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

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

Post-Trip Blues

Khonoma Village, Nagaland, North-East India

Khonoma Village, Nagaland, North-East India

Back from a long trip. Happy to be in familiar surroundings again, the comfortable bed, hot shower, regular food. More than 3 changes of clothes to choose from.
Busy unpacking, washing, cleaning, catching up on sleep.
Back into the routine.
Days pass slowly.
But something is missing.
That aliveness, that intensity of living, it’s not there anymore.
Flashbacks of events, people I met, experiences, pop into my head randomly throughout each day.
I wake up in the morning, excitement and anticipation missing. A dark mood descends upon me.
Like a junkie I need my fix but my drug of choice is travel.
I have to get away again.
Where to next?

5 Star service in the Lodge from Hell!

Luxury AccomodationI lift up the pillow and a nest of beetles scurry away from the light.

I do the same with the next pillow, sending more beetles scuttling away in to the darkness.

I quickly brush them away before The Boss spots them and throw my own clean bed sheet over the whole bed, pillows and all.

The pillow is the same shape and consistency as a bag of cement and within 10 minutes I have a throbbing headache.

The bed too short for my height so I am forced to lie at an angle with my feet hanging over the side. The room bathed in a dim glow from the fluorescent yellow street light outside the window as I listen to late night wedding revelers returning noisily to the rooms next door, shouting at each other in Tamil despite their proximity and the late hour. I wouldn’t be getting much sleep that night.

Earlier that evening after a fruitless search for some quality accommodation in this small rural town we finally settled for the best of the rest and took a tiny room in a lodge down a noisy side street. It’s wedding season and everywhere is booked solid in a town that is not big enough to warrant a hotel of any kind.

The room qualifies as luxury accomodation as it has AC and a TV. One thing it lacks though is hot water. With hand signals and a few words in English and Tamil we explained to the owner that we wanted hot water to bathe in and he explained that he would supply us with an immersion rod, an electric element which you suspend in a bucket to heat the water. It needs to be suspended using a wooden stick so that you don’t get an electric shock but it is surprisingly effective.

Immersion heater

By 8pm it hadn’t arrived so I climbed down the narrow stairway to what functions as the reception. The lodge owner was still there juggling calls on his two cell phones.

“Hot water, hot water” I asked him.

“9 o’clock coming” came the answer. “Fresh piece.”

As good as his word, at 9 o’clock there was a loud banging on the door.

The elderly watchman, barefoot and clad in a white vest and dhoti, handed me a plastic bucket, a wooden stick and a brand new immersion rod still in it’s box.

Closing the door, I looked at the price stickers still on the bucket and the immersion rod box. The total cost was Rs650.

The rent for the room was only Rs600!

The Boy who grew Wings

The village boy who grew wingsIndia is a land of stories. Some of them make you angry, frustrated, and cynical. But there are just as many if not more, that inspire you, fill your eyes with tears, and restore your faith in the strength of the human spirit.
This is one of those stories.
Imagine a boy, born to a poor farming family in rural India. A childhood running barefoot through the fields, playing with friends in the shade of a Banyan Tree, swimming in the muddy village pond, an idyllic life for a child but for the parents struggling to make ends meet and to put food on the table, a tough hard life.
As he grew older and finished his education he looked further afield for ways to support himself and to care for his aging parents. He travelled to a big city in another state. The language, the culture different but unperturbed he looked for work, eventually landing a job as a waiter in a restaurant. His hard work paid off, his rudimentary English improved, and over time his income increasing. Still a paltry salary but with careful living and long hours of work, it was enough to send a small amount home to his family each month.
Over the years he became popular with the regulars, his ready smile and helpful attitude endearing him to the customers. In conversation one day he spoke of his dream, to go beyond waiting tables and to train in the kitchen, gain skills as a cook, and maybe, if he was lucky, eventually get work on a cruise ship. He had found a school that would train him but the fees meant it was beyond his reach and his dream would remain unfulfilled. His father was ill and what little savings he had managed to accumulate were spent in hospital bills and replacing his father’s lost income.
His story touched a chord and one day some of his regular customers presented him with money to go towards the course fees. With tears in his eyes he reluctantly but gratefully accepted the donation, scraped together the balance needed and shortly thereafter handed in his notice, leaving to join the cooking school.
Six months passed and he appeared back in the city, a changed young man, seemingly more confident, English more polished, his way of dressing more modern, looking more like a young IT professional rather than a waiter from a village.
Proudly displaying his certificates and coursework, he explained that he would return to his village for a while to see his family, to take care of outstanding debts and obligations and would then seek employment with his new-found skills.
A month later, now with tears in their eyes, his benefactors listened as he conveyed in a breathless, excited phone call his great news.
No-one from his village had ever been out of the country. No one from his village had ever flown in an airplane.
The next day after a total of four connecting flights he would arrive in Italy, where he would be joining the kitchens of a P & O Cruise Ship sailing the Mediterranean.

