Archive for the ‘Problems’ Category


Thursday, November 20th, 2014

I’m a happy person. I smile a lot. I bounce a lot. I love life.

And some people ask me how I manage to be so happy all the time.

The first thing I say is that I’m not happy all the time. But I don’t like not being happy so I try to restrict the not happy times to a minimum. I also try not to share the not happy times with all and sundry. So I guess I probably am happier a lot more often than very many other people. And I certainly appear to be happy more often than many others.

What’s the secret of my happiness? Well, it’s somewhat simple. And yet really rather difficult at the same time.

I make a conscious decision to be happy. I work on discovering what makes me happy. And I do as much of that as I can. I understand that I can’t devote all my time to things that make me happy. I also need to do tedious household chores so that my housemate doesn’t kick me out (that would make me majorly unhappy). I need to work (and my job doesn’t always make me happy) so that I have enough money to pay my bills and pay for the things that make me happy.

Now this all sounds simple. And it is. But it does require effort. I actively need to work out what makes me happy. And what is the right thing to make me happy at any given time. And I need to cultivate moments in my life where these activities are possible. Here are some of them: drinking a decent cup of tea, meeting up with friends for a good chat, conversations with friends that leave tears of laughter running down my face, falling in love, great productive arguments with friends about important issues that get me really fired up, dancing, reading a good book, eating good chocolate, watching something good on TV, making bread to share with friends, hot showers, sleeping in. The list does go on (as do I!). 🙂

So that’s step one.

Step two is about choosing to be happy. That’s about looking for happiness in everyday situations. It’s about choosing to take joy in the cup of tea, rather than just drinking it. It’s about actively seeking out happiness rather than waiting for it to pop up and say hi. And the amazing thing about this is that happiness is a habit. Once you start looking for it, it becomes so much easier to see it. And then you don’t have to try so hard to find it anymore.

Step three is about making other people happy. Happiness is contagious. And once you start being a source of happiness for other people then their happiness creates a virtuous circle that spreads and does find its way back to you.

So it’s easy: I make myself happy. I choose to be happy. I make other people happy.

But it’s also quite tricky: it involves a concerted effort and some hard work (at times).

But it is completely worth it!

And being happy makes me happy!! 🙂

How to Be a Superhero

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

There are a lot of ways to become a superhero. This is one of them.

If you want to be a superhero, all you need to do is decide to come to India to do a voluntary teaching project. You’ll need to work hard in the UK to raise/earn enough money to fund the trip. You’ll need to think about the cultural differences and the teaching before you come.

Once you get here, you’ll need to live with a host family and teach in a school for about 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.

And, if you don’t make a complete mess of it, then you’re automatically a superhero.

What you don’t need to do is to make things any harder for yourself than they already are. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone.

We had a volunteer out here recently who did well with her teaching. But she put far too much pressure on herself. She expected the kids to be silently hanging off her every word. And let’s be honest, that doesn’t happen to any teacher! Of any age, in any subject, in any country, anywhere! And it certainly doesn’t happen with lower primary in India when the teacher is a foreigner with white skin who only speaks a strange and funny language.

Now putting pressure on yourself can be a good way to ensure that you’re working to a high standard. Some people perform better under pressure. Some people enjoy the challenge of taking things to a higher level. And all of this is admirable.

Unfortunately in this case, the volunteer put too much pressure on herself and ended up not coping well. She lost her patience in a lesson, and the team leader, who had been observing (and helping a bit) asked her to leave the classroom. Which she did.

We spoke to her afterwards about what had happened and why. And she admitted that she does put too much pressure on herself.

The really great thing for her is that she has this amazing learning opportunity. She now understands, in a really practical way, how badly things can go when she demands too much of herself and doesn’t ask for help and support when she needs it. And this learning opportunity is one that very many other people don’t get.

This one incident doesn’t make her less of a superhero. It doesn’t erase all of the other lessons that she had taught. It doesn’t make her a failure.

India is tough. It pushes you to breaking point and beyond. Those of us who have done it before don’t get off any easier, if anything, India has a much better sense of which buttons she can press to break us. But for all of us, we have to concentrate on the reasons why we are superheroes. Focus on the good stuff that we do. Learn from the mistakes, but not dwell on them.

And that goes for superheroes all over the world, not just the ones that come out to India to teach.

I Thought I Might Die

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

There have been two times during my travelling where I have seriously considered the possibility/likelihood that I might actually die. Not just being frightened about something (I don’t like heights, I get nervous on the second step of a ladder). But actually thinking I might die.

