Tag Archives: deities

Travels and Tribulations: Part 3

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Waking up to the steady rain of Kochi on the morning of Tuesday 18th June, we caught a ferry across to the old fort for 2.50 rupees. Who ever actually has a 50 paise coin on them? It didn’t matter anyhow seeing as there was two of us.

With ambitious plans in our heads to discover the man-made island in a day, we didn’t arrive at the jetty until lunchtime. As we stood near the eager auto-drivers, I felt a sharp sting on my right shoulder, and turned around to see a huge ant shaped like a spider scuttling away. It was like having a bee sting!

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Feeling sorry for myself, we headed to the Dutch Palace, which turned out to be a hidden gem. Lonely Planet didn’t get it wrong for once! Inside the professionally presented artefacts and information boards covered everything from the rajas outfits and weaponry, to crumbling murals of the Ramayana in the other rooms – including one of a demon having her breasts and nose cut off. Charming.

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Then in a bid to reach a synagogue (I don’t know why it was meant to be special) in ‘Jew Town’, we became distracted by a myriad of emporiums selling leather bags, brass deities, lotus-shaped incense holders, chess boards, and dressing stands. There was even one hoarding a 30m long, 10 year-old Snake Boat – from the still annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race, where each colossal canoe is powered by 100 men – that dominated the entire shop.

Calling it quits, we grabbed some overpriced tea and cake from a shop-cum-art gallery before heading off to see the Chinese fishing nets. Exhausted, we jumped back on the ferry, and Roy reached new levels of zoologist ecstasy at the giant fruit bats circling round the landing jetty.

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To finish where we left off, the next day saw us back on the ferry to reach the Dutch Cemetery (a let down) and the Maritime Museum (it was closed). Taking shelter from the rain inside a convenient ice-cream parlour, we were treated to an eclectic mix of paintings on the walls. Several Hindu deities were painted in a style that I can only say reminded me of the Disney ‘Hercules’ film – but it worked.

To fulfil our tourist obligation of appreciating the local culture, we ventured to the cultural centre. One and a half hours of Kathakalli Dance later, and we were suitably enlightened, if not very bored. Whilst the fantastical costumes were good to look at, the dance itself revolved entirely around facial gestures, eye movements, and hand positioning. A surprise ending helped wake us up again though, as the female character whipped around screaming and holding her hair on her lip like a moustache. More of that would have been made the whole thing far more interesting!

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We made it to Alleppey the next day, and after some running around managed to secure a houseboat to take us round the slow backwaters that Kerala is so famous for. Converted from old rice barges, these boats ranged from (our) cheap and cheerful single-kitchen-and-bedroom option, to floating palaces with A/C and separate sunbathing areas, not forgetting surround sound home cinema system!

Though it was still raining our 24 hours on the backwaters took us through narrow waterways and huge open lakes; past paddy fields hovering several metres below the canals; around man-made islands where women washed dishes or laundry and men fished; and to an overnight mooring at our captain’s home.

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Jumping between dry patches along the paths almost totally flooded by the monsoon rains, we glimpsed a Snake Boat team drilling for the August race. Roy ‘rescued’ a fish, which turned out to be the supper of two fishermen sat not two metres away. They didn’t manage to catch another one.

Finally, after a delicious dinner cooked by the on-board chef, and a good sleep rocking on the water, we headed to the Funky Art Beach House back on solid land. Not spitting distance from the waves crashing onto the white sandy beach, we spent the next few days lazily meandering up and down the sand, trying each of the different local restaurants, and chasing crabs in the dark on the way back. One morning I woke up to the sound of a gang of scrawny old fishermen heaving their boat towards the shore, and then found a litter of shivering puppies in the sand when I went to investigate!

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Thankfully they were still alive the following morning, sunbathing under the protection of an upturned boat. We ventured into town that afternoon on two bicycles so rickety, their handlebars were both on backwards. Navigating the Indian traffic was actually less terrifying than expected, though I guess it helps when you act like you own the road.

Leaving the relaxation and sea air of Alleppey was hard, but we’d already axed so many places from our original itinerary – Munnar, Periyar Wildlife Park, Madurai, Rameswaram – that it was time to move on. Resigned to sharing a single narrow bunk on the over-booked sleeper train, we started towards Chennai that night. Luck was feeling generous however, and a couple doubled up with their children to give us one each. Not to say that it was any more comfortable though.

Ups and downs

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Having just realised how shockingly long it’s been since my last blog update, I though I better submit something interesting for this post. Luckily, a lot has been happening this week.

First off, I made a trip to KR Market last weekend to stock up on bargain saris to sell on as a bit of ongoing fundraising whilst I’m out here. Intending to get a maximum of 10, and naively believing they would easily fit into my little day-rucksack, I ended up splurging on 15 (they’re just such a bargain!) and having to lug three heavy bags round Bangalore for the rest of the day.

And so it was that I met Emma on MG Road, sweaty and with grooves bitten into my fingers after carrying the bags for a good couple of kilometres from the bus stop. The handicrafts emporium we had marked out to visit that Sunday was supposedly holding a special event over the weekend, which turned out to be underwhelming. The rest of the shop however was a dangerous place for a girl like me to be. The first aisle I walked down was filled with art prints and paintings, and on the opposite wall shelves were piled high with different carved deities. Then I spotted a wall hanging, and after dashing towards it, saw some wooden inlaid boxes. When I rushed towards those, I then spotted a huge wooden chest covered in ornate brass patterns. Emma didn’t seem to mind my sudden onset of shop-mania, symptomised by frequent cries of, “Oh LOOK, it’s a little wooden chair,” “Emma, there are cushions!” “Oh my God, I have to buy this [huge carved hinged wooden screen].” Fortunately for me, most of it was very expensive, and even more extortionate to ship back to England, so I settled for a couple of small items as presents, and we headed off for some lunch.

