Monthly Archives: July 2013

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Norwegian National and the rape case in the UAE

Thank god someone finally did something to help her. And lucky for her that she’s from Europe and highly visible. Not impressed with Rori Donaghy’s comment that the only response should be to change the travel advice. Travel advice or not, women resident in the UAE – and in countries with similar laws across the world such as Pakistan and Bangladesh – will continue to be punished for daring to be a victim of sexual assault. Obviously it was their fault for being female in the first place!

And whilst the perpetrator fails to receive any sentence for the crime of rape, his punishment for extra-marital relations (or similar) is also often less severe than the woman’s. Emirates Centre for Human Rights, do something more assertive than re-writing the travel blog for the UAE, and try to be part of a lasting change in attitudes towards women.

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Trials and Tribulations: Part 2

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The start of week 2 in the tour of South India begins in Gokarna, where we left off. We set off through the small pilgrimage town towards the beach, even though it won’t stop raining. Turns out the Indian tourists were thinking the same thing – little huddles of people with umbrellas are braving the surf with their trousers rolled up, getting soaked in the horizontal rain.

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We retreat inside to our grotty hotel room, where the clothes I had washed the night before are no dryer because of the humidity. After it finally stops raining at about 3pm, we decide to risk a walk to the next bay, as there’s little else to do in the town. Over the sea cliff and into Kudle Beach, we discover that everything has closed. Just as we’ve nearly walked along the entire length of this equally grim bay, being chased by street dogs and a little black puppy (and walking past a cow carcass), an isolated resort seems to be serving food. Then some people miraculously appear from its inner depths and start playing badminton!

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The next day we escape Gokarna for Murudeshwar – site of an impressive giant Shiva statue on an isolated promontory into the Arabian Sea. All in all a very chilled day, before catching the sleeper train to Mysore, for an onward bus to Bandipur National Park the next morning. Well that was the plan. Roy is still incredibly sick from his anti-malarials, and we traipse around Mysore at 7am looking for a toilet, then an internet cafe. Somehow the day disappears in trying to decide where to stay in Bandipur, and looking after Roy. Eventually we catch a local bus to Bandipur National Park, and book into one of the expensive rooms, tagged as ‘luxury eco-lodges’ run by the Park Service. Were they hell.

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INR 2000 for a cold bucket of water, dirty floors, broken window frames, and a tepid thali dinner. Our INR 300 room in Hampi at least had a shower and towels! The evening film screening of a David Attenborough documentary almost made up for it (for Roy mostly, as he literally wants to marry the guy), and I managed to get some shots of a deer herd, and some random wild boar running around at dusk. Boar babies for some reason look like chipmunks.

At 6:30am we boarded the park minibus for their version of a safari, and given that the other 10 passengers were incapable of keeping quiet, we inevitably saw only some deer, a wild peacock, and – wait for it – a bunny hopping into a bush.

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Then we suddenly heard an elephant trumpet very loudly close by, and the rush of adrenaline came. A glimpse of grey skin through the leaves before losing it into the undergrowth, and then – we turn a corner in the track and a wild elephant is across an open stretch of small bushes, munching on some branches.

Unbelievably, the guide stops for about 1 minute, then drives on! Clearly the roads and dirt are more interesting than the fauna to him! So much for seeing tigers and snakes and stampedes of all the other big game they advertise on their website. Disappointed, I write an essay in their complaints book. Whilst waiting for the bus to our next stop at Ooty hill station, the local langurs gradually edge closer. One female has a baby so bald and wrinkled clutched to her stomach that it might actually be the primate re-incarnation of Gandhiji.

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I slept through most of the winding bus journey up to Ooty, and I’m glad I did. The hour that I was awake was filled with the sound and smell of people vomiting from the hairpin bends, and my stomach was almost joining in by the time we pulled into the bus station. After selecting a hotel for its hot water availability, and making an emergency purchase of a thick woolly jumper (Ooty was freezing!), we snuggled down into what felt like a luxury bed.

Saturday was a day of world bests. A visit to the Botanical Gardens turned out to be half-decent, with different smaller gardens and of course a fossilised tree. Climbing up one of the little paths to reach the bonsai garden, I started feeling inexplicably exhausted and dizzy. Roy didn’t look too good either. That was when I read in my guidebook that Ooty is 2000m above sea level – we had altitude sickness! 😀

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It wasn’t so bad that we couldn’t go to the ‘World’s Best Rose Garden’ though, or the ‘World’s Miracle Thread Garden’ – which turned out to be a hidden gem. Every ‘plant’ in this little museum by the lake was made from hand-wound thread, to such precision of form and colour that I honestly thought they were real. Such a dedicated, pointless success! A quick trip down to the neighbouring creepy wax museum with Gandhi, Christ, and a drunk driver with his arm ripped off (who planned this place!?), then we had a fantastic evening at a little arcade by the boat jetty. It was just like being back home in Cleethorpes, but in a nostalgic way. There were dodgems, air hockey, a bucking broncho, and we even terrified ourselves in the haunted house, which had so many mutilated people and a man hanging upside down in a sack screaming that I fully anticipated terrible nightmares.

