Thursday, March 25, 2010

Happy Birthday CYSD

March 24th is CYSD’s birthday. Yesterday we were 28 years old. And boy, do we know how to throw a party. I have organised a few parties in my time, but not one that goes on from 10am until nearly midnight.

Every year, the NGO I am currently working with celebrates it’s Foundation Day.

The day started with the lighting of the celebratory candle, a key feature in all Indian celebrations. As it was not just a puja for CYSD staff, but their families also the morning followed on with dance competitions for the children, aloo and spoon race (not as interesting as our raw egg !) and a hotly contested cricket match on the front lawn. I was asked to present the children with their dance prizes and actually had predicted the winner - an up and coming young John Travolta, with his white head band and gold trousers. There was also a photo exhibition showing events and staff from the past 28 years and stalls full of freshly grown produce were being sold by people from the areas in which CYSD works – Koraput, Sundergarh and Keonijar.This was followed by a lovely lunch on the lawn enjoyed by everyone attending.

The event of the afternoon was a lecture on ‘Citizen’s Rights, Voters Education and Good Governance’, offered by Dr S.Y. Quarishi, the Election Commissioner of the Government of India. A very experienced, informed man, he made a very impressive speech on the area of Indian government for which he is responsible. This was followed by a response from Jagandanda, CYSD’s founder, but now the current state Information Commissioner (who later in the evening stepped on stage to lead a sing-song)

Up to this point of the day I had been wearing my usual clothes, but had been advised that a sari should be worn for the evening events, so I duely obliged.

After more food (though it was called a light snack, it was so much more) we all moved into the main auditorium where the main event of the evening was the recognition of long serving staff (20, 15, 10, 5 years service) as well as the 2 VSO volunteers. When I was called to the stage to receive my gift I held onto my sari for fear it would fall off – thankfully it didn’t. I was delighted to be presented with my gift and have a chat with Jagandanda, a man I have heard so much about but until last night had only said hello to on the bottom of the office stairs. In between each session we had a formal dance event performed by many of the children who had been in the morning competition to the now famous song ‘Jai Ho’ (needless to say lead by Mr Travolta himself) as well as tribal dances performed by some of the staff from both the Koraput and Sundergarh field offices.

The day finished by a lovely dinner served out on the lawn – at this stage there must have been 500 people there. And then this morning some of us were in for a full day manager's meeting.

What a puja !

Weather update - it hit 44 degrees celcius today. Yikes !

Friday, March 19, 2010

Books, books and more books

I have just been asked (thanks Mam) if I have enough books to read while I'm out here in India.
Thankfully previous volunteers have left books behind and most of them have ended up in my apartment - lucky me !

I had always thought I'd let you know what I am reading once I had ten books read so here goes:

I won't comment on whether I'd recommend them or not as each to their own.

I'll update again after the next ten

Happy reading

Monday, March 15, 2010

Puri, PAR and Pasta

I’m just back from a lovely few days in Puri, a beach resort on the Bay of Bengal, on the coast of Orissa. I attended the VSO Programme Annual Review (PAR) which was held 10th - 12th March at the Holiday Resort Hotel. It was great to see the old faces again, and some new. In all there are currently 60 volunteers in India, but unfortunately due to financial cut backs that number will start to seriously drop from next year.

We had great discussions on each of the topic areas – Participation and Governance, Disability, HIV/AIDS and Volunteering.

We worked hard during the day, but VSO had arranged for us to play hard in the evenings – the first evening we had dinner on the beach, and on the second evening we were entertained by Gotipus and Odissi dancers. Gotipuas are generally young boys, dressed up as girls. From the 17th century onwards Gotipua dance spread as part of the temple culture of Lord Jaganannath in Puri.

The third and final day of the conference was run by the volunteer committee and as a group we found that there was a lot to discuss. But not so much we spent the whole day locked into a room. The committee had very kindly arranged a choice of outings for the afternoon and I chose to go see the Sun Temple at Konark, a local World Heritage Site.

A13th-century Sun Temple (also known as the Black Pagoda) it was built by King Narasimhadeva-I(AD 1236-1264) of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty. The temple takes the form of the chariot of Surya(Arka), the sun god, and is heavily decorated with stone carving. The entire complex, most of it now gone, was designed in the form of a huge chariot drawn by seven spirited horses on twelve pairs of exquisitely decorated wheels. The entrance is guarded by two lions, which are each shown crushing a war elephant. Each elephant in turn lies on top of a human body.

The temple symbolises the majestic stride of the Sun god. All around the temple, there are various floral and geometric patterns. There are also human, divine and semi-divine figures in sensuous poses. The carvings contain couples in various amorous poses, and are derived from the Kama Sutra.

