Archive for March, 2011


Parker: Speak Softly

March 31, 2011

I’m usually a very loud speaker, because of my deep low voice and my theatrical skill of projection. Every time I go home (back in the States), my mom has to tell me to lower my voice.

For the first time in my life, people have told me to speak up. Without even realizing it, I have adapted my habits to those of Paris. People in Paris tend to be much more subdued in their conversations. If you ride on the metro, you will hear a low murmur of conversation, but save maybe one or two loud phone conversations, you can never really hear other conversations. Parisians are in general much more private than in America. When you first meet someone, they may seem cold or distant. This isn’t because they are unfriendly, it just takes a little longer to form a relationship in France. But once you have gotten to know someone, they are usually very open and kind. Its almost the opposite of Minnesota, where people are quick to open up at first, but close relationships require plenty of time and trust.

I first noticed my new habit when my friend Rob visited from Barcelona a few weeks ago. On the bus ride to my place from the airport, I kept finding myself wishing he would speak a little softer, almost like it hurt my ears. I found myself speaking even softer, in an attempt to quiet him down. I couldn’t understand what was the issue; was it that he was just really loud, or was it that I was now accustomed to a lower volume. In the few days he was in Paris, I began to realize how quiet it can be. And then I started to realize that I was adapting that quiet-ness. When I visited Barcelona, I fully understood the difference between what he was used to, and what I was used to. The train in Barca was full of noise; laughter and conversation could be heard from all directions.

Then, last week, I started to notice how often people have been telling me to speak up. It is the strangest experience, because I am not used to being asked to speak louder. And when my friends tell me to speak up, I found myself feeling defensive and worried, as if I didn’t want the people around to hear my conversation.

I am (apparently) becoming a true Parisian. I just hope these changes are a good thing, and aren’t a problem when I go back to the U.S….


Jonathan: Health, youth power & roasting seeds

March 31, 2011

Before I begin, I should share a nifty map I made that has all the places mentioned in this blog marked to give you a better idea of what in the world I’m talking about.  It can be reached by clicking here, or clicking on the link to the left titled “India Travel Log”  Railmangra and Jaipur are marked in red.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve artfully avoided discussing specifics about what I’m actually doing on a daily basis here in Railmagra and at Jatan Sansthan since arriving on 8 March.  This, of course, is based in a couple of factors.  First, I didn’t really know what I was doing until six days ago.  Second, I was never quite sure if what I was doing was long term or even feasible.  Third, I’ve been playing a lot of Holi (Sunday in Udaipur, Friday in Baneria, and Saturday in Railmagra).  But finally, after three whole weeks, I am finally ready to describe, in full, the amazing project I have the privilege to work on and the ways that it has changed my approach to health, wellness, and youth empowerment.  I went from reading a book all day punctuated by a two our trip to a dusty village for a couple of hours to working ten hours a day and loving every minute.

As many of you know I have spent much of my young adulthood working on both sexual health and youth empowerment issues.  I’ve had the privilege to work with some amazing social workers and activists (and social worker-activists) who are looking at the way that power and privilege affected marginalized communities throughout American society.  I have, however, in recent years become increasing frustrated with the way that the trajectory of discourse has shifted.  Take HIV, for example: what was once a community action that brought gay men together is now sanitized into the private realm of doctors offices and dislocated public health posters.  What has occurred is that messages are simply not relevant to those most at risk for contracting the virus such as young men.  Coming to India for me, in large part, was about expanding that dialogue; about answering these question: How have Indians taken the needs of their communities and developed culturally competent approaches to health promotion?  In what way is the dialogue uniquely Indian?  I have been able to learn this and much more.

