As I am writing this blog I am now entering the last phase (i.e 3 months) of my eight month adventure. I can remember only too well my arrival here in May and the dread and fear I felt in knowing that I was committed until December but my, how time flies when your having fun!
Since my last update, Naomi the other volunteer, has sadly returned to the UK to resume the final year of her degree. She was affectionately known to me as "Vomy White" after the famous bus journey where she received a blessing of different kind - vomit on the tootsies! She was here for three months and instead of boozing it up over the summer, sensibly invested her time and energy into a worthwhile and rewarding cause. "Vomy White is a focused, ambitious and thoroughly nice girl who will no doubt go on to achieve great things - good luck!" says Lucy Ma'am!
We are now entering the second week of school, after enjoying a 10 day vacation to celebrate a significant Hindu festival, known as Onam. I was lucky enough to be invited to one of the student's homes (Ameena Aboo) where I stayed for the first half of the holiday. Despite the fact that I was staying with a Muslim family, I was not disadvantaged in anyway as the same traditions were followed as that of a Hindu family, purely for my benefit. The festival amongst other things marks the end of the monsoon season and certain rituals are always adhered too. One of those rituals is to make a carpet out of fresh flowers (Pookalam) which is then laid out at the front of the house. The colours and intricate detail is quite incredible on some that I have seen, but the Pookalam created at Ameena's home was simple but very pretty. The other main tradition is 'Sadhya', meaning feast, which is a delicious selection of different foods served on a banana leaf . There was to be no disappointment as the feast itself was served on a fresh banana leaf with an amazing array of curries, chutneys, pickles, fruit, rice and fish. Whilst my photo does not do it justice, I can assure you that it was extremely tasty and it goes without saying that Ameena's mother is an amazing cook.
During the days that followed I was treated like a guest of honour everywhere I went. Out of a village of approximately 600 residents, 250 of them were Ameena's relatives in some capacity or another. The jungle drums were in overdrive as no sooner had we visited one family member, there was a call on the mobile phone to meet another. For some people, I was the first foreigner they had cast their eyes on and I gather I am the first English person to visit their village. How intrigued they were?! I am not exaggerating when I say that within 2 days, I had visited the homes of 15 relatives and this was not even scratching the surface. At every house I visited I was greeted with horlicks (a great favourite amongst this set of Indians!) a wide selection of biscuits, fruit and curried pastries. The problem thereafter was politely declining the 6th offer of the favourite bedtime drink and a curried egg pastry! Indians being the hospitable and kind people they are don't do "NO" so only after announcing how seriously nauseous I felt on one particular afternoon was I given the much reduced token of orange juice and two bananas!
On my first day I was taken on a family outing to visit a dam and a national park. Every effort was made to make me feel welcome and the family were keen to show me parts of their beautiful Kerala; quite rightly too. It's hard to be able to convey to those who have never experienced the Indian culture but quite simply the kindness, sincerity and eagerness to please are just some of the qualities that this mammoth size family displayed from the moment I arrived to the second I left. On one occasion, there was great excitement as I was paraded around a party for the marriage celebration of a young couple. Rather embarrassingly, I attracted more attention then those who were entirely deserving of the limelight. The function was held in a 'Madrassa' - a venue where the young Muslim community go in order to learn about the religion. There were approximately 250 - 300 people in attendance and in accordance with their religion, men are required to eat first then followed by the women and children. There is to be no mingling of both men and women and the meal time which is the main focus of the party is like a canteen style affair. There are no name places, cutlery or table favourites! There definitely ain't no flair or finesse 'ere! It is simply a case of parking your arse where there is space and plates are thrust in front of you. From there, beef biriyani is shovelled on to your plate, along with pickle, salad and fried chicken - this diet does wonders for your cholesterol. If I'm lucky enough to get hitched, perhaps my old man will insist on a similar style although I know that won't happen as it's not a proper shindig without the red vino!!!
I left Ameena's home, incredible family and first class hospitality with a heavy heart and returned to normality, the only positive being that there was no repeated offers of good old Horlicks!
Being English enables me to moan about the weather at least once during my time here and now is the appropriate occasion. I have endured 35+ degree heat, relentless torrential rainstorms over a prolonged period of time but I am struggling to cope with a daily average of 95% humidity. The humidity is combined with a temperature of around 30 degrees and this makes for very uncomfortable conditions at times. It causes the students great amusement when I reach the top floor classrooms to commence teaching only to keep having to stem the flow of sweat pouring down the side of my face with one of my many handkerchiefs. Such is my discomfort that students and fellow colleagues often ask if I'm feeling ok - I can only imagine that I am looking like someone suffering in the early stages of a heart attack. I have to concede that on this occasion it is not Indian madness but instead 'English madness'!
