Sunday, December 28, 2014

What does braving the winter and an inspiration for Xray have in common?

I lived in Bangalore, India for 10 years. After 8 years of the stay, I got to read this wonderful piece of information about how the "Garden City" (Bangalore) was designed. Saplings from across the world were brought to be planted across the city. The choice was made in such a way that there would be trees which would bloom during different months of the year. So that one would see greenery of leaves and colorful flowers all through the year in this city. It was such a joyful experience for my son to revise his learning about colors when we were on road. As a two year old he would jump out of joy and point to the red, the pink, the purple and so on. There were trees which would shed leaves and grow them back. But we never had the feel of a complete Autumn.

In Poland, for the first time I saw "The Golden Autumn", just a few days when the leaves are yellow and orange. Then the terrible autumn winds ruthlessly blow away the dangling old leaves. I wonder if 'Fevicol ka jood" would have helped (lol). Tonnes of these leaves are swept and packed into plastic bags. Children collect handful of these colorful ones after each visit to the park. Towards the end of Autumn all the trees have shacked off the last leaves on their branches. It was during these days when we went for our first trip to mountains in Poland.

All through the drive these leafless trees smiled, starred, waved their sticky branches and greeted me. I wondered in great awe the difference between how we prepare to face the winter and how nature does. Middle of autumn, the shops change their displays. The shelves are flooded with winter clothing. Both the sale and the new collection have equal takers. As the days pass by and the mercury dips, more layers get added as we step out. Thermals, regular outfit, layered on top with a thin jumper, a scarf, a pair of gloves, not to forget the hat, the jacket, and the special winter boots. Actually, I need to get back and add to the beginning of the list some special skin care.

I am just 1 winter old here and my poor fashion sense contributes to my poor knowledge in this front. I am still learning about the kinds of fabric, the combinations of what goes along and what does not. When we add more to keep ourselves warm the trees decide the shed the only thing they have to protect themselves. We warm ourselves with the heater during the most time which we spend indoors and have such protective gear for just the few hours which we go out. The trees stand out there 24x7 and they shake off their leaves and stay there in the cold silently preparing for the spring that would come after 3 months. All that we do to prepare for the spring is to pack the winter clothing and bring down the boxes of spring and summer clothing. Maybe shop for some more.

I had so much to learn from these brave trees that I hardly any inclination to hear about the depression wave that hits people when they see the leaveless trees. Year after year this testing time made them stronger. They stay put because they wanted to survive and move on. If I had a chance to shed my perception about someone or inhibition to something or a bit of my ego every year and have space for new tender experiences how different life would be.  

All the way through my journey, i admired these leafless ones in awe. the more I saw them the more I was in love with them. But suddenly had this strange thought. Just like the apple for Newton were these leafless trees an inspiration for Wilhelm Roentgen to discover the X-Ray?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

40 floors underground

Passion is one of those words which is better decoded with visuals than words. Every minute that I spent at Wileczka Salt Mine at Wileczka (A World Heritage Site), 15 KMs from Krakow (in Poland) made me soak in this deep thought of how passionate one could be? This mine is 541 years old, yes, No TYPO error, you read it right. Operations in this mine started in 1473. Now, a part of this mine where mining has stopped has been converted into a tourist attraction. The visitors have 2 options to choose from: The tourist’s route, where one goes around the mine with a guide and a miner’s route where one gets to learn some hands-on mining job, of course clothed in miner’s attire. I am here for the second time in the last 10 months since I moved to Poland and this actually tells nothing about my love for this place. May be the rest of this story will convey 1% of my love for this place just like the 1% of the mine which we get to see during the Tourist route. 

Get ready. You need not fasten your belts as this is not a roller coaster ride. You may need to go down with me but stay awake. Keep your eyes open to read and your mind open to visualise. Be in the present but connect to the past. I promise you, this is worth all your time. 

