Saturday, 31 December 2011

Briefly Turning Feral

It's new years day, the perfect time to reflect on my experiences so far and to think about how I've been behaving towards people, in particular, creepy Indian men. Over the past few weeks I’ve been in Kovalam, where the air is thick with sexual frustration, Varkala, the beautiful beach side tourist town, Neyaar Dam, where I spent Christmas in a yoga Ashram next to a lake, Fort Cochin, a full on Christian fishing town which on sign posts and graffiti everywhere reads ‘Gods own country’, and yesterday I arrived in Palolem, Goa with my friend Paul from Slovakia only to find that there’s ‘no room at the inn’. It felt like we were Joseph and Mary going from one place to the next and being told that everywhere is full, or to have people taking advantage of our situation and trying to charge us ridiculous money for a crappy little room. The experience has been a harsh one and a steep learning curve.

My legs are bruised, cut, grazed & inflamed from falling down holes, scrabbling over gorges and scratching bites from mosquitos and god knows what else which cause big red lumpy reactions from me. My right knee is killing me from falling over last night and making a plonker out of myself in front of a bunch of new friends. I like to make a good impression as always. On the beach Indian men were getting drunk and they were worse than ever. At one point I was grabbed by two guys saying happy new year and shaking my hand, then they wouldn’t let go, luckily an Irish guy called Murphy who was in the group I was with saw it and came over to grab me back off them, like some kind of prized object. Last night I slept outside in a hammock with a few other stragglers but I didn’t sleep much at all.

However my throbbing knee and itchy bites are the least of my worries. The men here are so creepy and disrespectful towards women that so far I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been groped by opportunistic passers by. It’s done so casually it’s barely noticeable, but it happens, and it makes me really fucking angry.  I’ve told numerous people to ‘fuck off and get a life’, been stared at on the train for uncomfortable periods of time leaving me no choice but to shout at them ‘Yes’ ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Take a photo it will last longer’. One guy was standing at the foot of my bed on a sleeper train just watching me and he wouldn’t go away after asking him to stop about 3 times so I had to go off to find the ticket inspector, who as it turns out, didn’t give a fuck. Luckily I was travelling with a man who was sitting in the next carriage. It seems men here only listen to other men as a lot of them don’t believe that women are in fact…. REAL PEOPLE. This is one of the hardest things about Indian culture for me to deal with, but I have to remember that in the UK there are also a lot of sexist males with ego complexes and I can’t tar everyone here with the same brush as I’ve also met some lovely people.

Last night was one of the craziest New Year celebrations I’ve ever been to, apart from maybe Amsterdam where they set off fireworks horizontally down the street. On the beach here fireworks were being set off left, right, centre and horizontally, with little warning. I was a bit fearful of my life at certain points, having had it drummed into me from quite an early age how dangerous fireworks can be. This morning rubbish, beer bottles and used fireworks litter the whole beach and as I sit there amongst it all thinking about a probably exaggerated story we were told at primary school about the caretaker who found a used firework, picked it up, put it in his pocket with the intention of putting it in a bin, and then it blew his leg off.

So what about New Years resolutions I hear you cry? Well, I want to change the way I react to things and not get so angry. I found myself turning feral a while back just before I went into the Ashram. I was constantly on edge and just expecting to be ripped off or for some guy to speak badly to me, and it got to the point where sometimes I was the one getting in there first and being rude before they had the chance to, and walking around with an attitude so big, always ready for a come back remark. This has to stop as it’s not really me. I’m reading a new book at the moment called ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’ and it talks a lot about visualizing the things you want to happen and being positive so I’m going to try visualizing people being nice to me and men having respect and see if that works.

I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of moaning, but hey I like to write these things down and get them off my chest. However, I’ve seen and done some amazing things, and met some really cool people, and I think that balances out the negative parts for me. On Christmas day I washed and rode elephants, I saw lions and crocodiles, I went to see Kathakali dancers who use face paints made from chalk, soot and coconut oil, put seeds in their eyes to turn them red and wear extravagant costumes to do a traditional dancing, I’ve done a lot of Yoga, slept outside in a hammock, eaten great food, visited a temple, heard hypnotic Indian music, swam in the sea, and watched the beautiful sunsets, and tomorrow I will see two old friends, Anna and Nik, who I haven’t seen for the best part of two years.  

