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This article was first published in March issue of Valley India Times.

For long I had heard great things about Hawaii islands that had created in my mind a picture of a heavenly place that everyone in the US must visit at least once. But our fascination for foreign travel never actually gave us an opportunity to experience any of those spectacular Hawaiian Islands. Last year, when both our daughters visited Maui, the second largest island in the Hawaiian chain, and raised its praises to the skies, I and my husband decided to plan a one-week trip to this magnificent island. I must say the island’s unique culture and abundant natural charm enchanted us instantaneously. From December 5 to December 12, we explored the diverse facets of its primary attractions– Luau, Banyan tree, whale watching, submarine trip, blow hole, Iowa needle, Haleakala sunrise, and lastly, a one day road trip to Hana. Today, I would like to share our experiences of the most exciting and unforgettable road trips I have ever taken- Road to Hana.

We preferred to venture to Hana in our rental car instead of opting for a guided tour so we could spend time at our preferred stops at will. Leaving our condo Kihei ka Nani at 7:00 am, we drove 13 miles to get to Hana Highway 36. It was strongly recommended that we fill up our gas tank before Paia because after that, there will be no gas station on the 45 mile drive to Hana. So we filled up the gas tank and set off on our exhilarating journey to Hana. After a couple of miles, we spotted a fresh fruit shop. That reminded me that our daughters were highly appreciative of the fresh fruits shops on the way, so we made it a point to pull over at the very first fruit shop and bought a pack of fresh pine apple. Taking a bite of the delicious pineapple, we began treading a nearby trail alongside tall bamboo trees for some distance until we decided against spending too much time on the first stop itself and walked back to the car to move ahead on our journey.

At 9: 00 am, we made it to our first major stop ‘Arboretum & Botanical Garden at mile marker 10. There is an admission fee of $ 15 per person, which is absolutely worth it, considering the heavenly experience it entitles you to. The garden is rightly called the Garden of Eden, and you instantly get a feel of its sanctity when on entering the garden you receive a warm welcome by the peacocks and ducks leisurely wandering near small pool and across the dirt road with no fear of the approaching car. There is something magical about them that makes you get off your car, walk up to them to just admire them, talk to them, picture them or buy food to feed them.

 

Garden of Eden

 

This pristine unspoiled garden has the finest collection of 750 botanically labeled and meticulously nurtured trees, exquisite flowers, and tiny pools that you cannot stop gazing at. The garden is also known for the large rock near the ocean below that is seen in the opening scene of the movie ‘Jurassic Park’- a great photo opportunity for all. Also, it boasts of a 100 years old mango tree and a beautiful painted Eucalyptus tree. Unfortunately, we missed the Eucalyptus tree. We kept searching for it in the map they provided us with the entry ticket, but we later discovered that it stood right near the entrance of the garden. (Actually, we happened to listen to this part of the CD after we left the ArboretumL) .

Garden of Eden-2

 

I fell in love with the garden for its quiet, serene splendor that seemed to whisper into my ears, ‘slow down, be quiet, and take in the beauty around you.’ I responded to it inadvertently and strolled around, gazing in wonderment at the trees, flowers, and ducks frolicking in the tiny pools that I lost count of time. I would have spent the entire day in the Garden of Eden if my husband hadn’t gotten mad at me for taking too long at the first stop, knowing fully well that we had a long journey ahead and also had to drive back home the same day.

We finally bid good bye to the ‘Garden of Eden’ and continued our onward journey. Traveling through the lush rain forests, exotic flowers and fruits, lively waterfalls, scenic look outs offering a picturesque view of the Pacific Ocean, I felt a unique proximity with nature. The only thing that reminded me of the modern times was the sound of the cars, and the flashing of cameras.

We made two photo stops before reaching half way to Hana at about 11:30 and then pulled over at a shop before Nahiku market for a taste of the delicious homemade Maui ice-cream and fresh coconut water. Nahiku market is the only big market on the road to Hana that is known for its amazing fish tacos and Maui grown coffee. The fish taco shop was closed that day. We, however, had a taste of Maui home grown coffee at the coffee shop on our return journey. We made our next stop at the Kahano garden- a somewhat less touristed but uniquely spectacular spot. Before you take a turn to explore this garden, be mindful of the mile long rocky road that leads to the Kahanu garden. When passing through this bumpy dirt road, I was so engrossed in taking pictures that I accidentally dropped the camera on to the road and broke it. Looking at the smashed camera, the attendant at the entrance felt so sorry that she waived the $ 10 admission fee for us. The camera episode obviously upset me momentarily, and I forgot to explore the temple in this garden which is said to be the oldest remaining structure in the US. We, however, did roam around the sprawling gardens to savor the breathtaking view of the palm trees that seemed to reach the sky, and also walked up to the shoreline with ocean waves crashing at the shore.

