did you know dog owners in America pick up their dog’s poop?) and make them laugh when they do ask questions (I can make myself into a Picture object and point at my own Pixels. Today I explained the “private” keyword by comparing my “teach()” method to my “kissHusband()” method)

I’m not sure what made the difference, but today things finally changed. Looking back I can see it wasn’t just today. One student told me that others might be embarrassed to speak up (I asked him to please set an example for others by speaking up himself), another asked me what this “learn by doing stuff” was for anyway, an email message asked me to speak more slowly, … each time I got feedback of this sort I made an effort to let the students know I understood the difficulties they faced and how much I was asking of them, and to tell them about the feedback I had gotten and show them that I did not feel upset or criticized.

All I can say is I was ready to dance for joy in class today. When I stopped after presenting each new bit of material and asked for questions I usually got one, two, three or more questions, spread across multiple students. This happened in multiple sections. Perhaps they can understand my English just a little bit better, or have gained some confidence in my expectations. For my part, I praise their progress and let them know I have a long way to go in both speaking (slowing down) and understanding (I still have to walk up to each student and ask him or her to repeat the question until I understand it — between their accent and the ambient noise of the fans in the room I have a hard time). Perhaps they feel more comfortable with me, or have resigned themselves to the fact that I won’t give up. I don’t know for sure, but each question is a gift, especially knowing how far it had to travel. For me teaching has always been a conversation, and not a one-sided one. I am grateful to have achieved that, with the students’ help, here at RGUKT.

Traveling to RGUKT

One week ago we all got in a car and spent 7 or 8 hours traveling cross country from our location. Although the trip was difficult (especially for my son, who woke up vomiting an hour before we were supposed to leave, and continued to do so throughout the drive), it was also beautiful and full of fascinating sights. Here are a sampling of the pictures we took, more can be found on flickr.

Mountains on the road to RGUKT 

This doesn’t really capture the craziness of the driving, but… we shared the road and beeped horns as needed …

  Sharing the road

Pretty much everything looked overloaded!
Perhaps its in this enormous basket
Poor oxen -- out of focus and overburdened

Memories of France…
Grandma and Grandpa eat your heart out -- echoes of france (but much shorter!)

Doing the laundry
Doing the laundry

We had hoped to take the train (and it sure might have helped my son!) but we ended the trip like this instead.
Thank goodness we've moved from vomiting to sleeping

Impressions of home

We have been living in Hyderabad for a week now, and are pretty well settled in. The children seem to have gotten over their initial homesickness for the most part, our flat has furniture and dishes (and has been cleaned), we’ve met with all of the people who so kindly helped to arrange our trip, and have the settled the kids into a school.

Our apartment has a spacious porch. When we open the doors to it, a cool breeze fills the whole apartment
Our apartment has a spacious porch. When we open the doors to it, a cool breeze fills the whole apartment

Our second floor flat is spacious and breezy (luckily, our area of Hyderabad seems to have an almost constant breeze), with fans in every room and a set of double doors leading to a nice porch. It lacks any softness for now but the cold stone walls and tile floor help to make it cool and comfortable. Although this is monsoon season, the rains have been weak so far, so the temperature on some days has been quite high.

The flat is part of faculty housing at IIIT Hyderabad, and our neighbors have been kind, friendly and helpful. The children already have a new friend who lives just below us. IIIT has also provided us with a staff: someone to sweep and clean, someone to do laundry (an extra perk we very much appreciate as the alternative is scrubbing our own clothing by hand), and an electrician and carpenter on call. The differences in status among people we meet are highly visible. For example, many of the staff do not wear shoes, and I have seen Dhoti worn only by working men while more affluent men tend to wear western clothing. Women tend to wear traditional clothing such as a Salwar kameez or a Sari, and some wear a tunic and pants, while working women wear the Sari almost exclusively. Personally, I find the Salwar Kameez to be the most comfortable option in the heat here although I imagine a Sari would also be comfortable (I don’t yet own any).

My son and daughter playing on the rocks outside our flat
My son and daughter playing on the rocks outside our flat

Outside, the land looks arid compared to what I am used to, with brown earth, short thin trees, and wispy underbrush. However Hyderabad is actually in quite a lush region of India. In fact, although we must take care not to drink unfiltered water, it is used abundantly in daily life. Food is grown everywhere: Huge palm trees full of coconuts line many roads, farms are mixed among buildings and food plants can even be found growing in the dirt along the side of buildings. This neighborhood of Hyderabad (Gachibowli) was apparently mainly a farming community just 10 years ago. On campus, the road we live on continues past our building to a farm with cows and about an acre of growing space.

The area we are staying in is booming, with construction around every corner. Rickety bamboo and stick scaffolding surrounds new construction, filled with workers doing everything from bricklaying to work that might be handled by a crane in the States, while women walk by underneath carrying stones and debris in baskets on their heads.

Hyderabad is a study in contrasts. Below the new buildings and construction, many streets are lined with small shacks built of sticks and tarp. Our dishes, appliances, furniture are built to last (stainless steel is commonly used here for plates and cups, for example). At the same time, everything from oil to milk is purchased in throw-away plastic bags. We have shopped for supplies at small roadside stands, but a few kilometers away is a mall that is only obviously Indian in the style of clothing displayed in some of the store windows.

