Archive for July, 2014

Missing Dancing

Monday, July 14th, 2014

I have been in India for about two months now. I have done some dancing practice about 10 times in the past two months for about 45 minutes each time.

This is wonderful.

But this is not enough dancing!

I have been watching dancing videos practically every day (I have videos of my dances from Istanbul) but have not been able to dance every day.

I am really missing it.

I talk to Kate once a week and she tells me about how she’s getting on with her dancing. So it’s very nice to hear that everyone is going well. The lessons are still happening. Kate is having the same issues with frame in Ballroom and hips in Latin that I have. The world continues to turn in my absence (this does not surprise me). The instructors have apparently not forgotten me yet. The other students are progressing and having fun. So all is right with the world!

I am trying to find time to dance. And when I do find the time it is certainly worth it!

And I can’t wait to get back to London and get back into the studio! I hope I haven’t forgotten too much by then, or developed too many bad habits!

Riding Wild Animals

Monday, July 14th, 2014

We went to an elephant park with the intention of looking at the elephants and of riding one. (Well, I had no intention of riding, but this is irrelevant at the moment but shall become more relevant later in the story).

Now here’s a thing. Elephants are either wild or they are not.

If they are wild, then the park/sanctuary will be very large and won’t be able to guarantee sightings. Visitors won’t be able to get close to the elephants, they won’t be able to feed them, they won’t be able to ride them.

The sanctuary may be one of those rescue places that saves injured or orphaned animals and then releases them to the wild. In these cases, if they are doing it properly, visitors shouldn’t be able to feed or get close to the elephants because that will damage the animal’s chances of surviving in the wild.

The park/sanctuary may have captive animals. They may have been born wild and rescued/captured at a young age, or they may have been born in captivity. In these places the animals will need to be broken and trained. Some of this training may include ill-treatment.

So it seems that animal lovers have a choice. They can get up close and personal with the animals they love, but those animals would have to have been trained. Which may mean they have not always been treated well. Alternatively, animal lovers can visit animals in the wild, but they will have to maintain their distance.

Given that both wild and captive elephants kill people sometimes I think keeping a distance is a very good idea in either case!

So back to the elephant park in question. It was one that had captive elephants (on very short chains). The mahut was hitting the elephant with a stick. It wasn’t very pleasant for the elephant lovers amongst us. Not only that, but due to this being the ‘treatment season’ we weren’t able to ride them. I decided a couple of years ago that I don’t want to ride animals since it doesn’t seem quite fair to make them walk around with me on their back purely for my entertainment. That’s what pushbikes and autos are for!

And the animal lovers amongst us were somewhat torn. Having seen how the elephants were treated, they weren’t sure if they wanted to ride after all, but given that riding an elephant is something that most elephant lovers want to do, it was a disappointment to have gone all that way and not been able to ride.

Elephants really are quite amazing creatures though! I don’t think I’d say ‘beautiful’ but they are interesting (despite being somewhat scary up close). I’m certainly very happy to be sharing a planet with them! 🙂

Feeling OK and Getting Support

Monday, July 14th, 2014

I’ve had a tough week. (Not exclusively tough, of course, some bits were truly awesome.)

On Thursday evening I spoke to Kate in London for an hour and a half. She asked me how I was. I said I was ok. Though I didn’t really know what that meant.

I had worked a 12.5 hour day, come home, chatted to my host family, washed some clothes, had a shower then collapsed on my bed. Maybe I should have slept, but speaking to Kate seemed like a much better idea. More of that coming soon.

So I was ok. Kate asked if that meant I was somewhere between dead and very, very good. I said that yes, I was fairly certain that I was somewhere between dead and very, very good. Though I couldn’t even say which one of those I was closest to.

I told her about the week I had had. And she said that it was fairly safe to say that on no-one else’s scale would I be considered ok. I take that as a massive compliment! But really, I was ok. 🙂 That’s India for you. It tests you to your limits and then further.

I had a week which involved laughing, crying, getting my fourth hug since arriving in India (two months earlier), getting very angry, being threatened (not physically), being joyful, learning a lot, teaching a bit, working hard, printing and collating and printing and collating, supporting, problem solving, caring very deeply for many of the people close to me, and a whole lot more besides. Pick an emotion and it’s fairly safe to say that it hit me sometime last week. But, things could be worse. And I was feeling positive overall.

