Archive for May, 2014

Why I Work With Volunteers

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

There’s a volunteer working in India at the moment. She has been here since January. I met her in the UK last year at her selection day and again at her training day. I’ve had some email contact with her while she has been here. And today I caught up with her for a lovely chat.

And she is exactly the reason why I work with volunteers.

She is loving being here. She has had a fantastic 5 months. The only serious problems she has faced are the heat and the mosquitoes and there’s nothing that anyone can do about either of those. And she hasn’t let them dampen her spirits or get in the way of having a magnificent time.

She wasn’t a teacher when she came out but she has had a lot of fun and a lot of success teaching here. She has faced some challenges of course. Behaviour management is tricky when you are a foreigner who won’t use the cane. But she persevered and tried different things and found some techniques that worked for her. And again, the challenges haven’t dampened her spirits.

She has loved living with the host family. She has loved working in the school and in the after-school programme for teenagers as well.

The materials we gave her to help her have indeed helped her. The support that Johnson has given her has been fabulous.

She is happy. She is thriving. She wouldn’t change a thing about her experience. She is already planning on when she can come back.

And this is why I love working with volunteers. Because a project like this changes you. It is a fantastic and memorable experience in its own right. But it changes the way you see yourself and the world around you. And being a part of this, being able to help volunteers to experience some of this magic is a wonderful privilege!!

We have 6 more volunteers arriving in a couple of weeks and I can’t wait to meet them, train them, watch them teach, support them and celebrate with them! 🙂

How Old Are You?

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

There is a Malayalam film that has just been released here. It is called “How old are you?”. I don’t believe it is about English teaching (How old are you? I’m fine. No, not how are you, how old are you? Hmm? I am 38 years old, how old are you? Ahh, I am 22 years old.). I believe the film is about a woman in her thirties who refuses to act as if she’s in her thirties and does things that only much younger women should do.

I like that idea. It works for me. I’m 38 years old. But I don’t act like it (not that I really know how a 38 year old should act). People often think I’m late twenties or early thirties. Which only bothers me if they try to deny the extra decade of experience I have. Which they don’t usually do. 🙂 I’m not really that bothered about how old I am. I’m quite happy being 38. I’ve had 37 years of warming up to this and I see no reason to be unhappy about it. I don’t want to be any older, that would involve denying myself the adventure and experience of the intervening years. I don’t want to be any younger, I’ve been through a lot to get here and I’m quite proud of the things I’ve done.

But having said all of that, I also don’t believe that my age should dictate what I should or shouldn’t do. To be honest, I rarely think about it. Some of my friends are in their 60s, some in their 50s, some in their 40s, some in their 30s, some in their 20s and some are teenagers. And I’m quite comfortable with each of those groups. They are all differently interesting.

So it can be annoying when people seem to expect that since I’m 38 I should be married with kids. And it can be annoying if people treat me like I don’t know what’s going on because they think I’m only 25 (not that I think 25 year olds don’t know what’s going on). But on the whole, people are perfectly happy with me being me and whether they guess my age correctly or not doesn’t seem to be particularly material. 🙂


Sunday, May 25th, 2014

I went to Kochi with Johnson and Lisba. They had to go to the visa office there. And I went along for the ride. 🙂 I’d not been to Kochi before. Kochi is a port city further north in Kerala. There are several islands, rivers, beaches, etc.. We got the train from Trivandrum! I love Indian trains! It was about 4 hours.

Due to difficulties getting an appointment at the visa office we ended up staying for a couple of days which gave us the chance to do a bit of sightseeing. We visited the Jewish Town and the Synagogue. (You’ll be pleased to hear that the shops in the Jewish Town sell exactly the same tat that shops in all the other tourist areas sell.) We went to Cherai beach. We went to a wedding. We wandered along Marine Drive. We travelled in buses, autos and in a ferry. We did lots of walking. I was involved in my first Indian bus crash (which was even more small and gentle than my Sri Lankan bus crash). I was sitting down at the time and it was very low speed. So no one was hurt. We spent lots of time in Café Coffee Day. Johnson and Lisba both had some work to do and western-style coffee shops (of which there are very few) are nice because they are clean, the drinks are lovely and they don’t object to us sitting there for ages, and while they are expensive by Indian standards, they are really cheap by UK standards (about 80p for an iced coffee).

