Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year!

Here's wishing you a very Happy New Year !

.... Clive takes a swig of boiled water....  

.... then goes to bed.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Fascinating Fotos

Today I went up th the junction to buy a mains extension lead.  I needed one with a 3m lead - but could I get one?!  So I thought - one plug, 3m cable, one double rubber socket... they don't do double rubber sockets.

But they do do wooden boxes, pre-cut paxolin panels, cable, switches, sockets and screws!

I had three Christmas presents this year and here are two of them.  This kind of thing is REALLY popular in India.  Made in China, of course!

When has not having a perfect cricket pitch stopped an Indian from playing??  And you can tell by the worn earth how just much it doesn't stop them!

Monday, 28 December 2009

Looking Ahead

Thankfully the temple music only lasted two days and actually was less intrusive the second day. Since then I was hoping to find time to sit down and start preparing a plan for the new term but I keep procrastinating and being side-tracked. I've been distracted by concerns of what I'll do after my visa runs out and I quit SISP next March.  I did a bit of Internet surfing and found a project in SW Sri Lanka which might need a volunteer. I've fired off an email to them and have also started a VSO application. With the VSO I'm sure I could get a posting if I wanted to work in my profession field but I don't. I want to continue this teaching of Computing but I'm not qualified so I doubt VSO would want me.

Finally today I've go myself comfortable and have looked back at the work of the last year so that I can plan what we'll do next.  A year ago, as computers were new to these kids, it was a matter of getting them familiar and confident with using them first, with plenty of practical work.  Now it's a case of shoe-horning them into a more structured and graduated learning scheme, at the appropriate levels.  To help me, I've started looking at the text books used by other schools. There's a lot of rubbish in them and very few decent examples but I can get a feel for where they're going and then try to plan my own approach for reaching the same end points.

This is a long-term plan and, the trouble is, if I leave SISP at the end of March I'll feel I haven't accomplished as much as I could.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Damned Temple Music Again

Boxing Day, and the music from the Hindu temple woke me. The volume got progressively louder so that by 6am I couldn't stand it any more and had to get up. The loudspeakers aren't immediately outside my house this time but, even so, it was bloody loud. I wonder if it's Hindu retribution for yesterday's Christian festival.

Despite playing Tina Turner and M-People at full volume I wasn't able to drown it out. I couldn't stand it any more and had to get out! Just as I was shutting the door there was a power cut. Silence! Golden Silence!

I went for a walk to the beach and stayed down there for a while. It was sunny, very hot and humid. It would be great to find somewhere quiet and shady to just sit and relax but there's nowhere. I suppose I could sit at one of the restaurants but I'd have to buy something and I begrudge their high prices (relative to non-touristy areas). And anyway, there's no real peace and quiet anywhere.

Eventually I got back to Kovalam Junction, had lunch and then called in at SISP. I'd been asked by the Dance Leader to take a few photos. He wanted them for some advertisement which was to be published in a couple of days' time. I took twenty or so for him and got them to the guy who's going to do the editing and layout. Here are a few poses for your entertainment...

When I got home there was still silence, even though the power had returned. Perhaps it was over?! No such luck, the noise soon returned. I'm trying to ignore the din as I write this. I'm trying to stay calm.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas,
Clive in India

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Chalk and blackboards

I dunno why the temples seem extra noisy this morning but they certainly are. Can't say the wind is in the wrong direction as there isn't any! It's not the full-blast, speakers-in-a-tree volume but it was loud enough to wake me early. Perhaps it's a competition between temples - I took a walk down that way a few weeks ago and found that there were no less than four temples, perhaps two or three hundred metres apart, all along the same little road, and each with its own particular aural pollution.

For the last week we've had no computers at the school. The supplier's technicians turned up with one hour's notice apparently, but the first I knew of it was when they'd arrived! And I didn't know we'd actually decided to wipe all the hard disks, reinstall Windows XP, and buy and install Kaspersky AV. No one tells me nuffing! So, I had to rush around, pulling off vital students' work onto my USB stick, while the technicians got to work. By the end of the day they'd wiped the disks and reinstalled XP. By the end of the next day Kaspersky was in place but we couldn't use the machines because the latest updates and virus definitions were needed from the Internet. And the next day the technicians didn't turn up. Nor the next day, nor the next. If I ask anyone, they shrug their shoulders (or give an Indian head wobble) and say "This is India!"

Yeah, what else should I expect!

It's going to be another chalk and blackboards day...

Saturday, 19 December 2009

From Kovalam Beach

I was down on Kovalam's Lighthouse Beach this morning, visiting a friend. The fishermen were pulling in the nets and that always makes for a good photo. The nets are vast, and it takes more than an hour to haul them in. I didn't stay to see the catch but no doubt it will be filling a few stomachs in the many beach-side restaurants this evening.

What always strikes me when I see this scene is not how romantic or evocative it is but that it would surely be more efficient if the rope didn't turn a corner.  If the last few guys were really doing any work then those just in front of them would be struggling to stand upright!

