Tag Archives: Kerala

Travels and Tribulations: Part 4

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Our last stop – Chennai. The sleeper train brought us into the centre of the city at early morning, where we quickly found a hotel to dump our stuff. After an hour’s kip, we caught a local bus to Cholamandal Art Village. The Art Village began and still functions as a cooperative of autonomous and self-funded artists, painting in the style of the Madras School. Turns out this style of painting is meant to focus on the use of line, but from the gallery paintings and industrial bronze conglomerate sculptures, its use varied so widely, I could only see resemblances of cubism and Matisse – not any obvious philosophy linking them together.

Artistic minutia aside, most of the village was closed due to it being off-season, so we flopped on a bench in the cafe area (also closed) to sleep off the heat of the day. Chennai felt so hot after Kerala! With some lunch eaten, and Roy hobbled by oozing blisters (nice) we retreated back to the city, passing expanses of pristine yellow beach and even designated car parks, with benches and proper footpaths and everything you’d not expect to see at the Indian seaside! It made me wish we’d had more time to spend in Chennai.

To the cinema for World War Z in the evening. Then, eating dinner in a little fast food place, one mosque (lit up on front with a picture of another mosque) had started playing music in celebration of the start of Ramzan/Ramadan. It was so loud that the bass was actually shaking the cafe floor. Outside, even the pavement was thrumming under the beat. Thank god our hotel wasn’t nearby.

At 7:30am however, I found out that there was a mosque near the hotel, and they were playing the entire prayers through loudspeakers for over ninety minutes. Topping it off, a little worm wiggled its way out of the shower head, sending Roy into an angry frenzy. Checking out, we spent nearly an hour arguing with the idiot of a desk-jockey manning the night reception. After repeating our complaint too many times to remember, and explaining to him how to use a phone after he pretended not to be able to contact the real manager, Roy’s belligerence finally paid off. The manager pulled in on his scooter, and went with Roy back up to the room, where another worm obligingly plopped out when the shower was switched on. Thanks to my entomologist boyfriend feigning a profession in water quality testing, the manager scurried to return our 1000 rupees for the night. “Madam, please write [on the receipt], ‘No things in water’.” We’d just been bribed!

The happy zoologist

The happy zoologist

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“Om nom nom humans”

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Only the sexiest crocodiles have a blob on their nose

Crocodile Bank, Chennai

Snoozing

The plan was to head a little down the east coast from Chennai to Mahaballipuram, via the Crocodile Bank. Thanks to google maps (and the geographer misreading them) I accidentally took us to a bus stop latitudinally level with our intended destination, but actually 10km in reverse and across by road. Damn those parallel road systems! I avoided being murdered by Roy for making him miss the crocodiles thanks to a good bus service (phew) and spent a happy afternoon wandering around the centre. It was surprisingly well-designed and had little pictograms for each crocodile’s information board. Under food, one of them had a cartoon of a person. Oh dear.

I went to sit by the giant tortoises whilst he wandered around a bit more, and the biggest – which for some reason I automatically assumed was the only male – headed for a bath and promptly got stuck. It was half cute, half pitiful to watch him get more and more panicked as he kept failing to mount the concrete lip round the pool. His [female] companions had no problems, which just embarassed him further. He eventually escaped though, and needed some female attention to nurture his ego back to health.

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The moment of final escape from the pool

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Pretending nothing happened

After watching feeding time for the smaller crocs, where a Caiman Lizard ignored the morsels being thrown to him and went for the whole bucket instead, we made it to Mahaballipuram. The guest house we chose to stay in had been hit by the 2004 tsunami, and it’s top floor was still missing. Our host recounted how he saw the wall of water coming, and simply ran. I can’t imagine the terror he must have felt. He said he was crying the whole time, but they were lucky that the row of hotels, built right on the beach, had slowed most of its progress before hitting the town.

Walking round the sites the next day, it also emerged that the water withdrawn 150m from the shoreline by the tsunami also revealed an entire historic town drowned by the sea. What remained of the site on land was a couple of temples heavily eroded by the salt air, and a small area of rock-carved temples over-run by tango-stealing langurs.

Leaving Roy to woo a goat down at the bottom, I unknowingly took the hard route up some slippery rocks towards the temples, and emerged on top of a huge boulder to find a proper path laid out round the corner. As I came out from behind a boulder teetering near the edge of the face I’d climbed, an Indian guy who thought he was being adventurous nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw me!

