Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Ana's & Aka's

Yesterday a young girl, maybe 6 years old, was killed on the road a few metres away from where I am staying in JP Nagar, 3rd Phase, Bangalore. Apparently there was an accident involving a lorry and somehow her throat was severed and she bled to death. The roads are crazy here in India, they really are, and there is nowhere to cross them safely. Zebra crossings are painted onto the roads for decoration only it seems as I’ve never seen a drivers stopping for people to cross. When I first came here I would stand on the side of road with my mouth wide open, scared to death, thinking it was impossible to get to the other side. Once I was led across into the onslaught of oncoming vehicles by a little old Indian lady, but now I’m the one guiding all the young Chinese volunteers over the road as they follow behind screaming for their lives. I’ve worked out that what you have to do is step out in front of cars, bikes, rickshaws, buses, and make them stop, almost like playing a game of chicken.  The young girl yesterday didn’t get on so well trying to cross the road though.

I was very shocked by the girls death, not that I saw it first hand as I came home late from the Venkatappa Art Gallery where I’d been painting with some of the kids. Most people here have seen death first hand though. Frida is a 24 years old and is very pretty. She’s originally from North India but she ran away to Tamil Nadu when she was young and worked as a maid in a rich persons house. One day a mobile phone went missing from the house and she was blamed. Her ‘owner’ then melted a plastic bottle and poured it over her legs as punishment. She then ran away to live on the streets of Bangalore and was picked up by Jon and the kids at Born Free. She has got her 10th Standard (GCSE’s equivalent) and is a talented photographer, film maker, painter and sculpture and works along-side Jon as a commercial artist. She is a co-owner of Born Free and will eventually take over when Jon gets too old.

Frida told me that she saw a man crushed to death by a train while he was running after it to jump on and got his foot stuck somehow. ‘Splat’ she says arms exploding outwards ‘ It was like this’. She also saw a woman trying to cross the road suddenly trip over and get hit by a car, she said ‘with no scream, just silent’.  Accidents happen all the time here. Only 3 weeks ago, while I was in Hampi and just before Gowri left, Frida and Gowri were on a moped and they left the stand down by mistake, fell off the bike and a motorbike wheel ran over Frida’s back and shoulder and then reversed back over her. Road safety really should be more of a priority in India.  

Frida has been a good friend to me while I’ve been staying here and has taken me out in the city and showed me around. Her English is really good and she’s been teaching me some Tamil in preparation for my trip to Pondicherry, including how to say to Rickshaw drivers ‘You are hitting my head, simply go’ and ‘If you don’t stop talking I will kick you’. I learned yesterday that when she came to born free she didn’t have any documents, birth certificate, etc, so Jon organized for this, and then she missed out on a trip to Japan to where Mioi lives in Hiroshima, because the authorities wouldn’t issue a passport as they thought it was suspicious that a person had just been created. She was able to make up her own name. In fact Jon has done this for a lot of the kids here and they can name themselves. I was doing some art yesterday with Prem, a new boy at the hostel who’s not yet going to school, and Peter who came along after school, and as we were writing our names in large bubble writing I asked what their last names were and they said they didn’t have them. Normally these two boys are always messing around but while we were painting they were really engrossed in it and seemed to really calm down and become focused. The same thing happened for me actually, and I’d been feeling a bit depressed over the past couple of weeks for various reasons, and I found myself feeling much better after doing my first real piece of art for over 2 months. Peter said it’s the first time he’s painted and he liked it.

Bangalore is such a busy place. It takes such a long time to get anywhere. I finally got all the art supplies and the drawing books that I made together in one place yesterday. I’d been asking for someone to get the books while they are at Jon’s studio as transport is an issue for me and the studio is a long way a way. It hadn’t happened yet so yesterday at 9am I cadged a lift on the back of Mioi’s motorbike down to the studio (a 45 minute drive due to traffic), bought pencils, rubbers, pens and sharpeners, carried the 20 heavy books along the street, asked numerous people where to catch the bus from, asked all the buses that passed if they went to Kasturba Road (they don’t have numbers here), crammed myself onto the packed and sweaty bus, got the ticket man to tell me where to get off, crossed the busiest road EVER (6 or 7 vague lanes of traffic and lots of buses and lorries), asked directions to numerous people, deciphered their replies (normally people point in a random direction so you have a ask a few people and make a decision based on which person you trust most), walked for over half an hour in the heat, car fumes and dust (which in Indian terms is not very far), and arrived at Venkatappa Gallery at 12 noon where Subu, Reshma and Prem were doing English lessons with Nina on the computer and explaining Jon’s artwork to the visitors. When I first got to Bangalore there is no way I would have been able to navigate the buses and the streets on my own. Although I’m glad that I can just get on with things now instead of having to wait for people to give me lifts to places or having to ask what I should be doing.

