A month of festivals – January 2014

Having spent 3 weeks as a tourist, living it up in relative luxury it was soon time to head back to Madurai and the conservation project.

Sitting on the plane with what can only be described as the most ignorant Indians I’ve ever met I did wonder if I’d got it all wrong about India and I’d be better off staying in Sri Lanka. Thankfully 45 minutes later we touched down in Madurai. Then began the fun of immigration. It took nearly 90 minutes to get through and I was starting to worry that the people picking me up would wonder if I was coming back. However I needn’t have worried as Projects Abroad UK forgot to tell me that there was no airport pick up! Which was a bit of a surprise when I got outside the airport and didn’t see anyone.  Quick call to the deputy director in India and it was confirmed that I had to make my own way back to the village.  I have to say I wasn’t too impressed but thankfully having travelled to and from Madurai a lot I knew the journey well.  Short taxi to the bus station and then on to the familiar bus to Batlagundu, the local town.

I’ve always been amazed by the kindness and generosity of the locals and I wasn’t let down here. Someone put my bag onto the bus for me, everyone made sure I had a seat, they asked where I was going and made sure the conductor gave me the right ticket. 5 minutes into the journey, back into the crazy traffic of Madurai, squashed on a bus in 30 degree heat, with a load of strangers I couldn’t help but smile to myself and think, it’s good to be back! An hour or so later and I was back in Chinnupatti, my home again for another 5 weeks.

The 3 months that I spent on the project before Christmas were great but tiring, very long days and getting involved with lots of things, mostly because of my interfering, so I decided that the month I was back I would not interfere so much and just enjoy the project. That was my plan anyway!

Week one

First day back and it was time to meet the two new volunteers. A really jolly guy from France who had quit his job as a park ranger and was looking for something new to do.  He was a nice guy, very easy to get on with. The other volunteer from Sweden, 21 going on 101.

Monday started much the same way every other week on the project had, back to normal tasks but at the end of the day we got told that Tuesday was a national holiday and Wednesday all the volunteers were meeting in a small village outside of Madurai for Pongal celebrations (second biggest festival after Diwali).
Why oh why I had not learnt from Diwali celebrations that a national holiday does not mean a nice day off.

Having only been back one day I was quite looking forward to a more relaxed start. 5am the music started and not just slightly loud but nightclub music loud, like the speaker was right next to your head. They certainly don’t have any laws here about noise levels!! The music continued until 1am!!! There was just no escape from it. Weird thing is there was nothing more to the festival, just a lot of noise!!

Wednesday and off to the village for Pongal celebrations. Most of the female volunteers dressed up in saree but I didn’t. By the end of the day most of the volunteers were like, yep you had the right idea not wearing saree as they were slowly melting in the heat. It was a strange day of local celebrations, rides on the back of carts drawn by bulls, some strange game where someone is blindfolded spun around and then has to walk in the right direction with a long stick to knock a pot off a wire hung about 5m high, various Bollywood dances by local kids and of course the cooking of Pongal on an open fire. Pongal is a sweet rice made from jaggery (sugar), cardamom, cashew nut and a few other things. It’s quite nice but not something you want everyday.


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Thursday and time for the farm to host Pongal!!! More Pongal rice, open fire and also strange drawing using coloured chalk on the ground. Not to mention washing and decorating all the cattle in the farm! But it also marked the arrival of another volunteer Filippo from Italy. Really nice guy but incredibly nervous about travelling on his own in India. Somehow I became his personal travel advisor for the next 3 weeks.

Friday we got told, it’s dirty day next Wednesday up at the boys home.

Week two

You might remember me talking about the boys home in previous blogs? Journalism team were supposed to organise it but at the last minute said they couldn’t so handed it to the model farm team!! So we spent Monday, Tuesday planning it and Wednesday it was here. Split into 3 groups, one painting the inside of the the new accommodation, second planting a hundred trees and the third (my group with Raja) building a new goat shed. Sounds quite straight forward but when you’re trying to dig a trench in solid earth that is full of boulders!!! Not to mention having to carry 100 x 10kg solid blocks 100m from the entrance up to the new shed. Thankfully we had a good bunch of volunteers so it wasn’t too bad.
By 4pm the other groups had finished, some came to help but others just wanted to go. So two thirds of the volunteers left and we had to ask very nicely if the ones staying behind were willing to stay longer, thankfully they did. The next 2 hours turned into a combination of 60 min make over and grand designs as we threw down cement and layer and layer of bricks. Just before it got dark it was finished.