The first was on a bus in China. It was about 3am and the bus was driving the wrong way down the motorway (at speed) honking its horn to warn oncoming drivers. We had done this because our side of the road was blocked by a truck that had jackknifed.

The second was on a boat in Jaffna in Sri Lanka. The waves were very high. The boat was basically an oversized canoe with an engine. Even the guy from the Coast Guard who does that trip regularly was frightened.

There have been other times when I have been somewhat nervous about death or serious injury:

  • climbing the staircase at Sigiriya
  • taking a Benedryl capsule from a nurse I met on a bus (well, she told me she was a nurse)
  • riding on the back of a motorbike in Sri Lanka (we ran over a cat)
  • a bus in Jaffna in Sri Lanka overtaking slowly over road works that meant the bus was tilting quite a lot
  • being on a bus in Sri Lanka that was driving so fast over the potholes that we were all being bounced 10-20cm out of our seats
  • crossing a very scary log bridge in Nepal

I really don’t want to die. Nor do I want to suffer serious physical injury. And I really try not to take silly risks. (Though getting on the back of a motorbike, or jumping in the back of a pick-up truck, or getting a ferry from KKD in Jaffna, or getting on a bus in Sri Lanka may all seem like silly risks to the more sensible amongst you.)

And while I’m planning to live to at least 125 (I’m going to gain immortality, or die in the attempt (apologies to whoever I’ve stolen that from, Wilde?)) I do actually want to LIVE till I’m at least 125. And life, if done correctly, certainly involves risks!

It’s a Good Day

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Travelling and volunteering spits out some good days and some bad days and some days that are both very good and very bad (sometimes at the same time).

There is no foolproof way of guaranteeing a good day. It can, in fact, be quite difficult sometimes to work out if the day you are having (or have just had) is a good day!

Here is a handy guide for some indicators that hint at having a good day. Of course, the more of these you have in one day the better, but don’t be under the illusion that all of these are required for a good day: we’d probably have no good days if that were the case!

You know it’s a good day when:

  • You don’t have to wash ants off your toothbrush before using it
  • You remember to apply talcum powder in the morning (no chafing = good)
  • You don’t get bitten by an ant on the inside of your lip
  • You don’t get bitten by a dog
  • You don’t get bitten by a leech
  • You don’t discover unidentifiable spots / lumps / bumps / rashes / bites / marks on your body
  • You get rained on and yet manage to avoid getting a fever
  • The clothes you wash are dry before you leave to go to the next place
  • The clothes you wash are dry (or moved inside) before the monsoonal rains hit
  • Your shoes don’t break
  • You don’t see a child being hit
  • Your bus doesn’t crash into anything
  • You get on the right bus and you get off the bus at the right stop and don’t have to walk half a kilometre to make up for your ineptitude
  • You get a seat on the bus (at least for half the journey)
  • You get to eat pol sambol
  • No men on buses/trains declare their undying love for you
  • You don’t accidentally get your host sister/mother into trouble for something they said/did that you should have kept a secret (but no-one told you it was meant to be a secret)
  • You don’t create a riot in a classroom by giving out (or not giving out) stickers or sweets
  • You go for a walk on a beach and don’t step in something unmentionable
  • Religious services do not broadcast at crazy volumes at 5am
  • The loudspeakers from the local house of worship / wedding / residence association / election / festival do not point into your house
  • You get through an entire lesson without having to rescue a rat from being beaten to death by your students
  • Duck, duck, goose does not involve any injuries
  • None of your students cry
  • You don’t cry
  • No one tells you that you are fat
  • No one asks if you are a boy or a girl
  • You don’t fall over on a bus, or in the middle of the street, or in the middle of a race with your students during class
  • You get through an entire auto ride without it crashing, breaking down, being threatened by a bull and without you having to get out and push
  • The number of people in the vehicle is less than or equal to the number of seats in the vehicle
  • The power doesn’t go out just as your phone battery is about to die
  • There is enough running water in the bathroom for you to be able to complete all relevant ablutions to an appropriately high standard
  • You get tea with no sugar (unless of course you want sugar, in which case a good day is one where you get tea with sugar)
  • You don’t eat a piece of green chili thinking that it is a piece of green bean
  • You order food and the food is exactly as you expect it will be
  • The number of eggs you have eaten this week is less than or equal to the number of eggs you like to eat in a week
  • You don’t get pork in your vegetarian soup (oh, you don’t eat meat or pork!).
  • People don’t treat you like a rock star just because you have less melanin in your skin than they do
  • The clothing you are wearing is appropriate and garners no comments whatsoever
  • You don’t have to give a speech to an entire school (on no notice)
  • No one asks you to sing the Titanic song
  • You don’t have a sari moment (anyone who has ever got home from a long and sweaty day at school and who is in a hurry to get out of their sari so they can go to the toilet and have a wash and who realises part way through disrobing that there is a pin in the middle of their shoulder blade that they forgot about and that they can’t now reach will know exactly what a sari moment is – cue petulant stamping of feet, swearing in multiple languages, tearing of fabric, etc.)
  • The food doesn’t bring tears to your eyes (unless they are tears of joy because it is cheese)
  • You engage in a conversation with someone else and there is no miscommunication whatsoever
  • You don’t get get in the way of a bird excreting (either while standing outside waiting for a bus or while sitting inside at a restaurant)
  • You don’t get ripped off by an auto driver or shopkeeper
  • You ask someone for directions and they tell you the truth or tell you that they don’t know
  • You don’t need an umbrella to go to the toilet
  • You successfully negotiate a squat toilet without mishap
  • You have a hot shower
  • You have a conversation with a priest that doesn’t involve lying (either by him or by you)
  • No teachers tell you that they cane students because they love them
  • You go to Immigration and actually get the visas that you wanted for the price that you wanted (i.e. free) for the dates that you wanted
  • You eat icecream and don’t get sick
  • The plates in the place you’re in are clean enough to eat off (it’s best not to look too closely at the table, and whatever you do – don’t look at the floor!!)
  • You see a woman in a tourist place wearing next to nothing and you don’t feel simultaneously ashamed on her behalf and angry at her
  • You haven’t had to defend your culture against attacks of lack of respect