So we got to see some of the city. We spent some time outside in the fresh air (I say fresh, I don’t really mean it, it is India – but sometimes the air was scented with flowers and spices 🙂 ). We did some walking. But most importantly, we had a lot of time for chatting. A truly lovely couple of days!

Good Things For Tourists

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

Travelling to exotic places can be fun and exotic. And all the things that make the place different are often the things that make us love it. We love the novelty of the hills, or of the sea breeze, or of the street food, or of the tea made with milk and lots of sugar, or of the stray dogs, or of the wandering monkeys, or of the different brand names, or of the quaint local costumes.

We romanticise mud huts, thatched roofs, cooking over open fires. We enjoy the relief from the pressure of brands we see every day.

And we think this is lovely and sweet and noble and good. One of my friends was talking about this very topic with regard to Cuba and how nice it was that they were exempt from US influence. And another friend responded with “not so nice for the Cubans”, which I thought was particularly insightful.

We like the fact that these people live in such alien environments because it gives us a chance to have a holiday from our lives to visit them. But we frequently forget (or don’t spend enough time there in the first place to understand) that living there full time for generations with no possibility of escape (even for a holiday) may not be romantic or quaint or noble.

Open cooking fires in homes (particularly in countries where the sari is the preferred mode of dress in the home) are dangerous. The fumes, the smoke, the risk of fire.

Thatched roofs look lovely. The insects and rodents particularly like them.

A lack of familiar brands may seem like a nice break, but in most cases the brands are well known because they provide a product or service that is in high demand. And to live somewhere without may indicate a lack of access to something that we consider essential or desirable.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I think every village in the entire world should have electricity, running water, Starbucks, Coke, Pizza Hut, Mercedes, Gap, Walmart, etc.. Ok, so I do think they all should have electricity and running water. 🙂 But I do think we should be careful of seeing a lack of service as always being romantic or a relief. Even if it is so for us, it may be deprivation for the locals.

So by all means, go on holiday. Enjoy the differences. Delight in your break from the pressures of consumerism you feel at home, but please don’t begrudge the locals a Coke, or McDonald’s, or Starbucks. 🙂

Correct Versus Successful Communication

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

Language is an interesting thing. It exists in its own right as a set of patterns and rules that can sometimes be very beautiful. But its primary function in most contexts is communication.

And correct use of language certainly aids communication but communication is something that transcends language. I’ve seen incorrect language be used to communicate successfully and I’ve seen language that is technically correct lead to miscommunication.

So even though I’m an English teacher in my spare time, I’m actually more interested in communication than in the English language itself. And I love the beautifully poetic way that non-native speakers use my language.

For a start I love the accents. They’re cute, beautiful, sexy, funny, quaint, hilarious, musical, etc. (except the Australian accent which I find somewhat ugly and annoying – though maybe it doesn’t count since we Aussies are technically native English speakers).

But I also love some of the errors/misuses/different uses of language that people make.

One of my Indian friends says “the beach is full of dirty”. And I love that. It’s not wrong, it’s poetry.

My Spanish dance teacher was talking about “making sure your laps are touching” for a step in Argentine Tango. He meant “upper thigh”, but he also meant “lap” because you need to have your legs bent enough so that your lap exists. Again, not an error, poetry.

And whether these things are technically correct or not doesn’t matter. What matters is whether communication happens and in both of these examples there was no ambiguity, the communication was successful. Plus, they both made me smile. 🙂

So if I smile, or giggle slightly when non-native speakers use my language, I am certainly not laughing at them, I am delighting in the creativity and unexpected beauty that they bring to my language.

Though I struggle more to see the beauty and creativity when native speakers gets things wrong. I don’t think that “think different” (Apple’s tag line at one point) is poetic. I think that it speaks to an ignorance of adverbs. Perhaps I should change my viewpoint and try to see creativity and poetry here too!

