Monday, August 29, 2011

Paddle Mountain

Despite having lived in Arctic Village, my jaunts into the countryside have been limited.  Being overwhelmed as a first year teacher, I restricted travel to only a couple hours, usually just taking short hikes or ski excursions in close proximity to the school.  So Saturday when I was invited to climb one of the nearby peaks I jumped at the opportunity.

For the last two months three photographers from New York have been working in Arctic Village.  They came from a college on a grant to study, record, and capture the story of the Gwich'in people.  Through video interviews and photographs this professor and two students hopes to capture the essence of what its like to live North of the Arctic Circle.  As the professor briefly explained to me, its part of a life long project he's called "Polar Souls".  He's fascinated by communities living in such remote, sometimes inhospitable locations in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Sunday morning we shoved off the shore of the Chandalar River in two inflatible kayaks.   Our group of four paddled about 1.25 miles downriver.  We began our hike on the far shore.  The first and last three miles of the hike would become some of the hardest hiking I've ever done.  Forget steep inclines or hiking at elevation, crossing tundra tussocks was exhausting.   Totally draining the energy out of every muscle as you not only use legs, but core strength to balance on these floating islands of grass.  It was like walking on marbles.  And forget stepping inbetween the grass domes, some gaps were shallow, while others caused you to sink knee deep in freezing water or muck.

Our climb began on the slopes of Paddle Mountain.  We navigated towards a narrow ridge, eventually rising above scrub line and flanking around the main scree covered slopes of the massive mountain just west of Arctic Village.  Topping out at 4750ft, the vista provided new views North and West deep into the foot hills and larger peaks of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

We arrived back to the school boat ramp almost 12 hours after we had left.  The total hike covered 9.5 miles, and the total paddle was 2.5 miles.  Linda, our school Special Education greeted us with warm stew (thanks Linda)!
After an amazing day in the wilderness, we were blessed with a spectacular sunset.

Friday, August 26, 2011

New Blog Title

I've been thinking a lot lately about changing the title of this blog.  With much regret I just think its time to retire it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Back to Arctic

After a three month exodus, we returned last Saturday to Arctic Village.  Unlike last year we knew what we were getting ourselves into.  The pilot remembered our names and wanted to hear all about our Summer adventures.  As our Cessna rose out of Fairbanks into thick cloud cover I began to reminisce on what I had left three months before.  Suddenly the clouds cleared and the vast tundra began to look familiar below us.  The mighty Yukon River marking the halfway point.  Numerous ponds growing smaller as the flats turned to rolling hills and finally the splendid Brooks Range loomed in the distance.  

As we landed in Arctic Village many familiar faces greeted us at the airport.  I was a bit surprised at first not to see a larger greeting party, but discovered many families were "up mountain" hunting or in Fairbanks for the State Fair.  The village looked the same, but much greener then when we left.  Arctic Village has received an unusual amount of rain this Summer.  Our friend and colleague Linda picked us up from the airport in the school truck.  I hopped in back with the luggage.  Jack and I proudly waving to passersby in chariot like style.
Unlike last year, we didn't start the year with Science Camp.  Instead the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments (CATG) had an annual meeting all week.  The gathering brought in Elders and Chiefs from all the surrounding villages- Venetie, Fort Yukon, Beaver, Stevens, and the big village of Fairbanks.  The event provided a forum for a series of discussions on everything from subsistence hunting to alcohol and drug abuse, as well as preserving oral history and caring for elders.  I took my students to attend several of the meetings.  The week concluded with a youth specific talking circle in which all my students expressed their concerns and shared ideas with the council about the future.
 Due to the hectic nature of having so many out of town guests in Arctic, we decided to take our students on a hike today.  To the East of the village is Dachunlee', a sacred mountain where many families set up hunting camps in the Fall.  I was so proud of everyone, even the First and Second graders walked almost all the way up the mountain.  We ate lunch and toured several of the hunting camps.  While the older students and I climbed to the upper ridge, Gretchen remained in camp with the younger students pulling squirrels from traps and cleaning them to eat.
In total we hiked 10 miles under gorgeous blue skies.  For some kids heading out to hunting camps is a common occurrence, for others this is a special treat as they usually get left in the village.  One student was ecstatic about the hike, saying it was only the third time in his life he had climbed this luminous hill overlooking the village.  He couldn't remember the last time his Uncle had taken him to hunting camp, but he knew it was when he was much smaller.
I feel like the year is off to a good start for me.  My classroom feels much more setup then it was this time last year.  As a second year teacher I'm overflowing with ideas to integrate into my lesson plans. Monday really marks the first full day of classes at the start of a full week of school.  I have a feeling with dozens of charter flights leaving the village today, it will seem empty this weekend.  With most of the out of town guests departed I'm really praying the focus becomes getting kids enrolled into school and kicking off the academic year.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Teacher Housing

