Sunday, May 30, 2010

Saturday 29th May 2010.

I was just walking home from the shops this afternoon – another glorious day – when I started thinking about how much the street where I live is starting to change.

Recently a local slum farmer has started walking his buffalo down our street in the late afternoon. I don’t know why for sure, but I’m assuming it’s for the exercise and for the little bit of grass we have on the side of the road. I see the buffalo every day tied to posts in the local slum farm and in some cases the rope is so short the buffalo have no option but to sit down. But not in all cases. I have seen the same man play with the buffalo calves and rub their backs in the morning as I walk by on the way to work.

I’m getting used to scenes like this over here in India and taking it as part of daily life. I’m sure it will seem odd when I return home not to see cattle walking through traffic in Limerick and again it will take a while to adapt to the change of scenery. Although I’m bound to be so cold I may not even notice !

The construction workers over here are very different to those at home -  typically small, slight women with a male supervisor. A new house is being built around the corner from mine. It’s just gone 4pm in the afternoon and I have walked past a group of 5 ladies working under the sun, while the supervisor sits in the shade of his jeep. One of the women was hosing down the stone, 2 others were opening bags of cement, and the last 2 were mixing the cement. Inside the wall 4 other women were moving the bricks around on their heads.

The women out here amaze me. They are so physically strong. A few weeks ago I was walking down from the 3rd floor of a local shopping centre, when I had to step back to give space to a women carrying 3 grey masonry bricks up the stairs, again on her head. I doubt she was being paid anything more than the minimum wage for a long day’s work in this soaring heat. The minimum wage is Rs100 per day (or less in some cases for unskilled labour). Rs 100 is approx €2 per day.

Now I do understand that it is far cheaper to live out here. But still €2per day for such physical labour is still only €2. Compare that to Ireland’s minimum wage and it really does make you think. Mind you, I have just handed over Rs80 for a cappuccino in the local coffee chain, so I need to make it clear that the VSO allowance is a very good allowance. In a lot of cases it’s far more than some of my colleagues wages  - and they have families to support.

I’d love to have photos of these women to show you, but I have to respect their privacy. It wouldn’t be very nice just to walk up to them and start taking snaps. I wouldn’t like it if they did it to me while I was doing my job.

However, it’s not just my street that’s changing. I’m changing too. Apart from the obvious loss of weight – I can’t tell you how much as I’ve yet to find a weighing scales – there are so many other things.

  • I’m accepting that being sweaty is ok. It’s a part of daily life now to sit in the office, even under a fan, to have a river flowing down my back.
  • I’m liking the taste of water – never did before – but then without it I wouldn’t get very far. It’s great that the office has a filter system on each floor. We even have a colleague who fills our water bottles every morning for us.
  • I’m understanding that saying ‘Namaskar’ to someone you walk by on the street will probably get you more of a return stare than a return greeting. But thankfully people are also finally recognising me and I’m being charged regular prices at veg stalls and for autos. Last week I told one auto driver that the price he quoted me for a straight run home was too much (and it actually was compared to other journeys) but he replied to me ‘Mam you paid this much last week’. I’m sure he was right. There are times when I’m too tired or too hot to argue the price and I just want to get home. There are other times I’ll get the best value I can.

But there are people who will smile at you and return your greeting. A few days ago on the walk home from the office I changed where I bought eggs as my usual guy hadn’t set up his stall and had to wait until I got nearer to home and buy from a lady I had never bought from in all the time I have been here. In addition to it being unusual for a stall to be manned (excuse the pun) by a women, she was very friendly and even though I only have a few words in Oriya, I’m sure her final greeting to me was ‘Please come back again’. So I will.