I seized the chance to eat some north Indian food at the restaurant we found, and ate myself into a semi-coma of happiness. The past few weeks have been getting increasingly difficult for me – from a combination of homesickness, disliking south Indian food, still not developing any spice tolerance, and needing some mental space alone. This time last week I had to take a couple of days away from the office, I was so fatigued and my joints were that painful I could barely walk. Combined with my recent weight loss, and the constant shaking in my hands, I realised that I needed to start eating food that wasn’t spicy, otherwise I would end up starving myself into hospital.

Whilst I brought the food situation a little more under my control by cooking pasta for lunch (envisage my stomach smiling happily), privacy is still an issue. Being quite a private person in England, in India, my personal space feels constantly under threat – from the lines of staring faces in the street and male fumblings at every opportunity, to the suffocating way that Indian hospitality is expressed – and it quickly becomes mentally exhausting.

I’m fully aware that this emotional crisis is the result of several factors coming together, and taken alone, each one would certainly be manageable. It still doesn’t make things any easier however. I found a piece written here, which sums it up nicely I think:

Patience – I think attitude is everything with culture shock. I’ve learnt to realize that for a while when moving to a new place I’m not going to know as much I knew in my home country. I don’t expect to know everything because things are very new. And when I am patient with myself I am able to focus on enjoying the process of learning about a new country.

Persistence – I believe that is it important to invest energy into the life that you are looking for. I think it’s important to set goals and do everything you can to achieve them. I think that knowing what you are working for can keep you motivated during very difficult times.

Positivity -Finding ways to stay positive through culture shock is very important. Staying positive for me is doing anything that brings you joy. Doing things like calling home, making new friends, asking for help when you need it, and exercising, are EXTREMELY important. Over time, I have realized that these are the MOST important things to keep doing when things get hard.

via The 3 Ps of Culture Shock | InterNations Blog.

A brief interlude came on Monday morning though, with a wedding invite for all of the SICHREM staff. Leaving only 20 minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to start, at the auspicious and exact time of 12:35, I knew that we would not make it in time, seeing as the journey took closer to 40 minutes. Undeterred, Liz the front-desk wonder-woman, ‘Pattiamma’ (Kannada for grandmother) our cutie cleaning lady, myself, Julika, and three others hopped into the executive director’s car.

En route to the wedding (LTR: Liz, Pattiamma, Me)

En route to the wedding (LTR: Liz, Pattiamma, Me)

We arrived in our everyday office clothes to the most extravangant wedding I have ever seen. We walked down a red carpet laid underneath a long row of curved arches, towards a huge building where each step up to the main door was drowned in flowers, and divided by four huge golden elephants. Inside, hundreds of guests dressed up in their best were milling around. Each woman I passed as we entered seemed to be wearing more gold than the last, and some of the younger girls looked as if they were living dolls, their sari pleats pressed perfectly into place, and their braids hanging straight and long down their backs. Everyone had flowers in their hair too. The men were also in their finery, some in long, high-necked kurtas, others in dhoti.

As a group we queued in the press to present our gift of flowers to the happy couple, and the bride’s father who had invited us showed me and Julika how to bless them in the Hindu fashion. We poured milk three times onto their joined hands as they held two cones of rolled up leaves between them, and sprinkled rice three times onto each of their heads. When it was her turn, Pattiamma zealously touched the young bride’s forehead to take her blessing, and then her neck covered in gold jewellery, and then her arm, and hand, until her father eventually dragged her off!

After that, it seemed all of the formalities were over, and it was time to eat. Downstairs were hundreds more guests eating in rows, as serving staff rolled out paper tablecloths along long lines of tables, and laid down the food in a conveyor belt serving style. When we received our own banana leaf-cum-plates, they were rapidly filled with such a range of the most delicious food that I couldn’t keep up with the courses. Everyone else was eating so fast that I skipped the rice to go to dessert – an amazing ladoo-type sweet atop a puri drowned in milk and sugar. Divine! There was time to scoff some ice-cream and fruit salad on offer at the side of the hall before we headed back to the office. A good day’s work all in all.

The following day was Julika’s last at the office, before she spends her remaining time in India travelling. Everyone said their goodbyes, though she plans to return at the end of the month before flying home – so I won’t write my farewells just yet.

Every other day has blurred into one. Office-in, office-out. Today was different though. International Women’s Day called for a special effort, so all of SICHREM’s female office staff (including myself obviously) came to work dressed in saris. I decided on my new dark green bargain purchased at KR Market a fortnight back, which ended up being re-folded four or five times by different people throughout the morning. Chithra floated in just before the morning meeting with some garlands for everyone. Despite my protests that I lacked any sort of hair length on which to hang mine, I was rescued by Rose, our chai-devi, who pinned it artfully into some sort of bun. Whilst the power was out, and all the computers therefore off, rounds of photos ensued with different people in different combinations. Again, Chithra in her commanding way managed to get me wearing a large red bindi as suited the occasion, and subsequently wanted to get photographic proof.

It was a fun way to start my weekend, especially given the mountain of work I can see peeking round next week’s corner. Until then, I intend to enjoy myself.