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

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The Great Toll Booth Toffee Scam!

The Great Toll Booth Toffee Scam!zaOn my recent drive back to Bangalore from Mumbai, one thing was noticeable by it’s absence.

The Toll Booth Toffee Scam.

Once prevalent in the Tollbooths around the Karnataka/Maharashtra Border, it seems to have disappeared, the original perpetrators no doubt having retired to their Chalets in Switzerland.
It was a simple scam but undoubtedly extremely profitable.
What used to happen is that when you paid your toll, always an odd amount, never a round number, the Toll Booth attendant would apologize for the lack of change and give you toffees instead. 1 toffee for every two Rupees.

At first I was quite amused and a little grateful, Tommy needing regular doses of sugar throughout the day. However there is only so much toffee a man can eat, even if he does have a tapeworm as long as your arm.

By the time I reached the 4th Toll Booth I was feeling the onset of Hyperglycemia and tried to pay the next Toll with the uneaten toffees. 22 Rupees therefore 11 toffees. He refused to accept them and asked for cash instead. I gave him 30 Rupees and he gave me 4 toffees change!
Now bear in mind the retail price for these toffees is Rs 1 each , so they are making 100% profit. Assume 20,000 vehicles a day through the Toll Booth and that is at least Rs 20,000 profit per day per Toll Booth! The bulk wholesale price is probably only around 25 paise per piece so the actual profit will be much much more. A nice little earner.
At the 5th Toll Booth, I decided to make a stand which was difficult as by now my teeth had all fallen out, saliva running unchecked over my gums and down my chin. I explained to the booth Attendant that everyone in the car had diabetes and couldn’t accept the toffees he was proffering as change.
He nodded sympathetically and swapped them immediately for cold hard cash.

The Hubli Hustle – in which the long arm of the Law reaches out and picks my pocket again!

Visiting the small rural town of Hubli in Northern Karnataka is proving expensive for me.

The last time I came through here 3 months ago I was fined Rs300 by an over-zealous cop for driving my vehicle without a document I had no idea I needed (see here)
Hubli despite it’s comparatively diminutive size, seems to have more traffic cops than the whole of Bangalore. They are on every corner and seem to have a vendetta for anyone driving in from other areas. Meanwhile the locals blatantly flout every traffic law and regulation with impunity.
So 3 months later I have returned, stopping for lunch on my way up to Mumbai. I pulled off the highway and spent the next 5 minutes crawling along behind a tractor in 1st gear as it swerved from side to side trying to avoid potholes and doing its best to dislodge the population of a small village perched all over it.
Frustration at this extremely slow progress getting the better of me I spotted a gap in traffic, pulled out and accelerated at warp speed finally getting out of 1st gear and changing up into 2nd.
Suddenly a traffic cop ran out from behind a tree and stood in the middle of the road pointing at me. Bearing in mind the last time the cops shook me down in this town, I contemplated ignoring him and continuing on my journey. But not wishing to sully the glistening paintwork of my beautiful car with the blood and bodily fluids of a policeman I decided it might be better for all concerned if I stopped.
“Why have you stopped me” I asked
“Overspeeding” he replied using a term peculiar to India.
To me one is either speeding or not speeding, so I am not sure where overspeeding fits in.
“What is the speed limit?” I asked
“40”
“Where is the sign?”
“No sign”
What speed was I doing? I asked
“Over 40” came the reply. “Come with me”
Reluctantly I got out and followed the cop to where 3 of his colleagues had set up camp in the shade of a tree with a radar gun on a tripod.
The senior-most police officer announced in a haughty manner befitting of a Maharajah of old, “You were driving very fast”
“Really? How fast?” I asked
“74” he replied
In second gear! On a severely potholed road! Wow. I was amazed for a second or two but suspecting that my diesel SUV had not miraculously transformed into a Ferrari overnight, I questioned his findings.
Telling me to look at the radar gun to see my speed, I wandered over and read the display.
“It says 30” I told him.
“That’s someone else’s speed.”
“Where is mine”
“It’s deleted. But you were driving so far above the limit we are booking you for reckless and dangerous driving” he told me, thereby increasing the fine amount by 30% in one fell swoop.
Well I had a good run, I thought to myself. Seven years of being the only safe and sensible driver left in India was a pretty good effort, but I have finally succumbed. I think it’s called assimilation by osmosis.
I argued a bit more trying in vain to retain my unblemished status but when you argue with a donkey it is never likely to see your point of view.
I paid up, retrieved my license and returned to my “Ferrari”, head hanging in shame and with a noticeably lighter wallet.
An hour later lunch completed I headed out of town. Rounding a corner another policeman sprang out in front of me. A barrage of expletives echoed around inside the car, not just from me but also from the usually dulcet toned Boss sitting beside me. Barely restraining myself from running him down I pulled over and dispensing with all niceties demanded an explanation as to why he had the temerity to pull me over.
“Do you have a license?” he asked, with one eye on the traffic.
“Yes”
“Insurance”
“Yes”
He jumped out in front of another car with outstation number plates and waved it over in front of me, ignoring all the local vehicles driving past.
Returning to my window he asked:
“Emissions Certificate?”
“I have everything! A marriage certificate also! Do you want to see that? Why the hell do you keep stopping me? I was stopped an hour ago!”
“Where?” he asked
“On the Bangalore Rd” I told him
“Where are you going now?”
“Bombay”
“OK, happy journey” he wished me, shaking my hand and waving me on, anxious to attend to his next, hopefully less argumentative victim.

Crime and Punishment – In which the Long Arm of the Law relieves me of some hard earned cash!