This giant hedgehog must be a good metre and a half in length. I think it's just what's left of the stump of a palm tree after being tossed about in the sea for a while. It would look great with some eyes and nostrils painted on it!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Monday grumps

It's Monday, and we're having a bit of a re-shuffle. Following the exams in November, in the four lower groups one or two of the most able children have moved up a class, one has moved down, but the majority have stayed where they were. There have been some more significant changes at the top. B-Group has become the students who hope to achieve the public "7th Standard" exams, and A-Group has become those hoping to achieve "10th Standard" (I'm guessing that that is approximately equivalent to GCSE ('O' Level) standard in the UK). Five students formerly in A-Group have been moved to B-Group leaving only five at the top. And then there are six students, mostly ex-B-Group, who are older but who won't achieve either exam. I call them the "A-minus" students. So now we have an additional group but no extra teachers. The Head's idea is that we teach both A groups simultaneously, but with the A- group doing simplified worksheets. This will be a big burden on the teachers, me included. We have to produce extra lesson plans/worksheets, and manage two vastly different ability groups in the same classroom simultaneously. I can't see how this can work out well. Trouble is, the school can't afford extra teachers.

Personally I'd just kick the A- students out. Two of them are disruptive and lazy, and the other four are somewhat slow and backward. They must all be 16 and older, and despite investing a lot in them already, they've achieved very little. I can't see the point in spending any more of our limited resources on them which is certain to be to the detriment of the teaching quality for the A+ students. Putting it kindly, the A- students are not academically inclined. Ideally SISP would be able to offer them vocational training but it's proved impossible - we don't have the money or the time. As it is, these kids are doing negligible work in the classrooms in the mornings. In the afternoons some do "work" in the craft workshops - only they chat and disrupt rather than work, despite the best attempts of the coordinators. As I say, I'd kick them out. In my opinion we're doing no favours keeping them at SISP, other than keeping them from sitting around at home doing nothing. However, the management team are more caring than I am and take a softer approach. I lack compassion.

Right... my day starts at 9am with an hour's computer tuition for one of the craft workshop coordinators.  She's my age and is entering November's production figures into a spreadsheet.  She's done this every month for the last nine months but still struggles. I suppose that she's lived without technology for so long that this is all a bit abstract for her.

Then there should be a welcome cuppa and a sandwich at 10am. The cook has been in the kitchen since 9am so you'd expect it to be ready on time, wouldn't you? It rarely is. There are twenty minutes before the classes start and ten minutes have already passed. So we have 60 or so noisy, hungry kids, running around, creating merry hell. I go to find out why it's so late. The cook is just sitting there, ostensibly preparing lunch. The tea and bread are ready but she tells me that none of the students has been to collect them, and the woman just shrugs her shoulders and can't be bothered to take any initiative. Fortunately, before I blow my top, some older students arrive and carry the tea and food up to the hall. The kids now have less than 10 minutes in which to queue up, drink and eat before the bell goes.

Up in the hall there are still the decorations from Sacrifice Day two weeks ago. It's the same old story - if someone thinks to put them up, no one thinks to take them down. Meanwhile they get destroyed. I remove a string of tatty flags, screw it up and put it in the bin.  Within minutes it's out and being pulled over a table-full of tea and sandwiches... somehow again I manage to not go berserk.

The computer lab is really an area at the far end of the dining/assembly hall, which has been sectioned off by some movable wooden screens.  Then there is an area for A-Group classes with three blackboards separating it from the main hall. At lunchtime the heavy/awkward blackboards have to be moved, and the chairs have to be taken out of the computer lab and classroom for sitting at the lunch tables. The chairs and tables already in the hall have to be rearranged too. I cannot recall a single day when anyone has moved the chairs or blackboards of his own volition. Not one. They always have to be told. And this is a task that needs doing every single day. Then at the beginning of classes, as now, the boards and chairs have to be moved back again, usually achieved by dragging them screetching across the tiled floors.

There is no sound-deadening between A-Group, the hall, and my computer lab, and the dividers are only half-height. Consequently we suffer from noise pollution. And it's self-perpetuating - if outside is noisy then my students have to shout to be heard, causing the outside students to shout even louder....

My timetable shows that I have one lesson in the morning, but two teachers haven't turned up today and I have to teach in the periods I'd hoped to use to prepare lessons. Consequently, nothing is prepared, and I have to improvise. This happens often, but somehow or other I've managed to never come unstuck, or at least not badly. At worst I might forget that the youngest kids have the attention spans of gnats (hmm ... perhaps gnats actually have good attention spans, but you know what I mean!) and I might try to teach them for 60mins rather than 30mins of computer and 30mins drawing or reading. Normally I take a register and record the activities for every class and that helps my aging memory in continuing tasks already in progress or avoiding duplicating stuff.

Three mornings every week I have free first periods.  On paper, at least.

OK, so that's Monday morning out of the way.  Now lunch.  Guess what?  It's EFFING late EFFING AGAIN!  The kids are champing at the bit, fighting and running around like half-crazed lunatics.  And have the blackboards been moved?  Guess!