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Only remaining temple on the mainland
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Mahabharata (?) carved in stone

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Travelling in style…

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A temple carved out of the solid rock

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Violent stone murals inside

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Another rock-cut temple

Then we got caught by a friendly stone-mason, who of course took us to his shop ‘nearby’. Whether it was the sea air or because we were nearing the end of our trip, I was happy to go along, and ended up buying a carved marble chess board. After an indulgent full body relaxation massage where I was semi-groped by a young Indian girl lying topless on a slab, we sat out on our room’s balcony over the sea. The tide was in, and the spray was actually getting us wet, so we retreated indoors, as a lightning storm flickered off towards the horizon and stole our electricity.

Next morning, we left for our train back to Bangalore, and spent an entire train journey with a TV screen blaring out Tamil and Hindu music videos and serials full of screaming women. Arriving back into Bangalore East Railway Station, the sinking feeling in my stomach was palpable. Walking out of the station gates, the hugest cow I ever saw seemed somehow like an omen – of what I still don’t know.

Roy and I spent the next two days spending all our time together; ordering Chinese, watching films at the flat, and hanging out with my flatmates. On the day of his flight, we joined my flatmates for a disgustingly expensive but fantastic brunch at a fancy restaurant, where oysters sat opposite bagels and macaroons, and where my stomach became disappointingly small. 2 hours of gorging later, and with Maria carrying a different coloured Macaroon between each finger, we hurried back to pack, and leave.

Horrifyingly soon we were in the airport, and I realised it was too soon. I wasn’t ready to let him go. He had to go through the doors eventually though, and the army guards weren’t going to allow me past security. So I watched Roy walk along through the glass doors, and stood there for a little while wondering when I could also go home. Then I got a bus back into Bangalore, to continue where I left off.

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!

VIBGYOR – A week at Thrissur’s International Film Festival, Kerala

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Julika and I spent the afternoon of Wednesday last week sorting through the mountain of books and SICHREM-branded t-shirts that we would take to sell at Thrissur. The plan was to attend this six-day long film festival in Kerala’s cultural capital, manning a stall within the grounds as a means of small-scale fundraising.

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VIBGYOR film festival, Thrissur

After minimising the heavy books we had to carry, and streamlining our stock to the most popular texts, we took an auto back to my house to pack as much as possible into our two rucksacks, rather than the huge cumbersome holdall back they’d used to store them in at the office. A quick nap and some food, before taking a taxi to the bus station for our sleeper coach at 9:30pm. The bus was surprisingly comfortable – blankets, curtains, even a pillow. Julika and I shared a cosy double bed section, and despite having our own separate divots to sleep in, I still apparently tried to steal her blanket in my sleep.

9 hours later, and with some sleep, we arrived in the small city of Thrissur and decamped at the YMCA. The day was ours to do as we pleased, with preparations for the festival just beginning, so we walked into the centre where Lonely Planet assured us of a Hindu temple atop a hill with “sweeping metropolis views”. The small rise we found sitting in the middle of what was effectively a very large roundabout was at first sight so unrecognisably our destination that we thought we had got lost. It was only upon reading the sign by the lone building stood there that we realised those urban vistas translated as views of various shops across the road from this small, closed temple. Sigh.

Not to be perturbed, we ventured around the small park. As I was taking some pictures, Julika suddenly came running. She was so agitated I thought something bad had happened, until she shouted, “Elephants! Elephants! There are elephants!”

Spying on the elephants

Spying on the elephants

We climbed onto a stone wall which ran around the elephants’ enclosure, and watched as various men fed and washed different individuals. It quickly became apparent that the animals were tightly chained however, by two feet, and the nearest individual was blind and extremely aggressive and unhappy. It seemed an incredibly inhumane way to treat animals kept only for the purpose of temple festival duties, and we later got into a heated debate with our colleague on this subject. Considering the religious significance of elephants to Hinduism (Ganesh, the god of luck and prosperity, has the head of an elephant), it made even less sense to treat these fantastic animals with such impunity. I later found an encouraging article relating to this issue, which restored my hope a little.

The following five days of the festival ensued with much dancing and celebration. Choosing a prime spot near the entrance to the university campus where the festival was being held, each morning we would unpack our (increasingly lighter) bags onto the tables and await our first customers. In between manning the stall, which we set up under a temporary structure with a tin roof, Julika and I would take turns in watching different films.

