Trash Talk Recycled Abroad – in Nepal and India

(Homemade Paint Can Drum, made by Child Haven student, near Kathmandu)

I wish that it was under more joyous circumstances that I was uploading these blog entries from our recent trip to India and Nepal, where Maggie and I led our Trash Talk Recycled music and puppetry project last month.  But, of course, we all know the enormous challenges that Nepal, an already very under-resourced yet astoundingly beautiful country, is facing after this devastating earthquake.  I usually find it difficult not to feel insulated and somewhat removed from such global tragedies, given the contrast of my own privileged existence.  However, having been to Nepal so recently and having been touched by so many Nepali people whom I met, this incident is hitting close to home and has me profoundly shaken.  Thankfully, I learned, from the principal of the Child Haven School where we taught, that all of the students and staff are unharmed.  However, his account of the terrifying realities on the ground, for the people in Kathmandu and beyond, was very troubling.  So, I post this with compassion for everyone in Nepal as they rebuild and heal, and with gratitude for the opportunity that I had to connect with many of them.

(Simi, with a letter from her new Canadian penpal, Finn)

In Nepal and India, thanks to our IndieGoGo campaign contributors and the non-profit, Instruments of Change (, we had the opportunity to share the same Trash Talk Recycled work that we led with students at three Vancouver schools last fall. Additionally, we connected these students through pen pal relationships as well as an exchange of creative work (shared through photos and videos).  And like in Canada, all of the kids we worked with explored ideas of trash in our world and in our minds, while discussing more generous alternatives to the “trash” behaviors and talk that we all sometimes exhibit.  Ultimately, the students’ discoveries were presented in original musical theatre pieces that incorporated instruments and puppets which they made from trash.  Below, are some reflections that I wrote throughout each of these school engagements.


March 11: I am now nearing the end of my first week at the school and, already, I feel intensely bonded to these children, whose names I barely know since I am meeting 200 of them at once.  After only one day of musical games, (mostly call and response singing and drumming), I am now daily greeted with hugs, hand-holding and high-fives, in a way that I can only describe as humbling.  Half of the children from this school are orphans, but all are dearly loved, by staff, teachers and volunteers.  Their dedication and commitment to this community is truly impressive.  The school is compassionately and competently run by Dil Dabba, a lovely man who has enabled our visit here to be highly effective.  All grades are structured by periods, so he has been able to set a very clear schedule for our daily sessions.  Maggie (my puppeteer colleague and collaborator here) and I have had the chance to work with about 5 different classes per day.  And we are now well on our way to having several original song and drama pieces ready for each grade to present to their whole school next Thursday, in a general assembly.  The students’ English has definitely exceeded my expectations, making our engagements more fruitful.  And the theme of “moods” has emerged as the most appropriate content for our project, since Grades 4-7 are currently building vocabulary around this subject.  So, we are discussing a range of behaviors and realities that elicit different feelings for them and we are using this language in our performance pieces.


March 13: Yesterday, we lucked into borrowing a digital projector, laptop, and speaker to show the students several You Tube videos of relevant inspirational recycled art (IE. Stomp, Landfillharmonic, Bottle Boys).  And today we had our community clean-up field trip to collect garbage that we can repurpose for our show.  To mine their neighborhood for bottles, plastic bags, cartons and other found objects, we came armed with gloves and garbage bags (both also eventually reused for our project) to make this dirty work as clean and safe as possible, but still it was messy business.  However, the kids seemed undaunted by bags strewn with dog poop, or liquor bottles covered in mud.  In fact, they went to all lengths to extract certain “booty” – most coveted were large, unbroken glass bottles with particularly ringing sounds.  We knew we’d successfully imparted the true principles of the project when we saw them grab sticks along the streets, to test out of the timbre of their newfound drums and then bang out the rhythms that we’d learned together for their new song.



Finally, next week, once we have our trash materials, we will begin instrument and puppet-making.  And to enhance this activity, we have purchased several art supplies, from a department store outside of town, that will allow the kids to transform and decorate their trash creations in personal ways.

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March 19: Now, after two weeks of intense but exciting engagements, the kids’ hard work and creativity has paid off in spades.  Our mood conversations ultimately informed an original song and skit that used their trash-made creations.  As a sample, here are the lyrics to the Grade 5 song:

We are Team Blue and we’re here to say,
these are the things that make us sad today:

Heartbreak, Sickness, Loneliness
Failed exams at school.
Missing someone that you love
Or when you break the rules.

When we feel sad we play our sad song.
Listen how it goes and you can play along.

