Reclaiming my Identity

Being fully immersed in a completely different culture and falling in love with a new country does strange things to your feelings of attachment. I walk the ten metres across campus to my ‘home’ after school, this home is a cosy, very messy, shared room.  Obviously my real ‘home’ is still cute little Clachan Cottage in Balfron but for now I have two. It’s difficult to ever imagine my room belonging to somebody else and that by August 1st I’ll have left here forever (or maybe not, you never know!). I also now adore the radically random nature of India itself. I’ve truly adopted India as my ‘host’ country and despite train times being changed without anyone knowing, buses not turning up when they say they will and nobody genuinely ever understanding me I love it here! I feel very proud of not only Southern India but this massive country which I now call home. Often in conversations with people we meet in the city or guests at the school, I cringe at the derogatory manner in which some Indians will talk about their country. Overly flattering of the ‘developed West,’ they fall over themselves to criticise their polluted rivers or corrupt governmental system. Despite our claims that all is not rosy in Western society, they continue to embarrass themselves by idolising people and places they know nothing about. It’s times like these when I feel more Indian than them.

For a self confessed pro independence Scottish girl, it’s also a struggle to answer a deceptively simple question of ‘Where do you live?’ Very few people in Anaikatti know where the UK is, let alone have ever heard about Scotland! ‘Akka, this Scotland place, your village name?’ the kids have asked me multiple times. For a while I resigned myself to answering with ‘The UK,’ and let my pride for the beautifully friendly place of Scotland to slip. However over winter break I decided I’d had enough of being from ‘The UK? Oh Britain!’ and was on a mission to reclaim my identity. First things first, I was changing my answer to that consistent question. I’m now from Scotland, in Europe.

Secondly, the upcoming events of ‘Annual Day’ allowed me to broaden the children’s geography skills. Annual Day is similar to Project Day in the sense it’s an opportunity for the kids to share the work they do in school with their families. This time round, it’s less experiments and poster work but a show of songs, dance and drama split over 2 evenings for the junior and senior school. We have an English Drama, traditional Bharanatium dancing, some Hindi songs, a Tamil street play and thrown in there amongst some others…CEILIDH DANCING!

In a country where Hinduism dominates much of the religious playing field, and its ancient philosophy teaches how men and women should not be seen as equals, it’s a struggle to convince them to be in the same room, let alone hold hands and dance together. As there was an administrative error in deciding the Pongal holidays (basically Patti decided giving the kids 3 days off in the middle of a week just after they’d had 2 weeks off was a bad idea) after one leave day on Monday, we had quite a low attendance rate this week. So, as a compromise we spent Tuesday and Wednesday focusing on Annual Day preparations. This meant introducing a mixed age group of hyper active, overly excited children to six hours straight of ceilidh dancing. Not an easy task.

However, four days on and the kids are making rapid improvements. They are getting there with learning how to dance in time to the music, clapping at the same time and dancing in the right direction. They now hold hands and (most of them) manage to put their arm around their partners.  We’re definitely making progress! I’ve even got high hopes to introduce progressive dances into the mix. Nandini Ma’am scowls when she hears the girls and boys aren’t working together and mutters something about gender bias being far too deeply infiltrated into Indian society. In my opinion, kids are just kids and I was the same at that age, but a bit of mixed sex teamwork can’t hurt. It’s all about abolishing stereotypes and providing a different point of view.

Until Annual Day, we’re now doing academics until lunchtime and then spending the afternoons rehearsing. Six hours of ceilidh dancing was insane, but three can still be a little bit of a struggle. During ‘kaylee’ class, we often have Sleeping Time where the kids lie flat on the floor and basically just shut up for 5 minutes; giving Caitlin and I a bit of peace! I also often use this time to give a bit of background to ceilidh dancing. Stealing the world map from the next door Social Studies class, I point out where Nuala Akka lives (Scotland) and explain cultural differences like kilts and bagpipes. The kids are really interested to hear about this strange green country where men wear skirts and boys and girls dance together, despite not even knowing it existed a few months ago.

I feel that the perfect way to combine my two lives, embrace both my homes and reshape my cultural identity is ceilidh dancing in a sari!

The Art of Being a Tourist

trivandrum temple

Ganesha temple in Trivandrum

varkala

Christmas on the beach!

Christmas on the beach!

banished to the pagoda

Banished to the pagoda!

backwaters

My Christmas and New Year was spent far from the warmth of a roaring fire, the chill of the ice and snow or the feeling of being stuffed full of turkey and roast potatoes. Instead I was traveling around Southern Kerala and the tip of India with Caitlin and Sarah, the two other volunteers at Vidya Vanam. Our trains and accommodation were booked, and after a hectic last term we were ready for a break. Living and working with the same people all the time can begin to become draining and everyone was excited about the two week holiday. The stress of Project Day was complete, the last minute exams had all been written, set and marked (my kids did extremely well-much much better than expected!) and we were all set to leave on Saturday 22nd December.

