Saturday, 23 October 2010

Big mouth

So we planned our trip to include a period of volunteer work. We registered with Aid camps international and they placed us with SCAD (Social Change and Development) in Tamil Nadu. Many of you will know that we needed to raise at least 500 pounds each for the charity and we both managed around 700.

Gemma did loads of research into various places to volunteer as there are some reports of organisations being less than reputable. Volunteers not being treated well, having nothing constructive to do or the organisation just in it to take their money. Even so we were a little nervous before starting our work. Human nature I guess.

Happily the fears have been unfounded. SCAD is an incredible organisation which has been growing for 25 years. Your money is being very wisely spent. Have a look at some of the things they do on the website. In a nutshell they support some 500 villages in the area funded by donations and revenue from a whole host of training colleges in and around Tirunavelli. Some of the most interesting work is with special communities- Snake catchers (a nomadic tribe constantly in danger from snake bites), a Gypsy community, a Leprosy community and workers on Salt Pans (who suffer terrible working conditions to harvest salt from evaporated sea water).

We have been based on the college campus and have been helping some of the other volunteers here. Gemma has been working hard on a publication for the organisation and the content of a new website. I have been working on two separate things:

1) The energy consumption of the campus. The organisation is keen to be environmentally friendly and reduce their electrical consumption and so I have been helping with an energy survey of all of the college buildings. We are looking at where the electricity is currently being use and what we can do to reduce and/or generate alternative forms of energy. I'm looking into LED lighting, wind power, solar energy and a bio digester (which breaks down biodegradable waste to make gas, fertilizer or electricity).

2) Helping with the teacher training college. There are two training colleges for teachers; one for primary school and the other for secondary school. I met and talked with the lecturers and the principals to see if there was anything they would like me to do to help. It turns out that yes indeed there was. They wanted me to do a lecture/seminar on innovative teaching techniques from the UK for 100 secondary teachers students on a Saturday morning. Me and my big mouth.

I have to say I have really enjoyed getting my teeth stuck into some work. It's nice to be travelling and having time to think and read and meet people and see beautiful sights. Of course it is. But from time to time it's hard to shake the feeling that you are just a lazy, workshy, glorified bum. I'm glad to say that it only takes a couple of days for that feeling to go away.

So this morning I gave my lecture. I was understandably nervous but it went very well. The teaching students had just completed their first placement in an actual school. I can remember the feeling well and so I tailored the speech to what I thought would be most useful. My presentation was well received and the audience (with the occasional help from an interpretor) seemed to enjoy it and take some good things from it. I must confess that as I was finishing up and trying to inspire them that teaching was a good profession I found that I was glad that I was a teacher myself. It is a good profession. Mind you it's easy to say that when you are not mid term, half broken and knee deep in marking, admin and bureaucracy!

For all you educators out there I'll leave you with the thought that the teachers here have to face a class size of somewhere between 40 and 90 pupils. Ouch.


Tuesday, 19 October 2010


For lunch today I was made fried rice, poppadoms and potato pakora with some shredded beetroot on the side. Death to carbs by ass! I'm going to wash it down with a pot of coffee and a chocolate eclair. I expect to come crashing to earth mid afternoon.

We have encountered an insect in our bathroom that is most unusual. It slowly crawls up the tile wall in tiny increments and looks kind of like something you might find stuck at the nozzle end of a hoover, clinging on for dear life against the suction. It's the Wurzel Gummidge of the insect world. I'll see if I can snap a picture of the little blighter next time I see it. It really is a sorry looking thing. I feel drawn to it in a strangely paternal way.

I also saw a frog this morning sitting in a commanding position in the shade by a water well. I could tell by the look of him that he was in the market for insects, little to no sunshine and possibly a little swim. If I see him again I shall furnish him with a name.

Every morning we see lots of wild Peacocks and Peahens in the vicinity of the campus where we are staying. They are brilliant to see running around and showing off. The best part however is their call, which to my ears is the classic sound of a bushland scene. I hadn't realised that peacocks were responsible. They will certainly be appearing on "Outback Classics volume 1" when I get round to compiling, producing and releasing it. Watch this space sound lovers.

This part of Tamil Nadu is beautiful. I had expected dry scrub land as far as the eye can see but we are spitting distance from the bottom end of the Western Ghats (mountain range) and the outcrop closest to us is very dramatic. It looks like it would be amazing to climb but sadly I don't have the capability or equipment having only ever climbed indoors. I'll dream on...

It's red hot and dry here. Too hot to do much after 7 am and before 4pm but I am enjoying having dry clothes that aren't going mouldy. The monsoon, I have decided, is not for me.

Anyway I actually have some work to do here so I better stop procrastinating and get on with it.

Laters potaters (and poppadomers and ricers)

Friday, 15 October 2010

Curry Blog

As I mentioned in a previous blogpost I wanted to write a bit more about the food in India which has been the highlight of our trip so far.

My good friends in Glasgow have a blog describing the delights of the city's curry houses and were recently awarded the honour of being "Scotland's curry lovers of the year 2010".  It's an excellent blog updated every Thursday.