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After trying to leave Ooty via the over-booked steam train, we conceded to taking the bus again, and overnighted at Coimbatore, where the temperature became tangibly warmer and dryer the more we descended. A lazy complimentary breakfast and copy of The Hindu slipped under the door later, our onward bus to Fort Kochi took far longer than expected, not arriving until it was dark. Disembarking at Ernakaulam’s bus station, a good thirty people fighting to board the bus nearly pushed me to the floor as I stepped down. The press wouldn’t even move when I tried to shove individuals out of the way, and Roy was helpless following behind me. Eventually we emerged from the press and found a hotel.

To end the week, I finally got traveller’s diarrhoea!

Leaving India

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OK I think it’s time to accept that my blogging is not going to happen on a regular weekly basis – so skipping ahead of Parts 2-4 of my trip around South India, I wanted to officially announce that I’ll be leaving India early.

This is something I’ve been wrestling with ever since I arrived in India actually – the combination of homesickness, the longing for some sort of clean street environment, and needing to have a better placement than what SICHREM could offer me. I’ve been mulling and mulling it over for so long, that I’m surprised I managed to stay this long in actuality. Let me expand a bit.

So my problems with SICHREM have been manifold, and mostly I thought that I would be able to work them through as the result of cultural differences. The reality however has been that SICHREM hasn’t been able to offer me the research and career-building opportunities that I wanted. I intended to work explicitly on gender-related projects, and be involved in lots of advocacy, as this is my area of interest. Despite this being communicated throughout my placement and before it, I never got the chance to do any of this. Whilst I’ve been working on two fairly sizeable research projects, the absence of ANY gender-related work has been gradually grinding down my motivation. After the six months mark, I had to hold up my hands and accept that no such opportunities were going to arise, even with my repeated discussions with Mathews (the Executive Director of SICHREM).

The working environment at SICHREM has also been deteriorating in general since my arrival in January, for whatever issues I am not entirely sure. Whilst I’ve been volunteering, four members of staff resigned and moved on, for various reasons. A further two are now on their way out, leaving only two non-admin staff within the entire organisation, to run all of SICHREM’s different programmes and emergency cases. It’s totally unfeasible.

Whilst I am loathe to make this into one epic rant, the continued problems I faced at SICHREM are a huge part of why I want to leave. Never once being thanked for my any of my volunteered time, or efforts – particularly not for the more significant successes which took up so much time – never treated like a professional equal, and always dismissed when I raise suggestions or ideas for improvements. It’s been an incredibly frustrating and de-motivating environment to work in, but I’ve been fighting through it to the best of my ability, discussing things with staff, trying to communicate issues – to no avail. There’s only so much negativity a person can take.

Outside of SICHREM, life has had both high and low points. I still love India, I just can’t love Bangalore. I definitely will be returning, but to a place where the people speak Hindi, where you can see the horizon, where a clean breeze clears the air, and where the people celebrate life…not drudge heads down through rubbish heaps and grey air. I am physically and psychologically suffocated here.

Psychologically suffocated in the sense that if, as a woman, I look up and at people’s faces in the street, the men will leer at you or follow you or shout disgusting insults in Kannada, as if I don’t know what they’re saying. Or sometimes it’s just the man on a bike jeering ‘hey foreigner’. Whilst your movements in public space become policed in this way, I find the confrontation with people’s ideologies in personal interaction far worse. The number of girls who are visibly horrified by the realisation that you walk alone after 7pm at night, or that you use public buses (which are clearly brimming with lascivious men who will rip off your clothes at midday) is depressing. Even worse are the guys – ‘you shouldn’t talk like that’, ‘no you don’t understand [women not having any agency] it’s not safe/moral/right for women to go out alone’. In the UK, I have taken for granted my personal freedom to think, talk, act, dress, eat, sit, and breathe in the way that I want, that it feels like I am trapped inside a moral prison. I cannot be myself in India. Even trying my best to conform, to avoid confrontation (for instance I wear salwar kameez not shorts, I use Kannada words, I follow social convention on buses, in the post office, in SICHREM), I am constantly critiqued and rebutted by idiots who simply see a white face in a kurti. I am not expected or permitted to express ideological thoughts or contrary opinions. I should nod and smile and say ‘sir’ to whatever inadequacy comes out of a man’s mouth, so that I show respect, and am meek, and thus like a good Indian girl. I refuse to hand over my self-respect, however much has already been chipped away, in my upturned hands.

