Monthly Archives: January 2013

Mysore

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This weekend has been an eventful one. Julika and I left for the nearby city of Mysore early on Saturday morning, catching a local bus which only took three hours or so, and arrived to wide avenues with trees, and clear air. It made me so glad to escape the pollution and crowded streets in Bangalore.

After taking an auto (-rickshaw) whose meter seemed to clock round at an alarmingly fast rate, we checked into India’s very special international brand of youth hostel. I’ve never seen a hostel looking so well-maintained. It had huge gardens and lots of benches amidst the palms, and we even got our own sheet and pillowcase! Clean showers, flushing toilets, washing facilities and drinking water – there was even ping pong in the canteen – and it only cost 100 Rs. for the night. That’s about £1.30.

I was starting to feel a little bit awful around lunch time, as we got a local bus back into the centre for some sight-seeing. I didn’t expect to get sick so soon into my trip, but we had been eating out a lot, and in most street-based restaurants they don’t have soap. Anyway, I nibbled at an idli in a back-street by the main circle (roundabout) before attempting to have a gander at the Maharaja’s Palace. By this time I’d already taken painkillers and Julika’s natural remedy for painful stomach cramps, to no avail. Doubled over by the main road and hanging onto a railing, I was in no mood to be the centre of every Indian national’s attention.

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A cow tries to catch a rickshaw ride

When an auto driver came to stop next to us I just ignored him, but Julika then told me he was offering to drive us round to the palace gate for free. Once we realised he wasn’t trying to con us, I collapsed into the seat and he took us the 600m or so to our destination. He was a very rare man indeed, and insisted I sit for five minutes to recover inside the auto, and he didn’t want a penny off us. It was when we saw the masses of people swarming into the palace gates that we decided to recuperate in the shade for an hour, after waving him off.

As the cramps finally started to abate, we made it through the hordes of people, and I pulled my trick of producing the visa registration certificate at the ticket counter.

“200 rupees M’am.” The foreigner’s price (I call it white-person tax).

“Oh no, I work in India.”

“Please give me proof.”

“Here you go,” handing over photocopy, with impressive-looking government stamp.

“OK, 40 rupees.”

Wohoo, I’m officially an Indian!

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Maharaja’s Palace, Mysore

The Maharaja’s Palace itself was breath-taking – all red and gold domes and grandeur. In walking towards the entrance I think at least three or four different people asked to be photographed with us. Whether it’s a status thing or not to be in a photo with a white person I don’t know, but I often get people walking past who comment on my “beautiful pale skin”. One woman even stroked my arm. Children are always trying to touch you, or parents proffer their kids’ hands to shake. This is fine in moderation, but on this day there were so many people due to it being a public holiday, that we didn’t get given space to breath.

It was so crowded inside that only a shuffle was possible. Apart from other people’s heads, I can really only recall what the ceilings of various rooms looked like. When we stopped to sit and rest in the main hall, people would look at us as they passed, or comment, or point. So far, so normal. Then out of nowhere, a large family group suddenly pressed upon us trying to get their children to speak English, and all wanting to ask the same questions – “What is your good name?” “Where are you from?” – and treating us like animals in a zoo.

It was too much, still being ill, and I was so glad to escape into the cool gardens after we swam through the rest of the crowds.

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Coloured powder at Devaraja Market, Mysore

A trip to Devaraja Market with plenty of haggling over incense sticks and coloured powders made the day complete. I was looking forward to some sleep and hopefully no more stomach cramps back in the hostel. Almost as soon as my head hit the pillow however, a large party of over-excited young Indian girls crowded into the female dormitory, and subsequently spent the night chatting and laughing. I think I had no more than 4 hours sleep. To top things off, we arrived in the canteen for breakfast at the allotted time, to be told that it only lasted half an hour, and we had just missed it by two minutes. Grrrrr.

