Culture Shock

India

“India was never just a country; it has always been a dream, an idea, an elusive vision that attracted travellers from all over the world for thousands of years.  The mystique of India impelled the journeys of Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, and Vasco da Gama.
The images that the word “India” conjures up are diverse and often contradictory, suggesting that one must be the real India, and its only a matter of finding out which one.  If only if were that simple!
To understand India at all, you must be able to hold on to completely contradictory images, and realise that both represent the true India”.

Culture Shock, A guide to customs and etiquette, Gitanjali Kolanad.

 

No other quote could sum India up so perfectly.  

Contradiction,
conflicting messages,
complex religious, caste and social rules.

This is India, for sure!  

Its no wonder that every person that comes here experiences some form of ‘culture shock


Culture shock

“The personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply travel to another type of life.

One of the most common causes of culture shock involves individuals in a foreign environment.

The most common problems include: information overload, language barrier, generation gap, technology gap, skill interdependence, formulation dependency, homesickness (cultural), infinite regress (homesickness), boredom (job dependency), response ability”

Wikipedia


Naively I’d always assumed culture shock was something short term.  An initial reaction to something new, that, depending on the individual, is something you get over relatively quickly.

 

Concept image of a signpost with the five or six Ws


However, culture shock can be described as consisting of at least one of four distinct phases:
Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment, and Mastery.
Typically the emotional journey goes like this.

cultureshock-thumb-541x271-3009

Honeymoon

“During this period, the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light. For example, in moving to a new country, an individual might love the new food, the pace of life, and the locals’ habits. During the first few weeks, most people are fascinated by the new culture. They associate with nationals who speak their language, and who are polite to the foreigners. Like most honeymoon periods, this stage eventually ends”.

Wikipedia


I think I skipped through this stage pretty quickly.
Those that have asked me why India, why do you like it so much will have heard me say, I just feel very comfortable and at home here. Which is particularly strange when you compare life in India to life in the west, they couldn’t be more different. But the sense of ease, relaxation I felt as got outside Delhi airport is something I’ll never forget.
One of the volunteers recently said to me, “I’m not surprised by anything here, it’s what I expected but I still find it totally crazy”.
Same for me but I don’t find it crazy. From the start I just accepted that ‘this is India’ in much the same way Indians might?
Accepting things so quickly here I thought I’d skipped culture shock altogether!

 

Negotiation phase

“After some time, differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety”.

20th September 2013 – Model Farm, Chinnupatti

 

My first taste of life as a volunteer and experiencing India on my own.
My first proper experience (as I see it now) of ‘culture shock’.

If you read my posts this is India and settled into farm life you will read the exact impact ‘culture shock at this stage had on me.  

I just didn’t get the strict cultural rules
dress code,
expected behaviour of women,
not shaking hands with men,
reaction of some of the local men to westerners being there.

Walking past the same half drunk men sneering and sniggering at every morning was not particularly pleasant.

Suddenly having to be so aware of
what I wore,
what I said,
how I was,
where I went,
who with and what time I was home,

Was not just a shock but frustrating and confusing.


The full definition of the ‘negotiation’ stage of culture shock is:

“While being transferred into a different environment puts special pressure on communication skills, there are practical difficulties to overcome, such as circadian rhythm disruption that often leads to insomnia and daylight drowsiness; adaptation of gut flora different bacteria levels and concentrations in food and water; difficulty in seeking treatment for illness, as medicines may have different names from the native country’s and the same active ingredients might be hard to recognise”.


It wasn’t the practical difficulties I struggled with but two particular aspects.

1.  The way people are with each other
2. The ‘pace’ of how things are done here.

 

1. I’d like to think I’m a pretty open, friendly person, happy to express my opinions and thoughts about things, people and places.  I wouldn’t say I go around telling people my life story but if I’ve had a bad day or bad evening then yeah I would go into work the next day and talk to people about it, in much the same way they do too.  But this just isn’t how things are done here, work is work and personal life is personal life.

It wasn’t long before I’d made a bit of a major error in trying to be too familiar with people. Assuming that how we are in the west with our familiarity and interest in peoples lives was ok here.   I hope I didn’t make people feel uncomfortable, that certainly wasn’t my intention but it was a bit of wake up call that I’d have to behave differently with Indians than I did with the volunteers.

This of course fuelled the frustration. Coming from a culture where everyone is encouraged to talk about things to a culture where people just don’t was bizarre. And I really wanted to understand the culture here, particularly for women but to ask direct personal questions just isn’t acceptable.
It kind of reminds me of Britain years ago and still the standing joke of the stiff upper lip.

I accept that now and try and let things go, most of the time!

But I still struggle with how Indians cope with this. The amount of frustration, anger and hurt people must store up is incredible.

Or maybe they don’t, who knows?

Maybe we’ve got so used to talking about our emotions that we’ve become a bit obsessed with it?

2.  The standing joke here is ‘operating on Indian time’. Everything is done at its own pace, in its own time and try as you do you can’t hurry things along, create a sense of urgency or make things happen.

I wonder if this is a cultural thing linked to religion.  People are very clear about auspicious days and doing things at the right time according to various factors.  Simply if things don’t match up that day things don’t happen.

I certainly struggled in a ‘business’ ‘work’ context to understand the differences and it certainly caused sleepless nights.

My problem and I know its entirely my problem is a lack of patience. Both in the speed in which things are done and a lack lustre attitude to the quality of things. This was as much of a frustration for me at home as it is here. I guess mixed into that a real desire to make some tangible difference to the project didn’t help.


April 2014

Weirdly, just as I’d managed this stage of ‘culture shock’ I was immersed in a situation that tested it all again.
From April onwards I started work in Manur, Tirunelveli.

Again I skipped the first stage.
I was so familiar with India now, its food, transport, some of the quirky cultural things but being based in a rural village with people I didn’t really know and being the ‘only white person in the village’ was another adjustment.

An episode in hospital, challenges with technology and a lot of things happening from the previous location I had been at did little to help with this transition.
It was no-one’s fault but its no surprise to me that it was during this period that I had my complete meltdown.
See blog ‘a particular low point‘.

The vast contrast in the cultures became more apparent by the day. I just didn’t get stuff, didn’t understand why one person would say one thing and another the complete opposite, yet both views being within some shared opinion of what is accepted.

It was also at this stage that I become acutely aware of the colour of my skin, the clothes I wore, my hair cut.
Being laughed at at the bus stop became pretty normal.
Hard to take at first, particularly when people are talking in Tamil and you have no clue what is being said.
Now it happens less and less and if someone on the bus mistakes me for a boy I put this down to their ignorance and fear of something different.
Understandable but definitely their issue not mine.

I’ve certainly moved out of this stage of ‘culture shock’ but there continues to be a few things I really don’t get.  They don’t worry me or frustrate me and I accept that perhaps these things are so complex to understand that I never will and importantly perhaps I’ll never really need to.

 

1. Skin colour

The fascination with white skin. Constantly stared at, gawped at. I often feel like a specimen in a zoo or maybe like this kid in the photograph.
It wasn’t until I got to India that I even thought about ‘being white’.

culture shock4

I don’t get it and its perhaps because for me to see an Indian, Kenyan, Jamaican, Chinese or Malaysian person in the UK is as likely to see rain. You just don’t notice.

When it comes to people in a business context, it’s the things they say, the way they say them, the actions they take that earns them respect.

