Sunday 21 November 2010

There will be a short intermission ..... I am off on vacation bright and early on Tuesday morning for a long whole day travelling by auto, rail (south to Vizag) and air (to east Mumbai and then north onto Jaipur) to the opposite corner of India, to Rajasthan. For  the next 2 weeks I shall be rejoining friends Judy and Catherine on part of their grand tour of India. We shalll be visiting Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner. I'm looking forward to ............turbans, camels (although they sit horse riding style here!), sand, forts, havelis, lakes, boats, Pink Cities, architectures, northern Indian food.... but not looking forward to tourists! Posts and pictures when I return.

Thursday 18 November 2010

I'm a celebrity - Araku Valley

In eastern Andhra Pradesh lies the small village of Araku, nesting in green, lushly vegetated hillsides peaking at all of 2000 feet. This village is on the tourist trail - at least for some of the volunteers in the south of Orissa and for me and my two recent visitors from home. The train journey up from Vizag is beautiful, zigzagging through tunnels and aside waterfalls and giving vistas across the wide open valleys as we steadily climbed upwards.  This was Judith and Catherine's first experience of an Indian train, but for me it was old hat and I even fell asleep for part of the trip in the upper bunk of our First Class(!) compartment.
We'd been trying to book our hotel by telephone for months, having been recommended it by fellow volunteer Margaret but no one seemed to want to answer one phone number and the other rung as unavailable. The AP Tourist Board web site wasn't any more helpful, and so we ended up just turning up. No problem - it was almost empty, I think 1 other Indian family were staying and us.  Clearly not a lot of people come here!
For me the first night was sheer delight - cool and so quiet! No train noise. I slept like the proverbial log, out for the count in two minutes flat.

We took a walk round the village: Judith and Catherine's first experience of rural India. I played tour guide :) I was amazed at how much I was able to explain about what was going on and what was happening, and even managed to find out what a long line of women waiting at a shop were doing - Kana hauchi? I asked in Oriya, hoping the Telugu man would understand. Rice jiba came the reply. Yes rice was going! Woman could be seen coming away with large hundredweight bags of rice on their heads. Free, I suspect.  

The market was in full swing and ladies were sitting round selling their produce. Piles of tomatoes, potatoes etc neatly laid out in front of them. I explained what some of the more exotic vegetables were and that when a seller did not have scales this was how she indicated how much/how many could be purchased for some amount. Clearly some ladies were better at judging similar sized piles than others. I explained that my NGO works with Women's Self Help Groups on Livelihood projects some of which involved vegetable cultivation projects. But that we also work with the SHG to get them into microfinance - to encourage ladies to purchase weighing scales with a small loan from the SHG. Having a  scale means she has more control how much she gets for her produce.

We slowly sauntered up and down the one street town. We were clearly attracting attention.

The chai walla smiled and nodded recognition and mouthed a Namaskaram  to me as I stood describing how women here laboured on building sites. I introduced my friends to the delights of chai from him and found out it was his new shop that was being built. But chai isn't everyone tastes - too sweet and milky - so all the more for me :)

The children on one vegetable stall shouted at us and we went over and chatted away a little to the woman on the next stall, who looked like grandmother but wasn't, took and showed pictures and chatted with mum when she finally appeared.

Then as  we walked along the road a man came over taking our picture and saying Local Press I was a bit doubtful but we complied and had our photo taken.  I can sometimes be a bit hesitant taking people's photos, because I do know what it is like to appear to be an object to be photographed with. It happens a lot here, someone comes up and ask to take a picture - not just of you but of you with their whole family, with their wife and children! Anyways the Pressman took our photo and we went on our merry way oblivious to the implications of it until the following day when we visited the Tribal Museum and the lady on the desk showed us the local paper with our photo in it! Celebrities!  And yes the whole village knew about us. Clearly not a lot of European tourists come this way. Later my Telugu speaking colleague translated for us as we wanted to make sure it was appropriate. It was, just advocating tourism in the area and citing us as examples.

