November 2013 – A life of extremes

I’m beginning to think my life in India is not only a series of surreal moments but moments from one extreme to another. It’s certainly making my time here more enjoyable as I feel I am truly starting to experience Indian life and from a wide range of perspectives, but I am starting to wonder what next….

The last fortnight has flown so again it’s a two week update!  Now the first Monday morning was a pretty average day at the farm which suited me fine as although I felt a lot better after my sudden illness I was still feeling pretty weary.  The chance for a discussion rather than physical work was also a bit of a treat.  Now a discussion about different types of farming might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I actually really enjoyed it. It certainly put the project into context.

I definitely learnt a lot and not least of all about the earth worm and their role in helping things grow. Well I kind of knew but I did sit there thinking ah that’s why everything in my garden grows to super size!!! Who would of thought that the humble worm was so valuable? What made me giggle was their comment about native worms. Question to coordinators, why don’t we use native worms, answer because they’re lazy! Couldn’t help but draw parallels between that and some of what I’ve seen here!!!

Tuesday and back to full health, curry is now ok to eat again and my appetite has since come back with a vengeance.
More planting and digging but this time helping the host dad out at his farm. It was nice to do something for the host family as they are constantly doing stuff for us! Tina and I got quite infuriated with one of the coordinators though. He spent most of the time stood around watching when there was plenty to do. Tina lost it a couple of times and said, “do you think you could help?” To which he would then go yeah sure.  Take the spade off you and dig for 30 seconds. There was absolutely no reason to take our tools as there was plenty around but clearly that would take a bit of thought to work out what he needs to do. It was very hot work so we were glad to get it done and out of the sun.

In previous posts I’ve mentioned that the British through their interference had at least given India a postal system. Something I thought we should be quite proud of but after our lunchtime experience I’m not so sure. Julia one of the previous volunteers had left a box of stuff that she wanted to ship to Germany. It’s pretty big box, maybe 1m by 70cm and 40cm in height.  It was supposed to be sorted before she went but she’s been gone a month and its still here. So we thought let’s just take it to town and get it sorted. So rock up at the post office having struggled (much to the amusement to everyone ) on the bus. Try to explain to the lady behind the counter that we want to post it to Germany. She takes one look at it and says, it needs covering with cloth. Ok fine where do we go to get that done, next street, ok but where, next street. So we then walk pretty much the length of the street looking for any shop that looks vaguely useful but no joy. What really didn’t help was the local men laughing and making comments. Of course they wouldn’t help. So we go back to the post office and ask for help but they either pretend to not understand or they genuinely didn’t. At that stage I needed to go to the internet cafe to Skype so left my phone with Tina and suggested she call Raisa who could at least speak in Tamil to the staff. At this stage its 1.30pm and we need to be back at the farm by 3pm, we agree to meet in the internet cafe once she’s done.

It gets to 2.30pm and still no sign of Tina, 2.45pm and I’m thinking maybe she’s gone back to the village. She has my phone so I had no way of getting in touch with her. So think well I’ll walk to the post office and if she’s not there then I’ll just head back to the farm. It had been nearly 2 hours so I was very surprised to see her and Pandi in there box still in hand. Asked Tina what had happened. She had called Raisa who sent Pandi to help. They then bought material and got the box stitched up which took 45 minutes. Then they had to fill in a load of forms. They were about to pay and the woman said the box isn’t good enough!!!! She refused to post it. We tried to explain that we didn’t care if it got bumped around but they still refused. So 2 hours later and we’re in a tuktuk heading back to the farm with the box!! Pandi’s helpful suggestion was for us to take it to Madurai!!!  The most hilarious thing about it all is that they had a sign in the post office which said, values of Indian post, can’t remember the exact words but it was things like, modern, dynamic, customer care and efficiency?!

Predictably we were then running late for our visit to the orphanage. The orphanage has a couple of hundred children and projects abroad had built them a compost unit to help with their veg plot so we were going to check that. We were also taking some stuff for them which included 20 litres of liquid fertiliser, a pot of worms, tools for planting and 2 chickens. All of which had to travel in the tuk tuk with me, Tina, Raja and Pandi. Tina was quite concerned about the chickens, not because of the mode of transport but that they had just been thrown together. I think her comment was, what if you’ve taken them away from the love of their life! We concluded it was just another arranged marriage so they’d have to get on with it.

So got there safely and handed over said chickens, checked compost unit which was fine and then had to plant seeds. It was 5.30pm and it gets dark at 6pm! Pandi sprang into life and started digging like a lunatic. But after 5 mins he then reverted back to standing around. So left the 3 of us to get holes dug and seeds planted in half an hour. It got done though.
Then asked Raja if we could go to the barbers to which he said yep. So we headed to town to his barber. Showed the guy photos on my phone and 15 minutes and 50p later it was done. Have to say he did a really good job. I’ve no doubt that I was the first western woman in there, thankfully there weren’t many others in there so didn’t get looked at.  Toni and Guy could be out of a job I think!!!!!