Jatan runs about 50 youth groups across the three districts that it works, however most are located in the Rajsamand District where Railmagra is located.  These groups are run by an adult mentor and peer educators who run informal education activities on a number of issues of particular importance to rural youth.  Many of the young men will participant in labor migration and many of the young women will experience the effects of their brothers, fathers, or husbands move.  For many in this area, migrating to find work holds the promise of a better outcome for ones family through increased income, but also a chance to experience life in the “New India” of booming urban centers.  This process does, however, have a number of unintended effects on the village, the family, and the individual.  These, mostly young, men are placed in vulnerable positions and are at risk for exploitation.  Their lack of knowledge on a number of issues regarding sexual health, basic occupational hazards, and certain skills such as English or trade-specialization pose risks to their health and success.  Furthermore, being far from home with little access to familiar support networks (or the watchful eye of community mentors, for that matter) place many of these young people at heightened risks.  For women, migration poses unique risks such as potential exposure to HIV through husbands who engaged in condom-less sex while away, the need to run a household by oneself and potentially work outside the home, and confront topics such as domestic violence in new and challenging ways.  These youth groups provide vital resources and support networks for the young people by providing them exposure to information, but also to discussions where youth power and youth-based solutions are discussed to relevant social issues present in their lives.

Jatan hopes to take this concept to a new level by formalizing youth group lessons into a six month, twelve part, curriculum that confronts health, wellness, and empowerment issues.  And here is where I come in.  I have been given the amazing and fun responsibility of taking the hours of research that past interns have done and compiling it all into activities and ‘lesson plans,’ and forming that into a published curriculum by mid-April.  This process is daunting, but perfect for me, as it draws on all of my past experiences while allowing me to work closely with Indian activists regarding youth issues.  This past week I shaped most of the ‘lessons’ and in this coming week I will travel with youth group leaders to surrounding villages to begin field testing.

The wealth of resources available for these ‘lessons,’ especially those touching on sexual health, is truly fantastic and worthy of mention.  Nearly ten years ago, when Jatan was first chartered, the current executive director and his friend of Vikalp Design embarked on one of the first studies of creating culturally appropriate sexual health illustrations for rural communities in India (or rather, Rajasthan, since as I’ve mentioned close to a hundred times, there are many Indias).  Meeting with village young and other community members, they began asking them to draw various people and concepts.  First, they were easy illustrations: man, woman, baby, cow, house, farm.  Next came more complicated subjects: sickness, death, hospital, uncertainty, healthy food. Finally came technical topics: infertility, condom, heterosexual sex, pubescent changes, hospital birth, taking pills regularly.  What has developed in the last decade or so is an amazing collection of visual representations of complex health topics so as to provide comprehensive resources to low-literacy populations that are understandable, appropriate, and medically accurate.  With this amazing wealth of images, Jatan has developed fantastic resource materials, some of which are amazing in their pure ingenuity.  Take, for instance, the Reproductive Health Kit, a small box which can be used to discuss contraception and STI prevention.  The Kit measures just 4x4x1, but contains a substantial amount of resources and material.  When receiving the box, one first notices the color and designs of it.  The light brown of cow dung, around the box are simple line drawings found on traditional desert dung dwellings in Rajasthan.  The box is tied shut with a tie-dyed string in the traditional style of Rajasthani worship strings.  As such, before the box is even opened, it is immediately identified as a community tool.  Once opened, the four top flaps fold out.  On each half of the fold is either a visual description of a birth control method (such as an IUD) or the actual method itself (such as a condom).  The description is kept very short, perhaps just one or two words, in clearly printed Hindi.  Each flap can be folded in half to reduce distractions (since some have anatomical drawings).  Inside the box itself are triangular pamphlets, also foldable, with information about HIV, STIs, and other relevant topics.  In addition, there is a small pipe to conduct a condom demonstration with.  After the box has been used to demonstrate its content to the original user, it can then be easily taken if migrating, used as teaching tool for others, or used to store condoms or the preferred birth control method. Read the rest of this entry ?


Connie: Russian Roulette Habanero Takoyaki

March 30, 2011

My favorite food in Japan is probably たこ焼き (takoyaki). Takoyaki is a piece of octopus inside of a delicious ball of batter, usually topped with お好みソース (okonomi sauce) and Japanese mayonnaise (which is far better than its western counterpart). And though that might sound a bit strange it’s truly delicious.

