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


Christmas on the beach!

Christmas on the beach!

banished to the pagoda

Banished to the pagoda!


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