Our tourism trip for the rest of the time at Araku consisted of hiring a driver to take us to the Waterfalls,  The Botanic Gardens and Borra Caves . All these places were definitely worth the visit. 

Amazing to find a Botanic Garden in such a small place as Araku. It was well attended, actually had flowers on show, and an amazing amount of butterflies fluttering around - including a fast green and black one about 3inches across,  and some giant spiders, from tip of leg to tip of leg just short of the size of one's palm, hanging in their webs spun across the plant stalks under the trees.

Then it was back to Vizag, this time by car doing the site seeing bits on the way - stop at the local coffee plantation, finding peppercorns growing on the trees - the first time I had ever seen these growing wild!

Just a fun day being a tourist! For me such a nice change.

Some of the photos used here are reproduced with kind permission from Judy and Catherine

Saturday 13 November 2010

Visiting our Old Age Home

I have visited the Old Age Home that Shakti runs 3 times now. The old folk are getting used to me being around and there is always a warm welcome.  When Judy and Catherine were here last week we took a trip over to see them en route to our School visit with a couple of our office staff.  As soon as we got through the house gate we were met by two of the women who came over and chatted away merrily in Oriya to me. The more I visit, the more I am getting to know the characters, the quiet ones, the weaker ones. As they get used to me the women are becoming more forward, touching and hold my hands, almost hugging me. Very unusual here, but very nice. What they were saying is still beyond me past the basics, and my attempts at Oriya often produce a few laughs from both men and women. And I always like to give our ex teacher an opportunity to speak to me in his good but very rusty English. For this visit, most of the old folk came out to sit on the veranda to meet and hear about our other visitors, after all it is always nice to see new faces and meet new people and a good excuse to get an entry in our visitors book :)  Thanks for coming ladies and brightening their day!

Thursday 11 November 2010

Take one visiting teacher, a bag full of odds & ends, a room full of children, mix well....

PB090457 One of my recent visitors from home is a teacher, so of course we had to visit the Shakti school when they were here, and naturally we put Catherine to work!
PB090418First a bit of background. My NGO runs a school for children who have been child labourers. It takes boys and girls, and the current group's ages are between 9-14 years.  All have previously been working and never attended school: the boys usually in shops and workshops, fetching and carrying, cleaning up, and the girls similarly in small hotels or restaurants, or in people's houses. We take these children and in 3 years put them through 5 years of schooling!  The current lot are just starting their 3rd year. It is hard work for the kids - very few holidays, schooling 6 days a week.  The aim is to get them all into mainstream education at the end of that 3 year period and to provide them with some life and income generating skills such as embroidery for the girls.  But they do have fun as well and the students have won awards for their Orissan dance. This all serves to foster self esteem and feelings of self worth and value.