The strengths of these groups were evident and distinct.  One class excelled with rhythm, another with puppet-making, Grade 7 with detailed visual art skills for decorating their instruments, and the high-strung but expressive Grader 4’s as our best dramatic hams.  The day before the big show, the students’ enthusiasm was palpable.  A few glitches arose amidst the fervor, including several broken bottle flutes, and a few puppets gone astray.  But quite different from the ‘mine-mine-mine’ attitude that we often encounter at home, these resilient kids, quite accustomed to sharing and making do with less, were unfazed by these losses and merely played leftover instruments or reconstituted some bag puppets to “go on with the show” without shedding a tear. They performed in a magical setting, on their school rooftop, surrounded by spectacular hills and terraced farms, on a crystal clear morning, for 250 of their peers and teachers.  And, to quote a line from the ‘calm’ class’s song, they finished with a grounding and obvious ‘sense of satisfaction’.  Debrief discussions with all of our participants revealed that our project has hopefully left them with a lasting ethic about ‘repurposing’ and its imaginative possibilities.  They were also generous in communicating their gratitude for the skills and confidence that they gained.  Of course, these feelings were entirely mutual, as Maggie and I left bolstered by the fact that the principles of our project concept did, in fact, seem to translate trans-continentally.

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You can watch videos of our performances in Nepal at these links:

April 2: Twenty-two hours of bus, plane and car travel later, (the latter 8 hours of which felt like being rattled through a centrifuge, otherwise known as Greater Delhi traffic), we have arrived in Rishikesh – home to thousands of pilgrims who flock from the world round, for a menu of panaceas to sooth their souls. Gurus grow on trees here, and yoga studios have multiplied like rabbits now that the saavy locals have clued in to the huge appeal that this place has for Westerners.  But even in this cushy hilltop town, Delhi Belly lurks in the shadows and found me big time, by my second day here.  And while my bowels and the holy waters are flowing, our school project here is not. A collapsed roof at their office delayed exams by two days, initially causing us to start Wednesday instead of Monday.  Then, when we arrived on this appointed morning (yesterday), we learned that Prahba, the director who invited us, had completely forgotten an annual 2-day holiday (Th/Fri) which delayed us further still to a Saturday start.  Immediately upon meeting Ramana’s well-meaning but rather harried director, we gained speedy insight into the chaotic realities at the home and school which she founded and has run since 1997.  In only our ten-minute exchange, while she tried to shuffle her teacher’s schedule to allow us more engagement time for our now truncated, 7-day project, she also proceeded to field a battery phone calls, like a trouble-shooting whirling dervish.  The school’s water supply had been cut off for two days.  Three puppies that they’d bred for the kids at the orphanage had all died that morning from some kind of digestive disease.  Their projector (used to show weekly movies for the community to raise money for the home) had broken down and she was arranging someone to drive it an hour away for repair.  And it was post-exam report card day, so she had the joy, wrath and shame of one hundred parents to contend with that morning too.  This certainly made me empathetic to all she has to juggle. So, I am choosing to compassionately trust that it will all work out as long as I can exercise the patience and flexibility that one always needs when adapting to a radically different culture.


In the meantime, we will work with a small group of students at the home, during their days off, to offer as much value as we can while we’re here.  We’ve planned several music and drama activities geared for younger kids, because very of few of the Grade 3-5 students intended for our project actually live at the home.  We’re are, however, concerned about sustaining the kids’ attention during their holiday play (rather than study) time, because our first attempt to lead some arts engagement there got off to a rough start.  Since we arrived Monday, as planned, we visited the school that day to get acquainted, even though we knew that we couldn’t start for a couple of days. The volunteer coordinator then invited us to come back Tuesday (another day-off after exams) to lead some arts activities with these kids who would not have a chance to participate in our project. It started off well, with a rhythmic Name Game that kept a dozen kids engaged for about twenty minutes.  But soon, this devolved into jump rope and hopscotch-like games of their own.  Maggie and I rolled with it and let them take the lead.  Then, not ten minutes later, two six-year old girls had each other’s hair in death-grips, and fell to the floor in a rip-roaring fight, (over a mere toffee), that shocked us into the unfortunate truth that our “trash talk” message would be even more relevant here than we thought. So, while there is great disparity between our own orderly and resource-rich nation compared to the far more challenged circumstances in India, as we suspected, many core issues still prevail.  Ultimately, we were reminded that all people just want to be loved, valued and treated fairly. Yet this quest for human connection is an eternal struggle everywhere.  And while I harbor no illusions about being able to make substantive impact given such a short engagement, we can only hope that our discussions about kindness and respect will resonate with these students in some lasting and meaningful ways, even if our presence is fleeting.

