I’ve survived the first week of my project. In some ways it feels much longer than a week, others its gone very quick. But I’m realising that this is just India!
After saying farewell to everyone Thursday evening I was up at 4am Friday to get two internal flights to Madurai. The change over in Chennai was 40 minutes so I was really glad when the flight took off on time. Landed at Chennai at 10am, next flight departs 1040. I’d banked on the fact that boarding would close 15 minutes before which would give me 25 minutes to change planes, just about do-able. But then we took 5 minutes to park up, another 5 minutes to get off the plane and another 5 minutes for the bus to take us to the terminal……10 mins and counting!
Dash into the terminal find the transfer sign get up to transfer area, all going well and then realised have to go through the scanners again. In my bag I had liquids and my kindle but I just ignored that and literally threw my bag at the man and dashed through the scanner. He looked a bit perplexed and just said boarding card! Rifled through bag found boarding pass and then legged it to the gate. It was 10.28 by now so I was pretty sure I’d missed my flight. Found the gate and was rushing that much that I literally came to a skidding halt almost knocking the man at the gate over! Bit out of breath all I could say was I need to get to Madurai. He just said oh no! I must have looked desperate as he very quickly said oh no mam flight is running late, it doesn’t go for another half an hour, just sit here and relax! It’s no wonder I fell asleep on the next flight!
Got to Madurai fine and my big bag also arrived which was the other thing I was a bit concerned about with it being a short changeover. Came out the terminal building to meet one of the staff and swiftly got taken for lunch and then the main office.
Given it was a Friday and most volunteers go travelling at the weekend I was fully expecting to stay in Madurai for the weekend but they said right go with Pandi (one of the project coordinators) he’ll take you up to the project. I knew the project was based in a small village, food would be provided by a local family and we would stay in a volunteer house but other than that I knew very little.
So we start our drive up to Chinnupatti a small rural village of about 150 people. It’s 35+ outside and humid so I’m hoping the village is going to be a bit higher up so it’s a bit cooler but as we drive I realise this isn’t going to happen! After an hour and half we arrive and I’m told let’s meet the host family.
The village is reasonably well structured in that at least all the houses are permanent concrete buildings. There’s a church and a school and of course plenty of cows, goats and chickens roaming around.
Host family are there to meet me, a very sweet husband and wife and 2 kids, 14 and 9 years old. Take my shoes off (have to do that for every building you go in) and told to take a seat. Ummm ok but all I see is a long room maybe 6m by 2m and off that 3 other rooms, one is a kitchen and guess the other two are bedrooms. In the far end of the room is a TV which I’ve now realised is on as long as there’s no powercut. There is a power cut pretty much everyday. But other than that nothing. They must have realised my confusion as they said here sit here, here and pointed at the floor. So I duly sat down and was handed a cup of hot chai. As I sat there drinking it I was thinking what the????? Pretty much every member of their extended family came into look at me and say hello. It felt a little bit like I was a new specimen at the zoo. And the only thing they said was this is a sensitive village so make sure you always have knees and shoulders covered.
15 mins later Pandi said I’ll take you to your accommodation oh and by the way the other volunteers have gone travelling for the weekend! Oh and don’t shake hands with the men! All very well after I’ve shaken hands with every member of their extended family!
The accommodation has two separate sections. The back of the house has 3 beds and a bathroom which is where 3 of the girls are currently staying and then the front of the house which has a separate entrance and inside are 3 beds in two separate areas and a bathroom. I was to be the only person staying in this room so when I walked in all I saw were bare walls, bare floor, 3 rickety metal frame beds and all in what felt like a sauna. I don’t think anyone had stayed there for a while so no air had got in. By this time it’s 3.30pm and Pandi just says, right you need to rest, we don’t want you doing any work for first few days. I’d told them I’d been in India 2 weeks so definitely didn’t have jetlag but still they insisted I rest. So I was left in a boiling hot room not sure if it was ok to go out, to leave the windows and doors open for some air and 4hrs to kill before dinner. I literally sat there for half an hour thinking what the heck have I signed up for, why didn’t I just carry on travelling. The previous two weeks had been an absolute ball so it was a massive adjustment going from constant company and knowing what was going on to being on my own in a completely alien place.