 But be happy for me - feeling grumpy is good for me!  I'm not entirely convinced - perhaps I need to relax a bit more and be a bit more Indian.  These problems are my problems, not theirs!

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Games and Fun in Kerala

As I sit here writing this, my Internet cable connection has failed and there's no mains power. A couple of hours ago we had a bit of rain so the outages are not unexpected, at least not by me in my corner of India.  What is unexpected is the rain. The months following the monsoon are usually dry, as they were last year and the year before, but this year the monsoon didn't really happen and we've been having occasional unseasonal downpours instead. Other than the loss of connection I don't mind too much but the rain must come as a nasty surprise to the tourists who've now started to arrive in significant numbers.

I'm pleased to say that no more water has been coming out of the power sockets!

It's my afternoon off and I've actually just returned from a meeting with a couple of tourists down on Kovalam Beach. They are supporters of SISP, the organisation I work for, and I wanted to ask them if they'd mind if the money they'd recently donated was spent on something other than what they had requested.  They didn't mind at all and, in fact, added another £200 to their £150 donation. Nice folk!

We've now come to the end of two weeks of exams and team games. Thank God it's over - it was exhausting! But not as bad as last year, I'm pleased to say, and at least the chaos felt a little more organised this time.

As an incentive to do well in their exams, the marks the children achieved were added into their team's results. I'm not convinced the ploy worked. Anyway, I was in the 'Hunters' team and, like last year, it's teams like mine which generously allow others to come first, second and third ;) Despite my protestations, I was roped into doing three of the team games: chess, tug-of-war, and relay sponge. Surprisingly I won the first game of chess but I think my opponent's non-appearance may have had something to do with it. In the follow-up game I was annihilated! My team came second in the tug-of-war and I didn't fall over or get dragged along the ground like last year, so that was some kind of success. And in the sponge relay, where you fill a bottle with the water from a sponge, my team triumphed, but only after a false start because my bottle had holes in it. Subterfuge has not been ruled out! All in all it was good clean fun and kids of all sizes enjoyed it, including this one!

We have fifteen PCs at SISP. Eight are used by students, two by social workers, two for accounts, two by management and one by teachers.  They all run MS Windows XP (unlicenced), MS Office (unlicenced) and Photoshop (you guessed it), and other software. At least thirteen of them have viruses. Because the MS software is cracked the Help features don't work. Because XP doesn't have the latest service packs applied it is (presumably) more fault prone.  And because the Antivirus software (AVG) is free it gets blamed by the system retailers for all the crashes and breakdowns that we have. Or it's the extra-noisy mains power in Kovalam, the dust, the salt-air, powering-off before properly shutting down... whatever.  Rarely does a day go by when we don't have at least one PC out of action, and we have no spares. One of the problems is that volunteers here use USB pen drives to work in Internet caf├ęs and to carry their work (plus viruses) to SISP.  Or students use memory cards from mobiles to transfer music files (plus infections) via USB adaptors via our PCs, while others sometimes pop dodgy MP3 disks into the disk drives. It's a nightmare! And we can't repair or reinstall because we don't have any of the 'original' cracked software disks ourselves, so we have to wait several days for the technicians to arrive, then often several days more for a fix.

I would like to move to a Linux distribution (like Mint), OpenOffice and Gimp etc. At least then we'd be legal, more virus resistant, and have the disks ourselves. I use OpenOffice on Vista on my personal laptop and find it's excellent.  But no one else has confidence in the move, and finding someone to support it after I eventually leave SISP might be tricky...

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Backwaters and Hills

Fellow SISP volunteer Antje and I decided to take off for four days to see some of the south India countryside. Friday was the Muslim Sacrifice Day so, with Saturday and Sunday, I just had to take one extra day off work. It's the first proper holiday I've had since coming here if you don't count the trips back to the UK for visa renewals so I think I was due a break! We headed north to Alleppey by bus, took a ferry to Kottayam, bus to Munnar, taxi to Thekkady, bus back to Kottayam, train to Trivandrum, then bus and rickshaw home.

The first leg of the journey was hellish - of the four-hour bus journey to Alleppey, 3 hours was spent standing. Personal space got smaller and smaller so that in the end we were all standing arse to arse and hip to hip in the aisle. If you moved your foot the vacated space was immediately occupied by someone else's foot. What with the jolting, being unable to move, heat, humidity, lack of forward visibility and limited sideways visibility, the journey was far from enjoyable. At one point I was on the verge of getting off, wherever we were, because it was so claustrophobic and I was so close to throwing up. Somehow I survived, the numbers thinned and miraculously a seat appeared beside me so I grabbed it!

Alleppey is the hub for Kerala's backwaters. The majority of houseboat journeys start and end here, and if you do the touristy thing of hiring a houseboat and staff for one night or more you'll part with tens of thousands of rupees (hundreds of pounds). However, you can do the journey from Alleppey to Kottayam by public ferry. Admittedly it's not quite as scenic but we found it was a quiet route, the boat wasn't crowded and you get to see some genuine backwater life as you glide along. Best of all, the two-and-a-half hour journey costs just ten rupees! That's about 13 pence! Bargain!