I was horrified and still am that people in India will listen to me more than someone from their own country because I am white! The colour of my skin does not make me an oracle on world issues or able to provide the right advise to a community here!


2.  The lack of diversity

Definitely takes some adjusting to and I mean that in every sense.
The food, its all Indian.
Perhaps that isn’t a bad thing staying true to their heritage and routes.
The food here has always been excellent but again coming from a country where in an average week I would have Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, Italian and Thai food, I find it a little weird to have Indian breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Same goes with beer. Only Kingfisher, nothing else.  Whereas this is one of maybe 100 different worldwide beers you can buy in supermarket in the UK.

Its then the broader things about the people here.
I can’t say too much about the dress here. Yes it’s variations on the same theme but when I think of the west I think the same is true.

As you will be aware arranged marriage is the norm but what I hadn’t quite appreciated was how ‘arranged’ it was.
Your religion, your caste, your sub-caste, your standing in society all have to match up.

For some it even involves then going to see an astrology who will match your exact time, day, month and year of birth against your prospective husband/wife. Simply if the stars don’t align then the marriage does not go ahead.
I guess that’s where the phrase ‘its written in the stars’ comes from?

But it always makes me wonder what the heck Indians do if they can’t conform to this tradition.
Those that want a love marriage because despite all the ‘ducks lining up’ you can’t help your feelings for someone.

Perhaps its because arranged marriage is such an ingrained institution here that the thought that anyone could want anything different, have a choice is mind boggling.

But what really makes me curious is what people do if they are gay or transsexual.

In the UK the political debate is about gay marriage in a religious setting, its not about whether being gay is right or wrong.

Here it is still illegal

protests delhi

This is the message in the UK openly displayed on a London bus!

 

SPAGGOIBus

What a contrast!

The most bemusing comment I’ve heard is, there are no gay people in India!
Really?
Maybe they should read the Indian newspapers!

Surprising for such a large democracy that this is still a legal issue.

Perhaps it’s a belief that it is only an exposure to this “bad lifestyle choice”, exposure to western media that would turn someone gay.
Really?
Would someone really actively choose to make their life about a million times harder, risk losing their family and friends through prejudice and potentially make themselves a social outcast if it was a choice?

Strangely transgender is more accepted.  Transgender people are better protected by the law and I often read articles in the papers about people winning legal battles regarding fair employment and equal status.  It still must be something that for those individuals is incredibly challenging to deal with here.

I particularly like this picture

protests delhi 3

India, the largest democracy. Yeah it is but it many ways it isn’t, people don’t have freedom here.
Equality and equal rights have such a long way to go.
For all sectors of society.

Disability seems to be something that is feared.
People are often segregated from society, particularly orphans, almost shut away out of site.
Maybe its a lack of resource and technology to fully support individuals to live an independent life?

But a stark contrast from UK.
London 2012 saw the staging of the “greatest show on earth”
The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games.

There wasn’t an empty seat in the house for any event and it transformed people’s views.

Suddenly people saw ABILITY not DIS-ability.
Realising that Paralympians, in many ways are much more able than your average person.  Something to be respected and admired not ignored and feared.


The diversity or lack of it is something I’ve come to accept and guess makes me appreciate the UK and its multi-culturalism even more.
How lucky to have grown up in a country which has people from every corner of the world, large populations of every religion, access to every worldwide food and an opportunity to learn about different countries directly from people whose roots are from there.


Adapation and Assimilation


I’ve been in India a year now.  

A good year, a really good year despite its up’s and downs. And coming back to India this time I’m much more relaxed and at ease with everything about living here.  

“Again, after some time (usually 6 to 12 months), one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines. One knows what to expect in most situations and the host country no longer feels all that new. One becomes concerned with basic living again, and things become more “normal”. One starts to develop problem-solving skills for dealing with the culture and begins to accept the culture’s ways with a positive attitude. The culture begins to make sense, and negative reactions and responses to the culture are reduced”.

I respect the culture and values here and I’m finding ways to do some of the things I would do in the UK here.  Like exercise, access to western TV, music and radio, managing powercuts and making my ‘home’ here more comfortable.

The culture here is fascinating but as I learn more about the restrictions on people’s lives, particularly women, the more I hold on to my western values.
Neither is right or wrong, it’s where you feel most comfortable but its for this reason there are a number of things that I absolutely refuse to compromise on.


Clothing and hair


As much I like the clothes the women wear I have little desire to follow suit.
The dress code is fine but I can’t help but think in some ways it causes more issues. Women are not only expected to be covered head to foot but also conceal any shape or curve in their body. 
Women are apparently honoured here, objects of beauty but clearly ones that have to be hidden away. 
I can’t help but think covering up creates this real mystery about women, an unhealthy curiosity.
I’m not suggesting everyone should walk around half naked.  Let’s face it when we have our one day of summer in the UK and everyone reveals their bodies to the sun you spend most of the time wishing they wouldn’t.
But hiding women behind layers of clothes, in this heat too, to apparently protect them, is crazy!

People laugh at what I wear. I am apparently dressed as a boy, but I like it and I’m comfortable so…….
Hair cut
, again, here, considered being a boy!

In the west short hair is not uncommon but perhaps the style I have is. Commonly termed androgynous. Which I like, why put people in boxes or stick to traditional stereotypes?

 Religion

It’s an obsession and a clear definition of who you are here.
Everyone has a religion.
To not somehow defines you as a lost soul. 
Perhaps I am?
Or as I see it lucky enough to exercise the ultimate in freedom to choose what I believe.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against religion but having seen and experienced how religion can completely manipulate someone, control their lives and cause them absolute misery, stop them from being who they are and living the life they want I find it a little hard to put my full belief into one set of ‘rules/religion.

I often get comments like ‘how can you not believe?’

Simple really, it’s not that I don’t believe in something greater than all of us but I don’t believe conforming to a particular set of ‘rules’ makes me a better person.

Conversely not having a religion does not make me a bad person.

The best conversation I had with someone is when they said, but it was the British that brought Christianity/catholicism to India, how can you not stick with it?

Firstly, urm actually it was the Portuguese, secondly this was in 1498, the British didn’t arrive until 1600. Thirdly, things in the UK have moved on significantly since then.

 

Lifestyle

My life here and in the UK couldn’t be more different. What is an accepted social norm in the UK is complete taboo here.
The consumption of alcohol, a prime example.

A massive taboo here, again particularly for women.
The concept of social drinking and having a cold beer on a hot day to relax and cool down is a completely alien concept. People are either sober or beyond paralytic drunk, there is no in between.

But, as I do at home, I enjoy a beer, with my friends/family or on my own reading the paper.
The hotels in Madurai are used to me now and perhaps it isn’t such a good thing that when I walk in the first thing they say is, “Hi mam,how are you? Beer and bottle of water right?” 
At least I have water too.
But sitting on the roof terrace early eve with a cold beer reading the paper is one of the few luxuries I have here. It doesn’t make me a bad person and nothing will persuade me otherwise.

Physical contact

At home I’m quite a tactile person. To meet my friends with a hug is completely normal. Male and female.
To sit next to a stranger on transport with maybe our arms touching again is just part of life. It isn’t some great statement about desire for them.

So if I get on the bus and a guy is kind enough to offer the seat next to him of course I’ll take it and if by doing so there is some contact between us so what.
Most of the time they do all they can to avoid it and if some idiot thinks it’s an opportunity to try his chances believe me I’m not afraid to make it clear to him and everyone else on the bus it’s not acceptable. It’s them that should be embarrassed not me.

