Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Happy holidays!

I have just returned from a six day "vacation" which was given to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramzan.  Although six days were reserved for this particular holiday (starting on 6th August), it was unknown at the beginning of the week when Ramzan would officially end. The appearance of the moon (as per the Arabic calendar) on the evening of Thursday 8th August determined the end of Ramzan and symbolised the start of EID. This festival is celebrated by Muslims around the world and here in India it is no different. The custom is for everyone to wear new dresses, visit friends and family and enjoy fruits, meats and sweet delicacies. 

Given that the school management is predominantly Muslim orientated, this was a significant "vacation".  It will come as no surprise to you that the highest percentage (perhaps as much as 80%) of students are Muslims with Hindus and Christians making up the balance. Interestingly enough, the majority of staff members are Hindus with some Muslims and only two Christian teachers that I know of. 

 It was this week that I decided to embark on a tour of North India and on 6th August I flew to India's capital city, Delhi. My holiday very nearly didn't "take off" quite literally due to my own stupidity! As I sat patiently in the departure lounge having experienced a very easy check in process, I decided to enjoy some tunes on the old iPod. The problem was as I was having my own little disco, I had switched off from all public announcements. What I will say is that I did check the screens repeatedly and there was no mention of boarding but I keep forgetting this is India and no one method can be relied upon. The fortunate part of the story was that being the only "white monkey" in the departure lounge made it easy for the airline representative to identify me. He was  understandably displeased with me but in an attempt to make amends, I tried the Indian approach of smiling (a lot) and wobbling the head. This only resulted in me almost cricking my neck so I cut my losses and briskly walked away! C'est la vie!

Since my arrival in India there has been erratic and for the most part very poor displays of driving, incessant hooting and an frenetic energy that at times has been all too consuming. That is Kerala. North India is a whole new ball game. 

In Delhi there was a distinct difference in the levels of poverty where it was quite common to find families and individuals "living" in a bus stop, on street corners, under motorways or better still within the central reservations of main roads. Despite being briefed about this by various people who have sampled India, you cannot simply comprehend it until you see it for yourself. However the most shocking experience that will stay with me for many years to come was a female beggar who approached me with her head down. As she lifted her head I immediately froze as I caught glimpse of her horribly deformed face. She was the victim of an acid attack of which there has been such an epidemic over the last few years, there is now a restriction on how much acid can be purchased at any one time. It was truly horrific to see the sheer devastation it had caused. Most of her facial skin had disintegrated and her face, although completely ruined, was left in a permanent state of distress due to the toxic effects of the acid. Her arms had been disfigured to such an extent that she could no way function normally and yet she was in a situation where she was entirely reliant on handouts from people, who were like me, were categorically told not to give anything! It was truly horrendous on every level!

One of the most recurring and rather unfortunate sights during my visit to North India was the number of times I saw men having a waz on the side of a road, in a bush or simply in the street. I don't know if bladder weakness is a serious health issue in North India but I can honestly say that it was so frequent, perhaps every half mile or so, that I almost resorted to lobbing my trusted antibacterial hand gel out of the car window at them!!

Delhi provided the historical insight and with that also masses of chaos! However having a driver and a guide is money well spent here in India because the stress of navigating yourself around places with driving standards that don't feature anywhere near that of a reasonable person should not be a concern. I observed a motorcyclist enjoying a day out, riding along with 6 members of his family on the back! Just another day in paradise!

The day in Delhi was spent visiting a famous Mosque where approximately 85,000 worshippers visit on a daily basis to speak to the man upstairs. Thereafter I was taken to a Hindu Temple which was much more gentile and decorative! It was during this particular visit that I saw the swaztika displayed freely throughout and immediately felt a great deal of concern. Fortunately, it was not for too long as I was reliably informed they are infact a symbol of happiness! I never thought the mark of such a despicable organisation could represent the positive and happy outlook on life adopted by Hindus, many of whom display such symbols on the outside of their houses. 

I also had the pleasure of visiting the famous Sikh Temple in the heart of Delhi. All day long they feed thousands of people who have the misfortune to be homeless or otherwise attend to receive a blessing via a meal. The preparation that goes into the meals which are available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week is phenomenal and entirely reliant on kind souls that simply donate their time. It was an extremely humbling experience and once again demonstrated the generosity and kindness that pulsates throughout the Indian culture. 