I had previously decided to then spend the weekend in Puri with two other VSO volunteers and I’m delighted I did. Not only was it lovely to catch up with them, but other volunteers had also decided to stay on in Puri for a few extra days.

We just spent the weekend lounging around, spending lots and eating lots. We were spoilt for choice in Puri with pizza, pasta, good fish and proper coffee – all things we generally can’t get in our placement areas. We ate in restaurants called 'Peace, ‘Xanadu’, ‘the Pink House’ and the now famous ‘Honey Bee’. Some money was also spent on clothes suitable for hot weather (and tall people) - something else I can’t find in Bhubaneswar.

I stayed in the Z hotel for the weekend, an old quaint, basic hotel, but one which was very clean and had lovely, friendly staff.

I don’t have any interesting or funny stories to tell about my few days in Puri. It was simply a nice, relaxing break.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A few thoughts......

India is a country (or at least Bhubaneswar is a city) of contradictions.

For example it’s expected, even for foreigners, to keep legs and shoulders covered at all times, despite the heat, yet every day I walk past billboards with half-naked women advertising a Sony laptop or the local gym.

The tag line of the local coffee chain is ‘a lot can happen over coffee’ yet it is unacceptable for non-married persons of the opposite sex to hold hands while walking down the street.

Homosexuality was illegal in India until May of last year and yet it is common to see men holding hands – although this is more the culture of getting lost in a crowd here, quite different to home.

Everywhere I look there is rich and poor, and even sometimes very rich and very poor.

The caste system is alive and well over here. Even today I saw a man leave his office and wave to his driver who was no more than 10 feet away from him, and waited for the car to come to him, not he walk over to the car.

Personal space is not something that is understood. Only last week whilst browsing around a local supermarket shopping for a white t-shirt for Holi I was literally stalked, and yes I do mean stalked, by a young male shop assistant. I do understand that it is because it is his job to ‘serve’ the customer, but it can be very annoying and frustrating when you’re not used to it. At least in Ireland when a shop assistant asks ‘can I help you?’, at least you can say ‘no thanks’. Here they just follow your every step and even sometimes get so close they even step on you.

I thought I was getting used to the ‘staring’ thing – men staring at you as you walk by. And not being subtle about it in any way. Well, I’m not. I am learning to adapt to it, but don’t believe I’ll ever accept it. An Indian friend tried to teach me to say in Oriya ‘have you never seen a woman before?’ but I wasn’t really paying attention, so I think I’ll have to ask for lesson no 2.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Holi, Holi, Holi – I escaped being Holi’ed:

The colorful festival of Holi is celebrated on Phalgun Purnima which comes in late February or early March. This year it was on 1st March in most of India, but it was celebrated on 28th February in the state of West Bengal (Kolkata) which we discovered only when we arrived there.

Holi festival has an ancient origin and celebrates the triumph of 'good' over 'bad'. The colorful festival is meant to bridge the social gap and renew relationships. On this day, people hug and wish each other 'Happy Holi'. If only it were that simple !

There are many explanations as to when or where this festival started and it can be traced in some places back to B.C. The most widely accepted modern-day explanation is the legend of Lord Krishna who is said to have started the tradition of playing with colours by applying colour on his beloved Radha. Gradually, the play gained popularity with the people and became a tradition.

It’s called the festival of colour for a reason. People throw paint at each other and complete strangers. Neighbours usually agree to ‘play’ Holi in plenty of time before the day itself. There is big revenue to be earned in the sale of paint and water pistols in the week or so leading up to Holi.

My original plan was to hide for the day when I heard about this festival, but then my flat mate and I planned our weekend in Kolkata. Accepting that there was no way to avoid Holi then – 2 foreign women walking down the streets were bound to be a popular target – I accepted my fate and bought a plain white t-shirt.

One of my Indian colleagues had us pre-warned that the paint is difficult to get off and can often stay on your skin for days afterwards, so recommended we buy baby oil before venturing out into the unknown. I did what I was told but by the end of the day the result for me was my lovely, traditional farmer’s tan !

As it turned out it was not quite as mad as anticipated. We went out into the streets of Kolkata on Sunday morning, wearing white t-shirts, to come upon a group that were truly celebrating Holi – there was paint and water everywhere. They even had some music and drummers to throw paint to. But I decided to stay back a bit and watch for a while amongst a group of photographers which was to my surprise respected. At one time a young boy came over with paint in his hand and gestured to ask if he could rub it on my face. I hadn’t realized at the time that this must be how it starts. But not really wanting to have to scrub my face for the next three days I offered him my t-shirt instead, but he politely declined. It was only afterwards that I realized he did not want to touch a woman (and of course, traditionally could not).

I was relieved not to have to been covered head to toe in paint, but in a way a little disappointed that I don’t have a multi-coloured t-shirt as a memory of the day.