Prem has recently returned to the school and I’ve been spending time with him today also doing Art and English lessons, as well as Srinivas. Jon told me that he and Srinivas bumped into him on the streets last week and he wasn’t looking so good. They took him for a meal and convinced him to come back to Born Free. He is very intelligent, as are most of the kids here, but after working with him today I realized he is very behind with writing in English, although his speaking is pretty good. He is around 15 years old although I haven’t asked him. Srinivas was helping him a lot with his writing. We decorated our drawing books, did some painting and talked about a theme for the exhibition and decided to call it ‘Inspiration’ and we wrote down all the things that make us happy and inspire us. Prem was struggling a lot with writing simple words like ‘people’ and ‘food’ so I baby stepped him through the spellings and the sounds while Srinivas waited for him to catch up. Prem got quite frustrated and said he isn’t interested in any of this but I managed to convince him he’s doing well and to carry on. They both have quite short attention spans and like to mess around but we did the lesson for an hour and a half nearly which I was really impressed with so I took them out for an egg puff at the bakery afterwards.

I also feel like Ranjita is making a lot of progress.  She was really interested in the spirograph kits that I bought and I drew some of these out with her. She actually started to talk with me and I got her to read out the instructions on the packet on which number circles to use and which number hole to put the pen in. Lakshmi and Meena were also very interested in the spirographs. Meena is the same age as Ranjita but is a lot more advanced in her speaking and is not so shy. Meena came to the school just before I came back as Jon met her at some traffic lights desperately trying to sell him roses. Another young girl who was working with Meena should also be joining us today. Lakshmi is around 12 years old and her brother is Marappa who is 14 and also at the hostel. I have got to know her quite well, as well as I can with the language barrier. She often tries to tell me things in her own language but I don’t understand. I found out from Jon that Lakshmi’s dad poured kerosene on her mum and set her alight after she’d fallen in love with another man. Marappa and Lakshmi both saw this when they were young and the dad moved away from where they lived and moved to the streets of Bangalore, where Jon bumped into them.

Although a lot of the kids here have had traumatic lives and haven’t had the opportunities that a lot of other children have had, they don’t seem depressed or bitter about it. In fact they all seem very happy and are excitable most of the time. They have all formed a tight knit family with each other and call each other brother and sister, or ana and aka, and they look out for one another, especially the older boys who have to walk with the girls and us if we want to leave the hostel when it’s dark.

Jon’s next project is a film in which Lakshmi and Subu are the main stars. It is about a street child (Lakshmi) who is found at a rubbish tip by a rich man (Subu) who feels sorry for her and takes her into his care. The child is ill and on her birthday the rich man buys her a huge present. On the man’s birthday the child gives the man a small paper cone with nothing in it and he gets angry and throws it away. The next day the child is very depressed and has become more and more ill, the man asks her what’s wrong and she replied ‘You threw away my gift to you and it contained 1000 kisses that I’d put inside’. Shortly after she dies and the man goes to the bin desperately trying to find the gift, but the rubbish men have been and taken it. So he goes to the rubbish tip where there are a thousand small paper cones which he throws around frantically trying to find the right one. He then realizes that he needed the child and her love as much as she needed him and the film ends on the rubbish tip, where it began. 

Monday, 30 January 2012

ART...... NOW.... or maybe later!

