Becoming native? October 2013

So as I was typing this blog on the bus going up 2200m to KodaiKanal.  Standing on packed buses has definitely become the norm, it is now a matter of luck whether you get a bus with music blaring out, some dodgy movie being shown or just a normal bus where people sit quietly.  Either way the only way to cope with the journeys is to listen to your ipod, send some emails or if you get a seat take the opportunity for some rare peace and quiet.  In fact I am finding the buses a good opportunity to have a think about things!

Kodaikanal is one of the old hill stations, surrounded by lush beautiful mountains with tea and a huge amount of other vegetation growing.  Its only a 2 hour bus ride up there but it feels and looks a completely different place to the hot desert like landscape of the Tamil Nadu plains.  I thought I would be pleased to escape the heat and be able to walk around in the outdoors but after Fridays trek my legs were that sore that everytime I walked downstairs my legs felt like they were going to snap!  So no trekking for us.

We arrived quite late on the Friday so it was pretty much find a hotel near to the bus station, have some food and go to bed.  Having had a really busy week last week and the trek on Friday I was looking forward to a good sleep and actually getting into bed (under the covers) rather than just lying on the bed trying to keep cool.  I’ve now learnt that I should be careful what I wish for as Friday night turned out to be one of the coldest nights I have had in India.  With a fleece on and two blankets it was more reminiscent of a cold UK winters night.  I literally spent the whole evening shivering.  I think the temperature at night went down to about 15 degrees so not even that cold but I guess I have now acclimatised to a temperature that never drops below 25!

Had a very relaxed day on Saturday, just mooching around the town.  The town reminded me of Cumbria, particularly with all the tourists around and with there being an international school in the town it definitely had a westernised feel to it.  A lot of the other volunteers really love Kodai because of this and the climate but I’m not sure it was anymore remarkable than places in the UK or Europe.  The temperature by day was a very pleasant 20 degrees so I made the most of the opportunity to wear shorts despite feeling slightly cold the whole time.  Saturday eve we transferred to a youth hostel but stayed in a twin room rather than a dorm for 10 quid.  It was a really impressive setting you literally stepped outside the room and looked out across the mountains with the mist hanging over.

Sunday met up with the other volunteers from Madurai who had spent all day Saturday trekking, they looked absolutely exhausted and probably not helped by the fact they stayed up until 1am drinking whisky!

I think I have probably totally undersold Kodai in the last paragraph but if you think about the lake district on a really pleasant summers day then you won’t be far away from what it is like.  As we wound our way back down the mountain on a very packed bus (and when I say packed I mean packed, at one point I had someone sat on my feet and another woman almost hugging me trying to cling on!) I couldn’t help but look forward to being back in the warm again.  I just don’t think I am cut out for cold weather, I just really hate being even slightly chilly never mind cold/chilled to the bones.

So back to work on Monday and only a 6.45am start.  In fact Monday – Wednesday were pretty normal days on the project.  We did a lot of work on the farm repairing areas, replanting and looking after the turtles but it was also a good opportunity to learn more about Indian culture. Particularly around the arranged marriage thing and family expectations.  Basically by the time you are 27-28 you should be married.  The marriage is always arranged by the family and if both families agree then the woman has to agree to take on her husband and stay with him no matter what.  Even if he turns out to be a complete idiot who is drunk all the time and treats her like sh!t they still have to stay there.  One of the medical volunteers was telling us that the majority of the people that they see are women who have attempted suicide. They feel trapped in a marriage with no support from their husband and so try and kill themselves by drinking poison!  It seems, but I may be wrong, that the woman has to make all the compromises.  She has to move to the husbands family home, she has to give up work (even if she is highly educated) unless the family agree that she can work and pretty much has to stay at home and be the homemaker.  They are very much kept behind closed doors, like they should not be seen!

The host family mum who cooks all our meals is one of the kindest sweetest people I have met but I can’t help but wonder if this is really what she wanted from her life, whether she is happy spending 24/7 in the house in a small rural village.  It certainly gives you a different perspective on how things work here.  I now understand better why the women in the village are so keen to talk to us and find out everything about life in Europe.