If you are having a day that may not be a good day, then laughing at the hilarity of what’s going on around you while repeating some proven mantras may help.

Suggested mantras include:

  • Ah well, at least it’s not raining! (Note: this one only works when it is not raining, but can be adapted e.g. At least there isn’t a power cut! At least it wasn’t our bus that crashed! At least I was sitting down when our bus crashed! etc.)
  • What to do!?!
  • Shit happens!
  • Worse things happen at sea!
  • You just can’t make this stuff up!!
  • Now this just does not happen back home!
  • Only 3 more weeks till I get decent tea and cheese on toast!
  • This will make a funny pub story … later!

A Few Days In Kovalam

Friday, September 12th, 2014

I’ve had a few days in Kovalam. On my own. It has been very nice.

I’ve had real problems with food recently. I’m not entirely sure why. Part of it is that I’m sick of curry and chilli, but that’s not the whole story. Part of it that so much of food is psychological and wrapped up in cultural habits and rituals. And being pressured to eat and being made to feel guilty about not eating have partly conspired to make me want to avoid eating completely.

So I’ve not been eating much.

For the past week or so, I’ve been eating one meal a day and that’s all. No other snacking. Just one meal at lunch.

And sometimes, I haven’t been able to finish even that.

I’m just not hungry. Or I am hungry, but my body is processing the hunger reflex differently from how it usually does it. I just don’t want to eat and I can’t stomach the thought of it if I am faced with it. (Pun intended.)

But for the last few days here in Kovalam, I’ve been eating. I’m now up to two meals a day and I’m finishing both of them.

Part of it is because there is a choice here at the German Bakery and the choice is good (veg pizza, roast vegetables, stir fry veg and tofu, cheese on toast, etc.). But I think a lot more of it is because I’m here on my own and I have no pressure to eat, no guilt, no rituals to try to adhere to. And this makes me happy.

It has also been nice not to have to talk to anyone for a few days. Ok, everyone, please stop laughing. I know I talk a lot. I mean, a lot. 🙂 But it has been nice to have a few days of not having to talk to anyone.

Plus, I’ve managed to get some stuff done and get my to do list blitzed and tidied up. So I’m feeling productive as well as everything else.

And I’ve done some dance practice (the floor in the hotel room is tiled and really quite clean and just big enough to get some decent practice done).

So the guys in the German Bakery are likely to start charging me rent quite soon. Or to start dusting me assuming that I’m one of the fixtures. But I’m back home to Poonthura tonight to stay again with Johnson and Lisba. Both of whom I love dearly and have missed.

I’m very lucky to have people I can share my life with as well as the luxury of being able to spend some time on my own.

Killing Puppy Dogs

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Note: this post is not about actually killing puppy dogs.

Note: some of the examples in this post have happened to other volunteers rather than me, but they all apply in general.

I read in a book recently a phrase that I quite liked. Unfortunately, I can’t now remember the book or the author. But while I can’t give credit to the author, I can certainly not claim credit for their phraseology.

Anyway, the phrase was: “She looked at me as if I’d just killed her favourite puppy dog.”.

I like this phrase because it explains some of the looks I get here.