I don’t hate Indian men at all. I just feel that the undue respect and privilege that society has assured them is their right makes most guys totally unaware that other people have contrasting and equally important opinions. When you internalise, and receive daily confirmation of, the idea that you will automatically get what you want and people will listen to you, it makes men arrogant and self-righteous, and sometimes totally shocked when you argue them down.

I can’t wait to be back in a place where people are valued for being the person they are, not for their marriage or earning potential; where others will give equal attention to your voice and ideas and beliefs.

But like true love, you work through the bad parts and keep returning to strengthen that bond which attracted you in the first place. India will always draw me back, I just have to work out that where that perfect balance lies. The magic formula. Maybe it should start with a tattoo?

Travels and Tribulations: Part 1

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Aah, a month off to travel. I thought it was going to be one long relaxing tour of South India, breathing in the jungles and wildlife, chilling on beaches and going to temples. Despite five months in Bangalore, it turns out I still hadn’t come to terms with the realities of India!

Week 1

Within an hour of landing in Bangalore, my boyfriend was vomiting his way across the city on the taxi journey back to the flat. Once he’d recovered (a bit) the next day, we did some shopping, some eating, and then on a last-minute whim, booked a sleeper bus to Hampi.

Arriving at something stupid like 5am, we got some geographical advice from a friendly(!) auto-driver at the chai stand, and hopped on the local bus when it decided to finally arrive. As we pulled up in Hampi Bazaar, five or six touts were poking their heads through the door before the bus even stopped. I have never before seen somebody’s face tangibly light up so much. Poor Roy was almost suffocating in the press of men shoving pamphlets in his face, promising that their hotel was the best.

Exhausted by the travelling and being ill, he crashed out and I got over-anxious, to the point where he finally agreed to venture out to the huge Virupaksha Temple dominating the tiny village of Hampi itself.

There we encountered a criminal organisation run by langurs. Male alpha langur ripped one woman’s bag away and stole her Sprite. It was amusing to watch him gnaw ineffectually at it for a while, until in one fluid move he suddenly uprights it and unscrews the lid, before using the lid like a teacup. As if to say, “Nah I was just playing ya. Of course I know how to do this.”

After circulating the ‘natural’ lingam of Shiva inside, and being stared at by various pilgrims, we saw more langurs running over the roofs. One inexplicably had a pair of pants in his hand; the other was running with a pair of scissors. Yet another by our feet grabbed a carelessly held plastic bag, stole a box of matches, and proceeded to try eating them.

The following day we started on a cycle tour of Hampi’s extensive ruins, but Roy wafted off back to our room after the second temple, looking pretty pale. I carried on happily getting my exercise fix, though the midday heat started to make each temple less exciting than the last. Turns out this now-tiny village is the only living remains of an empire that spanned the entirety of South India.

Roy was unimpressed by this news, though he rallied to go insect-hunting around some boulders. I don’t know how he manages to spot half of these creatures amidst the vegetation. We saw the biggest millipede of my life; as thick as my thumb, longer than my hand, and bright red.

Our last full day in Hampi began with an optimistic walk to the nearest main temple, with plans to go bouldering (we even packed climbing shoes!) across the river. After an epic trek through the heat down a never-ending road, we made the 10 rupee ferry crossing, then argued with the auto guys in (my) very broken Hindi for a lift to Anegundi. We stumbled upon a little cafe doing a fantastic banana leaf thali lunch, recooperated a bit, then set off to another temple complex – this one still functioning.

Roy and I had a little spat by the roadside, and whilst making up with hugs, a guy riding past on his moped purposefully drives his handlebar into my back. For what reason we may never know. Hopefully he fell off his bike on the next bend, what with karma obviously being so strong in India.

Jaded, when we reach the temple of Hanuman’s birthplace, I leave Roy at the bottom of the 500 steps. We catch the last ferry back and collapse exhausted on the ghats, and watch people fish in the river. Time for some sleep.

With plans for Gokarna beach, we leave Hampi the following afternoon for a stop-off in Hubli. On the train journey there, Roy gets inadvertently groped by a sleeping five year old. Between Hubli and Ankola and finally Gokarna, endless bus journeys are filled with rain and mist; the fields around Gokarna have become lakes so large, at first I mistake them for the sea.

We find a grotty hotel and settle down, a week into our trip.