Actually, earlier in the year, when a girl living in my dorm asked which kind of food I like best, I answered takoyaki. She then taught me to make it since she had a takoyaki maker, which is basically a griddle with small craters all over it. You first pour the batter in it, then when it starts to cook you put the piece of octopus in the middle, and then using chopsticks you rotate it until it’s cooked all around. A few months after this a couple living in Japan invited some people over to eat takoyaki before they moved to America. When I expressed my enthusiasm for takoyaki they told me they were trying to get rid of everything and I inherited a takoyaki maker. I fully intend to drag it back to America with me and have this dish whenever I like.

Not only do I like takoyaki, but I enjoy spicy foods – something that is actually rather rare in Japan. So when my friends and I discovered “Russian Roulette Habanero Takoyaki” at one of the bars around here, we were intrigued.

Basically you order some takoyaki, and the idea is to put a habanero pepper in one of them so some unfortunate person gets it. A few months back we initially tried it and though neither I nor the two friends who ordered it with me were the lucky ones to get the pepper, we were told it wasn’t so bad. Being the brave souls we are we ordered a set of takoyaki in which 3 of 8 were filled with habanero.

This night wasn’t so bad. We ate the takoyaki with poker faces. The Japanese bartender who had made the takoyaki watched us in disbelief and went back to test his creation. He came back sweating and pouring himself milk. He discovered very quickly that foreigners, apparently, have a much higher tolerance for spicy foods. He assured us that next time he would make them hotter.

Last night we went again and, feeling quite confident in our spice thresholds, we ordered the takoyaki with 8 of 8 containing habaneros. The first tip off should have been the three bartenders smiling mischievously at one another. They sent the youngest one back to make us our takoyaki. He came back and set it in front of us with a smirk on his face.

They definitely delivered when they told us they were going to make it hotter. The first one set a fire in my mouth. I had to order a milk-based drink to wash the heat away. Slowly the pain faded into something tolerable. Since there were three of us that night, 5 pieces of hellfire takoyaki remained.

We all figured that our mouth had been numbed out by the first, so the second would be no problem. We realized this was our second mistake the moment we ate it. One of my friends went to the bathroom to wash out his mouth. The other promptly ordered something to wash it down with. I finished what I had ordered during the first round.

“You made it, why don’t you try it?” I asked the bartender. Either he was brave or he felt obligated since he was a worker there and that’s simply how Japanese workers roll – it doesn’t really matter which. It took seconds for him to start visibly sweating, and when he tried to pour himself a glass of water I told him, “That will make it worse. Try milk.”

This left one more takoyaki on the dish. With my mouth incredibly numb, I decided that for sure this time I wouldn’t feel anything. This was my third mistake. I drank two more glasses of milk and my hands were shaking. Don’t mess with habanero peppers. But at least it was my first satisfyingly spicy dish since being in Japan. (Wasabi doesn’t count; wasabi is more of a single blast of tears and sinus-clearing while things like habanero peppers linger for a while.)

The bartender who had made us the takoyaki laughed and told us one would be on the house since he’d put us through so much pain. My two friends opted for a glass of beer, but I instead chose a game of darts.

He still owes me, actually. We shook hands on it.


Michelle: Where am I again?

March 29, 2011
(The sign reads: “Montpellier’s Best American”) The American is a sandwich with hamburger meat, fries, katsup, and mustard in a baguette, but let’s be honest, I’m Montpellier’s Best American!

Over 4,000 miles away, across a mountain range and an ocean, I didn’t expect to find many semblances of home here in France. However, the similarities are numerous.

Let’s start with media. Most of the movies in the major movie theaters are American. For example, right now The Agent (Matt Damon and Emily Blunt), Hell Driver (Nicolas Cage), Black Swan (Natalie Portman) and Rango (Johnny Depp), are showing in Version Français at Gaumont, a large theater chain. Movies on TV are mostly American as well. Tonight is American Gangster, but we have also watched I Am Legend, My Best Friend’s Wedding and Austin Powers.

French commercials have nothing on Isaiah Mustafa or the Most Interesting Man Alive, but there are some that are the same, exactly the same as in America. For example, the Gillette commercial where they ambush people while they’re shaving is practically identical, but with French people.

TV also has strong American influences. So far, I’ve seen Friends, White Collar (FBI: Duo Très Special), and NCIS on the state channels. There’s also a French version of Bravo’s Top Chef that plays on M6. In the US, I love cooking competition shows, and this is perfect for me! It’s also really easy to find people who love shows like How I Met Your Mother, The Big Theory, or Desperate Housewives. Other than the reality contest shows, like Top Chef, I haven’t really found any good French series.