Exciting stuff on Wednesday, we had rain!!  First time for 12 months so it was quite a big event, in fact it then rained again on Thursday and there was a big thunderstorm!  Still a long way to go to overcome the water crisis here.  It is definitely the number one problem and there just isn’t any easy solution to it.  Many of the farmers are giving up agriculture because they just don’t have the water to keep the crops alive.  People have to carry water from the well just to live, this water is then used for washing, cooking, everything so I can understand the motivation to carry extra water to fight a losing battle to keep you crops alive isn’t very high.  It makes recruiting farmers to the organic methods even harder.

Thursday had a field visit out to a farmer that we’d recruited at the market last week.  He wanted us to build an organic compost unit as the first step to him using less chemicals for his farming.  It probably took about an hour and half to get to this village so maybe about 40km but the difference in the vegetation was stark.  Lovely green fields of rice, healthy looking trees and a huge canal full of flowing water.  Water is definitely not such an issue here.  The village was really nice, set out almost like a grid system and incredibly nosy but friendly locals.  We’d taken breakfast with us as we’d left at 6am so when we got there we got shown into someones house and sat and ate our breakfast.  That was fine but what was a little unnerving was the locals that kept coming in to watch us eat.  They really were fascinated by us, I’m not sure why because we looked tired, sweaty and at that point still a bit grumpy about the early start!  Next challenge was the toilet, my body has finally got used to the heat so I’m not sweating as much so actually needing to go to the toilet and unfortunately I needed to at this village.  I got taken around the back of someones house into like a courtyard and in the corner there was some palm tree leaves covering a corner so they just pointed behind that.  I was at least expecting a hole in the ground but it was just a bit of concrete mostly concealed by the palm tree leaves area.  Now I’ve got pretty used to Indian toilets so the whole squatting thing didn’t worry me it was more the fact that there was no hole in the ground, but at this stage I was too desperate to worry so I made use of the facilities!  Its certainly one of lifes experiences!  Thank goodness for antibacterial hand gel!

Building the compost unit was relatively easy as pretty much every member of the village came to help or to watch.  It was good actually, got a real sense that the farmer and community were going to make proper use of it and maintain it, a small step to converting the farmer to more sustainable methods.

At one stage though everyone stopped working to have a really good laugh at this guy who was quietly sat there whilst about 3-4 sheep literally just ran over him, it was the most bizarre thing.

Journey back in the tuktuk was funny, the driver stopped at one point so that this group of women could shake hands with us!  Where are you coming from, what is your name, welcome, welcome!!

Friday had another visit to the local market to recruit more farmers, which was fine but now 3 week into the project my mind is buzzing with ideas of how they could change simple things to just make the whole thing more professional and better.  So I kind of ended the week feeling like we’d had a productive one but starting to feel a little frustrated by the lack of organisation and ambition.  I did wonder whether this was just India and I would have to lower my expectations but having spoken to our project manager I now see that the ambition is there, from her definitely but they are so bogged down in the detail that its almost like the don’t know where to start.

Friday eve headed 200km east to Thanjour famous for its temples and palaces.  It took 4 buses and quite a lot of patience but we eventually made it.  Checked into this hotel which was nice, very clean rooms, good food and even beer!  The beer seemed a little flat so when I said this to the guy he picked up the bottle and shook it and said there you go!  It was ok actually but after 2 weeks of no alcohol and 4 weeks with very little sleep the beer went straight to my head.  Helped me sleep well until I was woken up at 1am being bitten to death by mosquitos.  Decided to jump into my sleeping bag inner, better to be boiling hot than being bitten.  I thought I had got away with just a few bites but when I woke up on Saturday morning I had over 100 bites!  I was more annoyed than  anything as I’d made sure I’d put repellent on.

First priority was to get to the pharmacy to get some goods. Now a lot of people here speak basic English so you can generally make yourself understood but I guess medical words are pretty advanced. Thankfully ailments like mosquito bites and headaches are easy to explain but I’m not sure how I would explain more personal things!! Let’s hope I don’t have to as there is always a crowd of people standing at the counter, there is no privacy!!

Next challenge breakfast. Thanks to the lonely planet guide we decided on a place which served continental breakfast. Now lonely planet is a good guidebook but their maps are something else. Perhaps it’s because the layout of the streets here are so chaotic that it makes it much more difficult to draw an accurate map, either way I’m learning that you have to think quite laterally to find places. An hour of walking around and we just couldn’t find the place. It is now 1130 so we’re pretty hungry, I’m fed up with the mosquito bites and my headache (probably caused by the half flat beer) isn’t shifting. At this point it’s about finding something to eat. So we duck into this thali restaurant. The cheapest way to eat in India and usually excellent food on an all you can eat basis so definitely a good fill. This place did not let us down. A thali each, 2 bottles of water and a sprite, £1.50.

