A Light At The End of The Tunnel

Mural at Christel House

Mural painted by students at the Christel House School

 

Sometimes life can seem bleak, frustrating, full of unnecessary trials and tribulations. But there is always a light at the end of the tunnel and out of the blue something happens to give you a newfound hope and faith in humanity.

I had the opportunity to experience this the other day.

We paid a visit to a school called Christel House in Bangalore.

Christel House is an organization founded by Christel DeHaan to provide education for poor children around the world. As well as Bangalore, there are schools in Mexico, South Africa and Venezuela

Now there are a lot of schools and orphanages in India providing for the poor but what makes this one stand out is that you can see the incredible results they are getting, not just in terms of the academic performance but also in the transformation of the children.

Christel House

To put things in perspective, consider this. Christel House only accepts children from families who are living below the poverty line. So what The Boss and I would spend on a good meal and a bottle of wine in a fancy restaurant, these families, often 4-5 people, have to live on for a month. Makes you think twice about that evening out, doesn’t it?

The Bangalore school has now been running long enough for the first batch of students to graduate from college and find employment. These children have gone on to be doctors, engineers, software technicians, even pilots. If it wasn’t for a school like Christel House these children would not have been educated and would have seen no way out of the grinding poverty that makes up their lives.

We walked through the school and were struck by how happy and bright the children were. Smiling and laughing they would walk past on their way between classes, greeting us in fluent English, asking our names and how we were.

We popped our heads into a classroom where tiny children sat cross legged on the mat, unable to read or speak anything but Kannada (the local language) 6 months ago when they joined and now reading aloud in English.

The lunch bell sounded and children streamed into the large dining hall, washing their hands, before sitting down to one of the two meals the school provides, thereby ensuring the children get at least two hot meals a day, reducing the incidences of malnutrition and disease.
We joined them for lunch, a delicious meal of rice, vegetables, sambar, and boiled eggs.

Christel House Dining Hall

Lunch completed, we sat for a presentation by senior students, viewing some documentaries they had made and discussing with them how they went about producing the films. Bright, intelligent confident kids, enthusiastic about what they are doing and filled with excitement about the future ahead.

Maybe I would have taken all this for granted if we hadn’t then gone to visit their homes in a nearby slum. What I was to see next filled me with sadness and then anger. Sadness that people in this day and age still live 5 persons to a single room, a room constructed out of cardboard, plastic and salvaged tin sheets. Their belongings in plastic bags hanging from hooks on the wall, no toilets or bathrooms, the kitchen just a fireplace outside. The hut abutting the railway line and soon to be demolished to make way for further development in this rapidly expanding city. Anger at the corrupt and inept government more interested in lining their own pockets than looking after the health and well-being of their citizens. The only time politicians visit these areas is during elections when they come to buy votes with free saris and a bottle of liquor.

Slum dwelling

But then I remember the children in the school and how they, through hard work , dedication and the diligent efforts of the School staff , have transformed themselves and by doing that will change the lives of their families forever. Their view of the world has expanded to encompass experiences they would never have imagined before, living beside the railway line. The money they will earn, enough to rent a proper house with electricity and running water and separate rooms. 3 meals a day. Eventually their children too will be educated and go on to earn a decent living ending the cycle of poverty.

This has made me realize that because of the efforts of a few good people, who put the lives of others before their own, there is still hope and the future is not entirely bleak. Governments may never change, corruption will no doubt continue, but these children are the hope of the future and through their improved lives hopefully the world overall will gradually become a better place.
For more information on this wonderful school and their great work please visit:

Christel House

The Day A Leopard Ate The Boss For Breakfast – Almost!

Leopard

The time came for us to leave Kaziranga in Assam and take the 6-7 hour drive into the hills of Nagaland for our next stop in Kohima.

However our dashing and fearless tour leader, Rohan (rumored to be the inspiration behind the Jason Statham – Transporter films), had a little detour planned for us. While out “networking” the night before, he had bumped into some staff from the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and using his considerable silver tongued charms had managed to wrangle an invite for all of us to visit.

Kaziranga Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation

The Centre does a lot of great work, rescuing, sick, injured and orphaned animals, nursing them back to health, before releasing them back into the wild.

A young volunteer gave us a tour explaining what they were doing and the processes involved, before finally leading us to the leopard enclosure where 3 leopards were being cared for, one baby and two adults.

The Boss, unable to contain her excitement upon spying the ‘big fluffy pussycat’ had to be restrained from putting her hands inside the enclosure to pat the animal. After all what use would The Boss without hands be to me? Who would massage the knots out of my tired shoulders after a day spent thumbing through the books on my Kindle?