While the fact that the technology brands are the same isn’t surprising at all, little things like the popularity of Angry Birds or the verb “googler” for to google something (I’ve actually only heard that one in my internship, so I’m not quite sure how wide-spread it is) were kind of unexpected.

I have alluded to this cultural connection many times, but I will say it again. Music is heavily imported from America. It’s hard not to hear artists such as Ke$ha or Bruno Mars in public spaces. My host dad, Claude, said that American (Springsteen, Hendrix, etc) and British (Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc) helped him learn English, and his English is really good.

In terms of American influence on fashion, it’s somewhat humorous. In the US, it seems to be somewhat à la mode to slap the fleur de lis on everything. Here, it’s “New York”, or building silhouettes. There are also a lot of guys who wear letterman jackets. Yup, just like in high school, but these are for guys even at the university. I didn’t personally see this, but an ultimate fail in this department is a jacket one of my friends saw. It had a basketball on the sleeve and “football” in Varsity lettering splashed across the chest. College apparel and baseball caps can also be seen on younger guys, but if you ask them where “UCLA” is, or what sport the “Twins” play (and I have asked about that one), chances are they don’t know.

Lastly, there are some phrases that directly translate very nicely. For example, touche du bois is used the same way as knock on wood. Jamais deux sans trois means the same thing as bad things come in threes. Avoir un pouce vert is to have a green thumb. There are a lot more, but I can’t write all of them in one post, nor do they all come to mind right now.

So there it is, an entire ocean away, there are still some little touches of home.


Michelle: Medieval land of stinky cheese

March 28, 2011

France is often reputed for its repugnant fromage and I recently had a day to discover the Roi des Fromages des Rois de France: Le Roquefort. Before heading to the caves where the cheese is produced, we first went to La Couvertoirade, a fortified city from the Middle Ages.

This tiny town is situated northwest of Montpellier and about 750 meters higher. That means that despite being a beautiful day in Montpellier, there were slight flurries up there (something I and most other people did not take into account when dressing for the outing). Though now there are only 27 citizens who reside in the city year round, during the Moyen Âge, there were probably close to 600.

In a small town such as this, there were many communal facilities. For example, in the photo below, the steps (to the left of the blue bins) lead up to a community water reservoir and the building on the right was a community oven. Citizens would pay a small tax to the lord and then have access to these facilities. There is also a communal mill, but we’ll see that later.

Like most medieval cities, the highest point is the church. The steps leading up to the church are on the other side of this hill (that don’t really look like steps, but rather the same jagged rock face), were the only path the villagers could use. Later, the Templar Knights built a fortress with a path that was much easier to climb, however, this path was reserved for them.

Below and to the right is the Templar fortress. During the XII century, the Templars used this city as a resting point on their way to the Holy Land. They were also successful in raising sheep for wool, meat, and milk. Despite its size, there were probably no more than five knights inside the fortress at a time. The two stone columns you can see on the face of the building above the door used to be a chute of sorts. In case of an invading army, the knights could throw stones, arrows, hot pitch, or even hot oil. When the city was fortified later during the Hundred Years War with England, they used the same materials to hinder advancing armies. However, due to the high cost of oil, they did not have the means to waste it on an enemy. The Templars on the other hand had money, so why not hot oil?

Along with the Templars, Les hospitaliers de Saint-Jean de Jérusalem were another religious order that established itself in La Couvertoirade during the Crusades. After the infamous arrest of the Templars on Friday the 13th, 1307 and subsequent abolition of the order in 1312, les hospitaliers were deemed to be still necessary to the city. Today, this order still carries out humanitarian efforts; however they no longer have a presence in the City.

Like most European cities, their Christian heritage is extremely evident. As seen with the Templars and Hospitaliers, La Couvertoirade is no different. In the same Christian tradition, La Couvertoirade has a patron saint : St. Christophe. He is also the saint of travelers. That is why he is pictured above the main gate as you exit the city. However, as with many western societies, they are losing this tradition. The church in this city no longer holds mass. Sometimes it is used for weddings or baptisms, but the people need to invite a priest from elsewhere to perform the city. In general, the church has become a tourist attraction under the responsibility of the Office of Tourism there who open and close it each day.

