Don’t Worry. Be Happy.

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I wasn’t able to post for the last few weeks I was in India, so this is a final post to fill you in on my time at the Victoria Armstrong Memorial School in Kotagiri. 

Volunteering at Victoria Armstrong Memorial School

On a radiant, cloudless day in Kotagiri, I checked my timetable, tapped on the classroom door and went into the standard four classroom of the Victoria Armstrong Memorial School. Time for their Spoken English class. I started, as I always do, by speaking to individual children.    ‘Good morning. How are you?’ I asked a boy looking at me, as most were, with keen attention.

‘I am not well,’ replied the child, a picture of health.

‘Oh dear,’ I responded. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘I have …’ Then, with a huge grin, ‘a headache.’

‘And how are you?’ I asked, pointing to a child with perfect plaits.

‘I am not well,’ she replied, smiling. ‘I have a cold.’

After getting similar replies from two other children, I was worried that the whole class had come down with something. Then I realised that the pupils were practising the conversation I’d taught them a couple of days before: how to answer someone when they asked you how you were, and you didn’t feel ‘fine’. And that was typical of my experience of the school. The children were so eager to learn, and keen to show me what they’d learned.

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I’d arrived in Kotagiri a few days before, with my guitar and dusty rucksack, not sure what to expect but ready and willing to do whatever would be useful. I needn’t have worried. My first meeting with the school principal, Mrs B Poovizhy, put me at ease. We decided that I should take Spoken English classes in the mornings, and music lessons in the afternoons. She wanted me to devote some extra time to the school choir.

Before arriving at the school I’d puzzled over what songs to teach the children. I’d prepared some English children’s songs, but wondered whether I should be looking for songs with an Indian context. Mrs Poovizhy explained that as the school was an ‘English medium’ institution, in which English was the principal language used for teaching, she’d welcome it if the children could learn English songs. I was pleased that to hear this, as I’d hoped the songs would be a way of helping the children, even the very young ones, learn some English words and phrases.

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The singing lessons were tremendous fun. Here, as in the Spoken English classes, I was grateful for the support of the teachers. The children overflowed with enthusiasm and excitement, and I sometimes needed help to keep them quiet. The whole school enjoyed, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’, not least because yellow school buses were an integral part of their life, ferrying them to and from school every day. They loved doing the actions, too. Without a doubt, the favourite line, with accompanying actions, was, ‘The horn on the bus goes beep, beep, beep!’

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But other songs, too, were popular. The choir loved a little song I made up about breakfast, titled, ‘Dal and chapati’. They also tore into ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor?’ with great gusto, enjoying the strong rhythm. But the favourite, with both students and teachers, was ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’ a song written by the American singer Bobby McFerrin. The sentiment was one we could all relate to, with a universal appeal. Even on the day I left, groups of children were singing it to me as I passed.

The Victoria Armstrong Memorial School is a special place. For a start, its origins were unusual. Victoria Armstrong was a British schools inspector who came to Kotagiri in the 1980s, and was captivated by the place, and by the essential work being done by the Nilgiris Adavasi Welfare Association (NAWA) to support the tribal communities living in the Nilgiris (the Blue Mountains, which straddle Kerala and Tamil Nadu). The foundation of a school for the children of these tribal communities became one of her aims. With NAWA, she worked to make this vision a reality, and though she died before the school was opened, she left her property and assets to NAWA to achieve this and other initiatives. An admirable woman, who is remembered in the name of the school, and celebrated at the annual School Day in November. Though the school is also open to children from all communities, its aim is to encourage and support the tribal children, who often have to travel long distances, and had, in the past, had a high drop-out rate.  Efforts are made to make the school atmosphere as stimulating and welcoming as possible. To this end, the whole school has karate sessions twice a week, and a wonderful classical musician comes in once a week to teach the children Indian classical songs.

But back to the songs. Mrs Poovizhy was keen that I should work with every class, so no child was excluded. One sunny afternoon I found myself sitting with fifty children under the age of five singing, ‘This is the way we wash our face’ – with actions, of course. I had huge admiration for the children, because for those from tribal communities English was often their third language. They spoke their tribal language at home, and were then asked to speak and write in both Tamil and English. Needless to say, they went at the song with great gusto, and learned some English words along the way.