Our journey began by a simple bus ride from Anaikatti to Kannavai, where we’d then take another bus to the railway station. Despite doing this journey multiple times before, this was definitely the most eventful. Unfortunately by eventful I also mean crazy and by crazy I also mean busy, but what else to expect from India? The bus was operating on Indian time, in the sense that it just didn’t turn up. After an hour with nowhere to sit, 5 packets of sweeties demolished and the weight of our rucksacks feeling ten times heavier than when we first put them on we were ready for the fight which was about to erupt in order to get a seat on this bus. It rumbled up the dusty road and reversed into the bus stand. We raced forward, bags on backs, bottles in hands, sweeties long forgotten and battled our way through the crowds. In my head I was like Mohammed parting the seas, but unfortunately that was as far from reality as it could get. Sarah lost her shoes, Caitlin’s water disappeared and I gripped onto an old Patti for dear life as I thought I was going to fall backwards out of the open door as the bus zoomed out of the stand.

Luckily this journey was not very characteristic of the rest of our time on holidays which were extremely relaxing. We began in Fort Cochin, a small area of the city of Cochin. Cochin is made from what looks like lots of little islands, I still can’t quite get my head around the geographical aspect of this, but it means it’s by the coast! As we took the tuktuk from the station to the Homestay, where we were spending the next few nights, the city morphed from the busy cosmopolitan craziness to a calmer more peaceful place. There was a large cathedral nearby and the streets were decorated for Christmas. India hasn’t quite grasped the concept of ‘class’ like Britain tries to, but it certainly is enthusiastic with its decorations! Paper chains were stretched right across the street in every direction and there were huge stars up high on each building, nativity scenes as big as a house sat outside every front door and churches blasted music!

Kochi taught me not to trust the lonely planet, whilst the old synagogue was very nice and the 10,000 individual, no two the same, floor tiles looked fantastic, I’m not convinced it was the top thing to see in Southern India! Or maybe it is and I’m just overly hopeful. The Indian food wasn’t as good as I’d had before and pretty expensive, but I greatly enjoyed the arty coffee shops which sold chocolate cake and real coffee galore. We had a great walk through the unknown touristy part of Cochin (thank my map reading skills for that one!) and ended up in Jew Town. This bizzarre sounding place was near the synagogue (surprise surprise) and was full of little market stalls and spice shops. We went into a really cool spice shop with this friendly lady who gave us about ten cups of tea, but unfortunately I had to run away to use the bathroom before I could buy anything. We walked from there along the coast to see the renowned Chinese fishing nets. They were immense: these huuuge big structures which seemed to soar into the sky. They made the coastline look really pretty but no idea how they caught fish from the sea! There was loads of stalls where you could buy fish straight from the sea and get it cooked and eat it instantly, however I was with two vegetarians and had just stuffed myself full of an awesome mozzarella and aubergine sandwich on real bread, chips, salad, cappachino, chocolate brownie and ice cream, so I passed on that one!

Despite Alleppey being renowned for it’s backwaters, we decided to take a backwater trip in Kochi. Our homestay was offering an extremely well priced trip which included lunch and a trip in a small canoe and also a larger house boat. Early in the morning we were picked up in a minivan with lots of other tourists (unfortunately unavoidable in Kerala) and drove for over an hour outside of Cochin. There we split up into different old wooden canoes and began our trip. Luckily nobody was relying on me to paddle but we had a little man who did it all for us! He had a huge big long stick which looked more like a tree trunk and pushed us through the water. We went from a large open water area to smaller tiny little rivers. The trees bent over the water to create the feeling of floating through a tunnel. We passed families washing their clothes and children jumping up and down on the banks of the river. The canoe stopped at a spice garden where we witnessed all sorts of things like nutmeg, cinnamon, peppercorn and coffee beans growing. We got to taste everything and even had a tasty fruit called gratefruit, similar but sweeter than grapefruit. After the canoe we moved onto the bigger boat which had about 30 people in it. We floated across to a little island where we had a delicious real South Indian meal. The other Westerners were gob smacked by our ability to eat with our hands and all asked for spoons.

On Christmas morning we travelled to Alleppey where we spent the day lying on the beach and trying to ignore the irritating men who constantly took our photos. We did make friends with 2 guys, one looked like Michael Jackson and couldn’t speak English, the other told us he liked to hack computer systems, knew 8 languages and his brother had orphanages in Australia and England. Needless to say we were less than gutted when they moved on to the next white people further down the beach! We also encountered a group of dressed up Indian men wearing full Santa suits and masks and saw a few camels wandering across the beach that evening. We moved from the beach as it was getting dark to a nearby cafe. This time Lonely Planet had got it right-they sold beer!!! They refused to give us proper food so we enjoyed our Christmas drinks with a bowlful of badminton racket esque snacks. An emotional phone call to my family and a few more beers later and finally the Harbour Cafe had decided we were good enough customers to provide us with a decent Christmas dinner. We ate pouri (like a little bread bubble of fried dough) with some tasty curries and were tucked up in our beds by midnight.

From Alleppey we travelled down to Varkala-a clifftop collection of hippy shops, cafes, restaurants and hotels. We ended up extending our stay by two nights because we loved it so much! Time just disappeared as we sat on top of the cliff watching the sea and the fishermen battling the waves to make a living. I had the most amazing breakfasts EVER here and the food was excellent, I had falafel and humous and pitta bread in one place, it was such a treat! As a Christmas present from my parents we treated ourselves to an Ayurvedic massage. This was in a little paradise esque retreat of bamboo huts, yoga classes and treatment rooms. After hearing Ayurveda being constantly talked about and advertised with products it felt just right to get the opportunity to try it.