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The focus for the VIBGYOR festival this February, in its 8th year, was stolen democracies. Even though my area of interest gravitates towards gender-related issues and sexual minorities, I was surprised by the number of films on show which I felt I had to watch. One of these was ‘Immoral Daughters’, by Nakul Sawhney, which explored honour killings and the cultural beliefs which perpetuate them. The stand-out clip for me was an interview with ganga-smoking village panchyat leaders. A young couple who married with their family’s consent were murdered by other villagers, with police complicity, for the crime of marrying too close within the community. When their families rose up against this act, panchyat leaders then ordered their excommunication. The cameraman asked one member of the panchyat whether rape and murder were treated in the same way, to which he replied, “No never. We never give excommunication for that.” Unbelievable.

There were so many other interesting films I saw, ranging from 5 minutes to an hour and a half in length, that it’s impossible to mention them all. The one that had the greatest impact on me is definitely worth mentioning though.

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Stolen Democracies

Anders Ostergaard’s ‘Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country’ documented the horrific military violence against Burmese citizens from the viewpoint of an underground network of covert journalists, who smuggled their footage via the internet and trusted couriers to report to the outside world. Illegally filmed on handheld cameras, the peaceful protests by Buddhist monks, students and citizens against the military government, and the military’s violent retaliation, were shown moment by moment. As events unfolded around the frontline cameramen, you were living it with them, and it was real fear I felt when the first people started being shot, and when huge crowds were running for their lives and being gunned down. It is not an understatement to say that I was shell-shocked by what I saw. The entire audience, which would normally raise a clap when the first credits started rolling, sat in stunned silence to the very end.

When the monk that we had seen around VIBGYOR over the past couple of days took the stage, we learnt that he had been one of those involved in the protests, and had seen it all. Nobody asked him any questions, but everyone listened when he started to speak. It was an unsettling end to the day.

The following morning brought a little more normality, with the usual and tiresome parade of men wanting our numbers/email/to go for a drink. I began to feel like I was on repeat, answering the same questions with every visitor to our stall. “Where are you from? What’s your name? Are you a student? Why are you in India? Oh you work for this charity? Why?” It was endless. Even Julika – with her seemingly limitless willing to chat to people – was tired by the end. I had already crawled under the table to hide and go to sleep.

This is not to say that there weren’t very positive moments either. After being interviewed by a journalist from Keralan newspaper ‘Manorama’, Julika and I found our photo in print the next day, to the delight of the other stall-holders and various film-goers.

Famous at last!

We also gained an impromptu invite to one of the VIBGYOR volunteer’s 18th birthday party, where the usual happy birthday was followed by different people performing songs, and a young lad with a guitar singing Enrique Iglesias tunes. As soon as the drums started playing however, everyone went crazy, dancing like it was the last thing they would ever do, and it was so great to see. On the penultimate night, I narrowly escaped performing at the cultural evening, when I read the performer’s list and to my horror saw my own name at number 23. People sang, people danced, people got drunk and had a good time.

   

My favourite part of the week though had to be meeting artist K.G. Babu. After approaching the stall on the Monday, this gently-spoken Keralan invited me and Julika to his family home, where he wanted to draw us. So Tuesday morning saw us breakfasting at his table on delicious coconut pancakes and scrambled egg, before he got to work on our portraits one at a time. Whilst it was Julika’s turn I wandered about the garden beneath all the different fruit trees – jackfruit, papaya, mango, cashew fruit, coconuts, large lemons (they looked like melons to me), and more – and stood on the levee next to the canal, hugely appreciating the strong breeze which blew away the humidity of Thrissur.

KG Babu's portrait of yours truly

KG Babu’s portrait of yours truly

Babu was kind enough to show me his studio, and the enamel paints he sometimes uses on his canvases. I couldn’t believe it when he offered the original sketch he had made of me. Clutching it in hand, we returned to our stall for the final hours of the festival.

It was a last-minute rush to the bus stand, and a sleepless trip back to Bangalore, but these little inconveniences were more than balanced out by the various unexpected and exciting events which unfolded through the week. To top it off, we made over 5000 rupees from selling books and SICHREM t-shirts, so felt we’d earned a day off from the office when we got home.

Art Galleries and Women’s Rights

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Art Galleries and Women’s Rights

Another exciting weekend as my third week in India draws to a close. Working days in the office so far this week have been fairly uneventful. I’ve been busy getting on with my assigned tasks, and though it’s very difficult working six days a week, sat in an office all day, I’m starting to get used to it.

Each morning I trawl the same six newspapers and select articles relating to human rights violations, or issues in general, and collect them to put into a quarterly report. This is my daily task for the year, and I’ll be doing four such reports, and hopefully the data will then contribute to a much larger annual report from SICHREM as a whole.