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At the end of the school day I was taken back to the cool, characterful bungalow made available to NAWA visitors by Rosaleen Mulji and her son Kabir. Here Susheela, the housekeeper, would have a meal ready. ‘Eating, Madam!’ was her command, as she placed the delicious food in front of me. The bungalow was surrounded by trees filled with tiny birds. There was no television, no internet, so after eating I’d watch the birds and play guitar before enjoying an early night. Someone offered to try to get the TV working, but I was happy without it. I can watch TV and mess around on the internet all day long at home. In India, I wanted to do something different.

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The Nilgiris are beautiful. Lush, covered in tea plantations or native forest, they rise into clear blue skies. Days are bright, and nights are chilly. On my time off Mrs Poovizhy and Mr Alwas, the hospitable Secretary of NAWA, arranged for me to visit nearby towns and beauty spots.  One evening we lurched over a forest track to visit a tribal village. Mr Alwas laughed when I wondered whether the jeep could make it, while trying not to look over the steep drop to the side of the road. ‘That’s why we have the jeeps,’ he said. And indeed we made it there and back with no mishaps.

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My two weeks at the school flew by. On my last day the principal had arranged for the tribal children to do some dances for me. Wearing tribal costumes they performed beautiful steps. Much laughter ensued when I tried to join in with their elegant movements. We rounded off the session with a rousing performance of ‘Don’t Worry, be Happy’, from members of the choir.

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Before I left I was asked whether I could return. I said I’d think about it. Now, a couple of weeks later, I’m pretty sure I’ll go back, to build on the work I’ve done, and perhaps introduce a new project, such as drama. I don’t think the school has seen the last of me.

 

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Who volunteers? Paula and Janet

imageMeet Paula. She shared a room with me for two weeks – a small room, with a noisy fan that conked out towards the end of our stay (but was soon repaired). Mother to four children between 12 and 20, Paula had chosen to volunteer because, in her own words, ‘I wanted an adventure. I wanted to meet new people and feel like I was doing something good.’ Her children had been 100 per cent behind her decision. In fact all the volunteers who’d left behind partners or children found them supportive – and that was heartening.  But back to Paula. Without going into detail, it’s fair to say she’d had a difficult few years, and I wanted to know how being thrown into Indian life had affected her.

‘I’m a lot more confident about taking on the world as a lone traveller,’ she replied. ‘And I love the extremes and contrasts of India.’  She’d spent a few days in Delhi before coming to Cochin and said that Kerala was ordered and spotless in comparison. But she’d loved the whole experience of working on the volunteer programme, and being in India.

‘Any downsides?’ I asked.

She paused for a moment. ‘You have to be really flexible,’ she replied. ‘You have to get into the mindset.’ I nodded. Plans in India sometimes have to be changed. I’ve come to the conclusion you need a sense of humour and a certain amount of resilience to enjoy the experience.

‘But I’ve met some fantastic people,’ she concluded. ‘I wanted to explore a completely new culture, outside my comfort zone, but with the safety net of an organisation such as GVI.’

Paula and I shared a bathroom, some grumbles, and plenty of laughs. I was sorry to see her return home.

image Meet Janet. A couple of years she was devastated to be made redundant from a job she loved with a large clothing manufacturing company in Yorkshire. As a chartered secretary she’d seen the company through many ups and downs. ‘And I didn’t want to leave.’ But once she’d got over the shock, she realised that this gave her the opportunity to do something she’d always wanted to do: live and work abroad. With three children and a busy life of work and study, this hadn’t been possible before.

‘And I wanted to give something back,’ she adds – a thread that runs through all the volunteers’ stories. First she took a TEFL course and spent three months in Cambodia. That gave her a taste for volunteering, and this year, she was drawn to GVI, not least because it offers excellent support and medical back up. Now 66 (several volunteers are in their 50s and 60s), and bursting with life, Janet was keen to roll up her sleeves and work in India.

For her, the highlights have been the people she’s met: ‘The children, the ladies in the homeless settlement, the people in the street.’ She also has kind words for the GVI staff, who work hard and have to be quick on their feet. ‘The programme leaders are totally committed and skilled.’

Amen to that. The GVI programme in Kerala is staffed both by programme leaders and younger staff who run the nuts and bolts of the projects, organising transport and planning. They have a rich life in a brilliant city, but they work for it, and for us.

And there is time for leisure. At the weekends volunteers and staff can explore Cochin and the rest of Kerala. When I last saw Janet she was getting ready for the beach.