April 4: Well again, the Ganges gods were not with us today (Saturday), when mudslides cancelled yet another school day – 6 out of 6 and counting!  So, we are now 50% through our time here and have not yet even started the official project.  This has been frustrating, to say the least, and all my efforts to exercise patience have now been exhausted.

Anchina, one of our new and enthusiastic teaching friends from India)

April 6: Indeed, we did begin today, with huge sighs of relief.  And all went even better than we could have expected.  In the classroom setting, the children were attentive and even enthralled.  They responded enthusiastically to rhythmic and melodic activities, and Maggie confirmed that they showed equal interest in inventing dramatic stories.  And we received hearty appreciation from all of the teachers, each of whom expressed a desire to receive more training in the arts-based teaching tools that they observed in our work.  This gave us a valuable take-away, for future projects, when we can incorporate after school teacher training along with our student engagements.  Thankfully, it was evident that our project concept resonated quickly all around.


After some creative warm-up games, students were soon full of ideas about “trash” behaviors.  I quickly learned that their English comprehension improved when they were asked to identify “opposite” vocabulary.  So, we followed this discussion about hurtful behavior by brainstorming actions that make them feel valued and respected.  With every iteration of our project, the unique interactions that we have with the students result in entirely different song and skit formats for each school.  So, we look forward to seeing what will blossom here throughout the week.  And though we had counted on 10-days, we know that the intensity of a shorter engagement might render even more powerful results.

April 11: Our final week redeemed the first on many levels.  We managed to complete all the instrument and puppet-making as well as the creation of original musical and theatrical content.  Finally, although rushed, we were even able to take our new “Trash Warriors” (Ramana’s students) on a community clean-up trip.  And we talked about how this experience could stimulate new behaviors – to show the same love, value and respect towards their environment that they want for themselves.  Additionally, we made up for lost time by supplementing the found materials for our project with various sundries that we collected from proprietors who we had come to befriend during our stay.  This was only fitting since our project began as an Indiegogo crowd-sourced initiative.  From the masseur who proudly announced that he used disposable sheets for every customer, we utilized over 50 of these otherwise wasted pieces of gauzy cotton for the puppets.  From our favorite café owner we got rice to make shakers. And from our first hostel we scored nearly all the bottles we needed for drums after noticing a huge pile of them in a concrete bunker behind the property.  I think this plastic detritus is perhaps the worst casualty of travel to countries without proper water sanitation.  I’ve regrettably consumed about 1,000+ bottles of the purified stuff myself, in all of my years (though NEVER at home).  So, I can only feel slightly absolved for my past sins by having transformed at least 100 of these into something artful this time round.

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Of course, while our emphasis is always on process, we’ve also seen how confidence-building a successful product can be.  So, luckily, we were left with just enough rehearsal time to ensure a good performance. The students memorized lines and music with surprising ease, and rose to the occasion once they showcased their work to their large and appreciative audience, who all squeezed into their school’s sweltering thatched yoga hall, (exacerbated by a broken fan) for the special occasion.  Along with 100+ students, teachers and community members, a “wealthy” Australian tour group (interested in Ramana’s work and conveniently in town for the show), joined us as well.  We were only extra pleased to learn that many generous donations followed.


Again, the original stories and lyrics that these 10-12 year old wise kids came up with amazed and moved us.  Here are the words to the song that Ramana’s students wrote together.  They could be true anywhere!


If  you want to be a friend,
Listen how our song will end.

A mean kid hits but a true friend hugs.
A mean kid hates but a true friend loves.
A mean kid thinks bad thoughts but a true friend shows respect.
A mean kid hurts but a true friend will protect.

CHORUS – repeats

A mean kid breaks promises. A true friend keeps their word.
A mean kid ignores.  With a friend you’re always heard.
A mean kid makes problems that a friend will solve.
A mean kid makes conflicts that a true friend will resolve.

CHORUS – repeats

A mean kid lies but a true friend tells the truth.
A mean kid says “all mine” but a friend will share with you.
A mean kid pulls hair but a true friend shakes hands.
A mean kid doen’t listen but a friend answers demands.

CHORUS – repeats

A mean kid fights but a true friend plays.
A mean kid runs off but a true friend always stays.
A mean kid is weak but a friend is strong.
A mean kid is not right but a true friend’s never wrong.

Now that you have heard our song,
We can all just get along.

As you can imagine it was adorable, and you can enjoy the video of their performance here (Puppet shows at 6:20 & 12:20, Songs at 8:20, 18:20 & 20:10):