On our first evening in Varkala the lady (her name was Lovely) who owned our homestay rushed up to us to tell us about the nearby temple festival that night. Excitedly we jumped in an auto and travelled a good hour or so to see it. Our rickshaw driver was pretty creepy, and after he began to swear and stopped driving when he saw the police, I was surprised we ever made it to the temple! The procession was huge and seemed to go on forever, so we stopped at what I think was a temple, but I’m unsure. It was tiny and nothing like any of the others, simply a room lit up by lots of little tea lights. There was fireworks and dancers and amazing drummers, then a procession of huge plastic inflatable things and finally the elephants. It was amazing to see them so close (I could have touched them if I’d wanted) and their decorations were outstanding. But I felt so sorry for the poor animals who’s scars showed they’d clearly been subject to a lot of abuse. We spent our time in Varkala, swimming in the sea, wearing shorts and chilling out.

When we finally tore ourselves away from the peaceful vibe of Varkala, we took an unreserved train to Trivandrum. The 2 hour journey crammed into unreserved was expected to be chaotic but turned out to be the exact opposite! We ‘accidentally’ ended up sitting in first class and had a very calm and comfortable ride. Trivandrum is the capital of Kerala and is a busy, cramped city with nothing much to do except visit some pretty cool temples. We had a delicious meal on New Years Eve where we kept ordering more and more food until we realised we’d eaten three times the amount we normally would! Unfortunately I had a terrible headache which turned into an upset tummy. I think it was probably from dehydration but after watching Twilight in our creepy hotel room, I said Happy New Year to S and C and was fast asleep by 10.30pm.

After 2 nights in Trivandrum we were glad to be saying goodbye on the 1st Jan and moving forward to Kanyakumari, back into Tamil Nadu. Renowned as one of the holiest spots in India, the tip of India held  some promise. We visited a Gandhi Memorial, some incredible temples and took a boat ride out to a little island. This island held the Vivekananda Memorial Statue which had a temple, memorial statue and meditation room. We had great enjoyment sitting cross legged in the meditation room humming ‘ohhhm’ until Caitlin got pins and needles and we had a good excuse to escape! We also got to see the incredible huge statue of the poet Thiruvalluvur. We visited a beautiful memorial for him in Chennai too, so he was clearly a top dog of Tamil Nadu. The statue is 133 feet tall and apparantly in the 2004 tsunami, the waves were crashing up to his shoulder! Kanyakumari has a really interesting history but we had quite a few days here, time to rest without having to rush to get another train. To stop ourselves getting bored we used our ‘kunchum’ (small amount) Tamil and took lots of day trips. Somehow they didn’t usually end up being very successful but we saw lots of the surrounding area. We took a bus ride to a beach where we saw an elephant at the side of the road, but we were kicked off the beach by the police and made to sit in a pegoda! We visited a fort which wasn’t much more than a pile of bricks and a lady charging us to use the loo. We also attempted to go for a ‘pleasure boat ride’ but after about 40mins the bus driver just shouted at us to get off the bus and we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere! Luckily after walking for a while we managed to stumble across a lady who could speak English and showed us where to get the bus back to Kanyakumari!

I know it sounds like all I did on this holiday was eat (sometimes it was) but exploring Kerala was great for more than just the food. Despite being able to walk into the Kerala side, I still didn’t know that much about it and I felt our winter break definitely gave us a good impression of what it’s like as a state. We visited a wide array of places, some good, some not so good, and overall had a very relaxing break. Our holiday was full of fun – I don’t think I stopped laughing once – meaning I was ready to don my sari and buckle down, for the beginning of a new term.

massage place

Ayurvedic Centre

holy ghats

Holy ghats at the tip of India

c and n backwaters chinese fishing nets church kochi kochi temple elephants

Any excuse for a party!

Indians love to party, they have lavish festivals for all sorts of occasions  At a recent Parents meeting, when I got handed some printed Tamil filled invitation accompanied by the typical Indian head wiggle, I instantly wondered who was getting married or what other religious event was happening, how many firecrackers would be popped this time round?! However, after reconvening with Sarah after school, I discovered that the invitation was actually to celebrate a Seer. This is a festival unique to the tribal people and was in order to celebrate a girl coming of age. One of our pupils, Durga Davi, had recently been absent for a week, the week that she got her first period. As the tradition goes, she must stay in a makeshift hut, built from coconut leaves positioned away from the house. She’s allowed visitors but she may not leave, her parents bring her food and water and there’s many washing rituals depending on how far people enter the hut. The girl must then stay in this makeshift hut until her family organise her Seer.

When I learnt about all this, through Sarah and Nandini Maam, I had no idea what to make of it. Firstly, why didn’t I get a party when I had my first period?! And then…god, imagine all my school friends knowing about this, poor Durga must be mortified. Finally I thought about how cool it would be to camp out in a little hut by myself for a week. However, when I thought about the whole thing deeper, it seemed awful. All of this fuss about coming of age, was because she was coming of the right age to be married. Obviously this was a tradition and the festival didn’t necessarily hold the same meaning any more. Durga’s family had sent her to Vidya Vanam and were clearly keen for her to finish her education before they considered marrying her off, but there was still lots of connotations surrounding the celebration and problems it could cause for the family.