Recently Bhubaneswar has been hit by the end of Cyclone Laila. I have never seen or heard sun thunder and lighting as I have over the last week. On Monday evening I went out onto our balcony to watch it closer but then the next flash of lightning encouraged me to step back inside. As soon as there’s any sign of bad weather the electricity goes off so we get out the torches and generally sit in the dark. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that we lose power during every storm as the electric system here is in such bad condition that it’s safer to turn off the power than have someone hurt, or worse, by a faulty system. On the plus side it has given me a brief introduction as to what the monsoon may be like – and that’s only 2 weeks away.
I’m looking forward to the rain lowering the temperature a bit, and it will only be a bit I’ve been told. But I’m not looking forward to being constantly wet for two months. Who knows but I may get used to that also !

As I finish writing this it has started to rain, and I have lost internet access. So it will upload as and when…..
(Another thing I'm getting used to)


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Indian weddings - my personal thoughts

I was walking home yesterday evening, taking my usual route - first past two 5 star hotels and then in through a city slum, when I started thinking to myself about Indian weddings.

The reason for this is that a friend had said he’d been invited to a wedding in one of the hotels and then as I was walking through the slum I saw a typical banner that is used to identify a wedding in progress - ‘A weds B’.

Apart from the obvious difference of the amount of money spent on them, how different are they really?

Weddings in India, or at least here in Orissa, are traditionally arranged marriages. Now I’ve had this explained to me it actually it seems like a good idea. The parents of the couple do seem to put a lot of effort into finding the perfect ‘someone’ for their son or daughter. Girls, and sometimes boys, have their ‘for sale’ pictures taken which can be placed in various newspapers, but more often than not it is word of mouth that finds the perfect partner. Some young women wear a lot of white makeup as seemingly Indian men are looking for whiter brides these days. An ex-colleague got the chance to meet and turn down four possible husbands before eventually saying yes (she marries this weekend). Parents are met and interviewed about their child. The children then meet for one or maybe two hours before they make the final decision. Then that’s it until the wedding day. No dinner or movie dates. Just hello and next thing they’re married.

The wedding dates are generally chosen by a respected priest and last three days – after all the couple need to get to know each other before finally taking the ultimate vow.

Having been at an Indian wedding I get the impression that the people who least enjoy it are the couple themselves. They have to meet and greet everyone at whatever time their guests arrive. Very often the bride has had the greater hardship as she could be left waiting for the groom to arrive for hours after she arrives. It is traditional that the bride ties herself to her soon-to-be husband’s father and therefore his family first. And very often the party is for the guests. Sometimes the couple themselves don’t get to eat any of the meal.

Traditionally brides move into their in-laws house. Very often extra rooms are built on for the occasion (if the family can afford it). Brides may be expected to move hundreds of miles away from home and in some cases never see their own family again. Their role then becomes that of cook, cleaner and general house-maid, even if they do work outside the home. Up by 6am it is their role to cook all meals for everyone in the house.

Many families insist that the new bride wear saris even if she prefers to wear the more comfortable salwar kameez. I know some women who change in the office so as not to insult their mother-in-law. But I do question the women who were lucky enough to have ‘arranged love’ marriages. Why don’t their husbands stand up for them so that they can wear whatever they want whenever they want?

Having been very sceptical about arranged marriages before coming to India I now have more faith in them. The families do seem to put a lot of effort into making the match. And it has to be said at this point that Indian marriages have the same problems as European ones, just more of it is behind closed doors.

But would arranged marriages be accepted in Ireland ?


Monday, May 24, 2010

Home is where the heart is

I’d been wondering what to blog about until my sister-in-law commented that it was a quite ‘Facebook day’ due to the sunny day yesterday in Ireland. Her comment made me think of home and my current connection(s) to it.

I may be living 7173 kilometres from home (Ireland to India – couldn’t find Limerick to Bhubaneswar on Google) but where exactly is home?

Nearly every evening I get to speak with my parents and Bailey (the love of my life) thanks to the wonderful invention that is Skype. We generally have very little to say. The conversation usually goes ‘Hi, any news?’, ‘No, you?’, ‘No’. And then we move on to the hot topic of the weather. But it is very nice to speak with them. And more importantly keeps the contact constant. I can only imagine what it must have been like years ago before Skype and the cell phone.