Kottayam doesn't have much of interest so we went straight to the bus stand. Buses were constantly coming and going and the place was heaving. We were worried that we might not be able to identify the correct bus so we couldn't really relax there. We also wanted to make absolutely certain we had seats this time and when the bus eventually turned up we jumped on in front of a couple of nuns! But we needn't have worried - we all got seated OK. The road to Munnar climbs slowly up into the hills with constant twists and turns. It's narrow and patches are badly surfaced. You're forever trying to overtake slow vehicles or being overtaken by faster ones, all the time trying to dodge traffic from the opposite direction doing exactly the same thing. The grinding of the gears and engine are accompanied by constant horn-blowing which, amusing at first, soon got very tedious. Anyway, the views were quite good although we couldn't stop to admire them, of course.

Munnar is centre of the area's tea plantations and and much business is carried out there. It's also where a lot of scenic tours into the Western Ghat hills start from. The hotels are mostly boring, grubby, smelly and expensive so it took us a while to settle on something suitable. After we'd exhausted all the places mentioned in Lonely Planet we resorted to using a rickshaw driver to take us from place to place. You're really at their mercy - they probably take you to hotels that they know will be full, expensive or pay baksheesh. Our guy seemed fair so, once we did find something, we agreed that he would take us by car to Thekkady the next day. He told us we'd visit a tea plantation, spice garden, see waterfalls and stop at a lake. His fee was slightly more than what we'd seen advertised but he was a nice guy so we didn't mind. The rest of the evening was spent in the town, around the bustling market area. Relative to the coast the temperature was fabulously cool and the air fresh - a huge relief! Antje said felt the cold and bought some fleece ear-muffs which all the local trendies seemed to be wearing, along with fleece jackets and hats! I was OK and didn't feel the need for any extra layers.

Next day the taxi turned up early, only it wasn't the original driver and this one could barely speak English! The warning bells were loud enough but we crossed our fingers. He took us on the route and it was very pretty as we'd expected. We stopped at various viewpoints and got photos but found that you could only see the local tea plantations from a distance - they didn't accept visitors! The only spice garden on the route was an overcrowded tourist trap so we didn't stop, the waterfall fell right by the road and was surrounded by cars and fences, and we were told the lake was closed as it was Sunday! When we complained, our driver said we had actually seen all the things his brother had promised - we had seen them or visited them, but not actually experienced them! We were some way down the road before we realised what was happening and couldn't realistically go back. We couldn't contact the original guy because he had no phone, and we had no agreed itinerary in writing. When we finally got to Thekkady I cut his charges by Rs.100 which is what it would cost to get a taxi to local tea and spice gardens. Not a huge amount but it made me feel better! Going by bus would have been a lot cheaper but we wouldn't have been able to stop to admire the views - at least we'd achieved that much!

We stayed the final night at the Coffee Inn - a very quirky little hotel in Kumily. We'd arrived early and quickly found a room. In the evening we watched a Kathakali show which is a traditional dance/theatre performance. On the way down the road we'd been tailed by someone who wanted us to buy tickets through her, and wanted us to see 'her' shop too, so the omens didn't bode well but the show was actually better than I'd anticipated.

The journey home was quite thrilling, with the bus racing downhill, round blind bends and overtaking everything in sight at breakneck speeds! And finally we experienced our first Indian rail journey. We travelled in a sleeper class carriage which sounded like it might be a comfortable way to travel. It was OK-ish but a little cramped, and it's only called sleeper-class because the seats could be folded flat at night time. It being daytime, all the seats were upright, somewhat grubby plastic-covered, and a bit crowded. Worst was that the windows were very small which limited the view and the ventilation so I spent a while hanging out of the open door. We survived though and overall it was a fun experience which I wouldn't have wanted to miss.

More photos here:

Backwater and Hills

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Humid Mould

It's been raining a lot in the last week - very heavily at times. Water has even been coming out of a power socket on the wall! I've put a bucket underneath and have collected at least 8 litres. The soil is banked up on that side of the house and the puddling water somehow finds the power conduit. The owner promised to lower the level "tomorrow" several days ago but hasn't. Meanwhile, everywhere is very damp and the humidity is very high. A towel I washed a week ago and hung outside is still damp, and smelly again. Everything takes ages to dry and many things are going mouldy within a day or two. My heated cupboard is being put to good use and seems to be keeping some things mould-free. Night-time temperatures are actually lower - I haven't measured them but I feel cold in bed and have woken up early several times because of it. I have the ceiling fan on quite high so that it drowns out the outside noises (esp the temple at 5am) but obviously it cools me even more. I can see myself resorting to earplugs!

At SISP we're very busy getting ready for the exams and the Muslim "Sacrifice Day" festivities. So far I've avoided the group games but I'm told it would send the wrong message to the children if I opt out completely - damn! The exam papers should be in by today but I've only written two of the six required. I'll get them done before they're needed but they take time, and I have the constant distraction of normal classes, fixing broken computers, computer viruses etc. It ain't easy!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Return to India

I'm back in India again. Unlike on my return in April I haven't hit the emotional low or had the bad heat rash I experienced then. Fingers crossed! Having said that, I do miss my family and friends in the UK.