Indian families are tight knit groups of people, they may not always be close in a friendly way, but they’re engineered so everyone is involved in each others lives and they can get insulted easily if they hear gossip from their neighbours before they’re directly informed. In a village like Vardakkalor (where incest is pretty common) everyone is cousins with their grandpa’s son in laws sisters child and the children all have the same Patti who’s actually an Aunty etc. As you can imagine, it would be pretty difficult to inform all of the extended family before the gossip spreads. Often, in the case of a Seer or other similar events, arguments and family feuds are started because one Tata ( or whoever) has found out before the other. There’s a lot of pressure on the family too, as every uncle on her fathers side must buy her a new sari and money must be found to spend on celebrating the day in style. Ultimately I find it difficult to commend something which is technically a celebration of the start of marriage. Many of my colleagues have been affected by the plights of arranged marriage and to listen to their upsetting stories of life with their cruel mother in laws and inconsiderate husbands is terrible. If Durga had been alive and having her Seer a few generations ago, she would have been just starting off the tedious visits from men to decide in 3-7 minutes whether they wanted her as a wife.

Aside from my personal opinions, it was an amazing thing to witness. The day was nothing like I’d seen before and I was intrigued by the different parts to the ceremony and the rituals involved. We’d woken up early to arrive by 7.15 (we’d been told that this was the ‘correct’ time to arrive) sari’s were fussed over and wrapped, a quick trip to the bus stand to buy flowers and a hasty breakfast of biscuits later we were on our way to Durga’s village. As we were walking, someone waved on a passing motorbike. Used to the routine we plastered on the smiles and the three famous white girls waved back.  On closer inspection, the waving hand connected to an arm which came from Durga Davi’s body! Where was our pupil going when we were going to her house? Maybe it was some ritual? Could she be transported to her Seer from a temple perhaps? None of us knew, but we noticed that our walk had been surprisingly quiet, considering there was a party about to begin.

We arrived into the village, greeted by a bunch of cheering children (I’m getting used to this response wherever I go, don’t know what I’ll do when I get home and random people don’t just stop to have a chat). There still didn’t seem to be a great number of people around and all the kids from our school were half dressed with sticky up hair and bizzarre assortments of clothes. I started to panic that I was overdressed in my sari and jewellery, but before I could think too deeply, we were led away by Durga’s tangachi (younger sister) Vaidehi. She sat us down in three plastic chairs outside their house and bounced about excitedly with the other kids. There was still no people about…but Indian’s are always late…for everything, so I wasn’t too concerned.

Three hours later… After sitting outside, watching the preparations, being brought tea, seeing all of Durga’s new jewellery, doing each others mhindi (henna) and playing with the children the official ceremony began! In some way, the first three hours were the nicest bits, we had a behind the scenes view on everything that was happening and got to sit with a nervous but excited Durga whilst she prepared for the big day. The Seer is made up of several different parts and seeing as our kids were amongst the best English speakers in the village, we had little to no spoken explanation as to what was happening. Luckily everyone was desperate to make us feel comfortable and even if they couldn’t tell us what to do, they tried to anyway, which resulted in lots of confusing exchanges in Tamil and awkward gesturing!

The first part of the Seer consisted of all the ladies crowding round into the small back yard whilst Durga was undressed, bathed and redressed. She began wearing a half sari which consists of a skirt and blouse and a draped bit of material, it looks similar to a real sari but definitely not the same. Different ladies and girls, various aunts and friends, attacked her with make up and combed her hair, attatching clips then jewellery then changing it and putting more on then taking it all off again. I felt so sorry for Durga Davi being pulled all over the place by her various female friends but I caught her eye a few times and was granted a cheeky excited looking smile. She was enjoying being the centre of attention and getting spoiled with lots of new things for a change!

After she was dressed, she was led back into her house and sat on the floor. She was handed a bundle of various household things, (including talc and a comb) and her sister, cousin and friends sat in a circle around her. There was lots of posing for pictures then a plate full of food was produced. This was part of a ritual which also involved oil and water. Durga Davi was to pour the oil into her hand and then attempt to smear it over her head but the girls in her inner circle were to hit it out of her hand before she could do this. There was a certain number of tries that she had for the oil, then it was water, then lastly food. By the end of it, the pretty coloured half sari was covered in all sorts of interesting things. It was hilarious watching the girls begin by gently hitting her hand and the older ones, who’d been through this ritual many times before, leaning over their shoulders and trying to get them to hit harder, then eventually the younger girls getting more and more excited and the food and oil flying all over the room. After that was finished, Durga Davi was led backwards out of her home and behind into the back yard once more, to wear her first ever sari.

Once more, the women flocked around our student, dressing and undressing, redoing her hair, putting jewellery on and taking it all back off again, smearing dark make up across her eyes and threading flowers through her hair. We watched all this from afar, observing how Durga just gave off an air of excitement. Then again she was brought round to the front of the house, where she was presented with plenty of gifts of fruit, bangles and sari’s. The family members took turns to smear orange and red pastes across her face, everyone getting more and more enthusiastic until Durga ended up a mass of bright colours with these teeny tiny eyes poking out. All the family members had completed the painting and to my surprise we were next! I was called up first, posing for the photographer with the different sticky things wiped all over my fingers as I transferred them to her face. Luckily China Chitra, Peepal class teacher was there to help me as she is also Durga’s cousin/aunt (it’s unclear.) Once Durga Davi was fully painted, fed lots of grapes and more and more flowers were added to her hair, the festival was over and it was time for photos and food to end a wonderful day.