One of the adult leopards was quite docile, but the other was angry and distinctly annoyed at our presence, constantly pacing back and forth in it’s enclosure, snarling away.

After a few minutes spent taking photos and marveling at the majesty of these big cats, we prepared to leave and it is then that I witnessed a sight, the memory of which has woken me on many a night, bathed in sweat and shaking with fear.

The Boss strayed a couple of feet too close to the angry leopard and in a split second the cat had covered the 10 meters from the other side of the enclosure in a single silent bound. Thankfully the first the Boss knew of it was not a pair of sharp incisors sinking into her neck but the sound of a huge adult leopard bouncing off the wire link fence that made up the leopard’s enclosure.

The speed and sheer power of the cat’s movement was an incredible sight to behold as I stood frozen in awe, The Boss making her exit as fast as her gazelle like legs would allow.

I will never forget that sight (the leopard, not the Boss’s legs) and it has given me new-found respect for this majestic animal.

A change of underwear all around, we thanked the staff and headed off on our journey to Kohima.

English Literature – Not what it used to be!

 

Shakespeare

Pic Courtesy Wikipedia

The Boss and I were spending a couple of days in a home-stay in the beautiful Chikmagalur Hills, a major coffee growing region of Southern India.

Every evening the owners would light a bonfire and the guests would sit around for a chat before dinner.

One evening in conversation with a young lady, she mentioned that she had a degree in English Literature. This was the second time in two months I was meeting someone in a remote rural area who professed to a love of English literature!

Intrigued and wanting to learn more I asked her who her favorite English writers were.

“Shakespeare” came the standard answer.

Well everyone says that, I thought to myself, so probing deeper I asked her if there was anyone else.

“Let me think” she said, pausing for a minute.

“Oh yes! Taylor Swift”

A Slice of Life in an Assamese Village

_MG_4178_tonemappedsmall The early morning elephant safari and breakfast over, the other members of our group retired to their rooms to catch up on sleep. The Boss and I however consider sleeping during the day a waste of valuable time, particularly when travelling so we decided to explore our surroundings.

The early morning chill had eased by now and warmed by the sun we wandered out of the resort and down the dirt tracks that make up the access through the village.

A mother passes by, dressed in a traditional sari with a woolen shawl draped over her shoulders. Her young daughter walking beside her on the way to the village school, a picture of Mickey Mouse smiling back at us from her back pack filled with school books. _MG_4147 A row of Safari jeeps waiting for their next trip into the jungle, their would-be occupants still breakfasting or napping after the elephant safari.

_MG_4150 small The village is spotless, not a speck of garbage to be seen. It’s a sad fact that in India most populated areas are strewn with plastic and garbage yet here there is nothing.

As we venture further up the lane we see the villagers busy tending their gardens, collecting eggs, or just drying their luxuriant black hair in the sun. Without fail we were greeted with beautiful smiles and a cheery “good morning”. Tiny goats and cows wander freely around the lanes their diminutive size making one think that we had wandered into some lost Lilliputian world.

_MG_4164small A boy runs past chortling with glee as he pushes an inner tube in front of him with a stick. More pleasure than any PlayStation or Xbox can provide.

Spotting a sign for craft teas we wander tentatively through the gate to see what we can find. A young boy runs out of the house, all eyes and sparkling white teeth. “Good morning “he greets us, “would you like to see our looms?” Captivated by this little angel we follow him into a large hall, where a number of bamboo framed looms are set up. A lady appears, silently seating herself at one of the looms and proceeds to weave a traditional Assamese pattern. The boy explains what she is doing and then shows us another loom where cloth is being woven using a mixture of cotton and recycled materials. The result, a table runner sparkling with the colored foil in the weft, yet still soft to the touch.

_MG_4168small We are joined by the boy’s mother, an attractive, effervescent lady, and she explains that she is running a self-help group to empower the local women, teaching them skills and providing them with looms if they are unable to afford it themselves. She also has a shop selling the finished goods as well as organic teas.

By now the whole family has joined us and we chat for a while, eventually making plans to join them for a traditional Assamese breakfast the next morning.

We leave their compound still stunned by the eldest son telling us that he is studying English Literature and that his favorite writer is Christopher Marlowe! India never fails to surprise!

Exiting the gate we look back and see the entire family lined up waving and smiling.

