Archive for September, 2014

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!

Poison Vegetables and Scurvy

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

I’m not sure exactly how members of the coastal fishing communities in Trivandrum aren’t suffering from scurvy en masse.

Their diet consists predominantly of rice, fish curry, fried fish, sweet milky tea and coconut oil.

They eat some vegetables: onion, garlic, ginger, tapioca.

They eat bananas each day and other fruits during the appropriate season.

About once or twice a week they might have a vegetable curry (aviel or sambar) but that consists of maybe two or three small cubes of vegetable and curry sauce per person.

So I genuinely am not sure where they are getting vitamin C. Perhaps one of the types of fish they eat has it. Perhaps there is enough in the cow’s milk they drink as part of their tea. There is a lot in green chilli, but they don’t usually eat the pieces of green chilli and even if they did then I don’t think there would be enough volume of chilli to contribute much vitamin C.

It seems that vegetables are a very, very recent addition to the coastal diet. Some of the existing grandparents don’t eat them and never have. And yet, some are living to their 80s and beyond.

One of the problems at the moment is that apparently the vegetables are poisonous. I have been told this by three separate families. They don’t know how I don’t die given that I don’t eat meat or fish and I do eat poisoned vegetables. I don’t know how they don’t die given they don’t eat vegetables and the fish they eat comes out of the same ocean that is used as a toilet and dumping ground for domestic, commercial and industrial waste.

But it seems the vegetables are mostly grown in Tamil Nadu and lots of pesticides are used on them. Which is why the locals believe they are poisoned. They say that the only good things to eat are the fish that come from the ocean, because these are pure and have not been tampered with.

It’s times like these that I wish I knew a lot more about nutrition and food safety.

Back In Sri Lanka

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

At time of writing I’m back in Sri Lanka. And it has been almost two years since I was here last. I can’t believe it has been so long!! I don’t wait to leave it that long again.

This place is in my heart and my soul and I am always struck by how much at home I feel when I come back here. 🙂

I absolutely adore it.

And I have some wonderful friends here too who I haven’t seen enough of. And I miss them when I’m not here.

And the gentleness of Sri Lanka (at least compared with India) has been wonderful.

Two days in Colombo by myself to wander the city and go to coffee shops and eat rice and curry and soak up the sun and walk beneath the trees and talk to old friends and meet up with old friends all did wonders to undo a lot of the ravages of India.

I’ve been giggling at all the people sweeping (there is always someone sweeping in Sri Lanka). I’ve eaten kotthu and egg rotti and pol rotti and pol sambol and dhal curry and polis (young jak fruit) and beetroot curry. I’ve had iced chocolates and mango smoothies and green tea (with mint). I’ve spoken Sinhala. I’ve pushed my way onto and off of buses. I’ve not had to go to Immigration! I’ve slept on buses. I’ve got on and off buses in the right places. I’ve queued (for some definition of queueing – sharpen your elbows, take a deep breath and push) for train tickets.

So all in all, it has been a wonderful rebirth coming back here again. I feel so much better for it. I’m happy, I’m at peace, I’m loving it.

And I must continually remember that this is what this country does to me and that this means I must make it a point to come back regularly.

Mama kameti!!!

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.

Strangling Cats

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Note: this post is not about actually strangling cats.

The aesthetic sense of different cultures is interesting. Music, dance, visual arts, fashion, etc. in different cultures have different aesthetics to my own culture. And that diversity is quite amazing. It can be very enlightening, educational, interesting, enriching, etc. to discover these art forms. Some have a beauty that resonates despite (or perhaps because of) its difference to my own culture’s art forms.

But in some cases, the differences jar or grate or simply annoy. Sometimes I don’t mind them: I just don’t derive pleasure from them.

Traditional dancing in India is a good example. I find the costumes to be bewildering in their ornateness. They don’t offend my aesthetic sensibilities; I’m just overwhelmed by them. The dancing itself is fascinating (for the most part). I find some movements to be beautiful and interesting and laden with meaning. I find some movements to be cumbersome, inelegant and ugly. But overall, I quite enjoy watching it. Though, not for too long. About 5 mins per dance and about half an hour per dance form is probably enough for me for one sitting. 🙂

But the music that goes with the dancing I find much more difficult. It involves drumming (cool), singing (not so cool), and sometimes a flute (cool) or a violin (not so cool). And I find the singing and the violin sound like someone strangling a cat. Or multiple cats. Quite loudly. For long periods of time.

Now, I’m no fan of cats. However, I still don’t want them to be strangled. And if they are to be strangled (heaven forbid) then I don’t want to listen to it. So I find a music form that to me (and I understand, not to others) sounds like a tribute to cat strangulation somewhat difficult to appreciate.