Even though I have mixed feelings surrounding the origins of this festival, I felt so incredibly privileged to have witnessed such an event. These kind of traditions are sacred amongst the tribal communities and to be allowed to be part of this celebration was immense. As we left the village, we were thanked by Durga Davi’s elder brother as he felt incredibly lucky to have shared the family’s special day with us.

 

Project Day has finally arrived

After weeks of lessons on rivers, chart making and clay modeling…the long awaited Project Day had finally arrived. The kids arrived early, very excited and looking smart in their clean uniforms. There was an atmosphere of suspense as we waited for our guests to arrive and finished off the last minute preparations. In the science zone, we added the fish (collected the previous day by Ayshweria, myself and a handful of hyper children from the nearby dirty river!) to our make shift river, in the library we laid out the straw mats on the floor and tidied away a few leftover books and in the Junior school we were already so well prepared the children just sat nicely and practiced their singing!

At 10.30, Gandhiji’s grandson, our chief guest, finally arrived. The children nervously filed into the dining hall to sit amongst their parents and watch the first part of our event unfold. We were beginning with a display of music, drama, dance and debate, this was in order to showcase the variety of work our children do and the holistic way in which they learn. Archana (a pupil from Gangaclass) opened with a welcome speech. Krishna class continued with some classical Indian music, followed by a dance group who were all decked out in beautiful costume and make up, there was a skit by Banyan class, Kaveri sang and there was a debate with a few children from Ganga and Krishna. Overall, despite the odd fumbling over words or wrong step in the dance, our kids were so professional, standing up on stage in front of all their parents and our special guests and performing like that.

At the end when the chief guest made his speech of thanks and was talking to the children about their dreams and ambitions, they all answered with things like football or volleyball players, a professional dancer and typically from Manav ‘a bird watcher like Salim Ali.’ From a westerner’s perspective these dreams of our children are simply that-a dream which will never grow up to be reality. But here in India, for a child to think so wildly and imaginatively to want to choose volleyball as a career path, that’s completely unheard of! Any Indian pupil would likely answer Gandhiji’s grandson’s question with the ambition of becoming a doctor or a lawyer or (especially likely) an engineer. Our audience and special guests were shocked by these hopes for the future and were completely enamoured by our children.

After the initial programme had finished, the guests and parents made their way around the classrooms. Science was first and the pressure was on to make a good impression. Our kids had learnt exactly what they wanted to say in order to explain their charts and the different experiments they were doing, and they seemed pretty nervous! In the end they just spoke off the cuff and explained things in their own words, which suited our guests much better. They did a great job and before we know it the science zone was relieved of special guests as they moved on to the other classrooms. I escaped from science and made my way over to the Junior school. We quietly sang some songs and waited patiently, unfortunately our guests had no more time to spare as they had arrived late and all needed to be somewhere else. A few of them poked their heads round the door but there was nothing more than a glance at everyone’s hard work. I was so disappointed for our children who had been practicing their drama and songs for months. But never mind, there’s annual day coming soon!

What was meant to be a half day for both students and teachers rolled into a full day for the teachers – so my washing still hadn’t begun! We ended our months of hard work with a good old chat about how proud we were of everything that had been achieved. Needless to say we were unanimous in the opinion of how well the day had gone and looked forward together to the term to come.

Neem class waiting for our visitors

Kaveri’s display on Adaptations of Fish

Gandhiji’s grandson

Dancers from the initial performance

Catching fish for our makeshift river

Happy Birthday to me!

An 18th birthday celebrated in a small tribal school in a rural village in Southern India, with a waxy carrot, a sari and lots and lots of menthos! This isn’t exactly what most people could say would describe their 18th birthday, but it pretty much sums up mine.

Coincidentally, a week before my birthday, some family friends from Bangalore came to Coimbatore and decided to treat Sarah, Caitlin and I to a wonderful birthday dinner. The took us out for dinner in a glamorous hotel where I had non veg (delicious tiger prawns) and humous and all sorts of tasty tasty food! We were spoiled not only with food but with Indian bubbly and mohijtos, (getting more along the lines of a typical 18th). Brenda is from Northern Ireland, and after a recent visit returned with a whole pile of fantastic gifts from my family there. She sat me down on her bed in the hotel and forced me to open them all at once. There was a beautiful selection of sweeties, chocolate, treatments for my sun damaged hair and facemasks for my dust inflicted skin, lovely comfy PJ’s and amongst others my favourite present of all (besides the sweets…) A PAIR OF BRIGHT ORANGE NEON BIRKENSTOCKS! The evening finished with some cake, being Indian it wasn’t like how my Mummy makes it, but it was birthday cake all the same, smeared across my face. Apparently this is some kind of tradition in India…to smear cake all over the birthday girl’s face and then stuff it in her mouth and feed her. I was perplexed, but amused by the celebration and quickly ran to the bathroom to clean it off!

The following week passed quickly and by the 28th November my sweets were finished, shoes broken in and hair feeling soft again. I was unsure of Indian tradition surrounding birthdays, the children would give their teachers and sometimes classmates sweets…did that mean I should give the children sweets or the teachers? Or nobody?! Everyone seemed to have a different idea of what to do and when the kids discovered it was my birthday they started asking if I would bring them chocolate. I was slightly overwhelmed by the whole thing and ran to the comforting words of Patti. She laughed at me and told me the best thing to do would be to not tell anyone and hide away from all of that nonsense.