With full stomachs it was time to take in some culture so we headed up to the palace. It sounds very grand but it was a bit of a disappointment actually. It was a series of different buildings with various museum like displays. Weirdly the interesting ones were free and the rubbish ones you had to pay for! We also managed to befriend a really annoying rickshaw driver. Every time we walked past him he talked at us for 10 minutes, we got so fed up with him that we tried to find an alternative exit but ended up in someone’s back yard!

The afternoon was much more interesting. We headed to the huge temple which Tanjour is famous for. Now we’ve been told that if you go on a date in India then it’s always at a temple. I guess because it’s in public and with it being a religious setting then there will be no physical contact. Have to say this did amuse me, particularly as dates in the UK are as far away from religious buildings as possible.

The grounds were huge and there were plenty of places to sit and relax in the shade. It was packed actually with couples, families and people just having a good time. We took the opportunity to sit on the grass in the shade and watch the world go by. However with this being India there is of course no such thing as peace and quiet. We must of had about 5 different groups of boys hover around, looking at us, talking amongst themselves and giggling then eventually one of them would come over. Excuse could I have one photo, the rest of the group would look on kind of impressed by their friends bravery but also giggly. I felt quite bad as we just said no sorry. They looked a little deflated particularly as they had spent the last ten minutes building up the courage to ask. I’m not opposed to having my photo taken with families but when it’s just boys I often wonder if the photo ends up on Facebook.

Thankfully it wasn’t just boys who took interest in us. There was a family sat nearby who kept looking over, a few exchanges of smiles later and the young girl comes over and hands me a piece of corn, which I was really pleased about as I was starting to feel a bit peckish. On our way out of the temple we got stopped by this older couple. The guy asked the usual questions and then asked if he could take a photo of us with his wife, urm yeah sure. He then said, thank you for coming to India, hope you enjoy your time!!

Evening was pretty uneventful and no more mosquito bites. Next day started the long journey back to Chinnupatti but decided to stop in Trichy on route to look at India’s largest temple. It was impressive actually but it isn’t one big building its a series of small temples set within a really old walled city. Within the walls there are hundreds of shops and a million people milling about which just made for a vibrant atmosphere. I even saw a huge cow just sat outside a shop.

We managed to get told off though, the temples are for Hindus only, which is a bit annoying and actually it’s more a non Indian rule as I’m not sure how you distinguish an Indian Hindu from any other religion. So we’re standing outside one of the temples with this old lady shouting at us in Tamil but we get the gist. This couple walk past and say, don’t worry you can stand here and look in, it’s not a problem to which the lady gets even more irate. The guy then has an argument with her in Tamil then says to us, I’m sorry about this, the older generation like rules, they don’t understand that it’s good to have tourists. Please look from here it isn’t a problem and thank you for coming to India.

Lunchtime and time for another thali and now we’re eating at lunch time it’s a lot easier to spot the good places as they are packed with locals. Second thali in 24 hours and just as good.

Bus journey back was fine, we managed to get seats and the majority of the journey from Trichy to Dindigul was a normal quiet bus, luxury. The bus from Dindigul to Batalagundu was funny more than anything. The bus was playing a Tamil movie so everyone on the bus was watching it. We of course had no idea what was happening in the film but it was really funny to see all these Indians laughing at the film with us clueless to what was happening. I also started to get a bit paranoid that I’ve lost too much weight as the second time that weekend I got given food. I was standing on the bus next to these 3 women who kept looking at me and grinning. They then asked my name and then one tapped me on the arm and gave me a biscuit!! I’m still a little taken aback by the generosity of people here, everyday someone does something kind and if you ever need help then there is always someone there. They seem incredibly protective of tourists, perhaps because they know how important it is that we enjoy being here. Let’s be honest India does not have the best reputation which if you come here expecting it to be like Europe then I can understand why. But if you come here with an open mind, patience and a sense of humour then the reputation India has is totally undeserved.

So back to the host family and ready for work on Monday.

The mosquito bites have gone down a lot now, mostly thanks to the host mum putting coconut oil on them on Sunday eve.  Think they were pretty shocked to see how many bites I had!






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