Last week I had the great privilege of being able to sing (wrong word really but you get the idea) ‘Happy Birthday’ to my niece, E, who turned 5 the previous day. I was also read a lovely story by her older brother J (7 to be 8 in June, so there’ll be another wonderful rendition soon), who was doing his maths homework when I first placed the call. Within a few minutes he had interrupted E’s and my conversation with the very mature comment ‘E be quiet. I’m trying to run a business here’. I didn’t get much out of their older sister A as she was quite depressed. Her hero and the current poster pin-up, ROG (Munster rugby player) is seemingly moving to France – so what to do ? !

It may only have been 10 minutes of me speaking, them shouting and their mum trying to get a word in, but it meant a lot to be able to spend this time with them. They don’t understand why I’m out here in India (and why would they?) only that their aunt is out here for a year but will be home before Christmas.

It is interesting to experience people’s reactions when you make a decision to leave home, your normal routine and volunteer as a development worker.

Some friends are amazing and keep in regular contact. Others contact you now and then with one or two line emails just so that they keep in touch. Others unfortunately (and understandably) just get on with their lives and I spend time wondering if I’ll be a part of it again when I get home.

But whether long or short all contact means a lot. And to be still getting emails that start with ‘Hey Boss…’ even though it’s been a while makes me smile.

Those who keep in touch really have no idea how much their contact means. I previously mentioned this to the one who will be known from now on as ‘The Trouper’, but her reply was very honest – ‘Jennifer I know what it’s like having lived abroad’. So I guess you have it. You have to have experienced living away from home to understand how important contact with home is while you’re away.

So to answer the question I asked at the start – where is home? That’s easy. Where the hills are green, there are four seasons in one day, and of course, family. (That includes you Bailey)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Hello Readers ! (again)

Hello to everyone who is reading my blog

It's great to know so many are reading it and I hope you are enjoying it.

If you'd like to learn about anything in particular please send me an email or post a comment and I'll do my best to oblige

In the meantime I'd like to know who is reading the blog. I hear from home that a good number of you are reading this but haven't signed up as followers.

Can I ask you please to do this so I know who you are?

It's easy.

  • Click on the 'followers' bar in the left column. It may have the word 'Google' under it.
  • This will take you to the next page where it will give you an option of signing in through your preferred email provider - Google, Yahoo, Twitter
  • Click on your choice. All you have to do then is type in your regular password and put in your name.
  • This will then tell me who you are
Danyavad !

Summer in India

Every month the NGO I am working with issues a newsletter, not only for the staff but for all the people CYSD reaches out to every day. As I was asked to write something for the April edition I thought I'd share it with you. A colleague even went so far as to compliment my knowledge of the English language !

Summer in India

When Sarita asked me to write something for ‘Our Voices’ I struggled to come up with a topic. And then I was inspired to go back to my Irish roots and talk, as we Irish tend to do a lot of the time, about the weather.

Let me start off by saying I’m coping with the heat far better than I had ever expected to. My friends and family all think they’d never cope with 40 degree temperatures, but I believe now that they would.

In Ireland the climate can be summed up as being mild, moist and changeable with abundant rainfall and a lack of temperature extremes. We receive generally warm summers (up to a max of 27 degrees Celsius approx) and mild winters (usually no less than -5 degrees Celsius approx ) and is considerably warmer than other areas of the same latitude. Typically we joke in Ireland about experiencing all four seasons in one day.

The winter this year in Ireland, like across a lot of Europe, was colder than it had been for over 60 years thanks to climate change. This year it dipped to -10 degrees. So while I spoke about the temperature climbing up through the 30s here my family was telling me about how cold they were. I can Skype home most evenings and until recently I was speaking with family members all wrapped up in warm, woollen jumpers. The temperature is now rising quite rapidly and it has already reached 16 degrees Celsius.