Unfortunately it was too late for that! In the end, I enlisted the Tamil speaking skills of one of our pupils Vegashni, and headed into Anaikatti in an attempt to find cake. We approached her uncle’s shop and some words were exchanged in Tamil. ‘Akka,’ she said, ‘the cake master is out of town.’ My heart sank! I had finally found a solution and now I had to rethink the sweets, cake, teachers, pupils equation in my head. As Sarah watched my eyes become full of panic, hers found something on the shelves below. The cake master may have left town, but he left behind him some cake! Vegashni’s uncle mumbled that it was all made the day before yesterday. However, after contemplating my options, I decided that living inI ndia, I was sure my fellow teachers had eaten worse than a few days old cake. I bought 30 pieces of chocolate cake and a few pieces of a strange looking pink cake as Caitlin doesn’t like chocolate and snuck back into school to hide it in the fridge.

In the morning, whilst I was showering, Caitlin decorated the room with some beautiful birthday banners and sparkly sprinkly things. Then I opened my cards from home, had a few tears and approached the mammoth task of putting on a sari. On your birthday you’re expected to wear nice clothes, lots of jewellery and just generally look pretty. Whilst I have worn a sari quite a lot since I’ve been here, I still haven’t mastered the technique of putting it on. Every time I try I’m convinced I’ve got it, until I double check with Sulo and she finds something which isn’t pleated correctly or a massive bit of material not tucked into the right place! Sulo helped me with wrapping, pleating, tucking and folding, I draped myself in earrings and bangles and finally I made it out the door to school.

The children were adorable, they are so impressed by us wearing sari’s and showed it by telling me I looked beautiful all day long. I was showered with not only compliments but also adorable little gifts. I’m a little suspicious by the origin of these- I reckon the earrings probably came from someone else’s ears-but the children’s careful wrapping with paper or the making of little boxes to put them in filled me with happiness! When they inevitably asked how old I was and I said that I was 18, my kids eyes opened wide with shock. ‘Akka, my brother is 19!’ exclaimed Manoj and everyone giggled. I’m not sure whether that was an attempt to set us up or simply an expression of surprise, but none of the children could believe that I was only 18 and had come so far from home. They kept reminding me about my family and couldn’t comprehend how I hadn’t even spoken to them on my birthday. The internet had been down for about a week and a half and the children asking all these questions about home caused me to struggle to keep the tears at bay. However the children kept me going, shaking my hands and smiling and singing to me and wishing me a very happy birthday.

During Kanji, Caitlin and I ran back to our kitchen and smuggled the cake to the staff room. I awkwardly presented it and smiled, telling people to help themselves. Half the teachers looked around in confusion, it took them a while to grasp that it was my birthday. Then they all proceeded to burst into song. Now, Indians sing Happy Birthday a little differently to us so I just stood there, absolutely mortified, whilst they all clapped very quickly and sang strangely and then all came to shake my hand before taking a piece of cake.

That evening I went on our usual 5pm walk, chatted with the girls and did some preparation for school the next day. After dinner, we were chatting some more (in the dark) about how hilarious the presents Sarah and Caitlin had scavenged for me were. They included some square tuppaware, (I have been on a 3 month long hunt to find tuppaware which isn’t round!) lots of mentos (a favourite after school snack) and cotton buds (to clean my scabby nose piercing). Suddenly Sarah jumped up from the bed and ran into the kitchen, Caitlin followed but the told me not to move. The next thing I know, I was being sung happy birthday for the second time that day, but, instead of a cake, Sarah was holding a carrot decorated with candles. We had such a laugh about it and I went to sleep that night feeling happy and at home in Vidya Vanam, Anaikatti.

DSC08621DSC08616 DSC08614 DSC08594

Humous and falafal!

Humous and falafal!

Caitlin and Sarah with mohijtos!

Caitlin and Sarah with mohijtos!

Happy Birthday to me!

An 18th birthday celebrated in a small tribal school in a rural village in Southern India, with a waxy carrot, a sari and lots and lots of menthos! This isn’t exactly what most people could say would describe their 18th birthday, but it pretty much sums up mine.

Coincidentally, a week before my birthday, some family friends from Bangalore came to Coimbatore and decided to treat Sarah, Caitlin and I to a wonderful birthday dinner. The took us out for dinner in a glamorous hotel where I had non veg (delicious tiger prawns) and humous and all sorts of tasty tasty food! We were spoiled not only with food but with Indian bubbly and mohijtos, (getting more along the lines of a typical 18th). Brenda is from Northern Ireland, and after a recent visit returned with a whole pile of fantastic gifts from my family there. She sat me down on her bed in the hotel and forced me to open them all at once. There was a beautiful selection of sweeties, chocolate, treatments for my sun damaged hair and facemasks for my dust inflicted skin, lovely comfy PJ’s and amongst others my favourite present of all (besides the sweets…) A PAIR OF BRIGHT ORANGE NEON BIRKENSTOCKS! The evening finished with some cake, being Indian it wasn’t like how my Mummy makes it, but it was birthday cake all the same, smeared across my face. Apparently this is some kind of tradition in India…to smear cake all over the birthday girl’s face and then stuff it in her mouth and feed her. I was perplexed, but amused by the celebration and quickly ran to the bathroom to clean it off!