Generally here, I might be a bit too tactile with people but for me to touch someone on the arm, hand as a friendly gesture is confirmation that I respect and trust that person.  It’s not a declaration of love or sexual desire which I’m aware with the wrong people could be interpreted that way!

Being me

Perhaps the biggest thing.  I don’t think I’ve tried to change myself, well I can’t, no one can change who they are.  But its pretty clear now around the ‘adjustment’ stage I become totally consumed with worrying about fitting in, doing the right thing, not offending anyone and of course worrying what people thought of me.

Now I’m definitely a lot more relaxed about it. I’m just being myself.
There will be things people don’t get about me, the way I do things.  Why would they if they’ve never visited the UK and experienced the culture there.
I still worry what people think of me, I think we all do but it’s no more than in the way I do at home.
But if my honesty offends people then that’s kind of their look out.  I’m not going to adopt the custom here which seems to be telling people what they want to hear rather than sometimes admitting that you just don’t know.
I trust my judgements much more now too. Gut instincts count for a lot and even though it’s a different culture people are still people, you still get an instinct about someone or a situation.


So a year in India!

Someone suggested it should be the title of my book if I wrote one.  I’m not sure I’d ever be able to explain all that has happened here, its cultural context, its contradictions and my interpretation of it all.  But who knows…….

As I settle in to what is now ‘normal life’ my challenge is trying to balance the expectations between the two cultures.
The fast paced, high demand, instant world of the west against the more laid back, slow paced, developing world in India.
Challenging yes but what a great position to be in.
The luxury of two cultures, two lifestyles and doing work that I really enjoy doing!

And thanks to this video I have even started to master the Indian head wobble too.

yesno?

 

culture shock3

India Adventure

It’s been sometime since I’ve posted anything, largely to do with the fact that I’ve been in the UK trying to catch up with everyone and get myself together a little bit.  I hadn’t quite appreciated how much stuff there is to sort out when you decide that you’re not coming back to the UK.  

Its done now and I’m back in India ready to focus on delivering our Gwirvol funded project “India Adventure”
16 volunteers over the next 10 months supporting Silo India.


Thursday 28 August, Manchester airport

Time to meet the next two volunteers who had the pleasure or otherwise of travelling out with me to India.

Jack and Simon both graduates from Cardiff were understandably nervous but excited as we slowly made our way through the airport.  9pm and we’re on the plane and India bound, time to get really excited.  The boys even took time to do a selfie and post it on twitter -click to view!

6.5 hours later having probably made a bit too much of the free drinks on offer we touch down in Abu Dhabi, 30 degrees 7am local time, 3am UK time feeling a little ropey!  3 hours sat looking at the runway and onto the next flight of 4 hours to Trivandrum.  Thankfully the plane was pretty empty so we all ended up with 3 seats each.  Which confused me a little.  I got on the plane. Window seat. Two Indian guys then sit in the middle and aisle seat.  A very quick exchange of pleasantries with them and I’m asleep.  I wake up 30 minutes into the flight to find both seats empty and no sign that anyone was sitting there!!

5pm local time 12.30pm UK time we touch down in Trivandrum.  A very pleasant 30 degrees but humid and threatening rain.

Immigration was interesting.  
I’m beginning to think I must look suspicious or something because every time I enter the country I get a million questions.  This time,
why am I here?
how long am I staying?
who do I work for?
what do they do?
I was a little tired so the first thing that came into my head was ‘education’.  
I thought that would be it but oh no the question that really threw me.

What do you know about education in India?
Urm Urm Urm, think, think, think……………
well Kerala has very good literacy rates!!!!

I’m thinking I might just take Jack and Simons lead next time and just say pardon 3 times to each question so they give up asking!

Bags arrived ok too which was good but I now had to trek what is probably my life belongings in 3 very heavy bags around Trivandrum, on to a train, into a taxi and up a flight of stairs to get ‘home’.

I’ve definitely got used to India now.  I just sat in the taxi amongst the crazy traffic, rickshaws, cars, bikes, people and cows and thought hmm ok I’m back, this is good.  It wasn’t until I looked at Jack and Simon that I realised how quite alright I am about it all as they sat there mouths open just shocked by the chaos.

4 hours on the sleeper train! 12.30am arrive in Tirunelveli.
Taxi then to the orphanage and finally back to my house.
2am and me and my bags are through the door.  Excitement as I now have a double bed, just a small amount of comfort, hoping it will be cooler to sleep too.

2.45am and I’m in bed, next thing its 8.30am and I’m thinking I should really get up to shift my body clock.  9.30am and I finally move.  Didn’t feel to bad but by 6pm I feel dreadful.

It wasn’t long before I realised I was well and truly back.
No wifi in the house, problem with the line,
No 3g as per usual
And woken up every morning at 5am by the church and its ‘celebrations’.
Not the best recovery for jetlag but I had the excitement of out first volunteers being out here to distract me from that.

 

Natasha and Helen our first volunteers had been out here nearly 4 weeks when I arrived.  It was really good to meet them and talk to them first hand about their experience.   Not sure if you’ve been reading their blog (click here to read) but they’ve been really insightful, giving a great flavour of how they’ve felt, what they’ve been doing and some of the quirky things that just make them giggle.

So second day back and off to the green garden (eco project) to meet them and have a debrief session.

It was clear from the moment I got there they were having and have had a great time out here.

The jokes were that bad that they were good!!  

It seems it also didn’t take Simon long to settle into Indian life as he clocked an Enfield motorbike, now the one thing he wants to purchase before his placement ends!

simon on bike

So after a good catch up, worthwhile handover between Tash, Helen and Jack, Simon and I’m fully reassured that whilst we’ve still got some more work to do the volunteer programme is running well.

Monday and time for Jack and Simon to be welcomed formally and complete their formalities.


and for them to get stuck into their activities for the next month

 

https://twitter.com/JackPritchard93/status/506671851045531650

Tuesday and back to the farm to complete formal feedback with Tash and Helen.  Believe me the jokes had not improved in 2 days.  A month here, very long days, a lot of work they were understandably tired so perhaps it was delirium setting in??????

I fully expected just to be there for the morning but much to my surprise we didn’t actually leave the farm until 11pm.  To be fair it was worth it to listen to Raisas story about a mad trek up mountains doing species surveys which ended up being a close call with wild elephants!  No one had any idea where the story was going and with all the interruptions it took best part of an hour to tell us.

So 11pm and I thought back to Manur but no to Raisa house to stay, which was fine, it was closer after all. Next morning get up and Swathi says “so we’re going to head back to the farm now!”  Oh ok!?

Another good day at the farm helping out with various things.  Massive job of cleaning the well complete (not that I had anything to do with that), cattle fodder sticks purchased and it seems Helen’s joke about mushrooms had caught on that much that they got invited to a meeting at the university to share their knowledge!!!

Having spent two days with them at the green garden project (eco-farming) I feel so reassured and happy that they’ve had such a great experience. They were both in such good spirits, getting involved in everything, having a real laugh and joke with the staff and providing really helpful feedback to Silo India.  Not to mention the important handover to Jack and Simon.

7pm some 37 hours after leaving my house and I’m back home!


Thursday and its now time to say goodbye to Tash and Helen.