I will finish with a phrase I just overheard from someone next to me in the internet cafĂ© which I think you might like ‘May all your troubles last as long as your new years resolutions’.

Happy New Year. x

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Cities and Seasides

So I'm now in Varkala, Kerala, the tourist beach side resort filled with hippy clothes stalls, overpriced restaurants, pushy shop keepers skilled in the art of ripping off tourists 'yes please madam' 'just take a look my beautiful shop', the usual sneaky rickshaw drivers on the prowl and constantly spitting out reams of bullshit, the beautifully bronzed and slim yoga experts on the beach all doing their poses in perfect unison, the Bob Marley & Jack Johnson music pumping out of every cafe, the aroma of incense, the dreadlocks, the bangles, the tourists, the sleaze ball waiters trying to either sell me drugs or get into my knickers 'would you like a Special dessert maddam'.  This place is a bit cliche to say the least but the beach……. is something else.  Steep steps lead off the main drag down the side of the cliff to the beach where the water is clear and the sand is white.  I spend a lot of time down here swimming as far out into the sea as I dare and then swimming back again in a panic, and then doing it again and going further and further each time.  Once I spotted a group of around 20 dolphins not too far away from me and one of them jumped up into the air and did a somersault type move.  When paddling at the edges you can see lots of little conical shaped shells being washed up and then a translucent creature sticks out it’s little flaps and starts burying itself under the sand.  I spend a long time looking at them in mixture of amazement and disgust.
I feel like so much has happened since I’ve been in India and where I am now can’t be more of a contrast to where I came from in Bangalore.  Here the pace is slow and tourists wonder around drinking chai and ‘living the dream’, in Bangalore I was the only white woman for miles around and chaos is happening all around me all the time.  The Art School and Hostel are in a town far south of Bangalore, Avallahallil. It’s one of the dodgiest, male-dominated places I’ve been to where strange men with no teeth hobble around, dogs fight in the street, pavements and roads don’t exist, people shout at one another, bikes, rickshaws, cars and motorbikes weave in and out of each other at high speeds,  and muslim men stare at me for uncomfortably long periods of time. 
The man who set up the school is called Jon Dervaj.  He’s a large and friendly Indian man who often wears a beret style hat with a hammer and sickle on the side. He’s an artist, musican, poet and dancer and has great respect from all the children at Born Free.   I like him instantly and he makes me feel at ease, cracking jokes, singing songs, talking about alliterations and tongue twister poems and speaking a strange, high pitched Indian English that takes me a little while to adjust to. I first met him and a few of the older kids (well young adults aged between 16 – 24), Srinivas, Gowri and Frida, at Born Free’s gallery Art 9, where they were making stencils and using a loud, pumping compressor to spray paint until it got dark.  The gallery/studio was filled with giant papier mache elephant heads, work benches, pieces of wood , giant 4 piece painting called 1 million crusifixions, posters and articles about the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, pots of paint, brushes, stone scrulptures and wood carvings. I like the place instantly and the young people are very friendly.
Srinivas took me to where Mioi lives in JP Nagar. She’s a dancer from Hiroshima who co-runs the school. He prefers to walk in the road with the busy traffic as most people here do, carrying my heavy rucksack for me even though I tried to say no. Srinivas is a really friendly and playful 16 year old, who at first tries to convince me that he’s 20, and it’s obvious that he has a really sweet heart.  Later on I found out that the woman he thought was his mother had admitted one day that she wasn’t his real mother but she found him lying in the bins as a baby.  It messed him up quite a lot and he now lives in the hostel. In fact all the children here have stories that will break your heart, and there are some things that I can’t even write about here.
I went to a film screening of a film they made called ‘Anand an Ode to Joy’ and was dedicated to Iqbal Masih, a child liberator from Pakistan who was murdered at the age of 13 for escaping from a carpet factory and then came back to liberate 3000 more children. This boy would now be the same age as me, 28, if he had not been assassinated. All the children at Born Free are child liberators. They find children who are working or on the streets and convince them to move into the hostel and go to school, although it is very difficult for some children to move away from their family, or they’ve been told by cruel bosses that bad things will happen if they escape, and sometimes they go back to working, begging, stealing, living on the street type lives.  In the film the children tell their individual stories. Gowri was born on the 4th floor of a construction site as her mother worked up to the very moment she was born and then died after birth. She was brought up by the construction supervisor and forced to work from an early age. In India people who work on construction sites also live in them and it’s frequent that you see women and children there working.  Lekshme used to sell balloons on the street. Another used to work in a bar and was forced to drink and smoke by the drunken adults, another worked for his father on a coconut street stall and was frequently beaten, other children used to run around in gangs and have witnessed people stabbing others for money.