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Hindu’s performing puja at Chamundeswari Temple, Chamundi Hill

Not to be perturbed we devoted our Sunday to Chamundi Hill, site of the ChamundeswariTemple. Taking the bus up, a road sign declared it to be one of the eight most sacred hills in south India. A vision of incense and quiet meditation entered my mind’s eye, with pilgrims going to worship in the temple, perhaps with the sound of the wind rustling the trees. In typical Indian fashion though, things were very different to the expectation. Rows of stalls selling stuffed tigers and ice creams lined the street, and so many food stands surrounded the main circle that I couldn’t even see the temple.

I managed to lose Julika as we separated in the market, and spent the next 45 minutes running from one useless police officer to another. “Oh yes Madam, make an announcement…loudspeaker! Loudspeaker!” Then they would walk off, leaving me in the middle of a crowd of Indian tourists and pilgrims to try and find someone else who would help me. In the end, I got so frustrated and it was so hot, that I marched back towards the bus drop-off, ignoring one poor girl who really wanted a picture (again), in mounting panic to try and find my friend. Then I suddenly saw Julika jump up from the roadside where she had been waiting patiently for me. It turned out she hadn’t really moved, and I’d been spending my time running around at the wrong end of the market. It was time for some lunch.

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The 1000 steps to the temple

To edit out the boring bits, suffice to say that we finished with a leisurely walk down the 1000 steps of the hill, passing several youths placing coloured powder onto each step as they walked up. I should do some research on this – it looked like a rite of passage or something. We also had our first follower of the trip, a man in his forties skulking behind as we descended. After I told him to go away, and we waited for another group to pass which we could join with, he disappeared, only to re-emerge further down. He was like our very own Gollum, slithering over the boulders and just looking at us. Pretty harmless though.

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Shiva’s Bull statue

At the large bull statue halfway down, built in dedication to the god Shiva, I did a small currency exchange with a street hawker who couldn’t change a £10 note somebody had given him. Taking advantage of the favour I’d done him, I bought one of his gorgeous miniature statues at a steal of 50 Rs. Mini-Shiva is now sat in the SICHREM office, watching that I don’t go on facebook too often.

We caught the bus back after a long, long queue for tickets across the tarmac, with buses trying to run us down every five minutes. Once in Bangalore again, we caught the last bus to Majestic Bus Terminal, plus one bum-grope by a tiny man who was no more than five foot tall. Then we had an altercation with the auto driver, who turned a 6km journey into 14km in an attempt to rob us of our money. Eventually he took what we offered him, after Julika’s male host stepped in. Finally, at 2:30am, it was time to sleep.

Despite all the grievances, or maybe because of them, it was a fantastic weekend. Just getting out of Bangalore and feeling like a tourist renewed some of that love for India which has been hiding away in me for the past couple of weeks. Obviously working in India was going to feel very different to being a tourist, but it was good to feel the smile spreading across my face, every time I saw a mandir, or thought of the Hindu priest who put the tikka on my forehead. There is so much more to see of this country, and I want to see it all.

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Hanuman statue, Mysore

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Mehndi

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I’m sat here looking at today’s date not believing that it hasn’t even been two weeks since I landed in Delhi airport. SICHREM have been working me so hard that I’ve not had much time to think.

To begin where I left off, the homesickness (thankfully) abated quite quickly, largely after I was taken on a sight-seeing tour of Bangalore’s answer to Kew by my Ardash. The place was called Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, and I managed to sneak in at the local price of just 10 Rs, thanks to his cunning. Though the gardens themselves were a little dry and tired, it was a hilarious outing because of Ardash’s friend, Ardash (helpfully-named, I know). Visiting for a few days from his home in Kerala, Ardash 2nd made me laugh so much, despite not speaking English, that my stomach was hurting by the end of the day. We ate Thali in a little canteen for about 80 Rs, and he must have finished his plate in about three minutes flat.

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He went back home on Tuesday however, and the rest of my week has consisted of time spent in the SICHREM office, and days at a time attempting to register my visa. Indian bureaucracy could safely win the title for most inefficient service in the world, and I knew it would take more than one day to get everything sorted. The amount of time I spent in the FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office) however was unbelievable. On the first day I spent 7 hours attempting to register, and the second day came to six hours just waiting in the office. I got the strong feeling that had I had some cash in my hand, the staff might not have invented so many extra documents that were apparently vital to registering.

