Thursday 28 January 2010

Extended Weekend Away

Hilary, my nearest other VSO Volunteer is based in Koraput only some 5 hours away by train. Last weekend we met up and took a couple of days off to celebrate our two January birthdays and went to Visakhapatnum (Vizag). I left home for the Koraput train departing Rayagada at 5:30 AM. I had been asking about how to get to the station that early and was consistently told that getting an auto to come at that hour to where I live would be very very difficult. In the end Mr P said that either the NGO's driver would stay overnight in the office and pick me up, or someone would go into town, get an auto and then come and pick me up. It sounded all very complicated, with me being very dependent on other people's goodwill and they themslves being put out to do this for me. But I was told it was the only way. So Rajinda, our young driver, ended up staying overnight, picking me up and driving me to the station, whereupon he insisted on making sure I got on the train OK. Luckily I had a 2AC bunk so I managed to get a couple of hours extra shut eye as the train made its way cross country. Hilary met me at Koraput station with an auto in tow and we went back to her place. That late breakfast of toast with real marmalade tasted really good. I haven't found marmalade in Rayagada yet so this was a very welcome change from my usual jam or honey. After a quick look round Hilary's accomodation and getting pointers to the houses of the other VSO volunteers in Koraput, we were setting off back to the station for the train to Visag.

For this journey we were in First Class - and before you think we went overboard and forked out a fortune for a sumptumpous berth, let me explain that First Class is more basic than 2AC. There is no AC, but also no glass/plastic in the windows, so after sunset and into our evening arrival at Vizag at 9:30PM it is quite cold. You absolutely needed warm shawls.

Hilary had picked the hotel out on the web, so we were taking a bit of pot luck but it turned out to be a good choice. Nice decor, great food in the restaurant, beer, very comfortable, firm beds, and quiet! We were very pleased with it and have it earmarked for another trip. For anyone planning a stay in Vizag it is the Hotel Daspalla, and its a 50 rupee autoride from the station at day time rates, although we ended up with 70 rupees late at night.

We had the best part of two days in Vizag and hired a driver for the whole of the Sunday to take us round all the tourist sites - temples, viewpoints at the top of the many hils around the city, the film/TV studio, beaches and submarine.

Our first trip to a temple was very strange. We had to first join a long queue to get a bag, then a ticket, then hand these over to get them filled with food offerings. Two white faces in the queue caused lots of looks, smiles and questions. Folks that had any English were keen to ask us where we were from, did we like India and Indian culture etc. We then found the shoe drop, deposited our shoes and joined the throng of people to enter the temple. This line weaved its way, single file, through a twisting set of metal barriers. As we neared the back of the queue, you could feel our spirits drop. It was long! We joined the queue and waited. It moved albeit slowly and we decided this was typical of Indian and we just had to be patient. After perhaps 30-40 minutes it became clear that not only was the queue now not moving, but there was another steady stream of people joining it, in front of us - we were in effect going backwards! After much deliberation, we decided to backtrack for real and squeezed our way past the people standing behind us and exited through the entrance! I'm sure most folks thought we were mad, crazy, impatient Westerners, and a few who had spoken to us before asked what had happened. I made excuses and we brazenly continued out. We'd have been queuing for hours! So we never did get to see that temple.

The Kailasagiri viewpoint at the top of one of the hills provides a great public space for residents to enjoy and panoramic views of the city and coastline. I love seeing the way people have fun here in India. This time it was a group of women, old and young, playing a game. Two teams, standing around in a circle with a pile of shoes in the middle. Two women enter the centre and move around the shoes, the aimis to get a shoe back to your team without the other person stealing it from you. Cunning and speed are key to a successful grab. Giggles and laughter, squeals of delight and clapping abound when one team scores a succefful home run with a shoe. I've seen the same game played by kids in the Marquesas Island in French Polynesia, with a banana rather thana shoe. This innocent fun is just great to see. Back at home you'd hardly ever see such a mixed aged group playing togther, and with youngsters any "fun" would be alcohol fueled.  Not so here, and it is much better and lovely to see.