Anyway writing under my pseudonym "Fight for your right Chapati" (and Gemma's "Saagatha Christie") I have made a foreign correspondents report for the site.

Check it out here:

Monday, 11 October 2010

Soggy ends.

Our soggy trip around India has now entered a new phase. We have travelled east from the coast and are now in a remote area of Tamil Nadu to start our three weeks of volunteer work for SCAD (Social Change and Development) which is an NGO doing amazing work. More of that to come but I feel the need to tie up the last phase in a big soggy bundle and put it in the wash.

Our Indian wandering existence came to an end (for the time being) in Varkala, which is a backpacker resort clinging to the clifftops in southern Kerala. It's quite a spectacular place to be with stacks of restaurants and guest houses perched precariously in a row looking out over the Lakshadweep sea.  I can report that the location is made even more dramatic by raging storms, high winds and pounding rain.

We had kind of run out of things to do on the trip south before work and so we ended up spending a week here killing time, reading, playing cards and eating superhuman quantities of food. We kind of went a bit stir crazy. We are not in India to sunbathe all day every day but being at a backpacker beach resort without any sun is a little bit depressing.

We got out of there in the nick of time before we garotted each other and standing at the train station slightly inland we couldn't believe how calm and peaceful it seemed. The penny dropped and Gemma realised that it was the sudden lack of a howling gale in our face 24/7. We had been in a strange headspace.

Our pick up town of Trivandrum proved to be a nice diversion and we went to the zoo, a Museum of ancient buddhist and Hindu sculptures (napier Museum) and had a cheap as chips (even cheaper than chips actually) lunch in the Indian Coffee House. Masala Dosas and lemon tea served by men in amazing uniforms. It's a chain of restaurants run by it's own employees and we will be attempting to find these as often as possible from now on.

I think the thing that pleased me most about the day in Trivandrum was my new tactic with Rickshaw drivers. I decided to adopt the tone of an extremely well to do, enthusiastic, colonial English gent.

"Morning my good man! Can you please take me to the zoo."

"Yes sir" head wobble

"How much will this cost?"

"Forty Rupees sir"

"Excellent price let's proceed"

It actually proved far easier to make myself understood and gave us a good laugh. This will be my default accent for transactions from now on.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Finding religion

Since fleeing to Kerala from the flooding of the north our rainy bad luck has continued. The day after arriving in Fort Cochin the peninsula received it's worst rainfall in 50 years. We had to move accommodation the morning after the 15 hour storm and had to wade knee deep through the streets to our next spot. Quite fun actually.

I loved the old European feel to Fort Cochin. It's colourful and peaceful and the food is great. More on the delights of Indian food later.

From there we wanted to make up for our failed Himalayan trekking expedition and set off for Munnar in the Western Ghats. The road up was winding but gorgeous and it looked like some fine walking could be done. Alas the actual road into Munnar was blocked with a landslide and we couldn't get there without a big detour on back roads. A familiar story. Once bitten twice shy on this one so we sacked off the trekking once more. We did however stay about 20km south of Munnar in the hills and managed to get a lovely walk through lush rainforest and tea plantations. Beautiful flowers and trees and wildlife all around.

From the hills we moved to Allepey (a shithole) where we could do a backwater houseboat cruise. This is  the prime Keralan tourist attraction. We didn't know if it was going to be worth it as the rain had followed us down from the hills but we took the risk and I'm glad we did. We were lucky with a great bamboo houseboat for the two of us with a lovely little bedroom, a nice crew and a great cook. Three massive blue tiger prawns bought at the side of the canal were our spicy dinner treat. The crew used wooden bamboo poles to move the boat along for most of the trip which was much preferable to the noisy polluting motors of all the other boats setting off from Allepey. I could have stayed on that boat for days. It was one of the most relaxing things I have ever done. The weather held out during daylight too and when we moored at night a big storm set in but we were warm and cosy on board playing cards. Well romantic.

On the local bus from Allepey to Varkala beach we encountered a genuine mad man. He engaged me in conversation as he stood beside my seat. It started off in the usual fashion: "Where are you from?", "What is your name?" etc. However it quickly degenerated into rambling nonsense. Part English part one of the 1652 languages in India. He would punctuate his stream of consciousness by staring at me wild and wide eyed for a few seconds then continue. I got the impression he was trying to look into my soul.

He was enthralled by his old red Nokia phone. He would show me the screen while pointing up to the sky, flexing his bony fingers as if receiving the signals himself. He muttered about god. I think his insinuation was that he had a direct line to the man upstairs (or one of the many people upstairs in Hinduism). From time to time he would open up his shirt exposing his chest to me, stare at me with those eyes, then close the shirt and take out his phone again. In his shirt pocket he had a 500 Rupee note which he would wave at me, the bus conductor and everyone around him. The significance of this eluded me. Also in the pocket he had two combs; one pink and one blue which he would occasionally drag through his hair in a long smooth sweep. He was a stylish man. In a mad kind of way.

As my patience started to wear thin he grabbed my hand as if trying to pass energy to me. Sadly the earth didn't move and I remained non plussed and a non believer. Pity really. Finding religion on a cramped Indian bus has a nice ring to it.