Things at Vidya Vanam are going along as usual, but I thought I would update you on what has changed since before the summer.  I am no longer the single science teacher as we now have a much more proficient lady to take over! She is a very good teacher with a strong understanding of science. I still assist in her lessons but she is more than competent. Instead, my new role is as Vocational Agriculture teacher. We’re in the midst of planning a new vocational school to begin next summer, this will include courses on computer technology, agriculture, dance, music, textiles and more is still to be decided. At the moment, we’re integrating the idea into our regular curriculum for the two senior classes with 3 agriculture periods a week and additional dance and music classes for selected students after school.

As far as I’m concerned, my lessons are to be practical, hands on lessons with as little writing as possible. This pretty much translates to ‘gardening,’ or has done so far.  I’ve divided the ground up and split it between small groups. Each group has a topic; flowers, medicinal plants, herbs, spices and vegetables. Obviously there has been a little mixing between the groups with the Ganga flower team also growing spinach and those who have medicinal plants dedicating full beds to lady’s finger seeds or so on. We’ve prepared the ground by digging and weeding and watering and planted seeds and shoots. It’s amazing to see students who are bored to sleep in the classroom just come to life when they get outside. Many of the kids have a much greater knowledge of the plants and earth than I ever will, and I feel a bit of a phony calling myself their teacher!

At the moment we have quite a few flowers growing, as well as some chilly plants, onions, coriander, tulsi (a variety of herb which they compare to basil), aloe vera, mint, tomatoes and multiple types of ‘spinach’ or in Tamil – keerai. We have also planted and have little seedlings for beans, pumpkin/watermelon (nobody is quite sure), lady’s finger, more chilli plants and God knows what else! We found that when we put the seeds in the ground it took such a long time to grow, so as a replacement for little pots we used halved coconut shells and made holes in the bottom. No easy task as my pen knife is now very blunt! These seeds are growing much quicker and I think we will have to transplant them into the ground pretty soon.

Teaching a subject like this is very relaxing because all the work is fun and practical, it’s also so interesting because I learn just as much as my students. We’re in the middle of trying to dig a compost pit, but struggling to find somewhere without rocks, roots or pipes. Hopefully this will be the next stage of our classes because the soil quality is so poor it’s important to do something about it. The new science teacher, Vidya, also just helped me with assembling a structure for climbing plants, like beans and pumpkin/watermelon. Apparantly if you tie rope around the seedling and to the top of the frame then the plants will grow faster. I’ve never heard of this before in my life! My Grandad has also been a great help, giving me all sorts of information regarding the garden. But unfortunately he has no ideas on our most recent addition of a banana tree!

Getting emotional

In the countdown towards the 1st August and my flight out of India, it’s easy to speculate as to where all the time is gone, how a year is over so fast and is it really possible I’m going home in a mere matter of weeks?  However I look back to September 11th 2012 and my naive thoughts and ideas of what the world was, how I would be able to make a difference and everything I would do during my Gap Year at Vidya Vanam.  When I realise what has changed and the things I have achieved during my year, it’s easy to see what has happened to the time.

We were thrust into the stereotype of India in our first few weeks: a mix up with PT meant that our school actually had a half term holiday about 5 days after we were meant to arrive so we were traveling all the way down to Anaikatti, just to return to Hyderabad shortly after.  A frantic few days at the police station in Coimbatore, hoping to get our residential permit quickly but falling pray to the copious amounts of tedious paperwork and ridiculous regulations. On our return of one of these many journeys the car jolted to a swift halt, yes, it was our first sighting of an elephant.

This introduction to India just confirmed my deeply rooted stereotypes of wild animals, arranged marriage, corruption and poverty.  It’s not until now, when I talk with friends from home, or think back to the early days of life here, that I realise how much I have learnt.  Yes, our children see elephants on a daily basis, but it’s not the magical sight that we Westerners imagine. These animals destroy crops, ruin buildings and are a source of fear.  Yes, lots of people have arranged marriage. However the thinking behind it is not the same as is portrayed in Western news channels. Parents don’t just match their sons with whichever potential wife has the biggest dowry and children agree to arranged marriage because they want the ongoing support of their family when they have difficulties, which they may not necessarily receive in a love marriage.  And yes of course there is corruption, of course there is poverty, but after a year living somewhere you learn that these things are not unbeatable barriers, simply something which must be changed for India to progress and they certainly don’t affect everyone.