It’s a look of infinite sadness and silent condemnation. It’s a look that inspires guilt in all but the most callous.

  • I get it every time I say no to seconds (or thirds, or fourths) at mealtime.
  • I get it every time I say I don’t want tea or a snack.
  • I get it every time I say I’m going somewhere else for lunch or dinner.
  • I get it every time I say I’m going to go away for the weekend.
  • I get it every time I say that I’m going out and will be home late.
  • I get it every time I say I won’t wear a sari.
  • I get it every time I say I don’t want to go to church.

And you’d think, that eventually, they’d run out of favourite puppy dogs. But no, it seems the supply of puppy dogs, and of disappointed looks, is (for all intents and purposes) infinite. 🙂

Another Crazy Day

Friday, September 12th, 2014

I’ve already posted about one of the crazy days I’ve had here.

Here is a brief run-down of another day I had. And yes, all of this did happen in one 24 hour period. 🙂

  • Being told by my host father’s brother that “In India, family is important”. This was in response to me saying that I wasn’t married.
  • Being told by my host father that I want to be a man. This is because I suggested that since both he and his wife eat the food that both he and his wife should cook sometimes, and since both he and his wife wear clothes that both he and his wife should wash clothes, etc.
  • Being told by my host father that “You only have a reason to cry when you have a family”.
  • Teaching 1st standard (4-7 year olds – by far my least favourite age to teach, though this class was quite good fun).
  • Helping a volunteer with a 2nd standard class that was really quite out of control (through no fault of the volunteer).
  • Team teaching a 4th standard class with difficult behaviour. This included having to put myself between two students who were fighting. (When students fight in India, they really fight. They want to hurt each other.)
  • While I’m trying to break up the fight, the volunteer who I was teaching with was hit with the cane by one of the students – not hard, but that’s not the point.
  • Continuing to hold the students apart while we waited for the teacher to come – she just laughed when she was told about the fight and took several minutes to slowly pack up what she was doing and walk the 5 meters over to us.
  • Watch that teacher tweak the ear or a student and then slap her arm (presumably because she had an answer wrong).
  • Being asked by a student whether I was a boy or a girl (to be honest, from primary students, this really doesn’t bother me at all).
  • Being told by my host father that his son acts like he is from my culture: he has no respect for his parents. I then proceeded to launch a mighty defence of my culture.
  • Being told that I’m lying because I say that the food is good.
  • Being told that I should have a religion.


I was still smiling by the end of it though! 🙂

Hiding My Culture

Friday, September 12th, 2014

On one of their weekends off, some of the volunteers went away to spend a night on a houseboat. It is a lovely, relaxing, beautiful trip. And one they all enjoyed. They also had a drink. They bought some alcohol and drank it on the boat. This is not a problem. They are adults. They are legally allowed to drink (both here and in the UK). They didn’t do anything stupid. They didn’t get themselves or others into trouble. They were just some mates having a good night while away on holiday. Absolutely no problem.

The problem was when they got back to their host families. One of the volunteers (a female) mentioned to her host family that they had been drinking on the weekend. The other volunteer staying with her jumped in to try to stop her but it was too late.

So, what’s the big deal? Why is it ok for volunteers to drink on the weekend but not ok for them to tell their host family?

The reason is that alcohol doesn’t mean the same thing here as it does in the UK.

It is very bad for women to drink here. And even worse for young, unmarried women to drink. And even worse for professional women to drink. And even worse for teachers (who have a lot of respect and prestige in the community) to drink.

So for a young, unmarried, female, volunteer teacher to drink is about as bad as it can get. It is the case that we are foreign so allowances are made. However, no matter the cultural understanding, many people here will see volunteers who drink as women with loose (or no) morals.

The consequences of the volunteer’s slightly careless words were seen the following week. The family had a birthday party. When everyone else had gone home the host father offered the volunteers some alcohol. Fortunately, they both had the good sense to decline. Disaster averted.

The volunteer asked me what would be wrong with that. I explained.

If the volunteers accept alcohol in the house then it defines them as immoral women. The host father (or his friends) may then assume that they would be happy to sleep with him if he asked them (all western women are prostitutes after all). They would be seen as women who will do anything (lie, cheat, steal, etc.) and may then be asked to do things they don’t want to do.

This may sound like I’m overreacting. And it may be the case that these things are unlikely, however, they are certainly possible.

For a local host family here to give young, unmarried, female, volunteer teachers alcohol is probably roughly equivalent (culturally) to inviting foreign teenagers into your home in the UK and injecting them with heroin. So if other members of the community were to come to know that the family had offered alcohol to visiting volunteers then that could bring shame to the family.