And this leads me nicely on to why I chose to have the conversation with Kate rather than sleep.

Kate, like most of you reading this, and very, very many others as well, is a very important part of my support network. Talking to her did such wonderful things for my state of mind and my positivity. She made me laugh. She shared my fears, my joy, my anger, my disappointments, my successes. And all of this cheered me up and made me feel a lot better.

She is not the only one. There are lots of people who I have contact with while I’m here. The medium varies: Facebook, blog comment, SMS, phone call, Skype, email, WhatsApp, telepathy (well, I think the telepathy is working – that would explain the lack of emails), and meeting up in person with those who are here.

I’ve been doing this whole travelling/volunteering/teaching thing for about 5.5 years. And in that time I have learnt some of the things that I can do to support myself. Reaching out to my friends when I need them is one of these things. But due to timezones and availability, I can’t rely solely on other people. So I write journals or blog posts to help me process my experiences. I buy coke and chocolate as comfort food. I buy fresh fruit juice or fresh vegetable juice for comfort food (not so easy to obtain locally as the coke and chocolate but substantially better for me). I dance. I watch dance videos. I play Sudoku. I read books. I have a shower. I sleep. I go for a lie down. I cry. I listen to music. I go for a walk.

So I have difficult times here sometimes. But I support myself. I seek support from my friends. I concentrate on the good stuff.

And I’m ok.


Monday, July 14th, 2014

My life in India is a massive rollercoaster! Some days have moments that put me on the top of the world and some days (sometimes the same days) have moments that make me question why I’m here, get grumpy, or just burst into tears. Most of my blog posts are about the good stuff. But some of them are about the difficult bits. Sometimes I can write blog posts about the bad stuff but from a position of positivity. Sometimes the posts sound negative, even if they’re about something good if I’m writing them from a position of negativity.

So I wanted to reassure you all that I am human (I have good moments and bad moments). I’m not superhuman (some of the stuff that happens here does take a toll on me). But overall, I’m very happy. And I hope my blog reflects that. Some posts are happy, some are not. Some make it sound like I’m not coping. Sometimes it sounds like nothing bothers me. And all of these things are true. Sometimes all at the same time!

The Tragedy of Indian Men

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Indian men, and with that I mostly mean men from the coastal, Christian communities in Kerala, where I work, I assume this is the case for many others as well, face a rather large difficulty in their lives. That difficulty is the fact that they are not actually gods. Indian culture treats men as if they are the most important things ever. Women are somewhat valued, but not much. Indian men are brought up by their families, their schools, their communities, and the media to be arrogant and macho.

The Indian man is the lord and master of his domain, and he has the moustache to prove it.

At some point they discover that they are not the biggest, strongest, sexiest man ever. At some point they discover that their moustache is not as big and flourishing and waxed (as in with wax added to it to make it shine, rather than waxed as in removed through the use of wax) as the next man. At some point they discover that someone else has a bigger motorbike, or a faster car, or a more expensive computer.

And from that point onwards, they seem to live in a frustrated world where they feel they have to constantly prove themselves. They have to show just how much money they have, how powerful they are, how nice their house is, how much they have sacrificed for the sake of their wife, how many difficulties they face (their children are lazy and disrespectful, their wife doesn’t do all the housework and so they are forced to cook sometimes, etc.).

One of the problems that I have is that I do not have much patience for this. I have infinite patience with my students. But it seems all my patience is used up by the time I have to face one of these typical Indian men. (I am aware of the paradox of my infinite patience being used up, but India is a land of paradox! 🙂 )

I am just not impressed by the puffing up and the boasting and the showing off. And the more puffed up the man gets, the more difficult I find it to hide my contempt (not for him, for his behaviour). Particularly when his puffing up is done at the expense of others (wives, children, brothers, friends, etc.).

The Guest is God

Monday, July 14th, 2014

There is a saying here in Kerala: The Guest Is God. This is used to justify/explain the nature of Indian hospitality. People say this to me to make me feel better about my experiences of Indian hospitality.