Gretchen and I arrived to Arctic Village not really sure where we would be living, but hoping for district housing.  Thanks to the gracious help of my coworker Linda and generous new Principal, this was possible.  After one night sleeping in our old cabin, we moved into teacher housing.

 Teacher housing is located in old school building, directly across from the current school building.

This is the back porch which has some spectacular views overlooking the Chandalar River.

 Views off the back porch at sunset.

 Gretchen and Jack settling into our living room.

 Jack has a nice comfy bed in each room.

 Jack loves the new apartment so much he wanted to be in each photo.

Teacher housing is fully loaded with indoor plumbing and running water.  We also have gas heat which will be really nice in the upcoming winter.

 The master bedroom.

Jack is very comfortable in his new quarters!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Varanasi: School Visit

Post by Gretchen

While in India we constantly saw people in need of basic essentials - food and shelter.  Hungry children begged in the streets, big eyes and empty bloated bellies.  People of all ages without limbs, open sores and dirty ripped clothing lay in the streets.  The train stations were the worst.  People gathered there in mass to beg.  It broke my heart, yet at the same time overwhelmed me to the point of just wanting to get away from it all.  Like if I didn't see it, it wouldn't exist.  What could we do, how could we help?  We were in India to learn and to experience, but we didn't want to just be tourists.  Our lives back home revolve around serving others, both professional and personally.  While in Varanasi we took the opportunity to check out a charity school that educates poor children whose parents cannot afford to send them to public schools.

In the U.S. we take it for granted that we all have the opportunity for FREE education!  That is really an amazing thing.  Yes, our system has it's problems, but all kids can go to school.  In India school fees are very expensive and even some people with jobs cannot afford to send their children to school.  Our driver one day explained to us how even the schools that have low tuition still require families to pay for books and uniforms and many families cannot afford to send their children at all.  When I hear Sam's kids complain about having to go to school I wish they could see just a piece of what we saw and know what great opportunity it is to be able to go to school!

I had read about this school in Lonely Planet, but it took a bit of searching to find it tucked away on a back street.  We were able to ask at a cafe that sells bread to support the school and got a guide to take us to the classrooms.  The school was in an old house with two bedrooms converted into classrooms just off of an open air atrium.
The children sat on simple wood benches, sharing text books and copying lessons into notebooks.  There was a lower and upper primary classroom, with about 30 kids between the two classes and two teachers.  The Principal/Administrator welcomed us in to sit and watch as classes finished up for the afternoon.

Like many of our days in India it was peel the paint off the walls hot and the two classrooms shared one fan that was positioned between the two as the only source of moving air.  I was melting, but to the kids it was just a normal school day.

One of the youngest students taking a rest at the end of the day as the older children finish assignments.

The kids were excited to practice the English phrases they knew with us and were very interested in have their photos taken.
This student lead the class, counting out loud in English to 100.  He even stopped and corrected his peers when they got off track!
These girls showed me their writing assignments and some of the games they like to play.

I pulled out my I-Pod to snap a couple of pictures and they were fascinated by it. "Is that a phone?"  "Is it a computer?"

I showed the kids some games I have on the I-Pod and they took turns spelling words and doing math problems.  Gotta love free apps!

I love technology that is so intuitive you don't have to explain it.  The language barrier was not a problem, they just touched the screen, moved things around and figured out how to use it.  Of course every student wanted a turn.

It was a privilege to spend the afternoon with these students. I thank them for sharing with us and welcoming us into their school.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Varanasi, is one of the holiest cities in the Hindu faith.  It’s where all Hindu’s are supposed to come to be cremated.  Believed to be the “city of light” founded by the god Shiva.  It is one of the oldest living cities in the world.  People have inhabited it continually, maintaining its religious life since the 6th century B.C.  

