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