In addition to that, I’ve been working on a funding proposal for their Human Rights Helpline. My other longer-term task is to conduct a larger research project into the functioning of the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission; interviewing Members and the Chairperson, as well as several civil society groups dealing with the Commission. I’ll hopefully finish my research and get the report written at least by May, which will then be published as part of SICHREM’s series of short reports they are bringing out. My own name in print!

VIGBYOR 2013

More excitingly though, Julika and I got called into Mr Mathews’ office on Friday. Thinking this could only be bad, I was totally surprised when he asked if we wanted to go to Kerala on SICHREM’s behalf, all expenses paid. “I’ll give you some days to think about it and give me your decision,” he says. Julika and I both instantly told him it was a definite yes. So as of this Thursday, we’ll be manning a stall at Thrissur’s own international film festival – VIBGYOR – raising money from the sale of SICHREM’s own branded mugs etc. Even better, we’re free to watch whatever films we like in between stall sessions, and attend talks and debates that are also happening alongside. I’ve already been poring over my Lonely Planet guide for things to do.

On Saturday I got the chance to accompany Chithra to a meeting with representatives from several other NGOs, where the discussion centred around an upcoming event they were planning. It was only when we arrived that I learnt we were at the offices of Vimochana – a charity I’d heard about in England, who work with gender issues and women’s rights – so I was in my element! The event being organised was to coincide with the global movement 1 Billion Rising. This movement is a protest by women the world over against the growing culture of violence in so many countries, and aims to use dance and movement as a means of resistance and hope.

 

So the event is going to focus on these two themes, using dance, music, poetry and spoken word, street plays, painting, rangolis on the street, and a candle-lit march at sundown. Amidst the continuous stream of argument and voices talking over one another, it emerged that they hoped to mobilise between 5000 and 10,000 people! I had no idea how big this way going to be. So many passionate individuals from youth theatre groups were there, and people were talking about flash mobs, and occupying the Police Commissioner’s office to get permission for the day. I can’t wait to be involved! I’m hoping I might be able to offer to document the day in some form with my camera, or blogging – who knows.

After the meeting, I went back to my original plan for the half-day, and continued onto a supposedly good area to shop called Kammanahalli, where I ended up buying material for four outfits (they’re just all so nice).

Sunday came and I left to meet a fellow volunteer from 2WayDevelopment called Emma, who was stationed with street children’s charity BOSCO. After Thalli, and exchanging stories of our respective placements, we spent the hot afternoon in CubbonPark. It was free – a nice surprise in a country where even looking is a commodity – and full of couples and children playing cricket. The place was stuffed with huge bamboo stalks and lots of massive, spreading trees that I wish I knew the name of. To tick some things off the tourist list, we headed over to the Government-run museum and art gallery within the park, which again was only 4 Rs, with no foreigner’s tax! Though the museum was full of poorly-labelled pottery fragments and weaponry (some shining examples were “brick”, “clay pieces”, and “swords”), the art gallery had plenty of interesting statues (read lots of very busty women in a state of undress) and some modern canvases upstairs.

We discovered a quiet spot next to a lily pond, and sat for a bit in the shade, before following the sound of loud drum beats and music to an event in a stadium nearby. It turns out this was an inspirational event being held to encourage young Bangaloreans to volunteer in their communities. We could glimpse some men dancing and playing drums, but felt a bit out of place with everyone else there wearing the event’s branded t-shirt.

Leaving for MG Road, the main shopping street, we stopped at India’s version of Starbucks – Café Coffee Day. Though ludicrously priced, the slice of chocolate cake I had, with melting sauce and toffee centre, was so delicious I didn’t really care. I’ve been craving cake since I got here! After a quick look at some books further up the road, the afternoon was getting late, so we parted ways and planned to meet up again. Hopefully at 1 Billion Rising!

ONE IN THREE WOMEN ON THE PLANET WILL BE RAPED OR BEATEN IN HER LIFETIME.

ONE BILLION WOMEN VIOLATED IS AN ATROCITY

ONE BILLION WOMEN DANCING IS A REVOLUTION

On V-Day’s 15th Anniversary, 14 February 2013, we are inviting ONE BILLION women and those who love them to WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND an end to this violence. ONE BILLION RISING will move the earth, activating women and men across every country. V-Day wants the world to see our collective strength, our numbers, our solidarity across borders.

What does ONE BILLION look like? On 14 February 2013, it will look like a REVOLUTION.

via One Billion Rising.