The trip clearly had a huge impact on both them and importantly we know their hard work has already made a massive difference to the kids here.


Jack and Simon have literally not had a second to think about being here, worry about jetlag, the change in climate, food and to continue where Helen and Tash left off.  But in a week they’ve done heaps and again clearly enjoying it all.

So whilst Jack and Simon enjoy some much deserved time off in Kollam I headed back to Madurai to move the rest of my stuff there.  And again it wasn’t long before I was rolling my eyes and chuckling at being back!

 

Its been a really enjoyable week.  The volunteers are having a great time and importantly having a huge huge impact on the kids they are working with.  There are certainly lots of photos of smiling kids as you can see from some of the tweets that have been sent out.

On top of this we ran a small social media promotion via some contacts from Sport Wales (you’ve got to use your contacts where you can!!) and within 48 hours had 32 individuals express an interest in being part of the Vi-Ability/Gwirvol funded programme.  We now have the difficult challenge of whittling these down to 12 and with more requests coming in everyday!

So a very good return to India.  Its been busy, very busy and its not been without its technology challenges but I’m really pleased, as is everyone here how its gone with the first volunteers and the work the guys are starting to do.

I know for sure that I made the right decision.  Its going to be hard work, long days and I’m sure they’ll be their frustrations along the way but at the moment its great to work alongside such enthusiastic, skilled and committed volunteers and see first hand the impact they are making.

To keep up to date with all our activities please follow us on twitter:
@Vi_AbilityIndia
@siloindia
@joclayva
@gwirvol – our funding partner

Not on twitter?  You can still view all the activities by clicking on each name to see the tweets that have been sent.

The Gwirvol project is for residents of Wales aged between 18-25 years but if you don’t fall into this category and still want to volunteer then please contact either Silo India or myself directly and we will happily share with you the range of opportunities to support our work out here.  Both in India and remotely from your own country.

 

Freedom and choice

A week after posting my blog ‘A big decision’ and 3 weeks after making the decision, time for a bit of reflection.
To be honest I’ve been very flattered and a little bemused by peoples reactions to my decision.  All of them very complimentary, supportive and encouraging which helps to affirm that I’ve made the right decision but it’s also made me realise that my decision is beyond the comprehension of most people. Particularly when you read all the things that have happened over the last 12 months.  
I’m sure the question most people would ask is, why?

 

Whilst talking the decision through with someone they asked me
“what is your most valuable possession or asset?”


What would you say?
House?
Car?
An electrical item?
A treasured gift from someone?
For me it was simple, I didn’t hesitate to answer.

My passport

Perhaps it was being without my passport for nearly 3 weeks whilst it was in Mumbai, feeling a bit trapped albeit in a country that I love and am very happy in, that gave me a real sense of unease, that something had been taken away from who I am.
12 months ago being asked the same question I’m sure I would have answered it quite differently.  My passport would have been in my top 3 but I’m pretty  my top answer would have been my house – wrapped up in the western drive to consume, have, need and want more.
I certainly hadn’t appreciated the freedom and choice which allows me to do this.

Nearly 12 months in India and everyday I’m learning more about freedom and choice and what that means for women here.
This blog isn’t going to be pretty, it’ll include some pretty hard hitting information but a topic so so worth discussing.

 

“India bristles with a mind-stirring mix of landscapes and cultural traditions. Your journey through this intoxicating country will blaze in your memory long after you’ve left its shores.
Two words: stunningly unforgettable”
Lonely Planet, India (travel guide)

And its true, it is.  It offers so much to see, do and experience and for every first time visitor it’s an exciting, exhilarating, if not unnerving assault on the senses. The people you meet, the big smiles, the colour.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the people you meet are completely happy and content with their lives, that seeing women out and about indicates freedom and choice, seeing young students ‘dating’ indicates a challenge to conformity. But as with anything, the more you get to know, see and experience the more you see the reality.
Let me start with some basic facts about women in India

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Across every aspect of their lives, women in India are at a disadvantage as compared to men.
These statistic aren’t unique to India, they bear similarity to other Asian and African countries, but in 2012 India was rated the worst G20 country for women, worse than countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia!
The study undertaken by Reuters concluded that Indian women were particularly vulnerable because of high instances of child marriage, dowry related deaths, trafficking and slavery.

BUT WHY?
Modernisation?
Over the last two decades India has witnessed one of the biggest economic booms in its history. Cities are thriving, the use of technology becoming increasingly wide spread, more young people completing basic education and unemployment rates low.
Alongside this India is witnessing a change in social attitude, women no longer confined to the home, greater visibility in cities and many actively pursuing and succeeding in a career of their choice.  This is particularly evident in the big metro cities.
Bengaluru (Bangalore) the technology hub of India is more like a large European or American city than an Indian one.
Seeing this leads you to believe that modernisation is feeding women’s liberation and strengthening their position in society, no longer seen as second class citizens in comparison to their brothers.
However, the reality being, that this liberalisation, instead of allowing women greater choice, is putting them in greater danger and stifling their freedom.
I recently got talking to a guy at a hotel about this exact issue.
He openly said
“because of womens liberalisation society is going down, them going out to work, no longer focusing on the family is damaging society”
My response
“so you think the only thing women are good for is to be in the home?”
conversation continues
“no, but if a woman chooses to dress inappropriately, take part in activities that are not suitable, stay out late then it is her fault if she attracts unwanted attention”

“are you seriously telling me that its ok for men to do what they want, when they want but not for women, why?”

 

He didn’t really answer but what he is basically saying is, men want to keep women hidden away in some strange belief that they are protecting them, whereas in fact, its because they’re threatened by women having control of their own lives.
My opinion and observation.
It isn’t just men but society as a whole that hold this view because of the strong ties to religion.  Traditional ‘Sita’ the Hindu goddess is still viewed as a model or purity who is willing to fulfill her role as daughter and wife.  Something that every woman should aspire to be, under the guise of ‘honour’ and ‘purity’.
Families constantly worry about losing face in society because of the actions of their daughter whereas sons are permitted the freedom to do what they want.
Mix into this a complicated caste system and an aspiring new middle class it makes for a complex set of rules and believes that are full of contradictions, making it almost impossible for women to make any of their own choices.

 

“the modern woman is seen to be on a collision course with our age old traditions, part sex goddess, part super achiever, loathed and desired in equal measures.  A profound fear and deep, almost pathological, hatred of the woman who aspires to be anything more than a mother and wife is justified on the grounds of tradition. The battle is fiercer than ever before and it can no longer be fought in seminar rooms and government meetings. [for feminists] the battle will have to be fought on every issue from dress code to mobile phones to love marriage to divorce to the right education”.
Sagarika Ghose, Deputy Editor CNN-IBN quoted in Hindustan Times

 

If you watch any Bollywood, Hindi, Indian based movie the storyline and plot tends to follow the same tedious lines. ‘The hero’ is portrayed as some hapless male who will do anything to win the affections of the girl. Predictably at the start of the movie the girl is dismissive almost annoyed by the attention, constantly refusing to acknowledge or accept the ‘heroes’ attention.  As the movie develops the hero performs more and more ridiculous acts to get the girl to say yes. Some of the films are funny and harmless but many portray an accepted role for the ‘hero’ to almost stalk the girl until she eventually gives in and says yes.