The last stop before the town of Hana was Wai’anapnapa State Park. Here cabins are available for rentals, and some people stay here for 1-2 days to get a real Hana experience. For me, the park stood out for its unique black sand beach. Soaking my feet in the black sand, letting it slip under my feet while gazing at the sea felt like being transported to another world. Another magical feature about this beach is the caves along the shoreline that simply take your breath away. We spotted some people lay relaxing on the black sand, enjoying the slow pace of life at Hana.

We, however, could not afford that luxury as we had planned to go back to Maui town. Some people take the entire loop of the mountain to experience Waimoku Falls and Seven Sacred Pools at Haleakala National Park. But we drove around this beautiful, seemingly lazy Hana town and then started heading back home for another dose of amazing experience on our return journey. I believe it’s not the destination Hana that one is looking for, rather it is the entire 100 mile drive back and forth that has countless hidden natural treasures for everyone to uncover.

This journey has so much to offer to everyone that you can ever get tired of it. If you enjoy soaking under the waterfall, you will find it an exciting place. If you are fond of hiking, there are numerous trails on this route that you can explore. And if you are a laid back nature lover like us whose preference is to share nature and let your imagination wander, this road trip has more to offer you than you can imagine. The truth is there is no right or wrong way for your Hana adventure; each one of us can create our own way to make this adventure an everlasting memory.

This is an experience I would love to repeat, for I am sure next time this journey is going to reveal many more secret treasures to me. Aloha J

This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of Valley India Times.

It is common knowledge that the kangaroo is one of the most iconic animals of Australia. It is also an unofficial symbol of Australia and is important to Australian culture and national image. Koala is another lovely native animal of Australia. Since we were keen to glance at these adorable Australian creatures, we made Koala Park Sanctuary a part of our itinerary during our five days’ stay in Sydney, Australia. We wanted to see them living naturally in the eucalyptus groves and native gardens, so instead of making a trip to the Zoo that was close to our hotel, we planned to visit Koala Park Sanctuary that was about an hour’s train journey from Sydney. We boarded the train from Central Station for Pennant Station at 10:00 am; from Pennant station we took a bus and reached Koala park sanctuary at around 11:20.

Koala -2

Far from the madding crowd of Sydney, the Koala Park is nestled in 10 acres of lush rain forests. It was started by Noel Burnet in October of 1930 who became alarmed at the high numbers of koalas shot for the large export fur trade and was afraid that this lovable and unique animal might disappear from the face of the earth. He created this sanctuary to provide a safe environment to koalas in which they could live and breed naturally. Later he brought in other native Australian birds and animals like kangaroos, dingoes, wombats, echidnas, emus, tiny penguins, many wallaby species, cockattoos and many other Australian native birds.

It being summer vacation in Sydney, the park had come alive with joyous chatter of kids in the age group of 2-10 who were accompanied by their parents and teachers. Eagerly looking for the signs of kangaroos or koalas, we turned to the first sign that read ‘Koalas’ and spotted a bunch of koalas clung to the Eucalyptus tree in their thick ash grey fur. It was fascinating to see that except for one, all the 10-12 koalas were asleep. That single koala was munching leaves and climbing up and down the tree while all its other companions closely clasped the branches in deep slumber.

While we were absorbed in fondly gaping at these little creatures, one of the zoo keepers came up to present the scheduled show at 11:45. In a small talk on koalas, she informed us that the koalas often sleep for 18-20 hours in a day and they like to sleep at the topmost point of the tree. They have special enzymes that make them digest Eucalyptus tree leaves which are otherwise poisonous. Most of their time is spent sleeping because it requires a lot of energy to digest their toxic, fibrous, low-nutrition diet, and sleeping is the best way to conserve energy. She also told us that koalas receive over 90% of their hydration from the Eucalyptus leaves they eat, and only drink when ill or times when there is not enough moisture in the leaves i.e. during droughts etc.

