Sunday, 29 March 2009

Preparing for a Visa Run to the UK

In less than one week's time I'll be back in the UK. I can't wait to see J and C, my grown-up children. And the rest of my family and friends of course! I fly in late on 3rd April, and fly out again on 23rd. I am sure the time will go much too quickly.

Yesterday I spent some time in Trivandrum getting some small things to bring home. One of the teachers had agreed to help me. I've mentioned her before - she's a minute woman who's very good with the SISP children. She has two daughters. The older one, is applying for the army and her mother was very proud that she'd got an invitation to attend the entrance exam. Her other daughter is 15 and is severely disabled. Her husband is retired and has a "haemoglobin problem" which must cost money, and it will cost something astronomical to get her daughter into the army. Rs.25,000 I think, or about £350, a fantastic amount for her. Mum tells me that money is tight in her family and I could see that. She turned up wearing no shoes, as usual. And it transpired that she was carrying only just enough money for the bus home, and she had come to help ME. I almost forced her to have an orange juice with me, and I noticed how far away she sat - customs dictating how a married woman should behave! I bought her a kilo of black grapes and paid for her tickets but it felt woefully insufficient. In her position I imagine that it looked as if I was flashing my money around.  She helped me find and select some scarves for which I was very grateful.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

A few local photos

A lorry is making a delivery of a few sheaves of grass/hay, presumably for the one cow many householders seem to keep. Trying to squeeze past it is a water delivery truck. Fortunately this is a small one! There are two large tanks on the back of the flatbed truck which is heading to the lake at the bottom of my road. There must be a water purification facility down there and the tanks of water will eventually be pumped into someone's rooftop tank.

Coconuts drying on the ground of the house nextdoor to mine.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Life in India

I slept badly last night. Never mind - I got up, browsed the internet for a bit, then washed the floor. The mop handle broke because the kid next door had bent it and weakened it, so I had to do half the floor doubled over - but my back survived. I sat down with a cup of hot water (I'm out of milk for tea) and then some representatives from a temple came and demanded money after thrusting a brochure (written in Malayalam) under my nose. Now, finally, I sit down again, turn my laptop on the write this, and the power goes out! It's one of those days.

Walking home yesterday, a bloke stopped me. It transpired he was a friend of Gordon, an English guy I vaguely know, and introduced himself as Dharma from Samudra. He asked me what I was doing here in Kovalam so I told him about SISP.  Then he offered me a lift for the last 500m on his scooter and I accepted, feeling it would be rude not to. "Ah, so I now know where you live!" he smirked, which made me feel somewhat uneasy. He wanted to know where my wife was. I said I was divorced and he wanted to know why. I told him to mind his own business.  He told me he was married but it wasn't so great because he was "half gay". I said categorically I wasn't. Then he went on to offer me "sexy women", no questions asked, no one need know. I said firmly I wasn't interested. So what did I want, just tell him, it would just be between him and me. I basically told him where to get off but then he started talking about sex with boys during which he cast aspersions about a local white guy I know pretty well. I found this very disconcerting to say the very least. The trouble was, the stuff he was telling me was believable and he even implicated himself.  He could, of course, just be lying, knowing that it would attack my fundamental moral beliefs.  He told me that Indian culture was completely different to European, and that sex with kids was acceptable here, and not to judge. He said the boys were around the age of 13 and that they enjoyed it. I didn't want to hear any more and virtually shut the door on him.  But what can I do? I have vowed to be ever-vigilant to the possibility that the white guy in question might be abusing kids - I can only observe and listen.

One of the young women I know has a daughter of 6. The woman herself turns out to be 18 though I thought she was older. My jaw dropped in disbelief when she told me this but she went and got her supervisor whose English is better and she confirmed it, saying that the girl had been raped at the age of 12. The man had had mental problems apparently, as if that justified it. It was all very matter of fact.

In Trivandrum, waiting in the bus for it to set off for Kovalam, a woman came on, begging. I'd seen her earlier. Her feet were crippled, twisted completely under so that she actually "walked" on what would normally be the tops of her feet. Her heels were actually pointing upwards, if you can imagine it.

Also in Trivandrum I passed an old guy who was hobbling. When I looked down I saw that one lower leg was the size of a tree trunk and was all pitted and scabby. It looked unreal, as if it was made of plastic. He wasn't so much hobbling as dragging this huge weight along, and presumably couldn't afford to have his leg amputated.

I went to the birthday party of the daughter of teacher Treesa last weekend. That was fun! But I live in complete luxury in comparison to their home which was very humble with its packed dirt floor and coconut leaf roof. There was an old TV in the corner, tuned to women's cricket, India v Australia, with a purple picture because the tube was blown. There was an old guy who just stared at the party proceedings and turned out to be Treesa's father. I was pleased that I shook his hand, and he smiled, when it was time to go. He died on Thursday. 52 - younger than me, with a heart problem. On the day after there was a kind of wake outside his home on a scruffy piece of land. Many people were there - we'd taken about 20 people from SISP alone. He was brought out in an open chipboard coffin and placed under a tarpaulin awning. I noticed his shoes were brand new and unworn. The whole area stank of a mixture of fish, open sewers, squalour and cheap air-freshener but for everyone it was a dignified ending of this man's life. He was placed on a pyre a short while later but we left before that, after paying our respects.

