Saturday, 30 November 2013

Lots of Pavement Pizzas and Tea!

Several weeks have past since my last blog entry and yet it feels like months given the madness that goes on daily!

On the first of November, a special celebration was held to mark the discovery of Kerala. The whole school embraced this memorable occasion by hosting a fantastic exhibition provided by some of the students and teachers. The different types of food, dress, agriculture, religions and traditions were proudly displayed. Female teachers were requested to wear saris and the men were invited to wear the traditional 'lungi'. This is a long piece of cloth similar to tea towel material and worn like a bath towel around the waist (instead of trousers). For the second time in seven months, I subjected the children and my fellow colleagues to another visual assault by wearing the Kerala sari which is CREAM with a coloured border! Typically, it was an absolute scorcher with humidity once again hitting around 96% along with a temperature of 31/32 degrees. Those conditions are bad enough to suffer in normal clothing but when wearing 5 metres of fabric wrapped tightly around one's body it was a real challenge not to become a serious contender for the wet t-shirt competition or to look like an incontinent old lady. I was, however, extremely pleased to overcome the concern of being able to spend a penny and achieved success without any unfortunate or additional unwanted sari decorations. Infact when I returned from the delightful squat bog I was quick to announce this to the whole of my staff room only to be met with a rather forced laugh and perplexed look. It was quite an anticlimax not being offered a high five!

Not only is the 'lav' a problem area but so too was the challenge of eating breakfast in a canteen that I have more suitably renamed as "The Zoo". I say this because in addition to the students, there are 6 stray cats along with 3 kittens, crows, cockroaches and the occasional rat occupying the very area that food is prepared in and served from. It won't surprise you to learn that parents are NOT permitted to enter the canteen under any circumstances as quite frequently we are surrounded by and dodging the lavatorial remains of the 9 cats roaming freely. I am well renowned for shooing the cats off the tables with a jug of water and yet this is described by some students as English madness! In this instance I would love to expose the Health And Safely Executive to such an environment for them to assess the 'shit pit' this canteen has become! It is a miracle that there aren't cases involving serious illness reported from this school on a daily basis! Furthermore, whilst contending with the skanky environment and remembering that only the right hand is used, I was sat right on the edge of my chair trying to troff chicken curry and rice without spilling all over my cream shroud and treading in cat splat. This was all before 0915!

The day was made all the more enjoyable by the arrival of Jo who is the latest volunteer teacher to join this madness. Jo is 30, from Brighton and is on my wavelength entirely. We get on extremely well and she is a very welcome edition to my Indian life!

After those sorts of days, the necessity and desire to enjoy a cold beer or glass of plonk is pretty intense. In choosing Kerala, I thought I had done particularly well given that this state has the highest consumption of alcohol in India. That was certainly a bonus ball or so I thought but trying to locate the 'giggle juice' has proved as tricky as finding an Indian who doesn't wobble their head during conversation! We conducted a thorough search in many restaurants and shops in the nearest main city but the mere mention of alcohol was considered as distasteful as making the announcement of becoming an atheist in this entirely secular country! One of my fellow colleagues who has become a close and dear friend, has kindly provided me with a bottle of homemade wine which tastes exactly like the smell of petrol and burns all the way down, but it definitely does the trick! Sometimes the edge needs to be taken off a day of incessant demands of "ma'am, ma'am, ma'am" and that's just one student! I feel like I'm living in the days of Al Capone and the alcohol prohibition when the Principal and his family are totally forbidden from smelling alcohol let alone consuming it or possessing it and so storing my prized bottle of 'rotgut' in my knicker drawer might not be as overdramatic as it sounds.

One thing I have noticed during my time here is that the Indians love to go on strike and since May there have been numerous days wasted, where Kerala has simply shut down for the day. A classic example of this was illustrated recently when a bus strike was announced with immediate effect. The majority of staff here rely on such a method of transport and so panic set in. As my female colleagues were seen running down the road in their beautiful saris holding them off the floor and flagging down any bus that was operating, I couldn't help laughing. The buses were overflowing to such an extent that the men were literally dangling out of the bus with no platform beneath their feet, holding on for dear life with the doors held back.  It was just like a scene out of a gripping action film! Whoever let go was going to receive nasty injuries without a doubt but somehow and with great fortune that didn't happen.

