Blog 2 from Ian
And now the second part of my blog, apologies for the delay, but life sometimes gets busy, and the offer of an opportunity to go out and get an iced coffee one evening, with a bacon sandwich was an irresistible variation on a hundred and one versions of curry, which even when it is made less hot, still seems to burn the top of my mouth and to make my nose run!! But in actual fact, I am enjoying the food and to be honest, there are subtle variations. I haven’t got used to eating the food with my right hand (right because as the locals do, the left is the hand you wipe your bottom with!), so I always seek out a spoon or fork and use one of the forms of bread – chapati, parata, naan or poppadom, to scoop up the various bits and pieces. They eat a lot of vegetables and some fish in this area, although there is always chicken (scrawny birds here, presumably though not pumped full of growth hormones like our western style of farming produces.
But I promised to return to Munnar. It is an old British tea station with plantations spread over the hills. Apparently tea grows best on slopes of between 30 and 45 degrees, so 45 is pretty steep and requires some steep walking for the people required to pick the tea, which is still done by hand, picking off the best, top leaves and throwing them over the shoulder into large baskets strung onto their backs.
The plantations around the Kenan Devan hills are run by a workers cooperative which does appeal to my socialist view of life, and the plantations offer a wide range of support services for staff, which is far in extent of support networks offered by the government here. We managed to get to a number of other places including a lovely spice farm, an evening of traditional kathakali dancing, and a demonstration of martial arts by a group of testosterone fuelled young men, waving swords at each other, trying to hit each other with sticks and generally making a lot of noise. It was great to get away for the weekend and see other parts of the state of Kerala.
Back at base, I am living in a house in Fort Kochi which is the old area of the town, the previous old port which traded internationally with The Arabs, Portugal, Netherlands and then of course, the British, so there is a wide foreign influence on the buildings in the town and if you peer through the mess, the rubbish lying around, the cows and goats wandering along the streets, it has quite attractive areas. There’s a big square names after the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and a beach named after Ghandi, which we as volunteers go along to every Monday evening to try to clear rubbish. Some of the rubbish is washed up by the sea, but the Indians seem to have a very casual attitude to litter, unwrapping items and simply casually casting aside the wrappers in a way that I have never even seen in England. We do gather large crowds who watch us with incredulity asking why we are doing it, are we going to sell the caste off shoes, what are we going to do with the rubber and discarded syringes? Hopefully, some of what we say to them might get through and very occasionally someone might pick up a few things to help.
We teach in a government school which is very small and recruits kids from some areas locally called colonies but are often referred to as slums and we might call them shanty towns. They are on the edge of the better built up areas, illegally built on spare land by a badly drained river using all sorts of bits of plastics, wood and metal. You look at them and wonder how it is the kids end up looking so smart when they get to school, the kids are amazingly clean, cheerful and so full of enthusiasm for life and learning.
In school the curriculum is taught in Malayalam which is not appreciated by better off Indians who send their kids to English curriculum schools. The teachers in the school don’t speak very good English, so we perform a useful function in teaching. As the school is small and there are a number of volunteers, we get round most kids. Two of my guys are great and have already made progress but one has special needs and is struggling to make much progress. However, they are great fun to work with. You can see Sudheer and Nizam looking at me and enjoying their lunch which is cooked in school and provided by GVI, who seem to do a very supportive job, we do breakfast as well, as some of the kids may not get decent meals.
So welcome to the crazy, untidy, disorganised, busy, smelly world of India where they shake their heads, and say yes but could mean either no or yes, and are just being friendly and not wanting to disappoint you. They smile a lot and often want to chat, wondering where you are from and what you are doing, and are always grateful for the teaching or beach cleaning or other projects that some volunteers are doing.
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