Talking about Indian madness, of which there is plenty, there are two recent incidents where this was suitably demonstrated. The first in time was the car journey where we were following a jeep, which in itself is nothing extraordinary. What I then saw was highly amusing as an old man was laid across the back with his broken ankle poking out of the back, meanwhile being supported by a man who was spread eagled over the back door of the jeep. Clearly he was not concerned that an emergency stop, which in this country is common practice, would irreversibly damage his Crown Jewels. On closer inspection, I could see an additional feature of the old man's plaster cast which bizarrely looked like an antenna similar to those worn by the teletubbies, sticking out of his heel. I wonder if the concerned medic was qualified when creating such a decorative accessory! I very much hope that I don't endure the same fate!
The other occasion was during a walk after school, when my path crossed with a young man who had been heading in the opposite direction to me. It was not the brightly coloured t-shirt that caught my attention but the printed words emblazoned across his chest that were a little surprising to say the least. It read " Everyone loves a bit of cock especially me". My immediate reaction was one of shock because apart from anything else, it is a well known fact that India does not embrace the concept of homosexuality. Yet it seemed to me that by wearing such a T-shirt, he was making a statement in accordance with his particular belief and I would like to think that most English people in that situation would have made the same assumption as I did.That said, I turned around to double check that my eyes hadn't deceived me and saw the back of his t-shirt which read "Cock fireworks". Only India could use such a fantastically distasteful word for something as innocent as fireworks. Genius! The rest of my walk wasn't nearly so eventful or as remotely amusing. To prove that I am not taking drugs or making up such madness, I have since located an advertisement for this reputable and genuine company. I have no further submissions to make on this matter!
So from fireworks to fish, last weekend I was taken to the local fish market which was an experience I am unlikely to ever forget. An explosive smell of rotting fish and human flesh in 95% humidity and 30 degree heat was an assault on my senses similar to chemical warfare. I had to negotiate my way around the streams of fish blood and carcasses whilst minding the crows who were enjoying a feast of massive proportions. Despite those minor difficulties, it was a very interesting experience. There were many boats moored up with overjoyed fishermen stood nearby waiting to unload their successful day's earnings. I was a little surprised to see one of the fishermen ankle deep in fish scooping and passing basket loads on to his friend. It's fair to say there are no health and safety laws in existence let alone being observed and so I entirely accept that when fish is presented to me in whatever form, it may well contain the odd soggy toenail or chunk of dead skin from one of the many fishermen engaging in similar practices. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger and it won't surprise you reading this that my constitution is considerably more robust then 6 months ago!
Life here in India continues to be varied and at times challenging but on the whole a great experience. I am relishing every opportunity thrown at me and doing and seeing as much as I can with the time I have left. One of those moments came a couple of days ago when I was asked by the Principal to vet a possible marriage candidate for his 19 year old daughter. The custom here is for parents to 'arrange their son or daughter's marriage' regardless of religion or caste. What does however vary is the age in which such marriage takes place and this is largely influenced by the religious preference. Remembering that Ameena is from a Muslim family, one of her great aunt's was sadly widowed at the age of 35. Instead of trying to remarry herself, she decided to marry off her two daughters at the age of 10 and 15 respectively. This was the only way in which she could ensure both daughters would be financially secure and she now enjoys the company of grandchildren and great grandchildren at the age of 75. Sadly she has never remarried and still works daily on her farm to support herself, a very stoic and humble lady. This situation, I am told is less common these days however with devout Muslim families in particular, it is not unheard of for girls to be married at 17. My student's brother recently married a girl of 17 despite being 29. She is studying for the equivalent of A-levels here and once her studies are complete in March 2014, she will be resigned to the life of a housewife and a baby making machine.
The Principal had asked me to assess the 'marriage proposal's' level of English and also to check whether the university and degree he claims to have attended and successfully completed was bona fide! Safe to say that he survived my interrogation and I gather he has succeeded on reaching the next stage of the process. This involves him meeting the Principal and his wife along with his parents and only if that proves successful does the marriage become a serious consideration for both families. The children are not allowed to meet without the presence of their parents and as was the case for the Principal's first daughter who is 21 and now 6 months pregnant, she married her now husband after just two meetings. Only now can I understand the many looks of disappointment and reactions of disbelief when I confirmed I was not yet married at 31. I have been told on more than one occasion that I am unlikely to get married at my age and am now past my sell by date for such an occasion or indeed for having children. I won't miss those particular views after my departure and what's more, one day I'll return to this beautiful country and visit my students and new found friends with my husband, happily married.
For now Dad, you can chill out and enjoy spending my inheritance but please leave a few quid for the wedding!!!!
Despite the chaos and pandemonium here in Kerala, I continue to flourish in a environment in which there is an abundance of happiness and kindness. I will happily admit that being the simpleton that I am, that's all I need in life - oh and of course a husband too, according to the Indian population!!!!!
As always, I send my love to all family and friends
Luce (Ci Ci)