Who volunteers? Meet Jane.

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‘I was a primary school teacher for most of my life. I took early retirement, and wanted to offer myself in any way that would be constructive.’

Meet Jane. She’s fifty-five and wanted to volunteer somewhere where she knew she’d be needed. But she’s not working on GVI’s education programme: she’s with the construction project, building a new block of toilets for a primary school. Every day Jane shifts sand and cement, fetches and carries, and is essentially a labourer. And she loves it. ‘I didn’t want to do anything I’d done before. I wanted a break.’

Every morning she leaves at 8 AM with John (25) to work at St Michael’s Primary School in Cochin. She explains that the school is woefully short of toilets. ‘The government ruling is that there should be one toilet for 25 students. At this school there are just two toilets for 200 pupils and staff.’

Not that it’s been easy. ‘It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve kept going. I’m a labourer: I do as much as I can. And the project is so important: it’s absolutely needed, and no one else is going to do it.’ It’s been over 30 C every day since I arrived in Cochin in late January. Jane wears gloves, shoes, and a hat on the project. And, yes, she gets hot. ‘There’s only so much you can sweat,’ she says. ‘If it wasn’t for the heat I’d have extended my stay.’

I ask Jane how she thinks the volunteering has changed her. She thinks for a moment, then says, ‘I’m fitter – stronger.  And I’ve made a bigger difference than I thought I would. I thought I might be a token helper, and I hated the thought of that.’

Because she and John are working on the school site, she’s had plenty of contact with pupils, staff and the PTA. They’ve been a huge help and have lifted spirits (and bricks) when times got tough. ‘Parents and grandparents have helped whenever needed – when we put on the roof, for example. And the PTA ladies lifted concrete blocks and loads of gravel and sand. People stop by every day. They want to see how it’s going and shake our hands.’

When I ask Jane for her final thoughts, she says, ‘There’s blood sweat and tears in those bricks and walls. But I’d do it all again.’

volunteering in Cochin

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I didn’t know what to expect from volunteering. I’d chosen to work on a project run by Global Vision International (GVI), an organisation not affiliated to any particular religion, that works with partners in local communities to promote long-term change for the better. The Women’s Empowerment Programme works with women and girls to improve their self confidence, and to develop their skills so they can achieve their full potential in the work place and society. But to tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure what that would entail.

Fast forward two days. I’m at Pratashabayan (Home of Hope), a Christian residential for girls aged 5 to 17, who are orphans or unable to live with their families because of domestic problems. Two small girls sit on the ground beside me, homework books open. Together we read a Rudyard Kipling story. One was a confident reader, and the other slower, but they helped each other out. The smaller girl (short-haired, with a rip in her skirt, and a bright, sharp voice) did better because she attends a school in which English is the language used for teaching (English medium school). The second girl – taller, with a long plait and a tendency to drift off – is taught in Malayalam, the language of Kerala. What has this got to do with women’s empowerment? A lot. The nuns are keen that the girls achieve their potential. And that means doing homework, and speaking English as much as possible.

Both got a bit bored after half an hour – they were ten and eleven, had been at school all day in temperatures of over 30 degrees, and it was now half past five – and the usual questions came out:

‘Do you have children? Are you married?’

When I say No, and say truthfully that I never wanted to marry, they pat my arms sympathetically. And I understand why. In India, unless you are living in a big city and highly educated, culture demands that you must marry. Marriage provides a home, stability, financial support, security for your old age. Without marriage you can find yourself homeless and without resources.

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Which brings me to the second project I visited. Armed with craft materials, newspaper, glitter, glue and a sense of humour, we headed off for the Relief Settlement. It’s illegal to be homeless in Kerala, and those found to be without a home are taken to one of these settlements. Here they have a safe place to sleep, are fed and receive medical care. But life can very dull in a relief settlement. Although activities are provided, and some residents do domestic duties, much of the day is spent doing nothing much. The residents are not capable of working – some have mental health issues or disabilities – and so their lives lack purpose and variety.

So a team from GVI goes in twice a week with craft materials to work with the women, and the men, when they can be persuaded.  Though the circumstances that have led to their residence in the settlement are not happy, many of those we work with have a sense of fun. They join in – they make better paper flowers than me – sing, chat, and enjoy the company. Is this empowering women? Well, yes, it is. They feel better in themselves and about themselves. They get the chance to listen to English, and speak a little. If and when they leave the settlement, this will be valuable. And craft is only one strand of what we do. We also dance, sing, play drums, and play cricket (popular with the men).