The guest house in which we stayed in Kolkata had a very interesting sign on their front door in time for the celebrations. Were residents meant to arrive back without their clothes ?!

Calcutta / Kolkata : Sat 27th February - Mon 1st March

Calcutta or Kolkata as it is known these days, is an amazing city. With a population of over 15 million there was plenty to do and see in the 48 hours we had there.

We got the overnight train so arrived in a 8.30am ish, into the second largest train station in Asia, and saw big yellow taxis for the first time since arriving in India. As we drove to our guest house we passed many old, beautiful buildings that clearly were there since the days of the Raj – the time of British rule.

Kolkata is a far more modern city than Bhubaneswar. It has all the trimmings of a large, industrialised, western city – it was once the capital of India. Once we had checked into our guest house our first stop was the Victoria Memorial. On arrival we were told that the museum itself was closed for Holi but we could spend time walking around the grounds. After a pit stop for a real cappuccino we headed off to the local race track to spend Saturday afternoon in a very civilised manner. Our car, kindly donated for the day by a friend from Bhubaneswar, dropped us off outside the member’s circle and we pretended not to know where we were, expecting to automatically be let in as we were tourists. It didn’t quite work out like that as we were told to go to a different gate. Just at that time a lovely man came up to us and offered to sign all 4 of us in – usually wanting nothing in return. He showed us around the course and brought us to VIP seats right in front of the race track, where staff came to take orders for drinks and even took our bets. Now, don’t get excited when I say I was betting on horses. I bet on a horse to win in each of 3 races, and in each case my chosen horse came second. So I lost a whopping total of Rs 60.

We went back into the city just as it got dark and spent some time looking around the local markets and getting a feel for Kolkata city life. Then we ventured off to a restaurant that served steak for dinner, and yes, I do mean steak. You should have seen the smile on my face when it arrived. It was the first time I have seen beef (apart from all the beef walking down the street every day) since I arrived in India 4 months ago. (Note: I can’t believe I’m here 4 months already )

Sunday morning was Holi, so we walked along the streets and came upon many groups of multi-coloured locals and tourists. We walked along the unusually, very quite city streets and through Maiden Park. I was told the park was the largest in the world, but the Phoenix Park is bigger.

We spent time sitting by the edge of the ocean, at Babu Gaat, where the local Brahmen met to wash off their Holi paint. No one seemed to mind us just sitting on the steps watching a cultural phenomenon new to us. In fact some were happy to pose for photos so they could see themselves in the camera.

Sunday afternoon was spent sitting in a local cafĂ© talking with an Irish doctor who was on a 3 month volunteer placement with a local charity and then we headed, as girls do, to the main large shopping mall. To get there we took the underground rail system – all exceptionally clean. I was surprised how clean it was compared to the streets above us and it was explained to me that people who use the underground are seen to be wealthy and so behave better there than they would above ground. The 2 stop journey cost Rs 4. Great value.

That evening we found a lovely Italian restaurant that served real pasta, real home-made sauces and deeeeeeelicious apple pie with a toffee sauce and ice-cream.

Monday morning was a bit different. We decided to visit the Missionary of Charities house - founded by Mother Teresa. We were warmly welcomed by a nun on arrival who told us where to go. We had access to the museum within the house – a display of pictures of Mother Teresa and the history of the order. The display included a letter found only after her death requesting to be released from the Loretto Nuns in Rathfarnham, Dublin for a period of one year. The response was that she would be released for one year and longer if required as the Order Head understood that Sr Teresa (at the time) had another calling. When the nun in the museum realised I am Irish, she gave me a medal, explaining that it was different from the one I would be given when leaving and I was not to tell the other nuns that she had done so ! I’m sure she does this with everyone but it was a lovely thought. We were then sent up a stairs to look at ‘Mother’s Room’, a very small space with a simple single bed, a plain desk and chair, a cross and a black and white picture of her with Pope John Paul II. The only place we were permitted to take a photograph was at her tomb, which is just inside the main door. As we sat in the room there was a constant trickle of nuns coming in to pray, including two novices.

Our final destination in Kolkata was Mc Donalds. Every trip to a large city has to include a visit to Mc D’s – no ¼ pounders though – just chicken, chips and a very hard to get Diet Coke. Lovely !

On the journey home we passed through the train station that boasts the ownership of the longest platform in the world - 1072.5 metres. We hopped off after 6 hours, but the train was to continue all the way to Kannyikumari (right at the southern tip of India) a total of 3 days. So as I write this the train still hasn’t reached it’s final destination.

I really enjoyed my weekend in Kolkata. Apart from all the trappings of city life I found the people to be much happier and more open to looking at you when talking than those in Orissa. I’m not quite sure what makes the difference.