Level 1 of the mine is 328 steps below the ground level. The wooden steps were just wide enough to accommodate 2 people at a time. Swiftly our team of 27 people signed for the English tour followed Agnieszka, our guide and reached the level 1. This was the first of the 13 chambers that we would visit during this tour. Urszula Chamber built during 1649 to 1685 is a humble beginning to this mind blowing journey that would follow. Wooden logs closely packed as walls on sides and ceiling lead us through various chambers. All these blocks were painted white as a source of light by themselves since the time mining began. The mine is estimated to house 1.5 million cubic meters of wood in whole. 

All the wood in the inner chambers are painted white, the reason being easy way to keep the inside of the mine bright during the period before electricity was invented and also that the white calcium coating was kind of fire-proofing the wood. Accidents were very common as trapped Methane would be released during mining process. Experienced Miners would lead the way with torches with long wooden handles to burn methane. The display showcasing this with statue of miners gave us a first-hand feel how dangerous it was.

We pass through the salt statue of Kopernicus, (less know fact that he is a Polish scientist) which is one of the recent additions to the mine as part of the mine’s 500th anniversary in 1973. 

By now fellow visitors had tested and tasted the salty walls. With my camera, notebook and pen, I decided to ‘behave’ and not lick the walls.  The colour of the salt (almost dark grey) in the picture will give you a feel of the purification process that happens to make this salt edible and add taste to our meal. 

Here we are in front of these half a dozen life size salt statues telling us the legend of the mine. Kinga the daughter of a Hungarian King was married to the King of Poland. Centuries before, salt was very rare and Poland did not have any salt mines at that period of time. Kinga asked for a salt mine as her wedding gift. She dropped her wedding ring in the mine gifted to her by her father in Hungary. When she reached Poland she ordered miners to look for possible salt mines in Poland. When they found salt deposits, they also found her wedding ring. This is the tale of Kinga’s wedding ring following her from Hungary to Poland. The visual depicts the first chunk of salt being handed to Kinga in the Janowice Chamber.

I was curious to know how this whole deposit of salt formed in the first place. And this is what the guide had to say. 13 to 15 million years before there as huge sea in this part of the continent. Which, over time and tectonic changes, got buried. This huge frozen salty sea was eventually covered with hundreds of feet of particles like mud, sand and rocks making those layers on which the Wileczka town stands today. She confirmed that this is the scientific reason unlike the legend before. What is equally interesting is the fact that how the first miners reached to this reserve. It is said that during the early Stone Age, water from salty streams were left to be evaporated to obtain salt. These salt streams dried up. Humans started digging the source of these salty streams assuming that if the salty water originated from there, they may find some answers to why it had dried, ending up in a mission that will last half a century and more.

In the early days when mining began huge shafts were used to transport wood into the mine and salt and waste out of the mine. These shafts were operated by men or by horses. Horses were brought into the mine when they were young and spent 15 years working in the mine. When miners would come and leave during their shifts the Horses stayed back in the mine for all the 15 years. Though horses were slowly replaced by rails in the mine, the last horse ‘Barbara’ left the mine in 2002.

As we curiously looked around we could see salt crystallized on the ceilings and walls. There are different patterns of crystallization in different chambers. It was told that these formations are regularly removed. But just to add to the fun they had name these as cauliflowers and spaghetti. Just when I heard these words, my stomach rumbled reminding me that it had been an hour since we started and my body needed some fuel to keep my focus.

During the 14th Century the mine was owned by Kazimierza. A chamber named after him houses a 17th century Horse power gear which was operated by 8 horses. A working model is also on display. 

Down we go to the second level, 90 metres under the surface of the earth. I don’t think I would have ever made it in submarines. A punch in the air and I continue. This leads us to the Pieskowa Skala chamber: a marvelous breath taking 30 metre high chamber connecting the 1st and the 2nd level. We pass through the supervisor’s room followed by the statues of dwarfs. It is a belief that the dwarfs work in the mine during the nights making it easier for the miners the next morning. 

Hold your breath for this ‘out of the world’ but ‘under the world’ experience. The Holy Cross Chapel, built by 3 miners over 70 years. The biggest church in the mine which still hosts marriages and is open for prayers. Visitors coming to this church to offer prayers have a lift to reach to the second level directly. The last supper in salt was my favorite in the dozens of carvings on the walls. This is a COMPLETE salty place including the floor and the chandelier, everything is just SALT.