I’m now in Bangalore and have been working at the Born Free Art School in Bangalore for 2 weeks, although I use the term ‘working’ very loosely. The school is very disorganized and everybody is normally at least 2 hours late for everything so I seem to spend most of my time just waiting around. I also don’t know what’s going on half of the time because of the language barrier. The Born Free Art School is more like a hostel really where children can live and attend local government schools. There are a few children that stay at home. Subromony, who is 17, and Reshma, also the same age, who have both passed their 10th Standard (the equivalent to GCSE’s in England), do not go to school or college and are in charge of the hostel and looking after all the other children, making sure they go to school, that the younger children have a bath, that the cooking and cleaning gets done, etc. They also help us, the volunteers, to teach in the local government school where the younger girls from the hostel Meena, Lakshmi and Ranjita attend. We have also started to teach at a local slum school which is just a tiny blue storage container near the slum.  When I first got here I expected to be doing art workshops and that I would have materials to use, paints, brushes, paper, but there was nothing, so I bought paper so we could do some sketching and asked again and again for the organizers to supply the other things we needed. Finally, two weeks later, we have a few pots of poster paint and some dried up old brushes. So far I have been mostly teaching simple English in the two schools, singing nursery rhythms and songs like ‘Head Shoulders Knees and Toes’, ’10 Green Bottles’ and ‘Old MacDonald’, and playing ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf’ and ‘Diamond Dance’.  

I am working with Neena from Slovenia who is a good teacher and very strict disciplinarian, not like me at all, and also 4 other volunteers from China who have to give themselves different names so we can understand, Aron, Allen, Ufe and Joy. They are very young and are good fun. None of us really know what we are supposed to do from day to day and I get quite frustrated sometimes, especially when people keep asking me ‘What are we supposed to do?’, to which I reply ‘I don’t know’ many times over. Mioi, one of the organizers of Born Free, made a timetable for teaching at the schools in the morning and afternoon, and in the evenings helping various kids study for their exams, art workshops, and sports at the hostel, but from what I can gather the purpose of making the timetable was so that everyone can ignore it, even the organizers. So I have to take things day by day which is challenging for me because I like to be organized. To be honest I’ve found the lack of communication very de-motivating and when I try to ask questions like ‘Do we have some paints now?’ or ‘Are we doing an art workshop today?’ people normally just reply ‘yes’. So when someone says ‘ yes’ to me, I think I know what I’m doing, then later on it becomes apparent that they didn’t  understand what I’d asked and so I’m left feeling confused, isolated and frustrated. Sometimes I have to get one of the Chinese volunteers to repeat what I say in their accent so that the children can understand because they have trouble understanding English when it’s spoken in an English accent, so I’ve had to try very hard to speak clearly and use simple words rather than whole sentences. I seem to spend an awful lot of energy just trying to communicate here.

I haven’t taught in the school for a few days now because Jon has had a big exhibition at an Art Gallery in the centre of Bangalore where he’s exhibiting a huge painting ‘A hundred million crucifixions’ which is about street children, working children, and war. At the opening on Saturday all the children performed a play where they acted out some scenes from their pasts including, a drunken father beating up his wife and a gang of kids stealing a mobile phone using violence, then it went into a scene of war between India and Pakistan and the children all demanded peace, or ‘Shanti’. Then all the volunteers read out a poem from their own country. I read my favourite war poem by Wilfred Owen ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, although I don’t think anyone understood what I was saying. There was also some live music.

Yesterday we had an art workshop at the gallery. Two graffiti artists from Australia were there and they guided the kids to make a big banner that said ‘BORN FREE’ spread out on 4 bits of big paper. We all painted a little section in poster paints then they outlined it with spray paint. It was really fun actually and just what I needed to give me a bit of inspiration to carry on with my art workshops. After taking so long to get the paints I’d started to think that it’s not actually going to happen, but after seeing how much fun the kids had painting, it reminded me of why I do what I do, and it also made me realize that I need to simplify my ideas for the workshops so that it’s really easy for them, and most importantly, so that it’s fun.

The children at the hostel are great. They all have a lot of fun together and are constantly play fighting, doing acrobatics, singing, playing drums, chatting and laughing, attempting to speak to me in their distorted Indian English, teaching me to dance, pulling me around by the hand ‘Sadie come here’, not giving me a moments peace ‘Sadie what are you doing?’. I play with them a lot and teach them simple English songs. They all take great delight in trying on my glasses and using my camera to take photos.