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To give you an idea of the variety of what I’m doing, I’ll talk briefly about a third project. GVI has recently started work with a Muslim school who were keen to lead a campaign against drug use. Two GVI volunteers have worked with students for the past week to produce a  song and dance routine, and a short play, about the dangers of drug taking. I can take no credit for the productions (brilliant), but was drafted in to help the students rehearse, and stop them going crackers with the balloons. A dozen small boys rushing round with balloons is always going to be frantic. Yesterday, India’s Republic Day, the school took a team of children out on the school bus to perform in a local square. The performance was a huge success. We then had lunch at the school, and went on to The Ginger House cafe to discuss how the week had gone. Ginger ice cream. Delicious.  And in beautiful surroundings.

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Mamallapuram: heritage, hassles and hugs

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The temples and rock carvings in Mamallapuram knocked my socks off. I’d seen them before, but that was over a decade ago. In the photograph above, the goddess Durga (the warrior form of Shiva’s wife) rides into battle on a lion. She’s the goddess of power and strength, and of creation. I think I need to channel her more often. The carving is one of many scattered over this small coastal town. And you can walk around the whole site without paying a single rupee.

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Look at the elephant. Isn’t it beautifully carved? And the figures. Yes, I felt fortunate to see these fantastic cultural artworks. But it wasn’t all roses. It wasn’t easy. I was pursued around the site by people wanting to guide me round the site, or sell me pendants, or postcards. And these ‘guides’ are very persistent. I heard an elderly Scottish man trying to talk calmly to one of these ‘guides’. ‘What part of the word “No” do you not understand?’ He was wasting his breath, but I understood his frustration. The hassle increased in the surrounding streets. As a female solo traveller I was followed by women, men and children, begging for money. And I was happy to give money some of the time, but the hassle was relentless, and I couldn’t support all those who wanted money from me. And as a female solo traveller, I was targeted all the time while couples and groups with men in them strolled around in peace. Yes, there are downsides to being a female solo traveller, and being hassled is one of them.

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The Tiger Cave provided an escape. This unfinished but stunning temple, dedicated again to Durga, is a few kilometres up the coast. I caught the bus and wandered round the site, accompanied only by a few courting couples and a coach party from Chennai. The cave temple is guarded by eleven tiger heads. I watched bemused as children climbed all over this historic site, then got a friendly passer-by to take a snap of me.

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I mentioned hugs in the title. These were shared with Esther, the lovely woman who cleaned the Silver Moon guest house, where I was staying. I think she sensed I was a bit down, and I enjoyed chatting with her. This beautiful woman worked all day at the Silver Moon, supporting her family, while her husband (‘a good man, but not at making money’) tried and failed to find students to whom he could teach stone carving. (There’s a college nearby, and stone carving is a major industry in the town.)  In the warm afternoons, after I’d practised guitar, we’d sit and talk for a few minutes. I gave her a little money – put it in her hands, as she might not get it if I left it in the room when I left. She was a comfort in a town I found inspiring but hard work.

 

solo traveller

imageWhen I told friends and family I was travelling and volunteering in South India for three months on my own, most said, ‘You’re so brave,’ or ‘Wow. I could never do that.’ Sitting in a cafe with friends who are also solo travellers – a term we thought described us better than ‘travelling alone’ we all agreed that travelling solo has many pluses – many pleasures, chance meetings, harmless adventures, surprises and odd encounters you just don’t have when you travel with a partner, pal, or family. I think people fear being lonely when travelling solo, but we had all found that it was easier to meet people when you were not engaged with your wife/husband/lover/children/best friend. When I asked Jack what he was looking for when he travelled solo, he thought for a moment and then said, ‘good company’. Yet Jack’s a man with a wide circle of friends and a satisfying life in Oslo – as I have in Cumbria. He expanded a little: ‘I’m looking for interesting times with people I wouldn’t otherwise meet.’