The views from atop the hills could be lovely, but sadly like so many places the air is polluted, is not clear, and you can't see very far, the horizons are packed with boats but all in a haze. Vizag is  both a commercial port and industrial city, so there are lots of large liners, freight ships as well as smaller boats plying the coastal waters, and local fishermen in small boats bobbing along. When we arrived late at night the coke, coal and sulphur smells were predominant from the mining and smelting plants which exist in the valley approaches to Vizag and which seems to surround the town. own near the coast the air felt better, what with the sea breeze and salt spray. We spent a long time walking on Rushikonda Beach, a long stretch of sandy coastline, clearly popular with locals, football, families paddling and children playing in the water but not much in the way of swimming because the tides are very strong and dangerous. But it was good for us to get out and about and stretch our legs. Other than my short walk into work, and a walk round the nagar I don't get much in the way of exercise opportunities. Salt and sand also are great cleaners for mucky black hard skinned feet, as I spend most of my time barefoot.

We also were taken to another hilltop where there was a film studio. We had no idea what to expect here. What we found was a permenant set with houses, shops, ploice station complete with holding cell, and a large mansion type house which could have had multiple uses as mansion, hotel etc. Inside it was just an empty hanger, so again the scene could be staged as per by the film requirements. Imagine some big Bollywood dance number. There were also a couple of very strange buildings whose use we could not fathom at all. One looked like a glass cube. We concluded  that this may have been a set for something like a TV serial, a la Neighbours or Eastenders. The other thing that was going on was outside on the waste ground atop the hill where a production crewe were shooting a dance number. Judging from the many attempts to get the moves right, it was early days and their choreography needed working on. But we spend a little time listening to the director shouting through a megaphone, the cameras being wheeled back and forward on their gantries and the dancers practising their steps. I've no idea who anyone was, whether it was a famous director or if famous stars were involved. I did find out it was an Oriya movie.

Our last stop of the daywas down on the waterfron where the first Indian submarine is berthed as a museum. Given that I grew up near Rosyth dockyard I've never been in a submarine before. It is just as you'd expect, small. Even with some twenty to thirty peole going through in  an organised fashion it feels crampt. Imagine what it would be like with a full crewe. One compartment had bunks in to show what it was like for a grunt seaman, 24 men in that compartment, you would not want to be clautrophobic or to have someone who snored in their sleep. The officers quarters, although more private with 4 people to a cabin were still tiny, and even the Captain's room was a tight fit. Passing through the individual compartments makes you realise how little is sealing off one from the other in the event of a flood or fire. we couldn't jump over the entrance ways
like you see in films but we did see the torpeedo bays, the sonar room, and the bilge pump. For those of you who are reading this who were one Soren with me, yes it brought back memories of the Bilge Monster and the night in the Southern Ocea when it attacked my cabin, drawning most of my possessions in mucky, oily bilge water. Yuck.

For our second day we walked through town to the local beach area, walked more there, found a Spencers supermarket, which Hilary had been told was the one supermarket chain that sold western style things. We went in just to buy a cold drink and ended  up with bag full of goodies. Prime finds for me were dates and coconut milk. We treated ourself again to a nice leisurely lunch with the requisite cold Kingfisher beer back at the hotel, and settled down to read newspaper prior to our evening train back to Rayagada. We arrived only slightly late (30 mins) at Rayagada, and caught an auto back to my place for around 11:30PM.