The rest of the week involved a lot of digging. Mostly building banks to plant seeds so by Friday we were sick of digging, muscles ached and sick of the sight of seeds.

Had hoped for a quiet weekend but Raisa had asked me to travel to her hometown to visit the principle of the school which she recommended receives the Sport Wales bag of equipment. Which was fine and its good that she wanted me to be confident that it was going to the right place but it meant a 6am start, 3 buses over 5 hours on Saturday to get there.

So set off at 6.15am and negotiate the buses ok which were quite quiet and arrived at 11.30am. The town is called Tirunelveli, 150km south of Madurai. It’s not a tourist town at all, particularly not for westerners but weirdly I got looked at less than I do in our local town. So stand in the bus station and think ok so how am I going to recognise them. They’ll recognise me pretty easily but…….

It was all fine I got picked up by the principles sister in law and got driven in an ac car to the school.

First extreme, from a stinking local bus to AC car.

Get to school and meet Swathi the principle who is only 28 so a very young principle. She and the staff are clearly very excited and I’m just embarrassed.  A group of kids then come out of the reception doing some kind of singing dancing welcome song, ok I’m proper embarrassed now. Time for the redness to fade as have a chai and chat with the principle. Show her the resource cards and she’s delighted and said its going to be hugely beneficial to the school, so good news. She then says shall I show you around the school, yeah sure. The school has 400 kids and even though it’s a Saturday the kids are all in for half day which they do twice a month. I then get taken into every class where every single kid stood up and said, good afternoon mam welcome to our school. Back to being very pink cheeked. One of the classes had even made me a sheep out of veg, perhaps they realised the Welsh connection?

Some boys then did a martial arts demo and then got taken to their new school which they plan to move to in the next few weeks. Have to say the new building was very impressive but it hasn’t been built by the government they’d built it themselves by donations and fund raising. Then finally to their rice mill where they produce healthy nutritious food for the  children. They’re also building accommodation which will house both local and international volunteers. The school has been set up a bit like a social enterprise, it was very impressive.

2pm and I’m getting hungry so was glad when they suggested going for lunch and to meet Raisa. Drive 30 minutes to this modern restaurant, have lunch with 6 Indians. The principle, her husband, her sister, her husband, her child and Raisa. Their English is very good but they kept switching between English and Tamil. It was good actually, I was glad to sit there quietly and eat. The bill came and I went to pay and they said, no we’re paying you’re out guest this weekend!

Then we head to Raisa house as we wanted to chat more about how the equipment could be used. Now all I knew about Raisa house is her mum and nan live there and her uncles are forever calling in. Had no concept of how big, where it would be, nothing. So when we drove into what was clearly a very nice residential area and parked up outside a gated house I realised that it was very different from village life in Chinnupatti.

We sat in the front reception room until 7.30pm talking. At 6.30pm I was thinking how can I politely leave. It wasn’t that I wasn’t enjoying it I just felt like it was a huge intrusion into someone’s personal life. But they said,no you must stay. The whole time it was constant drinks and food too.  Now the house was pretty big but I didn’t think they had that many bedrooms so when Raisa said I’ll show you to your room I was a little surprised to be shown to a bedroom with its own bathroom. So from 7.45-8.45 I sat on the bed feeling totally dazed and thinking how the heck did I end up here. Her gran then came in and sat at the end of the bed. She tried to speak Tamil to me but it didn’t go very far. I felt soooo ignorant.
9 pm time for dinner by which stage I was just feeling very tired and wanted to sleep.  Finally at 10.20pm got to bed and slept really really well. Until 4.30am at which point someone came into the room and then into the bathroom. I didn’t want to open my eyes in case there was eye contact and whoever it was would think it was a good idea to start chatting. I did go back to sleep until 7.30am but still even now have no idea who it was.
8am knock on the door, Raisa, “ok Jo I’m heading off now so I’ll see you. Get a rickshaw to the bus station and then bus to Madurai”. Ok fine. Her mum then makes me breakfast and a chai. Then says the rickshaw will be here at 9am. I ask how much it would be to make sure I’m not going to get ripped off and she says its fine Raisa has paid for it!  So got on the bus some 24 hours after arriving totally overwhelmed, very tired and a little stunned by the generosity of everyone. It was certainly a true Indian experience.