The following week passed quickly and by the 28th November my sweets were finished, shoes broken in and hair feeling soft again. I was unsure of Indian tradition surrounding birthdays, the children would give their teachers and sometimes classmates sweets…did that mean I should give the children sweets or the teachers? Or nobody?! Everyone seemed to have a different idea of what to do and when the kids discovered it was my birthday they started asking if I would bring them chocolate. I was slightly overwhelmed by the whole thing and ran to the comforting words of Patti. She laughed at me and told me the best thing to do would be to not tell anyone and hide away from all of that nonsense.

Unfortunately it was too late for that! In the end, I enlisted the Tamil speaking skills of one of our pupils Vegashni, and headed into Anaikatti in an attempt to find cake. We approached her uncle’s shop and some words were exchanged in Tamil. ‘Akka,’ she said, ‘the cake master is out of town.’ My heart sank! I had finally found a solution and now I had to rethink the sweets, cake, teachers, pupils equation in my head. As Sarah watched my eyes become full of panic, hers found something on the shelves below. The cake master may have left town, but he left behind him some cake! Vegashni’s uncle mumbled that it was all made the day before yesterday. However, after contemplating my options, I decided that living inI ndia, I was sure my fellow teachers had eaten worse than a few days old cake. I bought 30 pieces of chocolate cake and a few pieces of a strange looking pink cake as Caitlin doesn’t like chocolate and snuck back into school to hide it in the fridge.

In the morning, whilst I was showering, Caitlin decorated the room with some beautiful birthday banners and sparkly sprinkly things. Then I opened my cards from home, had a few tears and approached the mammoth task of putting on a sari. On your birthday you’re expected to wear nice clothes, lots of jewellery and just generally look pretty. Whilst I have worn a sari quite a lot since I’ve been here, I still haven’t mastered the technique of putting it on. Every time I try I’m convinced I’ve got it, until I double check with Sulo and she finds something which isn’t pleated correctly or a massive bit of material not tucked into the right place! Sulo helped me with wrapping, pleating, tucking and folding, I draped myself in earrings and bangles and finally I made it out the door to school.

The children were adorable, they are so impressed by us wearing sari’s and showed it by telling me I looked beautiful all day long. I was showered with not only compliments but also adorable little gifts. I’m a little suspicious by the origin of these- I reckon the earrings probably came from someone else’s ears-but the children’s careful wrapping with paper or the making of little boxes to put them in filled me with happiness! When they inevitably asked how old I was and I said that I was 18, my kids eyes opened wide with shock. ‘Akka, my brother is 19!’ exclaimed Manoj and everyone giggled. I’m not sure whether that was an attempt to set us up or simply an expression of surprise, but none of the children could believe that I was only 18 and had come so far from home. They kept reminding me about my family and couldn’t comprehend how I hadn’t even spoken to them on my birthday. The internet had been down for about a week and a half and the children asking all these questions about home caused me to struggle to keep the tears at bay. However the children kept me going, shaking my hands and smiling and singing to me and wishing me a very happy birthday.

During Kanji, Caitlin and I ran back to our kitchen and smuggled the cake to the staff room. I awkwardly presented it and smiled, telling people to help themselves. Half the teachers looked around in confusion, it took them a while to grasp that it was my birthday. Then they all proceeded to burst into song. Now, Indians sing Happy Birthday a little differently to us so I just stood there, absolutely mortified, whilst they all clapped very quickly and sang strangely and then all came to shake my hand before taking a piece of cake.

That evening I went on our usual 5pm walk, chatted with the girls and did some preparation for school the next day. After dinner, we were chatting some more (in the dark) about how hilarious the presents Sarah and Caitlin had scavenged for me were. They included some square tuppaware, (I have been on a 3 month long hunt to find tuppaware which isn’t round!) lots of mentos (a favourite after school snack) and cotton buds (to clean my scabby nose piercing). Suddenly Sarah jumped up from the bed and ran into the kitchen, Caitlin followed but the told me not to move. The next thing I know, I was being sung happy birthday for the second time that day, but, instead of a cake, Sarah was holding a carrot decorated with candles. We had such a laugh about it and I went to sleep that night feeling happy and at home in Vidya Vanam, Anaikatti.

 

Our Pooja Adventures: Day Four!

Worshipping the vehicles

Running away from the firecracker

Today we listened to the kids (Rahoul and Kanya) and Patti on the radio. I had to run back to the school to get my radio and somehow managed to lose my key in the short distance back to the coconut farm…it’s still not been found despite everyone in that village out looking for it. Some of the radio show was in English, some in Tamil and some in the children’s tribal languages. Everyone was wonderful and we were so proud! In between the small snippets of talking there was looooads of music and that’s when we were busy making our breakfast. Back to Indian food that morning, we were taught how to make dosa. Dosa is similar to a pancake but only semi cooked and with rice (Apparantly, although I’ve no idea how rice is in there at all) But Ma’am showed us how to do it the unhealthy way, with butter melted over it, and it was AMAZING.

After breakfast we chilled out a bit more in the coconut farm, packed up our extensive luggage and waited for the van…to take us the 5 minutes back to the school again. That day I did an INSANE amount of laundry. I had a massive overflowing bag full of it and would not have got through another day without washing. Now, washing in India is not an easy task. It involves numerous complicated and exerting stages. Firstly, we soak all our clothes in soapy water, then bring them up onto this bumpy stone block to scrub soap into all the grimy bits. We rub this up and down for about 5 minutes, swirl the clothes about in the air and smack them off the stone block until they’re ‘clean’ enough to rinse out. I’m not going to lie, after eating curry with your fingers there’s a lot of stains on your clothes. A recent purchase of stain remover and 2 and a half hours later, my clothes are finally as clean as they’re going to get!