After the talk, she pulled down the hero of the show, the one and only active koala, and seated it on the fence. She then directed the visitors to form a line so they could cuddle it and pose for pictures. She also warned that koalas are very aggressive creatures, so we should not try to feed them. However, with the zoo keeper standing right next to it, the koala behaved like an obedient and docile kid while everyone took their turn in patting and posing for pictures and videos, the camera flashes constantly glinting into its eyes. In 15-20 minutes, the show was over and the performing koala was carefully placed by her caretaker on the branch where it again started munching leaves. Just then, I spotted another one waking up slowly, and I speculated if this one was going to be the performer of the next show scheduled in two hours.

We would have spent the entire afternoon watching these adorable sleepy creatures, but the curiosity to glance at the kangaroos motivated us to move ahead in search of the sign of kangaroos. They were placed in the feeding area not far from the koalas. The visitors were allowed to step in and experience the company of wandering kangaroos in the feeding area. Initially, I was scared to go close to them fearing they might not like human closeness, so I preferred to maintain a distance. Seeing other visitors, including kids cuddling and feeding them without any park employee to watch over them or any signs of warning to keep a distance, I gradually let go of my fear and stepped closer to the one who stood a couple of yards away, staring vacantly. I slightly touched him on his back. He appeared to be neither pleased nor annoyed, but somewhat indifferent, which encouraged us to remain in the feeding area longer to watch their movements. One of the kangaroos slowly moved on his hind legs and tail and started sniffing the large blue bag that hung on my husband’s shoulders, apparently looking for some food, but unfortunately, we forgot to buy food for them.

Strolling around the huge open area, we were having fun watching them hopping around with their small front legs and long hind legs. We also spotted one of the kangaroos in a corner affectionately cuddling another kangaroo. My husband quipped, “Looks like he is wooing his lady love.” “How cute!” I said. I felt that the presence of human beings did not seem to bother them a bit; in fact, they appeared to enjoy it. We, too, enjoyed the hospitality of these incredibly amiable and somewhat meek creatures who had so warmly welcomed strange humans to their homes.

Moving on, we said bye to our friends and stepped out of the area to get acquainted with other wonderful inhabitants of this sanctuary. Passing by an enclosure, we stopped when a bird attracted our attention with its greeting ‘hello’. We noticed that when these birds called cockatoos, shrieked in excitement, their feathers opened up. These enthusiastic and friendly birds enthralled us for as long as we stayed outside their cages, and when we parted, we could hear them bidding us farewell by a distinctly audible “bye”.

It was 2:00 pm, almost time for the sheep shearing show which we didn’t want to miss. So we began strolling up to the venue of sheep shearing while gorgeous peacocks leisurely crossed our path. We seated ourselves in the first row 10 minutes before the show time in order to get the best view. After a small talk about the equipment used in shearing the sheep and about the process of sheep shearing, the shearer pulled out a sheep from behind the enclosure and started shearing it. It took him about 5-7 minutes to strip the sheep of all its woolen fleece. To my amazement, the sheep appeared to be pretty accustomed to this painless routine that each sheep has to go through every year.

Thoroughly fascinated by this wonderful act, we headed to the last show of the day- the little penguins’ show. These tiny penguins weighing only one kg are inhabitants of Australia and eat only fish. The 10 minute show demonstrated each of the three penguins jumping up to grab fish from the caretakers and then hopping around the small pond joyfully.

I must say that while roaming around the Koala Park for a couple of hours and witnessing these amazing creatures perform in their natural abodes, we established a sense of connection with them. Even though they did not speak our language, they easily connected with us, communicated with us in their own unique ways, and made us feel welcome in their homes.

This article was first published in the July , 2013 issue of Valley India Times .

“Tomorrow I will drive you to Taupo via Rotorua and show you our New Zealand’s wonders along the way. I have booked overnight accommodation for us”, announced Arun , our Auckland based friend, barely an hour after we landed in Auckland after a 4-day trip to Queenstown, Wanaka, and Invercargill in South Island, New Zealand.

Our itinerary for North Island had already been planned by our enthusiastic friends. Like dutiful children, we got ready on time next morning to experience scenic delights of North Island. At 9:00 we headed out in their new Chevrolet for Taupo, a city 135 miles away from Auckland, the most populous city of New Zealand. Throughout the drive, we savored the pristine grandeur of lush vast expansive grasslands in the lap of hills and a delightful sight of herds of sheep and cows leisurely grazing along which explained why wool and dairy products have been New Zealand’s major exports. We, however, noticed that there were no gas stations for very long stretches and the public rest areas were completely missing on highways. The fact that New Zealand is a small country with a population of only four million may explain the absence of public restrooms and the scarcity of gas stations on the highways. At around 12:00, when we started noticing signs of population, we guessed we are making our way into the city of Rotorua. Suddenly, my husband remarked, “Why do I smell hydrogen sulphide?” Just then, I spotted the fumes emanating from one of the houses on the left side of the road. “What is it burning outside that house?” I asked curiously, and soon after, I sighted similar fumes emerging from another house we drove past. “This is what city of Rotorua is known for- the sulphur springs. It is a remidner of Rotorua’s volacanic history.” Arun said, unfolding one of his ‘secrets’ about the ‘wonders’ he had mentioned the previous night.