Walking back into the resort we hear a strange sound from high in the trees. A gardener beckons me over and points to a large bird perched on top of one of the trees. It’s a Great Hornbill and as I frantically grab for my camera and remove the lens cap it launches into flight, the whoosh whoosh from it’s 1.5m wingspan like the sound of a helicopter’s rotors starting up. It’s an incredible sight and though I fail to take a decent photo, the sight and sound of this magnificent bird will remain with me forever. _MG_4195small

_MG_4197small

A great omen for the days to come when we journey to Nagaland for the Hornbill Festival. ( KiwiGypsy, The Boss, and Tommy, traveled to Assam with India Trail)

Close Encounters in Kaziranga!

Dawn, Kaziranga National Park

Dawn, Kaziranga National Park

The elephant pauses to grab a trunkful of elephant grass and stuffs it into it’s mouth. Breakfast on the move.
From my vantage point on the elephant’s back I scan the surrounding grass lands for signs of movement, hoping to get a glimpse of the One Horned Indian Rhino that Kaziranga National Park is famous for. I’ve never seen a Rhino in the wild and I am desperate to see one up close.

We had arrived in darkness, late the previous night, from Guwahati, and this morning is the first chance we get to take in the surroundings. It gets light early in these parts and we sacrificed a full night’s sleep to ensure that we could be in the park early enough to view the wildlife at the optimum time before the animals retreat from the heat of the day.

The elephant’s rolling motion resumes and we pass silently through the grass, in places the grass long enough to brush against our legs high up on the elephant’s back. The air is cold and crisp, the sun’s rays not yet strong enough to burn off the early morning mist still clinging to the ground.

I glimpse an ear flickering in the grass ahead and as we slowly approach we spot a Sambar Deer grazing in the thick undergrowth. It seems unafraid, perhaps unable to distinguish the humans astride the elephant, and as we move closer we see that it is in fact injured, a big wound in it’s side. The unfortunate result of a lost sparring match with another deer. The mahout explains that sadly it may not live for long. Kaziranga has one of the highest concentrations of tigers in India and a wounded deer will be easy prey.

Sambar Deer, Kaziranga National Park

Sambar Deer, Kaziranga National Park

We move on and the elephant grass gives way to an open plain filled with deer. All different types and sizes, Sambar, Swamp deer, Muntjac, Hog deer. Hundreds of them moving slowly across the grassland, pausing now and then to graze on the sparkling dew-covered grass, but ever watchful for signs of predators.

The tranquility is disturbed by the sounds of shouting and banging of drums from a distant village. A rhino has strayed too close to the houses and the villagers make as much noise as possible to send the rhino back into the park. We spot it in the distance moving slowly back into the grasslands and the mahout urges the elephant towards it.

By the time we get close, the rhino has disappeared into the thick elephant grass and we move slowly and silently forward, breaths held in anticipation, eyes feverishly scanning for signs of the great beast.

And there it is! Staring back at us from amongst the grass, clouds of steam billowing from it’s nostrils. A strange conglomeration of parts, plates of armor and lumpy skin, all combined into the oddest looking creature I have ever seen. It’s like something left over from prehistoric times, unusual to look at but at the same time magnificent. Even from our perch high on the elephant it is obvious that it is a huge animal, filled with power. We take photo after photo trying to capture it in all its glory, while it stands and looks placidly back at us, chewing grass while a group of Mynah Birds stand line astern on the prominent ridge of it’s backbone.

One Horned Indian Rhinocerous, Kaziranga National Park

One Horned Indian Rhinocerous, Kaziranga National Park

Eventually tiring of us and our stage whispers, it turns and moves off into the undergrowth eventually disappearing from view, leaving us to excitedly discuss what we have just seen.

Our day is complete.

The first time any of us have seen a Rhino, and the first time for some of us to ride on an elephant.

NOTE: Our trip to Kaziranga was made possible by the awesome team at The India Trail

Grazing Deer, Kaziranga National Park

Grazing Deer, Kaziranga National Park

The North-East of India

 

Hornbill Festival

I have just spent the past two weeks in the North East of India, an area that not many Indian tourists visit let alone foreign tourists. I loved it so much that my original one week trip was extended out to two weeks.

The countryside is spectacular, the people unfailingly friendly, hospitable and kind, and the food delicious (even the more, shall we say “exotic” dishes which I will discuss in a later post.)

The main focus of the trip was the annual Hornbill Festival in Nagaland, a celebration of all the tribes, where they get together to showcase their customs, costumes and food. It is spectacular and I highly recommend anyone traveling to India in the first week of December to make sure it is on their itinerary.

I travelled with The India Trail, run by a couple of young guys passionate and extremely knowledgeable about the region. They are very professional and can organize a wide range of activities to sort all interests.

I will write in more depth soon but in the meantime here are a couple of photos from the festival.

Hornbill Festival