Talking about buses, we had the most amusing experience recently when we were invited to Ooty, a beautiful hilltop station famous for producing tea, cardamom and chocolate! The day trip was arranged by the same family who had taken me to Mysore and therefore I knew it would be nonstop madness, I was not wrong. The day began at 0500 where we started the 4 hour journey to the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. We travelled on a minibus big enough for our group of 23 liberated women. The bus turned into a disco on wheels. Lights of all colours of the rainbow were flashing inside and on the outside of the vehicle and the music was booming like a Ibiza nightclub! Then the dancing began like an Indian festival with screaming and shrieking like nothing on earth. Those who know me well will appreciate that I don't do early mornings at all and may laugh at the image of me sat there with a face like thunder, totally monosyllabic and sporting the Linington scowl. The mood was somewhat dampened (but not for long) by a rather unfortunate case of travel sickness by one of the few children present. After the long journey we arrived in a picturesque, clean and pretty town where we enjoyed a boat ride on the lake and the highlight for me was visiting a tea factory. It was noticeably colder than Kerala with a maximum temperature of 18 degrees. Such was the reduction in temperature that for only the second time since my arrival, I wore my jumper! How will I cope returning in the middle of an English winter? The tea factory was fantastic and the overpowering but pleasant smell of fresh tea leaves was very welcome indeed. We were able to sample the delicious chocolate on offer which was nowhere near the standards of Cadburys back in the UK, but it was certainly the tastiest I've had here. Thereafter we enjoyed a visit to the Botanical Gardens but yet again we were the focus of attention with the normal stare and " excuse me ma'am what is your good name please?"

The long journey home was sadly dominated by projectile vomit after the same poor person from the first leg was violently sick on the return and consequently this triggered others off. The disco bus has since became fondly known by us as the "Vomit comet" particularly as one of the bus drivers was leaning his whole body out of the bus in order to paint the town green red orange and pink!
Poor guy wasn't just driving his bus but also the porcelain bus which saw 10 different individuals bearing their guts to the world!

Aside from that, it was a great day and I absolutely loved Ooty. It was certainly a day that I shall never forget!!!

The same family who were kind enough to take us to Ooty are intent on keeping me here in India after making the serious offer of searching for a marriage proposal. It was a pretty awkward conversation in politely declining such kindness but there are no limits to which these people won't try and help.

So in enjoying my last few weeks I will try not to be married off and return only as Miss Linington but I am in India and anything can happen so watch this space!

Wishing you well wherever this finds you

With love to all family and friends

Luce (CiCi)

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Porky Pie

When I embarked upon this Indian adventure, little did I realise how busy my timetable would be and I don't just mean in the classroom. I was entirely naive to think that my day would consist of teaching 0900 - 1540 five days a week and the rest of the time just relaxing. How totally unrealistic I was!

Since my last update, in short, one of the student's got married, there has been a number of spectacular thunderstorms, I've travelled North to Mumbai, consumed pork for the first time in six and a half months, spent a day watching a cultural programme involving 44 local schools, given a presentation to 200 students at a nearby college and been to a Hindu marriage reception. Time flies when you are having fun!

So dealing with the student's marriage firstly, she left school on Saturday 12th October for yet another vacation and returned to school on Monday 18th October, a married woman. Although strictly speaking the celebration was infact her engagement, in accordance with Muslim beliefs, the "Nikkah" ceremony recognises the man and woman to be legally married and gives them the right to consummate their joining. The marriage itself will take place at a future date and hundreds of people will gather to witness the bride leaving her parental home to formally join her husband and his family. Thereafter a meal of beef or chicken biriyani will be provided to all guests on a mass scale just like a military operation. So this 18 year old student has only 5 months left before she completes her A-level equivalent exams and yet one of the most significant events of her life has been completed much like a tick box exercise. Give it 6 months and she'll be up the duff I'm sure.

It frightens to me think that your husband or wife is assessed as suitable marriage material after only two or three escorted meetings with parents. It cannot be possible to determine whether you "actually" like the person let alone love them and know if they have any disgusting habits like guffing in a lift or only changing their underpants every three days. It is simply impossible, in my Westernised and therefore isolated view that longevity and happiness can prevail! In a culture where divorce is about as socially acceptable as transgender hormone therapy treatment, I can envisage a great number of men and women, of all ages, being excluded from  Indian society. That's when I realise being a social hand grenade has its downsides and arranged marriages are a concept that should remain firmly rooted in India.

October has arguably been one of the most eventful months during my time here in Kerala and of course the varied weather and climate has featured heavily. With the humidity reaching 98% on occasions, there has been some reprieve with thunderstorms breaking through the intensity. The rumbling and crashing of thunder was deafening, the rain cascaded from the sinister skies and with lightening similar to strobe lighting, it made for a spectacle to be enjoyed only from a distance and under safe shelter.