As we gaped in wonder the hissing steams emerging from road side vents, he pulled over at Kuirau Park at Sulphur Springs Point. Alighting from the car, we found ourselves in the midst of nature’s most extraordinary wonders available to us at no cost. Yes, there was no entry fee at the park. The strong smell that lingered in the air now felt stronger. The picture of Rotorua thermal activity was all around us; the park was full of gurgling mud pools. Strolling on the walking tracks, we watched this geothermal activity in amazement from the cool side of the safety fences. We wondered how the natives of this city cope with the presence of sulphur springs and the recurrent pungent smell of hydrogen sulphide.

After a quick bite of vegetarian sandwich and tea at McDonalds at Fairy Springs, we continued our journey to our destination Taupo. Barely ten minutes later, I caught sight of the sign that read Mitai Maori Village. That reminded me of the unique Maoriculture in New Zealand that I had read about long time back in one of the high school textbooks. Eager to catch a glimpse of Maori culture, we pulled over and enquired at the front desk. Unfortunately, all the shows about Maori culture (tribal dances etc.) were held at night, not during day time, so we could not get a chance to experience Maori culture.

Around hour an hour drive through pastures with surrounding hills, we reached Huka falls, the largest falls on the Waikato River, near Taupo. It is the most visited and photographed waterfalls in New Zealand. The name Huka is the Maori word for ‘foam’, which is apt for the falling water forming foam. There are many fabulous walks alongside the Falls, so if you have the energy to walk a lot and have enough time, you can hike on the trails and take in the unspoiled charm of this natural wonder from various angles. We walked around for about half hour or so, took pictures from various scenic points, and curiously watched the jet boat precariously taking a 360 degree turn on clean, blue gushing waters with the riders shrieking in excitement. Since we had planned to get to Taupo before sun set, we headed off to Lake Taupo – half-heartedly, though. If you are visiting New Zealand, you must visit Huka Falls to experience the unparalleled natural splendor for no price.-yes, it’s free!

A couple of minutes’ drive took us to The Lake Taupo, the largest freshwater lake in New Zealand (about the size of Singapore), surrounded by towering mountains. Watching the sun sink into the stunningly blue waters of this enormous lake was a visual treat. Before retiring to the guest house, we had dinner at an Indian restaurant, Master of India; I loved the food because my request of food without spices was acceded to without any fuss. And for me, getting a mild Indian food in a faraway land felt like being home away from home. Thus, besides natural wonders what I loved the most about New Zealand was the incredibly friendly New Zealanders who would do anything to make you feel welcome.

This  article was first published in the June, 2013  issue of Valley India Times.

Well, we are back from our two week vacation to New Zealand and Australia- rejuvenated and refreshed- still in the euphoria of exciting memories. I am thrilled to share with VIT readers our experiences at some key tourist attractions that absolutely captivated us and left us spell bound. Let me begin with New Zealand where we landed first. We were guests of our Auckland- based friends from India who had rented accommodation for all of us in Queenstown, South Island, NZ, for three days. On the second day, we drove down to Wanaka, a small sleepy town 70 Kilometers away from Queenstown. On that bright sunny day, we spent two leisurely hours at the 45 kilometers long Wanaka Lake that is nestled below the mountains. After a light lunch of homemade sandwiches at the lake and paddle boating for 20 minutes, we headed out to the Puzzling World, about two miles from Wanaka Lake.

Leaning Tower of Wanaka

Initially started by Stuart Landsborough and his wife with a single level maze in 1973, the Puzzling World is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in New Zealand. Soon after alighting from the car, I noticed the weird architecture of the first building, and I screamed in excitement, ‘Leaning tower’. This tower, called the ‘Leaning Tower of Wanaka’, is balanced on one corner at an incredible 53 degree and has a clock that runs backwards and was started on the eve of the new millennium. We had fun posing for pictures in that most popular pose of trying to ‘stop’ the tower from falling. The other building had four eccentric tumbling towers that seemed to fall over one another. Truly, climbing on the steps of the tumbling towers to pose for pictures was as much fun for adults as it was for the kids.