Early in the week a deity came and visited us! A shed, constructed from palm leaves, bamboo poles and hands of bananas, was laboriously built at the front of my house specially for the occasion. Oh, and fresh, stinking cow muck was smeared on the ground. There were many other such constructions up and down the road. The god and her entourage arrived at about 7pm and spent about 20 minutes here before moving on. It was represented by a rectangular piece of sculpted metal, probably brass, onto which petals were thrown, water was splashed, and gifts were offered. The main character doing all the dramatic offerings was noticeably obese and flabby. There was lots of banging of drums and honking of ... well I'm not quite sure what they'd be called. A bit like a huge valve-less clarinet. And then there was the dreadful sound of women ululating. Firecrackers were set off lethally close to the crowd, with glowing embers raining down on people. To me it was all ridiculous but hey, this is India! What's "normal" here?

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Hotel = Eating Place

This is the Sree Padmanabha Hotel in Trivandrum where I often have lunch. It's called a "hotel" but, like most "hotels", it's actually what would be known as a cafe or eatery in the West. It is divided in two: on the right hand side is an area where the food at lunchtimes is Keralan Meals only. On the left they serve other meals. It's all vegetarian which suits me just fine. I often have a "chappatti set" which is a couple of freshly made chapattis and three sauces, served on a metal tray with recesses for the sauces and a banana leaf under the chapattis. I usually have several cups of hot-ish water with it, served in a metal "glass".

The hotel is in a bustling little street in the Fort area (East Fort), just in front of the large rectangular pond belonging to the Sree Padmanabhaswarmy Temple, the largest temple in Trivandrum. In the photo are several women with umbrellas. They're not because of any rain; they're because of the sun, a pale skin being seen as highly desirable in India. That's why I wear a hat - to make me desirable!

The weather is now changing again. It has been getting hotter and more humid little by little, or at least that's how it feels. Then we've started having thunder and lightning but no rain. Then a couple of nights ago the heavens opened and it really threw it down. The temperature fell a few degrees and it freshened everything up. This is the first rain for about four months - everything has been getting very dry-looking. Areas of land which are not cultivated have cows and goats tethered in them because fodder is running short. On my walk to work there will often be a few ropes I have to avoid tripping over, tethering cows in the (dry) water channel or goats in the verges. Sometimes I've seen family teams with sickles, gathering any greenery they can get their hands on. This has meant that the ground which once had lush bushes and weeds covering it is now looking rather scrubby and barren. Even the vicious spiky bushes have been cut back to get at any green weeds in them.

On my route I pass a low concrete house near the sawmill. I often chat with the two children who live there - Sourinineya and Renjith, who are 12 and about 9. They are nice kids and often run down to the path if they see me coming. They never ask for anything, unlike other kids who often try the "one school pen" trick. It transpires that these two children and their mother have moved in with their grandmother while their own house is being repaired by their father. A coconut tree fell on it and smashed the roof and narrowly missed hitting the kids. Sounds like they are damned lucky to be alive! Anyway, it was the little girl's birthday last Thursday and I bought a bead necklace and earrings for her. It was only cheap but she was genuinely delighted! Very "Railway Children"-esque, and gave me great pleasure!

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Trivandrum Shirts 'n' Coffee

This is a photo of a building in Trivandrum, designed by architect Laurie Baker. Apparently he's someone in architecture, awarded an MBE, with lots of accolades to his name but I'd never heard of him. Bet he'd be pleased to see the corrugated iron lean-to that's been attached to his work of art! I read about the building a few days ago and then happened to see it in the distance on my trip to Trivandrum today. Purely in the interests of academic research you understand, and not because I was desperate for a good coffee, I decided to pay it a visit. Inside, it's just like a giant Archimedes' screw, with the floor corkscrewing up from bottom to top. There are tables and bench seats attached regularly to the walls and the waiters stagger up and run down, serving light snacks, chai and, occasionally, sweet coffee. You can peer out of the slots in the walls at people below but the view is quite restricted. The blurb for the building says its design keeps the place naturally cool - so it's not the ceiling fans over each and every table then...

Today was a Trivandrum day. First thing though was a trip to the beach to take some photos of the Belgian TV crew who are here filming various aspects of Indian children's lives. They were persuaded by Jelle (the white Rasta Belgian surf dude) to film at SISP and the publicity will do us no harm. Although all the relevant players turned up the waves were too small for decent surf shots so maybe it will all be repeated tomorrow or the day after.

In Trivandrum I went to a clothes shop I'd been recommended - Parthas - but as soon as they saw me it was a case of out with all the expensive shirts. OK, Rs2,100 is only £30 in real money, but that's bloody expensive in Indian terms. Next was a cheaper shop but the same thing happened. To be honest, it puts me right off buying anything! But eventually I ended up in a shop so cheap that the most expensive shirts were the price I wanted to pay. After rejecting the vile, shiny, dry-clean-only ones, I found something half decent. When I eventually undid the thing I discovered that half the weight was cardboard and a quarter was pins! But no matter. It's one of those colours which either looks cool or it's hideous. I'm trying to persuade myself it's the former.

What else...? Well, I tried to buy some Palm Sugar for my mother but the price they wanted was higher than in the specialist shops in the UK, and I'm not convinced it was pukka Palm Sugar either (though a crystal of it tasted like fudge - nice!). There were three men serving in the "shop", all egging each other on with all the appearance of trying to sell me crap and rip me off. I gave that one up. Then I bought a good padlock from my favourite hardware shack. It's to replace the horrible cheap (but typical for India) padlock on the door of SISP's computer lab. That is small and circular, so difficult to hold in sweaty hands, and the hasp doesn't click into place - you have to hold it shut, against the internal spring, and try to turn the key with the other hand. Inevitably I fail and I curse it every single day. But no longer - it's bin-bound!