Physical Contact

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

Physical contact between people is something that is dealt with differently in different cultures (and within different subcultures and within different friendship groups and within different families). There are some norms that dictate what physical contact is appropriate between husbands and wives, between parents and children (fathers and sons are different from fathers and daughters and this is different again to mothers and sons and to mothers and daughters). There are also rules for siblings, extended family members, friends, partners, strangers, casual acquaintances, etc.. These norms can also be broken by some individuals just because their preference and behaviour are able to overrule standard behaviour. And collections of people from mixed backgrounds have to develop their own rules as a combination of the rules inherited from each of the individual groups. For example, I have some friends from Europe who do the air kissing thing and so when I meet them I do that (1, 2 or 3 kisses – depending on who they are), but I don’t do that with my other friends, even friends in the same friendship group.

Women in Sri Lanka have a lot of physical contact. They hold hands with each other a lot. In fact, it is incredibly difficult to get a girl to do anything on her own; she is usually attached to at least three other girls at all times. 🙂 Physical contact between men is similar. They hold hands, they put their arms around each other. But physical contact between men and women, even married couples is very, very rare. Handshakes in a formal situation but that’s about it.

In the UK things are different. There is a lot more physical contact (and yet, by European standards, we are very standoffish and isolated). Even though there is no contact between strangers or casual acquaintances (except handshakes) there is contact between friends and within families. I get hugs from each of my friends when I see them, both male and female. There are some male friends who I will walk down the street with my arm around. If I had a boyfriend, I would be able to hold hands with him or walk down the road with my arm around him. I’d be able to kiss him in public. Female friends will frequently hug, though there is usually less physical contact between men in the UK.

Dancing involves an amount of physical contact. And depending on the dance and the couple, there can be quite a bit of physical contact. And part of the point of dancing is to dance with lots of different people. And since there are often more female students than male students, we girls frequently have to dance with the female teachers. What is interesting is that I’d asked one of my teachers about the male teachers dancing with male students. And he said that some of the male students object to dancing with a male teacher. Which I find odd. Dancing can be romantic and it can be intimate and it can be sexual. But dance classes are none of these things. The physical contact is there in order that the dancing can happen. It is mechanical. And what worries me slightly, is that if some of the male students object to dancing with a male teacher then perhaps that’s because they don’t see the physical contact as mechanical. In which case I’m not sure I want to be dancing with them!

Here in India I don’t get much physical contact at all. I feel like enough of an outsider that physical contact with the women here doesn’t seem appropriate and physical contact with the men is definitely out! My Indian family get a hug when I arrive in the country and then another when I leave. But for the several months in between we just smile and wave at each other.

And since I’m someone who thrives on physical contact, I always look forward to getting back to the UK and getting lots of hugs again! 🙂

Indian Traffic and Argentine Tango

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

I was enjoying the Indian traffic during my first auto ride after getting back to India. And I know that ‘enjoying’ is a rather odd word to use. But I really was. There is a poetry and ballet about Indian traffic. What may look like complete chaos to the outside observer does have some quite intricate patterns when you know what you’re looking for. But don’t apply the normal rules of traffic aesthetics!

And I was thinking about how crazy this seemed and how hard it would be to explain this to anyone else. About how I could see beauty and pattern in something that is apparently chaotic. And I was reminded of the Argentine Tango.

I have a distinct love/hate relationship with the Argentine Tango. At first I thought it ugly, chaotic, inefficient, ridiculous. Then I actually tried it and it went down in my estimations. I was frustrated, annoyed, constantly in the wrong place and doing the wrong thing, and frequently hurting other people. It doesn’t flow. It is full of obstacles. It lacks symmetry and regularity. If you do it wrong someone gets hurt! (Sorry Victor! Sorry Aga! Sorry Daniel!) But after devoting some time to it and trying to relax and be patient I’ve started to not hate it so much. I stopped comparing it the other dances. I stopped looking for the patterns that I wanted to see. I started to give myself up to the dance. I started to just breathe and to listen to my partner’s body and to move. I started to slow down and do away with my expectations.

I still don’t really love it, but I have enjoyed dancing it on several occasions. It shall remain for me a dance that I do to prove to myself that I can get over my natural tendencies and dance outside of my comfort zone. And I am now convinced that there is beauty in there for me to find if I just stick at it long enough and open my eyes in the right way.