Decided to go to Madurai and find a hotel pool and relax. Found a nice 4 star hotel with pool in garden grounds. Had lunch and a much needed beer and spent the next few hours dozing and reading the paper.
By 8pm I was back at the host family house sat on the floor eating dinner. It couldn’t have been a greater contrast from the night before. Weirdly I felt very comfortable in both settings.

Monday comes around and its a slow pace day because Raisa isn’t around.  I didn’t mind as I was so tired. It didn’t really cheer me up when they said, ok market visit tomorrow so 5.30 am start.
To date the market visits have been a total waste of time. We usually get there set up our stall and then the guys sit and read the paper whilst we’re sat there like some zoo animals to be looked at. This visit started much the same but then Raja says let’s take a look around. This is the big market, mainly cattle so it was quite an experience. We then get back to our stall and Raisa is there. I’ve never seen such a change in approach by people because of the presence of one person. The coordinators suddenly sprang to life, started talking to people more and actually looked interested. I then got taken around to buy a million seeds and then we stopped to buy a goat. Yep a goat. Take the goat to our stall and Tina says, why have we got that how we going to get him home. On the bus this is what we do in India! Oh yeah course. But that’s exactly what we did. They asked us if we wanted to hold him, I said no but Tina said yeah ok. We then get on an extremely busy bus with no free seats. She then has a 40 minute journey not only holding on for balance but having to keep hold of this goat. The funniest bit was when I noticed that both Tina and the goat had fallen asleep standing up!!!

Wednesday and Thursday revolved largely around the school. We had to teach them a lesson of our choice so decided to take the opportunity to do a kind of quiz. The plan is to have a proper education plan but without knowing the starting point it’ll be impossible. So interfering again to help the project.
The lesson was fine and the kids knew quite a lot. Thursday was then tree planting, organised chaos. Groups of 5 trying to dig a hole 1 ft square and deep. Children and tools!!! Thankfully I had a nice group that actually wanted to work together and did a good job but I can honestly say the school visits are not the highlight! The afternoon was then a whole school performance to celebrate children’s day. All the kids and the teachers sat outside whilst different groups did dancing, recitals etc etc. The first half hr was cute but after two hours we had had enough. That sort of thing here is no better than the ones in the UK! The teachers also sat there staring at me mumbling stuff to each other, I looked at them quizzical and they said, your eyes, do you wear lenses for them to be that colour? I said no, they are just this colour to which they were just astonished.

Thursday afternoon was a discussion about the project and another honest discussion about how the field trips were going. Having been on quite a frustrating trip the day before I took the opportunity to be very honest. Thankfully they took the feedback well and didn’t seem grumpy about it.
Friday and to the boys home to check on progress following the few days we had spent there and to see if yesterdays feedback had sunk in. I was really pleased that not only was everything growing at the boys home and it was all well looked after but Raja asked heaps of questions and we found out some really interesting stuff. Good way to finish the working week.

Planned to go to Madurai with Tina, it’s her last weekend, she finishes on Wednesday so she didn’t want to travel far and wanted to go to the tailors market. I was also quite happy to take the opportunity for a quiet one following last weeks adventure. We planned to leave at 3 but just as we were about to leave our new volunteer Pauline turned up. She’s from Ireland. Taken early retirement and is here for a month. I think it was a combination of nerves and excitement but she literally talked at us for two hours. We didn’t want to just head off as it would be a bit rude but equally we knew we had to get to Madurai before 8. Eventually at 5 we headed off and got to Madurai at 7. Quick trip to tailors, we all now have new school uniform which is good and then to the hotel. It was probably the best beer I’ve had I think.

Saturday we went to Ghandi museum and actually took in more information than last time. Then decided to head to the nice hotel with the pool but also have a massage. I’ve never had a massage before but it was really good and just what my muscles needed. Bit of lunch and a beer, not sure that’s the best recovery after a massage but it went down ok. Decided then to sit by the pool.

Everyday in work we spend the whole time talking about how hot it is and the one day we want it to be hot it’s a cloudy dull day. It was warm enough to sit by the pool, just, but after 10 mins of being in the pool I was like, I need to get out I’m really cold. Then spent 15 mins sat there with a towel wrapped around me before giving up and getting changed again. It was a bit like going to the beach in the UK and convincing yourself it’s a lot warmer than it is. Tina then headed back to the village and I went to a rooftop restaurant to have beer (yes this is the theme of this weekend) and to do Skype calls.
Today, I headed up to the palace which was really interesting. Nice place to sit and have relative peace and quiet as well as being an interesting place to learn more about Madurai. Bit of lunch another Skype call to 3 giggling monkeys and then time to head back. First weekend where I feel really relaxed and well rested. I hope this week is a bit kinder to us so it’s not all undone but that could be very much wishful thinking.

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