We enjoyed yet another vacation in the middle of October, this time to mark a Muslim festival. I was very pleased to get away from these celebrations as it is customary to mark such an occasion by slaughtering animals and distributing the meat to the local neighbourhood. As a meat eater I cannot object to the killing of animals but I am told that such acts are carried out with an audience near to the mosque, which is no more than 200 metres away from the house! The Principal had purchased six animals, a combination of buffalo and goats which were well fed and watered for 40 days leading up to the event. Thereafter they were dragged a short distance bleating and resisting the inevitable end, where their throats were then slit. They were set free to run until they collapsed and then the real blood bath began with the meat being extracted and suitably divided amonst the local community. As you can well imagine I was relieved to escape and ventured North to Mumbai, the business capital of India. What an awesome city this is.

I loved this city from the moment I left the airport - the buzzing atmosphere and a great vibe. Delhi offers history and interesting monuments but Mumbai, in my view, has spirit and character. On the night of my arrival there was a Hindu festival being celebrated on Jehu beach (nearby to my hotel). Various Gods (of which there are many in Hinduism) were being immersed into the seawater and the many worshippers followed suit. It would have taken a huge amount of effort to make these figures which were covered in vibrant costumes. For two or three days after, the remains were being washed up on the shore, minus arms legs and in some cases without heads. It was just like watching a series of disturbing scenes from a horror movie. Regardless of their apparent disfigurement, still great respect and admiration was shown by those placing personal possessions around the remains, such is the depth of their beliefs.

In stark contrast and in an entirely different part of the city was the poverty, which sadly you cannot avoid. This was very uneasy on the eye and it goes without saying that on occasions, I felt an immense desire to scoop some of the young children up and bring them back to the safety of Kerala, at least. The face of one particular child will stay with me for many years as she and her mother were sat near to some traffic lights. The little girl of no more than 3 years old was sat on her young mother's lap enjoying a packet of biscuits that had been given to her by a passenger from a passing car. She was ecstatic at the sight of this biscuit and was keen to show all of the cars waiting at the junction. I managed to capture a picture of her which shows the delight and pride she gained from receiving the biscuits. Doesn't that say everything about the stark contrast of our fortunate lives against the brutal reality of begging by a busy set of traffic lights? How will I return to the UK and tolerate clients who moan because their benefits haven't been paid into their bank accounts - the New Year onwards will be an extremely telling time for my career!

Despite the abject poverty and at times pungent smells emanating from abandoned mounds of rubbish tossed on the streets, Mumbai continued to charm me away from my western roots. Plenty of pretty gardens scattered throughout the city, a few beaches (although not brilliantly clean!) and nice shops.  For me, Mumbai typifies what India is about, the culture and chaos but with one big bonus, a Western influence. It is incredible to see the sheer opulence and wealth scattered around the city against the medieval squalor and poverty. A classic example of this was in South Mumbai, where next door to the exclusive 5 star Taj Hotel, there were a number of families living on the street. The sum total of their possessions were two or three plastic bags but still they were laughing and joking, seemingly without a care in the world. The hardened reality is I'm sure utterly different but there was almost an acceptance of their situation. Unlike one particular child who refused to lie down and let the world come to her. She was around 7 years so the same age as my darling niece Isabella but yet, entirely predatory in identifying her next human ATM machine. Muggins here was one of her targets and out of nowhere I inherited an unwanted friend. I knew children could be persuasive but she took it to a whole new level. Blocking my steps, pulling on my clothing, trying to hold my hand and demanding outright that I give her money for food were just some of the tactics she employed. I gave her 10 out of 10 for persistence but eventually she realised that there was no likelihood of me being a cash cow, just a cow, so she skipped off to the next unsuspecting victim. It was incredibly difficult not to relent but as I have been advised on many occasions, if you give money or food to one then you must be prepared to give to many.

You can say that there is a real innocence about India and its people. They are welcoming, sincere and generous in their approach with lots of smiles, head wobbles and laughter but the tragic events of 26th November 2008 in Mumbai has left its mark. The Taj Hotel in Mumbai was subjected to a horrendous terrorist attack which left over 200 people dead. Consequently, rigorous checks are now conducted on guests across all of their group hotels especially new vehicles at the hotel entrance. There are two security officers using mirrors attached to extendable poles (I understand the correct terminology to be "bomb mirrors") which are then
used like a wand to check underneath the vehicles. Although I was not a guest at that hotel I was lucky enough to stay in the Taj group hotel in Agra and there also such checks were carried out. I recall being subject to a brief search as well as my bags being passed through a scanner. Who can blame those taking such positive action against such mindless violence?