Running the beautiful Kaveri Trail Marathon

KTM1

A peacock’s call shatters the silence of the early morning.

It’s 6am and I am standing in that half-light that comes just before the sun raises its head above the horizon.
A river flows gently past to my left and there is a nervous shuffling as 700 people gather for the start of the 8th running of the Kaveri Trail Marathon (KTM).

The race director’s last minute announcements are interrupted by a spontaneous singing of “Happy Birthday” somewhere in the crowd prompting a proud mother to climb up onto the podium and grab the microphone. “It’s my daughter’s birthday today too” she cries out, “please sing for her as well”. The crowd breaks out into another “Happy Birthday” for the daughter who hides in the crowd and doesn’t raise her hand when the race director asks her to identify herself.

As the large digital clock ticks over to 6.30, we set off up the dirt path, red bibs pinned to the chests of those running the half marathon, blue denoting those running the full. All shapes and sizes are here today, lean fit looking runners accompanied by less athletic looking entrants tackling this distance for the first time.

Many have made the 3-4 hour journey from Bangalore to run a race that has become known for the beauty of the course, following as it does the meandering path of a tributary of the River Kaveri, a major water source for the state of Karnataka.

KTM5

 

Starting as we do, near the entrance to the Ranganthittu Bird Sanctuary, the route teems with birdlife. To the right of the trail are lush sugar cane fields and even at this early hour, farmers get to work tending their crops before the heat of the day makes the task unbearable.

The field spreads out, stray dogs standing on the edge of the path in bewilderment as scores of runners trudge past. Farmers in their white lungis and vests taking a break from their work to watch and wonder as people from all over India and the occasional westerner, run by.

KTM3

 

KTM6

 

A sea of green t-shirts surrounds me, emblazoned with the logo of Amazon India, a company which either encourages running amongst their employees, or has thought of a novel way of marketing themselves.

Finding my rhythm, I feel a little smug and self-satisfied, running as I am in minimalist shoes as others tread on in their heavily cushioned “traditional” running shoes. That is, until a young man rapidly passes me, his bare feet padding rhythmically on the sun-baked earth below.
Catching up with him, we chat for a couple of kms about our experiences of transitioning from shod running to barefoot running. I congratulate him on going the whole hog but we eventually part ways when he pauses to remove some large thorns from the sole of his foot.

The sun slowly rises above the horizon bringing with it a heat, the intensity of which increases by the minute despite the still early hour. I sip a few mouthfuls of water at the well-stocked aid stations but ignore the trays of bananas and fruit, knowing that if I stop for too long, the voices in my head telling me to give up might become too powerful.

Bullock carts laden with harvested sugar cane occasionally block the way on their way to the market forcing me to either stop for a moment or detour into the long grass.

KTM4

Ahead some small village boys, already dusty from playing in the fields, offer runners sweets with outstretched hands, grinning with excitement while the stray dogs, earlier standing sentinel beside the path, have retreated, still puzzled, to the shade of the banyan trees.

The last few kms pass in a blur, the beautiful scenery which had enthralled me on the outward leg, no longer grabbing my attention, as I look only for the next distance marker and the next patch of shade.