What struck me in parts of the city were the desolate conditions people were living in. They were surrounded by mounds of rubbish, filth and generally speaking it appeared to be a very dark existence, yet 50 metres down the road was a small Hindu shrine painted in a beautiful bright fuchsia pink. More time and effort had been given to a space smaller than a telephone box, than streets laden with poverty and desperation. In some respects one can understand why those rely on religion because it must become a crutch for hope and survival.

The following day was spent travelling approximately 3 hours on to Agra, the location of the incredible Taj Mahal. Besides the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, not much occupies the area however I did spot a Costa coffee shop. It was one of those hallelujah moments! Sadly there was torrential rain and a spectacular thunderstorm during my visit but this did not dampen my spirits. It was quite simply breathtaking, a perfectly symmetrical monument made entirely of white marble with magnificent detail. It was built in the 16th Century where  it took 20,000 men to carry out the task and 20 years to complete. In my opinion, the finished product is quite simply outstanding and is more than worthy of the title as one of the seven wonders of the world.  

Once again I was on the move, 24 hours later and after a 5 hour car journey I was in Jaipur, the "Pink City". It says a lot about my time here that I no longer consider it strange to see cows simply sitting in the road however I was surprised to see monkeys darting on house rooves, elephants and camels going for an afternoon stroll, pigs with their piglets snorting loudly to avoid being splattered by the auto rickshaws and donkeys just stood around looking gormless as ever! At times it felt as though the local zoo had been burgled! 

Jaipur is well known for its colour and vibrancy and I certainly enjoyed some of the buildings and Temples adorned in pink and terracotta. My guide was very helpful and accommodating in taking me shopping, despite being a bloke. I  was very amused to learn during my tour that whilst the English tourists are well known for buying scarves and jewellery, the Japanese are especially fond of Kama Sutra books. In light of this discovery, Jaipur is no longer known to me as the Pink City but "Fifty shades of Pink".  I called into the City Palace only to find the King of India was out so it was somewhat disappointing not to be offered some regal hospitality but a nosey around was good enough!

As you can tell from the content of this latest blog, there was never a dull moment and I have now returned to the cut and thrust of school life here in Kerala! 

This week is particularly exciting as Thursday marks the 67th year of India's Independence from our wonderful Country.  Rather worryingly for all concerned, I have been asked to deliver a speech to the whole school (in excess of 700!) on this topic! Not one to be controversial but what a challenge this presents especially given the difference in views between my temporary home and my true nationality. The aim being, not to be deported by Thursday afternoon!  

Wish me luck and for those of a religious disposition have a quiet word - this could be a disastrous experience for all!

As always, I send my love and miss you all lots

Luce  (Ci Ci) xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx


Monday, 5 August 2013

With love from the "White monkey"

As always there is a hive of activity which generates more peculiarity but definitely just as much  laughter too! The day I stop laughing is the day I call it a day but hopefully that won't happen. 

India certainly is a work in progress! I don't think I will stop being surprised or amused for the duration of my time here and the differences in Western culture versus India continue to be magnified! The experience at the hairdressers for example is a memory that will in some respects haunt me for sometime to come but does create some amusement also. Given that my barnet was rapidly turning into the afro style of Whoopi Goldberg with nasty rats tails I decided that something had to be done. I found what looked to be a reputable salon with products in the window that I had comfortably heard of. However a major clue in assessing the suitability of this shop was its location, in that it was situated underneath a multi-storey car park!  I should of walked away at that point but being rather desperate and despairing I engaged their services. It was a decision I began to regret very quickly after being shown into the small cubicle where my haircut would take place! As you can imagine there was no communication due to the language barrier above and beyond pointing at a cut and blow dry! As I sat in the chair I was somewhat surprised as the lid was lifted from the counter in front and my head was thrust into the basin. I gathered pretty quickly that I was then having a hair wash but frankly it felt more like the "water boarding" punishment as water attacked me from every angle and was ice cold! As I pleaded for warm water and to catch my breath, my head was shoved further into the basin. When this tortuous process ended I looked as though I had just won the wet t- shirt competition which here in Kerala is just so uncool and totally unacceptable! 