The next day was a public holiday here, National Day, and we got up late, went and did some grocery shopping, walked aroud the nagar, found the short cut through to Rayagada's only hotel, the Sai International, which avoids the horrid main road and all its huge trucks, had some lunch and were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves for a jolly good weekend, whhen Hilary got a message from the UK to say that all trains to Koraput were cancelled! If it hadn't cme we'd have gone to the station not knowing what was happening. A bande/ strike had been called by the Naxalites, we found out later because the leader's wife had been arrested by police. After much to-ing and fro-ing we established that not oonly were trains not running that day, but there was only one running the following day and that was the long distance train form Bhubaneshwar to Koraput, yes the 5:30AM one! So we were back to the problem that started the weekend of how to get to the station early in the morning. I did not feel like I could call the office and have them asked Rajinda to come in since it was a National Holiday and he might not even be around. I sought assistance from my landlady. Luckily her daughter speaks good English for a 12 year old and she translated for me. The upshot was that she called the auto who drives her daughter to school and they said they would come at 4:45AM to pick Hilary up in time for her to try and buy a ticket at the station. That's not the way we normally do it as we try to book online to get a confirmed berth or seat. The wrose case would be that there were no tickets available and Hilary
would have to jump back in an auto and come back and wake me up again to get back in the house. So we called it an early night and got up and were ready and waiting at 4:30AM. 4:45 came and went, 5:00 came and went, 5:15 came and went. Clearly even a known driver wasn't coming out here at that hour. e went back to sleep. My landlady's daughter checked in with us when she got up to fnd out that the auto had not arrived. After grabbing a bit more rest we traipsed into my work, Hilary having contacted her NGO who finaly arranged for an taxi car to drive from Koraput to Rayagada to pick her up and take her back. She finally got back home around 3PM. So quite an extended long weekend. But I at least still felt the better for it. It will be a couple of months before another long weekend away is planned, when I intended to add a couple of days onto ta VSO trip to Puri.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Outdoors, in a bit of a lather!

I tried to watch as unobotrusively as I could but completely enthralled looking at a young women with children on the building site opposite my house this morning. The site is inactive for the  days of the Telug holiday and she wasn't one of the normal workers. I don't know where she came from or where she was walking to after she left but for half an hour or so at least she stopped at the half constructed building. I think she would be perhaps in her late twenties. I first noticed her as I stood at my door taking in the morning air, preparing breakfast. She was washing her hair. A typically Indian ladies hair, long, black down to her waist, kept in a twisted plait, often piled and tied in a knot on the top back of the head. She was squatted down lathering up her hair. soap suds everywhere, It was really getting a good wash. Let me tell you, with all the dust, grit, lorry exhausts and general smoke here, hair gets truly filthy! At least wearing it plaited or tied up reduces the exposed surface area and helps keep it a bit cleaner.

What strikes one watching anyone squat here is how elongated the tendons are in the backs of their legs, at the ankles. And their balance. It must be also something to do with their centre of gravity. Take me for instance, when i try to sit like that,  firstly my heels come off the ground as my tendons are not long enough, secondly I wobble, I'm unable to maintain my balance around my centre of gravity in that position, and thirdly partly a question of strength as I can't maintain it of any length of time, minutes maybe but hurs, no way! For me it is just not comfortable. But here it is the position of choice and you see it adopted by young and old like. In the west you'll see very young kids do it, but that's about it.

Anyway back to the woman washing her hair. A great form for an artist to draw, the curve of her back, from neckline, down through spine and round to her buttocks, a smooth and perfect contour. Her spine straight as  a die, it is all that carrying of things on top of the head  that brings about perfect posture. Weren't Victorian ladies schooled on hard upright straight backed wooden chairs and to walk tall with piles of books on their heads? Same but much more weight. What then surprised me was that her back was naked down to the what would on a western women be desccribed as the bra line. Still the hair was being washed. Jug fulls of water were being passed over and rinsed through the tresses, time and time again, perhaps several washes, each rinsed out several times till she was satisfied with the result.

Next she stood up. I thought she was finished but no. Her bucket was refilled from the water that had collected after a days downpour in the one built up parts of the building site foundations. Then she was washing  through a length of material and ringing it out. This was then laid out over then top of the bricks to dry. She then proceeded to wash through some other articles of clothing.