There are many children going to school now and living at the hostel. Ranjita and Lekshme -  two sweet young girls, Reshma and Gowri – two older girls who look after the younger ones, a big gabble of rowdy boys of various ages, Marrappa, Santosh, Suman, Jonny, Srinivas, Ventosh, Ravi, Jillalli and Subromony. Jonny and Srinivas don’t want to go to school and just want to do art so they are around in the daytime and I teach English and do Art classes and Kitty, the other other volunteer from China does Maths lessons and Cha Cha dancing with them.  The day before I left the school to come to Kerala a new boy came along called Rajeesh. He is a big thief and I catch him twice with his hand in Kitty’s bag trying to steal and Jonny was working together with him as a distraction.  I was so angry and started shouting and pointing at Rajeesh and Jonny, and putting on my best stern look of disapproval. Rajeesh was at the hostel because he’s on the run from police. He only seemed about 12. I contemplated not coming back again but then reminded myself that they’re only children.
While I was here I saw so much. On the way to the film screening the children were all cycling and we rode in Jon’s beat up old jeep and the youngest one, Ranjita, got her foot caught in the wheel of the bike she was being carried on. Every day there seems to be an accident or a drama of some sort. We drove along to meet them at the doctors surgery where Ranjita had her foot bandaged and I sat her on my lap in the front. She was crying and asking for her mum and dad so later on, after the film screening, we drove into J Nagar where her parents live. We pulled up on the side of the rode and Jon points to the pavement, under a tree, next to a construction site, and says that’s where they live. He asked me to go and wake them up so I wonder over carrying Ranjita and Lekshme comes with me. I can’t see anyone, only a few bits of cardboard, but Lekshme calls out and the cardboard starts to shake and I realise there is someone asleep under there. He was a very thin, friendly looking man with a piece of material wrapped around his head as a turban, and bloodshot eyes with serious bruising around both of them.  When he wakes up and sees his daughter a huge smile breaks out on his face and he takes my hand and puts it to his head like a kind of blessing. Her mother then appears from behind the broken concrete wall. She is very pretty and looks a lot from Ranjita. She also takes my hand and puts it to her head to say thank you.  
We leave the girls there while we go to the town so I can buy a bus ticket to Trivandrum and Kitty can change some money. On the way we bump into two ex Born Free students who are running after the jeep excitedly. When we stop Jon makes them empty there pockets and then I realise they’re both high on solvents as they pull out bottles of tipex and other solvents. Their eyes are wide and rolling back in the sockets and they are hyperactive and giggling. Jon has a laugh and joke with them, pretends to confiscate the solvents, and then gives them back. Once we got what we needed we drove back to where Ranjita’s parents live to pick them up.  We parked on the opposite side of road this time as it was quite busy street and Jon and I crossed the road to meet them. As the mum was passing Ranjita to me to carry back I heard a huge crash and then span round quickly to see what looked like a motorbike crash into the back of Jon’s jeep, where Kitty was sitting. My heart stopped as I thought she’d been hurt. So I gave back Ranjita, ran to the over side of the road dodging the traffic and the hit and run driver as he nearly hit me when he was escaping, to discover Kitty was OK but a man standing behind the jeep had blood pouring from his mouth and covering his shirt. A crowd quickly gathered, as it does in India, and the police turned up by chance and we give him the parts of the motorbike that snapped off the vehicle that crashed into us. I watched the injured man pull a huge tooth out of his bloody mouth and toss it onto the floor next to the food wrappers, vegetable peelings and cow shit.
So much happens here it’s unbelievable and I wish I had time to write about it all. I did discover why people use they’re horns so much while driving. They sound the horn when they are about to make a dangerous maneuver to say ‘I’m here’. When driving in a rickshaw once I thought the horn had got stuck like that hilarious scene in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and I started laughing to myself, but then I realised he was just doing a long succession of one hand on the steering wheel, swerving in and out of oncoming cars, buses and other rickshaws,  deaf defying type moves. They don’t do any of that health and safety shit here.
I go back to Bangalore in mid January to work in the school and we will be working towards having a group exhibition, but in the meantime I am having a bit of me time in Kerala, going to an Ashram for Christmas, Goa for New Year and then meeting old friends and new ones too. I feel very privileged.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Culture Shock and Beedies