By this stage I was left wondering what colour my hair would turn out as the product used was a bright green liquid. I rapidly discounted the option of washing up liquid as they simply don't use that here - just ordinary tap water or in some cases rainwater from the rooftop is used to wash up pots and pans - no joke! I am pleased to confirm that I retained my original hair colour but the actual cutting of my hair was simply bizarre. As I watched from the side view of the mirror I could see that the hair cutter (not hairdresser!) had simply taken a few strands of hair at the bottom and cut across in sort of a straight  line. This  procedure was followed until he had removed an inch and a half but the length has now adopted a rather peculiar shape - similar to the 'bowl head' effect. I think I am pleased that my hair is now tidier but slightly concerned that I will need at least one more haircut before my return to civilisation! Definitely need to look out for other alternative salons or punishment parlours!! Incidentally that experience cost me a staggering £3.20 so one has to be mindful of the expression "You get what you pay for !"

My living arrangements remain the same and I am still resident with the Principal and his family. They have almost completed their holy month of fasting (Ramzan) where no food or drink passes their lips from 0450 until 1850. In order to mark the breaking of their fast at 1850, parties called "Ifthar" are held amongst family and friends where the most delicious foods are consumed. The Principal held an Ifthar party a couple of weeks ago which we we were able to enjoy. Sadly there was no grog to wash down the culinary delights but I don't think they would of appreciated the suggestion given that their religion dictates that they cannot even smell the stuff, let alone taste! No chance of converting for me then! Could of polished off a couple of cold beers that night I have to say! 

Given the length of time without the food, they are unable to dive straight into eating mountains of curry but commence proceedings by eating dates, fresh fruits such as pineapple, melon and mango, vegetable and meat samosas and salad. Their salad consists strictly of cucumber and tomatoes and then there was fresh coconut juice which is simply scrumptious. Being the ignorant fool that I am, thought that was the extent of their feast so filled my face with tons of fruits, samosas and gallons of coconut juice only to find there was round 2! The second part being the production of chicken, mutton and buffalo with rice based pancakes (they call it beef but doesn't taste anywhere as good as our home grown stuff!) Oh how I yearn for a rare roast beef sandwich! Given that the Indians don't take no for answer and after trying to politely refuse, under some duress (perhaps a bit strong!)  I ate absurd amounts of food that night. I must of weighed as much as a buffalo afterwards! I was walking up and down the Principal's drive rubbing my stomach, probably looking 8 and a half months pregnant trying desperately not to let rip "Tara" style burps! So attractive! 

As you can tell there is never a dull moment and with each new day,  I find myself experiencing on some occasions situations of sheer madness. It was a couple of days later that the family disappeared (literally) to a family member's home to 'break their fast' and as we came down after an early evening nap we were surprised to see the house like a ghost town. Thinking the best option was to go and see the students across the way, I became very distressed when I realised that the house had been locked up. The front door was locked from the outside and there was a bolt fixed across the back door which is made out of almost bomb proof metal . At this point panic and hysteria set in and the air turned a dark purple. It may appear absolutely ridiculous especially given the job that I do, but I am massively claustrophobic and cannot cope with the idea of being locked in without an escape! After using brute force and blind panic, we managed to break out of the back door which  looked a little disfigured as a result. I had totally lost my sense of humour by this time and frankly needed a stiff drink to take the edge off a tense few minutes. I thought getting some air might be a good solution so took a short walk to school only to narrowly avoid being mowed down by a crazy ass Indian driver. There is absolutely no street lighting or pavements in these parts and so with the use of a torch, it is generally safe to navigate the roads without incident. However it was with that torch that I caught glimpse of a car approaching and the same vehicle had absolutely no lights on at all whilst travelling at some speed. Fortunately at last minute, we were able to jump out of the path of the car but it was a little hairy! In true Pompey style I gave him a load of lip but with little impact as it was lost in translation! Perhaps that was no bad thing on reflection!