And that was all in the two week!!

I really hoped the next 2 weeks were just going to be about normal project activities and no more crazy festivals………

Week three

What started off as a quiet week (again) turned quite quickly into a million other things.  First off a farmers meeting at the farm to talk to them about different organic farming methods.  It was supposed to start at 10am which would of been fine as it would of finished at 12 and given us an hour to get ready and down to Bas’s sisters wedding.

However, this is India time, so they eventually turned up at 11.15am!

In some ways this wasn’t a bad thing as it gave us longer to practice and get more nervous about explaining how to make liquid fertiliser in Tamil!  We literally had a half hour crash course lesson in the morning, made a million notes and then had to practice practice practice.  It went ok actually but its weird saying words that mean absolutely nothing to you that strangely this group of people understood.  It certainly isn’t a language that I naturally have an affinity to which may prove to be a bit of a problem!


The event finished at 1pm so we literally had 10 minutes to change to get into town to attend the lunch of the wedding.  It sounds very exciting going to an Indian wedding but believe me it really wasn’t.  Most of the local people in the village are catholic so the wedding follows much the same format as the ones we know in the UK.  But it wasn’t this that made it uneventful it was the fact that we missed the ceremony altogether so just ended up going there for lunch. We literally sat in this room (on our own), eating curry and rice off a banana leaf. We then met the bride and groom briefly and left.

Of course it was an arranged marriage which is much the norm but when you start to ask questions about it you can’t help but think the whole thing is a bit weird.  Bas’s sister has met her husband twice, thats it!  She’ll now spend the rest of her life with him because that’s who her parents have chosen for her. She won’t work even though she’s a graduate because her husband doesn’t want her to and she won’t see her family that often as they’ll move to the far north because he’s in the army.  It was just strange to see these two people on their wedding day, both looking totally nervous and apprehensive and knowing that regardless if they liked each other never mind fell in love would be with each other forever.  I still struggle to understand how this is a good system and I am beginning to understand more and more why young people are challenging this view.

Thursday and another volunteer arrived.  Allison from Canada.  She had literally traveled for 27 hours and arrived in the town to meet us for tea and cake.  I was a bit apprehensive about her arrival as I was told she’d be here for two weeks and we’d be sharing a room.  I’d got very used to my own space and last time I shared a room was with a volunteer that was on a different project so wasn’t too bad. This was going to be 24/7. Thankfully she turned out to be really good company and although we literally were with each 24/7 we got on very well and somehow managed to find our own space so we didn’t annoy each other.

She had a pretty good start to her placement as the Friday we went trekking up a local mountain.  It was the same walk I did my first week I was there up to the temple.  Great walk and great intro into Indian countryside.


So Friday afternoon comes around and we’re told that there’s going to be a church festival in the local village!!!!!
And we were expected to be there Sunday morning to help with sales of trees etc, oh joy!
As we arrived back into the village and the music had already started I decided to make a quick move and go to Madurai for the weekend, the others quickly followed suit too!  Madurai is a mad, hectic, noisy city but compared to the village with its music it was luxury! The others took the opportunity to do some of the tourist sites and I decided to take myself to a hotel with a pool.  Its a lovely lovely setting up on the hill with a decent pool but it very much felt like I’d arrived at the exotic marigold hotel with all the posh British accents around. I managed to tune them out though and made the most of it.

Sunday morning up at 5.30 to get the bus back to the village for the festival. The music didn’t seem that bad but you could tell by the look on peoples faces that they were already fed up with it and this was their festival.  A lot of the projects abroad staff turned up too but by 3pm they gave up and headed back to Madurai, by this stage I was also wishing I’d stayed there too.

The festival was much the same as every other, loud music, dancing, strange games, more Pongal but also some strange shaving of the head as a gift to god!! All the men and most of the children had their heads shaved, including a 18 month old baby girl who before hand was really cute with curly dark hair. Thankfully it will grow back!


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Week four

The following week seemed to pass by pretty quickly, nothing too unusual I don’t think.

But that weekend I’d been invited to Tirunelveli to the school that Sport Wales have donated the sports equipment to.  You might remember my very surreal weekend back in November when I first went there to meet the principle.  So anyway, she’d invited me there again as guest of honour at the school sports day and to be the first person to stay in their new volunteer accommodation, which I have to say was very nice, AC and everything!