I loved Varanasi.  I really can’t explain why yet, but I loved it.  Gretchen appreciated the history and wealth of ritual here, but not the same way I did.  More then any other city, I feel like Varanasi had a lot to teach me still about life.  While most people seeking new found spiritual insight in India flock to Rishikesh or the hundreds of ashrams spread throughout the country.  I think I might have found that feeling in Varanasi.  The solitude of death along the rivers edge.  The music emanating from its streets.  The edification in a drenching rain wandering alleys in the old city.  It was enlightening watching a city work the way its worked for thousands of years.  I can’t imagine it looking or operating any differently then this throughout time.  
Why did I give Gretchen the map?

After traveling for 24 hours we checked into our hotel and took a nap.  A friend whom I work with in the school district has been traveling to India for decades.  He has also been studying music in Varanasi for quite some time.  He recommended a nice hotel on the south side of town called Hotel Haifa.  Located near the Asi Ghat, maybe two blocks off the water- it allowed us to freely explore just minutes from the main city, but retreat to a quiet area to relax.  

Riding on a cycle rickshaw

Varanasi essentially has a main road paralleling the Ganges River.  Over time it has spread and urbanized from the river, but that is still the heart of Varanasi.  Not only holy to Hindu’s, but the nearby deer park in Sarnath, about 10 kilometers away, is where Buddha gave his first sermon.   

For less than a dollar you can travel up and down the ghats (steps at rivers edge) on cycle rickshaw.  There are over a hundred ghats in Varanasi along the river.  They range in appearance from complex stone sites for holy rituals to simple access at waters edge for bathing.  As water levels rise and fall throughout the year from monsoon rains, so to does their use and appearance change.  Several of the ghats you can not photograph.  They serve as cremation sites for the dead.  Here we just watched, sometimes from afar, sometime close enough to smell the smoke.  Other ghats are for bathing and washing.  Some are for pujas or other holy rituals praising Mother Ganga for her nourishing flow.

The weather was overcast with intermittent rain all four days we were here.  Having the sun blocked behind clouds actually made it feel a little cooler, despite heavy humidity.  I really enjoyed the people in Varanasi.  We took the opportunity to let a couple people into our life and carefully control our destiny for that day.  First a young boy, maybe 13 or 14.  We met him while his older brothers were playing cricket at rivers edge.  He tried and tried to get us into his family’s textile shop.  When he discovered we weren’t prepared to buy anything, he became our friend.  He told us what its like to go to school in Varanasi.  He told us what its like to work in his families shop at an early age.  And he told us what its like to loose a parent.  

We once again had the rules of cricket briefly explained to us.  It still didn’t make that much sense.  After a lot of chit chat, the boy sat with us in silence for a little while.  Cool breezes blew off the water, it was almost comfortable.  I took a few more photographs and we left.  Wandering the alleys back to our hotel we could hear music emanating from several temples.  It was the week of the holy festivals of Shiva.  Though darkness was encroaching, a lot of temples were lit with candles or a single light bulb.  Peeking through the stone lattice into one temple I could see a group of people squatting around burning incense.  Acapella songs being sung, the only word I recognized was Krishna.
A new friend

Midnight loom work

We were constantly tempted to take a requisite boat ride. I resisted the first couple days trying to figure out what a fair price would be.  Multiple young men solicited us.  The price I finally negotiated was double what the Rough Guide recommends, but I suppose that is inflation.  The water current is swift on the Ganges.  We easily floated down river about 15 minutes, passing dozens of ghats and gaining a whole new perspective on the city.  It then took us 45 minutes to paddle back up river to our starting point.  From the river we saw families playing, children swimming, men bathing, women laundering, and bodies burning.  From a distance you can see several smoke plumes coming from fires.  Funeral parties crowd above.  Doms, or the untouchable cremators dressed in white sheets move back and forth, carrying out their work.