And it’s not just this music. Malayalam music (and Hindi music) on the whole sound very screechy and whiny to me. This is in part because the women sing about two octaves higher than their voice or my ears can comfortably cope with. It is also an interesting aspect of Malayalam (and Sinhala too) that there are short and long vowel sounds that are identical except for the length of the sound. So if there is a word with a short vowel sound in it, you can’t hold that note while singing (it would then make it a long vowel sound which would change the word). So often singers in these languages hold a consonant (e.g. n, l). And this sounds so very strange to me. And probably contributes to the quality that I interpret as whinyness.

So I find myself listening to music that I like (Pink, for example) in order to top up my musical aesthetic appreciation. And when I do listen to Indian or Sri Lankan music I try to focus on the drums or the dancing and to ignore the cats!

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! 🙂

You Know How Crazy It Is

Friday, September 12th, 2014

I was expecting an email from a friend. He said to be patient because I know how crazy things are there. I smiled and replied to say no rush. And, much as I was looking forward to hearing from him (and now have), there was no rush.

But since then I have been thinking about how crazy it is there. And how crazy it is here. And yes, things can get a little crazy there, but to be honest, I think his crazy isn’t even as crazy as my normal at the moment! 🙂

Here is a run-down of one day last week.


Becky and I went to watch one of the volunteers teach. We watched her for two hours and spent an hour working out what feedback/support was appropriate. We then went to her place to give her that feedback.

I get a phone call from my ex host mother: “We are at the function waiting for you” “What function?” It was her brother’s mother-in-law’s memorial mass (one year since she had died) and they were having lunch too. I declined since our host families were all expecting us home for lunch. Plus, I never feel comfortable being taken to a funeral (or memorial) for someone I have no connection with, especially since we are the white foreigners and will therefore get a lot of attention from everyone. This does not seem right to me.

I walk home to have lunch. (Rice, an omelette and some beetroot.)

Then deal with a phone call from a volunteer who is unsure what to do about a local boy at the bus station who is behaving exceptionally inappropriately (she wasn’t in danger, she just wasn’t comfortable). The local restaurant and shop owners intervened to shoo him away.

I walk to the ATM (which doesn’t have any cash) and get a bus to meet the other volunteers. The next cash machine does give me cash.

I meet the volunteers and have a rather uneventful couple of hours drinking iced coffee and chatting. Though I did rant quite a bit about dowry. It is not just illegal, it is evil.

We squashed four of us into an auto to go back to the bus station to get the bus back to the villages.

We walked to meet up with a volunteer to get him sorted out with an evening class he is doing. On the way, I twist my ankle and crumple in the middle of the road skinning my knee and stubbing my toe. (No gushing blood or anything, and no serious ankle damage. Just annoying.)

Then a series of phone calls with Johnson while we try to work out where he is and where we are and what needs to be done and whether he is coming or not. (The plan was that we would meet him to visit each of the hosts, anyway, the result was not meeting him but visiting the hosts anyway.)

We left the class and walked to the first volunteer. We interrupted the women praying, but the father was happy to look after us. We had juice and fruit and paid the family and chatted to the volunteer.

We walked to the highway and ran to catch a bus to the next volunteer. More chatting. We paid that family. We admired a sari. We then walked to the next volunteer. During which time the rain set in. We managed to huddle under a tree for enough time to get the umbrella out and my raincoat. But we still got wet. Monsoon is like that.

We continued walking to see the volunteer.

As we arrived, the host’s opening line was “I’m angry with you because you didn’t come for lunch.” Sigh.

We were offered tea but declined but did take a cupcake.

Part way through the cupcake Becky starts signally to me. Something about ants I think. Then I realise. My lip starts to tingle then to sting then to swell up. I had been bitten by an ant on the inside of my top lip.

We made our excuses and tried to leave before anyone in the family noticed my ever-increasing lip.

We got an auto to the next place. The auto was going to wait for us to take us to the last place and then to take me home.

There was a complication at this family so Johnson had to speak to the host. As we were walking up the driveway Johnson called me. I said that it was perfect timing. But he said he couldn’t talk to her now, he had an email to send, he was just calling me to ask about the location of a file he needed. He said he would call back in two minutes. (It is already after 9pm by now.)

I get a text message from my host asking where I am.

Becky gets a call from her host asking where she is.

I get a call from the person who arranged the auto. The auto driver (who is waiting for us) isn’t feeling well and wants to leave. So I run out to pay him and collect my umbrella and raincoat and let him go.

Twenty minutes later (after chatting to the volunteers and have them laugh uproariously at my swollen lip), I text Johnson back to ask if he’s free yet. He is so I pass the phone to the host so that Johnson can clarify the issue. Done.

We walk to Becky’s place where we manage to refuse payasam (it’s a bit like rice pudding, but it’s cold and wet (like a soup) and insanely sweet).

I walk home.

The two dogs fighting in the street seem to be more interested in each other than me (though I did have my umbrella ready to wave at them menacingly just in case).

I get home. My family doesn’t notice my fat lip (which is a relief because I didn’t want to have to explain it).

I have dinner. (Another omelette, rice, beetroot.)

I collapse into bed.

And as days go, this is probably towards the normal end of the spectrum!