The guest may well be god, but if so, he is a very impotent and ignorant god. The guest in India is not able to put rice on his own plate. He is not able to decide how much food is enough. He is not able to decide if he would like tea (the answer is yes, he would like tea). He does not know what he wants (“Do you want chappathi and vegetable curry or do you want tapioca?” “I’d like chappathi and vegetable curry.” “But you had that for breakfast.” “Yes, and it was very tasty.” “Are you sure you don’t want tapioca?” “Ok, tapioca is fine.” “Good.”). He is not able to say what is to his taste (“Do you like chilli in your omelette?” “No thank you, it is not necessary.” “But without chilli it is not tasty.” “But it is tasty to me.” “No, you must have chilli.”) The guest in India must suffer the concern and worry from the host (“You are thin these days: why  are you unhappy?” “If you grow you hair that will be much better.” “Why aren’t you married?” “When you came here you were fair, but you are losing your glamour and now your skin is becoming dark.”).

Though this raises an interesting point. If all gods are as powerless and frustrated as Indian guests then this certainly does explain the general ineffectiveness of religions.

Note: This post does make me sound rather whiney and ungrateful. That is not the case. I am very grateful indeed for the hospitality that Indian families show to me and the other volunteers. It’s just, that sometimes Indian hospitality can be rather exhausting! See the rollercoaster post for a bit of insight into my mental state. 🙂

A Day In The Life

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Here is a brief run-down of something that might approximate a typical day for me.

7am: my alarm starts going off, I start trying to wake up, I check email and facebook in between snoozes.

8am: I actually get up and face the cold bucket shower. Urrgghhhhh!

8:30am: I wander downstairs to say hi to my host mother and to have breakfast.

9:00am: I leave the house and either head to Johnson’s to do some work, or to St Nicholas school to teach my behaviour class, or to visit one (or more) of the other volunteers in their schools.

12:00: I attempt to avoid lunch. I may have a cereal bar, or a raw carrot.

Afternoons: usually at Johnson’s working, or heading out somewhere with the volunteers for a very nice iced coffee and a lovely chat, sometimes I’m home and washing clothes, though that is very rare.

7:00pm: I attempt to get home, sometimes this is 8, or 9, or even 10. But earlier is definitely better. If it’s too late, then my host mother stands outside the gate on the highway waiting for me. Sometimes, if I’m home early enough I may do some dancing practice in my room for an hour.

9:00pm: I have dinner with my host family and then chat to them for a while. The TV is usually on and we’re either watching the World Cup or Malayalam movies.

10:00pm: I head upstairs to my room. Sometimes I wash some clothes. Usually I call one or more of the volunteers (or the team leader) to check on how things are going and finalise plans for the next day. Sometimes I do more work. Sometimes I read a book for a while.

Note: I sometimes have a shower in the evenings before bed. I sometimes have a shower in the afternoon at lunchtime. So I have one, two or three showers, depending on the day and how tired I am (I would like to say it depends on how dirty I am, but it doesn’t: there have been many evenings when I have been sweaty and gritty and dusty and dirty and disgusting and I have collapsed onto the bed fully clothed instead of having a shower – just because I’ve been too exhausted to deal with a cold bucket shower).

Note: when I say I do work, what I mean is lesson planning for the behaviour management sessions we’ve been doing with the teachers, lesson planning for the student behaviour sessions that the teachers are running with their classes (I’m team-teaching some of these sessions), writing up funding proposals for VESS, making arrangements for the next group of volunteers, updating the VESS finances, etc. I also mean writing up blog posts and checking email.

Note: since I only have four sets of churidar with me, I have to wash my clothes a lot, though I only have to wash a few things at once. I have washing powder and I soak the clothes in the soapy water for 10 mins, or half an hour, depending on how bored I am or how interesting the book is that I’m reading, then rinse everything, wring it out in my towel and hang it up. I try to wash my clothes every day or two, but it sometimes ends up being 3 or 4 days. Sometimes this happens in the morning, sometimes the afternoon, usually it happens at about 10pm.

Note: this may not sound very busy, but it is. 🙂 The lesson planning and other work for the charity is a lot of hard work. And supporting the volunteers is amazing fun and an absolute delight (and one of the main reasons why I come) but it does take time. When there are difficulties with the volunteers then that takes lots of phone calls, lots of discussion and lots of emotional energy, so that can be much harder than it may initially appear. So each day is busy. Each week just flies past. And most importantly: I am really enjoying myself! 🙂

Family, Religion and Elders

Monday, July 14th, 2014

I am told here that Indian culture is good because they value family. This is usually a commentary on the fact that I’m not married and don’t have children.