The weather here is still hot and very humid. We've had a few heavy showers which must have raised the humidity even more. And the sun at around midday feels very intense. We've had a few rumbles of thunder but they've been mainly out at sea. The air is very still under all the palm trees. There's the occasional breeze near the beach but then, without the trees, there's little protection from the sun. What I'm trying to say is that it feels damned hot!

In Gatwick I had a minor panic with my luggage: my ticket said I had a 30kg baggage allowance but the staff said 20kg. My bags weighed in at 29.8kg!! Fortunately they used their discretion to let me through - I had visions of dumping all the goodies intended for SISP (PC, art materials, craft materials etc). I can tell you I was very relieved that it didn't come to that!

I shared my return flight with Antje from Germany, who will be at SISP for two months. She's very good company and is now using the spare room in my house. I've been able to show her around the area a little and introduced her to the people at SISP.

We arrived in Trivandrum at 4a.m. (on 21/10/09) and spent almost an hour getting through Arrivals and Baggage Reclaim. My luggage was marked with a big chalk "X" and I was pulled aside for questioning. When I explained that I had a dismantled desktop PC in my case they seemed to lose interest and didn't even ask me to open it. A taxi ride later (from a driver who took a scenic route even though the fare was 'fixed price') and we were back at my old house. The owners had swapped locks around, part-painted the peeling walls, and left the floors and surfaces grubby despite me requesting they Spring Clean it while I was away, but it didn't really matter - I was just grateful to have somewhere to rest my head and catch up on a few ZZZZ's!

As in April, I found my time in the UK very unsettling. I felt forever on the move, staying in other people's houses with people who have their own routines, sponging off their hospitality... Best was that I was able to see my son and daughter several times, sharing news, catching up, chatting, hugs, reestablishing bonds - lovely! I also saw the rest of my family, and met up with as many of my friends as I could. Next time I'll try to plan my visit to Abingdon so that I can have a game with my old badminton mates - I do miss the fun of those games and those friendly folks.

Soon after arriving in the UK I went up to London to get an Entry Visa. This is the correct category for volunteer workers - until now I've been on a Tourist Visa. I had read the VFS website and already obtained the requisite letter from SISP. But I failed miserably. They also wanted a letter from the UK branch of SISP - and there isn't one! A letter from Belgium might do, but that would take time, and I was told that I would only be granted a 3 month visa anyway, possibly extendible from India. I didn't want the hassle, and I wanted to be sure of getting a visa before my flight on 20th October, so I reverted to a Tourist Visa again. Applying for another back-to-back Tourist Visa is a bit risky (it suggests employment, residency, business etc) but fortunately it came through within the week.

Returning to SISP was great! I was greeted by so many little friends - it was really heart-warming. The huge smiles, the big hugs, the handshakes, the little touches, the shy grins, the shouted "hello Clive Saar"s! Then it was quickly back into the routine of staff tuition, class teaching and evening student tuition. Tine, the Belgian volunteer who had taken over while I was away, had done a good job. But her methods were... different from mine, let's say. I've found that a bit of a struggle but I'm sure we can work something out so that we can work together amicably in the future months.

On Friday we had a Teachers' Meeting during which I discovered we are going to celebrate a Muslim festival at the end of November. Christian last year and Hindu next. If you remember, I found last year's Christmas chaos absolute hell! And they're going to do the same this year: four teams, two weeks of indoor and outdoor games, daily changed boards showing various aspects of the religion, with end-of-month exams at the same time. The Head teacher said that 99% of the staff had enjoyed last year's activities - I must have been the 1% then! Thankfully, this time we have four other volunteers - Tine, Antje, Angela, and Cassi. Last year there was only one: me! I will do my absolute best to minimise involvement - but expect a grumpy report soon!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Clive Not In India

I'm currently still in the UK but fly back in 72 hours time. As usual, my time here has flown and as usual there have been people I haven't seen or haven't spent long enough with. It's all a blur! I stayed with my sister in Guildford for a few days, my parents in Farnham, my son in Swansea, friends M&S in Abingdon, and now back to by brother's place in Surrey. Tomorrow I return to Guildford and from there will catch a train to Gatwick early 20/10.

But I'm ready to return now - I'm all packed!! I intend taking my old desktop PC with me to donate to SISP so I've dismantled it and have done a trial pack of my suitcase. I'm also taking some art materials from various kind bods, and some other bits and pieces so was concerned that it'd all fit. It does, but only just, and is only just below the baggage allowance of 30kg! I'm going to have to tie a rope around the suitcase so that it doesn't all burst open!

The weather here in the last few days has been glorious. England is showing me what I'm going to miss. The air is cool and clear, the skies blue, and the leaves are a mix of golds, reds and browns. Where I'm sitting right now I can see miles up to the Devil's Punchbowl near Hindhead. Fantastic! In an hour I'm off to see my parents for lunch, and a bit later I'll be going to see my son and daughter and ex. for supper. It's all go!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

England, here we come!