I know I was lucky to be a part of the VSO group that arrived into Delhi in November. I appreciate that I arrived when it was much cooler and I have been able to build up to these high temperatures. It would definitely have been a different story if I was one of the VSO group that arrived in March!

There is a saying ‘only mad dogs and English men (or Irish!) go out in the mid-day sun’. Well, I’m being very sensible and don't go out in the mid-day sun most days. On days off I tend not to go out before 3pm in the afternoon unless I really have to or have planned a tourist trip somewhere. I was delighted to hear that the cool breeze I experienced on a walk home one evening is part of the Bhubaneswar summer. So now I walk home every evening and enjoy the breeze.

Night time is the difficult time for me. Do I sleep with the windows open and then wake at a very early hour due to the noise on the street? Or do I sleep with the fan on and then wake early thanks to a power cut, the fan not working and the temperature rising in the room? Decisions. Decisions.

I’ve heard a lot about the monsoon, but have never experienced a monsoon. And I have certainly never experienced an earthquake, so when there was one on 31st March I didn’t realise what was happening. I simply thought I had had one glass of water too many than evening.

I’m enjoying my time here in Bhubaneswar and in India. I’m delighted I made the decision to come. India is such a fascinating country, with lovely, warm people and lots to see and do.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

My Island Paradise

Sunday 18th – Saturday 24th April 2010

So what about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands? What about Havelock Island? What about paradise in general? Well, all I can say is ‘it was fabulous’ and ‘I want to go back and just live there forever…’.

After a 7 hour train journey , followed by a four hour wait at Kolkata airport, 2 hours on an aeroplane, 2.5 hours on a boat, my friend Sheila and I finally arrived at our home for the next week.(Sheila started with a 21 hour train journey, Rayagada to Chennai). And boy, was it worth the journey? Definitely - yes !

Havelock Island is part of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago at the south east of India lying between the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea.

We arrived on Sunday evening just in time to see the beach and the sea that would become our home for the next week before the sun set for the evening. We had booked ourselves into Island Vinnie’s on the recommendation of other VSO volunteers who had stayed there in February. (Thanks guys – good choice). The accommodation was a tented cabana (including a western toilet, shower and a fan) as well as fabulous food – lots of fish and chicken. Being the end of season it was very quite, but just what we were hoping for. Wasn’t it nice of the clouds to give me an Irish welcome?

The resort is typically geared towards scuba divers and snorkelers so we were a bit out of place but that didn’t seem to matter as everyone shared their experiences with everyone else anyway. We spent our time between lying on the beach, enjoying the warm Indian Ocean, (yes Mam, I did spend time in the sea – photos available as evidence) lying on hammocks, reading lots, eating lots and yes generally relaxing. We spent some time exploring the main market square on the island, but that was so small it didn’t take very long. Many of the market traders are Kashmiri so the shops were not very well stocked as they were also at the end of their season and mostly closing down that same week. I managed to find a few beach dresses – nice when you’ve been wearing trousers continually for six months. It was also nice to feel a bit girly for a few days.

Having moaned about not being able to find a hairdresser who will cut western hair since I arrived in Bhubaneswar, I met Uma, the Havelock hairdresser on Tuesday evening. Now to say this was an experience is an understatement. I only wish I had a video camera with me to record it. The last time I had a dry cut was as a child. She had two hair clips and told me she would ‘step’ my hair. It quickly became apparent that what I wanted was not relevant. So for the next 15 minutes or so I was told to hold clumps of hair while she cut and then drop it. Hold it and drop it. I was a bit worried throughout the process that I was either going to end up with a Mohican or entirely bald. But by the end all was well. Not the tidiest cut I’ve ever had but the result was fine (for now). And it cost me a whole €1.50.