2 hours after starting in the cool light of dawn, I cross the now sun-baked finish line, a proud sense of achievement dispelling all feelings of exhaustion.

Someone hangs a finisher’s medal around my neck, and I turn to shake the hands of those who finished with me. Spying a “nariyal pani wallah”, his bicycle laden with coconuts, I head towards him and down in quick succession the water of two young coconuts, nature’s best electrolyte replacement drink.

This was my first ½ marathon in over 20 years and I am happy that I chose the KTM to run this distance again. The running community worldwide is a friendly one but the relatively small number of runners at the KTM lends a camaraderie to the event I haven’t felt on larger runs. That coupled with the beauty of the course, the peacocks, the bullock carts, and the locals lining the course make this event unique and I know that this race will always hold a special place in my thoughts. I will be back next year.

A while later as I limp through the hotel lobby, my race bib still pinned to my chest, my medal in my hand, the hotel manager greets me and asks “for what purpose is everyone running?”

I grin but can’t think of a suitable answer.

Only another runner would understand.

Road Rage

Indian Traffic

Driving in India can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience at the best of times. The complete disregard for road rules and personal safety never ceases to amaze me.

Over the years I have had a number of “near-death” experiences and although over time, I have become immune to all but the most idiotic maneuvers there are still times when I need to go home for a change of underpants.

Most people, and in particular ex-pats, in an effort to keep blood pressure at manageable levels, will have a driver. They then cower in the back seat, praying fervently or texting their last will and testament to loved ones, anything to take their mind off what is happening outside the vehicle. I have toyed with the idea myself on a few occasions but each time the driver has scared me witless as they sought to prove their driving skills are worthy of a seat on a Formula 1 Team while simultaneously demonstrating that rear-view mirrors and indicators are superfluous items on an Indian motor vehicle. After all, mirrors are only for checking one’s hair- style or for picking at ones teeth while talking on the phone. I can’t read or look at my phone in the back seat without being overcome by nausea while the driver insists on testing the body’s capacity to withstand lateral g forces in excess of those experienced by fighter pilots.

In the end I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to adapt to the conditions, drive myself, and lower my expectations for sane behavior in a motor vehicle. I must confess I have become quite good and suspend judgment on most things that I see or experience. It has been helped also by the fact that I now drive an SUV and in India “might is right” on the roads so most other road-users afford my vehicle a little respect. The exceptions of course are the Government buses, which despite being the largest vehicles on the road have mirrors the same size as the one the dentist sticks in your mouth while he asks you what you did for your holidays. Motorcyclists also drive me to distraction as they seem to live in some other dimension when it comes to road behavior (see another one of my rants on motorcyclists here).

Occasionally though, I must confess that my saintliness does wear off and years of suppressed road rage comes boiling to the surface like lava during the eruption of Vesuvius.

Recently I was waiting for traffic to clear at a junction so I could turn right. Finally spotting a gap I started to turn, when my 6th sense for self-preservation, honed over years of flirting with death while commuting across Indian cities, made me glance in my right-hand mirror. The driver behind me, deciding that 20 seconds was too long to wait at a junction, pulled out to pass me. Slamming on the brakes to avoid being speared in the side by the errant Toyota, I snapped.

Drawing on my extensive knowledge of contemporary rap lyrics, I spewed forth a virulent torrent of abuse. I summoned up every curse, defamatory phrase, and vituperative epithet I could think of. Every sentence I screamed at him contained new and innovative uses of a word that rhymed with “trucker” and “trucking”. I used it as an adjective, a noun, a verb, an adverb, and often in inventive ways not normally found in classical sentence structure. My college English teacher would have been proud of my eloquence.

Finally pausing for breath I noticed The Boss in the passenger seat beside me, mouth agape, staring at me in shock, having never imagined that the calm, beautifully mannered and well-spoken husband of hers could articulate himself in such a vernacular fashion.

Sensing his chance, the deviant driver pounced on the opportunity to respond to my tirade.

“Get lost you bloody rascal!”