The next thing I noticed was her changing her clothes. The area isn't busy, it is in fact quite open, so she was somewhat in an exposed position, but at the same time a safe one. Slightly embarassedly I watched, she looked around constantly whilst changing, and not just watching her children as she did through all of this, but clearly keeping an eye out for others. How does one get privacy on the streets?  Think how folks are so self conscious about their bodies say when trying to change on the beach at home. The way she took her clean saris round her back, like you would a towel to dry yourself with, then wrap it round her upper body in such a way that the old, now totally wet garment could be unkotted and dscreetly removed was  a wonder to behold, such eleagance, done with such a demour demeanour. Practice over a lifetime giving smooth motion, of stylish, simple, precise movements. I felt somewhat of a voyeur, and couldn't bring myself to take pictures, so I hope my description conveys the beauty and intimacy of this.

At one point the youngest child was of exploring, the mother eye darting over to check she was OK But then she started to climb into the water trough. Immediately the women was up, dashed across and snatched up the child to stop it from falling in and perhaps drowning.

I went back into my kitchen to catch my kettle boiling and when I nexted looked out it was because I started to hear a child crying. Children are the same anywhere. They never like to have their faces washed, especially with a cloth :) Here she was now washing her youngest child, starkers under a mountain of white soap suds being held by the head as the mother's other hand lathered up its face, hair and body. Continued screams equivalent I guess to "Stop, I don't like this". But such care and attention being shown by the women as she made sure every inch of this child was scrubbed clean. Again jugs of water were poured over the little one in portable shower like fashion, to rinse off.  Then a bit of playtime as she splashed the child with handfulls of water, the screams turned to yelps of joy. It should  not be amazing but it is still touching to see a mother's devotion to her kids even under such conditions as this woman was clearly living in.

She continued to rinse through the other clothes, then wash out her pot, jug and bucket. Now when I say a bucket, let me explain. The jug was a small hand sized jug you see evrywhere her, the bowl was metal, like a large cooking pot, cauldron shaped, with a rimmed top edge, but the bucket was the plastic container that say cement, or fetiliser had originally come in, you know the sort of gallon drum type you get from hardware stores. Everything is resused here. Washing finished, she lifetd up her things, one of the older children balancing the bucket on her head, and the family walked off.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Exhibition of NGO and other SHG (Self Help Groups)

I went one evening last week to an exhibition that is being held over 3 days in the playing fields of a local college. It was a showcase for the works of various Self help groups and other civic societies and was full of people even on a cold night.

There have been cultural events going on as well on the main stage. We saw the Brinz dance troop, a local Orissan group who had won a national TV talent show. They were very good. Sadly I only got a very short segment on video as my camera card was full :( but enough to give you the jist, albeit that I was quite far back in the crowd.

Some of the stalls were selling produce - vegetables, spices etc, others textiles, saris, children's clothes, and others selling more artisan wares such as terracotta pots, picture frames, metal and wood work.

I acquired a chair for lounging in for 2300 rupees and a piece of metal artwork about 15 by 3 inches for 300 rupees, and from a stall highlighting the benefits of mushroom cultivation as a secure livelihood option, a bowl of the most tasty mushroom soup for the grand cost of 10 rupees to keep the cold weather at bay.

Friday 8 January 2010

Investigating new vegetables

At the risk of turning into a Julia Powell here I am talking about food again. And it is going to sound strange to many but  I'd never eaten kolhrabi or knol khol or ganth gohbi as its known here. My sabzi walla had it in abundance  recently so I had to try it out.  I'm told it is a cabbage like vegetable, a member of the Brassica family, but for my part it tastes a bit like white turnip, slightly sweet when boiled and it adds a nice flavour to tomato soups. This one was made with kohlrabi and 3 different types of green beans and was delicious.

I've also had a variation on a Thai type curry with it and coconut milk which I found in a supermarket in Vizag at the weekend. Heat a piece of cinnamon bark in oil, add oinions, fry untill soft with chillies, garlic, ginger to your taste, add coconut milk. I para boiled the kolhrabi first and then added it for the final cooking to the coocunt sauce.  No pictures of that one, but it was so good that the hunt is back on for coconut milk in Rayagada.

Thursday 7 January 2010

A very Sweet New Year

Indians love painting pictures outside there houses and my landlady's 12 yr old daughter had done this as I came home on New Years Eve.

Her and her elder sister also presented me on New Year's morning with a greeting card.