 

“Whats truly terrible is the manner in which film heroes for decades pestered, stalked and forced their unwanted attentions on heroines in a thousand films, yet ended up getting the girl. That sent a message to men that pestering girls is what heroes do, and a girls ‘no’ actually means ‘yes’.
SA Aiyar, The Times of India columnist taken from India Dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women, Sunny Hundal

 

This was also cited by friends I asked about Indian culture and the things that really need to change.

 

“The portrayal [of] women in Indian movies is the leading cause for crime against women. Unfortunately it has become a major entertainment concept in India”
Indian woman, Tamil Nadu

 

The Delhi gang rape made headline news across the world and continues to be widely talked about.  But has the media helped to bring the issue of women’s rights and women’s safety to the forefront or does it exacerbate the problem?
For me the newspapers are no better, used as a way to quote politicians ridiculous views on the situation and scaremonger rather than provide a platform for real discussion and change.
For months after the Delhi gang rape newspapers across the world were full of stories of other incidences of women being attacked, both Indian and non-Indian.  Perhaps to raise the profile and get people talking.
But I question whether it was the media that really forced the government to tighten up its laws and implement fast track systems.  More likely it was the hundreds of thousands of people that took to the streets to protest.

 

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This was without doubt one of the most horrific attacks in modern history but a few months later and the media move on to other stories, the issue forgotten, not discussed in a public arena and ignored.
In May 2014 the vicious attack and rape of 2 girls became headline news again and not just this case but plenty of other cases too.

Click on the photo.

Uttar pradesh protests

A few weeks later, 21 June ‘The Hindu’ newspaper does not have one single article about this issue.
I suspect this is the same for all other national papers in India too.
12th July, one article relating to a case in 1993 involving a women who was gang raped by 6 police officers but never found justice.
This was a small article on page 4 of the paper.
The Delhi gang rape sparked fury amongst its citizens, thousands took to the streets to protest, whilst others, just as angered, took to expressing their views in public forums.
I came across this really powerful blog when searching for images of the Delhi protests.  It is definitely worth a read.  I contacted Akshar to ask for his permission to reference his blog, his response
“I will definitely feel very honoured and proud if u give a reference to my blog [….] I am not a trained professional I just wrote my heart out whatever was going inside me […] you definitely have my permission”.

The blog received 500 views in 5 days of being posted!
Click on the quote below to read it.

“I have tears in my eyes writing this article. I haven’t slept last night thinking about her. I don’t know why but I am attached to her emotionally as if she was my family member. Damini is no more! May her soul rest in peace”
‘She may have slept but she has awaken the whole country’, Akshar Goswami, Jaipur, Rajasthan

 

 

1991 and the census indicates that the gender balance in India is 927 women to 1000 men, a notably drop from 1947 the start of India’s independence where the balance was 946/1000.
For children under 7 the imbalance is more notably still and in some states such as Bihar and Rajasthan the sex ratio is amongst the lowest in the world 600:1000.
But why is this such an issue?
This isn’t a blip in statistics or some strange phenomenon its a result of gender selection.
The government banned sex-selection in public hospital in 1978 but this just led to the set up of private clinics.
Slogans such as “pay 5000 rupee today and save 50,000 rupee (dowry) tomorrow” openly displayed.
In rural parts of the country the practice of ‘Kuri Mar’ is still prevalent. ‘Kuri Mar’ literally translates as girl killers.  Shockingly in Punjab one of the most common ways to dispose of an unwanted baby girl is to place her in a pot, dig a hole and bury her.
There are also many examples where families choose to let their daughters die through lack of medical intervention.
“In one village, I went into a house to examine a girl and I found that she had an advanced case of tuberculosis. I asked the mother why she hadn’t done anything sooner about the girls condition, because now, at this stage, treatment would be very expensive. The mother replied, then let her die, I have another daughter. At the time the two daughters sat nearby listening, one with tears streaming down her face”
Government doctor, India dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women, Sunny Hundal
Even amongst wealthier Indians, families are openly choosing not to have girls, as this example shows.
“My husband and I fought over my desire to have an abortion. I told him this society does not value girls and I do not want to give birth to another one. When I gave birth to my first daughter everyone pitied me. They all told me I could not have a son. The taunts from my family and from my in-laws that I would have faced for not having a son forced to me to abort. Knowing the amount of harassment my baby would have gone through after birth, I think it is better to die”.
India dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women, Sunny Hundal
The government now has schemes in place to encourage parents to have baby girls but the fact still remains that to have a girl in India is expensive and does not offer the same security to parents as having a son.
Perhaps the biggest culprit is the expectation that comes with marriage and dowry.
Arranged marriage is still the norm in India. The family choose the husband/wife for their daughter/son based on caste, religion, social standing, perceived wealth and a belief that this person is the right match. In fact adverts are openly placed in newspapers in the pursuit for the perfect match and there is no holding back on what this perfect match will be.  Open statements about required caste and skin colour!
At this stage the family then discuss dowry, a payment made by the girls family to the boys family. Despite this practice being banned in 1961 by the Indian government it still continues and is openly accepted as a normal part of the marriage process. The amount of dowry varies greatly from family to family, from multiple times the family annual income to a substantial amount of the overall families wealth.
Once agreed the marriage takes place but the threat to the girl/wife does not end there. Even when married in what is perceived to be the right and safe thing for any ‘decent’ girl she is still vulnerable to attacks and abuse from the boys family relating to dowry.
Following marriage the boys family often place demands for more money from the girls family. If this does not materialise it leads to abuse and in some cases murder of the girl, thereby ‘freeing the man’ so that he can marry someone else.
“some estimate that as many as 100,000 women are burned to death each year in dowry-related disputes and another 125,000 die from violent injuries that are rarely reported as killings. Victims frequently face ‘stove burnings”, where in-laws pour cooking fuel over women and set them alight, so it appears as an accident”.
India dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women, Sunny Hundal
I’ll never forget the stories told by the medical volunteers of the number of women admitted to hospital because of attempted suicide.  All in an attempt to escape their marriage.
The simplistic western view would be, if you’re not happy with your husband/wife, make it work or leave but that just isn’t an option here for women.
Lets recap here, its the woman that make all the sacrifices when they get married. They move from their family home (sometimes hundreds of miles away) to live with their husbands family. Most are not permitted to work but confined to a life of being a homemaker, wholly reliant on the husband for income and his family for support.  To leave your husband because you are ‘unhappy’ would make you a social outcast.
Who would you turn to for support?
Your parents?  How?
They are probably hundreds of miles away and having ‘invested’ such a large part of their family wealth in your marriage (by dowry payments) do you think they would let you just walk away and take on the additional financial responsibility of supporting you?  Not to mention the social stigma in having a daughter that failed to make the marriage work, because of course, its your fault not your husbands!
Your parents in-law?
The husbands parents are sure to favour their son over their daughter in law and will want to ensure that marriage at least produces a male heir in which to continue the family line.
Your friends?
Maybe, but if you consider that you may now be living in a rural part of India with no nearby neighbours and no opportunity to mix with other people, this is quite unlikely.
Rely on yourself?
Being a woman in India means you are less likely to have a good education in which to secure a well paid professional job.  Your option is back breaking labour earning a 100 rupee a day or less and needing every rupee of this to house, feed and cloth yourself!  You also face significant social stigma, unlikely to be welcomed and supported by the local community because you will be outcast as not fulfilling your duty (remember the aspiration to be like Sita).  In addition your husbands family will surely spread vicious rumours about your moral integrity in bid to ensure their sons integrity and their family honour is upheld.
Perhaps for many women in this situation they focus their time, energy and effort on their children as a means of distraction and giving focus to their lives. This of course is not uncommon in any part of the world.
But in a situation where your children are and will continue to be your only source of comfort, support, company and meaning to your life which child will you favour more?
The boy or the girl?
The boy who will stay with you throughout his life, who will welcome his wife to the family home, who will produce grandchildren that you will see everyday.
Or the girl who will at some point leave you as she marries and moves to her husbands family to undertake the same ‘role’ and ‘duty’ that you have been forced to do.  Leaving you alone to cope with your isolation.
I will let you draw your own conclusions.