Pictured on the stone is the Occitan Cross, also known as the Cross of Toulouse. In different regions, religious symbols are often changed depending on the region (think about how many different crosses there are: Celtic, Coptic, etc.). Nobody really knows what the twelve  points represent; some suggestions are: Twelve Apostles, twelve months, twelve hours in a day.

Enclosed by 420 meters of ramparts 10 meters high and towers 20 meters high, during the 100 years war with England, this city became a fortress for its citizens. There are only three ways in or out of the city. Two are large gates with large wooden doors that could have been reinforced in time of conflict. The last, is this small portal in the back of the city which served as an emergency exit if the citizens needed to flee into the country side.

This would be the countryside to which they would flee:

That’s the communal mill in the distance:

Despite their time, the people of the city had a pretty sophisticated system for collecting water.  When it rained, all the water would be funneled through a system of gutters on the streets and on roofs into a basin for public use. Hundreds of years ago, there was a large reservoir in the city center. This was a life line for the city until people started contracting Typhoid Fever from the water.

Viaduc du Millau:

The Viaduc du Millau is the highest bridge in France. It stands at 245 m above ground in places. The city nestled in the valley is Millau. In modern times, the city is most known for its anti-globalization activist José Bové who destroyed a McDonalds in 1999 then received a presidential pardon from Jacques Chirac. However, it also has a history dating back to the Romans and becoming significant during the Middle Ages.

Read the rest of this entry ?


Connie: Birthday Udon

March 25, 2011

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my favorite novel is Murakami Haruki’s “Kafka on the Shore.” The main character travels to Takamatsu as a runaway, figuring it’s a place where no one will think to look for him. While the novel doesn’t describe much of the city in detail, or perhaps because of this, I’ve wanted all year to go there. I wanted to see what that place was like so perhaps the next time I read through I’ll have a clearer picture in my head.

I was surprised when I received a message on facebook from the Japanese student going to study abroad in Minnesota next year asking me if I wanted to travel down to Kagawa (the prefecture Takamatsu is in) with him. Not only that, but the day he proposed we go on was familiar. It was actually my birthday – though he didn’t know that, and apparently I’d almost forgotten myself. I couldn’t believe the coincidence!

It turns out my friend was headed to Tokushima prefecture, which is next to Kagawa. He had two Japanese friends with him who agreed to go with so they could eat the delicious udon noodles, which is famous Japan-wide. There were 5 of us total: my friend going to Minnesota, his two friends, my English friend and I. The drive from Saijo was roughly 3 hours. It didn’t seem so long. On the way there we conversed a lot, and the scenery is beautiful. It’s entirely different from what is in Minnesota – lakes and trees are replaced by mountains and the ocean, and of course traditional Japanese houses scattered about the green fields.

Our first stop was at a rest area in between the largest island, Honshu, and the island on which Kagawa is located, Shikoku. The spot was beautiful and the weather was warm and breezy. It smelled like the sea. The bridge we were halfway through crossing was stunning, and I kept thinking of one of the characters from Kafka on the Shore saying, “I need to cross a big bridge,” referring to leaving Honshu and entering Shikoku.

The first thing we did upon crossing the bridge was search for our first bowl of udon. We pulled in at a convenience store and the two young men in the car went to ask where the best udon place was. My friend got back in the car with all of the directions memorized – he recited them three or four times just to annoy us. They must not have been very good directions, however, because the place was incredibly hard to find. Even with the car’s GPS we got lost several times. When we finally pulled up I could see why. It was tucked between regular houses in what seemed to be the worst location for any sort of business.

However, this seemed to deter no one. Word of mouth must be fantastic, because the line waiting for this tiny shop was huge. The shop itself was miniscule. There was only room for maybe 5 or 6 people inside, but there were plenty of benches outside. “This is really Japanese style,” my friend said. “Eating udon outside like this.”