Then at work Mr P presented me with a box of Indian sweets, delicious but very very sweet. Unfortunately as these are made with milk they have to be eaten in one day  - sadly I could not manage them all :(  Oh for a fridge!

This is where I work

The NGO office in Rayagada is the ground floor
of the general secretary's house

I share this office with one of the project coordinators, one of the few who spend most of their time in the Rayagada district. Most of the NGOs staff are field based at various project offices scattered around the rural and hilltop villages. There offices are not as salubrious as this! I'll be posting field offices pictures after my next field trip once the arm is back to full fucntioning order.

Sabzi-wallas and other assorted cycle-wallas

There are various men and women who come round the district, the "nagar", selling their wares.

These pictures are of my sabzi-walla, she comes every 2-3 days with a selection of veg, this morning black beans, aubergine and sago. As I've described in my previous post she goes door to door touting her veg, carrying it in a basket on her head along with her weights and weighing pans.

Up to now it has only been sabzi wallas that I've seen but yesterday I heard the call and rushed out hoping for one to find a man on a cycle selling door mats, unfortunately I'm not quick enough and he has cycled off down the lane, just  when I needed one! What luck! I'll have to become better at identifying their calls and being quick of the mark for those on cycles as my nagar is too long hike into town. The way to hail the vegetable sellers is to shout "pariba" but as for hailing back other vendors I've yet to find out - Perhaps I'll give the Hindi "Sunniye!" / "Listen up!" a try next time!

I am reminded somewhat of "Betterware"  sales men who came door to door when I was a child and also the various vans that came to my village selling groceries, bread and milk et. They saved housewives the trek into town by bus and the carriage of heavy goods back home. My mother would make a weekly grocery list and give it to the van man who would bring her box of goodies back the following week. I may have to get used to a similar way of sourcing things - like undergoing a bit of time travel!

Monday 4 January 2010

Building works, wages and the cost of living

Saipriya Nagar is a developing district at the northern perimeter of Rayagada town. As I've said its roads/tracks/lanes are not even marked on the map yet. Consequently there are several building works going on, inclduing one just across the lane from me. The foundations had been laid when I arrived but nothing seemed to be happening. Then last week it all started in earnest. Workers started arriving at the site and bricks started going up. Building laborouers are men and women here in India, no distinction is made, except some unscrupulous site managers try to pay the women less for the same work, And I mean the same work. Every day I have been passing another house, much later in its build. The same group of women who have been labouring on that site are now working on the other one. They carry amazingly heavy loads on their heads, stacks of bricks, iron piping support struts for the concrete works, anything and everything. Their posture is superb! And they do all this in beaticully coloured, bright, clean, well look after saris or kurta and trousers. They are lithe, very fit, but don't be fooled this is long hard work. They start at around 9  and don't finish until the light goes, currently about 5:30pm. But before 9 they are up, cooked, washed, washed their clothes, ie all the normal everyday chores. In the evening as I walk home I see small fires burning by the older house, where preparation of the evening meal is underway. Each time I pass I always get a series of "namastes"(goodmorning/goodevening), "Tame kipari acha?" (How are you?) Respoding "Bhala achi" (I am fine). We've stopped and chatted but my oriya is not yet understood and they are speaking Telug which I don't understand, but they are clearly interested in  me as I am in them. I think this work may well be part of the NREGS job card scheme in operation in India, except that the same people are clearly employed as a group so it might not be. However, I can't imagine the wages are much different which ever it is. The job card schmeme entitles each household to a certain number of days work per year. The rate for this work is set at  90 rupees per 7 hr day for an unskilled worker, 103 rupes for semi-skilled, 116 rupees for a skilled worker, and 129 for an expert worker.

So what, I hear you ask, does that give someone as a standard of living? What is a typical salary in India? Well that depends on where you are, who you are and what you do. Forget for now the IT hubs of Bangalore, and the city institutions of Mumbai and Delhi, I'm here in a provincial town, bordering rural tribal India. To put things in context,

(1) my VSO alowance is 9000 Rupees per month, which in my case comes in 2 parts 7000 per month paid quarterly in advance direct from VSO, 2000 per month paid in arrears from my NGO, who also fund my accomodation, around 3000 rupees for my 1 bed appartment. Now bear in mind that this is probably a fairly middle class salary equivalent here.