Tomorrow morning I fly back to the UK. So ends my first year in India! I think I'll have to save my thoughts about my time spent here for a future post - I haven't finished packing yet and I've got to clean the house and tidy up before I'll rest!
Flight is 10:20 from Trivandrum with a 3 hour stopover in Dubai, arriving at London T3 at 20:15. (Emirates EK521 and EK005, total time 14.5 hours.) My sister has insisted on picking me up and whisking me back to her place in Guildford. Damned decent of her - thanks, J!

I'm looking forward most to catching up with my "children", C & J, and the rest of my family, and hearing all the news and stuff. And, in between, I hope to see as many of my old friends as possible too!

Friday, 25 September 2009

News Update for my old colleagues at JET

This is a copy of my latest contribution to the "CODAS Chronicle", a newsletter at JET, my old workplace.

I've been here in India almost a year now. Time has whizzed by, especially the last six months. And during all this time I have never once thought that I'd made the wrong choice. So, to those (few) naysayers who reckoned I'd be back working at JET within a year, I hope you didn't bet money on it because I'm going to disappoint you!

I will, however, be coming back to the UK for a short visit in October, to see family and friends and to renew my India visa for at least another year. In fact I'll be applying for a two-year visa though it's by no means certain I'll get it.

Just in case you've forgotten what I'm doing here, my main role is teaching "Computing" to the children at SISP through office and graphics applications. The children are aged from 6 to 20 or so, and all come from impoverished backgrounds.

So, what's been happening? On 15th August we had Independence Day celebrations, commemorating independence from us Brits in 1947. I expected to encounter some animosity but found nothing of the sort. In fact, if anything, all the Indians I've met have a preference for the British. Unfortunately it doesn't extend to getting discounts in the shops! White skin = full manufacturer's recommended price.

Then in early September we celebrated Onam, Kerala's main festival. At SISP we held a competition for the most beautiful 'pookkalam' - essentially a pattern or picture made with flower petals. These could be seen all over Kerala, adorning pavements, shop fronts and bits of empty road-side land. Generally a big temporary roof is placed over them because Onam happens to coincide with the monsoon season and they'd be washed away otherwise! Some patterns were small - just half a metre in diameter. Others were huge - maybe a 3D scene with an area of 25 square metres! SISP's pookkalams ranged from 600mm up to 2 metres in diameter - anything bigger would have cost too much and also have taken an inordinate amount of time to construct. As it was, our classes spent a morning making them and even had to raid nearby rough ground to find sufficient petals!

This little fellow is a House Gecko and he, and a few of his mates, live with me in my house. He's quite harmless, and earns houseroom by eating some of the spiders and cockroaches that are foolish enough to come his way.

I just had to show you these photos! These are on the covers of our latest consignment of exercise books. They depict Ajith, Vijay and a couple of other Bollywood/Tollywood/Kollywood film stars. The kids love these guys, and I got them to make me a poster with them on to brighten up the computer lab. There's some rivalry between fans which has resulted in an adornment of moustaches, glasses and extraneous appendages.

Finally, here's a paan-chewing fruit seller, trying her luck at Kovalam beach. She asked me to photograph her after I'd told her umpteen times I didn't want her pineapple, papaya, bananas or mangoes, so I felt obliged. And anyway, how could I resist the gappy smile and blood-stained teeth? Or her machete...

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

And so to bed, only to find...'s not made.

Wish someone would invent a bed that made itself. I'd be first in line!

Hmmm... bet I wouldn't be alone, either. Perhaps there's money to be made here?!

I have only one set of sheets so I have to do a 12 hour turn around. Not so easy when humidity is high, I have no modern appliances, and there's a fair risk of rain. I have strung a line under an outside overhang which is reasonably effective at keeping things out of the rain and in the breeze, but it gets no sun and tends to get forgotten. Hence the late-night pain.

Stop procrastinating, Clive!!!

I wonder if I could sleep on the bare mattress...

Busy Doing Nothing

Hiya! Sorry that I haven't blogged for a couple of weeks but there's a very good reason for that - there's nothing to report!

Well, nothing very newsworthy anyway :)
But guess what! I'm gonna tell you anyway!! If you get bored easily, switch off now...

I've started the ball rolling with my India visa application - I've filled in the on-line application form at the VFS agency and I've written a letter offering myself a voluntary position at SISP. That's what you need when applying for an 'Entry' visa - the type now required for volunteering. It's all above board: I'll ask the managers at SISP to approve it and sign it. I've applied for a two-year visa in the hope that I'll get at least a 1 year. There are no refunds - if it gets knocked back to 1 year then I'll lose £60. It's a gamble I'm hoping will work out.

Last Saturday I spent four or five hours wandering around Trivandrum, trying to get inspiration for gifts for friends back home and failing miserably. Sorry you guys - I tried, I failed, I got sore feet. Fancy a keyring from Heathrow?