Generally mines are not considered very friendly places to work. They are not clean, adding to it is this strange feeling of change. Most of us have desk jobs, I am not sure if we can even connect to this fact of work location shifting constantly every day. After a week, I am not sure if I would be working 20 metres deeper or 30 metres further. The current Tourist’s route has clean and well maintained toilets. I am not sure what facilities were available to the miners hundreds of years before. To top it all, no one paid these miners for these so called “extra efforts”. They had to do their regular job of mining tonnes of salt and then carry on with their love for salt statues.

After half a dozen chambers, more than a hundred statues & salt sculptures, my jaw refused to drop further! I decide to close my mouth for a moment and let my jaw drop again for this 9mtr deep lake chamber of Erazma Baracza. There was display of lights with music which vibrated the water in the lake. How can I explain this experience of standing deep down 100 mts inside the Earth, in a dark chamber, getting Goosebumps enjoying this strange jugalbandi of water and lights.

The speciality of the next chamber Michalowice is that its ceiling is anchored by 8 to 10 metre metal rods inserted vertically into it at regular intervals to support the huge structure. Another 30 metre high chamber which connects the second and the third level. 

We pass through the Kazanow Chamber which was included into the tour in April 2014 as my memory reminds me that I had not seen this when I was here for the first time in November 2013. Yes. This is my second time here. I was so awe struck during my first visit that I did not make any notes. By the second time, I was quite aware of what was coming my way: so my hand bag was thoughtfully replaced with a shoulder bag, comfortable footwear to follow the guide through the long walk, Just enough layers of clothing as the temperature in the mine is controlled and though one may feel it is windy it is not cold (depends on what is cold for each one of us, it is 10 to 14 Degree Celsius). 

We end our tour in the Stanislaw Slaszic Chamber where there was Bungee jumping as an activity a few years ago. Not sure why, but they do not have this attraction anymore. As our guide leaves us with a smile, here is her answer to my last question, “Totally there are 400 guides who work in the mine: 200 Polish speakers, 100 English speakers and 100 others who speak different European languages.” We decide to rest our legs, stretch a bit, grab a bite and shop around (yes of course, someone had guessed it right that people can shop even after a 3 hr trip).  Zap! The lift carries us back to the surface where nothing seems to have changed in the last 3 hours. More shopping opportunities available for the ones who missed it.

For the one who love something more than shopping,and If I have managed to hold your attention till the end not to get into the next tab and Google, here you go

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A checklist: Why have we stopped thinking?

Anger and outrage do not get us anywhere. Another incident with a 3 year old girl in Bangalore. Who are the stake holders? School Management, Teachers, and Parents? Who governs the schools? Are the schools and Management answerable to anyone other than parents? What details are looked into for giving permissions to schools? What are mandatory & what are nice to have and who has this information? 

Think of a similar situation at work. When the same issue repeats, we do a “Root cause analysis”, responsibilities are revisited and proactive measures are taken to prevent recurrence of issues. Dozens of mails, a couple of escalation, extra hours of work, longer hours on conference calls, unless all answers are delivered and the customer is satisfied the particular teams are under fire. Are our children not more valuable than these issues at work? Are emotions not more fragile than the service level agreements? Which is more painful: the scar in mind of a young 3 or 5 year old when being sexually abused or a contractual obligation?

If a team of professionals can work in the best interest of the client and their own organization to meet timeline, deliver the best quality work, coordinating among hundreds and thousands across the globe, why is the sensitivity lost here? Bangalore, the IT hub of India has an issue with fixing an ISSUE. Can you believe this?

What more do we need before doing a route cause analysis? How can we put an action plan in place? Can the state / central Government issue a checklist of mandatory things that schools should adhere to? Can this checklist be openly debated, updated and maintained by a forum comprising of school management and (selected) Parents and shared with all other stake holders from time to time. Can this piece of document be a critical document to be reviewed every quarter so that it is updated with any new mandatory requirement. 