So back to Indian traffic. It is chaotic and insane. Like Argentine Tango, people can get hurt if you misjudge the situation. But there is beauty and elegance in the dance of the vehicles. There are patterns. They just aren’t the ones we’re used to. Indian traffic flows. Indian traffic is about intuition. It is about abandoning yourself to the movement of what’s around you. And if you encounter Indian traffic and find it difficult then try not to look at it with eyes that are accustomed to British traffic. Don’t look for the beauty of the Waltz in the Argentine Tango. Breathe and put your judgements aside. Accept the traffic. Laugh at the traffic. Flow with the traffic.

And for goodness sake, be exceptionally careful when crossing roads!! You could get seriously hurt out there!

The Magic of India

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

I had a few trepidations about my trip to India this time. Part of this is due to the fact that I had several really difficult goodbyes this time. And while I was looking forward to coming to India, I really didn’t want to leave London.

I landed in Trivandrum and even the air in the terminal is hot, thick Indian air. The first few lungfulls always feel heavy. It was 32 degrees when I landed. I got my bag and went out to meet Johnson.

And I haven’t stop smiling since then. Johnson is incredible. He is one of my absolute favourite people in the world and seeing him again was wonderful.

And then we had to get into an auto.

My first auto ride each time I’m back in India is the weaving of a magic spell. It is a physical incantation that provides protection, that changes your perception, that fills you with joy, that opens your eyes to the beauty and the wonder that is India.

The sights, the smells, the noises, feeling of the wind on my skin, the taste of the air on my tongue.

An auto is the perfect way to travel in India. It is immediate – there is no barrier between you and the world around you. It is intimate – just you and 2 (or possibly 6) of your closest friends.  It is isolating (it’s quite noisy so conversation can be difficult) so it allows you to be alone with your thoughts and to appreciate the wonder of the moment. It is small and can manoeuvre into the cosiest of spaces between trucks and vans and cars and buses – you can reach out and touch the people in the next auto.

India is a fantastic (I mean that in the sense of being pure fantasy) place. It is awe-inspiring. It is hilarious. It is cute. It is farcical.

The colours. The people. The animals. The chaos.

  • Fruit sellers on the side of the road at 8pm packing 6 different types of mangoes into twisted newspaper and tying it with string.
  • Roadside rubbish swept into neat piles and being slowly redistributed by a family of goats.
  • Stores lit up that sell every type of plastic receptacle you could possibly wish for.
  • A husband riding a motorbike at speed with his wife sitting behind him holding their baby, asleep, in her arms.
  • A barefoot and determined grandmother striding back home with pack of bananas.
  • A young boy from the local shop carelessly crossing the road with a plastic tray holding two dozen eggs.
  • A group of teenage boys hanging around outside the internet café comparing photos on their phones (probably of Malayalam movie actors).
  • An old man and his grandson sitting on the sand outside the temple.
  • Palm trees swaying gently in the hot, damp, fertile air.
  • Crows squawking their dominance.
  • Car headlights reflecting off the gold jewellery of the women.
  • The reds, pinks, greens, blues, purples, blacks, whites, yellows (and everything in between) of the saris and churidar of the women walking home.
  • Teenagers without bags each clutching a notebook and pencil case to their chest as they gossip about class.
  • The lights and floral decorations of a house that is hosting a wedding, or a funeral, or a baptism, or some other family event.
  • The neon and the noise of a church broadcasting the sermon and the songs through the loudspeakers of the village.
  • The lush green of the trees, bushes, palms, bananas, coconut trees, rice paddies.
  • The rollercoaster ride that is dodging the traffic and the potholes (they’ve been cultivating the potholes since last year).
  • Piles of sand or stones or bricks on the side/middle of the road waiting to be added to the never-ending extensions that every house seems to be undergoing.
  • Saris, shirts, bedsheets drying on the line.
  • Houses painted like a pack of liquorice allsorts. Some pink, some blue, some purple, some striped.