Walking in, we found ourselves in the Puzzling Café where some visitors were trying out various puzzles laid out on the tables for them. We first purchased combined tickets for the Illusion rooms (there are five of them) and the Maze, and then sat down on the table to take a shot at some puzzles. Soon, the curiosity of the illusion rooms took the better of us, and we proceeded to step in and begin the experience. Each room offers the visitors optical illusion. We first passed through the Hologram Hall that has a fascinating collection of 3-D holograms. Looking at the displays from different angles offered a completely different picture.

Tumbling Towers

Moving on, we stepped into the Hall of Following Faces where you encounter some of the eminent personalities of the world e.g. Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela etc. In this illusion room, 168 giant faces of some renowned people follow you wherever you move. Although the faces are concave (inwards), they appear to be convex (outwards). To check it out, we wandered from every angle– left to right and right to left, and yes, we found the famous faces still following us. When we posed for pictures, the faces behind us also appeared to look straight. We were absolutely blown away by the experience, wondering what made the faces follow us in the direction of our movement.

The magic of the illusions continued and carried us into the Ames Room. Before stepping into the room, you are directed to take a look into the room from outside through a window. It looks completely normal from outside, but once you enter the room, the shape of the room looks completely distorted. The technique of this illusion was used in the movie “The Lord of the Rings” to ‘create’ tall people and little people. When you stand in a corner near the entrance, you appear to shrink and look small, but you look big when you move to another corner.

Stepping out of the room, we were still discussing our reactions to its magical illusions when we found ourselves in the Sculptiillusion Gallery. This was the largest illusion room that had many interesting surprises for us. It featured many large sculptures and artworks that offered baffling illusions. The most incredible of them (for me) was the sculpture of its creator, Stuart Landsborough that made me actually believe that he was an employee of the Puzzling World sitting on chair near the door with a book and a coffee mug watching the visitors. When our friend Vibha pointed towards him and said “Poonam, look at that man in the chair”, I honestly felt embarrassed and thought that pointing at someone like this was rude. “After all, he was only doing his job,” I thought. So instead of turning back to take a look at the man, I warned her in a hushed tone, “Don’t point at him.” At this she gave a hearty laugh. “Don’t worry, Poonam…he is not real…check it out.” It was then that I turned around and felt my jaws open in amazement. “Oh, my God…he looked so real”, I exclaimed in disbelief.

After a delightful experience with the wonderful sculptures, we moved on to the last illusion room, the Tilted House. This room was tilted at an angle of 15 degrees. All the displays inside looked normal, but the illusion was so strong that our brains believed that they seemed to hang at impossible angles. I still recall Vibha sitting on the chair that moved upwards with a sudden jerk, leaving her screaming, “Get me off here. I can’t figure how to get off.” We actually had to make an effort to get her off the chair that only moved upwards not downwards.

Feeling a little dizzy from the illusions of the Tilted House, we walked out into the puzzling café. On way out, I just happened to look up and was amazed to see that part of the ceiling in the Puzzling Café was like a giant Kaleidoscope. Coming out, we entered the great maze outside the main building. This is the first of the world’s modern-style mazes. It is a huge maze in which you must reach four corner towers before finding the middle courtyard, approximately within 30- 60 minutes. Emergency doors are there for those who have limited time, patience or energy. We wandered for 15 minutes, but soon gave up and decided to opt for the easy way out- emergency doors.

For over three hours, the puzzling eccentricities of this intriguing spot transported us to a world that seemed vastly different from the real world. Mesmerized, we said goodbye to Stuart’s Puzzling World but couldn’t stop talking about it all the way on our drive back to Queenstown.

If you are planning vacation to New Zealand, make sure to include Puzzling World at Wanaka, South Island in your itinerary.

This article was first published in Valley India Times, April, 2013

Last week, my five-year old granddaughter, who is a regular evening visitor to our place, stepped in and the first thing she uttered was, “Nani, I have an interview in my new school this Saturday.” “If I do well”, she continued with a somber countenance, “They will put me in First grade in August. And if I don’t, then I will go to Kindergarten.” Her interview was still three days away and she quietly began to practice writing sentences all by herself so she could prove her mettle in the interview. I was amazed to see how our tiny girl is already big enough to set her goals.” The following day, she informed me, “You know why my Mommy pulled me out of Montessori? And then probably understanding my ignorance on this subject, she went on to enlighten me, “Because I know much more than the other kids of my class know.” Indeed, I am impressed with her realization of her potential at this tender age (our own kids gained this understanding in their late teenage years, whereas our generation took a couple of decades to figure it all out). At the same time, I am also afraid if this early awareness would not soon translate into academic stress. We are still awaiting the outcome of her interview and hope that she realizes her first academic goal.