Saturday and time for sports day.  Get to the school at 9am where practically every single one of the 400 pupils said, good morning mam, how are you?
Then met the local police who were the other guests of honour, then into the ceremony.
It started in much the same way that some of the festivals do here, with a parade and some welcome speeches but after that it bared little similarity to sports days in the UK.

Every class and pretty much every pupil got the opportunity to take part in an event which included, a walking backwards race, some random balloon popping game (bit like on the nintendo wii) and the stick Pongal game.  It was good fun to watch.

Then came the parent/teacher race which I got persuaded to take part in.  It was a 60m sprint across a dusty windswept field.
I won which was a little embarrassing but of great excitement to everyone there! This was followed by various events for the parents which were totally random, one of which included using two bricks per pair, one person had to use the bricks to walk about 30m whilst their husband moved the bricks into place!!

Finally a teachers event which involved all of them standing in a circle with an envelope in their hands.  I then got asked to sit on a chair in the middle of the circle.  Next thing I knew there was some frantic opening of the envelopes and sudden rush of about 20 teachers towards me, all of them shouting in Tamil and trying to get me to hold on to their envelope.  I was just sat there totally shocked but highly amused.  Transpires that there was a letter in there with a lot of instructions on and on the back it said, ignore all of that just fold the piece of paper up, put it in the envelope and give it to me.  It was nothing more than a test of who could shout the loudest as all of them switched to speaking English saying, it was me wasn’t it, I was first wasn’t I……….


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The day finally finished at 7.30pm after I spent 1.5 hours handing out prizes to pretty much everyone there and having my photo taken with each of the winners!!!  It was a long long day but a really good experience.  I hope to go back there in a few weeks time to help the principle with setting up her volunteer programme and hopefully finally see the sports equipment in use!!!

Week five

So into the final week, no festivals but a sports day event for the volunteers!  Of course with every festival or event it starts with speeches and performances and this was no different.  The event took place at a high school in Madurai where some of the teaching volunteers are based. The sports day was pupils vs volunteers!!!  I was hoping to keep a low profile as it was literally my last day before I finished the project but I should have known that projects abroad would want to get their moneys worth out of me.

400 pupils sat on one side of the stage in front of the school and about 20 volunteers on the stage. Speeches from head teacher, some pupils and the volunteer based at the school, then over to pupils to ask us questions.  The question was, what do you like about Tamil Nadu? I sat there quietly waiting for someone else to offer but oh no projects abroad staff were like, Jo tell them what you think.  I’m getting very used to this impromptu public speaking now but it doesn’t get any less embarrassing.  So in front of 400 pupils and staff I mumbled something about what was good about Tamil Nadu………………

On to the events, some of which were proper sports events, others old school sports day games.  For some reason I volunteered to do 100m, perhaps I was feeling confident after my win at the other sports day but as I stood at the start with 3 17 year old Indian boys and 2 young tall male volunteers I thought hmm this isn’t a good idea.  The first 10m was fine but after that I got totally left behind, by the time they finished I was at the 70m mark!

I’d like to think I made up for it slightly in the football but it had been a long time since I’d played 11 aside and never played on a sand/grit pitch against young very fast fit Indians.  We lost 4-2 but didn’t play too badly and surprisingly despite been kicked in the face and knocked to the ground twice I remained injury free and not sore the next day.  I even received a few compliments from some of the Indian pupils watching!

It was a good end to my month there.

Friday and my last day came around far too quickly.  It was so strange packing up, leaving and saying goodbye to everyone.  I’d spent the best part of 5 months there after all.

The host mum was very sweet, hugged me a few times and a few of the locals were there as I was leaving too. Weird thing is I will be back there in a few weeks time again but not as a volunteer and I’m sure I’ll be back there a few times again.

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So that was the end of my Indian adventure (for now).  In some ways I seemed to have been there forever but in others 5 months just flew.  Looking back now I can honestly say it was a great great experience.  I thought I knew myself pretty well before, I definitely know myself now though!

And India turned out to be much more than I expected.  As I’ve said before its not the big things that you notice but the little interactions between people, the real insight into the culture and nowhere was there better to experience this than the small rural village of Chinnupatti.

Many of the other volunteers that left before me have been in contact and said that when they look back at their time in India, their time on the model farm was by far their most enjoyable experience, something they look back on really fondly.

I can honestly say that I will now do the same thing.

I’m in the UK for two weeks now, catching up with people and organising my next adventure, I can only hope that it is as good and rewarding as the 5 months I spent in India and month I spent in Sri Lanka.



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