And yes, Indian culture values family though I don’t agree with many consequences of this ‘valuing’. But that is a whole other story. For the purposes of this post let’s just say that I agree that Indian culture values family. However, in my culture, I was brought up to value people with families and people without. A person who does not have children is not a wasted, tragic, pitiful figure to me.

Indian culture respects religion. Now, the more I learn about religions the less I think anyone should respect them. That again is another story. But for the moment, assume that I think religious tolerance is a good thing, and assume for a moment that India practices that (some people almost do). However, in my culture, I was brought up to respect people with religious beliefs (regardless of the religion) and to respect people without religious beliefs. In the communities I live in having a different religion is ok (unless it is Islam), having no religion is not ok (though it may be preferable to Islam, depending on how religiously intolerant the person I’m talking to is).

Indian culture respects its elders. This is a duty of citizens as spelled out in the Indian constitution. However, in my culture, I was brought up to respect people who are younger than me as well as people who are older than me. I was also brought up to want to try to earn the respect of people younger than me, rather than simply demanding it solely based on age.

I do not want to say that my culture is better. I don’t believe it is. I don’t believe Indian culture is better either. I believe that there are some aspects of every culture that are wonderful and there are some aspects of every culture that are terrible and there are many aspects of every culture that are somewhere in between.

The point I want to make is that I’m fed up with being told (directly or indirectly) that I come from a morally bankrupt culture that is full of broken families and has no respect for family, elders or religion. Because I do not believe this is true!

Caveat: I am in a very narrow and specific sub-culture here. And it may be that the views and practices that are common here are not common in other parts of Trivandrum, Kerala and India. And it may be that there are sub-cultures in the UK/Australia that do not respect family (and non-family), that do not respect elders (and youngers), that do not respect religion (and non-religion). But all of the above is valid when comparing my personal (Kath) culture with the culture of these Christian, coastal, fishing communities.


Monday, July 14th, 2014

Food is an interesting thing. It is interesting in every culture and every country. Here are some of the components of food (as a broad cultural phenomenon) with specific Indian examples.

For a start there are the raw ingredients (breadfruit, jackfruit, drumsticks (it’s a vegetable), tapioca, chilli, curry, mustard seeds, pepper, chick peas, lentils, millet, coconut, rice flour, etc.). Then there are the ways they are combined (curry, pickle, various bready type things, etc.). Then there are the times of days that things are eaten (curry for three meals, rice flour dumplings in a very sweet coconut sauce for breakfast, etc.). Then there are the customs associated with food (eating with your right hand, finishing everything on your plate, not licking your fingers, etc.). Then there are the cultural habits and implications (the host serving the guest, eating more food makes the host happy, overfeeding, guests eat first, self-deprecation on behalf of hosts (my food is not tasty), etc.).

I am struggling with food here.

I am a vegetarian and I am living in fishing communities who eat fish curry two or three times a day. Fish curries rarely have any vegetables in them. Maybe a little bit of tomato. Or perhaps a lot of onion. They do of course contain chilli (which in my mind is a poison rather than a vegetable – food just shouldn’t be painful! 🙂 ). There are a couple of vegetable curries that might be eaten a couple of times a week.

I’m staying with a new host family. At time of writing this, I had been there for a week. Every day the host father had the following conversation with me:

  • “We were expecting a non-veg, but you are veg.”
  • “Yes.”
  • “I had planned a menu for non-veg, but you are veg.”
  • “Oh, sorry.”
  • “If you were non-veg we could give you good food. But you are veg.”
  • “Veg food here is fine. There are a lot of tasty vegetables. It’s no problem.”

I understand that he is worried. He wants to be a good host. And being a good host in India means feeding people well, and by his standards he can’t feed me well since I only eat vegetarian food. I don’t think it has occurred to him (nor will it ever occur to him) that I think vegetarian food is good food for me.