PB090439They all come from families, some from single parent families, who live in the slums of Rayagada Town. The school is in this area so all the kids can walk to school easily each day. Shakti's work doesn't stop with the children, it works with the parents first to convince them it is a good idea to let their children go to school, then to ensure the children's continued attendance at school by providing counseling and financial support to enable these very poor ( Below Poverty Line) families to send their children to school.  The family receives a 100 Rupee stipend per month for the child attending school.
This is the third batch that Shakti has provided schooling for: its second in Rayagada Town and it also did one set in Ramnaguda village. Its success rate is amazing - only 3 students have ever failed to go into mainstream school out of 200 students. All 3 were girls who married - and that of course says a lot in itself.
This is done on a shoe string budget and donations. The NCLP (National Child Labour Project) model budget is for Rupees 244,400 for a 50 pupil school (at current exchange rates that is around 3400 GBP, 4000 Euro or just under 5500 US$).  The India Government used to provide money through the NCLP but no funds have been released from this project for the past 2 years. There was also the Indian Government's Mid Day Meal Scheme, to provide a full meal at lunch time of rice, dalh, vegetables and once a week eggs. Sadly now that money is drying up and only being directed to State Primary Schools. In addition, tiffin/breakfast in the morning is required by these children who would otherwise often come to school having had nothing to eat (after all who can learn on an empty stomach?). Despite these funding issues, over the past two years Shakti has continued to support its school financially and to provide emotional and financial support to the children's families. Unfortunately, the teachers' pay (as per the model budget) is very low, only 1500 Rupees per month. Luckily we have a great lady teacher Bandita,  one teacher position remains unfilled, and a man Jaganath, from our project staff, helps out and manages logistics and finances for the school. The school employs a local lady as cook.
Amazingly this was my first visit to our school in the year I have been here. It is completely the other side of town to our office. I have however met some of its ex-students. One day as Mr P and I sheltered under a roadside stall holders shack from a monsoon downpour after visiting one of the many parts of the Indian government bureaucracy about my visa, we were surrounded by a bunch of boys and young men. All keen of course to practice their English, but refreshingly mostly wanting to tell Mr P which school grade they were now in, "I'm in the 8th grade" was said with such pride. They had all gone to the Shakti School, and all knew Mr P. For once I wasn't the centre of attention :)
PB090427 When we arrived everyone crowded into one of the the two classrooms in the building. The pictures aren't great because of the fluorescent light in the room and the light coming into the room from the window and from an open door on each side of the room. We came during the Divali holiday which is an extended holiday here and many families travel to be with family during that period so , number in the school were a bit down. Given their background the children are incredibly well behaved  and courteous: discipline and respect are big throughout Indian culture. Catherine immediately underwent a transformation from tourist to teacher, taking charge of the class and getting their attention immediately and their involvement in a word game. She conducted the class totally in English and they all managed to follow and to participate in the activities, which I have to say were great fun.  
PB090419Looking like a bit of a "Bag lady" Catherine unearthed gloves, hats, balls of string, an umbrella, tins of fish, a pack of cards, and English £20 note etc from a black poly bag. These were use to to introduce words, singular and plurals forms, grammar and sentence structure. Hide and seek turned into a word game with a volunteer leaving the room, and the item was half-hidden in the room. Upon the volunteer's return, the class named the hidden object  and chanted the name louder or softer depending upon how close the seeker was to finding it. 
Then it was the unfurling of the school banner and the obligatory group photo session. The whole day was a hoot! I'm not sure whether the kids, Catherine, Judy or myself enjoyed it most.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Diwali 2010

PB050333 PB050377Diwali, has religious significance to Hindus and others, but for most folks it is as the festival of Lights that it happens in practice, more akin to Bonfire night in the UK in that it is a great excuse for adults to have fun with firecrackers. And it goes on all week! So many fireworks are let off here the air is thick with the aroma of gunpowder and the whole of the evening sky is lit up and the noise would drone out even the honks of the trains here!
PB050357PB050385We just happened to be in the Daspalla Hotel  in Vizag on that evening and the hotel management put on a show on the forecourt. All the guests and staff came out were given sparklers and fizzy wires.
It was really great to see the staff, mostly young, men and women, smiling and letting go

Numerous roman candles, rockets, white showers, catherine wheels  or "chakras" and others were set alit.  PB050338

In India at this time, houses abound with candles, and the outside of the hotel was decked out with Happy Diwali sign and the entrance foyer had a lovely colourful typically Indian Rangoli design  for the day.
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The next picture is from the day before in Arakku where the village market was in full throw and sugar cane was everywhere. I did wonder why there was so much around and it wasn't till the following day as we got to Vizag  in the evening that we found out why....The markets were again filled with sugar cane. Very pleased young men were to be seen standing with tall bunches of sugar cane stacks waiting to catch the bus or auto home. Seemingly these are prized as gifts for the women in their lives - the notorious Indian sweet  tooth again!  
PB050379With the fireworks, there were none of the health and safety issues we get plagued with back home - "Don't hold sparklers in your hands" - Dah? isn't that exactly what they are meant for? And certainly none of the "Light touch paper and stand well back", "Do not return to a lighted unexploded firework". Instead folks, stood by them as they went up, were showered by spent casings, flying ash, and sparks. Certainly no shouts of " Sabu tan", Be careful!
But absolutely great fun! And a chance to explore the night settings and capabilities of my new camera.

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