My first thoughts of India, of Bangalore........I don't know what to say really; the people everywhere; the cars; the rickshaws; the bikes; the fumes; the funky smells; the street vendors; the boxy run down buildings crawling around on top of each other; the shops signs piled up competing for your attention; the dogs laying on the pavement (who, against my nature, I give a wide berth to); people trying to sell me sunglasses, maps, loads of other things I don't want, and trying to take me places in their rickshaws 'yes please madam', 'where are you going?'; the colourful clothes and scarves; the constant honking of horns for no apparent reason; the close-call car crashes happening at least every 2 minutes; the hot heavy air; and best of all... the sun. All I can do at first is to stand in amazement taking it all in, awkwardly finding my way.

I'm sitting in a restaurant writing this. It's just around the corner from my hotel but it took me ages to get here for all the distractions along the way; being ushered into shops to try on clothes and shoes and carefully treading around huge cracks in the rugged pathways and negotiating my way over busy roads. I smoked a beedie along the way and caused quite a stir with men shouting 'beedie, beedie' to their friends in disbelief. I knew it would attract attention for me, a woman, to be smoking, but it didn't bother me enough to  make me stop doing it.

This is the first thing I’ve eaten all day. Fish Biryani in a terracotta pot, the lid sealed with a rolled up piece of bread, nann bread and 2 chais, and a glass of water that I drink sheepishly after asking if it came from the tap or not. It’s 7pm. I’ve been so dumbfounded all day and didn’t leave eating for an entire day because I was scared of getting delhi belly, I just couldn’t work out how or where to get food from. If might sound strange but everything here is so overwhelmingly different that I’ve only just worked out how to eat.

The staff in the restaurant take great delight in serving everything onto my plate, not letting me do any of it, and come over every two minutes to spoon on more of their speciality chutney, whether I want it or not, asking if I like it, telling me what’s in it, again, asking what I’m doing here, what am I writing. I quite like it though as it makes me feel like I’m never alone. Well how could I be with this many people swarming around the whole time, and it’s not like London, people speak to each other, and me, a lot, and seem to have an inherent friendliness that I don’t see much of in England.

The flight was long and exhausting. I left Cambridge at 3am yesterday after only getting a few hours sleep, and feeling a bit sketchy to say the least. I travelled all the way here whilst slipping in and out of consciousness as my head fell to one side, jolting me awake, wiping away the dribble, and being woken up with amazing airline food. After 4 hours of broken sleep I watched a film called ‘I am Kalam’. I’d recommend it. It’s about a young Indian boy who has ideas and aspirations far beyond his caste and is inspired to change his name by the president Kalam.

At Abu Dhabi airport I experienced what it is like to be the only white person, and woman without a headscarfe, on a bus full of people. EVERYONE was looking at me, some older women with contempt, but young children with open-mouthed curiosity and friendly scrutinisation. I smiled and they became shy and looked away. I remember thinking how glad I was that I dyed my hair black and can only imagine how it might’ve been if I’d still had blonde hair. Abu Dhabi airport was impressive. It had a dome shaped ceiling covered entirely with a green, purple, blue and white mosaic which tapers down into a central point meeting the ground on the lower level. The whole thing reminded me of a mosque or religious type building crossed with a beautiful multi-coloured spaceship. Needless to say I found the smoking room and sat there in a smoky hot box of 10 Arab men and me chuffing for our lives before boarding the next flight.