Amazingly, despite the novelty of our surroundings, we already feel at home. New friends, new spaces, new foods, so many things to see, all keep us busy so the days fly by. But at the end of the day our familiar routine takes over — dinner, stories, bedtime — and the comfort of being a family brings us home again.

When anything seems possible

When starting fresh for a year, it seems as though there’s no limit to the possibilities for what can be done. I’m working on a list of things that I hope to accomplish while I’m away on Sabbatical, and I’m starting to wonder how realistic it is. I’m going to share them here for a few reasons:

  1. I happen to know from my research that public commitment is a great way to help make goals happen
  2. It should be interesting to look back at this list in a year and see what’s been done, what hasn’t, and what unpredictable things have been added.

Just to keep things simple, I’m only going to put work stuff down here.

  • Learn about other ways of thinking through sustainability. I want to take the time to deeply explore my own beliefs about sustainability, cross-cultural understandings of sustainability, and how both relate to my chosen field. I am planning on spending at least an hour a week just thinking and writing and reading about ethical/social/planetary issues relating to sustainability. I am also planning on teaching my course on sustainability in both of my sabbatical locations. Total time commitment: 5-6 hours per week.
  • Expand my toolbox. I want to learn more about hardware and machine learning (I’ve posted about this before on this blog). My current plan is to take a class on machine learning (I have a handy virtual one with me, or I can sign up wherever I’m at) and teach myself hardware using slides from a CMU class & hands on experimentation. I figure if I spend 2-3 hours per week on each (in parallel if possible, in series otherwise) I should make good progress on this over the year. Total time commitment: 4-6 hours per week.
  • Finish hanging projects. I have: Three projects that require analysis only and two-three projects that require writing code. I plan on doing these for the most part in series, unless I am able to recruit local talent to help with the latter two. It’s possible they won’t all get done, but I hope at least some will! Estimated time commitment: 4-6 hours per week.
  • Start new projects that I’ve already thought about. I have two in mind. Estimated time commitment: 4-6 hours per week if done in series.
  • Write a large NSF proposal [already started]. Estimated time commitment: 1 hour per week through November.
  • Continue supporting students. Estimated time commitment: 3-4 hours per week of meetings, 1 hour per week of prep & planning.
  • Meet new people, start new projects, develop new ideas. Estimated time: 4-6 hours per week.
Ok, that’s the first time I’ve attached time estimates to this list. I guess I should add them up and see if I’m crazy! It looks like I’ve scheduled between 26 and 36 hours per week (depending on whether my min or max estimates are correct). I must admit, I’m surprised it isn’t more. This means that I could be significantly underestimating some things and still come out ok. I am prepared to cut some things if needed, but I’m pleasantly surprised that it all seems to fit.

On the road!

It’s official — I’ve left my home city, not to return for a year. The house is cleansed of years of clutter (most of it went to donation), packed and polished. The children, the dog, the gerbils, myself, and two 6 month trips worth of clothing (to accomodate the different cultural and climate conditions of the two halves of the sabbatical) all caravanned to our first  destination (New York) yesterday. Today is the first day of … well summer vacation for the children, and “using my last week wisely!” for me.

I have colleagues who claim that travel of this sort can help to clear the todo list. Not for me. I am teaching up until the day I leave, and trying to finish up a number of other obligations at the same time. My most urgent todos include NSF reports, a grant submission, expiring IRBs, and students who still need attention and support regardless of where I am in the world. Still, my load feels lighter, de-cluttered, like my home.

During the last week, I was reminded how lucky I and my family are to have many close friends, colleagues, and family members. The visits by friends, our goodbye party, the help our parents gave us with the move, and all the other small and large gestures were a reminder of how much we are leaving behind. Knowing we will be back in a year made it much easier to go — goodbyes became gestures of friendship rather than sadness. Still, things will change before we return, friends will move, children will grow.

I hope to change too. One of the most interesting questions I was asked in the past week was “What do you hope to get out of your sabbatical?” Personally, I have not been able to travel much due to health and family obligations. Seeing a new part of the world, in a style my body can handle, is something I’ve looked forward to for months now. Additionally, it is my hope that the children will learn about their language and culture, and get a chance to be away from some of the more toxic aspects of our home for long enough that I can learn whether they are affected by such things. My professional hopes for the sabbatical start with learning. Even after all these years, one of the joys of my position is the ability to learn new things, and I plan on making the time to study machine learning and hardware. I have packed an inventor’s kit  and related supplies, along with a set of lectures on machine learning (in case there is no local course I can take). I am also hoping to finish a number of exciting projects I currently have no students for, and start new collaborations and projects for the future. Finally, I am hoping to gain insight into the new cultures I will be entering and their relationships with sustainability and health, partly through my teaching the ever evolving environmental hackfest  course.

So yesterday marked the fresh beginning of a journey that in some ways I’ve been on my whole life. I look forward with excitement and curiosity to what will come next!