Relaxing on the Ganges

Approaching a burning ghat, please put away your camera

Share this ghat with some water buffalos

Napping on the Ganges

Boat paddlers

When visiting either of the two burning ghats you hear “cremation is education”.  The metaphysical transformation from life, to death, to ash through the river, and once again back to life through reincarnation.  I mean no disrespect by this narrative.  I know what I don’t know, and that is the totality or complete understanding of what I saw.  I will try to capture it in simplest terms, leaving out details which I don’t understand, or just don’t know.  If you are the wiser, please edify me, correct me, and help me learn.

On the outskirts of the first cremation ghat we visited a hospice house.  Meeting another lone young male in the streets, he offered to show us around these holy ghats.  I was a bit wary of an oncoming tout, or tip for his “services”, but he told us several times he was just bored, and enjoyed showing foreigners around.  So we followed him.

The hospice house was a three story stone building overlooking the main cremation ghat.  It was a home for the undead.  After seeing several dead bodies in the train station the day before, I was only partially prepared for this experience.  All around us, laying upon the floor, mostly uncovered, were crippled and starving people, dying people.  Some from Varanasi, others abandoned by their families and condemned to die in this city.  Those who die in Varanasi will achieve enlightenment.  Those who are cremated in Varanasi will be more prosperous in the next life.  To paraphrase eons of belief in just two simple sentences.

We climbed the stairs through the hospice house.  Each level the feeling of death grew thicker.  From the roof balcony we had a panorama view of the entire ghat.  Below us funeral parties carried in bodies covered upon a bamboo stretcher.  People waited in que as the dead were decorated with flowers and jewelry.  The bodies were then dipped into the holy water of the Ganges River before being placed upon a smoldering fire.  I was surprised at the small size of these cremation fires.  I pictured blazing bonfires swallowing up corpses in must minutes.  Instead I saw tiny flames barely consuming the dead as families stood nearby.  Feet and hands sticking out unburned, as Doms patiently added logs to the fire.  

The following excerpt comes directly from my journal after experiencing the ghats and talking with several people.

“It takes 3 hours to slow burn a body, after they have soaked in the Ganges, and about 150 - 300 kilograms of wood, that amount was not clear, they use banyan tree wood at 150 INR per kilogram.  There are 5 types of dead people not burned; Sadhus, snake bite victims, children, lepers, and I can’t remember the fifth.  The Doms are the caste which handle the dead, they are untouchables.  I saw several bodies burned.  I did not see the actual body, but saw the shape covered with adornments of cloth and flower pedals.  Only men attended the ceremony as women are to emotional to be here, and still afraid of Sati… while at the second burning ghat the Dom explained that even poor people get cremated here, that rich people will donate wood, but the poorest people get partially burned wood, and a lot of the local Muslims donate money for wood for the poor…" 

After the body is initially placed upon an unlit fire, the Dom takes grasses and lights it from an eternal flame within the nearby temple.  He then walks around the body five times, clockwise, before placing the fire starter beneath the logs.  It is easy to identify whom the dead are from afar.  The color of the cloth draping the deceased tells whether they are young, old, male or female.  

By the end of the afternoon my eyes burned from the smoky air.  We had enough education about cremation for one day.  My own thoughts of death and transformation are pouring through my mind.  But to remain as objective as possible, I will save those for another piece of prose on another blog.  

Romantic boat ride on the spectacular Ganges River

Varanasi is also known for textiles and oils.  We decided to explore a couple of the silk shops.  Its actually suave, for men to wear silks.  Very European.  But no, I didn’t buy one.
Precious gorgeous silk

It starts here crushing and grinding

We spent several hours in this oil shop.  I learned a lot about how various remedies and oils are made.  It was amazing to see how dozens of oils are crushed or ground from the raw materials.  They ranged from roots to rocks, wild grasses to precious herbs.  All turning into an assortment of valuable oils.  Some esteemed for their beautiful perfume smell, others carrying aromatic healing qualities.

A plethora of oils and fragrances

I think Varanasi embraces you only when you embrace her.  Teeming streets and vacant alleys spread throughout this living city.  Generations built upon many millennia of life.  Rituals today that have been occurring since its birth.  The holiest of “tirthas” or crossing places, giving the devotee access to the divine.  The visitor, even a glimpse of what eternity here looks like.   Everyday life struggling with an identity formed between the past, unknowing of the future.