What else? Oh yes, bloody mosquitoes! I always say (to myself, mostly) that a good day starts with a dead mosquito. I try to get it before it gets me, and one day last week, in the shower, I got five! Yes, good going, but it means there are more about, and don't I just know it?! I've been bitten, and I've scratched my legs till they bleed! I can't help it - I even wake up finding myself scratching away! I'm going to have to cut my nails down to nothing because my legs look red raw and truly 'orrible!

I've been trying to work out where I'll sleep, who I'll see, what I'll do and so on, when I'm back in the UK. That's a work in progress....

Oh, I've finished my third noticeboard and attached it to the wall in boss Paul's office. It's a big one at 5ft x 3ft. He doesn't need one that large but it sort of justifies me having one the same size. Wouldn't want to usurp the boss, now would I?!! Above is a photo of one of the small ones - see how good those mitre joints look at a distance!

Friday, 4 September 2009

Onam Lunch - Friday: Wedding of Vijayalekshmi and Rahakrishnan

The laundry man from up the road has been asking me for months to go to his sister's wedding and so I went! I didn't know either the bride or groom or any of the families but I was made to feel very welcome, and Uday hugged me like a long lost brother!! The sister and her groom were in their forties so it was a little unusual from that respect. I imagine it wasn't an arranged marriage, but if it was a 'love marriage' then it was a little odd because they hardly looked at one another!

I was placed near the front so got a good view of the proceedings and will appear in many of the photos and videos. I guess I was the token white guy - there were no others. I think Uday was pleased to be seen connected with a Gora!

So what about the event itself? Imagine a lot of noise, incense, people, lights, talking, photography and videoing and you'll get the idea! I suppose vows were said but I didn't notice them. However, there was the usual walking around the little temple three times and perhaps, once performed, the deed was as good as done.

I didn't actually have the wedding lunch because I was feeling so bloated after days of eating rice for breakfast, lunch and supper, and all the (rice) Payasam I kept being offered.

The wedding hall had a dining hall attached to it with several rows of long tables and benches. Meals were eaten in three sittings - there were a lot of people! Portions were served by a well-organised squad of helpers, one of whom was my hairdresser!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Onam Lunch - Thursday

I had another Onam invitation - this time to R's house in Kovalam. She's the (almost) 19 y.o. girl who is being sponsored by some friends of mine to continue her mornings-only education at SISP. I think her mother felt she owed me something for setting it up. I arrived at 10 o'clock as invited, uncertain as to whether food would be included. It was! It came after an hour and I noticed that I was the only one to be given the special Onam food.

I looked around. The house was brick with a tiled roof. The bricks were probably baked mud held together with a muddy mortar. There were gaps between some of them. The roof was broken in one part and let the rain in. The building was basically one big room with chest-high walls dividing it into four. There was the kitchen area, the clothes-hanging/drying area, some other section I can't quite recollect, and the living area. In the living area the girl, her mother and her 6y.o. sister ate, watched TV, and slept on the thin mat. Yes, they had a little TV; it occupied the only table they had. There was a shelf with some pictures R wanted me to see but it fell off the wall when she touched it. It was a piece of a wooden crate resting on two sticks which had been poked into gaps in the wall.

R showed me the photos which were of her and a previous sponsor. The sponsor had stopped giving money which R speculates was because some rickshaw drivers had spread gossip about her receiving other support. Even if she had, which I seriously doubt and she says not, you only have to look around to see that they have next to nothing.

The little girl was a delight. Friendly with a big smile just like her mother. They had lived there all their lives and, when we went for a walk afterwards, everyone greeted and welcomed them. This family had some serious hard-luck stories to tell and I guess that the community had closed around them and tried to support them. Good to see.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Onam Lunch - Wednesday

kids busy colouringI had a long-standing invitation from a woman at SISP to go for a family lunch on the first day of Onam. I mentioned a while back that she has two young children, the older of whom (6) is in an orphanage the other side of Trivandrum because she can't afford to keep her at home and has no space. She lives in a brick outhouse with the younger one. When the mother goes to work, the little one (4) goes to school. She can afford that, just. The older one gets free education and keep at the Christian orphanage.

When they went to collect the older girl a week ago they found she had two-week-old burns on her chest and under her arm. The staff said it was from spilt tea but I saw it when she visited SISP and it looked very odd - like a long black wavy line with a deep, raw wound. Apparently the little girl has since revealed that this was caused by a hot fire iron used by one of the staff to punish her for wetting the bed. Jesus! I, as a non-expert, would say that that version is more consistent with the appearance of the scarring. The police were called, they're treating it seriously, and it's been on TV and in newspapers! The mother said the orphanage had been sealed off and the culprit had gone on the run - not sure if I should believe that or not. The orphanage still maintains it was hot tea...

Anyway, the little girl was very happy to be at home. She was even happier to receive a colouring book, wax crayons and a couple of bangles. She spent 3 - 4 hours solid colouring in!

After this there is no question of her going back. The current hope is that she is now old enough to go to SISP, so she can travel to and from with her mother. The two girls and their mother will have to squeeze into the outhouse at nights. It's not big enough to swing a cat.