As for Kagawa’s udon, it truly was wonderful. I must admit, though I like udon, it’s not my top choice in Japanese foods. In Kagawa, however, it might be worth the drive from Saijo. Not only was it delicious but it was incredibly cheap – I paid 230 yen for mine, roughly $3 including the tempura on top.

Between bowls of udon our group went to Ritsurin Park. It’s a lovely garden with several walking courses and beautiful ponds all over. You can buy feed from vendors and feed the koi fish that swim in the ponds. Those fish will come in swarms and stick their mouths right up against the rocks trying to suck dampened feed from the surface. My friend was transformed into a kid again while he fed these things. One moment he would said, “Gross!” and then the next he would hand-feed them. Then he would break off huge chunks of the food and challenge them, “It’s too big! You can’t eat it! HA! …Oh, you ate it!”

This friend also stopped to talk to a high school girl we saw painting the landscape. Apparently they were there as an art class doing a project during spring break. What a beautiful landscape they had to paint! All the girls I saw painting were also very talented. My friend snuck up behind one of them and took a picture of her painting. I wonder if she noticed – he wasn’t exactly quiet when he said, “Wow! So skillful!”

There were tons of cats in the garden. There are several scenes in Kafka on the Shore in which characters engage in dialogue with cats. So I meowed at them. And they meowed back. I felt very accomplished, even if that’s silly. I talked to a cat!

Between the park and our next destination we fit in another bowl of udon. The first bowl was better, but the second was nothing to turn your nose up at. This was around 3pm, so needless to say, I wasn’t very hungry for the rest of the day.

Finally we headed into the heart of Takamatsu. We found the sea again. It was a lovely area, and the whole bay in front of us was spotted with sailboats. It was at this time that all of us seemed to become quiet and self-reflecting. I wish I lived near that place so I could go every day and straighten things out. I felt so clear-minded there on the shore. I stared at the mountains and wondered, “Did Murakami ever come here? What kind of forest is Oshima’s cabin in?” I wonder what the others were thinking about?

It was probably one of the best birthdays I’ve had. I’ve never really been able to do the kinds of things I want to do on my birthday. There’s always something in the way. But this year I had the random chance to do something I’ve dreamed of doing. Though the city was different from how I pictured it. I’m glad I got to go. I’m also glad I got to know a little about the person coming to study abroad in Minnesota next year. I’ll have to show him somewhere interesting back in the States!



Miles: Olso defrost

March 25, 2011

I blinked and now it’s spring. How did that happen?

When I settled into the idea of a semester in Norway, in the back of my mind, I think I figured that it’d be winter forever. Maybe it was self-preservation, maybe it was just ridiculousness—either way, I was ready. I was fully prepared to spend all semester wearing infinite layers and avoiding cold beverages. As a result, I felt incredibly calm about winter in Oslo. I didn’t freak out when it started snowing, I adjusted my walking speeds as needed, and I didn’t complain. I wasn’t waiting for Spring, I was just here, now. (The cross-country skiing helped, I’m sure.)

Because of this, I have been extra-pleasantly surprised by the arrival of spring (save an inherent sadness as I stare longingly at my skis). I know that Oslo is still set to have some cold days and probably a little more snow, but now that it’s made a this short appearance, spring has announced that it’s moving in. I’m excited to witness a greener, warmer Norway.

Classes are heading towards finals time, and the workload is increasing. I only have two weeks left in my norskkurs! I have to give a four-minute presentation in Norwegian next Wednesday. I am going to be talking about mine søstre and how cool they are and how much jeg elsker dem. It’s strange to think that I’m at the point where if I want to continue improving my Norwegian skills, the effort has to come 100% from me. It really forces me to think about the value of the language in my life. It makes me think about what sort of place I want Norway to hold in the rest of my life. (All Answers TBD)

Things I have Learned:

I DON’T NEED TO AGREE. I am getting much better at sitting comfortably in a room with people who I disagree with. Maybe they’re just people I’m at a party with. Maybe they’re my friends. Doesn’t matter. I’m learning that I don’t need to agree with everyone, and having different opinions/morals/etc doesn’t necessarily rule out a friendship. I think they mentioned something about this in Kindergarten. I guess it takes a while for that sort of thing to sink in.


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