 

 

So to avoid this do you become bold enough to chose your life partner, to have a love marriage?
Few would. The family traditions and values are so strong here that people (regardless of gender) do not do anything without the permission of their family. Those that do risk some pretty horrendous consequences.
To have any sort of relationship with someone outside of marriage is a complete no go.
In India it is not ok to have relations with someone you love but its ok to get married to a complete stranger?  Let’s face it that’s what a lot of arranged marriages are.
In February this year I was invited to a wedding, the bride and groom had met each other twice before the big day!
They will now spend the rest of their lives together in the belief (by their parents) that they are the right match for each other.
It isn’t that love is frowned upon but a belief that ‘to be in love’ when you get married is not necessary, instead the love will develop as their lives together develop.
Perhaps this does happen but I imagine more often than not its feelings of respect rather than love that develop.
Think how many new people you’ve met (strangers), on the face of it they’re the same as you, same culture, same values, similar wealth.  There’s probably been many times when your parents have said about someone, “Ohh they’re lovely aren’t they” in some vain attempt to indicate they’re the right person for you. But you know they’re not.
Imagine your views being ignored and being told, this is the person you will spend the rest of your life with!  To be forced into a marriage with someone you hardly know?
I still don’t understand the benefits of arranged marriage, surely its better for people to be together because of love not convenience?
For people to have a choice about who they are with?
In India this is not even a consideration as marriage is one of many ways Indian society can control its women under the guise of protection.
There are still politicians that want to lower the legal age of marriage so that girls are married younger and therefore protected from rape and other sexual assault!
I admit that ‘love relationships’ do not always work out but at least people have had a choice about who they spend their lives with.
This quote from the famous poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1849 is often told to people who are grieving the loss of ‘love’.
The poem is actually about losing his best friend through illness, with this being the final line in what is believed to be a poem that was written over many years as his friend battled illness.
However, it is more often used in a romantic context.

 

“Tis better to have loved and lost: than to have never loved at all”
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H.

 

In India you don’t have the chance to love, not openly anyway.  You don’t even marry an acquaintance, more often than not a stranger.

 

It is estimated that over 1000 women are murdered every year through honour killings.  Killed because they choose to have a relationship with someone they love rather than agree to have an arranged marriage.  What is more disturbing still, is more often than not the killing is undertaken by a family member.
“In December 2012, a young man by the name of Methab Alam calmly walked into a police station in the city of Kolkata, in east India, with the severed head of his sister in his left hand and a sword in his right, dripping with blood. He told a shocked policeman that he was ready to be arrested for the murder of his 22 year old sister, who had been married off at the age of 14 “for running off with a lover and dis-respecting the family”
India dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women, Sunny Hundal
Honour killings are not unique to India.  Such incidents are regularly reported in the UK and other parts of the world.
In 2010 nearly 3000 honour attacks were reported to police and incidents of forced marriage 10,000.
It was only as recently as June 2014 that the UK government made forced marriage in the UK illegal. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-27863845
So what will it take to change all of this?
“India currently has 37 million more males than females and it is estimated that the total `missing` is around 50 million over the last three generations, thanks to abortions, infanticide, dowry deaths and other murders. By 2020 India will have an extra 28 million males of marriageable age. For context that is more than the entire male population of England. Given that India and China together represent approximately 36% of the entire world population, the sex ratio imbalance is unprecedented in human history and likely to have global implications”
“The problem isn’t just the police, politicians, justice systems, corruption or economic de-regulations: it is India’s unique brand of religiosity and ingrained ideas about the `honour` of women that makes it so hard to change attitudes”
India dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women, Sunny Hundal
When I asked friends both India and non-India ‘What is your perception of woman’s a place in society in India?’ All without exception responded in the same way.
These are just an example of the response I received.
“female freedom is crushed in India, particularly because of religion”
Indian man, Tamil Nadu
“women are somewhat out of their shells but not completely.  A portion of those who are out, are mislead or get lost in the name of modernisation. While the rest are still holding on to the name of tradition that is baseless.  As a human their role is significant in society in all aspects, as a mother, teacher, nurse doc, etc.. Many things need to change still. Only 10% has changed”
Indian woman, Tamil Nadu
“Equality for women and respect for women in their own right …safety of women has to on the agenda now too”
Non-Indian woman, Ireland
I am not happy with how women are treated in India. They work the hardest, taking care of the family and keeping the household together and they get no credit or say so in their future.
Non-Indian woman, USA
There’s a real desire for change and I see pockets of it everyday but, all within certain parameters.
I read India dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women by Sunny Hundal (click on title to go to book) some months back but it sticks with me everyday, perhaps giving me the greatest understanding of the complexities here.
I don’t fully understand it and I don’t ever expect to but I’m respecting it more and more and respecting the women who are slowly making things change.
So whilst I’ve been touched by people’s reactions to the decision I’ve made I still conclude that what I’ve decided to do isn’t brave at all.
And the question isn’t why?
It’s why not?

No one in my family, my friends or even the society I grew up in are going to oust me for the decisions I make and the person I am. They might find it beyond comprehension to jump out of the western rat race and live in a country so vastly different on every level but all I’ve done is exercise my freedom to do that.
Yes I have to make sacrifices, adapt my lifestyle and perhaps accept that I can’t truly ‘be myself’ here but at any given moment I could go online, book a flight and within 24 hrs be back to a country where I don’t need to make any sacrifices at all.
Women here don’t have that choice.
Women here aren’t protected and honored.
They’re told what to wear, what to do, where they can go, what time to be home, who to talk to, who to marry, every inch of their lives is dictated by a set of complex cultural, religious and societal rules that stifles their freedom.
The women who are choosing to actively challenge these conventions through love marriages, pursuing a career, choice in clothing, they’re the ones that are brave.
India now needs to be brave enough to support more women to exercise their freedom and choice,
to live their own lives,
in a society that truly protects and honours them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A big decision…….

On the 5th September 2013 I left the UK for India to commence a 12 month sabbatical to volunteer and live in a country that had captured my heart and mind some 10 months previous.

10 months on and time to make the biggest decision I’ve had to make for a long time.

1.  To return to the UK, back to my old job with a fantastic set of memories, or

2.  Continue to pursue this crazy dream of living and working in India

First let me recap on why I am actually here even having to make this decision.

I landed in Delhi Airport on 3rd November 2012. The minute I stepped outside the airport into the hazy sunshine, into the chaos, into a vastly different country and culture I had a feeling of absolute calm, perhaps cheesy to say but I felt like I’d come home.  From that point for the next two weeks I loved every minute of being in India.

The craziness of Delhi, the temples, the beautiful countryside, the huge range in the wildlife and the fantastic people I met, were just some of the things that contributed to what I see now as a life changing 2 weeks.