On both flights I had a window seat and some of the views were breath-taking. The mountainous region with brown undulating rocky mounds rippling over a massive expanse of land reminded me of a book I read in the summer ‘Shantaram’. The part in the book where the gora (white guy in India) goes to Afghanistan to fight a holy war with some Mumbai gangsters and they take the perilous mountain paths by night on horseback. It wasn’t Afghanistan though. It might’ve been nearer to Kuwait by the look it on the flight map.

When stepping out of the customs area I felt very vulnerable. I was supposed to have my wits about me and be on the look out for dodgy taxis and con artists but I wasn’t. I was tired, half deaf from the flight, feeling awkward, confused and like my brain had just been spun out in a washing machine. I went with the first guy who offered me a pre-paid taxi. He was wearing a trustworthy looking, black and yellow t-shirt with some kind of taxi firm logo on it. He came with me to get money changed, watching all the while where I put it, and how much was there. I was paranoid, obviously inexperienced and fumbling around awkwardly with my body wallet, big rucksack and smaller bag. I didn’t even have the brain power to count out the money I got and check how much was there. I just took it. I went to the taxi place with the guy. I didn’t haggle. I just paid them while muttering something about how it seemed a bit expensive.

The ride to Bangalore centre took about 40 minutes and I was quite scary, yet exhilarating at the same time. At 5am there were a lot of cars on the road, going very fast taking a lot of risks, and regularly cutting up the taxi and honking their horns. The roads were bumpy with some massive holes and unexpected mounds with roadworks everywhere it seemed. I think that a metro is being built from the airport to Bangalore. We went through residential areas on the way, but not as I know them, they looked like houses made out of cardboard and corrugated iron, all crammed together. People were in the streets picking and sorting through litter, sweeping, gathered together on corners talking, and squatting on the side of roads doing a bit of business. We drove through an area so dusty that it came through the vents and I couldn’t stop coughing. I didn’t have any water.

I tried to have a conversation with the driver but I couldn’t hear anything as my ears were still suffering from the flight and I don’t speak Kannada, not yet anyway. I felt like a helpless chick freshly hatched out from a protective aeroplane shell, and I pretty much was, so I just had to put all my trust into the taxi driver and hope he’d get me there. He did. We stopped on a dark, dusty, littered street filled with western logos and signage as far as the eye could see, MacDonalds, Cannon, Nokia, Pizzahut, Lacoste, were only a few. He phoned the hotel for them to come out and get me as he could see how stunned I was. I met a couple of South Africans who also arrived at the same time, one of them was a huge friendly dark skinned man called Yolan, and he asked me a lot of questions. I couldn’t respond at first as I was in a bit of shock. My words didn’t come out.

Nothing could have prepared me for this and nothing was how I’d imagined it. I’m amazed, overwhelmed and also delighted that I decided to come here. I’ve been here for one day now and I feel like a lot has happened already. I had a white knuckle rickshaw ride, I bought some beedies, I met a guy from Argentina, Paulo, who was wondering around in the street, studying a map, looking for a hotel – so I took him to mine telling him it was a good one. He reminded me of how I felt only 12 hours before, stumbling around in a dreamlike daze unsure of who to trust.

The hotel guys were very happy that I brought them a customer and did a funny smiley head waggle at me –scoring me enough brownie points for them to let me use their mobile to make a couple of phone calls to the Born Free School to organize meeting them the next day. Although as I lay here on my hotel bed finishing off writing this blog, a giant bed bug came towards me really fast so I squashed it with my lighter onto the previously clean white bed sheets. I think I spoke too soon about this hotel and I have a pang of regret about bringing Paulo here. The next day I woke up late and missed my 6am check out time so they charge me for an extra day. I tried to argue my way out of it but I lost and ended up paying. I won’t be recommending this hotel again.

My favourite things about India so far are the smiley faces and head waggles (which I will be trying out soon), men who hold hands in the street, and my new found haggling skills which got me a good price on a sarwal kameez top and some sandals. I’m just off to the post office now to post back my heavy boots then I’m getting a rickshaw to JP Nagar to meet with Jon Dervaj at the Born Free Art School. I look forward to it.