Also, if it became known that we, as a charity, were sending these sorts of volunteers into those sorts of houses then that could cause problems for us too.

So hiding parts of our culture seems to be the best thing to do. Some aspects of our culture have some connotations in the UK and then have other connotations here in India. It is not possible for us to translate some aspects of our culture without mistranslating the connotations.

The Importance Of Pronunciation

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Now this is a funny story. Granted, it’s only funny now that it has been resolved happily. I’m sure it wasn’t very funny for the volunteer in question at the time. But I have it on good authority (I’ve told a few other people) that it is funny now.

One of our fabulous recent volunteers was flying from Trivandrum airport via Doha back to the UK. Her flight was due to leave at 4 or 5am on Monday morning.

At 3am I woke up (for no apparent reason) and rolled over to check my phone. About a minute later I got a text message from her asking me to call her ASAP. Which I did. She was at Immigration having checked in for her flight. Immigration were asking her a lot of questions about where she had been and what she had been doing, etc.

They had tried to call Johnson but hadn’t been able to reach him.

I told her not to worry, I would call him straight away and get him to call her back. Which I did.

He then phoned her and was able to speak to Immigration and clarify the situation.

It turns out that she had been asked where she was staying. She said Karumkulum. Or rather, she thought she said Karumkulum. They thought she said something else. Mispronunciation is quite common and we can usually get around it. However, in this case, the thing they thought she said was the name of a local nuclear reactor, where there had been recent protests.

This was not ideal.

And her being a Polish bio-medical student didn’t exactly lend weight to the English teacher story.

However, Johnson managed to explain everything.

They took copies of her passport, visa and student card and then let her on the plane.

And the moral of the story is that mispronunciation is fine, unless your mispronunciation makes it sound like you’ve just told Immigration that you’re a Polish bio-medical student who has been teaching English at a nuclear plant! 🙂

Good Guys And Bad Guys

Friday, August 1st, 2014

In teledramas/soaps/serials it is always easy to tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. In Malayalam serials the bad women have strong eye make-up, always look down and have strong voices while the good women have much softer eye make-up, always look up with pathetic puppy dog eyes and have pathetic breathy voices that involve a lot of sighing and having to sit down. The music is also a bit of a giveaway: if it is in a minor key then the person on screen is a bad guy.

The Malayalam men all have ripped muscles, dark hair and flourishing moustaches so it’s a bit more difficult to tell with them. Though, as a general rule, if the actor is famous then he’s a good guy. If he takes his shirt off, he’s a good guy. If the other team wait and attack him one by one or maybe two at a time, then he’s a good guy. If he can be stabbed, punched, hit by a car and still stand up then he’s a good guy. If one punch causes him to fall over permanently then he’s a bad guy. If small children like him then he’s a good guy.

I do understand that it is equally easy to tell in Hollywood films, Aussie soaps, etc. though the indicators may be slightly different.

In real life, it’s a little bit harder to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.

But not much.

Here is a handy guide to help you tell if you’re a good guy or a bad guy.

I’ve written a series of questions to ask yourself. If the answer to each is the answer given in brackets then you’re probably a good guy.

  • Is the story that you and your team mates tell consistent? (Yes)
  • Do you have documentary evidence to back up the claims you are making? (Yes)
  • Do you have witnesses who agree with your side of the story? (Yes)
  • Did you have to bribe/pay/intimidate/coerce/deceive the witnesses in order to make them support you? (No)
  • Have you ever stood on the street / in the yard / in the house / in the police station shouting bad words at the people on the other team? (No)
  • Have you ever destroyed property or plants that belong to someone else (or that you believe is common property but is nonetheless in dispute)? (No)
  • Do you show respect for the property you are staying in (regardless of who you think owns it), e.g. keeping it clean and tidy? (Yes)
  • Have you ever told bad stories (true or false) to friends and family of the other team or people connected with the other team? (No)
  • Do you use your children to emotionally blackmail other people? (No)
  • Were the people on your team previously known for their trustworthiness, integrity and goodness? (Yes)
  • Are the things you are saying about the other team completely out of character with their usual behaviour? (No)
  • Are you refusing to say bad things about the other team even if the facts may support it (e.g. I don’t say he is a liar, I just explain that the story he tells is different from the story others tell, maybe he is lying, maybe they are lying, maybe there is a misinterpretation)? (Yes)
  • Have you ever threatened (verbally or physically) someone from the other team? (No)

There are bound to be other indicators as well, but I think that’s a pretty good starting point.

And has the added benefit of reassuring me that in both of the recent conflicts where I have taken sides, I have sided with the good guys.