After staring at my bag for 30 mins I decided I should at least make my bed, make it feel a bit more like home, take a shower and have a read of the handbook.
7.30pm comes around and there’s a knock at the door, open the door and 3 girls are stood there, 3 of the other volunteers. Turns out they weren’t travelling to Madurai until Saturday morning. 2 girls from Germany and a Japanese girl.
So back to host family for dinner, all 4 of us sat on the floor which was cosy and then in walks Johannes a German guy who is 6ft 5, now it’s really cosy. Each of us are then given a silver tray and on it is rice bread and another silver pot of curry. No cutlery of course which isn’t the main challenge for me, the main challenge is sitting crossed legged on the floor! You can only use your right hand but thanks to watching Rick Stein I know the technique. So every meal is like this and curry breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Slept surprisingly well Friday night probably just the shock brought on exhaustion.
Saturday got shown around the model farm. 3 acre site used to demonstrate to local farmers how they can farm sustainably and educate local community about bio diversity.
Then trip to the local town. The village has one small shop which sells a few essentials so you have to go into the town for internet and provisions. oh and its a completely dry village you can not buy alcohol anywhere. It’s not a huge town but it’s noisy, busy and smelly. It is not a tourist town at all.
So Sunday I decided to brave the town on my own. Got the bus and wasn’t quite sure where to get off but had plenty of locals saying no no no not here, next stop. Got looked at a lot and that’s when I realised not only was I the only white person but the only white woman, only woman in western clothes and only woman with short hair. I couldn’t have stuck out more if I’d tried. Internet cafe is cheap 30p an hour but basic. No USB points to transfer camera pictures to memory card and no web cam for Skype. Thank goodness they had WiFi and I had my kindle with me. Skype calls home and felt a lot better.
Sunday evening others got back and then Monday 6.30 am it was time to start the project. This week has been a mixture of preparing herbal medicine for local cattle, preparing for school visit next week, looking after the reforestation area and the monthly dirty day which is where all volunteers get together to help a community.
The days are long 645-830 work, 830-930 breakfast which has been spicy! 930-1230 work, 1230-1430 lunch and 1430-1630 work. It’s hard physical work too so I’m going to be pretty fit after these 3 months.
Had cultural induction, reaffirmed again about dress code. Can be more relaxed at weekends when travelling but in the village its definitely cover up. Annoyingly I didn’t really bring thin full length trousers but popped to tailors last night and for £11 have two pairs and two t-shirts made to measure. Women are very much kept behind closed doors in the village. You can’t shake hands with men, sit next to them on the bus or be too friendly. The village is also full of extended families. A lot of Indians don’t want to travel because they can’t bear to be away from their extended family for more than a day or two. They find it astounding that westerners will spent months away from home.
The dirty day was good, about 26 volunteers repainted a local hospital, the hospital manager was delighted and made me realise if we hadn’t of done it it probably just wouldn’t get done.
Life for the villagers is tough, there has been very little rain so there is a huge water crisis. Everyday we see a fights between locals about water. But I’m always amazed by their generosity and openness. Everyday a different person has asked my name, where I’m from and then invited me for a chai. The neighbours have even asked if I want to take their 3 year old home with me!!!
The hardest thing is the climate. It’s incredibly hot all the time. Yesterday it was close to 40 which makes working extremely hard. At night it’s been between 25-30 and of course no air con just ceiling fans. It’s been hard acclimatising to that sort of heat particularly as there is just no escape from it. The water temp from the tap depends on how warm its been and clothes in the morning feel like they’ve just come out the tumble dryer.
It’s been a week of mixed emotions and as I said at the start its hard to believe it’s only been a week. Sometimes the day goes slowly but everyday you see hundreds of things and learn things that you hadn’t even thought of. I’m beginning to realise there is nothing you won’t see in India. No doubt this is going to be a very different experience but a good one I’m sure of now I’ve had a week to adjust. This is India and what I came to see and I’m enjoying experiencing such a different way of life. It’s certainly making me appreciate what we have at home. Not so much the material things more the freedom to do what we want, when and how. Also simple things like, water and food that we just take for granted.
So this is India. More adventures to come I’m sure.