Currently, my niece back in India is taking her 12th board exams, and she is so stressed out that she doesn’t like anyone to call her even to wish her good luck on her exams. Her objective is to score at least 95+ in her board exam so she can compete for the most prestigious colleges in Delhi where the cut off percentage is almost close to 100. Her target score of 100 marks in English actually took me by surprise. A couple of weeks ago, she asked me, “Masi, did you award 100 % marks to any student when you evaluated 12th grade English board papers in India?” I told her that even the most outstanding students scored between 90-98 percent during my time in India. However, this information did not seem to dissuade her from lowering her goal. In India, the month of March seems to be the most stressful month for 10th and 12th class students and their parents. In fact, since the beginning of this academic year, the only subject of conversation in my phone calls to my sister is her 12th grader’s tuitions, tests, board exams, and admissions in the prospective colleges. It appears as if board exam results and college admissions are almost like matters of life and death for the ambitious kids in Indian educational institutions. The students and their parents’ stress is accentuated by the fact that almost 50% of the college seats are reserved for students belonging to the scheduled castes, tribes, and other backward classes.

Back here, when I see my grown professionally accomplished children working all seven days a week without any ‘need’ of a weekend or a break, I tell them good humoredly, “Even God rested on Sunday after creating this world….. Even the President of America takes a vacation. Don’t you guys need any break?” And they assure me, “Mom, we will go on a long vacation after we achieve our goals…” and then, after a brief pause, they add, “And that’s a long, long way to go …” I am sorry, but I don’t get this.

The story extends beyond my home. As Admission Consultant to Business School aspirants, I closely observe this career stress day in and out in the applicants I work with. The most common query of almost 90% of the applicants when they send me their resume for profile evaluation is, “What are my chances of getting into the top 20 B-schools?” They want me to predict their chances of admission without even putting together a strong application package. Despite having a progressive professional career, they aspire to move ahead and need an MBA degree to help them realize their dreams. I truly appreciate their motivation and ambition. However, their extremely grueling and demanding jobs that make them work 14-16 hours a day hardly leave any time for them to work on their applications. I have worked with many applicants based in India who get back home after work at 10:00 or 11:00 pm and then work through the night on their essays. Often times, after working round the clock continuously for 3-4 days, they end up getting exhausted and sick at a time when the pressure of meeting the application deadline already weighs heavily on their minds. This situation obviously adds to their as well as my stress levels.

Thus, I have observed that in this time and era, academic and career stress has gripped the people of all age groups to such an extent that it has become a way of life. It is good as well as bad. I understand that setting high career goals is essentially a key to progress in life and career, and some amount of anxiety is required to accomplish those objectives. However, it is also true that excessive anxiety and stress takes a heavy toll on our mental and physical health. While we should always be motivated to aim high and strive to climb the ladders of success, we also need to sometimes pause for a while and reflect – ‘Are we setting realistic goals for ourselves?’ ‘Is this what we call happiness in life? ‘Are we not sacrificing simple pleasures of life in pursuit of higher position, huge salary packages, higher bank balances, and more property etc.?’

Disclaimer: This article is an expression of my observations, experiences and opinions. The readers have every right to disagree with me.

This article was fist published in the February, 2013 issue of Valley India Times .

Like many other teachers of Indian origin who prefer to remain in the field of education when they move to the US, I, too, opted to remain an educator after I immigrated to the US with two decades of teaching experience in India. This experience, however, brought in demanding challenges, revelations, and surprises resulting in an immensely steep learning curve. Full time high school teaching unfolded so many other aspects of the education system which I could not perceive as a substitute teacher in high schools and as an adjunct in community colleges. I found the American public system vastly different from Indian education system in many different ways: the availability of resources to the students, methods of instruction, grading system, student behavior, student teacher relationship, and the teacher evaluation system.