The other issue I have is that the host mother (who is the same age as me) serves my food for me; she won’t let me serve it. So I get an enormous pile of rice and then very big spoons of curry. And she makes me feel guilty if I don’t eat it all.

I am interrogated every evening about where I was for lunch and what I had. I am not telling her that I am skipping lunch every day because breakfast and dinner is far too much food for me. Especially since she thinks that I’m not eating enough at breakfast and dinner. And not eating enough is a major sin in India.

Another problem is that I don’t like curry or chilli. Now, I don’t really hate curry. I can eat it. It’s just if I never eat curry again for as long as I live I’ll be very happy. The masala spice mix they use here is very much not to my taste. And food with too much chilli just hurts and I find it difficult to eat. Almost everything here is curried or has chilli (or both).

What I really want is boiled, or lightly fried vegetables with rice and maybe some soy sauce. But there isn’t an Indian family alive that would allow a guest to be fed boiled vegetables. The laws of hospitality don’t allow giving such bland, tasteless food to guests (even if that is what the guest wants). I dare not ask for it at my new host family. They would have kittens. They are already majorly stressed about the fact that I don’t eat meat/fish and that I don’t eat enough.

Every time I eat something, they ask me if it’s good. And I say it is. The food is good. Some of it is not to my taste (I don’t tell them this), but that is quite clearly my problem not theirs. I’ll eat it. And it is good food. But I can tell them till I’m blue in the face that the food is good and they refuse to believe me. So every meal involves them asking if it is good and me saying it is and them shaking their heads sadly and saying no it isn’t, and me saying yes it is and them then telling me that they feel bad because they can’t look after me properly.

And it’s difficult, because the bigger the issue they make of food, the harder it is for me to eat it and smile. I will eat rice and curry and be very grateful for it (even though I’d prefer something else). But the hassle and the guilt trip and having to emotionally buoy up the husband and the wife at every meal is getting a little wearisome.

I think I may need to figure out some foods that I like (or at least that I dislike least) and specifically request them. I hope that’ll make the next five weeks a little easier.

Note: after writing this I’ve had some successes. I leave the food I don’t want to eat so that my host mother learns that I just won’t eat it). I still lie every day about lunch. I tell my host family that I had salad for lunch and they ask if that was with rice or chappathi, etc. I say no, just salad. I tell her it was very, very good and what I want. She laughs and says I will give you salad for dinner then. I smile broadly and say yes please! She thinks I’m joking and so I get dhosa (rice flour pancakes) and omelette (with onion and chilli) instead.

Further note: My host family actually made me salad one night and seemed utterly astonished that I ate it and liked it! I’m hoping this means that it might happen again. Also, my host mother has now found out that I’ve been lying about lunch, she went to visit the volunteer living with Johnson and while she was there she interrogated Lisba’s mother about what I have for lunch, she said I don’t. So my host mother then asked me again and offered to give me a lunch packet the next day.

Additional comment: I can understand that she wants to know if I’d like a lunch packet for the next day. And that is lovely. So I understand that she would ask me. I smile nicely and say no thank you. What I don’t understand is why she asks me the same question another 5 times in the next ten minutes. Perhaps she is trying to wear me down to the point that the 5th time she asks I’ll say yes just to make her stop asking. It is tempting, but sends the wrong message, so I’m holding strong and continuing to say no.

My People

Monday, July 14th, 2014

I was asked recently about what poverty levels are like in the UK. And after an initial failed start when asked what percentage of the population of the UK were below average (50%. Trivially. That’s what average means (well, depending on what you mean by average).), we got on to what percentage of the population live below the poverty line. I don’t know what it is in the UK (and I am aware about how unhelpful the concept of ‘poverty line’ can be anyway). I guessed 10-20%. So I was asked why it is I come to India to do voluntary work and why I don’t stay in the UK to help my people.

So I explained three things. Firstly, I do give to charity in the UK. Secondly, I don’t come to India just because I want to help poor people here. I come because I want to travel and see the world and experience different cultures, but I want to help people while I’m at it (also because I love the work that Johnson does and he is in India). And thirdly, and most importantly, I see no difference between people from the UK and people from India. The people in the UK are not ‘my people’; the people in India are not ‘other people’. I am a global citizen; nations are just lines in the sand for me. All people are ‘my people’ regardless of where they are.