Day three’s attempt was the final, and successful one. It was almost effortless by comparison, and I walked out with my little piece of paper with a stamp on it so elated, purely because I had put so much effort into earning it. I hope I never have to go back there again.

At SICHREM, I began work on the tasks specified for me before arrival. Several staff including myself were however called into a meeting with Mr Mathews, the coordinator, to prepare a joint document to be published as a chapter in a human rights defender’s upcoming book. Having spent what days that I wasn’t at the FRRO frantically trying to dredge statistics and case studies from the various resources available, I have finished my short contribution within the 10 days we were given! Now back to the other stuff!

I’ve also been hanging out with another international volunteer from Germany, called Julika. We spent Sunday evening with her hosts – a young couple living in a small flat in Indiranagar – going round Bangalore’s National Art Gallery, and tasting all the different foods on ‘food street’. The highlight of my day was definitely learning the word for testicles in ‘Hindi’ though.

After being invited back to their apartment for dinner, I spent the night on Julika’s mattress, and was doted on by Ahmad and Suvrata the whole time. They have the two cutest cats, and are refreshingly modern in their outlook. I ended up having a very deep discussion with Ahmad about art, Radiohead and religion within hours of having met them. What wonderful people! Next weekend will probably see me travelling to Mysore with them during the Saturday holiday – can’t wait!

Airports, Homesickness and Buses

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 Well it’s come to writing my first post in India, and I’ve no idea where to begin as there’s so much to say.

To briefly skip over the less than thrilling trials of travelling by Air India, both of my flights were delayed, which meant I got to practice my skills at sleeping on metal airport benches…twice. Why do they always make them so uncomfortable? In Delhi airport at least they had considerately provided some reclining sleeper chairs, but being in such short supply, they were all occupied.

I arrived hassle-free into Bangalore’s airport however, collecting my bag and walking straight out in literally five minutes. I guess Karma has to kick in at some point, right? Driven straight to the door of my homestay, I met the family I’d be living with over the coming months.

Initially I was confused by the large number of people present in the main room, who all turned out to be friends, or various relations of complicated connection, leaving only four family members in the core household:

The mother, Vanita, is a fantastic cook, and she has been gleefully teaching me random words in Kannada. It turns out my efforts (though pitiful) to learn Hindi were indeed in vain, as my family and most of Bangalore speaks either Kannada, or English.

The father, Paul – or Sunil as he’s known by friends – has his own business making door frames and the like, which he commutes to at very late hours on his moped. He’s been incredibly welcoming so far, though he’s a very eager Christian convert, and gets the family to sing and pray twice a day. I’ve already been dragged to church this Sunday. I just hope it’s not catching.

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Daniel, or Ardesh, is the eldest son at 19. He speaks great English and is my main translator for conversations with his parents. Not only is he a good laugh, but he kindly took me out around Bangalore and helped me to register for my visa. This may sound like a small effort, but trying to register took seven hours and five buses to do so. A great lad.

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Finally the younger brother David, or Sandesh, at 17, is studying commerce (or something like business or management studies) at college. I haven’t seen him as much because of this, but when I do he always seems to either be rolling out roti flour or watching TV.

To reference the second part of this post title, one of the main problems I’ve been facing in these first few tender days has been, surprisingly, homesickness.

I didn’t expect to ever get it that bad, as I’m already so familiar with India, and thus things like the food and the traffic and the people aren’t nearly so daunting. It was more the thought of being away for a year which started to press down on me – so much so that I barely slept at all on my first night. Being away from home, and my boyfriend, for so long seemed utterly unbearable, and I was ready to go straight back to the airport the next day.

After several texts and phone calls though I managed to calm down enough to finally get to sleep, and my first spontaneous lesson in Kannada from my host mother (“Vanita Auntie”) made me feel human enough to actually take my mind wholly off escaping India altogether.

As the days have progressed, and I’ve come to appreciate how lucky I’ve been in my homestay allocation – my own room and en suite bathroom with a flushing toilet (!) – the feeling has begun to diminish. That’s not to say it hasn’t disappeared, just that I have started to function enough to get up and occupy my mind with other things.