When I got back to Bangalore this time the organizers put me and another volunteer in the girls room at the hostel, so I slept there for 4 nights. Although I got to know the kids very well by living alongside them, I found it hard not having any of my own space. Also the hostel is a real mess and the bathroom is gross. I had a lot of bites on my legs which were really itchy so in the evenings I would put calamine lotion on and all the kids would want it too and started to make out that they had itchy faces. It was also impossible to read my book as the children would interrupt me the whole time and when I wanted to go to chill out before going to bed the boys would be in the room wanting to play games on my mobile phone. They are nice kids though. While I was there it gave Reshma a break from looking after the younger children. I feel sorry for her because she is now the only older girl. Reshma and Subromony are in love with each other and are always fighting and arguing which can be quite tiring sometimes, especially when it happens during lessons. Reshma is very insecure and is always shouting at Subu. I found out from Mioi that she has had a lot of trauma in her life and when she was 6 years old she found her fathers body hanging in their home, she has no mother, and after her father died her step mother started to abuse her and her brother so they both ran away. I don't know where her brother is now. I felt a bit guilty about leaving the hostel but I just can't function as a teacher on such little sleep and having no time to myself.

I was told that while I was away in Kerala and Goa that Jonny and Rajeesh, the two boys that tried to steal from me and another volunteer before I left, had run away from the hostel. They are both very intelligent boys and work well together as a thieves, and I can just imagine them living back on the streets doing what they know best, although I feel a bit sad for them and hope they decide to come back one day. Unfortunately it seems that NGO’s like Born Free are the only option for kids living on the streets but I’m not sure what kids will do once they leave school/college, and the support that they get when they move out of Born Free. One of the older girls, Gowri, had got sick of Born Free and left because she’d fallen out with one of the older boys Jillalli. I’d actually had a phone call from Gowri while I was in Hampi and I couldn’t hear her because it was such bad reception there, but I was told that she was phoning round to people trying to get money so she could go to Mysore. I’m not sure what connections she has there as she is an orphan.

Some of the older kids work alongside Jon as assistant artists. He has a studio and is currently making 3 wax sculptures of Gandi, Mother Theresa and a Bollywood celebrity. He is also making Panchatantra medallions to sell in a shop on Mahatma Gandi Road, the main road in the centre of Bangalore. Panchatantras are pictures which tell stories about morals and are associated with the Hindu religion and Jon has re-written them so that they do not exclude the ‘untouchables’ from the religion and also changes the way women are treated. I have spent a lot of time at the studio making these panchatantras by pressing clay into moulds but to be honest haven’t really enjoyed it as I feel like I’m not doing what I came here to do. Also I am never asked if I want to do something I’m just told on the day what I’m doing and then expected to do it.

I feel sorry for the kids here. When I am at the hostel it seems like it’s in the middle of nowhere and there is no opportunity out there. It’s in Avalahalli which is a developing area with lots of construction sites all around and I am not allowed to go outside after 7pm on my own and have to get the boys to walk me up to the main town so I can go home. I’ve bought a bike which is a rusty old banger and the breaks don’t work very well. I took it to the shop to get the breaks fixed but the man didn’t seem to do it very well even though I got him to do it again 5 times. There are no standards here in India. Even so, I have a bike and enjoy being more mobile and not having to rely on waiting for Jon to take me places or arguing with dishonest rickshaw drivers.

Today I’ve given myself a day off and will cycle into town now to buy a train ticket to Pondicherry so I can meet a couple of friends. I am desperate for a break and a bit of time away from the city and the organizers of Born Free, who I also live with. I like cycling in Bangalore although I’ve had a few near misses with people trying to cut me up as my breaks don’t work very well, and having to dodge the cows in the road. I will also have to try and find the post office again as I need to get my stuff organized for going away and post back a few of the heavier things that I have bought. Things take a long time in Bangalore as it’s a big place and there is a lot of traffic. Also the addresses don’t really exist as I know them back home and I have to ask directions to landmarks rather than roads.

I went through a stage of feeling like I didn’t want to come back to Born Free as the disorganization is an issue for me, but I’ve decided to think about things differently as after all, this is not England, it’s India, and to come back and just make it fun for the kids. At least now we have the art workbooks which I bound together with needle and string and we have the paint so we are finally ready to get messy. 