On Tuesday evening I may have set the world record for mosquito bites on the backs of my legs. I never feel a mosquito biting me and the first hint I get is usually the next day when I have to scratch. I have taken pictures (not for public viewing) but in total I must have been bitten 100 times. I applaud myself for my willingness not to scratch for the next few days. But thankfully by the time of writing this there is little evidence of that eventful evening.

We spent Wednesday morning on Beach no 7 (yes, they put a lot of thought into naming the beaches on Havelock). It was so beautiful. Just having the place to ourselves was amazing. Sheila went off to find a lagoon that had been recommended for snorkelling while I sat on the beach all by myself and contemplated life, love and generally just about everything else! It did make me wonder what’s next in life. Do I want to return to the hotel industry? HR? Ireland? Quick answer is I don’t know, but I guess I still have plenty of time to work it all out. It’s very easy to think when you are all alone surrounded by natural beauty.

And Havelock is a beautiful island. The locals are clearly very aware of tourism being their main revenue generator. The island was not over-crowded. Permits are limited, although I don’t know to how many and many of the Andaman Islands are off-limits to foreigners or a specific permit is required due to their protected natural status. The Nicobar Islands are completely off limits to all foreigners. The immigration office on Havelock is a straw hut. Now that I write this I wish I had taken a picture of it – but I didn’t.

All over the island you see signs about being clean and green. Plastic bags are banned and so when I went clothes shopping I was given a bag made from old newspaper and some string. (A can of diet coke is in this picture as it’s something that’s hard to get in Bhuba, so while on Havelock I made sure I had my fill

We decided to go see the elephant training camp on Thursday morning, but unfortunately there were no elephants there at the time. We had been advised that timing there is hit and miss. The elephants must come first and depending on the temperature they may be in the sea or being brought for a walk through the jungle. So I still have to achieve my goal of sitting on an elephant. Some other time – hopefully.

It was a shame our week finally came to a close. It was actually very difficult facing back into a boat and two planes (no train this time thankfully) to get back to Bhubaneswar. Due to the timings of the boat and airport schedule we had to spend the final night in Port Blair. It’s a typical island main town. Not very attractive, but it does what is says on the tin. We even managed to find a beer in the darkest, dingiest pub I’ve ever been in. But the beer was cold and the crowd of men didn’t seem to mind two foreign women joining them in their space.

We had a great time in Havelock thanks to Adil, Niamh, Evelyn, Priti, Binu (never got to meet Vinnie himself as he was on the mainland doing his other job) with Sam, Frodo and Teabag (the dogs)

I can highly recommend Havelock to anyone who is looking for a quiet, relaxing break. I’d like to return before leaving India, so watch this space.

P.S. I wonder if the A&N tourist board are hiring tourism professionals at the moment?

Odissa New Year (14th April)

Why is it that the week you’re due to go on holidays you always seem very tired at work and the last 5 office days take forever to complete? Well, when I say ‘you’ I actually mean ‘me’.

The week before my island adventure was, thankfully, broken up by the Oriya New Year (Wednesday 14th April). Vishuva Sankranti is the traditional Oriya New Year and generally falls on this day each year. It coincides with the traditional New Year in Assam, Bengal, Kerala, Manipur, Nepal and Tamil Nadu - in short the solar Hindu New Year.  

All of CYSD staff got together in the afternoon and had a drink traditional to the day, but historically drunk to re-hydrate on the first summer day each year. (Question: Have they not noticed the sun high in the sky for the last 3 months?) The drink was a mixture of liquidised fruits, loaded with banana, cashew nuts, coconut, paneer, milk, curd, sugar (lots) and black pepper (lots of lots). As my colleagues happily asked for seconds I wasn’t sure if it was too sweet from sugar for my taste as it hit my tongue or too hot from black pepper as it hit the back of my throat. As it took me so long to decide I had to go back to work before I had an opportunity to finish my drink.

(As I write about food, my friendly, neighbourhood gecko has arrived on the outside of my bedroom window for his evening meal –nice chap, never complains about the menu !)