Mumbai will also be fondly remembered by me as the city where I ate pork! As ridiculous as it sounds, no such meat can be consumed by Muslims (as it is considered to be dirty) so there has been an enforced ban against its consumption since my arrival. Feeling extremely mischievous but at the same time exhilarated, I didn't hesitate to order from the menu! So upon my return to Kerala, I couldn't resist the opportunity to be childish and wicked so dropped into conversation with the family that I had really enjoyed the food in North India, in particular pork! Needless to say their reaction was full of disgust and disbelief! Being a social hand grenade can be such fun at times!

Having lowered the tone sufficiently well, school resumed with an explosion of culture after six enjoyable days. The second day of the new week was spent at a huge inter school arts competition consisting of speech, drama & singing. I was able to circulate around the different venues within the school complex to see first hand our students competing against our rival institutions. In preparation for this event, I was given the role of teaching and helping all those students reciting English poetry. I am sad to say my assistance proved fruitless as there were no winners at all in my category. Through the process of elimination I am realising that the role of a speech and drama teacher should not be a future career option as well as any educational role! Fortunately, the school excelled in Arabic, Hindi (national language) and Malayalam (local language) recitations amongst others. Throughout the day I was approached numerous times by the very young and teenage children intrigued by my presence and purpose. Midway through the afternoon, I was contemplating creating a badge to wear stating my name, age, nationality, occupation, marital status, the purpose of my stay oh and my blood group! One particular child asked repeatedly "Is ma'am a foreigner?" so I couldn't resist the response " Well I'll give you a clue, I'm not Indian!" He walked away very perplexed!

The competition was a huge success for the school as a whole as it was confirmed that Apex had come 10th out of 44 schools. An enjoyable insight into this rich and varied culture.

I quite often harp on about the crazy ways of India but also at times this country can be incredibly random and bizarre in its approach. One example of this relates to how I came to deliver a presentation to a college full of students.

Some months ago I was out walking after school when I was stopped by a man on his bike. He was interested to know what I was doing dodging the hazardous traffic in a rural village in Kerala. It turned out he was a local college lecturer and immediately invited me to give a presentation to his students. Having directed him to the school management for their approval, I didn't think for one moment anything would materialise. Two weeks ago I delivered a presentation to approximately 200 undergraduate students on the random topic of "Educational Opportunities Abroad". On reflection, the experience was quite surreal. As the car pulled up at the college, I got out and the vehicle was immediately surrounded by a large crowd of students. Their reaction was to whisper and laugh amongst themselves which was somewhat disconcerting. I immediately begin to panic thinking that perhaps I had a bogey on my face, my shirt was tucked into knickers for all to see or I had a big piece of vegetable curry lodged in my toothpegs! As far as I know none of the above were an issue but quite simply the fascination of seeing a white foreigner was interest enough. As I walked into the auditorium, the entire audience stood and clapped. I must confess to looking behind and all around me to see who the important figure was generating the interest. I was embarrassed and surprised to learn it was me. Here respect is ingrained on the minds of children and adults alike and is one of the many qualities that my fellow countrymen and women could benefit from revisiting from time to time. The presentation went off without my usual mishaps (amazingly!) and I was extremely relieved not to be asked any in depth questions around this topic, given that I knew very little in the first place! The afternoon was rounded off nicely with the college kindly presenting me with a trophy to mark the occasion. A lovely momento to remember yet another happy experience of Indian hospitality.

Leading on from this particular point and to reiterate the chaos that goes on, I was invited very last minute by my student and family, (30 minutes before leaving to be exact) to a Hindu marriage function. The marriage itself was due to take place the following day so the purpose of this particular event was to meet and celebrate with the bride, her family and friends. The groom was celebrating independently in his home with his own family etc. The bride was dressed in the exact way Indian brides are portrayed, beauty personified adorned in flowers, colour and a heap of gold jewellery. The function was held from 4pm until 10pm and between those times, 2,500 (this is not a typing error) attended. On average, Indian homes are considerably more spacious then our English abodes and so with the additional garden space, there was no shortage of room. A marquee was erected and various food stations offering the usual biriyani, biriyani and more biriyani were available. Other than meeting the bride and her parents, food was served and thereafter people began to drift off. Unlike some of our raucous celebrations, there is no drunken debauchery because the consumption of alcohol is frowned upon, so it served its purpose as a "function" in the strictest possible sense. It goes without saying that the guests reactions towards me varied between surprise and bewilderment. In particular, one young boy sat eating his supper, stared at me with such intensity that as he went to shovel a handful of rice in his gob, he missed! How I am looking forward to blending back into the norm and not standing out like the "white monkey" I have fondly become known as!

So as I bring this latest update to an end, I have less than two months left in which to maximise my experience and enjoyment. So far to date this hasn't been an issue so for now I will struggle on in this Indian madness, wondering as always, what will happen next.  To be continued............

As always am sending you all lots of love

Luce (Cici) xxxx