Monday, 16 January 2012

Subu Kuche Melegar

Lots of people have a love/hate relationship with India and my experiences are much the same. I feel like so much has happened since I last updated my blog, both good and bad. India is the kind of place where anything is possible. It’s pretty much lawless as you can do whatever you want as long as you can pay the baksheesh (bribe money) to the police, which is why people can get away with anything from selling children like cattle to driving with no license or insurance.

‘It’s like an abusive partner’ said an interesting American when I asked him what it’s like living in Mumbai for the past 7 years. ‘Sometimes it’s good, and when it’s good it’s real good, but then it kicks you in the teeth, and then kicks you again when you’re down. It takes up all your time just getting from A to B not leaving you enough time for anything or anyone else’. Although the little glint in his eye when he talks about his motorbike sitting in the garage at home says it all.

I’ve heard people say that everyone comes to India for a reason. I’m not quite sure what my reason is yet. It’s certainly been an eye opener, although at times I’ve felt like I’d rather not see some of these things, and I yearn after the comfortable Cambridge and the friends and open-minded, educated, reasonable people that I know back home.

After I met my friends in Palolem I traveled north with them in a luxurious taxi to the airport in Dabolim where they were catching a flight to Mumbai. The very second we parted company I felt like I was thrown out into the big bad world again, fighting off rickshaw drivers, being hard edged with beggars, and jostling around on jam packed buses with my massive rucksack.  I went to Panaji. I don’t know why. I didn’t do anything there apart from wonder around being lost with my big bag in the full midday heat and give myself sun stroke, or something strange that made my brain feel like it was melting. I had a vague idea about looking at some cathedrals the next day in Old Goa, a short bus ride away. I couldn’t find a room and was feeling like I couldn’t go on anymore and wanted to throw my bag down and pass out on the street. Then I met a couple of guys, one from London, one from Mumbai, and asked them if they knew somewhere I could stay, and just at that desperate moment, one of them burst out laughing, because he’d just paid for a room for one night that he was only using to stash his bags in as he was going to a friend’s wedding and maybe I could have the room. I couldn’t have been more grateful at that moment in time but my exhaustion stopped me from expressing how grateful I really was. I got into the room, attempted to make a conversation about maybe visiting Mumbai and then when they left, I slept, and slept, and slept, for 16 hours. I decided to take it easy on myself the next day and give the cathedrals a miss. I’m not exactly a cathedral sort of person anyway. What was I thinking?

So I was in Arambol for about 10 days and I made some good friends there. I stayed with an Iranian girl, Roshi, who was a complete nutjob just like me, so we got on really well. She told me alot about Iranian culture and how women have to wear the headscarfe and cover up completely, and how house parties are illegal. Alot of Iranians come to India to let their hair down as the the police are pretty brutal in Iran if you're caught having a party or in possession of alcohol. She is also a racing driver in Iran and she convinced me to hire a scooter so that we could go to the Anjuna flea market. So I did something I never thought I’d do in India - drive on their crazy roads - and I did so with gusto.  I drove as fast as I could to try to keep up with Roshi, at first wobbling around then I got the hang of it and the Indian attitude to driving overtook me. Before I knew it I was jumping the lights, overtaking people, beeping my horn at everyone, being impatient, shouting at people pulling out in front of me, standing up on my bike to go fast over the bumps, and struggling to hold onto my bike as it starts snaking on the sandy parts where speed is essential so you don’t get stuck.

I’ve done a lot of things here that I never thought I’d do. I jumped off an 8 metre high rock into a lake near Hampi, Karnataka. I was so scared but I knew I wanted to do it. There were loads of Indian men on the rock and a few other tourists and I didn't think I would do it because being in a swimming costume in front of the locals would send them into overdrive, like the mobile phone camera paparazzi, but a fight broke out between the locals and some Australian tourists and I saw my opportunity. While everyone was distracted and shouting at each other I whipped off my shoes and clothes faster than lighting, heart pumping, took a run up and jumped off the edge shouting 'I'm gonna Diiiiiiiiieeeeee' all the way down. I hit the lake and went under. Water went up my nose. When I came up coughing and spluttering, full of adrenaline and happy that I didn't die I looked up and everyone was cheering and clapping and I realised my daring stunt had broken up the fight, so I started shouting to others to jump in and other people started jumping in too, like lemmings. 