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Everyone in our little group had their own reasons for travelling. Alenka, from Slovenia but now working in London, wanted to take a break from a demanding work life. Nathan, a self confessed ‘Essex boy’ nothing like the caricatures on TV, felt he’d got stuck in a rut, and wanted to explore the world outside England. He’d given up partying and saved up so that he could travel for a year or more.  He absolutely loved it. Laresh, the guitarist who was the catalyst for my meeting this group of solo travellers – I went up to their table and asked if I could sit with them at a gig – has been coming to India for several years and loves the country. He teaches guitar, does some performances, and is involved in a community volunteer project.  Canadian Mark, another regular traveller to India, is setting up a home and retreat in Sikkim. Jack, (mentioned above) has a job with Medicins Sans Frontieres that can be intense. He likes to meet people, to chill out and be a ‘beach bum’ for a few weeks. I can relate to that.

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And me? I came to India for a month last year, and came home with a strong desire to return, and to do some volunteer work. I wanted to contribute something to the country rather than just passing through. As some have pointed out, this is not just altruism. I want to learn more about Indian life off the backpackers’ trail, and to experience life as a volunteer here. I suppose I’ve set myself a challenge. I start my first volunteer placement on 21 January, and will let you know how it goes.

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There are other, less tangible rewards of solo travelling. It gives time to reflect, to spend time alone, and to experience life without the support and the restrictions of routine. For some of the solo travellers, it’s a chance to explore yoga or spiritual practice, or healing. And I know all these things can be done when travelling in company, but I think a solo traveller is perhaps more curious and has more time on her or his hands. I took some yoga classes in Varkala and loved it. For all of us, travelling solo is giving us space to dream, to imagine, to let insights arise (or not).

 

Are there downsides? Yes. But I haven’t found them to outweigh the benefits. Yes, you can feel lonely, or (more accurately) at a loose end. Very occasionally, as a solo female traveller, I’ve felt threatened by groups of young men. And I have been pestered by men who profess devotion or love after a few beers. But the young men can be avoided, and the lovelorn chaps told to stop being silly (politely, of course).  On a more serious note, as a solo traveller it’s hard not to be affected by the poverty and begging. When you are in a couple, it’s easier to turn inwards and keep that sort of stuff out. And you have someone to talk to late at night about things that have affected you. I’d also recommend, if you’re female, that you travel solo in countries that are safe and welcoming to women travellers.

 

But I don’t want to end on a negative note. My experience of travelling solo has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve met people I’d never otherwise have come across. We’ve talked, debated, laughed, swam and now and then cried together. On a train tearing through the warm Keralan night, releasing mournful blows of its whistle as it went, I received kindness from a father and his delightful daughter, whose name  was Angel Blessing. I’ve now left the group of solo travellers I met in Varkala, but have started to meet others at the tiny cafe where I have coffee and masala dosa for breakfast. If any of you are considering being a solo traveller, go for it.

 

 

the back side of town

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Meet Santa. Like me, she lives in the ‘back side’ of Varkala, as the locals call it. Most of the restaurants and many of the guest houses and hotels are strung out along the cliff – and you can see why, because the view is of glittering ripples on the surface of the ocean by day, and a velvety black lit up by fishing boats on the horizon by night. But the ‘back side’ has its pluses: it’s quiet, there are more birds in the trees and the pace is slower than on the funky, brightly lit cliff top strip.

For Santa it’s not so great, as she has fewer people passing her shop. ‘I’m from Hampi,’ she tells me. ‘I have four children – all married and away.’ She has a husband, too, but they don’t live together. Santa is a formidable character, and plenty of people do go into her shop. I bought two white shirts from her. Something about her spirit draws people in. Her shop is opposite a newly built Ayurvedic spa hotel, and something about her proximity to this flashy new build, promising TV in the bedrooms, hot water, room service and a pool, epitomises the transitory state of India today.

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One of my favourite cafes, also in my part of town, is Amantha Family Restaurant, run by husband and wife Naz and Amantha, with help from their son, Alamin – a speedy waiter. Their food is delicious – vegetable thalis (flat breads with several different pickles and sauces, and the best cheese omelette I’ve ever tasted.) Seriously. As with a lot of the businesses on the ‘back side’, their restaurant is a family venture. The busy cafes on the cliff are staffed by waiters, cooks and cocktail mixers from all over India and Nepal. And staff move around each year. But the businesses on the ‘back side’ keep it in the family. Apart from anything else, it keeps overheads down.

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As everywhere in Kerala, the buildings are decorated in every shade of bright pastel colours. There’s an exuberance about the way people paint their walls. There’s no sign of Farrow and Ball round here.