This was certainly the case last week when I arrived at the Drs suffering with a temperature and throat pain. I removed my shoes as is the requirement here and questioned whether I had stepped foot in a place of worship instead of a medical clinic! An efficient system where I was seen within 20 minutes of simply turning up but as to what the Dr said and the diagnosis given, well, I am still flummoxed to this day! There is no doubt that he is deserving of the title of Dr as I am once again fighting fit but I must say I was mightily relieved to see that no Fischer Price doctors kits were being used! As you can see from the photo there are no prescriptions to be collected from a pharmacy or printed labels provided but simply small brown bags with the time of day in which the medicine is to be taken. I find it absolutely baffling that this is considered an acceptable practice but this is India after all!!!! You may be thinking what was the cost for such a privilege, well an unbelievable £2 which included the consultation and the medicines also! As I find myself saying several times a day "Indian madness!"

In an attempt to walk off some of the kilos of rice I am consuming on a weekly basis, the last four Sundays have been spent walking approximately 5 miles to the nearest town and its on this journey that I hear  "Lucy Ma'am" being shouted from the various houses I pass. I have numerous offers to go to students' houses on each occasion and if I accepted all offers of hospitality I wouldn't be able to venture too far. Yesterday we were also been stopped twice in order to pose for photos by intrigued locals who greeted us with such amazement but also great enthusiasm. This is a step up from the usual where curious locals just pull over next to where we are walking ask us our names, country and suitably drive away! It really is very amusing! On Friday night I went for a walk after school, only to be stopped by a random shopkeeper who simply invited me to his home. Their sincerity and kindness is so typical of this country's approach or perhaps just the people of Kerala. The jury is still out on that one! 

About a fortnight ago I met one of my student's parents in the local town. Sudha insisted that we go to her house at that exact moment and so we jumped into her auto rickshaw. She ushered us into her home where we were given tea, a sweet snack and fresh mango all prepared by her servant! Using this term seems so antiquated but that is the reality here. She proudly showed us her wedding album of 21 years ago which was particularly interesting given their Hindu beliefs! We were shown the Hindu customs of lighting the various candles throughout the house and also their dedicated room of prayer. Hinduism is particularly fascinating because there are over 16,000 Gods they can pray to. Hindu mythology is a bit like a scene out of Coronation Street where different characters are going off with their brother's wife or having triplets with the neighbour - hugely complicated and convoluted but somewhat interesting! Since our first meeting where we discovered our mutual career in the law, Sudha has taken me to her local Court where she practises as lawyer in family, civil and criminal matters. It seems rather ironic that on that day that we visited Court, she was going to represent a client who was the victim of some horrific road traffic accident and yet in her rather blasé approach, drifted across a main intersection whilst running a red light. Not for the first time during the same journey, did I mutter rather loudly perhaps a slightly rude word but as luck would have it for the whole 45 minutes (more luck than judgement), we arrived without injury! I am living testament that miracles do happen! The day itself was an amazing experience - advocates wore gowns and tabs and there was a real sense of respect shown amongst the Courts and its users. I observed part of trial in the Magistrates Court but was disappointed not to see any legal argument, not that I normally take such an interest but this is the only part of the process here that is conducted in English. The remaining parts such as opening and closing speeches, examination in chief and cross examination are all conducted in their mother tongue of Malayalam! However you won't be surprised to hear that there is no air conditioning, secure docks or video links but the Court buildings were a legacy left by the Brits before India gained independence on 15th August 1947. The public gallery at the Magistrates Court consisted of people simply peering in from the outside through the metal bars, also classed as Indian windows! Magic!

To add to the last couple of wacky weeks, I have acquired a few new nicknames. I am no longer Luce, Linners or Ci Ci but infact the "white monkey", " Kushumbi"and "Crazy Gopaln". The endearing term of white monkey   originates from the hostel warden who adapted the name I gave her two young monkeys (children) just for me! It generated the Indians great amusement and I think it's an affectionate term but perhaps they have just got the measure of me. One of the teachers who has the pleasure of sitting next to me in the staff room and who I consider to be a good friend here has decided to call me "Kushumby" which is Mayalam for naughty! "Crazy Gopaln"I understand just means crazy fool so I'm not doing too well on the whole character assessment so far! 

Well my next blog will be written from North India where I am due to visit Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, otherwise known as the "Golden Triangle"! 

Hope you are all well wherever this finds you and sending you all lots of love

White monkey