How do we know which school is safe and which is not? Is there a health parameter red/amber/green? Children of my friends go to schools in Bangalore. I trust children and grand-children of most politicians and policemen would also go to the same schools. Do those children get different or so called better care because their parents are law makers or Policemen? 

When Alia's video of "Going home"  is going viral, and we talk about "Can we give her the world that she believes exists", what is the belief of these 3 and 5 year olds about the world they live in and what are we going to do for them? Just being a a human qualifies each one of us to be responsible for this answer.

I just have questions. The more I think, I just get more questions. If you have answers, put them on comments. Let us see if we can do our bit for the change that we want to see.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Excuse me teacher

Disclaimer : This is from my experience with the particular schools which my son has attended in India and Poland. I am not generalizing anything. It is just my opinion. Having written this a few months ago I felt the need to share it with more people as I see children & school related news (of course not in good notes) surfacing in Indian news channels again.

------------------------------------------------Written in June 2014----------------------------------------

I do not hold a doctorate in child psychology. But my study and thesis is underway as my son turned seven years old and as I learn to grow up as a seven year old in my thirties. We moved to Poland and my son started going to a Montessori school. He was in the 3 to 6 age group. For people not familiar with Montessori, classes here are not graded as class 1 or 2 but as groups based on age 3 to 6, 6 to 9 and so on. The logic being older children will exhibit leadership skills and care for the younger ones and the younger ones will have role models to look up to and the whole class would work as a close knit team. What followed was a wonderful surprise as my son got settled into the school and started enjoying himself.

Soon it was the end of the academic year and my son was graduating from the pre-school to go to the elementary school. On this special day just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a thank you note for the teachers. A few lines from that long note goes like this “Every teacher in his class is like an angel to me. All these children who graduated today and the ones who would graduate in future (from the school) may get into different careers in their life. But, their roots would be the same, nourished by the same key values of life. I have never seen one low moment in any of the teachers in all my visits to the school. Your smiles keep the children smiling. I admire the balance you have to let children do what they want and yet not do things which they are not supposed to. And the icing on the cake is all this happens without any shouting, screaming, punishments and crying.”

I had to open this discussion at some point about getting back to India after a couple of years. I thought it would be a happy occasion and slowly started the topic. ‘One day we may go to India after such a graduation to follow the next level there.’ I was not prepared what came after. The bright summer evening turned to a grim and gloomy long evening. Over the next hour my son told me the secrets about the Indian school he attended till 2013 September. A posh south Bangalore school which we had believed that had the best team of teachers who were kind and caring towards children. 

He said how his language teacher has scared him that he will not leave school and will be locked inside his classroom if he does not get to write a few letters the right way. How another teacher would scream and not let children visit the rest room. And how at the age of six he would escape from the class and roam in the corridor. When caught by Ayyas, he would say that he was out to visit the toilet and get into the toilet. He woud wait for the Maths and English periods and would get into the class only for those as those teachers were kind and smiling.

He is an amazing kid who loved to go to school. As a working mother, I had created a comfortable environment for him during his early years to meet people and explore. Things changed when he got into class 1. The school hours were longer. From getting back home at 12:30 pm it was 3:30 pm. Unfortunately due to an extended holiday, he missed the first week at school which was kind of a settling time for the new routine. We got back to school a week after the school reopened in June 2013. Every day he cried to go to school. Having worked in Education sector all my life, I thanked myself for being able to see the issue as a whole. We discussed. And we agreed that may be it is easier for him to start with the 12:30 timing and then slowly move into to longer schedule. I even consulted a counsellor alone to see if I was not being over sensitive. She said I am taking the right approach. But her only query was with all this understanding why did I put my child to a regular school instead of the handful of alternative schools available in Bangalore. Thankfully when I went to the Principal with this strange request, she was accommodative. I also put in a word how it can be helpful if teachers try to get children to a comfort zone before forcing them to complete tasks like task masters. My list obviously included niceties like smile, hug and positive affirmations.