And every time I come back, I know that the first auto ride will be magical. And every time I do it, it is always orders of magnitude more magical than I thought it would be. India is in my heart and my soul. And each time I come back, it welcomes me home. 🙂

Note: some of my friends have expressed an interest in coming to visit me in India. Or in fact, to just visit India. And with every fibre of my being I say DO IT!!! Don’t wait till later. Start planning it now! And let me know when you’ve booked your flight. I’ll be waiting at the airport with an auto and magic spell just for you! 🙂

New Friends and New Books

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

I’ve been making friends. And I love making new friends. For very many reasons. And one of those reasons is books!

I love books. I love reading. I love collecting new and wonderful book ideas. And each time I read something that has been recommended by a friend I feel them with me when I read that book, and that’s special.

And it doesn’t matter how high-brow or trashy the book is. It doesn’t matter if it’s a factual travel book or a coffee table philosophy book or a sci-fi classic. In fact, it doesn’t even really matter whether I enjoy the book very much or not.

And a recent new addition to the list of people I need to keep hold of (due to general awesomeness and good book sense) has put me on to magical realism as a genre and (indirectly) One Hundred Years of Solitude as a case in point. I’m about a third of the way through so far and enjoying it. And looking forward to trying some others (if you’re reading this post then send me a list of other titles/authors).

I am also reading the Shadow Saga by Orson Scott Card after another awesomely good friend got me reading Ender’s Game years ago and yet another awesomely good friend got me watching the movie recently.

Plus I haven’t finished my current re-reading of The Black Swan (thank you awesome friend number four) and I believe there’s a new Clifton Chronicle (thank you awesome friend number five) that I need to get to once I’ve finished at least one of the ones I currently have on the go.

And since I’m in India at time of writing I’m going to recommend to anyone out there who is looking for a good book to try The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Shantaram made me see India through very different eyes. And The God of Small Things is set in Kerala and talks about the unwritten love laws and what can happen when you fall foul of them.

And to all my fabulous friends who are reading this, please send me more suggestions of great books that I can read so that I can bring you with me on my travels too.

Arthur Murray Dance Showcase – Istanbul – Not The Dancing

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

So the most interesting thing about the Istanbul Showcase was the dancing, of course. But it wasn’t all that happened. We also did some sightseeing and other stuff. So here’s all the stuff that wasn’t dancing (warning: may contain some dancing).

We arrived in Istanbul on Friday afternoon. Most of us had flown together from London. I’d had very little sleep the night before and had woken up with that horrid sense of dread that you get when you’re sure that it’s the wrong day or you’ve booked the wrong flight or something. Anyway, my fears were unfounded.

Right day, right flight, good seat. Lots of sleep.

We got stuck at the airport waiting for the mini-van that was to take us to the hotel. It’ll be here in 10 minutes. 10 minutes in Turkey is roughly equivalent to ‘After some time’ in India. I think we waited for an hour to two. But that was ok. It gave us time to drink iced coffee and get to know each other a bit more. The mini-van on the way to the hotel gave me a chance to practice being a teacher again. We played Train to Timbuktu which was quite hilarious and helped to pass the time. Alena then invited us all to a party with a very tricky BYO policy. But we all managed to work that one out in the end too. 🙂

Dinner that night was in a 130 year old restaurant. The food was good (all the starters were vegetarian – happy Kath). The halva for dessert was incredible (it was hot and gooey). And it was great with watermelon!

After dinner we went to a Tango club. Yep, that’s right. A Tango club. We didn’t have our dancing shoes. But that wasn’t going to stop us. So we danced. I made one attempt in trainers but couldn’t pivot or slide so gave up on that and decided to dance just in my socks (well, not just my socks, I was of course, completely clothed from the ankles up – it wasn’t that kind of club). It seems dancing in socks is not really the done thing: Victor: Are you insane??? Kath: Well, yes. 🙂 But he didn’t step on me and he managed to lead me around the room so that no one else stood on me either.

It was really cool! That’s the first time I’d danced outside of the studio (except for practicing at home) and it was a good feeling to be able to go to a Tango club and dance. Though next time, I’m voting for something that isn’t Argentine Tango. 😉

Friday night saw some sitting around in the bar of the hotel. Good work!