Working at Vidya Vanam was not what I expected.  In the typical overly confident way of a cocky teenager, I imagined I would be instantly accepted by everyone, have great relationships with my colleagues, be constantly busy with visits to friends houses and school work and be adored by all the children as well as also being fluent in Tamil, an expert at applying mehindi (henna) and a wonderful dancer and cook within a few weeks. Surprise surprise, this wasn’t the case. Little children took one look at my white skin, their eyes widened and they began to cry, instead of jumping into my welcoming arms they ran off in the opposite direction.  As an unqualified 17 year old, management were not quick to give me any responsibility.  Days of sitting in the library, pestering people to give me work and always looking for something to do to prove myself, finally led to being allowed to take control of a class alone.  Colleagues who had limited English and came from insular backgrounds were happy to have a polite chat with me in the staff room, but I wasn’t inundated with their constant conversation let alone invites to their homes/marriages/house warming parties.  As for the Tamil, mehindi, cooking and dancing, well, anybody who knows me will realise I’m likely not a professional.

In one way, I can look at this and say, ‘damn, I didn’t achieve any of my goals,’ but in another, more positive light I actually believe I have achieved more.  I may not have made an impact on anyone here, that’s intangible and probably can only be proved in the years to come, but everyone here has impacted my own life and way of thinking.

I think about the little boy with big ears who now knows the difference between morning and afternoon because I have corrected him when he says ‘good morning’ to me at 4pm, every single day.  The other boy who is now convinced Scotland is under a dictatorship from England and who is desperate for us to get independence.  Or the girls who were giggling at me the other day, as they remembered ceilidh practice for Annual Day and how much I had to shout to make them behave and dance properly. I think about all my children and how they affect me, and I realise that even if it is just in some small way, I hope I’ve had an impact on all the children at Vidya Vanam.

Chandigarh to Varanasi and back home to Anaikatti

After a decrease in altitude, increase in temperature and a very long and sticky bus journey, we arrived in Chandigarh. This was Caitlin’s choice of city: being a potential architect, she wanted to soak up and admire the work of Le Corbusier who worked to develop the city. His city plan was the first since independence in 1947 and the organised, streamlined appearance is in stark contrast to any other Indian city I have seen. Whilst we were there we visited the museum, the famous Open Hand sculpture (which involved Katie charming a security man to let us in) and I had the most amazing paneer. I know I generally try and tell you about all the interesting cultural things I’ve done in this blog, but this paneer is essential to mention. Nobody was really hungry, Caitlin was set on eating puri, Katie wanted one chappatti…and I was RAVENOUS. There was paneer tikka masala on the menu and I wanted it. Unfortunately nobody wanted to share…so…after much umming and ahhing I just decided to have it all myself. A huge portion, with delicious garlic naan, the largest chunks of creamy cheese that I have ever seen in my life and a tasty tangy tikka masala gravy. It was delicious. I think it may actually have been the nicest thing I have tasted all year (aside from when my parents brought me cheese in a cool bag all the way from Scotland.) Whilst Caitlin embraced the architectural beauty of Chandigarh, the highlight for Katie and I was likely the a.c hotel which had a tv showing one tree hill on repeat, and of course the paneer.

A few hours on a train and we had arrived in Delhi. Unfortunately this is a city whose reputation proceeds itself, I was terrified that we would be ripped off and kidnapped the second we reached the platform however I was pleasantly surprised. A very clean and metropolitan city, Delhi (and it’s metro) was a breath of fresh air. Nevertheless, this does not correlate with our experiences on our first night. Picture a tiny box room on the 4th floor of a non ac hotel in the middle of a car parts market in Old Delhi. Combine that with a broken generator, overwhelming heat, a large and imposing mosque, typical Indian service (ie knocking on our hotel door at 1am) and the smell of fuel seeping its way through the air equals our night from hell. Luckily after the sweatiest night of my life we moved onto a much nicer (and pricier) a.c hotel, which even had room service!

In Delhi we saw some amazing things, the city has so much to offer, and met up with Katie’s partner Jess who had been travelling with her Mum and boyfriend. The best part of Delhi was certainly the Qutab Minar, which is the tallest Minar in India. I didn’t know much about it before we went, but Caitlin being the keen history lover that she is dragged us there by promising a long metro journey and Indian National 10rs entry. It was a beautiful collection of ruins with fantastic engravings and carvings. Whilst in Delhi we also visited a strange ‘Lotus Temple’ which was a large temple shaped like a lotus and seemed to be the product of a cult like organisation. Another Qutab Minar like oasis of calm in amongst the city was Humayan’s tomb, a beautiful old domed building with a Tamil speaking security guard who was very impressed by our ‘kunchum Tamil therimay anna!’ (I know a little tamil, brother.) Of course we also visited the Red Fort but I feel this much acclaimed site had little to offer in comparison to the amber fort which we saw in Jaipur. The spice market was a site to behold, bowls of colourful spices and pungent smells which almost made me choke and sneeze myself to death.