This evening, after planning lessons, dawdling about the place and washing clothes, we were called for the ultimate pooja celebrations!! These were so exciting! The men who drive the van and bus and car had decorated them all so nicely and were displaying all the sacrifices or gifts for the Gods in front of the vehicles. Then they carried a lit coconut around everyone to bless themselves with the smoke and then out of no where threw it viciously down and smashed it on a sharp stone. Also, they set off firecrackers, not the same as fireworks, and I thought somebody was going to go up in flames! We all were made to eat the gifts to the gods, now they’ve been celebrated they’re exceptionally holy so we all need to eat it up. We were given fruit, strange puffed up rice which was similar to a salty version of rice crispies, sugar cane and then a few gross gooey things which I politely declined!

 

Our Pooja Adventures:Day Three!

Today was the day we were leaving to stay at the coconut farm!

Patti’s son and her brothers own a vast expanse of land with a coconut farm and little tiny cottage on it. It’s just in the middle of being furnished and not that far away from the school, so last night Patti, Nandini Ma’am, Sarah, Caitlin and I all decided to go for a sleepover there! We set off in the van shortly after breakfast with all the staff coming to see us off which was hilarious-bearing in mind we can walk the distance to the farm in less than half an hour. Also there seemed to be enough stuff squished into the van to go on a 2 week holiday! We had 2 massive tubs of coffee and tea, milk powder, an immense amount of sugar, curtains, solar lamps, a humungous tub of curd…all sorts of random things were accompanying us in that journey.

After the terribly long journey we arrived at the coconut farm. Rajesh, Sarah, Caitlin and I had walked there before but this was the first time we’d see inside the house. The men who drive the van were waiting on us (more like Patti and Nandini Maam) on hand and foot and jumped out to open all the doors and show us around inside. We dumped our bags and started looking about, Patti muttering words in Tamil and tuttering whilst Nandini Maam giggled at her. The house used to be the servant block but has now been extended with a large bedroom and bathroom at each end, forming a small courtyard in the middle. It’s really basic but set in mega pretty surroundings and certainly substantial for a ‘private getaway’ for Patti’s son: TM Krishna, Tamil Nadu’s musical superstar!

We spent the day relaxing, reading and catching up on writing our diaries. In the afternoon Patti napped, the others went for a walk up the hill and I continued to laze about the house and sit outside. I also explored the farm a little more, getting lost in the trees, saying hi to the cows and playing with the kids of the family who worked there. When everyone made it back to the house (or woke up) one of the akka’s who worked there brought us some tender coconuts to eat. Now, don’t get mixed up between a tender coconut and a normal coconut-as I discovered by the Neem kids constant corrections-there’s a big difference. Basically a tender coconut is huge and green, almost hexagonally shaped and inside there’s lots of sweet milk and random bits of ‘flesh’. Flesh is just the name for the white gooey stuff which looks like raw fish and slips down your throat. I’m still not convinced how much I like tender coconuts.

We had ‘comissioned’ lunch, in Patti’s words, basically the school were just popping along with a few dishes of food for us, but we’d be making dinner ourselves. I got very excited by the arrival of the food and jumped up to help in the kitchen and hurry the particularly slow process along. We ate poppadoms (they were doughier than back home) with sambar (a basic veg curry with lots of liquid) and then relaxed for a while. Nandini Maam, Sarah and Caitlin went for a walk up a hill whilst Patti and I napped. This sleeping thing is becoming much more frequent whilst I’m in India.

That night we cooked for ourselves. Packaged and processed food is rarely new for India, thus they all get very excited by it. We had packet soup with fried cheesy toastie style things. The cheese was goey and came in little squares. To be honest, it was quite nice to have a change and they were trying so hard to treat us, despite the fact this was the last thing we wanted. After dinner, we sat about and chatted and played card games. Patti got a call asking her to appear on radio the next day to talk about our school and also a bizzarre call from her driver whilst she was in Jaipur! The call was received minutes after we had been talking about the strange man and he was just checking up to see that she remembered him. It was hilarious. Just before bed we did facemasks, Nandini Maam did not like the smell so remained untouched. But Patti, Sarah, Caitlin and I smeared the white cream all over our faces and Patti found it very amusing being our colour for a change!

Eventually, Sarah, Caitlin and I  cuddled up to sleep and went to bed.

Drinking from coconuts at the farm!

Facemasks!

Coconut farm

Cyclone Nilam

While New York hits the headlines with Hurricane Sandy, Southern India has its own environmental problems.  Cyclone Nilam has hit South Eastern Chennai (where I believe Nuala is planning a trip soon) and is heading West.  Fortunately it seems to have been less destructive than first thought.  I haven’t been able to work out if its passing Nuala’s way, but I think it’ll probably be further North. 

If you’re in the path Nuala, please take care!

More info here

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Two-dead-as-Cyclone-Nilam-crosses-Tamil-Nadu-coast/articleshow/17037812.cms

and here

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-20160543

Keep safe anyone in the region, especially any Project Trust volunteers affected.

Maybe Nuala will update us with a local view – assuming it hasn’t caused even worse problems with the power.

Colin