The drive up from Bangalore to Mumbai was pretty uneventful. The weather was good and the countryside lush and green from the Monsoon rains.
We did come across 3 accidents that had happened minutes before we arrived, enough time for a huge crowd of villagers to surround the upturned vehicle, blocking two of the 3 lanes, but not late enough for the ambulance and police to arrive. In all 3 instances it must have been driver fatigue as the roads were straight and the vehicles had just seemed to veer off the road into the barrier or into the ditch. Because of India’s population, whatever happens to you, there will always be a crowd within minutes!
We drove into the town of Hubli about 400kms from Bangalore to find a place for lunch. Rounding one corner, a traffic policeman stepped out in front of me, pointed at me, and then pointed at the side of the road, making his intentions clear.
Irritated because I had done nothing wrong I half-heartedly pulled over making sure I still blocked traffic in the hope that the cacophony of horns to follow would persuade him to wave me on. It didn’t.
I wound down the window, and he asked “Driver’s License”
“Why?” I asked, “What have I done wrong?”
“Vehicle checking” came the reply.
“Why aren’t you stopping others?” as vehicle after vehicle drove past. “You only stopped us because we have an outstation number plate”
“Stopping everyone” he said and pointed to 3 other cars pulled over in front of us, all with out-station number plates.
Frustrated but realizing arguing would get me nowhere, I handed over my license.

To our left, a senior cop lent on his parked motorcycle, eyes shielded with mirrored Ray-Bans, arms folded, too senior to get his hands dirty shaking down the public, but no doubt busy mentally calculating how many plots of land he could buy back in his village with this month’s takings.
Handing back my license, the cop asked for my insurance. I handed it over; he gave it a cursory glance, and then asked for my registration documents, which I duly presented. “Anything else?” I asked as he handed back the docs.
“Emission certificate”
Damn! The one thing I didn’t have and was not even sure I needed as my car is not that old.
“This car is only 3 years old and doesn’t need one” I replied, as an ancient bus rumbled past, spewing out clouds of thick black smoke.
“Emission Certificate” He demanded again.
Realizing that this was not an argument I would win I admitted to not having one.
“Rs600 fine” he replied and then waited, hoping that I would try and bargain him down to a lesser “un-official” fine. Not wishing to contribute to his retirement fund, I told him ok and insisted on a ticket. He started typing into his Blackberry, pressed a button on the wireless printer attached to his belt and printed out a ticket. I examined it carefully, checking the details were correct and handed over the money.
Pulling out into the flow of traffic I drove off behind a two wheeler almost hidden by the clouds of blue smoke coming out of it’s exhaust.
Half a kilometer later another policeman stepped out in front of me, this time I pretended not to see him, although not convincingly as I had to swerve to avoid hitting him, and carried on.
Speaking to a Rickshaw Driver later, he told me that it was the end of the month and the cops had to make up their quotas, official and unofficial.
I now have an Emission certificate, at the cost of Rs100. Apparently one is needed after a vehicle is two years old and it needs to be renewed every 6 months. Judging by the air-quality in the city though, I must be one of the few who actually has one!

Now you have to make me happy!

Bangalore Airport

Pic Credit markhillary

I am heading to the airport later today.
The last time The Boss and I flew out of Bangalore we had an experience which I still, many months later, find hard to believe that it actually happened.
We were headed to Thailand on a planned relocation to Bangkok and we had quite a lot of luggage. In fact we exceeded the allowable weight limit quite significantly, a fact which was soon brought to our attention by the Air India ground staff.
Having never paid for excess baggage in the past and not planning to start now we appealed to his better nature and explained that we were moving country and could he please understand. We also threw in a promise never to do it again.
For a while he looked doubtful but eventually succumbed to our angelic smiles and said ok he would let us off as long as we didn’t do it again, and said he would see us inside before boarding. Collecting our boarding passes and saying a prayer of thanks to the God of Air Travel, we walked off saying how lucky we were to find such a nice check-in staff.
We whiled away the next hour and a half at the gate, and just before boarding, the same Air India staff approached me and asked me to accompany him to the counter and to please bring my passport. Thinking that there were some final formalities to attend to, I happily followed him to the counter where he was now standing along with 3 of his colleagues.

Taking my passport he started copying down the details onto a scrap of paper. Looking up at me he said, “your luggage was X kilos over the allowable limit and I have made it under the limit so you won’t have any trouble from now on.”
“Thank you very much” I replied with a smile.
“ But now you have to make me happy” he said.
“I am sorry, what did you say?” I asked
“You have to make me happy”
Being the naive innocent young country boy that I am, I had no idea what he was talking about.
“I don’t understand what you mean” I said.
“I have reduced your weight amount and now it is your turn to make me happy”
Being a bit slow on the uptake and not for a minute thinking anything nefarious was afoot in full view of his colleagues and a plane load of passengers, I asked “what do you want me to do? Should I write you a thank you letter?”
“No, no. Please make me happy” came the reply.
“I am sorry I really have no idea what you are talking about”
Deciding that subtlety was obviously not working on the unsophisticated traveler before him, he said “you have to pay me 4000 Rupees”
Realisation finally dawned upon me and luckily my brain-cells belatedly kicked in. “Oh I see”
Simultaneously contemplating expressing my indignation in the loudest possible terms and also thinking that I had no desire to be hassled about my luggage just before departure, I decided on the simplest course of action. “I don’t have that much money on me” I said.
“How much do you have?” came the prompt reply.
Taking out my wallet and angling it so that he couldn’t see in, I told him that I had 1000 rupees on me.
“Give me that”
I handed it over and folding it he put it into his shirt pocket, his three colleagues looking on.
“Have a nice flight” he wished me and handed back my passport.
Wishing I had told him I only had 500 Rupees on me and still stunned at this blatant display of corruption, I walked back to where The Boss was sitting.
“You would not believe what just happened!”