It took us two weeks. I went to school every day along with my son. Stayed in the school and volunteered to fill in for absentee teachers, completed a project in their library. But after that he was okay to go to school. I got busy with planning the move from India to Poland. From July to September school went on with no crying in the morning. Nine months later, I hear my seven year old saying ‘I had to do something on my own because no one was understanding. I wanted to do it that way because they were rude. Their words hurt me.’ I asked him why he did not share this with me all this time. He said, ‘I know that you tried. You spoke to the Principal and the teachers. What more can you do if they do not understand?’ I could not trust my ears. I had to hold back my tears to hear his point of view this time around when he is open to speak to me.

I persuaded, ‘but why are you okay to tell it now?”. He said, ‘I can see the difference. And I do not want to go back to the same school again.’ I pondered ‘there may be other schools and we need not go to the same school again’. He looked straight into my eyes, held my hands as though he was in deep distress, ‘Amma, when I say this you should believe me.’ He rattled a dozen names of his Indian friends from the apartment complex and said, ‘all of us had problems. They went to different schools. But all of us were unhappy.’ As tears rolled down his cheeks, ‘we just had to go to school to read. Then only we will get to go to college and then only we can have good jobs.’ Oh my goodness. My heart was sobbing. I could feel my pulse raising.

What are we forcing our children to be? Is this the thought process that a six or seven year old had to go through? The next thing which came after the next couple of weeks was more shattering. All the heaviness in my heart evaporated in thin air when I read about the heinous crime against the 6 year old in a Bangalore school. My search of empathy towards children by teachers seemed to be a far cry. My son classifies raising voice as “rude” and unpleasant gestures in face as “impolite”. I will not accept if someone says he is too sensitive or I am protecting him from the true world. May be the sensitivity level of our kids are taken as advantage to impose unpleasant things on them with the belief that children may not voice them to parents and parents may not take them seriously.

It all begins at home, saying please, giving a smile, trying to empathise the problem with the child than to give him/her solutions from our parental world. Next time when your child hurts himself, do not justify why he had to be hurt for what he did and smear the ointment on his wound just to put a tick in your responsibility chart but sit next to him and calmly say that you can understand it hurts and maybe the ointment would help. I see my son as a young adult. I am curious about each thing he does, the way he observes and I bet when you care it comes back in abundance. We cannot call the teachers to participate in this if we do not begin this journey to empathise as a parent. I would like you to take a sneak-peak into what my son had to say.

This is one of those Friday evening conversations in the bed. He gets to sleep with us on Friday nights. He enquired how long I had to carry him in my tummy. I said about 9 months. He knows multiplication now. So, he quickly got into calculating the number of days. Then he said that he could recollect his photo as a just born and went on to say, “But even that small baby is too big to be inside someone’s tummy.” I acknowledged and said “Yes. Even I wonder how you managed to squeeze yourself and stay there.” He thought for a while and said, ‘I think it would have been more difficult for you than for me. I am not sure if I hurt you when I was inside your tummy. But sorry because I did so unknowingly.” We hugged each other in silence for the next few minutes. As a mother the reach of my empathy may just be to my own child. Teachers have a wonderful opportunity to influence hundreds of children. As a kid I used to believe that my teacher is always right. May be I did not have a reference point or benchmark. Today children know what is right, what is wrong and they can slot the teacher into categories based on these reference points. Many children know how much they pay to the school and the teachers get paid from the fees that students pay. The school Managements and teachers have a long way to go about treating their customers in the right way. Parents also need to understand the fact that sticking to the extremities of “my child is only right” or “the teacher is always right” may not help. They need to talk and understand and apply problem solving skills just like they do professionally at work.

Right environment at school is critical and basic for a child. And for God’s sake, it is just not the infrastructure of centrally air-conditioned schools. Values are taught by actions. Let us begin at home but demand it at schools. Else, it may not be long before students start finding their own solutions. My pains are not a bit lesser than each one of you there in India. Be there for your kid.

Read the story of a mother who stood by her child against all odds.