My first day at the SICHREM office was one of those other things. Luckily for me, Daniel announced on the evening beforehand that he’d been offered a part-time position at the charity through family contacts (apparently he is somehow related to everyone in this city), and so I gladly let him guide our journey to the office the next day.

Again, I was very happily surprised with the set-up and facilities at my placement. The office has three good-sized rooms and each of the fifteen or so paid staff has their own desk and projects. There are several other volunteers – though the label interns might be more appropriate – from local Indian universities on placement as part of their course, and another international volunteer from Germany who I have yet to meet.

My introductory meeting with my supervisor Anitha (again, related to my host family) outlined the tasks I would be given and the specifics of SICHREM’s human rights work. I’m sorry to say that a combination of her softly spoken manner and some residual jetlag (maybe) started to lull me to sleep, and I had to fight every blink back open again whilst she explained everything to me. It’s probably why I can’t really remember much about what she said.

Before you start thinking that I’m lazy though, I’ve been busy reading SICHREM’s previous reports on different issues, impressively published in small paper-back format. My head has been so full of ideas in response to the different challenges proposed to me, that I’ve been itching to go into the office all weekend. This is despite the fact that tomorrow is a public holiday, in recognition of a Tamil festival, meaning that I’ll likely be amongst a minority of staff.

All in all my first few days in India have been totally different to the expectations I had – no running into the first shop on the street and filling my bag with mehndi cones, or buying sarees in ten different colours and fabrics just to throw around my room – but it’s starting to become normal very quickly. After my first week in the office, I’ll hopefully be able to judge the pattern of events in the longer term, and get an idea of how things will pan out. Even better, I’m going shopping next weekend!

Pre-departure

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Well the date is nearly here, and I keep swinging between extreme excitement and not wanting to go at all. I know that will pass once I get there though.

I’m all packed (my poor suitcase was pleading with me not to stuff anything else in), and I only have to pick my visa up tomorrow. Last minute I know, but I had to go home for Christmas, and the visa office is in central London. I’m very certain it’ll be fine though, so I only have to collect it. *fingers crossed*

I went on a final shopping trip for drug supplies – read plenty of diarrhoea tablets and suncream – and thought I better try on the shalwar kameez suits I had had made during my last trip to India before packing them. Turns out this was a wise move, as I am no longer tiny, meaning 2 of my outfits would have just been for decoration!

I started reading the British government’s travel advice pages earlier today as well, which made me a little more nervous than I really needed to be:

Around 700,000 British nationals visit India every year. Between 1 April 2011 and 31 March 2012, 322 British nationals required consular assistance for the following types of incidents: 107 deaths; 67 hospitalisations; and 39 arrests for a variety of offences.

And also:

There is a high threat from terrorism throughout India. Terrorists have targeted places in the past which westerners are known to visit including public places such as restaurants, hotels, railway stations, markets, places of worship and sporting venues.

Now that is something which I already knew, but it’s a little disconcerting when they give you all of the graphic statistics. The site then goes on to mention specific areas, which for South India focuses thus:

Female travellers should observe and respect local dress and customs. There has been a series of high-profile incidents in Goa of alleged rape against foreign nationals, including Britons. See our Rape and sexual assault abroad and Your trip pages.

Oh yay. Still, the advice on what to do if caught in a tropical storm or earthquake was quite helpful. At least I can feel prepared in the face of a natural disaster, even if I am in danger of mugging/sexual assault/violent political protests/bombings at all other times.

It makes me smile though – I’d really like to read other country’s perspectives on the British threats to foreign travellers. As far as I’m concerned, India is a safe country if you’re streetwise and sensible about where and how you travel around. No less dangerous than a night out in Nottingham. And to be honest, they’re far more polite about it in India.

So despite this little bit of scaremongering, I’m feeling very geared up to go, which I always take as a good sign. I just want the day of my flight to be here. I’m killing time learning how to use my camera before I go, as I’ve never actually looked at the manual, and always find it frustrating to be in the perfect set-up for a good photograph only to be foiled by my ignorance of what the aperture button does. Here’s to a day of learning!