Meanwhile we had lunch. It was very nice and I was told they hadn't had a party since the old man died, though I wasn't aware we were having a party. Then the woman's bossier brother said "You will give me trousers. With double zip-off legs. Yes, and a white T-shirt with a pocket". I thought I'd misunderstood so I said "Oh yes? They're expensive! Where will you get them from?" "You will give me them!" "For Christmas present." "Get when you go to UK." "When can I have them?". That kind of knocked me aback and I muttered something about trying but no promises. It seemed so out of place and unexpected yet the others just ignored it as if it was nothing. I've checked a little about Onam and read that the family head distributes clothes to his family during Onam. I wonder if that's it. Or just the common practice of fleecing the gullible Westerner. Anyway, it pissed me off.

Later a couple of local politicians came and talked about the little girl's burns for the next hour, in Malayalam of course. They weren't going to shut up in a hurry so I took my leave. The brother tried to do a deal with a rickshaw driver but I snubbed him by walking home, a distance he was too fat to consider. I much prefer the other brother who, I think, has mental health problems. He was much more straight. And skinny!

Monday, 31 August 2009

Onam - Prelude

Pookkalam a bit further up my road - Challenge RoadBig Pookkalam on Kovalam Beach RoadPookkalam at SISP, made by A-Group
It's the start of the Onam festival time here in Kerala. Onam is like a harvest festival, celebrated by all religions and castes. Well, sort of... some folk think it's a bit uncivilized or unrefined or heathen. That's why I like it! Because it has little to do with religion! Story has it that ancient King Mahabali is visiting his people and they need to put on a display to impress him and show that they are doing OK, hence the 'onapookkalam' flower arrangements which appear everywhere.

I wrote an article about SISP's Onam celebrations. It has quite a few pictures and a couple of videos.

Most schools in the area have at least the whole of this week off but we just have Wednesday to Friday. Something to do with balancing the number of days holiday throughout the year. A significant number of kids didn't turn up at school anyway, because their mates were at home so why shouldn't they be?! The  Headteacher was also absent, and he was the driving force for today's organised events. They still went ahead, though perhaps not in a very organised manner. The competition to make the prettiest Pookkalam took 4 hours instead of two, teachers joined in when they shouldn't with the middle groups, while the youngest and oldest groups had no guidance at all!

In the afternoon we were all meant to go to the playground about 5km away but Paul decreed (probably rightly) that, because numbers were down and because of the problems of two loadings of the school bus, we'd play games on SISP's backyard. This we did, but it was somewhat cramped and chaotic. The children all had fun anyway.

It's difficult, in a Blog, to know what dirty linen should be aired in public. While the audience is small and known there's no problem but if it's open and public then you're more reticent to say things in case you cause offence or tarnish a reputation etc. I guess, even if I make this blog public, it does little harm to mention that seven boys turned up at SISP's Independence Day celebration on 15th August slightly tipsy and smelling of alcohol. At 9:30 am! They were consequently suspended after a telling-off and told that Paul (founder and managing director) would review the situation when he returned from Belgium - and that was today. It was no surprise for me to learn that the boys would all be allowed back next week. No surprise firstly because Paul is compassionate (a soft-touch by his own admission), and secondly because we are trying to give these boys an education - a chance in life. This comes in an atmosphere of a general problem with discipline and knuckling down to lessons with the two oldest classes - the boys just like to lark about. They are fine individually, it's just when they get together. I don't think suspension on it's own does the trick. It will send the right messages, sure, but only briefly. When they think about it, who wouldn't mind a two-week holiday with no consequences?! It needs to be backed up with more - expulsion is going too far, but perhaps the withdrawal of privileges. Trouble is, it's difficult to see what privileges they have - and perhaps that's more the question.

Does this all sound familiar to Western ears?!

And you have to remember that corporal punishment doesn't work - they have enough of that at home.

Something I've long thought is that giving them skills training (and the threat of withdrawing it) might work. Some kids seem keen enough to do it and certainly would benefit. We've talked about it long enough at SISP but failed to do anything. Really, their failure is our failure.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Tapioca Growth

This is a photo of the same tapioca that was planted a little over two months ago. I guess it's nearly a metre high now - which is quite fast growth for a woody-stemmed plant. But it's not as rapid as banana plants whose growth is phenomenal! In the last couple of months they seem to have grown from 2 metres to 6 metres! The little plantation I pass on my walk down to the beach has turned into a forest!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Flights, Take II

planeI've decided that I needn't wait to buy my return-to-india flight tickets so I've gone ahead and bought them. I was going to wait because I was a little uncertain that I'd get an Entry Visa (as opposed to the more usual Tourist Visa) but I've decided to stop faffing about and to risk it. So my existing return ticket takes me back to the UK late on 1/10/09, and my newly bought tickets bring me back to India early on 20/10/09 - two and a half weeks in the UK. I'll stay another five and a half months in India and return to the UK on Sunday 28th March, 2010. £385 return: a reasonable price, and the flight times and connection delays are OK too. I just hope I can get the Visa because, at this price, the ticket conditions are stringent and there are no refunds if I cancel!