Then Sarah and I toddled off to bed at a reasonable time so we’d have lots of sleep in anticipation of our exciting day of sightseeing. Unfortunately, Sarah is a wonderfully, interesting person who is just as chatty as I am and we both were really rather excited. So it was 3:30am before lights went out and sleep was had. 🙂

Saturday was sightseeing. We went to Hagia Sofia (temple of wisdom). It was an Orthodox Church, a Roman Catholic Church, a Mosque and is now a museum. Cool domes but not as many golden ratios as I was expecting (ah well, can’t have everything). We then went to the Grand Bazaar. (There’s another blog post about that – Kath reacted pretty much as was to be expected.) Lunch –traditional kofte (or soup and salad if you’re a Kath). We wandered past the Blue Mosque on our way back to the minibus and headed back through the drizzle to the hotel.

Sensible people did sensible things like nap. I went on a chocolate mission. I always feel uncomfortable in a new city until I’ve been able to look at a map, put on my walking shoes and head out into the wild unknown and successful buy something. Even if it was just chocolate from the shop round the corner. Nonetheless, I managed to cross roads, find a shop, choose the chocolate, pay for the chocolate and get back to the hotel again. And my reward: chocolate! 🙂

Saturday evening was a boat trip that included dinner. I think this was to help improve our balance in advance of the next day’s dancing. The boat was a little rocky, I blame the wake of the big ships. But the food was good, the company was great and the attempts at belly dancing by many of the congregation were to be applauded. Note: Phosphorus is indeed the 15th element of the periodic table (high heels little betty bought can not often fit neatly, Namgal sips claret, kit kat – this is the mnemonic that we learnt in year 10 chemistry to remember the first 20 elements and it worked!). Phosphorus, however, is unrelated to the river we were on (except for typos on the schedule).

After the boat there was more sitting and chatting in the bar. Do we see a theme? Oh yes we do. I got to grill my teachers and Victoria with such difficult questions as “What do you think makes a good student?” or “Do you consider yourself a dancer who teaches, a teacher who dances or a dance teacher?”. Well, Kath in a bar, education was bound to be the focus of the conversation for some significant portion of the evening. You’ll be happy to know that the answers from all three of them were highly satisfactory and quite different from each other!

There may well have been a lot more chatting once Sarah and I got back to our room (another theme). So much for early nights! 🙂

Sunday was the dancing, as is described in the other post that focuses on the dancing. Short summary: there was dancing.

After dinner the teachers did some dances for us so that we could see what it’s meant to look like! That was cool. And given that I usually see Victor and Daniel dance with students, it was really interesting to see what they can do when they have a partner who knows what she’s doing (and who can bend in ways that most of us would need surgery for). I really need to learn how to spin like Victoria though. That was really cool!!

More bar. More chatting. Though a lot more exhaustion. I think I feel asleep mid-sentence (my own probably).

Monday was breakfast and some more sightseeing. We went to see the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet). Which is the first mosque I’ve ever been into. It was blue. Lots more interesting geometry. I like geometry.

Some decided that they need to shop so headed off in the direction of the Grand Bazaar. The rest of us went to the Topkapi Palace. Lots of courtyards, nice view of the Bosphorus, some hideous chunk of carbon that people think is valuable and pretty. Lots of gorgeous sun (resulting in Kath getting burnt – so not so gorgeous after all).

We then met up with the shoppers and navigated the trams (with a lot of help from our local guide).

Then to a wonderful place for lunch. The chicken was baked whole in a salt crust and comes to the table on fire. (Cue bad singing of ‘this chicken’s on fire’.) Again, the starters were great and all veg. I got rice and roasted peppers. The rice was lovely. The first piece of the pepper was delicious. The seeds, however, tried to kill me. Ah well, what’s life without fending off the occasional assassination attempt by one’s lunch?! 🙂

Back to the hotel (funky English pronunciation lesson on the way home – it turns out that jewellery is quite tricky to say if you’re Spanish).

Minibus – no games this time. Lots of sleeping. Airport. Plane. 4 hours of chatting, watching videos of our dancing, comparing photos.

Then the delightful Tube back home.

A truly outstanding weekend!