 

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I don’t know why it affected me so much, but, just as you fall in love with anything, a person, a place, it becomes increasingly difficult to get it out of your mind. And I couldn’t.

19th November first day back in work I requested a sabbatical,

February 2013 it was approved,

15th August 2013 last day in work,

5th September I was on my way back.

 

Excited, nervous, very apprehensive wondering if I had done the right thing leaving all this behind.

 

Family, friends, home comforts!

5 September – 20 September

No turning back though and thankfully a year that started with a two week trip with 3 giggling monkeys!! Anyone who has met Keli, Gayle or Sam or who has had the misfortune to spend time with the four of us together will know that before you see us you hear us…..

Giggling!!

Usually with one or more of us in tears of laughter.

Whilst I still feel really sorry for the other people on our trip for me it was the best way to become reacquainted with India.

 

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In those two weeks we traveled from Kochi to Ooty, Mysore, Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Madurai, Thekkady and Kollam.  It was definitely a whirlwind tour of the south.

It was a trip noted by two things.

A lot of beer and a lot of giggling.

Week one: “Our local guide stopped the bus and said right now we’ll get beer who wants to help. After a few hours stuck on a bus I was mostly glad to have a walk so Sam and I offered. We went down the main road avoiding lorries, rickshaws, people, bikes and whatever else and if that wasn’t dodgy enough we turned right down a side street into what looked like the entrance to the slum. There on the left was a little opening with a man sat in a room full of booze. Local guide goes to hatch orders beer and hands bottles and bottles back to us. Locals are looking at us a little bemused and one said “hide it, don’t carry in public”. With only one small bag we had to hide them up t-shirts and walk back to the bus trying not to look suspicious. Apparently it’s not illegal but if the police see you they will stop and prob ask for a bribe!”

Week two: it seems our giggling was catching

“The hotel bar was a dark smokey room with about 6 Indian business men in there but we braved it and probably took over a bit. Our leader then made quite an entrance by tripping over the TV cables and disconnecting the whole lot. It’s a good job it wasn’t cricket. It took 4 hotel staff over an hour to reconnect it all. At this point we were starting to wonder if our guide had had any other incidents because he did come across as clumsy. Clumsy and very giggly! That’s when he started to tell us stories from his other trips.
Someone had not got off the train so were stranded on their own,
another passenger had lost all their stuff
and someone had died!
We have another week with this man including train journeys…..”

20 September – 20 December

Thankfully I survived the two week trip and after a strange goodbye to the other 3 it was time to head off to my first volunteer project.
Conservation project with Projects Abroad at the model farm in Chinnupatti.

Its weird looking back at how I first felt when I got there, these are quotes from the emails I sent home.

“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.”

And at the end of my first week……..

“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.”

 

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After two weeks I was absolutely settled into and loving it more each day.

“So another action packed week and one I have thoroughly enjoyed. We were all saying that posting these blogs is really hard as so much happens in one day here it’s really difficult to describe it all. And its not so much the big things that makes your day it’s the little things like locals grinning at you on the bus, someone stopping the traffic so you can cross the road and listening to peoples stories. We met a guy who works in a local shop who was a pastry chef in New York but his dad wouldn’t allow it so he’s back working here. Beginning to understand the daily battle here for the young people who want more freedom, more choice and the older generations who want to retain their strict traditional values. All this certainly combines to make India one of the most interesting places to live and perhaps once you accept that India is noisy and can be busy it is one of the most enjoyable places.

After a bit of a shaky start I can now say I’m really settling into village life and India and I’m sure each day/week is going to provide even more fun experiences.”

The whole experience at the farm was fantastic.  Hard work definitely but in those 3 months we achieved a lot.  Numerous field visits, school programmes, developing the farm, linking with colleges to recruit volunteers, organising the monthly dirty days and some really interesting weekend trips.

It was no surprise to me that at the end of the 3  months I wasn’t ready to leave.

But December comes around and time to take a much needed break and spend some time with family as my parents flew out to India for 3 weeks to see me.

 

22 December – 10th January

Christmas in a hot country is always quite a strange experience and it was certainly the same here!  Decorations everywhere, people dressed in Santa outfits and an Indian style Christmas dinner. But we made the most of it and enjoyed a week in Kochi and Manur where the scenery was absolutely spectacular.

 

After Christmas in India we headed to Sri Lanka for two weeks.  My first taste of the island that I was to return to to take part in a volunteer project. A week in Negombo enjoying some time on the beach, visiting local sights and spending some time on the ‘Sri Lankan backwaters’ followed by a week near Kandy visiting elephant projects, botantical gardens, temples and tea plantations. I was really surprised how different Sri Lanka was from India.  Everything was different, the culture, the clothes people wore, the infrastruture, even the climate!  I found it really strange being a tourist for two weeks, particularly being surrounded by hundreds of other European tourists escaping the cold European winter.  It was fun though, we saw a lot and it was nice to spend some time with my parents, for them to get a taste of the life I’d been living for the last 3 months. 

11th January – 9th February

I arrived back into Madurai on 11th January to return to the model farm. Slight mix up in communication about not being collected from the airport and I’m back on the familiar bus from Madurai to Batlagundu. I distinctly remember sitting on that bus thinking ‘its good to be back’ and as I arrived back to the accommodation, no running water and a power cut, I had to laugh to myself as I thought, yep I’m back in rural India.

 

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A month was always going to fly by and that it did!  Some of the activities the same, others completely new, not least of all having to write and direct a play at the local school.

Different volunteers too, 5 of us this time.  I have to say I was extremely lucky to have Allison as my roommate, there aren’t many people that you can spend 24/7 with that you hardly know.  Everyday on the same project, sharing the same room.  We got on really really well and it wasn’t long before Allison, Filippo and I got into the daily routine of tea and cake in the local bakery after a days work in the town.  They certainly made that last month at the farm a lot of fun.

It was tough leaving India, I really didn’t want to leave.  The 4 months I’d spent there had been remarkable.  Sure it was tough at times but having looked back through these photos it reminded me what a great experience it was! 

 

9 February – 1March

Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society

Wow what a completely different volunteer experience.  I thought I was living remotely in Chinnupatti but this was something else.  On the edge of Wasgamuwa national park, a beautiful spot but in the middle of nowhere!!

Thankfully yet again I was with some really great people and the 3 weeks felt more like a holiday than a volunteer project. Mornings spent walking transect lines looking for evidence of elephant activity in stunningly beautiful countryside and afternoons spent in the tree house monitoring traffic and elephant activity. Everyday we saw elephants in the wild and whilst stood there one evening on one side of the lake watching a herd on the other side I had to wonder whether I was actually experiencing this or dreaming.

 

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Aside from the ‘hard work’ of the project there were also the really hilarious, pretty lively parties that we had in the field house.  I think at times it was probably best that we were based so remotely.

And not forgetting the weekend trips to Worlds End and Adams peak.

Sri-Pada-or-Adams-Peak-Sri-Lanka

Adams peak is without doubt one of the toughest climbs I’ve done, 5000 steps up to 2600m through the night but it was worth it.