First, the teaching methods and the environment in US schools offer a sharp contrast to those in India. The method of classroom instruction in India is mainly text-book based and lecture-based. The teaching aids available to the teachers are black board and chalk, as the access to computers is limited to only one period in a day. Students are expected to follow the lectures and complete tons of homework all by themselves, leading them to cram tremendous amount of information by heart. On the contrary, in the American public schools (counterparts of government schools in India) the students are taught with a variety of teaching aids, multi-media, visual and audio aids. The class rooms are fully equipped with all the electronic gadgets e.g. CD player, computers, TV, VCR, over- head projector, and so on. I heartily appreciate the availability of myriad resources that make learning fun for the students; however, I was pained to see that a majority of students fail to value the facilities served to them on a platter, e.g. computers, books, dictionaries, educational audio CD’s, projector system in each classroom for showing relevant videos, and PPT’s etc.

Any discussion of educational resources in American public schools would be incomplete without mentioning counselors, the deans, school security, and the Special Education teachers. In the public schools where I worked, each student is assigned a counselor who takes care of his/her academic and emotional needs. These counselors help them with their selection of courses, and also act as bridges between the students/ their teachers and parents. On the other hand, the concept of counselors is still alien to Indian schools. Likewise, the dean of students, school security staff, and the police (yes, one police car and a cop was always present at the campus) also help maintain discipline in the American public schools campuses that discourage students from sneaking out of the campus. In Indian schools, on the contrary, there was no such deterrent that could prevent students from cutting classes or sneaking out of schools.

Furthermore, the slow learners in American Public schools are provided a trained certified special- education teacher, whose job is to assist the subject teacher through inclusion methods. In my last year at the high school, I was assigned to teach 11th grade inclusion classes and was surprised to come across some special education students with a reading level of a third grader. I was informed that this kind of situation was an obvious outcome of a federal law that outlaws failing special education students. It was distressing to see that this law prevented a majority of them from taking ownership of their own learning because they knew that it was their lawful right to graduate high school. It is worth mentioning here that kids with physical disabilities are provided special education and care in public schools here which is indeed commendable. Unfortunately, in India, the concept of inclusion education is restricted mainly to kids with physical disability only, and very few schools provide special assistance to kids with disabilities. There are definitely slow learners in each class in India too, but they are provided special attention and guidance by the teachers instead of special privileges to pass.

The grading system in American public schools differs from that in Indian government schools. Here the students with an F grade are conveniently promoted to the next grade, and all they need to do is to pass that course before graduating high school. To cite an example, my Junior English (11th grade) class comprised of some 12th grade students who had not passed their freshman English (9th grade), Sophomore English (10th grade), Junior English (11th grade), and also (senior) 12th grade English class. It pained me to see these ‘seniors’ fooling around instead of putting in extra hours to pass all of their four English courses. When the teachers enforced that it was their last chance to pass, they would quip nonchalantly, “I can do summer course”. Thus, the cycle of postponing ‘learning’ extends beyond four years of high school, summer course being their last chance to pass the required courses for graduation. Undoubtedly, this system of providing numerous chances to the students makes them lazy and prevents them from taking ownership of their education. On the contrary, India’s education system requires students to pass all their subjects (courses) to get through their class, failing which they lose one school year. I believe that one of the factors that keeps Indian kids motivated to push harder is the fear of losing one academic year.

The most significant factor that distinguishes Indian public schools from their American counterparts is student behavior and student teacher relationship. Unlike India where students stand up and wish the teacher ‘good morning’ when she/he steps into the class, American kids are not trained to greet the teacher. Instead, the teacher is expected to greet them at the door when they enter the class. You should consider yourself fortunate if they respond to your greetings.

Greeting the teacher, however, becomes a non-issue when confronted with grossly disruptive and disrespectful student behavior. I still recall some of my 10th and 11th grade c students who would do everything they could to prevent me from teaching and to stop other students from learning. In fact, most of the kids under 16 are required by law to be in the classroom and not by their own will. Therefore, their sole motive (which they often admit upfront) is to disrupt the classroom teaching by resorting to various methods: laughing out loudly, disrupting those who are paying attention, using a cell phone, arguing with the teacher unnecessarily, and asking for permission for restroom in the middle of instruction. Dealing with these kids not only takes away classroom instruction time but also after-school time (e-mailing to their counselors, calling their parents, writing referrals to the dean etc.). It is distressing that a handful of these kids sometimes eat up most of the productive class time which the teachers owe to the well- behaved and motivated kids.