After Delhi we moved on to Agra, having attempted to get a car but being astounded by the extortionate prices, we booked an overpriced train and reached there in the evening. A hectic night of trying to rearrange trains to Varanasi the next day and trips back and forth from our hotel room to the station just added to the dirty, grimy feel of the town. Despite the magical Taj Mahal, the rest of the city was an utter dump, with no good places to eat and sky high prices. I have to say I wasn’t that excited for the Taj Mahal. In fact, I kind of just wanted it over and done with so I could take the photos and say I’ve been.  Whilst I do admit that it is a beautiful building and I’m very pleased I’ve seen it, I still am more excited by the less commercial Golden Temple in Amritsar.

We moved on to Varanasi, the last stop for Caitlin and I. The winding streets and beautiful river all made it a very special place to finish our journey. Our guest house was situated right on the river bank and offered a great boat trip, as well as elephant themed decorations in the rooms. We took one boat in the evening where we saw the night time pooja and the burning of the bodies. I know the thought of watching bodies burn is rather disgusting and impersonal; almost as if we’re prying into something uninvited. But it didn’t feel like that at all. Watching the stoic husbands, brothers, uncles, (women aren’t permitted to attend the burning because they are not as emotionally stable-obviously) I wondered what they were thinking, I thought about the life of the person who had died, and I realised that the burning and returning to God by the way of the Ganga was something very important for the many Hindu’s who had made the journey to Varanasi. There was a feeling of peace, as if everything had finally settled.

With that, our journey came to an end. We took a quick train back to Delhi and spent half a night in a hotel, before getting up early to fly back, to my Indian home, for what would be sure to be an emotional last few weeks at Vidya Vanam.

High on a hill like a lonely goat…

After the serenity of Amritsar, we headed further up North to what was another holy spot. Upper Dharamashala, now known as Mcleod Ganj, is the headquarters to the exiled Tibetan Government and the Dalai Lama. Unfortunately I was visiting at the same time as His Holiness was in America therefore wasn’t lucky enough to meet him. The tiny town of Mcleod Ganj is set in the side of a hill, right at the foothills of the Himalaya. Once again, we arrived in the dark (we had Sarah’s friend Danny escorting us, so it was safe) but we missed any scenery and felt quite displaced when we woke up in the morning. A quick peek out the bathroom window, and I had woken Katie and Caitlin with my squeals of excitement at the breathtaking mountains covered in ice and snow. The tiny tourist town was filled with Buddhist monks in red robes, mingling with tiny Tibetan students on their way to school and smiling and head bobbing at every yoga loving hippy who walked past. The freezing temperatures meant we slept with blankets every night and cuddled up to each other for heat. All the restaurants and cafes had a Tibetan theme, with momos, dumplings, noodles and spicy broth being the perfect antidote to the chill. Prayer flags wound around every tree, and buddhist symbols and mantras were displayed everywhere. Some of my favourite signs were anti drugs and drinking rhymes which were painted on rocks and tree trunks around Mcleod Gange. Aside from exploring the Buddhist temples, turning the prayer wheels and taking walks, Mcleod Gange was just a nice place to be. Sitting in tiny cafes, drinking good coffee and discussing spirituality (I feel my holiday has been split into three: initially rocks, then religion and finally shopping) Mcleod Gange provided peace and serenity, and allowed space to think. K, C and I would happily sit in coffee shops for hours, not neccessarily talking but just thinking and soaking up the atmosphere. It was an entirely different India to anything I have ever known but definitely a highlight of my trip, once again proving the contrast of this vast and sprawling country.

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Our plans in Himachal Pradesh were not set in stone, as they revolved around booking buses as we went. A small overnight minibus, filled with us three and a lot of annoying Iranians, brought us to Manali. Manali was even colder and perhaps even more beautiful than Mcleod Gange, but unfortunately it was filled with tourists and the only Indians were ones wanting to exploit tourists. Famed for using yak wool to spin shawls using handlooms, it meant I splashed out on some traditional Kullu shawls. The cold did require extra layers and resulted in me purchasing a huge thick purple blanket and proceeding to walk around the streets in it. By this stage, C had fallen prey to a little bit of the travellers tummy bug and none of us were up for any extreme walking, so we hid in our hotel room, only venturing out for pizza at a little shack or to explore some Buddhist monasteries. The general backpacker crowd seemed to have extraordinarily dilated pupils and found everything a lot more hilarious than any of us, so after a quick two days we moved on to Shimla, a hill station of Himachal Pradesh.

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A quick night in Shimla allowed us a view of another hill station. It had a similar feel to Ooty, the hill station near us which I visited with my parents, very colonial with lots of British architecture. The town was filled with squabbling monkeys and was a nice place to spend an afternoon. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit the 8500 feet statue of Hanuman Murti which towered over the town.