I was travelling around that day on a moped with a 60 year old Australian who always talked about the power of ‘NOW’. We had a mental day driving around to small villages and wondering around meeting people. Some people welcomed us into their homes and work places to look around, some people tried to rip us off and some people didn’t. A group of kids showed us around their village and took us up to ‘Fish Hill’. We thought these kids were great until they all started to demand gifts of money, school pens and chocolate. Me and Steve practically had to run away, and we were chased by all these kids. I couldn’t get the moped key out of my bag as they kids all expected me to bring out some kind of generous gift and started grabbing at my bag. I eventually managed to get the key out and at the same time holding the bag up high out of reach and I started up the bike and drove off as fast as possible, heart pumping, shaken up, and my faith in humanity slightly dented.

When I first came to India everything was so different and I found myself completely out of my comfort zone, but now I find little comforts things that people do, like the ticket sellers on buses who manage to remember exactly who’s paid already and who’s just got on the bus, all the while maneuvering around through people packed so tightly together that you couldn’t put a piece of paper between them. Somehow the bus man manages to squeeze his tiny behind through the spaces, backwards and forwards to the door, whistling to the driver to stop and start, and remembering to tell me where to get off. The buses are pretty chaotic but I kind of like it, especially when there’s some Indian pop music blaring out so loudly that I can hardly hear anything else. Other things I find pleasing are the cows that seem to own the roads, fresh cut flowers on tacky pictures of Hindu gods, and the rhythm of people chatting in Kannada, the language spoken in Karnataka, and the little teeth sucking thing that lots of young men do subconsciously when they’re thinking of what to say next.

I haven’t talked much about the poverty in India yet. Everybody knows this already but it’s bad. Sometimes it seems like 95% of people look at me and all they see is an opportunity to make money. Some people are so money driven that it makes me feel a bit sick. Since I’ve been here I’ve been trying to understand a bit better why it is that so many people live on the streets, why grotesquely disabled children and adults lay twisted up on the street begging, and women, children carrying babies wonder from person to person doing a hand to mouth sign constantly asking for food and money. It’s important to remember that most of these beggars have a keeper who will pocket most of the money they make, but still it feels really harsh to keep on walking and turn a blind eye, like everybody here does, even India’s government. I’ve given food and some rupees here and there a few times but quickly learned that this is a mistake because then everybody else expects something and it’s not possible. It’s scary sometimes, once I was stopped by 3 street kids at a bus stop who were taking swipes at my bag and I had to hold it up out of reach to stop them stealing it, all they say is ‘Hallo, hallo, hallo, hallo, hallo, hallo’. One of the kids was so small and only looked around 8 but he was so aggressive. He had snot running from his nose and crust around his eyes. He looked desperate and the experience shook me up a bit. They managed to steal a fan from China that my friend Anna gave me as a Christmas present and I gave them my water that looked pretty exciting to them as it was orange from the vitamins tablet I’d dissolved into it which I thought I needed after I’d just had sun stroke, but maybe they needed it more than me I suppose.

There are a lot of problems here. I could talk about the problems I’ve found with Indian culture until the holy cows form an orderly queue and come to some kind of home which preferably isn’t where cars drive, but I’d be here all day. Also the Indian attitude is infectious and I can’t be bothered. I think that I should be focusing on what is possible as India can be a very frustrating place if you let it, and as people say here ‘subu kuche melegar’, or ‘everything is possible’, which is a new phrase I’ve been slipping into conversation lately, especially when haggling.

My time as a tourist is coming to an end now, and I’m waiting for the bus to Bangalore so I can start doing what I came here to do: art with kids. I think the experiences I’ve had while traveling around have been good to prepare me for going back. When I first got here I was angry that a small child tried to steal from me but now this offence seems minor compared to the group of 6 full grown men in Hampi who apprehended me on my moped like a bunch of schoolyard bullies and pinched my arse, which made me flip out and punch one of them in the face, push another one away from me and kick another as hard as I could in the leg as I drove away, or the police men with their massive guns who groped me at a train station. At least children still have time to grow and learn and to make up their own minds about how they want to be.

I have made a plan with the organizers of the Born Free Art School that I will run art workshops with the kids and in one month’s time have an exhibition. Apparently they have all the paints and materials that we need and I’m hoping to see some really inspiring work and learning more about the kids and their aspirations, and also looking forward to painting my own canvas. By heck it’s been a while.

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.