I definitely won’t forget the trip to worlds end either as I travelled there with Sanne and Lennart , the two intern students from Holland.  I’d been beginning to understand how accident prone Lennart was in the previous weeks but this trip confirmed it.  He had a blister so needed medicine.  Not happy with a plaster he bought 5 different things and spent an hour (with Sanne help) dressing it.  He dressed it that much he couldn’t get one of his flip flops on and had left his boots in the van.  So proceeded to walk to the restaurant for dinner in shorts and tshirts (it was 10 degrees outside but he’d brought no warm clothes with him) with one flip flop on and a dodgy stick as some kind of crutch.  We walked a safe distance in front so as not to be seen with him. Over dinner Lennart continues to relay stories from previous trips about accidents and incidents that have happened, it seems if trouble is going to find anyone, its going to find Lennart. Dinner was fine but as we got out the restaurant the waiter runs after us, sir sir you forgot this!!!  He’d left his only shoe in the restaurant.  I’m still not sure which was the funniest part, Lennart highly embarassed or the confused look on the waiters face as he tried to work out why he only had one shoe with him.

 

1 March – 20 March

6 months into the sabbatical, 2 volunteer projects, 2 vastly different countries, a lot of experiences and a lot of good friends made.  Now back to the UK to catch up with friends and family. 2 and half weeks was always going to be a a whirlwind trip, not least of all as in that time I also needed to reapply for a visa and get myself organised to come back out for another 4 months. It was good to see everyone but it was weird adjusting back to the western culture and it being March it was cold, really cold!! Visas sorted just in the nick of time (thanks to Kelly) and on 20th March I was headed back out to India with Kelly and Gayle but this time not a tourist trip a business trip.

 

20 March – 5 April

It seems my emails home, whatsapp messages and skype calls had been enough to persuade Kelly that it would be a really good idea for her as the Founder and Managing Director of Vi-Ability to look into the feasibility of replicating their hugely successful model in India.  So over the next 17 days we traveled from Bangalore to Madurai to Tirunelveli back to Madurai and back to Bangalore visiting various projects, social enterprises and community groups.

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During the trip we saw some really cool water projects in rural villages, listening to the impact it had had on peoples lives was remarkable.  Meeting Tennis Alicante India who are supporting talented youngsters to compete on the world ATP tour and meeting Silo India to discuss an international volunteer programme and the set up of their social enterprise.

It was this trip that was the kick start to my dilemma about what to do from August onwards.  I could see so much potential to do stuff out here but without investment for a salary it seemed a risk too far.  

6 April onwards

Following the business trip, to continue to build links I’ve spent the last 4 months based between Tirunelveli and Madurai working with Silo India and Tennis Alicante to see what we could do.

For those that have read my blogs you’ll know that its been a bit of a roller coaster, time in hospital, complete meltdown about who to trust but then followed by the really good stuff, Silo India launch, confirmation of funding through Vi-Ability for a volunteer programme, delivery of sports equipment and in the next month the arrival of our first volunteers.

 

Looking back on all of this only confirms to me that I have now made the right decision and that is………..

despite there been no confirmation of funding and a few uncertainties as to when this might happen I’m not ready to give this up just yet.

23 June I formally handed in my notice to Sport Wales and received confirmation that it had been accepted.  

As of 31st July my contract with Sport Wales ends and I am officially unemployed.

I thought this might fill me with fear but it really doesn’t.  The last 12 months have been life changing and looking back at all the photos and remembering all the experiences I just couldn’t stop smiling.  Its had its fair share of blood, sweat and tears and they’ll be plenty more to come but I know I have absolutely made the right decision.

The  question I had to ask myself was, would I regret going back and not giving this a chance? And the answer is, yes, I would regret it!  

It would be remiss of me not to thank Sport Wales for their support over the last 12 months and the 9 years I was there.  There aren’t many organisations that would give their employees this opportunity and I am truly thankful that they allowed me to do it.
I’d also like to thank wholeheartedly my family and friends for everything they’ve done over the last 12 months.  I’ve always said its the little things that keep us happy and at no other time has this been more true.  A whatsapp message, an email or a Skype call just when you’re feeling a bit flat have been so so so welcome and appreciated.

It was starting to feel like a massive decision but when I really thought about it, looked back at what has happened and what I want, it became one the easiest decisions to make.  And as my sister very wisely told me “just make a decision, once you make a decision stick to it and don’t question it”. And that is exactly what I am doing now, no doubts, no regrets, just happily planning the next few months.

So it’s on to the next adventure.  

A month at home in August and then back to India to pursue the Indian dream.  

Sri Lanka

14 June – 21 June

Time to escape India for a week and head to Sri Lanka.

 

UNAWATUNA
Japanese Peace Pagoda
First night on the south coast in the very scenic resort of Unawatuna and headed up hill to the Japanese peace pagoda.
A huge monument next to one of many Buddhist temples with amazing views over to Galle Fort.
Built to inspire peace, designed to provide a focus for people of all races and creeds to help unite them in their search for world peace, it certainly was a lovely spot to spend an hour.
Views from the top.  Best time of day, I think.
Sunset.

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GALLE FORT

A UNESCO world heritage site in the Bay of Galle on the South west coast. First built in 1588 by the Portuguese, then extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century from 1649 onward, before falling to the British in 1815 until Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948.

It is however still known as the ‘Dutch Fort’

Amazingly it withstood the boxing day tsunami which caused extensive damage to many other areas of Galle.  Walking around there today you would never know that this part of the island was even affected.

 

ENTRANCE TO THE FORT

It really made me chuckle to learn that it was the British that built that pretty ugly clock tower because of their obsession with time keeping!


Dutch buildings and views from the fort walls

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Wildlife


Street Art

Some people might just call this graffiti but I thought they were pretty cool, bit of modern mixed in with the old


View from the fort walls

Now I have my camera back working fully I took the opportunity to mess around with the settings.  The bottom photo I took by accident but its actually worked out pretty well

One of the famous ‘fort jumpers’.
I paid $8 to watch this guy jump from the bastion into the sea between the fort walls and the rocks.
A 13m drop.
It was only afterwards they told me the water was only about 5ft deep!
Felt a bit guilty at this point at having negotiated him down from $11.
For me it was a bargain, luckily managed to capture it on camera too, but for him, well I think I’d have put a higher price tag than $8 on my life!!??

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Cricket

Sri Lanka wouldn’t be Sri Lanka without someone playing cricket.  This is actually just off the edge of the fort walls, not sure what they do if someone scores a 6!!!!

cricket1

cricket2

Not massively impressive photos, 2 from the 30km cycle I did, which I really enjoyed, made me realise how much I miss cycling.  And the third one of the beach.  About 5.30pm and the heavens opened and it absolutely lashed it down.
Thankfully I was in a bar under cover enjoying a beer!
So in a week that saw me negotiate a lot of buses & tuktuks, learn to surf – yes I managed to stand and stay standing on the board a good few times, cycled 20 miles through really lovely countryside, taking a million photos in Galle and having a bit of time on the beach I pondered whether I was really sold on ‘solo travel’.
There’s definitely pro’s and cons to it, as there are when you’re traveling with someone else.  The compromise of having the freedom to do what you want, how you want, when you want against having someone else make a few decisions for you so you just don’t have to think and of course share the experience.
I definitely can’t quibble though, how many people can say, “oh yeah I just popped over to Sri Lanka for a week to have some time out because I needed somewhere to have a clear head to think about things”? Not many.  And there aren’t many more beautiful places to be, its certainly an island where you can do everything from extreme sport, to wildlife watching, to musuems and culture, to relaxing on the beach.
So for me as I made some pretty important decisions about what next over the coming months there was no better place to be!