Lastly, the teacher evaluation system in the American Public schools is in no way comparable to that of Indian government schools. In India, teachers who are hired once by a school district are hired forever. They are the ‘permanent’ teachers, and no amount of inefficiency on their part can jeopardize their jobs. On the contrary, in the US public schools, administrators and department chairs are required by the State to conduct teacher evaluations by observing their class once during the semester. Even though the evaluation system is designed to help teachers to improve their teaching abilities, these evaluations are largely based on personal prejudices instead of state standards, often labeling the most ineffective teachers as competent and the most dedicated ones as incompetent.

Thus, my two-decade long experience as an English teacher in India’s central schools and government schools and a decade’s experience in the American public schools and community colleges have endowed me with an insider’s perspective into the education system of both the countries. It is my understanding that both the systems have their positive and negative points and a middle path between the two would work best for the interest of students and teachers. In order to make the American public school students accountable for their learning, we need to raise the bar for them and set higher expectations from them. Also, American public school system fails to provide the teachers the support they deserve, forcing one third of public school teachers quit their profession in the first three years of their career. Therefore, teacher salaries should be increased to retain teachers in this profession. Also, teachers should be evaluated by their students and students’ test scores and not by the prejudiced administrators. Similarly, more resources should be made available to the students in Indian public schools, and teacher evaluation system should be introduced to enhance teaching- learning experience. Education is the building block of a nation’s future; therefore, every step should be taken to make it an intellectually stimulating and rewarding experience for both students and their educators. Most importantly, our schools should provide a safe learning environment to everyone at the school campus.

Old vs. New

This article was first published in “Valley India Times” of August , 2012

“Old order changeth, yielding place to new,” well known English poet Tennyson said about two hundred years back. True. With time, human beings have progressed in every aspect of life, be it customs, values, living styles, ways of thinking etc. And like everything else, English language has also gone through incredible changes in the past few hundred years.

The advancement of technology in the past few years has led to inevitable inclusion of text messages, Facebook, and Twitter into our lives. Nevertheless, ancient stories of eternal lovers, for example those of Romeo and Juliet still continue to enchant high school and college students despite their narration in an 17th century Shakespearean English. Also, it has been an amazing experience to watch high school students savor 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s tale of Canterbury pilgrims even though they otherwise feel intrigued by his use of Middle English.

Just as old tales have held their charm despite their not-so-easy-to understand language, likewise some expressions originated from centuries-old Greek and Roman mythologies have become inevitable part of our everyday conversation, substantiating an indelible connection between the old and the new.

It will be an interesting venture to take a look at the stories behind some of the most commonly used expressions in our day- to-day conversations.

Oedipus Complex: Whenever we talk about a son’s unusual attachment to his mother and a daughter’s attraction to her father and vice versa, we refer to it as Oedipus complex. But few of us are aware that in Greek mythology Oedipus was the tragic king of Thebes who unknowingly killed his father Laius and married his mother, Jocasta. When the truth was revealed to him, he felt so ashamed at his ancestry and predicament that he blinded himself. Hence the term Oedipus complex.

Narcissus Complex: Similarly, we often refer to an egoist person as a narcissist, but most of us are clueless that Narcissus was a beautiful Greek youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and pined away, transforming into a flower that bears his name. This explains the term Narcissus complex for unusual self-love.

Herculean task: Herculean task is a commonly used phrase for describing an exceptionally daunting and arduous task. It is interesting to note that by doing so we are indirectly associating our task to the classical myth hero Hercules, a person of extraordinary strength and courage who won immortality by performing 12 labors demanded by king Eurystheus.

Caesarian Operation: The other day, when my daughter shared with me good news of the birth of her friend’s daughter, she also told me that the baby girl was delivered through a cesarean operation. That reminded me of the story behind the origin of this term ‘caesarian’. In fact, most of us are unaware that the famous Roman emperor Julius Cesar was believed to have been born through a surgical procedure in which one or more incisions were made through his mother’s abdomen and uterus, and this procedure later came to be known as cesarean operation. This connection between the renowned Roman emperor Caesar and the ‘caesarean operation’ is indeed fascinating.

Damocles Sword: Another interesting expression that is sometimes used by people when they find themselves in difficult and challenging situations is- Damocles Sword. This refers to a Greek courtier Damocles, who according to a legend, was forced by Dionysius, the Elder, to sit at a banquet table under a sword suspended by a single hair to demonstrate the precariousness of a king’s fortunes.

There is no denying the fact that the use of these phrases adds a distinctive flavor to our conversational and written communication. Also, an added knowledge of the related ancient stories/myths not only enriches our minds but also confirms an indelible connection between the old and the new.

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