(2) my colleagues in the NGO sector will be on salaries of around 5000 rupees per month for an Economic Development  or Social Work or Political Science graduate with several years experience in the field. If they are working in villages then accomodation is found for them, not their families, but it is basic, probably one or two rooms without any facilities what so ever, no kitchen, no bathroom, no toilet.

(3) A newly qualified doctor last year would have earned 10,000 rupees. Trying to encourage their doctors to stay in India and especially to work in rural practices has seen this rise to 18,000 rupees, but stillthere is a problem at retaining qualified medical personnel.

(4) My door to door sabzi walla (vegetable seller) will probably make about 20 rupees per good day with her working capital tied up in her veg each day, I imagine she has a working float of 100 rupees or so to buy veg each day for resale. Again she goes door to door touting her veg, carrying it in a basket on her head along with her weights and weighing pans. ( I'll add in some pictures once my arm is better and my hand steadier for taking photos out and about).

(5) In the hill villages I visited a couple of weeks ago, the women were spending their free time ie time not spent raising children, doing domestiic duties, cooking, cleaning, tending the domestic animals, working their fields, fetching water etc, to sew leaf plates for sale to local hostelries as plates for food. They get about 30 paises for a plate which takes about 5 minutes to make. That's 3 rupees per 10 plates, about a hour's work

As for living costs, food seems very cheap to those of us used to the sorts of prices we pay back home. Remember it is around 75 Rupees to the £ ,  46 rupees to the  $, 66 rupees to the Euro, so from memory, (I may be 1 or 2 rupees out, but a kg of any of these is a lot ), but this will give you a feel for the price of things,  For example;
Butter 22 rupees per 100g
Bread - only plain whote sliced stuff - 28 per loaf
Tomatoes - 20 per kg
Potatoes - 21 per kg
Groundnuts - 42 per kg
Raisins   - 80 rupees per kg
Cashew nuts - 280 rupees per kg
Chick peas - 72 per kg
Dried peas - 38 perkg
Barley - 40 per kg
Cardomon - 10 per 10g
Cinnamon sticks - 20 per 50g
Coriander seeds - 10 per 100g
Cauliflower - 20 rupees per kg
Cabbage - 18 rupees per kg
Aubergine - 20 per kg
Kohlrabi - 18 rupees per kg
Green Beans - 18 rupess per kg
Mooli  - a bunch of 3 - 5 rupees
Oranges - 20 rupees each
Tea 75 rupees per 250g - this is leaf tea - you get asked if you want leaf or dust!
Eggs - 18 rupees for 6
Honey - 139 rupees for g
Jar of sweet mango pickle - 49 rupees
Cooking Oil - 108 rupees per litre
2 ring gas hob 2900 rupees
Floor mop 110 rupees
Telephone SIM card (Pay as you go - no questions asked!) 80 rupees
Text message 5 rupees (national), 15 rupees (international)
Telephone call  7 rupees per minute to UK landline, 10 rupees per minute to Algeria mobiles

The thing you notice in shops is how small helpings of things are eg Ponds Cold Cream in tiny doll like containers. probably only enough for one or two applications - surely it costs 90% of the price for the container?- shampoo in sachets, enough for one hair wash, like you get in hotel bathrooms; likewise Ketchup in one helping sachets; cigarettes being sold indivually - you get the picture. Most people just do not have lots of cash at any one time.

I got home last night to a lot of activity round the house. My landlady and family were supervising the delivery of an enormous pile of long metal supports. Clearly more building work is planned! It turns out another 2 floors are to be added to their building - my thoughts range from, oh no that means lots of morning noise which will interrupt my much needed sleep, to  so that's where my rent money is going! She tells me the cost is 55,000 rupees: I'm not clear whether this is for the strutts alone, for all the materials, or for the whole project.  Life is clearly on the up for the residents of Saipriya Nagar.